he history of philosophy, particularly ethics, contains a sustained debate and discussion about the nature of happiness, from Aristotle’s eudaimonia, or “flourishing,” to Aquinas’s beatitude and Mill’s hedonism. But there is comparatively little discussion about unhappiness, except as it’s seen as simply the result of someone’s having failed to achieve happiness. In this essay, I use Martin Scorsese’s early masterpiece, Mean Streets (1973), as a springboard into a discussion of unhappiness. I don’t presume necessarily to say whether the protagonist, Charlie (Harvey Keitel), is happy or unhappy. I simply want to use the film as a means to enter into a discussion about unhappiness, given the lack of attention to the latter in the philosophical literature.
First, why are philosophers generally so concerned with happiness, and what role does it traditionally play in ethics? There are several different definitions of happiness, as we’ll see below, and most philosophers observe that, since people (generally) strive to achieve happiness, it must be a natural end for human beings, in the sense of an ultimate goal or desire (and many argue that it’s, in fact, the highest good or supreme end for human beings). Consequently, on the one hand, becoming clear about what happiness is might aid us in being able to achieve it, and, on the other hand, since my pursuit of my happiness and your pursuit of your happiness might well conflict with one another (suppose, e.g., that we want the same prospective mate or house or job), there need to be some rules about how I can justifiably go about living my life and achieving my happiness. And that’s what ethics generally is: the rules, principles, and guidelines for how I might legitimately (i.e., morally) go about living my life and striving to achieve happiness. And these rules and guidelines, then, often help us resolve interpersonal conflict, reduce the amount of suffering in the world, and make life a bit better for all of us.
We should note that what we’re after here is a philosophical, not a psychological, definition or understanding of happiness and unhappiness. That is, a psychological understanding of happiness or unhappiness would concentrate on subjective inner states or emotions, a feeling of contentment or discontentment, or what have you. Philosophers, on the other hand, are more interested in happiness as the end or goal of human action, whatever it is that we’re trying to achieve in our lives, whether it’s salvation in heaven, a life containing more pleasure than not, or flourishing. However, we should expect that a subjective feeling of contentment (or discontentment), an emotion, would likely follow from or be a part of the experience of happiness or unhappiness in most or all of the philosophical senses.
But why talk about or focus on unhappiness? First, unhappiness is worth discussing simply because it is such a prevalent feature of human experience, so prevalent, in fact, that there are those who argue that it is the natural state or condition of human beings, as we’ll see below. Second, happiness in any philosophical (and probably psychological) sense often seems to be so elusive as to be unattainable, and, again as we’ll see below, there are those who argue that, given the elusiveness or unattainability of happiness, it’s simply cruel to perpetuate the idea that we’re capable of attaining happiness and ought to spend our lives striving for it. If this is the case, then accepting that unhappiness is our lot in life might, in fact, be liberating and, paradoxically, lead to a sort of contentment.
Before we can talk about unhappiness, we need to talk about its apparent opposite, happiness, and its various definitions. First, however, I want to discuss briefly Scorsese’s film.
Mean Streets shows us a slice of life in New York’s Little Italy during the early 1970s. It concerns four friends, Tony (David Proval), Michael (Richard Romanus), Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), and Charlie. Tony owns the neighborhood bar where the friends hang out, Michael is a petty loan shark and mobster wannabe, and Johnny Boy is a wild and impulsive ne’er-do-well who likes to blow up mailboxes and shoot out windows from the rooftops. Charlie (the protagonist, as I mentioned) is a conflicted Catholic torn between his perceived duties to his friends, his own desires, and the mandates of his uncle Giovanni (Cesare Danova), the local mob boss who is grooming Charlie to become part of the world of the Mafia. Charlie has a strong sense of Catholic guilt, and, while he’s skeptical of the church’s ability to provide redemption and salvation, he is still plagued with the thoughts of sin and damnation. He also feels the need to protect Johnny Boy, to keep him out of trouble with the law, and to save him from any trouble with his many creditors, most notably Michael. Further, Charlie is having an affair with Teresa (Amy Robinson), Johnny Boy’s epileptic cousin, and he has a strong sexual desire for one of the dancers at Tony’s bar, Diane (Jeannie Bell). Giovanni has warned Charlie to stay away from both Johnny Boy and Teresa because of Johnny Boy’s wildness (“Honorable men go with honorable men,” says Giovanni) and because of Teresa’s illness (she’s “sick in the head”). And, since she’s black, Diane is strictly taboo in the world of Little Italy.
Charlie is poised to take over a restaurant for his uncle since the owner has become unable to make his loan payments to Giovanni. However, Charlie’s commitment to his friends seems to override his desire to please his uncle. Johnny Boy comes to show, not just disrespect, but utter contempt for Michael himself and for his financial obligations to him, creating a very dangerous situation (Michael is prepared to break Johnny Boy’s legs, or worse). Charlie knows that Johnny Boy needs to lay low, so the two of them borrow Tony’s car and, bringing Teresa along, head to the outer boroughs to keep safe. However, while they’re driving through the unfamiliar streets of Brooklyn, Michael pulls up beside them, and a would-be assassin in the car (an uncredited Scorsese) shoots Johnny Boy in the neck and Charlie in the hand. The car crashes, and Teresa is thrown partially through the windshield. The film ends with the three of them, bloodied, in a dark alley. Teresa is being pulled from the wreckage, Johnny Boy staggers down the alley, blood seeping from his wound, and Charlie kneels on the ground cradling his wounded hand.
As I said, in order to talk about unhappiness, I discuss three traditional definitions of happiness: as “beatitude”; as “pleasure”; and as “flourishing” I take these definitions in order.
Beatitude is a religious conception of happiness; it is supreme bliss, which is to be achieved only after this life, in heaven, and with God. The great medieval philosopher Saint Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1225–74) distinguishes this ultimate happiness from a more mundane happiness that can be achieved in this life: “Happiness is twofold; the one is imperfect and is had in this life; the other is perfect, consisting in the vision of God.” Further, he goes on to say that the earthly variety of happiness “does not consist in goods of the body, which goods alone, however, we attain through the operation of the senses”; rather: “The happiness of this life consists in an operation of the intellect.” It’s quite traditional for philosophers to separate human nature into these two halves, mind and body, spirit and flesh, intellect and appetite. Indeed, we’re all capable of sensual pleasures, such as those derived from food and sex, and we also enjoy more intellectual pleasures, such as those derived from learning, understanding, problem solving, etc. And it’s also quite traditional for philosophers to disparage the former type of pleasures and extol the latter, as Aquinas does here. In any event, the earthly type of happiness, consisting in pleasures of the intellect, is itself only partial and incomplete, Aquinas says, since perfect, complete happiness consists in “the vision of the Divine Essence, which man cannot obtain in this life.” He goes on to say: “Hence it is evident that none can attain true and perfect Happiness in this life.”
It’s fitting to begin with happiness as beatitude since, as I mentioned, Charlie is a partially lapsed Catholic plagued by the prospect of the opposite of perfect happiness in the presence of God: damnation and the fires of hell, which would be the definition of unhappiness in this case, and a most extreme form of unhappiness it is. In the film, Charlie’s thoughts are expressed in voice-over, sometimes by Scorsese, and sometimes by Keitel. The first line of the film, prior to the credits, is a voice-over by Scorsese that reveals Charlie’s skepticism about the church’s ability to provide the salvation necessary to make it into heaven: “You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit, and you know it.”
After the credits, each of the four principal characters is introduced. When we first meet Charlie, he’s inside a church, kneeling at an altar. Scorsese’s voice-over says: “Lord, I’m not worthy to eat your flesh, not worthy to drink your blood.” In his first spoken line, Charlie repeats: “Not worthy to drink your blood.” Then, in voice-over, Keitel reveals further Charlie’s skepticism:
OK, OK, I just come out of confession, right? Right. And the priest gives me the usual penance, right? Ten Hail Marys, ten Our Fathers, ten whatever. Now, you know that next week I’m gonna come back and he’s just gonna give me another ten Hail Marys and another ten Our Fathers. I mean, you know how I feel about that shit. Those things, they don’t mean anything to me. They’re just words. Now, that may be OK for the others, but it just doesn’t work for me. I mean, if I do something wrong, I just wanna pay for it my way, so I do my own penance for my own sins. What do you say, huh? That’s all bullshit, except the pain, right? The pain of hell. The burn from a lighted match increased a million times. Infinite. You know, you don’t fuck around with the infinite. There’s no way you do that.
Charlie is skeptical of the church’s ability to save him, wanting to find redemption on the streets, yet is likewise skeptical of his ability to be saved there—it’s “all bullshit.” That is, Charlie seems to be convinced of his own sinful, guilty nature and believes deep down that there is no salvation or redemption for him, that he’s damned and, thus, doomed to supreme unhappiness. Several times during the film, Charlie holds his hand over an open flame, reminding himself of the pain of hellfire, and, perhaps, preparing himself for what’s to come. As David Denby says, Charlie is “a suffering, masochistic Catholic, a man who constantly must sin to fulfill his sense of unworthiness.”
Now, interestingly, someone like the nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) would argue that religion is not the solution to Charlie’s problem regarding happiness or unhappiness but, rather, part of the problem itself. That is, he argues that religion (and, particularly, Western, monotheistic religion) purposefully makes us feel reprehensible, sinful, and guilty, without the possibility of atonement, and is, thus, perhaps the greatest source of unhappiness known to mankind. In his On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche claims, and not without good reason: “What really arouses indignation against suffering is not suffering as such but the senselessness of suffering.” That is to say, human beings are resilient creatures; we can put up with a good deal of pain and suffering—life is full of it, of course—so long as there is some meaning or sense to it. It’s meaningless, senseless suffering that we can’t endure: “Man, the bravest of animals and the one most accustomed to suffering, does not repudiate suffering as such; he desires it, he even seeks it out, provided he is shown a meaning for it, a purpose of suffering.” And, indeed, Nietzsche argues that this question or problem of the meaninglessness of suffering has been one of the great human problems since we first appeared on the earth: “The meaninglessness of suffering, not suffering itself, was the curse that lay over mankind.”
One of the inherent sources of suffering, Nietzsche argues, is our own animal instincts. That is to say, our animal and protohuman ancestors lived in the wilds by their violent instincts, hunting, defending themselves, etc. These creatures weren’t reflective by nature; they had to act quickly, violently, and automatically in order to survive. When, however, at the dawn of human civilization, people came to live together in communities, we could no longer freely vent those animal instincts outwardly; we could no longer attack and kill at will since that would mean the very destruction of the community itself. But those animal instincts didn’t simply disappear. So what happened to them? They were internalized, says Nietzsche: “All instincts that do not discharge themselves outwardly turn inward—this is what I call the internalization of man. . . . Hostility; cruelty, joy in persecuting, in attacking, in change, in destruction—all this turned against the possessors of such instincts.” Consequently, we started gnawing at, eating at, torturing ourselves: “The man who, from lack of external enemies and resistances and forcibly confined to the oppressive narrowness and punctiliousness of custom, impatiently lacerated, persecuted, gnawed at, assaulted, and maltreated himself.”
This is a source of great internal suffering, and, as we saw, according to Nietzsche human beings need to make some sense of their suffering in order to endure it. So what meaning did we give to this suffering? We interpreted it as guilt and sinfulness: “This man of the bad conscience has seized upon the presupposition of religion so as to drive his self-torture to its most gruesome pitch of severity and rigor. Guilt before God: this thought becomes an instrument of torture to him. He apprehends in ‘God’ the ultimate antithesis of his own ineluctable animal instincts; he reinterprets these animal instincts themselves as a form of guilt before God.” Our internal suffering—that gnawing, nagging feeling we get (most of us anyway) when we feel like we’ve done something wrong, broken the rules, etc., the “sting of conscience”—is says Nietzsche, essentially those internalized instincts. And religion tells us that this internal suffering we experience is a result of our natural sinfulness and guilt, our unworthiness before God.
Let’s make this clear. Human beings are animals—we are embodied and, thus, naturally have needs, wants, desires, lusts, instincts, etc., and, again, we suffer from this embodiment (not just because of internalized instincts, but also because of the very nature of desire and need, since to desire or want is, in a sense, to suffer [more about this below]). Religion then interprets this suffering as sinfulness. It tells us that we suffer because we’re sinful and guilty. That is, it traditionally chastises and punishes us for being the kinds of creatures that we naturally are and can’t help being, and it wants to convince us that we’re sinful to a degree for which we can never atone (we’re born into original sin; God sacrifices his only begotten son for our sins, but, of course, that doesn’t absolve us of our guilt and unworthiness; it burdens us with an irredeemable debt for which we must do penance and reveals to us even more our wretched, sinful natures). But, again, this false interpretation gave us a meaning for this great suffering, which is what we needed in order to survive. We still suffered miserably—in fact, we suffered worse—but we could endure it because it was given a sense and a meaning.
So—and returning to the problem—the church may not be the means to bliss and salvation that Charlie takes it to be. In fact, if we’re to believe Nietzsche, it’s one of the primary sources of suffering and unhappiness in his life, given that it makes him feel guilty and sinful just for being the kind of creature he is—that is, one that is embodied and that has animal desires—and sinful and guilty to a degree that can never be atoned for.
One common understanding of happiness is to equate it with pleasure and the lack of pain and suffering. This is known as hedonism, and the theory goes back at least to Epicurus (341–271 B.C.). One modern and important proponent of hedonism is John Stuart Mill (1806–73), whose utilitarianism is one of the most important ethical theories in the history of philosophy. Utilitarianism “holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness.” That is, to act morally is to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. And, Mill goes on: “By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.” In everyday language, we tend to associate hedonism with the pursuit of physical, sensual pleasures: food, drink, and sex. However, Mill makes the same distinction that Aquinas does between so-called higher- and lower-order pleasures: “Human beings have faculties more elevated than the animal appetites, and when once made conscious of them, do not regard anything as happiness which does not include their gratification.” That is to say, animals are also capable of enjoying the pleasures of food, drink, and sex. Human beings, however, have intellectual, moral, and emotional faculties that animals don’t; and, once we’ve experienced the pleasures associated with those higher faculties, we wouldn’t be content with a life that contained only the lower-order pleasures (once we’ve experienced art, poetry, and love and compassion, e.g., we couldn’t be content with a life in which we experienced only sensual pleasures). Defending hedonism, Mill says: “There is no known Epicurean theory of life which does not assign to the pleasures of the intellect, of the feelings and imagination, and of the moral sentiments, a much higher value as pleasures than to those of mere sensation.
So, to reiterate and to be perfectly clear, according to Mill’s version of hedonism, the definition of unhappiness is “pain, and the privation of pleasure,” or, perhaps more accurately, the preponderance of pain and suffering over pleasure in one’s life.
Let’s note that Charlie has sources of pleasure, of both the lower and the higher orders. The lower-order pleasures include his sexual relationship with Teresa, his (unconsummated) lust for Diane, and his bouts of heavy drinking with his friends. Among the higher-order pleasures we might include the apparent satisfaction he derives from helping people, following the example of Saint Francis. Charlie also derives pleasure from his association with his uncle. This is hardly the sort of life that Mill had in mind (associating with gangsters), but the sense of respect, the feeling of belonging, and the idea of doing something mature and important are, clearly, all sources of deep satisfaction for young Charlie.
Now, while Charlie does have these sources of pleasure, it’s important to note that his desires clash with one another. Charlie’s relationship with Teresa and his lust for Diane are, clearly, in conflict with his desire to please his uncle, again because Giovanni has warned him to stay away from Teresa and because Diane is black and, thus, taboo. Further, his desire to help people, and particularly to help Johnny Boy, with whom he feels a particular kinship, likewise conflicts with his longing to be a part of his uncle’s world.
For Plato, this conflict of desire is virtually the definition of unhappiness. In his Republic, he argues that the human “soul” has three parts: the rational; the spirited/emotional; and the appetitive or desiring. For Plato, well-being, and, indeed, happiness in the sense of flourishing (discussed below), consists in having a well-ordered soul, one in which the rational part is in control. That is to say, we all have emotions, appetites, and desires, but the best life to lead is one in which our rational faculties are in control and decide for us which appetites to fulfill, which to deny, and in what manner. Further, the rational part should help us keep in control of our emotions, help us understand in what situations and for what reasons our emotions are properly roused, and it should also keep us from being overcome by those emotions. Socrates asks rhetorically: “Isn’t it appropriate for the rational part to rule, since it is really wise and exercises foresight on behalf of the whole soul?” The worst kind of life, real unhappiness, is, according to Plato, to be ruled by the irrational parts of the soul, whether the emotions, the appetites, or both. Think of drug addicts, alcoholics, compulsive gamblers, anyone ruled by his appetites and not in rational control of himself—that kind of person is the most unhappy. Last, the rational part helps us adjudicate between the demands of our appetites and desires, allowing us to have a well-rounded, satisfying life, in which those appetites, desires, and emotions don’t conflict with reason or with each other. And this certainly seems to be Charlie’s problem. It’s clear that his soul is not balanced, that he’s not ruled completely by reason, given that his desires are in conflict and that they tug him in different directions. Further, his emotions sometimes get the better of him, as when he slaps Johnny Boy around after the latter discovers his relationship with Teresa and (perhaps jokingly) suggests that he might tell Giovanni about it. Charlie is, thus, unhappy in Plato’s sense of the word.
There are those who argue for a hedonistic conception of happiness as pleasure and then go on to claim that happiness in this sense is unobtainable and, thus, that we are fated to a life of unhappiness (as pain and suffering). Freud, for example, seems to take this view. He says: “What do [people] demand of life and wish to achieve in it? The answer to this can hardly be in doubt. They strive after happiness; they want to become happy and to remain so. This endeavor has two sides, a positive and a negative aim. It aims, on the one hand, at an absence of pain and unpleasure, and, on the other, at the experiencing of strong feelings of pleasure.” Freud is, here, clearly equating happiness with pleasure and the absence of pain, as did Mill. He goes on to conclude that the purpose of life is, thus, the “programme of the pleasure principle.” But, he says: “There is no possibility at all of its being carried through; all the regulations of the universe run counter to it. One feels inclined to say that the intention that man should be ‘happy’ is not included in the plan of ‘Creation.’” That is to say, our efforts at achieving pleasure are so often thwarted by the world around us that we can hardly hope to experience any kind of long-lasting pleasure. What’s more, he says: “We are threatened with suffering from three directions: from our own body, which is doomed to decay and dissolution and which cannot even do without pain and anxiety as warning signals; from the external world, which may rage against us with overwhelming and merciless forces of destruction; and finally from our relations to other men.” That is, not only are we frustrated in our attempts to find pleasure, but we’re also continuously suffering because of unavoidable circumstances and because of the nature of human life on earth. Consequently, unhappiness as suffering is the natural, if not necessary, condition of human beings.
Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) takes this view as well but pushes it even further. Traditionally, philosophers have claimed that human nature is closely tied to reason—that it’s reason that distinguishes us as the kinds of creatures we are and, thus, that it’s reason that is our essence (as we’ll see Aristotle argue below). Schopenhauer denies this and claims, instead, that our essence is what he calls will. The will is the ceaseless, driving force that we find in ourselves as our appetites and desires, hunger, thirst, the life force, and (especially for Schopenhauer) the sex drive. Consequently, it’s our very nature to want and desire, and, says Schopenhauer, to desire is to suffer. So life is perpetual suffering: “All striving springs from want or deficiency, from dissatisfaction with one’s own state or condition, and is therefore suffering so long as it is not satisfied. No satisfaction, however, is lasting; on the contrary, it is always merely the starting-point of a fresh striving. We see striving everywhere impeded in many ways, everywhere struggling and fighting, and hence always as suffering. Thus that there is no ultimate aim of striving means that there is no measure or end of suffering.” Further, Schopenhauer holds a hedonistic conception of happiness. He claims that happiness or pleasure is the satisfaction of our wants and desires but that happiness is “negative,” meaning that it’s only a release from pain and want, which are original or positive in the sense of being our normal condition: “All satisfaction, or what is commonly called happiness, is really and essentially always negative only, and never positive. It is not a gratification which comes to us originally and of itself, but it must always be the satisfaction of a wish. For desire, that is to say, want, is the precedent condition of every pleasure; but with the satisfaction, the desire and therefore the pleasure cease; and so the satisfaction or gratification can never be more than deliverance from a pain, from a want.” Thus, as for Freud, for Schopenhauer unhappiness as pain and suffering is the natural state or condition of human beings. This leads Schopenhauer to pessimism, which, in its most common form, is a negative evaluation of life, given the preponderance of pain and suffering over pleasure. That is to say, pessimism is the idea that, on the whole, life is not worthwhile. It would be better if we’d never existed.
Given the impossibility of attaining happiness, Schopenhauer of course rejects the idea that happiness is the highest good or supreme end of human life. In fact, he argues that, insofar as it makes our lives that much more miserable, the idea is pernicious since happiness is presented as a goal that we ought to pursue but, ultimately, can never achieve: “Optimism is not only a false but also a pernicious doctrine, for it presents life as a desirable state and man’s happiness as its aim and object. Starting from this, everyone then believes he has the most legitimate claim to happiness and enjoyment. If, as usually happens, these do not fall to his lot, he believes that he suffers an injustice, in fact that he misses the whole point of his existence; whereas it is far more correct to regard work, privation, misery, and suffering, crowned by death, as the aim and object of our life.” Given that unhappiness is our lot, it’s cruel to lead people to expect that they can be happy and to try and convince them that happiness is the ultimate goal of their lives. As I mentioned above, for many philosophers happiness is the central concept in their ethics. For Schopenhauer, on the other hand, the key notion in ethics is Mitleid, which is usually translated as “compassion,” but both Mitleid and compassion also mean “suffering with.” That is, for Schopenhauer, morality begins with recognizing that the suffering (and, thus, the unhappiness) of others is the same as one’s own and acting accordingly. Morality has nothing at all to do with the pursuit of happiness.
One of the most important conceptions of happiness in the history of ethics is the ancient Greek notion of eudaimonia. This Greek word is often translated as happiness, though this translation can be misleading since happiness can mean a kind of satisfaction (or pleasure, as we saw above) or a state like contentment and eudaimonia doesn’t refer to these. Rather, a better translation would be something like flourishing. That is, eudaimonia is happiness in the sense of doing well, faring well, or making a success of life.
Eudaimonia, or happiness as flourishing, is one of the central ideas of Aristotle’s ethics. At the beginning of his Nichomachean Ethics, he notes that human beings are goal-directed creatures; we do things for a reason. Further, he argues that there must be some final end or goal that we’re all striving for and that gives sense and meaning to all our other activities. And we have a name for this final goal or highest good: “As far as its name goes, most people virtually agree; for both the many and the cultivated call it happiness [eudaimonia], and they suppose that living well and doing well are the same as being happy.” In other words, ultimately why do we do anything? In order to flourish and make a success of our lives. As the highest and final good, happiness as flourishing doesn’t lead to some further end. The question, Why do you want to be happy or flourish? is meaningless.
One of Aristotle’s central concerns in the Nichomachean Ethics is to determine what flourishing is for human beings, what it means for us to flourish. He believes that flourishing for any creature will have to do with that creature’s essence or nature, what makes it the kind of thing it is, and he also believes that reason is the human essence, that it’s what distinguishes us from other living things (in contrast to, e.g., Schopenhauer, as noted above). Consequently, human flourishing will have something to do with the utilization of our faculty of reason. Ultimately, then, he concludes that flourishing is a life of excellent activity guided by reason and in which we exercise the virtues (courage, temperance, justice, etc.) that are crucial for human flourishing because it’s in acquiring and exercising them that we embody reason in our lives and, thus, utilize our characteristic function.
That is, virtues are states of character or dispositions to act in a particular kind of way, specifically, to act in accordance with what reason dictates. For example, when you’re facing a fearful situation, reason can tell you when you ought to stand and fight and when it’s best to back down, given your sex, age, physical conditioning, etc. To have gained the virtue of courage means to have developed in yourself a disposition—a natural and automatic way of behaving—to act in accordance with what reason dictates. The courageous person doesn’t have to stop and think about what dangers he should face; he just automatically faces them, and, thus, he’s embodying reason in his life and actions. So, again, flourishing for human beings is a life of excellent activity—it’s doing the things that we do (e.g., carpentry, learning, making music, athletics, etc.) and doing them excellently, to the best of our abilities—and a life in which the virtues are exercised.
Unhappiness in this case we might call dysdaimonia, failing to flourish, failing to make a success of one’s life. Aristotle seems to think that this happens in a great many ways, at least with regard to acting virtuously or acquiring the virtues: “Moreover, there are many ways to be in error. . . . But there is only one way to be correct. That is why error is easy and correctness is difficult, since it is easy to miss the target and difficult to hit it.” However, we might generalize and say that there are two basic ways in which one obtains dysdaimonia. First, one can fail to acquire the virtues, or, to put it positively, one can acquire vices. Aristotle describes virtue as a kind of mean, in the sense of average, between two extremes, each of which is a vice, a vice of excess and a vice of deficiency. So, returning to our example of fear, if one has the response to fear that reason dictates (and has, through habitually facing up to fearful situations, acquired the disposition to act in this way automatically), one has the virtue of courage. If, on the other hand, one experiences an excess of fear and is afraid of certain things that one ought not fear, then one has developed the vice of cowardice. If, on the other hand, one experiences too little fear, for example, rushing headlong into perilous situations, then one has developed the vice of rashness or foolhardiness. In acquiring and displaying the vices, Aristotle argues, one embodies irrationality in one’s life and, thus, fails to flourish; one is unhappy in this sense.
The second way in which one might attain dysdaimonia is by attempting to flourish or be excellent at the wrong sorts of things. One might be tempted to ask Aristotle: If the best life is a life of excellent activity, doing the things that I do and doing them excellently, then what happens if I’m a murderer or a rapist—can I do these things excellently and flourish? Aristotle has a response to this:
Now not every action or feeling admits of the mean. For the names of some automatically include baseness—for instance, spite, shamelessness, envy [among feelings], and adultery, theft, murder, among actions. For all of these and similar things are called by these names because they themselves, not their excesses or deficiencies, are base. Hence in doing these things we can never be correct, but must invariably be in error. We cannot do them well or not well—by committing adultery, for instance, with the right woman at the right time in the right way. On the contrary, it is true without qualification that to do any of them is to be in error.
We can, I think, safely argue that Charlie has come to dysdaimonia in both these ways. First, while he does display certain virtues—for example, generosity and loyalty to his friends—he displays more vices. For example, he exhibits intemperance when he drinks so much at a party that he passes out. We observe his deceitfulness in his interaction with his uncle Giovanni (when he lets Giovanni think he’s keeping his distance from Teresa and Johnny Boy), with Teresa (when he’s not truthful about his reasons for not wanting to continue seeing her), and with Diane (when he tells her he wants her to be a hostess at his new restaurant when really what he wants is to sleep with her). Further, I discussed above the fact that Charlie’s desires are in conflict and that he seems to be pulled by them in different directions. In this way, he displays what the Greeks call akrasia, sometimes translated as incontinence, but probably most often understood as “weakness of will.” He’s motivated by his nonrational desires, as opposed to being in rational control of himself. And this also leads to indecisiveness, which is, perhaps, Charlie’s most salient feature. He desires salvation but doesn’t want to have to follow the church’s dictates to find it; he wants to follow in his uncle’s footsteps but doesn’t want to heed his uncle’s admonitions to stay away from Teresa and Johnny Boy; he continues to sleep with Teresa even though he admits that he’ll never be in love with her and knows that he should keep away from her; and he wants to seduce Diane, and even makes a date with her to have Chinese food, but stands her up at the last minute, knowing that a man in his position, up and coming in the Mafia, can’t be seen with a black woman.
Last, Charlie has come to dysdaimonia because of his profession as a novice gangster and numbers runner. Surely, these would count on Aristotle’s list of those sorts of actions about which we can never be right. That is, there certainly are rules of conduct and markers of success within the Mafia world of Little Italy. Anyone in that life knows what’s expected of him, how he ought to behave, and what it means to flourish or be successful in that realm. So one can flourish as a gangster; however, Aristotle would argue, given the inherently base or ignoble nature of the profession and its activities, one would, thereby, fail to flourish as a human being.
Eudaimonia, or happiness as flourishing, is obviously quite different from hedonism, or happiness as pleasure. Indeed, Aristotle believes that it’s a mistake to construe happiness as pleasure and to pursue pleasure as if it were the highest good. However, he does believe that pleasure supervenes on eudaimonia: “Hence these people’s life does not need pleasure to be added [to virtuous activity] as some sort of extra decoration; rather, it has pleasure within itself.” In other words, acting virtuously, living a life of excellent activity, is naturally pleasing. The person who lives this way doesn’t have to pursue pleasure for its own sake.
Because of all this, eudaimonia may be a more attractive candidate for a definition or understanding of happiness than hedonism, insofar as it not only seems to describe more accurately the way people tend to live their lives but may also be more readily attainable than pleasure and an absence of pain. If that’s so, then we may not be fated to unhappiness—at least in the sense of dysdaimonia. However, I want to end this essay with a discussion of another view of human beings, according to which unhappiness is a necessary part of our lives and experience.
I mentioned above that, according to Freud, given a hedonistic conception of happiness, and given the preponderance of suffering in life, unhappiness seems to be the natural state or condition of human beings. Schopenhauer, as we saw, starts with the same premises and has a similar sort of view, but his conclusion is stronger than Freud’s. For Freud, in other words, suffering and unhappiness are a kind of happenstance of our condition, and, if our condition could change, so would the preponderance of suffering, and, thus, we would no longer be fated to unhappiness. For Schopenhauer, on the other hand, this is an impossibility. Suffering and unhappiness are not just the accidental condition we happen to find ourselves in; rather, they’re necessary, given the kinds of creatures we are. For Schopenhauer, there seems to be something ontological about unhappiness—it seems to be a part of our essence or being.
I want to finish this discussion by talking about another view of unhappiness as ontological, one that isn’t necessarily as pessimistic as Schopenhauer’s and that dates back at least to Plato’s Symposium. In that dialogue, Socrates and his friends are having a party to celebrate the victory of one of the characters, the playwright Agathon, whose tragedy has just won a competition. They decide that the topic of conversation for the evening will be the god of love, and so, over the course of the evening, each of them gives a speech in praise of love. One of the party guests is the great comedy writer Aristophanes, and his speech is one of the most memorable passages in all Plato’s works. He says that originally human beings were quite different, that at one time we had two heads, four arms, four legs, and two sets of sex organs and, thus, originally there were three sexes, not two: the double male, the double female, and the male/female. Given this original double nature, people were much more powerful and full of hubris, so much so that they made an attack on the gods. Displeased by this, Zeus devised a solution, a way to lessen the power of humans and teach them humility: he cut them all in half.
Afterward, each person felt the loss acutely and wanted nothing more than to be reunited with his former other half. Those who’d been half of the double male or double female sexes became gay men and lesbians, and those who’d been half of the male/female sex are now heterosexuals: “Now, since their natural form had been cut in two, each one longed for its other half, and so they would throw their arms about each other, weaving themselves together, wanting to grow together.” And they were so sick with longing and so distracted, Aristophanes says, that they just wasted away and did or thought of nothing else. Feeling sorry for them, Zeus realigned their genitals (after being cut in half, the genitals were, apparently, on the opposite side from where we find them now) and created interior reproduction: “The purpose of this was so that, when a man embraced a woman, he would cast his seed and they would have children; but when male embraced male, they would at least have the satisfaction of intercourse, after which they could stop embracing, return to their jobs, and look after their other needs in life.” This, then, is the nature of love: we wish to be reunited with our original other half: “Love is born into every human being; it calls back the halves of our original nature together; it tries to make one out of two and heal the wound of human nature.” Aristophanes goes on to say: “‘Love’ is the name for our pursuit of wholeness, for our desire to be complete.”
This is one of the most beautiful and moving descriptions of love ever articulated, but it can also be understood as a theory of human nature. That is, on this view, there is a kind of gap or fissure at the heart of human nature (or, some say, human nature just is a gap or a lack), and this hole or emptiness can never be filled. We are forever incomplete; that’s part of our essence or nature. In a sense, we are desire.
The French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–80) holds a similar view. He talks about two different elements of human nature, facticity and transcendence. These terms refer to the fact that we’re physical objects, we have bodies (our facticity), while at the same time we’re subjects or selves, we have consciousness. Inanimate objects are pure facticity; they are what they are and can’t be anything else. Sartre says that they’re self-coincident. Everything that makes the desk a desk is present here and now. Nothing is missing. However, human beings aren’t like that. We transcend our physical selves (to transcend is to be beyond, to be other than). That is, in no way is everything that makes me who I am present here and now in or as my physical body. My past, for example, is an important constituent of my nature, as is my future, since it gives meaning and sense to all that I’m doing. So it’s the nature of subjectivity or consciousness to lack the self-coincidence that objects possess. There’s something missing or lacking at the heart of consciousness, and this is demonstrated through human desire: “The existence of desire as a human fact is sufficient to prove that human reality is a lack. In fact how can we explain desire if we insist on viewing it as a psychic state; that is, as a being whose nature is to be what it is? A being which is what it is, to the degree that it is considered as being what it is, summons nothing to itself in order to complete itself.” Sartre’s language here is complicated, perhaps unnecessarily so, but we can, I think, make sense of it. To treat desire as a “psychic state” is to treat it and us as if we were simply objects, things that, again, lack nothing and are whole and complete (they are what they are) since a state is something positive and whole. Sartre thinks desire, rather, points to the fact that we’re by our very nature incomplete. We’re missing something, and we’re continually trying to fill that gap or lack—and that’s precisely what desire is. Consciousness is desire, says Sartre. It’s a kind of emptiness, always reaching out toward objects, grasping them in awareness, wanting to possess them, to be filled by them.
But, because that emptiness, that lack of self-coincidence, just is our nature and essence, this is an impossible goal. In fact, to be filled, to cease to be a lack or gap, would mean the destruction of consciousness and, thus, of ourselves. This is what happens in death. When we die, we become objects, pure facticity; we become self-coincident. So human nature is a perpetual, unfulfillable longing; this is the “wound of human nature,” as Aristophanes puts it.
So, if we accept that to desire and to want is to suffer, and if we accept a hedonistic conception of happiness and unhappiness, then we can conclude that unhappiness is ontological in a sense; it’s part of our nature, our essence. However, I don’t think we need to be as negative and pessimistic as Freud and Schopenhauer about this. Yes, it’s part of human nature to want, to desire, to long, and there’s never any ultimate satisfaction or fulfillment to this desire, but there’s something beautiful (if sad) and oh so human about the longing itself.
This essay is a chapter from The Philosophy of Martin Scorsese edited by Mark T. Conard (University Press of Kentucky), copyright © 2007 University Press of Kentucky. Reprinted by permission of the publisher and author.
1. In Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977), Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) tells Annie (Diane Keaton) that, in his view of life, people are divided into “the horrible and the miserable.” The horrible includes the blind, the disabled, those with a degenerative illness, etc. The miserable is everyone else. So, he says, when you go through life, “you should be thankful that you’re miserable.”
2. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, vol. 1, First Part of the Second Part (QQ. 1-114) (New York: Benzinger, 1947), 597 (question 3, art. 3), 605 (question 4, art. 5), and 610 (question 5, art. 3).
3. “This literal playing with purgation symbolizes both Charlie’s reckless and foolhardy ‘playing with fire’ by continuing to associate with Johnny Boy . . . and Teresa, as well as his anticipation of the painful Hell-fires . . . that he expects await him in the afterlife” (Michael Bliss, The Word Made Flesh: Catholicism and Conflict in the Films of Martin Scorsese [Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 1998], 30). Some critics, however, see Charlie’s wound in the hand at the end of the movie as his symbolic stigmata and read this as evidence that Charlie has found some sort of redemption. Les Keyser notes that this is Scorsese’s view as well: “While critics have seen the ending of Mean Streets as an apocalyptic and despairing vision of God’s terrible wrath, Scorsese intended a more hopeful lesson. In his vision Charlie’s wound, a shot in the hand, is his ‘stigmata: Johnny Boy’s neck wound is not fatal, and Teresa survives—for, as Scorsese envisions the narrative, ‘they all learn something at the end of Mean Streets, only they have to get it from, again, the hand of God’” (Martin Scorsese [New York: Twayne, 1992], 40).
4. David Denby, “Mean Streets: The Sweetness of Hell,” in Scorsese: A Journey through the American Psyche, ed. Paul A. Woods (London: Plexus, 2005), 36.
5. Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1989), 68, 162. I discuss the relationship between suffering and unhappiness below.
6. Ibid., 84–85.
7. Ibid., 92.
8. Interestingly, Freud borrows from Nietzsche this idea—that civilization requires the internalization of animal instincts and that these internalized instincts become what we call conscience—without crediting him: “’What means does civilization employ in order to inhibit the aggressiveness which opposes it, to make it harmless, to get rid of it, perhaps? We have become acquainted with a few of these methods, but not yet with the one that appears to be the most important. This we can study in the history of the development of the individual. What happens in him to render his desire for aggression innocuous? Something very remarkable, which we should never have guessed and which is nevertheless quite obvious. His aggressiveness is introjected, internalized; it is, in point of fact, sent back to where it came from—that is, it is directed towards his own ego. There it is taken over by a portion of the ego, which sets itself over against the rest of the ego as super-ego, and which now, in the form of ‘conscience,’ is ready to put into action against the ego the same harsh aggressiveness that the ego would have liked to satisfy upon other, extraneous individuals” (Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, trans. James Strachey [New York: Norton, 1961], 83-84).
9. I’ll mention in passing that, according to Nietzsche, despite (or, perhaps better, because of) the terribleness of this internal suffering, the internalization of these instincts is what makes all higher culture and civilization possible. That is, our protohuman ancestors were not reflective, meditative people; they had no inner life (if you sat around and thought about things too much, you’d no doubt get eaten by tigers or bears). Only with the sublimation of these instincts, their being turned inward, do human beings develop an inner life, what we might call a soul; only then do people become interesting: “The entire inner world, originally as thin as if it were stretched between two membranes, expanded and extended itself, acquired depth, breadth, and height, in the same measure as outward discharge was inhibited.” Nietzsche goes on: “Let us add at once that... the existence on earth of an animal soul turned against itself, taking sides against itself, was something so new, profound, unheard of, enigmatic, contradictory, and pregnant with a future that the aspect of the earth was essentially altered” (Genealogy of Morals, 84, 85). It’s only once we’ve begun torturing ourselves that the soul develops, we gain an inner life, become meditative; and it’s only then that art, philosophy, religion, and, indeed, as I said, all higher culture and civilization become possible. Freud borrows this idea as well: “Sublimation of instinct is an especially conspicuous feature of cultural development; it is what makes it possible for higher psychical activities, scientific, artistic or ideological, to play such an important part in civilized life” (Civilization and Its Discontents, 51).
10. John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (New York: Meridian, 1962), 257.
11. Arguing with Teresa, Charlie tells her of his admiration for Saint Francis of Assisi, claiming that he “had it all down,” Teresa reminds Charlie: “Saint Francis didn’t run numbers.”
12.Note, too, that those lower-order pleasures conflict with Charlie’s religious beliefs and with his apparent desire for salvation, given the Catholic Church’s prohibition against premarital sex and, we can presume, contraception. And this is part of what Nietzsche was talking about: Charlie has natural desires for sex and lusts after Teresa and Diane, while the church tells him that these desires are sinful and that acting on them will doom him to eternal damnation.
13. Plato, Republic, trans. G. M. A. Grube (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992), 441e.
14. Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, 25-26.
15. Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, trans. E. F. J. Payne, 2 vols. (New York: Dover, 1969), 1:309, 319.
16. “That human life must be some kind of mistake is sufficiently proved by the simple observation that man is a compound of needs which are hard to satisfy; that their satisfaction achieves nothing but a painless condition in which he is only given over to boredom; and that boredom is a direct proof that existence is in itself valueless, for boredom is nothing other than the sensation of the emptiness of existence” (Arthur Schopenhauer, “On the Vanity of Existence,” in Essays and Aphorisms, trans. R. J. Hollingdale [New York: Penguin, 19701, 53).
17. Schopenhauer, World as Will and Representation, 2:5 84.
18. Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, trans. Terence Irwin (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1999), 1094a, 1095a.
19. There is more to Aristotle’s account of eudaimonia than simply excellent activities and the virtues. Certain external goods, as well as friends and family, are all important in living the best sort of life. Aristotle says: “Nonetheless, happiness evidently also needs external goods to be added, as we said, since we cannot, or cannot easily, do fine actions if we lack the resources. For, first of all, in many actions we use friends, wealth, and political power just as we use instruments. Further, deprivation of certain [externals]—for instance, good birth, good children, beauty—mars our blessedness. For we do not altogether have the character of happiness if we look utterly repulsive or are ill-born, solitary, or childless; and we have it even less, presumably, if our children or friends are totally bad, or were good but have died” (ibid., 1099b). However, for the sake of brevity, I’m restricting my discussion of the ways in which one fails to achieve eudaimonia to the activities one pursues and the virtues.
20. Ibid., 1106a.
21. Ibid., 1107a.
22. “The many, the most vulgar, would seem to conceive the good and happiness as pleasure, and hence they also like the life of gratification. In this they appear completely slavish, since the life they decide on is a life for grazing animals” (ibid., 1095b).
23. Ibid., 1099a.
24. Keep in mind that, while Aristophanes was a real person, the Symposium is a work of fiction, these conversations probably never happened, and the words and ideas expressed are Plato’s.
25. Plato, Symposium, trans. Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1989), 191a-193a.
26. Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel E. Barnes (New York: Washington Square, 1956), 136.