Tuesday, 27 November 2012

On Socrates, pigs, and happiness

‘For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.’ – Ecclesiastes 1:18

John Stuart Mill would rather have been Socrates unhappy than a happy pig. Or even a happy fool. We are taught, rightly enough we think, to venerate knowledge, and that is the point underscored by Mill. It is the summum bonum, the greatest good. But the obverse side of that particular coin is that knowledge is to be desired, whether it brings happiness or no. But is that right?

It's hard to look good without make-up.
(Vanitas, Pieter Claesz, 1630)
Ecclesiastes. We should never forget Ecclesiastes. I still have no idea how it found its way into the Bible – it’s hardly in keeping with the spirit of the enterprise, so to speak – but  it is perhaps the greatest text ever written. In a single line of verse, everything you ever needed to know is revealed. Vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas. And so, if that is the case, are the fool and the pig, pace Mill, actually better off?

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