If you ever find yourself in Valletta, Malta, I encourage you to spend some time visiting St John’s Co-cathedral, as I did several years ago. Wander inside. Marvel at this wonderful example of high Baroque architecture. Then cast your eye over the altar of the Oratory and prepare to have your breath taken away. Hanging there is a painting, ‘The Beheading of St John the Baptist’, by the artist Caravaggio. It is a true masterpiece.
Several things strike you when you first see it. First is its sheer enormity. It’s roughly 12 ft x 17 ft, the largest painting Caravaggio ever did. The second is its subject matter. The saint is depicted at the moment of his death, his executioner standing over him ready to complete the task. It is a scene of true graphic horror.
The third is the artist’s visual style. ‘Chiaroscuro’, literally meaning lightdark in Italian, is a term used in art, photography and film, for the use of shade, tone and strong contrasts between light and dark. Caravaggio is generally credited for the invention of tenebrism, a particularly pronounced form of chiaroscuro. The aforementioned painting is a wonderful example of this dramatic, even violent, style, in which darkness is a dominant part of the imagery.
Light illuminates the subjects of Caravaggio’s paintings, like a spotlight from some unknown, unseen source. But it is the darkness of the background that frames his subjects, allowing them to stand out. It is the very darkness that gives the light its significance and its essence. It can’t demonstrate its brilliance unless contrasted with its opposite.
One cannot exist without the other. I cannot help but draw some parallels with the concept of happiness. Is unhappiness, if that’s what we agree the opposite of happiness to be, necessary? Can we appreciate true happiness only if we’ve come faceto-face with its antithesis? And if so, surely the next conclusion to be drawn is that unhappiness is a good thing. Even something desirable.
How can this be so? Did not as revered a text as the American Declaration of Independence declare the pursuit of happiness, along with life and liberty, an unalienable right? In recent years, hasn’t an entire happiness ‘industry’ been born, like a volcanic island from the ocean floor? Do we not have happiness gurus with their books, lectures and expensive seminars proclaiming they hold the keys to a life of limitless joy and pleasure, frowning upon all unpleasant emotions and dismissing them as unnecessary social ills? Are they all wrong?
It is to the consolations of philosophy to which we must turn to gain some insight. Firstly, we must define exactly what we mean by the term ‘happiness’. We typically mean to use it in a psychological sense and when we do so, we are referring to a subjective state of mind. We associate happiness with sensory pleasures, personal gratification and satisfaction. It is this emphasis of definition that has spawned our modern cultural obsession.
Aristotle had a very different point of view. Writing more than 2000 years ago in one of his most influential works, the Nicomachean Ethics, he defined happiness (the Greek word is eudaimonia and the translated word ‘happiness’ is inadequate) as a byproduct of a life of virtue. He thought of happiness as an evaluation of one’s life lived up to this moment, as a final goal or endpoint of a life lived well.
There is a chiaroscuro apparent here. But the contrast is not, as we thought above, between happiness and unhappiness. The distinction is between the definition of happiness as that of feeling good and that of being good.
The answer to happiness lies in not chasing it for its own sake. The more you attempt to live up to your own selfimposed happiness ideal, the more it will elude you. Much like a dream you desperately want to remember, the harder you try, the further it slips away.
Instead, aim to be good. This is the tenebristic spotlight in which we must aim to stand. Cherish your family. Cultivate deep and meaningful friendships. Be kind to other people. Value hard work. Be mindful of the fact that the slings and arrows of life, far from being good or necessary, are simply inevitable. If you do all these things, happiness, true happiness, is already yours.
Dr John Friis is a Consultant Anaesthetist at RIPAS Hospital. Having trained in Nottingham, London and Cambridge and having worked as a Consultant in London, he also served as a doctor at the 2012 Olympics, the 2014 Commonwealth Games and for Queens Park Rangers football club between 2007 – 2014. He has interests in critical care medicine, pre-hospital care and medical ethics. Follow him on Twitter @johnfriis