The philosopher physician returns and this time he brings his own ethics on happiness. However, his ethics sharply contrasts with that of the stoics putting forward hedonism over virtue (but not over the pleasure derived from collecting new knowledge it must be said).
First published in 1748, while shacking up at Fredrick’s court, Anti-Seneca had gone through many revisions, rewritten many times by La Mettrie for the purpose of perfecting his morality drawn from his own interpretation of materialism.
As is typical with our darling philosopher physician, contention, controversy and condemnation trails not far behind him with each published book. This one differed, not just with the usual condemnation by theologians but with philosophers from his own school of materialism.
Truth be told, despite the title, the book is not solely about bashing Seneca or stoicism, only small chunks here and there that happens, instead it’s mostly about a wide variety of subjects discussing law, what defines happiness, the innate happiness of others, cynical views on virtue, attacks against an afterlife etc.
Even though I adopt stoic philosophical tools in day-to-day life. Now and again a platform should be given to the contrarians. Let us lend our ears to the hedonists! Why not have something on this site to challenge stoicism! Why not be the devil’s advocate for a change?
What makes a work like this great is that it’s controversial. Breeding controversy creates a dialectical dialogue, with the thesis (in this case stoicism) conflicting with its antithesis (La Mettrie’s hedonism) If there is a compromise between the thesis and antithesis then the result is something new called a synthesis. Controversy stimulates arguments and drama that we know all too well philosophers so love to engage!
The first part will be about Seneca/stoics and hedonism:
Mettrie’s Critique on the stoics
“We shall be Anti- stoics! Those philosophers are sad, strict and unyielding; we shall be cheerful, sweet-natured and indulgent. They are all soul and ignore their bodies; we shall be all body and ignore our souls. They appear impervious to pleasure or pain; we shall glory in feeling both. They aspire to the sublime and rise above all events, considering themselves to be truly men only to the extent that they cease to be men. As for us, we shall not try to control what rules us; we shall not give orders to our sensations. We shall recognise their dominion and our slavery and try to make it pleasant for us,”
Still La Mettrie loved to take stabs at the stoic now and again:
“Seneca was unhappy and he wrote about happiness as one writes for a lost dog. It is true that he was a stoic a sort of leper well armed against the pleasures of life. I believe that the first member of that sect must have been a hypochondriac.”
Delight in the hedonia:
The theory of organic happiness and the fact that the body experiences pleasure as a good
Organic happiness thus defined “the soul (mind) is not involved at all and can claim no credit for it (happiness), as it is independent of its will” in other words happiness derived from sensual gratification rather than thinking your way to happiness.
The prime example for this, which was mentioned in the book was the narcotic, opium, in regards to this substance his hedonism shows blazingly, in one passage, he praises the superiority of opium in granting happiness. The soul nor the person’s will cannot claim credit for the blissful sensual gratifications come about by the use of this mere substance, he cries out:
“What wonders are performed by a single grain of narcotic juice added to the blood and flowing with it in the vessels! What magic makes it transmit more happiness to us than the treatises of all philosophers!”
La Mettrie points, to the fact that our bodily organs are capable of experiencing all sorts of pleasant sensations with its own degrees of magnitude too! What he’s trying to say is that pleasure from all our bodily senses are natural and good. So eating quality foods, smelling fragrances, intimacy, music and dancing etc. are all examples of our capabilities of experiencing corporeal pleasure and should not be condemned simply because it is innate. This fact is his testament that it is natural and good and should be acted upon as something done without remorse.
“The more long-lasting, delicious, enticing, uninterrupted and untroubled this feeling is, the happier one is”
La Mettrie railed against laws regulating our pursuit of pleasure (more about laws later)
“if the joys found in nature are crimes, then man’s pleasure and happiness is to be criminal”
Remorse is a feeling easily conquered by the passions and is smothered by it for a time only for it to be revived again when the state of passion has dissipated. Remorse is a ‘unpleasant remembrance’ which is antithetical to sustaining our enjoyments afterwards. So for example, You’re gripped by a state of passion and carry out the act only to which later you feel remorse of having done it. Whether that was revenge or someone ‘struck a nerve’ in you etc.
But La Mettrie’s argument is about remorse in regards towards pleasure not harming others. He agrees that we can be happy by doing nothing that leads to remorse, he condemns those individuals who after experiencing a pleasure and then thereafter repents and regrets on indulging the act as someone who is sacrificing his happiness ‘the more worried, agitated and tormented the soul is, the more bliss eludes it’. If we, instead, without remorse, indulge in a thousand sources of pleasure and a thousand sweet things, without harming no one then the happiness that ensues will be pure and uncorrupted by remorse.
“Virtue is the tree about which we care little, at which we scarcely glance and which we seek only for its shade… In fact we are mostly real fops when it comes to virtue: the favours bestowed on us are worthless if they are not talked about. Almost nobody desires an obscure and unknown merit; we do everything for the sake of a glorious reputation.”
La Mettrie contrasted two ancient philosophers Cicero (whom I admire much) and Cato in their motivations for virtue. Here’s what he thought of them:
Cicero has seen to it that his virtue was praised as loudly as his eloquence Why? In order to acquire glory from it.
Cato performs virtue for the sake of virtue or good for good’s sake to the detriment of his own fortune.
It seems that true virtue is that same motivation as Cato, done for its own sake and not gaining any fortune from it. Similar to the Buddhist conception of true love, just wanting others to be happy rather than loving them because they make you happy. In short true virtue is selfless.
La Mettrie’s account of why people pursue virtue is a cynical one. Virtue is seen here as a ladder to which when we acquire it we can gain prestige from it and be recognised for it rather than as something which will contribute towards our peace of mind.
The critique of Laws
It was particularly La Mettrie’s views on laws, and the moral implication from them, that made his fellow materialists distance themselves from him.
In La Mettrie’s eyes, the executioner who dispatches criminals is just as much a murderer as the starving (presumably poor) man who slits open travellers throat with his blade, are they any more guilty? ‘Whether one is forced by justice or forced by misery, surely one is still forced?’ So what your La Mettrie is saying is that material conditions and life circumstances forced them to take the lives of others.
Laws were responsible for creating ‘the distinction between the just and the unjust’ for the advantage of society; good and evil, then, are only distinguished from each other by the interests of society or more accurately by the laws of a particular society. The fact that there are different laws in different cultures and climates shows that ‘everything is arbitrary and a human invention.’ One example is he pointed to Lycurgus, the law giver of ancient Sparta, who ‘had weak and unhealthy children drowned and was proud of his wisdom.’
(Law Mattrie was influenced by Montesquieu’s book called Spirit of the Laws, which argued that ‘men depend on laws, and the laws depend on climate’)
Remorse is not enough to tame the tigers in our species, so for society, laws must be invented to create fears of the consequences of breaking the law and thus regulate the behaviour of all members of said society.
Even the virtues that do exist are those created by society; a social product. Their value is determined by their usefulness.
The Intrinsic happiness of others
“There is no better proof of the existence of a temperamental happiness than all those happy ignoramuses or all those idiots whom everyone knows while so many intelligent people are unhappy”
During his time, La Mettrie laments on how ignorant people can be so happy and at the same time be indifferent to the discovery of new truths whether in philosophy or science. It does not matter to them whether it is the earth or the sun that revolves or whether the earth is flat or round. As far as they are concerned we should let nature attend to its own devices and we go our own way of taking pleasure in eating, drinking, sleeping and vegetating. La Mettrie never wholeheartedly denied pleasure from the mind he often advocated happiness through education ‘happy was the man who was able to know the cause of things’ it was living by virtue that aroused his suspicion.
Those people with a natural penchant for happiness wins La Mettrie’s admiration; ‘How fortunate is he who carries happiness in his veins!’ He admired especially Bias of Priene one of the seven wise men of ancient Greece for his temperament:
“He carries everything with him and needs almost nothing. For such a well organised man, a whole day will never be sad and cloudy; every day will break clear and calm. He is amused by what worries others and hardly affected by what saddens or angers them, and he is glad to see that he is carefree (despite having just as much income) as the bird that flits from branch to branch and lives on grain thrown here and there.”
Reflecting on this deeper, some people are more subject to joy , vanity, anger, melancholy and even remorse than are others (in other words, their temperament). Our physician chips in that this is all caused by either the inherited bodily organisation of the individual or at least changes of their organs that are conducive to happiness, rather than the immaterial soul no doubt.
The type of happiness which ‘develops with our organs’ is the one he most preferred being similar he says to feeling and strength. However, not all people have the happiness that develops naturally from ‘our organs’, or (how I interpret this to be) our health, physique and genetic dispositions. It is often that our organs are not the best so we must get our happiness from elsewhere and so, the next best thing, as La Mettrie recommends, is education which can be acquired and give us happiness which we cannot find naturally in our physique etc. Even if the education contains a thousand sterile truths if it calms our soul by freeing us from all worries of the mind, then it is a source of happiness.
Indeed, he included this as the opening quote in this book
‘Happy was the man who was able to know the cause of things’
In HBO’s Game of Thrones, in an episode of the first season, Jon Snow asks Tyrion Lannister why he reads so much books Tyrion replies ‘look at me and tell me what you see… what you see is a dwarf’ ‘My brother has his sword, and I have my mind. And a mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone. That’s why I read so much, Jon Snow. That right there is improving the mind to compensate for what we lack in body.
Attacks against the after life and death
“It is easier for an extinguished candle to give light than for a corpse to feel. False philosophy, like theology, can promise us eternal happiness and, lulling us with splendid fantasies, lead us there at the expense of our life or our pleasure. True philosophy, which is very different and much wiser, only admits temporal bliss”
Like a carrot on a string leading a donkey the faithful anticipate a reward from a world yonder from this one. La Mettrie viewed this as a scam and the most fruitful targets of this scam are those that are not happy in this life and are reconciled by the theologians of a promise to a blissful afterlife
When it came to the question of death La Mettrie was frustrated that Seneca did not say, like Lucretius, that death does not concern us at all because it is not yet there when we are and we are no longer there when it is.
From what I’ve gathered it seems to me La Mettrie was annoyed in stoicism emphasising on practicing virtue and foregoing pleasure (although the stoics were not ascetics!). Also La Mettrie was influenced by the epicureans which makes me thing that it may have influenced his attitude towards the stoics.