The citizen of the world: or, letters from a Chinese philosopher, residing in London, to his friends in the east. ... [pt.1]
Goldsmith, Oliver, 1730?-1774.

LETTER XLIII.

From Lien Chi Altangi to Hingpo, a slave in Persia.

IT is impossible to form a philosophic system of happiness which is adapted to every condition in life, since every person who travels in this great pur∣suit takes a separate road. The differing colours which suit different complections, are not more various than the different pleasures appropriated to particular minds. The various sects who have pretended to give lessons to instruct men in happiness, have described their own particular sensations without considering ours, have only loaded their disciples with constraint, without add∣ing to their real felicity.

If I find pleasure in dancing, how ridiculous would it be in me to prescribe such an amusement for the en∣tertainment of a cripple; should he, on the other hand, place his chief delight in painting, yet would he be absurd in recommending the same relish to one, who had lost the power of distinguishing colours. General directions are therefore commonly useless; and to be particular would exhaust volumes, since each indivi∣dual may require a peculiar system of precepts to direct his choice.

Page  190 Every mind seems capable of entertaining a certain, quantity of happiness, which no institutions can en∣crease, no circumstances alter, and entirely indepen∣dent on fortune. Let any man compare his present fortune with the past, and he will probably find him∣self, upon the whole, neither better nor worse than formerly.

Gratified ambition, or irreparable calamity may produce transient sensations of pleasure or distress. Those storms may discompose in proportion as they are strong, or the mind is pliant to their impression. But the soul, though at first lifted up by the event, is every day ope∣rated upon with diminish'd influence; and at length subsides into the level of its usual tranquillity. Should some unexpected turn of fortune take thee from fet∣ters, and place thee on a throne, exultation would be natural upon the change; but the temper, like the face, would soon resume its native serenity.

Every wish therefore which leads us to expect hap∣piness somewhere else but where we are, every insti∣tution which teaches us that we should be better, by being possessed of something new, which promises to lift us a step higher than we are, only lays a founda∣tion for uneasiness, because it contracts debts which it cannot repay; it calls that a good, which when we have found it, will in fact add nothing to our happi∣ness.

To enjoy the present, without regret for the past, or solicitude for the future, has been the advice rather of poets than philosophers. And yet the precept seems more rational than is generally imagined. It is the only Page  191 general precept respecting the pursuit of happiness, that can be applied with propriety to every condition of life. The man of pleasure, the man of business, and the philosopher are equally interested in its disqui∣sition. If we do not find happiness in the present mo∣ment, in what shall we find it? Either in reflecting on the past, or prognosticating the future. But let us see how these are capable of producing satisfaction.

A remembrance of what is past, and an anticipation of what is to come, seem to be the two faculties by which man differs most from other animals. Though brutes enjoy them in a limited degree, yet their whole life seems taken up in the present, regardless of the past and the future. Man, on the contrary, endeavours to derive his happiness, and experiences most of his mise∣ries from these two sources.

Is this superiority of reflection a prerogative of which we should boast, and for which we shall thank nature; or is it a misfortune of which we should complain and be humble. Either from the abuse, or from the nature of things, it certainly makes our condition more mise∣rable.

Had we a privilege of calling up, by the power of memory, only such passages as were pleasing, unmixed with such as were disagreeable, we might then excite at pleasure an ideal happiness, perhaps more poignant than actual sensation. But this is not the case; the past is never represented without some disagreeable circumstance, which tarnishes all its beauty; the re∣membrance of an evil carries in it nothing agreeable, and to remember a good is always accompanied with Page  192 regret. Thus we lose more than we gain by remem∣brance.

And we shall find our expectation of the future to be a gift more distressful even than the former. To fear an approaching evil is certainly a most disagreeable sen∣sation; and in expecting an approaching good, we ex∣perience the inquietude of wanting actual possession.

Thus, whichever way we look, the prospect is dis∣agreeable. Behind, we have left pleasures we shall ne∣ver more enjoy, and therefore regret; and before, we see pleasures which we languish to possess, and are con∣sequently uneasy till we possess them. Was there any method of seizing the present, unimbittered by such reflections, then would our state be tolerably easy.

This, indeed, is the endeavour of all mankind, who untutored by philosophy, pursue as much as they can a life of amusement and dissipation. Every rank in life, and every size of understanding, seems to follow this alone; or not pursuing it, deviates from happiness. The man of pleasure pursues dissipation by profession; the man of business pursues it not less, as every volun∣tary labour he undergoes is only dissipation in disguise. The philosopher himself, even while he reasons upon the subject, does it unknowingly with a view of dissi∣pating the thoughts of what he was, or what he must be.

The subject therefore comes to this. Which is the most perfect sort of dissipation: pleasure, business, or philosophy; which best serves to exclude those un∣easy Page  193 sensations, which memory or anticipation pro∣duce.

The enthusiasm of pleasure charms only by intervals. The highest rapture lasts only for a moment, and all the senses seem so combined, as to be soon tired into languor by the gratification of any one of them. It is only among the poets we hear of men changing to one delight, when satiated with another. In nature, it is very different: the glutton, when sated with the full meal, is unqualified to feel the real pleasure of drink∣ing; the drunkard in turn finds few of those transports which lovers boast in enjoyment; and the lover, when cloyed, finds a diminution of every other appetite. Thus, after a full indulgence of any one sense, the man of pleasure finds a languor in all, is placed in a chasin between past and expected enjoyment, perceives an in∣terval which must be filled up. The present can give no satisfaction, because he has already robbed it of eve∣ry charm; a mind thus left without immediate em∣ployment, naturally recurs to the past or the future: the reflector finds that he was happy, and knows that he cannot be so now; he sees that he may yet be hap∣py, and wishes the hour was come: thus every period of his continuance is miserable, except that very short one of immediate gratification. Instead of a life of dis∣sipation, none has more frequent conversations with disagreeable self than he: his enthusiasms are but few and transient; his appetites, like angry creditors, con∣tinually making fruitless demands for what he is unable to pay; and the greater his former pleasure, the more strong his regret, the more impatient his expectations; a life of pleasure is therefore the most unpleasing life in the world.

Page  194 Habit has rendered the man of business more cool in his desires, he finds less regret for past pleasures, and less solicitude for those to come. The life he now leads, tho' tainted in some measure with hope, is yet not afflicted so strongly with regret, and is less divided between short-lived rapture and lasting anguish. The pleasures he has enjoyed are not so vivid, and those he has to expect cannot consequently create so much anxiety.

The philosopher, who extends his regard to all mankind, must have still a smaller concern for what has already affected, or may hereafter affect himself; the concerns of others make his whole study, and that study is his pleasure; and this pleasure is continuing in its nature because it can be changed at will, leaving but few of these anxious intervals which are employed in remembrance or anticipation. The philosopher by this means leads a life of almost continued dissipation; and reflection, which makes the uneasiness and misery of others, serves as a companion and instructor to him.

In a word, positive happiness is constitutional, and in∣capable of increase; misery is artificial, and generally proceeds from our folly. Philosophy can add to our happiness in no other manner, but by diminishing our misery: it should not pretend to encrease our present stock, but make us oeconomists of what we are possessed of. The great source of calamity lies in regret or anti∣cipation: he, therefore, is most wise who thinks of the present alone, regardless of the past or the future. This is impossible to the man of pleasure; it is difficult to the man of business; and is in some measure at∣tainable by the philosopher. Happy were we all born Page  195 philosophers, all born with a talent of thus dissipating our own cares, by spreading them upon all mankind!