The commonplace about the vanity of human wishes is probably as old as human language, and has certainly found a place, in various shapes, in the works of many of the greatest of all writers from the days of Solomon to our own. The Book of Ecclesiastes, Plato's myth of the choice of lives by the souls who were about to drink of the waters of Lethe as a preparation for re-entering human bodies, and the Tenth Satire of Juvenal, are well-known instances of it in ancient literature. Amongst Englishmen in the last century, the sentiment was frequently reproduced with more or less of that classical grace and finish which so often gave them the air, not exactly of insincerity, but of not caring very much which way their sincere belief for the time being inclined. Perhaps as good examples as any are Addison's meditation over the tombstones in Westminster Abbey, and Johnson's imitations of Juvenal. Even in our own days, a characteristic vehicle has been found for a vein of feeling with which our generation has, on the whole, little sympathy. Hardly any one in these times ventures to moralize openly; but Mr. Thackeray infused into Vanity Fair and Pendennis as much of his reading of the Book of Ecclesiastes as could conveniently be allied with the flirtations of Becky Sharpe and the cigars of Mr. Pendennis.
The gist of all condemnatory commonplaces is to convict average people of absurdity or inconsistency in their everyday conduct, and this is the application which has most commonly been made of the doctrine in question by its most forcible preachers. Juvenal, perhaps, has preached it as vigorously as any one else—the more so, no doubt, because the whole constitution of his mind exemplified that one-sided vehemence and absence of subtlety which belonged to so many Latin writers. "Why do you wish for wealth, which ruined Seneca? or for power, which destroyed Sejanus? or for eloquence, which brought Demosthenes and Cicero to their graves? or to be a great general like Hannibal, who was defeated and exiled? or for beauty or long life, of which the first produces ruin, whilst the second ends in imbecility? You should take life as it comes, and be a Stoic superior to pleasure, desire, and anger." Such is the essence of his famous poem, and such—though the sententious moral is generally omitted—is the suggestion of most of the writers who have at different times adopted the same sentiment. "What fools you, the mass of mankind, are for caring so much for things which, when you have got them, are such transitory possessions and such doubtful benefits!" When the illustrations appended to such a text are well chosen and dramatically worked out, as in Juvenal's poem, the general drift of the sermon derives a degree of weight from its separate parts to which it is not fairly entitled. The true answer to such a lesson is, that people are in reality less ambitious and more successful than it assumes them to be. Human wishes are hardly ever directed to great objects—at least, not continuously and consciously. When a lad goes into the army, he does not expect, in one case out of a hundred thousand, to be a Hannibal or a Charles XII. The state of his feelings generally is that it is a gentleman-like thing to be in the army—that officers are fine fellows—that it would be exciting to see the world, and go through a certain number of campaigns. He must have some profession. He is not fond of books. His connections have some interest, and do not want to send him to college, because his other brothers are there, and are expensive. He accordingly gets a commission, and likes his profession pretty well. He does garrison duty at Malta or Corfu, fights with natives in New Zealand, serves some years in India, marries, goes upon half-pay, and settles down in middle life somewhere in the country or the colonies with a moderate income composed of his own and his wife's property, his half pay, and possibly the interest of some windfall in the shape of prize-money or a legacy. Such, with variations, is the history of an average officer in the army. He gets pretty much what he expected to get, and in about the time in which he expected to get it. In every other walk of life, the same thing happens in average cases, and these, of course, are numerically the vast majority. People live on with occasional pleasures and occasional sorrows, but their average condition is one of quiet and tolerable satisfaction. The proof of this lies in the fuss which they make about it when it is disturbed. In our age and country, it is not only assumed, but insisted upon, that every one has a right to live—and to live in a considerable degree of comfort. If we hear of people being starved to death, or even of their lives being shortened by want of proper food, clothing, lodging, or medical attendance, there is a constant clamour and outcry upon the subject; and, in point of fact, an immense proportion of those who are born not only contrive to live, but in most cases to rear families. If it were ascertained that ten per cent, of the population died from want of necessaries, we should all be horror-struck; yet the great majority of human wishes are directed towards the provision of necessaries of one sort or another, and may therefore be assumed to be fulfilled.
When the contrary is assumed, the proposition is tacitly confined to an infinitesimally small proportion of mankind. What is meant is not that all human wishes are frustrated or -fail to be accomplished, but that, if people set their hearts upon some one object, devote their lives to its attainment, and actually succeed beyond all expectation in attaining it, it often happens that they find their success does not satisfy them after all. This, however, would not prove that human wishes are vain, but only that they are not complete. Hannibal and Charles XII. wished, it is said, to be great generals, and their wishes were vain, because they met with reverses in war and died ingloriously. The second half of the contrast does not match the first. It is as if a man should say, How foolish it is to wish for good health, for A. B. had very good health, yet his wife ran away with C. D. It was not the object of the life of Charles XII. to avoid being defeated and to die in his bed. His object was to be a great general, and he attained his object. Men are not like children who look in at shop windows and wish for the goods exposed there without wishing to pay for them. When a man wishes for distinction, he should, in point of prudence, and generally does in point of fact, wish not for a naked result miraculously thrown in his way, but for the result attended with its usual and natural consequences. Probably, if Charles XII. had had full notice beforehand of all the events of his career, he would have said that, though there were some unpleasant things about it, it was, on the whole, better suited to his tastes than a quiet life of uniform prosperity.
It ought, however, to be remembered that a tacit assumption lies at the root of almost all general criticisms on human affairs which is in itself untrue. Such poems as Juvenal's go upon the supposition that people exercise much more forethought about the circumstances of their lives than they really do. A man does not at any given moment sit down and say—"I think it will make me happy to be a great general, and accordingly I will be a great general."
Nine-tenths of the elements of the question are settled for him. He adopts his profession for a hundred obscure reasons, of which he himself is hardly conscious. He is led on from one thing to another, partly by circumstances, partly by feeling, partly by inclination, and partly by duty, and finds himself, before he is well aware of it, in a position in which he has little choice left him, so that the misfortunes which may happen to him illustrate not so much the vanity of human wishes as the complication of human affairs. It is curious to observe the difference between the principles on which people speculate about life and those on which they act when engaged in its business. A spectator almost always attaches infinitely more importance than an actor to the dramatic completeness of life. People constantly look at the history of a man's career as if its character depended principally on its catastrophe. A man's life is looked upon as successful if it ends triumphantly, and as a failure if it ends gloomily. In point of fact, if a man lives seventy years, his seventieth year contains neither more nor less than one-seventieth part of his life, and will affect its success or failure to that and to no greater extent. Almost every one concentrates all the interest which he takes in his affairs on the present and the immediate future. The past gives him only a starting-point. Few people have either imagination or sensibility enough to comprehend or to care for the general dramatic effect which their lives may present, or be capable of presenting.
If most speculations on the vanity of human wishes convey the impression that their authors confined their attention to a small part of mankind, and that even as to these they took partial views, there is a way in which the same conclusion may be and has been put, which is not open to such a criticism. It may not be true that the particular plans which people form for themselves in life are either foolish or doomed to disappointment; but it is a great and important truth —and it is one which in these days is continually forgotten—that no rational account can be given of the objects of life itself. If the question cui bono? is probed far enough, no answer can be given to it. The ultimate value of the objects which we pursue, and which for the most part we succeed in obtaining, is altogether unknown; and in this sense we may, if we like, say of everything, vanitas vanitatum, though it is doubtful whether it is worth while to do so. This conclusion, however, can affect nothing but the general tone of the mind which admits it. It shows only that our life is surrounded on all sides by a thick darkness which affects everything alike. In this sense, idleness is vanity quite as much as energy— pain as much as pleasure. It was in this mood that it was said we are such stuff as dreams are made of, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.
Saturday Review, September 29, 1860.