Tuesday 11 February 2014

What is the significance of unreasonable happiness?


Although a somewhat Eeyore-like and gloomy individual in many ways; I (thank Heavens) have been prone to outbreaks of unreasonable happiness through my life - those times various called, Peak Experiences (Maslow), Epiphanies (James Joyce), Joy or Sehnsucht (CS Lewis) and many other things - those feelings much loved by the Romantics such as Wordsworth and the New England Transcendentalists such as Emerson and Thoreau.


The mainstream secular modern view is that such moments have no deep significance - being caused by physiological change, or drugs, or a brainstorm... or something like that. The attitude is to enjoy them while they last, and then forget about them - because there is no special significance, nothing to be learned from them.

Ralph Waldo Emerson regarded these moments as significant - but cautioned against regarding them as evidence for optimism about future life. For Emerson they were not harbingers of anything, but to be valued in and of themselves - they were on the one hand the most important things in life, on the other hand utterly self-sufficient and free of general implications.

In practice, however, this remained little more than a bare literary assertion: meanwhile such moments came and went, the complications of life continued and then ended. Was Mankind any further forward after Emerson's explanations and Thoreau's experiments - were Emerson and Thoreau themselves any further forward? Seemingly not.  


Yet, as the secular, this-worldly, spirituality which Emerson pioneered began to gather strength, there emerged a view that such moments of unreasonable happiness were harbingers - of a possible 'evolutionary' future for Man: a future of Men developing a higher and much happier consciousness. Such was the theme of Colin Wilson, and his books from The Outsider onwards collected and analyzed many examples of this.

Indeed, some kind of fundamental change to the human mind, society, or some combination of the two (whether or not this change was called evolution) was necessary if unreasonable happiness was to be anything more than a glorious interlude.


Yet, even this has been subverted by Transhumanism - which purports to engineer and make permanent such moments in a scientific project dedicated to transforming human physiology using drugs, genetics and anything else necessary.

Even supposing this were possible; the implicit conviction is that unreasonable happiness is a delusional epiphenomenon - the hope is to make it a permanent delusion (and without the shadow of death to cloud perfect bliss, because death would be abolished too).

A project genetically and pharmacologically to engineer a state of permanent happy delusion in Mankind is itself perhaps the bleakest and most despairing philosophy of life which humans have yet devised.  


What of Christian views of such moments? There are many and diverse - from the pessimistic idea that moments of happiness are most likely to be demonic deceptions; to the optimistic and positive visionary theology of Thomas Traherne.

But my particular interest is the idea from CS Lewis, and less explicitly from Tolkien, that such moments of happiness are evidence for Christianity - the 'argument from desire'.

That such moments of happiness are actually a desire-for - and foretaste-of - something not-of-this-world (since nothing imaginable in this-world could be a fulfilment of this desire); and the fact that we have such other-worldly yearnings is evidence that that desired world is real (otherwise we would not have such feelings).

In a nutshell, we are unreasonably happy because of hope for Heaven - and that hope was implanted in us by God.


I personally find this a compelling argument (while being aware that others do not) - but as expressed in Lewis and Tolkien, it is somewhat incomplete. The reason it is incomplete is that this feeling is not only forward-looking and hopeful but (and Lewis says this very clearly) is also very powerfully nostalgic and backward-looking. Our state of unreasonable happiness is a yearning for what was, as well as what may-be.

Tolkien expresses this as a yearning for Eden - a real state of Paradise in which Man dwelt and from which he now is exiled. Tolkien seemingly regards this as a kind of inherited race-memory (indeed, the concept of hereditary memory is central for Tolkien's world view).


But I find the complete explanation for the unreasonable happiness of Joy, Sehnsucht, Peak Experiences in the doctrine of a pre-mortal spiritual and Heavenly existence.

This was also the implicit explanation of Wordsworth in his famous phrase: Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting: the soul that rises with us, our life's star, hath had elsewhere its setting, and cometh from afar: Not in entire forgetfulness, and not in utter nakedness, but trailing clouds of glory do we come from God, who is our home.


This I find to be a full and satisfying explanation for the phenomenology and function of these significant-seeming happy experiences: that the special quality of both backward nostalgic yearning and forward hopeful yearning, combine to locate my mortal life in-the-middle - between partial memories of a pre-mortal spirit-existence in Heaven before my birth and optimistic anticipations of a resurrected Heavenly life after my death.



Anonymous said...

"and without the shadow of death to cloud perfect bliss, because death would be abolished too"

Maybe, but I doubt we would even bother to abolish death. It's easier to stop worrying about death pharmaceutically than to fix it. Our aged relatives will be sent into a final soma-trance, and no one will think that there is any problem.


Plato based much of his philosophy on a pre-existence before life. Our level of perception of the divine is based on our spirit's relationship to it (over many cycles of incarnation).


Bookslinger said...

When did the concept of pre-mortal existence of souls go out fashion, or leave the public mind?

I'm in my 50's and can't remember a time when the pre-mortal existence of souls was a commonly held belief. Or is/was it something that just isn't discussed?

Life-after-death is a common belief, and can be commonly found in media and modern literature.

The only movie I can recall dealing with pre-mortal existence is "Blue Bird" starting Shirley Temple, which was released in 1940.

drizzz said...

By moments of unreasonable happiness are you referring to moments of ecstasy? James has a lot of examples in his "Varieties" I experienced it once like a bolt out of the blue and it proved to have a prophetic basis, so the meaning , at least to me, was quite concrete.

drizzz said...

Regarding pre-existence, I ran into this the other day: http://www.psmag.com/kickers/findings-kickers/intuitions-immortality-conception-life-birth-73776/

Bruce Charlton said...

@drizzz - No it's not the same as ecstasy - it is ecstatic, but there are many other kinds of ecstasy than this one. I gave a list of synonyms which refs you could look up.

I have this pre-mortal intuition - and so do some others I have asked.

Don said...

There is something to that. It has been decades since I have felt those truly free estatic moments. I believe God intends us to feel these moments as part of our experiences here in this world. I do not know if those moments or hours or even days will return this side of Paradise for me but they have been gone so long I am uncertain what a return would be like.

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

This I find to be a full and satisfying explanation...

Poetry is certainly the only means of full and satisfying expression of our longing and intuition of both past and future paradise and of our experimenting some touches of grace. The full and satisfying explanation, though, resides in ascetic and mystic theology as presented by mystics and good theologians who do not deviate from good doctrine.

HofJude said...

Funny you should mention Wordsworth and then drop the poets, particulalry Arnold, who made "moments of happiness" one of the hightest of goods, particularly in "The Scholar-Gypsy," who left Oxford's halls to study the wizardry of the gypsy-crew,
And I," he said, "the secret of their art,
When fully learn'd, will to the world impart;
But it needs heaven-sent moments for this skill."
And then Arnold praises the scholar-g for disappearing into the Cumnor hills, etc., in order actively to seek out these moments, while the rest of us "waive all claim to bliss" - but not quite:
"Thou waitest for the spark from heaven! and we,
Light half-believers of our casual creeds,
Who never deeply felt, nor clearly will'd,
Whose insight never has borne fruit in deeds,
Whose vague resolves never have been fulfill'd;....
Ah! do not we, wanderer! await it too?"
Anyone who had read EngLit in the second half of the 1960s would instantly associate your phenomenology of unreasonable happiness with the feeling of artistic creativity, inpsiration, the influx of imagination. Or so I thought. I was most surprised at what was to come, and the uninterest of my students and peers in continuing to seek what seemed so close at hand. So reading your work for the past few years has been a great pleasure. You may not be quite Arnold's "truant boy, Nursing thy project in unclouded joy, And every doubt long blown by time away." but it is true that among my acquaintance "none has hope like thine."

Bruce Charlton said...

@HoJ - At that time, in the UK, DH Lawrence was perhaps the greatest focus of Eng Lit - presumably because he combined a focus on sex with exactly this kind of spiritual aspiration. I was told by a scholarly journal editor that about half the submissions concerned DHL - that was right up to the mid 1980s. William Blake was another of this ilk. Lawrence has now all but disappeared from view - not because we have moved onto something better but simply because our culture has settled into its present, lower, despairing state.

Anonymous said...


-a text well worth reading: http://www.huxley.net/pauln/ (mentions Colin Wilson, David Pearce, Aldous Huxley, Bruce Charlton)

-a neat little movie on some of the problems with transhumanism: "Is Futurama the Best Argument Against Transhumanism": www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gdyc7BpKic0‎