The Pursuit of Happiness

Ritchie Robertson

The Enlightenment’s central purpose was ultimately about happiness and Thomas Jefferson famously incorporated the word in the Declaration of Independence.
The Declaration of Independence, by John Trumbull
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The preamble to the American Declaration of Independence, drafted by Thomas Jefferson and revised by Congress, declares that all men have certain ‘unalienable Rights’, including ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’. This was the culmination of a century of Enlightenment thought in which eudaemonism, the belief that the attainment of happiness is the purpose of human life, became increasingly central. Enlighteners no longer saw the world as a vale of tears on which human beings had to endure suffering so that a tiny minority could be rewarded with happiness in heaven. Instead, they believed that a benevolent God must wish his creatures to be happy, and have planned the universe in such a way as to make happiness possible.

Enlighteners, however, were rarely Pollyannas. They were sharply aware of the difficulties – illness, bereavement, misfortunes of all kinds – that frustrated the individual’s desire for happiness. ‘Enquiries after Happiness, and Rules for attaining it,’ said Joseph Addison, ‘are not so necessary and useful to Mankind as the Arts of Consolation, and supporting one’s self under Affliction. The utmost we can hope for in this world is Contentment; if we aim at anything higher, we shall meet with nothing but Grief and Disappointments.’

The Milanese Enlightener Pietro Verri argued that happiness was not something positive, but consisted only in the cessation or diminution of pain. A simple calculation shows that pain predominates in life: ‘The sum total of painful sensations must in every man be greater than the sum total of pleasurable sensations.’

And there were many sources of unhappiness that philosophers could do nothing about. Medical science, as opposed to theorising, made little progress during the Enlightenment. As anaesthesia would not be practised till the 1840s, surgical operations were a form of torture. When Josiah Wedgwood had his leg amputated in 1768, he sat in a chair, lightly sedated with laudanum, and watched his leg being sawn off. Infant mortality was high. Rousseau remarks chillingly in Émile (1762): ‘One half of the children who are born die before their eighth year’, and adds that this is nature’s means of eliminating the weak and ensuring that the strong survive.

At a reading of Voltaire

At the very least, however, philosophy could free people from imaginary sources of misery. The Churches taught that the vast majority of mankind would go to hell and suffer endless torments. In his sermon ‘On the Small Number of the Elect’ (1700) the famous preacher, Jean-Baptiste Massillon told his congregation that only a ‘little flock’ would be saved, and that to earn salvation one must renounce all worldly enjoyment and regard oneself as a criminal unworthy of life. In 1717, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland reprimanded John Simson, professor of divinity at Glasgow, for maintaining that more people might be saved than damned, including virtuous heathen and unbaptised infants.

Times were changing. Hell and the Devil increasingly seemed incredible. Most Enlighteners retained belief in God but thought he could not be so cruel as to condemn people to an absurdly disproportionate punishment, with no possibility of repentance, for sins which often they could not help. They transferred the emphasis from theological disputes, which had occasioned the terrible religious wars of the previous century, to morality. The parable of the rings which forms the centrepiece of Lessing’s play Nathan der Weise (Nathan the Wise, 1779) answers the question ‘which is the true religion?’ by advising members of all three Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) to prove their religion’s value through practical benevolence.

Only a few Enlighteners – the Paris philosophes Helvetius, La Mettrie and Diderot – openly professed atheism. Others, like David Hume, prudently refrained from advertising their unbelief. Many thinkers leaned towards deism – the belief that a good God had created and designed the world but did not intervene in it. This was compatible with modern science. Isaac Newton’s proof of universal gravitation had explained, by a single and elegant principle, phenomena including the motion of the planets and the ebb and flow of the tides, and thus, (it was thought) demonstrated God’s design. Although the old idea of the music of the spheres was obsolete, the planets, according to Addison’s hymn, still silently proclaimed God’s wisdom, ‘Forever singing, as they shine, | The Hand that made us is divine.”‘

The universe was orderly, yet human life was full of disorder and unhappiness. What could be done about it? It was down to the individual to find private happiness by the regulation of the moral life. But public happiness was another matter. Enlightened reformers on the Continent were guided by the concept of police or Polizei. This did not refer, except incidentally, to ‘police’ in the English sense – the agencies responsible for catching criminals and enforcing the law. It had a far wider meaning. The verbs policer and civiliser were often treated as equivalent. Police were, so to speak, the external infrastructure of civilisation. It implied orderly behaviour and the maintenance of law and order, good communications and public hygiene. Hence Gibbon says of the ancient Roman magistrates: ‘Their vigilance ensured the three principal objects of a regular police – safety, plenty, and cleanliness.’ Voltaire recalls that under Richelieu ‘the police of the kingdom was entirely neglected, a certain proof of an unfortunate administration … The highways were neither repaired nor guarded; they were infested by brigands; the streets of Paris, narrow, badly paved, and covered with disgusting filth, were filled with robbers.’ In German-speaking countries, ‘police ordinances’ (Polizeiordnungen) were issued to enforce gute Polizei; actions contrary to good order, if not legally punishable, were polizeiwidrig, ‘contrary to Polizei’. The goal was a well-ordered Polizeistaat – a ‘police state’ –but, emphatically, not in the brutal sense that became only too familiar in the 20th century.

In this sense, Enlightenment was not only a philosophical but also a practical issue. The philosopher Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot was both a spokesman for eudaemonism and a practical administrator. In 1750, he told the Sorbonne: ‘Nature has given all humanity the right to be happy: needs, passions, and a reason which is combined with these different principles in a thousand ways, are the forces she has given it to attain this goal.’ In 1761, he became intendant (administrator) of the province of Limoges. Thanks to his extraordinary energy, he managed to introduce major reforms. He improved the system of having roads built by forced labour (the corvée), which was oppressive and impractical because it took peasants away from their fields, by financing it through taxation and enabling the road-workers to be paid. He introduced a fairer system for recruiting soldiers. He improved agriculture by encouraging the breeding of Merino sheep and the planting of potatoes (though the peasants used potatoes only as animal fodder until they were forced by famine to eat potatoes themselves).

Germany, meanwhile, was divided into about three hundred large and small states. Each of them had a staff of university-trained civil servants. Increasingly they devoted themselves to the well-being of the people. They were guided by manuals of ‘Polizeywissenschaft’ (police science). The best-known such manual, by J.H.G. von Justi, deals in turn with the physical setting (managing water-courses, draining swamps, forestry and agriculture), population, infrastructure (roads, wells, urban hygiene), manufactures and trade, the orderly practice of religion, printing and censorship, family life, the domestic virtues, crime prevention, fire-fighting, provision for beggars and the poor, law and justice. These attempts at comprehensive regulation of people’s lives may often in retrospect seem fussy and intrusive. The frequency with which regulations were published suggests that they were often ignored. But if we criticise the labours of well-intentioned bureaucrats nowadays, we risk forgetting that our lives’ relative comfort and safety rest on just such regulations.

The efforts of administrators were increasingly supported by the monarchs who employed them. The Franco-German philosophe Friedrich Melchior Grimm wrote in 1767: ‘It has been said that the rule of an enlightened despot, active, vigilant, wise and firm, was of all regimes the most desirable and most perfect, and this is a true saying.’ When Grimm wrote, there were on the thrones of Europe a number of enlightened absolutists, imbued with the spirit of the Enlightenment. The most famous were Frederick the Great in Prussia, Catherine the Great in Russia, and Joseph II in Austria. Elsewhere, enlightened ministers took advantage of their rulers’ inattention or incapacity to push through reforms, as the marquês de Pombal did in Portugal and Count Stadion in the Electorate of Mainz. Enlighteners accordingly assumed that reforms would come from above. Voltaire had a stormy relationship with Frederick the Great; Diderot, at Catherine’s request, visited her in St Petersburg and enjoyed many confidential conversations with her.

Immanuel Kant

All the absolutists professed to be the first servants of their people. In her Instruction, Catherine says that flatterers tell sovereigns that the people exist for them, but: ‘We think and esteem it a Glory to ourselves to say that We are created for our People.’ Joseph II’s brother and eventual successor, Grand Duke Leopold, declared: ‘I believe that even a hereditary sovereign is only a delegate and employee of the people.’ They relied on a large and loyal civil service, and all faced opposition from the Churches. Joseph II ordained an inspection of all monasteries, closed many, required the remaining monks to provide pastoral care, and also claimed the right to appoint bishops in his territories. This last brought him a visit from Pope Pius VI (the first time a pope had ventured beyond the Alps since 1415), but Joseph remained steadfast in their stand-off. In Portugal, Pombal was even more high-handed: he expelled the papal nuncio in 1760. He used the resulting breach with Rome to bring the Church under state control, appointing bishops and requiring them to promote Enlightenment.

And yet Enlighteners were not, or not always, convinced that absolutist monarchy could promote happiness. Helvétius annoyed Diderot by quoting, with apparent admiration, of Frederick’s defence of absolutism: ‘There is nothing better’, says the King of Prussia in a speech delivered in the Berlin Academy, ‘than arbitrary government under princes who are just, humane and virtuous.’ Not so, Diderot replied: unless they were free to oppose the prince, these happy subjects were no better than a flock of contented sheep:

‘The arbitrary government of a just and enlightened prince is always bad. His virtues are the surest and most dangerous of seductions: they insensibly accustom a people to love, to respect, to serve his successor, even if the latter is wicked and stupid. He deprives the people of the right to deliberate, to consent or not consent, to oppose even his will when he ordains what is good; but this right of opposition, absurd though it is, is sacred: without it his subjects resemble a herd whose complaints are despised on the pretext of leading them through rich pastures.’

A series of beneficent despots, Diderot added, would be enough to ruin a nation by accustoming its people to slavery. Three Queen Elizabeth’s in succession would have turned the English into the lowest slaves in Europe. So, despite his cosy chats with Catherine, his brief experience of Russia did not persuade him that it represented the way forward for humanity.

Kant went further. Often seen as the high point of Enlightenment philosophy, Kant in many ways differs sharply from the Enlightenment mainstream. For him, history’s goal is not happiness but the fullest development of humanity’s innate potential. This development can only happen through conflict, and that must involve unhappiness. But to prevent unhappiness would mean leaving humanity perpetually in the condition of children. Now that humanity has come of age, a paternalist government is ‘the greatest conceivable despotism’.

The Enlightenment still speaks to us, but not with a single voice. Precisely because Enlightenment thought includes differences and debates, it provides a model for intellectual advance.

Ritchie Robertson is Taylor Professor of German at the University of Oxford. He is a member of the board of the Voltaire Foundation which promotes research on the Enlightenment, and is a frequent reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement. The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness 1680-1790 is his latest book.

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