If we would sometimes bestow a little consideration upon ourselves, and employ the time we spend in prying into other men’s actions, and discovering things without us, in examining our own abilities we should soon perceive of how infirm and decaying material this fabric of ours is composed. Is it not a singular testimony of imperfection that we cannot establish our satisfaction in any one thing, and that even our own fancy and desire should deprive us of the power to choose what is most proper and useful for us? A very good proof of this is the great dispute that has ever been amongst the philosophers, of finding out man’s sovereign good, that continues yet, and will eternally continue, without solution or accord:
Dum abest quod avemus, id exsuperare videturCaetera; post aliud, quum contigit illud, avemus,Et sitis aequa tenet.
[“While that which we desire is wanting, it seems to surpass all the rest; then, when we have got it, we want something else; ’tis ever the same thirst”—Lucretius, iii. 1095.]
Whatever it is that falls into our knowledge and possession, we find that it satisfies not, and we still pant after things to come and unknown, inasmuch as those present do not suffice for us; not that, in my judgment, they have not in them wherewith to do it, but because we seize them with an unruly and immoderate haste:
Nam quum vidit hic, ad victum qux flagitat usus,Et per quae possent vitam consistere tutam,Omnia jam ferme mortalibus esse parata;Divitiis homines, et honore, et laude potentesAflluere, atque bona natorum excellere fama;Nec minus esse domi cuiquam tamen anxia corda,Atque animi ingratis vitam vexare querelisCausam, quae infestis cogit saevire querelis,Intellegit ibi; vitium vas efficere ipsum,Omniaque, illius vitio, corrumpier intus,Qux collata foris et commoda quomque venirent.”
[“For when he saw that almost all things necessarily required for subsistence, and which may render life comfortable, are already prepared to their hand, that men may abundantly attain wealth, honour, praise, may rejoice in the reputation of their children, yet that, notwithstanding, every one has none the less in his heart and home anxieties and a mind enslaved by wearing complaints, he saw that the vessel itself was in fault, and that all good things which were brought into it from without were spoilt by its own imperfections.”—Lucretius, vi. 9.]
Our appetite is irresolute and fickle; it can neither keep nor enjoy anything with a good grace: and man concluding it to be the fault of the things he is possessed of, fills himself with and feeds upon the idea of things he neither knows nor understands, to which he devotes his hopes and his desires, paying them all reverence and honour, according to the saying of Caesar:
Communi fit vitio naturae, ut invisis, latitantibusatque incognitis rebus magis confidamas,vehementiusque exterreamur.”
[“’Tis the common vice of nature, that we at once repose most confidence, and receive the greatest apprehensions, from things unseen, concealed, and unknown.”—De Bello Civil, xi. 4.]
The very felicity of life itself, which depends upon the tranquillity and contentment of a well-descended spirit, and the resolution and assurance of a well-ordered soul, ought never to be attributed to any man till he has first been seen to play the last, and, doubtless, the hardest act of his part.
It is the unhappy nature of envy not to be contented with positive misery, but to be continually aggravating its own torments, by comparing them with the felicities of others.
Quotidiana is an online anthology of "classical" essays, from antiquity to the early twentieth century. All essays and images are in the public domain. Commentaries are copyrighted, but may be used with proper attribution. Special thanks to the BYU College of Humanities and English Department for funding, and to Joey Franklin and Lara Burton, for tireless research assisting.