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Past and Present: Thomas Carlyle, 1843

Book 3 Chapter 4: Happy

All work, even cotton-spinning, is noble; work is alone noble: be that here said and asserted once more. And in like manner too all dignity is painful; a life of ease is not for any man, nor for any god. The life of all gods figures itself to us as a Sublime Sadness - earnestness of Infinite Battle against Infinite Labour. Our highest religion is named the ‘Worship of Sorrow.’ For the son of man there is no noble crown, well worn, or even ill worn, but is a crown of thorns! - These things, in spoken words, or still better, in felt instincts alive in every heart, were once well known.

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 shall be happy; thou shall 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 for them in us! We demand Free-Trade, with much just vociferation and benevolence, That the poorer classes, who are terribly ill-off at present, may have cheaper New-Orleans bacon. Men ask on Free-trade platforms, How can the indomitable spirit of Englishmen be kept up without plenty of bacon? We shall become a ruined Nation! - Surely, my friends, plenty of bacon is good and indispensable: but, I doubt, you will never get even bacon by aiming only at that. You are men, not animals of prey, well-used or ill-used! Your Greatest-Happiness Principle seems to me fast becoming a rather unhappy one. - What if we should cease babbling about ‘happiness,’ and leave it resting on its own basis, as it used to do!

A gifted Byron rises in his wrath; and feeling too surely that he for his part is not ‘happy,’ declares the same in very violent language, as a piece of news that may be interesting. It evidently has surprised him much. One dislikes to see a man and poet reduced to proclaim on the streets such tidings: but on the whole, as matters go, that is not the most dislikable. Byron speaks the truth in this matter. Byron’s large audience indicates how true it is felt to be.

‘Happy,’ my brother? First of all, what difference is it whether thou art happy or not! Today becomes Yesterday so fast, all Tomorrows become Yesterdays; and then there is no question whatever of the ‘happiness,’ but quite another question. Nay, thou hast such a sacred pity left at least for thyself, thy very pains once gone over into Yesterday become joys to thee. Besides, thou knowest not what heavenly blessedness and indispensable sanative virtue was in them; thou shall only know it after many days, when thou art wiser! - A benevolent old Surgeon sat once in our company, with a Patient fallen sick by gourmandising, whom he had just, too briefly in the Patient’s judgment, been examining. The foolish Patient still at intervals continued to break in on our discourse, which rather promised to take a philosophic turn: “But I have lost my appetite,” said he, objurgatively, with a tone of irritated pathos; “I have no appetite; I can’t eat!” - “My dear fellow,” answered the Doctor in mildest tone, “it isn’t of the slightest consequence;” - and continued his philosophical discoursings with us!

Or does the reader not know the history of that Scottish iron Misanthrope? The inmates of some town-mansion, in those Northern parts, were thrown into the fearfulest alarm by indubitable symptoms of a ghost inhabiting the next house, or perhaps even the partition-wall! Ever at a certain hour, with preternatural gnarring, growling and screeching, which attended as running bass, there began, in a horrid, semi-articulate, unearthly voice, this song: “Once I was hap-hap-happy, but now I’m meeserable! Clack-clack-clack, gnarr-r-r, whuz-z: Once I was hap-hap-happy, but now I’m mees-erable!” - Rest, rest, perturbed spirit; - or indeed, as the good old Doctor said: My dear fellow, it isn’t of the slightest consequence! But no; the perturbed spirit could not rest; and to the neighbours, fretted, affrighted, or at least insufferably bored by him, it was of such consequence that they had to go and examine in his haunted chamber. In his haunted chamber, they find that the perturbed spirit is an unfortunate - Imitator of Byron? No, is an unfortunate rusty Meatjack, gnarring and creaking with rust and work; and this, in Scottish dialect, is its Byronian musical Life-philosophy, sung according to ability!

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 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. ‘Happiness our being’s end and aim’ is at bottom, if we will count well, not yet two centuries old in the world.

The only happiness a brave man ever troubled himself with asking much about was, happiness enough to get his work done. Not “I can’t eat!” but “I can’t work!” that was the burden of all wise complaining among men. It is, after all, the one unhappiness of a man. That he cannot work; that he cannot get his destiny as a man fulfilled. Behold, the day is passing swiftly over, our life is passing swiftly over; and the night cometh, wherein no man can work. The night once come, our happiness, our unhappiness, - it is all abolished; vanished, clean gone; a thing that has been: ‘not of the slightest consequence’ whether we were happy as eupeptic Curtis, as the fattest pig of Epicurus, or unhappy as Job with potsherds, as musical Byron with Giaours and sensibilities of the heart; as the unmusical Meat-jack with hard labour and rust? But our work, - behold that is not abolished, that has not vanished: our work, behold, it remains, or the want of it remains; - for endless Times and Eternities, remains; and that is now the sole question with us forevermore! Brief brawling Day, with its noisy phantasms, its poor paper-crowns tinsel-gilt, is gone; and divine everlasting Night, with her star-diadems, with her silences and her veracities, is come! What hast thou done, and how? Happiness, unhappiness: all that was but the wages thou hadst; thou hast spent all that, in sustaining thyself hitherward; not a coin of it remains with thee, it is all spent, eaten: and now thy work, where is thy work? Swift, out with it, let us see thy work!

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!

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