He appears to believe that if men are all freed from restraints and put, as far as possible, on an equal footing, they will naturally treat each other as brothers, and work together harmoniously for their common good. I believe that many men are bad, a vast majority of men indifferent, and many good, and that the great mass of indifferent people sway this way or that according to circumstances, one of the most important of which circumstances is the predominance for the time being of the bad or the good. I further believe that between all classes of men there are and always will be real occasions of enmity and strife, and that even good men may be and often are compelled to treat each other as enemies either by the existence of conflicting interests which bring them into collision, or by their different ways of conceiving goodness.

— James Fitzjames Stephen, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity

It is clear to me that people often want incompatible things. They want danger and excitement on the one hand, and safety and security on the other, and often simultaneously. Contradictory desires mean that life can never be wholly satisfying or without frustration.

I think it was Dostoyevsky who said that, even if the government were 100 per cent benevolent and arranged everything for our own good, as judged by rational criteria, we should still want to exercise our freedom by going against its dispensations.

One reason for the epidemic of self-destructiveness that has struck British, if not the whole of Western, society, is the avoidance of boredom. For people who have no transcendent purpose to their lives and cannot invent one through contributing to a cultural tradition (for example), in other words who have no religious belief and no intellectual interests to stimulate them, self-destruction and the creation of crises in their life is one way of warding off meaninglessness. I have noticed, for example, that women who frequent bad men – that is to say men who are obviously unreliable, drunken, drug-addicted, criminal, or violent, or all of them together, have often had experience of decent men who treat them well, with respect, and so forth: they are the ones with whom their relationships lasted the shortest time, because they were bored by decency. Without religion or culture (and here I mean high, or high-ish, culture) evil is very attractive. It is not boring.

— Theodore Dalrymple, interviewed by Jamie Glazov

We are hopelessly beset by conflicting desires. Like Charles V, we want both the pleasures of privacy and the pleasures of power, no matter how improbable or impossible their combination may be. Like Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong, we want both a quiet fishing-spot, and the money we cannot make there.

…The fact is that, as Hume said in The Natural History of Religion, “it is not possible for us, by our most chimerical wishes, to form the idea of a station or situation altogether desirable.” The reason is that we desire incompatible things. Even if every other cause of human misery were removed, and even if only a single person were in question, that person’s desires, being inconsistent, would still be incapable of satisfaction. Remold this sorry scheme of things exactly to your heart’s desires: then even if, by some miracle, those desires were compatible with one another, you would sooner or later be bored with the result. In other words, the universal human hankering for novelty would, at some stage, intervene and unsettle all.

— David Stove, “Living Retired“, What’s Wrong With Benevolence: Happiness, Private Property, and the Limits of Enlightenment

Unlike the English Whigs and the American Founders, the modern liberal regards suffering not as an unavoidable element of life but as an aberration to be corrected by up-to-date political, economic, and hygienic arrangements. Rather than acknowledge the limitations of our condition, the liberal continually contrives panaceas that will enable us to transcend it.

It is a sign of growing maturity in a people when, laying aside these beliefs, it acknowledges that suffering is an element of life that sympathetic magic cannot eradicate, and recognizes a residue of pain in existence that even the application of technical knowledge cannot assuage. Advances in knowledge may end particular kinds of suffering, but these give way to new forms of hurt—milder, perhaps (one would rather be depressed than famished), yet not without their sting. We do not draw closer to a painless world.

— Michael Knox Beran, “Obama, Shaman”, The Pathology of the Elites

So everything in human self-understanding is over bar the shouting: only the details have yet to be filled in. Before long, if there is sufficient research funding, there will be no more puzzles and no unpleasant surprises, no agonizing dilemmas in human existence; the question of the good life will have been settled once and for all, indubitably and scientifically, without the necessity of endless and unprovable metaphysical speculations. To understand all will no longer be to forgive all, for there will be nothing to forgive; everyone will behave reasonably in the first place, which is to say, in accordance with the dictates of the scientifically proven good life. History will come to an end, this time not by virtue of the triumph of liberal democracy throughout the world, but by that of the triumph of psychology and neuroscience. Man will no longer pass on misery to Man, as in Larkin’s poem; he will pass on knowledge instead, knowledge and wisdom being of course by that stage coterminous. Indeed, knowledge will secrete wisdom as the liver secretes bile.

I don’t believe it, and I’m not sure that I would want to live in such a world if it were true.

— Theodore Dalrymple, Admirable Evasions: How Psychology Undermines Morality

The belief that momentary feelings of unity or visions of perfection can survive permanently into everyday life this side of eternity is the ante-room of nihilism and fascism. Such beliefs give rise to ahistorical fantasies, which can never materialize beyond the notion. To the extent that they are relentlessly pursued, they progressively crush the moments of solace that precious moments of grace can in fact convey. Historically such fantasies have spawned generations of cynics, misanthropes and failed revolutionaries who, having glimpsed resolution, cannot forgive the grinding years of imperfect life that still must be lived.

― Steven Ozment, A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German People

The difference in depth of the two books is readily apparent from the difference in the irony that each author employs. Voltaire is heavy and obvious; Johnson, despite his stylistic orotundity, is light and subtle. Candide is expelled from his happy home, Rasselas wants to escape his: already a great difference in depth, for Candide’s misfortunes eventuate from outside himself, while Rasselas experiences Man’s existential, internally generated dissatisfaction and restlessness. Since no one could possibly imagine a place better than the happy valley, Johnson confronts us from the first with man’s inability ever to be satisfied with what he has, which, he suggests, is his glory but also his misery.

— Theodore Dalrymple, “What Makes Dr. Johnson Great?”, Not With a Bang But a Whimper

But it seems best to conclude by registering a note of sobriety, as against hopes for transformation. If cultural despair rests on a view of history as being more powerful than individuals, the revolutionary for his part entertains an exaggerated fantasy of world changing. A heady vision of the progressive hereafter in which economic antagonism has been overcome may come to stand in for, and distract him from, the smaller but harder work of living well in this life. The alternative to revolution, which I want to call Stoic, is resolutely this-worldly. It insists on the permanent, local viability of what is best in human beings. In practice, this means seeking out the cracks where individual agency and the love of knowledge can be realized today, in one’s own life.

— Matthew Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work

Those who say that we are on the verge of a huge increase in self-understanding are claiming that enlightenment will suddenly be reached under the scientific bo tree. The enlightenment will have to be sudden rather than gradual because, if it were gradual, we should already be able to point to an increase in human contentment and self-control brought about by our already increased knowledge. But even the most advanced societies are just as full of angst, or poor impulse control, of existential bewilderment, of adherence to clearly irrational doctrines, as ever they were. There is no sign that, Prozac and neurosurgery notwithstanding, any of this is about to change fundamentally.

…In my opinion, the great philosopher David Hume understood why human self-understanding was forever beyond our reach. It is not a coincidence that he always expressed himself with irony, for the deepest irony is that of the existence of a creature, Man, who forever seeks something that is beyond his understanding.

— Theodore Dalrymple, “Do the Impossible: Know Thyself”, Anything Goes

Darwin’s instinct for truth — or, as it might more accurately be called, his love of truth — is what led him to formulate the theory of evolution. His instinct of virtue, or love of goodness, is what led him to abhor slavery. The faith he lived by was that these two loves would lead, ultimately, to the same conclusion. A century and a half into the Darwinian age, we live by that same faith, because we have no other choice.

— Adam Kirsch, “Darwinism at 150”, Rocket and Lightship