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].”

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