Dr Matthew Raphael Johnson looks at ‘happiness’ and whether it depends upon external circumstances, or moral purity and an acceptance of tragedy as a part of life.
This broadcast is the second part of the initial show two weeks ago and begins where that left off. It’s an analysis of the political ideas of Solzhenitsyn from the point of view of three works, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1963), The Cancer Ward and The First Circle, both published in English in 1968.
As with everything he’s written, the issues are not so much a plot, but the intellectual ideas that derive from the characters. It is ideas that develop rather than stories. Plots are decidedly secondary. The main issue of human freedom and it’s relationship to the external environment. Can happiness be found in the GULag? It can, insofar as happiness is defined as an internal state.
This is a position made popular by Plato and, much later, Immanuel Kant, though for different reasons. Kant’s argument – which radically differs from Aristotle – is that if happiness depends on external circumstances, then it must be fraught with anxiety, something the Existentialists would later make the central part of their theory. If happiness is, at least in part, based on a minimum of possessions, as Aristotle argued, then there can be no happiness or contentment in prison or poverty. If one attaches their happiness to an external state, then one is attached to the world and its inherent instability.
This is the ultimate purpose of Solzhenitsyn: happiness is moral purity and the acceptance of tragedy as a part of life. Pain is not the worst thing that can befall a man. The worst thing is untrammeled prosperity, something shared by Plato. Prosperity, when you know nothing else, teaches you nothing except a sense of entitlement. All learning is through suffering, or a lack of something. The secret to happiness is creating an internal state of contentment rather than attaching yourself to the world around you, a world that will disappoint you every time.