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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the bastard aims of desire

In this passage from the introduction to Built Upon Love by Alberto Perez-Gomez, we read that our pursuit of happiness, and our faith in technology and progress have removed us from living in our real place:  our flesh and blood bodies, with thoughts of reason and immortality and, ultimately love.  We deny love and, says Perez-Gomez, love is crucial to our humanity.

Modern Western civilization takes for granted a quest to pursue individual happiness and freedom.  It is driven by what it perceives as a ‘natural’ right to seek pleasure and avoid pain, a fundamental accomplishment of democracy brought about by the political revolutions at the end of the eighteenth century.  For a hedonistic culture, architecture’s vocation is to ensure the greatest pleasure and least pain for each individual.  Our technological building practices, even when mindful of ecological responsibility of claiming high artistic aspirations, still pursue a functionalist utopia in which all desires are fulfilled through material means, eliminating all irritants and always aiming at greater economy and comfort:  maximum efficiency, economy, commodity, and entertainment value.  Consumption and possession prevail as the bastard aims of desire.  Their overwhelming presence in contemporary life enhances our propensity to forget that we are our mortal bodies whose very flesh is also that of the world, a common element that grants the light of reason and immortal thoughts, while pulling us down into the darkness of the earth.  We forget that love and death, pleasure and pain are inextricably linked through our embodied consciousness.  We go even further and tend to deny the very existence of love (as technology may wish to deny the existence of death).  Fragmented into multiple emotions in our materialistic culture, the cynic and intellectual alike have trouble acknowledging love in view of our modern difficulty to grasp it as a gift, often contradictory since it is beyond the rules of economic transactions.  My wager, with Jose Ortega y Gasset and Jean-Luc Marion, is that love not only exists but is crucial to our humanity; that despite its contradictions it is of a piece, and can indeed be spoken about.

Alberto Perez-Gomez, Built Upon Love