Perpetual Euphoria: On the Duty to Be Happy by Pascal Bruckner - review by John Gray

John Gray

At the Whim of the Gods

Perpetual Euphoria: On the Duty to Be Happy

By

Princeton University Press 256pp £18.95 order from our bookshop
 

In the ancient world, happiness was a gift of the gods that could be withdrawn at any moment. No one imagined it to be a state of mind that could be deliberately pursued and permanently achieved. When philosophers advocated the pursuit of happiness, they had in mind something quite different from the life of continuous satisfaction that most people seem to want today. For Aristotle happiness meant a life spent successfully pursuing things that were valuable in themselves, while for the Epicureans it signified freedom from inner disturbance – tranquillity that could only be achieved by minimising one’s desires. The Stoics had a similar view, prizing peace of mind over the satisfaction of any human impulse. Freud, who revived a type of Stoicism in the early decades of the last century, confessed that psychoanalysis could do no more than reconcile his patients to the frustration every human being must suffer. As he wrote to a patient, ‘Much will be gained if we succeed in turning your hysterical misery into common unhappiness. Having restored your inner life, you will be better able to arm yourself against that unhappiness.’

In all these philosophies it was taken for granted that happiness would never be the normal human condition – an attitude that is nowadays condemned as impossibly austere, as well as insufferably patronising. Who, any longer, dares question the claim that people are justified in seeking a happy

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter