Thursday, June 25, 2009


The circumstances of our lives and the dispositions of our characters mainly determine the measure of happiness we enjoy, and mere argument about the causes of happiness and unhappiness can do little to affect them.
It is impossible to read the many books that have been written on these subjects without feeling how largely they consist of mere sounding generalities which the smallest experience shows to be perfectly impotent in the face of some real and acute sorrow, and it is equally impossible to obtain any serious knowledge of the world without perceiving that a large proportion of the happiest lives and characters are to be found where introspection, self-analysis and reasonings about the good and evil of life hold the smallest place.
Happiness, indeed, like health, is one of the things of which men rarely think except when it is impaired, and much that has been written on the subject has been written under the stress of some great depression.
Man comes into the world with mental and moral characteristics which he can only very imperfectly influence, and a large proportion of the external circumstances of his life lie wholly or mainly beyond his control.
Men continually forget that Happiness is a condition of Mind and not a disposition of circumstances, and one of the most common of errors is that of confusing happiness with the means of happiness, sacrificing the first for the attainment of the second. It is the error of the miser, who begins by seeking money for the enjoyment it procures and ends by making the mere acquisition of money his sole object, pursuing it to the sacrifice of all rational ends and pleasures.
We were not intended to pick our way through the world trembling at every step.... It is worse than vain, for it encourages and increases the evil it attempts to relieve.... one half of the confirmed invalids of the day could be cured of their maladies if they were compelled to live busy and active lives and had no time to fret over their miseries.... One of the most seductive and mischievous of errors in self-management is the practice of giving way to inertia, weakness and depression.... Those who desire to live should settle this well in their minds, that nerve power is the force of life and that the will has a wondrously strong and direct influence over the body through the brain and the nervous system.
Another consideration in the cultivation of happiness is the importance of acquiring the habit of realising our blessings while they last. It is one of the saddest facts of human nature that we commonly only learn their value by their loss. This is very evidently the case with health. By the laws of our being we are almost unconscious of the action of our bodily organs as long as they are working well. It is only when they are deranged, obstructed or impaired that our attention becomes concentrated upon them. In consequence of this a state of perfect health is rarely fully appreciated until it is lost and during a short period after it has been regained.
And what is true of health is true of other things. It is only when some calamity breaks the calm tenor of our ways and deprives us of some gift of fortune we have long enjoyed that we feel how great was the value of what we have lost. There are times in the lives of most of us when we would have given all the world to be as we were but yesterday, though that yesterday had passed over us unappreciated and unenjoyed. Sometimes, indeed, our perception of this contrast brings with it a lasting and salutary result. In the medicine of Nature a chronic and abiding disquietude or morbidness of temperament is often cured by some keen though more transient sorrow which violently changes the current of our thoughts and imaginations.
There are countries where the wants of men are very few, and where, as long as those wants are satisfied, men will live a careless and contented life, enjoying the present, thinking very little of the future. Whether the sum of enjoyment in such a population is really less than in more advanced civilisation is at least open to question.
A discontent with existing circumstances is the chief source of a desire to improve them, and this desire is the mainspring of progress. In this theory of life, happiness is sought, not in content, but in improved circumstances, in the development of new capacities of enjoyment, in the pleasure which active existence naturally gives. To maintain in their due proportion in our nature the spirit of content and the desire to improve, to combine a realised appreciation of the blessings we enjoy with a healthy and well-regulated ambition, is no easy thing, but it is the problem which all who aspire to a perfect life should set before themselves. In medio tutissimus ibis is eminently true of the cultivation of character, and some of its best elements become pernicious in their extremes. Thus prudent forethought, which is one of the first conditions of a successful life, may easily degenerate into that most miserable state of mind in which men are perpetually anticipating and dwelling upon the uncertain dangers and evils of an uncertain future. How much indeed of the happiness and misery of men may be included under those two words, realisation and anticipation!
'Honesty is the best policy' represents no doubt a great truth, though it has been well said that no man is really honest who is only honest through this motive, and though it is very evident that it is by no means an universal truth but depends largely upon changing and precarious conditions of laws, police, public opinion, and individual circumstances.
Our mode of judgment acts promptly upon conduct. The humanitarian spirit which mitigates the penal code and makes the reclamation of the criminal a main object is a perfectly right thing as long as it does not so far diminish the deterrent power of punishment as to increase crime, and as long as it does not place the criminal in a better position of comfort than the blameless poor, but when these conditions are not fulfilled it is much more an evil than a good. The remote, indirect and unrealised consequences of our acts are often far more important than those which are manifest and direct, and it continually happens that in extirpating some concentrated and obtrusive evil, men increase or engender a diffused malady which operates over a far wider area. How few, for example, who share the prevailing tendency to deal with every evil that appears in Society by coercive legislation adequately realise the danger of weakening the robust, self-reliant, resourceful habits on which the happiness of Society so largely depends, and at the same time, by multiplying the functions and therefore increasing the expenses of government, throwing new and crushing burdens on struggling industry!
To see things in their true proportion, to escape the magnifying influence of a morbid imagination, should be one of the chief aims of life, and in no fields is it more needed than in those we have been reviewing. At the same time every age has its own ideal moral type towards which the strongest and best influences of the time converge. The history of morals is essentially a history of the changes that take place not so much in our conception of what is right and wrong as in the proportionate place and prominence we assign to different virtues and vices. There are large groups of moral qualities which in some ages of the world's history have been regarded as of supreme importance, while in other ages they are thrown into the background, and there are corresponding groups of vices which are treated in some periods as very serious and in others as very trivial.
(Excerpts from The Project Gutenberg eBook, The Map of Life, by William Edward Hartpole Lecky)

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