Upon BUILDING CASTLES in the Air.
[From a London Paper.] Appeared in The National Gazette, Monday, January 16, 1792.
This is the business, that has produced more great men than are to be met with in history, and wherein a man that has been unfortunate in all others, is sure to succeed, upon the easy condition of applying himself to it in earnest. It must be owned indeed that the pleasures it affords are entirely imaginary, and consequently of a very short and precarious duration. But then as the materials for this kind of architecture are never to seek, and the application to it neither expensive nor laborious, the frequent repetition of the enjoyment makes amends for the fleetingness of its existence. And since reason is only the instrument of happiness, it will justify the most fanciful entertainments, provided they are innocent, when they relieve from a sense of pain, or suspend the sorrows of an afflicted heart, as these are frequently known to do.
Among the Stoicks it was reckoned the truest, the essential character of their wise, their perfect man, that he drew all his enjoyments from himself, and did not depend upon foreign objects for his happiness. Every thing that was not in his own power, that had not its source within himself, or that was capable of being ravished from him, either by the malice of others, or the iniquity of fortune, was, according to them a matter of indifference, and neither to be courted, nor avoided. Upon this hypothesis, a castle-builder will be found to act most philosophically. For the edifices he raises, and the riches he grasps at, are in the strictest propriety his own; so much his own that nobody else can covet his possessions, much less invade them. And though he may be sensible that other people are carrying on their works as well as himself, yet he has still room enough to build on, and need never be afraid of their encroaching on his territories. Nor is it a small addition to his satisfaction that he can reflect on the justness of his title, and dreams in his etherial apartments with a safe conscience, since they are his own, both as to the matter and the form; a circumstance which according to Grotius and Puffendorf, constitutes the fullest and most perfect right.
But to be serious; though people may, and oftentimes do carry sports of their imaginations to an extravagance, and raise themselves into visions that may have an ill influence on the conduct of their lives; yet still this anticipation of felicity in our present state is not only natural but unavoidable. In all human affairs, the end is ever prior to our intention to the means; and we draw the model of a building, and contemplate its beauty, before a single stone be laid in the foundation. To do any otherwise would be to act without reason and design, and make the life of a man as comfortless as that of a brute. So that we are all castle-builders in some degree or another; and the only difference between a rational and whimsical castle-builder lies in one point, that the former is better furnished with mortar than the other, and by that means makes more substantial and durable work, though not so magnificent and beautiful as his competitor. And in some cases, his competitor seems to act the more reasonable of the two, for he makes a shift to enjoy, in some part, the end of his labors every hour of the day whilst the other perhaps consumes a whole life in plodding for the means, and drags on a wearisome being without coming to any end at all: a case but too frequent among the great adventurers for power, riches, and glory, who make the pursuits of avarice and ambition the whole pursuits of life. How happy had it been for the world, and themselves too, had Alexander, Caesar, and Lewis XIV, sat down and peacably dreamt themselves in possession of all that empire and renown, to which they not only sacrificed their own repose, but the peace and welfare of mankind.