Insouciance has become a part of the debates on the health crisis linked to Covid-19 and is considered a problem. But there are different varieties of insouciance. One of them is linked to the idea of happiness, of which it could be a component.
Almost absence in business ethics
It is not in the many articles in the three main business ethics journals that one will find texts on insouciance (1). The word is used four times, compared to four hundred and seven times for indifference, one of its synonyms (2). Moreover, only one of the four articles evokes insouciance with a minimum of substance.
At first glance, this finding is not surprising. The economic world, especially the business world, is a world of roles. To occupy a role is to accomplish tasks and fulfil predefined duties. How could insouciance – not caring about anything or not caring about something in particular – find its place there? A banker, an accountant, a human resources specialist or an entrepreneur may still be insouciant in the performance of their duties, but it is unlikely that they can stay in their job for long. The closest synonyms for insouciance (hereafter translated from French) seem to confirm this: carelessness, inattention, nonchalance, thoughtlessness and improvidence seem to be incompatible with the exercise of a professional role (3).
But this explanation is not enough. Indifference – which means not being concerned in general, or not being more concerned about one thing than another, being insensitive, detached (4) – is used consistently in all three English-language business ethics journals.
Perhaps the difference is due to the fact that the word “insouciance” would be appropriate for certain usages, language registers and particular literary registers, such as the novel, which are outside the language of business ethics. Moreover, the English language, which borrowed the word “insouciant” from French three centuries ago (5), gives it a meaning that has little to do with the business world:
“A relaxed and happy way of behaving without feeling worried or guilty.”
And the Cambridge Dictionary, from which this definition comes from, offers an example that confirms that the word belongs to a certain register:
“I admired his youthful insouciance.”
This example is remarkable for three reasons.
First, because it refers to the idea of happiness and we will talk about this in a moment.
Second, because the example in the Cambridge Dictionary reflects a recent use of the word insouciance, which is associated with the coronavirus health crisis. “Covid-19: la très grande tentation de l’insouciance chez les jeunes” (Covid-19: the very great temptation of insouciance among young people), was the headline in Le Figaro on July 28, 2020 . And in its September 30, 2020 edition, Télérama’s first question to young actor Anthony Bajon was about insouciance:
Télérama – Is insouciance a value of youth?
Anthony Bajon – Drama always arrives without warning, as much as for young people as for others. Nobody saw the Covid arrive. And we were all insouciant before the attacks of November 13, 2015, or before the Charlie Hebdo massacre.
Let’s move on to the rest of the answer, just as remarkable, which ends with this sentence about the impression that the city of Venice made on the actor:
“Discover Venice! The youthful magic of the moment had erased any thought of the next day and the stakes of the festival.”
Third, the phrase “I admired his youthful insouciance” is remarkable because it does not take a stand on the voluntary nature of insouciance. It is not a question of wondering whether this insouciance has a natural origin, whether it is inscribed in the nature of youth. Rather, it is a question of distinguishing between innocent insouciance, devoid of any position on the truth, and malicious insouciance, consisting in a distrust of or opposition to the truth.
The happy insouciance
In this article, let’s concentrate on the use of the concept of happiness according to the Merriam Webster definition: “A relaxed and happy way of behaving without feeling worried or guilty.”
This is a direct reference to happy insouciance. The expression can be found in some literary works, as well as in the press. But it takes on a profound meaning when used by philosopher Rachel Bespaloff (1895-1949) in her beautiful book (in French) De l’Iliade (6).
Bespaloff refers in particular to two passages from The Iliad. In the first, in Book III, Helen climbed the ramparts of Troy to witness the battle between Menelaus and Paris. Trojan chiefs call it a calamity. But Priam, the king of Troy, comforts Helen by blaming the gods for the misfortunes of the Trojans and Acheans:
“I lay no blame upon you, it is the gods, not you who are to blame. It is they that have brought about this terrible war with the Achaeans.” (7)
In the second passage, at the end of The Iliad, in Book XXIV, Achilles comforts Priam, who has come to ask him to hand over the body of his son Hector. Achilles also makes the gods responsible for the trials of men:
“[…] For all our grief we will hide our sorrows in our hearts, for weeping will not avail us. The immortals know no care, yet the lot they spin for man is full of sorrow.”
Insouciance is not cited as such, but it is defined by the verbal formula: “know no care.” Rachel Bespaloff uses it, associating insouciance with happiness:
“The true, the only culprits are the gods, “carefree,” while men are consumed with sorrow. The curse that turns beauty into destructive fatality does not have its source in the human heart. The diffuse guilt of becoming is gathered into a single sin, the only one that Homer explicitly condemns and stigmatises: the happy insouciance of the Immortals.” (8)
The sense of association is intuitively understood. But the fact remains that we do not know how it works. Is it a cause or a consequence of happiness? Or is it constitutive of happiness, one of its ingredients?
Happiness is a “stable and lasting state of total contentment that represents an existential optimum for earthly life” (9). The word is here applied to the life of the gods. Their insouciance is neither the cause nor the consequence of this state of absolute contentment: it is one of its components, an object of pleasure in itself. Here lies the essence of its value. When, at least, insouciance and happiness are combined. Because there are other forms of insouciance.
(1) Respectively Journal of Business Ethics, Business Ethics Quarterly, Business Ethics: A European Review. (2) Consultation on the EBSCO database, October 2020. (3) In the French language, the word “indifference” comes in fourteenth place. Source (in French): Dictionnaire Electronique des Synonymes du Centre de recherches inter-langues sur la signification en contexte (CRISCO). (4) Source: CNRTL. (5) See the Merriam Webster Dictionary. (6) R. Bespaloff, De l’Iliade, 1943, Editions Allia, Paris, 2004. (7) The Iliad, translated by Samuel Butler. (8) R. Bespaloff, op. cit. (9) C. Godin, Dictionnaire de philosophie, Fayard / éditions du temps, 2004.