From Epicurus to Maslow: Happiness Then and Now and the Place of the Human Being in Social Theory

Πάντων χρημάτων μέτρον άνθρωπος Πρωταγόρας
The human being is the measure of all things
– Protagoras


Protagoras said, “The human being is the measure of all things”. This implies, among other things, that language, science and religion are human inventions, as are economics, money, efficiency, race, conflict, etc. As symbol-using animals, we have created these concepts to serve our purposes. But as our societies have increased in size and our concepts have become more abstract, there is a danger that we will forget our authorship and reify these symbols. This inhibits change in the way we name things, so we are always in danger of misunderstanding the reality we are describing. We seem to be at such a stage now as we employ 18th and 19th century theories to describe and, more importantly, create 21st century reality. One such idea has to do with human needs. Influenced by the abstract (economic) concepts we use, we have lost our sense of what we truly need. Epicurus and Maslow may help to review and reassess those concepts. Epicurus, by suggesting that our material needs are quite simple but that emotional and spiritual need satisfaction requires a small scale loving community, free from fear, and Maslow, by suggesting that our emotional development is age-related, which, besides therapy, may help in suggesting revisions in socioeconomic theory that would ensure the social conditions that would allow this development to take place successfully.

1. Three Challenges Facing Humanity Today

Humanity is faced with three major and interrelated challenges in the 21st century, all of which are derived in part from outdated assumptions, or metaphysical beliefs, as E.F. Schumacher called them in 1973 in his classic book, Small is Beautiful.1 These are assumptions about nature, and about human beings and their societies that we have inherited from the past. They are found embedded especially in current mainstream economics, the (self designated) ‘queen’ of the social sciences, and continue to have effect because of an indifference to the message of Heraclitus that, “We cannot enter the same river twice”, often rendered as, “ta pάnta rei” – “all things change (flow)”, a metaphor expressing, among other things, the idea that we are always in danger of applying obsolete ideas to new circumstances.

The challenges of the 21st century, themselves, are economic, environmental and in particular, philosophical (psychological). Mainstream economists derive their assumptions about the economic system, about nature and about humans from the beliefs and conditions that were prevalent in the 18th and 19th centuries. More specifically, these assumptions were designed to liberate humans from the religious dogma that constrained the freedom of thought and behavior at that time. In the place of an (angry) God, they substituted, on the one hand, a reductionist and mechanistic interpretation of Newtonian physics, which assumed that the universe was like a giant autonomous clockwork, such that if we reduced it to its smallest parts and understood the initial conditions and causal relationships between those parts we could “reconstruct” that universe or parts of it to our own advantage through engineering. This Newtonian framework could then, according to economists and other positivist social scientists, be carried over onto society so that it too could be “reconstructed” through social engineering, with the difficult question of who was to do the engineering usually left vague, if not completely unanswered. In any case, for the scientist, it was not to be God or any of his earthly representatives who would conduct any part of this cosmic ‘orchestra’.

On the other hand, this assumption was accompanied by the necessary Cartesian belief in the separation of the mind and body, this having to do especially with the relationship between the “objective”, “value-free” scientist, and the social and/or natural reality under study. It was seen as necessary that scientists and engineers be untainted by religious or other dogma and apart from the reality under study, though their discoveries might allow them to seek to control it by exploiting its basic laws. Humanists and humanistic social scientists, while seeking objectivity, have never believed themselves to be apart from the reality they were studying, and now quantum physics believes that this is not even true for those studying the elements of nature, particularly at the sub-atomic level, and probably at larger levels as well.2 In other words, in the quantum world scientists and engineers are now seen as a critical part of the physical reality they study, with their thoughts and actions potentially altering that reality. How much more would this be true for social scientists, especially economists, who are advising governments and businesses all over the world?!

At the same time, the 18th-19th century economic theorists were living in a smaller scale society and the relatively under-exploited nature that existed at that time. Their assumptions were thus based upon different kinds of human relationships and a different kind of environment. And furthermore as we question the extreme Cartesian belief, as stated above, we may now suppose that the effects of those assumptions (and the resulting theories), themselves, have contributed to a change in that reality, making it something quite different in the 21st century! Thus, those assumptions may have been useful then but are clearly less supportable today. So from Protagoras’ wise saying that “Humans are the measure of all things”, we arrive at the 18th and 19th centuries and beyond to the assumption that, “Money (or Newtonian science) is the measure of all things”, and in the process have pretty much lost all idea of the human measure.

In other words, matching the well-known structural crises of the economy and the environment, there is also a philosophical crisis related to how we think about and conceptualize these crises, for, indeed, ‘the body and the mind’, as well as all things in the universe, are now seen by quantum physics to be connected. This philosophical crisis ranges from how to address the rather limited epistemological axioms of positive science, especially in the social world, to questions about how we are now to understand ourselves collectively, and how we are to set and evaluate goals for a future that would be free from these structural crises. Specifically, what are human needs, and how can they be satisfied? How can we best organize society and establish systems of social control to meet these needs? How do we establish moral values for behavior? In what sort of social environment can we begin to answer these questions? etc.

2. The Economic Crisis

Looking first at a key assumption of mainstream economic theory, it has been obvious for many years now that, among other things, the so-called ‘free’ market system composed of isolated decision-makers cannot (automatically) solve the imbalance between production and consumption. Nor could it ever; 17th and 18th century economic theorists, working within a deterministic Newtonian framework, couldn’t have appreciated this. Looking beyond economics, we might find quite a number of different understandings of such an assumption. For example, in physics it would appear that the idea of a system composed only of isolated elements would be something close to entropy (or the end state of our solar system some billions of years from now). In literary history the outstanding example we could find of the detached decision-maker, aside from the occasional hermit, would be that of Homer’s one- eyed Cyclops, a primitive creature who lives in a cave isolated from all other creatures and with no sense of the meaning of community, laws or society. As for the biologist, who works with living systems, such an anarchic situation would likely signal a spontaneous evolutionary move to create greater order, as a logical response to such a state of crude disarray.3

Indeed, in an economic system, a truly free market would be anathema to most businessmen, and they would likely seek to establish order by reducing the number of independent decision units through merger and takeover, which is exactly what has happened historically. Thus, in today’s reality the term ‘free market’ has come to be used throughout the world as a cover for this actual process of consolidation, where larger economic units move in to take over smaller ones, particularly in less developed economies. To what extent economists themselves are aware of this deception is hard to tell, given that they are working within a 19th century idealist (mathematical) framework that ‘proves’ that such a market system is ‘efficient’ in this respect.

At the same time, larger production units can take advantage of economies of scale, while also exerting greater control over the conditions of the market. One long-term result of this has been a chronic tendency to overproduction in the industrial countries (the system produces more goods than consumers can consume, especially with the income available to them). As a consequence of this trend there has been a tremendous effort by capital, for over a century now, to interfere with the free market by stimulating an increase in consumption through any means possible, i.e., through advertising, marketing, loans, credit cards, and even architecture and art, etc. rather than reduce its profitable production.4, 5 One by-product of this effort was and is to distort the psychology of people, especially young people, with the idea that only wealth and the consumption of goods could define the successful (and happy)human being. I need to stress that this portrait of success is the product of a colossal human effort by powerful commercial, industrial and financial interests, with considerable help from psychologists and artists, and not some inevitable ‘natural’ evolution of the social system, as is assumed in the mechanistic ontology of economic thinking.

The thought that a better distribution of wealth would give even a partial solution to this problem inspired Henry Ford (only briefly) in the 1920s. Economists and political leaders were also inspired (though not ultimately persuaded6) by this thought during the application of Keynesian theory in the decades from 1930 to 1970 in America, and in a more substantial form in the welfare states of Europe. However, with the rise of monopoly capitalism and its ‘globalization’ over the course of the 20th century, along with its new (old) ideology, neo-liberalism where privatization and the market are sacred, this option is no longer considered ‘fashionable’.

Another (unfortunate) result of the inability of the market to maintain a balance between production and consumption has been the shifting of capital from production (the real economy) to the financial sector (banks, stock markets, and other forms of gambling) for speculative investments, in spite of the increased risk associated with such investments. This form of investment is also accompanied by a certain mentality, that of the gambler, who is totally unaware and unconcerned with the broader human and social effects of his activity.

To quote Marx, who is describing a similar situation in 19th century France:7

[They] . . .get rich not by production, but by pocketing the already available wealth of others. In particular there broke out, at the top of bourgeois society, an unbridled display of unhealthy and dissolute appetites, which clashed every moment with the bourgeois laws themselves, wherein the wealth having its source in gambling naturally seeks its satisfaction, where pleasure becomes crapuleux (debauched), where gold, dirt and blood flow together. The finance aristocracy is nothing but the resurrection of the lumpen proletariat at the top of bourgeois society.

These capitalists are even more morally indifferent than the industrial capitalists, who must at least be somewhat concerned with their labor force, to say nothing of their customers. Given this casino atmosphere, the more profitable these investments are, even if only temporarily, the greater is the imbalance of wealth that is created, which tends to exacerbate the problem of under-consumption – overproduction, etc. As a result of this mentality, we also see a chronic tendency towards an over accumulation of capital among the wealthy.

The system becomes even more unstable, as profit is increasingly based on lending (i.e., for consumption and not for productive investment) and on fly-by-night speculation. Every time a speculative bubble bursts, as we see all too frequently, the absurd ‘logic’ of the basic assumptions of neo-classical economics and of capitalism becomes more obvious, and a more rational organization of the economic system with a more equitable distribution of wealth, more necessary.


Gerald Gutenschwager: Emeritus Professor, School of Architecture, Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri, USA; Research Fellow, Department of Planning and Regional Development, University of Thessaly, Volos, Greece
1. Ernst Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered (New York: Harper and Row, 1973).
2. Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner, Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness (London: Duckworth Overlook, 2011).
3. Bruce Lipton and Steve Bhaerman, Spontaneous Evolution: Our Positive Future (and a way to get there from here) (London: Hay House, 2011).
4. Hugh Dalziel Duncan, Culture and Democracy: the Struggle for Form in Society and Architecture in Chicago and the Middle West during the Life and Time of Louis H. Sullivan (Totowa: Bedminster Press, 1965).
5. Stuart Ewen, Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976).
6. Alan Nasser, “Fiscal Policy as Class Politics: What Keynes Really Prescribed,” Counter Punch 19, No. 19 (2012):1-1.
7. With a full Introduction by Engels written in 1895. Karl Marx, The Class Struggles in France, 1848-50 (New York: International Publishers, 1895).


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