Popular Science Monthly/Volume 16/March 1880/The Duty of Enjoyment


TO say that we are under a moral obligation to enjoy ourselves would be, in the opinion of most persons, to utter an unmeaning paradox. It is commonly supposed that the natural instinct for pleasure can take care of itself without any reënforcement from a sense of duty. More than this, our habits of thought instinctively lead us to set duty in antagonism to pleasure, so that to talk of a duty of enjoyment sounds self-contradictory. Many influences have combined in the past history of our race to produce this conception of the relation of pleasure and duty. Unless this idea had been developed and fixed in the human mind, it is difficult to see how the moral progress already attained would have been possible. Even that extreme form of this doctrine of the antagonism of pleasure and duty involved in the ascetic renunciation of all enjoyment as sinful was doubtless a useful and necessary belief in certain stages of social evolution. But it may be that this conception of pleasure has now lost its utility, and will have to be displaced by a view of life which sets a positive moral value on enjoyment. The epicurean theory that all good resolves itself into pleasure has long been before the world, and has won many adherents. Since the revival of letters many writers have contended warmly against the mediaeval disparagement of pleasure. Of late years a number of writers with a keen appreciation of the æsthetic resources at our command have in beautiful and alluring language held up a refined hedonistic ideal of life, according to which all irksome sense of duty will melt away in a rational cultivation of choice delights; and now a leading philosopher has added the weight of his name to this tendency of ethical thought by distinctly enforcing the duty of compassing a pleasurable existence, a duty which he thinks to be sadly neglected in these days.

The arguments put forth by Mr. Herbert Spencer in his latest volume, "The Data of Ethics," in support of the proposition that the cultivation of pleasurable consciousness is a prime duty of life, will be sure to excite a good deal of attention. His fundamental idea is that pleasure is good, because it is the accompaniment and mark of a healthy exercise of a useful or life-preserving function. Pleasures and pains have been attached to actions beneficial and injurious to the organism by the working of the laws of evolution. Since it is an inevitable law of our mental nature that we should seek pleasure, and since, too, it is a condition of self-preservation and survival in the struggle for existence that our actions should tend to organic efficiency, it follows that the coincidence of pleasurable and life-serving activities must from the first have been a necessary condition of permanent existence. Mr. Spencer thinks that people have altogether overlooked this truth. Even moralists who might be supposed to know better have, he conceives, failed to recognize the function of pleasurable feelings as guides to sound living. Men are excused, if not commended, when, in pursuit of some worthy distant object, they pay no heed to the bodily pain which should have told them that they were not fulfilling the first conditions of all efficient action. Again, pleasure is to be recommended as directly effecting an increase of energy, bodily and mental, as raising "the tide of life"; yet moralists have altogether forgotten this when pronouncing their sweeping condemnations of pleasure as evil, or at least as of no moral value. Mr. Spencer appears to feel a genuine abhorrence of the ascetic conception of pleasure, for he speaks of the "tacit assumption, common to pagan stoics and Christian ascetics, that we are so diabolically organized that pleasures are injurious and pains beneficial." He does not attempt, as an evolutionist very well might have done, to account for the genesis and survival of the ascetic doctrine. Later on he dwells at some length on the importance of a due pursuit of individual enjoyment as a preliminary to an effective rendering of services to others. In this way he would erect the study of pleasure into a double obligation—a duty to one's self and to others.

Most readers will allow that there is much force in Mr. Spencer's reasonings. It may be doubted, however, whether the common neglect of pleasure as a good thing proceeds as much from lingering ascetic ideas as he supposes. In their severer form these ideas are confined to a few religious sects, and even among them they are not now enforced so rigorously as formerly. It is to be added that the modes of enjoyment more especially disparaged in this ascetic teaching are of very questionable value. It may be doubted, for example, whether much dancing, carried on into the small hours of the morning, or much frequenting of hot and badly ventilated theatres, conduces to a really pleasurable and efficient life. On the other hand, it deserves to be remembered, perhaps, that society distinctly puts its mark of approval on enjoyment by actually imposing the duty of pleasure seeking on its individual subjects. Many a delicate woman will attend the social gayeties of the season because she is expected to enjoy herself in this way; and many a busy man will take his month or six weeks' holiday at a fashionable pleasure resort, not because he desires the kind of enjoyment offered, or even expects to realize it, but simply because society tells him to act thus. What makes people neglect pleasure much more than any form of ascetic prohibition is, we suspect, personal indifference arising from inattention and preoccupation. More particularly in our busy age, men are very apt to be absorbed in some exciting pursuit, so as to overlook the pleasurable resources of life. Often this engrossing pursuit, though entered on at first from a motive of pleasure, ceases to bring any appreciable enjoyment, and thus the whole life becomes to a large extent robbed of its proper emotional hue. Nor is this narrow and unreflecting disposition of opportunities and energies simply a loss of so much enjoyment. It commonly results in the accumulation of a large mass of pain. The non-satisfaction of natural tastes and impulses pretty certainly brings a vague sense of something wanting—a dreary feeling which depresses the mental tone and throws a gloom on life. Add to this that the state of mental absorption in some one line of activity is highly favorable to a neglect of all the many little circumstances which must cooperate in sustaining health. The first indication of this inattention to health is probably a development of abnormal nervous irritability. The temper is ruffled; sources of annoyance multiply, while those of gratification decrease in the same ratio. The full development of this change is seen in a morose view of life, which has the same practical results as a professed asceticism. There is a growing disposition to dwell on vexatious elements of experience, to nurse a sense of injury, and a corresponding disinclination to seek enjoyment, or even to accept it, when close at hand.

It seems to us that this neglect of the conditions of a full and pleasurable life is, as Mr. Spencer suggests, a thing to be severely deprecated on moral grounds. For there is no doubt that it leads in a number of ways to the infliction of suffering on others. To have to live with an irritable and gloomy person is probably as great an affliction as to be burdened with a painful illness. Accordingly, a man who by inattention to the conditions of a cheerful frame of mind becomes the source of numberless vexations to his family may really produce as much suffering as many a well-recognized criminal. It is almost amusing to see how men will seek to excuse themselves for their carelessness in these matters on the ground that they are sacrificing themselves to some useful object, some form of public service. It may often be doubted whether even success in their endeavors would result in any benefits at all commensurable with the ills brought on their families. And in any case it may not unreasonably be contended that usefulness, like charity, should begin at home. A great novelist and moralist has recently satirized the common neglect of public interests by the English paterfamilias whose largest conception of public good is the welfare of his family. The case is no doubt common enough; but its commonness must not make us overlook the evils of the other extreme, the carrying out of something which is supposed to be of public value at the cost of the comfort and enjoyment of the public benefactor's family and friends. If moral worth is to be estimated by the amount of happiness bestowed on others, it may well be doubted whether some of these self-sacrificing persons of large aims are not of inferior value to many a commonplace good natured citizen, who is perfectly free from all lofty aspirations, who likes to live well and to surround himself by happy faces, and whose healthy instinct for pleasure leads him unreflectingly to add to the enjoyment of all who have to do with him.

In many cases, then, it is clear that people do not think enough of the simple pleasures of life. It may be added that, in order to realize in one's self and in others the full benefit of a pleasurable existence, it is necessary to pursue pleasure as something intrinsically desirable. It will not do to seek it merely as a means to an end beyond itself. Pleasure must be loved and sought in and for itself, if it is to be the good which it is capable of becoming. A man should be steeped in the atmosphere of happiness if he is to realize the efficient and beneficent existence we have described, and this presupposes what may paradoxically be called a disinterested liking for pleasure. It is by no means easy to persons of a certain temperament to cultivate the spirit of enjoyment in this way. In truth, it may be said to be the result of a difficult art which will only be acquired by those who have reached a high pitch of moral culture. To foster and manifest a cheerful and gladsome mind often involves a considerable amount of self-restraint in repressing and banishing those gloomy reflections to which one may be constitutionally prone. There is further a certain moral sluggishness and inertia in some natures which makes it a considerable effort to rise into the pleasurable strata of the emotional atmosphere. How often, for example, is a fit of mental depression only capable of being dissipated by a vigorous form of bodily exercise to the idea of which the feeling of the moment is strongly opposed! The creation and sustentation of a bright and joyous consciousness is thus often a matter of real difficulty, and deserves to be extolled as a moral triumph over natural inclination.

It may be well to add that this conscious pursuit of a happy tone of mind will demand a good deal of individual self-assertion in the face of the claims of social custom. If a man is to succeed in being a radiant center of happiness, he must, it is plain, be free to seek enjoyment in his own way. We do not mean merely that he will naturally disregard the force of example so far as to avoid the extreme heat of the struggle for existence. It is only too obvious that, if he desires a healthy, cheerful condition of mind, he must take life in a measure easily and abandon all excessive ambitions. What is less obvious is, that he will have to hold aloof from many of the forms of fashionable enjoyment prescribed by society. These prescriptions are often exceedingly foolish, having no relation to individual tastes. For example, the late dinner-party, though supposed to be a source of enjoyment, is really adapted to induce in many persons a permanent feeling of depression and weariness. It would perhaps not be edifying to inquire how much of the chronic discontent and mental discomfort of people arises from a too ready compliance with the demands of fashionable society with respect to amusements.

But the reader may object that we are here taking only one view of our subject. Is it not, he may ask, a dangerous doctrine that pleasure is a good thing, deserving to be cultivated with ardor and assiduity? No doubt the pursuit of personal enjoyment must not be made the sole aim of life. To use Mr. Spencer's language, egoism must be balanced by altruism. Yet, while allowing this, we would contend that a wise and calm regard for a continuously happy existence is a much less inadequate guide to right living than many moralists are apt to think. They forget that the preservation of an habitual flow of pleasurable feeling is not possible where exciting indulgences are sought after as the chief thing in life. It is really a defamation of the idea of pleasure to call a sensual person addicted to wild excesses of enjoyment a man of pleasure. The true man of pleasure is rather he who tries to carry the atmosphere of enjoyment into all the circumstances and occupations of the day. Those who thus seek pleasure rationally, avoiding all fatiguing over-indulgence, and giving the highest value to the quieter and more expansive forms of enjoyment, will not perhaps greatly fail in a due consideration of others' interests. For, as Mr. Spencer has shown in this same volume, a considerable dash of altruism is a necessary condition of a full experience of personal gratification. This is true even in our present imperfect stage of social development. And if, as he thinks, and we would fain hope, things are tending to a complete formation of the social man with an adequate capacity of sympathy, it must happen by and by that the most thoughtful and judicious cultivator of personal happiness will at the same time be most serviceable to others. However this may be, Mr. Spencer has rendered a timely service in exposing the absurdity of an undiscriminating disparagement of the pleasurable disposition, and in showing how valuable an element in the economy of life, individual and social, is the instinctive impulse toward enjoyment.—Saturday Review.