Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Conquest of Happiness, Chapter 2

Chapter 2 (pages 24-38), “Byronic Unhappiness”

Enlightenment does not require unhappiness. “The wise man will be as happy as circumstances permit, and if he finds the contemplation of the universe painful beyond a point, he will contemplate something else instead [p. 24].” Those who attribute their unhappiness to a rational view of the world are mistaken. They are unhappy for some other reason, and that unhappiness leads them to focus only on the negative aspects of existence.

When in the mood that “all is vanity,” one does not escape through philosophy, but through the imperative for action. Only the comfortable, not those fighting for survival, think that all is vanity. People are adapted for struggle, and when everything comes without effort, one of the necessary inputs into happiness is lost: “to be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness [p. 27].” In a good mood, however, we can see how much is new under the sun, like airplanes, newspapers, and skyscrapers. There is no tragedy in the cycle of generations, each seeing its day in the sun. (Indeed, immortality would sap the joys from the world.) Reason counsels optimism as much as it does despair. Instability and falling incomes, however, tend to make for pessimistic attitudes.

Love contributes to happiness, and does so more now that Victorian attitudes towards sex and love have been falling out of favor. Love itself is a delight, though this is not its chief virtue. The absence of love is painful. “A man who has never enjoyed beautiful things in the company of a woman whom he loved has not experienced to the full the magic power of which such things are capable [p. 34].” Love is an antidote to egoism, and gives the lie to philosophies that suggest the highest good can come from within, or from outside of society – parental love is even more telling than romantic love in this regard.

The philosophy of the futility of endeavor has changed our relationship to drama. In Shakespeare’s time, people really could look on the death of a king as tragic and deeply meaningful. “The cosmic significance of an individual death is lost to us because we have become democratic, not only in outward forms but in our inmost convictions [p. 36].” Modern tragedy requires a community problem, not an individual misfortune – Russell cites approvingly “Massenmensch” by Ernst Toller (whom he also had kind words for in Unpopular Essays). Young intellectual writers who are drawn to a futile view of existence should get out in the world and struggle for the means to meet their physical needs. “I believe that after some years of such an existence, the ex-intellectual will find that in spite of his efforts he can no longer refrain from writing, and when this time comes his writing will not seem to him futile [p. 38].”

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Conquest of Happiness, Chapter 1

Chapter One (pages 15-23), “What Makes People Unhappy?”

You might be happy yourself, but when you look around you can see that unhappiness abounds, even on holidays or at parties. The origin of some unhappiness lies in the social system, stemming, for instance, from the prevalence of war, economic exploitation, or poverty. This book will not deal with those big issues, however. The focus rather will be on how an individual person, unremarkable in wealth and health, can find happiness, given the prevailing social conditions. “My purpose is to suggest a cure for the ordinary day-to-day unhappiness from which most people in civilized countries suffer, and which is all the more unbearable because, having no obvious external cause, it appears inescapable [p. 17].”

Russell relates that he was unhappy as a child, and suicidal as an adolescent, though buoyed then by the desire to learn more mathematics. Now (1930) he is happy, and getting happier, it seems, chiefly “due to a diminishing preoccupation with myself [p. 18].” Self-absorption, whether in one’s perceived sins, or manifested as narcissism or megalomania, is quite common. The sinner may believe that his adult reason has allowed him to discard those nostrums taught to him in his infancy, but he still retains them. Pleasures, especially sex, he has learned to think of as wicked. He partakes, but cannot enjoy his transgressions. The only pleasure his early training permits him is his mother’s caresses. These are unattainable as an adult, and he cannot respect those who provide a substitute, his sexual partners. Liberation from these ingrained beliefs and desires is a necessary step for happiness.

Narcissists cannot love others, and lose interest in a romantic partner once they are sure that the partner loves them. Their work, sustained by the thought of the acclaim they will win from professional success, is undermined by their lack of interest in the subject itself: “…the man whose sole concern with the world is that it shall admire him is not likely to achieve his object [p. 21].” Extreme vanity leads to boredom, as activities cannot be enjoyed in themselves. The problem might stem from a lack of self-confidence, and could be cured by an infusion of self-respect. “But this is only to be gained by successful activity inspired by objective interests [p. 21].”

Many madmen and most great men have been megalomaniacs, focused on power and the inspiring of fear in others. Alexander the Great, differentiated from the lunatic by the fact that Alexander really could achieve domination, still could not achieve happiness, as his ambition outran his success. Any megalomaniac must also fail eventually, though this thought (and those who dare to speak it) can be repressed – while the psychological repression itself precludes happiness. Like self-love, love of power in moderation conduces to happiness; when all-consuming, however, it is disastrous.

What is the general lesson? “The typical unhappy man is one who, having been deprived in youth of some normal satisfaction, has come to value this one kind of satisfaction more than any other, and has therefore given to his life a one-sided direction, together with a quite undue emphasis upon the achievement as opposed to the activities connected with it [p. 22].” Narcissists and megalomaniacs believe that happiness is possible, though they employ unsuitable means for finding it. Many others give up even the thought of finding happiness. They seek distraction instead, perhaps in the “temporary suicide” of drunkenness. The first step for these discouraged souls is to convince them that happiness is desirable. Such persuasion might not be easy: “Men who are unhappy, like men who sleep badly, are always proud of the fact [p. 23].” But most people will seek happiness if they believe that it is attainable.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Next Up: The Conquest of Happiness

Must Stick With The Plan. Must Stick With The Plan. And so on. So The Conquest of Happiness it is. My copy is a Liveright Paperback (W.W. Norton), the reset version of 1996. The original copyright is listed as being issued to Horace Liveright, Inc., in 1930. We have come across Horace before, as the publisher of Marriage and Morals (just one year before The Conquest of Happiness) and also as an anti-censorship figure.

The 191 pages comprise 17 chapters plus a single-paragraph Preface; similar to the layout of Proposed Roads to Freedom, the chapters are divided into two sections. The first section (chapters 1 through 9) is “Causes of Unhappiness” and the second section (chapters 10 through 17) is, as you guessed, “Causes of Happiness.” Prior to the contents is an excerpt from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass – an excerpt that suggests that non-human animals manage to avoid unhappiness. The Preface notes that The Conquest of Happiness is an effort to record thoughts “inspired by what I hope is common sense [p. 11].” Russell has written the book, he announces, in the belief “that many people who are unhappy could become happy by well-directed effort…[p. 11].”

Here are the titles of the 17 chapters:

1. What Makes People Unhappy?
2. Byronic Unhappiness
3. Competition
4. Boredom and Excitement
5. Fatigue
6. Envy
7. The Sense of Sin
8. Persecution Mania
9. Fear of Public Opinion
10. Is Happiness Still Possible?
11. Zest
12. Affection
13. The Family
14. Work
15. Impersonal Interests
16. Effort and Resignation
17. The Happy Man

Onwards to Part One, “Causes of Unhappiness.”

P.S. -- An electronic edition of The Conquest of Happiness is available from Questia, but I am not sure of the rules for access.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Proposed Roads to Freedom, Full Time

My embrace of an asymmetrical approach to time has resulted in but three chapters being consumed since the halftime report – and much of the material in those chapters is developed or hinted at earlier in Proposed Roads to Freedom. Chapter VII, on science and art under socialism, appears to be visionary in at least two respects. One is how political control enervates (aboveground) art and literature – Russell accurately presages Soviet socialist realism. The second concerns the possibilities that lurk in increasing the scope of artistic and scientific freedom and unleashing creative potential in the public more broadly. Russell notes three elements that are needed to foster creativity: (1) the availability of technical training; (2) liberty in creative endeavors; and (3) the potential for some level of public approbation. I see in the widespread availability of computing power and the internet an outpouring of creativity that validates Russell’s perspective. (The ease of computing may have lowered technical barriers to creativity, though educational shortcomings with respect to both writing and mathematics still constrain some people from full participation. Russell believes that, under contemporaneous conditions, economic constraints preclude creative pursuits by most of the population.)

In international affairs (Chapter VI), we have not made much progress in Russell’s preferred direction of rendering war unthinkable – a direction that he believes we might travel in part through the creation of a transnational military force. Russell’s view that the elimination of private ownership of land and capital is a precondition for global peace cannot yet be falsified, though we can hope that it is false. Accepting Russell's contention, however, about the need for communal ownership to ensure peace, and assuming that this precondition is fulfilled, Russell still is skeptical that peace will reign on earth. Human nature night not allow it; Russell provides the wonderful ant colony analogy, where the cooperative ant society nevertheless destroys outside ants that stumble into its midst. Russell seems to hold a view that human nature is malleable via institutions and education -- but not unconstrainedly so. All-in-all, among the developed countries, I guess I would say that the past 60 years give us reason to hope that we can limit warfare, despite the persistence of capitalism and the lack of an effective unitary international military force. Perhaps this hope stems not from improved human nature but from increased destructiveness of weaponry, as Russell discusses elsewhere.

Also in Chapter VI, Russell identifies what came to be known as confirmation bias, the notion that we are much more skeptical towards new information that does not fit with our preconceived beliefs than we are towards similar information that conforms to those beliefs.

As noted at “half” time, many of the reforms that Russell sought have since taken place, though generally not within a socialist or syndicalist framework. Unemployment insurance has somewhat socialized the risk of unemployment. Public measures for child support, and much greater economic opportunities for women, have responded to problems that Russell identified (though his vision that housework would become publicly remunerated has not come to pass). Education in some countries is free of charge all the way through university, though competition for places in the best schools or for scholarships generally remains intense. Consistent with Russell's claims, Malthusian pressures have not undermined the utility of reforms that raise the living conditions of the working class.

As we have seen, Russell thought that a significant expansion in human freedom requires the elimination of private ownership of land and capital. In this regard, Russell appears to have been mistaken, in that the increased wealth and leisure made available to most members of rich countries have produced significantly more freedom without socializing property. Nevertheless, Russell’s chief contention – that individual freedom would be the main force in producing a better future – seems consistent with subsequent events.

Incidentally, following the index in Proposed Roads to Freedom are four pages of interesting advertisements for eight other books published by Henry Holt and Company. Three of the books are by Walter Lippmann -- one of them highly recommended by Theodore Roosevelt. The advertised books generally deal with topics such as labor unions or socialism that are related to the material in Proposed Roads to Freedom.