3 July 2014

The Pursuit of Happiness


Freedom and Democracy are words which are hard to avoid in any discussion of the principles of government. They are easy enough to understand, but hard to define. The best definition I can think of comes from Mrs Thatcher. She said, of her principles of governing, that she was concerned with freedom within the law. Anyone who shares her high idea of civilisation and humanity will understand what she means. But the good words also bring a further question: whose law are we talking about? The world is full of cultures, and every culture might have its own idea of fairness and legality.

In 1979, at the time of the Iranian revolution, there were simple romantic people here who, playing only with a name, thought the new Iranian society, being revolutionary, might have had the good qualities that revolutionary societies were thought to have. In fact, the truth was different, as I found when I went to Iran at that time. I had been staying in the United States, vaguely connected with a university – it happens sometimes to writers in their times of idleness – the television news about Iran and the Ayatollah Khomeini excited me and I understood I had been given an idea for a book in the most accidental way. I thought I should make a journey of inquiry or learning in the non-Arab Muslim world. It was an accident that I thought of travelling to the non-Arab world – this was because the television news was conditioning my response to Iran and the Muslim world.

Muslims were at once close to me and far away. I had always been aware that Muslims were part of the small Indian community I was born into, and it could be said that I had known Muslims all of my life, but I knew little of their religion. My background was Hindu, so to speak – I have to put it like that because I really had no faith. I grew up only with a half knowledge of the religions of India. I knew that Muslims, though ancestrally of India and, though like ourselves in many ways, were different. I was never instructed in the religious details of the difference and perhaps no-one in my family really knew. I barely understood the many rituals and ceremonies of my grandmother’s house which I grew up with. Religion wasn’t part of the intellectual formation of my mind, though tradition and ritual regulated the wider life of our family.

I feel I have to say this here to make it clear that I did my Islamic travel with an open mind, though the news from Iran in these early days was not good. The news at that time was still of executions. The official Iranian News Agency kept count and regularly gave a new grand total of bad people killed – a strange proceeding, but perhaps the idea was to show how benign the new society was.

I had no idea that I would soon be looking from my hotel room at the prison – with the sinister blue exit gates – where the executions took place. It was not a view I would have chosen.

The most recent executions had been of prostitutes and brothel managers – the revolution had taken that bad turn. The Ayatollah Khomeini was also reported to have outlawed music. And Islamic rules were being enforced again. Mixed bathing had been banned. Revolutionary Guards, semi-military guardians of the revolution, watched the beaches of the Caspian Sea resorts and separated the sexes.

How did the definition of freedom within these harsh laws come about? Religious beliefs have supplied most civilisations with an ethical code. Hinduism and its offshoot Buddhism, though full of contradictions, nevertheless gave civilisation the doctrine of karma and the idea of consequence. In my own upbringing there was no simple idea of doing unto others as you would have them do to you which was dazzling to me when I first heard it and still remains, a perfect guide to human behaviour.

Religious laws may have been liberating and gave order to societies, but they quickly became oppressive and acted as a brake to the freedom of thought. A defiance of the religious way of seeing gave this civilisation science. And through science the technology whose unstoppable ideas we live with and by.

The concept of democracy, as the word itself testifies, was born of the Greeks. Their classical literature and classical mathematics speak of the growth of civilisation that accompanied their orators and politics. But they kept slaves. Such contradictions occur in all civilisations and these contradictions must not be used to denigrate the culture from which they came. It is important to remember that where there is free interplay of ideas the good can often overcome  the bad. The British slave owning society produced Wilberforce, the passionate abolitionist. The British not only abolished slavery by statute, they also found the money to compensate the slave owners who had lost the services of their slaves. They did this right through the Caribbean. Even in little Antigua no one lost. The compensation paid varied with the value of the slaves. In Antigua, slaves were valued at £14 per head.

After visiting Iran, I journeyed through a number of Islamic lands including Malaysia. They were decolonised now – it could be said that the Malays had won their political battle against the Chinese – and they were looking for an identity. They were desperate to rid themselves of the past and desperate to stamp out ancient tribal or animist practices among their people, all the sub-conscious life, freighted with the past, that links people to the earth on which they walk, all the rich folk life that awakened people elsewhere cultivated and dredged for its poetry. They wished, the more earnest of these Malay Muslims, to be nothing but their imported Arab faith. I got the impression that they would have liked, ideally, to make their minds and souls a blank, an emptiness, so that they could be nothing but their faith.

On my return to Malaysia, sixteen years later, I found that Islam had triumphed, and a lot had changed. A young lawyer I met on the second journey spoke of his ambition to return to the simplicities and the certainty of the earlier faith. He said of that faith, ‘It has been laid aside. It has been replaced by an idea of the Malays as a trading and manufacturing people.’ These are words you would not have associated with Malays in the past.

I could see that the government had done all it could to bring Malays into business and over the last two generations it had succeeded. The racial anxieties of sixteen years before, the worry about the Chinese, had been swamped by the new wealth; new men had been created by both sides. That was the message of the steel, concrete and glass around the Holiday Inn where I had stayed sixteen years before. It was then an isolated tall building. A great highway through the forest had also opened up the villages and opened up new land.  The young lawyer was more worried about the forest highway than about the changes in the town. He said, poetically, of the highway, “I think it telescopes time.” It was an arresting way of describing a physical development and he was saying many things.

He was disturbed by the effect the highway would have on the rural life of Malay villages. He was worried about the apparent triumph of the Chinese and their way of dealing with the land. So what looked like a racial point was something much bigger. It was a rejection of the modern values that seemed about to become universal. In its simplest way this rejection was a rejection of modern goods and modern machines. With those modern tools there would also come modern ideas which not everyone could comprehend. The most important idea that came with those machines and tools was a complicated idea of the pursuit of happiness. It was the idea that made the modern way unbeatable.

The pursuit of happiness requires that men are at ease with themselves, at ease with their society and the opportunities their society offers.  I find it marvellous to contemplate, after two centuries and after the terrible history of the first part of the century, that the idea – a mere phrase in the preamble to the American constitution – has come to a universal fruition. It is an elastic idea. It fits all men. It implies a certain kind of society – a certain kind of awakened spirit. I don’t imagine my father’s parents would have been able to understand the idea.

We all know the phrase, but it contains so much: the idea of the individual, the idea of responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It can be said to contain the world. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism, but it is known to exist and because of that, other more rigid systems, even when religious, in the end blow away. Mrs Thatcher made little of this directly; but she might be said to be the champion of this brand of human happiness.

VS Naipaul received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2001.