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I suppose it is kind of preposterous that one imagines himself important enough to write down his opinions for others to read. Chattering superciliousness is one of the most infuriating things about academics and so-called intellectuals, generally, who feel compelled to share their thoughts. But here it goes, anyway.

Bertrand Russell and The Conquest of Happiness

Bertrand Russell and The Conquest of Happiness
By Michael E. Berumen (From Article in Free Inquiry, October/November 06)

Bertrand Russell was the most influential philosopher of the 20th century, having written some of the most seminal works in both mathematical logic and analytic philosophy. During his long life, he was also one of the world’s most celebrated public intellectuals. While occasionally infamous for his unconventional views, he was bestowed with many honors, including the Nobel Prize in 1950.

Russell had a narrow view of the proper subject matter for philosophy. He came to believe that even ethics was outside its scope, for its main assertions were not empirically or logically verifiable. This did not stop him from sharing his views on ethics or on many other subjects, though he was careful to mention he was not working in his capacity as a philosopher. Russell’s felicity of expression, not to mention a devilish wit, made him popular with audiences who had little interest in his technical work. Several academic peers evinced contempt for Russell’s fame outside of philosophy, believing him insufficiently profound and too glib. Among other things, he wrote about history, politics, education, marriage, atoms, relativity, religion, and happiness. It is the last of these subjects that I shall expand upon, focusing mainly on the themes of his little book, The Conquest of Happiness, first published in 1930.[1] However, I should like to begin by saying something about Russell’s long life.

Born in 1872 at the height of Britain’s power, Russell had deep roots in the English aristocracy. Several family members were historically significant, including his grandfather, John Russell, who was prime minister in the mid-19th century. Russell’s parents died when he was very young. Reared by his paternal grandmother and educated by a series of private tutors, he was a bookish and lonely boy, and he wrote that only his love of mathematics kept him from suicide. Once he reached Trinity College at Cambridge, he found others with similar interests, whereupon his life took on new meaning. His interest in philosophy soon blossomed. At Cambridge he came under the influence of another student, G.E. Moore, with whom he would co-found the analytic movement, and of his mathematics professor and mentor, Alfred North Whitehead, with whom he would write Principia Mathematica, a multi-volume monument to abstract reasoning.

Cloistered in the academic world, dedicated to scholarly pursuits, Russell found time in 1894 to marry an American Quaker, Alys Smith. This would be the first of his four marriages. He then wrote a book on German democracy in 1896, soon followed by another on geometry. Russell’s political activism emerged in supporting the women’s suffrage movement, and he even stood for Parliament, though he lost. He became mentor to the other titan of 20th century philosophy, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who took Russell’s early interest in linguistic analysis to the next level.

World War I seemed a tragic folly to Russell, and he joined the anti-war movement. He was thrown in jail in 1916 for his polemics against the war. He was dismissed by his beloved Trinity, though he was eventually invited to return. While in jail for six months, he began and completed the Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, which remains a fine primer on the subject.

Russell wrote scores of books and hundreds of essays. His most important work on philosophy and logic was completed before 1930. He began to distance himself from the several schools of thought that germinated from his own work, especially the ideas of the later Wittgenstein, whom Russell thought too mystical. Having as a young man rejected belief in god as unsupportable, Russell became increasingly critical of the influence of religion, which he thought largely destructive. By 1940, his unorthodox and liberal views led to his being barred from teaching an advanced course in mathematical logic at City College of New York.

While he believed most wars are unnecessary, Russell was no pacifist. He strongly favored defeating the Axis powers in World War II. After the Allied victory, he briefly advocated war against the Soviet Union to preclude the dominance of communism, which he loathed. He was essentially a democratic, guild socialist, as were many British intellectuals. He soon abandoned his hawkishness, and he became a principal in the nuclear disarmament movement and an advocate of world government. Russell became something of a secular saint to the “new left” in the 1960s, though he eventually let it be known that some youthful radicals misused his name for causes he did not support. He was an ardent and outspoken critic of America’s military involvement in Vietnam. Russell died of pneumonia in 1970.

It is evident from Russell’s autobiographical material and correspondence that he had many bouts with depression, and that they diminished in frequency and intensity only after reaching his fifties. Perhaps it is not altogether surprising that he would write about happiness, given his own personal struggles for contentment. The subject was also in keeping with his general outlook on ethical matters, informed partly by the writings of his godfather, John Stuart Mill, a leading representative of the utilitarian school. There are several species of utilitarianism, but the most common holds that the main goal of ethics is to spread the greatest amount of happiness to the greatest number.

Russell was unaware of what we now know about depression, brain chemistry, and pharmacology, so some of his thinking is old-fashioned. An avid student of science and admirer of the scientific method, he would have been quick to adopt the prevailing scientific knowledge. Some of his views on the sexes and other matters are antiquated, though it should be remembered that Russell was at the leading edge of progressive thought in his day. Allowing for such things, his Conquest of Happiness is replete with observations and prescriptions grounded in common sense, and many of his ideas hold up well. Moreover, his mastery of English prose and his rapier wit make it easy and fun to read.

Russell did not write this book for people unable to remedy their circumstances, whether due to the exigencies of poverty, oppression, mental illness and other diseases, or even tragic, personal circumstances. He was not so foolish as to believe anyone could overcome any adversity. He wrote it for people not beset with the most serious obstacles, those who were most likely to read it in the first place. Furthermore, while he thought the absence of unhappiness was a necessary condition for happiness, he did not see it as a sufficient condition; rather, happiness was something one had to acquire, indeed, conquer, as the title suggests.

The first part of the book deals with the principal sources of unhappiness. Russell begins by describing “Byronic unhappiness,” or the tendency of intellectuals and world-weary people to equate wisdom with despair rooted in cynicism. The dyspeptic perspective of certain existentialist philosophers might be representative of such an outlook. He then writes about the dangers of excessive competitiveness, focusing primarily on commercial affairs, for which, as do many academics, Russell betrays a subtle disdain. However, he readily admits to excessive competitiveness in artistic and scholarly pursuits, as well as in other human behaviors.

Next he takes on boredom, which he believes is a particularly human problem, and largely a product of monotony, though he says modern humans have much less about which to be bored than our ancestors. At the same time, he eschews “excitement” over the fleeting pleasures that leave one feeling empty, using the kind of satisfaction derived from gambling as an example.

Russell then goes on to discuss the problem of fatigue, often induced by having too much to do, the bane of people who work too hard or have too many interests; envy, an especially pernicious source of unhappiness caused by coveting what we don’t have or can’t possibly have, and, often enough, don’t really need; “persecution mania,” the idea that one is the constant object of the plots and malefactions of others; and the oppressive fear of public opinion, which stultifies the personal freedom necessary for creative growth.

Of particular interest among Russell’s sources of unhappiness is our “sense of sin.” As I said at the outset, Russell thought religion was a major cause of human misery in the world, not least of all due to the feelings of guilt it engenders. The propensity to focus on one’s lack of virtue is merely a form of self-absorption, one which can be so overwhelming as to make us not only unhappy, but irrational and even irresponsible. Russell would be horror-struck by the religious apologists populating the airwaves, those who believe godless liberalism and an insufficient sense of human wretchedness are the chief causes of psychological disorders and society’s downfall.

Many of the ideas about what constituted sinfulness were absurd to Russell, especially in matters dealing with our sexuality. He certainly understood one can violate a rational code of conduct; however, constantly dwelling on our failures is counterproductive. According to Russell, one should “regard his own undesirable acts, as he regards those of others, as acts produced by certain circumstances, and to be avoided by a fuller realization that they are undesirable, or, where this is possible, by avoidance of the circumstances that caused them.”[2]

Russell devoted fewer pages to the matter of acquiring happiness, probably because the formula for it seemed more obvious to him. He realized perfect happiness is not simply what philosophers from Plato to Mill imagined it to be, namely, the rarified pleasures of contemplating philosophy. It is clear from his discussions about the joy derived from more mundane things that he did not entirely buy Mill’s famous dictum, “Better Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” While not denying the pleasures of the intellect, he did not give them undue weight. However, he did believe scientists might enjoy some advantages over others, for the scientist is able to “utilize his abilities to the full, and he achieves results which appear important not only to himself but to the general public, even when it cannot in the smallest degree understand them. In this he is more fortunate than the artist.”[3]

According to Russell, the common denominator among all happy people is “zest,” by which he roughly meant a kind of joyous interest in the multifarious aspects of our lives, not with excessive zeal, but with moderation in an Aristotelian sense. People with such a balanced, but engaged temperament, are likely to be happier than their counterparts, for example, one who would starve himself at one end of the spectrum versus a gourmand at the other end.

Russell then described the importance of both giving and receiving affection; having meaningful and productive work to do, but not to excess; having one or more avocational interests to challenge the mind, perhaps even benefiting others in the process, while preventing monotony and boredom; and placing satisfying effort into the things that one can meaningfully improve, while, at the same time, understanding when one ought to be resigned to insurmountable realities. While external factors can impede happiness, and, in some cases, make it unattainable, Russell also believed when circumstances allow, it is important not to wait passively for it, as it does not “drop into the mouth, like a ripe fruit, by the mere operation of fortunate circumstances.”[4]

On a final note, Russell also wrote about the importance of having close family relationships. His own family ties were strained for most of his life, except when his three children were quite young, and later during his marriage to Edith Finch, his last, which by all accounts was a happy one. His daughter, Katherine Tait, wrote in My Father Bertrand Russell, “He was the most fascinating man I have ever known, the only man I ever loved, the greatest man I shall ever meet, the wittiest, the gayest, the most charming. It was a privilege to know him, and I thank God he was my father.”[5] This would have made Russell very happy, despite the object of her gratitude.

[1] Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness (N.Y.: Bantam Books, 1968) 180 pgs.
[2] Ibid., pp. 71-72
[3] Ibid., p. 103
[4] Ibid., p.167
[5] Katherine Tait, My Father Bertrand Russell (N.Y.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975) p. 202