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when we inwardly groan under too much already. The wise king saith, Wrath is cruel, and anger
is outrageous : but who can stand before envy* ? Our desire of producing it in others is immoral; for it is a desire of giving them pain : and the imprudence fully equals the guilt. For all pre-eminences, especially when accompanied with ostentation of them, or too visible complacence in them, to which all who have them are extremely subject, stir up malignity in the observers of them: who often find means to make those very miserable, whom they would have let alone, and suffered to go on quietly, if they had not been provoked by thinking them over-happy.
But supposing the advantages, which you pine for, whatever they be, would raise no malice against you, but only admiration of you: how often hath that, nay even the shadow of it, mere flattery, made persons vain and indiscreet, misled them into great errors, and plunged them into grievous misery.
Indeed, without either, all sorts of superiority carry their dangers along with them. If you were placed in a higher station, perhaps you would be at a loss how to behave in it; for there are many difficulties in all such; you would be found by others, you would find yourself, in one respect or another, unequal to it: or if not, it might tempt you to pride and abuse of power. If you were possessed of great wealth, it might lead you, for it hath led many, either
, to endless desires of still more; or to expensiveness and thoughtless extravagance, that would end in distress; or to sensuality and vicious indulgences, or to contemptible indolence and uselessness. Accomplishments of persons expose the possessors of them to immoderate self-esteem, to neglect of useful
* Prov. xxvii, 4.
attainments, to dissipation of their time, often in the unfittest company, to improper freedoms, to great hazards of their reputation and their innocence. Health and strength encourage men to venture upon irregularities, that prove ruinous to both, and to their fortunes at the same time; whilst they, whom infirmity obliges to be careful, prolong their days in comfort. Strength of genius, and extent of knowledge, often bewilder persons in fruitless researches, or prompt them to dangerous and hurtful singularities of opinion: quickness of parts and agreeableness in conversation, frequently betray them into grievous imprudences of various kinds, contrary to their own interest, to the peace of those around them, to piety, morals, and common decency.
But whatever may happen to others, you should enjoy all the benefits of these pre-eminences, and avoid all the evils incident to them. But why do you think so? You are just of the same make with the rest of mankind, and liable to all their frailties. Your confidence in yourself is a mark, not of ability, but of weakness and ignorance in a point of the greatest consequence. If you were but humbler, you would be much safer: and one material source of safety would be, content. For discontent brings people into mischiefs innumerable. It is a painful state in itself: preys upon the spirits, deadens the sense of every enjoyment in life, sours the temper, and produces great wickedness, as well as misery.
Displeasure with their own condition tempts many to aim at bettering it unlawfully, by force or fraud: and dreadful must the uneasiness be, which can drive them to a method of relief so evidently criminal. For however some may pretend they cannot see what right others have to enjoy so much more of the world than themselves; yet let but any one, who hath less enjoyment of it, apply this reasoning to them, and act upon it, then they can perceive exceeding plainly, that his dislike of his own circumstances in any respect, is no manner of reason, or excuse, for his using other than honest means to mend them. For why should their property, their character, their quiet, suffer, because he is uneasy? And yet, what dreadful havock is there often made of all these from no better a motive! The kings and princes of the earth ravage nations, murder and distress millions; the powerful and wealthy, of lower degree, oppress and injure their fellow-creatures in more ways, than can be reckoned up, merely to obtain advantages, perhaps to which they have no title, certainly which they of all men least need, solely because they cannot rest without them; though at the same time they have no satisfaction, worth naming, from them. And in lower life, what numbers are there, who disturb their neighbours, to a great extent sometimes, and put things in a ferment all around them, only to carry some point, which possibly they ought not to carry, or which is of little use to them; nay, it may be, only to grieve" some innocent object of their resentment, or to find any employment, rather than none, which may divert for a time, the inward chagrin, that devours them! So baneful are the fruits of discontent.
But when it is not carried so far, it is often very blameable: as when it incites men to importune and teaze others for favours, to which they have no sufficient pretensions; which is giving them trouble, sometimes a great deal, without any right to do it. And then the next step usually is, complaining, and being angry, and wanting to be revenged on such, as have not done every thing for us that we wanted; though possibly they have done more than we care to own: or they know or find they cannot do what we wish, or are no way obliged to it, or have obligations to the contrary; as they easily may, of more kinds than one.
But even supposing we strive to keep our discontent to ourselves, yet if it rise within us to envy against others, this is a great sin. Barely indeed feeling our own disadvantages or disappointments, the more strongly on the view of another person's pre-eminence or success, is hardly avoidable, and may be nearly or quite innocent. Wishing our own condition were as good, as we take his to be, is not wishing ill to him, but only well to ourselves. But if we grieve, not that we do not enjoy what we would, but that he doth; or secretly rejoice in the sight, or the thought of any misfortune, that may bring him down lower and nearer to us : not only we shall be tempted to do ill, if we can, to one whom we wish ill to; but the wish itself is malice, unprovoked by any injury, (for his superiority to us is no injury ;) the directly contrary disposition to that love and good will, which is, under all provocations, the great precept of humanity and of the Gospel.
Nay further, though we feel no malevolence at all against any one else, yet if the comparative disadvantages of our condition fill us with emotion and inward agitation, we are still in a wrong state of mind. It may seem perhaps, that our desire of any thing, apprehended to be good, must be strong, in proportion as we apprehend it to be a great good. But in reality, we have no desire at all for things that are quite above us; partly, to be sure, because we have no distinct notions of them; but partly also, because we look on them as not belonging to us. Now would we but consider whatever we certainly cannot have, in the same light, and whatever we probably cannot have, in nearly the same, it would save us great uneasiness and guilt. The condition of many, who are much discontented about it, is in truth almost as good as this world admits; for it doth not admit any high happiness: and what can they get then by disquieting themselves that it is not better? moderate desires will excite reasonable endeavours to mend it, if there appears room : and immoderate ones will only add vexation. Sometimes the vehemence of our pursuit is the very cause that we miss our aim. And were it always the likeliest way to success, yet when disappointments happen, as they will frequently happen, it must aggravate the sorrow of them very greatly. Nay, mere delays may give eager spirits much more pain before they attain their ends, than the attainment will ever give them pleasure afterwards. For every one experiences what yet no one will believe, against the next time, that the largest increase of worldly advantages is commonly little or no increase, but often a diminution, of self-enjoyment : though indeed were this otherwise, bringing down our wishes to reason is so much the surer and more practicable method of being easy, than bringing every thing to yield to our wishes, that it scarce needs the further recommendation of being the more virtuous method also.
Still, paying some attention to our wordly interests, is a requisite part of wisdom: and it may be very blameable, not to stretch out our hand and take what Providence offers. But to covet with earnestness, and pursue with impetuosity, an object that seems to fly from us, when God alone knows what it may prove,