Running yesterday, I came up with a brilliant title for my little livret on happiness. Check this out: The triumph of happiness: a tragedy. W..well, at least it seemed brilliant at the one mile sweat point.
I meant to organize my notes and begin my essay while I was in Atlanta, but this didn’t happen. While the great midnights sometimes happen in guest bedrooms, or in clinics, or at desks so unfamiliar as not to be invisibly chained with the thousand and one reminders of failure and projects half finished, my great midnights now happen, usually, between eleven a.m. and two p.m. I grow old, I grow old, I will wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Now, in my last two posts, I translated bits of an essay by Stendhal to recall us to a historical factum: that a sharp, or even brilliant observer of the four most developed European societies in 1830 – those of England, France, Italy and Germany – registered a distinct change in the intellectual atmosphere of the time, and connected that change, in the essay, with the advent of a new form of speech a l’allemand – the language of the Critique and of the Phenomenology. At the same time, he began writing a murder story set in a rural area in which industrialization was beginning to emerge.
In the essay, Stendhal’s whiggish philosopher claims to be speaking the language of Cabinas, and of the Civil Code. Nobody reads Cabinas anymore. I certainly don’t. But curious about the connection between Cabinas and Bentham, I went to the OC, and found this interesting passage, in an essay about medical practice:
‘When one is young and without knowledge of the world, the pleasure of doing good is very connected to the recognition that one flatters oneself that one will obtain thereby. But time and experience soon detach by degrees a hope too often disappointed; and one finishes by doing good only for oneself, for the pure satisfaction that attaches to it; for conforming to the general social order, which, it is true, gives us more or less advantages in return. Such is at least the sentiment the the proofs of ingratitude produce quickly enough on those who join reason to soulfulness.For the doctor, the passage is perhaps a little more difficult; the blows are sharper. The pleasure of comforting a suffering being is so sweet! the care that one expends has something so sacred about it! in restoring life, health and happiness to the patient, in rendering him back sound to the objects of his affection, one has associated oneself so closely with his existence! In a word, one feels oneself guilty if one even suspects that an eternal recognition will not be forthcoming that when, in fact, it isn’t forthcoming, one is struck, at first, by astonishment, and swollen with indignation; and the wound to the heart is joined to the confusion and bitter discontent of a first demystification.
However, we have to say, for everybody needs to know this, nothing is more common than that ingratitude. Soon, one takes it as a piece of pure childishness to expect anything else. Far from letting oneself be discouraged by this in his zeal for humanity, the virtuous man no longer expects anything except from himself., recognizing that he is thereby more independent and free.”
Cabanis, here, is outlining a theory of selfishness that resembles interior exile. In fact, the doctor’s progress from the youthful hope of joining glory to virtue to the older and sardonic notion that virtue is a matter for oneself alone, and glory is an aspiration which is not worth the price of disappointment, traces an intellectual reaction to the French revolution. It is important to remember that the figuration of the self does not happen in an empty and unclaimed space, but occurs in a highly charged historical context. In fact, that is true to the point of truism, but unfortunately, like so many truisms, it is mentioned by the intellectual historian and then ignored. Facts aren’t inert, and they aren’t atomic. They are more like stains on a cloth – they spread out, they intersect with each other, they have unpredictable circumferences. So, here, the medical philosophy – and remember that the overlap between medicine and philosophy has been a consistent theme in the materialist line we have traced in earlier posts, from Gassendi to La Mettrie – encodes a self-satisfied selfishness. It is a twist in the moralist’s great theme of amour-propre – for it protects amour-propre, in the end, from any outside test. But any dialectician, any of the newfangled type that Stendhal so despised, would see that this twist is not an endpoint that leads to virtue, but is, instead, a moment in the dissolution of amour-propre into self-interest. Cabanis does have a relationship to Bentham, but the effect of this seemingly more cynical view of virtue is to make obsolete the volupte of the heroic, to sweep away the Reguluses. Stendhal’s fictitious philosopher sets up a challenge not only for eclectic philosophers, but for Stendhal the novelist. And, in effect, Stendhal’s major works show that Cabanis’ ideological defense of public virtue guarded by private indifference to glory is wholly inadequate to cope with the wholesale transformation taking place in economic and emotional customs.
Oh, and here is the all important epigraph for my essay: “Der Mensch strebt nicht nach Glück; nur der Engländer thut das.” – Nietzsche.