An art history of happiness: Western approaches to the good life through the last 1000 years,
as illustrated in art
Tim Lomas & Colin Lomas
Journal of Positive Psychology and Wellbeing
Note: this version may not match the final published version. It is not the document of record.
A prominent criticism of positive psychology is that is has been shaped by its Western
context, and yet that this ‘situatedness’ often remains unacknowledged. Consequently, this
paper offers an archaeological analysis of conceptualisations of happiness in the West. More
specifically, the paper explores the emergence of significant ideas relating to the good life
through the innovative device of studying artworks, on the premise that being featured in art
is an effective signifier of when a given idea rose to prominence. Taking a time span of 1,000
years, one artwork per century has been selected to illustrate the emergence of a particular
stream of thought during that centennial period. The paper elucidates the roots of currents
ideas around happiness in fields like positive psychology, and in the West more generally. It
is hoped this type of ‘consciousness-raising’ activity may help such fields acknowledge and
overcome any limitations arising from their cultural situatedness.
Keywords: happiness; history; art; philosophy
One of the most powerful ways of understanding a culture is to look at the historical currents
that have helped shape it. Of course, given the enormity of such an endeavour, scholars have
tended to elucidate only selected dimensions of a given culture (and even then reconciling
themselves with producing a narrative that is inevitably partial). For instance, Charles
Taylor’s (1989) influential Sources of the Self analysed the ideas that have helped form the
dominant modes of self-identity in the West. Similarly, Richard Tarnas’ (1991) Passion of
the Western Mind identified the philosophical tributaries that have flowed throughout
Western thought over the past two millennia. Likewise, in Happiness: A History, Darrin
McMahon (2006) traced the ways in which happiness and wellbeing have been constructed in
the West in its history, from the Beatitudes of Christ to the rationality of the Enlightenment.
Inspired by this latter example, the current paper aims to contribute to an understanding of
how the ‘good life’ has been conceptualised in Western culture over the past 1,000 years.
The term ‘good life’ refers to issues such as how people ought to live, what it means
to flourish, what happiness consists in, and where it can be found. More specifically, this
paper aims to explore the emergence of significant ideas relating to the good life at particular
points in history. As will be seen here, current conceptualisations of happiness in the West –
as promulgated by fields like positive psychology – have arisen from the confluence of
various streams of thought, from the teleological ideas of Christianity, to the existentialist
emphasis on meaning. This paper, then, endeavours to identify the epochs in which these
streams first rose to prominence. Moreover, it does this through the innovative device of
studying works of art. The central premise here is that one way of identifying just such a ‘rise
to prominence’ is through noting when a given idea was first represented in art. As Hauser
(1999) outlined in his multi-volume Social History of Art, while the seeds of an idea may
have been planted at any prior point in time, to have been selected as a theme for an artwork
signifies having reached a certain level of cultural significance or prominence.
In considering this history of ideas, this paper limits itself to the time-frame of the
past 1,000 years. More specifically, one artwork per century has been selected, with each
being used to illustrate the emergence of a particular stream of thought during that centennial
period. In saying that, in the spirit of reflexivity (Cutcliffe, 2003), it must be acknowledged
that the choice of artworks is inevitably selective. It would be impossible to identify any one
artwork as being the most representative or significant of a given epoch. Therefore, the
narrative here of the emergence of ideas – which these artworks are being used to represent –
is likewise partial and selective. In any one time period, there will be many ideas being born
and/or coming to fruition (as this paper tries to indicate). Even the lengthiest multi-volume
encyclopaedia would struggle to do justice to all these developing patterns of thought.
But that said, the kind of endeavour undertaken in this paper is still worth it. It is
important and valuable to undertake historiological analyses in order to better understand
one’s current situation and understanding of the world, even if these analyses are partial and
fragmentary. More specifically, in the context of the present paper, it is worth examining the
streams of thought that have combined to form prevailing perceptions and conceptualisations
of the good life. For instance, recent years have seen the emergence of fields like positive
psychology, which aim to study notions such as happiness and flourishing (Seligman &
Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). As valuable as such fields are, critics have argued that the dominant
concepts in these fields are culturally specific, reflecting a rather Western-centric perspective
(Becker & Marecek, 2008), as addressed further in the concluding section below. As such,
historiological analyses like the one undertaken here serve as a ‘consciousness-raising’
activity, highlighting the sources that have helped shape understanding in the West generally,
and in fields such as positive psychology more specifically.
Ten works of art have been selected, one per century, as a prism though which to
examine emergent ideas relating to the good life. How were the works selected? In one sense,
there was an element of arbitrariness to the process, in that many other works could have
been chosen instead, and may have served equally well, albeit that some would have
generated an alternative narrative to the one presented here. That said, a great deal of thought
went into their selection, based on a reading of historical and philosophical literature, and an
understanding of the history of ideas. With that in mind, the story begins in the 11th century.
11th Century: The Last Chapter of the Dark Ages
The narrative in this paper starts with the 11th century, at the close of what is often referred to
pejoratively as the ‘Dark Ages,’ a period stretching roughly from 500 to 1200 CE. This
negative coinage derives from the Italian scholar Petrarch (1304-1374) – discussed further
below in connection with humanism – to reflect a near absence of independent or critical
thought (which Petrarch thus juxtaposed with the ‘light’ of humanism). The term is regarded
by many contemporary scholars as rather misleading, as there were examples of openness and
creativity throughout Europe during that period (Eco, 2002). However, notwithstanding these
caveats, this period is characterised by the relative lack of what might be called free-thinking
– the challenging of accepted ideas – and a paucity of curiosity and creativity. With
exceptions such as Bede (673-735) and Alcuin (735-804), scholarship generally consisted of
studying the Bible and other Christian texts, while literature mostly comprised writing down
old oral tales like Beowulf (sometime in 700-1000). Visual art was predominantly either for
church decoration or jewellery, with little evidence of artistic ‘creativity’ as the term would
be used today, nor any particular curiosity about the physical world per se (Effros, 2005).
On the whole – insofar as generalisations are meaningful and useful – Western
peoples’ psychological and spiritual outlook was dominated by the ‘Weltanschauung’ of the
Christian church. (That said, there were of course other subsidiary currents of thought, such
as what Van Engen (1986) refers to as native strains of ‘folklore’ and superstition.) For this
reason, the artwork selected for this century is an image of Christ, from a medallion hailing
from Istanbul circa 1000 CE. (The letters on it are from the first and last letters of IHCOYC
XPICTOC, i.e., ‘Jesus Christ’ written in Greek.) That this picture is not especially renowned
or well-known is itself a reflection of the paucity of artworks from this era. This does not
merely mean that surviving artworks are rare, but that there was relatively little ‘art’ per se at
all, and what little there was pertained almost exclusively to Christianity (Wells, 2009).
Figure 1: Medallion from Istanbul showing Christ, c.1000 CE
The central point, from the perspective of this paper, is that this cultural context strongly
shaped perspectives at the time regarding what happiness is and how it could be obtained
(McMahon, 2006). In particular, the overarching message of the Catholic Church this era
was that attaining happiness on earth was problematic, if not impossible, and that life itself
was merely a preparation or test for the hereafter (where happiness could potentially be
found) (Tarnas, 1991). Of course, Christianity is a complex tapestry, woven together from
many different perspectives and schools of thought that emerged over the centuries. In that
respect, the ‘dark ages’ cast their own particular shadow over Christianity, and its stance on
the possibility of attaining happiness. For a particularly desperate version of this doctrine of
the impossibility of worldly happiness was advocated by no less a figure than Pope Innocent
III (1161-1216). In The Misery of the Human Condition, it was his bleak assessment that
‘[M]an is born to toil. All his days are full of toil and hardship. Rich or poor, master or slave,
married or single, good and bad alike—all suffer worldly torments and are tormented by
worldly vexations’ (cited in Perry, 2008, p.288).
That said, it should not be inferred that any period here was uniform or homogenous
in its outlook. Indeed, all epochs can arguably be seen as embodying the kind of dialectical
process identified by Hegel (1812), namely thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Innocent’s bleak
outlook could be regarded as the antithesis to new modes of thinking that were beginning to
arise around this time (or possibly vice versa). More specifically, in contrast to this dominant
Christian pessimism, there was an emergent optimism that humans could apply their reason
to understand and improve the world (Tarnas, 1991). This nascent ‘proto-humanism’ then
truly began to take root in the 12th Century.
12th Century: The Birth of the Free Mind
In contrast to the dominant eschatological fatalism of the church – that ‘happiness’ of a sort
was only possible in the afterlife, if at all – a spirit of rational enquiry into improving life on
earth began to flower in the 12th century (Tarnas, 1991). This was evident in the founding of
the first universities: Bologna (1088), Paris (1150), and Oxford (1167). Scholarship had
previously been controlled or dominated by the church, taking place almost entirely under its
auspices (Nelson, 2008). But with the new universities, while many still had close ties to the
church, there was also a distinct movement of separation. For instance, the University of
Bologna was initially a law school, concerned with the revival of ius gentium, the Roman law
protecting the rights of incipient nations (e.g., against the church), which was increasingly in
demand across Europe (Banchich, Marenbon, & Reid Jr, 2015). As such, the 12th century
heard the first rumblings of the ‘Renaissance’ – a word coined by the 19th Century historian
Jules Michelet (1855) to describe the revival of learning from the 13th century onwards. This
revival was based in large part on the re-discovery of texts from the ‘classical’ world (i.e.,
roughly from 500 BCE to 500 CE). Indeed, the revival of ius gentium is one such example.
Another is the artwork selected for this epoch: a print from a 12th Century publication of De
Institutione Musica by Boethius, a Roman senator and philosopher who lived from 480-524.
Figure 2: 12th-century version of De Institutione Musica by Boethius
The book is a study of musical theory and practice, which is apt, given that music was one of
the seven main liberal arts taught in medieval universities, along with rhetoric, logic,
grammar, astronomy/astrology, arithmetic and geometry (King, 2014). This spirit of enquiry
was in direct contrast – as thesis is to antithesis – to the fatalistic doctrines of earthly
damnation offered earlier by church leaders like Innocent III. That said, Europe was still
suffused with Christianity, which dominated public and private life. However, in a dialectical
process, syntheses were beginning to emerge that, while remaining within the bounds of
Christianity, nevertheless embraced this ‘proto-renaissance’ spirit. Such synthesis was
embodied by celebrated theologian Peter Abelard (1079-1142), who argued against the
dogma of original sin, and against the idea that only through baptism might one be saved.
Rather, his view was that, through free will and rational enquiry, one could live a fulfilling
life, and indeed one which was acceptable to God. This tolerant openness is exemplified in
his remark that, ‘It is by doubting that we come to investigate, and by investigating that we
recognize the truth’ (cited in Reid, 1995, p.191). This kind of synthesis – of Christianity and
Rationality – then began to truly flower in the 13th Century.
13th Century: The Application of Reason
Moving into the 13th Century, new streams of thought began to flow. As alluded to above,
scholars in Europe were finding their horizons expanded through the increasing availability
of Greek and Roman classical works, as well as through access to writings from Islamic
scholars. Access to these works bore many fruits, but perhaps above all, this epoch can be
characterised by an embrace of rationality, in contrast to an acceptance of dogma. This
nascent rationality then manifested in various ways. This includes, for instance, a burgeoning
interest in mathematics and empiricism, as exemplified by Witelo (c. 1230-1300), a Polish
friar, theologian, and natural philosopher (Montgomery & Kumar, 2015). He is perhaps best
known for his book Perspectiva – itself based on the work of the Persian polymath Ibn al-
Haytham (965-1040) – featuring ground-breaking analyses pertaining to optics, which
influenced later scientists such as Johannes Kepler. As such, the artwork for this epoch is a
page from a 13th century edition of Perspectiva, featuring Witelo himself.
Figure 3: Manuscript engraving from a 13th Century edition of Perspectiva, by Witelo
Of course, despite this emerging empiricism and rationality, scholars were generally still
operating within a Christian framework. Consequently, this generated syntheses in which
Christian theology was increasingly viewed through a rationalist prism, and in which efforts
were made to integrate it with the rediscovered classical writings. This synthesis is embodied
in the work of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), the Italian Dominican friar, philosopher and
theologian, particularly his magnum opus Summa Theologia (1273). Aquinas sought to
integrate established church teaching both with the nascent humanist outlook, and with the
classical ideas – particularly the works of Aristotle (384-322 BCE) – that were driving this
very humanism. For instance, among Aristotle’s many influential ideas was that of a Prime
Mover, where he argued that any causal chain of events must lead back to something which
moves other things but is itself unmoved. In a remarkable act of synthesis, Aquinas equated
this Prime Mover with the Christian creator God (Davies, 1992). However, as powerful as
Aquinas’ integrative efforts were, dynamics had been set in motion in which scholars would
no longer feel compelled to retain a connection to Christian theology, but could allow reason
and empiricism to flourish on their own terms, as shall be seen next.
14th Century: The Emergence of Humanism
It was in the 14th century that the seeds of ‘humanism’ – which had been planted in the
preceding centuries – truly started to bear fruit. Humanism can be characterised as the
appreciation and even glorification of the reason and dignity of humankind, and of the
possibility of finding happiness on earth (not merely in the afterlife) (Barber, 2008). As noted
above, humanism had begun to take shape in the preceding centuries, through the work of
scholars like Abelard. However, these thinkers had invariably remained rooted within the
matrix of Christian belief. What was then particularly new and striking about the 14th century
was the way humanistic perspectives began to slowly become extricated from this matrix, and
tentatively allowed by some bold scholars to stand on their own terms (Tarnas, 1991).
This new independent (i.e., from Christianity) spirit is epitomised by Petrarch, the
Italian poet, who is often regarded as the ‘first’ humanist (Quillen, 1998). For instance, there
was an epochal event in 1336, when Petrarch climbed Mont Ventoux in the Italian Alps
simply for the view, to appreciate the natural world for its own sake. In previous centuries,
the dominant stance of the church was that humankind’s proper role was one of humble piety
in the face of God, with pleasure for its own sake regarded as improper self-indulgence.
However, humanism ushered in radically secular visions of the good life, including
permitting people to engage in their own pursuit of truth (i.e., independent of sanctioned
church teachings), and engaging in acts such as appreciation of nature (O'Connell, 1983).
Given Petrarch’s pivotal role in this process, the selected picture for this century is an artwork
from his 1336 book Virgil, painted by Simone Martini.
Figure 4: Painting (1336) by Simone Martini, printed in Virgil by Petrarch
Just as significant as the author of the work is its topic, namely recently rediscovered poems
by the Roman poet Virgil (70-19 BCE), with the picture above showing Petrarch drawing
back a curtain to reveal him to the world. It was Petrarch who instantiated the idea that the
long centuries following the collapse of the Roman Empire – the ‘Middle Ages’ (approx.
500-1200 AD), a phrase also coined by him – constituted a ‘Dark Age.’ Although he
recognized that thinkers of genius had existed, he argued that they had been constrained and
‘surrounded by darkness and dense gloom’ (cited in Spearing, 1985, p.8). Specifically, this
‘gloom’ was the rigid fatalistic dogma that Petrarch felt had been imposed by the hegemony
of the church, as epitomised by Innocent III. As such, Petrarch sought to invert the view of
history that had been promulgated by many Christian thinkers (prior to scholastics such as
Aquinas). Christians had tended to regard the classical world as unenlightened, since it had
been unable to avail itself of the succour offered by Christ (Kallendorf, 1996). However,
Petrarch reversed this, describing the classical era as the age of ‘light’ because of its cultural
achievements. He thus celebrated the growing awareness of classical works, which having
begun to filter into Europe over preceding centuries, were becoming increasingly available.
This availability then reached a ‘critical mass’ in the following century, inaugurating what is
now referred to as the ‘Renaissance.’
15th Century: The Blooming of the Renaissance
As noted above, the term ‘Renaissance’ was coined by Michelet (1855) to describe the ‘re-
birth’ of the humanistic vision of the classical world (with scholars differentiating between an
Italian Renaissance, which emerged in the 14th Century, and a Northern Renaissance, in
which the Italian movement began to spread North in the 15th Century) (Silver, 1986). This
re-discovery of the classical world – its literature, philosophy, history, architecture, science,
and so on – prompted ‘new’ (i.e., newly encountered) streams of thought pertaining to the
good life. For instance, an importance ‘Renaissance moment’ was the re-discovery (during
Petrarch’s time) of the writings of the Roman philosopher Lucretius (96-55 BCE), such as his
influential work On the Nature of the Universe. In this, Lucretius’s discussed the ideas of
Epicurus (341-270 BCE), who taught that human beings are entirely physical products of the
universe, and will cease to exist after death. Epicurus thus argued that the goal of life should
be ‘pleasure’ (in the sense of freedom from pain, i.e., ‘ataraxia,’ rather than self-indulgence)
(Rosenbaum, 1990). Thus, the 15th century saw secular belief becoming increasingly
prominent, albeit still very radical, given that Christianity remained hegemonic (Kirkpatrick,
2014). This nascent secularism began to manifest in many quarters, including in creative
endeavours, as reflected in the painting below by Jan van Eyck (1390-1441).
Figure 5: The Arnolfini Portrait, by Jan van Eyck (1434)
Van Eyck exemplifies the creative spirit of the Renaissance. Freed from the constraints and
over-watchful eye of the church, and no longer totally dependent on church commissions
(given the emergence of a merchant class who could commission their work), artists like van
Eyck experimented with new methods and subjects (Carroll, 1993). A good example is his
portrait above of the merchant Arnolfini. This was innovative for numerous reasons. Firstly,
van Eyck was one of the first artists to harness the newly available methods of oil paints and
canvas. It is also remarkable for displaying the newly discovered sense of perspective in
Western art, which is considered to reflect the emergence of new ‘modes of cognition,’
including a commitment to empiricism and mathematic precision (Ward & Carleton, 1983).
However, perhaps most striking is that it is possibly the first ‘ordinary’ portrait painting in
Europe. Before the 15th century, the Church was generally the only patron of the arts, and
naturally the subjects commissioned were religious. In lacking any overt religious content,
this portrait thus was one of the first artistic reflections of the nascent secularism that was
beginning to spring up across Europe (Carrier, 1987).
16th Century: Science, Occultism and the Grand Scheme
Moving into the 16th Century, the burgeoning spirit of secular enquiry that had been awoken
over previous centuries began to generate new modes of thought and practice. Perhaps above
all, most prominent and influential were the first major stirrings of empiricism (Tarnas,
1991). It is striking, for instance, that the two figures most associated with the birth of
Western science – Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) – were
born just a few years apart, and began to both flourish as the century drew to a close. Their
scientific endeavours represented a significant new stream in the West’s approach to the good
life, inaugurating the notion that human wellbeing and prosperity could be influenced by
empirical study of the natural world. However, given the on-going hegemony of the church,
this burgeoning scientific enquiry had to negotiate an uneasy relationship with Christian
teachings – needing to be careful not to challenge these too directly – as exemplified by
Galileo’s trials. But that said, even while this new empiricism was diverging from church
teachings, it was still not truly secular; rather, these early scientific endeavours remained
within a spiritual matrix that has been labelled the ‘Grand Scheme’ (Lovejoy, 1964).
This Scheme involved the belief that all aspects of the cosmos cohered in some way,
as reflected in the saying ‘As above, so below’ (Crowley, 2009, p.46). Micro-level patterns
observed in the natural world were thought to reflect macro-level processes at work in the
universe, and vice versa. Thus, for instance, personality and health were regarded as being
connected to the movements of the planets, and as such, astrology was deemed one of the
most important ‘sciences’ of the time. Indeed, many leading scientific figures were immersed
in the ‘Occult’ (from the Latin occultus, meaning hidden), involving the study of the inner,
deeper, and/or spiritual aspects of phenomena. For example, one of the most prominent
figures of the era was John Dee (1527-1609), the English mathematician, astronomer,
astrologer, philosopher, and adviser to Elizabeth I, who devoted much of his life to the study
of alchemy, divination, ‘Hermetic’ philosophy, and numerology (Clucas, 2006). He was one
of many 16th century learned people who attempted to blend all these fields into one grand
scheme, as reflected in the artwork below, a diagram from Gafurius’s 1496 Practica Musice.
This depicts Apollo, the Muses, planetary spheres and musical ratios, thus linking Greek
mythology, Pythagorean mysticism, music, and astronomy.
Figure 6: Diagram from Gafurius’s Practica Musice (1496)
However, the 16th century was the high point of Occultism – although it still persisted in
influential quarters, not least with Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) – and of efforts to develop a
Grand Scheme, after which these concerns retreated towards the margins of scholarship. This
decline is perhaps attributable to the other streams of thought emerging during this period,
illustrating the fact that every epoch is characterised by multiple trends, many of which exist
in tension with one another (in the mode of thesis-antithesis-synthesis). For instance, the
reformation triggered by Martin Luther (1483-1546) re-invigorated the church, and in turn
prompted the Counter-Reformation, which aggressively forbade any deviation from
traditional Catholic teaching (Reinhard, 1989). And, neither ‘wing’ tolerated any indulgence
of the Occult, thus serving to neuter its prominence. Rather, these schismatic movements
initiated their own streams of thought and practice, which had bearings on conceptualisations
of the good life. For instance, Weber (1905) drew attention to the way that Protestantism
engendered a ‘sanctification of ordinary life,’ in which wellbeing was seen to be found
through down-to-earth activities such as hard work and devotion to the family.
17th Century: Narratives of Progress
As Europe entered the 17th century, a bold concept began to seize the collective imagination:
progress. Indeed, the widespread emergence of this narrative – indeed, this temporal mindset
– marked the transition into what is referred to as ‘Modernity’ (Therborn, 2003). Previously,
the dominant Christian time orientation had been a powerful combination of: (a) retrospective
yearning for a lost ‘golden age’ (e.g., the Garden of Eden); and (b) eschatological belief in a
future redemption (e.g., paradise). Of course, some Christian thinkers – like Aquinas – had
argued that it was possible for people and society to make ‘progress’ (e.g., becoming better at
cultivating Christian virtues). However, they had tended to eschew the notion that life on
earth could be perfected as such. In contrast, during this epoch, driven by advancements in
science, technology, and economics, a powerful new belief emerged in the linear and indeed
inexorable improvement of the human condition (Maier, 2000).
This spirit of progress was epitomised by Sir Francis Bacon’s 1626 utopian novel
New Atlantis. This portrayed a vision of a mythical island, whose inhabitants exuded
‘generosity and enlightenment, dignity and splendour, piety and public spirit,’ and which
featured ‘Solomon's House,’ envisioned much like a modern research university (cited in Van
Santen, Khoe, & Vermeer, 2010, p.268). People also latched on to current ‘working models’
of progress that were unfolding at that time, one of the most prominent being the Dutch
republic (Prak, 2005). Despite the turmoil in the wake of the reformation, this was a magnet
for scholars, artists and scientists. Indeed, great efforts were made there to forge a prosperous
and harmonious society, facilitated in part by the wealth generated by vastly increased trade
passing through Dutch ports (Unger, 1980). This harmony is often symbolised in art through
music, such as people playing music in well-ordered households. The selected work here is
thus The Music Lesson (1665), by Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675).
Figure 7: The Music Lesson (1665), by Johannes Vermeer
Moreover, this harmony and prosperity itself generated further streams of thought that would
bear fruit over subsequent centuries. As Bertrand Russell (1945, p.559) noted in A History of
Western Philosophy, ‘It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of Holland in the
seventeenth century, as the one country where there was freedom of speculation.’ For
instance, it was in Holland that pivotal enlightenment figures such as John Locke (1632-
1704) and Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) took refuge from the persecution and suppression
they faced in less open societies, and similarly where revolutionary theorists like Thomas
Hobbes (1588-1679) were able to publish their epochal tracts, such as Hobbes’s ground-
breaking political philosophy treatise Leviathan. The ideas set in motion by such scholars
would then help shape the following century, and beyond.
18th Century: The Perfecting of Society
The notion of progress inaugurated in the 17th Century truly began to take hold in the 18th
Century. This is epitomised by the Encyclopaedists, scholars and activists who were members
of the French Société des Gens de Lettres. Under the guidance of Denis Diderot and Jean le
Rond d'Alembert, between 1751 and 1765 these scholars undertook the ambitious task of
creating The Encyclopaedia. This was a massive project, comprising 28 volumes, involving
the efforts of over 150 people, who collectively became known as the philosophes. They
advocated for the advancement of science, secularism, tolerance, rationality, and open-
mindedness, with the epoch consequently becoming referred to as the ‘Enlightenment.’ Thus,
the chosen artwork for this era is the front page of the Encyclopaedia, published in 1756.
Figure 8: Painting from the front-page of The Encyclopaedia (1756)
This richly symbolic picture depicts the triumph of learning over ignorance. Beneath an Ionic
Temple – the ‘Sanctuary of Truth’ – truth can be seen, veiled, yet radiating light that
disperses clouds of ignorance. To the right, Reason is raising Truth’s veil, while Philosophy
is tearing it away. Surrounding these figures are other symbolic representations, including
various physical sciences (such as Geometry, Astronomy, and Physics), the creative arts
(different genres of Poetry, together with Music, Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture), as
well as Imagination, positioned to the left of Truth, ready to adorn and crown her. The
overarching message here was the good life can be found on earth, above all through the
cultivation of learning and the pursuit of truth (McMahon, 2004).
Moreover, the Enlightenment was not just a question of individuals being encouraged
to pursue the good life independently. There were concomitant efforts to facilitate this pursuit
in a collective, systemic way. There emerged the powerful notion that society itself could be
re-structured to better enable people to flourish, as reflected in the revolutions in America
(1776) and France (1789). Of course, history had been replete with wars and political
upheavals which had overturned societies, but these tended to be a result of people attempting
to seize riches or power for self-gain. In contrast, the American and French revolutions
purported to be driven by loftier ideals. The American Declaration of Independence famously
enshrined the ‘unalienable rights’ to ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,’ while the
French uprising was founded on a belief in ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.’ Of course, these
revolutions had their fair share of bloodshed which arguably undermined their high-minded
ideals to some extent (Arendt, 1963). Nevertheless, even if the methods and outcomes of
these movements were flawed, it was still a striking evocation of the times that they had
striven to instantiate these Enlightenment ideals in the first place.
19th Century: The Search for the Self
However, as captivating as the grand vision of the Enlightenment was, perhaps inevitably, it
began to provoke counter-reactions. These may have been prompted by various factors, such
as distaste and even horror at the way the French revolution had unfolded (Arendt, 1963), or
concerns with how the quest for progress had generated the dehumanising processes of the
Industrial Revolution (Engels, 1845), leading to a certain disenchantment with grand efforts
to ‘perfect’ society. It may also have reflected the more general pattern of thesis-antithesis-
synthesis which had been operative throughout earlier epochs, being one strand of a more
general ‘counter-Enlightenment’ movement (McMahon, 2002). Either way, as the 19th
Century took shape, the Enlightenment optimism began to be superseded by a ‘darker’
introspective movement known as Romanticism (Berlin, 2013). This was led by luminaries
such as Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1718), whose influential Confessions was embraced by
a populace ready for new modes of self-understanding (Taylor, 1989).
To the Enlightenment’s thesis of order, harmony, and rationality, Romanticism
valorised introspection, subjectivity, and emotionality, exalting emotion over reason, senses
over the intellect, the individual over society, and nature over civilisation. This created
significant new dynamics in terms of the pursuit of flourishing. In contrast to enthusiastic
efforts to perfect society, Romanticism fostered a preoccupation with the ‘Self’ – exploring
one’s ‘inner nature,’ and becoming ‘authentic’ (Taylor, 1989). Within this overarching
context, other streams of thought then emerged. For instance, the 19th Century saw the first
stirrings of Existentialism, pioneered by thinkers such as Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1833) and
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), who plunged into vertiginous and often troubling
explorations of the ‘human condition.’ Similarly, in art, the Romantic spirit was captured by
the early ‘expressionists,’ who sought to explore their inner feelings, representing these in
unconventional ways. These two strands of existentialism and impressionism are perhaps
nowhere better exemplified than in Edouard Munch’s iconic 1893 painting The Scream.
Figure 9: The Scream, by Edvard Munch (1893)
In Munch’s own testimony, the inspiration for this came as he was walking at sunset, when
‘suddenly the sky turned blood red,’ whereupon he ‘stood there trembling with anxiety – and
I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature’ (cited in Bleakley, 2015, p.226). This
feeling had previously been captured by Kierkegaard in The Concept of Dread (1834) and
Fear and Trembling (1843), and indeed by subsequent existentialist thinkers, many of whom
focused on the notion of existential ‘angst.’ Kierkegaard argued that unlimited possibility,
‘the dizziness of freedom,’ can be troubling, as people must continually make choices that
irrevocably determine their fate, and moreover assume responsibility for the consequences.
Such insights would then be explored in depth in the 20th Century by thinkers like Camus
(1942) and Sartre (1952). And it is with this century that our narrative finishes.
20th Century: The Rise of Individualism
Finally, then, the strands above culminate in the ‘present day’ of the 20th Century. (The 21st is
still too young to permit any kind of overarching retrospective.) Again, as with all previous
centuries, there is no single defining perspective in this epoch, no unitary narrative capable of
containing all its tensions and complexities. Nevertheless, it is possible to point to significant
trends, and in this respect, one of the most dominant is Individualism. This partly refers to the
belief that the self is an autonomous unit, ‘a bounded, unique, more or less integrated
motivational and cognitive universe’ (Geertz, 1983, p.59). Perhaps more importantly, it also
refers to the phenomenon whereby people are primarily concerned with their individual being
(rather than with any group that they may belong to). This notion of individualism had been
germinating for centuries in the West, and is often credited as first emerging with the work of
René Descartes (1596-1650). The statement cogito ergo sum in his Meditations (1641) is seen
as pivotal in establishing the idea of ‘monological consciousness’ – the ‘reification of the
disengaged first-person-singular self,’ as Taylor (1995, p.59) puts it – that came to dominate
Western thinking over subsequent centuries, to the extent that this individualised sense of
selfhood is frequently referred to as the ‘Cartesian I.’
However, it was arguably only in the 20th Century, spurred on by the 19th Century
tailwinds of Romanticism and Existentialism, that Individualism became hegemonic in the
West, the uncontested ‘natural’ way of viewing people (Jelen, 1999). There are various ways
of substantiating this claim, but in the context of this paper, a potent source of validation can
be found in art. Many dominant 20th Century trends in art, particularly later Postmodernist
ones, take the individual self – indeed, the individual artist – as their reference point
(Featherstone, 2007). These involved the artist attempting to explore and depict his or her
own individual existence (as opposed to trying to ‘objectively’ study a particular topic, such
as a historical figure or event, as previous generations of artists had tended to do). A famous
example of this is Tracey Emin’s 1998 installation My Bed, shown below.
Figure 10: Installation (1998), My bed, by Tracy Emin
The piece is a re-creation of a low point in her life when she had lain in bed for days. This
type of confessional piece does have its predecessors of sorts in earlier centuries, such as the
unsparing self-portraits of Rembrandt (1606-1669) (Rothenberg, 2008). However, in its
unabashed solipsism and self-assertiveness, it is surely a work that would have only been
possible in the 20th Century. It rejected the need for qualities such as aesthetic beauty, or even
artistic ‘skill’ (apart from the ability to conceive of and install the work), and simply
advocated the value of ‘self-expression,’ portraying one’s existence in all its raw unmediated
beauty and ugliness. Moreover, it also tapped into other themes that characterise the 20th
century, like the commodification of the self as encouraged by late capitalism (Lair, Sullivan,
& Cheney, 2005). The piece thus not only reflects the dominance of the individualistic mode
of identity, but is arguably emblematic of the age more generally.
This paper has traced the emergence and development of ideas in the West over the past
1,000 years, focusing specifically on ideas relating to the good life. The premise was that
such analyses, while interesting in their own right, are particularly valuable in helping us to
understand the West’s present outlook, to see how this has been shaped by these historical
currents. For instance, there has been much interest over the past two decades in the new field
of positive psychology, which studies topics such as happiness and wellbeing. However, the
field has attracted various critiques, such as that its conceptualisations of wellbeing are rather
culturally-specific – reflecting the Western context in which the field emerged – and yet it
presents these as if universally applicable (Lomas, 2015a). Although its concepts have largely
been derived from research with ‘WEIRD’ participants – Western, Educated, Industrialised,
Rich and Democratic (Henrich, Heine, & Norenzayan, 2010) – the field has tended to adopt a
universalist perspective, presuming that these findings can be generalised to other cultures.
However, the type of analysis above allows us to see how its dominant concepts are rooted in
particular ways of thinking that have been influential in the West over past centuries.
By way of example, this concluding section will briefly touch upon three different
facets of positive psychology, showing that these all have their roots in the streams of thought
outlined above. Firstly, there is the foundational notion that happiness is an outcome that can
(and should) be sought and found, which underpins the entire field. It could be argued that
this goal constitutes a secular re-framing of the salvation narratives promulgated by
Christianity in earlier centuries (Miller, 1975). While hope of an afterlife may have eroded,
the belief in the attainment of a desired goal state can be seen as having been transferred to
the secular ‘holy grail’ of health and happiness (which consequently have inherited features
of religiosity, including ritual, taboo, and transgression) (Williams, 1998). At the risk of
indulging in ‘Orientalism’ (Said, 1995), this type of Western teleology stands in contrast to
Eastern philosophies such as Buddhism, which advocate acceptance (Hayes, 2002). Indeed,
Buddhism argues that it is the desire for life to be other than it is which causes the very
dissatisfaction from which one hopes to escape. Of course, philosophies of acceptance have
also been promulgated in the West, such as by Stoicism (Wong, 2006). Nevertheless, on the
whole, this sense of pursuing happiness is a concern particularly associated with the West.
The second way in which positive psychology has its roots in the streams above is in
its operationalization of happiness itself. It has become conventional – albeit not uncontested
(Kashdan, Biswas-Diener, & King, 2008) – to differentiate between two overarching ‘types’
of happiness: hedonic happiness, also known as ‘subjective wellbeing’ (Diener, Suh, Lucas,
& Smith, 1999); and eudaimonic happiness, also known as ‘psychological wellbeing’ (Ryff,
1989). The former essentially refers to pleasure and satisfaction, while the latter pertains to
fulfilment and purpose. This distinction can be traced back at least as far as Aristotle (350
BCE, p.110), whose Nichomachean Ethics took a dim view of the former (‘a life suitable to
beasts’), while valorizing the latter (the ‘activity of the soul in accordance with virtue’). The
distinction accordingly re-surfaced during the Renaissance, with the two types subsequently
being embraced by various thinkers. For instance, John Locke (1689, p.258) emphasised a
more hedonic perspective in his motivational theory of human psychology, describing
happiness simply as ‘the utmost pleasure we are capable of.’ In contrast, Romantic and
Existentialist thinkers tended towards a more eudaimonic stance, emphasising the importance
of factors like authenticity, self-development, and meaning in life
Finally, positive psychology has been accused of developing a rather ‘individualistic’
notion of wellbeing, reflecting the more general cultural trend of Individualism (Becker &
Marecek, 2008). For a start, happiness is constructed as a private, inner, mental state – as
opposed to, for example, operationalising it as a property of a harmonious social collective,
as some other cultures are believed to (Izquierdo, 2005). Then, the field has tended to
downplay socio-cultural factors that impinge upon wellbeing. For instance, an influential
model developed by Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, and Schkade (2005) suggests that approximately
only 10% of the variance in happiness is shaped by social circumstances. However, although
the figures in the model express population variance, it is common to find the ‘ecological
fallacy’ being propagated, whereby these figures are regarded as being true for every person.
Thus, the fact that some people’s wellbeing – particularly those who are disadvantaged – may
be hugely affected by social context is often neglected in favour of more ‘psychological’
explanations and remedies (Lomas, 2015b). This lacuna has been strongly critiqued Becker
and Marecek (2008, p.1771) who write that ‘To suggest that self-help exercises can suffice in
the absence of social transformation is not only short sighted but morally repugnant.’
However, in recent years, positive psychology has begun to be more reflexive about
its cultural bias, and indeed more open to other cultural models of wellbeing. For instance,
regarding the first point above, there is an increasing dialogue within the field around the
pitfalls of ‘pursuing’ happiness (Mauss, Tamir, Anderson, & Savino, 2011), and greater
engagement with notions of acceptance derived from Eastern philosophies (Ivtzan & Lomas,
2015). Likewise, there has been interest in other ‘types’ of happiness, such as Wong’s (2011)
concept of ‘charonic’ happiness, which draws on non-Western notions of spirituality. Finally,
the field is becoming more attuned to the socio-cultural dimensions of wellbeing, as reflected
in the emergence of ‘positive social psychology’ (Lomas, 2015b). As such, in undertaking an
‘archaeology’ (Foucault, 1972) of conceptualisations of happiness, this paper can hopefully
help fields like positive psychology – and people in the West more generally – to appreciate
their biases, and perhaps even to transcend them.
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