Saturday, September 18, 2010

Themes in the Conquest of Happiness

The “Conquest of Happiness" is Bertrand Russell's recipe for good living. First published in 1930, it pre-dates the current obsession with self-help by decades. Leading the reader step by step through the causes of unhappiness and the personal choices, compromises and sacrifices that (may) lead to the final, affirmative conclusion of "The Happy Man", this is popular philosophy, or even self-help, as it should be written. 
Certain themes come up again and again in the book, The Conquest of Happiness in different forms. Three have been collected here; the readers may notice others.
Does the Modern World Work Against Happiness?
Russell consistently argues that the modern world, the world created by science and reason, works for happiness, not against it. It is in our power to be free of many of the sources of unhappiness: boredom, self-defeating moral codes, pointless superstitions, fear of starvation, etc. Only in the chapter on envy does Russell acknowledge that the modern world presents unique challenges to happiness, by making us aware of so many people who have things and talents that we lack.
A more balanced view is that (by increasing our power) science and technology have exposed us to temptations that earlier generations did not have to worry about. If we rise to the challenge and overcome these temptations, our chances for happiness are greater than those of previous generations. If we succumb to the temptations, we will be less happy.
The key metaphor here is the story of aboriginal peoples who drink themselves to death once the white man makes alcohol easily available to them. Because we can satisfy our basic needs and generate excitement and entertainment easily, we modern people are open to the following addictive cycle: satiation leading to boredom leading to easy but superficial titillation leading back to satiation. Nothing in this cycle leads to real happiness, but it is difficult to break out of.
A similar temptation involves work. Moralists in an agricultural society can fulminate about the evils of idleness without harmful effect, since night and winter guarantee everyone sufficient rest and leisure. Today, however, we are confronted with the temptation to prove our "virtue" by working 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. When we fail to do this, we may feel guilty. We need to balance work and leisure consciously, and this requires us to be wiser than our ancestors. If we are not wiser, we fall prey to an unhappiness that circumstances once rendered impossible.
The Outerward-Focused Life Versus the Inward-Focused Life
Russell is very clear that the outward-focused life is the only one that leads to happiness. "Where outward circumstances are not definitely unfortunate, a man should be able to achieve happiness, provided that his passions and interests are directed outward, not inward." (And yet, some of his advice -- particularly concerning the sense of sin in Chapter 7 or worry in Chapter 5 -- would seem to require a great deal of introspection.) All happiness, he says in Chapter 1, depends on "natural zest and appetite for possible things". These are active, rather than passive traits. There would seem to be no room here for passive or contemplative sources of happiness. Later in the book he says: "We are all prone to the malady of the introvert, who, with the manifold spectacle of the world spread out before him, turns away and gazes only upon the emptiness within. But let us not imagine that there is anything grand about the introvert's unhappiness."
His dismissal of the monastic life (which is in many ways not all that different from the academic life) struck us as abrupt and condescending: "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 being 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."
If this devaluing of the inner life seems puzzling, part of the answer lies in the way that Russell draws the boundary between internal and external pursuits. Much of his life was devoted to mathematics and philosophy, pursuits that most of us would classify as passive and contemplative -- not all that different from theology. In particular, the early work that made his name (Principia Mathematica, which he coauthored with Alfred North Whitehead, who later founded process theology) was focused on the logical roots of mathematics and the possibility of finding absolutely certain knowledge there. One could imagine looking on this activity as a spiritual quest, an introspection into the laws that governed his own thinking. To Russell, though, this was an external pursuit.
A great source of happiness is centered on those moments in life when the boundaries between the internal world and the external world seem meaningless. In the contemplation of great art, for example, external object and internal response form an undifferentiated whole. Russell would claim these experiences for the external world, while others might claim them for the internal world.
A further clue lies in statements in Chapter 1 about Russell's own path to happiness: "Gradually I learned to be indifferent to myself and my deficiencies; I came to center my attention increasingly on external objects." Contemplation of the self seems (to Russell) inescapably connected with contemplation of the deficiencies of the self. In Buddhist terms, this would not be a contemplation of the self at all, but of the ego, the self image. Russell appears to see no difference between contemplating the self (which Buddhists are taught to do in an open, accepting manner) and judging the self image. The examples of self-absorption that Russell gives -- the sinner, the narcissist, and the megalomaniac -- are all absorbed in judging their self-images.
Even in Christian terms Russell does an injustice to the contemplative life. One can certainly find numerous stories of Christian saints absorbed by their sense of guilt and unworthiness in the face of God's judgment. This is balanced, however, by the saints who describe the ecstasies they experience as objects of God's love. The annals of crossing-sweepers contain no comparable testimony.
In short, Russell inappropriately universalizes his childhood experiences of Christianity and Christian contemplation, and enlarges these experiences to encompass religion and the contemplative life in general. His desire to see nothing of value in the contemplative life causes him to draw the line between the internal and external world in an unusual way.
Transcending Personal Hopes and Interests
None of the chapters of Conquest of Happiness directly confronts the fear of death, which is undoubtedly one of the great obstacles to happiness. In Chapter 2 Russell leaves unchallenged the notion that death makes all our long-term hopes vain, and argues only that the present is sufficient for happiness. Late in the book, however, it becomes clear that Russell does have long-term hopes and an answer to the fear of death. The sections of the text that put these views forward are largely tangential to the chapters in which they appear -- as if Russell sees the end of the book approaching and regrets not having brought these ideas up sooner, but does not want to rewrite earlier chapters to include them.
The central concept here is unconquerable hope, which Russell presents in Chapter 16 as leading to the positive kind of resignation, through which you come to accept the unavoidable imperfections and inadequacies of the world. "Hope which is to be unconquerable must be large and impersonal. Whatever my personal activities, I may be defeated by death or by certain kinds of diseases; I may be overcome by enemies; I may find that I have embarked upon an unwise course which cannot lead to success. In a thousand ways the failure of purely personal hopes may be unavoidable, but if personal aims have been part of larger hopes for humanity, there is not the same utter defeat when failure comes." A man motivated by these larger hopes "may be forced to realize that what he has worked for will not come about in his lifetime. But he need not on that account sink into complete despair, provided that he is interested in the future of mankind apart from his own participation in it."
The unconquerability of this hope is related to Russell's faith in the ultimate progress of humankind. "If you have as part of the habitual furniture of your mind the past ages of man, his slow and partial emergence out of barbarism, and the brevity of his total existence in comparison with astronomical epochs -- if, I say, such thoughts have molded your habitual feelings ... you will have, beyond your immediate activities, purposes that are distant and slowly unfolding, in which you are not an isolated individual but one of the great army of those who have led mankind towards a civilized existence. If you have attained to this outlook, a certain deep happiness will never leave you, whatever your personal fate may be. Life will become a communion with the great of all ages, and personal death no more than a negligible incident."
Russell uses the term greatness of soul to denote the ability to expand one's sense of self to encompass humankind as a whole. "A man who has once perceived, however temporarily and however briefly, what makes greatness of soul, can no longer be happy if he allows himself to be petty, self-seeking, troubled by trivial misfortunes, dreading what fate may have in store for him. The man capable of greatness of soul will open wide the windows of his mind, letting the winds blow freely upon it from every portion of the universe. He will see himself and life and the world as truly as our human limitations will permit; realizing the brevity and minuteness of human life, he will realize also that in individual minds is concentrated whatever of value the known universe contains. And he will see that the man whose mind mirrors the world becomes in a sense as great as the world. In emancipation from the fears that beset the slave of circumstance he will experience a profound joy, and through all the vicissitudes of his outward life he will remain in the depths of his being a happy man."
We find ourselves wishing that Russell had said more about how greatness of soul is achieved. This seems to be the central question of practical humanism: How (without God, an afterlife, or any other mythological concept) do we attach ourselves to transpersonal interests so firmly that we can face inevitable personal death with equanimity? Without an answer to this question, it seems that the humanist is left to choose between a life-in-the-moment, ignoring the possibility of death, and the Byronic unhappiness of Chapter 2.
The decades that followed Conquest challenged this faith in ways that Russell could hardly have imagined in 1930. Because it occurred at the center of civilization rather than on the primitive periphery, the Holocaust brought into question the idea that humankind really is progressing. And the atomic bomb opened the possibility that the human race might destroy itself before it achieved any further progress. By the 1950s Russell's notion of "unconquerable hope" seemed much more conquerable than he had anticipated.

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