NL XII: “Happiness”

Index to this series

Judith Leyster (Dutch, 1609–1660), Self-Portrait, c. 1630, oil on canvas (National Gallery of Art, Washington; gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss)

Judith Leyster (Dutch, 1609–1660), Self-Portrait, c. 1630, oil on canvas (National Gallery of Art, Washington; gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss)

I gave ad hoc consideration to Chapter XII of Collingwood’s New Leviathan on November 3 of last year (2016), just before the American Presidential election. This was in an article sharing the title of the chapter: “Happiness.” The idea was that in dreadful times, unhappiness is “parasitic” on happiness.

Allowing himself “a certain freedom of interpretation” (12. 15), Collingwood agrees with Aristotle that “happiness” is the general term for what we desire (12. 11).

As was explained in the previous chapter, what we desire is what we think good; but this is an abstraction. Goodness is only one aspect (at most) of things. Collingwood’s example is of the drunkenness celebrated in a poem of Robert Burns.


Despite the warnings of his wife Kate, Tam O’Shanter would go drinking after market:

But to our tale:—Ae market-night,
Tam had got planted unco right;
Fast by an ingle, bleezing finely,
Wi’ reaming swats, that drank divinely
And at his elbow, Souter Johnny,
His ancient, trusty, drouthy crony;
Tam lo’ed him like a verra brither—
They had been fou for weeks thegither!
The night drave on wi’ sangs and clatter
And ay the ale was growing better:
The landlady and Tam grew gracious,
wi’ favours secret, sweet and precious
The Souter tauld his queerest stories;
The landlord’s laugh was ready chorus:
The storm without might rair and rustle,
Tam did na mind the storm a whistle.

Care, mad to see a man sae happy,
E’en drown’d himsel’ amang the nappy!
As bees flee hame wi’ lades o’ treasure,
The minutes wing’d their way wi’ pleasure:
Kings may be blest, but Tam was glorious.
O’er a’ the ills o’ life victorious!

There is a moralistic ending, or perhaps only the parody of one. Tam suffers for his drunkenness, but only to the extent that his gray mare Meg loses her tail, which is pulled off by a witch called Nannie as Tam and Meg flee across the Brig o’ Doon.


Collingwood seems to take the ending seriously: he says Tam achieved the good of being drunk “at a price only a fool would pay” (12. 64). Nonetheless, being drunk is desirable and thus conceived as good, “not only by the sinner but by virtuous people who share the desire but do not yield to it” (12. 63). There is some associated propositional thinking, which the artist raises to consciousness:

12. 6. Tam O’Shanter wished to get drunk. If he had reflected on this desire he would have formed the proposition that getting drunk was a good thing. We are not told that he did; but Burns reflected on it when he wrote the poem, and you and I reflect on it when we read the poem: it was a type of desire Burns had shared and did not mind admitting it.

The question is raised of whether the object of desire, such as getting drunk, is really good or only apparently good (12. 65). Collingwood does not think much of the question, since “goodness is a thing of the mind” (12. 68).

12. 69. So far is it from being true that desire makes us fancy good where in fact there is none, that desire first makes us able to know (knowledge being the theoretical function of which desire is the theoretical practical counterpart); and good is the first thing we come to know.

“Is anybody prepared to deny that a victory over all the ills of life, however precarious and temporary, is a good thing (12. 62)?” In so far as it is good then, being drunk is a glimpse of happiness.

Happiness is a combination of virtue and power: well-being in relation to the self and not-self respectively (12. 2, 21, 22). This means freedom from passion. Like goodness, happiness is an abstraction.

12. 34. Happiness and unhappiness are not the consciousness of freedom from passion or the force of circumstances, and of subjection to these things, respectively; they are that freedom itself and that subjection itself. As we shall see, so far from being states of consciousness they are not even first-order objects of consciousness: they are second-order objects, the terminal and initial points of desire, abstractly considered.

Pace John Stuart Mill, happiness is not pleasure, since this is only a feeling (12. 39), a first-order object of consciousness.

I suppose the point of emphasizing the abstractness of happiness and unhappiness is to give us the happiness of having some power over them. As I observed in the earlier article, there is no such thing as what Hegel calls the “Unhappy Consciousness” (12. 6). Nonetheless, “Unhappiness is a familiar element in the consciousness of our relations with God, nature, and man” (12. 66). Collingwood considers these three in turn.

Unhappiness in relation to God is sinfulness; as I have little notion of this, I quote Collingwood.

12. 68. In relation to God the notion of unhappiness is the notion of sin; where (as usual) being ‘sinful’ does not mean being morally bad, doing what is wrong, neglecting one’s duty, or the like, but being feeble, being weak in relation to God, being unable to stand up to Him or face a comparison with Him; unable to walk with Him or to call Him friend.

I would say the emphasis is on sinfulness as a thing of the mind. It is not what you do, but what you think about it.

12. 71. The thought that I am ‘sinful’ lives, as it were, parasitically upon the thought that my desire for what has been called ‘justification’, ability to stand up to God, is partially at least gratified.

If you are not happy about what you have done, at least you are aware of the possibility of doing better, and this awareness is itself a kind of happiness. Or is this only word games?

Rembrandt van Rijn (and Workshop?) (Dutch, 1606–1669), The Apostle Paul, c. 1657, oil on canvas (National Gallery of Art, Washington; Widener Collection)

Rembrandt van Rijn (and Workshop?) (Dutch, 1606–1669), The Apostle Paul, c. 1657, oil on canvas (National Gallery of Art, Washington; Widener Collection)

12. 72. It is only in retrospect that a St. Paul or a St. Augustine can tell us how unhappy he is. What he tells us is how unhappy he was (he did not know it at the time, but he knows it now by the force of contrast) before the hand of God was stretched out to save him from his sins.

I don’t know about Collingwood, but I have never been saved. I confess to an inclination to sing along with Frank Sinatra,

Regrets, I’ve had a few,
But then again, too few to mention.

Augustine, Confessions (book cover with the saint weeping)

I am more conscious of the threat of nature “as an immensely powerful soulless machine” (12. 81). An earthquake may flatten Istanbul; an asteriod may flatten the planet. The greenhouse effect may roast the planet. Again Collingwood calls such concerns “parasitic” on the happiness resulting from our “power over the natural world” (12. 84). Some of this power, at least, would seem to be simply that of knowledge. Collingwood emphasizes the notion of nature as machine; and “A machine is something made by man for his own purposes” (12. 86).

“Our favourite nightmare in the twentieth century,” says Collingwood, “is about our powerlessness in the giant grip of economic and social and political structures” (12. 9). But these structures, these Leviathans (12. 91), exist originally in order to provide, in the words of Hobbes, “protection and defence” (12. 93) against “Oppression and exploitation, persecution and war, the torturing to death of human beings in vast helpless masses.” Such evils “are not new things on the face of the earth” (12. 92). Again our despair that our Leviathans are now our chief threat is “parasitic” on the hope that they were created to provide.

12. 96. To strengthen the hope until it overcomes the nightmare, what must be done is to carry on the work, sadly neglected since Hobbes and a handful of successors began it, of constructing a science of politics appropriate for the modern world.

12. 97. Towards such a science this book is offered as a contribution.

The next chapter is “Choice;” I also looked at it in “Freedom of Will,” January, 2014, to compare it with a more recent piece of writing that I had encountered.

4 Trackbacks

  1. By NL XIII: “Choice” « Polytropy on February 12, 2017 at 8:41 am

    […] « NL XII: “Happiness” […]

  2. By NL XIV: “Reason” « Polytropy on February 13, 2017 at 8:03 am

    […] NL XII: “Happiness” […]

  3. […] far more frightful than the prostitution or enslavement of the mere body.” In “Happiness” (Chapter XII of the New Leviathan), Collingwood rejected, on Aristotle’s behalf, the […]

  4. By NL XI: “Desire” « Polytropy on February 3, 2020 at 3:52 am

    […] « NL X: “Passion” NL XII: “Happiness” » […]

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