An analysis of the causes of improvement still leaves the modern student marvelling that so much was achieved. The attitude of contemporaries was different. Colquhoun, for instance, who was responsible for much of the more pessimistic opinion of his day, saw in poor relief, the hospitals, the charities of London, the absolute high-water mark of provision for misfortune. With all this, he asks, how is it possible that so much vice and misery should still exist? To-day the problem seems akin to that of the army and navy--how could men, recruited as were the British land and sea forces, not to speak of the corruption and bad administration which was rife, achieve such results? Part of the answer is probably the same in both cases. There had been a number of obscure reforms, whose cumulative effect was very great, which for the most part have been lost sight of in the more fundamental changes which took place later, and obscured by an increasing realisation of evils and a growing intolerance of hardships. One can hardly suppose, for instance, that the grievances which led to the Mutiny of the Nore were worse than those endured by the unfortunate seamen in the expedition to Cartagena, so vividly described by Smolett in Roderick Random. The improvements in medicine and sanitation had bettered conditions both in London and at sea. The expansion of trade and the many opportunities of rising in the world had their counterpart in the prize-money, of which all sailors had a chance. The advance still remains surprising and we are reminded of the strange way in which human nature still manages to be so much better than the world has any right to expect. We can but admire the people who responded so quickly to the beginnings of an improvement in their environment. Then, in spite of restrictions, in spite even of the press-gang and the clamp, the eighteenth-century Londoner had an intense sense of personal freedom, and of his share in the heritage of British liberty. And freedom being primarily a state of mind, we must recognize, in spite of Rousseau and Disraeli and other scoffers, the undoubted fact that this sense of personal liberty had a real importance in the social life of the time.The purpose of George's classic book is twofold. She aims first to give a broad panorama of the titular subject matter: life in eighteenth-century London as a solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short pilgrimage through collapsing buildings and depraved poverty, punctuated only by the alluring charms of the tavern and the gin-shop. This quaint setting is then used to articulate her main point--that the supposed horrors wreaked upon England's green and pleasant land by the Industrial Revolution in fact paled in comparison to the ignominy of existence under the Georges. More than that: it was only because things had gotten so much better that they seemed so much worse. Once society had had a taste of reform, it began to want nothing else. (Revolutions, it is well-known, only happen on an upswing.)
- M. Dorothy George, London Life in the Eighteenth Century (1925)
The argument is compelling, but dangerous; indeed, it appears to prove too much. George, presumably, wants us to stop romanticizing pre-industrial urban life and focus on the concrete possibilities for reform that exist within any given moment in a society's history. More recently, but in the same spirit, Steven Pinker has exposed the seamy underbelly of the treacherous, murderous annals of the human race--an attempt to teach us that we've never had it so good. These ventures both rely on the premise that we are suffering from a lack of perspective on the past: because poverty and violence used to be so normal, the lack of emphasis placed on them by contemporaries has made them invisible to our eyes.
That's what we, morally speaking, should be learning. But if we are attentive, we learn something quite different. Reform and revolution have generated nothing but the fervent need for more progressive change, a desire that can never be satisfied, because smaller and smaller problems loom larger and larger in our eyes. (Nietzsche, Genealogy: "Compared with one night's pain endured by a hysterical bluestocking, all the suffering of all the animals that have been used to date for scientific experiments is as nothing.") So the expectation of "steady, unilinear upward progress" (as the phrase goes) dooms us to an existence of eternal suffering, a form of historical keeping up with the Joneses.
In the '50s, the anti-technocratic philosopher Jacques Ellul reviewed a pamphlet in which leading scientists described the inventions of the future in glowingly naive terms and trumpeted the great leaps humanity was to make by the year 2000. One of these inventions was a perfect narcotic that would yield happiness without side effects. Ellul objected, quite reasonably: if we have this pill, what's the point of having all the rest of that stuff? We begin to see the paradox. Well-being measured objectively is meaningless; well-being measured subjectively forces us to concede that eighteenth-century Londoners, living their noble-savage lives amidst grime and oppression, might well have been happier with their lot than we are. So we substitute other measures for well-being: income per capita, average life expectancy, infant mortality. But what good is living for a century if it is a century of feverish and unsatisfying upward mobility?
Of course, embracing eighteenth-century Londoners as a model will not solve the problem. They were, as Schiller would put it, "naive"; we are "sentimental." No matter how much we idealize their comparatively uncomplaining lives and low standards, we'll never be able to regain their sense of satisfaction. Only two alternatives remain. We could give up on happiness and even "standard of living" as meaningful criteria for evaluating human societies--or we could get to work on those magic pills. Until then, relative happiness and sentimentality will always go hand-in-hand.