A Black Spot in our Sunshine: Happiness in Mill, Carlyle and the Present Day

by Mark Wallace

Happiness is a concept around which we orient much of our activity, and much of our self-reflection: ultimately, our feeling about an aspect of our lives is often determined by asking ourselves the question: does it make me happy? Sometimes, it is very difficult to answer this question. Happiness, a seemingly simple concept, is actually a complicated abstraction that is very difficult to identify and to measure.

Many 19th-century thinkers left accounts of their formative years, and these tended to be years of turmoil, confusion and unruly emotions. One of the concepts individuals were increasingly using to analyse and evaluate their experience was that of happiness. A famous example comes from John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, (published posthumously in 1873) in a passage where he is talking about himself at the age of 20 (in 1826), a time at which he devoted most of his energy to crusading journalism and political activism:

I was in a dull state of nerves, such as everybody is occasionally liable to; unsusceptible to enjoyment or pleasurable excitement; one of those moods when what is pleasure at other times, becomes insipid or indifferent […]. In this frame of mind it occurred to me to put the question directly to myself: “Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, “No!” At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been found in the continual pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live for.

This was the start of what Mill called a “mental crisis”. It is striking the central role that happiness played in Mill’s thinking. The worthiness of his aims – which he did not doubt – was of no worth when his own personal happiness did not result therefrom. So, for Mill, ultimately much of his intellectual life’s work became about developing ideas about increasing happiness individually and collectively.

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John Stuart Mill in 1870.

At around the same time, a famous contemporary of Mill, Thomas Carlyle, was undergoing a mental crisis of his own, one described with powerful intensity in the semi-autobiographical Sartor Resartus (1833-34). Carlyle called his time of distress, confusion and alienation the “everlasting no”. A realization of his own unhappiness is central to the crisis:

“Reasonably might the Wanderer exclaim to himself: Are not the gates of this world’s happiness inexorably shut against thee; hast thou a hope that is not mad? Nevertheless, one may still murmur audibly, or in the original Greek if that suit thee better: ‘Whoso can look on Death will start at no shadows.'” (SR, II, 6, “Sorrows of Teufelsdrockh”)

Carlyle recognised in himself an inability to experience anything similar to the happiness he had been introduced to as a concept. He concludes that happiness is definitively denied to him – its gates inexorably shut against him. His response, though, is very different to Mill’s – diametrically opposed, even. He rejects the concept of happiness and the pursuit of happiness completely:

What then? Is the heroic inspiration we name Virtue but some Passion; some bubble of the blood, bubbling in the direction others profit by? I know not: only this I know, If what thou namest Happiness be our true aim, then are we all astray. (SR, II, 7, “The Everlasting No”)

[…]

Man’s Unhappiness, as I construe, comes of his Greatness; it is because there is an Infinite in him, which with all his cunning he cannot quite bury under the Finite. Will the whole Finance Ministers and Upholsterers and Confectioners of modern Europe undertake, in joint-stock company, to make one Shoeblack HAPPY? They cannot accomplish it, above an hour or two: for the Shoeblack also has a Soul quite other than his Stomach; and would require, if you consider it, for his permanent satisfaction and saturation, simply this allotment, no more, and no less: God’s infinite Universe altogether to himself, therein to enjoy infinitely, and fill every wish as fast as it rose. Oceans of Hochheimer, a Throat like that of Ophiuchus: speak not of them; to the infinite Shoeblack they are as nothing. No sooner is your ocean filled, than he grumbles that it might have been of better vintage. Try him with half of a Universe, of an Omnipotence, he sets to quarrelling with the proprietor of the other half, and declares himself the most maltreated of men.—Always there is a black spot in our sunshine: it is even, as I said, the Shadow of Ourselves.  (SR, II, 9, “The Everlasting Yea”)

Carlyle considers that man is incapable of happiness, because the concept of happiness, as he understands it, is based on sensual satisfactions. Man is not primarily sensual for Carlyle: rather he is filled with a void of longing that is more than sensual, something Infinite that Carlyle doesn’t quite have a name for here. Once an individual begins to think in terms of what can make him happy and satisfy him, the only real answer is God’s infinite Universe altogether to himself. And that is not very practical! So Carlyle turned away from the concept of happiness and insisted in Sartor (and thereafter) that the summum bonum was to Know what thou canst work at (SR, II, 7, “The Everlasting No”), and to work on with a minimum of self-consciousness, and a minimum of considering of one happiness.

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Thomas Carlyle: What are you looking at? Get back to work!

 

This contrasting attitude to happiness was one of the key differences between Mill and Carlyle. It would appear that Mill was on the right side of history here (and in most of their other areas of dispute). Happiness is both a crucial concept in our everyday analysis of our lives, and is used on a larger scale as a scientific term. We have, for example, the World Happiness Report, commissioned by the UN, wherein happiness levels in each country are prepared. These are completed simply by asking people how happy they are, with details of GDP, freedom, life expectancy, etc. of each country provided in the Report to allow correlations to be drawn. The UN also established “Happiness and Well-Being” as “A New Economic Paradigm” in 2012. Academically, we now have a Journal of Happiness Studies. There is no escaping the pursuit of happiness. We must pursue it if we wish to align our ideals with those of the academic and economic establishment.

Our consciousness of happiness is thus being perpetually reinforced. As we ponder the concept, then, we cannot fail to consider its lack or opposite. What if you don’t have happiness? What if you are not happy? Then you are unhappy, sad, or perhaps depressed. The latest World Happiness Report finds that depression is one of the three greatest threats to happiness. Insofar as depression is synonymous with sadness – or at least deep sadness – and sadness is an antonym of happiness, this is a tautology. The biggest threat to happiness in today’s world is the absence of happiness!

Therein lies the dialectical bind of happiness: the more conscious one becomes of it, the more conscious one must also become of its absence. The more one must ask oneself if one is happy and, if not, why not. This activity of ceaseless questioning is in itself not a pleasant one, and conducive to anxiety. Happiness is an essentially abstract concept centralized by utilitarian philosophy and economics. We can no longer unthink it, or remember that not all societies have prized it. Aristotle’s eudaimonia, remember, was an activity, not a state. As such, it was as close to Carlyle’s ideal of work as to Mill’s happiness.

So, as our notions of happiness get more and more sophisticated, and our economic structures become more and more entwined with this utilitarian abstraction, we will experience more and more depression, more anxiety, more and more the absence of this concept of happiness, which has moved from a mere abstraction to a materialized abstraction, build into the economic and ideological framework of our society. The felt absence of happiness is now one of the central facts of our experience. This is why we should go back to Carlyle and get a new perspective on this, because to us the idea that you don’t need to think about happiness is an alien one. Carlyle’s style is antiquated. The message, too, seems at first antiquated, but, if we wish to escape the clutches of happiness, it must be renewed:

[M]an is actually Here; not to ask questions, but to do work: in this time, as in all times, it must be the heaviest evil for him, if his faculty of Action lie dormant, and only that of sceptical Inquiry exert itself. Accordingly whoever looks abroad upon the world, comparing the Past with the Present, may find that the practical condition of man in these days is one of the saddest; burdened with miseries which are in a considerable degree peculiar. In no time was man’s life what he calls a happy one; in no time can it be so. (Characteristics, 1831)

 

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