The Pleasures of Life

The Pleasures of Life (1887) by Sir John Lubbock

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Specialisation is one of the curses of our high-tech age. Today we have boffins struggling to know more and more about less and less. They create their own esoteric jargon, which means they can’t carry on an easy dialogue with their opposite numbers in other disciplines. As a result our intellectual and cultural life has become fragmented. This problem didn’t exist in Victorian times, when the great scientists of the day were multi-talented. This was certainly true of Sir John Lubbock, a polymath to his fingertips, who combined the roles of politician, banker, archaeologist, biologist, author and prolific scientific journalist. Throughout his life he followed the advice of Pascal who wrote: ‘It is much better to know something about everything than to know everything about one thing.’

The young John Lubbock had a privileged start. His father was a highly successful banker, and also a much respected astronomer and mathematician. After studying at Eton College, John went straight into his father’s bank which was later amalgamated with Coutts & Co. Through his father’s connections, he mingled with all the great scientists of the day. He became a member of the famous X Club, which was founded by T.H. Huxley to promote the growth of science in Britain. He became a close friend of his near neighbour Charles Darwin and became one of Darwin’s closest friends. A great archaeologist, he invented the terms Palaeolithic and Neolithic, and wrote regularly in the Natural History Review. Darwin produced a book about the humble earthworm, and Lubbock countered by writing the definitive textbook on Ants, Bees and Wasps.

Had this been his sole contribution, Lubbock might by now have been long forgotten. But he was first and foremost a forward looking social reformer. As a Member of Parliament he introduced many bills designed to benefit the lot of the working classes. These included measures to regulate shop hours, create libraries and develop public parks and open spaces. He also instituted public bank holidays, which were afterwards often called in his honour St Lubbock Days. He was President of the Entomological Society, President of the Anthropological Institute, President of the Linnaean Society, trustee of the British Museum, President of the British Association, President of the London Chamber of Commerce and chairman of the London Country Council. The man was clearly leading an exceedingly busy life, and it’s not surprising that the biographical records make no mention of whether or not he had a wife and family. His philanthropy was shown primarily outside his home. He wrote numerous technical treatises, like Prehistoric Times and The Origin of Civilization, but also found time to write books designed for the betterment of the upwardly striving working classes. One of these essays on Tact was a clear precursor of The Pleasures of Life, for it contained the same mix of classical quotations interspersed with advice derived from the author’s own experience. Thus he repeats one of my favourite Confucian sayings: ‘If you suspect a man, do not employ him: If you employ him, do not suspect him.’ Then he adds his own commentary: ‘Do not believe that everyone is a friend, merely because he professes to be so; nor assume too lightly that anyone is an enemy.’

John Lubbock, who later became the first Lord Avebury, was undoubtedly a product of his age. Some today would not accept his advice that children should be seen rather than heard. Others will think it odd that a book discussing the pleasures of life can make no mention of sex; or that a book written for the man in the street should include large chunks of Rousseau in the original French without an accompanying English translation. But these are minor quibbles. Lubbock gave people the wherewithal to better themselves and work together to create a better society, a challenging opportunity which still exists today. Much of the book’s text is based on lectures the author gave at working men’s institutes. Its first chapter, entitled ‘The Duty of Happiness’, stems from a talk he gave at the Harris Institute in Preston. This contains tips from Epictetus, the great Stoic philosopher, who said. ‘If a man is unhappy, remember that his unhappiness is his own fault; for God has made all men

to be happy.’ To this Lubbock adds a note from his own experience, saying we ought to be ‘as bright and genial as we can, if only because to be cheerful ourselves, is a most effectual contribution to the happiness of others.’ A later chapter, on ‘The Blessing of Friends’, is based on a talk he gave to the London Working Men’s College.  Here again he quotes classical sages like Cicero, who said that while we take great care choosing our dogs and horses, enquiring into their pedigree, training and character, ‘yet we too often leave the selection of our friends, which is of infinitely greater importance – by whom our whole life will be more or less influenced either for good or evil – almost to chance.’  To this Lubbock adds the wise comment that it’s always advisable to treat a friend remembering that he might become an enemy; and an enemy remembering that he may become a friend.’

The book went on to be published in over a hundred editions, and can still be bought by print-on-demand through Amazon books, or obtained as an ebook for reading on the Amazon Kindle. The advice it gives is ageless, and is as appropriate today as when it was first written.

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