Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Conquest of Happiness, Chapter 8

Chapter 8 (pages 89-99), “Persecution Mania”

The insane version of persecution mania “is only an exaggeration of a tendency not at all uncommon in people who count as normal [p. 89].” The milder form destroys happiness, but is capable of self-cure.

We are all familiar with people who claim to have been victimized by a multitude of others. At first the claims are plausible, but as the number of purported villains increases, the realization dawns that the self-proclaimed victim has either imagined the injuries or might be at fault for any actual misdeeds. Sympathy becomes withheld, and this withholding helps to build the perceived persecution cascade, by being another wrong incurred. But even the bestowal of sympathy leads to the cascade, as the offer of fellow-feeling motivates the victim to try to keep the sympathy flowing, by embellishing the bad treatment to the point of incredulity. Outsiders can offer understanding when they come across such a person, but the persecution maniacs themselves – and almost all of us have a dose of this disease – also can diagnose and remedy their situation.

Consider malicious gossip. We all do it, but when we learn that others have engaged in this at our expense, we are terribly aggrieved. No one is perfect, and we shouldn’t be too concerned that our friends let slip the fact that they do not think we are perfect. After all, we like our friends, whom we recognize as quite fallible.

“Persecution mania is always rooted in a too exaggerated conception of our own merits [p. 92].” Russell gives the example of a playwright whose lack of success is blamed on a refusal to fawn or some other creditable reason, and the inventor whose failure is blamed on a conspiracy of insiders. One of the worst cases is someone who really has a legitimate unacknowledged insight or complaint, but then makes that situation much more central to the working of the world than it is. Again, the lack of interest by others suggests conspiracy, at least to the victim, who attaches “undue importance to facts which are perhaps exceptional rather than typical [p. 93].”

Some philanthropists feel aggrieved by the lack of gratitude from the beneficiaries of their largesse. The motives to do good generally are not pure, however – a sense of power can enter into philanthropy. Much do-gooding involves trying to keep other people from pursuing pleasures such as alcohol, tobacco, or gambling. One motive here might be envy of those who can get away with indulgences that would come at too dear a social price for the philanthropist. The absence of thanks for the moral guidance will be noted by those who think they have sacrificed for public betterment. Politicians also can convince themselves that they are motivated to serve the common good, and resent the public when it doesn’t seem sufficiently grateful.

Russell draws on the previous examples to suggest four general precepts that can help ward off persecution mania. First, your motives aren’t as pure as you would like to think; second, “don’t overestimate your own merits [p. 94]”: third, others are rightly less interested in you than you are; and, fourth, most people are not sufficiently interested in you to have a motive to attack you.

Russell singles out business people and philanthropists for overestimating the purity of their motives, and for their conviction that the way they think the world should be is in fact the correct world order. Vanity plays a role in maintaining this conviction. For a third instance, Russell draws on his own personal history. “The high-minded idealist who stands for Parliament – on this matter I speak from experience – is astonished by the cynicism of the electorate which assumes that he only desires the glory of writing the letters ‘M.P.’ after his name [p. 95].” But reflection shows that the cynics are largely right.

Standard moral teaching calls for a basically unattainable level of altruism, though the would-be virtuous can convince themselves that they meet the infeasible goal. But the majority of everyone’s behavior is rightly “self-regarding [p. 95],” which is a good thing for survival. [The term “self-regarding” is at the heart of John Stuart Mill’s analysis in On Liberty; according to Mill (Russell’s godfather), society cannot legitimately coerce decisions by adults if those decisions involve matters that are self-regarding – that is, do not involve any significant, direct harms to others.] Further, it is hard to maintain enthusiasm for any work if there is not some self-regarding motive at play – though aid for close family members should be considered self-regarding in this context. Altruistic motives that extend more broadly do not seem to be consistent with human nature. Those who believe that morality requires them to harbor such altruism are likely to be deceived in the degree of success that they have achieved, leaving them ripe for persecution mania.

If you are not meeting success in your profession, you should seriously consider the possibility that you are not very good at it. “It is true that there are in history cases of unrecognized merit, but they are far less numerous than the cases of recognized demerit [p. 96].” How can you tell if you are an unrecognized genius or a rightly dismissed hack? Here is one diagnostic test: if you produce your work primarily because of a compulsion to express yourself in a certain manner, then persist; if you are motivated primarily by the desire for applause, then shift gears when the applause is continually withheld. Your pain at recognizing that you are not as talented as you hoped will be fleeting, and you will prepare the ground for renewed happiness. This notion applies just as well to those who expect too much from others, and to those who believe that the rest of the world is sufficiently interested to maintain a conspiracy against them. “No satisfaction based upon self-deception is solid, and however unpleasant the truth may be, it is better to face it once for all, to get used to it, and to proceed to build your life in accordance with it [p. 99].”

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Conquest of Happiness, Chapter 7

Chapter 7 (pages 77-88), “The Sense of Sin”

The behaviors that induce a guilty conscience vary across the globe, so conscience cannot be some sort of voice of the divine within us. Conscience takes on many manifestations, including the fear of being caught when apprehension is imminent – people can live perfectly well with the thought of their indiscretion, but suddenly repent when they are exposed. The fear of being outcast from society is a related dimension of conscience – a dimension that does not apply to those innovators who do not accept the prevailing morality, and hence do not feel that they have sinned when they have violated that morality.

A sense of sin frequently resides in the subconscious. People have a vague feeling that a certain behavior is sinful, even when reason does not proclaim it to be so. This feeling does not fully deter the behavior, but ensures that guilt is a constant presence. The inchoate sense of sin generally is a vestige of moral precepts implanted in childhood. Thus guilt accompanies lying, cursing, alcohol, tobacco, and anything sexual. In childhood, these topics would cost a boy the approval of his mother or nurse; in adulthood, he retains the guilt, though has forgotten its origin. The association of morality with asceticism is contrary to reason – a rational morality would encourage any pleasure that brought no harm to anyone.

“If a child has been conventionally educated by somewhat stern parents or nurses, the association between sin and the sex organs is so firmly established by the time he is six years old that it is unlikely ever to be completely undone throughout the rest of his life… The result is that adult men feel women to be degraded by sex, and cannot respect their wives unless their wives hate sexual intercourse [p. 81].” Conventionally educated women try to avoid taking pleasure in sex, though nowadays, among the educated, it is men whose sex lives are most distorted by the morality they learned as a child – and this distortion is most likely to exhibit itself in weak moments. The unconscious feeling of remorse for acts that are not objectively objectionable can be combatted by a vivid impression of the rational view. “Look into the irrationality closely with a determination not to respect it and not to let it dominate you [p. 83].”

A sober approach to morality will reveal that much of the moral teaching given to the young is foolish, while the sorts of moral issues that will be relevant for adults go unaddressed. Respectable people fall short of morality all the time with regard to sharp business dealings, cruelty toward intimates, overzealousness in political disputations, and so on. These behaviors bring real costs, not just to those nearby but to civilization more generally. Nevertheless, people’s minds are untroubled by them, they do not imagine reproachful looks from their mothers concerning these transgressions. This illustrates the absurdity of most moral teaching to the young, which focuses on actions that do not cause harm, to the exclusion of those that do. “Our nominal morality has been formulated by priests and mentally enslaved women. It is time that men who have to take a normal part in the normal life of the world learned to rebel against the sickly nonsense [p. 84].” Rebellion is not enough for happiness and consistency, however; one must also think through and root out all of the secondary emanations of those superstitions learned as a child.

Even violations of a rational moral code are not best reacted to by a sense of sin – the concomitant loss of self-respect, which makes one feel unhappy and inferior, redounds to no good. It makes one solitary and envious. “An expansive and generous attitude towards other people not only gives happiness to others, but is an immense source of happiness to its possessor, since it causes him to be generally liked [p. 85].” This generous attitude demands a harmonious nature, where the conscious and the unconscious mind mesh well. Most people can achieve this harmony if they think hard about what their rational beliefs are, and root out even fleeting feelings inconsistent with those beliefs. The time devoted to this process (which needn’t be prodigious if the reasoning is forceful) is well-spent: “Nothing so much diminishes not only happiness but efficiency as a personality divided against self [p. 85].” One cannot become a moody self-analyst, however – happiness and mental harmony require that our energies be directed outward, not inward.

The notion that rationality comes at the sacrifice of more profound emotions is erroneous. In the beneficent emotions, there is nothing for reason to condemn. The internal harmony that rationality promotes provides the space for the outward orientation that is requisite for happiness. Rationality can help us overcome the self-centeredness which arises from the sense of sin. When we achieve internal harmony in this fashion, we no longer equate pleasure with intoxication; rather, it is complete possession of our faculties that brings us pleasure. Russell concludes the chapter: “The happiness that is genuinely satisfying is accompanied by the fullest exercise of our faculties, and the fullest realization of the world in which we live [p. 88].”

Monday, January 5, 2009

The Conquest of Happiness, Chapter 6

Chapter 6 (pages 67-76), “Envy”

Envy “is one of the most universal and deep-seated of human passions [p. 67].” Children evince evidence of envy at an early age; educators and other adults must always appear scrupulously evenhanded in their dealings with children. Adults are just as envious, but somewhat better at concealing it. Envy is probably the motive behind the support for democracy. Women typically are envious of other women, and men are envious of other men in the same profession.

Envy undermines happiness – it generates pain from what others possess, instead of pleasure from one’s own possessions, and might even motivate measures to deprive others of perceived advantages. Unrestrained envy can destroy excellence. Fortunately, admiration is a countervailing emotion, and one that should be nurtured.

Envy in adulthood might reflect childhood injustices. Envious people imagine all sorts of slights, and their company becomes so unwelcome that actual slights are then forthcoming. There’s a type of circularity linking envy and unhappiness: envious people are unhappy, but it requires happiness to overcome envy. Nevertheless, the recognition of envy in oneself is helpful to overcoming it. Efforts should be invested in thinking in absolute terms, how one is doing objectively, without making odious comparisons with others. “With the wise man, what he has does not cease to be enjoyable because some one else has something else [p. 71].” If you see someone, your inferior, better rewarded than yourself, your best strategy is to ignore it and enjoy what you have. Indeed, the happiness that you then possess will make you the object of envy: “After all, what is more enviable than happiness [p. 71]?” And even the better–rewarded or more successful person always has someone still more successful to envy: success is no cure for envy!

Though modesty is regarded as a virtue, excessively modest people require too much reassurance, and shy away from tasks in which they could succeed. Modest people often end up envious and unhappy; they are apt to try to bring down more successful people. Russell supports the instilling of self-esteem in the young, which will forestall efforts to preclude excellence in others.

People do not envy those who really are out of their sphere, those with whom they are not directly competing. The doctrines of democracy and socialism have lent greater scope to envy. Fatigue, too, can generate envy. But the source of envy might not always be direct. A man who is envious of others in his profession might really feel inadequate because of an unhappy family life.

In the past a person only envied his neighbors. Now, with better education and communication a person can envy people worldwide, and many people do. Why is there so much hatred? People feel dissatisfied, and suspect that others possess the means to happiness that they themselves lack. We are like apes in a zoo, who seem to be saddened by their recognition that they are missing out on something better, a higher existence. Modern man knows there is something better, but he doesn’t know how to grasp it. Envy at least has the almost saving grace of being an expression of our pain. The way out is to transcend oneself, to enlarge one’s heart.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The Conquest of Happiness, Chapter 5

Chapter 5 (pages 57-66), “Fatigue”

Moderate physical fatigue conduces to sound sleep, a healthy appetite, enjoyment of holidays, and happiness. [Later, on page 61, Russell suggests that the same is true of intellectual fatigue, provided it does not involve an emotional component. – RBR] Excessive physical work, however, is destructive of health and happiness. Fortunately, the torture of physical overwork has been curtailed in modern industrial societies, but nervous fatigue is rampant, especially among those who are materially well off.

Urban dwellers must contend with noise, constant exposure to strangers, and the daily rush to the workplace. On the job, the subordinate must be unnaturally respectful, again adding to pressure. Even successful businesspeople are nervous wrecks, as they achieve their success through years of strain and concentration. Those who could live comfortably on family fortunes nevertheless manufacture stresses – via gambling or lack of sleep – that mimic those of workers. “Voluntarily or involuntarily, of choice or of necessity, most moderns lead a nerve-racking life and are continually too tired to be capable of enjoyment without the help of alcohol [p. 59].”

Much fatigue comes from worry, “and worry could be prevented by a better philosophy of life and a little more mental discipline [p. 59].” People fruitlessly worry about problems at times during which they can do nothing about them. Happiness and efficiency can both be nurtured through the mental discipline to think through and deal with problems only when they are ripe. Second guessing also should be eliminated, in the absence of new information: “Nothing is so exhausting as indecision, and nothing is so futile [p. 60].”

Our anxiety about our performance can be lessened by the realization that the world at large, and even our personal world, is unlikely to be much affected by the quality of our feats. We can acclimate ourselves even to great misfortunes.

Unlike physical or intellectual fatigue, which promote sleep, emotional fatigue undermines rest, and it has a tendency to cascade. “One of the symptoms of approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important and that to take a holiday would bring all kinds of disaster [p. 61].” It is not work that produces a nervous breakdown, but some underlying emotional problem for which work provides an (ineffectual) escape.

Controlling the worries that afflict the unconscious is possible with enough conscious attention. Russell sees the unconscious as consisting largely of emotional thoughts that were once conscious, but have become buried. Russell tries to take advantage of this feature of the unconscious. He thinks very hard for a few days about a difficult topic that he is working on. Next, he banishes the topic from his conscious thought, assigning it to his unconscious. “After some months I return consciously to the topic and find that the work has been done [p. 63].” He used to spend the intervening time in fruitless worry, but he is no longer disheartened by the lack of evident progress.

Russell advocates a parallel process for anxieties. Think hard about the worst that can happen, and focus on just how limited the disaster would be (as is always true). Repeat this process if necessary – the end result is that anxiety is supplanted by “a kind of exhilaration [p. 63].”

Worries grow from fears unconfronted, and worries should be combatted by rational, intense thought about the fearful prospect. Eventually, the fear will be familiar, and lose its potency. If you find yourself brooding on a subject, intentionally brood even more intensely, until familiarity or boredom neutralizes the object of concern.

Society praises physical courage in men, but not in women, and moral courage in no one. If society offered its imprimatur to other forms of courage, such as bucking conventional opinion, there would be an increased supply of those types of courage, less fear and worry, and hence less fatigue.

Russell returns to the topic of how the desire for excitement leads to fatigue. He suggests that men develop a taste for this excitement because they cannot afford to marry at a young age – due to the financial demands that marriage as currently constituted places upon husbands. Russell then cites the case of Judge Lindsey, whose proposal for easily-abrogated companionate marriages, which would add to human happiness if adopted, nevertheless caused the judge to be widely reviled. (Russell also defended Lindsey in Marriage and Morals, which was published the year before The Conquest of Happiness.) But without a significant change in social institutions, what is a young man to do? Russell counsels moderation in the pursuit of fatiguing pleasures, to ensure that the young man will still be capable of a happy union when his circumstances allow him to marry.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Conquest of Happiness, Chapter 4

Chapter 4 (pages 48-56), “Boredom and Excitement”

In nature, humans seem to be the only animals prone to boredom, in part because the experience of boredom may require the perception of more agreeable activities than those that are currently engaged in. Humans, especially males, desire excitement. The movement from hunting and gathering to agriculture greatly promoted boredom; modern machinery actually lessens it.

[Russell provides a very amusing (though painful) picture of previous lower-class society, where wives and daughters had to endure hours of “family time” after dinner – time in which they couldn’t read, but were expected to listen to their father’s dull monologues. He indicates how it was even worse in the middle ages, and speculates that witch hunts were dreamed up to relieve the tedium -- RBR].

“We are less bored than our ancestors were, but we are more afraid of boredom [p. 50].” We don’t think that boredom is part of the human condition, so we pursue excitement – live in cities, listen to the radio, take our cars to the movies, drink alcohol – to keep boredom at bay. But then the necessary down times will appear boring in contrast. Even quarrels and wars might be engaged in to stem ennui. “Boredom is therefore a vital problem for the moralist, since at least half the sins of mankind are caused by the fear of it [p. 51].”

Boredom that is endured without drugs can be fruitful. Drugs can be beneficial, more frequently than the prohibitionists allow. “But the craving for drugs is certainly something which cannot be left to the unfettered operation of natural impulse [pp. 50-1].” Someone accustomed to drugs, in their absence, faces a trial of boredom that only time can overcome. Tolerance, craving, and withdrawal, however, apply to all strong stimulations, not just those provoked by drugs. We must be moderate in our pursuit of excitement to maintain our capacity for pleasure. “A certain power of enduring boredom is therefore essential to a happy life, and is one of the things that ought to be taught to the young [p. 52].”

Great books and good lives all contain boring passages. Imagine what a modern publisher would say if, for the first time, the Old Testament were presented for potential publication. A thorough reduction to edit out the dull bits and enliven the text would be required. A similar rewrite would be mandated for almost all old books now considered classics. Accomplished people generally lead quiet lives, as they need to preserve their energy for their arduous work.

Russell (p. 53) again returns to the theme that children should be taught to endure monotony. Children need structured quotidian existences, and shouldn’t be overindulged with passive pleasures such as watching shows or with the stimulations of excessive travel. The higher pleasures are those that the child himself creates within a structured environment, “by means of some effort and inventiveness [p. 54].” Constant diversions generate drug-like tolerance, and undermine the ability to direct energy towards distant, long-term goals.

Russell admits to adopting a mystical tone. Pleasures should be of the slow sort, in keeping with the pace of the earth and its seasons. Gambling is one example of a pleasure that has no earthly contact; such pursuits are joyless, and lead to dissatisfaction the moment they are abandoned. Pleasures, “on the other hand, that bring us into contact with the life of the Earth have something in them profoundly satisfying; when they cease, the happiness that they have brought remains, although their intensity while they existed may have been less than that of more exciting dissipations [p. 55].” (A similar distinction applies to love versus mere sexual attraction.) Urban dwellers, disconnected from those slow earthly rhythms, suffer from a boredom brought on by fear of boredom. “A happy life must be to a great extent a quiet life, for it is only in an atmosphere of quiet that true joy can live [p. 56].”