Why Read The Classics? Because They Take the Problem of Happiness Seriously

Very rough, nowhere near complete. For new readers.

Comedy is harder than tragedy, and you would think someone nowadays was up to the challenge of explaining how we can be happy without glibly telling us “it’s just a matter of attitude.”

Sorry, but we know better – we know we need things; we know providing for those we love is critical; we know we need to work hard just to think well. That’s not just a matter of attitude.

At the same time, there’s a compelling argument that one’s happiness cannot rest on what else is going on in the world. If you’re a good person, you know there is evil around you. Should you be distressed by every occurrence of it? Would you be sane if that were the case?

Communal solutions have been raised – maybe a world trying to be better would be satisfactory, allow us a foundation for happiness. But these solutions fail not merely because of our cult of individual responsibility, but because it just seems silly to have everyone else be ultimately responsible for someone else’s happiness.

So what lies between the bodily self, the one to which we mainly apply self-help and mental health treatments, and the world-at-large? The poverty of modern thought is nowhere more apparent when we consider three distinctions, all straight from classical thought, that perhaps “lie between:”

  1. Our families (in Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon: “households”) – the necessitous is dealt with immediately here.
  2. The political order (Gk. polis) – this is broader than our conception of “politics” and “society,” because it means both. At the same time it is smaller than “everyone in the world,” because when you consider a person both from the viewpoint of what society and what government he lives in/under, you start getting particulars that define the person. Roughly speaking, we could use the phrase “social standing” to render this. How one relates to one’s friends is included here.
  3. The rational soul (a type of soul, but “rational” can also be a predicate designating one aspect)

Now take note: we very much need psychology, we very much need self-help, we very much need to be able to relate to as many people as possible. What I’ve listed above are considerations that modern thought tries to marginalize. We aim for technological utopia (if you haven’t looked up transhumanism, feel free to do so), and all of us flirt with anarchism, which is the easiest way to conceive of freedom in terms of a thought experiment.

Those three above considerations/distinctions seem reducible to something else for us. Necessities and politics can all be wiped away if we’re properly rational, and rationality has less to do with individual souls and more to do with a body of knowledge that progresses historically. All we need to do is submit to progress, everything will take care of itself. Even those of us who are religious tend to believe this: God is most evident in Providence, the unfolding of His blessings throughout time. I seriously wouldn’t feel blessed without Wal-Mart, cloned sheep and uranium rounds for tanks.

So what do we do with the three considerations? I mean, the argument regarding progress isn’t a bad one: it’s not like I don’t want new technology. I do trust it to bestow benefits. And the three considerations aren’t all equal – even in the listing given, the “rational soul” tends to be chief.

The trick is to suspend judgment on whether or not the distinctions are reducible to something else, and let them speak for themselves. Analysis in this case would purposely reduce the human to a material subject: the problem of happiness then becomes a matter of using the right drug, all the time. We want to know how to be happy in a synthetic way, or, if you prefer, “holistic.”

For Aristotle, the end of all actions was happiness. The point of the polis was to make men virtuous so they could be truly happy. The moral virtues (courage, temperance) were dependent on intellectual virtues (justice, prudence) and the idea was that happiness isn’t an absolutely fixed thing. It’s different for each and every one of us. The main reason for this is that we can’t be truly happy until we can trust ourselves as moral actors who can reason and act rightly in the situations that define life (note: this does not mean there is a multiplicity of moral codes, as you’ll see below. It is more an accounting of the fact that we shouldn’t all think alike).

If that sounds like a religious community, it’s close – it’s almost the exact same thing. “Right reason” doesn’t emerge from nowhere, especially in a world where people can and will mislead others about virtue for personal gain. So Aristotle and Plato both use the typical myths – that the gods gave cities laws – as a starting point for achieving happiness. Obey the law and in 99% of cases, you’ll be happy.

The trick then is to preserve what is essential in the law while making sure it always provides for the genuine happiness of all. Some places do try to make everyone think alike, insisting on absolute obedience. Egypt as depicted in the Bible is probably an example of such a regime. The only way to truly preserve the law is if people work towards virtue and right reason, knowing ultimately how to ask good questions and answer them well, to each other. In other words: there is progress in the classics, but it isn’t in the world-at-large, but rather within each and every one of us.


  1. Will reading the classics tell anyone about happiness? Yes. But only what the authors thought about happiness. Only what the authors knew of happiness.

    Happiness is not tangible. It is not static. Happiness cannot be constrained, neither can it be contained. One cannot put it in a bottle (though heaven knows there are liqueur manufacturers who come close). I never knew that happiness was so negative until now. :>)

    Try to define happiness. Where does that get you? All I can say truthfully about happiness is that I know what it is when I feel it. Yet that feeling is so fluid that it will not be exactly identical for any two souls.

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