Happiness as a Colonial Science: new publication

In the wake of the Royal Society (London, 1660) and the Académie Royale (Paris, 1666), a slew of scientific societies formed in the later seventeenth-century European world, nodes in an expanding network of institutions devoted to experimental science, natural history, and kindred sorts of philosophical activity. A short-lived member of this scientific community was the Dublin Philosophical Society (1683-1709), whose membership — which included the polymathic projector William Petty (1623-87) and the natural philosopher and political writer William Molyneux (1656-98; best known for his contentious assertion of Irish parliamentary sovereignty) — was drawn almost exclusively from the governing, landowning, or clerical Protestant elite.

The DPS was in some ways a prototypical “provincial” scientific society, though it is easy to forget that Dublin in 1700 was the second-largest city in the British world. It followed the intellectual and organizational lead of its London exemplar, communicating local curiosities and learned speculations to  the latter; its leading lights were, indeed, Fellows of the Royal Society first. But unlike other partial offspring of the Royal Society — an Oxford Philosophical Society also started up in 1683 — the Dublin institution existed in a decidedly colonial context. The elite that populated and drew whatever prestige was to be drawn from the DPS lived in dread of Irish Catholic rebellion (and/or Stuart betrayal), and derived its wealth from a punitive land settlement originating in the Cromwellian conquest of 1649-53 — a settlement implemented, in part, by Petty himself.

So the Papers of the Dublin Philosophical Society, edited recently by K.T. Hoppen (I’ve reviewed them here), make for interesting reading on a number of fronts other than the narrowly scientific. (Hoppen is also the author of the only monograph that I know of devoted to the origins and career of the DPS.)[1] And one of the most striking papers in the two-volume collection, to my mind, is the work of a Church of Ireland clergyman, Samuel Foley (1655-95), who ended his life as Bishop of Down and Connor. Grandly titled “Computatio universalis seu logica rerum: being an essay attempting in the geometrical method to demonstrate a universal standard whereby one may judge of the real value of everything in the world”, it was read in Dublin in June 1684 before being sent to the Oxford society and still later — after Foley’s death, and without his name — printed in London.

I’ve just published an article on Foley’s Computatio (this is the new publication advertized above) so I won’t go into too much detail about it here. But what grabbed me about the paper initially was its form: it’s organized as a geometrical demonstration, and indeed its title echoes Descartes’s idea of a mathesis universalis, sketched in Rule Four of his Rules for the Direction of the Mind (c.1628).[2] Except that while Descartes’s goal was to produce a “general science” of order and measure “irrespective of the subject-matter”, Foley’s aim was to show men “how to compute their time and riches, and to compare them with other things, to assist them to procure as much happiness as is procurable by them.” It was, that is, a science of happiness. And it was based on the minute management, over the course of an individual’s lifetime, of time and money.

If this sounds like an ethics — or an ethic — that is just what it was. The stewardship of wealth and of time was an important component of Christian humanist ethics, and of course the efficient use of resources has generally been seen as a defining characteristic of “the Protestant ethic”, godfather (or midwife?) to the spirit of capitalism. But though he was certainly a Protestant, Foley’s ethic departed from the Calvinist norm. This was better exemplified, in an Anglo-Irish context, by Foley’s near-contemporary, the celebrated philosopher and son of the “Great” Earl of Cork, Robert Boyle. In his youth, the preternaturally un-fun Boyle also wrote on ethics, going so far as suggesting a method of putting every unregarded scrap of time to good use — use, that is, in pious meditation.

Foley’s prescriptions were cut from very different cloth. Rather than issuing general instructions for godly living, Foley posited a model subject and divided his time and wealth into carefully isolated, disposable parcels. Then he described how these should match up. The science of happiness boiled down to a set of calculations geared towards distributing this person’s available money and time as efficiently as possible to the purposes and activities appropriate to each stage of life — from education through courtship to the pursuit of office and even such recreations of privilege as hunting and hawking. Happiness was not for everyone; it required rental income and ample leisure; learning, travel, power and preferment. It was the prerogative, in short, of a colonial elite.

What was the point? Foley cast his paper as an anodyne contribution to science that greater wits than himself might develop. In the article I suggest some more specific contexts that throw more pointed aspects of his project into relief. One was the seventeenth-century mania for putatively mathematical methodologies and for quantification, which led Hobbes to dream of a geometrical ethics and Petty to create a “political arithmetic.” Another was the multifaceted English anxiety about idleness, the flip-side of the pursuit of “improvement” lately described by Paul Slack.[3] This concern related not only to Restoration-era geopolitical rivalries with the French and the Dutch, but also to the deeper contest between Protestant states and the Catholic church over the ritual calendar and the regulation of time — a matter of allegiance and of industry.

Another context, however, was the longstanding fear of colonial corruption, especially in Ireland. One of the reasons Cromwell’s re-conquest had been necessary, in the Protestant view, was that the original Anglo-Norman elite had degenerated into Irish, losing its proper habits both literally and figuratively and ceasing to function as a viable vessel of English authority; in that light a scientific tool policing proper decorum among a newly restored Protestant elite might have obvious value. What is interesting in this setting is that an era that spawned so many projects for the direct, invasive, even violent transformation (“improvement”) of colonized territory and populations — and here seventeenth-century Ireland was, indeed, a laboratory of empire — also gave rise to new, avowedly scientific and even precociously secularizing, forms of elite self-regulation.

When we think of science as an instrument of empire, we often tend to think of the first kind of project: the maps and surveys that reduced foreign cultures to empty acres, the globes and telescopes that facilitated “discovery”, or the ships and guns that made conquest and colonization possible. Or else, more dialectically, we think of local or indigenous knowledge appropriated to imperial uses, or of the science employed in and developed through extracting wealth and exploiting resources in colonial settings. If Foley’s Computatio can be read in a colonial context, I think it suggests something slightly different and perhaps unusual, at least in the seventeenth century: an attempt to solve the cultural problems colonial rule posed by reducing the lives, decisions, and even recreations of the colonizers themselves to matters of number, weight and measure.


[1] K. Theodore Hoppen, The Common Scientist in the Seventeenth Century: A Study of the Dublin Philosophical Society, 1683-1708 (Charlottesville, VA, 1970).
[2] Quoted as it appears in Descartes (ed. and trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch), The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, 2 vols. (Cambridge, 1985).
[3] Paul Slack, The Invention of Improvement: Information and Material Progress in Seventeenth-Century England (Oxford, 2014).


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