Do you believe happiness is only for people too naïve to understand how the world really works?
Do you sympathize with the writer of Ecclesiastes when he says “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”?
Are you not only unhappy but proud of it, because your more sophisticated understanding of the world makes you better than a happy simpleton?
If you have answered yes to any of these questions, you may be experiencing what Bertrand Russell calls Byronic unhappiness in his book The Conquest of Happiness. That is the subject of the following video, and the text underneath is the script I used to make this video.
The Table of Contents of The Conquest of Happiness
Causes of Unhappiness
1. What Makes People Unhappy?
2. Byronic Unhappiness
4. Boredom and Excitement
7. The Sense of Sin
8. Persecution Mania
9. Fear of Public Opinion
Causes of Happiness
10. Is Happiness Still Possible?
13. The Family
15. Impersonal Interests
16. Effort and Resignation
17. The Happy Man
Byronic unhappiness comes from the conviction that unhappiness is the only rational response to life, and it is better to be rational, even if that means being unhappy, than to be happy but foolish.
Russell was certainly in favor of being rational. He co-authored The Principia Mathematica, which was an attempt to use symbolic logic to prove mathematics. He was also an accomplished philosopher.
Russell’s disagreement with this attitude is that he did not think “there is any superior rationality in being unhappy.” He maintained, “The wise man will be as happy as circumstances permit, and if he finds the comtemplation of the universe painful beyond a certain point, he will contemplate something else instead.”
He also adds that “reason lays no embargo on happiness,” and those who attribute their unhappiness to their understanding of the world are really unhappy for other reasons, of which they are unware, “and this unhappiness leads them to dwell upon the less agreeable characteristics of the world.”
His examples of this attitude are
1. Joseph Wood Krutch
2. The poet Byron
3. “Solomon,” which he calls the author of Ecclesiastes.
Russell quotes gloomy conclusions about life from each of his three examples, but it’s the quotations from Ecclesiastes that best express what he has in mind.
“I praised the dead which are already dead more than the living which are yet alive.
Yea, better is he than both they, which hath not yet been, who hath not seen the evil work that is done under the sun.”
I’m going to add a contemporary example, the YouTuber InMendham, who promotes the philosophies of efilism and anti-natalism.
Both positions echo the sentiments just expressed by Ecclesiastes.
Anti-natalism is the position that people should voluntarily stop having children, because it is better to never be born than to live.
Ecclesiastes has lamented that those not yet born are better off than those who live.
Efilism is the position that the world would be a better place if all life were snuffed out.
Ecclesiastes has lamented that the dead are better off than those still living.
The author of Ecclesiastes even tells us that wisdom increases sorrow. Russell quotes him as saying,
“For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.”
The YouTuber InMendham says much the same thing:
“Any bliss you get out of life is a product of ignorance. Any real comfort or any freedom from worry or fear is just because you’re ignorant.”
This is a clear expression of what Russell calls Byronic unhappiness.
Solomon also tried to give himself over to pleasure like a fool, but he found even that to be vanity. Russell quotes him as saying,
“I said in mine heart, Go to now, I will prove thee with mirth, therefore enjoy pleasure: and, behold, this also is vanity.”
Russell distinguishes between the mood that all is vanity and its intellectual expression. Russell says you cannot argue with a mood. He has sometimes himself felt that all is vanity, but this mood would go away through the need to take action. For example, if he had a sick child, he would be focused on restoring the child to health, not on feeling that everything was vanity.
He also points out that this attitude is more common among those to whom everything comes too easily. He says,
“The human animal, like others, is adapted to a certain amount of struggle for life, and when by means of great wealth homo sapiens can gratify all his whims without effort, the mere absence of effort from his life removes an essential ingredient of happiness.”
“The man who acquires easily things for which he feels only a very moderate desire concludes that the attainment of desire does not bring happiness.”
For example, George Harrison has said, “Like, we’re The Beatles after all, aren’t we? We have all the money you could ever dream of. We have all the fame you could ever wish for. But, it isn’t love. It isn’t health. It isn’t peace inside, is it?”
The thing is, being without some of the things you want is an essential part of happiness, because this provides an impetus to action that doesn’t exist when things are in too easy reach.
When I was once at a Baptist youth retreat, we were asked what we wanted in Heaven. I said challenge. Challenge is an essential ingredient to happiness. Without it, life becomes listless and boring. The challenge in getting what we want is one of the things that makes life rewarding.
This takes care of addressing the mood. The mood that all is vanity can be done away with by doing something that requires effort, struggle, or challenge.
He now turns to intellectual arguments.
Ecclesiastes mentions that “There is no new thing under the sun.”
Russell mentions that there are now “skyscrapers, aëroplanes, and the broadcast speeches of politicians.” And since Russell wrote this book in 1930, we now have comic books, television, nuclear power, artificial satellites, space travel, personal computers, portable music players, the internet, ereaders, and more.
Change may have been slow-going in Solomon’s time, but it is not anymore. However, Mr. Krutch, who is Russell’s contemporary, complains that “there are many new things under the sun.”
Russell replies, “If either the absence or the presence of novelty is equally annoying, it would hardly seem that either could be the true cause of despair.”
The author of Ecclesiastes states that he resents toiling for the man who will come after him. Russell points out that it is not such a bad thing from the heir’s perspective that people leave things to heirs. Indeed, the author of Ecclesiastes was probably someone else’s heir, and that made things better for him than if he had to start life from scratch. There is also a degree of self-absorption here if he does not care about leaving anything for his heirs.
Russell thinks that the author of Ecclesiastes is making the mistake of finding the meaning of the present entirely in the future. Since everything comes to an end, this would imply that nothing has any meaning, that all is vanity. But if the future is to give any meaning to the present, future moments must be meaningful in themselves. And if future moments can be meaningful in themselves, why not present moments?
My life is significant now, not just because of what I will do in the future.
As for mortality itself, Russell says, “If I lived forever the joys of life would inevitably in the end lose their savor. As it is, they remain perennially fresh.” So he doesn’t take mortality to be a cause of pessimism.
The Vanity of Love
Russell quotes Krutch as saying, “We have grown used … to a Godless universe, but we are not yet accustmoed to one which is loveless as well, and only when we have so become shall we realize what atheism really means.” He seems to understand Krutch to have lost a belief in love.
Russell maintains that he does believe in love, and he mentions some of the things he values love for:
1. Love is a “source of delight.”
2. Love “enhances all the best pleasure.”
3. “Love is able to break down the hard shell of the ego.”
4. “Love is the first and commonest emotion leading to coöperation.”
Russell also bring up Krutch’s thoughts on tragedy, but we won’t cover that here.
I expect to address efilism and anti-natalism in future videos.
Efilism and anti-natalism both make a big deal about how bad suffering is, but they discount the significance of feeling joy and pleasure, which are also parts of life.