Saturday, 21 February 2009

Delia, happiness and achievement

The following paragraph is taken from an interview given by Delia Smith to the Daily Telegraph (21 February 2009). The topic is her religion.

Of late, the idea of silent contemplation seems to be having something of a renaissance, with the numbers called to monastic lifestyles reportedly on the up. Delia thinks the economic climate may have something to do with it, in the sense that material plenty tends to equate to spiritual poverty, and vice versa. “I think there may be an opening to God right now because of the pressures people are under with this recession. They may be realising that materialism can never make you happy in the end.”

I have no quarrel with the idea of silent contemplation. It can be very beneficial, with or without a religious element. But I am concerned about the suggestion at the end that religion can offer us something that materialism cannot. Religion can indeed do that, but that fact need not, and I think should not, be used as an advertisement for religion. We can undermine any attempt to use it that way by drawing on a long philosophical tradition to the effect that happiness, in the sense of a state of mind, is not what matters. Instead, it is achievement that matters, whether or not a contented state of mind follows as a by-product. Aristotle's eudaimonia is famously mis-translated as “happiness”, when “flourishing” would be nearer the mark. And Nietzsche, at the end of Also Sprach Zarathusta, has Zarathustra say “So do I pursue happiness? I pursue my work!”.

It might seem that because this response to the possible advertisement for religion depends on not focusing on one's own state of mind as the important thing, religion could claim the credit for the response because religions often tell us not to focus on ourselves, but on other people. But that would not be so. The philosophical tradition encourages us to focus on our tasks, which might or might not be defined by reference to other people. They might even be tasks, the performance of which would do nothing for other people but would enhance our own status, not a particularly selfless thought. There is both nobility, and an indirect answer to the true claim that religion can bring a happiness that is not available through material goods, in the motto that has been adopted by Reinhold Messner and others, “Ich bin, was ich tue”.