Reason vs. Happiness

Aug 6, 2011 by

Voltaire, in one of his many writings, tells a story of “The Brahmin and the Old Woman.”  This story, basically, compares the differences between a Brahmin who is wise, reasonable, and rich to an Old Woman who is ignorant, unquestioning, and poor.

The Brahmin is very wise and has read much.  He also has spent much of his time questioning the Universe and searching for answers.  Yet, if you approached him, he would tell you that he is unhappy.  Though he is wise, he does not know all.  Though he questions, he never gains any answers.  And, when he does gain an answer, after much effort, he obtains three more questions with it.  He says, “I think that after all my dedication and seeking I know neither where I come from, nor what I am, nor where I am going, nor what shall become of me when this life is over.”*

The Old Woman, on the other hand, is poor and ignorant.  But, she considers herself Happy in her ignorance.  When approached and asked if she ever felt the same as the Brahmin, she would respond,  “She had never pondered for a single moment of her life over a single one of the points that tormented the Brahmin.  She believed with all her heart in the changing forms of the Lord Vishnu, and, provided she could occasionally have some water from the Ganges to wash in, she considered herself the happiest of all women.”*

Now the question here is this:  Does Reason infringe upon Happiness?  And, assuming it does, which should one choose?  If the choice is between Happiness and Reason, do we give up on Reason?




  1. Heather Malone

    This is a question that I find myself asking often. I wonder if reason is really such a glorious thing as some people seem to think. It is a useful tool, but it is not an end in itself. Perhaps the most reasonable thing is to not rely on reason so much.

  2. Gerber

    A similar question to this rises in Epistemology. The question is: Would knowledge be valuable if there was the option for True belief. Would knowing something be any more valuable then an idea popping into your head and happening to be true? John Greco in his paper “The Value Problem” puts it best by saying: “knowledge is a kind of success through virtuous agency.” The question now is: is it better to use a virtuous agency and fail to achieve Knowledge, or in our example Happiness, or to use an agency that is not virtuous and achieve Knowledge, or Happiness? If you were in a race, and all of the runners were sick with stomach flu. You may appear to win, but did you do as well as if you were in the race where everyone was fine and you lost though you tried your hardest? Is winning in name only winning?

  3. Nicole Bernadette

    The question that your article poses might be easier to answer if we defined the terms a little more clearly. Perhaps you would like start off by defining “happiness” here? Clearly, the old woman is blissful. But could she ever be happy as Aristotle defines it, do you think? It seems as though she can’t, at first. But then, she is aiming at the good in her own little way. Perhaps she is truly happy because she is fulfilling her function in the way it was intended to be fulfilled? There need to be people like her in the world, after all. If we are going with this idea, both the Brahmin and the Old Woman will attain/have attained true happiness, but both must do it in their own way, since they have different purposes in life. And the Brahmin’s route to happiness will be much longer and harder. If this is true, then it isn’t a question of throwing out reason, it’s just attaining happiness by doing whatever you’re meant to do. This is all just speculation–I’m not agreeing or disagreeing with you or even myself, necessarily. Just throwing it out there. There is one question that my speculation leaves me with, however. If any of this is right and we all have our own path to happiness, how does one know the correct path?

  4. Gerber

    I did not define Happiness because that is a part of the question. In answering which is more important, one is defining the Happiness for themselves. The problem I have with your answer, is that you define Happiness as “aiming at the good.” You say she is “aiming at the good in her own little way.” Is she AIMING whatsoever? She never pondered any of the questions that torment the Brahmin, “I know neither where I come from, nor what I am, nor where I am going, nor what shall become of me when this life is over.” The Brahmin is questioning where he is going, the old woman doesn’t care. She doesn’t even think about it. Thus, she is not aiming to do the good, she is ACCIDENTALLY doing it. I would argue that she is even doing it. What “good” is she doing? I do not think she is Happy by Aristotle’s definition. However, the question has still not been satisfied: Is Happiness better then Reason?

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

This site is protected by Comment SPAM Wiper.