Harmony, Authentic or Contrived: On ‘Power, Pleasure, and Profit’

January 9, 2019 | 2 books mentioned 5 min read

It seems appetite is limitless and everyone is its victim. In Power, Pleasure, and Profit, University of York historian David Wootton explores how and why the appetite-driven modern values that make up the title of his book have endured since they were elevated in the Early Modern and Enlightenment eras. Appetite, after all, is an inconstant constant always ranging about for objects, and it doesn’t seem to point the way to sustainable happiness, as most any honest person who grew up near wealth or power can attest. But if happiness can be built on something other than appetite, it’d have to be abstract, the product of reasoned reflection and acknowledgement of human frailty and limitations.

The alternative to appetite, then, is moderation and civic and personal virtue. Put another way, humane consideration of others and humane conduct of one’s own life could be paramount to indulgence. And, according to Wootton, the paragon of such moderation and virtue is Aristotle. “Just as Aristotle’s cosmos was limited,” he writes, “so too his moral and political philosophy depended on recognizing and respecting limits.” The problem is, with the advent of the modern era, appetites (and with them happiness and ambition) were increasingly viewed as limitless. What Aristotle’s worldview had held at bay through the medieval period was breaking out, and so thinkers had to reconsider how virtue and happiness could actually be predicated on limitless pursuit. The Western world is still sorting out the effects.

One unlikely alternative to heedless gratification, ironically, is Epicureanism, the original pleasure-seeking philosophy. Odd choice, one may say, but there’s a muted and sometimes not so muted sadness to much Epicurean writing (such as Lucretius), a melancholy love of a life that is limited in scope and duration, which makes the pursuit of pleasure understandable, even affecting and sympathetic. Wootton compellingly writes about the 17th-century French philosopher Pierre Gassendi, whose notion of Epicureanism rested on the pursuit of pleasure for the sake of tranquility. There’s a reassuring peace implicit in this worldview, a reflective (rather than hedonic) pleasure-seeking that isn’t self-serving so much as self-consoling, self-awakening. It’s a respite from the relentless stress of labor and self-assertion, which demands nothing but endless repetition of insatiable appetite and is, therefore, pointless.

The more happiness became about the limitless appetite of individuals, the more conflict arose, Wootton contends. He writes with remarkable prescience that “this paradigm of inexorable conflict, of monopolistic ambition, is inseparable from the shift to a subjective notion of happiness. As long as happiness is defined objectively, as identical to or largely overlapping with virtue, conflict between individuals pursuing happiness will be the exception, not the rule.” Throughout the Early Modern and Enlightenment eras, some sought to create rational edifices to justify the rightness of appetite, of individual pursuit in competition with the pursuit of others. Still, managing an all-against-all world through rational systems by believing everyone will live in harmony by pursuing their own way is nothing more really than an article of faith of the modern era. We still call it capitalism. 

If indeed everyone pursuing their own self-interest against everyone else leads to everyone getting what they want or need, it’s clearly not working. The fabled “invisible hand of the market” seems to be either missing in action or fulfilling a purpose contrary to the greatest liberty for all. “The invisible hand of the market,” of course, is a foundational metaphor of capitalist belief and, if viewed from the right angle (pun half-intended), it’s swaddled in somewhat persuasive logic. Sure, theoretically, individual pursuits and interests are so vastly varied that a marketplace composed of them could serve all interests.

But competition, if it is to exist at all, needs a referee—and it feels in the current cultural moment where capitalism around the world takes on a more authoritarian/oligarchical posture that maybe it’s fundamentally broken. In theory, of course, authoritarians should be knocked aside with a flick of the invisible hand’s fingers, but it’s not happening. And sure, conservatives and their very wealthy Silicon Valley liberal kin (both often highly persuaded by Ayn Rand’s “thinking”) would say that, with the jettisoning of competition comes the enshrinement of mediocrity. Except what these pro-capitalist partisans fail to register is the vulgarity of their own claims. 

To assume virtue or greatness is predicated on the pursuit of power, pleasure, or profit (and heck, let’s throw in technological “innovation”) is vulgar and materialist in a way more offensive than the same charges brought against, say, socialist equality. After all, in socialism one is free to pursue self-interest only because one’s life isn’t mostly directed toward securing the material necessities of life. So is it more vulgar to assume virtue and happiness are predicated on materialist or instrumentalist pursuit, or to assume pursuit of virtue and happiness are more meaningful, more sustainable, when they aren’t enchained to the wheel of necessity? Nothing, in my estimation, is more vulgar than dressing up the indulgence of appetites or profit-churning machines as virtue or personal liberty, even with abstract justification provided in good faith by, say, Adam Smith.


And speaking of Adam Smith, Wootton excels in unpacking his complicated intellectual legacy. He quotes the capitalist godfather himself, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, expressing reservations about the rich and “their natural selfishness and rapacity.” Smith goes on to say that, despite those flaws, the rich are still led by the the invisible hand to carry forth “nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society; and afford means to the multiplication of the species. When providence divided the earth among a few lordly masters, it neither forgot nor abandoned those who seemed to have been left out in the partition.”

Like any sentient person, Smith sees through the manners and put-ons of so many of the rich to the growling appetite beneath. Sadly, though, that’s where it might end. Smith seems to think that somehow God allowed for the masses to flourish through the supposedly egalitarian opportunity afforded to them by the will of a few enterprising, paternalistic types. A God that would subject its unique, vulnerable creations to so-called “lordly masters” like, say, Rex Tillerson or Jeff Bezos is not, in my humble opinion, a deity any decent person would want to be associated with.

So what is to be done? Wootton’s notion of modest, practical Aristoteilian-esque virtue in the face of limitless appetite is a compelling one, and he stakes his claims methodically and persuasively. His is not exactly a clarion call to action, but scholarship need not be part and parcel of activism to be relevant. Ultimately though, Wootton’s theme speaks to the ongoing conflict between short-term and long-term thinking. Obsession with profits, pleasures, power, stock markets, science denial, narcissism, political solipsism, anti-intellectualism, and so on in America and a lot of the West today is symptomatic of our cultural reliance on short-term thinking (if any thinking) at the expense of the environment and the humane consideration of self and others, each the province of long-term thinking.

Whether our passions and appetites are boundless or not, it might be time to at least pragmatically pretend they aren’t. It’s time to consider ourselves as limited people with limited scopes pursuing lives delimited by time, space, mortality, and chance. It’s time at the very least try to live as if people are connected—economically, morally, spiritually—even if, deep down, many don’t really feel it’s true. All there is to lose is ceaseless competition and mounting unhappiness. Harmony, authentic or contrived, is worth a try.

is a writer and editor based in Chicago.

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