Abraham Joshua Heschel on Happiness (from “Who Is Man?”)

Heschel Happiness Who Is ManWhat is happiness? It’s an odd word, one of such centrality to our lives, and to our reason for choosing to continue to be, yet so far beyond easy definition. The U.S. Declaration of Independence refers to the unalienable rights of every human being which (it says) include “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” We generally know what “life” means (although in our post-modern age it is not exactly a slam-dunk) and we can at least engage in meaningful debate over the definition of “liberty,” but where do we even begin in defining happiness? I do think that it is a beautiful thing that the U.S. Declaration of Independence includes this statement; it is the cleaving of a chasm between that moment and the way things were ordered in the world before it, and yet it is also somewhat maddening. It invites trivial and trite interpretation. What happiness? Whose happiness?

Legalisms aside, it is a little easier from a philosophical point of view to approach the question of what happiness is by first defining what it is not. The following is a very brief extract from Abraham Joshua Heschel’s wonderful little book, Who Is Man?, which I’ve recently read, in which he is touching on this question.

Happiness is not a synonmym for self-satisfaction, complacency, or smugness. Self-satisfaction breeds futility and despair. […]

Self-fulfillment is a myth which a noble mind must find degrading. All that is creative in man stems from a seed of endless discontent. New insight begins when satisfaction comes to an end, when all that has been seen, said, or done looks like a distortion.

The aim is the maintenance and fanning of a discontent with our aspirations and achievements, the maintenance and fanning of a craving that knows no satisfaction. Man’s true fulfillment depends upon communion with that which transcends him.

So, if as Heschel says “man’s true fulfillment depends upon communion with that which transcends him,” then that is a communion which can never be quite complete. You can reach for communion with that which transcends you, but you cannot totally commune with it … because it does transcend you. In effect, you can pursue happiness, but never quite get there. Alternatively, it is in the pursuit of happiness that happiness is most tangibly present.

This is exceedingly wise, it seems to me (not that this makes it easy to live by, with the temptation always for comfort, satisfaction and stasis, as impossible as they are to grasp).

How do you commune with the transcendent, anyway? By sitting in a chair and stroking your beard, or dropping a little peyote maybe? Those might be rewarding pastimes on occasion, but Heschel has other things to say about ways and rhythms of living that reach for the transcendent. And then there’s the question of what the transcendent might be anyway … other than merely a generic sense of that-which-transcends, although at least that generic sense of it is embedded deep within all of us. But those other questions are beyond the scope of this post, and things should not exceed their scope.