Symposium: Great Books Student Scholarly Journal
Issue One

Happiness is an Inside Job:
The Old Man and the Sea

Jeffrey Glenn

Hemingway’s view of human nature was that happiness was rare and was found within a man and not in his outside circumstances or surroundings. Hemingway illustrates this in three ways. First, he portrays the human nature of Santiago, the main character, as being one of humility and compassion, full of strength and pride. He is shown not as a gleefully happy man, but one who meets life with a serene, quiet resilience. Second, Santiago’s fellow villagers are shown as shallow and materialistic, with a narrow view of life compared to his. Their focus on appearances is in sharp contrast to Santiago’s focus on intrinsic values. Third, it will be shown that his rare brand of happiness comes from within.

Poignant circumstances surrounded the composition of this novel, which bring out many of the above points. It is widely recognized that Hemingway was possessed of a turbulent personality and suffered from emotional depression. This was despite the fact that he enjoyed much critical acclaim. The Old Man and the Sea was written after a ten-year hiatus of public and critical approval. This period saw much of his work receive negative criticism in literary and journalistic circles. This affected Hemingway adversely and very deeply (Carey 9). Therefore, Hemingway’s personal battle with seeming failure in his life’s work and society’s attendant criticism parallel Santiago’s stoic resolve in the face of his neighbors’ disdain. The author’s struggles symbolically match those of Santiago and set the stage for the writing of this novel.

The acclaim generated by this book was due largely to the author’s “ complex knotting of spiritual and physical concerns.” (Waggoner 5). Many critics refer to the Christian symbolism in the book, and rightfully so. The mast Santiago carries resembles a cross and his apparent suffering is likened to Jesus’. However, the deep attunement with nature and what are, in effect, Taoist principles of balance of opposites illustrated by Santiago’s character are quite different from the obvious Christian metaphors used by Hemingway (Waggonner 5). The acute awareness that Santiago brings to his everyday life is much more in tune with Buddhist rather than Christian ideology (Waggonner 5). He says, “I’ll say a hundred Our Fathers and a hundred Hail Marys. But I cannot say them now” (Hemingway 87). These are definitely not the thoughts of a devout Christian. His “religious” thoughts and prayers are a mere augmentation of his subconscious resolve and determination to choose a positive outlook at every turn. Clearly, his inner dialogue illustrates these qualities.

In defining happiness, I agree with Schopenhauer that the process is an inexhaustible one and that in pursuing this end I, like him, would also be repeating ad nauseum the words of those from past centuries (Wisdom 9). Some supporting words and concepts regarding Santiago’s happiness, however, will be briefly touched on here. Santiago possesses the “noble nature” and “bright spirits” which are the “first and most important elements of happiness,” according to Schopenhauer’s The Wisdom of Life (21). Epictetus, through Rufus, speaks of happiness as having to do with a God-given ability to use external impressions and that when this ability is at its best, “ . . . it is freedom, serenity, cheerfulness, steadfastness; it is . . . justice, and law, and self-control, and the sum and substance of virtue (445).” Santiago certainly possesses this ability. Kant also refers to happiness in union with virtue (On the Basis 56). Mill and Aristotle are in concurrence when they describe happiness as the state of having all desires met (Hutchins 687). Santiago is a virtuous man, and his quiet satisfaction is proof that his needs are indeed met. I disagree with the somewhat bleak view of St. Augustine, however, which sees happiness as “rather the solace of misery than the positive enjoyment of felicity” (Hutchins 692). This view has Christian theological merits, but this attitude is not congruent with daily secular experience.

My own view, and the one largely adopted in the following analysis, is that happiness results from a core belief system, and hence I disagree when Freud speaks of the episodic nature of happiness. (22). In short, Santiago’s happiness can be summed up by Santayana, who said that, “man can achieve lasting happiness . . . by developing and maintaining between himself and his environment as well as within himself a harmony that renders his activities delightful and rewarding” (Santayana and the Sense 3).

Santiago is introduced to us at a point in his life where everyone in his village feels either pity or disdain for him. He is a fisherman who hasn’t caught anything for almost three months. Appearances would have it that he is finished as a fisherman, but he is not. He faces the attitudes of his fellow villagers, the challenges of his aging body, and his bad luck fishing with such nobility, grace, and wisdom, that it is apparent that he is in possession of a deep inner strength, peace, happiness, and pride. He is essentially emotionally unaffected by any influences over which he has no control. He is also such an innocent and humble being, that Hemingway describes him as being “ too simple to wonder when he had attained humility” (Hemingway 13). By the same token, Santiago “knew he had attained it and knew it was not disgraceful and it carried no loss of true pride” (14). This humility is partly the basis for the inner happiness described herein, as is self-respect; “ a firm, unshakable conviction of pre-eminent worth and special value which makes a man proud in the true sense of the word” (Wisdom 59). Santiago truly embodies these attributes.

Santiago has a profoundly meaningful relationship with a young village boy named Manolin. He taught the boy how to fish. It is clear that they love and respect each other deeply. The author shows this not through great sweeping emotional scenes, but in tender and matter-of-fact conversations between the two. They talk about baseball heroes and everyday trivia without ever condescending to each other in any way. They are equals. The old man cajoles the boy gently with the warning that Manolin may be exaggerating Santiago’s virtues because of his love for the man. He asks Manolin if he is sure of the details of their first time fishing together when the boy describes the event exaggeratedly (12,13). By the same token, the boy reverently maintains a charade with the old man regarding his lack of food. Santiago describes the meal he has recently eaten while Manolin knows that he has no food (16). They have a simple yet deep love and respect for each other, and the boy mirrors the old man in his humility. We see true empathy and compassion on the part of both here, and, as Schopenhauer says, “compassion . . . is the real basis of all voluntary justice and genuine loving-kindness” (On the Basis 144). These are two more principal ingredients for happiness.

More is learned about Santiago’s inner workings when he departs alone, ever diligent, for another day of plying his trade. He is a fisherman in the purest sense. He truly loves what he has chosen as his life’s work. He is acutely aware of everything in his environment as a result of living a long and full life. He has a deep understanding of the sea and its inhabitants, the weather, his body, and his boat; the sea is his life and its inhabitants are his family. He embodies the concept of having made what Schopenhauer calls “the most advantageous use possible of the personal qualities [he] possess[es] . . .” and “ . . . [chosen] the . . . occupation . . . most suitable for [his] development” (Wisdom 16,17). Accompanied by his wisdom, confidence, and determination, he takes the risk of sailing out further than anyone usually does to catch fish. He ends up hooking the largest marlin, ever seen in his locale. The big fish puts up such a big fight that the old man battles it for three days and nights. Santiago vows to fight the fish until he himself dies (52). After finally overpowering the huge and beautiful marlin he heads for home. He had figured that the battle was over only to meet up with sharks who he has to combat to protect his catch, and who inflict great physical and mental punishment on Santiago in the process. Still, he struggles long and hard to defeat the sharks and loses his meager weapons and even parts of his humble vessel in the process. He ends up sailing into port with only the skeletal remains of his trophy, yet his spirit is undefeated.

During this odyssey, we accompany Santiago and witness his inner dialogue through which we gain insight into his character. We are with him as he constantly talks to himself, the sea, the birds, the sky and weather, the ocean’s creatures, and mainly, his big fish. He is constantly, almost reverently, loving in his thoughts toward these things. For the first part of the struggle, he seems to enjoy the challenge. He is very strong, but as the long and brutal battle ensues, his resolve and physical stamina wax and wane. He slips in and out of the present. He prays. He thinks of having the boy by his side. He curses his age and physical shortcomings. Amazingly, he always pulls his thinking back into the moment and the task at hand. He repeatedly returns to a positive outlook and determination. Santiago never shows any self-pity. He refuses to give up. It is reminiscent of Schopenhauer’s motto and comment, “ . . . No Surrender . . . let us take fresh courage from misfortune . . .” (Counsels 93). Santiago exhibits acute awareness of his physical, mental, and environmental handicaps, but he does so in a purely compassionate and objective way. This resiliency, stamina, confidence, and determination are the result of a life of living in keen awareness of his surroundings and learning from the daily changes therein. The result of his awareness is what Schopenhauer describes as a “peace of mind that ensues– a great element of happiness, and, in fact, the condition and essence of it” (Counsels 115).

Secondly, although the people of Santiago’s village are outwardly polite toward him, they see him as an object of either pity or disdain. They see him as being, in their native language, salao, or being possessed of extremely bad luck, and washed up as a fisherman. They seem to view him almost as a commodity in their evaluation. After all, to them, if one is a fisherman living in a fishing village, and one is not catching fish, then one is worthless. Santiago is also a very old man, and in this light probably seen as worthless, too. They have no idea of his true worth. This is ironic, because in his reaction to their shunning him, he shows only kind tolerance and consideration.

Similarities may be drawn to the way people in the United States seem to have no respect for their elders. Many older citizens are simply thought of as a burden or inconvenience and are ignored or placed in retirement homes. This is particularly true in situations like Santiago’s, where an individual may be unable to financially “pull his or her own weight.” The valuable wisdom and knowledge elders like Santiago gain from living long and rich lives are therefore lost. Schopenhauer frames the concept of wisdom gained with age well in saying that, “the first forty years of life furnish the text, . . . the remaining thirty years supply the commentary” (Counsels 113). This commentary is the great loss suffered by ignoring Santiago and those like him.

The appearance of Santiago’s failure is all the villagers see. They seem to ignore the fact that he is kind, gentle and expert in his chosen profession. It is apparent that much could be learned from him, not only about fishing, but about nature, both human and universal. I see their narrow view as being lovelessly rooted only in the outer trappings of his ill fortune, and not who he is or what he has to offer. He has reached his age and gained a vast amount of knowledge, only to be shunned by the people of his own town.

Santiago’s happiness is indeed unique compared to his neighbors. They find happiness in immediate ways, like their daily successes in fishing. He, quite simply, is happy. He has a much bigger picture. He is content and happy with whatever life has to offer. An extreme and gruesome example illustrates this. Imagine Santiago and one of his neighbors both losing their legs. Given what we know of Santiago, he would, I am sure, adjust to this situation readily, whereas it would probably be the undoing of his neighbor’s entire existence. This illustration points up the contrast between him and the villagers. It shows us his unique ability to adjust to anything placed in his way. This point also illustrates Epictetus’ concept, mentioned earlier, regarding the use of outside impressions to maintain one’s well being (445). Santiago uses this God-given ability well and his neighbors do not.

Lastly, let us turn to the qualities of happiness mentioned here which have been nobility, possession of bright spirits, freedom, serenity, steadfastness, virtue, humility, pride, ability for harmony and compassion. Santiago’s nobility is evident in his treatment of the people around him. He treats the boy and the villagers equally and fairly. His bright spirits show that nothing gets him down. At one point, Hemingway describes him by describing his eyes; they are “cheerful and undefeated” (10). His freedom is evident in the way he is unaffected by what happens around him or by what others think. He does not give up fishing because of his bad luck or what the villagers say about him. His decisions are wholly his own. This is also the basis for his serenity. His steadfastness is illustrated in his self-reliance and trustworthiness. He wakes himself and Manolin up without the use of a clock (Hemingway 25). The story implies that he has done so for years. Virtue is a watchword of Santiago’s existence. The way he thinks and acts are obviously within a framework of right decision-making that he has built over time. He refuses to take a loan, saying wisely “ I try not to borrow. First you borrow. Then you beg” (Hemingway 18). This also illustrates his humility and pride. He is in harmony with nature and the people around him. He talks to the sea and the creatures of the sea and sky as if they were his family. He seems to be in tune with the cycles of the universe through his knowledge of nature. He gets along well with the townspeople in spite of their opinion of him. Santiago is compassionate with Manolin; he plays along with him when the boy talks dreamily about the way their first fishing trip went. He gently asks him if he “really remember(s) that or did I just tell you?” (Hemingway 13). His compassion shows too when “he [begins] to pity the poor fish he had hooked” (Hemingway 49).

Santiago is the embodiment of all of these qualities, and they quite obviously describe the nature of his character and not his possessions. These inner qualities also affect his relationship to the outside world positively. These qualities are what give Santiago his unique ability to rise peacefully to any challenge life has to offer. They are the basis for his satisfying and inwardly happy life. He embodies the important concept that, as Schopenhauer points out, “Men are not influenced by things, but by their thoughts about things” (Wisdom 23). These thoughts are the basis for the inward happiness described here. Indeed, Santiago provides a perfect example of happiness being an inside job.

Works Cited

  • Arnett, Willard E. Santayana and the Sense of Beauty. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1955.
  • Epictetus. The Discourses as Reported by Arrian, The Manual, and Fragments. London: William Heinemann, 1928.
  • Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. New York: W.W. Norton, 1961.
  • Gardiner, Patrick. Schopenhauer. Middlesex, England: Penguin , 1963.
  • Hemingway, Ernest. The Old Man and the Sea. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.
  • Hutchins, Robert Maynard, ed. Great Books of the Western World. 54 vols. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952. Vol. 1.
  • Plato. The Dialogues of Plato. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. Great Books of the Western World. 54 vols. Chicago:Encyclopaedia Britannica 1952. Vol. 7.
  • Schopenhauer, Arthur. Counsels and Maxims. Trans. T. Bailey Saunders. Amherst, New York:Prometheus Books, 1995.
  • - - -. On the Basis of Morality. Trans. E.F.J. Payne. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill. 1965.
  • - - -. The Wisdom of Life. Trans. T. Bailey Saunders. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1995.
  • Waggonner, Eric. “Inside the Current: A Taoist Reading of The Old Man and the Sea”
  • Hemingway Review Spring 1998.