The modern world may have been inaugurated with the thought that we can and should make ourselves happy in this world. No longer should we be, as St. Augustine wrote, happy in hope for God’s gracious deliverance from our otherwise inescapable misery. Our new goal is to work to change ourselves and our environment with happiness in mind.
Certainly the premodern thinkers–such as Plato and Aristotle, the Stoics, and the early Christians–were, in some ways, too pessimistic about the good we can do for ourselves.
Aristotle says that only a mature person can give us sound moral and political guidance. That’s because he’s been chastened by experience. He’s undeluded about what’s really possible, and he’s habituated actually to enjoy living well with the tough challenges and pleasurable compensations (such as friendship) of being a “composite” being, stuck between being like the other animals and being some god.
Machiavelli, surely the first modern philosopher, tells us to reject such prudence as lazy timidity. He privileges the perspective of the audacious and impetuous young man, ready to use his freedom to go where no man has gone before. People need to start getting industrious and acquistiive–to start thinking effectively and sweating profusely–in pursuit of those satisfactions that nature and tradition abitrarily (or, as we will prove, unncessarily) deny us.
But the thought that happiness can be our invention might have produced a novel form of unhappiness: We can’t help but think our unhappiness is our fault, and that we’re commanded constantly to try to do something about it.
So we live increasingly less well with the ennobling responsibilities and intractable dissatisfactions of being merely human. The modern world, according to the contemporary secular social theorist Christopher Lasch in The Revolt of the Elites, is most of all in futile rebellion against “the ancient religious insight that the only way to achieve happiness is to accept limitations in the spirit of gratitude and contrition.” We are, Lasch goes on, in rebellion against “the central paradox of religious faith: the secret of happiness lies in renouncing the right to be happy.”
From this view, it’s because modern thinkers regard gratitude and contrition as based on illusions that they locate happiness some place in the future.