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Friday, July 27, 2007

questions about happiness

I thought my friend Alan at Milanda’s questions was going to continue biting holes into my social psychological arguments about happiness, but since he has stopped – he has other fish to fry – and because he raises some interesting questions, I think I’d like to take up a particular theme in his objections, which is that I am using a non-standard, or at least a non-Aristolean, notion of happiness.

As I wrote in the last post about the imago of the dominatrix, switch in hand, who cut such a path through 19th century porn, written so often by men who, as little boys, suffered blissful spankings at public schools and felt bereft thereafter – the certain energy goes out of the theme of volupté as the early modern period comes to an end, and happiness, or the pursuit of happiness, triumphs in the official world – the world to which all justifications must refer. To remind y’all – and hey, I’m sorry about being so repetitive, but I can’t really expect my readers to remember all this shit – I am interesting in the way volupté emerged on the margins, in natural philosophy, under the aegis of Epicurus, in the 17th century, and quickly became a slogan for the libertines and for a certain protest against, on the one hand, Christian doctrine, and on the other, the unofficial religion of the intellectuals, which since the Renaissance had been a sort of stoicism derived from Cicero and Seneca. There are a lot of questions both about the emergence and the way it so quickly made its way into a major vector, that group of “idle’ nobles in England and France whose political energies were, essentially, put into the libertine lifestyle – a lifestyle characterized by its distance both from the bourgeois and the monarch. Of course, I’m giving you a pretty rough map, here, of social tendencies into which are folded philosophical themes – but it is a good enough map to predict the kind of conflicts that will occur in the confrontation of theses and little groups. One can talk about salonwork here.

But let’s not be distracted by the formal characteristics of philosophical history as I am presenting it, like Hegel, Jr. What happened in the Anglosphere was that the dialectic of volupté was aborted – in contrast to what happened in France. In its place, the Scottish Enlightenment expressed the mores of proto-liberal culture in a systematized ethics of sympathy and a theory of the market – the former justifying the raw terror visited upon various global populations by the embodiment of the latter.

So, to return to Alan’s question, or to derive a historical question from one of his questions: how does Aristotle’s idea of happiness, which has become central in contemporary philosophical ethics, fit into this story?

4 comments:

Alan said...

Thanks for the link. As luck would have it, my webhost is having server problems this morning, so my site's unavailable. Y'all keep trying.

Roger, the reason I've only been sniping at your flanks is that it's only around the flanks that I've got any idea what you're saying. But I'll make another foray into the interior soon.

Alan said...

"I am interesting in the way volupté emerged on the margins, in natural philosophy, under the aegis of Epicurus, in the 17th century, and quickly became a slogan for the libertines and for a certain protest against, on the one hand, Christian doctrine, and on the other, the unofficial religion of the intellectuals, which since the Renaissance had been a sort of stoicism derived from Cicero and Seneca. There are a lot of questions both about the emergence and the way it so quickly made its way into a major vector, that group of “idle’ nobles in England and France whose political energies were, essentially, put into the libertine lifestyle – a lifestyle characterized by its distance both from the bourgeois and the monarch....What happened in the Anglosphere was that the dialectic of volupté was aborted – in contrast to what happened in France. In its place, the Scottish Enlightenment expressed the mores of proto-liberal culture in a systematized ethics of sympathy and a theory of the market – the former justifying the raw terror visited upon various global populations by the embodiment of the latter."

OK, so what does that have to do with the "what matters is not happiness but the quality of one's unhappiness" theme?

roger said...

Alan, I see that you and I are re-enacting a dialogue between archetypes that go all the way back to the Vedas - I'm speaking, of course, of Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam.

I can't get to the quality of unhappiness question out of order, man! Though you are sending bullets flying already. If my argument depends on reconstructing the way in which the term happiness gained a semantic force which included two distinct things, both a certain feeling and a certain judgment about the course of a life - and in the quote about happiness in your post, taken from the encyclopedia of philosophy, I think, that is stated as the standard philosophical way of talking about happiness - then, naturally, I have to have a story showing how this happened. I'm claiming that the idea of happiness as a goal has had several social effects. Some of them I discussed in the last big post on happiness. But, since that was awhile ago, I'm just recapitulating here, with a little more focus.
Now, in my next post, I'll try to get to two texts, Aristotle's in the rhetoric, and Adam Smith's in the Moral Sympathy book, relevant to your question. Smith by the way is an excellent witness, since he takes an explicitly anti-stoic position - much in the line of the early modern Epicureans - but avoids the radical position of La Mettrie, opting for promoting the moral status of happiness explicitly within the bourgeois framework. Only at that point does your question gain its full value, I think. Then you can empty the sixshooter and make me dance over the barroom floor!

Alan said...

My site's back up.