Item of the Day: Sterne’s Sermons in The Works… (1803)

Full Title:  The Works of Laurence Sterne, Complete in Eight Volumes. Containing I. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. II. A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy, and Continuation. III. Sermons. IV. Letters. V. The Fragment. VI. The Koran. VII. History of a Good Warm Coat. With A Life of the Author, Written by Himself. Vol. V. Edinburgh: Printed by J. Turnbull, Anchor-Close, for Gray, Maver, & Co. Booksellers, Glasgow, 1803.

Sermon I.  Inquiry After Happiness

Psalm iv. 6.

There be many that say, Who shall show us any good?–Lord, lift thou up the light of thy countenance upon us. 

The great pursuit of man is after happiness:  it is the first and strongest desire of his nature;–in every stage of his life, he searches for it as for hid treasure;–courts it under a thousand different shapes,–and, though perpetually disappointed, still persists–runs after and inquires for it afresh–asks every passenger who comes in his way, Who will show him any good?—who will assist him in the attainment of it, or direct him to the discovery of this great end of all his wishes?

He is told by one to search for it among the more gay and youthful pleasures of life, in scenes of mirth and sprightliness, where happiness ever presides, and is ever to be known by the joy and laughter which he will see at once painted in her looks.

A second, with a graver aspect, points out to the costly dwellings which pride and extravagance have erected–tells the inquirer, that the object he is in search of inhabits there–that happiness lives only in company with the great, in the midst of much pomp and outward state. That he will easily find her out by the coat of many colours she has on, and the great luxury and expense of equipage and furniture with whish she always sits surrounded.

The miser blesses God!–wonders how any one would mislead, and wilfully put him upon so wrong a scent–convinces him that happiness and extravagance never inhabited under the same roof–that if he would not be disappointed in his search, he must look into the plain and thrifty dwelling of the prudent man, who knows and understands the worth of money, and cautiously lays it up against an evil hour: that it is not the prosititution of wealth upon the passions, of the parting with it at all, that constitutes happiness–but that it is the keeping it together, and the HAVING and HOLDING it fast to him and his heirs for ever, which are the chief attributes that form this great idol of human worship, to which so much incense is offered up every day […]

To close all–the philosopher meets him bustling in the full career of this pursuit–stops him–tells him, if he is in search of happiness, he is far gone out of his way.

That this deity has long been banished from noise and tumults, where there was no rest found for her, and was fled into solitude far from all commerce of the world; and, in a word, if he would find her, he must leave this busy and intriguing scene, and go back to that peaceful scene of retirement and books, from which he first set out.

In this circle, too often, does a man run,–tries all experiments,–and generally sits down, wearied and disatisfied with them all at last–in utter despair of ever accomplishing what he wants–nor knowing what to trust to after so many disappointments; or where to lay the fault, whether in the incapacity of his own nature, or the insufficiency of the enjoyments themselves. 

In this uncertain and perplexed state–without knowledge which way to turn or where to betake ourselves for refuge–so often abused and deceived by the many who pretend thus to show us any goog–LORD! says the Psalmist, lift up the light of thy countenance upon us.  Send us some rays of thy grace and heavenly wisdom, in this benighted search after happiness, to direct us safely to it.  O GOD! let us not wander for ever without a guide, in this dark region, in endless pursuit of our mistaken good, but enlighten our eyes that we sleep not in death–open to them the comforts of thy holy word and religion–lift up the light of thy countenance upon us,–and make us know the joy and satisfaction of living in the true faith and fear of Thee, which only can carry us to this haven of rest where we would be–that sure haven, where true joys are to be found, which will at length not only answer all our expectations–but satisfy the most unbounded of our wishes for ever and ever […]

And though in our pilgrimage through this world–some of us may be so fortunate as to meet with some clear fountains by the way, that may cool, for a few moments, the heat of this great thirst of happiness–yet our Saviour, who knew the world, though he enjoyed but little of it, tells us, that whosoever drinketh this water will thirst again:–and we all find by experience it is so, and by reason that it always must be so. 

I conclude with a short observation upon Solomon’s evidence in this case.

Never did the busy brain of a lean and hectic chemist search for the philosopher’s stone with more pains and ardour than this great man did after happiness.–He was one of the wisest inquirers into Nature–had tried all her powers and capacities, and after a thousand vain speculations and vile experiments, he affirmed at length, it lay hid in no one thing he had tried; like the chemists projections, all had ended in smoke, or what was worse, in vanity and vexation of spirit:–the conclusion of the whole matter was this–that he advises every man who would be happy, to fear God and keep his commandments.

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