The Vanity of Human Wishes

by Samuel Johnson

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What remedies does Samuel Johnson offer for suffering due to vain wishes in "The Vanity of Human Wishes"?

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Near the end of his poem “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” Samuel Johnson describes the kinds of things humans can and should hope for and the kinds of behavior they should exhibit.  For example, the speaker of the poem counsels his readers to

Still raise for Good the supplicating Voice,
But leave to Heav'n the Measure and the Choice.
Safe in his Pow'r, whose Eyes discern afar
The secret Ambush of a specious Pray'r.
Implore his Aid, in his Decisions rest,
Secure whate'er he gives, he gives the best.

In other words, the speaker advises his readers to ask for goodness (both in oneself and in others); to allow God to decide the kind and amount of goodness one receives; to trust in God’s judgments (especially his judgments of the sincerity and worth of prayers); to ask God for help and to accept whatever choices he makes; and to rest confident in the knowledge that whatever God provides to a person, he provides what is best for that person.

Specifically, the poet suggests that his readers should

Pour forth thy Fervours for a healthful Mind,
Obedient Passions, and a Will resign'd;
For Love, which scarce collective Man can fill;
For Patience sov'reign o'er transmuted Ill;
For Faith, that panting for a happier Seat,
Thinks Death kind Nature's Signal of Retreat:
These Goods for Man the Laws of Heav'n ordain,
These Goods he grants, who grants the Pow'r to gain;
With these celestial Wisdom calms the Mind,
And makes the Happiness she does not find.

In other words, readers should ask God for the following gifts: a healthy intellect; controlled emotions; and desires that are subdued to God’s wishes. Readers should also ask for genuine love; for the ability to deal patiently with any kind of ill; and for sincere religious faith that will allow them to look forward to heaven and not be afraid of death. God gives these gifts to humans by giving humans the ability to pursue them, if they choose to do so. God’s providence gives humans peace of mind and offers the kind of bliss that cannot be attained by pursuing mere worldly wishes.

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