This essay approaches Enlightenment theories of happiness through three forgotten but once highly popular treatises: John Norris’s An Idea of Happiness (1683), Thomas Nettleton’s A Treatise on Virtue and Happiness (1742), and James Harris’s “Concerning Happiness: A Dialogue” (1744). I propose that the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw the rise of a new, more subjective model of happiness that threatened its time-honored ties with virtue, raising the disquieting possibility that happiness could be pursued by amoral, or even immoral, means. The article also argues that thinkers like Norris, Nettleton, and Harris responded to this challenge by drawing on eudaemonistic ethics to make a kind of last-ditch argument in defense of virtue. In fleshing out their particular ideas, the essay emphasizes the range and eclecticism of Enlightenment thinking about happiness: Norris’s text is Neoplatonist and Latitudinarian, Nettleton’s is Epicurean and empiricist, and Harris’s is Stoic and deistic, each employing its own distinct methodology, its own views on pleasure, determinism, and sociability, and its own way of understanding the nature of happiness and its precise relation to virtue. Common to all, however, is a shared conception of the “formal requirements of happiness,” namely, that it be durable, and, as much as possible, within one’s own control. According to Norris, Nettleton, and Harris—and countless other writers of the period—only virtue could completely fulfill these requirements.
Research Article| April 01 2014
Brian Michael Norton; Ancient Ethics and Modern Happiness: A Study of Three Treatises in Enlightenment Britain. Eighteenth-Century Life 1 April 2014; 38 (2): 47–74. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00982601-2645936
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