Kindness’ covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.
The next time you experience a blackout, take some solace by looking at the sky. You will not recognize it. Beirut had frequent power shutdowns during the war. Before people bought their own generators, one side of the sky was clear at night, owing to the absence of light pollution. That was the side of town farthest from the combat zone. People deprived of television drove to watch the erupting lights of nighttime battles. They appeared to prefer the risk of being blown up by mortar shells to the boredom of a dull evening.
Winning the race to happiness is problematic, but so is knowing where to start and finish and which direction to run. Philosophy is no help. “Very little is needed to make a happy life,” said Marcus Aurelius. Tell it to the kids on a rainy day, Marco, when the DVD player is on the fritz, the Game Boy is out of batteries, and the SUV won’t start. “Happiness is activity in accordance with excellence,” said Aristotle, who must have been a better golfer than I am. The Epicureans would be expected to know something about pursuing happiness. Epicurus said, “Pleasure is the beginning and the end of living happily.” I’ll get the gin, you find some olives and vermouth. But then Epicurus went on to say, “It is impossible to live pleasurably without living wisely, well, and justly.” Fine, for people who pursue their happiness by eating oat bran, reading St. Peter’s Epistles, and not ducking out of jury duty. Solon of Athens declared, “Until he is dead, do not yet call a man happy.” And then what do you call him?
Happiness isn’t impossible to describe. But, paradoxically, no one can listen to descriptions of happiness for long. Compare Dante’s Inferno with Dante’s Paradiso. Dante’s beloved Beatrice would have died of boredom if he had tried reading to her from Paradiso rough drafts. On a less exalted plane, let any huggy-lovey couple show you their honeymoon slides.
From Old Testament times and ancient Greece until this century, the good life was widely understood to mean a life of intellectual and moral virtue. The good life is the life of ideal human functioning according to the nature that God Himself gave to us. According to this view, prior to creation God had in mind an ideal blueprint of human nature from which he created each and every human being. Happiness was understood as a life of virtue, and the successful person was one who knew how to live life well according to what we are by nature due to the creative design of God.
It matters more than anything else in the world. The whole dance, or drama, or pattern of this three-Personal life is to be played out in each one of us: or (putting it the other way round) each one of us has got to enter that pattern, take his place in that dance. There is no other way to the happiness for which we were made. Good things as well as bad, you know, are caught by a kind of infection. If you want to get warm you must stand near the fire: if you want to be wet you must get into the water. If you want joy, power, peace, eternal life, you must get close to, or even into, the thing that has them. They are not a sort of prize which God could, if He chose, just hand out to anyone. They are a great fountain of energy and beauty spurting up at the very centre of reality. If you are close to it, the spray will wet you: if you are not, you will remain dry. Once a man is united to God, how could he not live forever? Once a man is separated from God, what can he do but wither and die?
[A]ll stream out into the open, drug themselves with talking, start arguing or love-making, and the last glow of sunset the town, freighted with lovers two by two and loud with voices, drifts like a helpless ship into the throbbing darkness. In vain a zealous evangelist with a felt hat and flowing tie threads his way through the crowd, crying without cease: “God is great and good. Come unto Him.” On the contrary, they all make haste toward some trivial objective that seems of more immediate interest than God. In the early days, when they thought this epidemic was much like other epidemics, religion held its ground, But once these people realized their instant peril, they gave their thought to pleasure. And all the hideous fears that stamp their faces in the daytime are transformed in the fiery, dusty nightfall into a sort of hectic exaltation, an unkempt freedom fevering their blood.
The demand of the loveless and the self-imprisoned that they should be allowed to blackmail the universe: that till they consent to be happy (on their own terms) no one else shall taste joy: that theirs should be the final power; that Hell should be able to veto Heaven.
The thing I do not propose to prove, the thing I propose to take as common ground between myself and any average reader, is this desirability of an active and imaginative life, picturesque and full of a poetical curiosity, a life such as western man at any rate always seems to have desired. If a man says that extinction is better than existence or blank existence better than variety and adventure, then he is not one of the ordinary people to whom I am talking. If a man prefers nothing I can give him nothing. But nearly all people I have ever met in this western society in which I live would agree to the general proposition that we need this life of practical romance; the combination of something that is strange with something that is secure. We need so to view the world as to combine an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome. We need to be happy in this wonderland without once being merely comfortable.
Now it is an unquestionable fact that those who are equally acquainted with, and equally capable of appreciating and enjoying, both, do give a most marked preference to the manner of existence which employs their higher faculties. Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals, for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast’s pleasures; no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base, even though they should be persuaded that the fool, the dunce, or the rascal is better satisfied with his lot than they are with theirs. They would not resign what they possess more than he, for the most complete satisfaction of all the desires which they have in common with him. If they ever fancy they would, it is only in cases of unhappiness so extreme, that to escape from it they would exchange their lot for almost any other, however undesirable in their own eyes. A being of higher faculties requires more to make him happy, is capable probably of more acute suffering, and certainly accessible to it at more points, than one of an inferior type; but in spite of these liabilities, he can never really wish to sink into what he feels to be a lower grade of existence.
Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusions about its condition is the demand to give up a condition that needs illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of the vale of woe, the halo of which is religion. Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers from the chain, not so that man will wear the chain without any fantasy or consolation but so that he will shake off the chain and cull the living flower.