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In Quest of Happiness

By       Message Iftekhar Sayeed     Permalink
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'Alas! I have nor hope nor health,

Nor peace within, nor calm around,

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Nor that content surpassing wealth

The sage in meditation found,

And walked with inward glory crowned....'

This shopping list of human desiderata concentrates what we would fain procure from life's exorbitant bazaar. Here, some haggle over trinkets, others reach for the gaudy, some choose the instrumental, still others prefer the quotidian. Yet everyone is like an archer, taking aim at that which he feels is the bull's-eye. He may err as to what it is, or where it is, but not with respect to the verity of archery. And what is life's bull's-eye, at which we all aim?  I know someone who believes that pleasure is the only target to aim at. Another believes that he would be nearer the mark had he a little more money. A young archer adheres tenaciously to the conviction that computer games are not only the centre of the target, but of the very universe itself. I had even heard of a person whose angle of vision was resolutely confined to watching Sri Devi films! Now, not even the most statesmanlike compromise could subsume these under our shared, human goal.  

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But perhaps a statesman is not what we need at this stage of our inquiry. A philosopher would be closer to our mark! What substratum of endeavour does he descry beneath the weltering chaos of disappointed expectations, frustrated ambitions, misdirected affections, ruinous loves, insuperable vanity, pathetic ploddings, forlorn waitings, dejected wantings, neglected cravings? Beneath it all (with apologies to Larkin) desire for happiness runs.  

Nor can we claim to have chanced upon a discovery of Columbian novelty. The ancients held to this ancient truth. It is a truth more constant than the North Star, more dependable than the speed of light. Aristotle arrives at it by a process of elimination. Every pursuit, he begins, aims at an object other than itself. All but the miser would find in wealth a cul-de-sac for their desires; and even the niggard's esoteric ecstasy  is not altogether so perverse as to be wholly unintelligible to, say, a mother basking in the waxing manhood of her child. Every object, then, is an instrument seized to complete another object; happiness alone is desired for itself, never for something other than itself.  

In happiness we reach the ultima Thule of human endeavour. But wait! We hear dissenting voices. A chorus of protest tells us that happiness cannot be snatched out of thin air, that even the Ultimate must rest on material foundations. Certainly, we would say, the happiness-on-an-empty-stomach theory cannot pass muster; nor can the no-roof-over-the-head-happiness - hippy happiness - be sustained without a goodly supply of hasheesh. But the hippy makes a point by exaggerating it.  

Their forebears were the Cynics. (It is always a good strategy in philosophical debate to locate your champions in hoary antiquity. You are at least saved from the charge of newfangledness. And where the hippies have once been mentioned it is politic to choose a witness whose historic fossils nearly require carbon-dating.) The Cynics were the disciples of Diogenes - and we all know that the only thing that Alexander, the most powerful man in Europe, had to offer the mendicant in his bath-tub residence was the sunshine his ample figure was obstructing. Indeed, both guru and disciples earned their sobriquet from cynikos., Greek for dog-like. They were dog-like in their shamelessness, in their simplicity, in their insolence. They were, in short, the Hellenic hippies.  

Infants in their grown-up civilisations, they both insisted on puerile simplicity. "Issues from the hand of God, the simple soul," only to be sophisticated into worldliness. On my way to Mymensingh, Bangladesh by train, I once met a devout, young American. We struck up a conversation, and our subject was simplicity. Though no hippy, he asked, impressively, "When is enough, enough?"  

Now, Aristotle had queried thus, as well (I reintroduce my venerated witness of venerable age). Only, the Stagirite had brought a sharper scalpel to dissect the subject than the obtuse, peremptory conviction of my travelling companion - something which in his Americanism he would no doubt have called 'gut feeling'. Well, Aristotle (concurring with his mentor, Plato, for once, to verify or falsify the old saw about the agreement of great minds) anatomised the soul into a rational and an irrational half. We moderns would benefit from Aristotle's Anatomy as much as we do from Gray's - if not more.  

The irrational part is that which responds to the advertisement for Coca Cola: 'It's the real thing!' Now, we all know it's not the real thing, and yet an acquaintance of mine has spoilt a set of pearly teeth by imbibing 'the real thing'. Every visit to her dentist, no doubt, cost her the real thing - and caused him to exhibit his perfect set wider. Now, Aristotle would have scolded her thus: "My dear girl, I have nothing against you drinking the brown stuff, but do it in moderation. When is enough, enough?"   

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I employ Coca Cola as a symbol of modernity - the useless made indispensable. Where is the Samson who is proof against the Delilah of her neon, filigree, come-hither curves? Agoraphilia, of course, is as antique as agoraphobia. "So many things I can do without," Socrates used to claim at the emporia. "So many things you cannot do without!" exhorts with evangelic fury every advertisement today.  

Economists claim that our troubles begin at $10,000 per year. Even Aristotle's scalpel would have balked at such precision, but the fact is that that is when we start buying 'white goods'. It is the astrological number which multinationals hope the Chinese and Vietnamese peasant's income will reach to augment theirs to astronomical figures. The rational part of Chinese and Vietnamese society - the state - had hitherto contained needs within the pale of the sufficient, furnishing citizens with health, education and safety. But the paradox of civilisation begins where common sense and sanity end. Civilisation rests, not on contentment, but on 'getting and spending'. To envy the Jones's their new washing machine, and Jones Junior his straight As, betokens sensibility apparently far removed from the hyena circling around the lion's lunch. Should we marvel then at the Cynics and the hippies, the Rousseaus and the Gauguins, sensitive souls that pilgrimaged towards incorporeal spirit, but found the altar crowded with genuflections before idolatrous matter? "We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon."  

Consequently, we have to learn to be happy; which requires us to unlearn some lessons inculcated by our elders and teachers, no doubt with the best of intentions but the worst of consequences. For who would not want his children to be happy? Yet happiness, we have learnt, must always be postponed, in grotesque confusion with money that must be saved. The fridge we finally got last year; and tomorrow we'll have that TV set; next year, the iPOD; and - heaven of heavens! - a flat some day in which to put all this detritus of the years. Yet behind the painted veil of life lie 'Hope and Fear - twin destinies, who ever weave/ The shadows the world calls substance....' We sacrifice, first, the lining of our stomachs to worry; next we dedicate an artery; we pay homage to tomorrow by raising our blood pressure. We have no time for solace, no time for Horace.                                                            

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Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English and economics. He was born and lives in Dhaka, "ŽBangladesh. He has contributed to AXIS OF LOGIC, ENTER TEXT, POSTCOLONIAL "ŽTEXT, LEFT CURVE, MOBIUS, ERBACCE, THE JOURNAL, and other publications. "ŽHe is also a (more...)

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