Traherne on “Felicitie”

I am currently meandering my way through Happiness and Holiness: Thomas Traherne and his Writings by Denise Inges. Thomas Traherne was a clergyman in the Church of England in the 17th century (roughly 1636 – 1674). He was also a poet, theologian and religious writer. Only two of his works were published in his life, and he was set to be forgotten by all but the most obscure of scholars, until a series of chance circumstances brought to light manuscripts that had been hidden in junk piles, private collections and public libraries for centuries. One manuscript was literally pulled from a burning trash heap with the pages smoldering!

Denise Inge introduces his thoughts through his poetry and other writing, by topic rather than by work, which means that this book is not a collection of his works so much as it is an anthology. As such it is a little disappointing in places to have only bits and pieces, that go one only so long as he was addressing the particular topic that Ms. Inge is covering in that section. However, the tradeoff in terms of organization makes it worth it, as an introduction.

In the particular section I am reading today, Inge is discussing Traherne’s views on happiness, or “Felicitie.” Happiness is one of Traherne’s major themes. After graduating from university where he received he saw that there were instructors on every subject, “Logick, Ethicks, Physicks, Metaphysicks, Geometry, Astronomy, Poesie, Medicine, Grammar, Musick, Rhetorick, all kinds of Arts Trades and Mechanismes” but no instructor that professed to teach “Felicitie.” Since, in his view, happiness was the chief end of man this seemed altogether backwards and he resolved to set himself to the study of happiness, to know what it was and how it might be obtained.

Traherne’s views on happiness are somewhat foreign to our modern concept of it, instructively so. We moderns tend to think of happiness as a feeling. Things outside of ourselves give us happy feelings, and our business, the “pursuit of happiness,” if you will, is to grasp as many of those things that give us happy feelings. If we stop getting happy feelings, then we either do not have enough of those things, or those things are just not working for us anymore and we need to find new things that give us happy feelings. The implication is that if we are not happy it is the fault of the things.

For Traherne, happiness is something real and solid and objective. It is not feelings located in ourselves, but a reality that we pursue and conform ourselves to. Happiness in Traherne’s thought is something real and solid like a mountain. It does not adapt itself to us, we adapt ourselves to it, “All Things were well in their Proper Places, I alone was out of frame and had need to be Mended – for all things were Gods Treasures in their Proper places, and I was to be restored to Gods Image. Wherupon you will not believ how I was withdrawn from all Endeavors of altering and Mending Outward Things. They lay so well, methoughts, they could not be Mended: but I must be Mended to Enjoy them” (#60, Centuries of Meditations, III).

Happiness changes and transforms us by our search for it. The desire for it and the seeking after it are themselves a happiness greater than all the things in the world, because they are, finally, a hunger for God. He says, “A Sight of Happiness is Happiness. It transforms the Soul and makes it Heavenly, it powerfully calls us to Communion with God, and weans us from the Customs of this World” (#60, Centuries of Meditations, III).

His reasoning about happiness is endearingly direct, simple and childlike. He says:

“I was guided by an Implicit faith in Gods Goodness: and therefore led to the Study of the most Obvious and Common Things. For thus I thought within my self: God being as we generaly believ, infinit in Goodness, it is most Consonant and Agreeable with His Nature, that the Best Things should be most Common – for nothing is more Naturall to infinit Goodness,  then to make the Best Things most frequent; and only Things Worthless, Scarce.” (#53, Centuries of Meditations, III).

Guided by this logic he reasons that the most common things, such as air, light, bread, other people, water, sunlight, etc. are the most valuable things, while the rare items that humans prize, such as gold, silver, diamonds and jewels, are actually the least valuable.

After reading that passage I was impressed with the directness, the simplicity, but above all the beautifully childlike trust of that reasoning. It turns upside down our notions of what is and is not valuable, and why they are so. Here is philosophy informed by real holiness, trust of God, and intimacy with Him.

Pity about the Anti-Catholic writings, but other than that I find Traherne most beautiful, reasonable, and profound and I look forward to further reading.

Happiness does not change to suit us. We must be mended to suit Happiness. Happiness does not change to suit us. We must be mended to suit Happiness.

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