Lesson 6


Papa, you can choose to laugh!

Happiness is the goal of human existence. As shown by Aristotle, the ancient philosopher, there are two types of goals that human beings pursue. Some goals are fundamental and intrinsic since they are good in themselves, while others are extrinsic and derivative since they are only pursued as a means to an end. In this context, things like the desire for wealth, power and fame are extrinsic values, whereas happiness holds an intrinsic value since it is often regarded as the goal of human existence.

Understanding this, the question that must be asked is, what is the way to attain happiness and what is the role of our attitude and outlook towards the outside world in determining the nature of happiness? Since ancient times, philosophers have debated the question of whether happiness is internal, or it is external and related to the outside world. Those who claimed that it has an internal nature argued that human beings do not need to have material goods to discover the meaning of human existence. Those who claimed that it is external in nature argued that it is material possessions and belongings that lead to the fulfillment of human existence. Going past this debate on the issue of happiness, there are those like the Stoics that maintain that we should know what we have control over and the kind of changes that we are able to make in the world.

The debate on the nature of happiness also concerns itself with the role played by human emotions in fulfilling the desire to live a happy life. Most rationalist philosophers like Plato, Descartes and Kant assumed that the essence of happiness should not be determined in reference to emotions that are constantly changing and a source of deception. Instead, as the ancient wisdom from the schools of thought of Stoicism and Epicureanism shows, human beings need to understand what they have control over in the outside world and that they should avoid unnecessary fear, if they want to live a life of happiness.

The question of happiness also has a direct relationship to the issue of moral choice and autonomy. The whole enterprise of morality is grounded on the assumption that human beings have the capacity to choose. It is predicated on the idea that there is a human "will" that is the foundation of the principle of subjectivity. It is the existence of freedom of the will which guarantees moral responsibility and accountability. Is it really the case that human beings can freely choose to understand the outside world in the manner they want to? Or, on the contrary, are there certain things they have no control over whatsoever?

An event that happened as I was talking with my daughter showed the role of choice in shaping the life of the individual. It showed me that human beings are so caught up with their day-to-day routines that they forget they can choose to view the world in a particular manner. Approached in this way, happiness is something that we can choose to cultivate, rather than something that is grounded on the outside world. So, what was it that Amara raised during our conversation and how can it be used to challenge conventional concepts of truth and moral autonomy? One evening I was very tired after work. We were in her room and she was sitting on the floor watching Pink Panther. I was stretched out beside her with my back on the lower part of the sofa, working on my laptop on an "important" email to a colleague from the office. At this moment, Amara started to tickle my foot. I said to her, 'stop it', with quite an angry voice. After this, Amara just said to me with the friendliest face in the world, "Papa, you can choose to laugh!"

Such a powerful statement makes us think about the role of the human attitude in fulfilling the goals of life that were given in the teaching of Epictetus. Upon hearing Amara's response, I almost felt like a pupil being instructed by a master in the art of living. When I told Amara to stop what she was doing with an angry voice, I was acting as the voice of reason against the deceptive power of the senses. I was a person whose sense of order and tranquility was undermined by unexpected circumstances and emotions, which had brought chaos into the realm of societal life. Soon, I realized that human beings live their lives under the illusion that they have control over every aspect of reality.

In telling me that I can choose to be happy, Amara is showing me that happiness is not something that can come from the outside world. Two interrelated ideas are expressed in her position. The first one is that human beings can make choices and that this is what makes them distinctively human. Where other animals are simply ruled by their passions and emotions, human beings have the capacity to choose. This is because they actively construct meaning and develop different ideas in their day-to-day encounters with the world. The second one is that human beings need to realize that the idea of having control over every event that unfolds in the world is an illusion that cannot be practically realized.

What does having to decide to laugh and to feel good mean to our understanding of happiness? Human beings live their lives in fear of the unknown and therefore they reserve a great place for nature and forces that are larger than life. This is also what animated the belief in God and a transcendent being. In this context, Amara is showing us that we must only concentrate on those things that we have control over. The idea of putting everything that we come across in the outside world under control cannot be fulfilled, as the nature of values resides in the way we structure our perception of the world, rather than circumstances that happen in the world. Amara's argument in favor of the autonomy of human will and choice finds expression in the philosophy of Stoicism.

Stoicism tells us that most of the time human beings are obsessed with things they have no control over. The thing that human beings do have control over is their ability to preside over their passions and emotions. This lends credibility to the argument that, whenever it is considered in separation from the attitude of human beings, the outside world is neither good nor bad in nature. As such, happiness is not something that we discover in the outside world. My anger over Amara's actions emanated from my failure to grasp what Epictetus describes as the things that human beings have control over. Human beings enter a state of despair and agony because they are driven by a will that tries to extend its grip and control over everything that it experiences in the world. In reality, the capacity for choice in human beings is mainly manifested in our attitude. Things can indeed change rapidly in the world. Still, those that are wise will adjust their actions according to their capability to preside over their emotions.

Epictetus tells us that things do not occupy a random place in our universe. He also does not characterize our world as a chaotic reality where things are out of order. On the contrary, by relying on the power of divinity and transcendence, he suggests that human beings live in a world of perfect natural order. Such a world is not a design of finite human beings, but a practical manifestation of the will of God. Such an idea easily resonates with Amara's argument that I can laugh, since she is telling me that my actions should go in harmony with the order in the world. Trying to rigidly control everything else harms the balance in the world.

Amara's argument is developed by the state of grief that I began to experience because my world was being disturbed. In my world view, there are hierarchies of tasks and duties that individuals need to fulfill. What such an urge to control and impose meaning on the chaos in the world fails to capture is the unpredictability of nature and the unpredictability of circumstances that arise. If there are such significant changes, then the goal of human life is not to exercise instrumental control. It is to gain the knowledge of exactly what is found in our rational faculties that constitutes the path to happiness.

Amara's concept of order in the world she is living in shows that human frustration arises whenever we lose our access to the creative dynamism found in reality. Amara is not depicting a single path to the life of happiness. She is telling us that in a world where every individual is obsessed with fulfilling certain duties, human beings fail to realize the basic lesson that they need to adapt themselves to the harmony in the world. But how can we discover the underlying order and harmony in the first place?

As Nietzsche has shown, ancient societies were able to find a place for themselves in the changing nature of reality because they managed to introduce a world view that gave sufficient attention to both rationality and chaos. Nietzsche uses the god Apollo to represent order at the level of the individual and the community. In contrast, Dionysus is used to represent a fragmented reality in which chaos prevails. In such a context the ancient Greeks managed to mediate these two conflicting forces to lay the foundations for the good life. Correspondingly, as Amara shows us, it is true that, compared to other living things, human beings have certain duties to fulfill. However, this should not cloud us from seeing that we have the ability to experience happiness and enjoyment even in difficult circumstances, if we align our actions to the harmony in the world.

Amara's assertion that a person could choose to laugh also finds vivid expression in the philosophy of Epicurus. According to him, human beings can find happiness by leading a simple life. He defined happiness as a healthy state of mind, and freedom from pain. Besides this, he also proceeded to identify three types of basic human needs. The first of these are natural and necessary desires, like the desire for food. The second one is natural and unnecessary desires, like the desire for sex. The third ones are unnatural desires and include the endless desire for power and honor.

From this we can see that Amara conceives happiness as the goal of human existence that can be guaranteed through our day-to-day interactions. The kind of happiness that she describes is not a mere obsession with material goods. Choosing to laugh demonstrates that it is always within the capacity of human beings to decide how they are going to address the problems they encounter in the world they are living in. Amara, in the process of laughing, is showing us the limitations of modern concepts of rationality, and deontological and consequentialist concepts of ethics.

Deontology is an ethical theory often associated with Immanuel Kant. It places special emphasis on the relationship between duty and the morality of human actions. These duty-based ethics are concerned with what people do and not with the consequences of their actions, whereas consequentialism is a theory that suggests an action is good or bad depending on its outcome. Looking at Amara's ideas, one can observe that she does not see happiness as something that is received from the outside. She also does not proclaim that the goal of human action is to act either in line with the consequences of a given action or whether we are obliged to perform certain actions. Her ideas also have an implication for our understanding of free will and determinism. Determinism is a theory which states that all events, including moral choices, are completely dictated by previously existing causes. In telling me that I can choose to laugh, Amara is expressing the truth that human beings are not chained to the natural world in a cause and effect like manner, and that they can respond to events in a manner that affirms their internal significance.

What separates human beings from other animals is that we are not slaves to our emotions. Our actions emanate from self-governed principles and the autonomy of the will. Our lives cannot be explained by the laws of cause and effect. The role of human attitudes in developing a particular response to the outside world, as Epictetus says, shows that the natural world is neither good nor bad in nature. The capacity to decide what is right and wrong and to take responsibility for one's actions is only found in human beings. Emotions and sensations are found in human beings and, also, in other living things. However, human beings are unique creatures because nothing is either good or bad to them when it is considered in separation from their capacity to view the nature of events in a specific manner. This is done by being grounded in our attitudes. If the natural world is not the most important factor in the good life and human beings can choose to develop a particular response, then this shows that it is human beings that prescribe certain values to the nature of things. This is shown by the ideas of Nietzsche, who understood human beings as beings that have the ability to decide what is good and what is bad in the moral vacuum that exists in the world. If it is us who can choose to be happy, then the meaning of life is not determined by a divine force which is beyond time and space.

Amara shows us important moral lessons that help us revisit the relationship between the moral subjects of the world and physical things that make up their outside world. First, she shows us that human beings need to know what is important and that they should develop the attitudes that lead to a life of happiness. Secondly, she shows us that trying to have total control over the physical world is a futile undertaking. Thirdly, she shows that happiness is a result of choice, rather than a consequence of material goods that we possess. Finally, she shows that our understanding of the world should not be based on the outside world, as it is our attitudes and internal response that determine the nature of the ethical life that we are going to lead. 

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© Marcel Emmenegger, CH-9100 Herisau
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