The Pleasures of Life
By Sir John Lubbock

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    “I am always content with that which happens; for I
    think that what God chooses is better than what I choose.”


    “O God, All conquering! this lower earth
    Would be for men the blest abode of mirth
      If they were strong in Thee
    As other things of this world well are seen;
    Oh then, far other than they yet have been,
      How happy would men be.”

KING ALFRED’S ed. of Boethius’s
Consolations of Philosophy.

We ought not to picture Duty to ourselves, or to others, as a stern taskmistress. She is rather a kind and sympathetic mother, ever ready to shelter us from the cares and anxieties of this world, and to guide us in the paths of peace.

To shut oneself up from mankind is, in most cases, to lead a dull, as well as a selfish life. Our duty is to make ourselves useful, and thus life may be most interesting, and yet comparatively free from anxiety.

But how can we fill our lives with life, energy, and interest, and yet keep care outside?

Many great men have made shipwreck in the attempt. “Anthony sought for happiness in love; Brutus in glory; Caesar in dominion: the first found disgrace, the second disgust, the last ingratitude, and each destruction.” [1] Riches, again, often bring danger, trouble, and temptation; they require care to keep, though they may give much happiness if wisely spent.

How then is this great object to be secured? What, says Marcus Aurelius, “What is that which is able to conduct a man? One thing and only one–philosophy. But this consists in keeping the daemon [2] within a man free from violence and unharmed, superior to pains and pleasures, doing nothing without a purpose, yet not falsely and with hypocrisy, not feeling the need of another man’s doing or not doing anything; and besides, accepting all that happens, and all that is allotted, as coming from thence, wherever it is, from whence he himself came; and, finally, waiting for death with a cheerful mind, as being nothing else than a dissolution of the elements of which every living being is compounded.” I confess I do not feel the force of these last few words, which indeed scarcely seem requisite for his argument. The thought of death, however, certainly influences the conduct of life less than might have been expected.

Bacon truly points out that “there is no passion in the mind of man so weak, but it mates and masters the fear of death.... Revenge triumphs over death, love slights it, honor aspireth to it, grief flieth to it.”

  “Think not I dread to see my spirit fly
  Through the dark gates of fell mortality;
  Death has no terrors when the life is true;
  ’Tis living ill that makes us fear to die.” [3]

We need certainly have no such fear if we have done our best to make others happy; to promote “peace on earth and goodwill amongst men." Nothing, again, can do more to release us from the cares of this world, which consume so much of our time, and embitter so much of our life. When we have done our best, we should wait the result in peace; content, as Epictetus says, “with that which happens, for what God chooses is better than what I choose.”

At any rate, if we have not effected all we wished, we shall have influenced ourselves. It may be true that one cannot do much. “You are not Hercules, and you are not able to purge away the wickedness of others; nor yet are you Theseus, able to drive away the evil things of Attica. But you may clear away your own. From yourself, from your own thoughts, cast away, instead of Procrustes and Sciron, [4] sadness, fear, desire, envy, malevolence, avarice, effeminacy, intemperance. But it is not possible to eject these things otherwise than by looking to God only, by fixing your affections on Him only, by being consecrated by his commands.” [5]

People sometimes think how delightful it would be to be quite free. But a fish, as Ruskin says, is freer than a man, and as for a fly, it is “a black incarnation of freedom.” A life of so-called pleasure and self-indulgence is not a life of real happiness or true freedom. Far from it, if we once begin to give way to ourselves, we fall under a most intolerable tyranny. Other temptations are in some respects like that of drink. At first, perhaps, it seems delightful, but there is bitterness at the bottom of the cup. Men drink to satisfy the desire created by previous indulgence. So it is in other things. Repetition soon becomes a craving, not a pleasure. Resistance grows more and more painful; yielding, which at first, perhaps, afforded some slight and temporary gratification, soon ceases to give pleasure, and even if for a time it procures relief, ere long becomes odious itself.

To resist is difficult, to give way is painful; until at length the wretched victim to himself, can only purchase, or thinks he can only purchase, temporary relief from intolerable craving and depression, at the expense of far greater suffering in the future.

On the other hand, self-control, however difficult at first, becomes step by step easier and more delightful. We possess mysteriously a sort of dual nature, and there are few truer triumphs, or more delightful sensations, than to obtain thorough command of oneself.

How much pleasanter it is to ride a spirited horse, even perhaps though requiring some strength and skill, than to creep along upon a jaded hack. In the one case you feel under you the free, responsive spring of a living and willing force; in the other you have to spur a dull and lifeless slave.

To rule oneself is in reality the greatest triumph. “He who is his own monarch,” says Sir T. Browne, “contentedly sways the sceptre of himself, not envying the glory to crowned heads and Elohim of the earth;” for those are really highest who are nearest to heaven, and those are lowest who are farthest from it.

True greatness has little, if anything, to do with rank or power. “Eurystheus being what he was,” says Epictetus, “was not really king of Argos nor of Mycenae, for he could not even rule himself; while Hercules purged lawlessness and introduced justice, though he was both naked and alone.”

We are told that Cineas the philosopher once asked Pyrrhus what he would do when he had conquered Italy. “I will conquer Sicily.” “And after Sicily?” “Then Africa.” “And after you have conquered the world?” “I will take my ease and be merry.” “Then,” asked Cineas, “why can you not take your ease and be merry now?”

Moreover, as Sir Arthur Helps has wisely pointed out, “the enlarged view we have of the Universe must in some measure damp personal ambition. What is it to be king, sheikh, tetrarch, or emperor over a ’bit of a bit’ of this little earth?” “All rising to great place,” says Bacon, “is by a winding stair;” and “princes are like heavenly bodies, which have much veneration, but no rest.”

Plato in the Republic mentions an old myth that after death every soul has to choose a lot in life for the existence in the next world; and he tells us that the wise Ulysses searched for a considerable time for the lot of a private man. He had some difficulty in finding it, as it was lying neglected in a corner, but when he had secured it he was delighted; the recollection of all he had gone through on earth, having disenchanted him of ambition.

Moreover, there is a great deal of drudgery in the lives of courts. Ceremonials may be important, but they take up much time and are terribly tedious.

A man then is his own best kingdom. “He that ruleth his speech,” says Solomon, “is better than he that taketh a city.” But self-control, this truest and greatest monarchy, rarely comes by inheritance. Every one of us must conquer himself; and we may do so, if we take conscience for our guide and general.

No one really fails who does his best. Seneca observes that “no one saith the three hundred Fabii were defeated, but that they were slain,” and if you have done your best, you will, in the words of an old Norse ballad, have gained

  “Success in thyself, which is best of all.”

Being myself engaged in business, I was rather startled to find it laid down by no less an authority than Aristotle (almost as if it were a self-evident proposition) that commerce “is incompatible with that dignified life which it is our wish that our citizens should lead, and totally adverse to that generous elevation of mind with which it is our ambition to inspire them.” I know not how far that may really have been the spirit and tendency of commerce among the ancient Greeks; but if so, I do not wonder that it was not more successful.

I may, indeed, quote Aristotle against himself, for he has elsewhere told us that “business should be chosen for the sake of leisure; and things necessary and useful for the sake of the beautiful in conduct.”

It is not true that the ordinary duties of life in a country like ours–commerce, manufactures, agriculture,–the pursuits to which the vast majority are and must be devoted–are incompatible with the dignity or nobility of life. Whether a life is noble or ignoble depends, not on the calling which is adopted, but on the spirit in which it is followed. The humblest life may be noble, while that of the most powerful monarch or the greatest genius may be contemptible. Commerce, indeed, is not only compatible, but I would almost go further and say that it will be most successful, if carried on in happy union with noble aims and generous aspirations. What Ruskin says of art is, with due modification, true of life generally. It does not matter whether a man “paint the petal of a rose or the chasms of a precipice, so that love and admiration attend on him as he labors, and wait for ever on his work. It does not matter whether he toil for months on a few inches of his canvas, or cover a palace front with color in a day; so only that it be with a solemn purpose, that he have filled his heart with patience, or urged his hand to haste.”

It is true that in a subsequent volume he refers to this passage, and adds, “But though all is good for study, and all is beautiful, some is better than the rest for the help and pleasure of others; and this it is our duty always to choose if we have opportunity,” adding, however, “being quite happy with what is within our reach if we have not.”

We read of and admire the heroes of old, but every one of us has to fight his own Marathon and Thermopylae; every one meets the Sphinx sitting by the road he has to pass; to each of us, as to Hercules, is offered the choice of Vice or Virtue; we may, like Paris, give the apple of life to Venus, or Juno, or Minerva.

There are many who seem to think that we have fallen on an age in the world when life is especially difficult and anxious, when there is less leisure than of yore, and the struggle for existence is keener than ever.

On the other hand, we must remember how much we have gained in security? It may be an age of hard work, but when this is not carried to an extreme, it is by no means an evil. If we have less leisure, one reason is because life is so full of interest. Cheerfulness is the daughter of employment, and on the whole I believe there never was a time when modest merit and patient industry were more sure of reward.

We must not, indeed, be discouraged if success be slow in coming, nor puffed up if it comes quickly. We often complain of the nature of things when the fault is all in ourselves. Seneca, in one of his letters, mentions that his wife’s maid, Harpaste, had nearly lost her eyesight, but “she knoweth not she is blind, she saith the house is dark. This that seemeth ridiculous unto us in her, happeneth unto us all. No man understandeth that he is covetous, or avaricious. He saith, I am not ambitious, but no man can otherwise live in Rome; I am not sumptuous, but the city requireth great expense.”

Newman, in perhaps the most beautiful of his hymns, “Lead, kindly light," says:

  “Keep thou my feet, I do not ask to see
  The distant scene; one step enough for me.”

But we must be sure that we are really following some trustworthy guide, and not out of mere laziness allowing ourselves to drift. We have a guide within us which will generally lead us straight enough.

Religion, no doubt, is full of difficulties, but if we are often puzzled what to think, we need seldom be in doubt what to do.

  “To say well is good, but to do well is better;
  Do well is the spirit, and say well the letter;
  If do well and say well were fitted in one frame,
  All were won, all were done, and got were all the gain.”

Cleanthes, who appears to have well merited the statue erected to him at Assos, says:

  “Lead me, O Zeus, and thou, O Destiny.
    The way that I am bid by you to go:
  To follow I am ready. If I choose not,
    I make myself a wretch;–and still must follow.”

If we are ever in doubt what to do, it is a good rule to ask ourselves what we shall wish on the morrow that we had done.

Moreover, the result in the long run will depend not so much on some single resolution, or on our action in a special case, but rather on the preparation of daily life. Battles are often won before they are fought. To control our passions we must govern our habits, and keep watch over ourselves in the small details of everyday life.

The importance of small things has been pointed out by philosophers over and over again from AEsop downward. “Great without small makes a bad wall,” says a quaint Greek proverb, which seems to go back to cyclopean times. In an old Hindoo story Ammi says to his son, “Bring me a fruit of that tree and break it open. What is there?” The son said, “Some small seeds.” “Break one of them and what do you see?” “Nothing, my lord,” “My child,” said Ammi, “where you see nothing there dwells a mighty tree.” It may almost be questioned whether anything can be truly called small.

  “There is no great and no small
  To the soul that maketh all;
  And where it cometh all things are,
  And it cometh everywhere.” [6]

We should therefore watch ourselves in small things. If “you wish not to be of an angry temper, do not feed the habit: throw nothing on it which will increase it: at first keep quiet, and count the days on which you have not been angry. I used to be in passion every day; now every second day; then every third; then every fourth. But if you have intermitted thirty days, make a sacrifice to God. For the habit at first begins to be weakened, and then is completely destroyed. When you can say, ’I have not been vexed to-day, nor the day before, nor yet on any succeeding day during two or three months; but I took care when some exciting things happened,’ be assured that you are in a good way.” [7]

Emerson closes his Conduct of Life with a striking allegory. The young Mortal enters the Hall of the Firmament. The Gods are sitting there, and he is alone with them. They pour on him gifts and blessings, and beckon him to their thrones. But between him and them suddenly appear snow-storms of illusions. He imagines himself in a vast crowd, whose behests he fancies he must obey. The mad crowd drives hither and thither, and sways this way and that. What is he that he should resist? He lets himself be carried about. How can he think or act for himself? But the clouds lift, and there are the Gods still sitting on their thrones; they alone with him alone.

“The great man,” he elsewhere says, “is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the serenity of solitude.”

We may all, if we will, secure peace of mind for ourselves.

“Men seek retreats,” says Marcus Aurelius, “houses in the country, seashores, and mountains; and thou too art wont to desire such things very much. But this is altogether a mark of the most common sort of men; for it is in thy power whenever thou shalt choose, to retire into thyself. For nowhere either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble does a man retire, than into his own soul, particularly when he has within him such thoughts that by looking into them he is immediately in perfect tranquillity.”

Happy indeed is he who has such a sanctuary in his own soul. “He who is virtuous is wise; and he who is wise is good; and he who is good is happy.” [8]

But we cannot expect to be happy if we do not lead pure and useful lives. To be good company for ourselves we must store our minds well; fill them with pure and peaceful thoughts; with pleasant memories of the past, and reasonable hopes for the future. We must, as far as may be, protect ourselves from self-reproach, from care, and from anxiety. We shall make our lives pure and peaceful, by resisting evil, by placing restraint upon our appetites, and perhaps even more by strengthening and developing our tendencies to good. We must be careful, then, on what we allow our minds to dwell. The soul is dyed by its thoughts; we cannot keep our minds pure if we allow them to be sullied by detailed accounts of crime and sin. Peace of mind, as Ruskin beautifully observes, “must come in its own time, as the waters settle themselves into clearness as well as quietness; you can no more filter your mind into purity than you can compress it into calmness; you must keep it pure if you would have it pure, and throw no stones into it if you would have it quiet.”

The penalty of injustice, said Socrates, is not death or stripes, but the fatal necessity of becoming more and more unjust. Few men have led a wiser or more virtuous life than Socrates himself, of whom Xenophon gives us the following description:–"To me, being such as I have described him, so pious that he did nothing without the sanction of the gods; so just, that he wronged no man even in the most trifling affair, but was of service in the most important matters to those who enjoyed his society; so temperate that he never preferred pleasure to virtue; so wise, that he never erred in distinguishing better from worse; needing no counsel from others, but being sufficient in himself to discriminate between them; so able to explain and settle such questions by argument; and so capable of discerning the character of others, of confuting those who were in error, and of exhorting them to virtue and honor, he seemed to be such as the best and happiest of men would be. But if any one disapproves of my opinion let him compare the conduct of others with that of Socrates, and determine accordingly.”

Marcus Aurelius again has drawn for us a most instructive lesson in his character of Antoninus:–"Remember his constancy in every act which was conformable to reason, his evenness in all things, his piety, the serenity of his countenance, his sweetness, his disregard of empty fame, and his efforts to understand things; how he would never let anything pass without having first carefully examined it and clearly understood it; how he bore with those who blamed him unjustly without blaming them in return; how he did nothing in a hurry; how he listened not to calumnies, and how exact an examiner of manners and actions he was; not given to reproach people, nor timid, nor suspicious, nor a sophist; with how little he was satisfied, such as lodging, bed, dress, food, servants; how laborious and patient; how sparing he was in his diet; his firmness and uniformity in his friendships; how he tolerated freedom of speech in those who opposed his opinions; the pleasure that he had when any man showed him anything better, and how pious he was without superstition. Imitate all this that thou mayest have as good a conscience, when thy last hour comes, as he had.”

Such peace of mind is indeed an inestimable boon, a rich reward of duty fulfilled. Well then does Epictetus ask, “Is there no reward? Do you seek a reward greater than that of doing what is good and just? At Olympia you wish for nothing more, but it seems to you enough to be crowned at the games. Does it then seem to you so small and worthless a thing to be good and happy?”

In Bernard of Morlaix’s beautiful lines–

  “Pax erit illa fidelibus, illa beata,
  Irrevocabilis, Invariabilis, Intemerata.
  Pax sine crimine, pax sine turbine, pax sine rixa,
  Meta Laboribus, inque tumultibus anchora fixa;
  Pax erit omnibus unica. Sed quibus? Immaculatis
  Pectore mitibus, ordine stantibus, ore sacratis.”

What greater reward can we have than this; than the “peace which passeth all understanding,” “which cannot be gotten for gold, neither shall silver be weighed for the price thereof.” [9]

[1] Colton, Lacon, or Many Things in Few Words.

[2] i.e. spirit.

[3] Omar Khayyam.

[4] Two robbers destroyed by Theseus.

[5] Epictetus.

[6] Emerson.

[7] Epictetus.

[8] King Alfred’s Boethius.

[9] Job.



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