French francs - Can money buy happiness? Can ignorance?Honoré de Balzac’s novel Eugénie Grandet seems to imply that, contrary to popular belief, money can buy happiness!

One of the main characters in the novel, Monsieur Grandet, glows with happiness upon learning of the multiplication of his funds, and when beholding his piles of gold. He even, upon receiving especially good news concerning his accounts, literally sings and dances.

But the novel also implies that an increase in money does not cause an increase in happiness for everyone, just for those rare people who are true misers. Monsieur Grandet’s wife and daughter do not experience greater happiness from the acquisition of money. In fact, as the reader is surprised to learn, they don’t even know how much they are financially worth, or that their fortune dwarfs the net worth of many of their neighbors combined!

The tragedy of this scenario is that Eugénie and her mother, not comprehending that they are multimillionaires, also do not comprehend the true nature of their “friendships.” Money-hungry men and their money-hungry relatives come regularly to the Grandet house to court Eugénie. Poor Madame and Mademoiselle Grandet think that these people like them for themselves, not for their money.

At the point that the reader learns of this wretched situation, Balzac tosses in the following aphorism:

“How horrible is man’s condition! He does not own one happiness whose source does not lie in ignorance of some kind.”

It’s a Balzacian aphorism; but is it true? I would like to debate this question with you. I would argue that Monsieur Grandet’s joy in acquiring money would be significantly lower if he were not so ignorant about its detrimental effects on his family, as well as on himself. Further, his wife and daughter would surely have been horrified to learn that the people praising them did not genuinely like them.

On the other hand, ignorance can lead to misery over the long term, as is evident by witnessing these characters’ deteriorating lives as the years pass. Thus, learning key facts about the world, and acting accordingly, can save one from sorrow. It can also bring one a quiet contentment that, while perhaps of a different nature than the bliss of ignorance, is still a form of happiness.

What do you think: is ignorance necessary for happiness?