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The Conquest of Happiness (original 1930; edition 2009)

by Bertrand Russell, A. C. Grayling (Preface)

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90699,736 (3.89)6
Waldstein's review
Bertrand Russell

The Conquest of Happiness

Routledge Classics, Paperback, 2006.

8vo. xiv+183 pp. Preface to the Routledge Classics Edition by A. C. Grayling, 2006 [vii-xi]. Preface by Russell, 1930 [xiii].

First published, 1930.

Contents

Preface to the Routledge Classics Edition
Preface by Bertrand Russell

I. Causes of Unhappiness
1. What Makes People Unhappy?
2. Byronic Unhappiness
3. Competition
4. Boredom and Excitement
5. Fatigue
6. Envy
7. The Sense of Sin
8. Persecution Mania
9. Fear of Public Opinion

II. Causes of Happiness
10. Is Happiness Still Possible?
11. Zest
12. Affection
13. The Family
14. Work
15. Impersonal Interests
16. Effort and Resignation
17. The Happy Man

Index

===========================================

There are those who say that Bertrand Russell's The Conquest of Happiness is full of obvious things. It is. But it is far from seldom that I am surprised how often such obvious things about life are badly neglected by many people. You might even say this is a book full of cliches and platitudes, not to mention that sweeping generalisations certainly abound. But cliches and platitudes have one important quality: they are almost always true; moreover, they have never sounded better than in Lord Russell's gorgeous prose. As far as sweeping generalisations are concerned, they of course are strictly necessary in such a book; to be sure, they are dangerous, but I would rather accept them from Bertrand Russell than from many others.

After all, this book was first published in 1930 when Bertrand Russell was 58 years old and did know something about the world. He had received a good deal of respect in academic circles with his writings and he had won quite a bit of popularity among the general reading public with his popular books; he had lectured on three continents; he had founded a school with his second wife; he had tasted both the bliss and the misery of both marriage and extra-marital love affairs; he had become a father; he had seen the jail from the inside. Bertrand Russell's powerful intelligence and superb writing style needn't even be mentioned. They are the stuff legends are made of.

Well, there is no point in my beating about the bush anymore: I simply cannot bring myself to give this book less than five stars. The following few paragraphs are an attempt to explain why.

The Conquest of Happiness is, of course, not perfect. Far from it. Some of Lord Russell's sweeping generalisations about men and women, or young and old, or present day and bygone eras, may on occasion be a little too sweeping indeed. The classic example is his reference to women's hatred for those members of the same sex who are better dressed. Not very typically for Lord Russell, there are some places where he sounds far-fetched and long-winded; even more untypically, some parts of the book are positively superfluous; even one whole chapter - "Byronic Unhappiness" - might well have remained unpublished.

But who cares? Well, many people who prefer to be absorbed in few defects rather than in many strengths do; but I am not one of these. Nor am I so vain and conceited as those who never give a book five stars unless they agree with everything in it. I disagree with Bertrand Russell about numerous things. His conviction that a quiet life is to be preferred, for example, is to my mind a case when he generalised from his own experience a bit too generously. Nor can I agree with his reverence of children and family, not to mention men of science.

And yet, he is thought-provoking. Take children, for instance. I hate children and the very thought of having my own horrifies me. But Lord Russell's uncommonly persuasive prose does make me re-think things I have long since stopped thinking about. Even his most absurd generalisations, like the women's passion for fashion, do contain a grain of truth, if a slight one. What is more, he is always ready to surprise me with some delightful insight for which I am quite unprepared. Fine example here is his very perspicacious idea about the lost link between human beings and nature. Eighty years after the book was first published, in a world more appallingly urbanised and overpopulated than ever, this sounds ominously relevant. It is strange but, to take another example, it had never occurred to me before that jealousy is actually ''a special form of envy''. It is obviously obvious, isn't it? Even less had I reflected why propaganda is so much more successful in stirring hatred than friendship:

The reason is clearly that the human heart as modern civilisation has made it is more prone to hatred than to friendship. And it is prone to hatred because it is dissatisfied, because it feels deeply, perhaps even unconsciously, that it has somehow missed the meaning of life, that perhaps others, but not we ourselves, have secured the good things which nature offers man's enjoyment. The positive sum of pleasures in a modern man's life is undoubtedly greater than was to be found in more primitive communities, but the consciousness of what might be has increased even more.

Feel free to disagree completely, but would you deny that Lord Russell's point is well worth considering, even more so today?

In his short preface, Bertrand Russell tells us in his usual straightforward manner that this book is not for the learned and no ''profound philosophy or deep erudition'' can be found in it. All he hoped was to make some remarks inspired by common sense. So he wrote The Conquest of Happiness. And common sense it does have: tons of it, in every single chapter (the superfluous one included). Lord Russell also confesses his self-imposed limitations telling us that he wanted to deal in this volume not with extreme cases of unhappiness, like losing one's whole family for instance, but with that sort which affects the majority of ordinary people; and he concentrates exclusively on the individual, leaving society in the background as much as possible. It is worth observing his admirable restraint in this regard. From time to time he flatly states that this is a social matter and that a question of education that have no place in the present book. He virtually never digresses.

It is downright bewildering how Lord Russell manages to keep his prose perfectly structured and wonderfully lucid even when he deals with extremely vague and subjective matters like happiness, unhappiness, envy, affection, fatigue, boredom or zest. As rightly remarked by A. C. Grayling in his excellent preface, the book doesn't need any explanations: just have a look at the table of contents. It is also to Mr Grayling's credit that he defended the clarity and simplicity of Russell's prose with the devastating argument that it takes a brilliant mind to summarise so well and express so eloquently such issues.

I regret that there are no chapters about vanity or reading, though both are mentioned several times; especially about vanity Lord Russell is at his usual best, but his almost complete neglect of reading is inexplicable. Above all, I am sorry that there is no chapter titled ''Laughter''. For one of the most wonderful things about Bertrand Russell is the fact that he can always make me laugh my head off. His chapter about envy is a real riot:

'Yes,' he [the envious man] will say to himself, 'the lady of my heart is lovely, I love her and she loves me, but how much more exquisite must have been the Queen of Sheba! Ah, if I had but had Solomon's opportunities!'

If I'd had them indeed! Few lines below we're reading what's the problem with the desire for glory:

If you desire glory, you may envy Napoleon. But Napoleon envied Caesar, Caesar envied Alexander, and Alexander, I daresay, envied Hercules, who never existed.

Just wait to hear (in another chapter) about the unlimited beneficial powers of hobbies, especially those connected with collecting certain things:

Consider what a vast field of ecstasy opens before the imagination when one thinks of old china, snuff-boxes, Roman coins, arrow-heads, and flint implements.

How about the passion of idle rich men and especially of idle rich women:

Most of the idle rich suffer unspeakable boredom as the price of their freedom from drudgery. At times they may find relief by hunting big game in Africa, or by flying round the world, but the number of such sensations is limited, especially after youth is past. Accordingly, the more intelligent rich men work nearly as hard as if they were poor, while rich women for the most part keep themselves busy with innumerable trifles of whose earth-shaking importance they are firmly persuaded.

I find the adjective ''earth-shaking'' perfectly delicious!

I have the same defect of character as Somerset Maugham, namely that I can forgive quite a bit to somebody who makes me laugh. But far more important is that Lord Russell does make me think, too. This is certainly uneven book, but its moments of brilliance greatly outnumber, and outweigh, all moments of weakness. The above quote about the rich is a case in point. It is much more than a funny trifle. For it raises the profound question about work as one of the best ways for salvation from boredom, a most often neglected malady which Lord Russell treats as thoroughly as it should be treated. His view of work is also an example of rare common sense and incisiveness: overwork is certainly harmful, but that doesn't make reasonable amount of work any less important.

I am reminded of Somerset Maugham again, particularly of his notion that idleness is indeed a very difficult thing to practise and it does require a peculiar mind. Interestingly, Maugham's views on happiness, though not so definite as Russell's, were rather different. On the whole he thought that happiness is most often attained when is not sought and, if I understand correctly, is more or less unconscious phenomenon. I guess it is kinda like being in love: if you ask yourself whether you are in love or not, that sure means you are not. Lord Russell, I am sure, would not subscribe to such view, as expected from a rational man par excellence of course. Both great men, however, would certainly agree that most people left without work simply do not know what to do with themselves after the exhilarating, but brief, feeling of unlimited freedom has passed.

Coming back to The Conquest of Happiness, there are numerous instances of transcendental insight into human nature that indeed transcend any shortcomings. The chapter on persecution mania, for example, is an absolute masterpiece. Here is one of the most outstanding examples of Lord Russell's wisdom as revealed in his four maxims how to avoid persecution mania:

The first is: remember that your motives are not always as altruistic as they seem to yourself. The second is: don't over-estimate your own merits. The third is: don't expect others to take as much interest in you as you do yourself. And the fourth is: don't imagine that most people give enough thought to you to have any special desire to persecute you.

Now, if you tell me that you have never been victim of any of these notions, I will tell you directly that you are either a fool or a fraud. I myself have been victim of all four; sometimes I still am. Needless to say, immediately after listing them, Lord Russell discusses succinctly and perceptively all four maxims. The whole chapter is extremely compelling and confirms the ominous thesis stated in the beginning: while extreme cases of persecution mania are of course recognised as insanity that requires specialised treatment, milder forms are much more common among people who easily pass for normal. Such forms can be cured by the patient himself provided, however, that he has the guts to confess them to himself and the resolution to carry out the necessary measures to change his behaviour. Lord Russell deals with a hypothetical and classical case of persecution mania with extraordinary subtlety:

We are all familiar with the type of person, man or woman, who, according to his own account, is perpetually the victim of ingratitude, unkindness, and treachery. People of this kind are often extraordinarily plausible, and secure warm sympathy from those who have not known them long. There is, as a rule, nothing inherently improbable about each separate story that they relate. The kind of ill-treatment of which they complain does undoubtedly sometimes occur. What in the end rouses the hearer's suspicions is the multiplicity of villains whom it has been the sufferer's ill-fortune to meet with. In accordance with the doctrine of probability, different people living in a given society are likely in the course of their lives to meet with about the same amount of bad treatment. If one person in a given set receives, according to his own account, universal ill-treatment, the likelihood is that the cause lies in himself, and that he either imagines injuries from which in fact he has not suffered, or unconsciously behaves in such a way as to arouse uncontrollable irritation. [...] The trouble, in fact, is a difficult one to deal with, since it is inflamed alike by sympathy and by lack of sympathy. The person inclined to persecution mania, when he finds a hard-luck story believed, will embellish it until he reaches the frontier of credibility; when, on the other hand, he finds it disbelieved, he has merely another example of the peculiar hard-heartedness of mankind towards himself. [...] This is an important part of the conquest of happiness, since it is quite impossible to be happy if we feel that everybody ill-treats us.

I have to apologize for the extensive quoting - but actually I do not. Indeed, sometimes I think that the best review of a book by Bertrand Russell would be a well-arranged selection of quotes. Therefore I cannot but continue in the same way, despite the danger of overdoing. It says a great deal about the value of the book that even in "Byronic Unhappiness", surely the weakest chapter of all, Lord Russell may surprise his readers with amazing understanding of the human condition, even if he is a bit dull discussing the revelations of Byron, the Ecclesiastes or one Mr Krutch, the author of the totally obscure Modern Temper. Anyway, consider a slightly abridged version of the two opening paragraphs of the chapter:

It is common in our day, as it has been in many other periods of the world's history, to suppose that those among us who are wise have seen through all the enthusiasms of earlier times and have become aware that there is nothing left to live for. The men who hold this view are genuinely unhappy, but they are proud of their unhappiness, which they attribute to the nature of the universe and consider to be the only rational attitude for an enlightened man. Their pride in their unhappiness makes less sophisticated people suspicious of its genuineness; they think that the man who enjoys being miserable is not miserable. [...] I wish to persuade the reader that, whatever the arguments may be, reason lays no embargo upon happiness; nay, more, I am persuaded that those who quite sincerely attribute their sorrows to their views about the universe are putting the cart before the horse: the truth is that they are unhappy for some reason of which they are not aware, and this unhappiness leads them to dwell upon the less agreeable characteristics of the world in which they live.

Because 80 years have passed since the first edition of this book, a word must be said about how dated it is. Hardly at all. Bertrand Russell uses almost exclusively general examples which are pretty much as relevant today as they were in 1930. Sometimes they are even more akin to our present times indeed, like the aforementioned notion about the lost link between man and nature which strangely reminds me of Thor Heyerdahl's crazy experiment to live as a most primitive inhabitant on the island of Fatu Hiva. The great Norwegian explorer certainly didn't find his own paradise on the Marquesas, but a hint of moderation in the eternal struggle between the primitive instincts and the sophisticated culture of the mankind only makes the whole issue more intriguing. Even when Lord Russell uses contemporary examples that are perfectly obsolete today, like the building of a new world in the Soviet Russia at the time, one doesn't need a PhD degree in history to realise how apposite his example is and, more importantly, to appreciate the timelessness of his point. Nor is familiarity with a particular example in any way relevant to its power to produce an effect in the reader. I have never seen a fox hunt myself, but I still find Lord Russell's passage in which he justifies lying on occasion incredibly touching.

I once in the course of a country walk saw a tired fox at the last stages of exhaustion still forcing himself to run. A few minutes afterwards I saw the hunt. They asked me if I had seen the fox, and I said I had. They asked me which way he had gone, and I lied to them. I do not think I should have been a better man if I had told the truth.

The Conquest of Happiness is one of those books that are at once eminently readable and a hard, slow read. The seeming paradox is easy to be explained. The book, quite simply, is so rich a well of wisdom that almost every single paragraph stirs reflections, recollections, fears, hopes, obsessions, passions and whatever else you can think of. Certainly, this book will not make you happy; only you yourself can do that, and a considerable effort from your side is obligatory. It is not for nothing that ''conquest'' is part of the title.

On the other hand, The Conquest of Happiness will surely give you a huge amount of sage remarks and profound observations to begin with. It is one of those books that makes you feel good just to know that it is there, on the shelf, always handy to dip into and get new strength to cope with this life, here and now. It is not often that one finds a book that compels one to take a deep, fresh and, above all, frank look inside oneself. It will probably be a most unpleasant business, and it may well be terrifying; at any rate, though, it is bound to be highly beneficial. Yes, it is dead hard and painful to confess some truths even to oneself, but there is no other way if one wants to achieve some kind of harmony with one's surroundings, animate or inanimate - a condition popularly known as happiness. The good news is that when looking inside yourself you needn't pretend to be somebody else.

There are those who say that The Conquest of Happiness is just a ''pop-psychology'' and far from Bertrand Russell's best books. I take issue with that statement. Indeed, I already have. ( )
2 vote Waldstein | Sep 25, 2010 |
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My introduction to Mr. Russell, and I will be reading more of his work. True to its title, Russell's book is a guide to the perplexed who ask, "Why can't I be happy?" Divided into two sections - firstly, why people who are unhappy are unhappy, and secondly, why people who are happy are. The former is stronger than the latter. Mainly common sense, but oh how difficult to change the habits which lead to unhappiness! Readers should also note that this work was originally written in the late 1920s (copyright date 1930), and Russell was definitely a man of his time, with comments about race (he spends several pages at one point discussing the declining birth rate among "the white races" with it clearly being seen by him as a problem) and gender roles which would be shocking to read if not seen in context of the time. Despite these shortcomings, Russell has something worthwhile to say here, and I would recommend it to anyone, with the caveat that you may want to hurl the book across the room at times. ( )
1 vote waitingtoderail | Dec 27, 2011 |
Excellent advice on how to be happy and on how to avoid unhappiness. ( )
  fduniho | Dec 22, 2011 |
Bertrand Russell

The Conquest of Happiness

Routledge Classics, Paperback, 2006.

8vo. xiv+183 pp. Preface to the Routledge Classics Edition by A. C. Grayling, 2006 [vii-xi]. Preface by Russell, 1930 [xiii].

First published, 1930.

Contents

Preface to the Routledge Classics Edition
Preface by Bertrand Russell

I. Causes of Unhappiness
1. What Makes People Unhappy?
2. Byronic Unhappiness
3. Competition
4. Boredom and Excitement
5. Fatigue
6. Envy
7. The Sense of Sin
8. Persecution Mania
9. Fear of Public Opinion

II. Causes of Happiness
10. Is Happiness Still Possible?
11. Zest
12. Affection
13. The Family
14. Work
15. Impersonal Interests
16. Effort and Resignation
17. The Happy Man

Index

===========================================

There are those who say that Bertrand Russell's The Conquest of Happiness is full of obvious things. It is. But it is far from seldom that I am surprised how often such obvious things about life are badly neglected by many people. You might even say this is a book full of cliches and platitudes, not to mention that sweeping generalisations certainly abound. But cliches and platitudes have one important quality: they are almost always true; moreover, they have never sounded better than in Lord Russell's gorgeous prose. As far as sweeping generalisations are concerned, they of course are strictly necessary in such a book; to be sure, they are dangerous, but I would rather accept them from Bertrand Russell than from many others.

After all, this book was first published in 1930 when Bertrand Russell was 58 years old and did know something about the world. He had received a good deal of respect in academic circles with his writings and he had won quite a bit of popularity among the general reading public with his popular books; he had lectured on three continents; he had founded a school with his second wife; he had tasted both the bliss and the misery of both marriage and extra-marital love affairs; he had become a father; he had seen the jail from the inside. Bertrand Russell's powerful intelligence and superb writing style needn't even be mentioned. They are the stuff legends are made of.

Well, there is no point in my beating about the bush anymore: I simply cannot bring myself to give this book less than five stars. The following few paragraphs are an attempt to explain why.

The Conquest of Happiness is, of course, not perfect. Far from it. Some of Lord Russell's sweeping generalisations about men and women, or young and old, or present day and bygone eras, may on occasion be a little too sweeping indeed. The classic example is his reference to women's hatred for those members of the same sex who are better dressed. Not very typically for Lord Russell, there are some places where he sounds far-fetched and long-winded; even more untypically, some parts of the book are positively superfluous; even one whole chapter - "Byronic Unhappiness" - might well have remained unpublished.

But who cares? Well, many people who prefer to be absorbed in few defects rather than in many strengths do; but I am not one of these. Nor am I so vain and conceited as those who never give a book five stars unless they agree with everything in it. I disagree with Bertrand Russell about numerous things. His conviction that a quiet life is to be preferred, for example, is to my mind a case when he generalised from his own experience a bit too generously. Nor can I agree with his reverence of children and family, not to mention men of science.

And yet, he is thought-provoking. Take children, for instance. I hate children and the very thought of having my own horrifies me. But Lord Russell's uncommonly persuasive prose does make me re-think things I have long since stopped thinking about. Even his most absurd generalisations, like the women's passion for fashion, do contain a grain of truth, if a slight one. What is more, he is always ready to surprise me with some delightful insight for which I am quite unprepared. Fine example here is his very perspicacious idea about the lost link between human beings and nature. Eighty years after the book was first published, in a world more appallingly urbanised and overpopulated than ever, this sounds ominously relevant. It is strange but, to take another example, it had never occurred to me before that jealousy is actually ''a special form of envy''. It is obviously obvious, isn't it? Even less had I reflected why propaganda is so much more successful in stirring hatred than friendship:

The reason is clearly that the human heart as modern civilisation has made it is more prone to hatred than to friendship. And it is prone to hatred because it is dissatisfied, because it feels deeply, perhaps even unconsciously, that it has somehow missed the meaning of life, that perhaps others, but not we ourselves, have secured the good things which nature offers man's enjoyment. The positive sum of pleasures in a modern man's life is undoubtedly greater than was to be found in more primitive communities, but the consciousness of what might be has increased even more.

Feel free to disagree completely, but would you deny that Lord Russell's point is well worth considering, even more so today?

In his short preface, Bertrand Russell tells us in his usual straightforward manner that this book is not for the learned and no ''profound philosophy or deep erudition'' can be found in it. All he hoped was to make some remarks inspired by common sense. So he wrote The Conquest of Happiness. And common sense it does have: tons of it, in every single chapter (the superfluous one included). Lord Russell also confesses his self-imposed limitations telling us that he wanted to deal in this volume not with extreme cases of unhappiness, like losing one's whole family for instance, but with that sort which affects the majority of ordinary people; and he concentrates exclusively on the individual, leaving society in the background as much as possible. It is worth observing his admirable restraint in this regard. From time to time he flatly states that this is a social matter and that a question of education that have no place in the present book. He virtually never digresses.

It is downright bewildering how Lord Russell manages to keep his prose perfectly structured and wonderfully lucid even when he deals with extremely vague and subjective matters like happiness, unhappiness, envy, affection, fatigue, boredom or zest. As rightly remarked by A. C. Grayling in his excellent preface, the book doesn't need any explanations: just have a look at the table of contents. It is also to Mr Grayling's credit that he defended the clarity and simplicity of Russell's prose with the devastating argument that it takes a brilliant mind to summarise so well and express so eloquently such issues.

I regret that there are no chapters about vanity or reading, though both are mentioned several times; especially about vanity Lord Russell is at his usual best, but his almost complete neglect of reading is inexplicable. Above all, I am sorry that there is no chapter titled ''Laughter''. For one of the most wonderful things about Bertrand Russell is the fact that he can always make me laugh my head off. His chapter about envy is a real riot:

'Yes,' he [the envious man] will say to himself, 'the lady of my heart is lovely, I love her and she loves me, but how much more exquisite must have been the Queen of Sheba! Ah, if I had but had Solomon's opportunities!'

If I'd had them indeed! Few lines below we're reading what's the problem with the desire for glory:

If you desire glory, you may envy Napoleon. But Napoleon envied Caesar, Caesar envied Alexander, and Alexander, I daresay, envied Hercules, who never existed.

Just wait to hear (in another chapter) about the unlimited beneficial powers of hobbies, especially those connected with collecting certain things:

Consider what a vast field of ecstasy opens before the imagination when one thinks of old china, snuff-boxes, Roman coins, arrow-heads, and flint implements.

How about the passion of idle rich men and especially of idle rich women:

Most of the idle rich suffer unspeakable boredom as the price of their freedom from drudgery. At times they may find relief by hunting big game in Africa, or by flying round the world, but the number of such sensations is limited, especially after youth is past. Accordingly, the more intelligent rich men work nearly as hard as if they were poor, while rich women for the most part keep themselves busy with innumerable trifles of whose earth-shaking importance they are firmly persuaded.

I find the adjective ''earth-shaking'' perfectly delicious!

I have the same defect of character as Somerset Maugham, namely that I can forgive quite a bit to somebody who makes me laugh. But far more important is that Lord Russell does make me think, too. This is certainly uneven book, but its moments of brilliance greatly outnumber, and outweigh, all moments of weakness. The above quote about the rich is a case in point. It is much more than a funny trifle. For it raises the profound question about work as one of the best ways for salvation from boredom, a most often neglected malady which Lord Russell treats as thoroughly as it should be treated. His view of work is also an example of rare common sense and incisiveness: overwork is certainly harmful, but that doesn't make reasonable amount of work any less important.

I am reminded of Somerset Maugham again, particularly of his notion that idleness is indeed a very difficult thing to practise and it does require a peculiar mind. Interestingly, Maugham's views on happiness, though not so definite as Russell's, were rather different. On the whole he thought that happiness is most often attained when is not sought and, if I understand correctly, is more or less unconscious phenomenon. I guess it is kinda like being in love: if you ask yourself whether you are in love or not, that sure means you are not. Lord Russell, I am sure, would not subscribe to such view, as expected from a rational man par excellence of course. Both great men, however, would certainly agree that most people left without work simply do not know what to do with themselves after the exhilarating, but brief, feeling of unlimited freedom has passed.

Coming back to The Conquest of Happiness, there are numerous instances of transcendental insight into human nature that indeed transcend any shortcomings. The chapter on persecution mania, for example, is an absolute masterpiece. Here is one of the most outstanding examples of Lord Russell's wisdom as revealed in his four maxims how to avoid persecution mania:

The first is: remember that your motives are not always as altruistic as they seem to yourself. The second is: don't over-estimate your own merits. The third is: don't expect others to take as much interest in you as you do yourself. And the fourth is: don't imagine that most people give enough thought to you to have any special desire to persecute you.

Now, if you tell me that you have never been victim of any of these notions, I will tell you directly that you are either a fool or a fraud. I myself have been victim of all four; sometimes I still am. Needless to say, immediately after listing them, Lord Russell discusses succinctly and perceptively all four maxims. The whole chapter is extremely compelling and confirms the ominous thesis stated in the beginning: while extreme cases of persecution mania are of course recognised as insanity that requires specialised treatment, milder forms are much more common among people who easily pass for normal. Such forms can be cured by the patient himself provided, however, that he has the guts to confess them to himself and the resolution to carry out the necessary measures to change his behaviour. Lord Russell deals with a hypothetical and classical case of persecution mania with extraordinary subtlety:

We are all familiar with the type of person, man or woman, who, according to his own account, is perpetually the victim of ingratitude, unkindness, and treachery. People of this kind are often extraordinarily plausible, and secure warm sympathy from those who have not known them long. There is, as a rule, nothing inherently improbable about each separate story that they relate. The kind of ill-treatment of which they complain does undoubtedly sometimes occur. What in the end rouses the hearer's suspicions is the multiplicity of villains whom it has been the sufferer's ill-fortune to meet with. In accordance with the doctrine of probability, different people living in a given society are likely in the course of their lives to meet with about the same amount of bad treatment. If one person in a given set receives, according to his own account, universal ill-treatment, the likelihood is that the cause lies in himself, and that he either imagines injuries from which in fact he has not suffered, or unconsciously behaves in such a way as to arouse uncontrollable irritation. [...] The trouble, in fact, is a difficult one to deal with, since it is inflamed alike by sympathy and by lack of sympathy. The person inclined to persecution mania, when he finds a hard-luck story believed, will embellish it until he reaches the frontier of credibility; when, on the other hand, he finds it disbelieved, he has merely another example of the peculiar hard-heartedness of mankind towards himself. [...] This is an important part of the conquest of happiness, since it is quite impossible to be happy if we feel that everybody ill-treats us.

I have to apologize for the extensive quoting - but actually I do not. Indeed, sometimes I think that the best review of a book by Bertrand Russell would be a well-arranged selection of quotes. Therefore I cannot but continue in the same way, despite the danger of overdoing. It says a great deal about the value of the book that even in "Byronic Unhappiness", surely the weakest chapter of all, Lord Russell may surprise his readers with amazing understanding of the human condition, even if he is a bit dull discussing the revelations of Byron, the Ecclesiastes or one Mr Krutch, the author of the totally obscure Modern Temper. Anyway, consider a slightly abridged version of the two opening paragraphs of the chapter:

It is common in our day, as it has been in many other periods of the world's history, to suppose that those among us who are wise have seen through all the enthusiasms of earlier times and have become aware that there is nothing left to live for. The men who hold this view are genuinely unhappy, but they are proud of their unhappiness, which they attribute to the nature of the universe and consider to be the only rational attitude for an enlightened man. Their pride in their unhappiness makes less sophisticated people suspicious of its genuineness; they think that the man who enjoys being miserable is not miserable. [...] I wish to persuade the reader that, whatever the arguments may be, reason lays no embargo upon happiness; nay, more, I am persuaded that those who quite sincerely attribute their sorrows to their views about the universe are putting the cart before the horse: the truth is that they are unhappy for some reason of which they are not aware, and this unhappiness leads them to dwell upon the less agreeable characteristics of the world in which they live.

Because 80 years have passed since the first edition of this book, a word must be said about how dated it is. Hardly at all. Bertrand Russell uses almost exclusively general examples which are pretty much as relevant today as they were in 1930. Sometimes they are even more akin to our present times indeed, like the aforementioned notion about the lost link between man and nature which strangely reminds me of Thor Heyerdahl's crazy experiment to live as a most primitive inhabitant on the island of Fatu Hiva. The great Norwegian explorer certainly didn't find his own paradise on the Marquesas, but a hint of moderation in the eternal struggle between the primitive instincts and the sophisticated culture of the mankind only makes the whole issue more intriguing. Even when Lord Russell uses contemporary examples that are perfectly obsolete today, like the building of a new world in the Soviet Russia at the time, one doesn't need a PhD degree in history to realise how apposite his example is and, more importantly, to appreciate the timelessness of his point. Nor is familiarity with a particular example in any way relevant to its power to produce an effect in the reader. I have never seen a fox hunt myself, but I still find Lord Russell's passage in which he justifies lying on occasion incredibly touching.

I once in the course of a country walk saw a tired fox at the last stages of exhaustion still forcing himself to run. A few minutes afterwards I saw the hunt. They asked me if I had seen the fox, and I said I had. They asked me which way he had gone, and I lied to them. I do not think I should have been a better man if I had told the truth.

The Conquest of Happiness is one of those books that are at once eminently readable and a hard, slow read. The seeming paradox is easy to be explained. The book, quite simply, is so rich a well of wisdom that almost every single paragraph stirs reflections, recollections, fears, hopes, obsessions, passions and whatever else you can think of. Certainly, this book will not make you happy; only you yourself can do that, and a considerable effort from your side is obligatory. It is not for nothing that ''conquest'' is part of the title.

On the other hand, The Conquest of Happiness will surely give you a huge amount of sage remarks and profound observations to begin with. It is one of those books that makes you feel good just to know that it is there, on the shelf, always handy to dip into and get new strength to cope with this life, here and now. It is not often that one finds a book that compels one to take a deep, fresh and, above all, frank look inside oneself. It will probably be a most unpleasant business, and it may well be terrifying; at any rate, though, it is bound to be highly beneficial. Yes, it is dead hard and painful to confess some truths even to oneself, but there is no other way if one wants to achieve some kind of harmony with one's surroundings, animate or inanimate - a condition popularly known as happiness. The good news is that when looking inside yourself you needn't pretend to be somebody else.

There are those who say that The Conquest of Happiness is just a ''pop-psychology'' and far from Bertrand Russell's best books. I take issue with that statement. Indeed, I already have. ( )
2 vote Waldstein | Sep 25, 2010 |
With the exception of a few outdated references regarding Russia and some scientific discoveries of his day, this book is as relevant now as it was when published in 1971--maybe even more so. Russell gives sound, practical and concise self-help style advice on ways to increase personal happiness without all the fuzzy-wuzzy psycho-babble you'd expect from a similarly titled book published today. Definitely recommend. ( )
  dele2451 | Dec 27, 2009 |
I found a reference to Mr. Russell in The Gulag Peninsula with the inference that he was nieve in his views about the Communist Revolution. In this book he is nieve about other things as well. About the nature of evil and his godlike reverence for people of science. This book in general makes alot of sweeping assumptions and then some really bad solutions from them. I wont say there isn't grains of wisdom in it, but there's alot of junk inbetween. ( )
  charlie68 | Jul 10, 2009 |
Excellent book to teach one how to appreciate what one has rather than what lacks. ( )
  hellbent | Jul 5, 2006 |
Russell is one of my favorite philosophers. He's fairly chatty and casual here, and it's an interesting work, though not as rigorous as some of his other pieces. Short and to the point, this is a point-of-view that you hear echoes of here and there in modern "self-help" philosophy, and I agree with most of what he has to say. Still, it isn't Russell's best, or the best of this "genre" of philosophy. Good, but Russell sets high standards for himself. ( )
  danbarrett | Mar 19, 2006 |
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