the sweetness of life, Donna Summer and Madame du Chastelet

In a famous phrase, Tallyrand once said that those who did not live before 1789 did not know what the true sweetness of life was like. We’ve been zapping that douceur de la vie with x rays, lately, on LI. And I hope all true followers of this death march through hedonism did note, in the Vibrational Man post, that we discovered something – yes, an actual discovery! Which is that the epicurean notion of pleasure, which preceded 18th century hedonism, was still anchored in the notion that, given pleasure and pain as quantitative descriptions attaching to the continuum of sensation, the idea that too much sensation – a quantitatively greater intensity of sensation – gives us pain, led logically to the fact that the maximum of pleasure should then be found in the maximum of non-sensation. In the early modern period that witnessed Gassendi’s rediscovery of Epicure, this notion of pleasure and pain changed to another. The change in conceiving of the structure of pleasure and pain is caught in the changing discourse concerning volupté, which is why the libertines and Hobbes were so shocking to European intellectuals, imbued as these intellectuals were with the Stoic ethos that essentially agreed with Epicurus here.

So, in the eighteenth century, while the continuum of sensation model is mostly retained, another structure is impressed upon it, in which pain is a catastrophic moment away from pleasure. Although I am using a non-eighteenth century vocabulary to describe this, basically, here’s what is happening: in the Lockean dispensation, the quantitative view of pleasure and pain results in what I’ve called, using Per Bak’s term, sensation as a form of self organized criticality. I should also note that the continuum of sensation takes a much cruder and more linear form in the works of the utilitarians and classical economists. Because much depends, there, upon greed, the hedonic calculus separates from any physiological or philosophical discourse about sensation. Because in that calculus – as Silja Graupe points out in The Basho of Economics – there is no limited to the amount of money that is desirable for the economic agent. There is no sense that pleasure can become pain along the continuum. There is simply greater and greater increments of pleasure. In a sense, even with Smith, in the heart of capitalism, disco was already pre-formed, for that is, as we all know, the disco ethos. It is about the orgasmic moan in “Love to love you baby” continued forever. Adam Smith was to Donna Summer as John the Baptist was to Jesus Christ. And don’t you forget it!

The editor of Madame du Chastelet’s philosophical oposcules introduces her essay on happiness with an anecdote that, by coincidence, has to do with the continuum of pleasure. Once, at the court of Frederick the Great, Chastelet asked the philosophical doctor, Maupertius, if he sometimes felt bored. ‘Always, madame,” the doctor replied, as a good old fashioned libertine. Chastelet, the editor points out, avoided boredom in her life. But she recognized its lurking power to bore into the very sweetness of life and rot it to the core. Her essay on happiness embeds it in the positional economy of her time – for among other things, the eighteenth century was the century of ambition. So, I’m going to translate a couple of pages, here, 25-27, since they point to the struggle between a new economic order (one that France got a heady taste of in the days of John Law) and an older, crumbling morality of restraint. The essay sorts through the conditions of happiness, and churns out the usual order – health, love, etc., etc. And then we come to that most delightful 18th century thing- gambling.

“… nature, I say, only gives us desires in accordance with our state. We only desire naturally by increments: a captain of infantry desires to be a colonel, and he isn’t unhappy not to be the supreme commander of the army, no matter what talent he senses within. It is up to our common sense and our reflections to fortify this wise sobriety of nature. It is thus best to desire only those things that one can obtain without too much work, and this is a point we can do much to manage for our happiness. To love what one possesses, to know how to enjoy it, to taste the advantages of its state, to not gaze too much upon those who appear happier to us, to try to perfect what one has and to derive from it all of its advantages, this is what one must call happiness. I think my definition is well formed when I say that the happiest men are those who desire the least change in their estates.[states of being] To delight in happiness, it is necessary to cure or pre-empt a sickness of our species, which is entirely opposed to us here, and which is only too common – that is, inquietude. This disposition of the spirit is contrary to all enjoyment, and by consequence to every kind of happiness. Good philosophy, that is, the firm persuasion that we don’t have anything else to do in this world than be happy, is a remedy against this sickness, of which the bons esprits, those who are capable of principles and consequences, are always exempt. It there is a passion that is unreasonable to the eyes of philosophers and to reason itself, it is the passion for gambling [jeu]. It would be a happy thing to have if one could moderate it and reserve it for that time of our life where it will be necessary, which is old age. It is certain that the love of gambling has its source in the love of money; and there is nobody who is not fascinated by big bets [gros jeu], by which I mean those that can make a difference in our fortune. Our soul likes to be moved by hope or fear – it is only made happy by those things that make it feel its existence; thus, gambling puts us perpetually face to face with these two passions, and holds, by consequence, our soul in an emotion which of one of the great principles of the happiness that is within us. The pleasure given to me by gambling has often consoled me for not being rich. I believe I have a good enough spirit that a fortune which would be mediocre to another would suffice to render me happy, and given that case, gambling would become insipid to me; … and this idea persuaded me that the pleasure I took in gambling was due to the smallness of my fortune and served to console me for it.”


roger said…
ps PS – I should add to this Châtelet’s essay a bit of history. According to an anecdote in Memoires sur Voltaire, vol. 2., Châtelet and Voltaire once got involved in Fontainebleu, gambling at the Queen’s court. In the space of three days, Châtelet lost 84,000 Francs. To put this in perspective, a skilled worker, say a wheelwright, at the time could earn up to 50 sous a day, or around 2 ½ francs.