Article of the Month

 

 

 

William Law

 

The happiness of a life wholly devoted unto God, further proved from the vanity, the sensuality, and the ridiculous, poor enjoyments, which they are forced to take up with who live according to their own humours. This represented in various characters.

WE may still see more of the happiness of a life devoted unto God, by considering the poor contrivances for happiness, and the contemptible ways of life, which they are thrown into, who are not under the directions of a strict piety, but seeking after happiness by other methods.

If one looks at their lives who live by no rule but their own humours and fancies; if one sees but what it is which they call joy, and greatness, and happiness; if one sees how they rejoice and repent, change and fly from one delusion to another; one shall find great reason to rejoice that God hath appointed a strait and narrow way that leadeth unto life, and that we are not left to the folly of our own minds, or forced to take up with such shadows of joy and happiness as the weakness and folly of the world has invented. I say invented, because those things which make up the joy and happiness of the world are mere inventions, which have no foundation in nature and reason, are no way the proper good or happiness of man, no way perfect either in his body or his mind, or carry him to his true end.

As for instance, when a man proposes to be happy in ways of ambition, by raising himself to some imaginary heights above other people; this is truly an invention of happiness which has no foundation in nature, but is as mere a cheat of our own making as if a man should intend to make himself happy by climbing up a ladder.

If a woman seeks for happiness from fine colours or spots upon her face, from jewels and rich clothes, this is as merely an invention of happiness, as contrary to nature and reason as if she should propose to make herself happy by painting a post, and putting the same finery upon it.1 It is in this respect that I call these joys and happiness of the world mere inventions of happiness, because neither God, nor nature, nor reason, hath appointed them as such; but whatever appears joyful, or great, or happy in them, is entirely created or invented by the blindness and vanity of our own minds.

And it is on these inventions of happiness that I desire you to cast your eye, that you may thence learn how great a good religion is, which delivers you from such a multitude of follies and vain pursuits as are the torment and vexation of minds that wander from their true happiness in God.

Look at FLATUS,2 and learn how miserable they are who are left to the folly of their own passions.

Flatus is rich and in health, yet always uneasy, and always searching after happiness. Every time you visit him you find some new project in his head; he is eager upon it, as something that is more worth his while, and will do more for him than any thing that is already past. Every new thing so seizes him, that if you were to take him from it, he would think himself quite undone. His sanguine temper and strong passions promise him so much happiness in everything, that he is always cheated, and is satisfied with nothing.

At his first setting out in life, fine clothes were his delight, his inquiry was only after the best tailors and peruke-makers, and he had no thoughts of excelling in anything but dress. He spared no expense, but carried every nicety to its greatest height. But this happiness not answering his expectations, he left off his brocades, put on a plain coat, railed at fops and beaux, and gave himself up to gaming with great eagerness.

This new pleasure satisfied him for some time; he envied no other way of life. But being by the fate of play drawn into a duel, where he narrowly escaped his death, he left off the dice, and sought for happiness no longer amongst the gamesters.

The next thing that seized his wandering imagination was the diversions of the town; and for more than a twelvemonth you heard him talk of nothing but ladies, drawing-rooms, birth-nights, plays, balls, and assemblies. But growing sick of these, he had recourse to hard drinking. Here he had many a merry night, and met with stronger joys than any he had felt before. Here he had thoughts of setting up his staff, and looking out no farther; but unluckily falling into a fever, he grew angry at all strong liquors, and took his leave of the happiness of being drunk.

The next attempt after happiness carried him into the field; for two or three years nothing was so happy as hunting; he entered upon it with all his soul, and leaped more hedges and ditches than had ever been known in so short a time. You never saw him but in a green coat; he was the envy of all that blow the horn, and always spoke to his dogs in great propriety of language. If you met him at home on a bad day, you would hear him blow his horn, and be entertained with the surprising accidents of the last noble chase. No sooner had Flatus out-done all the world in the breed and education of his dogs, built new kennels, new stables, and bought a new hunting-seat, but he immediately got sight of another happiness, hated the senseless noise and hurry of hunting, gave away his dogs, and was for some time after deep in the pleasures of building.

Now he invents new kind of dove-cotes, and has such contrivances in his barns and stables as were never seen before; he wonders at the dulness of the old builders, is wholly bent upon the improvement of architecture, and will hardly hang a door in the ordinary way. He tells his friends that he never was so delighted in anything in his life; that he has more happiness amongst his brick and mortar than ever he had at court; and that he is contriving how to have some little matter to do that way as long as he lives.

The next year he leaves his house unfinished, complains to everybody of masons and carpenters, and devotes himself wholly to the happiness of riding about. After this, you can never see him but on horseback, and so highly delighted with this new way of life, that he would tell you, give him but his horse and a clean country to ride in, and you might take all the rest to yourself. A variety of new saddles and bridles, and a great change of horses, added much to the pleasure of this new way of life. But, however, having after some time tired both himself and his horses, the happiest thing he could think of next was to go abroad and visit foreign countries; and there, indeed, happiness exceeded his imagination, and he was only uneasy that he had begun so fine a life no sooner. The next month he returned home, unable to bear any longer the impertinence of foreigners.

After this he was a great student for one whole year; he was up early and late at his Italian grammar, that he might have the happiness of understanding the opera, whenever he should hear one, and not to be like those unreasonable people that are pleased with they know not what.3

Flatus is very ill-natured, or otherwise, just as his affairs happen to be when you visit him; if you find him when some project is almost worn out, you will find a peevish, ill-bred man; but if you had seen him just as he entered upon his riding regimen, or begun to excel in sounding of the horn, you had been saluted with great civility.

Flatus is now at a full stand, and is doing what he never did in his life before, he is reasoning and reflecting with himself. He loses several days in considering which of his cast-off ways of life he should try again.

But here a new project comes in to his relief. He is now living upon herbs, and running about the country to get himself into as good wind as any running footman4 in the kingdom.

I have been thus circumstantial in so many foolish particulars of this kind of life, because I hope that every particular folly that you here see will naturally turn itself into an argument for the wisdom and happiness of a religious life.

If I could lay before you a particular account of all the circumstances of terror and distress that daily attend a life at sea, the more particular I was in the account, the more I should make you feel and rejoice in the happiness of living upon the land.

In like manner, the more I enumerate the follies, anxieties, delusions, and restless desires which go through every part of a life devoted to human passions and worldly enjoyments, the more you must be affected with that peace, and rest, and solid content, which religion gives to the souls of men.

If you but just cast your eye upon a madman or a fool, it perhaps signifies little or nothing to you; but if you were to attend them for some days, and observe the lamentable madness and stupidity of all their actions, this would be an affecting sight, and would make you often bless yourself for the enjoyment of your reason and senses.

Just so, if you are only told, in the gross, of the folly and madness of a life devoted to the world, it makes little or no impression upon you; but if you are shown how such people live every day; if you see the continual folly and madness of all their particular actions and designs; this would be an affecting sight, and make you bless God for having given you a greater happiness to aspire after.5

So that characters of this kind, the more folly and ridicule they have in them, provided that they be but natural, are most useful to correct our minds; and, therefore, are nowhere more proper than in books of devotion and practical piety. And as in several cases we best learn the nature of things by looking at that which is contrary to them, so perhaps we best apprehend the excellency of wisdom by contemplating the wild extravagances of folly.

I shall therefore continue this method a little farther, and endeavour to recommend the happiness of piety to you, by showing you, in some other instances, how miserably and poorly they live who live without it.

But you will perhaps say that the ridiculous, restless life of Flatus is not the common state of those who resign themselves up to live by their own humours, and neglect the strict rules of religion; and that, therefore, it is not so great an argument of the happiness of a religious life as I would make it.

I answer that I am afraid it is one of the most general characters in life; and that few people can read it without seeing something in it that belongs to themselves. For where shall we find that wise and happy man who has not been eagerly pursuing different appearances of happiness, sometimes thinking it was here and sometimes there?

And if people were to divide their lives into particular stages, and ask themselves what they were pursuing, or what it was which they had chiefly in view when they were twenty years old, what at twenty-five, what at thirty, what at forty, what at fifty, and so on, till they were brought to their last bed; numbers of people would find that they had liked, and disliked, and pursued as many different appearances of happiness as are to be seen in the life of Flatus.

And thus it must necessarily be more or less with all those who propose any other happiness than that which arises from a strict and regular piety.

But, secondly, let it be granted that the generality of people are not of such restless, fickle tempers as Flatus; the difference then is only this, Flatus is continually changing and trying something new, but others are content with some one state; they do not leave gaming and then fall to hunting. But they have so much steadiness in their tempers, that some seek after no other happiness but that of heaping up riches; others grow old in the sports of the field; others are content to drink themselves to death, without the least inquiry after any other happiness.

Now is there anything more happy or reasonable in such a life as this than in the life of Flatus? Is it not as great and desirable, as wise and happy, to be constantly changing from one thing to another, as to be nothing else but a gatherer of money, a hunter, a gamester, or a drunkard all your life?

Shall religion be looked upon as a burden, as a dull and melancholy state, for calling men from such happiness as this, to live according to the laws of God, to labour after the perfection of their nature, and prepare themselves for an endless state of joy and glory in the presence of God?

But turn your eyes now another way, and let the trifling joys, the gewgaw happiness of FELICIANA, teach you how wise they are, what delusion they escape, whose hearts and hopes are fixed upon a happiness in God.

If you were to live with Feliciana but one half year, you would see all the happiness that she is to have as long as she lives. She has no more to come but the poor repetition of that which could never have pleased once, but through a littleness of mind and want of thought.

She is to be again dressed fine, and keep her visiting day. She is again to change the colour of her clothes, again to have a new head, and again put patches on her face. She is again to see who acts best at the play-house, and who sings finest at the opera. She is again to make ten visits in a day, and be ten times in a day trying to talk artfully, easily, and politely about nothing.

She is to be again delighted with some new fashion, and again angry at the change of some old one. She is to be again at cards, and gaming at midnight, and again in bed at noon. She is to be again pleased with hypocritical compliments, and again disturbed at imaginary affronts. She is to be again pleased with her good luck at gaming, and again tormented with the loss of her money. She is again to prepare herself for a birth-night, and again see the town full of good company. She is again to hear the cabals and intrigues of the town; again to have secret intelligence of private amours, and early notice of marriages, quarrels, and partings.

If you see her come out of her chariot more briskly than usual, converse with more spirit, and seem fuller of joy than she was last week, it is because there is some surprising new dress, or new diversion just come to town.

These are all the substantial and regular parts of Feliciana’s happiness; and she never knew a pleasant day in her life, but it was owing to some one or more of these things.

It is for this happiness that she has always been deaf to the reasonings of religion, that her heart has been too gay and cheerful to consider what is right or wrong in regard to eternity; or to listen to the sound of such dull words as wisdom, piety, and devotion.

It is for fear of losing some of this happiness that she dares not meditate on the immortality of her soul, consider her relation to God, or turn her thoughts towards those joys which make saints and angels infinitely happy in the presence and glory of God.

But now let it be here observed, that as poor a round of happiness as this appears, yet most women that avoid the restraints of religion for a gay life must be content with very small parts of it. As they have not Feliciana’s fortune and figure in the world, so they must give away the comforts of a pious life for a very small part of her happiness.

And if you look into the world, and observe the lives of those women, whom no arguments can persuade to live wholly unto God, in a wise and pious employment of themselves, you will find most of them to be such as lose all the comforts of religion, without gaining the tenth part of Feliciana’s happiness.6 They are such as spend their time and fortunes only in mimicking the pleasures of richer people; and rather look and long after than enjoy those delusions, which are only to be purchased by considerable fortunes.

But if a woman of high birth and great fortune, having read the Gospel, should rather wish to be an under servant in some pious family, where wisdom, piety, and great devotion directed all the actions of every day; if she should rather wish this than to live at the top of Feliciana’s happiness, I should think her neither mad nor melancholy, but that she judged as rightly of the spirit of the Gospel as if she had rather wished to be poor “Lazarus at the gate,” than to be the rich man “clothed in purple and fine linen, and faring sumptuously every day.”

But to proceed. Would you know what a happiness it is to be governed by the wisdom of religion, and to be devoted to the joys and hopes of a pious life; look at the poor condition of Succus, whose greatest happiness is a good night’s rest in bed, and a good meal when he is up. When he talks of happiness, it is always in such expressions that show you that he has only his bed and his dinner in his thoughts.

This regard to his meals and repose makes Succus order all the rest of his time with relation to them. He will undertake no business that may hurry his spirits, or break in upon his hours of eating and rest. If he reads it shall only be for half an hour, because that is sufficient to amuse the spirits; and he will read something that may make him laugh, as rendering the body fitter for its food and rest. Or if he has at any time a mind to indulge a grave thought, he always has recourse to a useful treatise upon the ancient cookery. Succus is an enemy to all party-matters, having made it an observation that there is as good eating amongst the Whigs as the Tories.

He talks coolly and moderately upon all subjects, and is as fearful of falling into a passion as of catching cold, being very positive that they are both equally injurious to the stomach. If you ever see him more hot than ordinary, it is upon some provoking occasion, when the dispute about cookery runs very high, or in the defence of some beloved dish, which has often made him happy. But he has been so long upon these subjects, is so well acquainted with all that can be said on both sides, and has so often answered all objections, that he generally decides the matter with great gravity.

Succus is very loyal, and as soon as ever he likes any wine he drinks the king’s health with all his heart. Nothing could put rebellious thoughts into his head, unless he should live to see a proclamation against eating of pheasants’ eggs.

All the hours that are not devoted either to repose or nourishment are looked upon by Succus as waste or spare time; for this reason he lodges near a coffee-house7 and a tavern, that when he rises in the morning he may hear the news, and when he parts at night he may not have far to go to bed. In the morning you always see him in the same place in the coffee-room, and if he seems more attentively engaged than ordinary, it is because some criminal is broke out of Newgate, or some lady was robbed last night, but they cannot tell where. When he has learned all that he can, he goes home to settle the matter with the barber’s boy that comes to shave him.

The next waste time that lies upon his hands is from dinner to supper; and if melancholy thoughts ever come into his head it is at this time, when he is often left to himself for an hour or more, and that after the greatest pleasure he knows is just over. He is afraid to sleep, because he has heard it is not healthful at that time, so that he is forced to refuse so welcome a guest.

But here he is soon relieved by a settled method of playing at cards till it is time to think of some little nice matter for supper.

After this Succus takes his glass, talks of the excellency of the English constitution,8 and praises that Minister the most who keeps the best table.

On a Sunday night you may sometimes hear him condemning the iniquity of the town rakes; and the bitterest thing that he says against them is this, that he verily believes some of them are so abandoned as not to have a regular meal or a sound night’s sleep in a week.

At eleven, Succus bids all good night, and parts in great friendship. He is presently in bed, and sleeps till it is time to go to the coffee-house next morning.

If you were to live with Succus for a twelvemonth, this is all that you would see in his life, except a few curses and oaths that he uses as occasion offers.

And now I cannot help making this reflection:

That as I believe the most likely means in the world to inspire a person with true piety was to have seen the example of some eminent professor of religion, so the next thing that is likely to fill one with the same zeal, is to see the folly, the baseness, and poor satisfactions of a life destitute of religion. As the one excites us to love and admire the wisdom and greatness of religion so the other may make us fearful of living without it.

For who can help blessing God for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory, when he sees what variety of folly they sink into, who live without it? Who would not heartily engage in all the labours and exercises of a pious life, be “steadfast, immovable, and always abounding in the work of the Lord,” when he sees what dull sensuality, what poor views, what gross enjoyments they are left to, who seek for happiness in other ways?

So that, whether we consider the greatness of religion, or the littleness of all other things, and the meanness of all other enjoyments, there is nothing to be found in the whole nature of things for a thoughtful mind to rest upon but a happiness in the hopes of religion.

Consider now with yourself how unreasonably it is pretended that a life of strict piety must be a dull and anxious state? For can it with any reason be said, that the duties and restraints of religion must render our lives heavy and melancholy, when they only deprive us of such happiness as has been here laid before you?

Must it be tedious and tiresome to live in the continual exercise of charity, devotion, and temperance, to act wisely and virtuously, to do good to the utmost of your power, to imitate the divine perfections, and prepare yourself for the enjoyment of God? Must it be dull and tiresome to be delivered from blindness and vanity, from false hopes and vain fears, to improve in holiness, to feel the comforts of conscience in all your actions, to know that God is your friend, that all must work for your good, that neither life nor death, neither men nor devils, can do you any harm; but that all your sufferings and doings that are offered unto God, all your watchings and prayers, and labours of love and charity, all your improvements, are in a short time to be rewarded with everlasting glory in the presence of God; must such a state as this be dull and tiresome for want of such happiness as Flatus or Feliciana enjoys?

Now if this cannot be said, then there is no happiness or pleasure lost by being strictly pious, nor has the devout man anything to envy in any other state of life. For all the art and contrivance in the world, without religion, cannot make more of human life, or carry its happiness to any greater height, than Flatus and Feliciaria have done.

The finest wit, the greatest genius upon earth, if not governed by religion, must be as foolish and low and vain in his methods of happiness as the poor Succus.

If you were to see a man duly endeavouring all his life to satisfy his thirst by holding up one and the same empty cup to his mouth, you would certainly despise his ignorance.

But if you should see others of brighter parts and finer understandings ridiculing the dull satisfaction of one cup, and thinking to satisfy their own thirst by a variety of gilt and golden empty cups, would you think that these were ever the wiser, or happier, or better employed for their finer parts?

Now this is all the difference that you can see in the happiness of this life.

The dull and heavy soul may be content with one empty appearance of happiness, and be continually trying to hold one and the same empty cup to his mouth all his life. But then let the wit, the great scholar, the fine genius, the great statesman, the polite gentleman lay all their heads together, and they can only show you more and various empty appearances of happiness; give them all the world into their hands, let them cut and carve as they please, they can only make a greater variety of empty cups.

So that if you do not think it hard to be deprived of the pleasures of gluttony for the sake of religion, you have no reason to think it hard to be restrained from any other worldly pleasure. For search as deep and look as far as you will, there is nothing here to be found that is nobler or greater than high eating and drinking unless you look for it in the wisdom and laws of religion.

And if all that is in the world are only so many empty cups, what does it signify which you take, or how many you take, or how many you have?

If you would but use yourself to such meditations as these, to reflect upon the vanity of all orders of life without piety, to consider how all the ways of the world are only so many different ways of error, blindness, and mistake you would soon find your heart made wiser and better by it. These meditations would awaken your soul into a zealous desire of that solid happiness which is only to be found in recourse to God.

Examples of great piety are not now common in the world; it may not be your happiness to live within sight of any, or to have your virtue inflamed by their light and fervour. But the misery and folly of worldly men is what meets your eyes in every place, and you need not look far to see how poorly, how vainly men dream away their lives for want of religious wisdom.

This is the reason that I have laid before you so many characters of the vanity of a worldly life, to teach you to make a benefit of the corruption of the age, and that you may be made wise, though not by the sight of what piety is, yet by seeing what misery and folly reigns, where piety is not.9

If you would turn your mind to such reflections as these, your own observation would carry this instruction much further, and all your conversation and acquaintance with the world would be a daily conviction to you of the necessity of seeking some greater happiness than all the poor enjoyments this world can give.

To meditate upon the perfection of the divine attributes, to contemplate the glories of heaven, to consider the joys of saints and angels living for ever in the brightness and glory of the divine presence, these are the meditations of souls advanced in piety, and not so suited to every capacity.10

But to see and consider the emptiness and error of all worldly happiness, to see the grossness of sensuality, the poorness of pride, the stupidity of covetousness, the vanity of dress, the delusion of honour, the blindness of our passions, the uncertainty of our lives, and the shortness of all worldly projects; these are meditations that are suited to all capacities, fitted to strike all minds. They require no depth of thought or sublime speculation, but are forced upon us by all our senses, and taught us by almost everything that we see and hear.

This is that “wisdom that crieth, and putteth forth her voice in the streets” (Prov. viii. 1), that standeth at all our doors, that appealeth to all our senses, teaching us in everything and everywhere, by all that we see and all that we hear, by births and burials, by sickness and health, by life and death, by pains and poverty, by misery and vanity, and by all the changes and chances of life, that there is nothing else for man to look after, no other end in nature for him to drive at, but a happiness which is only to be found in the hopes and expectations of religion.


Notes

  1. The raciness and great appropriateness of Law’s two illustrations should be noted. A man who seeks happiness by climbing to the heights of ambition is no wiser than he who seeks it by climbing up a ladder, and a woman who seeks it by painting her face and wearing fine clothes is no wiser than she who seeks it by painting and dressing up a post. These are good specimens of Law’s somewhat grim humour.
  2. The character of Flatus is supposed by some to be taken from Law’s pupil, Edward Gibbon, father of the historian; but the same objections which apply to Flavia and Miranda apply also to Flatus. It is true that Edward Gibbon was, like Flatus, of a restless and fickle temper; it is amusing to read John Byrom’s complaints of the difficulty he found in getting him to give his attention to shorthand, which was one of his short-lived schemes (see Byrom’s Journal for Jan. 30, 1730, and following days); but at the time when Law wrote the Serious Call, E. Gibbon was little more than a boy, who had just entered upon his unsatisfactory University career. His early life might give promise that he would turn out a Flatus, and thus might possibly suggest to Law the character of Flatus; but was there any need of such suggestion when the character itself was sufficiently obvious?
  3. To appreciate the satire of this sentence it should be remembered how very feeble the plots and language of the early Italian operas are.
  4. For an interesting description of running footmen, see Sir Walter Scott’s Bride of Lammermoor, ch. 21, and also Note I, ‘Running Footmen,’ at the close of the volume. The novelist implies that they existed up to his own day.
  5. That is, a greater happiness even in this life, without taking into account the life to come.
  6. After having shown how utterly worthless Feliciana’s happiness was, Law displays a fine humour in the words ‘a tenth part of that happiness.’
  7. Coffee-houses and chocolate-houses were the resort of idlers and news-mongers, and were more like our clubs than our hotels, but not nearly so select and exclusive. Steele tells us in his first number of the Tatler, bearing the suggestive motto, ‘Quicquid agunt homines,’ “that all accounts of gallantry shall be under the article of White’s Chocolate-house; poetry, under that of Will’s Coffee-house; learning, under the title of Grecian; foreign and domestic news you will have from St. James’s Coffee-house.”
  8. ‘The excellency of the English Constitution,’ and ‘Our happy Establishment in Church and State,’ were stock phrases in the eighteenth century, which, however, would not at all commend themselves to Law. Though he very rarely obtrudes his political views, he was, from beginning to end, a staunch and uncompromising Jacobite and nonjuror, and there would be something supremely ridiculous to a man of such views, in one of the life and character of Succus, glorying in the English Constitution.
  9. The reason which Law gives for drawing so many portraits of worldlings of different kinds may seem an uncharitable one, but the student of the early Georgian era will see only them too well the force of it. If he had drawn many pictures of piety, his readers would have found few examples of what he meant in real life; but they would see on all sides of them examples of what he meant them to avoid.
  10. The reason of this, too, is painfully obvious. Law was obliged to strike a low note, because even earnest Christians, in their horror of ‘ enthusiasm,’ were too much of ‘the earth, earthy,’ before the Evangelical Revival.

Author

William Law (1686-1761) was born at King's Cliffe, Northamtonshire. He entered Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in 1705, and was elected a fellow of the college and ordained in 1711. Upon the accession of George I, however, he was dismissed from Cambridge as a nonjuror. Besides A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, Law wrote a number of other books on Christian Living.


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