Working my way through Ritchie Robertson’s dense but wonderful account of The Enlightenment and I am struck by two words. The words recur throughout the book (as far as I have got), sounding like a tocsin proclaiming not the achievements of the Enlightenment, but its purpose, its aspirations.
Those two words are “happiness” and “tolerance”. And I realised that they have all but disappeared from public discourse these days.
Happiness crops up in that great Enlightenment document, the US Declaration of Independence, which asserts that the purpose of independence is the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” That line gets quoted a lot, but the emphasis is always on life and liberty, although these have been strangely distorted by politicians of all parties. Happiness, as a national aspiration, is forgotten.
When did you last hear a politician of any stripe talk about happiness? Come to that, when did you last hear anyone talking in public about happiness? When, many decades ago, I studied philosophy, I don’t recall happiness cropping up in any of the contemporary moral or political philosophy I encountered. I don’t know if it is any different now, but I doubt it. We don’t hear church leaders talk about happiness, or educators, university administrators, local councillors.
Now, admittedly, business leaders talk all the time about “keeping the customer happy”, but in this instance happiness is more of a sedative than anything else. As long as “they” are happy with what we give them, then “we” can do what we want, make any profit we desire. This is not an aspiration to spread happiness but to keep the lid on dissent. The word crops up in entertainment, also, but to much the same effect: consumers of entertainment are just one more type of customer to be kept placated.
When did happiness stop being an aspiration beyond the private sphere? It is not as if we have achieved national happiness, which might mean it could safely be forgotten as we move on to other things. Far from it. And besides, happiness en masse is probably unachievable, it must remain an aspiration. But surely it is a worthwhile aspiration, something we should desire for ourselves, our neighbours, our fellow citizens. And as such, surely, it is something that those who set out to be our leaders should hold up as their goal, their shining city on the hill? But they don’t, do they, none of them. Politics, business, religion, none of them any more have any real interest in making life tolerable for the masses, for their constituents, their customers, their followers. That’s not cost effective, is it, it’s not worth the effort. As a polity we have gone beyond the tolerable, the goal now is control, power, the certainty of being returned to lucrative positions time after time.
And the way to secure that certainty, that lucre, is to scrap the tolerable, the tolerant. Doubt, fear, enmity, are the great agents of control. In advertising, we were taught that the two great ways to sell anything are greed and fear. And it works: you make people fearful and they are in your pocket forever.
Which is almost certainly why that other great enlightenment word, tolerance, is no longer heard. Tolerance is wonderful for helping people get along with each other, for spreading communal happiness; it is not so good for securing control. Voltaire said that tolerance was the hallmark of humanity, but humanity doesn’t rank very highly in public discourse any more, does it, because it really isn’t that useful, at least not if you are looking down from a position of authority.
The Enlightenment was not necessarily a good time to live. It was intellectually exciting, but for most people it was poor, miserable, disease-ridden and uncertain. There were wars, there were revolutions, there was persecution. Enlightenment was limited to the way a few people were thinking about their world, though those thinkers did very slowly manage to achieve some advances that bettered the lot of most people. But I can’t help thinking that right now we are in desperate need of a new Enlightenment, where the aspirations for happiness and tolerance become once more a way that people think about the world.