“Much Feeling for the Rest of the World”: The Wisdom of George Eliot

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“It is only a poor sort of happiness that could ever come by caring very much about our own narrow pleasures.”

Empirical investigation suggests that focusing one’s efforts on deriving “narrow pleasures” is probably not the best way to lead a life worth living.1 The “poor sort of happiness” to which Eliot alludes characterizes the mental state that pursuit of pleasure typically induces: fleeting moments of satisfaction instantaneously replaced with a restless search for a new object from which one hopes to derive pleasure. Insofar as a life completely oriented around pursuit of pleasure probably precludes the experience of sustained mental positivity implied by the term “happiness”, Eliot understates the problem.2 A lifetime spent in restless pursuit of “narrow pleasures” not only gives rise to a “poor sort of happiness” but may also impress us as wasteful, if not tragic.

George Eliot, the pen name of novelist Mary Ann Evans

But such an orientation fails on another count: not only does it fail to deliver happiness, it also disregards life’s moral dimension.3 A preoccupation with gratifying “our own narrow pleasures” ignores billions of other creatures with whom we share the planet. One who pursues “narrow pleasures” tends to be indifferent to the impact of such a pursuit on other people and the earth that sustains them.

Another problem with such an approach becomes visible if one universalizes it: A personal decision to orient oneself around the satisfaction of “narrow pleasures” implies an attitude of acceptance relative to the prospect of a world occupied by seven billion others who are similarly oriented.4 Few who subject the prospect to scrutiny would wish to live in a world of seven billion others busily trying to maximize their own “narrow pleasures”.

Closer inspection reveals still other deficiencies implied by a life driven by the pursuit of “narrow pleasures”: the need to derive meaning also remains unfulfilled. 5 The pursuit and gratification of “narrow pleasures” rarely delivers the sense that what one is doing really matters. We are social creatures, such that our work must contribute to or connect positively with something of value that has a source outside of oneself if it is to be animated by the sense that it matters. 6 Few would choose to trade places with someone whose life consisted exclusively of activities designed to maximize her own pleasure. A life dedicated to the relentless pursuit of activity that matters only to oneself would impress most of us as lonely and meaningless.

“We can only have the highest happiness, such as goes along with being great, by having wide thoughts, and much feeling for the rest of the world as well as ourselves.”

Work, by definition, is an activity that one pursues for someone or something else. One reasonably expects to receive compensation for one’s work to the extent that it provides something of value to someone else (e.g., one’s employer, one’s client, one’s customer, etc.) Work is to this extent an intrinsically social activity: it cannot be conducted in isolation or an attitude of total indifference to the interests of others.

But flourishing entails elevating the interests of others beyond that which is reflected in the compensation one receives. The “highest happiness” accrues to work that is inspired by “much feeling for the rest of the world.”

“There are so many things wrong and difficult in the world, that no man can be great – he can hardly keep himself from wickedness – unless he gives up thinking much about pleasure or rewards and gets strength to endure what is hard and painful.”

Attention focused on the great number of “things wrong in the world” would only seem to increase one’s sense of urgency relative to “righting” it. A life spent in pursuit of activity indifferent to wrongs in the world can only add to the number of “wrong and difficult” things in it, insofar as such a life ultimately conduces to feelings of despair.7

“He can hardly keep himself from wickedness – unless he gives up thinking much about pleasure or rewards and gets strength to endure what is hard and painful.”

Why would “thinking much about pleasure and rewards” conduce to wickedness? It is the narrowness of such an approach that, upon inspection, again emerges as problematic. A relentless focus on pleasure and reward implies perpetual concern for oneself and corresponding indifference to the impact of one’s actions on others. Insofar as “others” include those for whom the work is being performed, work that is mainly motivated by reward trivializes the work itself and the value that the work confers for those who purchase it. If work’s value to the worker resides exclusively in its ability to bring pleasure and reward, one can reasonably expect that the quality of her work will suffer because the worker’s attention and interest is focused on expectations that have nothing to do with the work itself. The work has no meaning for the worker beyond its ability to provide the worker with something extrinsic to the work. The worker might as well pursue any type of work.6 While the quality of one’s work is not rendered completely irrelevant by such an approach, the quality of one’s work is only relevant to the extent that it promotes – or at very least does not compromise – the worker’s opportunity to reap rewards from future work. The worker who pursues work in this manner can “hardly keep himself from wickedness” not only because the quality of what he produces will suffer but because he, like a hamster on a treadmill, can be expected to continually seek greater rewards and more pleasure in a manner that is indifferent not only to the impact of his work but to all else that is occurring in the world unrelated to his pursuit. 7

Gratification of desire leads to the production of yet more desires. For the individual who seeks pleasure, the world becomes a place to exploit rather than a place that needs to be righted. The worker’s restless and desperate pursuit of reward adds to the world’s problems because the pursuit adds yet one more “wrong thing” to the world.

“…if you…seek to know the best things God has put within the reach of men, you must learn to fix your mind on that end, and not on what will happen to you because of it.”

The “best things within (our) reach” can be seen when one’s vision is not obscured by self-concern. Wrongs can be righted when approached in a manner that does not entail casting the “I” as the central character in life’s narrative. While the right orientation towards one’s work provides no guarantee that suffering will be averted, a path oriented towards pleasure practically guarantees a negative outcome:

Friedrich, Caspar David – On a Sailing Ship

“…if you were to choose something lower, and make it the rule of your life to seek your own pleasure and escape what is disagreeable, calamity might come just the same; and it would be a calamity falling on a base mind, which is the one form of sorrow that has no balm in it, and that may well make a man say – ‘It would have been better for me if I had never been born’.”

There is no way to fully insulate oneself against calamity. Misfortune can arise regardless of the path one chooses. A well chosen path does not allow us to avert misfortune, but orients us to a life worth living. While misfortune can occur regardless of the path one chooses, work exclusively oriented around attainment of reward conduces to suffering unredeemed by efforts that make life worth living.


Italicized quotations were composed by George Eliot. From Being and Doing. Edward Howell, Liverpool, 1904. Page 1.

1. Ricard, Matthieu. Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill. Ricard is often referred to as “the happiest man in the world”. Ricard distinguishes between pleasure and happiness.


  • Is caused by pleasant stimuli of a sensory, aesthetic or intellectual nature.
  • Depends on circumstances, places, and special moments.
  • If repeated, can become dull even disgusting.
  • Is a fleeting, individual, essentially self-centered experience.
  • May combine with violence, pride, greed, and other mental states incompatible with true happiness.


  • It is born from within and although it can be influenced by circumstances, it is not subject to them.
  • Lasts and grows as we experience it: it generates a feeling of fullness that, over time, becomes a fundamental trait of our temperament.
  • Is felt over a long period of time (whereas ordinary pleasures occur through contact with pleasant objects and end as soon as the contact ceases).
  • Naturally consists of altruism, which radiates outward instead of being self-centered.

This distinction between “pleasure” and “happiness” does not mean that one should refrain from seeking pleasant sensations. Pleasure, different from happiness by nature, is not the enemy of happiness. Only if pleasure hinders inner freedom will it hinder happiness. When compatible with inner freedom, pleasure “adorns it without obscuring it”. Summary from: https://books-that-can-change-your-life.net/happiness/

2. The hedonic treadmill, also known as hedonic adaptation, is the observed tendency

of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes. According to this theory, as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness. Philip Brickman and Donald T. Campbell coined the term in their essay “Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society”. The hedonic treadmill viewpoint suggests that wealth does not increase the level of happiness. Brickman; Campbell (1971). Hedonic relativism and planning the good society. New York: Academic Press. pp. 287–302. in M. H. Apley, ed., Adaptation Level Theory: A Symposium, New York: Academic Press.

3. For a discussion of a multi-dimensional approach to work informed by an appreciation for the importance of meaning, see: https://workosophy.org/2020/06/27/imagining-sisyphus-fulfilled-meaning-why-it-matters/

4. Kant’s first formulation of the Categorical Imperative states that you are to “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law”. For discussion of Kant’s Categorical Imperative, see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-moral/

5. See https://workosophy.org/2020/06/27/imagining-sisyphus-fulfilled-meaning-why-it-matters/ For a more extensive discussion of meaning, see Wolf, Susan. Meaning in Life and Why it Matters. Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2010.

6. Wolf, Susan. Meaning in Life and Why it Matters. Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2010.

7. William James advises us to admonish the despairing individual with the need to right the wrongs of the world. James’ message is remarkably consistent with Eliot’s:

“What are our woes and sufferance compared with (the wrongs of the world). Does not the recital of such a fight … fill us with resolution against our petty powers of darkness?…To the suicide, then…you can appeal – and appeal in the name of the very evils that make his heart sick there – to wait and see his part of the battle out…So long as your would-be suicide eaves an evil of his own unremedied…(he may be) moved by (such an admonition) to face life with a certain interest again.”

James, William. “Is Life Worth Living?”, from The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy. Dover, New York, 1956. Page 50. (Originally published in 1897).

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