The New York Times
Happiness: A Historyby Darrin M. McMahon
Today, human beings tend to think of happiness as a natural right. But they haven’t always felt this way. For the ancient Greeks, happiness meant virtue. For the Romans, it implied prosperity and divine favor. For Christians, happiness was synonymous with God. Throughout history, happiness has been equated regularly with the highest human calling, the most
Today, human beings tend to think of happiness as a natural right. But they haven’t always felt this way. For the ancient Greeks, happiness meant virtue. For the Romans, it implied prosperity and divine favor. For Christians, happiness was synonymous with God. Throughout history, happiness has been equated regularly with the highest human calling, the most perfect human state. Yet it’s only within the past two hundred years that human beings have begun to think of happiness as not just an earthly possibility but also as an earthly entitlement, even an obligation. In this sweeping new book, historian Darrin M. McMahon argues that our modern belief in happiness is the product of a dramatic revolution in human expectations carried out since the eighteenth century.
In the tradition of works by Peter Gay and Simon Schama, Happiness draws on a multitude of sources, including art and architecture, poetry and scripture, music and theology, and literature and myth, to offer a sweeping intellectual history of man’s most elusive yet coveted goal.
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Read an Excerpt
By Darrin M. McMahon
Grove Atlantic, Inc.
Copyright © 2005
Marrin M. McMahon
All right reserved.
As places where fun could be had, the pleasure gardens were forbearers of our modern
amusement parks, offering games and recreation, spectacles and refreshments, music and
sanctuaries, in which lovers could stroll. They put flesh on the new endorsement of
pleasure expressed in theory by the likes of Locke, symbolizing perfectly a wider
eighteenth-century aspiration to create space for happiness on earth. To dance, to sing, to
enjoy our food, to revel in our bodies and the company of others-in short, to delight in a
world of our own making-was not to defy God's will but to live as nature had intended.
This was our earthly purpose. As the poet Alexander Pope declared in his celebrated
Oh, happiness, our being's end and aim!
Good, pleasure, ease, content! Whate'er thy name:
That something still which prompts the eternal sigh,
For which we bear to live, or dare to die ...
"Does not everyone have a right to happiness?" asked the abbé Pestré, the author of the
entry on that subject in the French encyclopedia edited by Denis Diderot. Judged by the
standards of the preceding millennium and a half, the question was extraordinary: a right
to happiness? And yet it was posed rhetorically, in full confidence of the noddingassent
of enlightened minds.
Excerpted from Happiness
by Darrin M. McMahon
Copyright © 2005 by Marrin M. McMahon.
Excerpted by permission.
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