three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
22-May-June-2006
user_rating: 
0

A History

A-HappinessAHistoryAccording to ancient Greek legend, one should "call no man happy until he is dead." The Buddha smiles while teaching that all life is suffering. Christians toil through the temptations of life on Earth with Heaven glistening in their sights. The pursuit of happiness as an admirable, even attainable, goal only matured during the Enlightenment and was a key tenant of the American national identity. But what is this mysterious pursuit? And why has our concept of the pursuit of happiness changed so greatly throughout human history? McMahon shakes the bones of the great Western thinkers by tracing the meanings of pursuits of happiness through time to try and understand what’s hiding behind the smiley face.
Atlantic Monthly Press. 544 pages. $27.50. ISBN: 0871138867

Los Angeles Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"This is a deeply philosophical book that quietly raises fundamental questions on the scale of: Is life worth living? At the same time, Happiness: A History is a scintillating course in the history of ideas … with a wink and a nod, he assures us that the results of his research reveal that the important thing in life is the process as well as the result—the same could be said of this superb book." Gordon Marino

St. Petersburg Times 4 of 5 Stars
"The book really pays off when McMahon reaches the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries. His expertise enables him to identify the moment at the start of the liberal tradition when thinkers such as John Locke tried to marry the notions of virtue as a means to happiness and a more utilitarian definition of pleasure as its own justification. That conflict between public duty and hedonism is with us still." Bill Duryea

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Itself a history of happiness in the Western tradition, Mr. McMahon’s impressively researched, beautifully written book offers a treasure trove of ideas on the topic, all accompanied by the author’s insightful commentary and arranged so as to establish an overriding story line. … The stories he tells are so rich, and so varied, that inevitably some of them will contradict his thesis and suggest others." Andrew Stark

Economist 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Mr. McMahon sensibly does not try to define happiness and, in presenting the theories of great figures of the past, he does not take sides between them."

Detroit Free Press 3 of 5 Stars
"Reading history has never made me that happy—too many boring early experiences—but McMahon provides readable proof that being happy wasn’t always the main goal in life." Marta Salij

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"Confronted with this welter of clashing opinions, one sometimes wishes that McMahon had done more critical shaping of his material. Is happiness really our ultimate goal? Are truth, beauty, goodness, and freedom only valuable insofar as they lead to it? … These are a few of the questions that bob up only to disappear in the exhilarating foam of ideas." Jim Holt

Critical Summary

Today bookstore shelves are stocked with encyclopedia titles like Salt, Zero, The Pencil, Cod, Chocolate, and One Good Turn (A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw). Happiness follows in suit but delivers a surprisingly rounded view of its subject. True to his subtitle, McMahon is more interested in cataloging the manifold interpretations of his slippery subject than in delivering a decisive conclusion of what it should be. A few critics wanted some answers; instead, McMahon raises many questions. Certainly, this professor of history at Florida State University presents some thinly veiled opinions, but the success of the book is founded on its encyclopedic and accessible presentation of this most evasive idea.

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