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Happiness: A History Paperback – December 18, 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
Before the contemporary onslaught of therapeutic treatments and self-help guidance, the very idea of happiness in this life was virtually unknown. In this eminently readable work, McMahon (Enemies of Enlightenment) looks back through 2,000 years of thought, searching for evidence of how our contemporary obsession came to be. From the tragic plays of ancient Greece to the inflammatory rhetoric of Rousseau and Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, McMahon delves deeply into the rich trove of texts that elucidate and confirm the development of Western notions of this elusive ideal. In one particularly rousing section, he highlights the breakthrough thinking of German theologian and religious revolutionary Martin Luther. Locked in self-imposed exile in the Augustine Black Monastery in Wittenberg, Luther struggled with a God who punished sinners, then realized that man is "justified—made just, not punished with justice..." and that this life was one to be lived, that man must "drink more, engage in sports and recreation, aye, even sin a little" in order to be happy. Throughout McMahon leads the reader with strong, clear thinking, laying out his ideas with grace, both challenging and entertaining us in equal measure.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Bookmarks Magazine
Today bookstore shelves are stocked with encyclopedia titles like Salt, Zero, The Pencil, Cod, Chocolate, and One Good Turn (A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw). Happiness follows in suit but delivers a surprisingly rounded view of its subject. True to his subtitle, McMahon is more interested in cataloging the manifold interpretations of his slippery subject than in delivering a decisive conclusion of what it should be. A few critics wanted some answers; instead, McMahon raises many questions. Certainly, this professor of history at Florida State University presents some thinly veiled opinions, but the success of the book is founded on its encyclopedic and accessible presentation of this most evasive idea.
Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top customer reviews
Like embarking on a long hike, understand that there will be valleys (the Middle Ages) along with the mountain tops (The Greeks, the 19th and early 20th Centuries). But it is worth the effort to make it to the end.
In summary, McMahon takes us on a philosophical review of happiness, starting with Socrates, and taking us up to modern times. Along the way, we read the opinions of such notable figures as Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Napolean, Locke, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, Adam Smith, Hume, Mill, Weber, Schopenhauer, Hegel, Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud...to name a few.
I particularly liked the last part of the book, with McMahon pointing out the relevance of Huxley's Brave New World in our own world today. We are a culture that feels happiness is our right, and the search for it extends to recent advances in pharmacology.
In reading this book you will learn about all the various theories and definitions of "happiness," and how each era dealt with it differently. This book is very well researched and presented.
I do have to tell you, Happiness: A History, can be pretty depressing, and there are many parts of the book that are downright bleak. (In an existential kind of way, at least for me.)
Still, highly recommended for those interested in the subject, and for anyone who wants to get a good overview of philosophy through the ages.
The concept, "happiness," means drastically different things to different people. McMahon takes us on a grand tour of how the concept has fluctuated and functioned in Western cultures. If you read this book thoughtfully, the notion that "Everyone wants to be happy" becomes less a platitude and more a conundrum.
If you're well educated in Western history, you won't find a lot of new ideas here--but you will find what you already know reorganized and, in the process, illuminated. The stuff you already know is supplemented by minor historical figures and movements you've probably not had occasion to encounter before. The result is thought-provoking.
My two complaints are about the last chapter.
First, McMahon takes a surprisingly uncritical view of contemporary psychiatric and psychological notions--and doesn't even understand them. In fact--as a substantial body of careful scholarship has shown--notions of mental health owe a great deal to the Enlightenment ideology that McMahon had already explained very nicely before getting to this chapter. But suddenly, he accepts mental health as more or less "sui generis," without historical or cultural influences.
And sadly, he often doesn't even understand the psychological literature he cites. For instance, he refers to studies which he interprets as showing that happiness "is [x]% genetic." But that's not what those studies say, or claim to say. They say, rather, that [x]% of the variance (which is a statistical construct, not a trait) among a population (not a characteristic of individuals) is accounted for by genetics--which is a drastically different notion. I was surprised to see McMahon lacking even an elementary understanding of the concept of a heritability quotient, yet using the concept so prominently.
Second, while it may be unfair to expect a historian to shed light on gigantic contemporary problems, McMahon's disquisition on the importance of "meaningfulness" to satisfying lives comes off as unanchored and unhelpful, precisely because he doesn't have anything useful to say about why it's so hard to find meaning in one's life in post-Enlightenment society and what to do about it. I finished this book thinking, "Well, if McMahon's right, the West is just done-for, then. We've eaten our own young--undermined the conditions for meaningful lives, hence for satisfying lives."
Still, the historical analysis, and the deft presentation of massive amounts of material, are well worth your time. And from the cover picture, it looks like McMahon's a youngster--so I don't guess we should expect him to point the way for Western culture to escape its contradictions quite yet in his career!