Monday, December 21, 2015

Our own felicity we make or find

"Have you ever read my school's Golden Jubilee book?" asked my father.

I know that the school that he attended in the village is an old one, founded many decades ago.  Yet, I had forgotten that the school dates back to the late 19th century and the book that he was referring to is from 1941-42.

The down-the-memory-lane essays by two distinguished alumni were a treat for this pretentious intellectual and writer.  One of them was certainly a classy essay that was about the school days, which were from 1900.  It vividly brought to life the personalities--the headmasters and the teachers--and the few students who were mentioned.  A piece of writing of the highest caliber, in which wonderfully woven was the quote from Oliver Goldsmith, "Honour sinks where commerce long prevails."

I had never come across that quote.  Yet again, I am humbled by how little I know.

Google gave me the source of that quote,  It is from Goldsmiith's poem, The Traveller.  It turns out that the poem is about one of my favorite topics--the pursuit of happiness.  Wikipedia offers this:
The dedication to The Traveller sets out Goldsmith's purpose:
I have attempted to show, that there may be equal happiness in states, that are differently governed from our own; that every state has a particular principle of happiness, and that this principle in each may be carried to a mischievous excess.
He begins the poem by extolling the happiness of his brother Henry's simple family life. Then, from a vantage-point in the Alps, he surveys the condition of the world. Every nation, he says, considers itself the happiest, but this is only because each nation judges by its own standards. In fact, happiness is probably equally spread, though in different forms which tend to be mutually exclusive.
The poem is from 1764, when "nations" meant different from how we think of nations now.  We could, therefore, even think of cultures, and the sentence reads very well: "Every culture, he says, considers itself the happiest, but this is only because each culture judges by its own standards."  We could also bring that down to the individual level, and it still  makes sense that we would judge happiness by our own respective standards.

I located a site that had the entire poem.  As tempting it was to note "tl; dr" I gave it a quick read.  The poem, certainly philosophical, is loaded with thoughts, place names, and events, all of which require careful reading.  I can easily imagine the essayist remembering the impressive headmaster reciting the poem and interpreting it for the class.  I wish I had that kind of a teacher even now who would  provide me with the kind of a thrilling and memorable learning experience that the essayist had as a school-boy in the classroom more than a century ago.

Wikipedia further notes that Goldsmith concluded the poem with the philosophical notion that wherever we might be--England or America or France or Italy--happiness comes from within:
How small, of all that human hearts endure,
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.
Still to ourselves in every place consign'd,
Our own felicity we make or find
May you also find or make your own felicity.


mahesh said...

Dear Sriram,

As instructed removed the 'sir' suffix.

I have sent you an email from

Do let me know when to meet you?

I am just 33 and for a distinguished professor and op-ed author like you, I think the 'sir' tag is a must when I address you! After all we are still in the 'old country'!


Anne in Salem said...

Poems and teachers. Not a pair I like to combine because the latter ruined the former for me. It has taken years to develop an appreciation for poetry, guided by a much better teacher, less rigid and more patient. Nothing can replace an inspirational teacher or headmaster. They are remembered forever, and each student benefits for life.

I like the change to each culture defines its own happiness. Nation is too broad when China now has more people than the entire world in Goldsmith's time. Using culture allows for more flexibility depending on which culture one chooses to claim at any given time - religious, ethnic, political, etc. Oh, but that presents a challenge. Can a person simultaneously be happy as defined by one culture and unhappy within another culture? Catholics may feel they are happiest religious culture now with the recognition of a second miracle for Blessed Mother Teresa, clearing the way for canonization, but Republicans probably don't feel happier than other political groups given the clown in front. Both can be true within the same person, no?

Sriram Khé said...

Anne, I am with you regarding everything you write ... except about Teresa. I have blogged about her, but will direct to this one ;)

Mahesh, "a distinguished professor and op-ed author" makes it sound like you are talking about Paul Krugman, whom Ramesh loves, loves, loves to hate ;) I am but a plain old college teacher who dabbles in public scholarship. Thanks for the compliments though. I got your email. I will call you in a couple of hours.

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