Against happiness

The word “happiness” has turned up, in my correspondence and several other places, as if it were the mot du jour. Everyone wants to be happy. I would guess from this that everyone is un-happy. As Nikolay Chernyshevsky used to ask, “What is to be done?” (Lenin also asked, and indeed it is the basic question of all politicians, activists, social democrats, and other demon worshippers.)

Formations from the stem hap are rich and complicated, so that the etymological considerations begin to pass over my head. The meaning begins with luck or fortuity, and seems to return there from time to time. To have “hap” is to have luck running with you, fate on your side; but there is some shading. What had ge-haep in our Old English was fitting, well arranged, in good order. Something of this carried down the centuries, but if I am not mistaken, it went missing during the 19th century, of unhappy memory.

There is a neighbouring country with a constitution which promises to its supplicants “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Up here in the Canadas, we often giggle at the contrast with our own, which aimed only at “peace, order, and good government.” Had I been a refugee, forced to choose between the two countries on the basis only of those phrases, I would have picked the Dominion of Canada in a blink.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not against life or liberty, per se. Why just yesterday, the question of capital punishment arose with one of my American friends (we’re both in favour, but I could not match his enthusiasm). And I was reflecting: “We all deserve to hang, of course, but it can be a serious administrative embarrassment when someone is hanged for the wrong reason.”

To the modern reader generally, I suppose, “life” and “liberty” pass glibly by. It is the “happiness” that arrests our attention, that seems to go over the top. As we would put it in Newfoundland, a seal might be happy, but from another point of view, “he is death on the fish.” One man’s happiness is the trap opening beneath the feet of his neighbour, and others get their kicks in similar ways. I can think, myself, at this moment, of several egregious sins that would offer the prospect of some transient pleasure.

But no, those Founding Fathers (of the nation state next door) were not quite so flippant. Happiness for them was what the word meant at the time they were using it. It did not then reduce to pleasure. They would have been appalled if told that it did. For all their little theological foibles, they did not take so dim a view of man, as to think he lived for thrills. I believe they meant something more along the line of, “live and let live.” Let every man (or woman, should it come to that) pursue, unhindered at least by the guvmint, his own calling and the manner of life he finds right and fitting — so far as it does not bring him into conflict with unalterable Law. Let him, as it were, seek the satisfaction of a life lived by his own best lights and better angels.

One of my old heroes, a certain Thomas Ernest Hulme (pronounced as “Hume”), not to be confused with the fanatically sceptical Scottish historian and philosopher, once wrote a brief and reasonably vulgar “Critique of Satisfaction.” It addressed the pursuit of happiness by asking, “What is truly satisfying?” He noted that all known paths lead elsewhere, in this vale of tears. Let me cut to his chase:

“Imagine a man situated at a point in a plane, from which roads radiate in various directions. Let this be the plane of actual existence. We place Perfection where it should not be — on this human plane. As we are painfully aware that nothing actual can be perfect, we imagine the perfection to be not where we are, but some distance along one of the roads. This is the essence of all Romanticism. Most frequently, in literature, at any rate, we imagine an impossible perfection along the road of sex; but anyone can name the other roads for himself. The abolition of some discipline or restriction would enable us, we imagine, to progress along one of these roads. The fundamental error is that of placing Perfection in humanity, thus giving rise to that bastard thing Personality, and all the bunkum that follows from it.”

So where is our perfect happiness to be found, if not on that plane? Let us cut the chase shorter:

“No ‘meaning’ can be given to the existing world, such as philosophers are accustomed to give in their last chapters. To each conclusion one asks, ‘In what way is that satisfying?’ The mind is forced back along every line in the plane, back on the centre. What is the result? To continue the rather comic metaphor, we may say the result is that which follows the snake eating it’s own tail, an infinite straight line perpendicular to the plane. …

“In other words, you get the religious attitude; where things are separated which ought to be separated, and Perfection is not illegitimately introduced on the plane of human things.”


Much has happened in the century since that was written, or rather, little has happened if anything at all. A century ago, the world in which it was written, already deeply contaminated by the “romanticism” to which Hulme refers, plunged itself into Total War. (He was himself among the casualties.) We have since had alternations between Total War and Total Peace (i.e. government on a war footing for supposedly peaceful ends, including wars on poverty, inequality, drugs, terrorism and whatnot) ever since. I like to say that we are trapped inside the Nietzschean nightmare of the 19th century, and will continue to endure it until we wake once again, into the arms of Jesus.

In the meanwhile, “happiness” is a sick joke. By the contemporary definition, we should try to avoid it as much as possible, as all false counsel. It is a trap beneath our own feet. What is to be done?

Call pleasure by its proper name, and keep it constantly under suspicion. Try to retrieve happiness according to that older convention, in which it was something satisfying, something worth having and keeping, in our heart of hearts; something the world cannot take away. Pursue instead the good, the beautiful, the true. We should try to stop living for lies. We are drowning in them.