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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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kbJcQYVtZMo

Miguel Rios sings Himno de la alegria: https://www.musica.com/video.asp?video=5285

Ritchie Blackmore, rock ‘n roll: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CrniC87g6X0

Flash mob, Nürnberg: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a23945btJYw

Baroque Symphony: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ljGMhDSSGFU

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

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Comedians in Cars

August 11, 2017

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

Before we even begin, I feel that I have to apologize...today's post takes the fun out of humor. In analyzing what makes a joke funny, we are pretty much surgically separating humor from the joke. So, having said that, let's dive in.... To better understand today's conversation, you might take a peek at the following video of Jerry Seinfeld talking with Alec Baldwin in Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (about 11 minutes).

Jerry Seinfeld started Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee after a successful career as a stand-up comedian and television star. Each episode highlights a car which he uses to pick up another comedian. The show documents them discussing what makes a good joke. Sometimes, however, humor is best left to demonstration, as in the episode with Alec Baldwin. Instead of defining what makes a joke funny, they demonstrate how to tell a humorous story. The viewer is along for the ride, and hopefully, attentive to the demonstration. It's the old adage of show, don't tell. Of course, it helps that Baldwin also does impersonations. The ability to reenact a story is one aspect that enhances the stand-up routine. In other words, reading the story off of a page would probably be funny. But seeing the story, and hearing a variety of accents from a single actor, transcends funny. Baldwin makes the humor come alive.

The episode with Alec Baldwin begins with an inside joke. Since Seinfeld and Baldwin grew up in the same neighborhood, they share a personal history that the viewer does not. In this case, we laugh along with a discussion of their shared hometown. As they recreate a physical setting based upon their shared reality, the viewer constructs something similar. Though they are not identical settings, the jokes work because of a shared narrative. We each know a little bit about the dividing line between poverty and wealth. We envision the poor kid spying on the rich kid (who is, by the way, squandering his wealth and toys by singing into a fake microphone). This type of joke may require less foregrounding between the two speakers because of a shared history. In other words, the joke works on a meta-level that includes everyone, but is perhaps more powerful to those within the circle. So, while Baldwin and Seinfeld grew up with different circumstances, they have a literal terrain in common. Yet, the story works for us too because: a] we are included in the dialogue and b] most of us share some basic communal terrain and c] the delivery is well-crafted. This last part is, without a doubt, an art form. Knowing how to deliver, how to read, how to create a persona that gets a laugh and underscore it with some harsh truth, is, as Seinfeld indicates, probably unteachable.

Seineld notes his friend's story-telling talent when Baldwin retells a story of Rip Torn's bar fight. As Baldwin knows exactly what details to add (or more likely, what details to remove) in order to create a suspenseful and hilarious story. He re-enacts the bar fight, imitating Torn's voice and expressions. Narrative alone cannot create humor. Rather, a joke is shared. If something gets a laugh, then two people have held a single truth, at least momentarily.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines humor as something “absurdly incongruous” or “ludicrous”. Much like Rip Torn, a man in his 70s cracking jaws in a bar fight. Though the two actors know Torn better than the viewer, we definitely share in the joke. It seems very important to highlight the places where humanity connects like this. These absurdities enlighten our view of the world while also removing elements of fear. One can, of course, describe a bar fight in any number of ways. This version certainly aims to draw out the humor of the situation. But to what end? What is the point of creating a shared space, especially one that is funny?

In response to his reenactment and imitation of Torn, Seinfeld comments: “This, by the way, is your curse... you're a gifted, gifted actor who is cursed with the mind of a writer.” I have been puzzling over the idea that Baldwin is, in some way, cursed. I can see how it would be difficult to act if one disagrees with the vision of the director. I can also see how the character that one envisions no longer fits into the play with other dramatic interpretations. But I am not exactly sure how Seinfeld intends to separate actor and writer. Obviously they are different, but in what ways? People publish and read novels at rapid pace. Likewise, we consume television and movies at fast speeds. So, what exactly is the difference, and how does it affect our interpretation?

There are many types of humor. Slapstick can be overplayed successfully, whereas other jokes require subtlety and finesse. In most episodes of Seinfeld's show Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee he asks for more than a chat. Seinfeld is trying to understand how humor works, and it is worth our attention, because humor may very well be an essential form of human connection.

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Ovation

March 10, 2017

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

Plutarch's Parallel Lives gives the reader a great amount of information about language. It is an invaluable resource when looking at language changes over a period of time. More importantly, Plutarch explains that language is affected both by cultural change, but also demonstrates how language change is based upon proximity to other cultures. I have mentioned in past blog posts how place names depend upon the current cultural story of a place. These names often overwrite previous stories of battle, heroism or tragedy. In this same vein, language itself, arrives already defined, but ever-changing. In thinking that language is static, we fall into a classic human error, until we realize that nothing is static, not even the dictionary.

Throughout Parallel Lives, Plutarch gives language depth and understanding. He offers histories of battles and tragedies that bring the words to life. I often wonder if these stories of our everyday words would have been preserved otherwise. Either way, it seems that we owe a debt to Plutarch for enriching our understanding both of the words themselves, and also the process behind language.

As one example, I wanted to place the entirety of Plutarch's description of the term “ovation”. He situates the origin of this term between Latin and Greek, but also defines the term as different from triumph. His elaboration of the difference between triumph (as after a great battle) versus ovation (as after an elocutionary win, or one without force and battle) still remains true today. We retain remnants of these ancient practices, though without ritual sacrifices. For example, standing ovations occur in present-day politics, concerts or speeches. We even use the term 'triumph' often, but rarely grant it an understanding in relation to ancient Roman and Greek history. Therefore, Plutarch's passage instructs both the term and the historical and cultural practices surrounding them.

In “Marcellus”, Plutarch writes:

“Whence Marcellus was more popular with the people in general, because he had adorned the city with beautiful objects that had all the charms of Grecian grace and symmetry; but Fabius Maximus, who neither touched nor brought away anything of this kind from Tarentum, when he had taken it, was more approved of by the elder men. He carried off the money and valuables, but forbade the statues to be moved, adding, as it is commonly related, 'Let us leave to the Tarentines these offended gods.'

They blamed Marcellus, first for placing the city in an invidious position, as it seemed now to celebrate victories and lead processions of triumph, not only over men, but also over the gods as captives; then, that he had diverted to idleness, and vain talk about curious arts and artificers, the common people, which, bred up in wars and agriculture, had never tasted of luxury and sloth, and, as Euripides said of Hercules, had been -

Rude, unrefined, only for great things good, so that now they misspent much of their time in examining and criticising trifles. And yet, notwithstanding this reprimand, Marcellus made it his glory to the Greeks themselves that he had taught his ignorant countrymen to esteem and admire the elegant and wonderful productions of Greece.

But when the envious opposed his being brought triumphant into the city, because there were some relics of the war in Sicily, and a third triumph would be looked upon with jealousy, he gave way. He triumphed upon the Alban mount, and thence entered the city in ovation, as it is called in Latin, in Greek eua; but in this ovation he was neither carried in a chariot, nor crowned with laurel, nor ushered by trumpets sounding; but went afoot with shoes on, many flutes or pipes sounding in concert, while he passed along wearing a garland of myrtle, in a peaceable aspect, exciting rather love and respect than fear.

Whence I am, by conjecture, led to think that, originally, the difference observed betwixt ovation and triumph did not depend upon the greatness of the achievements, but the manner of performing them. For they who, having fought a set battle, and slain the enemy, returned victors, led that martial, terrible triumph, and, as the ordinary custom then was in lustrating the army, adorned the arms and the soldiers with a great deal of laurel. But they who without force, by colloquy, persuasion, and reasoning, had done the business, - to these captains custom gave the honour of the unmilitiary and festive ovation. For the pipe is the badge of peace, and myrtle the plant of Venus, who more than the rest of the gods and goddesses abhors force and war.

It is called ovation, not as most think, from the Greek euasmus, because they act it with shouting and cries of eua; for so do they also have the proper triumphs. The Greeks have wrested the word to their own language, thinking that this honour, also, must have some connection with Bacchus, who in Greek has the titles of Euius and Thriambus. But the thing is otherwise. For it was the custom for commanders, in their triumph, to immolate and ox, but in their ovation, a sheep: hence they named it ovation, from the Latin ovis.”

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Face Plus Book

July 8, 2016

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

Facebook began as “The Facebook”. At that time, it was a borrowed phrase from the papers given to Harvard freshmen which profiled other students and staff. A book of faces that one is likely to meet, or may need to know. These sheets of paper were likely useful in preparation for careers. And from there, the developers grew the idea into an online portal which could function in the same way. When one registers on Facebook, they are still required to give an actual headshot. Antiquated as it may seem, it is one very small way to ensure that the user is actually who they say they are. A photo can certainly render a representation, but it all depends upon what the user wants to share. In real time, a face is infinitely descriptive, constantly changing and filled with muscles dedicated to expressing emotions, few of which can be caught in a single image.

Image ID: 272833877. Copyright: Rawpixel.com. Shutterstock.com

Image ID: 272833877. Copyright: Rawpixel.com. Shutterstock.com

From the Latin, facia, “face” is a fantastic word to trace etymologically. It has spun into a million different uses, due to its constant, physical reference. Face can be combined into literally any phrase that fits a specific connotation or conversation and still be understood universally. In other words, face carries deep, often hidden, cultural references. It has the power to act in any number of metaphors. For example, the Webster's Unabridged Dictionary lists more than 50 uses for face. Common phrases include (but are not limited to): face to face; make a face; face the music; put on a bold face; lose face; and save face, just to name a few.

Facebook is not yet in the Webster's or Merriam-Webster, but it may one day appear there. In the meantime, it is really interesting to develop an understanding of what the name implies and how it changes (if it does) the cultural understanding of “face” itself. “Face” can mean the physical front of the head. It can also refer to the features as representative of an emotion or expression. Being face to face can be interpreted as both aggressive or intimate. Thinking of one's face most assuredly places an image in front of you. It asks you to think of, or look directly at, a very physical, real being.

The term “book”, likewise, conjures up a very physical and clear object. Yet it also has over 50 definitions in Webster's Unabridged Dictionary. Phrases that include book are such as: cook the books; throw the book at; one for the books; and book value, just to name a few. Classically, “book” has been understood to be a “set of written, printed, illustrated, or blank sheets of paper” (wikipedia.org). Not so in the case of Facebook. It is neither paginated (though it has pages for each friend), nor is it authored. Facebook's binding is the single solitary being – you – who creates links to many other chains. It is neither literary nor artistic. Often pedantic and full of anecdotes, marketing and family updates, facebook is the rare combination of something that is completely other than what it purports to be. It is an electronic representation of a face (a being) in textual form (and not necessarily contextual form).

The interesting development of an idea like facebook is that as we consume the product, use the word and support the interface, we continue to construct and change the terms face and book. How are they affected? How is language affected? How is custom affected? As always, technology pushes us to view ourselves from afar and understand how we have constructed our world.

If you are on facebook, check out our page and tell us what you think of the etymology of facebook.

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