Chapter I. The Vanity of Human Pursuits.
Among the many painful reflections that afflict the serious and benevolent mind; there is scarcely any thing more melancholy, than a consideration of the calamitous state of this disordered world, even in the most civilized, and best regulated societies. Numbers of our fellow–creatures are daily sinking under the keenest distresses and disappointments; none are secure from affliction; and very few even of those who are exempted from peculiar suffering, and surrounded with all the luxuries of life, are free from vexation and discontent. And can we, with such a scene of human misery before us, help feeling many a wish that the illusions with which most men are fascinated were dispelled, and that they might learn to distinguish between real, and imaginary good?
But the vanity of human pursuits, affords a lesson, which though daily confirmed by facts, will not perhaps be easily acquired by those who do not learn it from their own experience. For ‘at the first entrance into the world, when the imagination is active, the affections warm, and the heart a stranger to deceit and consequently to suspicion, many delightful dreams of happiness will be formed.’* No sooner does reason begin to dawn, than the infant mind looks forward to some future period, when deliverance from certain restrictions, when deliverance from certain pursuits will be attained; pursuits, which though trivial or ridiculous in the eye of maturer age, are in themselves perhaps, not more vain, and far more innocent, than many which occupy some of the most celebrated among mankind. From childhood to youth, from youth to maturity, from maturity even to decrepitude, all, in various ways, are engaged in the same ardent search: while the happiness they seek, like the ignis fatuus that deludes the benighted traveler, flies faster the more eagerly it is pursued; or, if at length it come within their reach, they catch – and grasp a phantom!
So powerfully does this painful truth sometimes force itself on the mind, that men are tempted to look with envy on the very beasts that perish. The irrational creatures have no vain regrets, or bitter reflections on the past, to disturb their repose, nor any anxious cares and projects for the future, to embitter their enjoyments. They rest satisfied in the present gratification, incapable of exercising the mental powers that constitute man’s chief superiority; and which yet, as they are too generally employed, are perhaps the occasion of his greatest misery.
Let us not however have the temerity to suppose, that the infinitely wise and beneficent Creator of the universe, He who made man after his own image, endowed him with the powers of reason to make him wretched. To suppose this, we must not only altogether disregard the assertions of revelation, but the dictates of human reason; which though indeed unable satisfactorily to demonstrate the soul’s immortality, derives its most powerful argument from that unceasing, yet unsatisfied desire of happiness which is so deeply implanted in the heart of man.
But though happiness, like some fair and tender exotic, which droops and withers when transplanted to a ruder clime, is not made to flourish in the barren soil of this world; it is certain, that a portion of it, may even here be attained. But alas! men seek this treasure where it is to be found.—The road to pleasure, wealth, or fame, according to the various tastes of different minds, is mostly supposed to lead to this desired object, and though none who ever trode this beaten path found their expectation realized, others are not deterred from following in the same unsuccessful pursuit.
What pains are bestowed by the votaries of dissipation to silence the voice of reason and reflection, and to waste in trifles that invaluable talent time, which is given us for the most important purposes, and which when gone we can never retrieve! And yet, can any be supposed to have less experience of genuine peace and satisfaction, than those, who continually engaged in a toilsome round of unsatisfying pleasures that distract the mind, impair the health, and tend to make the common scenes of life irksome and insipid, are subject to sleepless nights, anxious days, and hopes mostly ending in disappointment? ‘Alas Sir!’ said Dr. Johnson once in conversation with Mr. Boswell, ‘these grand houses, fine gardens and publick amusements are only struggles for happiness. When I first entered Ranelagh, it gave an expansion and gay sensation to my mind, such as I never experienced any where else. But as Xerxes wept when he viewed his immense army, and considered that not one of that great multitude would be alive one hundred years afterwards; it went to my heart to consider, that there was not one in all that brilliant circle who was not afraid to go home and think; but that the thoughts of each individual there would be distressing when alone.’
But if it be deplorable, thus to debase the noble faculties of the soul in frivolities beneath the attention of a rational creature; there is another description of persons perhaps still more dangerously misled; and who, if possible, are at a greater distance from the happiness they pursue. I mean those, who being fascinated in early life by the perusal of novels and romances, have deluded themselves with the hope of enjoyments never to be realized, qualifications neither to be attained or even desired, and characters which are no where to be found. Of all the various evils that corrupt the minds of youth in the present day, there are many less specious, but none more injurious than this. Speaking of Rousseau an admired author observes, ‘that amongst his irregularities it must be reckoned, that he is sometimes moral, and moral in a very sublime strain. But the general spirit and tendency of his works in mischievous, and the more mischievous for this mixture: for perfect depravity of sentiment is not reconcilable with eloquence: and the mind (though corruptible, not complexionally vicious) would reject and throw off with disgust a lesson of pure and unmixed evil. These writers make even virtue a pandar to vice.’**—The morality to which they often pretend, only serves to disguise the poison they infuse, and to excite a fatal degree of pride and self complacency; while the pathetick tales and elegant distresses with which they abound, instead of inspiring sentiments of enlarged and disinterred benevolence, rather tend to steel the heart against those daily scenes of misery which it is our duty to compassionate and relieve. ‘Vanity, however, finds its account in reversing the train of our natural feelings. Thousands admire the sentimental writer; the affectionate father is hardly known in his parish.’†
‘That creation of refined and subtile feelings reared by the authors of novels has an ill effect, not only on our ideas of virtue, but also on our estimate of happiness. Such a sickly sort of refinement creates imaginary evils and distresses, and imaginary blessings and enjoyments, which embitter the common disappointments, and depreciate the common attainments of life. This affects the temper doubly, both with respect to ourselves and others; with respect to ourselves, from what we think ought to be our lot – with regard to others, from what we think ought to be their sentiments. It inspires a certain childish pride of our own superior delicacy, and unfortunate contempt of the plain worth, and the ordinary, but useful, occupations of those around us.’
No sooner does a young woman imbibe this fatal poison, than she immediately discovers herself to be unhappy! Her daily employments, her accustomed pursuits and associates are now no longer capable of interesting. The presence and conversation of her relatives and friends become irksome and insipid. Introduced, as it were, into a higher region, and aspiring after more refined enjoyments; she sighs to meet some kindred spirit who can share in all the emotions of her heart. The sentimental and exalted endearments of love and friendship are, in her eyes, the only source of all genuine felicity: and as it is always easy to believe what we wish, if an object endowed with powers to please present himself, fancy will readily supply every deficiency, and pourtray a perfect character; while the highest satisfaction of which the human mind is capable will be expected to result from his society.
Happy will it be indeed, in such a case, if inexperienced, unsuspecting youth do not fall a sacrifice to a base and designing seducer! But allowing things to take the most favourable turn imaginable; and that two congenial hearts possessed of the most exquisite sensibility, after various extraordinary and most interesting adventures, are at length happily united – Shall we suppose that the same blissful scene, which winds up the novel or the play; will continue through many years in a series of uninterrupted delight? Alas! no – the sky that seemed so bright and serene on the entrance into this enchanted path, will soon be obscured by chilling damps and gloomy clouds. If no calamitous events intervene, disgust and insipid it will certainly succeed. Many mortifying discoveries of imperfection on each side will be made; and a variety of vulgar common cares intrude to engross the attention, sour the temper, and interrupt the enjoyment, that had been expected: and, after all, it will be well, if that which began in the most extravagant attachment, an attachment built on too frail a basis to be permanent, do not terminate in indifference or aversion.
Far more tranquil, and less irrational than these romantic visionaries, is the simple labourer or mechanic, who daily engaged in some useful occupation, has little opportunity for the creation of imaginary distresses; and who tasting more sweetness in the common comforts of life, is not reduced to the sad necessity of devising expedients to kill the time, which often hangs so heavy on the hands of his superiors.
But whether we seek for happiness in the circles of dissipation, the regions of romance, the flowery path of sensual pleasures, or the more steep and thorny ascent of ambition, fame, or fortune – the same event is sure to all: disappointment will certainly succeed. “The eye” says Solomon, “is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.” Those very airs which at their first performance so charmed us, that we thought we could listen to them for ever, disgust by too frequent repetition. The same prospect which we once deemed so delightful, at length becomes tiresome and uninteresting. Even yon sumptuous villa, and those beautiful grounds, on which the owner bestowed such expence and pains, that at first his abode appeared to him little short of a terrestrial paradise, have now lost so much of their attractions, that while others come from far to admire his taste, and envy his felicity, he finds more charms and satisfaction in walking on a neighbouring heath!
‘He sighs – for after all by slow degrees
‘The spot he lov’d has lost the power to please;
‘The Prospect, such as might enchant despair,
‘He views it not, or sees no beauty there.’
Lucretia, a lady remarkably endowed with the various gifts of beauty, wit, and affluence; possessed of every accomplishment, and surrounded, as she acknowledges, with every thing that the world deems essential to happiness: in conversing a short time ago unreservedly with a friend, burst into tears, and confessed that she could hardly help envying a poor beggar who was just then passing by the door. Her temper, she said, had been spoiled by unlimited indulgence; she felt wearied and discontented with all around her; and while many looked up to her with envy and admiration, she thought herself one of the most wretched of human beings! Not that any religious scruples, or fears of futurity destroy this lady’s peace; for she lives in a total indifference about these things, or rather in a state of infidelity. But being possessed of too strong an understanding, to be long amused with the trifles which occupy weaker minds; she feels with peculiar poignancy the disappointments and vanity of human life.
Many perhaps might be led to suspect the truth of what has been asserted: but Lucretia’s case is a certain fact. So true it is that vexation and satiety are inscribed on all earthly enjoyments! And in some lamentable instances where these are inordinately pursued, the loss of health, reason, property, and every thing that is dear, at length proves the inevitable consequence.
The rich and great, though possessed of many gratifications which others are unable to procure, have yet cares and anxieties peculiar to themselves; and are often strangers to the sweetest enjoyments of domestick life. Courteous compliments and servile attendants will do little, to compensate the want of genuine confidence and friendship; any more than splendid equipages and elegant entertainments will avail, to soothe the rankling wounds inflicted by envy or suspicion. Who so restless and unquiet, so subject to the influence of turbulent and malignant passions, as the lofty and ambitious? or who so liable to fall, as those that have climbed the tottering pinnacle of preferment? Frail indeed is the foundation of that happiness, which is built on the precarious favour of the great, or that depends on the breath of popular applause; which often prefers novelty to merit, and has too many candidates, to bestow on one that tribute of admiration, which each conceives to be his due.
Nor is that insatiable thirst for knowledge which animates the devotees of science, though far more flattering to the self-complacency of man, less attended with vanity and vexation, or less inimical to his highest welfare. The pursuit, indeed, deeply engages and interest; but the powers of the human mind are so limited, and it’s enquiries so unsuccessful, that perhaps the greatest attainment of the most profound philosopher, is to discover the depth of his ignorance, and the insufficiency of his understanding: while unhappily, by the incessant investigation of difficulties it is impossible to solve, he is often quite unfitted for the comforts and duties of society. And what is still worse, he has probably acquired such a skeptical turn of thinking, as leads him to look with contempt on those, who submit with simplicity to the teaching of revelation.
It must however be confessed, that some degree of comfort and satisfaction is annexed to certain temporal advantages. None surely, but a proud self-deluded Stoick can deny, that it is a great mercy to be preserved from the miseries of penury and want, to be possessed of a healthful vigorous constitution, to be able to enjoy the beauties of this fair creation, to have an unblemished reputation with our fellow creatures, or to taste the sweets of social life the most refined and rational of our delights. And God, who “gives us richly all things to enjoy,” by no means prohibits our temperate indulgence in the blessings he has graciously vouchsafed us. But then these alone are insufficient to fill and satisfy the immortal mind, and to afford rest and complacency to the soul. Ask the few who, peculiarly favoured with the smiles of Providence, have been enabled to make the experiment. They will tell you, if they speak ingenuously, they always found an aching void, a something still wanting to complete their happiness; though perhaps they could scarcely define it. And thus they either endeavoured not to think at all: or, if they did think, their reflections generally ended in peevishness and repining, and excited a number of imaginary wants, the gratification of which would still leave them restless and discontented. So just is that observation of the poet,
‘Man’s sickly soul, tho’ turn’d and toss’d for ever
‘From side to side, can rest on nought but Thee.’
But laying aside this representation of things, which by the multitude who wish to deceive themselves with gay dreams of preconceived felicity, will doubtless be thought gloomy and unjust; let us, on the contrary imagine the objects which different men pursue not only attained, but really affording much of the happiness supposed to be contained in them – there is one truth, none will have the presumption to deny – that they are perishing and uncertain. A few fleeting hours or days may, in various ways, deprive us of them – a few short years must take them away for ever! “Their inward thought is” (saith the Psalmist) “that their houses shall endure for ever, and their dwelling place to all generations; they call their lands after their own names: nevertheless man being in honour abideth not; he is like the beasts that perish.”††
Oh! how soon can the hand of Providence wither all our fairest blossoms, and darken our brightest prospect! how many are there, who perhaps but yesterday were exulting in the enjoyment of fame and fortune, now sinking on a sudden to the grave, cut off by some unforeseen event; or stretched on a bed of pain and sickness, unable with all their wealth and authority to purchase a moment’s ease! How many, who but a little time since were running the full round of dissipated pleasures, in the bloom of youth and beauty, are now rendered incapable of every gratification!—While some possibly, who in the morning were surrounded with all the comforts and elegances of life, in the evening are reduced almost to beggary by devouring flames.—And if we descend into the calamities of domestic life – what instances of refined and exquisite distresses shall we behold? All the hopes that the fond parents had been fostering for their beloved offspring destroyed by a sudden stroke!—The cruel wounds inflicted on the sensible and affectionate, by the unkind behavior of their friends and relatives. Or those, who had long been united by the tenderest ties, torn asunder by violence, almost as great as the pangs which dissever soul and body. Some, weeping over the pains and sorrows of the friends they love, but whom they are unable to relieve: and others, feeling themselves daily wasted by a slow, but inveterate malady, that not only threatens soon to draw a final veil over the objects they most have loved, but even now renders them insipid and unavailing.
These are sad scenes!—but misery cannot be averted by forgetfulness. Let not the gay and prosperous turn away from them – for they are replete with the most useful instruction, such as all have abundant occasion to receive.
On a view like this, it might well be exclaimed, ‘what a miserable creature is man!’ And such indeed he would be, if this were all. Endowed with capacities for happiness which he seems unable to attain, and possessed of powers which render him capable of distresses peculiar to himself, his lot appears to be the most deplorable in the creation: so that, if annihilation were to succeed his departure from this world, the unconscious animals would greatly have the advantage. But, this is not all.—The unknown state on which he is about to enter, has more terrors than any he can leave behind. Man must go hence to be no more seen; and he goes – ‘he knows not where, – shadows and darkness rest upon it – a life of disappointment, care, and suffering – a death full of dread and uncertainty’!
Such, without exaggeration, appears to be our melancholy state, unaided by the light of revelation. In circumstances so dark, so intricate and perplexing, it were natural to think that the human mind would eagerly catch at every ray of light, that might gild the gloomy scene, and promise relief under the complicated miseries to which man is exposed. ‘Oh! who can tell me of some friendly power to support and shelter me, during the storms of this tempestuous life? And oh! above all, who can tell me, after its toilsome round is ended, whether I may find a haven of rest and peace at last?’ Surely, we might conceive that in the consideration of things like these, the most distant report of a revelation from God of “peace and goodwill to men,” would be the most welcome, the most interesting, that ever sounded in mortal ears.
* Miss Bowdler’s Essays.
**[This note was left blank in the text. The quotation is taken from Edmund Burke, A Letter from Mr. Burke, to a Member of the National Assembly; in Answer to Some Objections to his Book on French Affairs (London: J. Dodsley, 1791), p. 42.]
††Ps. xlix. 11, 12.