From Plato to the present, Western philosophers have given conflicting answers to questions concerning the meaning of “happiness”: Is it a feeling, a subjective psychological state, or a general disposition? What are the conditions necessary for its attainment? How does happiness relate to pleasure? What is the connection between happiness and virtue? What does one need to know or to do in order to be happy? Is happiness achievable in during one’s lifetime and does it last once it is achieved?
Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Kant, and Mill famously addressed these and related questions. But it is not generally known that Jewish philosophers from Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C.E.–50 C.E.) to Moses Maimonides (1138–1204) to Moses Mendelssohn (1729–1786) have also reflected deeply about the subject. That Jewish thinkers were interested in happiness at all may appear odd, given the persistent persecutions our people have endured through much of history. But, in fact, they devoted considerable attention to happiness, because they believed the practice of Judaism was the best path to a happy life. This belief is precisely what our liturgy affirms each time Jews return the Torah to the ark during a worship service, saying, “It [the Torah] is the tree of life, and those who hold fast to it are happy.”
From the beginning, Jewish thinkers have taught that happiness does not mean possessing material goods, having fun, feeling content, or enjoying physical pleasures, although some of these elements may be part of the happy life. In Judaism, happiness is not a subjective feeling manifested for a short period of time; instead, it is an objective state that pertains to the quality of a human life as a whole, characterized by flourishing, thriving, and experiencing the well-being of which humans are capable. The happy life is attained when people conduct themselves and undertake activities in a manner that promotes an intrinsically good life.
This objectivist understanding of happiness was shared by other ancient thinkers, most notably the Greek philosopher Aristotle (d. 344 B.C.E.), whose ideas influenced Jewish thinking on the subject. Aristotle’s teaching on happiness was ridden with tension: On the one hand, he said that happiness means the cultivation of virtue in the sociopolitical sphere; but on the other hand, he posited the contemplation of eternal truths as the highest activity that makes human beings happy.
Jewish thinkers such as Philo of Alexandria and Moses Maimonides integrated Greek philosophy and commitment to Torah when they claimed that Scriptures should be read on two levels: one exoteric (the literal meaning of the text, including references to historical events and physical conditions), the other esoteric (the text’s hidden meaning, consisting of philosophical, eternal truths). When Scripture says one thing but means something else, the reader has to interpret the text allegorically. Both Philo and Maimonides argued that understanding the hidden, philosophic meaning of Scripture is necessary for the perfection of the human soul and the experience of happiness. They thus urged Jews to live by Divinely revealed Scriptures, but interpret the text philosophically.
In their approach, the pursuit of happiness is a rational endeavor in which the human intellect seeks to attain perfection, but the pursuit of perfection takes place within a religious framework. It becomes a religious obligation to devote one’s life to the pursuit of knowledge about the world, about humanity, and about God. Only the one who lives by the Wisdom of God as revealed to Israel can possess correct knowledge about the world God created and ultimately reach closeness to God. To be happy, or to flourish, Jews have to live in accordance with Torah and become wise.
Both Aristotle and the Jewish thinkers who were influenced by him also presupposed that to live in accordance with human nature, one must be good. Goodness required acquiring virtues through the deliberate, habitual practice of good acts; and living the good life in this world was necessary if a person was to transcend mere biological life. For Aristotle this transcendence meant the contemplation of philosophical truths, and for Jewish Aristotelian philosophers it meant experiencing the blissful immortality of the intellect—a bliss of contemplation that is not subject to the passage of time or to one’s emotions or passions. Such a life of contemplation, however, could be attained only by those who maintained appropriate social interactions, guided by the principle of moderation. Maimonides and his followers believed that Jewish law itself had specified this path of moderation, by instructing Jews how to act properly.
The Jewish philosophic conception of happiness, then, had much in common with the Greek perspective, but with two main differences. First, Jewish philosophers believed human beings could have a personal relationship with God, culminating in love, and that human happiness was contingent on this relationship. Second, Jewish thinkers held that God had revealed to humans, or more precisely to Israel (the Jewish people), the specific instructions specifying how to act. The best life, according to Jewish thinkers, was one in which a believer manifested an unconditional love of God, lived the life of Torah for its own sake, and strove to become most like God through good deeds.
What can we learn today from these premodern discourses on happiness?
First, a well-lived life requires a lifelong process of thought and reflection. As such, there is no contradiction between living a happy life and experiencing doubt, sadness, aggravation, or displeasure—feelings which tend to disappear when the particular circumstances provoking them disappear. Thus the well-lived life is not free of negative feelings or events, but one in which imperfections are properly understood and better handled.
Second, human well-being pertains to who we are—i.e., excellence of character—rather than what we own or how other people perceive us. The ongoing effort to acquire the virtues that constitute good character remains a noble goal for us, individually and collectively.
Third, flourishing as human beings requires that we develop a philosophy of life that takes into consideration objective truths about who we are as humans and what we all share, such as our needs for love and for meaning. The contemporary preoccupation with “difference” and “identity politics” has made it easy to forget our commonalities.
Fourth, a model of happiness grounded in Torah can fortify our Jewish identity. Because many Jews saw the Torah as the prescription for the happy life, they were able to sustain their sense of spiritual superiority, withstand persecution, and resist the temptation to convert.
When contemporary Jews reflect on the meaning of happiness, they would be wise to avail themselves not only of the new science of experiencing subjective well-being, but also with Jewish philosophic discourses on happiness, which require constant engagement with the Torah and its meaning for our lives. In such discourses we find the crucial question we need to ask ourselves: “What sort of person do I need to be in order to live a happy life?”
Hava Tirosh-Samuelson is professor of history, Irving and Miriam Lowe Professor of Modern Judaism, and director of Jewish Studies at Arizona State University. She is the author of Happiness in Premodern Judaism: Virtue, Knowledge, and Well-Being (2003), from which this has been adapted, as well as other books and essays.