|Montréal, 18 déc. 1999 - 7 jan. 2000||
The unusually perceptive George Bernard Shaw, in his
Happy with a grand?
Of course the term happiness is relative and does not necessarily mean the same thing to everyone. One person may be happy with $1000 and yet another thinks himself poor with such an amount. One may be happy with a clapped out ten-year-old car while another is unhappy with one less than twelve months old. People’s definitions of what is rich too, vary considerably. Our federal government has established a very low threshold above which it considers you rich, and yet who among us would agree with their definition? Some think themselves happy if they can indulge in sexual congress with the object of their affections. Again the pursuit may prove more pleasurable than the accomplishment. Yet another may be happy to contemplate his or her spiritual search for the path to heaven. Happiness is perhaps like beauty, in the eye of the beholder.
It is doubtful if true and complete happiness can exist, the world is sufficiently changeable to make sure that bliss is never endless but temporary. Liberty, as many of those of us who live in one of the so-called western democracies know, is an ephemeral concept at best. Living in this fiercely nationalistic state of Quebec reinforces that opinion with daily doses of restrictions on the liberty of someone or other; presumably by means of some of those
Throughout the world the concept of liberty varies enormously, even among the so-called civilized nations. Prohibitions encountered in many states appear to the North American mind to be totally unacceptable, yet those living in such countries support them. Socrates enjoyed the liberty to take part in the decision to execute him for his opinions. Liberty perhaps, but happiness? Very doubtful. One has only to recall the Quebec of a hundred or less years ago when so many books were forbidden, where censorship of the press was maintained, where Dumas' works were banned and so on. Yet these restrictions on liberty were accepted by most of the population. Even in those times can we be really sure that the citizens were completely unhappy?
In the England of 1854, at the old universities, Protestant Dissenters were allowed to take only a BA and could not be granted a higher degree. It was only in 1791, that the National Assembly (the real one) opened all civil and military posts to Jews, two years after it had done the same thing for Protestants. Do we know that these Dissenters were totally unhappy? Or the French Protestants and Jews?
Liberty and democracy not the same
If liberty in our democracies seems to become ever more elusive it is perhaps because liberty and democracy are not the same thing. India is a democracy, one of the larger ones in fact, yet it is not very supportive of freedom of the press and there are serious restrictions on commercial freedom which limit its citizens in many ways. Hong Kong was a vibrant place, which allowed its citizens exceptional economic freedom, yet for many years they could not elect their own government. Were the people of Hong Kong unhappy? I suggest that in the main they were not, most of them having escaped from a state in which there was very little freedom of any kind at all. So perhaps after all, increasing liberty increases the opportunities for happiness but I would suggest that the ratio between them is not necessarily linear.
To close, there is a story, probably apocryphal, about Harold Macmillan a former Prime Minister of Great Britain and his wife being entertained to lunch by Charles de Gaulle and his wife, Yvonne, just prior to de Gaulle’s retirement. Mrs. Macmillan asked Mme de Gaulle, in English, what she was most looking forward to in her forthcoming state of liberty. To the Macmillan's surprise she answered, quite firmly,
It was one of those embarrassing sphincter shriveling moments that the memory of which, even many years later, can cause one to awaken suddenly in the middle of the night drenched in sweat.
The guests did not immediately grasp that what Mme de Gaulle really meant was
Wishing everyone a Very Happy Christmas and the liberty to enjoy the final year of the 20th century.
Articles précédents de Ralph Maddocks