Socrates Happiness Essay

Happiness and the Good Life

What is the relation between living a good life and being happy? To many, the good life is a financially prosperous life, and happiness lies in the possession of wealth. Worldly success is what counts, and anyone who is not ‘successful’ in the usual sense is counted a ‘failure.’ Others strive for a life based on honor and public recognition. A good life is made up of hobnobbing with the right people in the right settings, and happiness is a matter of gaining respect. Along with these, there are lives that show by their living a desire for glory or power that inspires great efforts. Others, who are not drawn to wealth, power or glory because of the difficulties involved in attaining them, may choose the pursuit of pleasure. A good and happy life is one in which pleasures outweigh the pains overall. Many questions have been asked about the good life and happiness. People constantly answer those questions with their lives, and we see many different ideas of the good life and happiness playing out in the strivings of human beings to live well and be happy.

The ancient Greeks wished their friends to ‘do well’ and ‘fare well’ in this life. These two, they thought, held the keys to human felicity. Doing well concerns ourselves, our own actions and feelings. We have some control over these aspects of our lives. So when we wish someone to ‘do well’ in life, we express the hope that the person will be moral and fair in his or her dealings with others. Beyond securing basic physical survival, someone who does well in life can sleep with a clear conscience, whether blessed with material success or not. From many a philosophical point of view, the good life has an intrinsically moral core that involves compassion for the suffering of others and acting justly in the world.

‘Faring well’ concerns events and occurrences over which we do not have so much control. “Faring well” means succeeding in life, coming into a prosperous condition, with all the benefits that come with money and social acceptance. Someone who is faring well in life has had a bit of good luck. It is possible to do everything right in order to succeed, but still fail to do so. For example, you can study hard for your degree, get your professional qualifications, work diligently, become competent, but still not succeed. The cards may not fall your way. As Sartre says, “You are free to try, but not to succeed.” This seems right to me, and so I will come down with Aristotle against Plato on this point, that doing well is not all that is involved in attaining happiness in life.

Plato’s Socrates famously says that the good person cannot be harmed, that virtue is knowledge, and that happiness consists entirely of doing well and being just. Aristotle argues that a degree of luck plays into our happiness. He insists that most of our happiness is in our own hands, but that it can be affected by outside circumstances. So while being happy is mostly a matter of ‘doing well’ (and ‘thinking well’), great misfortunes can damage our happiness. It may be that such a person, by ‘doing well,’ will attain a degree of dignity in suffering, but he will not be happy; or, as Aristotle has it, ‘blessed.’

In light of this result, I hazard an intuitive philosophical account of the relation between the good life and happiness. Living a good life is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for happiness. In other words, it is possible to live a good life without being happy, but not happy without living a good life. This a ‘philosophical’ account of the relation because many philosophers have a particular idea of happiness and the good life that is not shared by everyone, with their emphasis on clarity of thought and sound reasoning. In addition, though philosophers recommend the philosophical life as both the happiest and the best, they are not in a position to legislate for everyone what happiness must be. Nevertheless, the traditional philosophical view is not without support. All we have to do is look at the results of many lives that strive for wealth, power, fame, glory or pleasure. So many disasters befall those who pursue a good life with no moral core, or reflective turn of mind, that it makes some sense, as philosophers argue, to pursue the wisdom to recognize the good life, and, within that life, such happiness human beings can attain.

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Ethics, Philosophy

Socrates on Prozac and Happines

by James R. Beebe

Dept. of Philosophy

University at Buffalo

Copyright ã 2003




Outline of Essay:

I. Socrates’ View of Happiness

A. Character

B. The Soul and the Afterlife

C. Ultimate Values

D. Who Can Take Away Your Happiness?

E. Virtue and Happiness

F. Moral Realism

G. Classical and Modern Views of Happiness

II. Listening to Prozac

A. Two Case Studies

B.  Philosophical and Moral Issues

III. Socrates vs. Kramer




            In Plato’s Apology and Crito we find the clearest statements of Socrates’ views on happiness and the pursuit of wisdom and virtue.  However, because Socrates’ views are scattered in pieces throughout these dialogues, it is sometimes difficult to see how his remarks fit together into a coherent scheme.  In the first section of this essay I will weave Socrates’ various remarks on virtue and happiness into a unified picture of what true happiness consists in.  An appreciation of his values and worldview can help us understand both his lifestyle and his behavior in the Apology and the Crito


I. Socrates’ View of Happiness

A. Character

            We should begin by noting some important differences between how the ancient Greeks viewed ethics and how most people view it today.  To begin with, the Greek word ethos, from which we derive our word ‘ethics,’ means ‘habit.’  Consequently, the central ethical question for ancient Greeks such as Socrates was not “What is the right action for me to perform in this particular situation?” but rather “What kind of person should I be?” or, equivalently, “What kinds of habits and character should I cultivate?”  By contrast, we moderns tend to focus our ethical discussions on the moral permissibility of certain actions.  If I were to tell my friends that I recently had a lengthy conversation about ethics, they would automatically think that we were discussing questions like these:

Your spouse falls ill with a life-threatening disease.  Only one pharmacist has the cure for the disease, but he is charging unfairly high prices for it.  You can’t afford the medicine and when you tell him your situation, he is unmoved.  Should you steal the medicine? 

We all think that lying is wrong.  But suppose that you are living in Nazi Germany and hiding a family of Jews in your cellar.  Nazi soldiers come to your door and ask, “Are you harboring any fugitive Jews in your cellar?”  Should you lie?

Although many Americans are quite willing to reflect on questions such as these, I find that they are generally reluctant to discuss questions about what kind of persons they ought to be.  They become uncomfortable and sometimes defensive when questions are raised about the ethics of their personal habits and lifestyles.  Socrates, however, like many ancient Greeks, believed that we need to settle questions about ethically virtuous character before we can properly settle questions about the morality of actions

            We should also note that the Greek word for virtue (arete) can also be translated as “excellence” and can be applied to a wider range of cases than our word “virtue.”  Consequently, when Socrates asked “When is someone’s life a truly happy life?” and was connecting virtue and happiness, he was really asking “What makes some human beings into truly excellent people?” or “What is the best, most excellent kind of life a person can live?”  When we think of happiness, we tend to think about how people feel about their lives.  By contrast, Socrates thought of happiness as an objective feature of one’s life.  We’ll discuss this idea more below. 

            In the Crito Socrates claims that “the most important thing is not life, but the good life” (48b).  Too many people today are more concerned with the length of their lives than with the moral quality of their lives.  They spend a great deal of time and money trying to improve their health through exercise, dieting and medicine and comparatively little time and effort trying to become more virtuous people.  By contrast, Socrates encouraged the young men of Athens to be more concerned with “the best possible state of your soul” (Apology, 29e) than with anything else, including the pursuit of wealth, reputation and honor. 


B. The Soul and the Afterlife

            Standing behind Socrates’ views of human happiness and flourishing is his view of the soul and its relation to virtue.  Although Socrates believes that the soul is immortal, he also views it as an organic entity that can either develop and flourish or rot and decay.  He views evil as a genuine metaphysical disease that can rot the soul and virtue as the means to a healthy and flourishing soul.  These are not mere metaphors for Socrates—he takes them very seriously.  All of Socrates’ contemporaries would have agreed with him that the soul is that part of us that is most characteristically human and distinguishes each of us as individuals.  The human soul (in Greek, “anima”) not merely animates our bodies but also confers upon us the power of reason—a capacity unique to our species.  Because of the amazing rational powers of the human soul, the ancient Greeks believed that the soul is nobler and higher than the body. 

            Socrates also believed in something like heaven.  Although he was skeptical about most of the traditional Greek polytheistic religion, he firmly believed that there was some higher, divine power that is concerned about justice and virtue—a power that will reward good people in the afterlife.  Socrates doesn’t seem to have any firm beliefs about what the afterlife will be like, except that there will probably be one.  He also doesn’t believe in any sacred book of scripture or in any of the popular religious myths of the time.  But he cannot bring himself to believe that morality and virtue simply don’t matter in the universe.  Although he doesn’t know what to call the higher power he reveres, he is convinced that it cares about good and evil. 


C. Ultimate Values

            Because of Socrates’ belief in a higher power, an afterlife, and the superiority of the soul to the body, he often makes the claim that it is far worse to be evil than to be dead.  To be evil is to have a rotting soul.  To be dead is to have a rotting body.  Since the soul can outlive the body and is superior to the body, it is much worse to have a rotting soul and a flourishing body than to have a rotting body and a flourishing soul. 

            Moreover, Socrates’ also claimed that the worst thing that could happen to someone is not the loss of life, loved ones, riches or even limbs.  Instead, it is the loss of virtue.  Being a foolish and wicked person—regardless of one’s wealth, station or lifespan—was far worst in his mind than dying young after a life of virtue and wisdom.  In the Apology (39a-b) Socrates tells the Assembly,

It is not difficult to avoid death, gentlemen of the jury, it is much more difficult to avoid wickedness, for it runs faster than death.  Slow and elderly as I am, I have been caught by the slower pursuer, whereas my accusers… have been caught by the quicker, wickedness.

Anybody can avoid death with enough tears and pleading before the jury or by bribing the right officials.  Virtue, however, is much harder to come by.  It cannot be bought for any price and is acquired only through the patient and conscientious pursuit of right living.  After refusing to grovel and beg for his life, Socrates tells the jury,

I would much rather die after this [honorable] kind of defence than live after making the other [groveling] kind.  Neither I nor any other man should, on trial or in war, contrive to avoid death at any cost.  (Apology, 38e-39a)

One can avoid death in war by being a coward and abandoning one’s post, but this is dishonorable.  Socrates, like many of the ancient Greeks, bought into something like the Marine Corps maxim “Death before dishonor.”  Socrates, however, thought that this motto should apply to every aspect of life and not just to military situations. 


D. Who Can Take Away Your Happiness?

            Socrates’ views on virtue, death and the soul jointly imply that no other person can inflict any real harm upon him (cf. Apology, 41c-d).  He believed that being foolish and wicked is the worst thing that can happen to a person, but no one can inflict this fate upon someone else.  Only you can make yourself evil, and only you can make yourself virtuous.  Other people can beat, imprison or even kill your body, but they cannot alter the virtuous state of your soul.  Because Socrates places a far higher value on the quality of his soul than on the quality of his body, he thinks that whatever harm someone may inflict upon his body will always be negligible in comparison.  Only he (by making wicked choices) can inflict harm upon his soul, and he has no interest in doing that.  As a result, he tells his accusers that killing him will bring more harm to them than it will to him (Apology, 30c).  They will harm their souls by doing something wicked, whereas he will retain all of his virtue even though he will lose his body. 

            Socrates’ views about the control one has over one’s own happiness were in conflict with the views of many of his contemporaries.  Many Athenians probably believed in fate.  If you—like Oedipus, for example—are destined for doom, despair and agony, there is nothing you can do about it.  The Oracle of Delphi (the same oracle that told Socrates he was the wisest man of all) told Oedipus that he would some day murder his father and marry his mother.  When Oedipus became a man, he fled his hometown of Corinth in the hope of avoiding the fate that had been prophesied for him.  Instead of escaping his fate, however, his journey to Thebes landed him in bed with his mother with the blood of his father on his hands.

            Sophocles (496?-406 B.C.), the author of Oedipus Rex, lived in ancient Greece during most of Socrates’ (470?-399 B.C.) lifetime.  Consequently, Socrates probably knew about Sophocles’ great tragedy or at the very least would have been familiar with the older legend of Oedipus.  According to Oedipus Rex, Oedipus had moral obligations to refrain from murdering his father and marrying his mother, even though he was thoroughly unable to satisfy these obligations.  Socrates would have thought the idea of having moral obligations you couldn’t possibly satisfy was absurd, if not incoherent.  He believed it is always within our power to act rightly and, since virtue is the central component of happiness, our happiness is therefore always within our control.  No one’s unhappiness, then, is inescapable. 


E. Virtue and Happiness

            Socrates’ view of the relation between virtue and happiness is sometimes stated like this: virtue is both necessary and sufficient for happiness.  Virtue is necessary for happiness in the sense that you can’t truly be happy without being virtuous.  Of course, you can feel happy and may have a life filled with fun and good times, but you won’t have lived the most excellent kind of life a person can live if you are a moral reprobate.  Socrates also believed that virtue is sufficient for happiness because he thought that if you have virtue, you don’t need anything else to be happy.  You may not be the wealthiest, prettiest, most successful person in the world, but if you are honest, wise, fair, courageous and self-controlled, your life and character will merit praise and respect.  If you cultivate the ‘four cardinal virtues’ (courage, wisdom, justice and self-control) throughout your entire life—though you achieve nothing else—you will have lived a truly excellent life. 

            Wisdom, according to Socrates, is a centrally important component of happiness for several reasons.  To begin with, Socrates famously maintained that “the unexamined life is not worth living” (Apology, 38a).  If we unreflectively go through life, not thinking about what kind of life we are living and what kind of goals we should be pursuing, the gift of rationality—the capacity for critical thinking—has been wasted on us.  Moreover, we cannot develop virtue without wisdom.  Since virtue is both necessary and sufficient for happiness and since happiness is obviously important to all of us, we need wisdom to know whether what we are pursuing in our lives will really bring us happiness.  Once we understand that only virtue can bring us happiness, we will want to make sure that we don’t miss it.  Therefore, Socrates believed that we should “discuss virtue every day” (Apology, 38a), regardless of our chosen profession.  Furthermore, one cannot become an excellent (i.e., happy) human being blindly, foolishly or by accident.  It takes a concerted effort on our part.  Failing to become virtuous, however, can come about without lifting a finger.  Since virtue does not fall into one’s lap but must be pursued, we must have the wisdom to know that we are pursuing the right thing and are headed in the right direction.  Without wisdom, this would not be possible.  Thus, philosophical investigation for Socrates was more than a trivial way to pass the time.  It was an important component of the truly best kind of life that human beings can live.  One cannot be happy without being virtuous, and one cannot be virtuous without being wise. 


F. Moral Realism

            One important feature of Socrates’ view of morality is that the properties of good and evil are as real as anything else in the world.  Many people in the modern world think that the fundamental physical properties of the world that are studied by natural science are real but that moral properties such as good and evil are simply human fictions or cultural artifacts.  For Socrates (and for many other ancient Greeks as well), however, morality was seen as more than a matter of human convention.  It’s not just that people will call you a bad person or think of you as a bad person if you commit evil deeds.  You are, in fact, a bad person if you commit evil deeds.  This remains true even if no one ever discovers your dirty deeds. 


G. Classical and Modern Views of Happiness

            Socrates’ belief in the reality of moral properties leads to an important consequence concerning happiness.  According to classical views of happiness (such as Socrates’), one’s own happiness is something that one can be mistaken about.  In other words, you may think you are happy and yet not actually be happy.  This thought sounds strange to modern ears.  According to most contemporary views of happiness, if you think you’re happy, then you’re happy.  In fact, it may seem as if thinking and feeling that you are happy is just about all there is to being happy.  According to modern views of happiness, then, there’s nothing more to being happy than thinking and feeling happy and, since you know how you feel, you can’t be mistaken about whether you are happy.  However, for the classical view of happiness, it makes sense to ask, “I know you feel happy and think you are happy, but how do you know that you really are happy?”  Many modern conceptions of happiness imply that having ample amounts of pleasure can make you happy, even if you are completely lacking in moral virtue.  Not so for the ancient Greeks. 


II. Listening to Prozac

            I now want to contrast Socrates’ view of human happiness with a more contemporary view of happiness in order to shed light on important aspects of Socrates’ view.  Placing Socrates’ position alongside a contrasting view will help you understand and appreciate it better. 

            In Listening to Prozac Peter Kramer, a psychiatrist, discusses not only the effects of the antidepressant Prozac but also what he believes the drug can teach us about human nature and “the chemistry of human character.”  Although Kramer does not claim to be advocating any particular view of human nature or human flourishing, his assessment of the Prozac’s potential is profoundly shaped by his view of what makes life worth living and what constitutes a full, flourishing human life.  Although Kramer’s conclusion is startling, even shocking, his starting point is a seemingly innocent view of human happiness that is shared by many people in America.  After briefly describing some of Kramer’s case studies and his opinions about the use of Prozac I will reconstruct the view of happiness that guides much of Kramer’s thinking and show how it leads directly to his radical recommendations. 

A. Two Case Studies

            Kramer begins his reflections on Prozac with several case studies, two of which I will summarize for you.  One of Kramer’s patients, Sam, was an independently-minded nonconformist who fell into a deep depression.  He responded only partially to sessions of psychotherapy and an antidepressant Kramer had prescribed.  In 1988 Kramer decided to prescribe a new drug that had only been on the market for one year—Prozac.  Kramer writes,

The change, when it came, was remarkable: Sam not only recovered from his depression, he declared himself to be “better than well.”  He felt unencumbered, more vitally alive, less pessimistic.  Now he could complete projects in one draft, whereas before he had sketched and sketched again.  His memory was more reliable, his concentration keener.  Every aspect of his work went more smoothly.  He appeared more poised, more thoughtful, less distracted.  He was able to speak at professional gatherings without notes.      (p. x). 

Sam also had some of his rough edges smoothed out, but he experienced this change as a loss.  The independent style he had previously cultivated now seemed to him to be an illness.  He was convinced that his previous interest in pornography had been a mere physiological obsession.  The “medication redefined what was essential and what contingent about his own personality” (p. xi). 

            Kramer’s next experience with Prozac came when he was treating a patient named Tess.  Tess had grown up with a passive, depressed mother and an alcoholic father.  She had been raised in one of the poorest public housing projects in her city and had suffered childhood abuse.  When Tess’ father died she took over the family and raised her brothers and sisters, steering them all into stable jobs and marriages.  The skills she learned at home helped her fashion a successful business career based upon “driving, inspiring, and nurturing others.  She achieve a reputation as an administrator capable of turning around struggling companies by addressing issues of organization and employee morale” (p. 2).

            Her relationships with men, however, were not as successful.  She always entered into self-destructive relationships with abusive men.  One day she came to Kramer experiencing depression.  Kramer prescribed the antidepressant imipramine, which cured her of the depression.  She said she became herself again (p. 4).  When Prozac was made available, Kramer decided to prescribe it for Tess to make sure that she was thoroughly cured of her depression.  He writes, “My goal was not to transform Tess but to restore her.  But medications do not always behave as we expect them to” (p. 7).  The change in Tess was immediate and striking.  She was a new person.  She experienced energy unlike any she had ever known and dramatic success in her already successful career.  After suffering from low self-esteem her whole life, Tess began to have three dates per weekend.  Men found her more attractive because she was more relaxed, self-possessed, and able to handle any situation.  She formed a new circle of friends, moved out of her old neighborhood, received a substantial pay raise, and began to feel less pressure to bear everyone else’s burdens. 

            After about nine months on Prozac, Tess went off the medication and continued to experience success.  She admitted that she was “not quite so sharp of thought, so energetic, so free of care as she had been on the medication, but neither was she driven by guilt and obligation” (p. 10).  About eight months off medication Tess called Kramer and said, “I’m not myself.”  Business pressures were mounting and she felt she could use “the sense of stability, the invulnerability to attack, that Prozac gave her” (p. 10).  She was no longer depressed.  She now wanted Prozac because of the kind of person that it made her into—not because it cured her of a disease. 

            Although Tess was not clinically depressed, Kramer prescribed Prozac again anyway, and she responded again as she had hoped.  Kramer was engaging in what he calls ‘cosmetic psychopharmacology’—the pharmaceutical analogue to cosmetic surgery.  Surgeries were once exclusively performed for some medical reason—to save someone’s life or to cure them of a disease.  Only later did it become acceptable to use surgery for aesthetic reasons.  Kramer suggests that prescribing personality-altering drugs should become as acceptable as cosmetic surgery.  He claims,

Prozac seemed to give social confidence to the habitually timid, to make the sensitive brash, to lend the introvert the social skills of a salesman.  (p. xv) 

It can improve a patient’s “social popularity, business acumen, self-image, energy, flexibility, sexual appeal” and can lend “social ease, command, even brilliance” (pp. 13, 14).  To be sure, not everyone is so affected.  Some people do not respond at all to Prozac, while others respond less dramatically than Tess.  A few, however, are transformed by the drug.  Kramer sees no reason to withhold Prozac from those who are not clinically depressed but who would be transformed by it.  He asks rhetorically, “Since you only live once, why not do it as a blonde?  Why not as a peppy blonde?” (p. 15)  We dye our hair if we don’t like the color we were born with.  We hire a personal trainer or sign up for aerobics if we don’t like our butt.  Why not change our personality if we don’t like it either? 

B.  Philosophical and Moral Issues

            Most people have a very strong reaction against Kramer’s proposal for widespread cosmetic psychopharmacology.  But the interesting thing about Kramer’s stance is that his seemingly radical suggestion follows directly from a widely accepted view of human happiness.  It is clear from Listening to Prozac that Kramer thinks happiness and flourishing consist of achieving enough of the things you want (e.g., in one’s relationships, career, community, etc.).  In other words, happiness is a matter of satisfying sufficiently many of one’s desires.  Tess and others that Kramer discusses are unable to achieve success in their careers and relationships.  They want to have jobs they can feel good about and they want to perform well in these jobs and receive adequate compensation.  They also want satisfying romantic relationships and friendships.  But depression, low-esteem, and emotional baggage get in the way.  In some cases Prozac can clean out the baggage and pave the way for personal and professional success.

            I have asked students in my introductory philosophy classes what they think happiness consists in, and they typically give much the same answer as Kramer: happiness is getting enough of the things you want.  But consider the following argument. 

K1       1) Happiness is achieving enough of the things you want (e.g., in one’s relationships, career, community, etc.). 

2) For a subset of the population, Prozac can lift the barriers and provide the personal resources people need to achieve the things they want. 

3) Therefore, for a subset of the population, Prozac can bring genuine happiness. 

Many people who initially accept (1) are strongly opposed to (3).  But (3) directly follows from (1) and (2).  Since (2) is a well-established scientific fact, if happiness is nothing more than what (1) says it is, I cannot see any reason to oppose cosmetic psychopharmacology.  Kramer is wrong only if there is something more to happiness. 

            It is one thing to say, “He’s crazy.”  It is another thing altogether to offer an uncontroversial account of happiness that shows what Kramer leaves out.  I believe that this task is more difficult than it appears because so many people subscribe to the same view of happiness as Kramer.  The only difference is that he has seen an interesting consequence of this view that others have not recognized. 


III. Socrates vs. Kramer

            Socrates, as you might imagine, would be strongly opposed to cosmetic psychopharmacology.  Why do you think Socrates would be opposed to it?  Which elements of Socrates’ view of happiness conflict with Kramer’s proposal?  Which do not?

            In addition to knowing what Socrates would say the problem with cosmetic psychpharmacology is, it is important to know what he would not say the problem is.  Socrates would not say:

1) Cosmetic psychopharmacology is a bad suggestion because not everyone will experience the same great benefits that Tess and others did. 

2) Cosmetic psychopharmacology is bad because some drugs may have harmful side effects. 

3) Cosmetic psychopharmacology is bad because life would be boring if we were all the same. 

4) Cosmetic psychopharmacology is bad because if we allowed it to be widespread, people would become dependent upon the drugs.  If we ran out, they would then be worse off than before. 

Try to think of reasons why Socrates would not say that any of these issues are the real problem with cosmetic psychopharmacology. 



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