De geschiedenis van geluk

Darrrin McMahon schreef ‘The Pursuit of Happiness, a history from the Greeks to the Present’ (2006). In zijn inleiding geeft hij aan:

“One may contemplate history from the point of view of happiness”, observed the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, “but history is not the soil in which happiness grows. The periods of happiness in it are the blank pages of history.” In zijn boek probeert McMahon die blank pages in te vullen. Dat doet hij onder andere door in te gaan op de herkomst van het woord geluk:

“The root of happiness is the Middle English ans Old Norse happ, meaning chance, fortune, what happens in the world, giving us such words as happenstance, haphazard, hapless and perhaps. The French bonheur, similarly, derives from bon and the Old French heur (fortune or luck), an etymology that is perfectly consistent with the Middle High German Glück, still the German word for hapiness and luck. One could multiply these examples at much greater length, but the point would be the same: in the Indo-European language families, happiness has deep roots in the soil of chance.”

McMahon beschrijft in zijn boek hoe in de loop van de geschiedenis tegen geluk is aangekeken:

“Happiness is what happens to us, and over that we have no control. That, in a line, is the received understanding of the ancient Greeks and of much of the world of antiquity. (…) Like the early Greeks and virtually all traditional cultures, the peoples of ancient Israel conceived of hapiness in some measure in material terms. To be happy or blessed was not only to know God’s favor, but also to safely enjoy the things that an uncertain world was so quick to deny: prosperity, family, fertility, peace, security, longevity, a good name.”

De middeleeuwen waren met recht ‘dark ages’: “With reason, it seems, does Lotario offer a new beatitude: happy are those who die before they are born, experiencing death before knowing life. With reason do babies cry at birth. Suck kicking, screaming shrieks of despair were certainly audible in the European Middle Ages. Partly as consequence, it was once commonly assumed that they typified the tenor of this so-called dark age. A long black night that descended on Europe from the fall of the Roman Empire until the awakening of the fifteenth-century Renaissance, this was a period, it seemed, when humanity wandered blindly in ignorance and despair, fumbling like man in Lotario’s dark vision.”

Over de Renaissance schrijft McMahon: “Though the humanists of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries did not discover man or his happy world, they did intensify interest in both. If not altogether in substance, at least in tone the movement can be taken at this world. It did mark a re-birth: in hunger, in enthusiasm, in the curiosity to know.”

“De historicus Darrin McMahon betoogt in The Pursuit of Happiness: A History from the Greeks to the Present (2006) dat de moderne gelukscultuur een product van de Verlichting is. Een belangrijke voorwaarde voor het ontstaan van deze gelukscultuur was de ‘verwereldlijking’ van ons denken. Zelfs christenen gingen geluk als een opdracht van God zien. Het ging niet langer om alleen het geluk in het hiernamaals – de beloning voor een enkele vrome geluksvogel – maar ook om geluk hier op aarde.”
In: ‘Het evangelie van geluk gaat de wereld over’, Rutger Bregman in nrc.text van 14 maart 2012.