Philosophy of Democratic Government / by Yves R. Simon

The Pursuit of Happiness and the Lust for Power

Right after the Napoleonic wars nations received with eagerness the prediction that the technological era would be one of peace and brotherly love. The Saint-Simonists voiced the great hope of their time as they announced that domination over physical nature, through science and industry, would supersede the domination of man over man and that the rational exploitation of nature would put an end to the exploitation of man by man.{7} The cause and the ways of these substitutions were explained in the Exposition of the Doctrine of Saint-Simon, made by the disciples a few years after the death of their master. Prior to the industrial era, lust for wealth meant lust for power, more particularly for domination over slaves; since war was the main way to procure slaves, the age of slavery was predominantly a military age. Huge conflicts had just taken place; the Saint-Simonists wanted their listeners to realize that war was an absurd survival of the time when slaves were needed to make a man wealthy. Throughout the nineteenth century the notion that industrial expansion meant the reign of peace enjoyed a high degree of popularity. A long period of peace seemed to confirm the expectations of the early philosophers of industrialism. True, the "great peace" of the nineteenth century was interrupted by a number of wars; but these were limited to rather small areas, and, so far as bloodshed was concerned, most of them did not compare with the great slaughters of the preceding centuries. The American Civil War was very bloody; but it was an accident brought about by a unique set of circumstances and unlikely ever to be duplicated; moreover, it took place at such a distance from the centers of world opinion that it did not have much effect on the destiny of general beliefs. Faith in the peaceful disposition of the industrial world was not seriously shaken until ninety-nine years after Waterloo, when the great peace of the nineteenth century ended in the first World War.

The optimistic outlook proposed by early industrialism implied a definite interpretation of the lust for power. The Saint-Simonists expressed themselves as if predatory practices, war, conquest, enslavement, and, more generally, domination of man over his fellow-men originated in the lust for wealth. We recognize here the deceitfully simple psychology of the homo oeconomicus made popular by the economists and later erected into a dogma by the popularizers of Marxism, if not by Marx himself. True, lust for power is sometimes an effect and an instrument of lust for wealth, and, in so far as lust for power is subservient to lust for wealth, technology may cause the decline of lust for power. Not all is wrong in the Saint-Simonists' argument. If the terms under comparison are, on the one hand, a primitive tribe for which warfare is a basic condition of economic improvement and, on the other hand, a modern society equipped with industry, it is clear that technique, through its ability to procure wealth without plunder and without enslavement, possesses some ability to bring about peace. There is no doubt that several aspects of the great peace of the nineteenth century must be traced to this capacity of technique to procure wealth peacefully. Louis Philippe, who in his youth distinguished himself on the battlefield, might not have been such a peaceable monarch if territorial expansion had been the only way to satisfy his money-hungry supporters; but expanding industry was, under the circumstances, the better and safer way to make money.

Yet, even if power is viewed as merely instrumental in the acquiring of wealth, the proposition that technology discourages the lust for power has to be qualified. An abstract comparison between the amount of energy produced by slave labor and that produced by machinery suggests a picture of emancipation through the machine. In fact, machines did not put an end to the exploitation of man by man and did not always make it less severe. Not infrequently mechanical conditions stimulated a desire for absolute power over the men assigned to the service of the machine. Revolutionary socialism was to take advantage of what it described as the great deception of bourgeois industrialism, viz., the promise of an emancipation to be brought about by the sheer power of technology, without any basic change in the ownership of industrial wealth.

But, most of all, it is imprudent to assume that the lust for power dies away as soon as power is no longer needed for wealth. The complete subordination of lust for power to lust for wealth may be observed in cases that need not be considered exceptional. To erect it into a general law admitting of few or no exceptions is shallow psychology. There may be men who do not find any specific enjoyment in the exercise of power but do enjoy the possession and use of wealth; these men are free from all lust for power as soon as they are offered a better way to wealth. But very often it is the lust for wealth which is subordinated to the lust for power. Interest in indefinitely accumulated wealth springs principally from either or both of these passions, the lust for power and the lust for security. In so far as wealth is subservient to power, there is not the slightest reason why a technological state of affairs should weaken the lust for power. Notice, moreover, that, by increasing the amount of goods available, technology gives to many men their first chance to look beyond the satisfaction of elementary needs. Some of them, as they no longer feel hungry, turn toward literature and music, some toward wild pleasures, and some toward the intoxicating experience of power. The ratio of each group is entirely indeterminate.

Attention should be called, further, to the patterns of irresistible power with which technology surrounds human life. As has been recalled, an advanced technological environment implies an increased ratio of the rational, a decreased ratio of the casual. No wonder that modern societies keep being ceaselessly haunted by the dream of rearrangements which would bring about the rational society. The mental habits generated by the technological relation of man to nature are characterized by strict discipline and remarkable clarity. The social engineer is an extremely popular myth; this shows that many are tempted to transfer to the social order mental habits born of our relation to physical nature. In so far as such a transfer is effected, the attitude of submission to nature's laws becomes a longing for the relief that passive obedience produces; control over natural phenomena gives birth to a craving for the arbitrary manipulation of men; the element of mystery in mankind is violently put aside. But mankind cannot become a thing as simple as laboratory material without a great deal of human substance being disposed of. The most significant of modern utopias are engineers' dreams in which the desire for domination over nature is prolonged with a technocratic appetite for the rearrangement of human affairs. Contrary to a romantic hope, no utopia was ever realized through the harmless help of a millionaire and the persuasion born of early success. By the time Lenin reached maturity, social thinkers had understood that the realization of a social theory -- of course, these scientific gentlemen would never call it a "utopia" -- demanded a totalitarian state, held well in hand by one party, itself subjected to dictatorial discipline. A new lust for domination over men, shaped after the pattern of domination over nature, had developed in technique-minded men. The Saint-Simonists set forth, ultimately, a construct in which men are controlled with a precision reminiscent of the engineer's methods. The highly emotional humanitarianism which pervades the system did not blind everybody to the fact that a new imperialism, a new lust for absolute power, was finding expression.

The case is made more dreadful by the character of the world picture which haunts the minds of nearly all in a technological society. This picture is mechanistic. The universe of mechanism is made of extension and motion. Motion, in this system, is not a change but a state; further, it is understood in terms of relativity. There is nothing irreducible about life and sensation; there are no sense qualities and no species. This universe is not tragic, it does not keep man company in his anxiety. It contains no divine ideas and no ideas whatsoever except those that it pleases man to embody in the arrangement of his thoughts. It offers a picture of parts arranged in a certain fashion and speaks of unlimited possibilities of rearrangement. The key to these possibilities is delivered by formulas whose simplicity increases as our knowledge improves. In such a demiurgical position man is likely to lose his equilibrium and to erect himself into a sort of cosmic engineer strongly inclined to despise the mystery of nature and the greater mystery of human liberty. The history of man, as well as that of the world, is "a tale told by an idiot. . . signifying nothing."

Today's attempt to build a new humanism ought to be considered against a background of mechanistic technology extended to man. This attempt aims at approaching with appropriate instruments the aspects of human reality which cannot be successfully approached through the methods of positive science. It aims at achieving a fresh understanding of man as a voluntary and free agent. This cultural trend is related to the epistemological theory that there is an essential difference of method between the sciences of nature and the sciences of man. Mechanistic principles would hold in the former case, not in the latter.

Thus mechanism is taken for granted so far as physical nature is concerned. Consequently, it is not in nature but in art that an environment suitable to man is sought. As a matter of fact, it is by no means obvious that the universe of mechanism is the true universe of nature. And it is by no means obvious that art can produce an environment worthy of man if nature is held incapable of being such an environment. The crucial problem, with regard to culture and education, concerns the meaning of "mechanism." Referring to Maritain's analysis,{8} let it be said that mechanism can be interpreted either as a method or as a philosophy. The mechanistic method has abundantly demonstrated its power in many fields of knowledge, but the common identification of mechanism as a method with mechanism as a philosophy should be carefully reconsidered; it may be no more than a psychological accident. If the mechanistic philosophy of nature is erroneous, a doctrine of man and of culture which does not explode such an error has little chance to fulfil its humane purposes. A sound philosophy of man without a minimum of soundness in the philosophical interpretation of nature is inconceivable. It can even be said that a better understanding of man makes it more urgent to achieve a correct philosophic interpretation of nature. The materialists of the preceding centuries were perhaps able to enjoy some sort of peace in their unified mechanistic vision of man and the cosmos. But nothing is more likely to cause frenzy than a vision in which man, verily understood as a voluntary and free agent, appears surrounded by a universe with no qualities, no ideas, and no ends. Nature and art are so related in culture that reforms calculated to foster the humane merits of art are of little significance so long as the meaning of nature remains falsified by the erection of a sound method into an absurd philosophy.

It is impossible not to be impressed by the fact that in our time reaction against the sort of barbarism favored by positive sciences and technology constantly tends toward an exaltation of the most sophisticated forms of art. The word "sophistication" and related expressions, which used to participate in the derogatory meaning attached to sophistry, have recently become laudatory. It would be easy to show, in the history of the last three or four generations, how the cult of "sophisticated" forms of art grew parallel to increased dissatisfaction with the mechanistic universe substituted by the prevailing philosophies of nature for the garden of inexhaustible wonder, the woods haunted by sacred awe, the springs inhabited by benevolent emotions, in which mankind spent its youth. Turning away from the hopeless gloom of the mechanistic universe, man intrusted to his own fine arts the task of creating for him a world of variety, of fancy, of unpredictability; a world of surprise and bewilderment; a world of sophistication, where boredom, at least, could be overcome. The reformers of culture have not given enough thought to our need for achieving new familiarity with nature; for learning again how to find, in things of nature, a meaning, a language, a company. Cultural refinement all too commonly means the defeat of nature within the artist himself. It is not without a lasting cause that the unnatural plays such a great part not only in the life of the artist but also at the core of his art. Unless the connections between man and nature are restored, art-centered education cannot do much to control the particularly dreadful forms that the lust for power assumes under the influence of the mechanistic world picture.

When the relation of man to nature is considered from a psychological and moral standpoint, men are primarily divided into those for whom nature constitutes the environment of daily life and those for whom it does not. Few country people have daily experience of the wilderness, but the relevant fact is that all of them are much closer to untamed nature than is the big-city dweller; notice, also, that in small-scale farming the environment of daily life is closer to untamed nature than it is in industrial farming.

At this point it becomes possible to attempt an interpretation of the movement of aversion to technology and city life. It would be poor psychology and sociology to interpret it as sheer escapism, although there is some escapism in it. Beyond idle talk about industrial monsters, the monotony of assembly-line work, etc., and beyond the romantic dislike for the rational, our agrarians, with their longing for primitive ways of life, fulfil among us the all-important task of keeping alive the experience of communion between man and nature. Most supporters of humanistic education, in our time, are city children, and their only concern is to save man from disappearing into mechanistic meaninglessness. To suggest that a part has to be played, in the cultural reformation whose need is so acutely felt, by men ignorant of literary cafes and cocktail parties would be an extremely unpopular paradox. Yet a good safeguard against the frantic lust for power that technology can stimulate is found in the sentiments of universal reverence, of mystery, of awe and unity, that result from communion with nature in daily life. Today as well as in the time of Jefferson it is up to the rural people to exalt, in their silent fashion, the quiet ambition to achieve happiness. A society so industrialized as to leave no room for family-size farming would be devastated by unchecked lust for power.

{7} Doctrine de Saint-Simon. Exposition. Première année (1829), ed. C. Bougk and Élie Halévy (Paris: Rivière, 1924), p. 144: "The basis of societies in antiquity was slavery. War was for these peoples the only way of being supplied with slaves, and consequently with the things capable of satisfying the material needs of life; in these peoples the strongest were the wealthiest; their industry consisted merely in knowing how to plunder." P. 162: "Material activity is represented in the past by the twofold action of war and industry, in the future by industry alone, since the exploitation of man by man will be replaced by the harmonious action of men over nature." Pp. 225: "The exploitation of man by man, this is the state of human relations in the past; the exploitation of nature by man associated with man, such is the picture that the future presents."

{8} Jacques Maritain, Les Dégres du savoir (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1932); La Philosophie de la nature (Paris: Téqui, n.d.).

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