Essay on Human Life and Happiness - April 5, 1774

Essay on Human Life and Happiness

This essay ran in The South Carolina Gazette & Country Journal.  This publication was heavily pro-American and nearly always included scandalous stories of European royalty. While it tended to be “stuffy,” it was the only paper to discuss citizens who would not be considered among the elite in society.

“What is life but a circulation of little mean actions? We lie down and rise again, dress and undress, feed and wax hungry, work or play, and are weary, and then we lie down again, and the circle returns. We spend the day in trifles, and, when the night comes, we throw ourselves into the bed of folly, amongst dreams and broken thought, and wild imaginations. Our reason lies asleep by us, and we are, for the time, as arrant brutes as those that sleep in the stalls or in a field. Are not the capacities of man higher than these? And ought not his ambition and expectations to be greater? Let us be adventurers for another world! It is at least a fair and noble chance, and there is nothing in this worth our thoughts, or our passions, If we should be disappointed, we are still no worse than the rest of our fellow mortals, and if we succeed in our expectations, we are eternally happy.” –Thomas Burnet (1635-1715)

No possession or enjoyment, within the round of mortal affairs, is commensurate to the desires, or adequate to the capacities of the mind. The most envied condition has its abatements, the happiest conjuncture of fortune leaves behind it many wishes; and after the highest gratifications, the mind is carried forward in pursuit of new ones ad infinitum . The love of virtue, of one’s friends and country, the generous sympathy with mankind, and the heroic zeal of doing good, which are all so natural to great and noble minds, (and some traces of which are found even in the lowest) are seldom united with proportioned means or opportunities of exercising them; so that the moral spring, the noble energies and impulses of the mind, can hardly find proper scope, even in the most fortunate condition; but are much depressed in some, and almost entirely restrained in others, in the generality, by the numerous clogs of an indigent, sickly or embarrassed life.

Shall we allow that such mighty power and godlike affections were planted in the human breast to be folded up in the narrow compass of our present existence, and never to be produced into a more perfect life? Does nature give the finishing touches to the lesser and more ignoble instances of her skill, and raise every other creature to the maturity and perfection of its being; and shall she be accused of leaving her principal piece of workmanship unfinished? Does she carry the vegetative and animal life in man to their full vigour and highest destination; and can we suppose she will suffer his intellectual, his moral, his divine life to fade away, and be for ever extinguished? Would not such abortions in the moral world be incongruous to that perfection of wisdom and goodness which upholds and adorns the natural? And are they not inconsistent with the fond desire of immortality, the secret dread of non-existence, and the high unremitting pulse of the soul beating for persecution, joined to the improbability or impossibility of attaining it here?

These particulars, duly considered, will soon inform us whether this elaborate structure, this magnificent apparatus of inward powers and organs, does not plainly point out an hereafter, and intimate eternity to man . We must therefore conclude, that the present state, even at its best, is only the womb of man’s being, in which the most noble principles of his nature are in a manner fettered, or secluded from a correspondent sphere of action; and therefore destined for a future and unbounded state, where they shall emancipate themselves, and exert the fullness of their strength.

The most accomplished mortal in this low and dark apartment of nature, is only the rudiments of what he shall be, when he takes his ethereal flight and puts on immortality, Without a reference to that state we must look upon man to be a mere abortion , a wide unfinished embryo, a monster in nature: but this being once supposed, beatus ante obitum nemo , (which natural light alone suggests) he still maintains his rank of the masterpiece of the creation; his latent powers are all suitable to the harmony and progression of nature; his noble aspiration, and the pains of his dissolution, are only efforts towards a second birth; the pangs of delivery into light, liberty, and perfection. When the setters of his mortal coil are loosened, and his prison walls broke down, he will be bare and open on every side to the admission of truth and virtue, and their fair attendant, happiness; every vital and intellectual spring will evolve itself with a divine elasticity, in the free air of heaven. He will not then peep at the universe and its glorious author through a dark gate, or a gross medium, nor receive the reflections of his glory through the strait openings of sensible organs, but he will be ” all eye, all ear, all divine and ethereal feeling.”

As in the womb we receive our original constitution, form, and every thing essential to our being, which we carry along with us into the light, and which greatly affect the succeeding periods of our life; so our temper and condition in the future life will depend on the conduct we have observed, and the character we have formed, in the present state. We are here in miniature, what we shall be at full length hereafter. The first rude sketch or outlines of reason and virtue must be drawn at present, to be afterwards enlarged to the stature and beauty of angels.

Those who duly attend to this will not only have a guard, but an incentive to virtue. For whoever faithfully and ardently follows the lights of knowledge, and pants after higher improvements in virtue, will be wonderfully animated in that pursuit, by a full conviction that the scene does not close with life: that his struggles, arising from the weakness of nature, and the strength of habit, will be turned into triumphs; that his career in the tracts of wisdom and goodness will be both swifter and smoother; and those general ardors with which he glows towards heaven, (i. e. the perfection and immortality of virtue) will find their adequate object, and exercise in a sphere proportionably enlarged, incorruptible, and immortal.

Source: The South Carolina Gazette and Country Journal, April 5, 1774

This collection contains a wealth of information on colonial and early American History and genealogy, and provides an accurate glimpse of life in South Carolina and America, with additional coverage of events in Europe, during the early days of this country.

All images included in blog posts are from either Accessible Archives collections or out of copyright public sources unless otherwise noted. Common sources include the Library of Congress, The Flickr Commons, Wikimedia Commons, and other public archives.

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