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. 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.
The illusion of free will is only due to the conflict of our motives. The will is nothing more than the last and strongest desire; or it is like a piece of iron surrounded by magnets and necessarily drawn by the most powerful; or (as has been ingeniously imagined) like a weathercock, conscious of its own motion, but not conscious of the winds that are moving it.
Heredity and circumstance make us what we are. Our actions are the inevitable result of the mental and moral constitutions with which we came into the world, operated on by external influences. The conflict between the will and the desires, the reality of self-restraint and the power of Will to modify character, are among the most familiar facts of moral life. In the words of Burke, ‘It is the prerogative of man to be in a great degree a creature of his own making.’ There are men whose whole lives are spent in willing one thing and desiring the opposite and all morality depends upon the supposition that we have at least some freedom of choice between good and evil. ‘I ought,’ as Kant says, necessarily implies ‘I can.’
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.
With its great recuperative powers youth can do with apparent impunity many things which in later life bring a speedy Nemesis; but on the other hand youth is pre-eminently the period when habits and tastes are formed, and the yoke which is then lightly, willingly, wantonly assumed will in after years acquire a crushing weight. Few things are more striking than the levity of the motives, the feebleness of the impulses under which in youth fatal steps are taken which bring with them a weakened life and often an early grave.
Smoking in manhood, when practiced in moderation, is a very innocent and probably beneficent practice, but it is well known how deleterious it is to young boys, and how many of them have taken to it through no other motive than a desire to appear older than they are—that surest of all signs that we are very young.
How often have the far more pernicious habits of drinking, or gambling, or frequenting corrupt society been acquired through a similar motive, or through the mere desire to enjoy the charm of a forbidden pleasure or to stand well with some dissipated companions! How large a proportion of lifelong female debility is due to an early habit of tight lacing, springing only from the silliest vanity! How many lives have been sacrificed through the careless recklessness which refused to take the trouble of changing wet clothes! How many have been shattered and shortened by excess in things which in moderation are harmless, useful, or praiseworthy,—by the broken blood-vessel, due to excess in some healthy athletic exercise or game; by the ruined brain overstrained in order to win some paltry prize! It is melancholy to observe how many lives have been broken down, ruined or corrupted in attempts to realize some supreme and unattainable desire; through the impulse of overmastering passion, of powerful and perhaps irresistible temptation. It is still sadder to observe how large a proportion of the failures of life may be ultimately traced to the most insignificant causes and might have been avoided without any serious effort either of intellect or will.
It is one of the paradoxes of human nature that the things that are most struggled for and the things that are most envied are not those which give either the most intense or the most unmixed joy. Ambition is the luxury of the happy. It is sometimes, but more rarely, the consolation and distraction of the wretched; but most of those who have trodden its paths, if they deal honestly with themselves, will acknowledge that the gravest disappointments of public life dwindle into insignificance compared with the poignancy of suffering endured at the deathbed of a wife or of a child, and that within the small circle of a family life they have found more real happiness than the applause of nations could ever give.
Another consideration in the cultivation of happiness is the importance of acquiring the habit of realizing 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 the value of what we have lost was.
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.
Very few things contribute so much to the happiness of life as a constant realization of the blessings we enjoy. 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 realized 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.
Such a proverb as ‘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. But in the higher realms of morals the coincidence of happiness and virtue is far more doubtful. It is certainly not true that the highest nature is necessarily or even naturally the happiest. The conscience of Mankind has ever recognized self-sacrifice as the supreme element of virtue, and self-sacrifice is never real when it is only the exchange of a less happiness for a greater one.
(Excerpts from The Project Gutenberg eBook, The Map of Life, by William Edward Hartpole Lecky)


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