There is no ideal state in this life. That was the ruling idea of Samuel Johnson's famous tale Rasselas. The Abyssinian prince, although all his wants were supplied and he lived in peace and luxury, became dissatisfied with his closed-in valley and, escaping from it, roamed the world in search of those who were altogether happy. To his surprise he discovered that such a person did not exist, and disillusioned he returned to his mountain home in Abyssinia.
After his defeat on the plains, Croesus took refuge in the citadel of Sardis. According to Herodotus, Meles, a former king of Sardis, had carried his son Leon, whom his concubine bore him, around the walls to render them impregnable. But he omitted to carry his son about that part of the wall opposite to Mount Tmolus. There the soldiers of Cyrus made their assault and took the city. According to the cruel custom of the day, Croesus was condemned to the flames. As the fire was about to be lighted, he pronounced three times the name of Solon. Hearing the name, and having great respect for Solon, Cyrus released him and delivered him from death.
Years before, Solon had paid a visit to Sardis. After he had shown him the vast depositories of his wealth, Croesus said to him, "My Athenian guest, the voice of fame speaks loudly of your wisdom. I have heard much of your travels. I am hence induced to inquire of you what man of all whom you have beheld seemed to you most happy." Croesus was much disappointed when, instead of naming him, Solon named an obscure Athenian patriot who had died for his country. When Croesus expressed surprise that Solon thought so meanly of his wealth and prosperity, Solon gave his famous answer, "Call no man happy till you know the nature of his death."
It was that sentence that came to the mind of Croesus on that day when in the sudden reversal of his fortunes he stood bound on the funeral pyre.
In 1791 the Academy at Lyons offered a prize for the best essay on the subject "What Truths and Sentiments Is It Most Necessary to Impress upon Men for Their Happiness?" Among the contestants was a young man of whom the world would shortly hear much, the young Napoleon. Napoleon's essay is full of truth and elevated ideas, and particularly interesting is what he has to say about ambition—how it caused Alexander the Great to conquer and ravage the world without being able to satisfy it; how it guided Cromwell to rule England, but tormented him with all the daggers and furies; and how the ambitions of Charles V, Philip II, and other rulers, were, like all disordered passions, a violent, unreflecting madness which only ceased with life, a conflagration fanned by a pitiless wind which did not end till it had consumed everything. There Napoleon the youth pleads with Napoleon of the future.
As for happiness, he commences his essay by saying that happiness is the enjoyment of a life which is most suited to our organization. But our organization is twofold—animal and intellectual. This is a very sound definition. The gratification of the natural desires is good for man, for they are a part of his organization; but man is more than body. He therefore cannot have happiness without enjoying the life that is best fitted for the soul, the highest part of his nature. Since man is a moral being, the effort after happiness must not violate the conditions of man's moral nature, for when that is done, misery follows. This being the case, life is rather a place of preparation for the highest happiness than a place for its enjoyment, and in this life our chief business is to seek first the Kingdom of God.
In a certain sense all men are gold hunters, Argonauts. They seek the gold of happiness and content. The pathos of life is that men seek for happiness and satisfaction where they can never be found. The Spaniards who followed Ponce de Leon toiled through wildernesses where no gold could be found. Men are as ignorant of moral geography as the Spaniards were of physical geography. They struggle on in their quest for the gold of happiness, ever seeking, never finding, ever disappointed, ensnared by the pestilential passions that rise out of the low places of human nature, deluded and deceived by the mirage of their imagination, tracked by remorseless misfortune, till death puts a "thus far and no farther" to their journey.
In the museum of the State House of Mississippi one can see an old rusty breastplate and halberd. They were relics of the first expedition of the Spaniards to Florida and the lands to the west. The lure of gold drew them to that fabled shore; but they found only monotonous stretches of sand, melancholy fir trees, venomous reptiles, poisonous insects, malarial savannahs, wild beasts, and wilder men. They were seeking for gold; but the farther they wandered into the wilderness the farther away from gold they went. The story of these hapless Spanish adventurers, wandering about in the swamps and jungles, now despairing and now feverish with hope born of some tale of treasure just beyond them, seeking for the yellow metal that so often strikes men blind when they find it—is not this a parable of life?
All men are seeking for gold. One can suppose that if a poll were taken of this congregation, it would be discovered that more than one person has even invested in a gold mine.The drunkard on the street, the thief in the sleeping household, the pale student at yonder window where the midnight lamp is burning, the businessman at his desk, the mother in her home, the throngs in the playhouse, the worshipers in the church of Christ—all of them are on the quest of gold.
A kind and virtuous mother, let us imagine, has two sons—one of them kind, obedient, thoughtful; the other, unfilial, cruel, and vicious. The mother falls ill, and messages are sent to the absent sons. The dutiful and obedient son is at a great distance, and during the long journey to his mother's bedside he is racked by the pains of suspense. The train is filled with interesting people and passes through lovely country. But the man is distressed and unhappy because he is fearful lest his mother should die before he reaches her side to receive her blessing. In memory he dwells upon her thousand kindnesses and shrinks from facing that hour when he will mourn as one that mourneth for his mother. Great, I say, is that man's unhappiness. But it is not so great as that of the unworthy son, whose mind as he stands by his mother's side is tortured, not by the pains of suspense, nor by the fear of bereavement, but by a remorse which cuts him like a knife as he looks down upon the face that his follies have helped to line with care, and the hair his sins have whitened. He, too, is unhappy, but his unhappiness is the harder to endure because it is a moral unhappiness, the unhappiness issuing from guilt and sin. Perhaps we might say that while one was unhappy, the other was miserable.
Pascal, author of the celebrated Thoughts, has a profound thought when he says that happiness is not in ourselves but in God. There are, indeed, by-streams of happiness, such as affection for others and from others, doing good to others, doing creative work, entertaining hope for the future, sitting in the sunlight of pleasant memories of the past. But these are only by-springs. The real fountain and source of happiness is a state of life and soul that is right with God, and, therefore, right with man.