Happiness, according to William Law12 min read

“Happiness.” it has been said, “is no laughing matter.” 1 lThe book, published in 1729, that brought William Law eminence in spiritual literature, offers grave and lucid reasons together with lively and imaginative illustrations to show that a desire for happiness and a vocation for it are not necessarily the same thing. The book might have been entitled “A Serious Call to Happiness”. It was in fact called “A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life”, and to those who might imagine that such a life is unattractive, Law says in his own way what mystics of all traditions have discovered down the ages:

“How ignorant are they of the nature of Religion, of the nature of man and of the nature of God, who think a life of strict piety and devotion to God to be a dull, uncomfortable state; when it is so plain and certain that there is neither comfort nor joy to be found in anything else?”

Was one who spent the last part of his life in company with two elderly ladies, with hardly any contact with the world, qualified to write treatises on spiritual matters? William Law, born in 1686, was the son of a village grocer and chandler, who became a scholar, was elected Fellow at Cambridge and ordained. While he was a curate in London he spent some time courting fashionable society and was known as a great beau and wit.

On the accession of George I, Law lost his fellowship and all prospect of employment in the Church, as he refused to take the oath of allegiance and abjuration. Soon after this, in 1717, he began to make himself known as a writer of distinction, while in 1726 his work took on a devotional nature. By this time he was well versed in mystical literature, particularly the work of St. Thomas a Kempis, Ruysbroek, Tauler and the Theologia Germanica. It is thought possible that some six years earlier Law had made a final act of self-renunciation: he had become deeply influenced by the German mystic Jacob Boehme, through whom his conception of virtue (which until then had seemed to him to be merely a form of reasonable selflove) was transformed.

Through this influence, on which some orthodox Christians looked askance, Law became a better, more lovable and wiser man, who learned virtue, as he said, through life itself, as a living thing—“as one God, one Good and one Goodness”.

Happiness, according to William Law, does not depend upon what happens to a man, but upon what he is; and what he is depends, he says, wholly upon the will of God. While at Cambridge, he drew up a set of rules for his conduct, the first one of which was: “to fix it deep in my mind that I have one business upon my hands—to seek for eternal happiness by doing the will of God”. The effort that Law made to bring his whole outer life into conformity with his inner conviction brought for him the peace, freedom and contentment that he enjoyed in his last years.

“He left,” says Gibbon the historian, “the reputation of a worthy and pious man, who believed all that he professed and practised all that he enjoyed”

The right ordering of life, regularity of prayer and the offering up of time, energy, talent and fortune are themes to which Law constantly returns in his book. He shows that this way of life not only teaches man the government of himself but calls forth that tenderness of mind which is the outcome of constant recollection. Above all he wishes to convey that the holy and devout life is one that is wholly devoted or given to God, and that only such a life is capable of receiving real joy.

If the disciplines do not engender gratitude, then Law declares them to be false. “He who is always thankful to God, who wills everything that God willeth, who receives everything as an instant of God’s goodness and has a heart ready to praise God for it” is, he says, as one who can virtually work his own miracles, for in this way calamities are turned into blessings and everything that is touched turns into joy.

In contrast to the deep joys of the spiritual life, the shallow pleasures of the world, as pursued by a number of imaginary characters, are spread out—“the trifling joys and gugaw happiness of “Feliciana” for instance, which bring her hardly a pleasant day in all her life. The constant changing of clothes, the endless visits, the artful, easy, polite talk about nothing, the hypocritical compliments, imaginary affronts and gossip make up the little sum of happiness of one who dare not meditate on the immortality of her soul and of her relationship with God. As for “Succus” when he talks of happiness he has only his bed and his dinner in his thoughts and thereby orders all the rest of his time in relation to them. In “Flatus” Law shows up the misery of those who are left to their own passions. Flatus is healthy, wealthy and unwise.

Every time you see him he has something new on hand, something that will do more for him than anything in the past. At first it was fine clothes, then gaming, and then the diversions of the town. Growing sick of these he had recourse to drinking, whereupon he entered the field and leaped more ditches and hedges than had ever been known in so short a time. After which he began to outdo all in the pleasures of building. Finding too much to complain of among masons and carpenters he began to find his happiness riding about.

Fatigued, he decided to go abroad, but could not bear the impertinence of foreigners. Sitting up all hours to learn Italian he thought he might understand opera better than other people. Flatus is very ill-natured, but has begun to reflect. Should he try any of his cast-off ways again? No, he now decides to live on herbs and run about the country to keep himself in trim.

In this way the reader is invited to look at the “ridiculous poor enjoyments” that so many are forced, by passions and habit, to take up with. The attempt to be happy in this way Law likens to the act of lifting up an empty cup again and again in the futile attempt to satisfy a thirst. As for the people who actually envy those who enjoy themselves so meanly, he wonders if they would really envy one they saw drinking poison from a golden cup?

Although prosperity is coveted by the majority and adversity is feared by most, Law would have his readers ponder on how many souls adversity has sent to heaven and how many prosperity has plunged into hell. If only man could learn from the dissatisfaction inherent in all finite pursuits he would not think it dull or tiresome to prepare himself for the happiness of God.

Having exposed the inadequacy of pleasure to bring happiness to man, Law unveils the great obstruction, pride, in all its vain and unholy glory. To labour in a calling with a desire to excel in it is what he calls “odious to God”, that is, incapable of being offered to Him. Some might ask how young people in particular would be stirred to industry did not ambition spur them on. William Law asks them to think how young people educated by our Lord would work.

Did the apostles who lived in the humble spirit of their Master cease to work actively for the good of all? In this way Law indicates that example is the best teacher of humility. That it is a quality difficult to come by, that it is contrary to the natural habit of the mind and general temper of the world is fully investigated and the need to unlearn all that pertains to passions and the opinion and fashion of the times is emphasised.

An entire chapter is given to the special difficulty that daughters have in entering the humble way of life, since parents and relatives seem to have no other wish than they should look well and dance admirably. Law does not seem to think that women are naturally vain anymore than that butchers are naturally cruel, but that vanity was wrought in them by the education they received which seemed designed to increase the weakness of their minds.

William Law was fully aware how deep seated is the desire to make an impression in the world. How many, he says, are afraid of being eminent before God lest they appear small in the eyes of men. He was fully conscious of the power of the world to which most men gave blind allegiance and which carried them along as by a torrent. Yet he knew that unless one took a stand in the midst of it all, opened one’s eyes and examined the value of what the world admires one could live only as its slave. One of the ways of reducing the fear of public opinion which Law recommends is that one should reflect how soon we shall be disregarded and not thought of any more than “the poorest animal that dy’d in a ditch”.

Many instances of the secret effects of the poison of pride are given to warn those who seek true humility. As pride grows as much on virtue as on vice those people who have advanced in the spiritual life have great need to be on the alert. Every good thought and action is an occasion for self-satisfaction, while there is “no greater sign of a more confirmed pride than when you think you are humble enough”.

Law shows that before man can be governed by the spirit of humility which is so contrary to the spirit of the world, he must learn to lay aside his own spirit, which is his self-love, and this is why Christianity is so often represented as a new birth. He who is greedy for honour, says Law, makes himself unfit for the mercy of God, but he who has renounced all his ambitions will realise what the man of pride can never know, that he is loved of God and that God wishes him nothing less than eternal joy.

What is the outcome of such a realisation ? Is it not that he should love all God’s creatures also ? Just as he himself was not loved because he was good or wise or holy, but out of compassion, because he needed joy, so should he love his fellows too, not because they merit it but because they need it. If our own crimes and follies do not lessen the seeking of our own good, should those of others lessen our desire to seek their good? Law discovered that he who prays in earnest for another cannot help but love him. So it was with “Ouranius” who, when he first entered holy orders was very haughty and contemptuous.

His poor country village seemed a prison to him and the foolish and unreasonable of his flock made him very impatient, quite unfit, he thought, for the conversation of a gentleman. Therefore he pursued his studies and was not at all pleased when called to pray by some poor body when he was just in the midst of one of Homer’s battels. However, in time devotion got the government of his heart and he pray’d away his pride until he found he could not reverence enough those who had once vexed him so. Every soul became as dear to him as his own self, while his unceasing prayers for their welfare entirely altered the state of his own heart.

Thus it is shown that he who studies his own happiness seriously will find that it is synonymous with the happiness of all, that good will is indeed the will of God. He who wishes ill to any can never be a happy man, while should there be the least taint of self-superiority, such as looking down on those who are unable to follow the spiritual way, the devotee is urged to remember how easily he may fall tomorrow if God left him to himself. Devotion, says Law, can never be pressed on anyone, but it can be recommended as the best and happiest way of life.

That it requires great courage is reserved for the last pages of the book; not the courage of the soldier on the battlefield, but of one who knows he cannot lift a hand or stir a finger without power lent to him by God. His call to happiness, then, is a serious one, it is no laughing matter, it is not for “the double-minded one who is unstable in all his ways”.

There must be many who have been grateful to William Law for having had the courage to write a book which rings with such conviction. Among them was Dr. Johnson who, when at Oxford, said: “I took it up expecting to find a dull book and perhaps to laugh at it, but I found it quite an over-match for me; and this was the first occasion of thinking in earnest of religion after I had become capable of religious enquiry.” An enquirer into truth will soon realise that this book is not written simply to spoil his sport in the pleasures of the world but to call to that element in him which can respond to joy, that he may see: “that all worldly attainments, whether of greatness, wisdom or bravery, are but empty sounds; and that there is nothing wise or great or noble in a human spirit but rightly to know and heartily to adore the great God that is the support and life of all spirits whether in heaven or on earth.”