The Case Against Cheerfulness

May 10, 2019

‘ If you have to tell someone to be cheerful, they aren’t feeling it’

Practising the Greek virtues of wisdom and courage is one thing. But being cheerful the American way borders on psychosis.

I once ended up at a Boy Scout ceremony in the northeast United States, where I inhaled the American spirit unfiltered. The boys’ uniforms had Stars-and-Stripes patches sewn on next to their badges. We recited the Pledge of Allegiance in front of an oversize US flag, and we prayed to America’s vague God, giving thanks for this and that, and asking for some strength or protection. The boys recited their Scout Law: to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, and… cheerful.

As a philosopher influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche, I’d always imagined cheerfulness was a sickly child, born nine months after a Tinder date between Stoicism and Christianity. But that night I learned that cheerfulness was a British orphan smuggled into the US in the early 20th century, and was now making a living spreading itself all over contemporary American kitsch: throw pillows, coffee mugs and slippers. Cheerfulness has planted deep roots in US soil, and the poor Boy Scouts are made to believe she’s a virtue.

The Ancient Greeks named four virtues: temperance, wisdom, courage and justice. Aristotle added more, but cheerfulness wasn’t one of them. The Greek philosophers didn’t seem to care about how we felt compared with how we acted. Aristotle said that we would ideally feel good while acting good, but he didn’t consider pleasure necessary for beautiful action. Acting virtuously meant steering clear of excess and deficiency. But in order to reach his ‘mean’, we need to jettison every action that misses the mark.

Most of the time, the mean is incredibly tough to find, but if it came down to a choice between feeling good while acting badly or feeling badly while acting good, Aristotle said to choose good behaviour. He understood that feelings are hard to control, sometimes impossible, but he also knew that positive feelings like to hang around virtuous actions. While we’re waiting for the good feelings to show up, he asked us to get to work on temperance, wisdom, courage and justice. But he never said anything about smiling through it.

The Roman Stoics inched closer to prescribing cheerfulness when they decided that we should pay attention to our feelings. They believed that we could control our attitudes. But even they didn’t champion cheerfulness, despite the American translators who try to poison them with it. For example, Marcus Aurelius, in his Meditations, advised himself to be εὔνους, literally ‘good-minded’.

This was translated into English as ‘good-natured’ by Francis Hutcheson and James Moore in 1742 in Scotland, and then as ‘benevolence’ by the British translator George Long in 1862, before returning to ‘good-natured’ in 1916 under the influence of another British translator, C R Haines. In 2003, Gregory Hays, from Indianapolis, translated εὔνους as ‘cheerfulness’. Maybe Hays was a boy scout. Or Christian. Or both.

To the Stoic list of virtues, the Christians added faith, hope and love. These are a gift from God, unlike patience and justice, which can be achieved on our own. Faith is the belief that with God all things are possible; hope is risking that belief in real time; and love is willing to be wrong about it. These three add an undeniably emotional element to the mix of virtues, but even Jesus didn’t ask for cheer.

The closest he got was telling the disciples not to look depressed when they fasted. Paul got even closer when he declared that ‘God loves a cheerful giver’. But the original Greek still sounds more like ‘God loves it when you give without needing to be persuaded’ than like the Boy Scout definition of cheerfulness. But Paul also said that Christians should ‘do everything without grumbling and arguing’. The pivot from action to attitude started by the Stoics and egged on by the Christians set the historical stage for Scout Law in the US.

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