Reading the great books is hard work. Anyone tackling the classics could be forgiven for occasionally wondering if the preservation of tradition, the refinement of taste, and the admiration of colleagues at the next cocktail party are really worth the effort. But when obligation, pride, and even pleasure no longer persuade, one motivation often remains: the yearning for the good life, and the sense that great books can direct us towards it.
As Richard Morley Myers illustrates in Thinking About Happiness: What Young People Can Learn About Life from the Classics of Western Philosophy, it is this basic craving for a sense of purpose that can perhaps best draw the next generation to great philosophy and literature. So many young adults today are desperate for guidance but surrounded by adults unwilling or incapable of providing it. Thinking About Happiness reminds us that while the ignorance and fashionable errors of our generation may pass, the wisdom of the classics will endure.
Myers takes the reader on a casual stroll to meet some of philosophy’s heavy hitters, showing how they identified four competing sources of happiness: virtue, love, pleasure, and meaning. Along with such natural choices as Socrates and Aristotle, he includes more dangerous thinkers, including Hobbes, Mill, and Rousseau—perhaps Myers himself will be guilty of the Socratic sin of corrupting the youth. He also treats Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf as case studies of Aristotle’s and Hobbes’ theories brought to life.
One virtue of Thinking About Happiness is that it is not just informative, but properly philosophical. The great books bring wisdom, but also disorientation. Philosophy, if taken seriously, risks undermining one’s most certain convictions. With each subject, from Greek and Christian ethics, through Hobbes’ coarse hedonism and Mill’s more refined version, to the radical introspection of existentialism, Myers insists that even though these thinkers provide wildly different accounts of the good life, each makes a strong case. A young adult in pursuit of happiness must be willing to truly engage with these philosophers. That requires entertaining the daring possibility that one of them is right. The alternative—a lazy relativism that doesn’t care if anyone or no one is correct—rejects philosophy outright, and is thus the only perspective Myers refuses to indulge. Debate-team sophists, beware!
Given Myers’ intended audience, some of his selections and allusions are puzzling. Myers helpfully introduces such difficult works as the Nicomachean Ethics and Leviathan, and this reader could certainly have benefitted in high school from his explanations of Socrates’ Apology and Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. But any young adult willing to read an introduction to philosophy is entirely capable of reading Lewis’ The Four Loves and Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning themselves, rather than a synopsis. If the goal is to introduce the reader to great, but challenging, philosophers, perhaps Augustine’s Confessions and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Existentialism is a Humanism would be more appropriate.
Similarly, Myers clearly has a young audience in mind when he mentions Harry Potter, Homer Simpson, and Disney’s Inside Out. But he also casually mentions The Magic Flute, As You Like It, and The English Patient. It’s hard to imagine what kind of teenager will know Mozart and Shakespeare but still need a reference to Star Wars to grasp Myers’ arguments.
Nevertheless, Thinking About Happiness largely succeeds at its chosen goal. It would be a welcome introduction to the young, or a breezy reminder to the old, of the stakes of philosophical inquiry. As Socrates reminds us in the Republic, “the argument is not about just any question, but about the way one should live.” Few things could remind us of the importance and difficulty of answering that question more powerfully than the classics that Myers celebrates here.