Thursday, 7 April 2016

Ronald Knox and Lord Russel's The Conquest of Happiness (From Broadcast Minds 1932)


Officers for whom the war was over but who were exceedingly keen to get back into it again were sent to Staleg 7. It wasn’t the durance vile which compared favourably with boarding school that vexed them: their duty called. Though R.K. did not volunteer as a combatant in the First World War he had the idea of allowing himself to be taken captive and thus be able to minister to other prisoners in Germany. The War Office took a dim view. Lord Bertrand Russell was of course a conscientious objector and spent nine months in Brixton prison as a result. Ronald Knox loved his days at Eton mixing with the elite of which he was one for both his father and grandfather were bishops in the Church of England by law established. Whether they ever sat in the House of Lords or not they were entitled to do so. From Eton thence to Balliol (Ox.) as ever winning scholarships and prizes and being the centre of a coterie of high-minded wits. I seem to recall that he was offered a fellowship before his final results were known. Then he was ordained a priest and began to affect a dandyish get-up, buckled shoon and pleated chasuble. It bothered him that the local washer folk were not acquainted with such Ultra High Church verging on Roman requirements and he cast about for an R.C. dhobi wallah. Larkiness and fun really but as he inched towards the springboard of Father Tiber to whom the Romans pray the seriousness of such a move away from his highly cultivated background must have troubled him. But he did it and his talent for satire, mockery and gibing was applied to the irreligion of his day from another point of view. His chapter on Bertrand Russell’s book, The Conquest of Happiness is entitled The Rogue’s Hand-Book. It opens:

There could, I conceive, be few purer intellectual pleasures than to watch from an absolutely impartial standpoint the hesitations of a society shedding, half consciously, the last bonds which affiliate it to its old Christian beliefs. What may and may not, what must and must not be said; the limits within which its prophets must hold themselves, if they are not to be discredited by too much of delicacy or of precipitancy, the gradual deterioration of its theological currency, as men relinquish ideas, and cling all the more eagerly to the words that once established them – all this could be the subject of the most exquisite satire, if judgment could be suspended, if the issues were not felt as vital. It might be supposed that we were now past that stage; that the disintegration of our creeds had gone too far for any such embarrassments to persist. But – so innately conservative are we – the most advanced of our new spokesmen are not free men in dealing with their intellectual constituencies; they must speak in parables, they must gild the pill. If they are to demolish our certainties with success, they must set to work behind a scaffolding which advertises the intention of refacing them.

Knox regards this work of Lord Russell’s as a trifling production, a sort of self-help manual in the Samuel Smiles tradition of enlightened self interest. Bizarrely the notion of their being 3 main sort of human being is introduced, ‘very common types’, the sinner, the narcissist and the megalomaniac. That the first two are common types is a fatuous assertion that Knox dismisses. The sinner is merely an over scrupulous individual who feels the eye of god on him. Knox explains :

And there is a sense of sin, which is natural to the ordinary man living in a fallen world; as natural as the self-respect, with a touch of vanity in it, which we find in the majority of our neighbours; as natural as the decent spirit of ambition which Lord Russell himself praises.
( For some reason L.R. calls these natural attributes narcissism and megalomania. Very Odd!)

According to Russell the chief thing that brings happiness is ‘zest’. This spiritual condiment is liberated when we become immersed in some activity which takes us outside ourselves. Knox writes:

I do not find his psychology convincing when he suggests that we ought first to rid ourselves of the mental encumbrances which obsess us, self-pity, envy, inordinate ambition, and so on, in the hope that when we have done this impersonal interests will automatically supervene. A man may surely go through a good deal of mental self-discipline before he finds that it has evoked a nascent curiosity about the doings of the Bolton Wanderers.



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