Saturday, January 21, 2012

128 Ways of Being Wretched

Rosmini, in Society and Its Purpose, Book IV, proposes an exact rundown of all the ways in which human beings can make themselves unhappy; according to him, there are exactly one hundred twenty-eight ways in which we frustrate ourselves. He gives a brief summary in chapter 27:

We see, therefore, that the errors which the practical reason can make about unhappiness, and the various kinds of illusory capacities which continually extend and aggravate the human spirit as they lead it to a state which can only be called moral madness, are one hundred and twenty-eight.

Physical pleasure has one unsatisfiable capacity whenever the pleasure sought is not real and determined, but conceived in general.

Wealth has two unsatisfiable capacities; the aim is either wealth in general, or wealth sought for the sake of pleasure in general.

Power has four unsatisfiable capacities; the aim is either power in general for its own sake, or for pleasure in general, or for wealth which again, as we have said, forms an undetermined object whether sought for itself or as a means of obtaining pleasure in general.

Glory has fifty-six capacities, all of them unsatisfiable of their own nature. I have distinguished seven kinds of glory, each of which can be desired 1. for itself, or 2. as a means for obtaining physical pleasure, which has only one abstract concept, or 3. for the sake of obtaining wealth, which admits two abstract concepts, or 4. for the sake of obtaining power, which admits of four abstract concepts under which it is presented to our appetite as an abstract, chimerical object.

Finally, sixty-five capacities can be listed in knowledge. All of these are unsatisfiable, extend indefinitely in human beings and can never be filled. They are present 1. when pleasure in general is sought in knowledge; 2. when indefinite richness of mind is sought. Knowledge, considered as enrichment of mind, can then be desired for itself, or as a means to pleasure, or power, or wealth, or glory. As we saw, pleasure opens the gate to error in the intellect and waywardness of heart in one way, wealth in two, power in four and glory in fifty-six ways. All these ways constitute the same number of illusory, indefinite ends for which knowledge can serve as means.

Added together, all these unsatisfiable capacities, each specifically different from the others, is found to number one hundred and twenty-eight. This is the vast labyrinth in which the hearts of men and women wander endlessly and lose themselves.

Each of the 128 ways listed is a way in which merely apparent good can be substituted for actual good, in which we hope to get unbounded good from necessarily finite goods; he discussed these in prior chapters. Actually, Rosmini goes on to add a 129th; but this is a sort of union of all the 128 ways, and thus, as Rosmini puts it, is itself a moral dementia, pure unadulterated pride; in another of Rosmini's phrases, it contains diabolical grandeur, in which put ourselves in the place of God. I stick with the 128 number for convenience, because, as Rosmini further goes on to point out, none of the ways of being unhappy are inconsistent with any of the others, so the actual number of ways of being unhappy is every possible combination of the 128, and the 129th is only one of those combinations. And even this is not enough to map out all possible human unhappiness, because these are only the specifically distinct capacities for unhappiness; each one of these capacities of misery can be exercised in varying degrees.

So now you know. Actually, it's an interesting approach; what Rosmini is trying to do is to posit a manifold of possible states of human life, both morally successful and morally unsuccessful, so that in the formation and governance of a society of people we will be able to assess the quality of the society by how it helps people navigate this manifold.

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