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.

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