by Marco Malaguti

In the early days of Western thinking, when philosophy was taking its first but not infirm steps on Hellenic soil, it was clear what its two primary goals were. If theoretical sophia set as its goal the search for and discovery of truth, of "the way things are," aletheia, practical sophia, always set as its goal the attainment of happiness, eudemonia, considered as the ultimate meaning of human life.

In the now inaugurated third millennium, two thousand and five hundred years after the great Greek philosophy, philosophical perspectives no longer seem to be the same, and what seemed to be two parallel tracks, those of practical and theoretical sophia, have over time repeatedly intersected and separated. That the conquest of truth is perfectly equivalent to the conquest of happiness, for example, seems to be the larval conviction of scientist and positivist thinking while the opposite idea, that being happy is equivalent to knowing and practicing the truth, is equally widespread position in Western philosophy and theology. For Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, for example, truth and happiness cannot coexist, one cannot be happy knowing the truth, tragic truth, of the human condition; to save us, to give us some brief remnants of joy, would be only the so-called "beautiful semblances."

One happiness for each or one happiness for all?

One of the great principles of classical liberalism, certified by the American Declaration of Independence of 1776, explicitly mentions happiness and the right to pursue it but already seems to implicitly contain the well-known Kantian quote from 1793 that "no one can force me to be happy in his own way, but everyone can seek his happiness by the way that seems good to him." Concealed in that Kantian "no one" are many of the unresolved contradictions of contemporary European societies that prosperity has helped sweep under the rug but that, as the pandemic has shown, have far from disappeared.

If freedom is primarily the right to construct one's own happiness in one's own way, an almost irresolvable tension between liberalism and democracy emerges here. As Bobbio has already noted, liberalism, when it deals with the problem of freedom, does so in function of the individual while democratic doctrine does so in function of an individual cast in a collectivity. Although it may seem a matter of hairsplitting, the implications of this dichotomy are disruptive and enshrine, among other things, the profound watershed between Kant and Rousseau.

The countries of continental Europe, including Italy, stand on a fault line: deeply immersed, for historical reasons, in the liberal-democratic and individualist Anglo-Saxon Zeitgeist that began in 1945, for equally historical reasons they are rooted in the democratic culture that is the child of the Enlightenment and the Revolution of 1789. The problem of happiness, however, arises along the road to politics as a now unescapable obstacle. As utterly sterile as it seems, in a society that has made brutal aletheia its religion and its sole purpose, reflecting on eudemonia, philosophical reflection on the subject of happiness, is of absolute topicality and paramount importance in safeguarding freedom.

Do we know what it means to be happy?

What does it mean to be happy? This is probably one of the most difficult questions that can be asked to a philosopher, but it is probably a question with which the politician should also measure himself. Can the collective ignore the problem of happiness? That is, can it limit itself, as liberal political theory would have it, to self-managing itself in the thinnest possible form of state, or can it, as other political theories argue, proactively pose itself in the project of building a perfect and hopefully happy society?

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While it is true that each of us finds or desires happiness differently, it is also true, however, that in a context in which states and human collectivities exist, it is necessary to give them a direction, a pole star toward which to strive. The liberal-democratic European states of the twentieth century tried to have it both ways by setting as their pole star no longer a specific kind of happiness (e.g., the Heavenly Jerusalem or some form of socialist utopia) but only the right to acquire one, whatever it was.

Nevertheless, the shift of the lodestar from happiness to the right to happiness has had major implications, once again, on citizens' freedom. Think, for example, of the pandemic. If what is fundamental to me is no longer happiness but the right to it, it follows that, in a perhaps paradoxical way, I will have to repress anything that threatens the exercise of that right. Disease, for example, is a strong threat in this respect.

This situation, moreover, seems to configure, rather than a right, almost a duty to happiness, when a free citizen, in a liberal state, could in theory also claim the right to renounce it (one need only think of the numerous religious views, from Buddhism to many Hindu doctrines, for which the condition of happiness is nothing but an obstacle to the attainment of true liberation, which lies beyond both pain and joy). That I cannot exercise my right to be happy if I am dead or hospitalized is self-evident, but doing so dangerously links the concept of the right to happiness with that of security, with the outcomes we have well learned about in the last two years.

Thus, not to reflect philosophically on happiness is to implicitly devolve that task to the state: it is the philosopher state, the Platonic republic that determines what is happiness, what is a satisfying life and, in the case of the current scientific-postmodern paradigm, even what is truth.

Unanswered questions

Given for granted that there is no concept of happiness that fits all individuals, however, serious reflection would be needed from conservative (but not only) philosophy on what are at least the essential traits of a happy and satisfying life. What do we think about when we imagine our happiness? Are there commonalities? Is there a human wholeness that can give us some hints, to us as well as to the politician, in this regard? Is it possible to exist as an ethical and political community without knowing what happiness we aspire to, and that is, in essence, where we want to go?

The definition of the concept of happiness, or at least its sketch, seems to be a question still unanswered by the great contemporary practical sophia.

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He has been dealing with politics and is a cultural and opinion editor for over ten years. Co-founder and animator of the portal of information and in-depth analysis Progetto Prometeo. A student of philosophy, he has been working for years on the theme of the revaluation of nihilism and the great German romantic philosophy.