I’ve admired Paul Monk’s writing for a while now and have linked to a particularly good essay of his in the past. In any event, he’s agreed for me to post essays of his on Troppo. Over the fold is an review essay of John Armstrong’s recent book on Goethe and happiness. From the length of it, it looks like the AFR version of it got edited back a fair bit. I’ll follow up in a few days time with the essay which is gracing the pages of the AFR today – entitled “The evidence is all around us”. GOETHE AND THE IDEA OF HAPPINESS – by Paul Monk
Paul Monk on John Armstrong’s conversation with the ‘complete’ man.
My formula for happiness? A yes, a no, a straight line, a goal – Nietzsche
There is no simple formula for finding happiness. But if our great big brains do not allow us to go sure-footedly into our futures, they at least allow us to understand what makes us stumble – Daniel Gilbert
What does it take to be ‘happy’? Is it important to be ‘happy’? What do we actually mean by ‘happiness’? Nietzsche once quipped that “strength makes stupid”. Does happiness make us frivolous or banal? The utilitarians take as the central plank of their philosophy that public policy should generate “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”, but many a critic of modern “consumer” society has derided such a philosophy as leading to vacuity, boredom and aimlessness.
There must, the argument goes, be something more than mere ‘happiness’ a higher purpose, a lofty ideal or final goal; a spirit of sacrifice and a sense of meaning to make life truly fulfilling. Of course, these claims seem to imply both that ‘happiness’ and higher purposes are somehow mutually exclusive and, at the same time, that true happiness requires that one have a higher purpose, be it religious, ideological, or creative.
My earliest recollection of wrestling with or being troubled by these questions is reading Henri Daniel-Rops’s The Church of Apostles and Martyrs as an adolescent Catholic and being stirred by his sonorous rhetoric about the depth of meaning and historical purpose that Christianity brought to the hedonistic, violent and decaying world of late antiquity. He seized my imagination with an arresting phrase about “that abyss into which history hurls empires and civilisations with sublime indiscrimination.”
Even earlier, as a young boy, I was profoundly affected by JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, chiefly because of the elegiac sadness and profound dignity of the High Elves and the Ents. One could not have said, in any ordinary sense of the word, that Elrond, for example, was ‘happy’. His capacity, however, to remember long ages of history and ponder the meaning of things deeply, while keeping a quite musical sense of proportion, made me look for these things in Catholicism. Wisdom, knowledge, gravity, meaning these things seemed deeply appealing by comparison with mere ‘happiness’.
Those were the years immediately after Vatican II but, to my bewilderment, I failed to find what I was looking for in Catholicism. At the level of ritual and tradition, it seemed to be falling apart. Morally, it seemed divided and confused. Culturally and cognitively, it seemed stranded. Vatican II notwithstanding, I found myself, as a very young man, reflecting that the Church resembled Tolkien’s description of the High Elves in the Third Age long at peace, he wrote, they wielded the Three Rings while Sauron slept, but they attempted nothing new, living in memory of the past.
What is the use of long memory of the past, I thought, if it has lost its grip on the present and its way into the future? Besides, as I grew into my late teens, I simply could not profess to believe what I had recited by catechetic rote since childhood; nor could I get satisfying answers from my teachers when I asked them perfectly serious questions about doctrine and belief. Happiness was difficult in these circumstances, but it was not the point.
Any unhappiness I felt was derivative. My response was not to try to be happy as things were to get along by going along, as the old saying has it but to seek a true understanding of what life is about. Lots of us go through this, of course. The disturbing thing, looking back, is to contemplate how apparently random the search was and how very difficult it was to find any resting point: any point at which I could feel that my understanding and my well-being were in reasonable equilibrium; any point at which I felt content to ride at anchor.
It was only slowly that I realised I was going through a process that the whole world had been going through for quite some time. I had often felt terribly alone, but actually I was in abundant and very good company. Our species has been going through a staggering metamorphosis since the end of the last ice age. We have invented agriculture, cities and writing, mathematics, logic and physical science, monotheistic religion and complex music, industrial production and mass transport, telecoms and IT.
The drastic acceleration of this metamorphosis in the past few centuries has been overwhelming. How is any individual to find meaning and truth while we are all being swept along by this gigantic process? For several thousand years, most human beings have found such things, or at least sought them, through religion folk religion mostly, of course, in rough symbiosis with more mundane concerns and pleasures. A relative few have sought to master the scheme of things cognitively, or at least to create something expressive of their sense of meaning in the world. These few are philosophers and scientists, poets, composers, dramatists and artists. Being ‘educated’ enables us to draw upon the work of such people to enlarge our personal understanding of the world.
Of those few, a very small number tend to stand out, because of the unusual scope or originality of their conceptual or creative work. Individuals such as Moses, Confucius, Buddha and Jesus, Archimedes, Plato, Dante, Shakespeare, Newton, Mozart and Einstein are our beacons in the search for meaning and truth though not necessarily for ‘happiness’.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) is widely held to have been among these remarkable individuals. He is so regarded, however, not simply on account of his creative work or analytical insight, but because he seems to have been a kind of paragon of the fully rounded man of the world: poet, novelist and practical statesman, traveler and businessman. Goethe may also have been a better than usual guide in the search for happiness. This, at least, is the argument of John Armstrong, in Love, Life, Goethe: How to be Happy in an Imperfect World. Goethe, he writes, while “an outstanding intellectual and artistic figure”¦was very much a ‘Weltkind’- to use one of his own favorite words: ‘a creature of this world’.”
This is the way Goethe has been regarded for 200 years. After his death, as industrialisation and secularism developed in both Germany and the West at large, Goethe came to seem like a beacon of human completeness and cheerful practicality, in a world of increasing specialisation of labour and the erosion of old cultural traditions. When Max Weber wrote, at the conclusion of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, that his contemporaries, in the early 20th century, had become a ‘nullity’, devoid of both heart and spirit, it was the counter-example of Goethe, as much as anything, that he had in mind.
In the mid-20th century, the Hungarian Marxist literary critic Gyorgy Lukacs wrote of Goethe as the highest example of the old bourgeois artist and intellectual. Lukacs saw Goethe as a kind of human ideal no longer possible under advanced capitalism, but somehow representative of what communism would make possible. Ironically, it was only in tenacious resistance to communism that literary humanism flourished in the 20th century whether in the form of Anna Akhmatova and Nobel Prize winner Boris Pasternak in Russia, or more recently Nobel Prize winner Gao Xingjian in post-Mao China.
Armstrong sees Goethe not as a monument of what capitalist society has lost, or of what a utopian society might make generally possible, but as an interlocutor in our own search for ‘happiness’ in an imperfect world. “Through his representative life”, he writes, “Goethe invites us to connect things that are dislocated in our society as well as in ourselves creative freedom and emotional stability; profundity and practicality; refined taste and power. To live well, we have to thrive in the imperfect world we have.”
Armstrong himself was born in Glasgow in 1966, of parents whom he describes as “distressed bohemians and not obviously in control of life”. He has sought meaning, truth and happiness through the study of art and philosophy. At one time a research fellow and director of the aesthetics program at the University of London, he is an associate professor in philosophy at the University of Melbourne and director of the aesthetics program at the Monash Centre for Public Philosophy. Love, Life, Goethe is his fourth book and, like the earlier ones, is written in a lucid, conversational style.
His first book, The Intimate Philosophy of Art (2000), was his opening salvo in a campaign to re-educate the eye of the contemporary citizen; to draw us, as it were, into the picture of things. He extended this campaign with The Secret Power of Beauty: Why Happiness is in the Eye of the Beholder (2002), an inquiry into the psychology of aesthetic perception, and then Conditions of Love: The Philosophy of Intimacy (2004). The latter is a sustained argument against the endemic belief that ‘love’ consists in the intense feelings associated with ‘falling in love’; that it is, rather, about the maturing of partnership as romantic intensity recedes.
Conditions of Love begins with a close reference to Goethe. “A decisive moment in the history of thinking about love occurred in 1774. That was the year in which Goethe’s first novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, appeared and quickly achieved an overwhelming success throughout Europe. This short book presented a simple, and seductive, vision of the nature of love: love is a feeling.” A bestseller in the 1770s, The Sorrows of Young Werther is not much read these days, but it deals with the subject that saturates our air waves. It is a reflection on the roots of unhappiness in love.
Longing, rapture, torment and obsession are the themes of young Werther’s love for Charlotte, a woman both uninterested and unavailable. “Goethe didn’t invent romantic love,” Armstrong comments, “he merely provided an unforgettable, exact rendition of the motions of the heart which constitute such love.” The problem was that Werther committed suicide when Charlotte rejected him. This set a romantic fashion that swept across Europe; but the novel is actually, Armstrong argues, a reflection on why one should not be like Werther.
In reflecting on the true nature of love and its relation to ‘happiness’, Armstrong draws on Wittgenstein’s observation, in his Philosophical Investigations, that we use a whole range of words of which we cannot actually give a satisfactory definition. Armstrong is thinking of love and happiness, but Wittgenstein used the word ‘game’ as his chief example. The word can’t be adequately defined, he wrote, because games do not have any one set of common characteristics that are definitive. We are not just somehow failing to see the true definition. There simply is no single way or set of ways in which all games resemble each other. Rather, they exhibit various overlapping ‘family resemblances’.
To develop an adequate conception of such a thing as love or happiness then, we have to explore the family resemblances of the various strands of meaning that attach to such a word. When we do that, Armstrong argues, we open up the possibility of a more nuanced and balanced, mature and creative appreciation of the domain in which the word is used. This sets us free, to some extent, from unbalanced perceptions, misjudgments, delusions and, in general, narrow ways of looking at the world. This is Armstrong’s counsel in regard to love: that we widen our conversation about it, to avoid both cynicism and delusion.
In his book on Goethe, he makes the same argument in regard to happiness. He styles the book as a kind of extended ‘conversation’ with Goethe about happiness, in the belief that a poet and man of the world who reflected so much on life and lived so richly still has much to offer us. The conversation leads us through Goethe’s singularly fortunate and long life as through a museum with Armstrong as the tour guide.
We learn about Goethe’s comfortable family background, his education, his sexual awakening, his creative writing, his professional work, his travel and the maturing of his status as a sage of Enlightenment Europe in the era of Hegel and Napoleon. We discover how all of Goethe’s creative works, including the famous Faust, on which he worked for decades, his erotic poetry, his novels (The Sorrows of Young Werther, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship and Elective Affinities), his stage dramas (Goetz, Iphigenia, Tasso, Egmont), his travel writing and autobiographical reflections, were meditations on the challenges of moral and practical life.
There are countless delightful moments in the conversation, both by virtue of the subtlety and variety of Goethe’s writing and by way of Armstrong’s analytically acute and luminous observations. Between them, they represent the broad humanity of Goethe, which is the pivotal reality that engages Armstrong and to which he seeks to draw our attention. Several of these moments, during Goethe’s famous and extended travels in Italy, in 1786-87, are especially representative of the way in which Armstrong sees ‘happiness’ in Goethe’s life.
He describes Goethe in northern Italy, visiting buildings by the 16th-century architect Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) and being tremendously impressed by the proportionality and tastefulness of Palladio’s designs for living. “In fact,” he writes, “Palladio became the single most important role model for Goethe”¦He wanted to do with his life what Palladio had done with stone.” Decades later, in his autobiography, Poetry and Truth, Goethe was to write, “There is something divine about Palladio’s talent, something comparable to the power of a great poet who, out of the worlds of truth and deception creates a third whose borrowed existence enchants us.”
Palladio’s style was one of both nobility and gracious moderation. Goethe saw him as sublimely classical and as opening up “the way to the glorious days of antiquity”. Realising that many of Palladio’s buildings had never been completed, Goethe reflected on his own unfinished creative manuscripts and on the fact that the world is full of completed works that one might wish had remained unwritten or fragmentary. “Oh kindly Fates, who favour and perpetuate so many stupidities,” he wrote, “why did you not allow [Palladio’s] work to be completed?” He went on to Venice and worked quietly on his play Iphigenia, a reworking of the classical drama by Euripides.
There is a famous painting by Johann Friedrich August Tischbein (1750-1812) of Goethe in the Roman campagna, in a broad-brimmed red hat and cape. Here, Armstrong observes, we see “the face of a man who has full control of his faculties, who is ripe for action or thought; it is an image of a man in his prime the point of perfect ripeness. He is among the lovely remains of the classical world, a world of which he has taken inner possession; he is at ease and yet he is completely in earnest”. Albert Camus remarked that one must imagine toiling Sisyphus to have been happy rolling his rock up the mountain ever and again. It is surely more plausible to see happiness embodied in Tischbein’s Goethe .
Goethe’s Palladio and Tischbein’s Goethe tell us much of Armstrong’s ideal: the man of sound faculties with a profound sense of proportion, who has taken inner possession of the great classical tradition of civilization and who is ripe for thought or action. Armstrong shows us this Goethe en route from Sicily to Naples in the summer of 1787, involved in a near shipwreck and doing all he can to keep the other passengers calm, in order to avoid panic and all the disasters that can come with it. “Life is a very slow shipwreck,” he remarks. “Goethe tried to communicate a cheerful pessimism: to see life as it is and yet to enjoy it as it is.”
Goethe the artist and intellectual, he suggests, set himself to “control unhelpful anxiety”. Given the intractable challenges of life, we have too many voices clamoring that we are all going to die and someone is to blame and something urgent must be done. Modern artists and intellectuals tend, Armstrong remarks, to assume that we are all sleepwalking to disaster and that it is their appointed task to rouse us from our slumber with angry, shocking or disturbing voices. Goethe believed that hysteria rather than complacency was the greater danger. “Therefore, a significant task for art and culture might be to calm us down, to bring order and harmony so that we can do what we need to do.”
So addicted have we become to intensity of feeling, hysteria and cynicism that all this talk of order and harmony might make both Goethe and Armstrong seem rather like stuffed shirts or ivory tower types contemplating their navels, falsely aloof from the everyday disorder of the world and the ordinary passions of human life. But Armstrong’s whole point is that Goethe was no such stuffed shirt. He emphasizes, in this respect, Goethe’s sexual appetites, his political work and his business acumen. His sexual appetites, in particular, were anything but contemplative.
Goethe’s relationship with Christiane Vulpius one of the many loves of his life, but the most stable of them all illustrates this admirably. “Everything we know about her,” Armstrong relates, “bears witness to her pronounced sensuality: her fondness for wine, for lively company and louche jokes. She was erotically adventurous and Goethe talks of their mutual exploration of ‘all twelve books’ of sexual experience.” She, for her part, thought Goethe “a god from another world. He was rich, funny, handsome, generous, famous, passionate, keen on drinking and by turns quietly domestic and outrageously dirty.”
It was during the early years of his life with Christiane, after his return from Italy, that Goethe wrote his famous cycle of erotic poems, the Roman Elegies. He had been fascinated by the stones of Rome, but then reflected that without an experience of love the stones did not come alive. “Without love, the world is not the world, and without love, Rome is not Rome,” he wrote in the opening lines of Roman Elegies. His Venetian Epigrams tell us even more. They enunciate, as Armstrong expresses it, “a breezy, obscene and very witty erotic philosophy.”
Goethe was, in short, a man of exceptional accomplishments and worldly success. The question is, does this make him a model for the rest of us in our own search for meaning, truth or happiness? Not at the level of fortune or accomplishment. After all, if it is necessary for us to be born into wealthy families, get a first class education, enjoy ample leisure and much travel, write novels, erotic poetry, plays and memoirs, be ministers of state and have many lovers in order to be happy, there is little hope for the overwhelming majority of us.
We might, however, feel a little more at home in the world, after seeing it through Goethe’s eyes. We might seek something of the cheerful enjoyment of food and sex, the sense of aesthetic proportion, the attention to practical affairs that characterised Goethe. Above all, if we are the citizens of affluent societies, we might see in Goethe a certain kind of model of the integrated and balanced life, neither frenetic nor anxious, neither gloomy nor relentlessly acquisitive. We might, also, emulate his behaviour on the ship from Sicily and seek to keep others calm and rational, amid the possibilities for shipwreck that confront us all. By such means, we might actually find a reasonable kind of happiness in an imperfect world.