Wednesday, 30 October 2013

How To Be Happy and the Sun Card

"Our task is to become good men, or to achieve the highest human good. That good is happiness" - Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics
Dancing Free Tarot

Fed up thinking you should be happy? Not sure how? Does everyone else seem to know? This post will investigate the concept of happiness and chart a short history which will reveal how very recent our current notion is - and how deficient. Not happy? You have good reason not to be. By the end of this post, hopefully you will be able to see what's going on with the modern  approach to happiness and why you haven't been made happy by all those Happiness Workshops and blog posts.

In the Tarot, it's the Sun card which is traditionally associated with happiness. It's the "happy" card. And who isn't happy to see it? The Sun card is associated with joy, success, Jupitarian expansion, outward activity, and all things positive. However, all cards in the Tarot are ambiguous or have what is often termed a "shadow" side. None are unilaterally positive or negative, good or bad, light or dark. This is exhibited rather finely in the symbolism of the earliest Sun card, that of the Visconti-Sforza

The Golden Tarot of the Visconti-Sforza

Here we see a cherub holding up a sun shaped as the head of the god Apollo. This was the Greek god of form, beauty, reason, clarity, light, art, music, and structure. At the bottom of the card there is a vertiginous and abysmal drop. As Nietzsche reminds us in The Birth of Tragedy, the counterpart of Apollo is Dionysus, the formless, the chaotic, the irrational, intoxication and the void. Nietzsche tells us that Apollinian light is also schein: a German word which means both shining but also blinding, dazzling, and illusion. The cherub could topple over the edge of the cliff if he or she is unaware of it. The child or cherub carefully balances on a blue cloud, and (although it is difficult to see in this image) wears a beaded necklace of good luck. In the distance are mountains, metaphorically reminding us of the aspirational nature of happiness, never present as an object, and to the left is a castle or human habitation reminding us that happiness or Apollinian love and light is connected to the responsibility of community and worldly affairs. The Moon goddess, Diana, is an implied presence in the appearance of Apollo depicted as the sun. Bringing these symbols together, the Visconti-Sforza Sun card unites the strands of happiness into a tapestry comprising beneficence, good fortune or luck, the physical ground beneath, the precarious Dionysian drop (the inclusion of the negative) and the balanced posture of the cherub, requiring effort and discipline. That there is an overt divinity to the card in the figure of the cherub together with the sun god, pivots happiness into a broader ethical compass. Above all, the appearance of Apollo cannot be understood as meaningful without the complementary opposite of Dionysus. 

The Radiant Rider-Waite
The Sun card, then, is not all light and the Moon card is not all dark, where these dioptric metaphors are often respectively associated with positive or negative qualities. These polar opposites or antinomies make no sense without implicitly referring to or invoking their other, or what they are defined in opposition to. It's a necessary relationship, one cannot exist without the other, despite the exclusory nature of an opposition. Similarly, you have no concept of happiness without understanding it in relation to unhappiness or sadness. You can't have one without its other. 

It should be noted, as this is a philosophical "category mistake" I constantly encounter, this doesn't mean that for happiness to exist there must therefore be unhappiness in your life.  Or for peace to exist there must also be war. This is to confuse an epistemic proposition with an existential
Tarot de Marseilles
one. To explain, we only require the concepts of war and peace for each to make sense. We do not require the actual existence of war in order for peace to exist. We do not need to condone the existence of poverty in order for plenitude to exist. We require the understanding, not a factual instantiation. This is provided linguistically and conceptually. Not in terms of a state of affairs to which we apply these concepts - which is ultimately arbitrary. One person's peaceful existence could be the acme of a stressy mess to another. One person's good could be another's ill. A pleasurable experience for you could be a total misery for someone else. And so on. The understanding is provided through concepts and not through empirical states of affairs (which in any case mean nothing in themselves without interpretation: and that's the point here). 

Let's cut to the chase: how many How To Be Happy articles, blog posts, and self-help books have you read? Have you noticed how many insist that you have a right, as an individual, to be happy? Is that right? And as if you can nail this elusive thing called "happiness"? Do you feel a failure or inadequate in some way if you are not happy? The more of these you read, the more you might feel you should be happy, that it should be within your power. Many offer up prescriptions for happiness: avoid upsetting news, disengage with people who make you feel bad, ignore what other people think if it dents your sunny optimism, find aspects of life that give you pleasure, focus on what brings you happiness as a precondition for having anything to offer anyone else, and so forth. Perhaps you have encountered various versions of these formulas whereby if only you follow the right recipe steps you should be able to cobble up home-made happiness in a dish. 
Tarot Illuminati [Lo Scarabeo]
At least four things are happening in these prescriptions or variations thereof. One is a conflation of the notion of happiness with that of pleasure. The second is the emphasis on the self. The third is the idea that we all have an inbuilt right to happiness. The fourth is that the causes of suffering are not addressed: rather one is supposed to be able to boot-strap oneself into happiness regardless of circumstance.  

This muddy notion of "happiness" and the expectation that it is an entitlement is a very recent idea. The view that we all have a natural right to be happy can result, paradoxically, in perfect misery. It certainly wasn't always considered to be an inalienable right of an individual. George Mason and Thomas Ludwell Lee enshrined the pursuit of happiness as a right in the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776, echoed by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. They were influenced by the English philosopher, John Locke, and other European thinkers who emerged out of the Enlightenment during the 17th and 18th centuries. The idea that happiness - or the pursuit of it - is a "natural right" emerged out of this tradition of thought and largely situates the idea of happiness we have today. 

The Robin Wood Tarot [Llewellyn Worldwide]
For the ancient Greeks, the most important question we could ask ourselves was, "what is the good life?" The answer, in short, was eudaimonia, a nuanced and complex term, usually flatly translated as "happiness". Pleasure is certainly one component. Plato spends the Philebus discussing different types of pleasure. He considered that a life without both rationality and pleasure could not be classed as a human life at all. However, eudaimonia or happiness was not conterminous or equivalent to pleasure or good feelings. Happiness is not a synonym for pleasure. Aristotle also acknowledges the importance of pleasure as needful for human rest and recuperation (Nicomachean Ethics, p. 327) but contemptuously dismisses the hedonistic view that happiness is no more than, or the same as, pleasurable feeling, 'the utter servility of the masses comes out in their preference for a bovine existence' (NE, p. 68). Aristotle wants to  connect the concept of happiness to that of goodness or being a good person: to character, to correct conduct, to moral agency. Pleasure isn't good enough. 

Legacy of the Divine Tarot [Llewellyn]
Importantly, happiness is not a fleeting or transitory pleasure or feeling, it is to be attributed to the expanse of a lifetime. Here is the famous quote in its entirety, 'One swallow does not make a summer; neither does one day. Similarly, neither can one day, or a brief space of time, make a man blessed and happy' (NE, p. 76). For Aristotle, success and failure in life turn on revolutions of fortune such that happiness cannot be pegged onto our changes of fortune. Accordingly it is to be found in how one conducts oneself. Good fortune, he tells us, is certainly felicitous but even should bad luck prevail, 'the quality of life is determined by its activities, no man who is truly happy can become miserable; because he [or she] will never do things that are hateful and mean' (NE, p. 84). A tall order, but Aristotle isn't naive enough to think that anyone would be happy if they suffered too many calamities and, crucially (and against those self-help pieces insisting you can manage to be happy even if you're on the rack), in order to be truly happy one must be, 'adequately furnished with external goods' (NE, p. 84). If you're poor, in a war-zone, or otherwise in extremis then you are not going to be happy. Aristotle cites Priam as an example. The idea that you can be happy completely regardless of circumstance is sentimental nonsense. 

Thoth [US Games Systems Inc.]
Immediately, however, we can see that our conception of happiness is quite different from the way in which it used to be connected to a life of moral conduct and that it could only be attributed to a whole lifetime.  It isn't something one can aim for as if it is separable from the way in which one lives one's life as a whole. Turning off upsetting news won't bring you happiness, only a cheap and momentary blinkering. Happiness isn't an object you will find at the end of a self-improvement rainbow. It is not about attempting to ignore the negative or finding moments of pleasure, or mustering up an attitude of remorseless optimism. Rather it is a comportment of the soul [psuche] or mind [see note at the end]. This often required discipline and hard work: it was not splashing around in feel-good sentiment or a simple-minded credo to avoid the personally unpleasant and disagreeable. That How To Be Happy blog post sets you up for failure. For Aristotle, and this is a social dimension we have lost in our emphasis on the individual, happiness is associated with never doing what is hateful and mean. It isn't about trying to experience a super-abundance of pleasure. Rather, it is a moral directedness towards the world anchored in a good character over a lifetime.

Tarot of the Renaissance [Lo Scarabeo]
 How do we become these good individuals? This is where we get to the end of the Nicomachean Ethics. To become good people, to operate with moral sensibility and act with regard for others we require an entire ethos. At the end of the book Aristotle refers us on to  his next book, the Politics. We need the right political system and laws. In this sense, the goodness of the individual cannot be divorced from a macro-political structure. In other words, the idea that the individual can be independently happy without a sociological context to generate the conditions for the possibility of happiness is nonsensical both in regards to individuals behaving with any concern for others' happiness, or for the important external goods that must also be in place.

Our modern notion of happiness was ushered in during the Enlightenment. Following the Renaissance, with its love of all things Greco-Roman, we plunged into the Dark Ages. Prior to the Enlightenment, which shifted the groundwork of what we could hope for or expect in life, happiness was regarded largely as a matter of luck rather than something we could actively pursue. It was anything but a right vouchsafed to all. Indeed, the old English word hap (which forms the root of the word "happiness") meant luck, favourable fortune, or chance. We still use the word "hapless" to refer to an unlucky person. This old-world view implied that happiness was not, or not always and in principle, within one's control or ability to master. This married up rather well with the Judaeo-Christian worldview where one's lot was decided by God, for good or ill: happiness was rarely to be found in this vale of tears and was reserved for the afterlife. Of course, this justified any amount of political oppression and exploitation.

The Gilded Tarot [Llewellyn]
With the French Encyclopaedists of the Enlightenment, however, and the toppling of religious authority inaugurated by Copernicus and the Scientific Revolution, it became acceptable to pursue one's own pleasures, and to avoid pain and ills as far as one could. One's lot was no longer seen as something immutable. Nonetheless, the Enlightenment thinkers did not sever the notions of pleasure and happiness from the old Greek view that happiness was intricated with living a life of virtue or acting with socio-political responsibility.

Morgan-Greer [US Games Systems Inc.]
Here's John Stuart Mill, 'From the dawn of philosophy, the question regarding the summum bonum [highest good], or, what is the same thing, concerning the foundation of morality, has been accounted the main problem in speculative thought ' (Utilitarianism, p.1, my insertion). The highest good is, of course, happiness, and Mill equates that immediately with morality. As noted above, our current conception of happiness severs it from morality and makes of it a private commodity. Whilst Mill is also not naive enough to exclude pleasure from happiness, the idea is that we should act in ways which produce or maximize a good life for the greatest number of people. He calls it "The Greatest Happiness Principle". This suffers from a number of philosophical deficiencies (such as measuring or quantifying happiness) but the moral underlay remains unassailable: that we should act so as to create happiness and freedom from privation and pain not just for ourselves, but for all. Some 'positive evils' (UT, p. 14) such as indigence, disease, unkindness, worthlessness, or premature loss of objects of affection, are the effects of 'gross imprudence, of ill-regulated desires, or of bad and imperfect social institutions' (ibid.). He does not stupidly insist that all vicissitudes of fortune are removable but that most forms of poverty, in any way implying suffering, can be extinguished by the good sense of individuals combined with the wisdom of society (ibid.). Something more is prized here than individual happiness. Without attention to the greater good, our prospects of personal happiness are also a hostage to fortune. To put it another way, all those books on self-empowerment or self-improvement as a path to happiness promulgate a selfishness that is also a hostage to fortune when the self is disinterred from its dependency on others. 

Crow's Magick Tarot [US Games Systems Inc.]
What's gone wrong then, with the modern pursuit of happiness? To be sure, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with pursuing one's pleasures, but happiness is not to be confused with fleeting pleasure and feeling good about yourself in the moment. Conversely, it isn't achieved by denying suffering or turning your back on people who don't make you feel good. Nor is it an object that can be found or accomplished following a series of steps. In the past it would never have occurred to anyone to feel bad about not feeling happy. Nowadays, it seems almost a crime not to be happy. If you consider that happiness is a natural right and something you should be able to reach then all of those How To Be Happy articles and seminars are going to produce the very opposite. Here we stand in the shadow of the sun. 

How to be happy? Here's the standard blog post but with the old/new version of happiness.
3D Tarot [Lo Scarabeo]
  • Don't confuse happiness with pleasure in the moment
  • Happiness is not an obligation
  • Never feel pressured into thinking you should be able to attain happiness
  • There is nothing wrong with you if you are not happy
  • Stop pursuing happiness as an object
  • Reconnect happiness to the expanse of an entire life
  • Forget the self-obsession: make others happy
  • Put ethics back in the spiritual box - remember Aristotle on not acting in a mean and hateful way and check out that cherub or child in most Tarot Sun cards, or the depiction of friendship on others
  • Look for happiness in what you do, not in isolation from what you do, it doesn't exist on its own
  • There is no need to feel unhappy that you are not happy. Let it go. Focus not on some abstract ideal of "happiness" but engage in activities you consider worthwhile and valuable.You might even discover you're well on the way to being happy.
The original word for "soul" was "psuche" in Ancient Greek, with a diacritical accent over the "e" consisting of a short line. It became "soul" in the New Testament but the original word did not have any disjunction: it was a whole living being, specifically the "breath" or pneuma of a being, a sort of vital force, although the term underwent a number of philosophical determinations. See here for a useful explanation Dictionary of Spiritual Terms It is the origin of our words "psyche", "psychology", "psychoanalyis", "psychiatrist",  "psychosomatic" ["soma" means "body" in Ancient Greek], and other terms with the root "psych-".

Bibliography and Key:
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, trans. Walter Kaufmann (Random House Inc, New York, date unknown)
Plato, Philebus, trans. Robin A.H. Waterfield (Penguin Books Ltd, Harmondsworth, 1988)
NE   Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, trans. J.A.K. Thomson (Penguin Books Ltd, Harmondsworth, 1986)
UT   John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (Temple Press, Letchworth, 1948) [this was a second hand book, more recent versions are available]

©  Donna at Tarotdon Tarot


  1. Loved reading about the history/origin of some of these new age ideas. Laughed right out loud at: "(and against those self-help pieces insisting you can manage to be happy even if you're on the rack)" because that does seem to be what's currently being taught...even force fed to us. And if we're unable to be unhappy on that rack then something is wrong with us. Bully for you! Great read.

    1. Thank you Wulfie, it's a difficult concept all right but it wasn't always - and still needn't be - understood in the way it's been thrown at people recently.

  2. words and phrases such as, for example, 'injustice harms the doer' (Socrates, I think, or Plato putting the words into his teacher/protagonist's mouth), wise children, Socialism, pre-modern Communism, noble savages, happenstance, happen (that is, happiness happens... as a result of (see above ;-), Dostoevskii/Crime and Punishment, 'freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose' (Janice Joplin) ...

    How do You relate freedom to happiness, Tarotdon?

    What particular things I liked most (no sequence):
    1. the article with your style of writing, use of English etc
    2. the analysis/interpretation of the Visconti-Sforza (you will like my film analysis)
    3. not so much the confusion between epistemic proposition with an existential one, since the latter informs the former, I think, and with respect to memory (individual and collective) the knowledge and understanding of war and poverty will grow dim and dimmer, unless refreshed... here, again, pre-modern, -Communist societies could teach us how to do better
    4. "the goodness of the individual cannot be divorced from a macro-political structure"
    5. "Without attention to the greater good, our prospects of personal happiness are also a hostage to fortune."

    But Apollo, despite the emphasis on the complementary relationship with Dionysos, seems to come away as the emphasised 'up' and my personal favorite, the latter, as the complementary 'down' side of the binary opposition, pair, circle, yin and yang... I, personally, have to force myself to regard Apollo, the necessary evil, as rightfully equal to Dionysos, who, for me, is the true creator.

    This is only the first of your posts/pieces/articles that I have read and I like how you make philosophy palatable; a bit like Jostein Gaarder's Sophie's World. And thus, although there are many stylistic differences, this instructive literariness of your style makes me want to invite you to post in my poetry, rhymes and lyrics community. There is already somebody similar to (but different from) you, who occasionally reposts his wise poetic prose. Give it a thought! Thank you! It has been time well spent.

    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful and intelligent response. My replies will be programmatic given the Blogger format for comments. So, sketchily:

      1. I would relate freedom to happiness by locating both in the conditions of possibility enabled (or disabled) by socio-political structures. I think personal freedom is dependent upon how "we" are produced as desiring subjects and the kinds of freedom made available (or not) to us. There's also a distinction to be made between "freedom from" and "freedom to". To put it another way, it depends when and where you are in the world as to how free you might be to live a happy life. I think we inhabit (or are inhabited by?) an incredibly unfree civilization (which ought to be a contradiction in terms) where freedom is reified as just a matter of individual choice when those choices are already chosen for us in the sense that they are anchored in a larger ideological framework - which recapitulates your Rousseau-esque opening observations. There's no absolute freedom in any case - left entirely as notional or abstract ideals we end up with the catastrophe of the French Revolution. In the end I would want to tie both freedom and happiness to justice: no easy task!

      2. I take your point about epistemic and existential propositions. Although I'm inclined towards post-structuralism, I'm not a linguistic idealist. The body hurts. I wrote that section in corrective disgruntlement at a Tarot person who was advocating that we should keep people in actual, material poverty or that war is always justified, as otherwise we could not have plenitude or peace. That's not the case. As you say, we need to keep the memories alive not the reality. However, I would want to say that language does situate how we understand concrete experience and also how we articulate memory.

      3. Apollo and Dionysus. I think the Visconti-Sforza does privilege Apollo, although understandably as the cipher for the Sun card (the light of reason, clarity, consciousness, etc.) but it's not my personal view. I added Dionysus in as the "negative" as a reaction to all those How To Be Happy blog posts I've read which try to exile and repudiate suffering. A case could be made for situating Dionysus as the more fundamental principle or proto-origin of creativity. Apollo would supply the form or plasticity (perhaps with all the suggestions of oppression, constriction, and limitations you imply when you say that Apollo is a "necessary evil"). In the end the two terms are metaphors and can (and have been) deployed in a number of registers, for example in psychoanalysis there's a metonymic parallel where Dionysus and Apollo, respectively, are mapped onto the realm of the unconscious or primal scene of desire, and consciousness or order. I guess I wouldn't assign a value judgement without reference to what they are being used as figures for. Although the Dionysus pole is almost invariably more interesting!

      I should say here that most of my posts aren't philosophical in the same way as this one as the audience is so varied. Accordingly, the posts all have a Tarot/spiritual theme but are a mixture of philosophical-ish, rhymes, dialogues, historical, funny - hopefully something for everyone.

      Again, thank you so much for bothering to read and reply to the post with such insight, feeling, and engagement.

  3. Thank you so much! It has been and will again be a great pleasure.