Thursday, August 18, 2011

Was Confucius Happy?

In a recent, widely-discussed book, The Happiness Equation, an economist at the University of York (Nick Powdthavee) examined the relationship between various economic indicators and human happiness. The results could be encapsulated in a time-worn cliché, “Money can’t buy happiness.”

This reminds me of the slightly-less-well-known adage, “Money isn’t everything...but it sure beats the heck out of whatever comes in second.”

I don’t have a lot of money, and I haven’t read the book in question, because I’m a fairly happy chap myself, and I’m not really interested in what statistics and interviews can tell me about what other people say they feel.

I myself have noticed, and felt, a few things that may be of relevance to the question:

People who have read a good novel, or seen a good film, cherish it as if it were a god.

People sometimes return from expensive vacations and get excited only when they’re talking about the horrendous service they received at a restaurant in the Travestere.

There is a passage in one of Willa Cather’s novels, maybe My Antonia, that made an impression on me. I looked it up just now on-line:

“I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great…”

Politics can be a noble pursuit, but talking about politics can be dull. It often boils down to excoriating the selfish, bigoted folk who vote Republican. Such judgments are usually sound, but they don’t change anything or illuminate anything.

So, what should people talk about?

The other day, Hilary and I were sitting on the deck drinking a glass of wine. It was dark, we had a candle burning in our dragonfly candleholder, the crickets were chirping, and she was telling me about what Karen Armstrong has to say about Confucius in her recent book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. Being the “Mr.-know-it-all” par excellence, I leapt from my chair and said, “I’ve got an idea, let’s see what Confucius himself has to say.”

I ducked back into the house and returned a few minutes later with three translations of the Analects: the groundbreaking Arthur Waley translation (1924); the Penguin edition translated by D. C. Lau (1979); and the recent David Hinton translation (1998). We began to read out loud, back and forth. Let me give you an example:

The Master said: “Of villages, Humanity is the most beautiful. If you choose to dwell anywhere else, how can you be called wise?” (Hinton)

The Master said, “Of neighborhoods, benevolence is the most beautiful. How can a man be considered wise who, when he has the choice, does not settle for benevolence?” (Lau)

The Master said, “It is Goodness that gives to a neighborhood its beauty. One who is free to choose, yet does not prefer to dwell among the Good—how can he be accorded the name of wise?” (Waley)

And then we would dispute which version was the best.

Clearly the Waley version is the best of the three here.

Among the discoveries noted by Mr. Powdthavee in his recent book about happiness, he mentions that the rich are slightly more anxious than the poor. He observes that many people are concerned not only about the size of their paychecks, but also about how their pay compares to that of their peers. This strikes me as a bit odd.

The review that I read appeared in the Wall Street Journal, and the conclusions the reviewer arrived at concerning labor demands and the benefits of immigration are worth a look.

In Book Six Confucius remarks:

The Master said, “To be fond of something is better than merely to know it, and to find joy in it is better than merely to be fond of it.” (Lau)

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