Fault-Finding as a Means of Happiness


As there are many sorts of men, and as the same man has many different moods, so there are many kinds of happiness. There are elevated pleasures, as everybody has heard ; and there are low pleasures, as almost everybody has found out for himself. In this respect some of us would have constituted the world differently. Had we been consulted, all vulgar pursuits, not to speak of downright immorality, should have been attended with nothing but immediate and continuous discomfort. Nothing should have given pleasure, even to the ignorant and the vicious, except those higher intellectual and spiritual exercises to which we ourselves have always been so earnestly devoted. What an injustice it appears that my neighbor across the way seems to enjoy a negro-minstrel show quite as well as I do a symphony concert; or that Mary Ann in a smart alpaca gown is every whit as self-complacent as her mistress with a new outfit from Paris ! Surely, the better causes ought in all reason to produce the better results. But we must take things as they are, seeing there is no way of altering, them, and recognize the fact, disheartening though it be, that happiness is on the whole pretty evenly distributed.

Some of our most constant pleasures, indeed, are shared not only with the common crowd of average humanity, but with the lower animals as well. It is doubtful whether the most refined among us enjoy eating and drinking better than cows and goats do ; and the same spring weather that kindles the imagination of the poet sets all the birds singing, and brings out every snake and turtle to bask in the sunshine. If the millionaire have the better dishes, his horses, in all likelihood, have the better appetites ; and I have seen a dog so enthusiastic over a bone that it was hard to imagine Mr. Joseph Sedley himself feasting with greater gusto.

But though we cannot deny the universality of such “ creature comforts,” — which are to be lightly esteemed, not so much because we find them valueless as because our inferiors find them valuable, — and if we must even admit that men in general are much more uniformly blessed than seems to us quite equitable, yet nobody can hinder our believing that cultivated people have at least some felicities peculiarly their own.

Compare my case with that of my neighbor before mentioned. As I have said, he appears to be as much taken with a banjo-and-bones entertainment as I am with a symphony concert. But that is only one side of the story ; for I not only revel in the higher sorts of music, but have at the same time no little satisfaction in looking down upon those (my neighbor included) who are captivated by cheaper and more vulgar performances. I enjoy the symphony orchestra, and am proud of the fact; I despise the street band, and am proud of that fact likewise. Both feelings are creditable to my taste, and are felt to be so. How different is the other man’s condition! If he is not ashamed of his weakness for minstrel troupes and street bands (and he probably is), at all events he must sometimes feel humiliated at his inability to appreciate Brahms’s symphonies and the German opera. To put the comparison in another way, my unfortunate neighbor gets nothing but chagrin out of really good music, and enjoyment mixed with mortification out of poor music ; while I, on the other hand, find it difficult to determine which gives me the livelier satisfaction, — my liking for what is truly classical, or my contempt for what is unworthy. And as it is with music, so it is with all art and literature, and indeed with every department of life. It is much to be able to respect our own opinions and tastes; but I sometimes think it is more to be able to satirize the notions, doings, and preferences of our less favored brethren. In other words, I have before now been ready to believe that, so far as our pleasure in them goes, our own strong points are worth less to us than other men’s weaknesses ; partly, it must be allowed, because the former are not quite so numerous and immutable as might be desired, while the latter, like the poor, we have always with us.

I had a little experience bearing upon this subject, only the other day. I chanced to be in the study of a scholarly acquaintance, and, looking over his shelves, came unexpectedly upon one of the later works of an author who, as I suppose, would be voted the foremost of living American men of letters, if the suffrage of the intellectual world were taken. This particular book of his is full of wisdom and eloquence, with quotable sentences on every page. As I turned the familiar leaves carelessly, I noticed here and there pencilings upon the margin, and was curious to observe what kind of things they were which had been thus honored. I was not long in finding out that my learned friend had read the book, as he would have said, “ critically,” — that is, not for its beauties, but for its defects. His marginal hieroglyphics were invariably opposite some more or less incorrect or doubtful form of speech. The felicitous turn of expression, the subtle criticism, the perfect apothegm, the racy epithet, — all these, as far as could be judged, had passed without remark ; what the next reader of the volume, whether its owner or a borrower, ought by all means to have his attention directed to were these instances in which the distinguished author, whether inadvertently or from actual ignorance, had stepped aside in his grammar. A misplaced only, a questionable and which, an unlucky confusion of the personal pronouns in the course of a long sentence, — these, and things like them, had taken the eye of the user of the pencil. At these points, rather than elsewhere, we may presume, he had realized his own superiority ; for, of course, whoever can pick holes in another’s work must be, by so much, the more skillful workman.

I was greatly impressed. What an economical and comfortable method! At this rate, one needs only to be (or to fancy himself) well grounded in Lindley Murray, and there is no English book, no matter how uninteresting its subject nor how abstruse its thought, out of which he may not get his money’s worth of enjoyment, since, as Hazlitt says, “ the only impeccable writers are those that never wrote.” And then I smiled as it flashed upon me what a godsend my own books would prove to this same philosophical lover of solecisms; and I thought to myself, If I ever give him one of them, I will surely give him half a dozen pencils to go with it.

I hope I shall not be suspected of laughing at the scholar with whose library I was thus making free. Careless readers (or writers) may call him a pedant. I call him, in all sincerity, a philosopher, and I draw from his example this important practical lesson : All ordinary means of happiness will sometimes fail us ; but so long as we can enjoy other men’s faults, so long we shall have at least one inexhaustible resource.