WERELD & DENKEN
 
 

Bertrand Russell: The Conquest of Happiness

The Conquest of Happiness (Unwin Books, Eight Impression, 1975 - George Allen & Unwin) p.14

Perhaps the best introduction to the philosophy which I wish to advocate will be a few words-of autobiography. I was not born happy. As a child, my favourite hymn was: `Weary of earth and laden with my sin.' At the age of five, I reflected that, if I should live to be seventy, I had only endured, so far, a fourteenth part of my whole life, and I felt the long-spreadout boredom ahead of me to be almost unendurable. In adolescence, I hated life and was continually on the verge of suicide, from which, however, I was restrained by the desire to know more mathematics. Now, on the contrary, I enjoy life; I might almost say that with every year that passes I enjoy it more. This is due partly to having discovered what were the things that I most desired and having gradually acquired many of these things. Partly it is due to having successfully dismissed certain objects of desire - such as the acquisition of indubitable knowledge about something or other - as essentially unattainable. But very largely it is due to a diminishing preoccupation with myself. Like others who had a Puritan education, I had the habit of meditating on my sins, follies, and shortcomings. I seemed to myself - no doubt justly - a miserable specimen. Gradually I learned to be indifferent to myself and my deficiencies; I came to centre my attention increasingly upon external objects: the state of the world, various branches of knowledge, individuals for whom I felt affection. External interests, it is true, bring each its own possibility of pain: the world may be plunged in war, knowledge in some direction may be hard to achieve, friends may die. But pains of these kinds do not destroy the essential quality of life, as do those that spring from disgust with self. And every external interest inspires some activity which, so long as the interest remains alive, is a complete preventive of ennui. Interest in oneself, on the contrary, leads to no activity of a progressive kind. It may lead to the keeping of a diary, to

The Conquest of Happiness p.15
getting psycho-analysed, or perhaps to becoming a monk. But the monk will not be happy until the routine of the monastery has made him forget his own soul. The happiness which he attributes to religion he could have obtained from becoming a crossing-sweeper, provided he were compelled to remain one. External discipline is the only road to happiness for those unfortunates whose self-absorption is too profound to be cured in any other way.
    Self-absorption is of various kinds. We may take the sinner, the narcissist, and the megalomaniac as three very common types.
    When I speak of  'the sinner', I do not mean the man who commits sins: sins are committed by everyone or no one, according to our definition of the word; I mean the man who is absorbed in the consciousness of sin. This man is perpetually incurring his own disapproval, which, if he is religious, he interprets as the disapproval of God. He has an image of himself as he thinks he ought to be, which is in continual conflict with his knowledge of himself as he is. If, in his conscious thought, he has long since discarded the maxims that he was taught at his mother's knee, his sense of sin may be buried deep in his unconscious, and only emerge when he is drunk or asleep. Nevertheless, it may suffice to take the savour out of everything. At bottom he still accepts all the prohibitions he was taught in infancy. Swearing is wicked; drinking is wicked; ordinary business shrewdness is wicked; above all, sex is wicked. He does not, of course, abstain from any of these pleasures, but they are all poisoned for him by the feeling that they degrade him. The one pleasure that he desires with his whole soul is that of being approvingly caressed by his mother, which he can remember having experienced in childhood. This pleasure being no longer open to him, he feels that nothing matters: since he must sin, he
 

Russell: Conquest p.35

Chapter 3     Competition
If you ask any man in America, or any man in business in England, what it is that most interferes with his enjoyment of existence, he will say: `The struggle for life.' He will say this in all sincerity; he will believe it. In a certain sense it is true; yet in another, and that a very important sense, it is profoundly false. The struggle for life is a thing which does, of course, occur. It may occur to any of us if we are unfortunate. It occurred, for example, to Conrad's hero Falk, who found himself on a derelict ship, one of the two men among the crew who were possessed of fire-arms, with nothing to eat but the other men. When the two men had finished the meals upon which they could agree, a true struggle for life began. Falk won, but was ever after a vegetarian. Now that is not what the businessman means when he speaks of the `struggle for life'. It is an inaccurate phrase which he has picked up in order to give dignity to something essentially trivial. Ask him how many men he has known in his class of life who have died of hunger. Ask him what happened to his friends after they had been ruined. Everybody knows that a businessman who has been ruined is better off so far as material comforts are concerned than a man who has never been rich enough to have the chance of being ruined. What people mean, therefore, by the struggle for life is really the struggle for success. What people fear when they engage in the struggle is not that they will fail to get their breakfast next morning, but that they will fail to outshine their neighbours.

Russell: Conquest p.36
It is very singular how little men seem to realise that they are not caught in the grip of a mechanism from which there is no escape, but that the treadmill is one upon which the% remain merely because they have not noticed that it fails to take them up to a higher level. I am thinking, of course, of men in higher walks of business, men who already have a good income and could, if they chose, live on what they have. To do so would seem to them shameful, like deserting from the army in the face of the enemy, though if you ask them what public cause they are serving by their work, they will be at a loss to reply as soon as they have run through the platitudes to be found in the advertisements of the strenuous life.
Consider the life of such a man. He has, we may suppose, a charming house, a charming wife, and charming children. He wakes up early in the morning while they are still asleep and hurries off to his office. There it is his duty to, display the qualities of a great executive; he cultivates a firm jaw, a decisive manner of speech, and an air of sagacious reserve calculated to impress everybody except the office boy. He dictates letters, converses with various important persons on the 'phone, studies the market, and presently has lunch -,vith some person with whom he is conducting or hoping to conduct a deal. The same sort of thing goes on all the afternoon. He arrives home, tired, just in time to dress for dinner. At dinner he and a number of other tired men have to pretend to enjoy the company of ladies who have no occasion to feel tired yet. How many hours it may take the poor man to escape it is impossible to foresee. At last he sleeps, and for a few h
the tension is relaxed.
The working life of this man has the psychology of a hundred-yards race, but as the race upon which he is engaged is one whose only goal is the grave, the concentration, which is appropriate enough for a hundred yards, becomes in the end

Russell: Conquest p.37
somewhat excessive. What does he know about his children? On week-days he is at the office; on Sundays he is at the golf links. What does he know of his wife? When he leaves her in the morning, she is asleep. Throughout the evening he and she are engaged in social duties which prevent intimate conversation. He has probably no men friends who are important to him, although he has a number with whom he affects a geniality that he wishes he felt. Of springtime and harvest he knows only as they affect the market; foreign countries he has probably seen, but with eyes of utter boredom. Books seem to him futile, and music highbrow. Year by year he grows more lonely; his attention grows more concentrated and his life outside business more desiccated. I have seen the American of this type in later middle life, in Europe, with his wife and daughters. Evidently they had persuaded the poor fellow that ,it was time he took a holiday and gave his girls a chance to do Old World. The mother and daughters in ecstasy surround him and call his attention to each new item that strikes them as characteristic. Paterfamilias, utterly weary, utterly bored, is wondering what they are doing in the office at this moment, or what is happening in the baseball world. His womenkind, in the end, give him up, and conclude that males are Philistines. It never dawns upon them that he is a victim to their greed; nor, indeed, is this quite the truth, any more than suttee is quite what it appeared to a European onlooker. Probably in nine cases out of ten the widow was a willing victim, prepared to be burnt for the sake of glory and because religion so ordained. The businessman's religion and glory demand that he should make much money; therefore, like the Hindu widow, he suffers the torment gladly. If the American businessman is to be made happier, he must first change his religion. So long as he not only desires success, but is wholeheartedly persuaded that it is a man's duty to persue success,

Russell: Conquest p.42
literature, which was universal among educated people fifty or a hundred years ago, is now confined to a few professors. All the quieter pleasures have been abandoned. Some American students took me walking in the spring through a wood on the borders of their campus; it was filled with exquisite wild flowers, but not one of my guides knew the name of even one of them. What use would such knowledge be? It could not add to anybody's income.
The trouble does not lie simply with the individual, nor can a single individual prevent it in his own isolated case. The trouble arises from the generally received philosophy of life, according to which life is a contest, a competition, in which respect is to be accorded to the victor. This view leads to an undue cultivation of the will at the expense of the senses and the intellect. Or possibly, in saying this, we may be putting the cart before the horse. Puritan moralists have always emphasised the will in modern times, although originally it was faith upon which they laid stress. It may be that ages of Puritanism produced a race in which will had been overdeveloped, while the senses and the intellect had been starved, and that such a race adopted a philosophy of competition as the one best suited to its nature. However that may be, the prodigious success of these modern dinosaurs, who, like their prehistoric prototypes, prefer power to intelligence, is causing them to be universally imitated: they have become the pattern of the white man everywhere, and this is likely to be increasingly the case for the next hundred years. Those, however, who are not in the fashion may take comfort from the thought that the dinosaurs did not ultimately triumph; they killed each other out, and intelligent bystanders inherited their kingdom. Our modern dinosaurs are killing themselves out. They do not, on the average, have so much as two children per marriage; they do not enjoy life enough to wish to beget

Russell: Conquest p.43
children. At this point the unduly strenuous philosophy which they have carried over from their Puritan forefathers shows itself unadapted to the world. Those whose outlook on life causes them to feel so little happiness that they do not care to beget children are biologically doomed. Before very long they must be succeeded by something gayer and jollier.
Competition considered as the main thing in life is too grim, too tenacious, too much a matter of taut muscles and intent will, to make a possible basis of life for more than one or two generations at most. After that length of time it must produce nervous fatigue, various phenomena of escape, a pursuit of pleasures as tense and as difficult as work (since relaxing has become impossible), and in the end a disappearance of the stock through sterility. It is not only work that is poisoned by the philosophy of competition; leisure is poisoned just as much. The kind of leisure which is quiet and restoring to the nerves comes to be felt boring. There is bound to be a continual acceleration of which the natural termination would be drugs and collapse. The cure for this lies in admitting the part of sane and quiet enjoyment in a balanced ideal of life.


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