Stendhal had the delightful habit of ending his books with the closing dedication, in English, “TO THE HAPPY FEW.” The phrase is thought to be a borrowing from Henry V (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers . . . ”) or perhaps from Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield, where the vicar anticipates his writings being read in the future by some “happy few.” While the identity or nature of the persons in question is never suggested by the author, their select quality is obviously assumed. Are the happy few political liberals people of a particularly enlightened sort, or a band of especially gifted artists or intellectuals? There were many more than a few political liberals in Europe during Stendhal’s lifetime, which makes this identification improbable. Perhaps he had in mind the historical equivalent of Albert Jay Nock’s “remnant,” but that idea seems too reactionary to have appealed to Stendhal. Far more likely, Mencken’s “civilized minority” is the nearest equivalent. Indeed, it sounds just right. “To the happy few,” for Stendhal, could have meant only the civilized few: Civilized people are happy people, and the most civilized people in the world are the happiest ones. Civilization means happiness, which is really the essence of civilization, which amounts to the condition of human fulfillment. Perhaps it is this fact that makes Stendhal’s famous dedication so encouraging, and also so profoundly touching.
I am speaking here of happiness in the philosophical sense of the word, not happiness as postcivilization understands it, the inane one implied by Jeremiah Bullfrog and Smiley-face. Happiness for the modern world is a brutal thing: the bloated but temporary surfeit of the consumer, the momentary thrill experienced by the skydiver or bungee jumper, the jaded pleasure of the sexual profligate, the gloating greed of the financial executive taking his annual bonus worth millions of dollars, the vengeful triumph of the voter whose candidate has prevailed on election day over the ideological opposition, the drunken victory of the beer-sodden sports fan whose team has succeeded in beating all the opposing ones in the playoffs. Modern happiness is overwhelmingly and coarsely sensate, insubstantial, and fleeting. And it is ungrateful, and therefore incomplete. Its lack of gratitude is an expression of its discontent, which in turn is a sign of incomprehension produced by the inability to understand what happiness is, where it comes from, and what sustains it. There are connoisseurs of fine music, fine paintings, fine books, fine architecture, fine furniture, fine clothes, fine manners, fine cars, fine food, fine wine, and fine women. Similarly, there are connoisseurs of happiness, including, but by no means all-inclusive of, those previously mentioned. No one, in the absence of monthly publications edited for and pitched to happiness connoisseurs, can begin to estimate their number in the world.
Happiness, as the most sensitive among the rich learned long ago, cannot be purchased. Nor can it be taught, as a minority of the prestigiously minded young meritocrats who have succeeded in ramming their way into the Ivy League with the business end of an electrographic pencil are perhaps discovering. Most professors I know, with the exception of those whose terminal smugness and self-importance insulate them from reality, strike me as being quietly unhappy people. Indeed, modern education, from K-12 through the doctoral program, appears to be devoted to the pursuit, not of happiness, but of misery. Nor does it seem that the careers for which university graduates have been so expensively and painfully prepared are in any way a road to happiness, or even the discovery of the meaning of happiness. That is because they are only well-worn paths dutifully trod by uncivilized people (who believe they are ultracivilized) across a wasteland that regards itself as the greatest civilization history has ever produced.
Civilization, said Josef Pieper, is leisure. That is a profoundly classical idea, while the classics today are chiefly a means of academic one-upmanship for the kind of preparatory (actually predatory) student whose parents spend thousands of dollars on special tutoring during the school year and thousands more on summer college camps, or an excuse for pleasurable junkets to Mediterranean countries. And what is leisure but happiness itself, as the Greeks and all other civilized peoples have understood both terms. Today, leisure is simply another commodity, advertised and sold by hotel chains, cruise lines, the makers of casual clothing, and democratic politicians offering retirement on full pension at the age of 50. Leisure, as the postcivilized world knows it, is simply the act of doing nothing. In fact, it is the act of devoting one’s time to what is not useful, and therefore to what is of the largest human significance. And it is one of the greatest of human paradoxes that what is the least useful in accomplishment is also the most difficult thing of all to accomplish. Modern people are forever in search of what they call a challenge: starting a company, running for political office, winning a race, climbing the highest mountain, sailing solo around the world. There is nothing wrong with any of these pursuits, and yet so often they are undertaken out of a sense of restlessness, which comes from boredom, which is a result of not being happy. (It is said that boredom produces unhappiness; the opposite is equally true.) But while they may be blameless occupations, they are not the highest sort of enterprise, as one can tell by the empirically observable fact that they aggravate restlessness rather than subdue it. They inspire, not the informed gratitude of aware acceptance, but the ingratitude of refusal through lazy incomprehension. They are not, in short, civilized activities, and they do not lead to happiness. It is possible, if not likely, that only very simple people, and civilized ones, can ever know real happiness.
A civilized person is someone who, like Stendhal, knowing the world both overall and in relation to its elements, has learned how to discriminate in the finest degree among those elements and make the best of them his own, in the way that a great singer makes a piece of music his own, or a woman makes a man hers. Civilization is keen discrimination joined with the most exquisite harmony, which is also the definition of happiness in this world. Taken together they amount, one might say, to truth; certainly, they lead toward it. And those capable of such a thing are Shakespeare’s, Goldsmith’s, Stendhal’s happy few. The question has been asked whether, at the time of the Second Coming, there will remain any believers upon this earth. The same can be asked of the happy few. (One likes to think that the two remnants will be one and the same people, but that, alas, would be a dubious assumption.)
On second thought, we may be absolutely certain that the happy few do not represent political liberals, nor people of any political conviction at all. If the author of the Declaration of Independence really did understand “the pursuit of happiness” to mean the pursuit of the sort of happiness that can be realized through politics, or that consists in self-immersion in the democratic political game, then he assuredly was not a member of Stendhal’s band. Nothing is so corrosive of civilization and of individual human happiness than an obsession with politics, as our age of digital politics makes plain.
One morning recently, irritated by the number of unsolicited e-mail messages from various political activists deposited overnight in my computer, I highlighted one of these and typed in a brief reply: “Please remove me from your list.” The furious response arrived within a quarter of an hour, to remind me that it is every American patriot’s duty, in these terrible times, to amass as much political fodder as possible and that, anyhow, nobody needs Catholics in the fight against the coming tyranny. Everyone logged on to the internet is familiar with the type: the frenzied and bitter obsessive, angry with the world because it is in disagreement with his views and determined to deny himself all its countless delights, indeed happiness itself, unless such-and-such a man wins the next primary, his party (if he has one) prevails at the next election, and his personal political program is duly embodied in statute law. Such a person, who is more likely than not to harbor an almost murderous grudge against monks and every other type of religious, has in effect sworn an oath to himself to forsake the life around him and lock himself away in a neon-illuminated cell crammed with digital devices of every sort until or unless the world reshapes itself in conformance with the image he has formed for it. I can imagine no less civilized a person than this man, and certainly no more unhappy a one.
Half a century ago, the French writer Jacques Ellul wrote The Political Illusion, arguing that mass democratic politics absorbs all of social, and even individual, life in Western societies, all of whose values have in this way become political ones. The result is that politics in the classical sense has actually ceased to exist:
[W]e are forced by our exaltation of politics to attribute great good sense to political conflicts and, proceeding in the reverse direction from what was always man’s course in such matters, to jump from the expanded political sphere into metaphysics, from political history into metahistory that knows no miracle, no ends.
The only solution, Ellul believed, was “the restitution of man” through his deliberate self-removal from the modern political machine, his rejection of “big, general ideas” and “grand syntheses,” his refusal of the primacy of political means toward political “solutions,” and his rediscovery of human values. The internet, widely credited with facilitating grassroots political opposition to the national political Behemoth, by encouraging citizens to squander their energy and attention on politics rather supports and encourages the authoritarian monster, which thrives on political obsession—that enemy of civilization and, therefore, of human happiness and all human good.
Readers familiar with the work of Stendhal (Pierre-Henri Beyle), who worked in the administration of Napoleonic France and served as French consul to Trieste and Citavecchia, are aware that the man was hardly indifferent to politics, whether secular or religious. Yet he always kept his priorities straight, as Walks in Rome (nine-tenths art criticism and history, one-tenth, or less, politics and religion) makes plain. For this admirable insistence, the great man was rewarded with a life that was more happy than not—and always civilized.
TO THE HAPPY FEW