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Happiness

A History

By Darrin M. McMahon
12-minute read
Audio available
Happiness: A History by Darrin M. McMahon

In Happiness: A History (2006), we’re taken on a journey through history. From Ancient Greece, through the Dark Ages and up into the modern era, this journey uncovers how our conception of happiness has changed and evolved over time.

  • History students
  • Philosophy students
  • Anyone interested in the cultural history of happiness

Darrin M. McMahon is an American history professor. He is the author of Enemies of the Enlightenment: The French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity and Divine Fury: A History of Genius. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.

 

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Happiness

A History

By Darrin M. McMahon
  • Read in 12 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 7 key ideas
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Happiness: A History by Darrin M. McMahon
Synopsis

In Happiness: A History (2006), we’re taken on a journey through history. From Ancient Greece, through the Dark Ages and up into the modern era, this journey uncovers how our conception of happiness has changed and evolved over time.

Key idea 1 of 7

Socrates, Plato and Aristotle didn’t fully agree on a definition of happiness.

We all have a say in our happiness, right? If you’re not feeling happy, go out and change that. Having a bad day? Eat some chocolate!

But people didn’t always think like this.

Let’s take a quick look at Athens. It wasn’t until after the city was democratized in the fifth century BCE that people began dreaming of a happy life that they could influence.

Prior to the downfall of the Persian Empire, people thought happiness was simply out of their power. Due to all the variables that brought utter misery at the time – poverty, inferior medical technology, political suppression and so on – happiness seemed better left to the gods.

After the Empire’s defeat, though, Athens began to blossom. As democracy progressed, people began experiencing a new freedom, and this inspired some to believe that they may have some influence over their happiness.

This is what Socrates and his student Plato believed – that, by using their ability to reason, people could have more control over their own lives, and thus their happiness. Socrates and Plato argued that it wasn’t just up to fate, luck or the gods. It was up to people themselves. To them, happiness was the ultimate goal, something far greater than mere earthly satisfaction. Longing for such transcendent happiness was a natural human tendency.

Aristotle, on the other hand, saw things a little differently. Like Socrates and Plato, he believed that humans were part of a higher order. But, unlike them, Aristotle held that we must look to the world; only there could we unearth our role as humans and the true role of human happiness.

This is represented beautifully in the famous fresco The School of Athens, by Raphael. Here we see Plato pointing toward the skies while Aristotle holds out his right hand, palm facing toward the earth.

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