The Victorian Sage

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Tag: john stuart mill

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

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.


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.


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)



Sherlock Holmes’ Favourite Book: The Martyrdom of Man

Diving once again into the archives of free Kindle books, I came across Winwood Reade’s The Martyrdom of Man (1872). Amazon searches indicate this book hasn’t been given a proper new edition in a long time – these 19th-century theorists of everything, predating disciplinary academicism, are out of fashion – but it’s a fascinating insight into the optimistic views of human progress that predominated in Victorian times, as well as one of the classics in the cultural prophecy mode: shades of Carlyle and Arnold, pre-empting H.G. Wells (who was indeed a fan). Furthermore, it was Sherlock Holmes’ favourite book, or one of them anyway, being strongly endorsed by that character in conversation with Dr. Watson.

Let me recommend this book,—one of the most remarkable ever penned. It is Winwood Reade’s ‘Martyrdom of Man.’ (The Sign of the Four, Chapter 2)

Holmes himself is something of an embodiment of the new type of person Reade envisaged, a harbinger of a new age. For Reade’s schema of history sees four ages: war, religion, liberty and intellect. These four concepts were successively the primary drivers of human progress. First: simple war, might is right; progress was assured through conquest. Then, the relative enlightenment of the religious age, the rise of monotheism and its instalment as the central dynamic symbol by which men and women lived and worked; then, liberty, as an ideal, took over, leading to revolutions of various sorts and a new world order; fourth, and apparently final, was to be the age of intellect, which Reade saw coming over the horizon. The days of wars and of faiths were over; Reade found that these had in earlier times served a purpose, having been the vehicles by which man raised himself from cultural animality.

War, despotism, slavery and superstition are now injurious to the progress of Europe, but they were once the agents by which progress was produced. By means of war the animated life was raised slowly upward in the scale, and quadrupeds passed into man. (loc 5859)

But by the application of the law of growth of all living things (and by extension, for Reade, the agglomeration of living things that is human society), these agents had outlived their uses. The idea that war is not a thing to be recommended is one most wouldn’t argue with, but Reade gave perhaps the most outspoken critique of established religion then in print. He could hardly have been more explicit: “I undertake to show that the destruction of Christianity is essential to the interests of civilization; and also that man will never attain his full powers as a moral being until he has ceased to believe in a personal God and in the immortality of the soul.” (loc 6112)

It is as though Reade was answering the challenge set by John Stuart Mill in his at the time still-unpublished autobiography:

On religion in particular the time appears to me to have come when it is the duty of all who, being qualified in point of knowledge, have on mature consideration satisfied themselves that the current opinions are not only false but hurtful, and to make their dissent known […] The world would be astonished if it knew how great a proportion of its brightest ornaments – of those most distinguished even in popular estimation for wisdom and virtue – are complete sceptics in religion. (Autobiography [Seven Treasures Publications], loc 544)

Reade was as open a sceptic as could be imagined. He used, among others, the familiar if-there’s-a-god-then-why-do-people-suffer argument to combat Christianity. He has a nice line on this:

[W]e shall state as an incontrovertible maxim in morality that a god has no right to create men except for their own good. (loc 6042)

Now that religion had passed its sell-by date, Reade expected the “spirit of Science” to take hold of the human mind. From scientific investigations, “will proceed discoveries by which human nature will be elevated, purified and finally transformed.” (loc 5177). Unfortunately (in my opinion), Reade, having discarded religion, proceeds to reintroduce the concept of God in the latter part of the book:

[T]he God of Light, the Spirit of Knowledge, the Divine Intellect, is gradually spreading over the planet and upwards to the skies. (loc 5979)

This is not the God of the monotheistic religions, rather a very vague notion not necessarily denoting anything supernatural, but used by Reade at times to indicate some sort of life force impelling mankind to better himself and assuring us that all is for the best, validating Reade’s optimistic reading of human history. Later again, Reade returns to his discussion of God:

We teach that there is a God, but not a God of the anthropoid variety [.] […] God is so great that he cannot be defined by us. God is so great that he does not deign to have personal relations with us human atoms that are called men. (loc 6265)

A God so great he cannot be defined is in itself a definition that seems to open the door for any conception, even a Christian one, of the great deity. In this ultimate back-pedalling manoeuvre, Reade is very typical of Victorian post-Christian intellects. But it is his general tendency towards elevation of the scientific principle that allies him to the Holmesian stance, as well as marking Holmes as a figure beyond religion, and opposed to the old forms of faith. Reading The Martyrdom of Man gives a good sense of how important Holmes was to his time and as a representative of a philosophically new way of being; although one must admit that the age of intellect has probably not yet quite gotten underway, nor is Religion (or War) as dead as Reade prophecied.

The Work-worship Nexus: Niall Ferguson’s Civilization (2011)

I have been reading historian Niall Ferguson’s latest book Civilization: The West and the Rest (2011), an exploration into the reasons western Europe began to dominate the world from 1500AD, and later America continued the western heritage and hegemony, and the reasons why this domination appears to be coming to an end, threatened economically by China, and physically by Islamic Jihadism. The first threat isn’t really so bad, as Ferguson considers China to be reasonably westernized, more western than the current crop of westerners themselves, in some respects. With their emphasis on hard work and thrift, the Chinese are a sort of neo-protestant people. And Ferguson reports with glee on the growing number of actual Protestants, and to a lesser extent Catholics, in China. He has a case study, one Hanping Zhang, a big deal in the pen-manufacturing industry. Zhang is a Christian, and likes to employ Christians: “he knows he can trust his fellow Christians, because he knows they are both hard working and honest” (285). Meanwhile, the nominal “west” is becoming godless and consequently lazy – “Europeans not only work less; they pray less” (266). Ferguson is very insistent on the work-worship nexus.

Niall Ferguson

At the book’s close, Ferguson writes: “maybe the real threat is posed not by the rise of China, Islam, or CO2 omissions, but by our own loss of faith in the civilization we inherited from our ancestors” (325). At this point, Ferguson has linked civilization so closely with Protestant Christianity as to create the impression that “this loss of faith” (and that particular phraseology reinforces it) is explicitly religious, and that until we rediscover religion, we cannot hope to fend off the Yellow and Brown Perils. Now, it does not appear that Ferguson himself is religious. Religion to him is a social convenience. It is not quite an opium of the people, as that drug causes physical lethargy – religion prescribes moral and political quietism but dutiful industriousness. This attitude has been hanging on for centuries now. It is a long time since intellectuals like Ferguson actually believed in religion, but there have always been those who wished to prescribe it for the masses. John Stuart Mill took this up in 1873:

On religion in particular the time appears to me to have come when it is the duty of all who, being qualified in point of knowledge, have on mature consideration satisfied themselves that the current opinions are not only false but hurtful, and to make their dissent known […] The world would be astonished if it knew how great a proportion of its brightest ornaments – of those most distinguished even in popular estimation for wisdom and virtue – are complete sceptics in religion. (Autobiography)

Yet the issue drags on. There are always a few ready to speak for religion, and there is always a public to hear them. As long as Ferguson and the like are content with the sham of religion, the sham will perpetuate itself among certain sectors of the public, with considerable politico-moral consequences for western society at large. Synonomizing “western” and “protestant”, Ferguson is able to give the protestant ethic credit for everything that occurs in the western world, just as he now attempts to give it credit for China’s progress. Religion has hitched onto too many trains already, though, and we would do well to remember all those great ornaments who have gone on without religion or in spite of religion, but who haven’t had the stomach to expressly and openly fight it. Much less praiseworthy are those like Ferguson who wish to carry on with the old forms, now far past their sell-by date, when their greatest effect is to alienate the more intelligent and thoughtful members of society from those in whom discrimation or sincerity is secondary to convenience, conformism, complacency and moral self-indulgence, while pandering to and encouraging the latter.

Niall Ferguson, Civilization: The West and the Rest (Allen Lane [Penguin]: London, 2011).

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