The Sadness of the Second Happiness

Naked Questions/4 - the importance of seeing and considering the entire human condition

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 29/11/2015

Logo Qohelet"You little playful boy,
Even this your flowering time
Is like a day filled up with grace and joy
A clear, calm day that comes
As a precursor to life's festival.
Be happy, little boy;
A joyful time is this.
More I'd not tell you; but if your holiday
Seems somewhat tardy yet, let not that grieve you.

Giacomo Leopardi, Saturday Evening in the Village (Il sabato del villaggio; English translation by John Heath-Stubbs)

There is a tension between happiness and truth. As long as both are little, they go together naturally. But when truth grows and takes space, it eventually evaporates our happiness, and a kind of moral pain becomes the precious companion of the last and decisive stretch of road.

Some, faced with this new and unknown pain, prefer to remain deluded to save a bit of the old happiness; others continue the path of the fumes of the old certainties. And they meet Ecclesiastes: I said in my heart, 'Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.' But behold, this also was vanity. I said of laughter, ‘It is mad,’ and of pleasure, ‘What use is it?’ (Ecclesiastes 2,1)

After exploring the world with the wisdom of men, having accumulated wisdom and knowledge, and found that it's all and only a wind and a striving after wind, Ecclesiastes ventures on another path of non-vanity. It is the one humanity has always ventured on to find 'something good' and true that was not just smoke and wind, or habel. It is the way of the pursuit of pleasure in the body, in wealth, in eros, in well-being: “I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine—my heart still guiding me with wisdom— and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life.” (2,3)

These experiences are presented to us in the Book of Ecclesiastes like a research done with the 'heart still guiding him with wisdom'. Even this hedonism becomes a vital exploration: I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees... I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. ... I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines,[b] the delight of the sons of man. (2,4-8) What Qoheleth describes is very close to the life of Solomon, as we are told by the Books of Kings and the Chronicles. Even the wisest man of all looked for “something good” in the great palaces, in the paradise-like gardens, in luxury, at parties, in women ("King Solomon...had 700 wives, who were princesses, and 300 concubines.") 1 Kings 11,3).

This pursuit of pleasure comes after Qoheleth has experienced the futility of the search for higher, intellectual, philosophical or theological truths. This hedonism is other than that of the one who chooses pleasure at the beginning of the journey, before having tried the higher and more spiritual joys. The hedonism that Qoheleth talks about here is of a different nature: it is the choice of those searching in the flesh and under the sun what they did not find in the spirit and above the sun. It is the joy of those who want to laugh in order not to cry more.

There exists the pleasure and joy of those who have never tried or known joys that are truer and higher than those of raw and primitive bodies, wine or the senses. We know it, we see it all. But there is also a search for pleasure of those who, disappointed by promises of greater happiness that have been revealed as vanity, turn their gaze to their heart and start to consume themselves and others to hope to find life in other “galaxies”.

We see people who lead their lives yearning for bodily pleasures and things, and maybe theirs is only a second search after the first higher ideals have turned out to be of smoke. The heart can feed from its own flesh and that of others to flee the famine of more sublime, hoped for, promised but never reached foods. So people seek to satisfy their need of an empty or silent sky by touching bodies and listening to the sounds of earthly things, “eating” the life these things contain. Often there is a lot of pain and a lot of disappointment in lives folded on themselves, content with the bitter taste of acorns because disappointed by the fruits of the tree of life that never arrived. They respond to the first hunger for life that has been revealed as a striving after wind with a radical turn, clinging to the lowest but still true consistency of the bodies and senses, of things.

It should not be surprising to us then that Qoheleth does not consider this research necessarily silly, and gives it legitimacy with his own experience: So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. (2,9)

Finding this second happiness in the Bible must then give us a look of mercy toward the many who turn their hearts to a second kind of happiness after the disappointment in the first. It is good news to discover that there are these sad kinds of happiness in biblical humanism, because we meet them every day in the streets, in our homes. They are nested in our hearts. They are the instances of happiness of so many people under the sun, they are too common to be ignored, and because they also occur right on time in the research of the higher kinds of happiness.

There comes a day when even for the wise men who have explored the higher paths of spiritual and philosophical knowledge and finally reached the necessary stage of disappointment by the revelation of the vanitas there comes a new and almost invincible need to explore the truth of bodies and property, which become the last untouched territory, from which, often, they have escaped earlier thinking that it was certainly the worst. And what had been seen and experienced as a temptation and foolishness suddenly becomes fascinating, the last promised land. A charm and attraction that is as much stronger as the commitment for the first and higher truth was more radical and sincere. The discovery of reality as imperceptible smoke and wind generates a lust for what you can touch, see and possess. It is the difficulty to pray and follow a truer God you cannot see or touch that turns YHWH in calfskin which is very concrete and gleaming.

The wise research of Qoheleth also includes these second researches, which are part of the human condition, and therefore common, everyday, familiar, sisters to us. He takes them seriously, does not discard them a priori, he wants to try - also for us. And so the human horizon expands and reaches all.

In biblical humanism there is also the way of the son between his father's house and the last pigsty. If we jump too quickly to the merciful embrace and the banquet, we no longer see the many sons consumed by the happiness of “wine” and bodies, and - not seeing them- we leave them amidst the acorn, and they never return. We spend most of our lives passing, repeatedly, from festivals of idolatrous golden calves to banquets mercy of fat cattle - and vice versa. We are all natural manufacturers of idols, almost always looking for only life and happiness. Every now and then we meet eyes and arms that welcome us and save us. Ecclesiastes is one of these gazes, one of these hugs.

Ecclesiastes, however, tells us something else, too: it explains why these crooked roads to happiness are so common on earth: And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. (2,10) The heart “finds pleasure” in the “toil” to seek these kinds of earthly and bodily happiness, because the goods and bodies are also there to delight us and love us. The knowledge of the higher and spiritual wisdom, however, mainly produces pain, a pain which Qoheleth had called “an unhappy business” (1,13). Pursuing happiness in the body and in things engenders pleasure, it gets its prize. The pursuit of knowledge exposes our illusions, it takes the veils off and makes us see our naked humanity that is poor and precarious. The search for life through the pleasures enrolled in the things themselves, however, gives a consolation that can make us stay inside delusions for long, often forever. It hasn't got the instrument in it for its rebuttal, because it lacks the pain that is always the first spring of change. This second happiness nourishes us, it satisfies a need in us. We also find it in religious experience, where next to the painful search that reveals the illusions, there are not-painful practices that feed from consuming the pleasure and the intrinsic “prize” of the same practices.

But at the end of this second search of truth in happiness under the sun, we hear, again, the terrible and beautiful words: “...all was vanity [habel] and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained [Itron] under the sun.” (2,11) Everything is habel, everything is an infinite Abel, again. The pleasures, bodies, the many goods do not defeat the habel. The rich and the poor share the same striving after wind. It is the equality of this insatiable hunger that gets us all together under the sun.

This search for pleasure does not produce 'profit', either: it does not yield anything. The reward that these pleasures know is exhausted in the very act of their consumption. Nothing remains beyond this; there is no gain that remains after they evaporate. Revenues for the pleasures of the flesh and of the goods only cover their own costs: their joy does not accumulate; it does not become capital to feed our children and our elderly. The happiness of life and the body does not accumulate by buying it - and what if it was just a gift? Buying is the verb of Cain - 'I have gotten ([kanìti], acquired, bought - the tr.) a man with the help of the Lord', said Eve when choosing the name of her son (Genesis 4,1). The first Cain struck and won over his brother by killing him. But purchases of goods and people can no longer win Abel, because Cain's children are under the sign of the habel. The second Abel has become unbeatable.

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