Taken collectively, the ‘pronouncements of the wise and near-wise on happiness make for rather a welter. Locke held that all men seek happiness, but Nietzsche insisted that only the English do. The Stoics taught that the happy life was characterised by the exercise of moral virtue, whereas Pater felt it was a matter of bunging in as many ‘pulsations’ as possible. ‘L’inquiétude est essentielle à la félicité des créatures’, declared Leibniz; Captain Grimes, however, was quite unable to see how anyone who got exactly what he wanted when he wanted it could help being happy. For Aristotle, happiness was an activity; Or Johnson, by contrast, seemed to think of it as a state, one that more or less coincided with drunkenness (no wonder he believed that ‘it is the business of the wise man to be happy’).
Peter Quennell, by his own account, has been perplexed by the idea of happiness since his childhood, when it occurred to him that his own felicitous existence might be a dream from which he would one day wake up to some grim reality. Over the years, he tells us, he