Photo by Giselle Herrera on Unsplash

What does it take to be happy?

The 18th century natural philosopher Emilie du Châtelet provides a unique account. All quotes Discourse on Happiness (1748), and Being and Nothingness (1993).

Happiness is one of the greatest existential dilemmas to wash ashore. Since before the time of the Sages, people have been concerned with formulating what it is it live in a state with minimal suffering; but even this, for many, eventually could not constitute happiness in any proper understanding of it.

Philosophers have claimed in various forms that happiness is the result of the “good life.” Edwards claimed it was desiring what you currently act out. Aristotle claimed it was study. The pre-Socratics thought it the application of the human faculty of rationality. Many utilitarians see it through applied values. For Augustine, it was the beatific vision itself.

However, for the 18th century natural philosopher Emilie du Châtelet, to be happy was to experience pleasure.

Du Châtelet’s view is, in fact, far more complicated than this basic hedonistic claim — but this is a good point oof departure. Her view attaches several other necessary conditions to the result happiness, that she outlines in her Discourse on Happiness (1748).

For du Châtelet, in order for one to have achieved happiness, “one must have freed oneself of prejudices, one must be virtuous, healthy, have tastes and passions, and be susceptible to illusions”. It is the last condition that shall serve as the focus of this discussion.

So what does du Châtelet argue in favor of?

What is happiness, according to Emile du Châtelet?

Du Châtelet offers a type of hedonistic account of happiness that is rooted in the understanding that “we have nothing to do in the world but to obtain for ourselves some agreeable sensations and feelings”. Additionally, happiness is not to be satisfied with the mere combination of ambition and success, but instead with learning how to “content oneself with one’s situation”. That is, although it is easier if one is born into opulence, those who are happiest in her view make peace with their class and position in society.

Du Châtelet goes on to claim that one must do more than merely avoid suffering, for then it would be preferable, in the Parmedidean sense, not to exist, to be nothingness.

But a person ought to seek not merely the absence of suffering (and du Châtelet “has nothing to say” to the nihilist), but in fact ought to seek the absence of suffering replaced by pleasurable sensations. Given this basic premise, du Châtelet describes the necessary conditions she provides at the beginning of her Discourse: once more, the removal of prejudices, attainment of virtue, health, tastes and passions, and susceptibility to illusions.

What shall be important for our sake, is du Châtelet’s description of prejudice and illusion.

Following the listed conditions, du Châtelet begins by lamenting the awful condition one with prejudice resides in. Prejudice, for du Châtelet, “is an opinion that one has accepted without examination, because it would be indefensible otherwise”. This is an important definition to keep in mind as we consider illusion later on. These prejudices, for du Châtelet, are found most often in religion and the corresponding church doctrines relying on pure faith — not an uncontroversial claim for her time period. However, they can also exist, albeit not as strongly, in other facets of one’s life.

For example, du Châtelet considers straying from the properties of virtue as a way in which one eventually lives in prejudice; moreover, living in prejudice leads one away from virtue. The biconditional relationship between prejudice and lack of virtue serves to reinforce the incompatibility of prejudice with achieving happiness.

For du Châtelet, prejudice can never be virtuous or true. Prejudice consists of only corruption and error, and is therefore something that “can never be a good, and it is surely a great evil in the things on which the conduct of life depends”. In this way, prejudice is a pathway to immortality. This is crucial, as du Châtelet holds that “one cannot be happy and immoral, and the demonstration of this axiom lies in the depths of the hearts of all men”; that is, guilt in one’s conscience and the “public disdain” received from one’s immorality will disallow one from being happy.

Now it is unclear what exactly these “properties” of virtue are (she claims “there is no book on the properties, but all men know them”), but it is clear that society has an important role to play. For du Châtelet, virtue may reasonably be interpreted from the Discourse as that which benefits society, and thereby creates a good image for oneself in society — eventually allowing one to attain pleasure and happiness from it.

However, it is worth noting that this is largely speculative, but important to consider when attempting to understand how prejudice fits into du Châtelet’s construction of happiness.

From here, du Châtelet pivots a bit, and discusses what is necessary to obtain, instead of merely avoid. Outside of the usual attributes many pre-modern thinkers ascribed to happiness (passions, tastes, and virtue), du Châtelet uniquely believes it to be necessary to maintain illusions within one’s life in order to gain pleasure and therefore happiness. The maintenance of illusions, for du Châtelet, is not an error nor immoral, but in fact a perspective that “adjusts [objects] to our nature”.

But it seems she was unaware that this “inexact truth” might be cuase for contradiction with her previous claim about prejudice; namely, that one must be without prejudice in order to be happy. And, Inevitably du Châtelet’s argument thereby forces two questions to arise: (i.) Does the necessary condition of illusion contradict with the necessary condition that requires one to free themselves of prejudice? and (ii.) Is it even possible to fall under an illusion as it is conceived by du Châtelet (and therefore attain happiness)?

She doesn’t address this issue, but nonetheless, upon investigation that we will turn to presently, this is not a problem for du Châtelet’s argument — no contradiction exists in this regard.

A possible contradiction and going to the theater

Although she concedes that illusions might display things “not entirely as they must be”, du Châtele claims they are used in an aim to “give us agreeable feelings”; that is, pleasure. For example, she suggests optical illusions are appropriate proof of this phenomenon (being not in error, but also not in exactness by way of utility in order to provide pleasure).

The utility of illusion for pleasure is something prejudice could never have, says du Châtelet, as it causes the individual to act without virtue, and thereby inevitably draw disdain of oneself from one’s own conscience and from the general public within one’s society. In a word, illusion creates pleasure and happiness while prejudice negates both.

Yet, it seems that prejudice (to hold “an unexamined belief that would be indefensible otherwise”) holds shared properties with illusion that cause contradiction to arise, and therefore makes invalid, at least in some way, the construction of happiness du Châtelet puts forth.

The most apparent shared properties include: (i.) being in error (which is never the virtuous nor the good, according to du Châtelet), (ii.) an unexamined belief, and (iii.) the indefensibility of the claim or belief that is unexamined.

To begin in reverse order, it must be admitted that the defensibility or indefensibility of the claim (in a prejudice) is irrelevant to that of an illusion. The illusion, as we will see further into the discussion, is a unique type of claim that is acknowledged and understood by the viewer of the illusion necessarily in order to orient one’s consciousness appropriately in an attempt to be susceptible to it.

In this way, the illusion’s claim is defensible due to the acknowledgment of one’s susceptibility to its indefensibility (i.e., its falsehood) in an aim for pleasure; that is, the indefensible is itself defensible by way of observing the utility of it, which aims towards achieving pleasure. We have already seen that, for du Châtelet, prejudice can not bring pleasure (as it cannot be good) and therefore can not be defensible in this way. We have now seen that prejudice, as du Châtelet describes it, is necessarily indefensible, while the illusion is defensible due to utility, creating no overlap of this property between the two concepts.

The examined nature of the claim is closely related to this property of defensibility. The prejudice remains unexamined due to the inherent nature of the claim being indefensible upon examination.

This passive relationship to the claim in a prejudice disallows for one to actively participate in promoting it or to will oneself to act upon or towards the claim (i.e., a passively held belief). Unlike in an illusion — where one at the theater can allow oneself to fall susceptible to the play, and believe in that moment that characters “we know have been dead for a long time, [are, in fact,] speaking in Alexandrine verse” — the prejudice exists passively and in a dormant state of subconscious belief.

Prejudice must have a passive, not active, nature in du Châtelet’s construction, as any examination would require an active and volitional exercise of consciousness. Prejudice is antithetical to this necessary condition of an active nature, as an examination would negate it according the definition given by du Châtelet. We have now seen that there is no shared type or property of examination between prejudice and illusion due to the passive and active natures of each, respectively.

Lastly, is the notion of being in error.

In the definition and description provided by du Châtelet, we discover that prejudice is always in error. The question is, does illusion also necessarily cause error?

The answer, for du Châtelet, is no. Illusions are not in nor a cause of error, as they are not even errors in the first place. “Although it is true, that illusion does not make us see objects entirely as they must be in order for them to give us agreeable feelings, it only adjusts them to our nature”.

In another way, the object used as an illusion is, epistemologically, still the object (and the viewer of the illusion knows this). There is no claim that Julius Caesar is actually alive in the present day outside of the ambiance of the performance. However, the perspectival conditions change such that the utility of the illusion (bringing pleasure) is elucidated and brought to use, such that the viewer of the illusion can experience pleasure.

This then, allows the viewer of the illusion to aim towards attaining happiness; and happiness can never come from being in error, as has been described by du Châtelet. Therefore, being in error is not a shared property between prejudice and illusion in du Châtelet’s construction of happiness, as there is no initial unexamined claim in error and happiness can not stem from error.

Now one may claim confidently that illusion and prejudice do not share any of the three properties originally considered; i.e., (i.) being in error, (ii.) being an unexamined belief, and (iii.) the defensibility or indefensibility of the claim.

It seems, then, that one can confidently claim that there is no contradiction between the necessitation of illusion and the requirement to remove prejudice as necessary conditions of happiness in du Châtelet’s argument. Now that we have seen that there is no contradiction between illusion and prejudice, we ought to examine what illusions are exactly. So far, we have only shown what they are not in relation to prejudice.

The question that has yet to be given a full answer is, what are illusions according to Èmilie du Châtelet?

What are illusions anyway?

This is a remarkably difficult and complex question, as there is little textual evidence to guide the reader beyond a basic structure. The first thing, however, that can be said about du Châtelet’s illusions is a general definition. That is, illusions are optical and conceptual impressions apart from the exact truth that serve to allow one to abstract from concrete reality in an aim to obtain pleasure from the thing or truth that is being abstracted.

Du Châtelet goes on to use a marionette as an example:

“Why do I laugh more than anyone else at the puppets, if not because I allow myself to be more susceptible than anyone else to illusion, and that after a quarter of an hour I believe that it is Polichinelle, the puppet, who speaks? … Truly, what pleasure would one have at any other spectacle where all is illusion if one was not able to abandon oneself to it?”

In a word, illusions are the flux between understanding truth, instilling ambiguity around that truth, and abandoning oneself to fiction to attain pleasure from it. Illusions are merely instrumental for the pursuit of one’s own pleasure and happiness. However, the next, and perhaps more urgent question surrounds the plausibility of this construction of illusion.

That is to ask, are illusions, as described by du Châtelet, even possible?

The example of the marionette seems to ring true at a glance; however, it seems to assume a key premise. Namely, that one can know something is fiction and simultaneously, at least for a given time, believe it to be real; or, that one can allow oneself to abstract from the knowledge that it is fiction and assert it is real — that is, a type of suspension of disbelief.

Du Châtelet seems to suggest either that it is possible and rational to self-deceive, or, at the least, it is possible and rational to to have jointly inconsistent beliefs.

Yet this belief about a marionette or the theater is more than merely inconsistent, but also paradoxical; namely, to know that the puppet is in fact not animate while asserting that the puppet is animate is a paradox of sorts. This understanding of illusion, in the way du Châtelet apparently describes it, necessarily commits one to both the facticity (that the puppet is inanimate) and the apparent falsehood (the assertion that the puppet is speaking) of the claim; however, one can not commit to both, as the moment one recognizes the truth that the puppet is inanimate, one may no longer assert that the puppet is speaking; conversely, when one allows oneself to be susceptible to the illusion, one necessarily can not recognize (consciously) the truth beyond the illusion without the illusion failing.

From here, it does not seem possible that one can consciously self-deceive in this way, then, (at least not as described by du Châtelet).

For to self-deceive requires one to be both the deceiver and the deceived; it requires that I both “know the truth, so that my denial of it constitutes a lie”, and not know it so that I am genuinely deceived, much like in the Sartrean concept of mauvaise foi (bad faith).

Now, perhaps this type of self-deceit is not what du Châtelet had in mind. Perhaps what she meant by self-deceit was not the paradoxical frame above outlined, but in fact an implementation of ambiguity; a type of prereflective consciousness in which certain aspects or impressions are left vague, while others are reflected upon.

What would this type of self-deceit look like? Here, again, we can look to Jean-Paul Sartre for guidance.

Sartre distinguished, among other forms of consciousness, reflective and prereflective consciousness. This distinction pertains to the apprehension of the conscious intention towards the outside object or abstracta, which allows the “I” (or, if you prefer, ego) to be supplied (when one is reflective); this is the primary, foundational recognition of consciousness.

In another way, to be reflective is to acknowledge that “I” know x to be true; while the prereflective is to be implicitly aware of x, regardless of any perspectival notions or definite truth conditions.

Using this distinction, it may be the case that du Châtelet considered illusions to function (and be possible) in this way.

That is to say that when one is viewing the puppet show, or any illusion for that matter, one “allows oneself to be susceptible” by being merely prereflectively conscious of the reality behind the illusion. One is implicitly aware of the fact that the puppet cannot speak or that Marc Antony is not standing in front of us speaking in verse, but the perspectival “I” is not aware of this; i.e., is not reflecting on it.

It is a type of “allowing” in which one is consciously, actively inactive. The notion of the prereflective consciousness covers for the necessitation of commiting one to both the truth and the falsehood of the claim through the introduction of ambiguity.

If this is how du Châtelet’s concept of illusion is taken, the plausibility of illusion is enhanced and the rest of her argument remains consistent with happiness while yet being attainable. That is, illusion still differs from prejudice (by being active, examined, and not being in error), it does not contradict any necessary conditions including the removal of prejudice, and it allows for the attainment of pleasure, as the illusion is now plausibly able to allow one to be susceptible to it.

It seems this added notion of ambiguity through prereflective consciousness helps better articulate a way for du Châtelet’s conception of illusion and happiness to function, ultimately avoiding the paradox first outlined.

If this is not convincing, however, there is a second way in which becoming susceptible to illusion may be possible and consistent with du Châtelet’s view.

It seems that du Châtelet’s illusions may also be interpreted as one’s focus on her position as the viewer of the illusion; that is, one’s focus on the apparent situation in which you do not appear to have a choice in determining whether you are the viewer or not the viewer.

For example, consider someone in society, say the grocer. Consider the grocer who simply believes that she is the grocer; that that is her role in life. The “being a grocer” has become facticity; i.e., has become the fact about the essence of the individual who happens to be a grocer.

She could, for whatever reason, decide to one day not to go into work, disregard her duties as a grocer, and pick up another line of work. This, however, is not necessarily endorsed by society; for, a grocer who considers herself to have the ability to not be a grocer, to be less or more than a grocer, would not be a very good grocer.

Her understanding of herself is not, “I am a grocer; ‘[b]ut to the extent that human reality can not be finally defined by patterns of conduct, I am not one’”. It is instead, “I am a grocer and to be a good grocer depends upon it; disapproval from society and myself when I think otherwise is proof of this”.

Similarly, when one views the illusion, it seems plausible that the societal expectation of “being a viewer” necessitates one to be a viewer in essence and to be defined by the pattern of conduct requisite of “viewership”.

In a word, one who is viewing the marionette, play, or stick refracting in water, in that moment, as the patterns of society command, one is a viewer essentially.

One would not be a pleasant audience member if, throughout the entirety of the play, she is exclaiming about the falsehood of the character or circumstances. To disregard the play as a farce, to recognize your ability to act otherwise, would be to deny what one has temporarily (hopefully) created as one’s facticity for the sake of a common habit and accidental pleasure. More importantly, this essentializing of the societal habits and patterns does not commit one to either the truth or the falsehood of the illusion, but in fact merely follows what brings society’s approval through common practice; thus, this interpretation does not merely provide a solution to the puppet paradox, but in fact leaps over it.

Additionally, to go against this “habit” in any given situation would result in societal backlash, something du Châtelet stresses as necessarily something to avoid if one is to be happy.

The impact of determining a facticity about oneself due to societal conditioning (“as being an x”) serves as a more plausible way of attaining illusion. It is a more plausible interpretation, as it allows for one to fall susceptible to illusion, but does not commit one to claiming either the truth or the falsehood of the illusion, while yet remaining consistent to the remaining necessary conditions and overall argument for happiness du Châtelet proposes.

In a word, this interpretation offers another viable solution to du Châtelet’s illusion and puppet paradox by way of transcending it.

Now we have shown that, although the requirement of illusion is not a contradiction, it did present itself as a paradox. However, between the two solutions offered, one or both can serve as backdoors out of the paradox, and make du Châtelet’s argument on happiness more plausible and without tension.

Some debate

It is worth noting that there is probably a certain amount of debate surrounding which interpretation presented is in fact most plausible. Although it seems clear that the notion of the prereflective consciousness covers for the necessitation of commiting one to both the truth and the falsehood of the claim, the interpretation that illusion is sought through essentializing the societal impact seems to transcend the paradox and adhere more closely to du Châtelet’s original framework.

Both seem to add something that would have normally been missed from a first reading of the Discourse on Happiness.

Regardless of one’s sentiments towards the truth value of the argument given by du Châtelet, or the metaethical or metaphysical problems one may have with the implementation of this view of happiness, the argument itself has been considered from a critical standpoint and has withstood many potential logical predicaments (e.g., contradictions, paradoxes, impossible premises, etc.).

However, it is worth recognizing that this essay leaves open numerous questions.

For example, are the two proposed solutions inconsistent with each other, or could it be that they work better in tandon? What does illusion have to do with one’s happiness apart from the listical of necessary conditions provided by du Châtelet; do these conditions only have effect in union with each other (i.e., while all present)? Why is religion considered strictly a prejudice and without illusion? Lastly, how does du Châtelet’s psychology and epistemology operate fully to include illusion?

These are some of the more urgent questions that ought to be considered deeply beyond this discussion, as the answers may yet tell us something about the way in which modernity currently understands our own happiness.




Anthony DiMauro is a freelance writer in New York City. J.D. Candidate. NYU philosophy alum. You can follow him on Twitter @AnthonyMDiMauro

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Recommended from Medium

A Philosophical Perspective on Nomenclature, International Politics & the “Development Space”

Review of A Short History of Ethics by Alasdair MacIntyre

Is Society Doomed?

An introduction to the information dimension

The World Is You, the World Lives Everything That You Live


So You Are Dead: Now What?

Diary of a Plague Year

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Anthony DiMauro

Anthony DiMauro

Anthony DiMauro is a freelance writer in New York City. J.D. Candidate. NYU philosophy alum. You can follow him on Twitter @AnthonyMDiMauro

More from Medium

Immediate Transfer vs. Transitional Transfer

33 Questions to Ask in the Akashic

They Say Experience Teaches Wisdom

begin — water