Saturday, January 14, 2006

Dissatisfied Socrates, Satisfied Pig

First, why on earth am I researching John Stuart Mill. There's a splendid reason, folks. I had heard of him only briefly earlier in relation to his seminal works On Liberty and the feminist polemic The Subjection of Women which he co-wrote with wife Harriet Taylor. On reading an article by Madeleine Bunting (to which I link here) I discovered a new and rather interesting facet of this man. (Philosophy students, your excuses please!! This engineering gad is not all that blessed when it comes to the Spinozas of the sweet world.)

Dawkins seems to want to magic religion away. It's a silly delusion comparable to one of another great atheist humanist thinker, JS Mill. He wanted to magic away another inescapable part of human experience - sex; using not dissimilar arguments to Dawkins's, he pointed out the violence and suffering caused by sexual desire, and dreamt of a day when all human beings would no longer be infantilised by the need for sexual gratification, and an alternative way would be found to reproduce the human species. As true of Mill as it is of Dawkins: dream on.

My, my, that will raise your eyebrows, won’t it now? So up and running I go in the annals of Google and discover this link on Mill’s rather well-known comments on highbrow versus lowbrow pleasures. The running commentary is by Jorn K. Bramann, Professor Emeritus at the Department of Philosophy in Frostburg State University. The piece is so meaningfully well-drafted that you might like to read it (it’s slightly longish) with a hot cuppa tea on an evening you have to yourself. Some choice excerpts:

Writers and film makers occasionally belabor a stereotype that allegedly reflects the difference between Californians and New Yorkers. (See, for example, the relevant scenes in "Annie Hall" or "California Suite.") New Yorkers, according to this typology, are highly cerebral, seriously committed to culture, well-read, fast thinking and talking, very productive, aggressive to the point of being obnoxious, and hopelessly neurotic. They diligently keep up with what people think around the world, and they endure pain and neglect their physical health in pursuit of understanding and demanding levels of intellectual discourse. Their stereotypical Californian counterparts, by contrast, are deliberate airheads with no taste for the gritty and serious aspects of human existence--easygoing health nuts with a nice tan, and generally satisfied with having no higher aspirations than experiencing a good time near the beach in a perpetually mellow climate. Assuming for a moment that these stereotypes represent two possible ideals of life, is there any good reason for insisting that one is better than the other? Is the high-strung and hardworking intellectual superior to the relaxed and benevolent airhead? Considering that high culture requires so much attention and effort, and that it does not seem to pay off too well in terms of sociability and contentment, is it really worth the price it exacts?

This is the question that John Stuart Mill tries to answer in the second chapter of his book Utilitarianism (1861). In that chapter Mill offers the famous judgment (in favor of the New Yorkers, as it were) that "it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied." Basically Mill contends that a highly cultured person is a happier person, a person who gets more pleasure out of life than an airhead--even if such a person experiences a great deal of frustration and dissatisfaction as a result of being educated and cultured. This calls for some elaboration.

The elaboration.

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