Joy or Happiness

June 22, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

“Man wishes to be happy, and only wishes to be happy, and cannot wish not to be so.” - Blaise Pascal

Listening to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony recently got me thinking about the difference between joy and happiness. Why does Beethoven end the 9th with an “Ode to Joy?” Why not “Ode to Happiness?” So many authors have discussed the importance of the idea of happiness, but not necessarily joy. Assuming that Pascal (and many others) are correct in stating that happiness is man’s ultimate desire, it would be important to better understand the term. Mortimer Adler writes (in the Syntopicon): “Discussion begins rather than ends with the fact that happiness is what all men desire. Once they have asserted that fact, once they have made happiness the most fundamental of all ethical terms, writers like Aristotle or Locke, Aquinas or J.S. Mill, cannot escape the question whether all who seek happiness look for it or find it in the same things.”

The fact that happiness is difficult to define may also explain why joy is also difficult to define. For Beethoven’s piece, is the final joy only attained in the presence of God? Is joy a goal that must be reached in brotherhood, but not alone? Is it fleeting? The rising and falling movement of the music renders emotion, which for me, clearly expresses joy. I wonder, however, do all people react similarly? And, if I misinterpret the music’s emotion, does it make a difference?

I think of joy as a form of extreme bliss, though I am not sure if this is accurate or precise. Merriam-Webster lists joy as “a state of happiness or felicity,” but that does little to help me differentiate between happiness and joy. The same dictionary lists happiness as “a state of well-being and contentment.” Both definitions invoke the idea of a state of being, suggesting impermanence. Happiness includes the idea of contentment, though, which implies a level of permanence. Also, happiness is listed as one of the great ideas in the Syntopicon, while joy is not. In fact, the idea of happiness as a great idea is discussed in terms of permanence or a great achievement, rather than a momentary pleasure. And of course, the authors of the Declaration of Independence named the “pursuit of happiness” as an inalienable human right. From these usages, we can begin to craft an idea of happiness.

Classical philosophers are split between defining happiness as a temporal good or one that can only be attained in the afterlife. There seems to be agreement on the idea that happiness implies a state of contentment, but beyond that, the basis for happiness ranges from physical health to wealth to wisdom and to a virtuous life. Many of the things that they propose to measure happiness can only be measured at the end of life, which makes me wonder if temporary moments of happiness are incorrectly termed? Perhaps these shorter moments interspersed throughout life sometimes fall under the category of joy, but not quite happiness. Socrates develops an idea of happiness by explaining to Glaucon (in The Republic) that justice is “concerned not with the outward man, but the inward.” He moves then to state that happiness is a natural form inside every human. This essence cannot be separate from us, though it can be mistaken or missed altogether. Others, such as Kant, Milton, and Aquinas, explain that only imperfect happiness exists on earth, and perfect happiness will be attained in the afterlife. Regardless of philosopher, however, they agree on the value of the contemplation of happiness.

In writing the final movement of the 9th Symphony, Beethoven altered a poem by Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller titled “An die Freude.” According to the Cambridge Dictionary, freude can mean “joy, pleasure, delight, gladness or rejoicing,” but does not mention happiness directly. Instead, the German term expresses an ecstasy not present in Merriam-Webster’s English definition of joy (a state of happiness or felicity). I also like the way that “freudenvollere” (which means “more joyful”) compounds “joy” with the idea of being filled. In Beethoven’s piece, the music literally fills all space (ear, body, etc) with joy. It is a physical movement, which for me, is a most appropriate translation of “An die Freude.” Also important is the fact that Beethoven was near the end of his career when he wrote the piece. Nearly deaf at this time, I believe that a lifetime of experience developed the emotion of that piece.

I wonder if there is a difference in the entire conception between the two terms. Is joy meant to be transitory, ecstatic, fleeting and impossible to chase, whereas happiness is meant to attain a steady sense of fullness, as in a life well-lived? While I am sure we would all like to have some joy, typically we discuss happiness as an end in itself. Why? Possibly because of joy’s transitory nature. Possibly because joy, or an overfilling, seems too much to ask, whereas happiness appears attainable.

Regardless of the intent behind the 9th Symphony "Ode to Joy", I think Beethoven (and Schiller) nailed it. Music expresses emotion in a way that language alone cannot. To better understand what I mean here, listen to the wide variety of musical interpretations in German, English and Spanish (I offer a small sample below, but there are endless versions online). A comparison may highlight some key features of joy.

Ode to Joy Flash mob, Barcelona:

Miguel Rios sings Himno de la alegria:

Ritchie Blackmore, rock ‘n roll:

Flash mob, Nürnberg:

Baroque Symphony:

For more on happiness, consider joining our upcoming Quarterly Discussion on Augustine. Contact with questions or to register.

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Spring Cleaning

April 21, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

“The french fry did not become America's most popular vegetable until industry took over the jobs of of washing, peeling, cutting, and frying the potatoes – and cleaning up the mess.” - Michael Pollan

I don't think that T.S. Eliot was referring to cleaning when he claimed that April is the cruellest month. However, April is often the culturally accepted time to clean out the old. The origin of spring cleaning is unknown, though Google will tell you that spring-cleaning means “a thorough cleaning of the house or room, especially undertaken in spring.” I guess that I assumed that since spring was in the phrase itself, one would expect the action to fall in springtime. So, this definition seems unhelpful. Wikipedia, then, lists a number of different possibilities. A few of these claim that the foundational practice of spring cleaning stems from Jewish or Persian traditions. The article is sketchy at best.

There are a couple of possibilities that deserve to be explored, however. First, spring cleaning may, in fact, relate to a religious expectation or practice. For example, the Jewish tradition celebrates Passover in April. Among some of the Passover guidelines, families are asked to remove leavened bread from their diets. Therefore, they may spend extra time removing unclean items from their homes in general. In this way, spring cleaning might link moral, ethical and religious law to everyday experience. Even more interesting, then, would be to wonder why spring cleaning gained popularity outside of the Jewish tradition. Clearly, the practice filled a general practical need, regardless of religion.

Another possible explanation of spring cleaning can be found in the Catholic religion. Lent is observed during the weeks leading up to Easter, during which, it is common to fast or abstain from an extravagance. Similar to the Jewish tradition, followers are asked to purge something in honor of the struggles of their ancestors. I find it interesting, then, that a specifically religious practice would transfer to another religious group and then become somewhat mainstream. In other words, it seems likely that the idea behind spring cleaning is based upon some sort of practical experience. If this is true, then there is a commonality between large groups of people, independent of culture and/or religion. In the essay on Custom and Convention in the Syntopicon, Mortimer Adler writes, “Opinion normally suggests relativity to the individual, custom or convention relativity to the social group. Either may be involved in the origin of the other. The individual may form his opinions under the pressure of prevailing customs of thought or action; the customary beliefs or practices of a society or culture may, and usually do, result from opinions which have come to prevail.” Whatever makes those ideas prevail is difficult to trace.

There is no denying, however, that spring cleaning is linked to the season. Many people view spring as a time of opening, a refreshing practice after the cold months of winter. There is warmth to invite the open doors, sunshine to shake out rugs, hang laundry or simply invite fresh air into the home. Therefore, spring cleaning is an example of a human custom that combines both nature and social organization.

Even more fascinating than the idea that spring cleaning can transcend the boundaries of specific religions, is the way in which it has fallen out of practice. The phrase is still understood, and yet, if there is a spring cleaning, it is far less of a process than it used to be. This is partly due to technological advances. However, it is also due to changes in lifestyle and perhaps religious backing. Humans do not feel bound by this “law” with the same seriousness and severity as before. The idea of being “unclean” still carries very negative connotations, which indicates society still struggles with this particular taboo (but perhaps our definition of unclean has changed?). Morality is still partially bound up in the idea of clean, which brings us back to the idea of a religious foundation for spring cleaning. Adler writes, “Aquinas conceives positive rules as 'determinations' of, rather than 'deductions' from, natural law.” If this is true in the case of spring cleaning, then it becomes doubly tricky to counteract the custom. First of all, it has been tied to a religious belief, and therefore given a stigma or taboo. Secondly, it participates with a natural human experience, which is undeniably difficult to argue.

However, if we no longer take spring cleaning seriously, why do we continue to refer to it or utilize the phrase? As long as the phrase continues to be understood, then isn't some portion of the custom still in practice? Adler writes, “Custom is both a cause and an effect of habit. The habits of the individual certainly reflect the customs of the community in which he lives; and in turn, the living customs of any social group get their vitality from the habits of its members. A custom which does not command general compliance is as dead as a language no longer spoken or a law no longer observed.” Clearly, Adler understands custom to be a practice, and not a rhetorical concept. I wonder, however, if we could challenge this based off of the example of spring cleaning. Is it possible that “spring cleaning” is now understood in only a rhetorical sense? Or, perhaps this is simply a phase involved in losing the custom altogether.

Most interesting, however, is the idea that custom is both a freedom, but also a restriction. Customs are often the most conservative factor in societies. It is precisely these foundational principles that become so difficult to sway or change, more difficult even than actual law! Adler states, “Without that support it may be a law on the books but not in practice, for the authority of a law cannot long prevail against a contrary custom, except through a degree of coercion so oppressive as to produce rebellion.” While I doubt that anyone will take such an extreme stance with spring cleaning, it is interesting to see what levels of usage and adherence still exist. Either way, now is the time to wash the windows – or so they say.

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January 15, 2016


“The days of peace and slumberous calm are fled;/ Those days, all innocent of scathing war,/ When all the fair Existences of heaven/ Came open-eyed to guess what we would speak: - / That was before our brows were taught to frown,/ Before our lips knew else but solemn sounds;/ That was before we knew the winged thing,/ Victory, might not be lost, or might be won.”
- John Keats, “Hyperion: A Fragment”


Why isn't Peace in the Syntopicon? For those of you who know the Syntopicon, you will say that it is in the Syntopicon, under the heading of War and Peace. True, but that is not the same thing as Peace. Before reading the entry, peace is already framed as if it can only exist in opposition to war. As humans, we often use opposites to begin a discussion, a way of understanding giant abstract terms. This provides a point from which to argue, define or extend discussion. Before the first war, there was only peace – and therefore peace was an unnecessary, and very likely, nonexistent term. Before the reality of war, peace lacked definition. This makes sense, of course. However, it is also possible that this old juxtaposition can grow stale or outdated. Is there a way to look at the great idea of Peace through new eyes?

Each war continues to define and change, augment and color our understanding and hope for peace. With each generation, war grows in numbers, tactics, techniques and weapons. Instead of periods of peace, we experience breath between periods of strife. If you could dream it or imagine it, what would everlasting or eternal peace look like?

Immanuel Kant states, “The morally practical reason utters within us its irrevocable Veto: 'There shall be no War'... Hence the question no longer is as to whether Perpetual Peace is a real thing or not a real thing, or as to whether we may not be deceiving ourselves when we adopt the former alternative, but we must act on the supposition of its being real. We must work for what may perhaps not be realized...” If everlasting peace is to be realized, it will come, perhaps as something near what Martin Luther King, Jr. speaks of: educated minds learning to live together through forgiveness and compassion.

Perhaps, as wars have evolved from tribal to civil to global, our understanding of peace has also evolved. Has it distanced itself from the frame of War and Peace? What would result from a minor edit to the Syntopicon, replacing two opposites, for example, with two similarities? What if instead of War and Peace, it read Peace and Forgiveness or simply Peace? How would our dialogue, our arguments or our viewpoints change?

Martin Luther King, Jr. thought deeply about peace and he cared deeply for the future of humanity. His words remind us of hope, ideals and peace. His words belong to the future of our discussion, whatever it may be.


“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.”


“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”


“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”


“We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”


“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality... I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”


“We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”


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