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Chris Arthur

The Dagger in the Flesh and the Alchemy of Happiness


One of the most heart-rending of Northern Ireland's many tragedies involved the children of a man murdered by terrorists. During its dark years of violence (now hopefully ended), people in my troubled homeland grew so used to grim-faced newsreaders informing them of yet more carnage that it would have been easy to dismiss this incident as just another dreadful tale of devastation visited on an ordinary family. The terrible had become commonplace. We had grown used to outrage. One feature of this particular incident, though, made it stand out in Ulster's catalogue of woe and gave it such an arresting poignancy that it has stayed in my mind for years. As viewers were informed on the evening bulletin of how the man had been brutally slaughtered, it was revealed that his children were still sleeping. Rather than waken them to break the news, it had been decided to let them sleep on until morning.

The image of children asleep, protected for a few fleeting hours from the pain and horror which waking will bring, may seem a bizarrely inappropriate place to begin an essay on happiness. But this terrible icon highlights two key ideas that are bound to surface in any serious reflection on the subject. First, that happiness, like the sleep of children whose father has been slain, is no more than a kind of innocent naivety, an illusory state whose only mandate for continuance is an ignorance of the facts. Secondly, that the media in general (and TV news programmes in particular) are such incessant bearers of bad news that anyone exposed to them - and which of us is not? - is bound to have any claim to happiness vitiated by a knowledge of dreadful events. I want to address the questions these two ideas pose. Namely (i) is happiness an appropriate response to human life, given the pain with which we are surrounded? And (ii) how can happiness ever be reconciled with knowledge?

Before attending to such questions, though, something that threatens to de-rail any consideration of the topic needs first to be dealt with. This has to do with the strange way in which happiness as a subject now tends to be regarded with a mixture of amusement and contempt. Despite the fact that it is something we all desire, something we all wish life to yield up, it is widely seen as something with little claim to our considered attention. As Wladyslaw Tatarkiewicz puts it in his magisterial study of the subject, happiness in contemporary society is considered "undeserving of serious reflection". Likewise Harvie Ferguson - whose own work is a powerful refutation of the common point of view which Tatarkiewicz identifies - recognizes that "to speak of happiness is to invite ridicule".


Happiness is a subject which is now only rarely addressed in any depth. Given the fact that it constitutes the elusive beacon towards which humans have striven to navigate since the beginning of time, this neglect is surprising. Stressing its apparently universal relevance, John Cowper Powys suggests that "the beginning and end of the whole matter" is quite simply that "all conscious sentiences want happiness". Arguably, happiness occupies something of the same level of primacy on our agenda of concerns as the need for food, shelter and companionship. Thomas Jefferson recognized precisely such primacy when he wrote in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Why, then, given its self-evident importance to us all, should happiness be accorded so little measured reflection? Why should being asked to write about happiness elicit such a negative mixture of reactions, touching at once on perplexity, embarrassment and reticence? As someone who has written on a range of subjects whose scale and difficulty might more understandably issue in a sense of unease and inadequacy - wisdom, spirituality, silence, ethics, education, death - my reaction to happiness is surely peculiar. Were it a purely personal peculiarity, it would be of little interest. But as the comments from Tatarkiewicz and Ferguson show, this is more than any merely individual idiosyncrasy.

Given the peculiar way in which the topic is now generally viewed, anyone writing on happiness needs to do three things if they want their readers to read on. First, simply acknowledge that the current conceptual microclimate surrounding happiness is a largely negative and dismissive one; secondly, try to account for this fact; and thirdly, show either that such an outlook is mistaken or that what they have to say about happiness is immune from the criticism implicit in it.


Part of the disquiet that happiness occasions takes us straight back to the image with which I began, of sleeping children temporarily unaware of tragedy. If happiness is seen in such terms, as an illusion which can only be sustained by not knowing the facts, then it is understandable that people may come to look at it askance. Who wants to be seen as being asleep to the nature of reality, as childishly ignorant of the way things are? But beyond this kind of common-sense reaction, which seeks to prevent us from appearing as credulous dupes, much of the reason for the poor light in which happiness is now held lies in the specialisation which has come to characterise the quest for knowledge in the modern period. For, from the point of view of the specialist, happiness is simply too general a phenomenon to qualify as a respectable topic of inquiry.

Happiness was not always dismissed as being outside the pale of academic inquiry. Thinkers of the calibre of Aristotle, Seneca, Augustine and Aquinas had no qualms about turning their thoughts in this direction. Indeed, as Tatarkiewicz notes, this used to be a key area of discussion. The ancients "thought, talked and wrote about happiness" in a way that is quite alien to the current zeitgeist. There is virtually no classical philosopher "who did not offer his own contribution to a subject that was felt to be important, substantive and urgent. Today, on the contrary, happiness is something to which philosophers and theologians give little or no attention. There are, of course, exceptions, but as a general rule this is now a no-go area for scholarship. Does it not say something about the professional intellectual life in our universities that something of such momentous and fundamental concern is so rarely addressed directly?

To the modern academic ear, happiness comes laden with those doomed cadences that confine it to the dubious company of essayists and those who formulate practical philosophies of life. Neither the familiar essay nor the self-help manual are genres which find favour in academe. This has partly to do with the specialist's belief that breadth inevitably sacrifices depth, and partly with a fear that both these genres encourage precisely the kind of subjective style that is viewed with suspicion by the dominant methodology of contemporary scholarly discourse.

As William Barrett has observed, specialization is "the price we pay for the advancement of knowledge". It is a price because it leads away from "the ordinary concrete acts of understanding in terms of which a man actually lives his day to day life". Thus, where philosophy once trod much the same path as the deepest yearnings of the human spirit, addressing the great questions of life - our destiny, the existence of God and the soul, why there is suffering, the nature of good and evil, how we ought to live, how we can find happiness, what happens when we die and so on, in the wake of modern specialization such fundamental matters seem no longer to concern it (at least not directly). The individual who looks to philosophy today for help in those "ordinary concrete acts of understanding" in terms of which he or she may formulate their beliefs, lead their lives and find fulfilment, will be disappointed.

Philosophy is not alone in undergoing such a process of distancing specialization; it is a process which, to a large extent, is endemic to Western academic endeavour. Theology, a discipline that has traditionally sought to keep even closer to the contours of the spirit than philosophy, has in many areas suffered a similar if not worse fate. Of course specialists will claim that their work contributes to, leads towards, even answers the kind of fundamental question that most concern us. They will say that if we approach such questions in any other manner than via the paths that are forged by their expertise, our answers are bound to be naÔve, jejune, ignorant. There is some justification for such a retort. However, one is frequently left unconvinced that a particular, specialised inquiry leads anywhere much beyond itself. A great deal of modern academic output (to call it literature would be a misnomer) falls under the devastating condemnation offered by the protagonist in Kingsley Amisís Lucky Jim when, in the course of assessing one of his own articles, he talks about its "niggling mindlessness, its funereal parade of yawn-enforcing facts, the pseudo-light it throws upon non-problems." One is reminded of Marshall McLuhan's quip about the specialist being someone who "never makes small mistakes while moving towards the grand fallacy." What grander fallacy could there be than failing to engage with a topic which has claim to be the universal desideratum of human beings? And is there not now a strong case to be made for seeing the essay as an effective means of achieving insight and revitalizing academic inquiry, rather than simply dismissing it as a second-rate genre always subordinate to the icy correctness of the article? As Philip Lopate puts it:

In our century, when the grand philosophical systems seem to have collapsed under their own weight and authoritarian taint, the light-footed, free-wheeling essay suddenly steps forward as an attractive way to open up philosophical discourse.

Does the essay's "suitability for experimental method and self-reflective process, its tolerance for the fragmentary and for irresolution" not make it "uniquely appropriate" for the present era, "whether we want to label it late modernist or postmodernist"?

Acknowledging the fact that happiness as a topic, far from being reflected upon, is now widely viewed as being off-limits, and identifying some of the reasons behind such a perspective, is relatively easy. It is much more difficult to accomplish the third task that I suggested was necessary for anyone who wishes to comment on happiness today. Namely, either to demonstrate that prevailing assessments of it are mistaken or that what they propose to say about happiness is somehow exempted from such assessments. Readers will have to decide for themselves whether the present attempt to swim against such very powerful currents does in fact lead to any worthwhile destination.


"The world of the happy man", says Wittgenstein, "is different from that of the unhappy man". A rich and fascinating mapping of some of the dimensions of these two very different worlds is provided by William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience. In his now famous psychological categories, the "healthy minded" and the "sick souled", James locates two polar extremes on a continuum running from happiness to misery. Like Wittgenstein, he stresses the enormous difference between the way in which the world is seen according to each of his types, talking at one point about nothing less than "two different conceptions of the universe of our experience".

For James, the healthy minded, with their uncomplicated and insistent cheerfulness are, at the end of the day, like children sleeping through bad news. Their happiness is an illusion which, however pleasant it may be at the time, can only be maintained by denying fundamental facts about human existence. But in dismissing the adequacy of a healthy-minded outlook, with its naÔve, unfounded optimism, James does not dismiss the possibility of happiness per se. Rather, he clarifies the complex nature of that mental state which can retain a sense of meaning in the face of apparent meaninglessness, which can look at the darkest aspects of life without risking despair. Much of James' Varieties is, in effect, a study of religion as a strategy for the achievement of precisely that variety of happiness which goes beyond the naive momentary happiness whose continuance relies on ignoring or denying the facts of life. James concludes that the "completest religions", and he points to Buddhism and Christianity in particular, are "those in which the pessimistic elements are best developed". As Winston King once put it:

One may generalize and say that religious traditions always go out of their way to paint life in its darkest colours and to stress the precariousness and evil condition of human existence. Religion may be defined in this context as the awareness of a basic wrongness with the world and as the technique for dealing with that wrongness.

William James' critical typology separates those religions built on real happiness, happiness which can survive an awareness of "a basic wrongness with the world", from those built on unreal happiness, that is, on a merely superficial and transient contentment, the happiness of unfounded wishful thinking that, ignoring what it sees, simply assumes all must be well.

Although he does not use it, the life story of the Buddha provides an excellent illustration of the two types of happiness with which James was concerned. Faced with predictions that his son would become either a great spiritual teacher or a great ruler, the Buddha's father, with a sounder grasp of psychology than of feasibility, determined to protect his son from anything that might lead him to suppose that life is anything other than straightforwardly happy and pleasurable. Versions of the story vary, but many portray the Buddha as under virtual house arrest, carefully surrounded by every sort of sensual delight. No one who was old or sick or ugly was allowed in his presence. Flowers were removed before they withered so that he would not have to witness decay or death. Reasoning that if he could be kept from seeing the "basic wrongness" of the world, he would feel no need to discover the technique for dealing with it, the Buddha's father tried to keep his son in a pain-free cocoon. In one account we read that, having decided nothing must be allowed to perturb his son's mind, the Buddha's father:

arranged for him to live in the upper storeys of the palace, without access to the ground. The palace was like a mansion of the gods. It contained rooms suited to all seasons, and the melodious music of female attendants could be heard in them. The women danced as beautifully as the choicest heavenly nymphs. They entertained him with soft words tremulous calls, wanton swayings, seductive glances. He became a captive of these women who were well versed in the subject of sensuous enjoyment and indefatigable in sexual pleasure.

Any happiness experienced in such an artificial situation, whilst no doubt enjoyable at its moment of occurrence, cannot last. Once we come down to earth from such a gilded cage, the end of the illusion is inevitable. It is impossible to shield someone forever from the more troubling aspects of being human. Escaping from his confinement, the Buddha encountered the so called "four passing sights", in which he saw an old man, a sick man, a corpse and a wandering ascetic. This made him realize the unsatisfactoriness of the naive one-dimensional happiness in which his father had attempted to ensnare him, and the last sight - of the ascetic engaged in a search for truth - inspired him to set out on his own heroic spiritual quest for a technique of dealing with the world's wrongness. Regardless of its historicity, the story provides a classic statement, relevant to Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike, of the potent human urge to seek some sort of happiness which transcends mundane pains and pleasures, which yearns for something more than our everyday notions of happiness.


Any happiness which is not to be dismissed simply as something transient or illusory must be able to take account of the "passing sights". It is perhaps one of the stranger characteristics of contemporary society that although such sights are daily brought before us, often in distressingly extreme forms, the most prevalent models of happiness are precisely of those simplistic types which might be sustainable in some artificial palace of sensual and material delights far removed from any ground of reality, but whose credibility is terminally strained when considered alongside what we see happening in the world.

Every day the media bring to our attention "passing sights" which leave an indelible impression of things gone desperately awry. Genocide in Rwanda, the AIDS epidemic, street children in South America dispatched like vermin, rivers and oceans polluted with toxic waste, old people abandoned and abused, children starving, war in Afghanistan and Iraq, New York devastated by terrorism. Had the Buddha's father been attempting to shield his son from anything that might "perturb his mind" today, he would have had to extend his censorship to TV, radio, newspapers, the Internet and so on. In a world where such terrible passing sights have become commonplace, when the basic wrongness of the world is repeatedly brought to our attention, one might expect that our interest would be focused on precisely those strategies of happiness that claim to be able to transcend such things. Yet, for the most part, the models of happiness found alongside news of horror, pain, disaster and death, are those which only offer the kind of immediate pleasure the Buddha soon saw through. Alongside its horrors, the media tends to foster images of aspiration and contentment that are based on sensual excess, material wealth, excitement, glamour.

In contrast, the great religions offer blueprints for happiness understood as something beyond the easy gratification of desire. They are concerned with happiness that will not evaporate when exposed to such inevitable experiences as pain, fear, loss, longing, disappointment, unfairness and death. In their various ways they seek something that transcends the whole litany of unhappiness that seems to surround us and that makes itself felt in every news bulletin. As Harvie Ferguson has perceptively noted, "transcendence makes itself felt with peculiar intimacy as happiness". Perhaps happiness, especially given the current dismissive connotations which attach to it, is the wrong word to use for the goal which religions aim at. But replacing happiness, as John Cowper Powys has shown, is not without its problems. "Try to substitute any other summum bonum for this one", he suggests, "and you will see how many difficulties you get into". Who, for example, would "make the aim of life the process of knowing God", or of "becoming one with God", unless this did not also "imply personal happiness?".

Cowper Powys described Homo sapiens as "a piteous animal, born with a dagger in his flesh that no hand can ever draw out". To talk to such a creature of happiness may, he says, "seem a savage mockery". It may seem to further such mockery to suggest that religions offer blueprints for achieving lasting happiness, given how closely bound up they have been with events that have, if anything, turned the dagger in our wound rather than doing anything to pull it out or tend our affliction. Thinking of the way in which Christian denominations have warred with each other in Northern Ireland, or how Sikhs and Hindus have come to blows in the Punjab, how Jews and Muslims in the Middle East have been at each others throats for decades, or how Islam has been associated with acts of terrorism, it may seem bizarre to suggest that such faith traditions can seriously be viewed as repositories of strategies for finding happiness. Is their record not one of heightening misery rather than facilitating anything more positive?


In the present situation, where happiness is not considered to qualify as a topic for serious inquiry, where the varieties of unhappiness brought to our attention are legion, where the most common models of happiness put before us are superficial and impoverished, and where religions are often viewed as misery- rather than happiness-inducing, it is surely important to recognise two key features about the world's great faiths. First, even though many of those who claim to be their representatives may obscure the fact, in some of their classic defining representatives - Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama are two examples that come to mind - there are models of happiness worth exploring. Secondly, we are living at a time of vibrant pluralism and have access to an unparalleled range of spiritual medications. Whereas previous generations were locked into singular belief systems according to the situation of their birth, we are able to survey virtually the full spectrum of religious thinking that has so variously characterised our species over the ages and across the nations. This surely opens up exciting new realms of possibility.

We might think of our current awareness of different religious outlooks as being similar to the situation that the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen describes in his fascinating essay on "World Music". Instead of, as in previous periods of history, being confined to a single culture's musical tradition, we are now in a situation where we have access to a far wider range. As Stockhausen puts it, for the first time a person can "become conscious of the fantastic variety of musical expression" that our planet has to offer, such that henceforth "the most creative spirits" will be able to think, play, listen and compose "in all the registers" rather than only in the historically and culturally singular one that used to constitute an individual's musical milieu in times past. It would be naively optimistic to assume that such a situation would automatically issue in fantastic new music harmoniously attuned to the ear of the globalization that spawned it. Stockhausen is well aware that this new musical consciousness could as easily have a detrimental impact on creativity as a positive one. In the same way, listening to the music of the different faiths that flourish and have flourished on our religiously plural planet, naturally presents a risk of discord and confusion. But it would surely be obtuse not to see the positive possibilities that the situation creates and the way in which it might suggest new happiness-strategies that go beyond the familiar and sometimes discredited harmonics of particular faiths in their traditional, strictly singular forms.

Does the base metal of our ordinary experience simply lodge as iron in the soul, offering no possibilities of transcendence, or is it possible, somehow, to transmute it into the gold of enlightenment, salvation, liberation, peace of mind, happiness? Religions, however poorly they may be represented by some of those who claim to be Buddhists or Christians, Muslims or Jews, are concerned to provide an "alchemy of happiness", to use a phrase of al-Ghazali's, which purports to effect precisely such a transmutation. What happiness is, how it may be achieved, whether it can survive exposure to the seemingly endless bad news that the media deliver to our homes, whether religious claims to offer some kind of assured and inviolable happiness are ever credible - answers to such questions, as al-Ghazali put it, are "not easily discovered and are not to be found in the house of every old woman". Such difficult, fundamental, wide-ranging and personal questions may not find a place on the agenda of contemporary scholarship, and may in the end be unanswerable. But unless we pose them now and then, we will never know if the base metal dagger that John Cowper Powys saw lodged in our heart - a dagger which brutally stabbed those sleeping Ulster children as soon as they woke - can be healed by the kind of alchemy of happiness that al-Ghazali had in mind. Given the unparalleled access we now enjoy to the full spectrum of alchemies that humanity's great spiritual traditions have nurtured, it would seem a shame to conclude that none of them work, that no new models or combinations might be efficacious, simply on the grounds of our unhappy experience of some of the discords which religions undoubtedly create when they are locked inflexibly into their traditional keys.

Chris Arthur was born in Belfast and lived for many years in County Antrim.  He is author of a trilogy of essays, Irish Nocturnes (1999),  Irish Willow (2002) and Irish Haiku (2005)

He has been widely published as an essayist and poet on both sides of the Atlantic, with work appearing in The American Scholar, The Antigonish Review, Dalhousie Review, Descant, The Honest Ulsterman, North American Review, Northwest Review, Poetry Ireland Review, The Southern Review, The Threepenny Review and others.

After working as warden on a nature reserve on the shores of Lough Neagh, he enrolled at the University of Edinburgh, where he took a First Class Honours degree in Religious Studies followed by a PhD.  He was Gifford Research Fellow at the University of St. Andrews  and worked for a while in television before moving to the University of Wales, Lampeter. (This is Europe's smallest university and the oldest degree-awarding institution in England and Wales after Oxford and Cambridge). He is currently Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies at Lampeter, teaching courses on Buddhism, methodology and media. 

He was awarded the Akegarasu Haya International Essay prize for his work on Spirituality in the 21st Century.  He is also a winner of the Beverly Hayne Memorial Prize for Young Writers and the Times Higher Education Supplement & Palgrave Macmillan Humanities and Social Sciences Writing Prize

His most recent academic books are The Globalization of Communications: Some Religious Implications (1998) and Religious Pluralism: a Metaphorical Approach (2000). 

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