A person can live in a narrow world or a wider universe. He can live in a state of stagnation with no goals or ambitions, or keep his life in motion with desires and hopes.
In Robert Frost’s “The Death of the Hired Man,” Silas, the irresponsible hired man, suffers from “nothing to look backward to with pride,/And nothing to look forward to with hope” because he lives from hand to mouth. In Dr. Johnson’s Rasselas, a restless prince, restricted to a confined existence in Happy Valley, complains, “Give me something to desire.” If he had a desire, it would excite a wish, and that wish would motivate actions to satisfy his longings. Then the tedium of time would not oppress him with its monotony.
No matter a person’s age or accomplishments, everyone needs a pursuit to occupy the mind and provide a sense of usefulness and productivity lest boredom and weariness afflict the human spirit with the melancholy and the sluggishness that monks called “the noon-day demon”—the feeling of tiredness and apathy that besets a person in the middle of things. The art of living recognizes the human need to look forward to some achievement or to anticipate some pleasure in the future that keeps a person engaged and hopeful and that keeps at bay the sin of sloth that the noon-day demon breeds.
The art of living well depends on a person’s state of mind as well as the satisfaction of basic human physical needs. The prince notices that human beings, unlike cows, have “some latent sense” that transcends the gratification of animals when they eat and drink. Observing that while the beasts of the field find contentment when their hunger and thirst are satisfied, Rasselas acknowledges that man possesses “some desires distinct from sense” that require special cultivation for human happiness. While a cow “is hungry and crops the grass,” man’s eating and drinking do not quench his human appetite for higher pleasures: “I am, like him, pained with want but am not, like him, satisfied with fullness.”
Man needs a life of the mind to satisfy his deepest desires. The art of living recognizes the role of the mind in the achievement of happiness. The mind not only needs to be occupied with some worthy goal or natural ambition but also requires the experience of growth and the possession of truth. Imlac, a wise sage, explains to the prince that happiness depends on a state of mind “replete with images,” that is, a mind that receives constant stimulation from a variety of sources: “we grow more happy as our minds take a wider range.” We must always have aspirations and acquire new interests.
To keep a person’s life in motion and to avoid stagnation, a person must replenish the thoughts, memories, and ideas that occupy the mind with new “images,” fresh experiences, impressions from travel, benefits from conversations, learning from books, the cultivation of friendships, and varying sights. For the mind to take “a wider range” and to be “replete with images,” a person must supply the mind with knowledge and experiences gained from a multitude of sources, not just from one subject or field of specialization. Life experiences need to complement abstract ideas or formal learning. The wisdom of books and authority needs to enrich life’s experiences.
When a person’s mind is filled with this variety of images, he can then vary and combine them, seeing comparisons and making distinctions that lead to truth. To keep life in motion, then, means not only having goals and ambitions but also growing in knowledge and wisdom. When the mind takes “a wider range,” it recognizes universal truths about human nature, the moral law, and divine revelation. The state of mind in possession of the truth always enjoys repose—“the latent sense” and “desire distinct from sense” whose fulfillment always contributes the most to human happiness.
What desires and hopes keep your life in motion? How do you keep the “noon-day demon” at bay? What life experience of yours has complemented an abstract idea or formal learning?