Monday, July 23, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Twenty-Eight

“The Road to Happiness,” pages 215-220

“For over two thousand years it has been the custom among earnest moralists to decry happiness as something degraded and unworthy [p. 215].” The Greek and Roman Stoics, the modern German philosophers, Carlyle: all have offered their support to immoral undertakings. An expression of disdain for happiness generally means that it is other people’s happiness that you disdain. Maybe you selflessly sacrifice your own happiness for mankind; you still are apt to fall into envy of those happy people who are less noble, and harden your heart towards them, as has happened to many Communists.

Theorists of the good life are apt to forget what frailty that flesh is heir to. Too much sacrifice of pleasure, even for a worthy cause, will render the cause repellent. (Recall Russell’s concern that many mothers sacrificed too much for their families.) The notion that a happiness consciously sought slips out of reach is true only if the method of seeking is mistaken, as it is if you take to drink. Your concrete ‘rule to live by’ should be specific to your preferences, but it should not be inconsistent with happiness.

Many people who possess the requisite conditions for happiness – health and sufficient income – are nonetheless unhappy. Generally this problem is due to an incorrect theory. Other animals, who lack theories but act on instinct, take pleasure in existence. Humans sometimes do not let their plans conduce enough with instinct, so even if they fulfill their plans, they cannot be happy. People who are happy share some common characteristics. “The most important of these things is an activity which at most times is enjoyable on its own account, and which, in addition, gradually builds up something that you are glad to see coming into existence [p. 217]” – like the Reading Bertrand Russell blog, Bertie does not add. Sometimes this involves child-rearing, sometimes artistic or scientific creation, sometimes gardening.

The sorts of activity that bring happiness require that a person not be overly fatigued. Alas, most jobs do not naturally bring happiness, and leave people too tired for active pursuits in their non-work time. Other people curtail their natural impulses (or insist that their children do) to avoid the negative thoughts of neighbors; the price of their propriety is constant boredom, borderline or full-on. The pursuit of success in society undermines happiness, even though such success can contribute to happiness – provided social success is not the goal of one's activity, and is accompanied by meaningful accomplishments.

Happiness in healthy and well-fed people requires “a stable framework built round a central purpose [p. 219]” – work and family, again, if suitable, serve this function – and some spontaneous, purposeless activity. Then quotidian existence can bring simple joy, without any need for deep theorizing. If the daily routine is not suitable, then a new routine, one consistent with happiness, is the antidote. And it may be that it is our physical, animal selves that need a larger place in our routine. Long walks do more than Milton can in enlivening the daily tasks of man.

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