Flying with Wax Wings: The Secular Quest for Happiness: A Review Article

Gregory Edward Reynolds

Ordained Servant: June–July 2011

The Pursuit of Happiness

Also in this issue

Psalm 1: The Pursuit of Happiness

Christ's Test of Our Orthodoxy

Living by God's Promises

Nothing Gold Can Stay

Perpetual Euphoria: On the Duty to Be Happy, by Pascal Bruckner. Translated by Steven Rendall. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010 (2000 French edition), x + 244 pages, $29.95.

Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science, by Sissela Bok. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010, 218 pages, $24.00.

Where to begin? Happiness is such a vast subject, the terrain of which each of the authors under review has made extensive coverage, in their own very different ways. Neither of these works is by a Christian, although they each deal to some extent with the Christian literature that deals with happiness. I have found it extremely useful to my ministry and life as a believer to read the best thought of unbelievers on important subjects. Thoughtfully read, these tend only to enhance faith, and often inform us in helpful ways. Because of common grace we can often learn a great deal from unbelievers, who are also under God's sovereign control.

Pascal Bruckner, born in France in 1948, writes in the tradition of the great French essayist Montaigne. He is part of a movement known as the New Philosophers (nouveaux philosophes), which broke with Sartre's Marxism and is critical of postmodern multiculturalism. Bruckner has defended the Enlightenment's use of reason and self-criticism. He gives us a nuanced and mature reflection on the nature of happiness in light of past reflections and cultural criticism of the West.

His book is a critique of the reigning Western view of happiness, which he contends has moved from being something we are free to seek, to a moral imperative—you must be happy! Hence, the subtitle, "on the duty to be happy" (5, 46). Bruckner artfully explores this transition. Perpetual Euphoria is an insightful and scathing critique of the Western quest for happiness, especially in the last half of the twentieth century, even if his own solution is predictably inadequate. Similar to media critic Neil Postman, Bruckner calls us back to the Enlightenment to quench the fires of postmodern relativism and multiculturalism. He may also remind the reader of sociologist Christopher Lasch's trenchant analysis of radical individualism in The Culture of Narcissism,[1] especially when Bruckner sites his own example of extreme self devotion with Jennifer Ringley instead of Lasch's "Sheilaism" (76).

Bruckner interacts more seriously with Christian thought than Bok does, albeit with some serious misunderstandings of Protestantism in general and Calvinism in particular (113, 126). He deals with Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal—presumably after whom he was named—with mention of Christian (I use the term broadly) writers like John Bunyan, Chesterton, Dante, Kierkegaard, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky. The Catholic Church, of course, is a major topic. Bruckner's misunderstanding of Protestantism is probably largely due to his Roman Catholic context.

Right off the bat Bruckner deals with his understanding of the Christian view of happiness by quoting seventeenth-century French Catholic theologian Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, "A Christian is a man of the other world" (9); then Pascal, "there was once in man a genuine happiness of which only the mark and the empty trace now remain to us" (10). No wonder he titles the chapter "Life as a Dream and a Lie" (9). Bruckner concludes, "All our sufferings can find their reward in the beyond if we have led lives pleasing to God. Pass or fail: paradise is structured like a school" (11). The lack of grace in his account is breathtaking, but not surprising given the intellectual atmosphere of Catholic theology which surrounds him—not to mention his own Enlightenment aversion to it. To Bruckner "Christianity remains the doctrine of a relative and reasoned devaluation of the world" (17). He accurately depicts the Christian account of unhappiness as rooted in the Fall. But adds that the churches "make life a matter of atoning for a sin that stains us all from birth" (20). Thus, Christians of all communions are attracted to pain and unhappiness, indulging in a "sadism of piety" (21-2). "With religion the goal was to atone for one's sins and win salvation" (71).

Bruckner is a master of perceiving contradictions and ironies. "The theme of happiness comes from Christianity, but it flourishes against it" (26). To top off the irony of this, the Enlightenment rehabilitates pleasure and well-being only to be co-opted by a new commandment to be happy. One cannot escape the covenant of works. Now paradise is clearly located in this world—a paradise of man's own devising, demanding that he create it now (27-31). "The idea of progress supplants that of eternity" (30). Ironically, transferring hope to the earthly future oddly resembles the Christian hope. The terrible difference is that because it resides in another world the latter can never be disproven, whereas the failures of human progress are evident for all to witness (33). The foolish promise to rid the world of evil has led modern people to an increased aversion to suffering and embracing of pleasure. "The Enlightenment assigned itself an immoderate goal: proving itself worthy of Christianity at its best" (38).

From this point on Bruckner explores and critiques the post-Enlightenment quest for happiness as a worldly ideal toward which we are driven as a civilization. It joins technology and science in the list of our "promethean exploits" (42). Where once happiness was rooted in morality, now "it is being unhappy that is immoral" (49). "There is a whole ethic of seeming to feel good about oneself that governs us and is supported by the smiling intoxication of advertising and merchandise" (50). His critique is often trenchantly humorous, as when he observes that the quest for perfect health has reduced once delightful dining to a "form of medication" (53); or observes that belief in God and doing good to your neighbor have health benefits (56). The "idol of happiness" has made us "galley slaves of pleasure" (66).

The next chapter, "The Bittersweet Saga of Dullness," asserts that our liberation from God has fostered banality, "under house arrest here below" (71), ruled by time, and thus without a destiny, whereas "the Christian drama of salvation and perdition is the counterpart of the secular drama of success and failure" (72-3). This in turn leads to "tension without intention" (79). The exploration of banality goes on through the next two chapters, the latter of which is brimming with shrewd insights. "Someone who hopes to embrace every possibility is likely to fully embrace none" (110). The lie that anyone can become president must be replaced by the aphorism that hardly anyone can become president. Happiness is much more likely when we avert unnecessary disappointments. "What makes most discussions of happiness so insipid is that they deliver one and the same message: accept your fate, moderate your desires, want what you have and you'll have what you want" (114).

Bruckner's Part III, chapters 7-9, is perhaps the most brilliant sociological analysis in the book. He takes up a major theme articulated in his most significant work to date, The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism (2006),[2] which consummates his earlier The Tears of the White Man: Compassion as Contempt (1983).[3] He takes on the Romantic critique of the petit bourgeois. He chastens the critics by pointing out—with no small sense of delight—"The fact that we are all bourgeois in one way or another is shown by our religion of the economy raised to the rank of supreme spiritual good" (142). So, socialism failed to eradicate any of the long list of problems that it pointed out in the bourgeois. Rather, it multiplied problems (185). He takes on the inevitable egalitarianism engendered by democracy, "To endure democracy needs its own antithesis." Hence, a return to manners is called for (157-58). This would be a small example of the solution to the present happiness imperative of the West: instead of seeking money we need to seek a different kind of wealth, "creating new kinds of opulence for the majority of the people, free time, poetry, love, the liberation of desire, the sense of everyday transfiguration." Among other luxuries the Christian can warm to: "silence," "slowness," "studious idleness, the enjoyment of the major works of the mind" (177).

The final section explores the flight from suffering, which is the major hope of modernity. Rights are multiplied and the status of victim is exalted (191-92). Instead, Bruckner poses engagement with sufferers, rather than revolting against suffering (219-24). Thus, a new "culture of caring" and a "new art of dying" (220) can be developed through "an unprecedented syncretism" of religions (222-26) and the expertise of science (219), "without hope of a beyond" (218).

Perpetual Euphoria is seasoned with numerous, and usually very interesting, excursuses, ranging from discussions of cultural phenomena like an analysis of the phrase "How's it going" (18-19) to "The Utopia of Fun" (91-92). The former is an example of places where the original French text's age shows. Sometimes the connection with the main text is unclear, leaving the impression of a non sequitur. But they also offer an occasional poignant aphorism such as, "Life always has the structure of a promise, not that of a program" (153).

As with so much cultural criticism, this book is long on criticism, and very short on solution. In the end, for Bruckner himself, enjoying the simple, but fleeting, pleasures of ordinary life is the best an unbeliever can do. "The greatest felicity is perhaps the one that is highly arbitrary, that is never expected or calculated, and that falls on us like a gift from heaven" (126). Sounding almost like the writer of Ecclesiastes, Bruckner observes, "everything done to achieve happiness can also drive it away" (173). Finally, he concludes, "it is perhaps time to say that the 'secret' of a good life is not to give a damn about happiness: never to seek it as such ... To happiness in the strict sense, we may prefer pleasure, as a brief moment of ecstasy stolen in the course of things" (230-31). Seeking happiness for its own sake is doomed to disappoint. This reminds me of John Updike's clever comment, "Happiness. Is it a subject? It is best seen out of the corner of the eye."[4] Doomed to Kantian exile from contact with the transcendent, Bruckner ends up trying to put a happy face on ultimate despair. Now I understand Bruckner's quote of François Mauriac after the dedication page, "There are people who are assailed by happiness as if it were a misfortune, and it is."

But at least he has exposed the utter nakedness of the emperor of the modern West. Bruckner is well worth reading, especially since he cannot and has not escaped framing his entire book in the Christian categories of Augustine, Thomas, and Pascal. A recent Christian account of happiness has been provided by Ellen T. Charry, Margaret W. Harmon Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, in God and the Art of Happiness (Eerdmans, 2010). In the latest Mars Hill Audio (#107) Ken Myers interviews her. From the interview, it seems that her book attempts to correct the pietistic error of devaluing life in this world (Bruckner's critique of Christianity), without holding out a false hope for ultimate happiness in this life (Bruckner's critique of modernity).


Sissela Bok, born in Sweden in 1934, is a moral philosopher, presently a senior visiting fellow at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies. Bok does not interact with any serious Christian theology except Augustine's, a section on Pascal's wager, and passing mention of people like Aquinas, Theilhard de Chardin, Thomas Merton, Desmond Tutu, and Teresa of Avila.

She tips us off as to her presuppositions at the beginning with a chapter on "magical luck" (1). Interestingly, the etymology of "happiness" has to do with happenstance (21). Bok gives the "two aims of the book" (3-4, 173). The first, and I think most useful, is a topical survey of what philosophers, poets, religious thinkers, and natural and social scientists think about happiness. The second is to consider, against the background of the survey, the "limits imposed by perennial moral issues about how we should lead our lives and how we should treat one another." Like Bruckner she is both descriptive and didactic. But unlike him she seems almost to embrace the happiness imperative of the modern West. Oddly, she does not interact with him at all. Bruckner returns the favor. Unlike Bruckner she presupposes Darwinism (13, 19, 21-22, 106, 112).

In the second chapter on experience Bok discusses Robert Nozick's "experience machine" (25-8). The machine creates any desired experience in your mind. The test question for this thought-experiment is, Should you plug in to this machine for life? Nozick answers no, because an illusion is no substitute for real life, and there is more to life than experience, especially when illusions involve only the dreamer.

Bok then looks at the variety of definitions of happiness by introducing (35) eighteenth-century poet Alexander Pope's long poem on the human condition, An Essay on Man (1733).

Oh, Happiness! Our being's end and aim!
Good, Pleasure, Ease, Content! Whate'er thy name:
That something still which prompts th'eternal sigh,
To which we bear to live, or dare to die,
Which still so near us, yet beyond us lies,
O'er-looked, seen double, by the fool, and wise.[5]

In the end, after surveying numerous definitions, Pope despairs of defining happiness:

Who thus define it, say they more or less
Than this, that Happiness is Happiness?

Bok's own survey from Aristotle to modern ethicists, while very interesting, fares no better. But, in discussing John Kekes, she observes two helpful considerations in considering how various claims and definitions of happiness are to be judged: 1) "whether people's evaluation of their own happiness is based on true facts" and 2) "judgment brings to bear some outside standard thought indispensable for happiness, such as the possession of virtue or of particular religious convictions" (41). Bok believes that while subjective experience of happiness takes priority, "an outsider's perspective [is] needed for fuller understanding" (43). Sadly the ultimate outsider, God, is not considered. Nor is life after this life. Thus, happiness is confined to this present evil age—sad folly of the highest sort!

The place of virtue in happiness is then considered beginning with Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics as a template (43). Immanuel Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1780) dethroned happiness (49). All that those before him believed to be linked to happiness, such as virtue and talent, were delinked. The moral life is to be sought for its own sake, whatever the cost (50). The problem is that, because an afterlife cannot be proved, it must be merely postulated in order to motivate. The "categorical imperative" ends up being hopelessly captive to human imagination and initiative. Not surprisingly, Bok ends the chapter asserting that "there is no one definition of happiness, I suggest, that should exclude all others, much less be imposed by force or indoctrination" (58).

The next chapter "On the Happy Life" (IV) explores religious views, beginning with the Stoic Seneca's essay De Vita Beata (59 AD, 59-66), and then with Augustine's essay by the same title (386 AD, 66-69). While the brilliant Seneca worked daily to reduce the number of his vices (60), Augustine concludes, "whoever possesses God is happy" (68). This possession is solely a matter of God's grace.

This chapter closes with an interesting juxtaposing of Pascal's famous wager (76-80) and an Enlightenment hedonist physician, La Mettrie, who staunchly opposed Seneca's linkage of happiness to virtue (80-82). As admirable as Pascal's Pensées (1670) are, I have never found his "wager" compelling. Out of the context of Pascal's theology it sounds little better than Kant's categorical imperative, except that Pascal believed firmly in the afterlife based on the infallible testimony of Scripture. The problem with the wager is that "if you lose, you lose nothing" is simply not biblical. "Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ" (Phil. 3:8). The unbeliever might temporarily enjoy the very things Paul sacrificed for Jesus. Bok perceptively gets this point when she observes that the wager must change his entire way of life (79).

What galled Enlightenment philosophes and apparently galls Bok is Pascal's insistence that ultimate and true happiness can only be found through Jesus in the triune God of the Christian faith (79). Voltaire opined that we cannot know enough to wager in one direction or the other (79).

Bok then takes up the question of measuring happiness. From Jeremy Bentham's "greatest happiness for the greatest number" (84-89), to John Stuart Mill's more expansive method of calculation (89-92), to Francis Edgeworth's "hedonic calculus" (92-96), Bok explores the modern penchant to formulaic control. Out of this milieu come the new discipline of neuroscience as well as psychology, both of which seek to discover the components of well-being, including the hopes and fears connected with religious faith (101). Nothing, in my opinion, is better calculated to produce unhappiness than the unhappy notion that happiness is rooted in neural pathways and brain chemistry. This new form of determinism leaves us completely at the mercy of the elements. Bok wisely chides the "science of happiness" for not including literature, the arts, and virtue (105), which, I might add, cannot be measured by science. She explores this in a fascinating chapter (VI), "Beyond Temperament," in terms of melancholy and sanguinity, resilience and empathy (121). I especially enjoyed the section connecting happiness with retirement, leisure, and solitude (124-31).

Bok's penultimate chapter (VII) asks the question, "Is Lasting Happiness Achievable?" Freud says no, Bertrand Russell says yes. Both were atheists, thus limiting their discussion to this life (132-33). Perhaps Freud's less sanguine view was rooted in his Jewish background. Bok goes on to discuss the place of heredity in happiness—the old nature-nurture debate (144). While both Freud and Russell challenged common assumptions about happiness in terms of illusion and delusion, Bok provocatively asks, "Why shouldn't a Christian, for example, reject Freud's and Russell's atheism as similarly deluded?" (154).

Finally, Bok discusses illusion in chapter VIII, bringing the reader full circle back to Robert Nozick's "experience machine." The dangers of seeking happiness in virtual pleasures disconnected from reality are considered. Bok ends by placing her confidence in the maxim of the ancient philosopher Mencius, "There is no greater joy than to find, on self-examination, that I am true to myself" (172).

Bok is well worth reading. She is erudite, chock full of information, and raises important ethical questions (e.g., 121, 136). While she does not deal as explicitly with Christian theology as Bruckner does, her pages are haunted by Christian truth.


Both are captive to the relativist's, Post-Kantian, earth-bound perspective that dominates modern epistemology. Both are in need of the biblical message. While both refer to the ancients, neither spends any time with the biblical writers. The writers of Ecclesiastes, the Psalms, Gospels, and epistles come immediately to mind.

As to the physical properties of the books, Princeton's aesthetic production is light-years ahead of Yale's. The typography, the margins, footnotes instead of endnotes, all conjoin to make the Yale book look pedestrian. Both have excellent indexes, but only Princeton places the notes where they belong, at the bottom of the page one is reading.


In its crudest form the positive secularist embraces the popular notion expressed by Kip Garre, skier, killed in an avalanche near the Split Couloir in Pine Mountain, California, on April 29, 2011, "This is life, and it's supposed to be fun. So just enjoy the good times." A cynical retort might be that of Dilbert, that denizen—or should we say prisoner—of the high tech office, "I'm considering becoming an idiot so I can get the health benefits of happiness."

But the greatest impediment to defining, or better yet, achieving happiness, is the failure to take the fall of humanity into sin through the first Adam, and the redemption achieved by the Second Adam, into account. Ecclesiastes teaches us that due to sin happiness eludes us by God's design and will continue to do so until we find our happiness in God through his gift of Christ. Happiness, as we have seen, comes from the root meaning "lucky" in Middle English—haphazard. Happiness eludes us because it can only be found in God himself, as our Shorter Catechism so beautifully sums this up, "The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever" (WSC 1). Pope alludes to this, "Which still so near us, yet beyond us lies, O'er-looked, seen double, by the fool, and wise." Biblically, happiness is passive, looking to God as the author and giver. The unpredictable nature of happiness and God's blessings in this life is, among other things, a reminder that every blessing is a gift, not calculable by human formulas or earned by human merit.

In the end, the quest for happiness is self-defeating because, when sought for itself, it proves to have wings of wax like Icarus, if not immediately, always at death. When found in God it lasts. Like Sabbath rest—first God's, then ours—a deep and abiding enjoyment of God and his works is the happiness we will enjoy for eternity in Christ. "Happy is that people whose God is the LORD" (Ps. 144:15b, KJV).


[1] Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York: Norton, 1978).

[2] Pascal Bruckner, The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism, trans. Steven Rendall (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010; French edition, 2006).

[3] Pascal Bruckner, The Tears of the White Man: Compassion as Contempt, trans. and intro. William R. Beer (New York: Free Press, 1986; French edition, 1983).

[5] John Updike, Self-consciousness: Memoirs by John Updike (New York: Knopf, 1989), 254.

[6] Samuel Johnson took umbrage at Pope's views of happiness, expressing them in the Life of Alexander Pope and his own poem, The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749).

The author is editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, June-July 2011.

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Ordained Servant: June–July 2011

The Pursuit of Happiness

Also in this issue

Psalm 1: The Pursuit of Happiness

Christ's Test of Our Orthodoxy

Living by God's Promises

Nothing Gold Can Stay

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