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Book in Focus
Happiness, Stability and Transcendence in Western Religion, Philosophy and Poetry
By Nili Alon Amit
This book is a journey through time, exploring happiness in Western culture—from the Hebrew Bible to 21st century poetry. Years of exploring texts on happiness appearing in western religion, mysticism, philosophy, and poetry brought me to the conclusion that they share the common principles of stability and transcendence. To be happy, we must be stable in this ever-changing world; to remain stable, we must adhere to a concrete truth (religious, philosophical, or mystical) that is transcendent to our world. This book follows in the footsteps of great authors—the compilers of Hebrew oral and written traditions, Greek philosophers, early and late medieval mystics, early modern philosophers, 19th century transcendentalist authors, early 20th century poets of the Harlem Renaissance, the pioneering authors of the pre-state of Israel and its early years, and contemporary poets. The common drive for all these writers is their exploration and definition of human happiness amidst the wavering circumstances of their times.
A recurring theme in the various writings of various periods is that we always find refuge and comfort in our awe of nature and its eternity. The late American poet Mary Oliver (1935-2019) expresses this feeling in a poem of admiration towards the sun:
The Sun (1992)
Have you ever seen
in your life
than the way the sun,
relaxed and easy,
floats toward the horizon…
do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
a word billowing enough
for the pleasure
that fills you,
as the sun
as it warms you
as you stand there,
or have you too
turned from this world…
Positioning ourselves in the world – humble and grateful, means acknowledging our place under the sun, empty-handed, at awe, and happy.
Woman on a kayak, under-standing the sun. Photo by Alon Amit, 2021.
The eternal constancy of the sun, however, may also dishearten us, as an image of a detached bystander to our short, turbulent lives on earth. One of the most philosophical books of the Hebrew Bible, Koheleth (Ecclesiastes), attributed to the elderly King Solomon, takes the constancy of the sun as a reference point to show the vanity of life:
Vanity of vanities, saith Koheleth;
Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.
What profit hath man of all his labour
Wherein he laboureth under the sun?
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh;
And the earth abideth forever.
The sun also airseth,
And the sun goeth down,
And hasteth to his place where he ariseth. (Koheleth 1:2-5)
The short term of life we are allotted on earth strikes us as vain while confronting the eternity of the heavens. Creating happiness in our lives means overcoming this sense of vanity; Koheleth presents a series of arguments positioning human life and its meaning under the sun, turning from despair to reassurance when, in the final lines of the book, the author finds comfort in the stability and ongoing care of God, granted to those who dedicate their lives to his word. Our only way out of vanity is creating meaning in our life that will give us a sense of stability—and this meaning is always in reference to something or someone external to us; in the words of the Austrian psychiatrist and founder of logotherapy Viktor Frankl (1905-1997):
… the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. (1959).
Koheleth finally found both philosophical and religious arguments for maintaining a good life under the sun; these are elaborated, in juxtaposition to modern Hebrew poetry, in Chapter 12 of the book.
The Book of Genesis is the core of Western myth and imagination. Transmitted for generations through oral tradition and compiled from various sources written between the 9th and 5th centuries BCE, it may be divided into myth (Genesis 1-11) and history (Genesis 12-50). The mythical Bible begins with the creation of the world. History begins with the first biblical monotheist, Abraham the Patriarch.
Let us begin with the beginning—the creation of the world. The original Hebrew of Genesis 1:1 reads:
In a beginning created God the heaven and the earth.
)B’resheet bara Elohim et ha’shamaim v’et ha’aretz(.
The Septuagint—the original Greek translation of the Bible by Hebrew scholars (Alexandria, 3rd-2nd centuries BCE)—reads:
En arche epoiesen ho theos tov uranon kai ten gen.
The Greek arche corresponds with the Hebrew resheet to mean “a beginning”, but the Greek term arche also means a primary substance or element. Could it be that, according to the Bible, and as transmitted into Greek by Hebrew scholars, God created our world—not in a chronological beginning, but within a primary substance? Could there have been a prevalent substance in the world, preexisting God’s creation?
Genesis continues (1:2):
Now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters.
The first two verses of the Bible present God, who creates within a primary substance, and then puts order in material chaos. This, in my view, is the basis of western views on happiness—our effort to mirror God’s first actions in the Bible: dwellers of this corporeal, chaotic world, we strive to create form or stability in our lives, by clinging to a divine or external force.
Happiness in the ancient sense of the word denotes stability from within and from without: the Hebrew word osher (happiness, blessedness) appears for the first time in the Book of Genesis 30:13 in the sense of ishur (confirmation)—the satisfaction that arises by being confirmed from without:
And Leah said: ‘Happy am I! for the daughters will call me happy.’ And she called his name Asher.
The Greek term for happiness, eudaimonia (well-being or blessedness), comes from eu daimon (good demon)—an external positive spirit that affects our lives. In both senses, happiness is an internal sense of well-being, confirmed, generated or driven by an external source.
The sequence of creation is highly relevant to Western conceptions of happiness. Genesis 2 elaborates on the enfolding of creation: first, God made earth and heaven. However, there were still no plants on the ground, for there was no water to feed them and no man to help them grow (Genesis 2:4-5). So God raised a mist upon the earth, and then:
...the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul (Genesis 2:7).
In this sequence, we see that God first creates an ecosystem, and then combines earthly matter and his own spirit to form the first human—the first gardener of the divine ecosystem. Then, when there is fertile soil and a gardener:
...the Lord God planted a garden eastward, in Eden; and there He put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil... And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it. (Genesis 2:8-9, 15).
Life in the Garden of Eden was good, but it came with restrictions:
And the Lord God commanded the man, saying: ‘Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat; but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.’ (Genesis 2:16-17).
Every fruit in the garden is free to man, except the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. Having eaten from this tree, man and woman are not put to death, but are banished from the garden and are doomed to a life of misery on earth, lacking divine knowledge. This part of Genesis sets the scene for all future developments in the biblical narrative, and touches on the essence of the western quest for happiness. There is divine knowledge of good and evil stored beyond our reach, and it is very tempting. Living a life dedicated to finding that knowledge elevates us above our worldly miseries and stabilizes our worldly lives. We shall never taste that fruit again (believing that we can, may be hubris—a terrible sin), but we can acknowledge and stabilize our place on earth while connecting with whatever transcendent knowledge is available to us through divine power.
Very recently, Amanda Gorman, a 22 year-old poet, stood at the inauguration ceremoney of a new American President. The poem she read, very much in the spirit of Process Theology, connects past and present as a continuous movement, in which we humans should actively and positively participate in order to create and become a world of well-being:
The Hill We Climb (2021, in excerpts)
When day comes, we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry. A sea we must wade.
We braved the belly of the beast.
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace, and the norms and notions of what “just” is isn’t always justice.
And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it.
Somehow we do it…
And so we lift our gaze, not to what stands between us, but what stands before us.
We close the divide because we know to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside…
Scripture tells us to envision that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid.
If we’re to live up to our own time, then victory won’t lie in the blade, but in all the bridges we’ve made.
That is the promise to glade, the hill we climb, if only we dare.
We will rebuild, reconcile, and recover…
The new dawn balloons as we free it.
For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.
As active participators in the ongoing process of creation, we can amend the world and make it a stable, safe place for all. “For there is always light”—transcendence is always there; all we have to do is be “brave enough to see it… to be it”.
The simple variables are these: nature is vast, amazing, constant, amd eternal; we are small, temporary, and mortal. In order to live as well as possible, we must find nature within ourselves: we must adhere to some kind of vastness, amazement, constancy, and eternity within us, inspired by those of nature. We must find inner stability inspired by external transcendence. This is the delicate line that threads through ages and cultures in human definition of well-being or happiness. Only as active participants in creation can we stretch our hands toward transcendence, while standing tall on the ground. This can be done through curiosity and learning (Greek philosophy and Spinoza; explained in Chapters 3-6 and 9 of the book), connecting with the divine (Hebrew Bible, and medieval mysticism; Chapters 2 and 7-8), connecting with nature (Transcendentalism and early 20th century Hebrew poets; Chapters 10 and 12), activism for the oneness of all (the Harlem Renaissance; Chapter 11), or by the simple awareness of our significant standing as individuals and as a society in a unique and wonderful system of humanity and the divine.
Happiness is stability and transcendence.
Nili Alon Amit, PhD, is a researcher of ancient and modern philosophy and literature, and a Visiting Research Scholar at UCLA Nazarian Center for Israel Studies. Her published articles explore the ancient philosophy of soul and ethics and the modern philosophy of education.
Happiness, Stability and Transcendence in Western Religion, Philosophy and Poetry is available now in Hardback at a 25% discount. Enter PROMO25 at checkout to redeem. eBook available from Google Play.