coromandal


pleasure and welfare coexisting

Context is a pesky thing.  In isolation, we’re free to believe what we like, what suits us.  Ignorance and bliss and all that.

When we talk about happiness for instance, it seems we have removed ourselves from the context of our own shared history in which the understanding of the important emotion was very different and arguably a lot more optimistic.

Today in America when we talk about happiness, we mean personal fulfillment, generally.  Or at our most generous, fulfillment for me and mine, for my family and my company, and so on.  Furthermore, there is a visceral suspicion of any broader definition of our most beloved of emotions.

As the following excerpt from Gus Speth’s book review makes clear, the originating idea of happiness in the American context included both personal fulfillment and public welfare.

The image is of an octopus of ideas at America’s founding that through abject misuse constricts and deforms and ends today as a simpering, undifferentiated, limbless, more than a little toxic mass.   The splendid and multivalent ‘octopus’ came from many sources:  the Ancients – happiness comes from devotion to public good and civic virtue; the Enlightenment – everyone has a right to happiness; Bentham – the greatest happiness for the greatest number; and our very own Jefferson – the pursuit of happiness.  The mass we are left with today is basically and depressingly:  get what you can and get out.

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