Posted by: Dirk | August 20, 2008

Frank Knight on Happiness

I have stumbled upon an article by Frank Knight, a great American economist, which is titled Ethics and the Economics Interpretation. It discusses the economic interpretation, an old debate on history and economics. The article contains a passage which reads like Knight had today’s happiness research in mind (for an example of such research, see Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer (2006)). Here’s the excerpt:

The authors of great imaginative literature — always indefinitely better psychologists than the psychologists so-called — have never fallen into any such palpable delusion as the belief that men either strive for happiness or expect to be made happy by their striving. The same has been true of philosophers and religious thinkers of all time, and even economists have recognized the futility of attempting to satisfy wants. It is obvious that wants multiply in at least as great a ratio as the heads of the famous hydra. Greeks as well as Hindus, and Epicureans as well as Stoics and Cynics perceived at the dawn of modern culture that it is indefinitely more “satisfactory” and “economical” to repress desire than to attempt to satisfy it. Nor do men who know what they do want — and who have not sapped their vitality by unnatural living or too much of a certain kind of thinking — want their wants satisfied. This argument of economists and other pragmatists that men work and think to get themselves out of trouble is at least half an inversion of the facts. The things we work for are “annoyers” as often as “satisfiers”; we spend as much ingenuity in getting into trouble as in getting out, and in any case enough to keep in effectively. It is our nature to “travel afar to seek disquietude,” and “’tis distance lends enchantment to the view.” It cannot be maintained that civilization itself makes men “happier” than they are in savagery. The purpose of education is certainly not to make anyone happy; its aim is rather to raise problems than solve them; the association of sadness and wisdom is proverbial, and the most famous of wise men observed that “in much wisdom is grief, and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” Thus the pursuit of the “higher things” and the crasser indulgences are alike failures if the test is happiness.

But the test is not happiness. And by this we do not meant that it ought not to be, but the simple fact that that is not what men want. It is a stock and conclusive objection to utopias that men simply will not live in a world where everything runs smoothly and life is free from care. We all recall William James’s relief at getting away from Chatauqua. A man who has nothing to worry about immediately busies himself in creating something, gets into some absorbing game, falls in love, prepares to conquer some enemy, or hunts lions or the North Pole or what not. We recall also the case of Faust, that the Devil himself could not invent escapades and adventures fast enough to give his soul one moment’s peace. So he died, seeking and striving, and the Angel pronounced him thereby “saved”: “Wer immer strebend sich bemüht, den können wir erlösen.” The pleasure philosophy is a false theory of life; there abide pain, grief, and boredom: these three, and the greatest of these is boredom. The Hindus thought this question of happiness through to the end long ago, and reached the inevitable conclusion — Nirvana — just life enough to enjoy being dead.

For those that are unfamiliar with German, Goethe or both, here’s some help. For those that want to re-read it, Project Gutenberg has part 1 and part 2 online.


  1. […] Stuart Mill predates Frank Knight, whose idea of happiness I have put into context earlier. His point is the same. Let’s hear it from Wilhelm von Humboldt (via Richard Miniter at FEE), […]

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