When man turned agricultural, it was a step toward civilisation, but also something was lost. Forethought made him see the future benefits of tilling the soil, which is opposed to the immediate returns (and pleasure) of hunting and gathering. Each subsequent grand civilization has since then built on an agricultural staple-food, but outbursts of instinctive passion in form of art, sport and war have accompanied this rise of civilization. The conflict between the rational and instinctive aspects of human nature has raged ever since, sometimes leading to periods of hedonism, sometimes to austerity and introvertism.
Religion has often claimed to reward sacrifices in this life with benefits in another world, but many religious prophets have justified their gospel arguing that their believes are the practically best way of organizing this life, too.
The economic sphere also reflects this dualism. Credit promises the good life now (if one accepts the hedonistic account it is rational to act so). Saving is the opposite conception, having the maxim of sacrificing the short term benefit to reap long-term rewards, but this can be self-defeating. Such a mindset puts stability and safety before pleasures. The European debt crisis and the disagreement over its cure, exemplify the problems with both approaches.
The issue at stake can also be cast in terms of freedom. Isaiah Berlin speaks of two kinds of liberty. Negative freedom is linked with opportunities, or the absence of external restraints and might be (crudely) associated with bodily pleasures. Positive freedom is obtained through self-mastery, or the dominance of the mind over body’s desires. But it is difficult to agree on what constitutes the good life, so Rousseau notably thought it necessary to “force man to be free”. Not without reason points Berlin to the inherent danger of positive freedom.
Finally, the concept of a person (as opposed to an animal) is often defined as being able to form and act upon second-order desires (desires about desires). Harry Frankfurt discusses the case of two drug-addicts desiring their stuff. Both end up taking the drug, but one does so with indifference, whereas the other one struggles with his lower-order desire, wishing that he did not have it. According to Frankfurt only the second drug-addict is a person, the other one a wanton.
Very crudely, the questions seems to turn on whether mind- or bodily pleasures bring the ultimate reward, and people have disagreed about its answer ever since civilization emerged from the woods. Socrates famously thinks that the highest state of mind is obtained by understanding and contemplation and that philosophers, being the wisest, should rule the state, but footballers and alpha-male politicians tend to disagree with this view. Pythagoras stipulates an interesting compromise, mixing intellectual curiosity with Orphic intoxication in mysticism.
What can one still learn from this today?
Two phenotypes might want to be distinguished in current society, without claim on exhaustiveness and acknowledging that those traits are likely to be mixed in most people.
On one side of the spectrum there are those who obtain pleasure through self-mastery. Examples can be found in intellectual circles, among policy-wonks and philosophers (not all). On the other side there are those who are mainly driven by their instincts and acquire pleasure through their satisfaction. We may call the former, the philosophical farmer and the latter the hedonistic hunter.
The intellectual, having felt the delight that comes with understanding in some moments, might ask herself if she does not miss out on something, in other moments, when she contemplates society from afar. The hedonist, on the other hand, having indulged in the satisfaction of his desires, might find himself overwhelmed by conflicting desires, struggling to work out which ones he prefers. Similarly, he might harbour suspicions that unknown pleasures lay in a different realm.
It seems that farmer and hunter can learn from each other. The farmer is well advised to let out the hunting spirits, while the hunter can benefit from the farmer’s more settled long-term view.
I would like to conclude with some remarks concerning commitment, a topic I have recently dwelt on. At the time I investigated the case of the restless international and his relation to commitmentphobia. It seems that the hunter can be couched in terms of the restless international. Commitment can be understood as taking the long-term view, whereas short-term indulgence in opportunities would be like the pleasure taken out of hunting. The difficult issue of course, as Berlin remarked, is that there is not one receipt for everyone, and finding out what ones wants involves following ones desires.
- Isaiah Berlin, two Concepts of Liberty
- Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Social Contract
- Harry G. Frankfurt, Freedom of the will and the concept of a person