Monday, July 21, 2014

Happiness and finitude

On happiness and finitude:

Tragic wisdom is the wisdom of happiness and finitude, happiness and impermanence, happiness and despair. This is not as paradoxical as it might sound. You can hope only for what you do not have. Thus, to hope for happiness is to lack it. When you have it, on the other hand, what remains to be hoped for? For it to last? That would mean fearing its cessation, and as soon as you do that, you start feeling it dissolve into anxiety.

André Comte-Sponville, The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, trans. Nancy Hutson (New York: Penguin, 2008).
This passage suggests to me experiences of which I am increasingly aware and for which I am increasingly grateful: small spots of happiness, moments when all’s well, amid and despite the everything-else of life, the everything-else that is happening and whatever -else is to come. I think any reader who has attained a certain age will understand what I mean. I hope so, because I have no better explanation, only examples: listening to Sinatra in a hospital room, watching a toddler go visiting from table to table in a restaurant.

The tragic wisdom that Comte-Sponville describes is what I find in the words of the vintner Siduri in the Gilgamesh story. She tells Gilgamesh that what he is seeking in the wake of his friend Enkidu’s death — namely, an escape from mortality — is not to be found:
“When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping. As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man.”

The Epic of Gilgamesh, an English version by N. K. Sandars (New York: Penguin, 1972).
Notice that Siduri’s advice is not to embrace a mindless hedonism, not to eat, drink, and be merry: her advice is to eat, drink, and be merry with full knowledge of one’s impermanence. Pleasure too, not mortality alone, defines the human condition. Happiness and finitude, right there, straight from Mesopotamia.

[Comte-Sponville sees the hope for unending happiness as a problem for both theists and non-theists: “Such is the trap of hope, with or without God — the hope for tomorrow’s happiness prevents you from experiencing today’s.” About the Gilgamesh story: please, no complications about whether Siduri is a brewer or vintner or tavern-keeper, or why these words are not in all versions of the story.]

comments: 7

JuliaR said...

I have read Nieztsche quoted as writing, "In reality, hope is the worst of all evils, because it prolongs man’s torments." (Apparently, in 'Human, All Too Human' from 1878.)

Anyway, to me this is not a condemnation of hope. It is a realization that when one hopes, one is focussed on the future and what may yet come. Instead, to be happy, one needs to focus on the present.

Daughter Number Three said...

"The everything-else of life" -- that's a phrase I'll remember and use from now on.

Michael Leddy said...

Julia, you will be interested to know that C-S quotes a Sanskrit sutra that describes hope as “the greatest torture.”

DN3, I’m honored.

Jim and Lu K said...

I, too, have paused to recognize those "small spots of happiness, moments when all’s well." And, too, I am increasingly aware of the need to pause a while to be wise. I guess I'm a reader who has reached that certain age...Lu

Michael Leddy said...

I think this is what it means to really grow up.

Gunther said...

These "small spots of happiness" remind me of the "little outbursts of joy" William B. Irvine mentions in his great book "A Guide to the Good Life". – I too think that it is a matter of age to become both susceptible and appreciative for them, and I am very happy to experience them too (sometimes in the most unusual moments). – To me, happiness requires the ability to pause.

Michael Leddy said...

Yes, very like. Comte-Sponville mentions the Stoics several times in this book.