Albert Camus Explains Why Happiness Is Like Committing a Crime—“You Should Never Admit to it” (1959)

Note: You can read a trans­la­tion below.

Hap­pi­ness, as it has been con­ceived for at least the past cou­ple thou­sand years in West­ern phi­los­o­phy, is a prob­lem. For the Greeks, hap­pi­ness was only one com­po­nent of Eudai­mo­nia, a gen­er­al human flour­ish­ing that must be devel­oped along with ethics, per­son­al growth, and social and civic duty in order for a life to have pur­pose and mean­ing. “Pos­i­tive psy­chol­o­gy speak­er” Dr. Nico Rose reminds us that the con­cept con­trasts with Hedo­nia (as in “hedo­nism”), which relates sole­ly to per­son­al plea­sure and enjoy­ment, such as the kind famous­ly indulged in by many an ancient tyrant.

These are not mutu­al­ly exclu­sive cat­e­gories. “Mean­ing­ful expe­ri­ences can cer­tain­ly bring about plea­sure,” writes Rose, “and tak­ing care of our­selves can cer­tain­ly add mean­ing to our lives.” We should, he cau­tions “refrain from equat­ing the pur­suit of hedo­nia with shal­low­ness.”

The prob­lem, as the Greeks under­stood it—and as pro­po­nents of pos­i­tive psy­chol­o­gy like Jonathan Haidt and founder Mar­tin Selig­man rec­og­nize as well—is that sub­jec­tive hap­pi­ness for some can mean deep unhap­pi­ness, or tyran­ny, for oth­ers. It can mean pet­ti­ness, apa­thy, and emo­tion­al imma­tu­ri­ty, qual­i­ties that may not nec­es­sar­i­ly be immoral but are cer­tain­ly unpleas­ant and social­ly cor­ro­sive.

But we might refer to the dif­fer­ence between Hedo­nia and Eudai­mo­nia anoth­er way. Matthew Pianal­to at Phi­los­o­phy Now dis­cuss­es the con­trast as one between “psy­cho­log­i­cal and philo­soph­i­cal con­cepts of hap­pi­ness.”

When hap­pi­ness is equat­ed with sub­jec­tive well-being, the vast major­i­ty of peo­ple turn out to be rel­a­tive­ly hap­py. Aris­to­tle and the oth­er Greeks, how­ev­er, were not con­cerned with rel­a­tive or sub­jec­tive hap­pi­ness – they want­ed to know what the objec­tive fea­tures of a tru­ly hap­py life would be. Greek inquiries into the nature of the good life were real­ly inquiries into the nature of the best life. Thus, when the var­i­ous Greek philoso­phers rec­om­mend­ed the cul­ti­va­tion of virtue in order to live hap­pi­ly, and since the word we trans­late as ‘virtue’ real­ly means ‘excel­lence’, the Greeks were basi­cal­ly telling us that the hap­pi­est (and the best) life is the most excel­lent life.

Is this mor­al­iza­tion real­ly nec­es­sary for human flour­ish­ing, and does it actu­al­ly pro­mote a supe­ri­or form of hap­pi­ness? Or does it sim­ply intro­duce a means for con­trol­ling oth­er people’s behav­ior and sham­ing them for their sup­posed lack of virtue? If you were to ask Albert Camus this ques­tion, he might have sug­gest­ed the lat­ter, and any­one who has read The Stranger and thought about the social coer­cion the nov­el por­trays will hard­ly be sur­prised. In the video above, Camus strong­ly implies his own view with an imag­ined Stranger-like dia­logue, in French. A trans­la­tion (gen­er­ous­ly pro­vid­ed by @TOS1892) rough­ly reads:

“Today hap­pi­ness is like a crime—never admit it. Don’t say ‘I’m hap­py’ oth­er­wise you will hear con­dem­na­tion all around.”

“’So you’re hap­py, young man? What do you do with orphans from Kash­mir? Or the New Zealand lep­ers who aren’t “hap­py” as you say?’” 

“Yes what to do with the lep­ers? How to get rid of them as Ionesco would say? And all of a sud­den, we are sad as tooth­picks.”

As Maria Popo­va points out at Brain Pick­ings, Camus con­sid­ered this kind of labored, almost rig­or­ous, kind of unhap­pi­ness a “self-imposed prison,” writ­ing in a 1956 let­ter that “those who pre­fer their prin­ci­ples over their hap­pi­ness… refuse to be hap­py out­side the con­di­tions they seem to have attached to their hap­pi­ness. If they are hap­py by sur­prise, they find them­selves dis­abled, unhap­py to be deprived of their unhap­pi­ness.” (I can’t help but think of these lines: “And if the day came when I felt a nat­ur­al emo­tion / I’d get such a shock I’d prob­a­bly jump in the ocean.”)

Camus rec­og­nized emo­tions not as abstract prin­ci­ples, but as deeply con­nect­ed to “the sol­i­dar­i­ty of our bod­ies, uni­ty at the cen­ter of the mor­tal and suf­fer­ing flesh.” The cor­rec­tive to a shal­low hedo­nism that might over­ride our ethics is not a striv­ing after philo­soph­i­cal notions of “excel­lence,” but anoth­er emo­tion, unhap­pi­ness, which we should also not be ashamed to feel. “No,” wrote Camus, “it is not humil­i­at­ing to be unhap­py.” The philoso­pher wrote these words to a hos­pi­tal­ized friend who was suf­fer­ing phys­i­cal­ly, a con­di­tion, he admits, that is “some­times humil­i­at­ing.” But the more exis­ten­tial “suf­fer­ing of being can­not be” a humil­i­a­tion. “It is life,” and it forces us to see things we would rather not see.

Do these alter­na­tions of hap­pi­ness and unhap­pi­ness point toward some­thing larg­er than the fleet­ing whims of phys­i­cal pain or per­son­al sat­is­fac­tion? Yes, Camus thought, but the fact that we need them does not speak espe­cial­ly well of peo­ple in what he called a “servile cen­tu­ry.” In his note­books, Camus con­sid­ered how, through sor­row, Oscar Wilde came to under­stand art as some­thing that “must blend with all” rather than tran­scend ordi­nary life. “It is the cul­pa­bil­i­ty of this era,” he writes, “that it always need­ed sor­row… to catch a glimpse of a truth also found in hap­pi­ness.”

It is entire­ly pos­si­ble to be hap­py and vir­tu­ous, authen­tic, and truth­ful, Camus sug­gests, “when the heart is wor­thy.” In some ways, it seems, he reframed the ancient Greeks’ idea of Eudai­mo­nia from an abstract philo­soph­i­cal prin­ci­ple to a sub­jec­tive psy­cho­log­i­cal state, since there is no clear, objec­tive way in an absurd uni­verse, he thought, to know what an “excel­lent” life should look like. Still, like Aris­to­tle, Camus sug­gests that pur­su­ing mean­ing­ful hap­pi­ness is a “moral oblig­a­tion” writes Popo­va. But he under­stands this pur­suit as per­ilous and poten­tial­ly dev­as­tat­ing, neces­si­tat­ing “an equal capac­i­ty for con­tact with absolute despair.”

via @pbkauf

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Albert Camus, Edi­tor of the French Resis­tance News­pa­per Com­bat, Writes Mov­ing­ly About Life, Pol­i­tics & War (1944–47)

Hear Albert Camus Read the Famous Open­ing Pas­sage of The Stranger (1947)

Albert Camus Talks About Nihilism & Adapt­ing Dostoyevsky’s The Pos­sessed for the The­atre, 1959

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Frank says:

    “Note: You can read a trans­la­tion below.”

    Whee below? I see a num­ber of quotes but noth­ing iden­ti­fies the text as a trans­la­tion of this video. So where is the trans­la­tion. We don’t see it?

  • T. R. Ans Lation says:

    Frank!? You can’t find the trans­la­tion? Here it is:

    “Today hap­pi­ness is like a crime—never admit it. Don’t say ‘I’m hap­py’ oth­er­wise you will hear con­dem­na­tion all around.”

    “’So you’re hap­py, young man? What do you do with orphans from Kash­mir? Or the New Zealand lep­ers who aren’t “hap­py” as you say?’”

    “Yes what to do with the lep­ers? How to get rid of them as Ionesco would say? And all of a sud­den, we are sad as tooth­picks.”

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