Chapter 2: Byronic Unhappiness
In the author's day, a certain boredom with life is considered fashionable. To be excited suggests a lack of wisdom and experience, and thus a man who is sophisticated and knowledgeable must avoid seeming excited, as it suggests inexperience. One might say that such a person enjoys being miserable and seeks any opportunity to make himself so. If this is true, rather than mere pretension, it is certainly an aberration.
If nothing else, such a person may take some pleasure in the feeling of superiority he experiences to the unsophisticated boor who is happy with simple pleasures of life. But Russell does not agree that experiencing constant unhappiness makes a man at all superior, merely disdainful and incapable of appreciating pleasure.
And while this is a fashion of the late Romantic era, it is by no means new: there are other philosophers back through history, such as the Stoics of ancient Greece, who advocated a practice of avoiding pleasure as a moral virtue. There is little evidence that in so doing they have gained anything of greater value than the pleasure they have sacrificed.
But at the same time, it is inevitable to become inured by the everyday: a man who eats regularly takes less pleasure of a meal than one who is genuinely hungry. And as it is true that life has become easier in the present day than in ages past, it follows that most of our desires are fulfilled, such that we are no longer pleased by their satisfaction.
He reflects, a bit overmuch, on the lack of novelty. "There is no new thing under the sun" to delight us ... but he who first wrote that phrase had never seen an automobile, an airplane, or an electric lamp - and likely enjoyed in his own lifetime the novelty of wonders unknown to previous ages of man. One must put great effort into ignoring the world itself to achieve such a state of melancholy and dejection.
He speaks in brief of those who are constantly mournful of a better, vanished time than the present age - or more aptly, what they imagine life to have been like in a previous era of mankind rather than life such as it was. This, too, is deliberate ignorance of the world such as it is, in comparison to an imaginary state in which it once existed.
It is little different to the condition of an individual who cannot find pleasure in the world such as it is because it fails to conform to his imaginary visions of a better state it has not yet achieved. Like the artist who has not yet become a master, such people are constantly tormented because they have not yet achieved something - and in some instances they have not achieved the unachievable - and are this blinded to that which they have achieved.
He considers some of the contrasts o history: Sparta versus Athens in ancient Greece, and the contrast between the Renaissance and the Victorian era that followed, by means of drawing a parallel between cultures that practice self denial and accomplish little and those that extol pleasure and accomplish wonders.
Those who preach abstinence are seldom very bright or accomplished individuals, and societies that practice abstinence show little progress. While it is offered that the pursuit of pleasure is a distraction from success, all evidence would suggest quite the opposite. The golden ages of men, those of progress and prosperity, were not austere.