Thursday, March 26, 2009

Happiness: Freud v. St. Thomas (a brief discussion)

Bill Clinton: "What is the meaning of is?"

That's modernity for you.

Despite the diversity of definitions, views, beliefs and opinions on happiness, it is difficult not to argue that the "thing" people wish for the most is to be happy.

In pondering why we have such an unhappy world, the question might be posed, what is happiness?

Sigmund Freud’s (1856-1939) view of happiness follows in the tradition of 18th century Enlightenment empiricism. He accepts John Locke’s view that “the universal human desire for happiness is a desire for maximum pleasure and minimal pain.” Thus, happiness is reduced to something one can metaphorically measure on a scale weighing in the amount of pleasure contrasted with the amount of pain. Freud views human happiness as simply the “satisfaction of instinctual desires." If this view of happiness is true, then humans are reduced to a happiness that can be achieved in animals. Happiness is not, in Freud’s view, and contrasted by the ancients, related in any way to the intellect, but to instinct and to the gratification of one’s passions and appetites.

The highest human appetite in terms of instinct is sexual gratification. Happiness is but the (constant) gratification of sexual impulses. The purpose of reason or human rationality is to limit this impulsive desire by distraction with other pursuits such as art and music. Distraction from fulfilling desired and instinctual sexual gratifications serves to prevent society from becoming violent and destructive.

Freud’s view of happiness then lends itself to the fact that since all our sexual impulses can not and should not be satisfied--for the good of society--then man is doomed to a (sexually) frustrated life and therefore unhappiness. Freud expresses, “Civilization demands the restriction of genital gratification for the sake of a cohesive social existence.” I suppose this is why Freud entitled his work, Civilization and its Discontents. A pretty grim view of life indeed.

Freud is responsible for a lot of modernity's current erred notions of happiness. As with all these modern "philosophers," had he known the "fruit" of his thought, he might have re-evaluated its legitimacy. What would this (ironically!) cultural conservative and moralist have thought about the MTV generation?

Freud's definition of happiness stands in vast contrast with that of St. Thomas Aquinas'(1225-1274). (Surprise, surprise!)

For St. Thomas happiness is not a materialist issue. Happiness is the last end of the human life: the telos, the goal, the whole point. For a Christian who believes that man was created to enjoy eternal happiness with God, salvation equals happiness.

In his Summa Theologica, St. Thomas first poses the question, "Whether man's happiness consists in wealth?" He answers that it is "impossible for man's happiness to consist in wealth." This is because wealth is not sought for the sake of itself, but for a means to some other good. And since happiness is the last end, it can not consist in wealth.

He also poses the questions, "Whether man's happiness consists in honors? Or glory? Or fame? Or power? Or health?" For the sake of contrasting him with Freud's definition of happiness, St. Thomas' question, "Whether man's happiness consists in pleasure?" is a relevant one.

St. Thomas answers in the negative and quotes Boethius, "Any one that chooses to look back on his past excesses, will perceive that pleasures have a sad ending: and if they can render a man happy, there is no reason why we should not say that the very beasts are happy too."

It is interesting that Freud admits that if man were happy (having his sexual appetite constantly gratified), it would cause destruction to civilization. He would agree with St. Thomas on this point. However, instead of looking at this concrete fact and changing his definition of happiness toward a more truthful positivity, he relegates man to a life of necessary unhappiness for the sake of the common good. Since Freud is a materialist and denies the spiritual in man, he would disagree with St. Thomas and Boethius and affirm that humans are no different than "the very beasts."

St. Thomas would reject Freud's view of happiness because it concerns only one part of man: the bodily. However, man is one composite consisting of body and soul. He expresses, "Now good pertaining to the body, and apprehended by sense, cannot be man's perfect good. For since the rational soul excels the capacity of corporeal matter...(it) has a certain infinity in regard to the body...consequently it is evident that good which is fitting to the body, and which causes bodily delight through being apprehended by sense, is not man's perfect good, but is quite a trifle as compared with the good of the soul. Therefore bodily pleasure is neither happiness itself, nor a proper accident of happiness."

What is happiness?

Both Freud and St. Thomas would agree that in this life, men strive after happiness but that perfect happiness can not be attained by man. That is where the similarity in their notions of happiness ends.

St. Thomas writes, "Man is not perfectly happy so long as something remains for him to desire and seek." Freud rejected faith and religion and would not have accepted St. Thomas' understanding that "the happiness of man is realized in union with the Uncreated Good, which is God."

Mortimer Adler makes an important distinction regarding the current confusion regarding happiness. Happiness is being confused with contentment, as the fulfillment of needs. He explains that both the bad and good man can have their needs fulfilled. But no one would say that the miser who has his needs satisfied is happy. Happiness must be understood as St. Thomas explains as the final end--the quality of a morally good (virtuous) life. Properly speaking then, one can not say he has had a happy life, until the end of his life.

In reflecting about the contrasted understandings of happiness in Freud and St. Thomas, it comes down to a positivity versus a negativity in life. Pleasure, as being happiness, is utterly reductionistic and is inconsiderate of the totality of man's being and existence.

Happiness for St. Thomas is a positive thing to be achieved, for Freud it is a negative thing which can not be attained. For St. Thomas, happiness enriches man and thus civilization, for Freud happiness ruins man and does violence to civilization. For St. Thomas, it is to be lived and embraced, for Freud it is to be suppressed for the common good. For St. Thomas the happier the man, the happier the world, for Freud the happier the man, the unhappier the world.

How will it be known if St. Thomas's understanding of happiness is true? Well, for one thing, experience should verify it. This leads to flourishing of the human person--as Father Giussani might say.

1 comment:

SolidD33 said...

Nice post, I enjoyed it. Started out reading at the top just to briefly scan it and then got hooked into reading the entire thing.


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