Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Bertie Russell, an outtake

Bertrand Russell wrote a book called The Conquest of Happiness in which he tried to show the world what it looked like to him.  The book is one of the great contributions to “graceful-life philosophy,” which is what I have called non-religious writing on how to live a good life.   There is a tendency to think that graceful life philosophy is advice from the wise and knowing to the foolish and ignorant, but we usually become experts in curing the very weakness that we have.  The insight Russell offered in his graceful-life philosophy was often most local to his own concerns, but it was stunningly good stuff.  Take his description of overwork:  “One of the symptoms of approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one's work is terribly important, and that to take a holiday would bring all kinds of disaster. If I were a medical man, I should prescribe a holiday to any patient who considered his work important.”  He is joking, but only a little.  “The nervous breakdown which appears to be produced by the work is, in fact, in every case that I have ever known of personally, produced by some emotional trouble from which the patient attempts to escape by means of his work.”  The person does not want to give up his work because, if he does so, he will no longer have anything to distract him from his painful thoughts. Of course, the trouble may be fear poverty, so working seems like a direct and rational response, but even so, it is likely that time away is refreshing and more than pays for itself.  “In every case it is the emotional trouble, not the work, that causes the breakdown.”  


Phil said...

"time away is refreshing and more than pays for itself" - Yes indeed! That's William James's "moral holiday" concept. I just had one, in the form of a short but refreshing ramble through my old neighborhood. Part of Russell's keen wisdom about happiness was his recognition that it really is within reach for most of us. There's a lot of that in "Happiness Myth" too.

JMH said...

Hi Phil, thanks for the comment. Love the short refreshing ramble, love the garden. Still hard for me to not work too much. Work is so interesting.

Phil said...

Right, compelling work is irresistible... just spell it "p-l-a-y"... (I love the playful spirit of your work.)