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In the second part, we will prove, that even supposing the happiest revolutions in our favour, we should be deceived in our hopes, so that whether they happen or not we shall be brought to acknowledge that there is nothing in this world capable of rendering us perfectly happy.
In the last place, we shall conclude from these two principles with the Wise Man, that though a reasonable creature may be allowed to better his condition, and to obtain a happier state in this world than the past or the present, yet he ought by no means to promise himself much success, and that, in one word, it is in God alone, and in the hope of a future state of happiness in another life, that we ought to place our felicity.
I. Let us first of all determine the sense of the text, and examine what error the Wise Man attacks. We have already explained the idea we affix to his expressions, but as they are vague and indeterminate, they must be, first of all, restrained by the nature of the subjects of which he speaks, and secondly, explained by the place they occupy.
1. When the Wise Man says, "that which hath been is that which shall be," he does not mean to attribute a character of firmness and consistency to such events as concern us. No man ever knew better than he the transitoriness of human affairs: but it is not necessary to our knowledge of the subject to occupy a post as eminent as that which he held; for a superficial view of the condition of public bodies, and of that of individuals, will be sufficient to open a wide field to our reflections.
The condition of public bodies is usually founded on materials so brittle, that there is no room to be astonished at sudden and perpetual variations. A spectator, young in his observations, and distant from the central point, is amazed at the rapid changes which he beholds suddenly take place like the creation of new worlds; he supposes whole ages must pass in
removing these enormous masses, public bodies, and in turning the current of prosperity and victory. But should he penetrate into the spring of events, he would soon find, that a very small and inconsiderable point gave motion to that wheel, on which turned public prosperity, and public adversity, and which gave a whole nation a new and different appearance.
Sometimes all the wise counsels, the cool deliberations, the well-concerted plans, that constitute the prosperity of a nation, proceed from the prudence of one single head. This one head represses the venality of one, and the animosity of another; the ambition of this man, and the avarice of that. Into this head one single vapour ascends; prosperity relaxes it, death strikes it off. Instantly a new world arises, and then that which was is no more, for with that head well-concerted measures, cool deliberations, and wise counsels, all vanished away.
Sometimes the rare qualities of one single general animate a whole army, and assign to each member of it his proper work; to the prudent, a station which requires prudence; to the intrepid, a station which requires courage; and even to an idiot a place where folly and absurdity have their use. From these rare qualities a state derives the glory of rapid marches, bold sieges, desperate attacks, complete victories, and shouts of triumph. This general finishes his life by his own folly, or is supplanted by a party cabal, or sinks into inaction on the soft down of his own panegyrics, or a fatal bullet, shot at random and without design, penetrates the heart of this noble and generous man. Instantly a new world appears, and that which was is no more; for with this general, victory and songs of triumph expired.
Sometimes the ability and virtue of one single favourite enable him to direct the genius of a prince, to dissipate the enchantments of adulation, to become an antidote against the poison of flattery, to teach him to distinguish sober applause from self-interested encomiums, and to render him accessible to the complaints of widows and orphans. This favourite sinks into disfavour, and an artful rival steps into his place. Rehoboam neglected the advice of prudent old counsellors, and followed the suggestions of inconsiderate youth. Any one of these changes produces a thousand consequences.
It would be easy to repeat of individuals what we have affirmed of public bodies, that is, that the world is a theatre in perpetual motion, and always varying; that every day, and in a manner, every moment, exhibits some new scene, some change of decoration. It is then clear, that the proposition in the text ought to be restrained to the nature of the subject spoken of. 2. But these indeterminate words, "that which hath been shall be, and there is no new thing under the sun," must be explained by the place they occupy. Our chief guide to determine the meaning of some vague propositions of an author is to examine where he placed them, and what precise idea he had in his mind when he wrote them. By observing this rule, we find, that the same phrases are often taken in different senses. Without quoting other examples, we observe, that the words under con
sideration occur twice in this book, once in the text, and again in the fifteenth verse of the third chapter, where we are told, "that which hath been is now, and that which is to be hath already been." However, it is certain, that these two sentences, so much alike in sound, have a very different meaning. The design of Solomon, in the latter passage, is to inform such persons as tremble at the least temptation, that they were mistaken. We complain, say they, that God exercises our virtue more than he does that of other men, and though he allows these rude attacks, yet he does not afford us strength sufficient to resist them. No, says Solomon, whatever variety there may appear to be in the conduct of God towards men, yet there is always a certain uniformity, that characterizes his conduct. Indeed he gives five talents to one, while he commits only one talent to another, and in this respect there is a variety: but he does not require of him, to whom he has committed one talent, an account of more than one talent; while he calls him to account for five talents, to whom he committed five, and in this respect there is a perfect uniformity in his conduct; and so of the rest. "I know that whatsoever God doth (these are the words of Solomon,) I know that whatsoever God doth, it shall be for ever: nothing can be put to it, nor any thing taken from it, and God doth it, that men should fear before him. That which hath been is now, and that which is to be hath already been, and God requireth that which is past."
But in our text the same words, "the thing that hath been is that which shall be," have a different meaning. It is evident, by the place in which the Wise Man put them, that he intended to decry the good things of this life, to make the vanity of them appear, and to convince mankind, that no revolutions can change the character of vanity essential to their condition. The connexion of the words establishes the meaning. From what events do mankind expect, says he, to procure to themselves a firm and solid happiness in this life? What efforts can be made greater than have been made? Yet "what profit hath a man of his labour which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh," but the world continues the same; "the sun riseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits. All rivers run into the sea, and whence they come, thither they return again, ver. 3-7. The moral world resembles the world of nature. It is in vain to expect any vicissitude that will render the remaining part of life more happy than the former. The eye is not satisfied with seeing," ver. 8; or, as may be translated, "with considering; nor the ear filled with hearing;" or, as the words may be rendered, "the ear never ceases to listen."* But this contention, which makes us stretch all our faculties in search of
something to fill the void, that all past and present enjoyments have left in our hearts, this does not change the nature of things; all will be vanity in future, as all has been vanity in former times. "The thing which hath been, is that which shall be; and that which is done, is that which hath been done; and there is no new thing under the sun."
Weigh these words, my brethren, "the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing." It seems this is precisely the disposition of mind which the Wise Man attacks; a disposition, as I said before, common to mankind, and one of the principal causes of our immoderate attachment to life. Let each of us study his own heart, and let us examine whether we know the portrait that we are now going to try to sketch.
Visus et auditus synecdochice ponuntur pro omnibus quibus voluptatem percipimus. Horum autem sensuum meminit, tum quia curiosissimi sunt; tum quia et minimo labore et maxima cum delectatione exercentur, Poli Synops. in loc. R.
We often declaim on the vanity of the world; but our declamations are not unfrequently more intended to indemnify pride, than to express the genuine feelings of a heart disabused. We love to declaim against advantages out of our reach, and we take vengeance on them for not coming within our grasp by exclaiming against them. But such ideas as these, how just soever they may appear, are only superficial. It would be a fatal error indeed, to persuade ourselves that we are really undeceived, and consider the world in a true point of light on this account.
A dying man is all taken up with his then present condition. A desire of health occupies all the capacity of his soul; but he does not observe, that, should he recover, he would find the same troubles and pains as before, and on account of which he has felt so much uneasiness, and shed so many tears. A man waiting on the coast, to go abroad, wishes for nothing but a fair wind; and he does not think that he shall find other, and perhaps greater calamities, in another climate than those which compelled him to quit his native soil. This is an image of us all. Our minds are limited, and when an object presents itself to us, we consider it only in one point of view, in other lights we are not competent to the examination of it.
Hence the interest we take in some events, in the revolutions of states, the phenomena of nature, and the change of seasons: hence that perpetual desire of change; hence sportive phantoms incessantly created by our imaginations; hence chimerical projects for ever revolving in our minds; or, as the Wise Man expresses it," Eyes never satisfied with seeing, and ears never filled with hearing." O, says one, could I get cured of this illness, which renders life a burthen-could I, says another, get free from the company that poison all my pleasures-could I go, says a third, and settle in a country where maxims and laws are altogether different from those under which I live could I but obtain that place, which would take me out of the obscurity in which I am buried alive, and render me conspicuous-could I acquire a sufficient fortune to support a certain number of domestics, and to procure me certain accommodations, then, in retirement and silence, I would gratify the desire that alone animates me, of employing my life in a pursuit of wisdom, and virtue, and happiness! Poor mortals! will you always run after phan
toms? No, it is not any of the revolutions you | opens a more ample field of meditation than so earnestly desire can alter the vanity essential the former, for the pleasures of mankind are to human things: with all the advantages which only a point, only an atom in comparison of you so earnestly desire, you would find yourself the miseries which pursue and overtake him. as void and as discontented as you are now. Who can reconcile the doctrine of a good God "The thing which hath been, is that which with that of a miserable man, with the doubts shall be; and that which is done, is that which that divide his mind, with the remorse that shall be done: and there is no new thing under gnaws his heart, with the uncertainties that the sun." O that it were as easy to imprint torment him, with the catastrophe that envethese truths on our hearts, as it is to give evi- lopes him, with the vicissitudes which are dence that they are truths to the judgment! friends who betray him, with pain that conalways altering his situation, with the false sumes him, with indigence that contracts him, with neglect and contempt which mortify him, and with such a number of other inconvenienexistence? ces and calamities as conspire to embitter his
II. Let us endeavour to admit these truths, with all their effects (and this shall be the second part of our discourse,) let us attempt the work, though we have so many reasons to fear a want of success. the destination of man-next let us look into Let us first examine the school of the world-then into the experience of Solomon-and, lastly, let us review the history of our own lives. These are four barriers against imaginary projects; four proofs, or rather four sources of demonstrations in evidence of the truth of the text. that hath been, "The thing that which shall be: and that which is done, is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun."
I. Let us first observe the appointment of man, and let us not form schemes opposite to that of our Creator. When he placed us in this world, he did not intend to confine us to it; but when he formed us capable of happiness, he intended we should seek in it an economy different from this. Without this principle man is an inexplicable enigma; his faculties and his wishes, his afflictions and his conscience, his life and his death, every thing that concerns man is obscure, and beyond all elucidation.
His faculties are enigmatical. Tell us what is the end and design of the faculties of man? Why has he the faculty of knowing? What, is it only to arrange a few words in his memory? only to know the sounds or the pictures to which divers nations of the world have associated their ideas? Is it merely to learn Greek and Hebrew, to collect a chaos of ancient history, to go beyond remote ages, and to discover with some degree of probability what were the habits, the customs, and the follies, of the first inhabitants of this universe? Has man intelligence only for the purpose of racking his brain, and losing himself in a world of abstractions, in order to disentangle a few questions from metaphysical labyrinths? what is the origin of ideas, what are the properties, and what is the nature of spirit? Glorious object of knowledge for an intelligent being! An object in general more likely to produce skepticism, than demonstration of a science properly so called. Let us reason in like manner on the other faculties of mankind.
His desires are problematical. What power can eradicate, what power can moderate his desire to extend and perpetuate his duration? The human heart includes in its wish the past, the present, the future, yea eternity itself. Explain to us, what proportion there can be between the desires of man and the wealth which he accumulates, the honours he pursues, the sceptre in his hand, and the crown on his head?
His miseries are enigmatical. This article
what part are you acting in this world? Who His life is a mystery. What part, poor man, misplaced you thus?
of all enigmas; four days of life, a life of sixty, His death is enigmatical. This is the greatest or a hundred years, is all that this creature called man has to expect in this world; he disappears almost as soons as he makes his apcradle to the coffin, his swaddling bands are pearance, he gone in an instant from the taken off, and his shroud is put on.
vanced, grant that the great design of the CreLay down the principle which we have adator, by placing man amidst the objects of this present world, was to draw out and extend his desires after another world, and then all these clouds vanish, all these veils are drawn aside, all these enigmas explained, nothing is obscure, nothing is problematical in man.
His faculties are not enigmatical; the faculty
exercise his virtue, and will be rewarded with
of probation, a time of trial, a period given
impossible that either his life or his death
proves, and demonstrates the idea we have given of life.
have made his declaration the third source of our demonstrations.
We conclude, then, that the destination of When your preachers declaim against the man is one great barrier against imaginary vanity of human things, you secretly say to schemes of happiness. Change the face of so- yourselves, their judgment merits very little ciety, subvert the order of the world, put regard. You think that they, generally edudespotical government in the place of a de-cated in silence and retirement, having breathmocracy, peace in the place of war, plenty in ed only the dusty air of schools and libraries, the place of scarcity, and you will alter noth- are unacquainted with that world against which ing but the surface of human things, the sub- they declaim. I will not now examine this restance will always continue the same. "The proach. People of our order, I grant, are very thing that hath been, is that which shall be; apt to form false ideas of the world. But take and that which is done, is that which shall our word for one truth, for which we could albe done: and there is no new thing under lege a thousand proofs, that is, that if they the sun.' 19 magnify worldly objects, it is because they are strangers to the world. A hermit who has spent all his days in dens and deserts; a nun sequestered from society in her childhood, and buried in the cells and solitary walks of a convent; a man who has grown gray over his books; people of this kind generally imagine that the world is full of pleasure, and that the demon of voluptuousness has strewed all the paths with flowers and perfumes in favour of such as travel them. I know no one more proper to teach us a good course of morality than an old reformed courtier, who chooses to retire after he has spent the prime of his life in dissipation.
2. The school of the world opens to us a second source of demonstrations. Enter this school, and you will renounce all vain schemes of felicity.
There you will learn, that the greatest part of the pleasures of the world, of which you entertain such fine notions, are only phantoms, which seem indeed at a distance to have some solidity and consistence, but which vanish the moment you approach and try to enjoy them.
There you will learn, that the extensive views, the great designs, the plans of immortality and glory, which revolve in the mind of an ambitious man, keep him continually upon the rack, trouble his repose, deprive him of sleep, and render him insensible to all the pleasures of life.
There you will understand, that the friends who attach themselves to us when we have favours to bestow, are venal souls, who put up their esteem at auction, and sell it to the highest bidder: blood-suckers, who live upon the substance of those round whom they twist and twine; that the sacred names of friendship, tenderness, zeal, and devotedness, are nothing in their mouths but empty sounds, to which they affix no ideas.
There you will find that those passions, which men of high rank have the power of fully gratifying, are sources of trouble and remorse, and that all the pleasure of gratification is nothing in comparison of the pain of one regret caused by the remembrance of it.
There you will learn, that the husbandman, who all day follows the plough or the cart, and who finds at home in the evening a family of love, where innocent and affectionate children surround a table furnished with plain and simple diet, is incomparably more happy, than the favourite of victory and fortune, who rides in a superb carriage attended by a splendid retinue, who sits at a table where art and nature seem to vie with each other in lavishing out their treasures, who is surrounded with courtiers watching their fate in the cast of his eye, or the signal of his hand.
In a word, you will there understand, that what may seem the most fortunate events in your favour, will contribute very little to your happiness.
3. But if the school of the world is capable of teaching us to renounce our fanciful projects of felicity, Solomon is the man in the world the most learned in this school, and the most able to give us intelligence. Accordingly, we
On this principle, what an impression ought the declaration of Solomon to make on our minds? But what an idea does he give us of all the good things of which he had made an experiment? "and this also," says he of each particular, in the catalogue of the whole, “ this also is vanity." This word seems to me very remarkable, "THIS also, and this also is vanity."
Few men are so fascinated with the world as not to know that some things in it are vain and vexatious. Most men say of some particular object, this is vanity; but very few are so rational as to comprehend all the good things of this life in the same class, and to say of each, as Solomon did, "this also is vanity." A poor peasant, whose ruinous cottage does not keep out the weather, will readily say, My cottage is vanity: but he imagines there is a great deal of solidity in the happiness of him who sleeps in a superb palace. A man who is admitted only into a small circle of company, hardly known in society, will say without hesitation, my circle is vanity; but he fancies there is a great deal of solidity in the happiness of those who are admitted into circles; or, shall I rather say, into that chaos, where Jews and Greeks, Barbarians and Scythians, people of all nations, and of every religion, seem to contribute to a general disorder and confusion?
Solomon knew all these conditions of life, and it was because he knew them all, that he declaimed against them; and had you, like him, known them all by experience, you would form such an idea as he did of the whole. See what a list he makes, and observe, he says that of each, which he said of the whole, "this also is vanity." What! Is it vain to possess great riches? Yes. "He that loveth silver shall not be satisfied with silver; this is also vanity." What! Is it vain to become a celebrated author, a model of erudition? Yes,
says he, of making many books "there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. This also is vanity. Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher, all is vanity."
4. To reflections on the experience of Solomon add your own, and to this purpose recollect the history of your life. Remember the time when sighing and wishing for the condition in which Providence has since placed you, you considered it as the centre of felicity, and verily thought, could you obtain that state you should wish for nothing more. You have obtained it. Do you think now as you did then? You, who formerly had hardly enough to subsist on, now possess enough for your subsis-ings, tence, and almost enough for your wishes, us. have you less inclination now to augment your superfluities than you had then to acquire a maintenance?
You, who have been raised from the meanest and most obscure employment in society to one of the most conspicuous and brilliant of fices, do you feel yourself less disposed to have no equal, than you did formerly to have few
You, who are now come to manhood through a sickly youth, in which you did not expect to live half your days, have you less desire to arrive at a hoary old age, than you had formerly to advance to manhood?
Realize all the fanciful schemes of happiness that revolve in your minds, and you will find, that the good things you acquire will leave you as hungry, and as void, as these do which you actually possess; and that the more you enter into the spirit of this supposition, the more will you be astonished at the exact conformities there are between conditions which at first sight appear to you so extremely different.
III. From all these reflections what consequences shall we draw? That all conditions are absolutely equal? That as they who actually enjoy the most desirable advantages of life, ought to consider them with sovereign contempt, so people who are deprived of them, ought not to take any pains to acquire them, and to better their condition? No, my brethren, God forbid we should preach a morality so austere, and so likely to disgrace religion.
On the one hand, they to whom God has granted the good things of this life ought to know the value of them, and to observe with gratitude the difference which Providence has made between them and others. Worldly prosperity, I grant, is not the most substantial good; however, it is not an imaginary advantage: it is not indeed that permanent good which will continue ours after death; but it is, however, capable of rendering the present state more agreeable.
Do you enjoy liberty? Liberty is a great good: feel the pleasure of liberty. Behold the man who is enclosed in lofty and impenetrable walls; who breathes only an infectious and unwholesome air; who lies on straw in a dungeon, and who, with the utmost attention and pains, can hardly perceive a ray of light, and bless God that you are not in the condition of
Are you rich? Wealth is a great good: enjoy the pleasure of being rich. Behold the man loaded with debts, destitute of friends,
pursued by inexorable creditors; having indeed just enough to keep himself alive to-day, but not knowing how he shall support life to-morrow, and bless God you are not in the condition of that man.
Do you enjoy your health? Health is a great good: relish the pleasure of being well. Observe the man lying on a sick bed, unable to bear up a body loaded with infirmities, not able to move himself without excruciating sensations of pain, crawling towards the grave by the horrible road of the gout or the stone.
Nothing but a fund of stupidity or ingratitude can render us insensible to teinporal blesswhen it pleases God to bestow them on What! Did you, as soon as you opened your eyes, see yourself crowned with a thousand advantages; did God seem to take pleasure in making your condition a composition of honour, wealth, and pleasure; did you find yourself, without contributing to it the least labour or attention, abundantly supplied with every thing that can render life easy and delicious; and because, carry human felicity to what pitch you will, there is nothing perfect in it, do you give up yourself to grief and melancholy, does a dark and gloomy temper within you triumph over all the motives that ought to inspire you with gratitude and joy?
As they, to whom Providence has granted the comforts of life, ought to know the value of them, and to enjoy them with gratitude, so it is allowable, yea it is the duty of such as are deprived of them to endeavour to acquire them, to meliorate their condition, and to procure in future a condition more happy than that to which they have hitherto been condemned, and which has caused them so many difficulties and tears. Self-love is the most natural and lawful of all our passions. We ought not to neglect to acquire any good, except the possession of it would be incompatible with that of a greater good, and we ought not to consent to suffer any ills, except enduring them would prevent greater ills. But, other things being equal, every one ought to endeavour to procure himself an agreeable condition of life in this world.
Besides the love of our neighbour, the duty so much enforced by our great Lawgiver, the love which our Master requires us to extend as far to our neighbour as to ourselves, this duty engages us to avail ourselves of all the innocent means which are offered to us to acquire the good things of this life. The more riches you have, the more able will you be to assist the indigent. The higher you are elevated in society, the more will you have it in your power to succour the oppressed. The more learning, and knowledge, and accuracy you have, the more will it be in your power to press home the duties of religion, to defend the truth, and to display the beauty and advantage of virtue.
Our design, in restraining your projects, is to engage you patiently to bear the inconveniences of your present condition, when you cannot remedy them; because whatever difference there may seem to be between the most happy and the most miserable mortal in this world, there is much less, all things considered, than our misguided passions imagine.