Enlightenment without end

John Gray in New Statesman:

According to David Wootton, we are living in a world created by an intellectual revolution initiated by three thinkers in the 16th to 18th centuries. “My title is, Power, Pleasure and Profit, in that order, because power was conceptualised first, in the 16th century, by Niccolò Machiavelli; in the 17th century Hobbes radically revised the concepts of pleasure and happiness; and the way in which profit works in the economy was first adequately theorised in the 18th century by Adam Smith.” Before these thinkers, life had  been based on the idea of a summum bonum – an all-encompassing goal of human life. Christianity identified it with salvation, Greco-Roman philosophy with a condition in which happiness and virtue were one and the same. For both, human life was complete when the supreme good was achieved.

But for those who live in the world made by Machiavelli, Hobbes and Smith, there is no supreme good. Rather than salvation or virtue they want power, pleasure and profit – and they want them all without measure, limitlessly. Partly this is because these are scarce and highly unstable goods, craved by competitors and exposed to the accidents of fortune, hard to acquire and easily lost. A deeper reason is that for these thinkers human fulfilment is something that is pursued, not achieved. Human desire is insatiable and satisfaction an imaginary condition. Hobbes summarised this bleak view pithily: “So that in the first place I put for a general inclination of all mankind a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.” As Wootton notes, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards voiced a similar view of the human condition in their song “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”. Whether they knew it or not, the lyric captured the ruling world-view of modern times.

More here.

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