Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
Of Contentedness in All Estates and Accidents
By Jeremy Taylor (16131667)
From Holy Living
VIRTUES and discourses are like friends, necessary in all fortunes; but those are the best, which are friends in our sadnesses, and support us in our sorrows and sad accidents: and, in this sense, no man that is virtuous can be friendless; nor hath any man reason to complain of the Divine Providence, or accuse the public disorder of things, or his own infelicity, since God hath appointed one remedy for all the evils in the world, and that is a contented spirit: for this alone makes a man pass through fire, and not be scorched; through seas, and not be drowned; through hunger and nakedness, and want nothing. For since all the evil in the world consists in the disagreeing between the object and the appetite, as when a man hath what he desires not, or desires what he hath not, or desires amiss; he that composes his spirit to the present accident, hath variety of instances for his virtue, but none to trouble him; because his desires enlarge not beyond his present fortune: and a wise man is placed in the variety of chances, like the nave or centre of a wheel in the midst of all the circumvolutions and changes of posture, without violence or change, save that it turns gently in compliance with its changed parts, and is indifferent which part is up and which is down; for there is some virtue or other to be exercised, whatever happens; either patience or thanksgiving, love or fear, moderation or humility, charity or contentedness; and they are every one of them equally in order to his great end and immortal felicity: and beauty is not made by white or red, by black eyes and a round face, by a straight body and a smooth skin; but by a proportion to the fancy. No rules can make amiability, our minds and apprehensions make that: and so is our felicity: and we may be reconciled to poverty and a low fortune, if we suffer contentedness and the grace of God to make the proportions. For no man is poor, that does not think himself so: but if, in a full fortune, with impatience he desires more, he proclaims his wants and his beggarly condition. But, because this grace of Contentedness was the sum of all the old moral philosophy, and a great duty in Christianity, and of most universal use in the whole course of our lives, and the only instrument to ease the burdens of the world and the enmities of sad chances; it will not be amiss to press it by the proper arguments by which God hath bound it upon our spirits: it being fastened by reason and religion, by duty and interest, by necessity and conveniency, by example, and by the proposition of excellent rewards, no less than peace and felicity.
Contentedness in all estates is a duty of religion; it is the great reasonableness of complying with the Divine Providence which governs all the world, and hath so ordered us in the administration of His great family. He were a strange fool, that should be angry because dogs and sheep need no shoes, and yet himself is full of care to get some. God hath supplied those needs to them by natural provisions, and to thee by an artificial: for He hath given thee reason to learn a trade, or some means to make or buy them; so that it only differs in the manner of our provision, and which had you rather want, shoes or reason? And my patron that hath given me a farm is freer to me than if he gives a loaf ready baked. But, however, all these gifts come from Him, and therefore it is fit He should dispense them as He pleases; and if we murmur here, we may at the next melancholy be troubled that God did not make us to be angels or stars. For, if that which we are or have do not content us, we may be troubled for every thing in the world which is besides our being or our possessions.
God is the master of the scenes; we must not choose which part we shall act; it concerns us only to be careful that we do it well, always saying, if this please God, let it be as it is: and we, who pray that Gods will may be done in earth as it is in heaven, must remember that the angels do whatsoever is commanded them, and go wherever they are sent, and refuse no circumstances: and if their employment be crossed by a higher decree, they sit down in peace and rejoice in the event; and, when the Angel of Judæa could not prevail in behalf of the people committed to his charge, because the Angel of Persia opposed it; he only told the story at the command of God, and was as content, and worshipped with as great an extasy in his proportion as the prevailing Spirit. Do thou so likewise: keep the station where God hath placed you, and you shall never long for things without, but sit at home feasting upon the Divine Providence and thy own reason, by which we are taught that it is necessary and reasonable to submit to God.
For, is not all the world Gods family? Are not we His creatures? Are we not as clay in the hand of the potter? Do not we live upon His meat, and move by His strength, and do our work by His light? Are we any thing but what we are from Him? And shall there be a mutiny among the flocks and herds, because their Lord or their Shepherd chooses their pastures, and suffers them not to wander into deserts and unknown ways? If we choose, we do it so foolishly that we cannot like it long, and most commonly not at all: but God, who can do what He please, is wise to choose safely for us, affectionate to comply with our needs, and powerful to execute all His wise decrees. Here therefore is the wisdom of the contented man, to let God choose for him: for when we have given up our wills to Him, and stand in that station of the battle where our great General hath placed us, our spirits must needs rest while our conditions have for their security the power, the wisdom, and the charity of God.
Contentedness in all accidents brings great peace of spirit, and is the great and only instrument of temporal felicity. It removes the sting from the accident, and makes a man not to depend upon chance and the uncertain dispositions of men for his well-being, but only on God and his own spirit. We ourselves make our own fortunes good or bad; and when God lets loose a tyrant upon us, or a sickness, or scorn, or a lessened fortune, if we fear to die, or know not to be patient, or are proud, or covetous, then the calamity sits heavy on us. But if we know how to manage a noble principle, and fear not death so much as a dishonest action, and think impatience a worse evil than a fever, and pride to be the biggest disgrace, and poverty to be infinitely desirable before the torments of covetousness; then we who now think vice to be so easy, and make it so familiar, and think the cure so impossible, shall quickly be of another mind, and reckon these accidents amongst things eligible.
But no man can be happy that hath great hopes and great fears of things without, and events depending upon other men, or upon the chances of fortune. The rewards of virtue are certain, and our provisions for our natural support are certain; or, if we want meat till we die, then we die of that disease, and there are many worse than to die with an atrophy or consumption, or unapt and coarser nourishment. But he that suffers a transporting passion concerning things within the power of others, is free from sorrow and amazement no longer than his enemy shall give him leave; and it is ten to one but he shall be smitten then and there where it shall most trouble him: for so the adder teaches us where to strike, by her curious and fearful defending of her head. The old Stoics when you told them of a sad story, would still answer: [Greek]; What is that to me? Yes, for the tyrant hath sentenced you also to prison. Well, what is that? He will put a chain upon my leg, but he cannot bind my soul. No: but he will kill you. Then Ill die. If presently, let me go, that I may presently be freer than himself: but if not till anon or to-morrow, I will dine first, or sleep, or do what reason and nature calls for, as at other times. This in Gentile philosophy is the same with the discourse of S. Paul, I have learned in whatsoever state I am therewith to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: everywhere and in all things I am instructed, both how to be full and how to be hungry, both to abound and suffer need.
We are in the world like men playing at tables; the chance is not in our power, but to play it is; and when it is fallen we must manage it as we can; and let nothing trouble us, but when we do a base action, or speak like a fool, or think wickedly: these things God hath put into our powers; but concerning those things which are wholly in the choice of another, they cannot fall under our deliberation, and therefore neither are they fit for our passions. My fear may make me miserable, but it cannot prevent what another hath in his power and purpose: and prosperities can only be enjoyed by them who fear not at all to lose them; since the amazement and passion concerning the future takes off all the pleasure of the present possession. Therefore if thou hast lost thy land, do not also lose thy constancy: and if thou must die a little sooner, yet do not die impatiently. For no chance is evil to him that is content, and to a man nothing miserable, unless it be unreasonable. No man can make another man to be his slave, unless he hath first enslaved himself to life and death, to pleasure or pain, to hope or fear: command these passions, and you are freer than the Parthian kings.