Thomas Carlyle on Happiness

I came across this passage in Thomas Carlyle’s Past and Present (1843) and thought you all may appreciate it.

Does not the whole wretchedness, the whole Atheism as I call it, of
man’s ways, in these generations, shadow itself for us in that
unspeakable Life-philosophy of his: The pretension to be what he calls
‘happy’? Every pitifulest whipster that walks within a skin has his
head filled with the notion that he is, shall be, or by all human and
divine laws ought to be ‘happy.’ His wishes, the pitifulest
whipster’s, are to be fulfilled for him; his days, the pitifulest
whipster’s, are to flow on in ever-gentle current of enjoyment,
impossible even for the gods. The prophets preach to us, Thou shalt be
happy; thou shalt love pleasant things, and find them. The people
clamour, Why have we not found pleasant things?

We construct our theory of Human Duties, not on any
Greatest-Nobleness Principle, never so mistaken; no, but on a
Greatest-Happiness Principle. ‘The word Soul with us, as in some
Slavonic dialects, seems to be synonymous with Stomach.’ We plead
and speak, in our Parliaments and elsewhere, not as from the Soul, but
from the Stomach;–wherefore indeed our pleadings are so slow to
profit. We plead not for God’s Justice; we are not ashamed to stand
clamouring and pleading for our own ‘interests,’ our own rents and
trade-profits; we say, They are the ‘interests’ of so many; there is
such an intense desire in us for them!

…Truly, I think the man who goes about pothering and uproaring for his
‘happiness,’–pothering, and were it ballot-boxing, poem-making, or in
what way soever fussing and exerting himself,–he is not the man that
will help us to ‘get our knaves and dastards arrested’! No; he rather
is on the way to increase the number,–by at least one unit and his
tail! Observe, too, that this is all a modern affair; belongs not to
the old heroic times, but to these dastard new times… of a truth, if man
were not a poor hungry dastard, and even much of a blockhead withal,
he would cease criticising his victuals to such extent; and criticise himself
rather, what he does with his victuals!


He misspelled “hipster.”

But seriously, I’ve been on a kick recently about the way our society evaluates something’s moral goodness simply on the basis of whether it makes you “happy.” I know it’s not new, but when you start looking for it, you see it everywhere.

After all, “if it makes you happy, it can’t be that baaaaaad.” But that song at least asks the question, “if it makes you happy, then why the hell are you so sad?”

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