The politics and anthropology of happiness

LI promised in a previous post to outline Forster’s little read essay, “The relation of the art of the state and the happiness of mankind”, written in Paris in 1793.

As we pointed out, Forster begins on a satiric note: he points to Russia’s justification of its recent conquest of Poland as motivated by concern for the “happiness” of the people, and remarks that all political arrangements seem, now, to base themselves on the happiness of the people. But what is happiness? And is there such a thing as the happiness of the people, or even happiness of mankind?

“But in what does the happiness consist which one wants so industriously to serve up to the human race? Common sense binds a concept with the word and I don’t know what general feeling transforms it into the object of the striving of all of those who are of one origin and similar education with us. Habituated from youth onward to regard the circumstance of comfort and the consciousness of pleasant impressions as basic, or with other words, to believe that an existence which can distinguish between enjoyment and pain could only be born for the first, we gradually develop an idea of that wished for way to be, in which the accumulation of pleasant impressions not only tops the accumulation of unpleasant ones, but also, through their changes and manifoldness, brings into our path continually new charms, and open up in us new sources of sentiment. Can we provisionally apply this definition? Then we may mention, for example, the happiness of the situation of the English tenant famer, and the misery of the Polish serf. Surely the prosperous man, who enjoys all the superfluity of his fat acres and meadows, is well clothed, and in a nice, clear house with handsome conveniences, at the same time in the prospect of his mind, of his feelings, of his principles, his meditations, his stock of knowledge, with a word, as a human, is the one with the widest advantages. He is easy in all his relationships, and in this comfortable situation he looks about himself, investigates who, from whom and to what end he is, gives thus the best part of himself, his reason, which elevates him over all of visible creation, its purposive development, and begins, to be conscious of his human value. The enervated slave of the sarmatian nobleman, on the contrary, in a decayed, smoky, naked hut, in dirty sheepskin, half eaten up by vermin, in his heavy as his lighter work, an his not completely unhealthy diet, knows simply animal affects, rests without a thought from his strivings, and dies without having tasted the higher enjoyment of the senses, without having enjoyed his mental powers or only knowing them in order to completely delude himself about the purpose of his existence. “

One notes that the question of happiness quickly moves from the psychological, in the above passage, to the anthropological. The psychological seems not to offer sufficient information to decide the question – after all, the question is not just about the greater number of pleasant as opposed to unpleasant sensations, but what, exactly, makes one sensation pleasant and another unpleasant – which is why Forster moves to scenes of happiness, as though comparing two prints. Of course, Forster has seen both the English tenent farmer and the Polish serf - the latter when teaching in Livonia. Within the classical vocabulary of the character, Forster shifts to the modern sociology of types – the English tenant farmer vs. the Polish serf – and then to their social environments. In good enlightenment fashion, what we seem to want to find, to answer the question of the happiness of the people, is a universal. But the different circumstances under which the free English farmer and the chained Polish agricultural worker exist make it hard to find a universal maker. Happiness, as a universal, seems to flatten out here – in which case the art of the state that creates the conditions in which the two types live will get no guidance from the principle of happiness.

Forster puzzles over this point. In a sense, he shifts the question of happiness, at this point, from the pleasant impression – the animal condition for happiness – to consciousness of human value. To make the point that happiness is bound up with the cultural conditions of mankind, he procedes to make a comparison between Europe and China. His notion is that, in one way or another, a state does create the conditions under which human beings strive for happiness. Make those conditions miserable enough and the striving for happiness will never reach the human level. Forster’s nightmare vision of China as a vast totalitarian kingdom of pain and poverty is drawn, then, as a systematic contrast to Europe. The system of government there seeks to anaesthetize forever the capacity for perfection (Vervollkommnungsfaehigkeit) in its subjects. To do this, they preach the unchangeability of all social relations, unconditioned obedience to the orders of the state, blind belief in every doctrine of the state. Thus, the Chinese government has pampered into existence unnatural things – Unarten – after millennia of despotism. (Perhaps this is a reference to the eunuchs of the palace).

“Perhaps one might ask: if in Europe a system of government like the Chinese one comes into power, would the consequences be the same? Our higher development, our deeply probing research of the truth, our speculations about the limits of our existence, our knowledge that has become so vast due to our trade and seafaring, our useful sciences, our arts elevated to the highest purposiveness, our taste, our manners, our bodily advantages – must they not blaze such a path, that all the advantages of the best alimentation of the human race are joined with the care for moral stability? Who can decide, what series of millennia, what eccentric movements, what pauses, in brief, what revolutions must have prepared the present mechanisms of the human race in east Asia?”

Using these cultural examples, Forster is developing a method for his anthropology, in which the condition of the people – for instance, the animal existences into which the Chinese peasantry are forced – mirrors the intentions of the state. Yet the state, in Forster’s scheme, doesn’t simply shape the people out of shapeless material. Accidents and nature count. Europeans, for instance, are more lively and inquisitive than the Chinese due to their racial type and their geography, evidenced by trade and seafaring. This is not, by the way, the view of China that had prevailed in enlightened circles. And it begins, or stands near the beginning, of a colonialist discourse that will revel in drawing the scene of Asiatic despotism to highlight European freedom.

If we put Forster’s claims in the perspective of the question of happiness, we see two things: one is that happiness is a more complex matter than we first thought. It is a form of perfecting the human, not just an accumulation of pleasant over unpleasant impressions. This movement away from the naïve hedonism of the dying libertine strain in the eighteenth century is not peculiar to Forster: one finds it everywhere (Smith’s sympathy, the fashion for the sentimental, etc., etc.). More interesting, perhaps, is the second thing: whereas Forster begins by asking, implicitly, if the “governors” [Regenten] can bring about human happiness, he shifts to making happiness the chief, or even the only bond between the government and the people. To speak of the happiness of the people isn’t just a fashion indulged in by eighteenth century princes: without happiness, the conjunction between the governed and the governors is wholly accidental. Without happiness, the governors are revealed as simply robbers. This, Forster insinuates, is what the French revolution has been about – the creation of a necessary bond between the governors and the people. In consequence, we must destroy a whole line of statecraft, a certain wisdom of Realpolitik that runs through the 17th and 18th century, summed up in a anecdote from Choiseul, Louis XV’s minister, who told a courtier once, “you are a good man, but you will never be a good statesman. You do not despise the people enough.”

For Forster, the government of contempt does positively act upon the happiness of the people:

“Unholy cruel contempt for humanity! It is this that eternalizes the sad phenomena of ignorance and slavery among the masses, when it first lifted the ambitious [Ehrgeizigen] over their equals. And now they dare, to call to witness their own handiwork? Over the current state of the species, the philosopher and the politician agree; but he feels either wise, about what men could or should be; he reveals the causes of their degradation, and seeks out the means that can help them approach once again their real definition.”

This, of course, is the key to the connection between happiness as the perfection of man and equality. In the politics of contempt, the people’s happiness is taken to be a different thing from the happiness of the ruler. The rulers are wise so that their subjects are ignorant, and strive for wealth so that their subjects can be content with little.


The rest of Forster’s article is, in a sense, a sort of reply to Burke that takes another path than that of Paine. Where Paine’s objection is based in the universal rights of man, Forster agrees, tacitly, with Burke that the foundations of power require an order such tht the first task of the art of the state is to bring about that order. This is the terrible power of the French revolution – it puts into question the very order of the principalities of Europe. Forster presents a dilemma: either the governing class is telling the truth about governing for the happiness of the subjects or they are not. If they are telling the truth, what kind of order do they propose to make their subjects happy? And what image of happiness is mirrored in that order? And if they are not telling the truth, then how can the governing class of a particular time object to being dispossessed by other predators?

The effect making the ground of the legitimation of order the advancement of happiness is profound. In the instant that this is accepted, a light is cast on the bond between the princes and the people, and a question can be asked: is this bond necessary? Does it arise out of the people themselves? There is, in a sense, no Burkian escape route – the call upon tradition, upon the grace of life, doesn’t give us the necessary connection between the governed and the governors which would justify the governed having any loyalty to the governors. The people who break into your house and throw a party may be as gracious and beautiful as you like – but that doesn’t answer the question of what they are doing in your house.

In the disconnection of the upper class (hoheren Stande), in the impossibility of setting limits to their presumption, their power, their influence, lies the seed of destruction of the great kingdoms. So fell the Roman Empire in the East and the West, and so must every hegemonic power collapse, which isn’t based on the oriental mechanism of unchanging class and castes.”

Forster has before ascribed this state to a revolution. Now he drives the point home – only a revolution could freeze into place a state of affairs in which human reason, which really exists – in fact, exists universally – is, as it were, suspended or curtailed.

‘The politics of the European princes thus brings about the opposite of the harmony in which finally everything must be merged; far from providing the basis for the peace of the human race, they eternalize his revolutions; far from distributing the general happiness, they cannot guard the ruling dynasties themselves before the most self-centered changes of happiness. Great personal properties may make an exception here; yet how seldom these turn out to be nothing, and how fleeting is their appearance! How dangerous it has so often been to the boldly striving princes, this simple proposal to rule alone. How quickly in the end collapse these foundationless buildings under a weak successor, which were built up into towers by his greater predecessors all too quickly and grandly, more to serve his own phantasy than to last!’


Anonymous said…
Just a marginal note. On the ubiquity of 'happiness.' I have those "Ricardian socialists" on the mind because before the holidays, I read 'Karl Marx und die 'Ricardianischen Sozialisten' on Hodgskin, Thompson, Gray and Bray and their theoretical relationship to and reception by Marx. Even though the book was less than a 100 pages long, so the quotations were few, the frequency with which those earliest of critical political economists deployed 'happiness' was striking.

Chuckie K