Tuesday, November 24, 2009

happy ending

"Call no man happy 'til he is dead." We talked about that in Happiness 101 in September. I disputed it then, and still do. It's just too dispiriting and irrelevant. What's the point of trying to be happily expired?

But I see no contest at all over the question of whether you can be happy and a scoundrel. I can't be, but of course you
can... if you're that sort of person.

Sure, from my point of view (and from yours, I hope), the happiness of bad people is a degraded and inferior brand. Aristotelian
eudaimonia is not supposed to be subjective, but people's estimations of their own well-being certainly are. Plenty of people are as bad as they want to be, and they seem plenty happy too. While that's an affront to the rest of us, it's just too bad. But I don't guess many of the rest of us will be lining up to join the scoundrels club, anyway. The institutions of morality are safe. We're all gonna be what we're gonna be.

So, Christine Vitrano, you're right too: "the happy tyrant, the happy hermit, and the happy immoralist" are perfectly possible, fairly-frequently actual human types. I hope Hitler wasn't overly happy but I fear he may have been, more often at least than most of his victims; and I wish my worldview allowed me the consolation of thinking that he finally got his. It doesn't. (Julia Sweeney: "You mean he just... died?!" Evidently, Craig.)

But the penultimate little essay in our final text hits just the right note of ambivalence, with Woody Allen's
Crimes and Misdemeanors. Even the most upstanding of us, thinking ourselves "good" and decent and entitled to happiness, are capable of compromising our integrity and our self-respect in its pursuit, in horrible and harmful ways.

So? It's important to live well, but don't under-rate the importance of living with an eye to being well thought of after we're gone. (A point his character in another film makes, while standing alongside a classroom skeleton and noting that we're all going to "thin out"; when we do, it would be nice to retain at least a deserved reputation for having acted with a little integrity as moral agents while we still could.) That's not the same as being happy, but maybe it's a condition of being worthy, in one's own eyes, of being happy.

If that isn't a happy ending, isn't it a good place to begin thinking about our ends? As we said back when we began, "each of us must take responsibility for assessing the conditions of our own flourishing, must be open to the possibility of our good coming from the last places we'd ever expect, and should be prepared to jettison others' expectations (and sometimes our own)." And then? Play the scene. It's real life, not Hollywood.

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