Happiness and social reform

Anthony M. Ludovici

The Oxford Fortnightly 1, 1913, pp. 6–10

- p. 6 -
"In particular let me say that there is no department of local administration in Great Britain where men of the public school and University stamp are not needed, and, indeed, necessary, and such service, when you come to look at it, is nothing but the simple recognition of the special claim which the community has on those of its members who have had what is called a liberal education, and who possess any available surplus, either of means or of leisure. If I may use the expression, it is a voluntary tax upon what in our consciences we must most of us admit to be in large measure an unearned increment of Social advantage." — Mr. Asquith, at the Gathering of the Cavendish Association, Queen's Hall, London, on November 5th, 1913.

At a moment when representatives of all the greatest forces of the nation — bishops, peers, politicians, and plutocrats — have agreed to waive the differences of party politics in order to join together to engage in social service for the benefit of the community, it might be opportune, perhaps, for one who is standing without the "whirlpool" of London and University life, to point out to those who are actually in it, and who are too giddy, therefore, to think deeply or even profitably on any subject whatsoever, the precise value of such a movement as that which proposes to organize itself under the title of the Cavendish Association.
        Posterity will certainly look back upon this age as one in which there existed but one really strong obsession. It will be recognized that in matters of religion we were independent, subversive, iconoclastic, frivolous. It will also be seen that, in the domain of external politics, the mot d'ordre was essentially an apathetic "Rest on your oars!" and that in art, literature, and science divergence of opinion to the extent of anarchy was comparatively general. On one question, however, it will be compelled to acknowledge our unanimity and our fierce determination. I speak of social reform.
        All classes and all political parties at the opening of the twentieth century in Great Britain will be declared to have been solidly bent on achieving this one object; and, for some obscure reason, which, perhaps, will for ever remain a mystery even to an enlightened posterity, that social reform will be characterized as one which had in view always the amelioration of but one class — the lower class — that is to say, that it was certainly a downward glance, a downcast eye, which constituted the attitude of its most fervent advocates and their followers.
        Subsequent generations, if they are sufficiently philosophical, will perceive the error here, without possibly being able to explain it. Let us see whether we cannot in advance shed some light upon it for them.
        In the first place, they will be unworthy even of us — their degenerate progenitors — if they do not realize that this lust of social reform had as its necessary counterpart among us one very curious and almost universal trait — great unhappiness. Reading

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about the mad pursuit of pleasure by the rich governing classes, about their restlessness, their nomadic and nervous habits, and their guilty consciences, revealed not only in the speeches of the Prime Minister of our day, but also in their stupendous acts of charity and benevolence, they will conclude, very rightly, that the upper five hundred thousand of our epoch were simply wretchedly miserable. The records of labour unrest and discontent which will go down to them will likewise demonstrate beyond dispute that unhappiness in the lower classes was quite as rife as in the upper. As philosophers they will have foreseen this fact; for, knowing the relativity of happiness, and believing that in all ages happiness is necessarily very evenly distributed among all classes, they will know that unhappiness must be distributed just as evenly.
        For all I know they might light upon that remark of Gissing's written long ago: "A being of superior intelligence regarding humanity with an eye of perfect understanding would discover that life was enjoyed every bit as much in the slum as in the palace." In any case they would be aware that in our time the kitchen heard laughter quite as often as the drawing-room, that the scullery maid had quite as many happy events to look forward to as her master's daughter upstairs, and that the mews-dweller was thrilled quite as frequently as the owner of the mansion close by. They would also know that if a traveller in our age wished to witness sullen looks, tears, desperate moods, discord, discontent, a rankling sense of injury and of ill-treatment, and a tendency to dally with the thought of suicide, he was quite as likely to encounter these in the sumptuous boudoir of a Mayfair heiress as in the bare and squalid back parlour of a Somerstown charwoman.
        They would know, therefore, that in our time to point to any special class and to say: "There unhappiness is greater than anywhere else" was to pronounce yourself at once a shallow and incompetent observer of your fellow creatures. And yet to their amazement they would find that we all did this — and, stranger still, that in so doing we all pointed downwards. They will naturally ask "Why?" For to them, as dispassionate observers of the past, the unspeakable unhappiness of the upper five hundred thousand will seem just as harrowing, and just as affecting, as the unhappiness in the classes below. Nay, they might even regard it as a piece of unpardonable impudence on the part of the upper five hundred thousand, always to assume that evils and unhappiness must be greater below than among themselves. They might wonder how it could ever come about that a class so spiritually sick and hopeless as the upper five hundred thousand could have the barefaced insolence to stretch its hands downwards to "cure" other people, or to put them right.

Let us, who know, enlighten them.

        Just as one's estimate of life is inevitably coloured by one's personal experience of happiness, so is one's estimate of other people's happiness. Therefore, wherever social reform is the rage, as we have already suggested, great general unhappiness may be assumed to be a fact. Now, there are two very natural reasons why this pessimistic glance should always be turned downwards. For, to begin with, this age, in addition to its unhappiness, is also materialistic. The God quantity is supreme.

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To the people of to-day, therefore, happiness is always mistakenly connected with the ability of gratifying a certain quantity of needs. Consequently, as this ability declines down the scale of the castes, it is assumed that unhappiness must increase in equal ratio. Those who are in a position to gratify their every wish, know perfectly well that this position has very little whatever to do with happiness; but still the superstition survives, and the result of it is, that if one scents unhappiness in the world — as one invariably does if one is very unhappy oneself — the tendency is always to look out through one's tears upon those who have not the wherewithal to procure as much as one can procure oneself.
        But there is a far less obvious and certainly more subtle reason for this downcast glance.
        If it is admitted that there is a tendency for each unhappy class to suspect greater unhappiness beneath it — and surely nobody will seriously question that this is so (the Cavendish Association is only one among thousands of other equally convincing instances) — and if the obvious reason already stated is acknowledged to be purely delusive, then what possible other reason can there be but this — that it is clearly traditional, remotely and prehistorically traditional, for mankind to look above it for succour and for help, for guidance and for direction, and that conversely, therefore, it is remotely and prehistorically traditional for mankind to look below it when it wishes to succour, help, guide, or direct?
        Nobody would dream of consoling a god. But everybody who believes, expects consolation from an appeal to a god. Underlying this there is no tacit assumption that a god is necessarily happier than a human being. If you like both may be equally and perfectly miserable. But even when their misery is equal, the mortal will still turn to the god for consolation; while it is contrary to all human instinct and feeling to imagine the god in like circumstances turning to the human being for comfort. And the same applies to the father and his child. If both are equally miserable, it is the father who is expected to brush away his tears and to offer consolation.
        The assumption is that the superior is possessed of certain qualities — let us call them restraint, command, insight, mastery — which he can exercise for the benefit of his inferior. It is also assumed that the inferior does not possess these qualities to nearly the same extent. One of the oldest traditions of mankind, therefore, which leads people instinctively to suspect greater powers of succour and of consolation above than below, is the tradition that qualities must travel from above downwards, and from the apparently superior to the apparently inferior. By the shallow mind of the modem world, however, the converse of this is always interpreted as meaning simply, not that the qualities below must be inferior to those above, but that the misery below must be greater than that above — a complete fallacy, from which only a completely fallacious idea and scheme of social reform can possibly proceed!
        For, if happiness is evenly distributed among all the classes, and unhappiness is equally great above and below — then clearly it is not the quantity of happiness

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which is failing anywhere, but its quality. And this is, indeed, what we know to be wrong. The degree of happiness, its quality, is steadily and equally declining all round. More of the inferior quality is sought after, pursued — nay, fought for, on all sides; because in the breast of man there is a thirst which he can never slake. It is fondly imagined that quantity can quench this yearning — you might as well try to bung a cask with sand. A comparatively small thing of the right quality will bung it; but a hundredweight of sand will only clog it and still leave it open.
        We are beginning to fill the vessel of our souls with sand. This chokes it, but does not seal it with content. The God Quality is in his death agony. Quality is quite as scarce above as it is below. But it began by leaving the superior stratum. It was by the superior that it was first scouted. For two-hundred and fifty years in England it has been neglected and ill-treated by its guardians, who have treated it as the unfortunate stepchild of uncontrolled Commerce and Industry. And now we are beginning to discern in the favoured child Quantity — which we have pampered and adored in its stead — a creature who is incapable, utterly incapable, of repaying us for our pains. Even the quantity of our happiness is now rather a sting than a joy, because we are beginning to clutch with blind anguish at the last vestige of quality that it possesses, and will shortly no longer possess.
        Now, what are we to suppose is the power which discriminates between quality and quantity? Throughout the history of the world that power has been taste — the power of the artist. Do not misunderstand! Do not think of the commercial gang who now dub themselves artists! By "artist" every sound thinker means the man who naturally knows, the man who is instinctively the measure of all things. For ages, now, he has ceased to be in the topmost place of all; for two centuries and a half he has appeared only accidentally, sporadically, and has been, on the whole, ignored by those who usurped his place at the top. But the true artist is the loving guardian of quality. He rejoices in it, thrives on it, knows it, detects it, represents it, sings it, dies for it. He is outraged when he sees it treated like a miserable stepchild. And when he sees its step-sister Quantity repay her guardians' nepotism only in curses and hatred for all they have done for her — even then he does not feel avenged.
        Up to the time when the noblest concept of aristocracy died in England, there were those at the top who, even when they were not artists themselves, were at least sufficiently wise to be guided by the dictates of Taste. They and their colleagues — the artists — were the depositaries of this precious possession (quality) through the ages; and they invoked its high authority at every moment of choice or deliberation, at every turn or twist of the road. This has ever been the function of aristocracy — its most vital function. When it ceased to be their function, the aristocrats themselves ceased to be. But when it did cease, there dawned in England an epoch which, although it is now hoary, may still be called essentially our epoch — an epoch in which no qualitative tradition, no qualitative example, any longer descended from the leaders to the followers in society.
        Until, however, that same qualitative tradition and example can be resuscitated, or rather regenerated, what is the good, what possible benefit can come of impudently and sentimentally trying to increase happiness by quantitative reforms below? It is the quality of happiness that is lacking. Let the sense of quality in those in

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topmost places be increased. Let them inaugurate a qualitative tradition, a qualitative habit of thought, let them see to it that the quality of their own happiness is enhanced, and, by a stroke of the wand, they will have solved the other difficulty, the difficulty which is the only one that the Cavendish Association sees — the increase of happiness among the proletariat. For no upper five hundred thousand, the quality of whose happiness was enhanced, could for one instant endure the quantitative values that are paramount to-day. And, with the abolition of these quantitative values, would vanish the evils of your proletariat.
        Thus, it is the unhappiness of the upper five hundred thousand which is, if anything, the most hopeless, the most depressing, and the most ominous sign of the times, And he who would turn his glance upwards, instead of downwards, cry aloud for the increase of happiness above, and declare that social reform should begin there, would, strike the deepest note in internal politics that has ever been struck in England for three centuries. All the rest — that is to say, all that the Cavendish Association and, its kin intend to do — is bound to be as absolutely sterile and useless as anything shallow and thoughtless is apt to be.
        But think for a moment of the kind of reception any man would have been given who had come forward on Wednesday, November 5th, 1913, in the Queen's Hall with any scheme for increasing the happiness of the upper classes! Think of the ear-splitting laughter with which the mere enunciation of such a scheme would have been met. Can you imagine, can you form even an inadequate idea of how ridiculous, how preposterous, and how grotesque he would have seemed to every single individual present. Is it for a moment conceivable that any creature, however brave, would ever have dared thus to compromise his reputation for sanity?
        We can hear him beginning his harangue: "Physicians heal yourselves! Do not in your misery impudently cast your eyes down upon your inferiors in material welfare and try to forget your own wretched ailments in the tending of theirs. (Loud laughter.) They are sick, it is true, but they are not more sick than you are — (shrieks of uncontrolled hilarity) — and their sickness is of the same nature — its chief symptom being the steady decrease of the quality of happiness throughout the classes. (Roars of laughter, mingled with some applause from a group of benighted sentimentalists who don't understand a word, and who therefore imagine that it must be profound.)
        "My sympathies are just as great as yours, and I see nothing funny in having my feelings harrowed just as violently by the sight of your wretchedness as by the sight of the wretchedness of those whom, in your insolent conceit, you would patronize and pity. (Some cries of protest, drowned by silvery ecclesiastical laughter.) I do not, however, wish to improve your condition, because I love you; I do not wish social reform to begin with you, because I pity you; I simply wish it to begin with you, because if quality and the happiness it brings is ever to find a place once more in the lives of the English people it is from above, or from nowhere at all, that it must descend!"
        And thus the profoundest and wisest project of social reform would have been silenced, stifled, suppressed, and killed by the very people who are ostensibly its sincerest votaries.