With the delight of a discoverer, I have stumbled upon a common thread woven through literary works across the sweep of time: whether it is a famed warrior, a ruined archangel, or an aspiring queen, each character makes a vivid claim about which station in life is preferable. They all champion the lower station over the higher. The first character makes the claim earnestly, the second defiantly, and the third ironically.
From Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey (Book 11), Odysseus visits the underworld and encounters the shade of his fellow Achaean comrade, Achilles:
But you, Achilles,
there’s not a man in the world more blest than you—
there never has been, never will be one.
Time was, when you were alive, we Argives
honored you as a god, and now down here, I see,
you lord it over the dead in all your power.
So grieve no more at dying, great Achilles.’
I reassured the ghost, but he broke out, protesting,
‘No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus!
By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man—
some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive—
than rule down here over all the breathless dead.’
From John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost (Book 1), Satan confers with Beelzebub about their “miserable fall” to Hell:
“Is this the region, this the soil, the clime,”
Said then the lost Archangel, “this the seat
That we must change for Heaven?—this mournful gloom
For that celestial light? Be it so, since he
Who now is sovereign can dispose and bid
What shall be right: farthest from him is best
Whom reason hath equalled, force hath made supreme
Above his equals. Farewell, happy fields,
Where joy for ever dwells! Hail, horrors! hail,
Infernal world! and thou, profoundest Hell,
Receive thy new possessor—one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less than he
Whom thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure; and, in my choice,
To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.
But wherefore let we then our faithful friends,
Th’ associates and co-partners of our loss,
Lie thus astonished on th’ oblivious pool,
And call them not to share with us their part
In this unhappy mansion, or once more
With rallied arms to try what may be yet
Regained in Heaven, or what more lost in Hell?”
From William Shakespeare’s historical drama King Henry VIII (Act 2), Anne Bullen, who possesses a hidden ambition to become the king’s next wife, feigns both pity toward the beleaguered Queen Katherine and contentment with her present condition: