The Iron Cage and the Hamster Wheel

Dolce Far Niente (1904) John William Godward.

Dolce Far Niente (1904) John William Godward.

When Soren Kierkegaard takes it upon himself to comment on the essential nature of ‘the present age’ (specifically that it is, amongst other things, ‘devoid of passion, flaring up in superficial, short-lived enthusiasm and prudentially relaxing in indolence’), I find myself both admiring the flair and grandstanding rhetorical ambition of such a statement and at the same time overcome with questions like, ‘Soren, when you refer to ‘the present age’, are you referring to every aspect of it or just certain parochial elements of life in late nineteenth century Copenhagen? And if the statement is meant to have a more general or universal application, what kind of authority do you have to make such a claim? I mean, surely the breadth and depth of the present age is not reducible to just a few juicy sound bites? Isn’t this more like pub chatter or tabloid journalism than real philosophy?’ And so on and so forth.

Within philosophical circles, most lack Kierkegaard’s brazenness but are nonetheless prepared to aim their critical darts at a target only slightly less ambitious than ‘the present age’, namely ‘the Enlightenment’. A common tactic, as critics of the critics point out, is to pick out an element of modern life (for example, the alienating effect of individualism) and then generate an historical narrative tracing this or that pernicious feature to a remarkably coherent and universal set of ideas and practices called ‘the Enlightenment’, with one particular text or one particular cluster of thinkers seen as paradigmatic and thus encapsulating the essential element(s) of this revolutionary project. Historian David Wootton’s extremely engaging account of the rise of power, pleasure, and profit as desires that can be pursued without limit, opens by announcing that it will follow in the footsteps of After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre’s seminal critique of ‘the Enlightenment project’, whilst at the same time aiming to build up a much more complex picture of what this project may actually entail (the Enlightenment project that Wootton inherits from MacIntyre is one whose aim is ‘to replace traditional moral philosophy by the maximization of pleasure and advantage). Given that this is a relatively short book (the main body of the text is just short of 250 pages), Wootton is remarkably successful in achieving this aim. Nonetheless, this is an Enlightenment project that belongs to Britain, France and Italy (and the American inheritance of this package of ideas) to the almost complete exclusion of, for example, Germany (Kant, Hegel and others barely feature). But this is not meant as a criticism as Wootton is always very clear about the scope of his project, and there is only so much extremely rigorous scholarship drawing on only so many languages that any one historian can reasonably be expected to produce.

Portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli by Santi di Tito.
Portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli by Santi di Tito.

In The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber compares the rise of instrumental reasoning, rational calculation and efficiency in relation to capitalism as a way of organizing technological and economic relations to an ‘iron cage’ (also translated as ‘a shell as hard as steel’). Wootton draws on Weber’s famous metaphor to show how this capitalist mode of production itself emerged from and is sustained by the transmutation of values engendered by the Enlightenment project. Drawing on an extraordinary range of sources, from a 1658 swimming manual to the eclectic miscellany of Pierre Bayle’s Historical and Critical Dictionary, Wootton offers an account of how this cage was constructed, and in so doing brings into question any notion that this extremely complex and interlocking system of ideas related to psychology, society, moral philosophy, politics and economics is somehow natural, inevitable, self-evident or inescapable. As he puts it in the concluding chapter, ‘[the various systems I have been discussing] exist only because people believe they exist, and consequently they did not exist before people began to believe in them’, and elsewhere in a footnote: ‘Nature is an objective reality outside ourselves; but when we study ourselves we are studying something we have made, and we alter ourselves and our societies in the process of studying them.’ And yet despite rattling the bars of the cage somewhat, Wootton’s conclusion is that no matter how riddled with internal tensions and contradictions this project may have been and may continue to be, it is still marked by ‘considerable coherence and resilience’ such that it has ‘resisted all efforts to kill it off.’ As he concludes, ‘no matter how we try to escape, we remain within the cage.’

What though are we trying to escape from? I will touch on a few of the key foundational elements of the Enlightenment project upon with the larger political and economic systems were built before focusing on one in particular. Wootton’s paradigm is built upon a number of inter-related intellectual and cultural revolutions: 1) A pluralism of notions of the good life such that traditional (religiously inflected) notions of the highest good in life was rejected, 2) The democratization of values such that old aristocratic ideas of distinct classes were broken down, 3) The move from salvation of souls in the next life to pursuit of happiness in this life, 4) The belief that through identifying certain key principles guiding human behaviour, a rigorous scientific account of human nature was possible, and 5) The identification of self-interest as the core human motivation. It is on this final statement that I will focus. ​ Central to Wootton’s account is that the Enlightenment project involved a trasmutation of core values motivating Aristotelian virtue ethics and Christian morality. Within this pre-existing paradigm, ‘honour, self-respect, dignity, reputation, and a clear conscience were held to be more important than success in acquiring power, pleasure or wealth.’ For Wootton, what he refers to as ‘the Enlightenment paradigm’ (to distinguish it from the seemingly more deliberate and conscious notion of an Enlightenment project. Elsewhere he suggests that the Enlightenment paradigm that he describes is best understood in Wittgensteinian terms as ‘an interrelated set of language games, which relate to an interrelated set of forms of life.’) can be summarized as ‘the attempt to understand how selfish individuals can construct functioning societies and to propose ways in which individuals can be trained and societies can be reconstructed so that they function more successfully to satisfy our selfish appetites’, a vision in line with Kant’s famous idea of the ‘unsocial sociability’ of humans.

Book Power, pleasure and profit by David Wootton

The Enlightenment paradigm is thus built around what he refers to as ‘the selfishness principle.' In fact, reading Wootton’s compelling analysis of the growth of this paradigm from Macchiavelli via Hobbes to Locke and Hume, it’s difficult to see what all the fuss and hullaballoo related to evolutionary or ‘selfish gene’ accounts of human motivation, behaviour and morality is about. All the juicy material was there in diverse and often horrifying (e.g. Edmund Spenser) forms well before Richard Dawkins’s selfish genes or Jordan Peterson’s lobster politics came along. So a central element in Wootton’s account of the Enlightenment paradigm is the subjugation of reason by the passions (another reason why figures like Kant or Spinoza are peripheral figures). The traditional goals of moral philosophy were replaced by the maximization of pleasure and advantage, with the less palatable versions of this doctrine propounded by thinkers like Machiavelli and Hobbes clearing the way for later more moderate and apparently self-evident variants on this theme as found in, for example, Locke, Hume, and Smith.

In a sense, Wootton’s Enlightenment paradigm is a philosophy of least resistance in which the passions triumph and reason is enslaved. Why, this paradigm seems to ask, would anyone bother to engage in a rationally motivated virtuous/soteriological mission of, for example, the Spinozist kind, a mission that in Spinoza’s own words ‘seems very hard’ and cannot be found ‘without great effort’? Why try to deny or feel ashamed of our passions and drives, even if these are motivated by self-interest, and especially if they can be shown to be socially beneficial (e.g. Smith’s famous invisible hand metaphor)?

Although Wootton is remarkably even-handed in his account of the hold that this Enlightenment paradigm has over us, a central motif of his book relates to the new modes of alienation and discontent which the paradigm has produced, for example when he refers in the concluding chapter to the narrowness and fragility of the ties of affection that any account of human motivation rooted in the ‘selfishness principle’ must produce, and how the pursuit of insatiable appetites like power and wealth may benefit society in some ways but must surely undermine individual happiness. As he writes on the final page, the real transformation of the Enlightenment paradigm ‘was not in the world of ideas; it was in the lives and behaviour of people who had come to accept that virtue, honour, shame, and guilt counted for almost nothing; all that mattered was success.’ For Thomas Hobbes, life is best understood to be a race, one which ‘we must suppose to have no other Goal...but being formost [sic].’ All things considered, Wootton concludes, there are more important things in life than ambition, competition, and winning. And most of us would agree. But then we look around us, and then (maybe) we look at ourselves, and, well, what do we see?

To extend Weber’s metaphor somewhat, in UCD philosopher Brian O’Connor’s book, Idleness: A Philosophical Essay, we find ourselves trapped once again in the Enlightenment’s iron cage, only now we are spinning relentlessly on our hamster wheels. Although idleness is a peripheral theme in Wootton’s book, he argues that what is new about the Enlightenment paradigm is the ‘scaling up of the idea of insatiable desire, so that it was now thought of as the fundamental characteristic not just of a few individuals, but of mankind in general, and consequently of whole societies.' Within this paradigm, we all aim for the highest happiness and this leaves us restless, unsatisfied, and fundamentally in competition with each other. Striving is the name of the game, and whether one is striving for salvation of one’s soul or for the good of the community, the great enemy of human life is idleness.

O’Connor’s Enlightenment is a very different beast to Wootton’s, focusing as it does entirely on the tradition in German thought leading from Kant via Hegel and Schopenhauer to Marx and modern critical theorists like Marcuse. Within this tradition, O’Connor traces a persistent ambivalence or outright hostility to the idle life. O’Connor defines idleness variously as ‘experienced activity that operates according to no guiding purpose’, ‘a feeling of non-compulsion and drift’ and ‘a non-instrumental break from all that is required to make us useful.' Contrasting it with related terms, he finds idleness sitting closer to laziness than it does to either play or leisure. Philosophers dismiss idleness as, amongst other things, passive, vegetative, irrational, death-like, and bestial; in short, as a way of life that is unworthy of the kinds of creature that we are.

What O’Connor calls ‘the worthiness myth’ is the highly influential belief that we need to establish our worthiness through dedicated effort, that we are obliged ‘to become worthy of one’s humanity through carefully chosen acts of self-realization.’ This worthiness myth is central to O’Connor’s critique of what he sees as the distinctive Enlightenment criticism of idleness. Kant is the bogey-man in this account, for his vision of Enlightenment is one of taking responsibility for oneself and the institutions of the state; any refusal to meet this challenge by, amongst other things, being idle is seen as a denial of the central tenets of the Enlightenment. It is, in short,irrational and cannot be willed as a universal law (as O’Connor points out, though, this kind of attitude appears at odds with Kant’s fundamental moral precept that we should be treated as ends and not means).

Kant rejects the kind of pluralist notions of the good life we found in Wootton’s Enlightenment paradigm in favour of a well-defined idea of the highest good in life, i.e. rational self-determination. Faced with the Kantian project, it seems that one can either take on the burden and torment of living according to the worthiness myth or one can strive to elevate oneself above the common good and undertake the radically individualistic task of shaping our own values or creating our lives as works of art (in a Nietzschean fashion). O’Connor finds neither position compelling, noting the ‘extraordinary responsibility to oneself' and the ‘most demanding self-involvement’ required by the latter, and the fact that both must necessarily ‘reject the very idea that we might be happy to rest with ourselves as we find ourselves.’

We see here that O’Connor’s vision of idleness involves a particular relationship to time, one that is not underpinned by the constant striving of future-orientation. But is this kind of relationship to time a form of wishful thinking, a desire to return to a state of prelapsarian naiveté? Hegel, for one, would appear to answer with a resounding yes. Given that the formation and cohesion of societies depends upon the individual’s internalization of public opinion and that public opinion is strictly future-oriented and goal-driven, any attempt to free oneself from such social intrusions is seen as merely another sign of how deeply one has in fact internalized the dominant public norms. As O’Connor puts it, this line of thought ‘attempts to choke off rational justification for quite different ways of living.’ O’Connor, however, is unimpressed by Hegel’s line of reasoning here, noting that our formation as social beings is not as deep or compelling as Hegel seems to suggest.

So it may be that neither Kant nor Hegel can convince us that a life as an idler lived in opposition to certain core Enlightenment goals is beyond us, but a further question arises: ‘Is any human able to sustain an idle existence without succumbing to the weight of intolerable boredom?’ Something that both Wootton and O’Connor object to is the tendency on the part of philosophers to assume that their theories of human nature are timeless universal features of the human condition. In Hobbes’s world, we pursue power and pleasure out of necessity; from Hume’s own experience of curiosity, uneasiness, concern, and ambition, it seems a remarkably small jump for him to assume these to be universal aspects of human psychology; for Machiavelli, the human mind is naturally insatiable and vain; while for Smith, a perpetual sense of dissatisfaction between womb and grave is a guaranteed feature of human experience.

These insights, sustained as they are by myriad interlocking social and cultural practices, come to be seen as self-evident, and thus generate the very universality that they claim to have discovered. In the case of idleness, for Schopenhauer action rooted in a desire to escape boredom is presented as a supposed a-historical fact of nature. Boredom is an empty or objectless willing, and this must be experienced as miserable. We are condemned to be bored! So it is boredom at an individual level (rather than, say, an internalization of norms at a social level) that is the deepest impediment to a life of idleness.

Book Idleness a philosophycal essay by Brian O’Connor

O’Connor wishes to undermine the necessity implied in Schopenhauer’s view that boredom is a necessary consequence of idleness by pointing out that the connection between the two could just as plausibly arise from any number of specific historical conditions, from ‘the call of social prestige’ to ‘the practical natures that education and discipline inculcate in us’. Although O’Connor is clear that his goal is to show the inadequacy of arguments against idleness while not offering a positive conception of the idle life, I think that a useful positive conception can be achieved by reversing Schopenhauer’s formulation and asking whether idleness may in fact be a valuable consequence of boredom. It may well be that for any number of evolutionary/psychological/social reasons humans are likely to experience boredom as a result of idleness, but what does this boredom tell us other than that we struggle, to use O’Connor’s phrase from earlier, to rest with ourselves as we find ourselves?

There is something profoundly unsettling about not projecting ourselves into the future. In Heidegger’s excruciatingly long exposition on boredom in the Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, he describes how (deep) boredom ‘takes us back to the point where all and everything appears indifferent to us’; we experience moments of ‘being left empty and being held in limbo.’ In such a state, we find ourselves sufficiently removed from immersion in the world to awaken philosophical and metaphysical questions related to, for example, temporality that are generally subdued in our everyday restless activities. Thus we find Heidegger arguing that boredom ‘brings us ourselves into the possibility of an exceptional understanding’, that ‘we experience a peculiar compulsion in it, a compulsion to listen to what it has to tell us.’ I wouldn’t want to speculate too much on what this exceptional understanding may be or what boredom may be wanting to tell us, but it could be that a different and radically transformed experience of temporality is possible, and that only in this experience achieved through sustaining oneself through the vicissitudes of deep boredom can the possibility of an idle life be realized, a genuine experience of being happyth to rest with ourselves as we find ourselves, no longer ruled by the compulsion to project ourselves into the future. ​ O’Connor’s vision of idleness is very ambitious and compelling, and the implications of the kind of shift he advocates are not insignificant. As he puts it on the final page, they point to ‘the implausible-sounding scenario in which the phenomena of usefulness, competitive social identities, or long-term discipline no longer form the outlines of our experience.’ Idleness exists as a genuine subversion of the social order (rather than in the rather dandified and superficial version one finds in, for example, The Idler, in which idleness is an affectation, a pursuit of youth, and therefore inextricably bound to the system it purports to undermine). O’Connor’s idleness entails ‘complete indifference to purpose’ and ‘makes no appeal to the notion of a self that must have integrity, moderate its desires, or find its place within a network of recognition.’ A tall order indeed! Although I would have liked O’Connor to have attempted to formulate some of the contours of an idle way of life, for example the paradoxical rigours that it may require, I found his book to be an exhilarating read that is clearly rooted in a deep compassion for those he feels are unnecessary victims of numerous ingenious and highly influential philosophical arguments that turn out in the end to be simply further justifications of our anxious world. ​ Anthony Morgan is based in Newcastle upon Tyne where he edits The Philosopher and runs Bigg Books.


From The Philosopher, vol. 107, no. 1 ('Doing Philosophy'). Read more articles from The Philosopher, purchase this issue or become a subscriber.