PHIL [00:00:01] “I shall therefore assume that the reader would rather be happy than unhappy. Whether I can help him to realise this wish, I do not know. But at any rate, the attempt can do no harm.”
JAY [00:00:24] Welcome to Dog-eared and Cracked, the podcast where we each recommend a book for the other and then play literary critic. Our tastes widely differ, so some of our postmortems may be replete with vacuous silences and frictional argument. Sometimes you may hear nothing more than the sound of a paperback hitting the side of a wall, as one of us expresses our lack of enjoymen in the other’s choice of reading material. But fortunately, in all cases for you, the podcast listener, no reading is required.
[00:00:50] I’m Jay.
PHIL [00:00:52] And I’m Phil. And this week we’re discussing The Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell, published in 1930.
JAY [00:01:01] Before we talk about what you thought about the book, want to introduce us to it and tell us a bit about the writer Bertrand Russell.
PHIL [00:01:07] Well, Bertrand Russell’s an amazing guy. He was born in 1872, died in 1970, and he had a very rich and full life.
[00:01:19] He was a philosopher, a logician. He had a strong interest in mathematics. He revolutionised the study of logic. He was an atheist, a pacifist, an educator, and I guess a self-help book writer, which I did not know. He was also a guy who really lived his morals and ethics. He spent six months in jail during the First World War for his pacifism. He spent another week in jail in the 60s for protesting the Vietnam War. And it cost him: he lost a teaching job at Cambridge. He lost one at the City University of New York, and he was a prolific writer. At the same time, he wrote lots and won the Nobel prize in literature. It’s, it’s quite a CV.
JAY [00:02:03] Yeah, it is interesting, isn’t it, that all of his advancements in mathematics and logic and really his big reward was a Nobel prize and that was in literature.
[00:02:14] And did you did you read that he his comments about being in prison were that he actually really enjoyed it because it gave him plenty of time to read and write?
PHIL [00:02:23] Yes, I think he he wrote one of his books while he was well, he was in prison.
JAY [00:02:27] I was actually interested to hear that as well.
[00:02:31] He was a world traveller, and he actually met Vladimir Lenin in 1920, which formed a lot of his views about communism. And of course, this was prior to Stalin and kind of the deterioration of that system. But he — that would’ve been quite the meeting of the minds.
PHIL [00:02:50] Yeah. Yeah, I could imagine. My dad was a Russell fan, so I did know about him, but I’d never actually read any of his books other than Why I am not a Christian, which I read back when I was in in CEGEP or in university. The other thing about which –I don’t know if you know this, but did you know he has a Nova Scotia connection?
JAY [00:03:12] No, really? Does it involve lobsters?
PHIL [00:03:13] Doing your bit for tourism Nova Scotia there. In 1955, so, you know, early in the in the Cold War, he was a pacifist. So he and Albert Einstein signed a manifesto called the Russell Einstein Manifesto, and it called for an end to nuclear weapons and for talk, you know, a nonpartisan way for the different sides in the Cold War to meet. And they proposed an international conference that would be non-political, non-partisan, to promote peace in the world. And that became the Pugwash conferences, which took place for many, many years in Pugwash, Nova Scotia. And they actually won the Nobel prize. There’s another Nobel prize. You can, if you take a road trip to Pugwash, I recommend visiting. It’s called Thinker’s Lodge. Beautiful place. And they’ve got the Nobel prize on view there.
JAY [00:04:12] Really? Oh, that’s amazing. That’s amazing. You know, Phil, we haven’t really talked about kind of how this book is structured. And are you able to kind of summarise for the listener kind of how this how this thing is laid out?
PHIL [00:04:24] Yeah. So The Conquest of Happiness, it’s it’s not a very long book. It’s divided into two sections. So in the first, Russell looks at the causes of unhappiness and in the second section he looks at what leads to happiness.
[00:04:38] So very simple and straightforward. Some things fall into both categories, like work, for instance, can be a cause of unhappiness, but also happiness.
JAY [00:04:48] Yeah, and I can I can picture people listening in and saying, well, why? What does a 90-year-old book really have to give us? And it’s funny because some of the ideas may be dated, but there is actually an amazing amount of material in this book that it’s unsurprisingly more relevant today than ever. There’s a quote I really like. It goes, “You can get away from envy by enjoying the pleasures that come your way, by doing the work that you have to do, and by avoiding comparisons with those whom you imagine, perhaps quite falsely, to be more fortunate than yourself.”
PHIL [00:05:19] Yeah, well, I mean, that quote does seem very relevant still, which I guess… You know, I suspect I know the answer to this, but why did you want me to read the book?
JAY [00:05:28] This has become one of my favourite books. But I thought it would really be interesting to see kind of these precise observations about life and that arguably still hold some truth today. And I thought that would be worthwhile and having a discussion about those those beliefs that he had.
[00:05:48] I like the book because it’s approachable. His philosophy is in a language that is simple. But yet at the same time, I found myself looking up words. But the language is ostensibly aimed at a non philosopher, and the reader is anyone and everyone. And I thought we’d just have a great kind of conversation about some of these ideas.
[00:06:08] For example, the book is a bit, obviously somewhat dated. So the book was copyrighted in 1930. And I kind of had to keep flipping back to the front of the book to see the copyright and remind myself of that, because the ideas, some of them are dated.
[00:06:28] Some of them have a Victorian attitude towards the differences, for example, between men and women. And I’m wondering if you found that distracting or was it merely brushed aside in our quest for value?
PHIL [00:06:38] You know, I had the same experience as you. I think I went back probably three or four times to check the copyright page, maybe for the opposite reason from you, like. Obviously, yes. Some of it is dated, but some of it is quite progressive, too. So there are a few things where, you know, I did kept going back and thinking, was this really 1930? I was willing. I don’t know if I would say I’m willing to give him a pass. There were definitely a few things that really made me cringe, especially when he over generalises about things he doesn’t know much about.
[00:07:12] So he’ll talk abou — he has these very old colonial ideas about Eastern religions in India, for instance. You know, so it was actually a classic sort of critique. And one of the reasons that Indians were inferior to the British in the British colonial era was that, you know, they were very fatalistic. They didn’t really care about the real world and, you know, whether their children lived or died because they believed in karma and fate. And so they were passive. So, you know, some of those attitudes come up. And when he talks about, you know, how the savage hunts and that and that sort of thing. Definitely, definitely cringeworthy. But there was, there was enough that that I found helpful, useful, interesting. And he did have those more progressive ideas as well, that that, you know, I wasn’t willing to just toss the whole thing and think like, oh, God, this guy. You know what I mean?
JAY [00:08:09] Yeah, yeah.
[00:08:11] There’s there’s no argument that that he some of his ideas are archaic and totally agree with you on some of the sentiment towards the cringe-worthiness of certain certain passages. But there’s ideas that are strong. For example, when he talks about envy, I feel he really gets right to kind of the heart of — he appeals to the highest ego in all of us. And he so he argues that it’s good to aspire and to be inspired by others. But he reminds the reader that they they should not really compare themselves to others. Great quote here. The quote is: “If you desire glory, you may envy Napoleon. But Napoleon envied Caesar. Caesar envied Alexander and Alexander, I daresay, envied Hercules, who never existed. You cannot therefore get away from envy by means of success alone. For there will always be in history or legend, some person even more successful than you are.” And it’s an ideology, it’s recurring in his book, it’s this idea to pursue the next best thing is in itself all that can be enjoyed, because once we attain that which we seek, we only want more or something different. So we’re continually onto the next best thing, which is just a trap.
PHIL [00:09:25] You know, this is maybe a side note, but it reminds me of something Frank Zappa said, which was to never stake your reputation on being the fastest guitarist, because no matter how fast you play, someone else is going to come along who plays faster.
JAY [00:09:39] I thought you were going to give the quote from when he was asked why he snorted a mountain of coke. And he said it was there.
PHIL [00:09:50] I didn’t know that one.
JAY [00:09:53] I thought I heard that from you in high school.
PHIL [00:09:54] Well, I don’t remember it. I don’t know.
JAY [00:10:01] My impression, Phil, is that Russell’s opinions are really just that. They’re merely opinions. And so there’s no real evidence to support any of his ideas, even despite how intuitive they might appear. So having said that, do you find that some of these ideas still hold merit?
PHIL [00:10:18] Oh, yeah, sure. I mean, you know, I don’t read a book like this looking for evidence. And in fact, I may be happier if I don’t get evidence. I’m happy to just have, you know, somebody share their views and and go along with them. You know, in in Russell’s case, in in The Conquest of Happiness, there were a few things that that really resonated with me. So, he talks a lot about, you know, one of the keys to happiness being actually not focussing… well, not focussing on just one thing. So, for instance, getting caught up in work. That you need a fuller, rounder life.
[00:10:59] It struck me in the beginning when he said that you shouldn’t focus too much attention on yourself, because that runs counter to a lot of what we think today, that introspection is good and it’s a good idea. You know, like mindfulness meditation, whatever, to kind of understand your emotions, understand where you’re coming from. I was a bit thrown when Russell said not to spend too much time looking inward. I wasn’t sure I agreed with that. But I think I get what he meant, which was to have outer interests and not be completely self-absorbed, which, you know, seems like seems like good advice for anybody. And the other thing that I also appreciated, just to go back to whether it’s dated or not, is that while he writes about the individual, he does make it clear that, you know, the individual exists in a society and there are social conditions that, you know, if there’s mass poverty, it’s harder to be happy, for instance, so that, you know, it’s not a book about creating, you know, better social conditions, but it’s a book that recognises that you need those to be happy. I was particularly struck about this when he talks about men and women because he does a lot of the “men are more like this, women are more like that.” But at the same time, you know, he’ll say, he’ll talk about women’s careers and how their careers are hindered because they can’t get proper childcare, so once they have children, they’re home raising them. And how much better it would be for everybody if there was better childcare. L:ike, that was 90 years ago. And we’re still talking about that issue today.
JAY [00:12:40] Yeah, it’s one I don’t think will resolve anytime soon.
[00:12:45] I have been doing quite a bit of reading on psychological flow, and I think to your point about the self-reflection and the fact that he he pointedly suggests the reader should kind of avoid avoid that in large amounts. And I think what he’s getting at is because he also talks about the importance of work. He talks about the value in having something. And I believe he’s talking about purpose as well.
[00:13:12] But when we talk about psychological flow, it’s this sense of of rather than thinking through problems, rather than thinking about your life, it’s about reaching this kind of happiness by ostensibly being involved in a task where it’s both challenging and yet not overwhelming. So it’s this golden mean, if you if you will, where the task at hand is something that is goal-oriented, provides a challenge and at the same time isn’t too complicated and overwhelming and impossible to accomplish. And when you’re involved in that, the mind actually settles down into something which is akin to — they call it flow. You can call it being in the zone or whatever you want to describe it as.
[00:14:06] But it’s this idea of — it creates something in the mind that produces indifferent endorphins in the body and really provides kind of that level of happiness, which is kind of what, I mean, if I had to reword his book, I would call it kind of a practical guide to happiness because he talks about things that aren’t, don’t require years of study. They’re really just about little tweaks, little shifts in the way you live your life.
[00:14:34] And there is a chapter in particular, a story involving peacocks. You remember that story?
PHIL [00:14:42] Yeah, I do.
JAY [00:14:44] The subject is envy. And Bertrand Russell tells a story about, he imagines, he asks the reader to imagine — and this is typical Russell’s sarcastic prose. And you have to kind of recognise that as you’re reading it. Otherwise it becomes a nonsensical story.
[00:15:00] But he he asks a reader, imagine what would happen if if peacocks went around admiring each other’s tails. And he describes him as a very peaceful bird. And the reason he says that, and this is my understanding of his story, is that because they don’t have envy towards others, that they feel that they themselves had the best tail in the world. And that makes them happy, not necessarily narcissistic or arrogant. But he kind of talks about this idea that if they were envious of the other peacocks and they’re acting like humans, instead of taking pride in their appearance, the jealousy would cause them just great unhappiness. Is that your take on it as well?
PHIL [00:15:41] I caved and got a New Yorker subscription early in the pandemic and the new issue came the other day and there was a cartoon with peacocks in it. So it shows two peacocks on like a Zoome call, and one of them has its tail all fanned out and the other doesn’t. And the one who doesn’t says, I thought we agreed we weren’t dressing up for meetings.
JAY [00:16:05] So I — OK, we’re digressing. This is exactly the kind of podcast I hate listening to. I’ve got another quote for you:
[00:16:18] “A man who is happy in his marriage and his children is not likely to feel much envy of other men because of their greater wealth or success. So long as he has enough to bring up his children in what he feels to be the right way.”.
[00:16:30] Now, would you, Phil, agree or disagree with this idea?
PHIL [00:16:34] It sounds like good advice to me. I mean, we all know the guys who are completely wrapped up in their work, and then are shocked when, like they have no relationship with their kids or their partners leave them because they never saw it coming, because they were completely wrapped up in their work. You know, I am not a particularly ambitious person — like I’ve worked at home most of my career, and I was frustrated doing it when my kids were around sometimes. But I was also just happy to be around. I’ve had moments in my life, I guess this ties back into envy, you know, where I compare myself to other freelance writers, like they’re doing better than me. Maybe I would have done better if I lived in Toronto. Would I want to live in Toronto? I mean, I think having a solid home life always just seemed a little more important to me. And yeah, I was having this conversation with someone and I said something about like, well, I’m a pretty good writer. And they said, well, you know, you could kind of you know, you could think of yourself more positively than that. I said, I’m happy being a pretty good writer. That’s OK with me.
[00:17:58] To be clear, I’m not trying to say I was a great parent because I know, you know, I’ve had my issues, too, but I do think that’s one of those things Russell is progressive about, because how many men in his area would be writing — he writes a lot about the importance of family and the importance of raising your kids. It’s one of the themes that runs on through the book, right?
JAY [00:18:16] Phill, the man was married three times. I think he had a lot of practise.
JAY [00:18:22] That’s a good point.
[00:18:40] So, Phil, I’ve been talking a lot in terms of quotes, I’ve been reading quotes. Do you have a notable quote from The Conquest of Happiness?
PHIL [00:18:50] Yeah, you know, I was I was kind of surprised and delighted to see that he had a quote about baseball. I was thinking of that one. But there is another one that I really like that I’m going to read instead. The baseball quote was essentially about an American writer who he’d met, who he thought was very gloomy. But then when the baseball scores came on the radio, he perked up.
[00:19:17] But this is a quote from the section on boredom and excitement, and it’s about children. And one of the things that struck me is you could you could imagine someone writing almost this exact quote today only instead of where Russell talks about theatre, you know, replace the theatre with an iPad or phone or something.
[00:19:38] So here’s the quote:.
[00:19:41] “The capacity to endure a more or less monotonous life is one which should be acquired in childhood. Modern parents are greatly to blame in this respect. They provide their children with far too many passive amusements, such as shows and good things to eat. And they do not realise the importance to a child of having one day like another. Except, of course, for somewhat rare occasions. The pleasures of childhood should in the main be such as the child extracts himself from his environment by means of some effort and inventiveness. Pleasures which are exciting and at the same time involve no physical exertion, such, for example, as the theatre should occur very rarely. The excitement is in the nature of a drug of which more and more will come to be required. And the physical passivity during the excitement is contrary to instinct. A child develops best when, like a young plant, he is left undisturbed in the same soil.”
JAY [00:20:42] I like that. I like that quote. Except for putting children in the soil, it just seems wrong. But regardless, I like this idea of boredom that he’s talking about it and it shouldn’t be avoided as a natural state, and distracting oneself with diversions really only acts as a temporary end to that boredom. And I’d even go further and say that applies to adults more than we realise, How few of us at the end the day, instead of indulging in creative hobby, we just saturate our thoughts with the mindless machinations of the latest episode of some new Netflix series. And then we go to sleep and get up and do the same thing again the next day. And there’s really no accessing that part of the brain that’s only really forced to do to work when we have that feeling of boredom, do you know what I mean by that?
PHIL [00:21:34] Yeah. Also kind of interesting, we’re talking about this since our last book was called The Utility of Boredom. But Russell gets into that and in the section on work, too, that, you know, you don’t want your life to be exciting all the time. It’s exhausting. You know, you want to have –I think we’re like dogs. You want to have some kind of routine that you’re familiar with. I totally would have rejected this, like when I was say in my 20s, by the way. But you want to have some kind of routine that you’re comfortable with, but with some sort of novelty, newness, excitement as well. Right? If it’s just — and that within that we have to make space for times when things don’t really happen. And that’s OK. Right?
JAY [00:22:19] I’ve got one last quote, Phil, before we start to wrap this up and score this book. And it has to — it’s Russell saying something inadvertently about our own modern world. And here’s the quote: “I think that in general, apart from expert opinion, there is too much respect paid to the opinion of others, both in great matters and a small ones. One should respect public opinion insofar as is necessary to avoid starvation and to keep out of prison. But anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny and is likely to interfere with happiness in all kinds of ways.”
[00:22:55] So when I read that, almost immediately, I could only think of social media. How it’s not only made more people suffer from fear of public opinion, but has ironically empowered them and ensured that they continue to remain in that fleeting public sentiment.
[00:23:11] What are your thoughts?
PHIL [00:23:13] I think there’s a couple of sides — that’s also interesting, the thing he says about prison, considering that he he spent time, he spent time there himself. On the one hand, I agree. Right? If you live your life trying to please others, you know, ultimately, that is a route to unhappiness. At the same time, I think people who loudly proclaim that they don’t care about the opinions of others tend to be assholes. So I think the truth lies somewhere in between that, right? That we shouldn’t pay too much attention to what others around us think, but at the same time, we shouldn’t kind of be aggressive about not caring what they think. It ties in a little bit to his chapter, maybe obliquely, to his chapter on persecution mania, which is one of the causes of unhappiness when people feel that others have it in for them. And you know, Russell says really most people aren’t spending that much time thinking about, you know.
JAY [00:24:20] I know.
PHIL [00:24:20] So, you know, I think an overreliance on what others think is in some way related to a sense that others have it in for you, because for whatever reason — you know, he has a quote about my play is brilliant and why is nobody producing it? What could be the possible reason for this? You know? So at a certain point, it may be possible that your play just sucks. It may be that people have it in for you and you need to kind of figure out which it is. I think the same applies. You know, there’s reasons we have public, not public opinion, but the opinions of, I think the opinions of those we care about and those close to us should be important to us. Which doesn’t mean we always have to go along with them.
JAY [00:25:07] Absolutely not. Not to date myself. But I almost feel like Russell, in other words, is saying, just get over yourself. You’re not all that and a bag of chips. It’s this idea where he’s talking about people taking themselves too seriously and really they’re the ones getting hurt. And I think that kind of to me, that sums it up.
[00:25:29] Now, would this book be best read with a mug of cold draught beer, a glass of wine or a tumbler of scotch? What beverage?
PHIL [00:25:40] I think given that Russell was an aristocrat, I would have to go with the scotch. Maybe a nice peaty, maybe a nice peatyscotch.
JAY [00:25:52] I think he’d agree with you. I think for a 98-year-old-man, he would absolutely love a glass of scotch right now if he was still with us.
[00:26:00] We’ve come to the part where we rate the book. And I’ve I’ve changed the rating system scale slightly. Phil, if I can. If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to take you through it.
PHIL [00:26:11] Please.
JAY [00:26:11] All right. Five stars is engaging. Who knew the sex life of an amoeba could be so gripping? Four stars is moving. Three stars: The book is pleasingly informative. It’s the perfect book for the beach. It looks important impressing everyone who walks by and yet still holds your attention. Now, two stars: starting to get self-involved and dense. And one star, it’s incomprehensible. It’s the perfect book to be left on the beach, at least until the tide comes in to take it out to sea. Now, how would you rate The Conquest to Happiness by Bertrand Russell?
PHIL [00:26:48] I would say for me, it’s a solid three and a half.
[00:26:55] It didn’t grip me. But I found it helpful, interesting, useful in some ways. It’s, in some ways it’s an interesting artefact of its time, but it also has contemporary value. I was actually I was quite surprised, pleasantly surprised by it.
JAY [00:27:15] I’m glad you went through it and read it. And as I was rereading it, I realised that the language was good, solid, but the writing was a bit dry in points and there were areas that were fairly cringeworthy.
PHIL [00:27:29] Were you thinking, Phil is going to read this quote from “the Chinaman” and throw it against the wall?
JAY [00:27:32] I thought there might be a letter to the editor or a silent protest outside my house.
[00:27:41] Now I get it, because we both realised the book is is dated and and it — some of the areas have not aged well. And it’s not that he was…. and this time… He was actually arguing, and ironically, he was more enlightened, he was more woke than anyone really at his, in his time period. And for that — and despite the fact that he was writing from a perspective of wealth and luxury, I put those aside — and in fact, I’m actually kind of grateful that he did, because in living that life of luxury, I think he had more time to really contemplate this than those of us who are just working every day and really don’t have time to sit down and put down those thoughts.
[00:28:30] And the thoughts he did put down, I believe, still carry value even today.
[00:28:34] And so in that context, I would rate it five stars for myself. And I’m glad that you read it, Phil, and I’m glad that, you know, some of it did resonate with you.
PHIL [00:28:47] Yeah, for sure.
[00:28:49] So next up, Jay, we have a book I’ve recommended for you. The Transmigration of Timothy Archer by Philip K. Dick. I’ve read this book a few times, but it’s probably been 10 years since the last time, so I’m looking forward to revisiting it. And also to seeing what you think of it.
JAY [00:29:10] Yeah, I’m looking forward to it as well. Now, this is going to be our our second of the fiction series. We’ve just finished a non-fiction series and so we’re gonna flip back and forth where each of us recommends a book to the other one will be, we’ll do fiction, and then I’ve got one for you after that called Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski.
PHIL [00:29:32] And just a quick note. If you’re listening, if you like the podcast, leave us a review. Leave us a rating that’s always helpful and it allows people to find us more easily. All right. See you next week.