Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Youth of Our Age

The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation.
I detect a certain childish innocence in the thought of the Enlightenment, not least in the wisdom of one Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), a jurist and thinker, who framed the quotation above—and thought it was a sacred truth. He attributed the saying to Joseph Priestley, although Priestley used a paraphrase. Childish innocence? Yes. Bentham had discovered that all human behavior could be reduced ultimately to pain and pleasure—that such reactions absolutely ruled each individual—furthermore that anything else, such as “relationship,” for instance, was a mere fiction we could do without. When he said happiness as in his sacred truth above, he meant, ultimately, the preponderance of pleasure over pain. Morality thus is what feels good, and pain is naughty, naughty, naughty. Let’s by all means spank that bad, bad chair for hitting your sweet little head. Childish well into old age. In his will Bentham decreed that his body should be preserved and stored seated in a wooden cabinet—where it remains to this day, at the University College in London, and you can see a picture of it here. The head now is made of wax because the original was damaged in restoration. Alas and alack. Postmortem pain. Naughty embalmer.

Said Enlightenment, if not childish, then let’s call it juvenile. There is a certain flavor of that in Voltaire’s pronouncement that if God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him—a flavor of juvenile sarcasm and pride in having at last discovered that the stork doesn’t bring babies but instead, you know, snicker, snicker. Humanity seems to fall for simplicity as if it really explained something. But keeping things too simple is ultimately stupid.

There seems to be a need to shake off cultural skins—pleasure in skinny dipping, to change the metaphor. The real truth resists institutionalization and shakes off the crust. Then come periods like the Renaissance and the Enlightenment in which people discover the obvious, glimpse something of the mechanics of reality, and think themselves struck by the lightning bolt of sacred truth. Pain and pleasure move us! Holy Moses! And everybody feels it! Jeepers-Creepers! They throw the old away, never mind if it’s still useful. Thus the Enlightenment got its extra light by demolishing the last house Western humanity had laboriously built. Yes, yes. The French months of the post-revolutionary calendar: Vendémiaire, Brumaire, Frimaire, Nivóse…Vintage, Fog, Frost, Snowy—like the calendar children might make; like the words used by New Age couples who’ve invented their own vows....

We grow up fast, though, and having just mastered the Id, Ego, and Superego—having just discovered that the Will is God (hat tip to Schopenhauer), that God evolves (nod to Hegel), that God is dead (thanks for that Nietzsche)—we encountered concentration camps, atomic bombs, and the mysterious fusion of space and time, particle and wave. I came in around that time and now, thanks to the Invisible Hand of Adam Smith my very visible hand sometimes fails to hit the mute button when I chance across CNN. Man alive. Better get busy rebuilding that old human mansion again before something real naughty comes creeping in through the door-less opening from that jungle out there.

A Late Revision: Recently, thanks to the Siris blog, I was enlightened about the circumstances in which Voltaire made the statement I attribute to him above. Evidently I wasn't very fair to the philosopher. For the real scoop on the subject, I suggest that you read the post on Siris available here.

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