Monday, February 2, 2009

The Conquest of Happiness, Chapter 9

Chapter 9 (pages 100-110), “Fear of Public Opinion”

Happiness for most people requires that their social set approve of their actions and ideas, though there are multitudinous social sets that support widely varying and even opposing views. The young frequently catch ideas that are disapproved of where they live, and not having exposure to the rest of the world, don’t know that those ideas might well be lauded or commonplace elsewhere. “Thus through ignorance of the world a great deal of unnecessary misery is endured…[p. 101].” [So does internet access decrease misery? — RBR] It requires tremendous energy to maintain mental independence in the face of near-universal rejection of one’s ideas, and people in these circumstances typically are rendered too timid to follow their ideas to the ultimate conclusions.

Most young people find their own surroundings congenial, but for those with special intellectual or artistic talents (especially in small towns), adolescence is extremely trying. Their interests and beliefs will be roundly condemned, and only when they go to university will they find much fellow feeling. Still, there is a good chance that after school their setting or profession will require that they again conceal many of their thoughts and beliefs, and even if it is not required, “unnecessary timidity [p. 103]” might lead to this intellectual isolation. Public opinion is a bit like a dog, less likely to attack those who ignore it than those who fear it – at least for those whose deviancies from the conventional line are not too radical. The flouting of convention will be more tolerable from someone if their behavior is not viewed as a criticism of the herd, so a jolly and good-natured person has more scope for lapsing from custom.

Alas, the lack of sympathy from others tends to make unconventional people not so jolly and good-natured, even if they hide their views. In a congenial setting, their whole character will seem to change for the better. Young people should willingly sacrifice income to place themselves in such a favorable setting. Many do not know of the existence of appropriate locales, and in this matter, experienced elders could offer useful advice.

Geniuses of the past (like Galileo and Kepler) have managed to overcome society’s repression, but these are only the ones we know about. What about those geniuses or people of talent who were not so fortunate to be able to successfully shield themselves and their ideas from the persecutors? We need to limit the hostility that society can bestow upon the unconventional, to ensure that talent thrives.

The young should not respect the wishes of the old, when those wishes refer (as they frequently do) to the lives of the young. A young person who wants to go upon the stage might be met with warnings and threats from his parents. But if he has no aptitude in the thespian arts, the professionals will let him know that expeditiously – and theirs is an opinion that is worthy of some respect, especially by the inexperienced. The parents will adapt soon enough to their child’s occupational choice.

With the exception of expert opinion, the views of others should hold little influence. Many people spend money not in ways that they would in isolation, but because certain modes of spending are the done thing. Knee-jerk opposition to public opinion, however, is another case of being in thrall to convention; indifference is best, both for individual happiness and for making society interesting. Traditionally, aristocrats had the social freedom to follow their own interests, but with the decline of aristocracy, this source of human diversity is drying up. [Russell here is echoing On Liberty, where John Stuart Mill, too, bemoans the increasing uniformity in human characters.]

Improvements in transport mean that people have more scope for finding congenial companions – one is not limited to a small set of neighbors. [Again, Russell anticipates the web?:] “Social intercourse may be expected to develop more and more along these lines, and it may be hoped that by these means the loneliness that now afflicts so many unconventional people will be gradually diminished almost to vanishing point [sic, p. 109].”

People today probably have less reason to fear the disapproval of their neighbors, but more reason to fear public attacks in the press, which can be terrifying. [Once again, one gets the impression that Russell is drawing on painful personal experience -- RBR.] Press freedom might require some legal curtailment, given the huge costs that malicious publicity can impose upon innocent people. The best answer, however, is more tolerance. The spread of true happiness will promote tolerance, as happy people are less likely to seek pleasure by persecuting others.

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