Up@dawn 2.0

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Are the French the New Optimists?

Cynicism has deep roots in France. In the 18th century, Voltaire mocked optimists for their naïveté and celebrated pessimists for their lucidity. He’s still part of the national curriculum for French eighth-graders, and the râleur — the dissatisfied, grumpy whiner — remains a national archetype. Among intellectuals, if you say that everything is going badly, “everyone says, ‘Look how intelligent he is,’” explained Frédéric Lenoir, author of “Happiness: A Philosopher’s Guide.” Since I’ve lived here, polls have regularly shown that the French are more pessimistic about their country’s future than people in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The French haven’t become magically cheerful, but there’s a creeping sense that hope isn’t idiotic, and life can actually improve. As is common with a new president, there was a jump in optimism after Emmanuel Macron was elected last year. But this time, optimism has remained strong, and in January it hit an eight-year high.

It helps that France’s economy is finally growing more and that Mr. Macron has made good on promises ranging from overhauling the labor laws to shrinking class sizes at kindergartens in disadvantaged areas. For those still mourning France’s lost glory as a global power, he has taken the rhetorical lead on climate change and the European Union. And they feel lucky by comparison, as they watch Britain march off a plank with Brexit, and read about American children being killed at school. Voters here still have grievances, and many are reserving judgment. But in the French context, that’s practically euphoria.

“The France of the optimists has won, and is dragging the other part of France toward its own side,” said Claudia Senik, an economist who heads the Well-Being Observatory, an academic think tank here.

The French are even taking an intellectual interest in this alien idea. There are optimism clubs, conferences and school programs, scholars of positivity and books like “50+1 Good Reasons to Choose Optimism.” In September Mr. Macron was a patron of the Global Positive Forum, a study group of “positive initiatives” in business and government. (“Tomorrow can be better than today,” the forum’s website insists.)

It’s still an awkward fit. A TV documentary last fall followed a Parisienne as she tried to adopt a positive outlook, as if she was learning a foreign language. “It seems like it’s a skill, a discipline that one learns,” she marveled.

But you can now get away with dream-the-impossible-dream rhetoric, once disdained as American psychobabble. “From the moment you tell Macron that something isn’t possible, he has a tendency to consider that it is,” a presidential spokesman gushed.

Meanwhile America’s national mood has drifted in the opposite direction. Before Donald Drumpf took office, optimism about his presidency was the lowest of any president-elect since at least the 1970s. We’re still upbeat about the economy, but just 27 percent of Americans are confident that we’re “generally headed in the right direction,” according to an Economist/YouGov poll.

Optimism — even, and perhaps especially in the face of difficulty — has long been an American hallmark. “What the American public wants is a tragedy with a happy ending,” the novelist William Dean Howells supposedly said.

It’s a shock to realize that we might not get our happy ending anytime soon. I feel this from across the ocean. High school friends recently took up a collection to pay the medical bills of a classmate with pancreatic cancer. On a video call the other day, my father — an ardent patriot who grew up during World War II, and was never very interested in politics — suddenly wept about America’s future.

Of course, there are many varieties of American optimism. Not all are doomed.

There’s the American dream, which holds that you can achieve whatever you want by working hard enough (and its new-age variant, in which you merely have to visualize it). But when the state is going after immigrants, and it’s become tougher to move to a higher earnings bracket, it’s hard to make a case for this theory.

There’s the idea of American exceptionalism — that we’re uniquely blessed and fated to succeed, so our problems must inevitably be fixed. With America lagging other rich countries in realms from health care to high school test scores, it’s difficult to make a case for this, either.

The one form of American optimism that’s still credible is the kind that’s coming from the high school students in Parkland, Fla. It’s a tactical, tenacious, cleareyed optimism, in the tradition of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It acknowledges that something is terribly wrong. And in the best part of the American tradition, these kids — and others like them — aren’t just whining. They’re determined to fix it.

That’s what I miss most.
3.22.18, nyt
Pamela Druckerman is the author of the forthcoming “There Are No Grown-Ups: A Midlife Coming-of-Age Story” and a contributing opinion writer.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

"Happiest Man in the World: Stop Trying to be Happy"/Ricard, Altruism

Happiest Man in the World: Stop Trying to be Happy

In his new book, Altruism, a scientist turned Buddhist monk argues that we’re all hardwired to be altruistic—and that’s the secret to true bliss.

Type “Happiest Person in the World” into your search engine, and there’s Matthieu Ricard, the French-born biologist turned Tibetan monk and close associate of the Dalai Lama.

That’s a lot to live up to, especially as Ricard earned the title when a scan of his brain showed the highest-yet recorded activity in areas associated with positive emotions. “Of course, it is better than being called the unhappiest person in the world,” he told The Daily Beast.

Yet now Ricard and his 864-page new book, Altruism, say that happiness as it’s conventionally understood is actually counterproductive. If you really want to be happy, he said, stop trying to be happy, and go help someone else instead.

“In modern Western societies, happiness is often equated with a maximization of pleasure,” he said, “and some imagine that true happiness would consist of an interrupted succession of pleasurable experiences. This sounds more like a recipe for exhaustion than for genuine happiness.”

So what’s the alternative? Altruism the book doesn’t have a lot of feel-good platitudes in it, but it does have a mound of data—economic, neuroscientific, psychological—about what actually causes humans to feel happy. What’s the answer?

Said Ricard, “Happiness is a way of being that comes along when a certain number of positive human qualities come together: altruism and compassion, inner freedom [so that you are not the slave of your own thoughts], senses of serenity and fulfillment, resilience, as well a clear and stable mind that does not distort reality too much.”

Easy for a monk to say, of course. But Ricard is quick to point out that “the important point about all these qualities is that, unlike pleasure, they are skills that can be cultivated through training the mind in compassion, caring mindfulness, emotional balance, and so on.”

Are selfish people really unhappy, though? Plenty of morally questionable people seem to be pretty happy. Dick Cheney’s recent Playboy interview, for example, revealed him to be quite satisfied with his efforts to promote war and torture, grow the wealth gap, and deny climate change.

Ricard responded with several points. “Seeking selfish happiness seems unlikely to succeed for several reasons,” he said. “Excessive self-centeredness multiplies our hopes and fears and makes us brood on what might affect us. Obsession with ‘me,’ with the ego, leads us to magnify the impact on our well-being of the slightest event. We project onto our surroundings judgments and values fabricated by our inner confusion. Essentially, selfishness makes everyone lose: It makes us unhappy and we, in turn, pass that unhappiness on to those around us.”

He continued, “Some people might find some comfort in being successful, they might be proud of themselves even they have done things that are harmful to others, but if they ever look deep within themselves, can they find a genuine sense of peace, fulfillment, compassion? Ignorance might be bliss for a while, but the confrontation with reality might be painful at times.”

Of course, if they’re lucky, they’ll never confront it at all.

Still, Ricard insisted that altruism is a more stable source of happiness than selfishness. “Altruistic love is accompanied by a profound feeling of fullness and it also turns out to be the state of mind that activates the most brain areas linked to positive emotions. One could say that altruistic love is the most positive of all the positive emotions.”

That, Ricard pointed out, is how he got the “happiest man” title in the first place.

“The experiments carried out at [neuroscientist] Richard Davidson’s lab that triggered this funny story,” he said, “were actually focused on studying the strong activation that the meditation on compassion has in the brain.”

In other words, when Ricard’s happiness level was off the charts, he was meditating on compassion for other people. And here we thought the “ultimate high”came in a pill.

Ricard’s data-driven rejection of selfish happiness puts him at odds with classical economics, of course, with its emphasis on selfish behavior on the part of homo economicus who seeks only to maximize his own welfare. And this is one of Ricard’s central points: “If we have more consideration for others, we will move toward a ‘caring economics.’ We will be more concerned with the improvement of working conditions, family and social life, and many other aspects of existence, and we will care more about the fate of future generations.”

Ricard’s data is also at odds with, perhaps not coincidentally, the predominant religious ideology on the rightward end of the spectrum: the evangelical narrative of sinfulness and redemption. Ricard insists that children are not born selfish or “sinful,” but naturally altruistic. Citing one well-known study, he said, “Michael Tomasello and Felix Warneken have established that, from the age of 1, when they are just beginning to learn to walk and speak, children already spontaneously exhibit behavior of mutual aid and cooperation that they were not taught by adults. Very young children spontaneously offered to help an experimenter complete various tasks… and they did so without the prospect of any kind of reward.”

“It appears,” he continued, “that helping behaviors manifest very early, long before parents have inculcated in their children the rules of sociability, and are not determined by any external pressure. The discovery of similar behavior among the great apes leads one to think that behavior of altruistic cooperation did not appear out of nowhere among human beings, but that it was already present in the ancestor shared by humans and chimpanzees some six million years ago, and that concern for our fellows is deeply anchored in our nature.”

But if we’re born altruistic, why do human beings end up acting selfish? Bad education—like being told you’re a hopeless sinner, or being subjected to corporal punishment for being “bad,” or “learning” that everyone is out for themselves. “Studies show that if children are made to understand that they are capable of altruism and that they are kind, they will tend to behave kindly when the occasion arises. If children are persuaded they are mean, the opposite effect will occur—namely that at the next opportunity, the child will in fact tend to behave as if he or she were really mean.”

Tell people that they’re selfish wealth-maximizers, or hopeless sinners, and eventually they’ll act like it.

Even after 800 pages of case studies, experimental research, and spiritual verities later, it’s easy to be cynical about arguments like these. Nice guys often finish last, even if the selfish ones destroy civilization in the process. In a political season in which Ayn Rand is now being taken seriously as a moral philosopher, a Buddhist monk is easy to dismiss as naïve.

Then again, Ricard has paid his dues. Before becoming a bestselling author (of The Monk and the Philosopher, with his well-known philosopher father, Jean-Francois Revel; and of the 2006 bestseller Happiness), he left a successful scientific career to spend 26 years as a monk, largely in silence. Even today, he spends three months a year on silent retreat in an unheated hut in Nepal.

And he spends a great deal of time in the trenches. He’s donating all profits of his book to his Nepal-based nonprofit, Karuna Shechen, which is working with families displaced by the recent earthquake, for example, and is, after all, part of the most oppressed religion in the world.

Meanwhile, one of his most powerful stories came from an unlikely source. “I remember being asked to visit a prison in France,” he said, “in which inmates had been there for some 20 years. I mentioned to them that despite having done terrible things, everyone, including themselves, had a potential for change… They said that this was quite uplifting to them, since usually they were told that they were double-sinners: sinners at birth and sinners through having committed harmful acts. So, we should never underestimate our potential for change. Our mind can be our best friend or our worst enemy. It can cause us to hate or to love.”

Wednesday, March 14, 2018


Happy are the people of the Nordic nations — happier, in fact, than anyone else in the world. And the overall happiness of a country is almost identical to the happiness of its immigrants.

Those are the main conclusions of the World Happiness Report 2018, released Wednesday. Finland is the happiest country in the world, it found, followed by Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Sweden and Australia. Though in a different order, this is the same top 10 as last year, when Norway was No. 1 and Finland was fifth.

Burundi and Central African Republic, both consumed by political violence, are the least happy countries for the second year in a row. This year, Central African Republic is slightly happier than Burundi; last year, their order was reversed.

As for the United States, it is 18th out of 156 countries surveyed — down four spots from last year’s report and five from 2016’s, and substantially below most comparably wealthy nations. Though the economy is generally strong and per capita income is high, it ranks poorly on social measures: Life expectancy has declined, suicide rates have risen, the opioid crisis has worsened, inequality has grown and confidence in government has fallen.

“I think there really is a deep and very unsettling signal coming through that U.S. society is in many ways under profound stress, even though the economy by traditional measures is doing fine,” Jeffrey D. Sachs, an editor of the report, said in an interview on Tuesday. “The trends are not good, and the comparative position of the U.S. relative to other high-income countries is nothing short of alarming.”Continue reading the main story


Norway Is No. 1 in Happiness. The U.S., Sadly, Is No. 14. MARCH 20, 2017

Denmark Ranks as Happiest Country; Burundi, Not So Much MARCH 16, 2016

In Bhutan, Happiness Index as Gauge for Social Ills JAN. 17, 2017

With New Minister, United Arab Emirates Want to Top the World in Happiness, TooFEB. 9, 2016

The report was produced by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network and edited by three economists: Dr. Sachs, the network’s director and a professor at Columbia University; John F. Helliwell, a senior fellow at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research and professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia; and Richard Layard, a director of the Well-Being Program at the London School of Economics’ Center for Economic Performance. It is based on Gallup International surveys conducted from 2015 to 2017, in which thousands of respondents were asked to imagine a ladder with steps numbered 0 to 10 and to say which step they felt they stood on, a ranking known as the Cantril Scale.

The top 10 countries’ averages ranged from 7.632 for first-place Finland to 7.272 for 10th-place Australia; the United States’ average was 6.886, down from 6.993 last year. At the bottom of the scale, Burundi’s average was 2.905.

Compared with a 2008-10 base period, 58 countries became significantly happier, and 59 became significantly less happy. Of the 141 countries that had enough data from both 2008-10 and 2015-17 to measure how their happiness had changed, the United States ranked 107th, with a drop of 0.315 in its average happiness rating.

Explaining why one country is happier than another is a dicey business, but the report cites six significant factors: G.D.P. per capita, social support, life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity and corruption levels.

Dr. Sachs noted that the happiest countries have very different political philosophies from the United States’. Most of the top 10 are social democracies, which “believe that what makes people happy is solid social support systems, good public services, and even paying a significant amount in taxes for that.”

This year’s report also focused heavily on how migration affects happiness. Most notably, it found that the happiness of a country’s immigrants is almost identical to that of its population at large — indicating, Dr. Helliwell said in an interview, that “people essentially adjust to the average happiness level of the country they’re moving to.”

“The closeness of the two rankings shows that the happiness of immigrants depends predominantly on the quality of life where they now live,” the report’s executive summary said. “Happiness can change, and does change, according to the quality of the society in which people live.”

This cuts both ways: A person who moves to a country high on the happiness list will probably become happier, and a person who moves to a lower-ranked country will probably become less happy.

The study did not examine how national immigration policies affect happiness. However, it did examine the findings of Gallup’s new “migrant acceptance index,” which measured public attitudes toward immigrants in various countries. These attitudes are not always correlated with national policies: The United States, for example, ranks highly on the migrant acceptance index, even though the Drumpf administration has pursued more restrictive immigration laws.

In countries with high migrant acceptance indexes — that is, countries where the populace is generally receptive to newcomers — immigrants “are happier than their other circumstances would indicate, and so were the people who were born there,” Dr. Helliwell said. “That sort of openness turns out to be good for both.”

Follow Maggie Astor on Twitter: @MaggieAstor.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Seneca on the happy life


For the person who lives a virtuous life, of steadfastness and good judgment, happiness is always within reach

Massimo Pigliucci

Lucius Annaeus Seneca is a towering and controversial figure of antiquity. He lived from 4 BCE to 65 CE, was a Roman senator and political adviser to the emperor Nero, and experienced exile but came back to Rome to become one of the wealthiest citizens of the Empire. He tried to steer Nero toward good governance, but in the process became his indirect accomplice in murderous deeds. In the end, he was ‘invited’ to commit suicide by the emperor, and did so with dignity, in the presence of his friends.

Seneca wrote a number of tragedies that directly inspired William Shakespeare, but was also one of the main exponents of the Stoic school of philosophy, which has made a surprising comeback in recent years. Stoicism teaches us that the highest good in life is the pursuit of the four cardinal virtues of practical wisdom, temperance, justice and courage – because they are the only things that always do us good and can never be used for ill. It also tells us that the key to a serene life is the realisation that some things are under our control and others are not: under our control are our values, our judgments, and the actions we choose to perform. Everything else lies outside of our control, and we should focus our attention and efforts only on the first category.

Seneca wrote a series of philosophical letters to his friend Lucilius when he was nearing the end of his life. The letters were clearly meant for publication, and represent a sort of philosophical testament for posterity. I chose letter 92, ‘On the Happy Life’, because it encapsulates both the basic tenets of Stoic philosophy and some really good advice that is still valid today.

The first thing to understand about this letter is the title itself: ‘happy’ here does not have the vague modern connotation of feeling good, but is the equivalent of the Greek word eudaimonia, recently adopted also by positive psychologists, and which is best understood as a life worth living. For Seneca and the Stoics, the only life worth living is one of moral rectitude, the sort of existence we look back to at the end and can honestly say we are not ashamed of.

That said, and contrary to popular lore, the Stoics weren’t killjoys. Indeed, in his essay ‘On Tranquillity of Mind’, Seneca himself wrote:
Socrates did not blush to play with little boys, Cato used to refresh his mind with wine after he had wearied it with application to affairs of state, and Scipio would move his triumphal and soldierly limbs to the sound of music … It does good also to take walks out of doors, that our spirits may be raised and refreshed by the open air and fresh breeze: sometimes we gain strength by driving in a carriage, by travel, by change of air, or by social meals and a more generous allowance of wine: at times we ought to drink even to intoxication, not so as to drown, but merely to dip ourselves in wine: for wine washes away troubles and dislodges them from the depths of the mind, and acts as a remedy to sorrow as it does to some diseases.

Stoics are often contrasted with Epicureans, and ‘On the Happy Life’ includes passages where Seneca comments on that contrast. Epicureanism, however, should not be interpreted in the modern sense of laissez-faire hedonism (à la sex, drugs and rock’n’roll), as it actually was a philosophy of moderation aimed mostly at avoiding pain (both physical and mental) and at enjoying the simple pleasures of life (like healthy meals and good friendship).

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans valued the practice of virtue and the pleasures of life. The difference was one of priorities: the Epicureans, for instance, withdrew from political life because it was bound to cause pain (consider the recent US elections and you might sympathise). The Stoics, by contrast, would never trade moral rectitude for either the pursuit of pleasure or the avoidance of pain.

Seneca wrote a much longer essay on the same topic of what makes for a happy life, one that includes a set of seven ‘commandments to himself’ (from book XX ‘Of a Happy Life’). They provide a way to philosophically structure our own lives:
I) I will look upon death or upon a comedy with the same expression of countenance.
II) I will despise riches when I have them as much as when I have them not.
III) I will view all lands as though they belong to me, and my own as though they belonged to all mankind.
IV) Whatever I may possess, I will neither hoard it greedily nor squander it recklessly.
V) I will do nothing because of public opinion, but everything because of conscience.
VI) I will be agreeable with my friends, gentle and mild to my foes: I will grant pardon before I am asked for it, and will meet the wishes of honourable men half-way.
VII) Whenever either Nature demands my breath again, or reason bids me dismiss it, I will quit this life, calling all to witness that I have loved a good conscience, and good pursuits.

Massimo Pigliucci is the K D Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He blogs at platofootnote.org and howtobeastoic.org. His latest book is How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life (2017).

27 April, 2017

Classic Text

Lucius Annaeus Seneca
On the happy life

From Moral letters to Lucilius, translated by Richard Mott Gummere
With a new commentary by Massimo Pigliucci

You and I will agree, I think, that outward things are sought for the satisfaction of the body, that the body is cherished out of regard for the soul, and that in the soul there are certain parts which minister to us, enabling us to move and to sustain life, bestowed upon us just for the sake of the primary part of us. In this primary part there is something irrational, and something rational. The former obeys the latter, while the latter is the only thing that is not referred back to another, but rather refers all things to itself. For the divine reason also is set in supreme command over all things, and is itself subject to none; and even this reason which we possess is the same, because it is derived from the divine reason.

Seneca here is using ‘soul’ in the Aristotelian tradition, as the seat of human reason. The Stoics were materialists, so the word ‘soul’ had none of the modern connotations derived from the Christian tradition.Read more

Now if we are agreed on this point, it is natural that we shall be agreed on the following also – namely, that the happy life depends upon this and this alone: our attainment of perfect reason. For it is naught but this that keeps the soul from being bowed down, that stands its ground against Fortune; whatever the condition of their affairs may be, it keeps men untroubled. And that alone is a good which is never subject to impairment. That man, I declare, is happy whom nothing makes less strong than he is; he keeps to the heights, leaning upon none but himself; for one who sustains himself by any prop may fall. If the case is otherwise, then things which do not pertain to us will begin to have great influence over us. But who desires Fortune to have the upper hand, or what sensible man prides himself upon that which is not his own?

Saturday, March 3, 2018

John Stuart Mill: higher happiness

John Stuart Mill, the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the nineteenth century, is today best remembered as the author of On Liberty. The work is, he notes, a “kind of philosophic textbook of a single truth” – one in which he argues, relentlessly and over the course of around 50,000 words, that there should be no interference with the thought, speech, or action of any individual except on the grounds of the prevention of harm to others. That prohibition applies to legislative or state action, but also to those informal modes of coercion that can be practised by society itself. And the ban is total. “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” Though occasionally challenged by the collectivist left, the position Mill argues for has become orthodoxy in modern Anglo-American political thought.

But while liberalism itself remains pre-eminent, Mill’s arguments for that position have fallen out of sight in recent discussions. In contrast to many contemporary thinkers, Mill’s defence of liberal principles is historical and local – not abstract and universal. Whereas the prevailing wisdom maintains that individuals possess certain rights to free speech and action simply by virtue of their status as human beings, Mill was suspicious of that claim. As a robust naturalist – one who believed only in those objects discovered by observation or the methods of empirical science – Mill could not accept the idea of rights which attach to every human being but were wholly imperceptible to the senses. Nor could he agree with those who, like the US Founding Fathers, held that our possession of certain unalienable rights was “self-evident”. If such rights genuinely were self-evident, he notes, there would hardly be so much disagreement about them.

Mill’s argument for the principle of liberty is based on an observation about the conditions most conducive to flourishing in societies that have reached a certain level of civilization. Given the level of moral and intellectual cultivation achieved in Western Europe – modest, Mill suggests, but not insignificant – a robust atmosphere of freedom is indispensable for the advancement of knowledge and the achievement of happiness. In the modern era, individuals have reached a level of intellectual maturity such that they themselves are the best judges of their own good, and are best equipped to appreciate and understand the truth only when they hear all sides of an argument. It is this which justifies an absolute protection of free speech and self-regarding action – not our possession of some abstract entitlement to non-interference.

The argument, we should note, is utilitarian in orientation. It appeals to a claim about the conditions that will lead to overall happiness, given how human beings now are. This mode of argument is, of course, double-edged – for in the process of offering a vindication of liberal rights here and now, it also implies that, where different circumstances obtain, those same liberties might not be justified. While individuals in “civilized” societies thrive in an atmosphere that protects rights of freedom, for nations that belong to a “barbarous state”, he writes, the best thing would be “obedience to an Akbar or a Charlemagne, if they are so fortunate as to find one”. The suggestion that liberal rights are suitable only for societies that have reached a certain level of development is likely to strike us as blinkered – and it is certainly true that we should be suspicious of the Victorian confidence with which Mill categorizes entire nations as “barbarous” or “civilized”. But the underlying thought – that one and the same set of norms might not have the same effects if embedded in different settings – does have the virtue of being attentive to the reality of the historical emergence of liberal societies.

The utilitarianism that Mill deployed in arguing for the value of freedom was, primarily, a product of his upbringing in the Enlightenment tradition of Jeremy Bentham. Bentham had proposed, a generation earlier, what he termed “the greatest happiness principle” – that actions or policies should be judged moral to the extent that they contribute to the total sum of pleasure in the world – and applied it enthusiastically to criticize the archaic laws and religious beliefs of eighteenth-century England. With Enlightenment optimism, Bentham declared that all that was necessary to unleash human potential was to sweep away corrupted institutions and replace them with ones designed to maximize happiness.

Mill agreed with Bentham’s criticisms of eighteenth-century England, which of course took place in the context of a broader European deconstruction of the ancien régime. In his early twenties, however, Mill had been heavily influenced by the Romantic tradition, absorbing the writings of William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas Carlyle. This work left him feeling that although Bentham had been right in his endorsement of the greatest happiness principle, like the French philosophes, his understanding of human nature, and therefore his application of that principle, had been naive. “He knew no dejection, no heaviness of heart”, Mill commented. “He never felt life a sore and a weary burthen. He was a boy to the last.” Mill’s goal would be to reconcile the insights of Bentham with the nineteenth-century poets. This would, in practice, amount to nothing less than the attempt to reconcile the Enlightenment and Romantic visions of man. “Whoever could master the premises and combine the methods of both”, he thought, “would possess the entire English philosophy of their age.”

Mill’s effort to combine Enlightenment and Romantic thought reached into every area of his philosophy. The Enlightenment tradition, broadly speaking, had endorsed a scientific worldview in which man was wholly governed by the causal regularities observable in nature. Mill thought this view quite correct – but he also felt keenly the Romantic concern that this “mechanical philosophy” threatened to render human beings as passive. If man was subject to invariable laws, how could he be viewed as being capable of self-guided action? Mill’s solution was to maintain that human beings were subject to deterministic laws, but to point to their ability to influence their own character. Individuals’ actions might be solely a product of their character and environment, but they could act to progressively alter their characters and thereby control their future actions if they so desired. Indeed, increased knowledge of the deterministic laws of psychology would – by revealing the mechanisms of the formation of character – allow us to better understand how to cultivate strong-willed individuals capable of self-governance. “Out of mechanical premises”, he wrote to Carlyle, “I elicit dynamical conclusions.”

Mill’s dynamic view of man led him, as a utilitarian, to prize those forms of happiness involving self-development and genuine engagement with the world. Such a conception of utility was at the root of his arguments for liberty. Whereas Bentham had seen all pleasures as on a par – “prejudice apart, the game of push-pin”, he had written, with reference to a children’s game of the period, “is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry” – Mill viewed pleasures actively taken in the world as more valuable than those received passively. Such “higher” pleasures resulted from the self-directed use of our distinctively human capacities, and were to be preferred over the “lower” pleasures which involved merely the use of our animal faculties. They included, he thought, the pleasures of intellectual and aesthetic involvement. The influence of the Romantics was again significant.

Mill’s reflections on the superiority of some forms of pleasure took place in the context of society trying quickly to come to terms with its own changing economic and social identity. The Industrial Revolution and the Great Reform Act of 1832 had ushered in a new era in Great Britain – and both foretold of further changes that would be even more dramatic. Such developments were, in Mill’s view, inevitable. Wealth, education, status and therefore power, he held, were amassing with a socially and politically dominant middle class, whose shared commercial traits and interests dictated equality as the emerging rule. The “irresistible tendency to equality of conditions” would soon impact all aspects of human life.

Most directly, he anticipated, these changes would impact structures of governance. In the context of the growth of equality, various existing forms of political inequality stood out all the more clearly – in particular, the denial of the vote to women – and the time was therefore ripe to dismantle such practices of discrimination. As such Mill argued vigorously, both as a philosopher and as a Member of Parliament, for the enfranchisement of women. The denial of the vote to women not only meant that their interests were unrepresented in the national political conversation, but also that they were denied access to the important goods of political participation. “[A]n equal right to be heard – to have a share in influencing the affairs of the country – to be consulted, to be spoken to, and to have agreements and considerations turning upon politics addressed to one – tended to elevate and educate.” Such goods, he argued, were pivotal to leading a happy life, and should be made available to all.

Witnessing the progress of democratic sentiments throughout the nineteenth century, though, Mill also worried deeply about the levelling effects that might result from these changes: with the growth of equality, he thought, came a suspicion of the superior and a veneration of the average. Deference to the majority on political matters, Mill held, inevitably pushed towards deference to the majority on questions of value and the intellect more generally – and this could lead to mediocrity and the debasement of high ideals. With democracy, then, came the serious danger of cultural decline. That concern seemed to become all the more real as the effects of industrial capitalism were gradually played out, and it was shared by other thinkers of the period: most prominently, of course, Friedrich Nietzsche.

Mill ultimately remained optimistic about the possibility of maintaining high culture in conditions of equality, however. “It is the honour and glory of the average man”, he wrote, “that he can respond internally to wise and noble things, and be led to them with his eyes open.” He was conscious, though, that effort is required to preserve this ability – that the human facility to discriminate the true and valuable from the merely widespread and popular was not natural, innate, or guaranteed. Only by education, he suggested, could that ability be cultivated in a democratic public and passed on to future generations. The problem, of course, would become whether democratic society’s commitment to education could be sufficiently self-sustaining to guard against the descent into populism. That is a question that remains very much with us.

Christopher Macleod is a lecturer in Philosophy at Lancaster University


Friday, February 16, 2018

Walt Whitman on happiness

I don’t know what or how, but it seems to me mostly owing to these skies, (every now and then I think, while I have of course seen them every day of my life, I never really saw the skies before,) I have had this autumn some wondrously contented hours — may I not say perfectly happy ones? As I’ve read, Byron just before his death told a friend that he had known but three happy hours during his whole existence. Then there is the old German legend of the king’s bell, to the same point. While I was out there by the wood, that beautiful sunset through the trees, I thought of Byron’s and the bell story, and the notion started in me that I was having a happy hour. (Though perhaps my best moments I never jot down; when they come I cannot afford to break the charm by inditing memoranda. I just abandon myself to the mood, and let it float on, carrying me in its placid extasy.)

What is happiness, anyhow? Is this one of its hours, or the like of it? — so impalpable — a mere breath, an evanescent tinge? I am not sure — so let me give myself the benefit of the doubt.

Specimen Days
October 20, 1876