Darrin McMahon
The Pursuit of Happiness

'It is a happy world after all,' concluded the Reverend William Paley at the end of the eighteenth century. A Protestant divine and an important natural scientist, Paley saw the imprint of God's providence in the wonders of creation. The world was as it should be, reflecting the happy design and purpose of its maker.

Paley's was a common perspective, one that came to be shared by many Catholics as well. Already by the second half of the century, otherwise orthodox members of the church were penning treatises with popular titles like I Want to Be Happy, The School of Happiness, and The Theory of Happiness, or the Art of Rendering Oneself So. True, virtually all of these works continued to insist that religion was the foundation—'the unique basis'—of earthly happiness, to cite one such title by the French author Madame de Genlis. And they dutifully pointed out that perfect happiness would come only in the afterlife with God. But by presenting religion as a means to what was increasingly regarded as a legitimate earthly end, these authors were participating in the radical reevaluation of the century, the slow transfer of sacrality from the otherworldly God of old to the god of good feeling, the god of happiness, which was extending its sway on earth.

These religious developments were at once cause and effect of this broader shift in human aspirations. But so, too, were material factors: the rise of nation states equipped with standing armies and civil administrations better able to guarantee security and the rule of law; advances in agricultural productivity and the greater availability of arable land; the expansion of trade and the birth of consumer cultures that widened access to luxury goods while providing disposable income to spend on fashion, entertainment, or a trip to a pleasure garden. It is all too easy to forget, in fact, that the pursuit of earthly happiness as something more than good fortune or a millenarian dream is a luxury in itself. Only when individuals are free from the vicious daily pursuit of staying alive can they afford to undertake the pursuit of more exalted goals. Whatever one's final definition of happiness, it is rarely compatible with regular and periodic famine, the ravages of plague and pestilence, or the threat of marauding armies.

Such scourges did not cease in the eighteenth century, but by comparison with earlier periods, the century fared well. To take one revealing example, it is estimated that in the first half of the seventeenth century, a third of the population of Central Europe was killed off by war, starvation, and disease. The eighteenth century saw its own conflicts and crises, but not until its final decade, with the onset of the French Revolution, did it approach anything close to that horrendous scale. Even the terrible carnage of the Napoleonic Wars did not arrest the general upward trends. The total population of Europe, which stood at roughly 120 million in the early 1700s, reached 180 to 190 million by century's end, shooting up precipitously after 1750. Sustained by declining mortality rates and longer life spans, it would never fall again.

Unquestionably, there were great imbalances in the scale of this change—from region to region and from rich to poor. But though one might qualify the following statement in a variety of ways, its basic truth is difficult to deny: The struggle for existence—however imperfectly, however haltingly—was becoming less of a struggle for more human beings. Improvements in livestock breeding boosted the supply of meat, ensuring more protein in the daily diet. The opening of new land to cultivation, favorable long-term weather patterns, advances in agricultural productivity, and the introduction of hitherto unexploited crops such as maize and the potato from the New World meant that Europeans ate more than ever before. Fortified by this nutritional infusion, they were less susceptible to disease. The last major outbreak of plague in Western Europe occurred in Marseille in 1720, and though typhus, dysentery, and influenza remained, those blights could not stem the steady influx of men and women from the countryside into the eighteenth century's expanding cities and towns.

Although that pattern of urbanization would not reach its high point until the nineteenth century, in the 1700s the growth of urban centers was already creating new concentrated markets that served as a catalyst for what historians describe as the 'birth of consumer society.' By the mid-eighteenth century, a 'favorable conjuncture' of an expanding population and rising agricultural prices, coupled with a greater availability of credit and a massive boom in foreign trade, was paying dividends in the form of increased investment and sustained economic growth. The supply of consumer goods and commodities available to the middle and upper classes grew by the decade. Whether Brazilian coffee or West Indian sugar, Virginia tobacco or British porcelain and textiles, luxuries were at hand and available to ever wider segments of the population, subject, like the exploding market for stylish garments, to whims and fancies, fashion and trends. They appealed directly to the century's fascination with pleasure. As the French government minister and philosopher Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot observed, people in modern commercial societies 'as it were, bought and sold happiness.'

The statement was exaggerated for effect. But it does capture nicely how well the emerging commercial economies of the eighteenth century coincided with the new ethics of pleasure announced by Locke and his many continental admirers. By buying and selling luxury items and services with the explicit aim of enhancing pleasure and reducing pain, men and women pursued happiness in the manner that both Locke and Hobbes had described'—as a 'continual progress of the desire, from one object to another, the attaining of the former being still but the way to the latter.' Economists and moralists, from Adam Smith to Karl Marx, would find much of interest in this progress of desire, and it was not always reassuring. Nevertheless, by giving men and women greater confidence in their ability to control and improve their environment, these economic and material advances sapped the power of traditional explanations that consigned life to inevitable suffering.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.