Miley Cyrus meets Dr. Faustus

So yesterday in senior honors seminar we were discussing Jonathan Haidt's  book The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom.  Haidt, a psychologist, explores how many of  the prescriptions of ancient Western and Eastern philosophers are borne out by contemporary research in psychology.  He notes one idea, however, that hasn't passed muster: the Buddhist/Stoic advice that we ought to moderate our desires or at least adopt a studied indifference to them.

There is a certain logic to this.  As the Buddhists point out, any pleasure we derive from satisfying a desire is predicated on time spent suffering from unsatisfied desire.  So a life spent in pursuit of our desires becomes--at best--a zero-sum gain.  Haidt actually began his research amenable to the Buddhist/Stoic advice, but he changed his view after looking at data that shows how people are happier working toward a goal than achieving it.

Metaphors and commonly-held allusions are often a teacher's best friend, so to illustrate this concept I asked my students if they were familiar with the Faust legend--more particularly part II of Goethe's Faust, in which the good doctor, now grown old, has become a high ranking minister for a powerful king.  Faust of course had famously bargained his soul to the devil for happiness, but nothing had brought him joy.  Now, late in life, he finds himself engaged in a massive engineering project using dikes and dams to hold back the sea.  Beset by obstacles and complexities, he is discussing his plans to improve the lives of the people when--wham--it suddenly occurs to him that he's happy (at which point the devil shows up, I.O.U. in hand).

The students stared back at me uncomfortably after I laid this out.  Then, slowly, tentatively, one said, "It's a bit like that Miley Cyrus song "The Climb."   One or two others chimed in: "Yeah, exactly."  So they dialed up the song on Youtube and we all had a listen.

"Yes," I said after Ms. Cyrus was done.  "It's a little like that."

Eh, sometimes in teaching you take your allusions and metaphors wherever you can get 'em.


Anonymous said…

Popular posts from this blog

Two Jars

The Betrayal of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Adverbs

Four Arguments for the Elimination of the Liberal Arts