A Bertrand Russell quote for Mother’s Day

One’s friends like one for one’s merits, one’s lovers for one’s charms; if the merits or the charms diminish, friends and lovers may vanish. But it is in times of misfortune that parents are most to be relied upon, in illness, and even in disgrace if the parents are of the right sort. We all feel pleasure when we are admired for our merits, but most of us are sufficiently modest at heart to feel that such admiration is precarious. Out parents love us because we are their children and this is an unalterable fact, so that we feel more safe with them than with any one else. In times of success this may seem unimportant, but in times of failure it affords a consolation and a security not to be found elsewhere.

Bertrand Russell from “The Conquest of Happiness”

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom!

Thanks for being there for me, through spilled milk and all.

Yes, my mother did comfort me when I literally cried over spilled milk.

The Conquest of Happiness – a book reivew

conquestofhappinessI came to add Bertrand Russell’s “The Conquest of Happiness” to my reading queue in a roundabout way. I’d heard about a popular philosophy book, and when I looked it up online, “Conquest” was included in one of those “other books you’d like” lists in the margin (which also led me to reading Gretchen Rubin’s “The Happiness Project”.)

While each chapter is a fairly short read, it took me awhile to complete the book because I felt the need to wait until I was in the mood to properly digest its ideas before I picked it up. I’m glad I purchased this book instead of checking it out from the library. I’ve made all sorts of scribblings and notes in the margins. I had conversations with this book, and made connections to all sorts of situations in the world today and in my life. I’m sure I’ll continue to refer to it in the future.

I’ve already posted on this blog a couple of items that struck me as I was reading: here and here, and I also made a few postings of quotations on social media.

social media posts of quotesI’d certainly recommend the book to anyone thinking about the meaning of life or happiness or work-life balance or politics or parenthood, but with an asterisk.

*Several passages in the book come off as racist or sexist. Not to be apologetic, but it reflects attitudes of Bertrand’s time. Based on the majority of the book, I scoffed at the notion that Bertrand was, in fact, a feminist in his day. Then I came across this sentence:

A woman who has acquired any kind of professional skill ought, both for her own sake and for that of the community, to be free to continue to exercise this skill in spite of motherhood.

Hm.

There is so much I could write and quote about this book, but I’ll cut it down to two items.

1. I bet Bertrand would have been chary about the Internet, social media in particular. It could be argued that social media encourages excessive self-reflection, enables comparison, facilitates public shaming, and serves as a constant distraction from boredom – all of which would drain a person’s happiness, according to what I gleaned from the book. A few quotes to support my thesis:

We are less bored than our ancestors were, but we are more afraid of boredom. We have come to know, or rather to believe, that boredom is not part of the natural lot of man . . . too much excitement not only undermines the health, but dulls the palate for every kind of pleasure, substituting titillations for profound organic satisfactions, cleverness for wisdom, and jagged surprises for beauty. . . . A certain power of enduring boredom is therefore essential to a happy life, and is one of the things that ought to be taught to the young. . . .

The habit of thinking in terms of comparison is a fatal one. . . . In the old days people only envied their neighbors, because they knew little about any one else. Now through education and the press they know much  . . .

When the newspaper chooses to make a scapegoat of some perhaps quite harmless person, the results may be very terrible. Fortunately, as yet this is a fate which most people escape through their obscurity; but as publicity gets more and more perfect in its methods, there will be an increasing danger in this novel form of social persecution.

If all our happiness is bound up entirely in our personal circumstances it is difficult not to demand of life more than it has to give.

2. You have to work at being happy.

Happiness is not, except in very rare cases, something that drops into the mouth, like a ripe fruit, by the mere operation of fortunate circumstances.

A few pointers I interpreted from the book, which sound like quotes from motivational posters:

  • Find a purpose in life.
  • Stop obsessing about yourself – you’re not really that important.
  • Focus on other people, connect with your community.
  • Allow yourself to slow down and be bored.
  • Stop comparing yourself to other people.
  • Face your fears, don’t worry about them.
  • Be true to yourself.
  • Find “your people” – friends you can relate to.
  • Develop a hobby. Cultivate broad interests. Have new experiences. Travel.

This quote sums up a lot about why I like to read and travel:

Each of us is in the world for no very long time, and within the few years of his life has to acquire whatever he is to know of this strange planet and its place in the universe. To ignore our opportunities for knowledge, imperfect as they are, is like going to the theater and not listening to the play. The world is full of things that are tragic or comic, heroic or bizarre or surprising, and those who fail to be interested in the spectacle that it offers are forgoing one of the privileges that life has to offer.

Be happy and enjoy the spectacle, friends.

Bertrand Russell on book clubs

I’m currently reading Bertrand Russell’s “The Conquest of Happiness” and have been finding some quotable material.

A snooty take on reading clubs (oh my!):

The competitive habit of mind easily invades regions to which it does not belong. Take, for example, the question of reading. There are two motives for reading a book: one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it. It has become the thing in America for ladies to read (or seem to read) certain books every month; some read them, some read the first chapter, some read the reviews, but all have these books on their tables. They do not, however, read any old masterpieces. There has never been a month when “Hamlet” or “King Lear” has been selected by the book clubs; there has never been a month when it has been necessary to know about Dante. Consequently the reading that is done is entirely of modern books, which, of course, are seldom and never of masterpieces. This also is an effect of competition, not perhaps wholly bad, since most of the ladies in question, if left to themselves, so far from reading masterpieces, would read books even worse than those selected for them by their literary pastors and masters.”

Meee-yowch!

I’d say Mr. B.R.’s missing a few boats here.

Me, I often read not for pleasure or to show off, but to learn.

I will admit my attempted reading of Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Beyond Good and Evil” during my college years was purely out of vanity. I wanted to look cool and intellectual holding a philosophy book.

I’m finding that reading a philosophy book now, with my writer’s hat on, is quite interesting, though. I’m picking up all sorts of nuggets I can link to various theses. If I ever wind up writing a fiction piece, I’m beginning to think I should frame it around a philosopher’s work.

If I can understand them. I *am* a woman. I may have trouble reading a masterpiece.

*facepalm*

The sexism we women have had to deal with! (Alas, that we still deal with.)

Russell’s writings from the 1920s-30s sound not far removed from a page of advice from a late 1800s Hearst’s Chicago American, recently posted on social media by a bookshop-owning friend of mine:

If your happiness depends on the common sense and cheerfulness of a mature woman, let her gratify, in your company, the intellectual vanity which distinguishes her.

Give her good books to read, and marvel loudly and enthusiastically that she should understand them. Never mind if you really don’t think she understands them very well.

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Bertrand Russell’s solution to writer’s block

I’m currently reading Bertrand Russell’s “The Conquest of Happiness” and have been finding some quotable material.

The following he addresses to those in “literary coteries” suffering from ennui:

“Give up trying to write, and, instead, try not to write. Go out into the world; become a pirate; a king in Borneo, a laborer in Soviet Russia; give yourself an existence in which the satisfaction of elementary physical needs will occupy almost all your energies.” . . . I believe that after some years of such an existence, the ex-intellectual will find that in spite of his efforts he can no longer refrain from writing, and when this time comes his writing will not seem to him futile.