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The Search for Happiness is Within

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“He who has little knowledge of human nature as to seek happiness by changing anything but his own disposition will waste his life in fruitless efforts and multiply the grief which he purposes to remove.”

Excerpt from The Rambler, No. 6 (Saturday, April 7, 1750), by Samuel Johnson. The Rambler was a periodic, published every Tuesday and Saturday from 1750 to 1753, that targeted the middle-class that was climbing the social ladder by marrying into aristocratic families. Johnson believed that since these individuals did not possess the education required to integrate into higher social circles, The Rambler would provide reflective, didactic essays written in elevated prose on important topics such as morality, society, religion, literature, and politics. Johnson, a man of great erudition, often drew on the ideas of the giants of the Renaissance humanism, like Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch), Rene Descartes, and Desiderius Erasmus.

In The Rambler, No. 6, Johnson introduces a quotation from his close friend James Elphinston, who was an educator and linguistics expert:

Active in indolence, abroad we roam
In quest of happiness which dwells at home:
With vain pursuits fatigu’d, at length you’ll find,
No place excludes it from an equal mind. 

Johnson comments, “That man should never suffer his happiness to depend upon external circumstances, is one of the chief precepts of the Stoical philosophy; a precept, indeed, which that lofty sect has extended beyond the condition of human life, and in which some of them seem to have comprised an utter exclusion of all corporal pain and pleasure from the regard or attention of a wise man.” In a later passage, he remarks on the plight of the British poet Abraham Cowley (1618-1667):

“If [Cowley] had proceeded in his project [to travel abroad to find an obscure retreat], and fixed his habitation in the most delightful part of the new world, it may be doubted, whether his distance from the vanities of life, would have enabled him to keep away the vexations. It is common for a man, who feels pain, to fancy that he could bear it better in any other part. Cowley having known the troubles and perplexities of a particular condition, readily persuaded himself that nothing worse was to be found, and that every alteration would bring some improvement: he never suspected that the cause of his unhappiness was within, that his own passions were not sufficiently regulated, and that he was harassed by his own impatience, which could never be without something to awaken it, would accompany him over the sea, and find its way to his American elysium. He would, upon the trial, have been soon convinced, that the fountain of content must spring up in the mind: and that he who has so little knowledge of human nature, as to seek happiness by changing any thing but his own dispositions, will waste his life in fruitless efforts, and multiply the griefs which he purposes to remove.”

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