What is a happy life and does anyone even have one? How much control does one have over their happiness? How do I make myself happy? These are just some of the questions I wanted answers to when I decided to take Philosophy of Happiness.
In Denmark with Kierkegaard
Our course started off by exploring the works of the Danish Philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, who lived not too far away from our classroom, back in the 19th century. We read excerpts from his book, “The Concept of Anxiety” before breaking them down in class. Despite the deep seriousness associated with the dealt topics, I found it amusing how Kierkegaard’s way of writing was extremely funny. My professor, Nan took our class on a walking tour through the heart of Copenhagen. I was surprised by how the same streets that I wandered around in the last two months were also wandered around by Kierkegaard about two hundred years ago. He loved walking as it shaped his thoughts!
I learnt that he believed that peculiarities in ourselves and others are really important, and we love people because they are unique to us. He also believed that the highest gift to someone is to liberate them, to let them choose for themselves. This theme of taking responsibility for oneself continued to appear in future discussions.
At the end of the first week, we went to the Glyptoteket Art Museum to see statues that were relevant to the texts! “There is a thing such as anxiety even in paradise”, Nan explained as we saw Le Paradis Perdu statue and observed the hint of anxiety on Adam and Eve’s faces.
For one of our classes, we visited the Royal Danish Library and read excerpts from ‘Either/Or’ sitting with Kierkegaard’s statue in the outdoor area. Nan explained that a silver engraving outside the library in front of the water could be translated as “It is true that the philosopher says that life has to be understood backwards but at the same time we need to live forwards!” I was surprised by how influential Kierkegaard was, even the place where we stood was called Søren Kierkegaard Plads!
Being in nature rejuvenates you, makes you realize your place in this vast beautiful world, and a lily or a bird might even inspire you. With this in mind, our class spent a day in the Botanical Garden. In front of a pond, we sat down to read Kierkegaard’s take on nature, after which we all went on our own paths, getting lost in nature while reflecting. I observed how the clouds changed shape as they went, and how baby ducklings flapped their way across the water.
Walking through France with Beauvoir, Camus and Nietzsche
For some part of their lives, France was home to philosophers like Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus and Friedrich Nietzsche. Our study tour took us to France so we could experience with our own bodies and minds the meaning of the philosophers’ works and lives. Our class was divided into four groups, each responsible for leading the group discussion on a specific reading.
Our first stop was in Nice, France where we visited the archaeological site, Arènes de Cimiez. It was a hot, sunny day and after some searching, we finally found a stony platform on the edge where we could sit and discuss Nietzche’s ‘Birth of Tragedy’. I learnt about Nietzsche’s proposal about art as the meaning of life, and his critique of traditional views of morality.
Later that afternoon, on a three hour long bus ride towards Sainte Baume in Var, I read about Simone de Beauvoir’s experiences of hiking in Provence. Hiking became her obsession and she wouldn’t care about any associated risks. She believed that there can’t be any external will that governs you as long as you know what you are doing. After reaching our destination, we began our own hike to the remote Grotto of Sainte Baume, following a path that Beauvoir herself took during one of her many hiking trips in Southern France. After a tiring trek up the steep mountain, we finally reached the cave which is one of most ancient pilgrimage sites in the world, and the rumored refuge of Mary Magdalene!
The next morning, we went off to the quiet small town of Lourmarin, the home of Albert Camus in the last two years of his life. Our guide gave us a tour of the city, as we saw Camus’ home and grave. We learnt how the people of Lourmarin loved Camus and how he didn’t enjoy the fame. Our guide explained how he always remained a simple man and true to his people, and despite any religious differences, everyone attended his funeral!
We also got to explore Château de Lourmarin, a castle and museum, still used as residence by visiting writers, artists and musicians. This was followed by lunch and a wine tasting at Pavillon des vins Bouachon led by a French sommelier!
On our last day of study tour, we went on a nautical visit of the French Riviera! Our ferry took us to the island of Sainte Marguerite. I loved watching the glint of the sunlight in the waves underneath us. After arrival, we read Camus’ take on the pleasure of swimming, with the sea in front of us, and later got to explore the island and go for a dip. In “The Plague”, Camus speaks of fleeting happiness, the kind where we forget our worries for a second and enjoy the present!
We concluded our philosophical journey in France by visiting the Village of Éze. It was perched on a hilltop with steep slopes from one building to another. Here, we read excerpts from ‘Thus spoke Zarathustra’, Nietzsche’s most famous work. He was inspired by the loftiness of the place and the feeling of solitude he found on the hike. We followed Nietzsche’s footsteps as we completed a short trail from Éze down to Éze-sur-mer!
I felt at peace in the French Alps and I hope my reflections on the good life will serve as a guiding light for me in the future, in both happy and sad times.
See you soon!