“The Riddle of Impossible Enjoyment: An Imaginary Conversation with St. Augustine on happiness during COVID 19 times” by Soumick De
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Series’s Editor’s Note:
COVID 19 pandemic has not only resulted in the massive health crisis but also restrained the free movement of the people drastically. We are now forced to reduce our movements into basic activities and cannot enjoy ourselves the way we used to do. This can be called as the loss of space and time; we are now subjected to the restrained spaces and standstill time. Consequently, a lot of people are feeling anxiety, sense of loss and loneliness in this ‘new normal’. In short, what they are missing is ‘happiness’. But what is happiness? Why is it so important to us? How is it related to our existence? Soumick De in this piece, explores these questions by engaging in an interesting conversation with the great philosopher of the middle ages, St. Augustine (354-430 AD). As Soumick De highlights in this conversation that the question of happiness is essentially related to our temporal finitude. Therefore, happiness cannot be obtained in the finite things and one has to pursue the eternal, imperishable in order to be happy. Not to be jettisoned as the religious pessimism, St. Augustine’s thoughts give us perspective towards happiness and its pursuit.
In continuity with our ongoing series on Dialogues with philosophers, poets and thinkers in which we invite our peers outside NIAS to contribute, I today present the conversation written and imagined by Dr Soumick De.
– Dr. Saurabh Todariya
While we find ourselves constrained inside our homes, isolated from each other trying desperately not to feel agitated and yet constantly concerned with our safety and survival, the COVID 19 pandemic rages on outside. In these times when the precarious nature of our existence dawns upon us, we ask ourselves from the depths of our anxious little lives “can we find a moment of relief, satisfaction and perhaps a bit of enjoyment in the midst of this chaos?” As many recent articles testify, in the midst of our current crisis, the concern, not only for our physical health but our mental well being is increasing. This concern for our “mental well being” is, in the final analysis, a question of happiness. And so even in the middle of one of the biggest medical crisis in the history of modern man, or perhaps because of it, we return to one of the fundamental questions of human existence: What is happiness?
No wonder the subject of happiness has been one of the principle concerns of philosophy since its beginning. Eudemonia or “flourishing” as Aristotle defined it was taken to be the “highest good”; something which was self-evident and desirable for its own sake rather than for the sake of something else. Later on when the Stoic philosophers would argue that “the present alone is our happiness” then it was also fuelled by the same philosophical desire to know how to live a life “well” under some principle which would lead to happiness. One might say that in ancient philosophy the desire to philosophize as the search for truth was closely related, if not identical, with the desire to be happy.
Today however, in our contemporary world of neoliberal capitalism and globalization, there seems to be an upsurge of, what is called today, the “science of happiness” which feeds the contemporary imperative to be necessarily happy. In our secular-scientific culture it is obviously not the prerogative of philosophy but scientific knowledge to espouse the cause of happiness. Such a “science of happiness”, emerging from the Anglo-American academia, abashedly preaches happiness to be necessity of modern existence. This ideology of happiness which has created a regime of knowledge, calling itself scientific and neutral, dissimulates new ways of subjectivising individuals to the dictates of a neoliberal culture of consumerism. Happiness studies which flourishes on an alliance between psychology and economics legitimizes new social relations based on a growing demand for individualism. Affects have become the new shinning commodities for big capital influencing national and state level policies of entire nations. The ideological strategy of producing docile, obedient and highly individualized (bordering on narcissism) subjects whose only concern is the ‘self’ is the result of this growing narcissistic culture of happiness. In our “achievement societies” happiness has become identical with the freedom to be subjected to the neoliberal market.
This regime of knowledge on happiness, based on such a limited idea of freedom, advocates self improvement, growth and eventual success leading to satisfaction/happiness as effects of a certain logic of interiority, where one is asked to turn ones perspective inward. It professes an inwardness based on a positive framework, where one gets to map the “authentic” landscape of one’s “true” self. And most importantly all this operates on the principle of positivity. Happiness, today, is equated with your psychological capacity and your autonomy to turn all potentially negative, exterior elements into positive inner strength. As a result one becomes responsible for one’s own success or failure and therefore in turn responsible for one’s own happiness which, according to this line of thinking, depends upon how well you are able to adapt to negative situations turning it to your advantage. For example if you are facing say a negative situation like a financial crisis, it is your ability to turn the negativity of your crisis into positive conditions – for example resilience – which contributes to your personal improvement. This assures your happiness according to happiness experts. So, currently in order to overcome the on going crisis of social isolation we are asked to follow a health regime, take pleasure in the little everyday things, focus on the present moment etc. Freedom or autonomy of the self therefore becomes the keyword on which these ideologies of happiness proliferate. They argue that you always have the freedom to choose a positive attitude in any negative situation and turn it to your benefit. Individuals are therefore solely responsible for their own success and finally happiness. Happiness comes at the expense of a systematic removal of all negativity from life calling it acts of human freedom. However this process of identifying happiness with the individual choice to be successful has a more insidious flip side. It continuously plays upon the logic that at any point in your life you are never perfectly happy because there is always an opportunity, in the horizon, to become more happy. A perfect happy life becomes an abstract illusory image, cut out by the market, which the individual continuously strives towards but which always escapes him/her. In a way it “enframes” you as a “happy-chondriac” for whom more happiness is always kept in reserve. The “science of happiness” advocates happiness as this continuous lifelong process. It makes such a life perfectly compatible with the consumption of “happiness” as a product. As we are seeing today “happiness” has become an extremely profitable product which is sold through different happiness apps, and self help books and personality training courses. Therefore behind the so called search for positivity and happiness we find a deep sense of subjective nihilism.
Under these circumstances where scientific knowledge, technology and capital have all become entwined to produce an illusory image of the “happy life” it is imperative that we return the problem of happiness to where it truly belongs: philosophy. Because it is only in philosophy that happiness no longer remains merely a question of knowledge but is associated with Truth. In this desire to philosophize which is to say in our desire to understand the true force of happiness we imagine a conversation between St Augustine, the Christian theologian and philosopher from the 4th century A.D who also happened to be one of the great thinkers of happiness, having written a book titled “De beata vita” ( On the Happy Life).
This imaginary conversation takes place in a place called Cassiciacum in northern Italy, where Augustine has just retired with a few of his family and friends, right after his conversion. The year is 386 and he is about to write his first set of books one of which happens to be on happiness called On the Happy Life (De beata vita). It would become part of his famous Cassiciacum dialogues, a set of four books which were all written in dialogic form and all in some way dealing with the question of happiness.
So we travel to the secluded villa at Cassiciacum where we find one moonlit night Augustine is sitting in the veranda, when he sees an unknown figure approach. Thinking it must be some form of divine apparition gifted to him by the grace of his new found faith he sits fearless yet with enormous curiosity. As the figure emerges into the faint flickering light of the oil lamp, Augustine is intrigued by the strange apparel of the approaching man. So he asks in Latin:
Augustine (still sitting on the chair looking unperturbed): Are you a man, an angel or a demon?
Unknown Figure: (looking for a place to sit and speaking in broken latin): I am a man. My name is Christopher Gardener. I come from the future (finds a chair and drags it towards Augustine and sits on it). To be precise from the 20th Century and I live in a far away Empire called The United States of America. You can call me Chris and my empire US. I have been in pursuit of happiness because they tell me I have none. I have recently been “laid off” by my firm, a “hedgefund’ company based in New York. That’s a big city like your Carthage. The CHO of my company, while relieving me of my position told me that I do not bring a positive attitude to my work which is detrimental to the future success of not only myself but the organization as whole. In short I was fired because I was not happy enough for the job. Since then I have been looking for the elusive “thing” called happiness throughout history. That Rousseau chap, from the 18th Century, recommended you because I was not very convinced by his arguments. As I knew some latin because of my catholic upbringing, I thought why not try you. So I ask you: what is it? What is this happiness?
Augustine: Well! I do not know if you are truly from the future and I should believe my senses or you are a figment of my imagination. Though I try to struggle against it I still have some skeptic tendencies. But whatever you are, I am certain that you are part of the divine plan and I should answer you. But first tell me; what is a CHO? I partially understood your situation. You are unemployed because your employers told you that you are unsuitable for the job because you are unhappy. But what is a “hedgefund” and what is a CHO?
Chris: I can’t exactly explain what a “hedgefund” is to you. The concept does not exist till the late 20th century when capitalism takes a more speculative turn. But let me put it this way: it is like an extremely flexible and adaptable animal, which is perpetually hungry to make more money and which preys on the precarity of the lives of unsuspecting citizens who blinded by the same hunger are drawn to it. And a CHO is short for Chief Happiness Officer, a human resource personnel, who is employed by many such organizations to look into the emotional health of the workers so that they can be optimized to the best of their capacity. In other words a bunch of modern day merchants trying to get wealthy by cheating people and asking their employees to be positive and happy while doing it. They think if we are happy and satisfied we will “happily” work extra and bring them even more profit.
Augustine: Alright! I think I understand your situation better! In your world happiness is unequivocally identified with material success and achievement. Even if it is turned around by saying “you have to be happy to be successful” and not “you have to be successful to be happy’, the crux of the matter remains that happiness is identified with worldly satisfaction. This is a problem not unknown to me as we also have a version of this problem. But before we go into that let us ask ourselves “who is happy”? Is he/she happy who does not have what he/she wants?
Chris: Of course not!
Augustine: So we can safely presume that in order to be happy a person has to have whatever he/she wants.
Chris: Even a “hedgefund” manager would agree to that.
Augustine: So we are agreed upon the fact that Happiness is related to the structure of desire. It is related to the problem of our desire or what we want or demand at any point. Now we know that desire is always the craving (appetites) for something we don’t possess. Be it wealth, love or honor; it has to be something outside the self, something which we do not have and want to obtain. So if we want to possess something, then it cannot bring us happiness unless we have possessed it.
Chris: I am confused! You just said happiness is the desire to possess. Now you are saying if we want to possess something it cannot bring us happiness?
Augustine: No my impatient child of twentieth century! Listen to the words carefully. Happiness is related to desire, in itself it is not desire. Happiness is achieved when a desire is fulfilled. Happiness is always the end, the telos of life. So if desire is the demand to possess something and satisfaction/enjoyment is the end of such desire then happiness has to be identical with enjoyment. This is very important to understand: happiness is always an enjoyment and not simply desire. Desire and enjoyment are different order of realties. There is a difference between wanting to possess something and actually possessing it.
Chris: I got it! Happiness is an end in itself and not a means to an end. But if happiness is always the possession or enjoyment of a thing and not the desire for it then is anybody happy who is looking/ searching for happiness?
Augustine: You are a very perceptive person, Christopher Gardener of New York. You are on the right path to ask this question. To search for happiness is not identical with happiness. When we desire something which is finite, perishable then we are always anxious that our object of desire will disappear, die or be destroyed. And if somebody is anxious then she cannot be happy or satisfied in the true sense of the word. Anxiety is always the opposite of enjoyment. Moreover even if we desire something which we know will not be destroyed for a long time (say a nation or an empire or even some property) then also we know that we will be separated from our object of desire when we die. Our own mortality will always block us from any true enjoyment because we will always suffer from the anxiety of losing our object of desire. In other words if our object of desire is finite, and material then we can never be truly happy. Happiness is therefore the true satisfaction brought about by the possession of something permanent, eternal. So all our material satisfactions, because they are temporal, are always informed by this anxiety which is related to death. I will, throughout my life, pursue this problem of desire because it bears the structure of my greatest philosophic concern: love. And, as you can already assume that for me there would be two kinds of love. Love as the desire for finite, temporal things which is same as the love of the world. I would call such worldly love cupiditus. And then the true love of eternal and divine Truth. Such love is not informed by anxiety or the fear of death and destruction. This I would call charitas. Finally true happiness is founded on true love.
Chris: I think I understand you Mr. Augustine. What you are calling cupiditus is the desire for worldly things which makes you more anxious than happy. Even if you possess such things you are never devoid of the anxiety. You fear losing them because your satisfaction is never complete. It is always corrupted by death and destruction. This is how I always feel in my search for happiness. Now I understand what is the source of this anxiety which I feel even though I possess what I want. The source of this anxiety is my own finitude, the temporal nature of my mortal existence which blocks any attempt at true enjoyment and therefore true happiness. And it is because of this anxiety that I continuously seek more happiness in possessing new things, trying to satisfy this negativity or lack which is the basis of my temporal existence. When the happiness scientists and positive psychologist of my time tell me that happiness has to be a lifelong quest, that I have to “flourish” which is a term they use meaning I have to improve myself continuously because it is part of the endless search for my happiness; all this sounds similar to your concept of worldly desire (cupiditas) informed by anxiety. When we desire something perishable it generates anxiety which pushes us to move on to the next thing, the next object to be desired.
But as you said there is more to this complex process. We also feel that if the object survives us and if we can somehow inscribe ourselves through our desire on to the material/worldly object then we will also become the object and survive our own mortality. But we fail to truly believe in our immortality by desiring worldly objects because we are constantly haunted by the anxiety of death. Hence we get lost in the world, desiring one object after another, in a frenzy of consumption. Unceasing repetition becomes the only true product of worldly desire informed by our anxiety. But it is exactly this continuity, this perpetual desire to be happy which is prescribed by the happiness experts because it fits perfectly with our neo-liberal logic for incessant consumption. I read once when I was in college, that Sigmund Freud who is a great thinker of the workings of the human mind from the early 20th century, talked about manic repetititive action produced by something he called the death drive. It seems to me that this continuous search for happiness as worldly satisfaction which is actually informed by the anxiety of death is very similar to it. Your concept of cupiditus helped me to understand this.
But tell me something Mr Augustine: the continuous search for self knowledge, looking inside oneself and the freedom to choose that which makes one happy; isn’t this similar to your teachings particularly concerning your idea of confession. Though I know little outside what I was taught in my catholic school I know your most famous book would become Confessions. It would become so popular that even penguin and oxford, which are huge commercial publication houses, publishing many popular best sellers would publish your books in dozens in the 20th century.
Augustine: Again you show much perception and insight my young friend from the future. But I would really have liked to meet this Sigmund Freud fellow. As I understand from you this “death drive” seems very similar to what I have called dispersion of the soul which prevents one to contemplate the truth because it moves from one worldly satisfaction to another.
However, I am not amazed that even books and knowledge would become commercial ventures in your age. I always knew that desire for knowledge, which I would call the “lust for looking” (libido spectandi) was one of the three variations of worldly desire or cupiditus and produces avarice or the greed for wealth. The other two being “lust for flesh” (libido sentiendi) and the lust for “being first” (libido principandi,). When I argue, following the great ethical tradition inaugurated by Plato, that the starting point of philosophy is an inward movement of “knowing yourself” and whose end is true happiness I do not have in mind the lust for the self which leads to vainglory and pride. What you call success or achievement leading to happiness (or vice verse) in your world, gained through inward movement of the self, it is nothing other than what I call vainglory. Such vainglory can be of small scale like wining a philosophical argument for the sake of satisfying one’s own pride which is nothing other than the “lust for being first”. It can also be the arrogant lust for power (libido dominandi) which dominates the earthly city (civitas dei). But no matter how big or small, as part of worldly desire, such efforts produce only incomplete satisfaction. Such “haughtiness of temporal domination” is always subject to time. It is perishable and therefore cannot lead to true enjoyment.
The inward movement of “know thyself” should not be a narcissistic pursuit of the self but rather an abandonment of the mortal, finite self in order to find true fulfillment of the soul. And since true fulfillment can only come in desiring something permanent, knowing thyself should always lead to the desire for Truth which is infinite and eternal. When I talk of confession I always talk of this renunciation of the self which has encountered the Truth of God. The confessing “I” is never the author or master of what he/she confesses because “I” always confess to God who already knows. I call it “making Truth within oneself”. You might call it by some other name but true happiness is always related to such a process of “making truth within one self” whose starting point is always the self exposed to an Absolute. In other words such Truth though absolute is always expressed subjectively. But a self exposed to such Truth never remains static inside the existent self-same ego. The self exposed to Truth moves beyond itself into the realm of this Truth which is outside and yet paradoxically remains the self. This is the creation of the Confessional-Subject. The Confessional-Subject maintains this paradox within itself.
Moreover, if happiness is the enjoyment of something permanent and eternal namely Truth, then it cannot be merely the knowledge of that Truth because to know the Truth is different from enjoying the Truth. True love (as enjoyment and not merely desire) changes the lover in the image of the beloved. To enjoy something truly is to become that which you enjoy. Therefore to enjoy Truth is to become, at least partly, the infinite eternal Truth. It is in this sense an impossible enjoyment which cannot be made possible simply by searching for Truth or the knowledge of Truth.
Chris: I am again confused! If philosophy is the procurement of wisdom and wisdom leads to happiness and at the same time happiness is nothing other than the complete enjoyment of Truth which is eternal and infinite then what is the relation between philosophy and Truth?
Augustine: Philosophy, my dear boy, is not entirely about knowledge though it always deals with knowledge. You see, if Truth can only be accessed by love as enjoyment, then the knowledge of Truth is not the same as experiencing/ enjoying the Truth. And if philosophy is wisdom which leads to true happiness then it also cannot be simply an affair of the knowledge of Truth but the impossible enjoyment of Truth. And it is here that we need something like the event of Grace, Grace of God which befalls us so that we can be faithful to god. As Paul said “ I have obtained mercy that I might be faithful” [ I Cor. 7:25]. Faith comes only after mercy. Faith does not lead to the mercy/grace of God. It is not because you are willfully faithful, leading a righteous, good life, that god grants you His Mercy through Grace. Grace has to be the starting point, it is the event which befalls anyone, the divine gift offered to all, faithful and the infidel alike from where faith is inaugurated. And it is through this faith that we can partially enjoy the eternal Truth, participating in it, becoming it and not merely have knowledge of it. Happiness which is produced through such impossible enjoyment is therefore universal and for everybody.
But once you have faith, once you are converted, you have to find the rational form to give to this otherworldly divine experience, this impossible enjoyment of Truth. I would call it “faith seeking out reason” (fides quarens intellectum). If faith changes you, converts you to a new subject who is the subject to the Truth of Christianity, then you have to find a rational way to express your new found faith. If faith is nothing other than that which produces an impossible enjoyment of the infinite Truth, then I need something outside faith to articulate my faith. In other words now that you are converted you have to give your new life a rational form which is not merely the prerogative of faith. It is here that philosophy again emerges as a tool for the procurement of wisdom/enjoyment/ full satisfaction. But as I would go on to say “wisdom is fullness, but in fullness there is measure”. Measure, in my thinking, would become synonymous with something like the idea of form and to ‘give measure to fullness’ would be an effort to find a way to formalize/rationalize the subjective experience of absolute Truth.
Chris: I think I understand you but only intuitively because if anybody asks what is happiness I can only repeat your words. I know that Happiness is not a necessity as we are taught in our world. It is the impossible enjoyment of an absolute, eternal Truth which I cannot just choose or will. Happiness is the outcome of something which happens to me, a chance encounter, a contingent event. But what I am free to choose is to have faith towards that moment although it might seem impossible to others and try to give it some form. This freedom to formalize is my true happiness.
(Dr. Soumick De is currently a post doctoral fellow at Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR), India working on the concept of the ‘impolitical’ and its relevance in today’s politico-philosophical milieu. He completed his doctoral thesis titled Perversion, Pedagogy and the Comic: A Survey of the Concept of Theatre in the Christian Middle Ages at the Department of Theatre and Performance Studies, School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2016.)
(Dr Saurabh Todariya is PhD in Philosophy from JNU and is currently exploring the intersections between Phenomenology and Kashmiri Shaivism in NIAS-CSP)
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