“Be the master of yourself” - Happiness as Freedom

December 19, 2018

Over the years, many people have expressed their opinions on happiness, freedom, and being the best person overall. Is happiness attainable? What makes up happiness? Will the goal of achieving happiness lead to unfulfillment? These are just a few of the questions many famous philosophers considered. John-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, and Sigmund Freud are some of those who have unique accounts about this complex phenomenon. 

John-Jacques Rousseau was a social and political theorist that was born in Geneva, Switzerland in 1712. To Rousseau, happiness is an equilibrium between our desires and the power to fulfill them. He believes the highest good is freedom from the influence of society.  When we are free, we are in the equilibrium, and thus, happy. Rousseau begins The Social Contract with, “Man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains.  One man thinks himself the master of others but remains more of a slave than they are.” This quote begins to explain Rousseau’s belief that man is born naturally good but becomes corrupt because of society. To Rousseau, the earliest, primitive humans were truly happy. 

As a result, when one is content and free from want and inclinations from society, they can become the master of themselves.  Education will allow one to discover who they want to be.  Rousseau believes that being a man and bettering yourself for you is more important than bettering yourself for society.  This is parallel to the Socratic method; moreover, education is for the man, not the citizen.  One should not become a doctor or a lawyer because that is what society says to do.  Rousseau believes that science and arts contribute to the corruption of one’s happiness, and states “The progress of the sciences and the arts has added nothing to our genuine felicity”.  One should get out of education who they truly are and from that, who they want to be to become the master of themselves free from society’s inclinations.

Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher born in 1724.  According to Kant, happiness is made of self-contentment, not driven by desires.  He believes society is obsessed with happiness and that having a goal of only pure happiness or pleasure will lead to unfulfillment.  To Kant, practical reason which is “the use of reason to decide how to act, using an individual’s principles”, is freedom.  One should act morally out of duty if they wish to be free. Desires are not a basis for this reasoning because one cannot know if they will be fulfilled until after that action has taken place.  To Kant, happiness is the consciousness of being free from your own inclinations, which is different from Rousseau who talks about the inclinations of society.

Kant’s consciousness of needing nothing is similar to The Stoics and St. Teresa, who focus on freeing yourself from desires, so you can feel God; however, Kant was focused on moving away from religious morals and making it more secular.  He believes summum bonum is the highest good but cannot be attained because virtue and happiness cannot be directly connected.  Virtue is the supreme good, defined as one’s worthiness to be happy but happiness does not define goodness.  Therefore, summum bonum is relying on one’s freedom of will and rests on the cognition of an individual.

John Stuart Mill was a British philosopher and political economist that was born in 1806.  He invested a great amount of time into his theorys around happiness and freedom.  Mill believes happiness is a basis of morality, because people never desire anything but happiness, and that happiness is also the foundation of justice. He believed that happiness could be achieved by maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain which leads to a moral being. He fuses happiness and morality and says that the wise man who has tried both pleasures knows that the higher pleasures are the most satisfactory.  Similar to Kantian ethics, acting morally will ultimately give you the most happiness. To Mill, the golden rule for happiness in society is to love one’s neighbor as thyself.  To Mill, there are three barriers to happiness: selfishness, want of education, and denial of liberty. He believes one’s goal should be to make the highest amount of people around you happy.  Achievement of goals, such as virtuosity, are part of one’s happiness and aid one in becoming a master of themselves and expressing their individual freedom.  Mill justified the freedom of the individual in opposition to unlimited state and social control.  

Sigmund Freud was an Austrian physiologist born in 1956, known for his development of psychoanalysis.  Similar to John Stuart Mill, he believes happiness is the maximization of pleasure and the absence of pain.  He states, “[Happiness] has two sides, a positive and a negative aim. It aims, on the one hand, at an absence of pain and unpleasure, and, on the other, at the experiencing of strong feelings of pleasure”.  The pleasure principle is the driving force guiding the id.  It simultaneously seeks the immediate gratification of pleasure and the avoidance of pain.  To Freud, happiness is hard to achieve because people often face frustration and suffering.  “The programme of becoming happy, which the pleasure principle imposes on us, cannot be fulfilled; yet we must not – indeed, we cannot – give up our efforts to bring it nearer to fulfilment by some means or other”.  One can follow the pleasure principle to achieve happiness and fulfilling their libido.  

“Happiness... is a problem of the economics of the individual’s libido.”  Fulfilling one’s libido may not always be socially accepted. An example of this is it is natural to be attracted to beautiful people even if you may have a significant other, but society makes it unacceptable to feel “attracted” because you should only be thinking/looking at your significant other.  These socially unaccepted experiences can lead to frustration.  According to Freud, the causes of human suffering are: the superior power of nature – things which we have no control over, the feebleness of our own bodies, and relationships of human beings “in the family, the state, and society”.  Some methods he provides for ending suffering are: intoxication, “killing” of the instincts through yoga or meditative practices or turning away from the problem as a hermit does on a mountaintop.  However, according to Freud, the best way to cure frustration is sublimation.  Sublimation is diverging from one’s libido into non-instinctual channels, or socially acceptable behavior.  For example, “An artist’s joy in creating…a scientist’s in solving problems or discovering truths…ordinary professional work”.  This is their way of putting their energy into something that they are passionate about and as result, become a master of themselves.  Choosing to sublimate and be free from frustration results in happiness and key integration into society.

It is clear that each philosopher had their own take on happiness as freedom.  The earliest philosopher, Rousseau thought society corrupted man and that education would allow people to understand who they truly are and become a master of themselves.  Kant, on the other hand, thought the individual’s own inclinations drove them away from happiness.  One is a master of oneself when they are free from their own inclinations and act morally out of duty. Mill focuses on freedom of the individual in opposition to society. His golden rule for happiness in society is to love one’s neighbor as thyself which is contrary to our final and most modern philosopher, Sigmund Freud. To Freud, happiness is chasing to fulfil one’s desires, even if they are not be socially accepted.  As a result of frustration and suffering, one can become the master of themselves and find happiness through sublimation.  Clearly, there are many differences and similarities between each of these philosophers that make up their theories on happiness as freedom and being the master of oneself. 






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