Bertrand Russell and the conquest of narrowness.

I’ve been reading Bertrand Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness, which discusses eight common causes of unhappiness and why we so often succumb to them, and six sources of happiness and how we can attain them. As a person prone to most of the types of unhappiness he explores, I’m finding it a useful and thought-provoking little book.

It was written in 1930, and is therefore a bit dated in its examination of the outward or socially-imposed causes of unhappiness. For instance, I doubt too many men or women nowadays are afflicted with the particular sexual hang-ups Russell identifies as major sources of human misery; we’ve evolved a brand-new set of sexual dysfunctions to be immiserated by. Another cause of unhappiness that has changed somewhat since Russell’s day is what he calls fear of public opinion. Essentially, and commonsensically, he argues that the cure for this fear is to seek out a social milieu where you feel comfortable expressing yourself freely, and in your dealings with hostile outsiders to cultivate a cheerful indifference to their opprobrium. He explains how moderate non-conformity with society’s expectations can improve our collective happiness:

[A] society composed of men and women who do not bow too much to the conventions is a far more interesting society than one in which all behave alike. Where each person’s character is developed individually, differences of type are preserved, and it is worth while to meet new people, because they are not mere replicas of those whom one has met already.

As Russell describes it, the most common threat to individuality comes from small-town prudes and ignoramuses enforcing their prejudices on the young:

A person born, let us say, in some small country town finds himself from early youth surrounded by hostility to everything that is necessary for mental excellence.

Fortunately, he says, big cities provide concentrations of enlightened folk among whom oppressed country youngsters can feel at home, while even in more rural areas, swift modern transportation allows them to range further in their search for sympathetic souls:

The idea that one should know one’s immediate neighbors has died out in large centers of population, but still lingers in small towns and in the country. It has become a foolish idea, since there is no need to be dependent upon immediate neighbors for society. More and more it becomes possible to choose our companions on account of congeniality rather than on account of mere propinquity. Happiness is promoted by associations of persons with similar tastes and similar opinions. Social intercourse may be expected to develop more and more along these lines, and it may be hoped that by these means the loneliness that now afflicts so many unconventional people will be gradually diminished almost to vanishing point. This will undoubtedly increase their happiness … for it is essential to happiness that our way of living should spring from our own deep impulses and not from the accidental tastes and desires of those who happen to be our neighbors, or even our relations.

Prophetically, he concedes that escaping their narrow-minded neighbours won’t always protect freethinkers from the scorn of the majority:

[T]here is a new kind of fear, namely, the fear of what newspapers may say. This is quite as terrifying as anything connected with medieval witch hunts. When the newspaper chooses to make a scapegoat of some perhaps quite harmless person, the results may be very terrible. Fortunately, as yet this is a fate which most people escape through their obscurity; but as publicity gets more and more perfect in its methods, there will be an increasing danger in this novel form of social persecution.

What Russell would have made of social media, one can only guess. He predicts vaguely that libel laws may someday have to be extended to forbid any commentary “that makes life intolerable for innocent individuals”, though he is happy to leave it to the jurists of the future to define what is intolerable and who is innocent. He concludes:

The only ultimate cure for this evil is, however, an increase of toleration on the part of the public. The best way to increase toleration is to multiply the number of individuals who enjoy real happiness and do not therefore find their chief pleasure in the infliction of pain upon their fellow men.

My sense is that while the modern ease of forming “associations of persons with similar tastes and similar opinions” may have increased happiness by allowing isolated people to escape their loneliness, it has done very little to increase toleration. In fact, while we’re undoubtedly more “tolerant” in the modern sense – tolerant of ethnic minorities and sexual experimenters of various types – we’re as likely as ever to anathematize and despise those whose opinions are slightly different from ours. Why make uneasy friendships with our neighbours when we can make easy friendships with people whose beliefs we already know we share? – and if there’s any doubt, we can check their Twitter feed to confirm their beliefs as the correct ones. The modern tendency is to segregate ourselves into ever more exclusive castes based on education and political alignment, so there’s little risk of being forced into an awkward conversation with someone whose ideas might make us uncomfortable. I believe this point has been discussed at book length already by Bill Bishop and Charles Murray, so I won’t belabor it here.

Russell’s comments about the supposed narrowness of small-town life reminded me of a 1905 essay by G.K. Chesterton (reprinted in the 1958 Penguin collection of his Essays and Poems) called “On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family”:

It is not fashionable to say much nowadays of the advantages of the small community. We are told that we must go in for large empires and large ideas. There is one advantage, however, in the small state, the city, or the village, which only the willfully blind can overlook. The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing which is really narrow is the clique. The men of the clan live together because they all wear the same tartan or are descended from the same sacred cow; but in their souls, by the divine luck of things, there will always be more colours than in any tartan. But the men of the clique live together because they have the same kind of soul, and their narrowness is a narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment, like that which exists in hell. A big society exists in order to form cliques. A big society is a society for the promotion of narrowness. It is a machinery for the purpose of guarding the solitary and sensitive individual from all experience of the bitter and bracing human compromises.

Unlike Chesterton, Bertrand Russell can only imagine the compromises of right-thinkers oppressed by wrong-thinkers: the young person whose parents “believe the doctrine of evolution to be wicked”, for example, or the aspiring actor stifled by the convention that a career on the stage is “socially inferior”. If Chesterton’s “solitary and sensitive individual” has to flee to the big city to escape the influence of clods like these, what’s the downside? Russell doesn’t consider the possibility that the young person might leave behind his narrow provincial background only to take up with a new, even narrower pack of clods.

M.

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