‘What about history? What is its place, and what is its value, for life? And how might history and historians enhance human flourishing, if at all?’
In this post – the first of three considering ‘History and Human Flourishing’ – Darrin McMahon considers the historical study of happiness as an approach to the past: one often neglected in favour of the darker manifestations of human thought and action. Histories of happiness are more than the pursuit of perpetual good feelings and they exist alongside the ubiquitous suffering of the world, in the past and the present alike.
As editor of a new volume, History and Human Flourishing (2023), Darrin proposes important questions for historians and a discipline about which some are sceptical: to consider how the study of history can promote happiness and wellbeing in the present, and the value of history for life, that is, for human flourishing.
In his celebrated discussion of Antonine Rome in the second century AD, the ‘most happy and prosperous time’ in the history of world, Edward Gibbon hit upon the insight that there would be little to say. The period, he notes, is ‘marked by the rare advantage of providing very few materials for history; which is indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.’
His words recall Voltaire’s earlier assertion in L’Ingenu (1767) that ‘history is nothing more than a tableau of crimes and misfortunes.’ And they gesture towards the conclusion that Hegel would reach some decades later when he observed of the history of the world that ‘the periods of happiness in it were the blank pages of history.’ Riffing in a similar spirit in his well-known essay, ‘On the Concept of History’ (1942), Walter Benjamin famously concluded that ‘there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.’
Was there something particularly biased about historians, a reflexive disposition to find the flaw rather than to see the good?
Good lines, every one of them. But surely they are no more true than Tolstoy’s claim in Anna Karenina that ‘happy families are all alike,’ and that ‘every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ If that were genuinely the case, then only the unhappy would have stories—and histories—worth recounting. Like the past of Gibbon, the stuff of literature would be restricted to human pain.
When I first got interested in the history of happiness and human flourishing in the late 1990s, I encountered such prejudice often enough to make me wonder if historians and humanists were preternatural pessimists. Psychologists tell us that all human beings experience ‘negativity bias.’ Evolution, it seems, has wired us to pay more attention to, and to be more affected by, negative stimuli than positive. As the journalist say, ‘If it bleeds it leads.’ But was there something particularly biased about historians, a reflexive disposition to find the flaw rather than to see the good?
Speaking about happiness to audiences in the UK or in Europe, I would sometimes encounter a bemused response. ‘The topic seems so cheery,’ some would say with good-natured condescension, so upbeat, so American. On the contrary, I tried to show, happiness construed as human flourishing involved all the struggle to live the good life that Aristotle associated with the tough stuff of virtue. Happiness was as much about wrestling with pain as about the pursuit of pleasure. Not only was it intimately bound up with British and Continental history in the modern period, as Ritchie Robinson has lately insisted in his admirable The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness, 1680–1790 (Allen Lane, 2020), it has been of perennial concern, in one form or another, to most cultures of the world since the very beginning.
To many of those observers, happiness seemed shallow at best, dangerous at worst, and in any case not a subject fitting for serious historical inquiry.
But suspicion was hardly confined to Europe. In the United States, some sniffed at the subject as if it were sure to smell of superficiality, while others worried about happiness’s complicity in the pollyannish pursuit of pleasure of late capitalism. Even historians of the emotions, with their rich studies of melancholy, jealousy and fear, were long curiously reluctant to turn their attention to the positive emotions. To many of those observers, happiness seemed shallow at best, dangerous at worst, and in any case not a subject fitting for serious historical inquiry.
Thankfully, much of that resistance has now given way to more productive engagement, with historians of the emotions, among others, taking up the subject of happiness and a range of related concerns in considerable numbers. And yet I was reminded recently that old prejudices die hard by a particularly small-minded title appended to an otherwise nuanced review of a book of essays I had the pleasure to edit and publish last December with Oxford University Press. The title of the book, comprising the contributions of ten prominent historians, is History and Human Flourishing. But the title of the review, published in March in The Critic, is ‘Re-badging the past as Feel-good therapy.’ Eye-grabbing, perhaps, in a tabloid-sort of way. But as a description of the book’s contents, or even of the review itself, it is deeply misleading.
Consider that the volume’s opening essay by the historian of science D. Graham Burnett, hailed by the reviewer as the best in the collection, takes as its primary points of departure the proposition that ‘it is the basic catastrophe of human beings that we are, functionally, little hollow passages for the transmission of pain.’ Not so feel-good, that. Or that the essay by Bancroft Prize-winning historian Mia Bay, ‘Toward a History of Black Happiness,’ strangely not mentioned in the review, makes plain that the whole of African American history is a rebuke to the kind of white-washing account of the past that would have it grin back at us, providing service with a smile. The essay by Nicole Eustace, who in 2021 was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her Covered with Night, a distinctly un-cheery account of the murder of the indigenous in British North America, though also not mentioned in the review, serves as a direct riposte to precisely the kind of feel-good therapy conjured by The Critic, warning of ‘the dystopian potential of even so utopian a project as the promotion of happiness and flourishing.’ My own essay, finally, for what it is worth, conceives of the consolation of history, like religion, as a way of negotiating death. Strangely, such negotiation can feel good, I argue. But not in the way The Critic’s title implies, and certainly not for the purposes of therapeutic healing.
Indeed, any consideration of human flourishing deeper than what’s on offer at Walt Disney World will necessarily entail much more than simply prescriptions for feeling good…
I belabour the issue here not to score points against a misguided editor for seeking a snappy title, but to make the point that the serious study of human flourishing, whether from a historical or psychological perspective, is not to be confused with happiology, the ‘science’ of feeling good all the time. Nor will it shrink from confronting the ubiquitous suffering of the world in the past and the present alike, or deign to deny the dark side of life in favour of a mindlessly sunny optimism. Indeed, any consideration of human flourishing deeper than what’s on offer at Walt Disney World will necessarily entail much more than simply prescriptions for feeling good, even if feeling good surely has an important, albeit intermittent, place in our lives.
But what about history? What is its place, and what is its value, for life? And how might history and historians enhance human flourishing, if at all? Those are straightforward questions, though we historians seldom consider them directly. And yet there is a weighty precedent for doing so. As I explain in detail in the book’s introduction, it was precisely the question of the value of history for life that motivated Friedrich Nietzsche’s well-known essay of 1874, ‘On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life.’ Nietzsche wrote during what he regarded as a moment of ‘crisis’ for history. In his view, there was too much of it—both of the written kind and of the weight of the past itself. And while he made clear that ‘we need history … for the sake of life and action,’ he was also mindful of the ways that history and historical scholarship can detract from life and impoverish it.
Our own contemporary predicament is undoubtedly different. But few would deny that history as a field of inquiry is once again in crisis, with enrolments plummeting and its place in our classrooms and public discourse openly called into question by parents and politicians alike. Surely, it can’t hurt to take stock at such a moment, and to remind ourselves of what we as historians have to offer, if only to better respond to our critics, and to help justify what it is we do.
By showing that what are regarded today as the various components of well-being have nuanced histories, historians can help generate a ‘usable past’ of value to those who would counsel specific behaviors today.
That is what we have tried to do in the volume. Each contributor was asked to consider the value of history for life, that is, for human flourishing. The responses, often quite personal, were varied. Some, like Suzanne Marchand, in her essay ‘Flourishing with Herodotus,’ ask provocatively whether history has replaced economics as the ‘dismal science,’ dwelling all too frequently as it does on ‘catastrophes and cruelties’ to the exclusion of much else. She makes a plea for a history ‘not divorced from delight,’ one that incorporates some of the play and flights of fancy, the whimsicality and innovation that the father of history knew how to produce to great effect, but that was largely killed off by the advent of history in the nineteenth century as a science and a profession.
Other authors, such as Maya Jasanoff, dwell on history’s relationship to story and the importance of historical story-telling to both private and public life: after all, ‘history’ and ‘story’ share a common etymology, even genealogy. To judge only by the amount of historical fiction currently on offer in novels, television, and film, it is clear that history can make for serious entertainment. But can serious history be entertaining, as well as in some meaningful sense true? Jasanoff ventures that it can be, and the potential ‘Power of a Well-told History,’ is precisely its capacity to do both.
Still other contributors such as Dan Edelstein focus on what he calls the ‘historical sublime,’ that combination of serenity and awe that once moved figures like Stendhal and Goethe in the face of the great monuments of antiquity. In different modes still today, Edelstein argues, the historical sublime can help induce a sense of connection to the past and a calm amidst the relentless fury and scaremongering of the news cycle. Although the historical sublime is by nature a melancholy disposition—’we only seek the plentitude of the past when we find the present lacking’—it can be restorative and reassuring nonetheless, a buffer and respite from the tempests of the moment.
… the past is the record of more than just crime, folly, and misfortune …
A number of the contributors, such as Burnett and David Armitage in his essay ‘In Defense of Presentism,’ counsel the cultivation of a historical consciousness that enacts and teaches sustained attention, not least with regard to our present moment, which they urge us to see in the way that only the historically-informed can: as a time that one day, too, will be history. At once fleeting and eternal, past-dependent and future-oriented, the present is the only place that history can be made, and so histories must be made that serve it responsibly. If they can redound at the same time to the broader project of individual and collective flourishing, so much the better. Finally, the noted historian of emotions, Peter Stearns, urges practitioners to historicize, and so to complicate and complement, the propositions of contemporary psychologists who assert, in universal terms, the causes and correlates of human flourishing. By showing that what are regarded today as the various components of well-being have nuanced histories, historians can help generate a ‘usable past’ of value to those who would counsel specific behaviours today.
Those are some of the modest proposals put forth in History and Human Flourishing, which collectively seek to remind us of the simple truth that the past is the record of more than just crime, folly, and misfortune; that history may be assembled from other materials besides the records of barbarism; and that there are more modes in which to compose besides the critical and pessimistic. These essays certainly won’t ‘rescue the profession’ as the reviewer notes dismissively of one. But they may take us some way down the path of history’s redemption by calling to mind what a miraculous thing history can be. Jules Michelet equated the craft with nothing less than the art of ‘resurrection,’ of bringing the dead back to life in order to inspire and uplift, to impart lessons in resilience, recovery, heroism and hope; to move us with a sense of gratitude for sacrifices made, compassion for struggles endured, and strength for those to come. To refuse a resigned and reflexive pessimism, he knew, was a far cry from adopting a blinkered optimism. It was a means, rather, to fortify and guard against despair, and so to persevere. Not all history should be written in this way. But some of it can be. And if so, we’d be better for it.
 I reflect on the place of happiness and human flourishing in the history of emotions and the history of the humanities, in ‘Finding Joy in the History of the Emotions,’ in Doing Emotions History, eds. Susan J. Matt and Peter N. Stearns (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2015), 103–119, and McMahon, ‘The History of the Humanities and Human Flourishing,” in The Oxford Handbook of the Positive Humanities, eds. Louis Tay and James O. Pawelski (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021), 45–56.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Darrin M. McMahon is the Mary Brinsmead Wheelock Professor of History at Dartmouth College. His research interests include the history of ideas from ancient times to the modern day, with a specific focus on Western Europe in the Enlightenment.
Darrin’s publications include Enemies of the Enlightenment: The French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity (2001), Happiness: A History (2006), and Divine Fury. A History of Genius (2013). A co-editor of Modern Intellectual History, his latest publication is the edited collection, History & Human Flourishing (2023).
Darrin’s forthcoming publications are: Equality: The History of an Elusive Idea (New York: Basic Books, 2023) and The Global History of Happiness, co-edited with Katie Barclay and Peter Stearns (Routledge 2024).
ABOUT THIS SERIES
History and Human Flourishing is a three-part series featuring posts by contributors to the recent collection, History & Human Flourishing, ed. Darrin M. McMahon and published in 2023.
Forthcoming contributions in the series, published in July, are by Suzanne Marchand (Louisiana State University, Wednesday 12 July) and David Armitage (Harvard, Wednesday 26 July).