Oct 202012

How Much Is Enough?What is the good life? This book looks through the humanistic tradition–mostly the European but with passing attention to the Chinese and the Indian as well–to offer an answer. The resulting survey is often inspiring. It’s answer (and one I agree with) is: one where you work enough to have what you need and the rest of your time is spent in leisure. (Leisure here means purposeful purposelessness in the sense of an artist or a parent or a philosopher who works intensely to achieve a purpose that is good for nothing outside of itself.)

Oddly enough, despite agreeing wholeheartedly with the discussion of work and leisure, I was unsettled by the economic proscriptions. The cultural language is conservative. Turned political, it hints at dark corners, sometimes catholic, sometimes oppressively political, and I found myself pulling back. In a world as inegalitarian as ours, I don’t trust (instinctively and rationally) that political proscriptions aimed at permitting greater leisure will support me rather than simply rest upon my shoulders.

My clippings file follows after the break. It is long and was pulled out of the bowels of the Kindle Machine (may its battery boil over and corrode its circuit-riddled heart), and so it has locations (good for computers) rather than page numbers (good for readers).

My Clippings File

In the real world, extrinsic rewards, including financial rewards, are never entirely out of mind. Still, insofar as action proceeds not from necessity but from inclination, insofar as it is spontaneous, not servile and mechanical, toil is at an end and leisure has begun. This—not idleness—is our ideal. It is only our culture’s poverty of imagination that leads it to believe that all creativity and innovation—as opposed to that specific kind directed to improving economic processes—needs to be stimulated by money. (location 198)

The image of man as a congenital idler, stirred to action only by the prospect of gain, is unique to the modern age. (location 213)

It will be said that, while a little leisure is pleasant, men would not know how to fill their days if they had only four hours of work out of the twenty-four. In so far as this is true in the modern world, it is a condemnation of our civilization; it would not have been true at any earlier period. There was formerly a capacity for light-heartedness and play which has been to some extent inhibited by the cult of efficiency … The pleasures of urban populations have become mainly passive: seeing cinemas, watching football matches, listening to the radio, and so on. This results from the fact that their active energies are fully taken up with work; if they had more leisure, they would again enjoy pleasures in which they took an active part.4 We might add that it is largely because leisure has lost its true meaning of spontaneous activity and degenerated into passive consumption that we throw ourselves, as the lesser of two evils, into work. (location 222)

A liberal state, John Rawls and others have taught us to believe, embodies no positive vision but only such principles as are necessary for people of different tastes and ideals to live together in harmony. To promote, as a matter of public policy, a positive idea of the good life is by definition illiberal, perhaps even totalitarian. (location 241)

It is a superficial conception of liberalism that sees it as implying neutrality between different visions of the good. In any case, neutrality is a fiction. A “neutral” state simply hands power to the guardians of capital to manipulate public taste in their own interests. (location 248)

The beginning of sanity in this matter is to think of scarcity in relation to needs, not wants. (location 271)

We are all, in principle, capable of limiting our wants to our needs; the problem is that a competitive, monetized economy puts us under continual pressure to want more and more. The “scarcity” discerned by economists is increasingly an artifact of this pressure. Considered in relation to our vital needs, our state is one not of scarcity but rather of extreme abundance. (location 275)

capitalism, too, was a utopian project—a more effective utopian project than communism, because it was the only efficient means to the abundance which would make possible a good life for all. (location 299)

Keynes was a disciple of the Cambridge philosopher G. E. Moore, who had written in Principia Ethica that “by far the most valuable things we know or can imagine are certain states of consciousness which may be roughly described as the pleasures of human intercourse and the enjoyment of beautiful objects.” He went on to say: “It is only for the sake of these things—in order that as much of them as possible may at some time exist—that any one can be justified in performing any public or private duty … It is they … that form the rational ultimate end of human action and the sole criterion of social progress.”3 (location 325)

In 2011, the UK mean income was £27,000, but the median was £21,500. That means 50 percent of the population earned less than £21,500, and some much less.7 (location 391)

While overall working hours have stalled, many lower paid workers are working less than they want to, while many of the rich are working more than they need to. It is a striking fact that working hours among the wealthy have risen, especially in the United States and Britain, reversing the negative relationship between work and income that, until recently, was widely supposed to hold.9 (location 412)

Today the “workaholic” rich have replaced the “idle” rich. (location 417)

Household work in the UK, surprisingly, absorbs half an hour more each day than in 1961, despite all the new labor-saving gadgets.* (location 423)

Needs—the objective requirements of a good and comfortable life—are finite in quantity, but wants, being purely psychic, are infinitely expandable, as to both quantity and quality. This means that economic growth has no natural tendency to stop. If it comes to a halt, it will be because people choose not to want more than they need. (location 449)

leisure in today’s rich societies is still an appendage to work, rather than its replacement. After grinding work, most people just want to “flop out.” Holidays are used to recharge the batteries for the next period of work. (location 466)

If anything, the culture of today’s opulent societies has become more purposive, not less, more harried, not more leisurely. (location 472)

“Who doesn’t work, shall not eat,” proclaimed Lenin, echoing St. Paul. Keynes followed the economics of his day in treating work as the cost of obtaining necessaries. As Adam Smith wrote, “The real price of everything … is the toil and trouble of acquiring it.” Or as Jeremy Bentham put it, “Insofar as labour is taken in its proper sense, love of labour is a contradiction in terms.”13 There was nothing novel in this treatment: the Bible tells us that man was condemned to work in painful expiation of his disobedience to God. But more recently, some have suggested that this age-old equation of work with “toil and trouble” does not hold, or holds to a decreasing degree. Work is no longer labor in the economist’s sense, but a labor of love: a source of stimulation, identity, worth and sociability. (location 478)

the specialization that Adam Smith thought would take the skill out of work has also made much work less rewarding. What is called “skilling” is too often a euphemism for rendering mechanical what once demanded at least a degree of knowledge, alertness and involvement. The skills of the craftsman, the mechanic, the builder, the butcher, the baker have decayed; a great deal of work, reduced to the purely routine, remains literally stupefying. (location 504)

Despite the so-called joys of work and fear of idleness, more workers in most developed countries, including the United States, would prefer to work less rather than more. (location 514)

Service jobs on average are less well paid than the manufacturing jobs they replaced, partly because they cannot be automated to the same extent—think of schoolteachers, nurses, hairdressers, taxi drivers—and partly because they cannot be unionized as effectively. (location 551)

The economist Fred Hirsch relabelled Harrod’s “oligarchic” goods “positional,” because access to them depends not on our absolute level of wealth but on our position relative to others. (location 616)

A third individualist explanation of insatiability draws heavily on the economist’s picture of the human being as a rational utility maximizer. The pioneer work here is that of the American economist Gary Becker.29 Keynes looked on leisure as a benefit universally desired, but another way of looking at it is as a cost—the cost of not working. Becker pointed out that the cost of an evening at the theatre is not simply the price of the ticket but the cost of not earning in those hours. Leisure is a subtraction from hypothetical income, and Becker pictured the individual balancing at the margin the advantages of earning income and of spending it. Stated this way, the choice between work and leisure is essentially a time-allocation problem. Leisure is not free time, it is costly time. And the higher your income, the costlier the time. If Becker is right, there is no a priori reason to believe that hours of work will fall as wealth grows. It is just as plausible to believe that they will rise, as the cost of not working increases. (location 623)

The increasing array of goods required for productive consumption keeps us tethered to work. (location 639)

But it is not necessary for us to choose between the various explanations of insatiability, or even weight them in order of importance. It is enough to realize that, if carried beyond a certain point, insatiability leads us away from the good life. (location 694)

First, capitalism’s competitive logic drives firms to carve out new markets by (among other things) manipulating wants. (location 700)

Advertising is the “organized creation of dissatisfaction,” as a former director of General Motors Research Lab once nicely put it.34 (location 702)

Second, capitalism greatly broadens the scope of status competition. (location 704)

Countries with higher inequality tend to have longer working hours; workers in occupations with bigger wage variations tend to work harder than those in other occupations.36 This plausibly explains why Americans and Britons work longer hours than (location 712)

Third, the ideology of free-market capitalism has been consistently hostile to the idea that a certain sum of money could represent “enough.” Such an idea is seen as effete and patronizing, as thwarting our natural desire to better our condition. (location 714)

Finally, capitalism enlarges insatiability by increasingly “monetizing” the economy. (location 722)

If cynicism is knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing, then the centers of world finance are breeding grounds of cynicism. (location 731)

Keynes’s mistake was to believe that the love of gain released by capitalism could be sated with abundance, leaving people free to enjoy its fruits in civilized living. This is because he thought of people as possessing a fixed stock of natural wants. He did not understand that capitalism would set up a new dynamic of want creation that would overwhelm traditional restraints of custom and good sense. This means that, despite our much greater affluence, our starting position for the realization of the good life is worse than it was in the more traditional society of his day. Capitalism has achieved incomparable progress in the creation of wealth, but has left us incapable of putting that wealth to civilized use. (location 732)

Keynes was deeply ambivalent about capitalist civilization. It was a civilization that unleashed bad motives for the sake of good results. Morality had to be put in cold storage till abundance was achieved, for abundance would make possible a good life for all. (location 769)

Neither Plato nor More had any idea how his ideal might be realized, except perhaps by dint of its own persuasive power. (Plato talked hopefully about philosophers becoming kings, but it is not clear how seriously he meant it.) The trouble is that history, as then conceived, offered no point of entry for utopia. It embodied no progressive momentum, only a cyclical oscillation of birth, flowering and decay, analogous to the seasons. Periods of vigor and expansion would be followed by periods of luxury and decadence, and so on in endless alternation. (location 809)

It was the Jewish prophets, Isaiah in particular, who first offered an alternative vision of history as the story of the struggle of good against evil, culminating in the victory of good. Prophetic history is directional, not cyclical, ethical, not tragic. In place of Machiavelli’s endless seesaw, it looks forwards to a point of completion, when “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid.” (location 817)

The millenarian seed lies deep in the Christian consciousness, ready to sprout forth lusciously in times of hardship or turmoil. But mainstream Christianity has kept a wary distance from it. St. Augustine, a former Platonist, positioned his “city of God” not at the end of history but outside time altogether, abandoning the “city of man” to its old cyclical fate. Sacred history was thus sharply distinguished from mundane, secular history. (location 823) [Note: This sounds very much like a Hindu construction: cyclical life escaped by the redeemed.]

But they cast a long subterranean shadow, stretching all the way to Hegel and Marx. (location 831) [Note: Link between Hegel, Marx, and apocalyptic history.]

John Milton’s Satan is a noble, eloquent figure, a far cry from the hideous man-goat of medieval imagery. (Milton, said William Blake famously, was “of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”) Blake himself, more radical than either Boehme or Milton, saw evil as a vibrant, creative force, a necessary complement to the static and somewhat prissy good. “Without Contraries is no progression,” he wrote in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. “Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence. From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy.”9 (location 839) [Note: Blake on Romantic oppositions.]

Elements of this mystical tradition were possibly whirling around in Keynes’s mind when he wrote “Economic Possibilities.” (He was, incidentally, fascinated by alchemy, and even invested some money in a scheme to transmute base metal into gold.) (location 845)

The Renaissance invented—or rediscovered—the idea of using human desires to govern societies rather than castigating them as wicked. The wise prince, wrote Machiavelli, treats people as they are, not as they should be: he exploits their fickleness, hypocrisy and greed to attain his ends. The test of virtue in politics is success, not goodness. (location 849)

Thomas Hobbes and John Locke both followed Machiavelli in depicting government as a contrivance for satisfying human desires peacefully, not proscribing them. The laudable ambition behind these “realistic” doctrines of state was to minimize violence in human life—religious violence in particular. Then in the eighteenth century, a more peaceable age, the idea of diverting human passions to useful ends migrated to economics. (location 852)

In pre-scientific thinking about the economy, love of money was regarded as both morally opprobrious and historically destructive. (location 856)

Experience showed that avarice and luxury sapped the valor of civilized nations, leaving them prey to warlike barbarians, still uncontaminated by wealth. (location 857)

vivid in the minds of Machiavelli, Montesquieu and Gibbon. The idea that too much wealth led to decadence came naturally to warrior aristocracies or republics with citizen militias. But in the states of early modern Europe, where soldiering was a special profession, it made much less sense. Here, monarchs had every reason to encourage wealth-creation, for it provided a source of revenue with which they could hire mercenaries or pay for standing armies. In this perspective, the accumulation of wealth could be seen as the means to power, not the vice that brought about its decline. And if wealth and power went hand in hand, then the old cycle of rise and fall might finally be broken. Permanent economic progress became a possibility. By the early eighteenth century, this new system of ideas had become the effective basis of government in Europe’s leading merchant powers, England and Holland. (location 859)

Mandeville’s moral is plain: you can have riches and vice, or poverty and virtue, but not riches and virtue. Which do you want? Mandeville’s cavalier treatment of the vices fitted the mood of post-Restoration England, but half a century later a kind of secular puritanism had taken hold. It would now have seemed impious to make vice the foundation of a new science of improvement, even ironically. But the more progressive thinkers of the day soon found a way to rob Mandeville’s paradox of its sting. The trick was to redefine the virtues and vices so as to bring them into line with economic utility and disutility. “It seems upon any system of morality,” wrote David Hume, a pioneer of the new approach, “little less than a contradiction in terms, to talk of a vice, which is in general beneficial to society.”13 The old term “avarice” was gradually sidelined in favor of the colorless “self-interest.” (location 886)

Once money-making had been stripped of its ethical opprobrium, it became open to treatment in terms of cause and effect. Hume’s friend, the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith, took the lead. The Wealth of Nations, his masterpiece of 1776, presents humans as driven by a natural desire for self-improvement, which under conditions of free competition leads them “as if by an invisible hand” to promote the public well-being. Newton’s mechanical science of nature was thereby extended to economic relations, with self-interest in the role of gravity. (location 897)

Smith’s doctrine of self-interest did more than just turn avarice into a virtue; it turned classical virtue into a vice. Extravagant display was shunned in favor of “frugality” or “saving.” In Smith’s political economy, asceticism becomes the virtuous form of self-interest, the efficient cause of capital accumulation.* Alms-giving was discouraged because it promoted idleness. Lust alone retained its deadly status, as a distraction from money-making and the building up of stable fortunes. Whether in the form of extravagance, generosity or sexual pleasure, the wanton scattering of one’s seed acquired all the connotations of sinfulness. The progress of wealth required, as Freud would later put it, the repression of the instincts. (location 905)

Smith’s economics was a triumph of intellectual economizing—an ingenious application of Occam’s razor to man’s social behavior. The turbulent passions were reduced to the single motive of self-interest. This gave economics its unique analytic power. It would not have to worry, as did the political science bequeathed by Machiavelli, about understanding and managing the varied and contradictory passions. One master motive, the self-interested pursuit of wealth, subsumed all others. Smith himself was less parsimonious than his followers; he acknowledged, alongside self-interest, an independent motive of “sympathy,” which he developed at length in his Theory of Moral Sentiments. (location 911)

Smith took himself to have refuted “the selfish system” of Mandeville, but he had not in fact left it all that far behind.17 Mandeville’s central mechanism—the utilization of vice for public benefit—lives on in his invisible hand, purged of its demonic flavor by the simple expedient of redefining “vice” as an innocuous natural quality. With a few exceptions, this has been the strategy of economics ever since. (location 924)

The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life.19 (location 939) [Note: Replace the word worker with student for an entry point into an observation about the way “learning” is simply vocabulary that mechanizes, consumerizes, and Taylorizes an activity that should in every way stretch the mind.]

It is worth pausing for a moment to consider what was gained and lost by Smith’s overthrow of the classical scheme of virtues and vices. The gain was the release of motives that promoted economic growth. Acquisitiveness was licensed on condition it served the social good. What was lost was the idea of the social good as a collective achievement. It became a result of individuals pursuing their self-interest in markets. The logic of contract was sundered from the logic of reciprocity, which in most human cultures and societies has been an integral part of the economy. (location 947) [Note: Important: “What was lost was the idea of the social good as a collective achievement.”]

Writing before the industrial age, Smith did not think of economic progress as growth without end, but as much growth as the institutions, habits and policy of a people allowed. In fact he and his contemporaries did not talk about growth at all but about “improvement,” a term encompassing moral as well as material conditions. At the end of this road lay the “stationary state”—a state in which the possibilities of improvement were exhausted. All the classical economists had this end point in mind, at varying degrees of affluence. (location 953)

the best state for human nature is that in which, while no one is poor, no one desires to be richer, nor has any reason to fear from being thrust back, by the efforts of others to push themselves forward.20 (location 971 ) [Note: Quotation from John Stuart Mill]

Faust’s elevation from wicked prankster to world-historic hero reflects the weakening of Christian orthodoxy and its absolute prohibition on evil. It insinuates the heretical thought that in our dealings with the Devil it is we who can come off winners. (location 1000)

Goethe himself called Faust “mad stuff”24 and never tried to explain “what it meant.” Like all great poetry, it is both precise and elusive. In philosophical terms, its most important legacy is the dialectic—the idea that progress depends on a continuous “negation” or overturning of traditional morality. This notion, which was to pass from Goethe to Hegel and thence to Marx, has been a fateful legacy to modern thought. (location 1034)

Economists have to start innocent of all distracting ideas. They have to have minds sufficiently empty to construct or accept those axiomatic models of human behavior that are their bread and butter. Late adolescence is the ideal time to start such a training. (location 1102)

As Marx’s modern commentator Meghnad Desai writes, “Marx fails to come up with a single story about the dynamics of capitalism that in any way predicts—even with various conditions attached—its eventual downfall.”38 Realization that his economics failed to establish the apocalyptic moment is probably why Marx never finished the last two volumes of Das Kapital. (location 1126)

Marx presented a compelling case for why capitalism should come to an end, not why it would. He failed to reckon on the continuing dynamism of the capitalist system, its ability to overcome obstacles. More seriously, Marx was blind to the temptations of dialectical reasoning. It would be a travesty to say that he would have welcomed Stalinism, but his method offered no principled ground for resistance to it, or for that matter to Maoism. Mao is said to have shrugged off the millions of deaths caused by his Great Leap Forward with the callous remark, “Death is indeed to be rejoiced over … We believe in dialectics, and so we can’t not be in favor of death.”42 (location 1141)

In 1956, John Kenneth Galbraith switched attention to the diseases of wealth. His best-selling work, The Affluent Society, argued that the citizens of Western countries were now so well off that the economic problem was no longer pressing. In short, Keynes’s era of plenty had arrived (ahead of schedule!). It was time to ease off growth, and turn attention to the good life. Galbraith’s idea of this was rather austere: more of the new wealth should be channelled into public services. But his message was absorbed by the young radicals of the 1960s and turned to a more exciting project: that of sexual liberation. Their God was not Marx but Freud. (location 1153)

For the philosophers of sexual utopia, the serpent in the Garden was not capitalism as such but technology. Theodore Roszak talked of “technocratic totalitarianism.”47 The specific indulgence of its insanity was the nuclear arms race, which threatened to kill off the world just as it was on the point of regaining paradise. (location 1170)

Modern society no longer needed terror, it had technology. (location 1209)

One-Dimensional Man portrays a nightmare world of “happy consciousness” that rivals dystopias like Brave New World except it is set in contemporary America. Technology gives each instinct a limited, administered expression. Oppositional thought no longer needs to be suppressed: it does not happen. Culture is assimilated to shopping. Deviations are consigned to psychiatrists. The point is that this is a happy world, one of what Marcuse calls “repressive de-sublimation,” repressive “precisely to the degree to which it promotes the satisfaction of needs which require continuing the rat race of catching up with one’s peers and with planned obsolescence …”52 Liberation is no longer sought, because it has been delivered in beautiful gift wrappings. War goes on but only “outside”—in underdeveloped countries. (location 1209)

Automation might free people from work, but technology still controls their minds. (location 1218)

The world of insecure work returned; the trend to more equal income distribution was reversed; creative destruction was back. Under Reagan and Thatcher capitalism recovered much of its old piratical, buccaneering spirit, and the dream of instinctual liberation from a springboard of managed affluence receded. (location 1230)

The sex, drugs and rock and roll culture of the young proved entirely compatible with the continuation of existing relations of dominance, albeit in a modified way. Capitalism, as it turned out, was very successful at commercializing the sexual revolution, absorbing it and turning it into reliably sellable products. Violence, whether criminal or revolutionary, has become a standard part of the entertainment industry. The capitalist system has displayed enormous capacity to absorb punishment without being toppled. (location 1233)

Marcuse’s fundamental error was that of all utopians: he closed his eyes to the obvious fact of “original sin.” It was this that allowed him to view all the evils attendant on sex—jealousy, pornography, sadism and so forth—as products of its repression by capitalism. Remove that repression, and sex would revert automatically to the condition of childlike innocence. This was a facile philosophy, which Freud himself never embraced. Sexual desire is bound up at its source with power and vulnerability, meaning that its regulation is not a transitory phenomenon but a basic condition of any civilized existence. Marcuse overlooked the depth not only of lust but of greed. Like other Marxists, he thought that the multiplication of wants was forced upon us by an evil productive apparatus. We had only to free ourselves from this apparatus, and our wants would shrink back to their “natural” level. He failed to see that wants will multiply of their own accord, unless held in check by moral discipline. The hedonism of the 1960s led naturally to the consumerism of the 1980s. (location 1244)

Capitalism, it is now clear, has no spontaneous tendency to evolve into something nobler. Left to itself, the machinery of want-generation will carry on churning, endlessly and pointlessly. (location 1273)

Before the Faustian project took wing, thinking about wealth was governed by the idea of limits. The exact location of these limits was disputed, but their existence was never in doubt. (location 1286)

Aristotle was the dominant influence on all economic theorizing from the twelfth to the seventeenth century. He created a framework of ideas that was to survive, with various modifications, until its replacement by the equally imposing edifice of Adam Smith. (location 1293)

What we now know as Aristotle’s economics is culled from two sections of his Politics and Nicomachean Ethics, dealing with acquisition and exchange respectively. (location 1298)

The first principle of Aristotle’s ethical thought is that man, like all species, has a telos, a state of fulfilment or completion. Aristotle identifies this telos with the good life, the euzen, for this is the only thing of which it makes no sense to ask, “What is it for?” Life has no goal beyond its own perfection; to sacrifice this perfection to some distant object—to revolution, say, or the success of the corporate brand—is foolish or worse. (location 1308)

The good life is not simply one of satisfied desire; it indicates the proper goal of desire. Desire is to be cultivated, directed to the truly desirable. Moral education is an education of the sentiments. (location 1313)

Today, with ethical debate dominated by the champions of duty on one side and subjective self-expression on the other, Aristotle’s idea of the good life has few defenders. To the party of duty, it appears self-centered and preening. “My obligation is not to lead a good life,” an environmental activist might say, “but to save the planet.” And to the party of self-expression, it appears horribly paternalistic, if not meaningless. Surely “the good life” is something to be worked out by each individual for himself, according to his own tastes and convictions. “I did it my way,” sings Frank Sinatra, and we applaud. These two principles, duty and self-expression, between them carve up the modern moral life, the one governing our dealings with fellow citizens, the other our private explorations. No space remains for the good life. (location 1315)

What matters here, though, is not so much the details of this debate as two assumptions shared by all its participants. These are (a) that some one way of life is better than others, independent of taste or conviction, and (b) that this best way of life is one of leisure. Work for the ancient Greeks was strictly a means to an end, so not even a contender for the title of good life. Only activities without extrinsic purpose—above all philosophy and politics, both conceived non-instrumentally—could make it onto the short list. These attitudes were to leave a long legacy, as we shall see. (location 1325)

The just and temperate person accumulates just those things he needs for a good life, and then stops. (location 1337)

Keynes too was a true Aristotelian in his preference for “shops which are really shops and not merely a branch of the multiplication table.”5 (location 1347)

Aristotle is not so radical as to condemn exchange outright, for all its metaphysical impropriety. He accepts what he calls the “natural art of wealth-getting”—the art of supplying households and states with the good things of life. Problems arise, however, when this natural kind of wealth-getting runs over into another, unnatural kind. (location 1349)

Two aspects of this process particularly trouble Aristotle. The first is its power to subordinate the proper end of every human activity to the ancillary end of money-making. (location 1356)

Aristotle’s point is that things done primarily for profit and not for their own sake are liable to be done badly, or as badly as possible consistent with retaining custom. (location 1361)

Aristotle’s second concern is with insatiability. Use-values have, as we have seen, a controlling end: the good life. To pursue them beyond this point is senseless. Money, by contrast, has no controlling end. As a blank, all-purpose instrument, its uses are as multifarious as human desire itself, and as limitless. (location 1363)

Mistrust of the boundless and infinite was characteristic of ancient Greek thought in general, astronomy and mathematics included. Aristotle held that the stars, as perfect bodies, must follow a circular, that is, a finite motion. Pythagoras hated the irrational numbers so much that he is said to have murdered their unfortunate discoverer. The Greeks had yet to discover the romance of infinite tasks and boundless yearnings, of which modern capitalism is just one striking manifestation. They were a supremely “un-Faustian” people. (location 1378)

Diogenes’ contemporary Epicurus was a more amiable ascetic. A vegetarian and teetotaller rather than the “epicure” of popular legend, he taught that pleasure lies not so much in the satisfaction of desire as in its reduction to a bare minimum. His followers gathered in a garden, far from the bustle of the marketplace, where they passed their time in conversation and learning. (location 1385)

Roman philosophers of all schools extoled parsimonia or frugality; the unphilosophical, meanwhile, were held in check by sumptuary laws. The governing model was dietary: just as we must train ourselves to stop eating once we are full, so we must school ourselves, individually and collectively, to stop accumulating once we have enough. (location 1392)

Aristotle is often, and with some reason, dismissed as the ideologist of a slave-owning oligarchy. His vision of the good life is very much of its time and place. It has no room for the joys of nature, of solitude, of artistic creation or religious ecstasy, for all the things that Christianity and romanticism have taught us to appreciate. And of course it is reserved for Greek gentlemen; women, barbarians and slaves are excluded. How can this apologia for the social order of fourth-century BC Athens hold any interest for us today? Such criticisms of Aristotle are all very well, but they miss what is deepest and most enduring in his thought. Aristotle’s vision of the good life may be parochial, but his assumption that there is a good life, and that money is merely a means to its enjoyment, has been shared by every great world civilization except our own. By articulating this assumption rigorously, Aristotle created an intellectual framework adaptable to widely differing ethical ideals. Followers of Judaism, Christianity and Islam were all able to make use of this framework; parallels to it can even be found in civilizations as radically alien to the West as India and China. In the face of this massive agreement, it is our own devotion to accumulation as an end in itself that stands out as an anomaly, as something requiring explanation. (location 1402)

Christians differed from their pagan forebears only insofar as they viewed world-rejection as a collective project, not an expression of personal independence. Agape, or brotherly love, replaced autarkia, or self-sufficiency, as the motive for renunciation. (location 1413)

The Middle Ages thus inherited both classical assumptions outlined above, namely, that a certain way of life is good in itself, and that it is not one of work. It differed from the ancient world only in its dogmatic certainty as to what the good life actually is. (location 1423)

“The desire for material things as they are conducive to an end is natural to man,” runs a quintessentially Aristotelian passage from St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica. “Therefore it is without fault to the extent that it is confined within the norms set by the nature of that end. Avarice exceeds these limits and is thereby sinful.”11 Needless to say, the Angelic Doctor had a conception of the “end” that was very different from that of Aristotle, and hence a different (and more modest) conception of the goods required to support it. But structurally speaking, the two accounts are identical. Both agree that the telos of human life imposes limits on the pursuit of wealth, and both recognize powerful forces in human nature tending to exceed these limits. (location 1426)

Rhetoric aside, however, the basic tendency of late medieval Christianity was towards reconciliation with commerce. This was the first great era of capitalist expansion, and the Church was powerless to restrain it. The doctrines of usury and the just price were progressively qualified and diluted, falling finally into disuse. Yet unlike its Protestant counterparts, the Catholic Church never entirely abandoned the project of subordinating economic activity to a higher purpose. (location 1443)

No purely secular discussion of the good life took place in ancient India, a culture in which ethical questions were not sharply distinguished from ritual and religious ones.* Nonetheless, a clear set of attitudes to wealth and trade emerge from the Dharmasutras, the ancient law codes of the Brahmins—attitudes not unlike those we have already encountered in Aristotle and the Scholastics. The Dharmasutras speak of three aims in life: dharma (law or righteousness), artha (wealth) and kama (pleasure). All three are good, but not equally so: dharma is to be preferred to artha, artha to kama. Severe penances are enjoined for the man “who, when Law (dharma) and profit (artha) are in conflict, chooses profit.” Almost as bad is the exploitation of dharma as a means to artha. “Let him not follow the Laws for the sake of worldly benefits,” runs the text, “for then the Laws produce no fruit at harvest time. It is like this. A man plants a mango tree to get fruits, but in addition he obtains also shade and fragrance. In like manner, when a man follows the Law, he obtains, in addition, other benefits. Even if he does not obtain them, at least no harm is done to the Law.”14 We are reminded of Aristotle’s scorn for men “who turn every quality or art into a means of getting wealth.” Like Aristotle, the Dharmasutras are anxious to protect the integrity of higher ends against money’s relativizing power—its capacity to make everything tradable with everything else. (location 1450)

The Indian caste system embodies a social vision strikingly similar to the three estates of medieval Europe. In both cases, there is a rank ordering of classes, with priests in first place, warriors in second, and workers in third. The main difference between the two lies in the position of merchants: in India, they rank above peasants; in Europe, their status is undetermined.15 But there is perfect agreement as to the inferiority of work in general compared to both religious contemplation and political action. Brahmins are permitted to farm or trade only in times of need and are forbidden to lend money at interest altogether.* Their duty is to support themselves by teaching and officiating at sacrifices, or else to become hermits or wandering ascetics. That, at any rate, was the ideal; in reality, the Brahmins’ monopoly of ritual power enabled them, like their monastic counterparts in Europe, to become immensely rich. But a neglected ideal is an ideal nonetheless. The presence at the apex of the caste system of a nominally ascetic and contemplative class prevented the emergence of an openly commercial world-view along Western lines. Money could never be the ultimate arbiter of value in India, however much weight it might carry in practice. (location 1466)

For the Western tradition, avarice is a perversion or misdirection of desire; for the Brahmins, it is an expression of the slavery inherent in desire itself. Thus, while Aristotle and Aquinas counsel us to proportion desire to its object, the Hindu scriptures urge us to extinguish it altogether. “He who is without desire, who is freed from desire …—he goes to Brahma.”17 This ideal, better known to us under its Buddhist name of nirvana, bears some resemblance to the Stoic concept of apatheia or tranquillity, but is otherwise without parallel in the West. (location 1480)

It was thus able to produce something like an “ethics” in the Western sense—a free, rational inquiry into the human good. Where Chinese thinkers differed from both their Western and Indian counterparts was in their indifference to logic. The epigram, fragmentary and poetic, was their preferred mode of expression. They had no patience for those long, involved chains of reasoning beloved of the Scholastics and the Indian metaphysicians.18 (location 1487)

For the Confucian literati, wealth was a means to education and public office; for philosophically inclined Taoists, it bought leisure for the cultivation of experience.* These two ideals correspond roughly to the Western vita activa and vita contemplativa, only they were seen not as rivals or members of a hierarchy but as belonging to separate, complementary spheres of life. “In office, a Confucian, in retirement, a Taoist,” runs a well-known Chinese saying. A logical contradiction was thus resolved into aesthetic harmony, a typically Chinese solution. (location 1499)

“A gentleman,” as Confucius famously put it, “is not an instrument.”19 (location 1506)

“The ten thousand careers are all base,” runs a well-known proverb; “only studying is high.” Here again is the notion, already encountered in the West and India, of a qualitative gulf between “higher” and “lower” ways of life, a gulf unbridgeable by any quantity of money. (location 1513)

Taoism, like Epicureanism, was a philosophy of simple pleasures. Its ideal was the yinshi or hermit, the man who withdraws from society to write poetry or paint or simply drink tea with old friends. The yinshi was no ascetic, though. Fishermen and herders might decorate his paintings, but there could be no question of him taking up such menial occupations himself. In China, as elsewhere, rustic poverty was to be meditated on, not lived. (location 1539)

gifts … Thus men apply all their knowledge and use all their abilities simply in accumulating money. They never have any strength left over to consider the question of giving some of it away.22 (location 1551)

The old civilizations of Europe, India and China all shared a basically Aristotelian outlook, even if it was not drawn from Aristotle. All viewed commerce as properly subordinate to politics and contemplation, while at the same time recognizing and fearing its capacity to subdue these other activities to its own end. All regarded the love of money for its own sake as an aberration. Such agreement between three great and largely independent cultures ought to give us pause. In matters concerning the human good, the opinion of the world cannot err entirely. We too are more Aristotelian than our official thinking allows us to admit. We know implicitly, whatever the votaries of growth may tell us, that money is essentially a means to the enjoyment of the good things of life, not an end in itself. After all, to sacrifice health, love and leisure to a mere bundle of paper or electrical impulses—what could be sillier than that? (location 1557)

For all its vestigial resonance, the idea of the good life no longer forms part of public discussion in the Western world. Politicians argue their case in terms of choice, efficiency or the protection of rights. They do not say, “I think this policy will help people lead fruitful, civilized lives.” Private discussion has tended to follow suit. How many teachers have tried to interest their students in some question of ethics or aesthetics, only to be told, with an air of weary condescension, that it is all just a matter of opinion? The effect of this development has been to release the acquisitive instinct from all fixed bounds. If there is no such thing as the good life, then acquisition has no absolute goal, only the relative one of “as much as” or “more than” the others; a goal that, since it is shared by those others, must recede forever into the distance. Imagine, by way of analogy, two men walking to a certain town. On their way they get lost, yet keep on walking, now with the sole aim of staying ahead of their fellow walker. Here is an image of our situation. The vanishing of all intrinsic ends leaves us with only two options: to be ahead or to be behind. Positional struggle is our fate. If there is no right place to be, it is best to be ahead. (location 1564)

The last few decades, however, have seen the triumph of two movements of thought whose combined tendency has been to erode the very language of “fair” and “foul”—modern liberal theory on the one hand, neoclassical economics on the other. Between them, these two movements have established a virtual monopoly on public discourse, forcing older ethical traditions into a marginal, counter-cultural position. (location 1576)

Ever since the publication of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice in 1971, liberal thinkers have insisted on public neutrality between rival conceptions of the good.* The state, they claim, should not throw its weight behind this or that ethical outlook; rather, it should leave citizens free to follow their own moral lights, insofar as is compatible with a similar freedom for others. Needless to say, this philosophical ideal has never been fully realized in practice. (location 1580)

The principle of state neutrality is now so well established that we sometimes forget how revolutionary it is. Until the 1960s, liberalism was primarily a doctrine of tolerance, not neutrality. The distinction is significant. Tolerance is not mere absence of bias but a positive ethical virtue; it implies forbearance, serenity, good humor and a respect for privacy. Tolerance does not rule out public preference for one moral or religious doctrine over others; it insists only that rivals be treated with consideration and respect. Finally, tolerance need not extend to the intolerable, whereas neutrality must in all consistency be universal. The tolerant state does not face the dilemma of the neutral state when dealing with necrophiliacs, neo-Nazis and the like. (location 1589)

Ironically, the demand for neutrality has come as much from guilt-ridden members of former elites as from the minorities themselves, many of whom would prefer to live under the shadow of a tolerant rival confession than under an impartial but despotic secularism.24 (location 1598)

Economists—we generalize, but not grossly—conscientiously abstain from passing judgment on wants. (location 1602)

Economists are all for the satisfaction of wants, at least within certain limits. But as to the wants themselves, they maintain a fastidious indifference. (location 1605)

Desire is no longer, as it was for the ancients, an arrow capable of hitting or missing its mark; it is a bare psychological fact, guiltless and inerrant. There is no intrinsically desirable life, only a range of desired lifestyles. (location 1612)

Having discarded the concept of the good life, modern economics can make no sense of the distinction between needs and wants. (location 1619)

Along with the distinction between needs and wants falls the closely related distinction between necessities and luxuries. Necessities in the classical sense are things one needs for life or the good life. “No man can live well, or indeed live at all, unless he be provided with necessaries.”28 Luxuries, by contrast, are things one wants but does not need. Again, the two terms are morally freighted: necessities are items to which one has some claim, if not always an overriding one; luxuries are an optional and possibly corrupting extra. (location 1626)

Last not but least, modern economics has dispensed with the central concept of use-value. For Aristotle, as we saw, the use-value of an object is its particular contribution to the good life. Wine, for instance, enhances food and friendship, both central human goods. It therefore has use-value, whereas crack cocaine (which enhances neither food nor friendship nor any other good thing) does not. That I prefer crack to wine does not alter this fact; it simply shows me to have corrupt taste. (location 1639)

Let us pause and take stock. The various distinctions drawn by pre-modern economic thought—between needs and wants, necessities and luxuries, use- and exchange-value—all rest on the assumption that some ways of life are intrinsically superior to others. Modern economics has dispensed with this assumption. It no longer aspires to realize the Good but only to create conditions in which people can realize “the good” as they conceive it. “Given the multitude of competing conceptions of the good life,” writes economist Robert Frank, summarizing the orthodox view, “perhaps the most we can hope for in our social institutions is that they grant each of us the widest possible latitude to forge lives that suit us.”32 Economists have no ambition to remake human nature. They take people as they are, not as they should be. After all the horrors committed in the name of heaven and utopia, this seems to them a suitably modest stance. (location 1666)

Economics is not just any academic discipline. It is the theology of our age, the language that all interests, high and low, must speak if they are to win a respectful hearing in the courts of power. Economics owes its special position in part to the failure of other disciplines to impress their stamp on political debate. Philosophy was a powerful force in public life until the early twentieth century, when it retreated into linguistic hair-splitting. Sociology made a bid for influence under Weber and Talcott Parsons, but was never able to develop a systematic body of theory to rival economics. History succumbed to the worship of power. Poets and critics once boasted of being “unacknowledged legislators of the world,” an ambition briefly rekindled by T. S. Eliot and F. R. Leavis but now quietly abandoned. Economics has been left in sole possession of the field. (location 1675)

The two traditions of thought examined here, post-Rawlsian liberalism and neoclassical economics, both forbid any public preference for this or that way of life. Neither has any objection to individuals deciding for themselves that a certain lifestyle is “good” and working no harder than they need to support it. (If their “utility function” is shaped that way, who are we to gainsay them?) But this concession is less generous than it might appear. For a social species such as ours, the good life is essentially a life in common with others. Its home is not in the brains of individuals but in groups of people doing things together. My desire may be to play boules in the town square all day, but if no one else plays boules, or if there is no town square, it will come to nothing. Collective participation is essential to all but the most solitary visions of human fulfilment. (location 1688)

In a world devoted to the satisfaction of private wants, the good life can be at best a marginal concern, an affair of eccentrics and enthusiasts. Its adherents are liable to be plagued by the thought that they are not “up to” the pressures of competition, that their ideals are a mere mask for failure. Thus, although it is true that a liberal society permits any number of visions of the good life, it is by the same token hospitable to none of them. (location 1698)

Our task, then, is to retrieve such fragments of wisdom as still exist, whether in past traditions or in our own deep-buried intuitions, so as to reconstruct from them an image of the good life. If we can succeed in this, we may be able to revive, in democratized form, something of the douceur of the great civilizations of the past, if not their creative vigor. Mephistopheles will be cheated of his victory. (location 1723)

It is indeed a strange thought that the end should be amusement, and that the busyness and suffering throughout one’s life should be for the sake of amusing oneself. —Aristotle (location 1745)

Happiness economists have the best of intentions. They are rightly alarmed by the divorce of economic growth from any humanly intelligible end; they wish to remind us of the old truth that riches exist for man, not man for riches. Sadly, their emancipation from orthodoxy is far from perfect. Like their more conventional colleagues, they view the economic problem essentially as one of maximization; they depart from convention only in their choice of what to maximize. (location 1757)

Generally speaking, happiness is good only where it is due; where sadness is due, it is better to be sad. To make happiness itself, independent of its objects, the chief goal of government is a recipe for infantilization—the prospect memorably dramatized by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World. We do not want to banish the engineers of growth only to see them replaced by the engineers of bliss. (location 1763)

Happiness is one of those “essentially contested concepts,” debate over which can be neither resolved nor abandoned. In short, it is a philosophical concept. (location 1768)

The crux of the mystery is that eudaimonia, the Greek word conventionally translated as “happiness,” does not refer to a state of mind at all, but to an admirable and desirable state of being. It is a matter of public appraisal, not private awareness. (location 1783)

Solon’s vision of happiness as a gift of fate, precarious and revocable, was a central theme of ancient Greek literature, most memorably of tragedy. But from the late fifth century BC onwards, it came under attack from that elite, countercultural movement known as philosophy. Happiness, proclaimed the philosophers, is an achievement of wisdom and virtue, both of them within our power. Socrates and Plato went so far as to claim that nothing, not even torture, could take away a good man’s happiness. Aristotle was typically more sensible. Even if happiness lies in virtue, he retorted, it is still vulnerable to chance, for virtue itself, or at least its exercise, requires favorable circumstances. (location 1792)

All ancient visions of happiness, with the important exception of Epicureanism, are objective in character; they address the question: “what is the good life for man, the most complete, most fully human life?” They are not concerned with the attainment of certain states of mind. (location 1799)

The English word “happiness,” like its European cognates, was originally synonymous with eudaimonia. To be happy was to enjoy good “hap” or fortune, to be in a blessed, enviable condition. “We few, we happy few,” says Shakespeare’s Henry V to his troops before Agincourt, fully expecting that they will be killed or maimed. This old usage survives in stock phrases such as “happy returns” and “happy chance,” but has been more or less displaced in modern English by the new meaning, dating back to the sixteenth century, of a pleasant or contented state of mind. Philosophical developments played a role in this linguistic shift. If consciousness is the essence of personhood, as Descartes and Locke maintained, then happiness must be something internal to it. The goods once held to constitute happiness—wealth, honor, fame and so forth—now appear only as so many causes of happiness, varying from person to person. (location 1806)

The consequences of this transformation were profound. If happiness is the Good, as tradition taught, and if it is a pleasant state of mind, as philosophy now proclaimed, it follows that the Good itself is a pleasant state of mind. This thought was to blossom into utilitarianism, the dominant tradition in British public ethics since the nineteenth century. (location 1815)

In 1974, the economist Richard Easterlin published a famous paper, “Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot?” The answer, he concluded after a thorough survey of happiness and GNP in a number of countries across the world, is probably “no.” Happiness economics has since mushroomed, but the central finding of Easterlin’s paper, the so-called Easterlin paradox, remains largely uncontested. (location 1863)

Happiness economics is in one sense nothing new. Sound moralists since Solomon and Socrates have told us over and again that happiness lies in love and virtue, not riches. “Better is a dinner of herbs where love is,” says the Book of Proverbs, “than a stalled ox and hatred therewith.” What is new is the attempt to deck this old wisdom up in statistical garb, complete with graphs and formulas. We cannot, it seems, admit to knowing what we know without the stamp and seal of science. This exercise in self-reassurance is dangerous for two reasons: it exaggerates the usefulness of happiness surveys and requires us to attach an unconditional value to happiness itself, independent of the various things we are happy about. (location 1927)

Happiness, in short, is not an item in the mind’s inner theatre, visible only to its owner; it is essentially manifest in acts and happenings. If it were not, it would be mysterious how we could talk about it at all. (location 2002)

This, then, is the bind. Happiness surveys are dubitable, both because of the above-mentioned obscurities of wording and measurement and also, more fundamentally, because we are not authorities on our own happiness. They therefore require external validation, whether in the shape of formal correlations or our own intuitive sense of how happy people are. Yet to the extent that they receive such validation, they drop out as redundant. Their function, it seems, is essentially ceremonial: it is to bestow the blessing of science on the deliverances of common sense. (location 2020)

We all know that unemployment makes people unhappy, for instance, but it is perhaps interesting to learn that its impact is even greater than divorce.22 (location 2030)

How do happiness economists understand happiness? Few of them give the matter much thought. Yew-Kwang Ng, a leader in the field, is content to repeat Henry Sidgwick’s classic Benthamite definition: happiness is a “surplus of pleasure over pain; the two terms being used, with equally comprehensive meanings, to include respectively all kinds of agreeable and disagreeable feelings.”25 Happiness, in other words, is a subjectively agreeable state of mind, not an objectively desirable condition of being. (location 2047)

The understanding of happiness implicit in modern happiness research has two main elements. Both are questionable, in the sense that they are in tension with what we really think about happiness, as opposed to what we may at first blush think we think. (location 2059)

Happiness is aggregative. In other words, the happiness of a whole life is the sum (or possibly average; this leads to rather different conclusions) of the happiness of its individual moments. This contrasts with what might be called a “holistic” view, which sees the happiness of a life as irreducible to that of its momentary parts. (location 2062)

Unredeemed suffering is not the only thing that can mar the shape of a life. A life packed with happy moments from beginning to end may nonetheless be unhappy if those moments fail to coalesce into a greater whole.27 The playboy meandering from harbor to harbor and girlfriend to girlfriend springs (location 2077)

Happiness is one-dimensional. Happiness economists hold, together with Bentham and Sidgwick and against Mill, that all conscious states can be ranked according to how happy they are. (Some furthermore hold that they can be assigned a cardinal value expressing their degree of happiness, but this is controversial.)30 There is, in the jargon, a single “currency” of happiness. The distinctions drawn by ordinary language between happiness, joy, pleasure, contentment and their various negative counterparts are disregarded. (location 2092)

Pleasure is often (though not always) localizable in the body; think of foot spas, head massages, etc. Happiness, by contrast, has no physical location. One is not happy in one’s big toe, or anywhere else. Pleasure takes up a precise stretch of time, from twelve till one, say. Happiness in modern English is sometimes “clockable” in this way, though its boundaries are never quite so precise (“I woke up happy this morning, but it soon faded”). Yet there is also, as we have seen, a kind of happiness without temporal dimensions. To say that John had a happy life is not to say that he was happy at certain times or a certain proportion of the time. Pleasure is never atemporal in this manner. A “life of pleasure” is just a life full of pleasurable episodes. Pleasure punctuates life; it does not characterize life as a whole. (location 2113)

Happiness is not just an inner feeling but a stance, an outlook on reality. (location 2120)

Pleasure also has objects, as Aristotle recognized, yet these differ from the objects of happiness in being primarily experiential. One cannot take pleasure in things that will happen after one’s death, or on the other side of the world, though one can take pleasure in the thought of them. Unlike happiness, pleasure is not centrally bound up with beliefs about the world; it can subsist on fantasies and illusions. (location 2128)

Then there is joy. This is a state more exalted than either pleasure or happiness yet also more elusive. Pleasure and happiness can be pursued, but one would be hard put upon to pursue joy. Joy is paradoxically congruent with suffering, hence its prominence in Christian writing. (location 2136)

Happiness, then, is distinct from both pleasure and joy. (location 2150)

happiness takes its character from what it is about. Deep happiness, for instance, is characterized as such not by palpitations or tremors—the mistake made by so many high-school story writers—but by its relation to certain centrally important human goods: love, childbirth, the completion of an important piece of work. (location 2152)

 October 20, 2012  Book Logs

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