The Ancient Wisdom

The Science of Happiness. By Jean Finot. Putname.

ALL those who have considered the principles which underly the proper conduct of life must have remarked that the case of wisdom is curious. First, all the essential wisdom of the world could be packed into a very small book that one might carry in the vest pocket. Human knowledge increases with the discovery, but the sum of wisdom remains constant. So far as may be determined, the last addition to it was made nearly 2,000 years ago. Second, the vast majority of civilized human beings are so well acquainted with this priceless, though small, body of truth, that it is impossible to utter a bit of wisdom without uttering a platitude; and if one indulges frequently in such utterances he will acquire a reputation for being a bore. To put it briefly, the two astonishing facts regarding wisdom are: smallness of bulk and universality of acceptance.

Wisdom may be defined as the quintessence of human experience relative to the best manner in which life may be conducted, with happiness in view as an end. Why, then, is not everyone happy. It is universally granted that the truly happy man is extremely rare — so rare that many doubt the existence of such a person. It is a common thing for those who are called “worldly wise” to sneer at those who regard happiness as humanly possible, and philosophers, so called, have explained to us with great care why unhappiness is the prime condition of human existence.

Is it possible that the quintessence of human experience, as distilled in the minds of the supreme thinkers of all time, can be misleading after all? Or are the “worldly wise” in truth the worldly foolish?

“It is difficult for us to have servants, palaces, millions,” writes M. Finot: “it is easier to drive this longing from our hearts. When serious and thoughtful [...e?] mind comes to dwell upon the things it formerly so ardently desired, it [...als?] to us with a smile their emptiness.”

Modern Superstitions Forgotten

We laugh now at the superstitions of old — the cause of so much unhappiness — and we forget our modern superstitions regarding wealth, luxury, inordinate ambition, etc. This is not to be interpreted as an unfavorable comment upon luxury, wealth and ambition in themselves. Wealth, for instance, is relative. One may possess property sufficient to establish his reputation as a wealthy man; and if his desires still exceed his possession and his ability to acquire, he is poor; for he has failed to realize that for which he wished to be rich, and has thereby annulled his efforts. Whoever desires much lacks much and is poor to the extent of what he regards as his lack; while he who wishes for nothing that he is unable to acquire certainly is not poor. In the words of the ancient Roman: “If you want to make me a poor man, you must first prove my cupidity.”

This definition of wealth and poverty is, of course, from the moral, not the material standpoint; for happiness is a moral, not a material state. The distinction involves the main point in the discussion — the confusion of moral and material values. In the matter of limiting one’s desires according to one’s ability to acquire and in keeping with one’s real needs, it is necessary to obey the injunction said to have been written upon the temple wall at Delphi: “Know thyself.”

Question Finot Tries to Answer

This, substantially, is the question that Jean Finot undertakes to answer in his treatise on “The Science of Happiness.” It is necessary to insist at once that M. Finot employs the term “science” in no vague, sentimental or impressionistic sense. By science he means an orderly arrangement of knowledge, a correlation of carefully observed phenomena.

As should be expected in any discussion of wisdom, he presents nothing new. It is the manner in which he presents and drives home the truths that all of us glibly profess to believe, and that almost none of us practises, that makes his book one of great interest. He tries to show that the wisdom, which we all possess in the form of maxims, if in no other way, is to be taken quite literally; that the laws of right living are as exact and matter-of-fact as, for instance, the laws that underly the successful culture of turnips.

Naturally enough, M. Finot begins his discussion with the bald utterance of a platitude: Happiness is within us or nowhere. This is likely to make everyone yawn; we all know “all that sort of thing” by heart; and yet the whole secret is undoubtedly there. Now, if happiness is to be found only within us, considering that few are happy, the common mistake must be in seeking happiness in exterior things. We are unhappy chiefly through desiring what we cannot attain. What then is the obviously wise thing to do that we may be happy?

M. Finot gives the ancient answer — the answer pronounced by Socrates nearly 2,400 years ago — the answer that Jesus put into a few sublime words — the answer that Ausonius and others have given — limit the desire!

False Conceptions of Values

M. Finot shows how education (in its broadest sense) is conducive to unhappiness, in that it encourages false conceptions of relative values. Almost universally the desirability of material possessions is inculcated, consciously or unconsciously, in the young. External acquisition is represented, in both teaching and precept, as superior to the internal and imperishable wealth of personality. Thus, from an early age we are prone to base our hopes of happiness upon having rather than upon being — a state of mind essentially insincere. And yet — strange commentary upon human inconsistency — from all ages and all races and all religions and all philosophies comes the one cry, which is, substantially, as follows: “Distrust the desire for wealth and luxurious life, for they do not produce happiness! Develop and enjoy the kingdom within you!”

M. Finot devotes a chapter to Envy, which is likely to scandalize those who do not habitually indulge in the analysis of their own deeper motives. He makes it rather plain that the desire to arouse envy is and always has been a large determining factor in human striving. For what is the desire to surpass others but the desire to be envied? The women who dress gorgeously, not so much for the men as for other women; the business men who sacrifice their lives that they may keep themselves and their families socially prominent; the politician who sells his self-respect that he may gain power and thus appear superior to his fellows, are hackneyed illustrations, but the list of types is to be drawn from all strata of society. Of course, there are exceptions; the reader of these paragraphs may be such; but no doubt exceptions are rare. The fault appears to lie in the common tendency to be more interested in what others think of us than in what we know to be true of ourselves. “We blush because we have lost our hair and wear a wig, yet we consider it perfectly normal to lose our souls and to live in the souls of our neighbors, or even in the souls of men to whom we are otherwise indifferent.”

Sorrow Needed for Development

In another chapter, M. Finot discusses sorrow, which so many of us regard as the enemy of happiness. He insists that sorrow is “under the lash of a libel several millennia old,” and shows, what many of us profess to believe, that it is necessary to the development of strong character, and so — though the deduction seems a paradox — essential to the very establishment of happiness. For happiness is a state of soul-balance, the sanity of the spirit; and sorrow, properly understood, creates sympathy, from whence springs generosity, which in turn may be shown to comprehend all the virtues.

How then may one go about the important business of being happy? But, what is happiness but soul-health, and selfishness but soul-sickness? “Genius,” writes the author, “needs to be admired. Talent requires to be recognized. Wealth desires to be envied and also demands homage, the principal token of its importance. Goodness exacts nothing from anyone, finding its recompense in its own royalty. Real happiness is the state produced by the benefit on returning to the soul of the benefactor.”

The last sentence is, no doubt, worth whole libraries of factual knowledge. It is an aged truth, for there is no young truth. One may find it written large in the New Testament. Almost everyone professes to accept it. But how many of us accept it, just as we accept the statement that there are one hundred cents in a dollar?

It is impossible to fairly represent M. Finot’s work in a brief review. One appears to be giving undue praise to platitudinous moralizing. But those who read the book thoughtfully will realize its tremendous power for rejuvenating the ancient wisdom that is in us, and for placing it upon a pratical basis.