Every man will readily enough confess, that his own condition discontents him; and that he has not yet been able, with all his labour, to make happiness, or with all his enquiries, to find it. But he still thinks, it is somewhere to be found, or by some means to be procured. His envy sometimes persuades him to imagine, that others possess it; and his ambition points the way, by which he supposes, that he shall reach, at last, the station to which it is annexed. Every one wants something to happiness, and when he has gained what he first wanted, he wants something else; he wears out life in efforts and pursuits, and perhaps dies, regretting that he must leave the world, when he is about to enjoy it.
When we see the restlessness of the young, and the peevishness of the old; when we find the daring and the active combating misery, and the calm and humble lamenting it; when the vigorous are exhausting themselves, in struggles with their own condition, and the old and wise retiring from the contest, in weariness and despondency; we may be content at last to conclude, that if happiness had been to be found, some would have found it, and that it is vain to search longer for what all have missed.
But though our obstinacy should hold out, against common experience and common authority, it might at least give way to the declaration of Solomon, who has left this testimony to succeeding ages; that all human pursuits and labours are vanity.
The character of Solomon leaves no room for subterfuge; he did not judge of what he did not know. He had in his possession, whatever power and riches, and, what is still more, whatever wisdom and knowledge could confer. There is no doubt, but he had taken a survey of all the gradations of human life, from the throne of the prince, to the shepherd's cottage. He had in his hand, all the instruments of happiness, and in his mind, the skill to apply them. Every power of delight which others possessed, he had authority to summon, or wealth to purchase.
If power be grateful, he was king; if there be pleasure in knowledge, he was the wisest of mankind; if wealth can purchase happiness, he had so much gold, that silver was little regarded. Over all these advantages, presided a mind, in the highest degree disposed to magnificence. After every other price had been bid for happiness, religion and virtue were brought to the sale. But after the anxiety of his enquiries, the weariness of his labours, and the loss of his innocence, he obtained only this conclusion: "I have seen all the works that are done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity." This result of Solomon's experience was thus solemnly bequeathed by him to all generations.
The event of all human endeavors is uncertain. He that plants, may gather no fruit; he that sows, may reap no harvest. Even the most simple operations are liable to miscarriage, from causes we cannot foresee; and if we could foresee them, cannot prevent. What can be more vain, than the confidence of man, when the annual provision made for the support of life is not only exposed to the uncertainty of the weather, and the variation of the sky, but lies at the mercy of the reptiles of the earth, or the insects of the air? The wind and the rain, he cannot command; the caterpillar he cannot destroy, and the locust he cannot drive away. The history of mankind is little else than a narrative of designs which have failed, and hopes that have been disappointed.
ALL IS VANITY
To find examples of disappointment and uncertainty, we need not raise our thoughts to the interests of nations, nor follow the warrior to the field, or the statesmen to the council. The little transactions of private families are entangled with perplexities; and the hourly occurrences of common life are filling the world with discontent and complaint. Every man hopes for kindness from his friends, and obedience from his children. Yet friends are often unfaithful and children rebellious.
The labours of man are not only uncertain, but imperfect. If we perform what we designed, we yet do not obtain what we expected. What appeared great when we desired it seems little when it is attained. Discontent and doubt are always pursuing us. This uncertainty and imperfection is the lot which our Creator has appointed for us.
Human actions may be distinguished into various classes. Some are actions of duty, which can never be in vain, because God will reward them. It is our duty to admonish the vicious, to instruct the ignorant, and relieve the poor; and our admonitions will, sometimes, produce anger, instead of amendment; our instructions will be sometimes bestowed upon the perverse, the stupid, and the inattentive; and our charity will be sometimes misapplied, by those that receive it.
There are likewise actions of necessity; these are often in vain and vexatious; but such is the order of the world. It is appointed, that life should be sustained by labour; and we must not sink down into sullen idleness. We must still prosecute our business, confess our imbecility, and turn our eyes upon him, whose mercy is over all his works, and who, though he humbles our pride, will succour our necessities.
Works of absolute necessity are few and simple; a very great part of human diligence is laid out, in accommodations of ease, or the refinements of pleasure; and the further we pass beyond the boundaries of necessity, the more we lose ourselves in the regions of vanity, and the more we expose ourselves to vexation of spirit. As we extend our pleasures we multiply our wants. The pain of hunger is easily appeased, but to surmount the disgust of appetite vitiated by indulgence, all arts of luxury are required, and all are often in vain. When to the enjoyments of sense, are superadded the delights of fancy, we form a scheme of happiness that can never be complete, for we can always imagine more than we possess. All social pleasures put us more or less in the powers of others, who sometimes cannot, and sometimes will not, please us. Conversations of argument often end in bitterness of controversy, and conversations of mirth, in petulance and folly. Friendship is violated by interest, or broken by passion, and benevolence finds its kindness bestowed on the worthless and ungrateful.
But most certain is the disappointment of him, who places his happiness in comparative good, and considers, not what he himself wants, but what others have. The delight of eminence must, by its own nature, be rare, because he that is eminent, must have many below him, and therefore if we suppose such desires general, as very general as they are, the happiness of a few must arise from the misery of many. He that places his delight in the extent of his renown, is, in some degree, at the mercy of every tongue; not only malevolence, but indifference, may disturb him; and he may be pained, not only by those who speak ill but by those likewise that say nothing.
LIFE IS PRECIOUS
What pleasure is granted to man, beyond the gross gratifications of sense, common to him with other animals? Such is the constitution of things, since that whatever can give pleasure, can likewise cause uneasiness; there is little hope that uneasiness will be long escaped.
What then is the influence which the conviction of this unwelcome truth ought to have upon our conduct? It ought to teach us humility, patience, and diffidence. When we consider how little we know of the distant consequences of our own actions, how little the greatest personal qualities can protect us from misfortune, how much all our importance depends upon the favour of others, how uncertainly that a favor is bestowed, and how easily it is lost, we shall find, that we have very little reason to be proud.
That which is most apt to elate the thoughts, height of place, and greatness of power, is the gift of others. No man can, by any natural or intrinsic faculties, maintain himself in a state of superiority; he is exalted to his place, whatever it may be, by the concurrence of others, those who are for a time content to be counted his inferiors. If dependence be a state of humiliation, every man has reason to be humble, for every man is dependent.
But however unpleasing these considerations may be, however unequal our condition is to all our wishes or conceptions, we are not to admit impatience into our bosoms, or increase the evils of life, by vain throbs of discontent. To live in a world where all is vanity, has been decreed by our Creator to be the lot of man, a lot which we cannot alter by murmuring, but may soften by submission.
The full persuasion that all earthly good is uncertain in the attainment, and unstable in the possession, and the frequent recollection of the slender supports on which we rest, and the dangers which are always hanging over us, will dictate inoffensive modesty, and mild benevolence. He does not rashly treat another with contempt, who doubts the duration of his own superiority; he will not refuse assistance to the distressed, who supposes that he may quickly need it himself.
As his hopes are moderate, his endeavors will be calm. He will not fix his hopes upon things which he knows to be vanity, but will enjoy this world, as one who knows he does not possess it.
MAN AND GOD
When the present state of man is considered, when an estimate is made of his hopes, his pleasures, and his possessions; when his hopes appear to be deceitful, his labours ineffectual, his pleasures unsatisfactory, and his possessions fugitive, it is natural to wish for an abiding city, for a state more constant and permanent, of which the objects may be more proportioned to our wishes, and the enjoyments to our capacities; and from this wish it is reasonable to infer, that such a state is designed for us by that infinite wisdom, which, as it does nothing in vain, has not created minds with comprehensions never to be filled.
When revelation is consulted, it appears that such a state is really promised, and that, by the contempt of worldly pleasures, it is to be obtained. We then find, that instead of lamenting the imperfection of earthly things, we have reason to pour out thanks to him who orders all for our good, that he has made the world, such as often deceives, and often afflicts us; that the charms of interest are not such, as our frailty is unable to resist, but that we have such interruptions of our pursuits, and such languour in our enjoyments, such pains of body and anxieties of mind, as repress desire, and weaken temptation; and happy will it be, if we follow the gracious directions of Providence, and determine, that no degree of earthly felicity shall be purchased with a crime: if we resolve no longer to bear the chains of sin, to employ all our endeavors upon transitory and imperfect pleasures, or to divide our thoughts between the world and heaven; but to bid farewell to sublunary vanities, to endure no longer an unprofitable vexation of spirit, but with pure heart and steady faith to fear God, and to keep his commandments, and remember that this is the whole of man.
SAMUEL JOHNSON & KING SOLOMON
The above are excerpts from a sermon written by Dr. Samuel Johnson over 250 years ago. Dr. Johnson was not a preacher. He was a writer whose crowning achievement was the Dictionary of the English Language. Samuel Johnson was occasionally hired to write sermons.
This sermon is based on the words of King Solomon from Ecclesiastes 1:14 I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.