A reader has discovered, without realizing the writer’s identity, these lines from Oliver Goldsmith’s “The Traveller; or, a Prospect of Society” (1764):
“How small of all that human hearts endure
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure!
Still to ourselves in every place consign’d,
Our own felicity we make or find.”
I agree with my reader, these couplets are stirring, as hard-won, commonsensical wisdom often is. But they are not Goldsmith’s work. Before publishing his poem, Goldsmith asked Dr. Johnson to read it and edit as necessary. The lines were written by Johnson, who once told Boswell, “Why, Sir, most schemes of political improvement are very laughable things.” Elsewhere in the Life, Johnson says, less convincingly: “I would not give half a guinea to live under one form of Government rather than another. It is of no moment to the happiness of an individual. Sir, the danger of the abuse of power is nothing to a private man.” Of course, Johnson missed the twentieth century and the totalitarian regimes it spawned. John Wain in his 1974 biography of Johnson says of the “laws or kings” lines:
“In this, he was merely being honest. One of the ways in which human beings can be divided up is that some of them are capable of pinning their total faith in a ‘system’ and others are not. All of us know the man (or, just as frequently, the woman) who maintains, and appears sincerely to believe, that if only this or that political system were to swallow all its rivals and prevail the millennium would arrive immediately.”
Like Johnson, Wain is a realist. Their understanding of human nature is seldom naïve. Wain writes:
“What makes the rest of us faintly suspicious is not that we have cut-and-dried counter-arguments but merely that we do not believe that any political system, by itself, can make humanity entirely fulfilled and contented. . . . . No matter who is in power at the top, one’s own struggle goes on.”
Near the conclusion of “The Traveller,” these lines immediately precede Johnson’s quoted above:
“Vain, very vain, my weary search to find
That bliss which only centers in the mind:
Why have I stray’d, from pleasure and repose,
To seek a good each government bestows?
In every government, though terrors reign,
Though tyrant kings, or tyrant laws restrain . . .”