Finding Success in Life
What does it mean to be successful in life? What goals, if achieved, would make us feel that our lives have been a success? All men and women think these thoughts, especially when they are young, and sometimes the answers they give themselves determine the later trajectories of their lives. These were precisely the questions that agitated many writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and it is no wonder that different writers came up with different answers. Here I would like to consider two visions of success in life, one presented by Jonathan Swift in the eighteenth century, and the other by Robert Browning in the nineteenth.
In the Second Book of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels the eponymous hero is trying to impress the king of Brobdingnag with the great “achievements” of European civilization. Though he is a puny midget whom the gigantic king can hold in the palm of his hand, Gulliver has an inflated notion of the “greatness” of Europeans and a low opinion of the “ignorance” of the king. He boasts about British politicians’ use of mystery, intrigue and secrets and that thousands of books have been written on the subject of politics. To this the king replies “that whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass, to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together.”
Swift’s message is clear. The great schemes of projectors and politicians get us nowhere. Rather than aiming big one should concentrate on doing what is feasible. Setting modest goals and then achieving them, thereby conferring a small but clearly noticeable amount of good on society, is a better way of spending one’s life than failing to implement grandiose, indeed impossible plans and thereby conferring no benefit on mankind.
Directly opposed to this practical vision is that of Browning in “A Grammarian’s Funeral.” The grammarian, a Renaissance man, had devoted his whole life to the acquisition of knowledge. He wanted to know everything, understand and explain everything. Of course he failed, for death caught up with him before he could fulfill his ambition. Now his students are carrying his corpse to the highest mountain peak as the appropriate resting place for him, and they contrast his magnificent failure against the piddling successes of the small man:
That low man goes on adding one to one,
His hundred’s soon hit;
This high man, with a great thing to pursue,
Misses an unit.”
The students clearly think that it is better to fail in the grand pursuit of an impossible dream than to achieve modest success in modest ambitions. The “low man” may succeed, but he remains low. The high man fails, but it is precisely in his failure that his greatness is seen.
Pitted here we have the realistic versus the idealistic notions of life. What do we wish to be, modest successes or magnificent failures? Each man and woman has to decide for him/herself. Literature suggests different visions of how to live life. It does not provide final or definitive answers.
Brijraj Singh was educated at St. John’s College, Agra, Lincoln College, Oxford, where he was a and Yale University, where he went for a Ph.D. on a Fulbright fellowship. He taught in his alma mater in Agra, St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, North-Eastern Hill University, Delhi University, and Hostos Community College of the City University of New York. He is the author of five books and nearly fifty scholarly essays, articles and reviews. He has presented papers at numerous conferences, and is a past president of the East-Central American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies.