Imaginary Schemes of Happiness
Ecclesiastes 1:9
The thing that has been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done…

There are few people who do not form in their minds agreeable plans of happiness, made up of future flattering prospects, which have no foundation except in their own fancies. This disposition, so general among mankind, is also one of the principal causes of their immoderate desire to live. A child fancies that as soon as he shall arrive at a certain stature, he shall enjoy more pleasure than he hath enjoyed in his childhood, and this is pardonable in a child. The youth persuades himself that men, who are what they call settled in the world, are incomparably more happy than young people can be at his age. Thus we go on from fancy to fancy, and from one chimera to another, till death arrives, subverts all our imaginary projects of happiness, and makes us know by our own experience what the experience of others might have fully taught us long before, that is, that the whole world is vanity. Of this vanity I would endeavour to convince you, and I dedicate this discourse to the destruction of imaginary schemes of happiness. All the past hath been vanity, and all the future will be vanity to the end of the world. The thing that hath been, is that which shall be: and that which is done, is that which shall be done; and there is no new thing under the sun.

I. Let us first of all determine the sense of the text, and EXAMINE WHAT ERROR THE WISE MAN ATTACKS.

1. When the wise man says that which hath been, is that which shall be, he doth not mean to attribute a character of firmness and consistency to such events as concern us. A spectator young in his observations, and distant from the central point, is amazed at the rapid changes, which he beholds suddenly take place like the creation of new worlds; he supposed whole ages must pass in removing those enormous masses, public bodies, and in turning the current of prosperity and victory. But should he penetrate into the spring of events, he would soon find that a very small and inconsiderable point gave motion to that wheel, on which turned public prosperity, and public adversity, and which gave a whole nation a new and different appearance. Sometimes the rare qualities of one single general animate a whole army, and assign to each member of it his proper work, to the prudent a station which requires prudence, to the intrepid a station which requires courage, and even to an idiot a place where folly and absurdity have their use. From these rare qualities a state derives the glory of rapid marches, bold sieges, desperate attacks, complete victories and shouts of triumph. The general finishes his life by his own folly, or is supplanted by a party cabal, or sinks into inaction on the soft down of his own panegyrics, or a fatal bullet, shot at random and without design, penetrates the heart of this noble and generous man. Instantly a new world appears, and that which was is no more; for with this general victory and songs of triumph expired. It would be easy to repeat of individuals what we have affirmed of public bodies, that is, that the world is a theatre in perpetual motion, and always varying; that every day, and in a manner, every moment exhibits some new scene, some change of decoration. It is, then, clear that the proposition in the text ought to be restrained to the nature of the subject spoken of.

2. But these indeterminate words, "that which hath been shall be, and there is no new thing under the sun," must be explained by the place they occupy. Without quoting other examples, we observe that the words under consideration occur twice in this book, once in the text, and again in the fifteenth verse of the third chapter, where we are told, that which hath been is now, and that which is to be hath already been. However, it is certain that these two sentences, so much alike in sound, have a very different meaning. The design of Solomon in the latter passage is to inform such persons, as tremble at the least temptation, that they were mistaken. But in our text the same words, the thing that hath been is that which shall be, have a different meaning. It is evident by the place in which the wise man put them that he intended to decry the good things of this life, to make the vanity of them appear, and to convince mankind that no revolutions can change the character of vanity essential to their condition. We often declaim on the vanity of the world; but our declamations are not unfrequently more intended to indemnify pride than to express the genuine feelings of a heart disabused. We love to declaim against advantages out of our reach, and we take vengeance on them for not coming within our grasp by exclaiming against them. A man waiting on the coast to go abroad wishes for nothing but a fair wind, and he does not think that he shall find other, and perhaps greater, calamities in another climate than those which compelled him to quit his native soil. This is an image of us all. Our minds are limited, and when an object presents itself to us we consider it only in one point of view, in other lights we are not competent to the examination of it. Hence the interest we take in some events, in the revolutions of states, the phenomena of nature, and the change of seasons; hence that perpetual desire of change. Eyes never satisfied with seeing, and ears never filled with hearing. Poor mortals, will you always run after phantoms! No, it is not any of the revolutions you so earnestly desire can alter the vanity essential to human things: with all the advantages which you so earnestly desire, you would find yourself as void, and as discontented as you are now.

II. LET US ENDEAVOUR TO ADMIT THESE TRUTHS WITH ALL THEIR EFFECTS. Let us attempt the work, though we have so many reasons to fear a want of success. There are four barriers against imaginary projects; four proofs, or rather four forces of demonstrations in evidence of the truth of the text.

1. Let us first observe the appointment of man, and let us not form schemes opposite to that of our Creator. When He placed us in this world, He did not intend to confine us to it: but when He formed us capable of happiness, He intended we should seek it in an economy different from this. Without this principle man is an inexplicable enigma: his faculties and his wishes, his afflictions and his conscience, his life and his death, everything that concerns man is obscure, and beyond all elucidation. His faculties are enigmatical. Tell us, what is the end and design of the faculties of many Why hath he the faculty of knowing? What, is it only to arrange a few words in his memory? Only to know the sounds or the pictures to which divers nations of the world have associated their ideas? Hath man intelligence only for the purpose of racking his brain, and losing himself in a world of abstractions, in order to disentangle a few questions from metaphysical labyrinths, what is the origin of ideas, what are the properties, and what is the nature of spirit? Glorious object of knowledge for an intelligent being! An object in general more likely to produce scepticism than demonstration of a science properly so called. Let us reason in like manner on the other faculties of mankind. His desires are problematical. What power can eradicate, what power can moderate his desire to extend and perpetuate his duration? The human heart includes in its wish the past, the present, the future — yea, eternity itself. Explain to us what proportion there can be between the desires of man and the wealth which he accumulates, the honours he pursues, the sceptre in his hand, and the crown on his head? His miseries are enigmatical. Who can reconcile the doctrine of a good God with that of a miserable man, with the doubts that divide his mind, with the remorse that gnaws his heart, with the uncertainties that torment him. His life is a mystery. What part, poor man, what part are you acting in this world? Who misplaced you thus? His death is enigmatical. This is the greatest mystery of all enigmas. Lay down the principle, which we have advanced, grant that the great design of the Creator, by placing man amidst the objects of this present world, was to draw out and extend his desires after another world, and then all these clouds vanish, all these veils are drawn aside, all these enigmas explained, nothing is obscure, nothing is problematical in man. His faculties are not enigmatical; the faculty of knowing is not confined to such vain science as he can acquire in this world. He is not placed here to acquire knowledge, but virtue. If he acquire virtue, he will be admitted into another world, where his utmost desire of knowledge will be gratified. His desires are not mysterious. When the laws of order require him to check and control his wishes, let him restrain them. When the profession of religion requires it, let him deny himself agreeable sensations, and let him patiently suffer the cross, tribulations and persecutions. After he shall have thus submitted to the laws of his Creator, he may expect another period, in which his desire to be great will be satisfied. His miseries are no more enigmatical; they exercise his virtue, and will be rewarded with glory. His life ceases to be mysterious. It is a state of probation, a time of trial, a period given him to make choice of an eternity of happiness, or an eternity of misery. His death is no longer a mystery, and it is impossible that either his life or his death should be enigmas, for the one unfolds the other. We conclude, then, that the destination of man is one great barrier against imaginary schemes of happiness. Change the face of society; subvert the order of the world: put despotical government in the place of a democracy; peace in the place of war, plenty in the place of scarcity, and you will alter nothing but the surface of human things, the substance will always continue the same. The thing that hath been, is that which shall be; and that which is done, is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.

2. The school of the world opens to us a second source of demonstrations. Enter this school, and you will renounce all vain schemes of felicity. There you will learn that the greatest part of the pleasures of the world, of which you entertain such fine notions, are only phantoms. There you will find that those passions, which men of high rank have the power of fully gratifying, are sources of trouble and remorse, and that all the pleasure of gratification is nothing in comparison of the pain of one regret caused by the remembrance of it. In a word, you will there understand that what may seem the most fortunate events in your favour will contribute very little to your happiness.

3. But if the school of the world is capable of teaching us to renounce our fanciful projects of felicity, Solomon is the man in the world the most learned in this school, and the most able to give us intelligence. Accordingly we have made his declaration the third source of our demonstrations. I know no one more proper to teach us a good course of morality than an old reformed courtier, who chooses to retire after he hath spent the prime of his life in dissipation. On this principle, what an impression ought the declaration of Solomon to make on our minds! Few men are so fascinated with the world as not to know that some things in it are vain and vexatious. Most men say of some particular object, This is vanity: but very few are so rational as to comprehend all the good things of this life in the same class, and to say of each, as Solomon did, This also is vanity. A poor peasant, whose ruinous cottage doth not keep out the weather, will readily say, My cottage is vanity: but he imagines there is a great deal of solidity in the happiness of him who sleeps in a superb palace. Solomon knew all these conditions of life, and it was because be knew them all that he declaimed against them; and had you, like him, known them all by experience, you would form such an idea as he did of the whole.

4. To reflections on the experience of Solomon add your own, and to this purpose recollect the history of your life. Remember the time when sighing and wishing for the condition, in which Providence hath since placed you, you considered it as the centre of felicity, and verily thought could you obtain that state you should wish for nothing more. You have obtained it. Do you think now as you did then?

III. From all these reflections WHAT CONSEQUENCES SHALL WE DRAW? That all conditions are absolutely equal? That as they, who actually enjoy the most desirable advantages of life, ought to consider them with sovereign contempt, so people, who are deprived of them, ought not to take any pains to acquire them, and to better their condition? No, God forbid we should preach a morality so austere, and so likely to disgrace religion. On the one hand, they, to whom God hath granted the good things of this life, ought to know the value of them, and to observe with gratitude the difference which Providence hath made between them and others. Do you enjoy liberty? Liberty is a great good: feel the pleasure of liberty. Are you rich? Wealth is a great good: enjoy the pleasure of being rich. Behold the man loaded with debts, destitute of friends, pursued by inexorable creditors, having indeed just enough to keep himself alive to-day, but not knowing how he shall support life to-morrow, and bless God you are not in the condition of that man. Do you enjoy your health? Health is a great good: relish the pleasure of being well. Nothing but a fund of stupidity or ingratitude can render us insensible to temporal blessings, when it pleases God to bestow them on us. As they, to whom Providence hath granted the comforts of life, ought to know the value of them, and to enjoy them with gratitude, so it is allow-able — yea, it is the duty of such as are deprived of them to endeavour to acquire them, to meliorate their condition, and to procure in future a condition more happy than that to which they have hitherto been condemned, and which hath caused them so many difficulties and tears. Self-love is the most natural and lawful of all our passions. The more riches you have the more able will you be to assist the indigent. The higher you are elevated in society, the more you will have it in your power to succour the oppressed. Our design, m restraining your projects, is to engage you patiently to bear the inconveniences of your present condition, when you cannot remedy them: because whatever difference there may seem to be between the most happy and the most miserable mortal in this world, there is much less, all things considered, than our misguided passions imagine. Our design, in checking the immoderate inclination we have to contrive fanciful schemes of happiness, is to make you enjoy with tranquillity such blessings as you have. Most men render themselves insensible to their present advantages by an extravagant passion for future acquisitions. Above all, the design, the chief design we have in denouncing a vain and unsatisfactory being in this world, is to engage you to seek after a happy futurity in the presence of God; to engage you to expect from the blessings of a future state what you cannot promise yourself in this. But if all mankind ought to preserve themselves from the disorder of fanciful schemes of future pleasure, they above all are bound to do so, who are arrived at old age, when years accumulated bring us near the infirmities of declining life, or a dying bed. What advantage could I derive from a well-furnished table, I, whose palate hath lost the faculty of tasting and relishing food? What advantage could I derive from a numerous levee, I, to whom company is become a burden, and who am in a manner a burden to myself? In one word, what benefit can I reap from a concurrence of all the advantages of life, I, who am within a few steps of the gates of death? Happy! When my life comes to an end, to be able to incorporate my existence with that of the immortal God! Happy! When I feel this earthly tabernacle sink, to be able to exercise that faith, which is an evidence of things not seen! Happy to ascend to that city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God! (Hebrews 11:1, 10).

(J. Saurin.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.

WEB: That which has been is that which shall be; and that which has been done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.

The Unsatisfied Eye
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