Friday, February 1, 2013
The Mannerly Hedonist
In the fifties James Olds and Peter Milner demonstrated that rats allowed to electrically stimulate a particular area of their brains, thought to be the “pleasure center,” would do so in preference to all other activities, including eating, to the point of exhaustion and finally death. This happened not only to rats with addictive personalities or those with insufficient self-discipline, but to all rats. How could it be otherwise? All creatures seek to avoid pain and to experience pleasure. I cannot tell to what extent the human brain might make a telling difference, but I feel as though, in their situation, I would prove more rat-like than angelic. Desire makes the world turn – whatever other motive could exist? From where could it come?
Yet hedonism is less straightforward than it might seem. To begin with, it can lead to widely various decisions. In an address to the inmates at Cook County Jail (printed in Crime and Criminals), Clarence Darrow, the great defense attorney, says that the inmates, like himself, have regularly made the choices that seemed to them most likely to lead to happiness. For him it was attending law school; for them, perhaps, burglarizing a house. A man who thinks of the latter as his best opportunity needs, Darrow suggests, not some mystic moral regeneration, but more practical choices.
Some would expect that, though the demise of the strung-out rodents did not deter their fellows from pursuing the same path to perdition, perhaps we two-leggers could imagine inevitable ill effects vividly enough to alter our compulsions. The implications of addiction, whether to over-eating, opiates, video games, money, romance, or power, suggest that such prudence is far from certain. Epicurus specifically taught his followers that the only way to increase happiness is to reduce desire. But can happiness exist without desire?
In recent years the study of well-being has been quantified and researchers using the terms hedonic adaptation and then hedonic treadmill have indicated people’s experience of subjective well-being is highly relative. (I am thinking of Brickman and Campbell in the early seventies and then Eysenck in the nineties.) Not surprisingly, an individual in a given set of circumstances will feel satisfaction if the situation has slightly improved and dissatisfaction if it has recently declined. Such changes are temporary as the person adjusts to a new norm, reacting only when there is a fresh movement up or down. Some are happier than others, but this tends to correlate with permanent personality types more than outward conditions. Across a broad range of settings one will find populations with roughly the same distribution of happy and unhappy people. Those living with little feel no lack until they know of others with more, and even in a concentration camp people could have “good days.”
On the other hand Socrates says in Plato’s Apology that even the King of Persia with his unlimited luxury and power still had “few” days or nights of net pleasure. The millionaire yearns to be a multi-millionaire, the privileged child becomes neurotic, the successful seducer seeks novelty, the CEO wishes to lead an even bigger corporation.
An artist wishing to create a masterpiece may be miserable while a stamp collector may regularly enjoy more modest goals. The Buddhist pursues the big payoff of enlightenment, but perhaps that goal only sheds a more modest radiance on the small daily routines of everyday experience. The person with a satisfying marriage or a fulfilling job doubtless enjoys more net happiness than the high-stakes player who occasionally makes a hit.
Human pleasure is often strategically based on a kind of speculative cost accounting. Though I might wish to snatch my neighbor’s venison haunch or Smartphone, I refrain from doing so if he will likewise leave my things alone. His mate may be desirable, but I expect I will find more suffering than delight in seizing her. To the Cyrenaics altruism led to pleasure. In this way nearly all moral choices may be rationalized, but human ingenuity devised a way to enhance the rewards of ethical behavior. The good person learns to feel satisfaction at doing good. The day can be a series of self-congratulations for the moral individual. The glow that even casual church-goers feel is distributed through the entire week. The selfish person is always meeting the challenges and the hostility that arises from less than open-hearted decisions and doubtless generates anxiety and apprehension, feeling isolation rather than support. The difference is central to the well-being of such a profoundly social animal as Homo sapiens.
For the more subtle, the game goes on. Plato, in the myth of the ring of Gyges (Book II of the Republic, 359a–2.360d) posits the question of whether one might enjoy doing injustice were there no chance of being caught. For the philosopher at any rate (II, 612), virtue is its own reward because the soul is divine and it departs from its own nature when it accedes to vice. Given a continuous history of war and exploitation of others, it may seem dubious whether such a conviction has sustained many humans over the years, but the fact is that society is based on the voluntary cooperation of most people most of the time. Given the inherent selfishness of the ego, one can only conclude that this route seems most likely to bring happiness to such social animals as ourselves. No culture anywhere lacks moral rules; indeed, those of traditional societies are rigorous and demanding. To “break the law” in a small village would destroy one’s vital connections. Only a madman or one corrupted by the values of what passes for more advanced cultures would dare be a deviant.
Religion has typically challenged the ego, asking for humility if not for the actual extinguishing of self. But surely the seeker after nirvana or heaven aims for pleasure. Mother Teresa lived the life she thought would give her the greatest joy. The Buddhist monk who told me a week ago, “Perhaps you will reach enlightenment before I do,” must have relished his own grace. The psychologists can tell us of people today who cut themselves for the good feeling that it brings.
The definitive human skill is the manipulation of symbols; and naturally the practice of this ability gives us pleasure, pleasure of the same sort enjoyed by the house cat on the hunt. It is not the stomach full of mouse that the tabby pursues as much as the full feeling of felineness. For humans, the most common form of recreational symbolic play is conversation. Most people in the developed world experience constant stimulation by stories on television and film, lyric-like word strings in advertisements, graffiti, and bumper stickers, and a host of other inputs. With Smart phones and tablet computers, people tend even more today to be constantly absorbing symbolic patterns for the sheer fun of it. No single experience may be significant, but they supply themselves with an unending series of small and completely reliable satisfactions.
As with the refined philosophical morality of the Platonist, there is the aesthete’s pleasure in sign-juggling, either as creator or consumer. Art is nothing if not the creation and consumption of symbolic structures for their own sake. The pleasures of decoding Chaucer’s Middle English, discerning the dance within the structure of an Elizabethan sonnet, recognizing the antecedents of a contemporary poet, feeling a minute thrill at a turn of phrase, every reader’s experience, somewhat different for each but always derived from the rich suggestibility of the text, all these joys of literature are joys indeed. The same, of course, is true of other arts and well beyond. In Heian Japan the sophisticated Fujiwara aristocrats competed in inventing new aesthetic delights like moon-viewing parties and other expressions of miyabi. One who cultivates a connoisseur’s taste whether in opera, wine, or NASCAR competitions, has simply learned how to obtain pleasures unavailable to all.
The true hedonist, then, is no disordered dissolute boor, but the most moral, polite, and sociable of people, likely to be quick with a thank you note, well-versed in Beethoven quartets, perhaps holding a highly valued recipe for Thai tom yum soup. We cannot always dodge suffering, but we can always seek pleasure. If we share this tendency with the microbes, let us not lament the fact, but make the most of it. Finding ourselves waiting about in this ante-room of death, if we wish to pass our time in the best possible manner, we may find beautiful behavior and beautiful art more crucial to our well-being than promiscuity and intoxicants.