Happy the Man*
Happy the man, and happy he alone,
He who can call today his own:
He who, secure within, can say,
Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today.
Be fair or foul or rain or shine
The joys I have possessed, in spite of fate, are mine.
Not Heaven itself upon the past has power,
But what has been, has been, and I have had my hour.
–Horace (translated by John Dryden, 17th century)
*please read as gender neutral
I turn to this poem when I need the inner strength to get through difficult times. It speaks to the power of character and our ability to weather misfortunes with integrity and fortitude. We are vulnerable, fragile creatures in a world that is mostly beyond our control. And in the small enclaves that we do control, we oftentimes don’t cultivate or strengthen the resources there. This poem suggests that one enclave of control is our character. It tells us to cultivate our characters, or as the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius puts it, to build an inner citadel that protects us from reversals of fortune caused by factors beyond our control. It is here that we will find security. It is here that we can batten down the hatches and ride out the storms of life. “He who, secure within, can say, do thy worst, for I have lived today.”
Yet, this is difficult to do. First off, we don’t spend much time examining ourselves and figuring out who we are and who we want to become. As Montaigne says, “Every man rushes elsewhere and into the future, because no man has arrived at himself.” We spend most of our time looking outward, not inward. Second, once we turn inward, we don’t know what to do with ourselves. For Rilke, it’s not about doing anything, it’s about watching, feeling, and taking in what is going on inside you. It’s also about discovering the organizing principles that govern your life. These principles not only govern our actions but also determine how we see the world. We need to discover in what ways, good or bad, these principles govern our lives. If we can articulate these principles, then we can modify them so that they can support inner growth. The next step, I believe, is to orient our lives around our own conception of the good life, that is, a life that gives us meaning and purpose, a life that helps us flourish as human beings. With our conception of the good life in hand, we now have a measuring stick to judge whether our life aligns with this conception. At times we may be in alignment, at other times not. Without this measuring stick, our lives can feel disorienting, even chaotic.
During this process of discovery and cultivation, we must remember that our characters are not static, or fixed in time, but dynamic and ever changing. As we move through life our character changes through our life experiences, whether good or ill, and through the choices we make, whether right or wrong. They may lead us to question who we are, or what kind of life we want to live. But, it is how we assimilate these experiences and decisions into our lives that’s important.
We may not be able to build, as the Stoics desire, an inner citadel, a fixed place that is impregnable to fortune, but we can plant and cultivate a garden that can bear up against the storms of life. “Be fair or foul or rain or shine, the joys I have possessed, in spite of fate are mine.” We may get tossed about by things outside of our control, but they can’t take away the joys of a life well lived.
Finally, as the poem suggests, we need to appreciate the good things in our lives, and know that our past joys are with us and cannot be taken away. No matter what may happen in the future, and even with the prospect of our garden being utterly destroyed, our past joys are ours to keep. “Not heaven itself upon the past has power, but what has been, has been, and I have had my hour.” The defiance and joy expressed in this poem is just what we need during difficult times.