Ancient and modern

Horace still understands happiness better than the LSE

The art of matching pleasure with purpose

30 August 2014

9:00 AM

30 August 2014

9:00 AM

So here comes another book about how to be happy, written by Professor Dolan, an ‘internationally renowned expert’ at the LSE. The key evidently lies in ‘pleasure and purpose’, derived from your ‘daily felt experiences’, an analysis hymned in the introduction by a Nobel prize-winner as a ‘bold and original move’. Really?

Since Dolan asserts that happiness derives from your ‘felt experiences’ (or ‘paying attention to the things that make you happy’), he is simply saying that it is a state of mind. Very original. This old hat is a form of 4th century bc Stoicism, which asserted that happiness depended on what went on inside your head, because that was all that you could ultimately control. And the ‘pleasure’ principle is, of course, pure Epicurus, inventor of hedonism (341-270 bc).


To the objection that moral value appears not to play any part in the equation, Dolan asserts that ‘happiness is the arbiter of the rightness of what makes you happy’. Socrates has endless fun with this absurd claim in his dialogue Gorgias. Take, for instance, the man who thinks that happiness lies in holding power, but the man currently in power is a savage, lawless despot — the leader of Isis, say. To win the despot’s confidence and his own happiness, the man must turn himself into an equally lawless savage. He is now happy; therefore he is right. That at least is ‘bold’.

Further, Dolan affirms that altruism plays no part in his theory, because altruism is always ‘selfish’. But as Aristotle points out, indifference to others denies us the relationships of trust and co-operation implicit in the term ‘society’, to which mutuality is the key.

Finally, the whole formulation is half-witted. ‘Purpose’ (Dolan means ‘purposefulness’) is simply a means (one, surely, among many) to an end; ‘pleasure’ is the end. A far more intelligent and helpful key was formulated by the Roman poet Horace (65-8 bc) in a literary context: mixing utile — being useful, which adds the vital social element, with dulci — providing pleasure.

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  • Jacobs_43

    Mr. Peter Jones: Epicureanism and hedonism are markedly different philosophies, which you have blithely lumped together. Also, they are much more complex than your description. I would suggest reading up on them further before commenting again on either one.

    • David Ganz

      Neither Peter Jones, nor Horace, confuse Epicureanism and hedonism. Dulcis is the adjective Horace famously used about dying in battle, and unlike prof Dolan, he had survived on the battlefield.

      • Jacobs_43

        @David Ganz – If you’re going to try to wax intellectual about the topic, at least read up on it first. Epicureanism and Hedonism are separate philosophies altogether. To try to say that the aspects which they share make them one in the same is wholly ignorant.

        And what does Horace’s quote (in which he use’s the neuter form “dulce,” not “dulcis” have anything to do with understanding the differences between to schools of philosophy?

        • David Ganz

          Your tone does you scant credit, but points to the difficulty of this sort of short comment, and my evident clumsiness. If Peter Jones, or I, have left you thinking either of us ‘confuse epicureanism and hedonism’ i am sorry. Horace was a poet: and the subject of Peter Jones’s piece. I know no assertion that he was a member of either ‘school of philosophy’ but please supply one, if that is your point. My remark about dulce may have been unclear: Horace’s sweetness, highlighted by Peter Jones, had none of the vagueness of Arnold’s ‘sweetness and light’ : it remains for me the best term for the goal one might wish to live for.

          • Jacobs_43

            My point was that Peter Jones confuses Epicureanism and hedonism – in fact, falsely identifying Epicurus as the founder of hedonism.

          • Andrew Morton

            Looks like you’re the only two people who know what the hell you’re talking about……..or maybe that’s one of you, in which case I don’t feel such an idiot.

          • Christian

            Neither. Two pseudo intellectuals in desperate need of someone to impress

          • Oliver

            Pseudo intellectual? That sounds like Peter Jones!

          • But on the other hand, my aunt thought I was talking rubbish only because she hadn’t the wit or education to understand what I was saying.

          • Christian

            It requires neither wit nor education to understand what you’re saying. Why’ on the other hand……

  • pearlsandoysters

    How about the following definition: Happiness is unempended activity of the soul according to its nature”?

    • Yeah, that’s how Rousseau saw it, exactly. (Exercise of one’s faculties.)

      • pearlsandoysters

        …well, actually, that’s Aristotle.

        • You think Rousseau had no opinions about it? Read the Reveries of the Solitary Walker by J.-J. Rousseau. It is an account of his own feelings and experiences and his assessment of what they all meant.

          • pearlsandoysters

            I deem Rousseau a worthy & profound philosopher. All I meant is that the quote is from Aristotle. I believe that solid grasp of Antique philosophy is compulsory if one wishes to study any later thinker/philosopher, so currently Rousseau is too “modern” for me (compared to Heraclitus or Aquinas let’s say.) Thanks for the recommendation anyway, translations are important.
            I am also wondering why Rousseau of all thinkers seem to fascinate you?

          • It’s not a quote: I was recalling Rousseau’s judgement.

          • pearlsandoysters

            The definition I proposed was a sort of quote from Aristotle. Eudemonia is a grand topic for philosophical speculation, especially in Antiquity. I’d say they knew a thing or two which is lost on us, poor moderns. The total shallow-fication is sign of the times.

  • pearlsandoysters

    Thanks for the great article, these “learned” guys go to extraordinary length to justify the contemporary modes of thinking and mislead the general public.

    • Kitty MLB

      Ah! You have spotted it. Intellectualism is the art of making
      complicated what should be easy and therefore discombobulating everyone else.

      • pearlsandoysters

        Intellectuals are rare, a breed driven to the brink of extinction by forces of homogeneous, senseless academic clatter. Majority of academics are just engaged in social engineering and obviously under delusion that they are priestly clan. If to discuss easy ways of expressing complicated things, the usual outcome would be some kind of paradox.

  • “Finally, the whole formulation is half-witted. ‘Purpose’ (Dolan means ‘purposefulness’) is simply a means (one, surely, among many) to an end; ‘pleasure’ is the end.”

    I caught that immediately.

  • Roger Hudson

    I often wonder what life would be like if Romano-Greek culture had developed on philosophical principles and not been affected by the middle eastern cults, monotheisms etc., Perhaps they could have tamed the Goths and lasted two millennia.

    • Kitty MLB

      Yes that would have been a splendid idea.Romano-Greeks
      were also on a different spiritual level due to their pursuit
      of pleasure and ultimate knowledge and for them the
      ultimate goal of happiness.Any questions ask Plato or Cicero.

    • pearlsandoysters

      Perhaps…thus we’d be relieved of suffering all sorts of groundless speculation. I guess many modern academic books might neatly fall into category of “mere opinion”.

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