I was poised to dislike this book because of its tricksy presentation. A self-regarding introduction, purportedly by a scholar named Stanley Low, details the offer of “the Calenberg Prize” for the best answer to the question: in what ways, if any, may people find happiness? The chapters that follow are supposedly the best four essays submitted for consideration.
In fact, the entire thing is the work of German philosopher Michael Hampe. I suppose the quirky presentation makes it clearer that different views are being laid out. Once you are past the introduction, it’s really rather a good book. Its quartet of essays might be seen as a conceptual boxing-in of happiness: a four-sided exhaustive analysis. View one: you can change the world through science and make people happier. View two: you can change yourself so as to have a peaceful mind such that it can deal more happily with whatever the world throws at you. View three: happiness is impossible, so striving for it is doomed and will only make you even unhappier. View four: you can change yourself and the world, and with a bit of luck some circumstances will then be happy ones. The clever part is that each of the views, which may be seen in some cases as critiques of each other, will leave you equally convinced. (A caveat: there’s an annoyingly pervasive identification of capitalism, in a dreary all-too-predictable European-lefty way, as a major contributor to unhappiness, which lets the standard of the arguments drop.)
The first view is the idea that we may find happiness, albeit not of an ultimate unchanging sort, by moving away from unhappiness via scientific truth. In a rebuke to relativism, it is argued that improved technology will steadily remove from us one form of unhappiness after another. The second view is similar to Buddhism, in its contention that if we are not at peace in our minds we will never be happy. Both suffering and our lack of happiness are in the mind, rather than being the result of external circumstances, most of which we cannot control, especially the actions of other people. Good mental habits enable us to control the mind and prevent it from running off wherever it will, unbidden, and making us unhappy.
The third view holds that it is impossible to be happy because our biological natures and our culture make it difficult for us to live according to our ideals while satisfying our desires, and bad conscience results from our failure to live up to those ideals. The fourth view argues for the more modest aim of fleeting, or semi-permanent, happiness through adapting ourselves and changing our external circumstances, which with a dash of good fortune will lead to the feeling we want. So, respectively: technology, Buddhism, Freudian psychoanalysis and the mundane. The different voices allow Hampe to be partisan in each case, while being balanced overall. In the end, there is no summing up, no comparison; it’s up to you to make up your own mind.
On starting this book, I feared a ghastly self-indulgent ramble, the views too peculiar and particular to be of any use in anyone’s life as lessons on happiness – like being locked in a study-bedroom with a neurotic talkative postgraduate student. It turns out to be quite otherwise: this is a work in the tradition – albeit with more varied arguments – of the Stoics, Marcus Aurelius and others. High praise. Moreover, it’s very easy to read.
In addition, I shall be ever grateful to Hampe for his introducing me to the Austrian writer Ernst Jandl and his marvellous poem The Beautiful Picture. There is no beautiful image of human happiness; instead, the world Jandl conjures is one stripped of people; sky, fields, forests and seas are simply themselves, unconnected to any human beings or activities.
Four Meditations on Happiness is certainly an interesting work. Will it endure and be read like other great reflections on the human condition hundreds of years from now? That I rather doubt. But that does not mean that it is not worth reading.
Four Meditations on Happiness
By Michael Hampe
Atlantic Books, 256pp, £14.99
Published 7 January 2014