Saturday, August 19, 2017

Aristotle on Happiness

“Happiness is not amusement; it is good activity.” 
---Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics (a book he wrote for his son, Nichomacheos)

At first sight this may seem difficult to reconcile with the two familiar psychoanalytic insights that the best adult work has a quality of serious play (Winnicott), and children’s play has the quality of serious work (Klein). But Aristotle’s category of “amusement” pertains precisely to that non-creative type of play which does not achieve a work-like seriousness. A particular type of existentially hazardous naïveté sponsors the defensive attempt to become a happy person on the basis of mere amusement. It may be that some cultures make us more vulnerable to this class of error than others; as a manic defense, it is unlikely to arise in a milieu that has achieved the depressive position: a tragic sense of life, accepting as inevitable some degree of mental pain and circumstantial difficulty. Such acceptance would require a degree of humility before the fates, as it were; a non-omnipotent understanding and acknowledgment of the reality principle (that we are never in complete control of our own affairs). Disneyland, “the happiest place on earth” exemplifies the misery of standardized utopian amusement, a monument to the “pursuit of happiness” untrammeled by the tasks of generativity (Aristotle’s “good activity”). This is consistent with a manic defense (Altman) that secures the benefits of the paranoid-schizoid position, protecting the patient from the grave reparative work of the depressive position. It also fits Freud’s general view of American culture as chronically trapped within the pleasure principle (Freud), and the qualified pessimism with which he shaped the disciplinary culture of psychoanalysis to its limited therapeutic ambition: “to turn neurotic misery into ordinary unhappiness” (Freud). 

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