A Reading of ‘The Character of a Happy Life’ by Sir Henry Wotton
The Character of a Happy Life
How happy is he born and taught
That serveth not another’s will;
Whose armour is his honest thought
And simple truth his utmost skill!
Whose passions not his masters are,
Whose soul is still prepared for death,
Not tied unto the world with care
Of public fame, or private breath;
Who envies none that chance doth raise
Or vice; Who never understood
How deepest wounds are given by praise;
Nor rules of state, but rules of good:
Who hath his life from rumours freed,
Whose conscience is his strong retreat;
Whose state can neither flatterers feed
Nor ruin make oppressors great;
Who God doth late and early pray
More of His grace than gifts to lend;
And entertains the harmless day
With a well-chosen book or friend:
This man is freed from servile bands
Of hope to rise, or fear to fall;
Lord of himself, though not of lands;
And having nothing, yet hath all.
What is the secret to happiness? Countless self-help books claim they have the answer. There are the three steps to this—and the five steps to that. Still, no one has cracked it, increasing our perplexity and fascination. For Sir Henry Wotton, happiness equals freedom—a freedom that exists somewhere between the extremes of servitude and anarchy.
Wotton begins with his most essential point. The happy man—who of course stands for all of us—obeys no one except himself. If this appears silly or selfish, the imagery of armor reminds us that it is, in fact, heroic. Only the weapons of “honest thought” and “simple truth” will cut through the hypocrisy that threatens to overwhelm and confuse us every day.
Crucially, our well-being is not only imperiled by people who seek to gain power over us, but by ourselves. As the second stanza describes, we must free ourselves from the inner “passions” that would, if unleashed, turn our freedom into chaos. These passions are the hatred, anger and greed that once released cause misery and mayhem to those around us.
The dispassionate soul is the one “prepared for death,” believing that death is the defining moment of life: the moment of religious judgment when virtue is rewarded and vice is punished. In a secular sense, it is the moment when the outcome of all of our choices is reached, leaving later generations to determine whether our life was worthwhile or not.
Wotton continues by saying that anyone pledged to a happy life envies no one who has become successful—which is likely to have been either by “chance” or “vice.” (A few well-known celebrities come to mind…) Those who believe their own hype perhaps never realize just how arbitrary and destructive their fame is. The “deepest wounds” are “given by praise” because flattery feeds pride; whereas happiness relies on transcending the ego.
Yet it’s hard to remain so detached from the world. The “rules of state,” including cultural expectations of how we should behave and what we should aspire to, are often quite separate from “rules of good,” which obey universal morality. Under despotic regimes, the force of government intimidation makes standing up for freedom almost superhuman.
In Wotton’s poem, the source of the speaker’s strength, his imperturbability, is God—an eternal authority that makes the power of tyrants look puny. In the penultimate stanza, the happy man prays “more of His grace than gifts to lend.” In other words, his worship is one of praise, of thanksgiving—not of begging for a better car. We then see the happy man indulging in such modest pleasures as reading a book or seeing a friend. The rhythm adopts a breezy insouciance, evoking a life of graceful ease.
As the final stanza states, this man has nothing, but he has what we all crave. Ultimately, his happiness relies on character in the ethical sense: a basic decency founded on a common sense love of freedom and truth; a skepticism about material wealth; a simple desire not to do others harm; and to enjoy the company of friends. In this context, happiness is perhaps less of an emotional state and more of an activity. It is the quiet peace that arises from the work of one’s hands. If that sounds like a series of platitudes, or merely boring, then perhaps it’s time to find out how easy it is to put into practice…
Sir Henry Wotton (1568-1639) was an English author and diplomat. Christopher Nield is a poet living in London.