In recent correspondence with a new comrade (SM) I was reminded of a remark by John Stuart Mill. In Chapter 2 of Utilitarianism Mill writes:

Whoever supposes that this preference takes place at a sacrifice of happiness --- that the superior being, in anything like equal circumstances, is not happier than the inferior --- confounds the two very different ideas, of happiness, and content. It is indisputable that the being whose capacities of enjoyment are low, has the greatest chance of having them fully satisfied; and a highly endowed being will always feel that any happiness which he can look for, as the world is constituted, is imperfect. But he can learn to bear its imperfections, if they are at all bearable; and they will not make him envy the being who is indeed unconscious of the imperfections, but only because he feels not at all the good which those imperfections qualify. It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.

A fascinating thesis, particularly because it is so debatable. Can a person truly know how a pig feels? (In the words of the famous philosophical puzzle, "What is it like to be a lion?") And is it truly better to be despondent yet deep than it is to be ecstatic yet shallow? Hard to say --- especially as one moves away from the most extreme cases. And shouldn't a genuine Sage be extraordinarily sad, since s/he will be able to conceive that much more clearly the potential higher states of mind which s/he can never achieve? Overall, I tend to agree with Mill (hey, he's my hero!) --- but there are also good points to be made on the other side.

And as for the immediate context that provoked the above musings: my poor memory garbled the words, as well as much of Mill's meaning. Until I looked it up I thought the crux of the aphorism was simply, "Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied". SM complimented me in an earlier note by saying that I seemed "very contented". I thanked her, pled guilty to trying to reduce stress and unhappiness in my life --- but then played the torn and tattered JSM card from my mental deck.

An old Carnation Company advertising slogan claimed, "The Milk From Contented Cows". But maybe too much contentment is dangerous (if not cowardly!?) for somebody who wants to lead at least a semi-examined life ...

(see also SuspensionOfDisbelief (20 May 2000), DarkGlory (23 Mar 2001), ...)

TopicPhilosophy - TopicLiterature - TopicLife - TopicPersonalHistory - 2003-05-24

(correlates: DeepSympathies, EmersonOnNatureAsAntidote, Deadly Feasts, ...)