>What do we live for?

>If you’ve been staying in touch despite my absence recently then you’ll be happy to know that I’m back! The internet has just been connected at my new house today. So quick first post and then on to all those emails (groan):

Toqueville once said that people live to acheve two things: happiness and glory/honour.

  1. Do you agree?
  2. Is there a division between the two or is the second merely a contribuent to the first?
  3. Did we seek glory and honour more in Toqueville’s day (early nineteenth century) than we do now?


  • >I agree that people live to be happy, broadly defined, and economists, sociologists, psychologists and politicians all have, over the last half decade or so, really focused on what happiness actually is and have tried to develop systems and policies to ensure that. That isn't new either, if we look back at the utilitarianism of Tocqueville's day (admittedly 'social' happiness was the key, but the Bentham's felicific calculus was merely the sum of individual happiness minus unhappiness anyway) and the Kantian moral imperative to self-betterment that inspired (indirectly) much of Gladstonian and (more directly) New Liberalism – civic parks, licensing hours, gambling restrictions, the temperance movement in general. Happiness has always lurked somewhere behind public policy. Honour and glory might be someone's idea of happiness, but I don't think it universally so; I, for one, cannot stand to be praised to my face and would gladly go through life without being noticed at all. Everyone seeks happiness, but not all seek glory and honour as part of that.The third question is a good one. I actually think glory and honour did matter more in Tocqueville's day. As a historian, I am ever-sceptical of notions of the zeitgeist; for every historian delightedly finding a spirit of the age there are two-pronged legions of others pointing out, on the one hand, that such a spirit was not quite so pervasive and, on the other, the implicit assumption that such a spirit was not present in earlier or later times is false. Nonetheless, as Burckhardt was broadly right to identify an increased awareness of self during the west European Renaissance, the early 19th century was particularly concerned with the pursuit of individual greatness. Not that it didn't exist before or after (taking the example of Cambridge colleges alone, the first to be endowed with the name of its benefactor was Gonville Hall – now Gonville and Caius – in the 14th century and the most recent Robinson in 1979), but the early 19th century was particularly so, the Romantic age when a corporal from Corsica could become, by his own genius, greater than all the hereditary monarchs of Europe.

  • >Take the example of one man, Beethoven (1770-1827).First, Beethoven was obsessed with the glory and greatness of the great men of his day, notably Napoleon. He almost named arguably the greatest work of his mid-period for him, and even when he did not he nonetheless named it Eroica with the subtitle 'to the memory of a great man'. Secondly, he took enormous pride in, like Napoleon, rising from relatively humble beginnings to become, in his own way, a great man. He once told Archduke Rudolph, a great personal friend, that 'you are who you are by your birth, I am who I am by me alone. There have been and will be thousands of princes; there will be only one Beethoven'.Most remarkably, he achieved great glory in his life. As an artist there is no question in my mind that he was and is unparalleled, but as a man he was a shambles: rude, misanthropic, dirty, ill-tempered and, by the end, utterly reclusive. He did nothing – nothing at all – to cultivate any kind of self image, and as popular as his mid-period works were, the masterpieces of his last ten years are aeons ahead of their time to the extent that parts of the Missa Solemnis still border on the unlistenable. The Ninth Symphony was well received, but the final string quartets, arguably the finest music ever composed, were dismissed as the insane musings of a deaf madman. By the time of his death the Eroica must have seemed a long, long time ago. Yet 20,000 Viennese lined the street for his funeral and memorabilia sold the world over. Compare that with Mozart, a more amiable character and arguably at least as great a musician, who died just a generation or so earlier, in 1792, was given an unheralded pauper burial.Beethoven was, as all geniuses, ahead of his time, yet as all men he was a product of it: a man obsessed with the glory and honour of the heroes of the French Revolution and its consequent wars, proud and aware of his own greatness and, ultimately, achieving the kind of public glory that could never have conceivably have been bestowed on a mere commoner, even one with the talent and success of Mozart, just 35 years previously. Beethoven reflected, in many ways, a cultural preoccupation with the glory of great men that affected many educated Europeans to the extent that the recognition and pursuit of glory and honour undoubtedly formed part of his and Tocqueville's time.

  • >Your response is very interesting. I also excercise a caution when people use the term zeitgeist or something along those lines. However I'm about to slightly contradict that in that I think capitalism (or perhaps you could say "supercapitalism" if you were to use Robert Reich's term) has distinctly shaped modern, western culture. In this sense I believe Tocqueville was right, but that today we would say happiness and achievement.How many great achievers are there (e.g. CEOs and the like) who have great private lives? The greatest achievers are often those who put most effort into their achievements, and thus minimise the time they spend with loved ones. Thus I do believe a dichotomy exists between achievement and happiness: too much of one hinders the other.The real solution is about balance. You need to achieve in order to be happy. But if you focus on achievement alone, to the exclusion of all other things then you will ignore and miss out on those other things. The same thing could in fact be said about any contributing factor to happiness. For example if you eat a little chocolate it will make you happier, but if you eat too much it will lead to health problems that will cause unhappiness. However I don't want to dismiss how Tocqueville highlighted one particular factor as I do believe achievement today has such a dichotomous impact on society that it deserves special notice. Too much of a focus on achievement in some people leads to family breakdown, divorce, poorly raised children, drug and alcohol problems etc. In my opinion this is partly because it is a cultural disease inherent within capitalism to focus too much on it; and also partly because it is human nature to always want more.

  • >Very interesting points, which reminded me of two things:Firstly, Daniel Bell, in 'The cultural contradictions of capitalism', posited that capitalism would ultimately eat itself. As Weber had noted the protestant work ethic that lay at the heart of nascent capitalism, Jan de Vries (a very underrated economic historian) also pointed to what he termed an 'industrious revolution' – a cultural shift that was the engine of industrial growth and early capitalism – whereby the emergence and availability of luxury goods, alongside the relative freedom of all to attain it, inspired people to work harder and thereby productivity increased; Adam Smith also recognised the value of the luxurious carrot to the wealth of nations. While this can help explain why western Europe (and particularly Britain in the post-revolutionary years after 1688) experienced the first industrial revolutions, it can also shed light on the relative 'backwardness' of other nations (I use de Vries with my year 12 historians): in 19th-century Russia, the dominance of the mir, serfdom until 1861 and then redemption dues, strip farming and so on inhibited the acquisitiveness of the Russian peasantry to the extent that between 1860 and 1900 agricultural production in Russia grew more slowly than population, thus in net terms declined. As cities can't feed themselves (and in any case, with 80% of the population tied to the land, they were limited in growth anyway) such lack of production hamstrung industrial growth well into the 1930s. However, Bell suggested that the very luxury people seek to acquire, when so acquired limits the work ethic: too many X boxes and foreign holidays and malt whisky is good for the soul, but not necessarily the economy. He was wrong, just as Marx seems to have been proved wrong (for slightly different reasons) when he prophesied another internal contradiction of capitalism: that it would create its own grave diggers; like you, and indeed Smith, point out, it is human nature to aspire to more and more; it is also capitalism's nature to make us want more, to create a need. Again, an exercise I use with students from time to time: imagine a great big wall put around all the cities of the world with no way of ever getting in or out; the cities and everyone in it would rather quickly die as they cannot physically sustain themselves, whereas the countryside could go on indefinitely (obviously with major changes, but fundamentally no one need starve). Why, then, do we – all of us – sustain cities? Or, put another way, how do cities sustain themselves? By appealing to our desire for more, by selling things we don't need by making us desire them. That, in a nutshell, is the self-generating engine of capitalism.Second, and more prosaically, I read the other week that the optimum household income for maximum happiness is about £45,000: too much less, and you struggle to afford the things that make you happy (records and books in my case, sewing materials and textiles for my other half) or even those which make you comfortable (fuel, rent, food and so on); too much more and you probably have to work too much for your wealth and therefore can’t enjoy your life. Now, I hope this is wrong because our household income is pretty much that optimum right now and I don’t like the idea of going downhill from here, but in all seriousness this little survey reinforces your point about life being as balancing act between achievement and happiness. And, to take that one step further, in the case of this study achievement and happiness are directly proportional (at least, achievement in your sense of getting a better job): achieve too little and you have too little to be happy, achieve too much and you have too much responsibility to enjoy what you have. We’ve all got to keep those plates spinning.

  • >Absolutely; great points. However I should also say that focusing on luxury too heavily can be misleading. Indeed the "industrious revolution" you speak of was largely a reaction to earlier Roman behaviour, which was even more driven by the desire for luxury. Indeed when we think of overly hedonistic nations we think of the Romans and their predecessors the Etruscans. Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, spent a large part of his reign railing against what he saw as the unvirtuous behaviour of then modern Roman society, in which orgies, drug taking etc were seen as commonplace. I'm moving away from the point now. What I intended to say was that a large reason for Rome's decline was a stoic attitude that people had to live in the moment. Profits gained through business were funelled into fancy villas and statues, not re-invested into their businesses. The Protestant culture challenged this by thinking more in the long term, and hence quite simply Protestant driven capitalism allowed investment precisely because it rejected luxury.I would take this as further proof that in general all things are a balancing act. In order to achieve happiness we must pursue a balanced life. But in order to achieve another aim, such as sheer pleasure seeking or economic growth, we must balance short term desires with long term ones.

  • >Rome's a good example and perfectly fits Bell's point, actually; that the fruits of capitalism would ultimately destroy the virtues upon which it was originally based.

  • >Yes I think it does largely, and having just read the Economist article on him I'm even more inclined to think so. But have you ever heard of people saying Capitalism 2.1, 3 etc?To say that capitalism produces goods for consumption designed to produce pleasure is absolutely correct. Yet to say that it produces a frame of mind and desire among people for these pleasurable goods is only a half truth. In some respects it's very true. Note for example high risk taking and short term gains in the financial industry. Note the sharp dichotomy between western and non-western culture, where it is often our greed and ambition that defines what others hate about us. Yet investment today is higher than it has ever been in history, which suggests that we have learnt from the forms of capitalism already recognizable in Rome. Capitalism is alive, and stronger today than in Roman times (though I do believe the recession has proved that a middle ground between communism and capitalism i.e. social democracy is the best way forward). This is because capitalism is so adaptable, as indeed Marx pointed out numerous times. What we have now is not capitalism 1 but capitalism 10 or something like that, and these continuous revisions are trying to balance economies by moving away from this idea that luxury is the primary benefit an economy can provide us with.

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