Sunday, October 14, 2012

Is the 'trial narrative' integral to emergence of the modern view of happiness?

‘Our own concept of happiness is, in its essentials, the eighteenth-century concept that emerges after the trial narrative has wrought its effects on the classical idea’
-                                                                       Vivasvan Soni, ‘Mourning Happiness’ (2010).

Mourning Happiness
 Soni argues that happiness has come to be viewed as ‘a mere emotion or subjective state’ and that this view of happiness is ‘hopelessly and inescapably private’. He contrasts that with the classical view in which happiness was ‘held to be the highest good for an individual, almost without question’.

The author argues that the trial narrative, referred to in the quoted passage, was introduced by Samuel Richardson’s novel, ‘Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded’, first published in 1740. The novel tells the story of Pamela, a young servant girl, who resists harassment by her sexually predatory master until he comes to recognize her virtue and marries her. It is appropriate to describe it as a trial narrative because it involves the trial of the virtue of an innocent girl who suffers a great deal of misery and eventually obtains happiness (so readers are told) through an elevation in social status (brought about by marriage to the man who almost raped her). There are similar narrative themes in other novels in this period. I suppose a novelist could tell a similar story in the modern world, but the reward for virtue would more likely come in the form of an out-of-court settlement of a large sum of money.

How could our modern concept of happiness emerge from the trial narrative? Soni’s answer is ‘reification’. The main point he is making is that when happiness is viewed as a reward it becomes identified with specific things such as positive feelings, wealth and marriage, rather than being the subject of a narrative which responds to the question of whether an individual has had a happy life (without specifying in advance what that might mean). The author spends a few hundred pages explaining this, so please don’t rush to judgement about the quality of the argument on the basis of my attempt to sum it up in a few words.

The general line of argument seems to me to be plausible. Trial narratives might not have been invented in the 18th century, but the author seems to be successful in establishing that they became common around that time. His explanation for reification of happiness makes sense. 

However, there is an alternative, less complex, explanation for reification of happiness. With advances in science and technology and the spread of education following the Enlightenment it is reasonable to expect that people in Europe would generally have tended to became more aware of the consequences of the choices that they were making in all aspects of their lives.

The author seems to me to draw a long bow when he attributes the choices that some people currently make, for example the choice to work longer or harder now in order to obtain greater happiness later in their lives, to the power of the trial narrative in modern thinking. People may see themselves as making sacrifices now in order to obtain greater rewards later, but that is no reason to question their capacity for self-direction by implying that they are subconsciously following some kind of script which requires them to undergo a trial of their virtue.

The author attempts to link the trial narrative to Immanuel Kant’s argument that ‘the sovereign who wants to make the people happy according to his concepts’ is likely to become a despot. Surely Kant’s argument that people differ in their thinking about happiness to such an extent that it cannot be ‘brought under any common principle’ deserves to be considered on its merits. If pursuit of happiness is viewed as a collective goal, rather than an individual right, is there not a real possibility that collective efforts to make individuals happy will end up making them miserable?

I found Soni’s discussion of what he describes as ‘the erasing’ of the political concept of happiness during and following the American revolution to be interesting and illuminating. However, I don’t think he is correct in his view of the consequences of failure to include collective pursuit of happiness via government as an explicit goal in the US Constitution. He suggests that ‘without the open and indeterminate horizon of happiness to guide our politics, the state of legitimacy in which we live can have no other purpose beyond maintaining itself’ (p 479). That seems to me to devalue the intended role of the state in defending the rights of citizens to pursue happiness as they see fit and the contribution of civil society to the pursuit of public happiness. And I doubt whether he is correct in implying that Jefferson, the main author of the Declaration of Independence, saw individual pursuit of happiness as a purely private and domestic matter. It seems likely, as suggested by Darrin McMahon (‘Happiness’, p 325-6), that Jefferson's view of the individual pursuit of happiness included a strong dose of doing publicly useful things. McMahon notes that Jefferson was familiar with the work of Francis Hutcheson who argued that people tend to obtain ‘private pleasure’ by ‘constant pursuit of publick Good’.

It is interesting to speculate what effect the inclusion of a goal of pursuit of collective happiness in political constitutions might actually have on public policies. Bhutan’s experiment with gross national happiness (GNH) suggests to me that it would be likely to result in further reification of happiness. Applying a national happiness yardstick to all aspects of public policy tends to make the happiness objective more specific. Pursuit of GNH seems to be evolving increasingly toward specific policies such as discouraging smoking and encouraging organic farming. The niggling concern, lurking at the back of my mind, is that pursuit of GNH could actually impact negatively on the ability of individuals to live happy lives. Sending people to jail for possessing tobacco products or pesticides seems to me to be unlikely to help them to live happy lives.

Finally, I don’t think our modern view of happiness is quite as shallow as Soni implies. While it is common to view happiness as purely an emotion, when you ask people whether they have had a happy life the response you are likely to get is a narrative – a story of flourishing or languishing, or more likely periods of both flourishing and languishing. I am reminded at this point of the findings of Dan McAdams’ narrative research (discussed briefly on this blog here and here) which suggests that the life stories of many people involve redemption themes. In these stories the narrator encounters many obstacles and suffers many setbacks but eventually develops toward actualization of an inner destiny.

Having read and thought about ‘Mourning Happiness’ I admire the ambitious attempt made in this book to identify the dominant narrative theme in our modern lives. In the end, however, I am not persuaded that the dominant narrative themes in our modern lives stem from Richardson’s ‘Pamela’ and similar 18th century novels. Perhaps it might be just as valid to argue that the dominant narrative themes in our modern lives stem from Homer’s ‘Odyssey’or the biblical story of Job. I suspect it might be an impossible task to identify the different themes in mutually exclusive ways and to disentangle their influence from other factors that impact on on the way we currently view happiness.

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