Tony Soprano's Unhappiness

Gary Cooper, happy wanderers, and our confusion about happiness

Posted Jun 20, 2013

In honor of the great James Gandolfini, 1961-2013, who brought a timeless character to life.

“I got the world by the balls and yet I can’t stop feeling that I am a loser.” Tony Soprano, “The Happy Wanderer”

It could sure seem like Tony Soprano, the main character of HBO's The Sopranos, had got it all. He wants money? Other people have money? He takes it for himself. He wants a family but girlfriends too? He makes it happen. And the mystery we want to address: why despite all that he has attained, does Tony feel like a loser? In the show, we look to Tony’s therapist Dr. Melfi to explain what is wrong with Tony. But what would Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics and the Epicureans have to say about the happiness of a self-described “fat crook from Jersey”? A lot, I think.

Tony on Happiness

Tony, for all of his blustery anti-intellectualism, shows signs of having thought a bit about happiness. He seems to have discerned three different approaches to happiness, that of the “whiners,” the “happy wanderers”, and the “Gary Cooper” types. His therapist Dr. Melfi’s aim, as he sees it, is make him a “whiner,” to get him to blame others (his parents) for his unhappiness and make him “feel like a victim” (“The Happy Wanderer”). If she succeeded, Tony thinks he would be like the “f***ing Americans nowadays” who he describes as “crying, complaining, confessing.”

Tony distains the “whiners”, but it is animosity he feels for the “happy wanderers.” These “assholes” don’t need therapy and move through life cheerily oblivious to its trials and setbacks. Now, Tony would rather be a “happy wanderer” than a “whiner” but expresses this with the following:

“Sometimes, if I see a guy with a clear head, you know the type, always whistling like the Happy F***ing Wanderer. I see this and… I wanna walk up to him and rip his f***ing’ throat open. For no reason at all. Just go up to him and f***ing pummel him.” (The Happy Wanderer).

Despite being able to imagine this diatribe including that these types get their kicks from doing things like visiting zoos, Tony quite enjoyed acting the “happy wanderer” on the day he was made giddy by a new girlfriend and zoo visit.

It is Gary Cooper that attracts Tony the most, however.

“First day I came here (to therapy) first f***ing day I said how Gary Cooper was a man. Strong. Silent.” (The Happy Wanderer).

Of course, what it is that “Gary Cooper” has is elusive to Tony, who is not even clear on what he understands to be “Gary Cooper”-like. He idealizes his father by putting him in the “Gary Cooper” category: his dad ran his own crew back when the mob had “values”. Yet at the same time Tony acknowledges that his mother “wore [his father] down to a little nub. He was a squeaking gerbil when he died.” (Pilot).

Does it seem far-fetched to suggest that ancient Greek philosophy can help clear up Tony’s confusion about happiness?

Perhaps it ought not, not even within the context of the show. The show’s writers have Tony read the following quotation in Bowdoin College’s Admissions Building (College):

“No man can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude without finally getting bewildered as to which may be true.”

The author, Nathaniel Hawthorne, was undoubtedly inspired by the work of ancient thinkers when he composed this line. It reflects the ideas first put forward by Plato. In The Republic Plato has Socrates explain that happiness is a matter of organizing a harmony between the parts of one’s self. We ought to make ourselves a “perfect unity, rather than a plurality, self-disciplined and internally attuned.” And our actions must be consistent with this aim, so that we “preserve and promote” an internal harmony (Plato, Republic, book 4, 443c-d).

The Ancients on Happiness and Tony and the Rest of Us

Despite his extraordinary talent for satisfying his more immediate desires, in the following respect Tony is not so different from the rest of us. We, like Tony, tend to think of happiness as a matter of having certain things in our lives. We expect to be happy once we get to college, or get our degree, or have a family and settle down. Or, if we have these things and get asked if we are happy, we respond with a list what we have and ask back “Who could ask for anything more?”

According to Aristotle, people in ancient Greece were confused in the same way as we are today on the subject of happiness. Aristotle, in the Rhetoric, summarizes what was a matter of general agreement at the time. What seems, then, to have been a matter of ancient “common sense” is the suggestion that happiness is a matter of achieving a list of things: a good family, lots of friends, wealth, reputation, honor, old age…

But the ancient ethicists explain that happiness is not a matter of merely having things. The Stoics, in response to a list like that in Aristotle’s Rhetoric, write that “not even an abundance of these goods… makes a difference to the happiness, desirability, or value of one’s life.” The Epicureans believe that if we think deeply enough about happiness we will come to realize that good birth, wealth, reputation, honor and even a good old age do not directly contribute to our happiness.

What is Happiness?

There are two components to the difficulty of happiness, according to the ancient Greeks.

First, happiness is a matter of activity—not acquisition. As Aristotle writes, “activities are what give life its character.” We cannot merely pursue and attain a good family, lots of friends, wealth, reputation, honor, and old age and expect to be happy. (How much easier if we could, huh?)

Second, happiness is not something we can stumble into, despite Tony’s suspicions about the “happy wanderers”.

To live a happy life requires a conscious effort to revise and integrate the goals we have picked up from a common sense understanding of what makes life good. The aims we have, before thinking philosophically about our lives, inevitably conflict. This is demonstrated in a spectacular way by Tony Soprano, who aims to be both a loving father and a murderer. Hawthorne’s quotation seems readily applicable to Tony, but it applies just as readily to the rest of us.

What does it take to be happy?

The idea is rather simple, actually. We must reflect upon, and then revise, what it is we are really after when it comes to our pursuits. Doing this successfully, however, is not easy. It usually does not occur to the unsatisfied politician that he is aiming, above all, for glory. It is hard for habitually irresponsible to realize that they are living for pleasure and that this is the problem. But once we come to recognize what motivates us, either as a whole or in regard to particular aspects of our lives, the ancient imperative is to continue to pursue only those things whose motivation is one that can integrate all of our pursuits.

What does this mean?

If we realize we take jobs with higher salaries for the sake of how powerful this makes us feel, we have to recognize that power is not what motivates us to care for our families. In the case of Tony, his reasons for murdering are not the same as the ones he has for attempting to set a good example for his children. His adultery is not motivated by the same motivation he has for loving his wife. Living the way Tony does creates the sort of internal schism that Hawthorne describes. But the rest of us might also be making choices that are inconsistent when considered together.

An exhausted body

The consequence of this is a fractured personality. Though James Gandolfini's portrayal of Tony is perhaps the most memorable representation of this, Plato describes the fractured personality as being in a “civil war” with itself. He has us imagine that, if we fail to reconcile our motivations to one another, parts of ourselves “bite each other, fight and try to eat each other.” (Plato, Republic, 589a)

We all experience this inner conflict, but the situation worsens if you live a life like Tony Soprano’s. In the Republic, Plato imagines what would happen to a person who gets put into a position of power over others, having not yet integrated his motivations for even the typical activities of a life. This exacerbates the already disorganized condition of a person, and, despite the public appearance of “having it all”, the potential is for such a person to be more unhappy than any of us. They have, in addition to more common tensions, worries about enemies and usurpers. Plato writes that such a person is like “an exhausted body” which “is compelled to compete and fight with other bodies all its life.” (Plato, Republic, 579c-d) The situation renders one friendless and terrified.

So it is no wonder that Tony does not feel well.

The advice Plato would give Tony?

Leave the mob immediately. (In the show, we hear the Platonic line come from Dr. Krakower, Carmela's once-visted psychiatrist.)

When Dr. Melfi suggests that behavior therapy might help Tony to control his anger trigers, Tony stops to consider the possibility. Without these triggers, “then how do you get people to do what you want?” (Employee of the Month). Tony has traded in self-control for the ability to manipulate those around him. This should make us rethink our assessment of Tony Soprano. He doesn’t really have the world “by the balls.” That is only the illusion, perpetuated by our own misunderstandings of happiness. It is the other way round, the world has that grip on Tony. Tony knows this. If he only also knew this: a happy man in the ancient sense attempts to control not the world but himself.

This is no fool’s errand, which makes it unlike so many of the errands of Tony Soprano.

Abbreviated summary of "The Unhappiness of Tony Soprano: An Ancient Analysis"
Philosophy and the Sopranos, Open Court Press