Fall 2008 Initiation Speech


Biographical Note

Dr. Darrin McMahon is Ben Weider Professor of History at FloridaState University . He was initiated into the University of California ,Berkeley , chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. Dr. McMahon is the author of the widely acclaimed book, Happiness: A History (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006), and his writings have appeared in The Wall Street JournalThe New York TimesThe Washington PostThe New York Times Book Review, and The Boston Globe. Additionally, his work has been featured on CBS, the BBC, the CBC, and National Public Radio. Professor McMahon is currently working on an intellectual history of the idea of genius in Western thought. Dr. Darrin M. McMahon 
Dr. Darrin McMahon
© Robin Holland


Happiness and the Life of the Mind

The Alpha of Florida Phi Beta Kappa Chapter

Fall Initiation Address


Dr. Darrin McMahon

Florida State University

November 13, 2008

Weichelt Lounge, Rovetta Business Building

It is a pleasure to be here this afternoon, and it is a pleasure to be able to join my colleagues in extending a very sincere congratulations to all those of you being inducted today into Phi Beta Kappa.  It is a major accomplishment, something for which you should be justifiably proud for the rest of your lives, something for which your parents should be justifiably proud.  And perhaps that is really the best way to begin.  Will all the new members of Phi Beta Kappa just take your right hand and put it over your shoulder like this—parents and friends you can help out—and give yourself a nice pat on the back.  

You deserve it.  Because no doubt there was some pain extended in securing this award.  Some sacrifice.  On Thursday night when all your friends were going out, you stayed in.  Or maybe you just went out a little later, or came home a little earlier.  On Spring break, when all your friends were in Panama City or Fort Lauderdale or New Orleans maybe you did some work in the lab or put some time in the library or maybe you read on Panama City Beach.  I don’t know the particulars—how could I?  I’m a professor and we’re vaguely clueless about such things, as the students well appreciate.  But what I do know, is that you did make sacrifices to be here today—real sacrifices of one sort or another—and you did expend a great degree of energy.

I want to read to you from a book, a big book, by a seventeenth-century English scholar, sometimes astrologer, sometimes mathematician, who spent practically his entire life at Brasenose College , Oxford .  A man by the name of Robert Burton and his book is called the Anatomy of Melancholy, which I recommend if ever you find yourself with a little time on your hands.  Now Burton was interested in the things that cause melancholy—a word that he understood, like many of his time, and indeed many since antiquity, as a superabundance of black bile (from melan, melas=black + khole = bile in ancient Greek), black bile being one of the four humors along with yellow bile, phlegm, and blood thought to regulate our temperaments and moods.  And so we still say, to this day, that one is sanguine or bilious or phlegmatic—words all tracing to this Renaissance and medieval theory of the humors, a theory that itself traces all the way back to the ancient world and such famous Greek and Roman physicians and healers as Hippocrates and Galen.

So Burton is looking for the causes of melancholy.  And he has chapters on the things you might expect like self-love, and pride, and vainglory, and of course hawking, and hunting, and gaming—you really do have to be careful about hawking too much; it is a real problem.  There is a chapter on immoderate pleasure, and on voluntary seclusion, on bad air, drunkenness, idleness, and then interestingly enough, there is a chapter on “Overmuch study.”  And let me just read to you a small passage, which Burton quotes from another author:

Hard students are commonly troubled with gouts, catarrhs, rheums, cachexia, bradypepsia, bad eyes, stone, and colic, crudities, oppilations, vertigo, win, consumptions, and all such diseases as come by overmuch sitting; they are most part lean, dry, ill-coloured, spend their fortunes, lose their wits, and many times their lives, and all through immoderate pains and extraordinary studies.  If you will not believe the truth of this, look upon great Tostatus and Thomas Aquinas’s works, and tell me whether those men took pains?  Peruse Austin, Hierome, and many thousands besides.

Qui cupit optatam cursu contingere metam

Multa tulit, fecitque puer, sudavit et alsit.

He that desires this wished goal to gain,

Must seat and freeze before he can attain …  and labour hard for it.

“How many poor scholars have lost their wits, or become dizzards, neglecting all wordly affairs and their own health, to gain knowledge for which—(and this, I think, is a warning to the professors)—after all their pains, in this world’s esteem they will be accounted ridiculous and silly fools, idiots, asses, and (as oft they are) rejected, contemned, derided, doting, and mad!”  

Well, perhaps Burton exaggerated just a little.  But he understood your pain.  And we understand your pain, the many sacrifices, as I say, that you undoubtedly made to be able to sit here today.  The question I’d like to consider for a moment, is just how happy all that hard work may have made you, and may continue to make you, despite the catarrhs and the rheums and the winds.

And Burton is an interesting person to talk about in this connection, for notwithstanding his careful dissection of melancholy, he wrote about melancholy—if you prefer unhappiness—as he says in order to “avoid melancholy.”  He could think of no “More general service” than to prescribes means to “prevent and cure” this “epidemical disease.”

Now that is an interesting endeavor, particularly as applied to scholars, for in fact there was a longstanding association that linked melancholy to genius, to artistic or intellectual prowess.  Burton’s contemporaries would have traced the connection to a passage by a writer they believed to be Aristotle (we now know that this was not the case), but that claimed regardless that in certain special cases a profusion of black bile was linked to breadth of imagination, intellectual acuity, and powers of prediction and foresight.  So in other words, the price of genius—or intellectual power—was melancholy or depression or unhappiness, and that has remained a fairly strong association ever since.  If you ever go to a German or French university, you will see lots of young students sitting around, dressed in black, smoking cigarettes, drinking, and talking, perfectly contentedly, about the angst and suffering of existence.  The connection lives on.    

The question is, is it true—are hard scholars melancholics, are those who take great pains, necessarily unhappy?  Burton set out to question that assumption, treating sadness or unhappiness as a type of affliction, a disease.  He was very much on the cutting edge of a new way of looking at the world.  For it was at just about this time—the seventeenth century—in just this place—England—that men and women first dared to question an age-old assumption, that all human beings must suffer, as a matter of course, not only students and not only supporters of the Chicago Cubs.  That was, in fact, the default assumption of people living in the Western World in this time, and had been for centuries.  It was certainly the assumption of Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, who learned that because of Adam and Eve’s transgression in the Garden of Eden, happiness was not of this earth and the men and women were condemned to suffer the toils of labor, and childbirth, and jealousy, and vengeance, and all manner of evil leading ultimately to death, and the happiness of the next world (if God so wills), but not in this one here below.  It was a sort of early articulation of the notion that life sucks and then you die, and of course for a great many people that was precisely what happened.

Jews during this time had a good deal to suffer and withstand, as well, and although it is true that their condition was—and I say this as a Catholic and a philosemite—on the whole somewhat healthier with respect to the pleasures of this life—and if you don’t believe me go have a look at the Book of Ecclesiastes, where the author tells you to “Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do”—that notwithstanding, no Jew living in Europe in the seventeenth century, or well after or well before, could afford to forget the Book of Job, the tale as you know of a good man, who suffers terribly, for no apparent reason and no apparent fault of his own.  Suffering, in the Jewish tradition, too, was, sadly, a part of life.  

And that was true, as well, for the Greeks and the Romans.  “Call no man happy until he is dead,” was the line attributed to the great Athenian lawgiver Solon, and it was widely repeated—in Greek tragedy, history, and politics.  The idea being that happiness, ultimately, is not something we can ever entirely control—it is in the hands of the gods, or the fates, or the stars, or fortune itself.  And in fact, to this day, we guard that connection in the word itself.  Happiness derives from the Old English and Old Norse word hap, which just means luck or fortune, giving us words like happenstance, and perhaps, and haphazard.  And that etymological link holds in every Indo-European language from the ancient Greek and Latin forward.  It is a striking fact, and it gets at this older wisdom that says that happiness is something that happens to us, and over that we can never exercise complete control.  If you’ve ever read a great tragedy, you’ll know that just when things are looking good, that is the time to get worried, because the gods have a way of punishing hubris or excessive pride or confidence in one’s condition.  Chaucer hinted at something similar when many centuries later he could write in his Canterbury Tales:

And thus does Fortune’s wheel turn treacherously

And out of happiness bring men to sorrow

What goes up, must come down, and what goes round will come back again to haunt you.  Don’t get too comfortable.

            Well that is precisely the mindset that people like Burton began to challenge in the seventeenth century, arguing in effect that happiness was too important to be left to chance.   Arguing further that God in his goodness really wanted us to be happy here on earth, to enjoy his world and our place in it, not to suffer unto death.  And arguing further still that human beings could master that fate, exercise control over how we are in the world.  Men and women were meant to be happy—even had a right to be so—and we had it in our power to bring that about.  Burton , for his part, included in his Anatomy of Melancholy a utopia, a picture of a world in which everyone was content.  Within decades, others were setting about building that world.  “The business of man is to be happy here on earth,” the Great English philosopher and revolutionary John Locke could declare just several decades after Burton .  The point was to get down to business, and really since that time we’ve never stopped doing just that, working in perpetual pursuit of happiness.   You can argue that our results have been mixed—we haven’t always been successful in catching what it is we pursue—and yet I think it is important to appreciate how radical was this revolution in human expectation carried out since the seventeenth century.  When Burton and others dared to treat human suffering not as an inevitable constant of the universe, but as something that could be relieved and overcome through human agency, they began a search that continues to the present.   And the truth is that we’ve learned quite a lot about what it is that aids and abets human flourishing, what it is that can make us happy.  A whole branch of contemporary psychology, in fact, focuses not simply on pathology—on what makes us ill—but also on what can induce good feeling and positive emotion.  It is called, appropriately enough, positive psychology, and I just want to share with you very briefly in closing the findings of one of its better practitioners, a man by the name of Mihaly or Mike Csikszentmihalyi.  Mike is famous for an idea called flow—he’s written several books with that word in the title—and flow is the psychological state that comes over us when we are totally engaged in meaningful, challenging activities that draw on and marshal our skills, individual faculties, and attributes.  Flow is very much like what athletes call being in the zone—it is that state we get to when we are totally absorbed in what it is we are doing, challenged, engaged, almost not conscious of ourselves and yet supremely there in the moment.  And even though flow states can be induced by any number of activities that depend ultimately your own predilections and strengths, I think the analogy with sports is apt and revealing. For getting to that place—getting to the zone—requires an incredible amount of preparatory work, dedication and perseverance, hard work, sacrifice, and probably more than a little pain.  And yet if you talk to one of those mighty warriors who last week went out and stomped Clemson on the football field and asked them if they thought their struggle and sacrifice were worth it—I’m pretty confident you’d get a yes.  And that is equally true for the great violinist who puts thousands of hours into practice in order to experience the flow of beautiful music, or the scholar who takes great labors and pains to achieve.  Just as Burton discovered, ironically, that the study of melancholy was a way to avoid it—and that the life of the mind, for all its pains, was really a means to happiness—I hope that all of you have tasted in your sacrifice some of the joy and satisfaction that can come of  hard study and learning.  At the very least, I hope you are tasting just a little bit of it now.  And that you will go on to experience a good deal more of it—in whatever it is that you ultimately choose to do.