A Larger Assembly of Beings Combining to Counterfeit Happiness


Imagine any situation you like, add up all the blessings with which you could be endowed, to be king is still the finest thing in the world; yet if you imagine one with all the advantages of his rank, but no means of diversion, left to ponder and reflect on what he is this limp felicity will not keep him going; he is bound to start thinking of all the threats facing him, of possible revolts, finally of inescapable death and disease, with the result that if he is deprived of so-called diversion he is unhappy, indeed more unhappy than the humblest of his servants who can enjoy sport and diversion.

The only good thing for men therefore is to be diverted from thinking of what they are, either by some occupation which takes their mind off it, or by some novel and agreeable passion which keeps them busy, like gambling, hunting, some absorbing show, in short by what is called diversion.

That is why gaming and feminine society, war and high office are so popular. It is not that they really bring happiness, nor that anyone imagines that true bliss comes from possessing the money to be won at gaming or the hare that is hunted: no one would take it as a gift. What people want is not the easy peaceful life that allows us to think of our unhappy condition, nor the dangers of war, nor the burdens of office, but the agitation that takes our mind off it and diverts us. That is why we prefer the hunt to the capture.

That is why men are so fond of hustle and bustle; that is why prison is such a fearful punishment; that is why the pleasures of solitude are incomprehensible. That, in fact, is the main joy of being a king, because people are continually trying to divert him and procure him every kind of pleasure. A king is surrounded by people whose only thought is to divert him and stop him thinking about himself, because, king though he is, he becomes unhappy as soon as he thinks about himself.

Blaise Pascal, Pensées, translated by A. J. Krailsheimer.

He that enters a gay assembly, beholds the cheerfulness displayed in every countenance, and finds all sitting vacant and disengaged, with no other attention than to give and receive pleasure; would naturally imagine, that he had reached at last the metropolis of felicity, the place sacred to gladness of heart, from whence all fear and anxiety were irreversibly excluded. Such, indeed, we may often find to be the opinion of those, who from a lower station look up to the pomp and gaiety which they cannot reach: but who is there of those who frequent these luxurious assemblies, that will not confess his own uneasiness, or cannot recount the vexations and distresses that prey upon the lives of his gay companions?

The world, in its best state, is nothing more than a larger assembly of beings, combining to counterfeit happiness which they do not feel, employing every art and contrivance to embellish life, and to hide their real condition from the eyes of one another.

Samuel Johnson, The Adventurer, No. 120, December 1753.


Discipline and Good Ordering

‘It would be difficult to live at once despised and virtuous; we need support.’

Joseph Joubert, Pensées, translated by Katharine Lyttelton.


‘And it may be a great wonder, but a greater shame, to us Christian men, to understand, what a heathen writer, Isocrates, doth leave in memory of writing, concerning the care, that the noble city of Athens had, to bring up their youth in honest company and virtuous discipline, whose talk in Greek is to this effect in English:

“The city, was not more careful, to see their children well taught, than to see their young men well governed: which they brought to pass, not so much by common law, as by private discipline. For, they had more regard, that their youth, by good order should not offend, than how, by law, they might be punished: And if offence were committed, there was, neither way to hide it, neither hope of pardon for it. Good natures, were not so much openly praised as they were secretly marked, and watchfully regarded, lest they should lose the goodness they had. Therefore in schools of singing and dancing, and other honest exercises, governors were appointed, more diligent to oversee their good manners, than their masters were, to teach them any learning. It was some shame to a young man, to be seen in the open market: and if for business, he passed through it, he did it, with a marvellous modesty, and bashful fashion. To eat, or drink in a tavern, was not only a shame, but also punishable, in a young man. To contrary, or to stand in terms with an old man, was more heinous, than in some place, to rebuke and scold with his own father”: with many other more good orders, and faire disciplines, which I refer to their reading, that have lust to look upon the description of such a worthy commonwealth.
And to know, what worthy fruit, did spring of such worthy seed, I will tell you the most marvel of all, and yet such a truth, as no man shall deny it, except such as be ignorant in knowledge of the best stories.
Athens, by this discipline and good ordering of youth, did breed up, within the circuit of that one city, within the compass of one hundred yeare, within the memory of one man’s life, so many notable captains in war, for worthiness, wisdom and learning, as be scarce matchable not in the state of Rome, in the compass of those seven hundred years, when it flourished most.
And because, I will not only say it, but also prove it, the names of them be these. Miltiades, Themistocles, Xantippus, Pericles, Cymon, Alcybiades, Thrasybulus, Conon, Iphicrates, Xenophon, Timotheus, Theopompus,Demetrius, and divers other more: of which everyone, may justly be spoken that worthy praise, which was given to Scipio Africanus, who, Cicero douteth, whether he were, more noble captain in war, or more eloquent and wise councelor in peace. And if ye believe not me, read diligently, Aemilius Probus in Latin, and Plutarch in Greek, which two, had no cause either to flatter or lie upon any of those which I have recited.
And beside nobility in war, for excellent and matchless masters in all manner of learning, in that one city, in memory of one age, were more learned men, and that in a manner altogether, than all time doth remember, than all place doth afford, than all other tongues do contain.’

Roger Ascham, The Schoolmaster. http://www.luminarium.org/renascence-editions/ascham1.htm

In a Marrow-Bone

GOD guard me from those thoughts men think
In the mind alone;
He that sings a lasting song
Thinks in a marrow-bone…

W. B. Yeats, A Prayer for Old Age.


‘To think what we do not feel, is to lie to ourselves. Everything that we think we must think with our whole being, soul and body.’

Joseph Joubert, Pensées, translated by Katharine Lyttelton.


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