Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Hobbes (again) & Schopenhauer

Let me remind you what "life, liberty and the [unregulated] pursuit of happiness" means, according to Hobbes:

The felicity of this life consists not in the repose of a mind satisfied. For there is no such final or highest good as is spoken of in the books of the old Morall Philsophers. Nor can a man any more live, whose desires are at an end, than he whose senses and imaginations are at a stand. Felicity is a continual progress of the desire from one object to another; the attaining of the former being still but the way to the latter. The cause whereof is, that the object of mans desire is not to enjoy once only and for one instant of time; but to assure for ever the way of his future desire. And therefore the voluntary actions and inclinations of all men tend, not only to the procuring but also to the assuring of a contented life...
So that in the first place, I put for a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceases only in death. And the cause of this, is not always that a man hopes for a more intensive delight, than he has already attained to; or that he cannot be content with a moderate power, but because he cannot assure the power and means to live well, which he has present, with out the acquisition of more.
Leviathan, Part One, Ch. 11

Absent the rule of law, "the general inclination of all mankind" as Hobbes has just defined it, can only lead to a war of all against all, and as Hobbes memorably says, "continual fear, and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, brutish, nasty and short."

For the mercantile and industrial tycoons of the 19th century, the rule of law was largely absent or ineffective and, and as Dickens, Marx, Engels and many others observed, the lives of their workers were poor, brutish, nasty and short.

Here is how Schopenhauer sought to make Hobbes relevant to 19th century modernity (in an essay entitled "On The Vanity of Existence", 1851):

Life presents itself first and foremost as a task: the task of maintaining itself, de gagner sa vie., if this task is accomplished, what has been gained is a burden, and there then appears a second task: that of doing something with it so as to ward off boredom, which hovers over every secure life like a bird of prey. Thus the first task is to gain something and the second to become unconscious of what has been gained, which is otherwise a burden.
That human life must be some sort of mistake is proved by the simple observation that man is a compound of needs which are hard to satisfy; that their satisfaction achieves nothing but a painless condition in which he is only given over to boredom; and that boredom that existence is in itself valueless, for boredom is nothing other than the sensation of the emptiness of existence. For if life, in the desire for which our essence and existence consists, possessed in itself a positive value and real content, there would be no such thing as boredom: mere existence would fulfill and satisfy us. As things are, we take no pleasure in existence except when we are striving after something--in which case distance and difficulties make our goal look as if it would satisfy us (an illusion which fades when we reach it)--or when engaged in purely intellectual activity, in which case we are really stepping outside of life so as regard it from outside, like spectators at a play. Even sensual pleasure itself consists of a continual striving and ceases as soon as its goal is reached. Whenever we are not we are not involved in one or other of these things but directed back existence itself we are overtaken by its worthlessness and vanity and this is the sensation called boredom.

Schopenhauer is using a word here,'boredom',that Hobbes had never heard of. The abstraction 'boredom', like 'cynicism' in its modern sense, is an early 19th century invention. Before we had 'boredom,' there was the latinate 'tedium' and the French 'ennui' but nothing with the dark. satanic power of boredom.

For whatever it's worth. Byron is the first English poet to use this word in poetry. Emma Bovary, the heroine of the first modern novel, Madame Bovary (1857) by Flaubert, is the first literary character to be (literally) demoralized by boredom.


  1. The world is vast, beautiful, and fascinating. We can never learn all there is to learn about it. If we are free to explore, there can't be boredom.

    But frequently we are not free to explore. Boredom is the result of being trapped--by illness, poverty, responsibilities, etc.

    Liberty is the answer to boredom.

  2. Boredom is rage spread thin.

    Paul Tillich

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