Saturday, February 2, 2008

Happiness According Hobbes

Swift's definition of 'happiness' (as "a perpetual possession of being well-deceived"--along with the final kicker, "the serence, peaceful state of being a fool among knaves") is a carefully considered and crafted response to the following statements on this subject by Hobbes (Leviathan ch. 11, On Manners):

By MANNERS, I mean not here, Decency of behaviour; as how one man should salute another, or how a man should wash his mouth, or pick
his teeth before company, and such other points of the Small Morals;
But those qualities of man-kind, that concern their living together
in Peace, and Unity. To which end we are to consider, that the Felicity
of this life, consisteth not in the repose of a mind satisfied.
For there is no such Finis Ultimus, (utmost ayme,) nor Summum
Bonum, (greatest good,) as is spoken of in the Books of the old
Morall Philosophers. 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 continuall progresse of the desire, from one object
to another; the attaining of the former, being still but the way
to the later. The cause whereof is, That the object of mans desire,
is not to enjoy once onely, 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;
and differ onely in the way: which ariseth partly from the diversity
of passions, in divers men; and partly from the difference of
the knowledge, or opinion each one has of the causes, which produce
the effect desired.

So that in the first place, I put for a generall inclination of
all mankind, a perpetuall and restlesse desire of Power after power,
that ceaseth onely in Death. And the cause of this, is not alwayes
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 hath present, without the acquisition of more.

We need to understand that Hobbes is talking about the way we live NOW, under the conditions of what I am calling 'modernity'--not in some mythical state of pre- or post- political nature in which the rule of law has not yet been invented, or has collapsed (as in one of the increasing number of failed or semi-failed states that are now beginning to appear in various parts if the world). Once people had been liberated from the various strait-jackets of tradition and religious belief, which is what was occurring during the Renaissance and Reformation centuries, they began to exhibit what Hobbes calls a restless desire of power after power. Shakespeare saw it coming and invented Iago, the man from nowhere (like Cormack McCarthy's Antonin Chigurr). Swift thought that maybe Hobbes might have got it right, and wrote the fourth book of GULLIVER'S TRAVELS. But long before he had written that book, he had began to think seriously about Hobbes' definition of happiness (or 'felicity')as "a continuall progresse of the desire, from one object
to another; the attaining of the former, being still but the way to the later." Or, in other words, continual success in the endless competition for the good life i.e. the material honors and goods of this life. Such a life, thought Swift, would be a kind of madness, and could only be tolerable if one essentially closed one's eyes and ignored the brutish struggle for power that human life including one's one depended on. Hence Swift's definition of happiness as the perpetual possession of being well deceived.

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