Irish-born English Playwright, Essayist and Editor
Richard Steele, fully Sir Richard Steele
Irish-born English Playwright, Essayist and Editor
When Virgil describes a wit, he always means a virtuous man; and all his sentiments of men of genius are such as show persons distinguished from the common level of mankind; such as place happiness in the contempt of low fears, and mean gratifications: fears which we are subject to with the vulgar; and pleasures which we have in common with beasts.
When you talk of the subject of love, and the relations arising from it, methinks you should take care to leave no fault unobserved which concerns the state of marriage. The great vexation that I have observed in it is, that the wedded couple seem to want opportunities of being often alone together, and are forced to quarrel and be fond before company. Mr. Hotspur and his lady, in a room full of their friends, are ever saying something so smart to each other, and that but just within rules, that the whole company stand in the utmost anxiety and suspense, for fear of their falling into extremities which they could not be present at. On the other side, Tom Faddle and his pretty spouse, wherever they come, are billing and cooing at such a rate as they think must do our hearts good to behold them. Cannot you possibly propose a mean between being wasps and doves in public?
Whenever you commend, add your reasons for doing so: it is this which distinguishes the approbation of a man of sense from the flattery of sycophants and admiration of fools.
With such inclinations in my heart, I went to my closet yesterday evening, and resolved to be sorrowful; upon which occasion I could not but look with disdain upon myself, that though all the reasons which I had to lament the loss of many of my friends are now as forcible as at the moment of their departure, yet did not my heart swell with the same sorrow which I felt at that time: but I could, without tears, reflect upon many pleasing adventures I have had with some, who have long been blended with common earth. Though it is by the benefit of nature, that length of time thus blots out the violence of afflictions; yet with tempers too much given to pleasure, it is almost necessary to revive the old places of grief in our memory; and ponder step by step on past life, to lead the mind into that sobriety of thought which poises the heart, and makes it beat with due time, without being quickened with desire, or retarded with despair, from its proper and equal motion.
With the greatest softness and benevolence imaginable, he is impartial in spite of all importunity, even that of his own good nature. He is ever clear in his judgment: but in complaisance to his company speaks with doubt; and never shows confidence in argument, but to support the sense of another. Were such an equality of mind the general endeavor of all men, how sweet would be the pleasures of conversation! He that is loud would then understand that we ought to call a constable; and know that spoiling good company is the most heinous way of breaking the peace.
You men are writers, and can represent us women as unbecoming as you please in your works, while we are unable to return the injury. You have twice or thrice observed in your discourse, that hypocrisy is the very foundation of our education; and that an ability to dissemble our affections is a professed part of our breeding. These and such other reflections are sprinkled up and down the writings of all ages, by authors, who leave behind them memorials of their resentment against the scorn of particular women, in invectives against the whole sex.
You see in no place of conversation the perfection of speech so much as in accomplished women. Whether it be that there is a partiality irresistible when we judge of that sex, or whatever it is, you may observe a wonderful freedom in their utterance, and an easy flow of words, without being distracted (as we often are who read much) in the choice of dictions and phrases.
When the mind has been perplexed with anxious cares and passions, the best method of bringing it to its usual state of tranquility is, as much as we possibly can, to turn our thoughts to the adversities of persons of higher consideration in virtue and merit than ourselves. By this means all the little incidents of our own lives, if they are unfortunate, seem to be the effect of justice upon our faults and indiscretions. When those whom we know to be excellent, and deserving of a better fate, are wretched, we cannot but resign ourselves, whom most of us know to merit a much worse state than that we are placed in.
We reject many eminent virtues, if they are accompanied with one apparent weakness. The reflecting after this manner made me account for the strange delight men take in reading lampoons and scandal, with which the age abounds, and of which I receive frequent complaints. Upon mature consideration, I find it is principally for this reason that the worst of mankind, the libelers, receive so much encouragement in the world. The low race of men take a secret pleasure in finding an eminent character levelled to their condition by a report of its defects; and keep themselves in countenance, though they are excelled in a thousand virtues, if they believe they have in common with a great person any one fault. The libeler falls in with this humor, and gratifies the baseness of temper which is naturally an enemy to extraordinary merit.
We see a world of pains taken, and the best years of life spent, in collecting a set of thoughts in a college for the conduct of life, and, after all, the man so qualified shall hesitate in his speech to a good suit of clothes, and want common sense before an agreeable woman. Hence it is that wisdom, valor, justice, and learning cannot keep a man in countenance that is possessed with these excellences, if he wants that inferior art of life and behavior, called good breeding. A man endowed with great perfections, without this, is like one who has his pockets full of gold, but always wants change for his ordinary occasions.
Were men so enlightened and studious of their own good, as to act by the dictates of their reason and reflection, and not the opinion of others, conscience would be the steady ruler of human life; and the words truth, law, reason, equity, and religion, could be but synonymous terms for that only guide which makes us pass our days in our own favor and approbation.
Were one to point out a method of education, one could not, methinks, frame one more pleasing or improving than this: where the children get a habit of communicating their thoughts and inclinations to their best friend with so much freedom that he can form schemes for their future life and conduct from an observation of their tempers, and by that means be early enough in choosing their way of life to make them forward in some art or science at an age when others have not determined what profession to follow.
Were there only this single consideration, that we are less masters of ourselves, when we drink in the least proportion above the exigencies of thirst; I say, were this all that could be objected, it were sufficient to make us abhor this vice, but we may go on to say, that as he who drinks but a little is not master of himself, so he who drinks much is a slave to himself. As for my part, I ever esteemed a Drunkard of all vicious persons the most vicious: for, if our actions are to be weighed and considered according to the intention of them, what can we think of him who puts himself into a circumstance wherein he can have no intention at all, but incapacitates himself for the duties and offices of life, by a suspension of all his faculties? If a man considers that he cannot, under the oppression of drink, be a friend, a gentleman, a master, or a subject: that he has so long banished himself from all that is dear, and given up all that is sacred to him: he would even think of a debauch with horror. But when he looks still farther, and acknowledges that he is not only expelled out of all the relations of life, but also liable to offend against them all; what words can express the terror and detestation he would have of such a condition? And yet he owns all this to himself, who says he was drunk last night.
This watch over a man?s self, and the command of his temper, I take to be the greatest of human perfections, and is the effect of a strong and resolute mind. It is not only the most expedient practice for carrying on our designs, but is also very deservedly the most amiable quality in the sight of others. It is a winning deference to mankind which creates an immediate imitation of itself wherever it appears, and prevails upon all who have to do with a person endued with it, either through shame or emulation. I do not know how to express this habit of mind, except you will let me call it equanimity. It is a virtue which is necessary at every hour, in every place, and in all conversations; and it is the effect of a regular and exact prudence. He that will look back upon all the acquaintances he has had in his whole life will find he has seen more men capable of the greatest employments and performances, than such as could, in the general bent of their carriage, act otherwise than according to their own complexion and humor.
What makes this evil the much greater in conversation is, that these humdrum companions seldom endeavor to wind up their narrations into a point of mirth or instruction, which might make some amends for the tediousness of them; but think they have a right to tell anything that has happened within their memory. They look upon matter of fact to be a sufficient foundation for a story, and give us a long account of things, not because they are entertaining or surprising, but because they are true.
Those who begin this course of life without jars at their setting out, arrive within few months at a pitch of benevolence and affection of which the most perfect friendship is but a faint resemblance. As in the unfortunate marriage, the most minute and indifferent things are objects of the sharpest resentment; so in a happy one, they are occasions of the most exquisite satisfaction. For what does not oblige in one we love? What does not offend in one we dislike? For these reasons I take it for a rule, that in marriage, the chief business is to acquire a prepossession in favor of each other. They should consider one another?s words and actions with a secret indulgence. There should always be an inward fondness pleading for each other, such as may add new beauties to everything that is excellent, give charms to what is indifferent, and cover everything that is defective. For want of this kind propensity and bias of mind, the married pair often take things ill of each other, which no one else would take notice of in either of them.
Whatever we do, we should keep the cheerfulness of our spirits, and never let them sink below an inclination at least to be well pleased. The way to this, is to keep our bodies in exercise, our minds at ease. That insipid state wherein neither are in vigor, is not to be accounted any part of our portion of being. When we are in the satisfaction of some innocent pleasure, or pursuit of some laudable design, we are in the possession of life, of human life. Fortune will give us disappointments enough, without our adding to the unhappy side of our account by our spleen or ill humor.
Thus the vain man takes praise for honor; the proud man, ceremony for respect; the ambitious man, power for glory. These three characters are indeed of very near resemblance, but differently received by mankind. Vanity makes men ridiculous; pride, odious; and ambition, terrible. The foundation of all which is, that they are grounded upon falsehood: for if men, instead of studying to appear considerable, were in their own hearts possessors of the requisites for esteem, the acceptance they otherwise unfortunately aim at would be as inseparable from them, as approbation is from truth itself.
When a woman is deliberating with herself whom she shall choose of many near each other in other pretensions, certainly he of best understanding is to be preferred. Life hangs heavily in the repeated conversation of one who has no imagination to be tired at the several occasions and objects which come before him, or who cannot strike out of his reflections new paths of pleasing discourse.
Thus to contradict our desires, and to conquer the impulses of our ambition, if they do not fall in with what we in our inward sentiments approve, is so much to our interest, and so absolutely necessary to our real happiness, that to contemn all the wealth and power in the world, where they stand in competition with a man?s honor, is rather good sense than greatness of mind.
When easy writings fall into the hands of an ordinary reader, they appear to him so natural and unlabored, that he immediately resolves to write, and fancies that all he hath to do is to take no pains. Thus he thinks, indeed, simply, but the thoughts, not being chosen with judgment, are not beautiful: he, it is true, expresses himself plainly, but flatly withal. Again, if a man of vivacity takes it into his head to write this way, what self-denial must he undergo when bright points of wit occur to his fancy! How difficult will he find it to reject florid phrases and pretty embellishments of style! So true it is, that simplicity of all things is the hardest to be copied, and ease to be acquired with the greatest labor.
Thus, we see, every man is the maker of his own fortune; and, what is very odd to consider, he must in some measure be the trumpeter of his own fame; not that men are to be tolerated who directly praise themselves: but they are to be endued with a sort of defensive eloquence, by which they shall be always capable of expressing the rules and arts whereby they govern themselves.
When I find myself awakened into being, and perceive my life renewed within me, and at the same time see the whole face of nature recovered out of the dark uncomfortable state in which it lay for several hours, my heart overflows with such secret sentiments of joy and gratitude, as are a kind of implicit praise to the great Author of Nature. The mind, in these early seasons of the day, is so refreshed in all its faculties, and borne up with such new supplies of animal spirits, that she finds herself in a state of youth, especially when she is entertained with the breath of flowers, the melody of birds, the dews that hang upon the plants, and all those other sweets of nature that are peculiar to the morning.
Thus, with all the good intentions in the world to amendment, this creature sins on against Heaven, himself, his friends, and his country, who all call for a better use of his talents. There is not a being under the sun so miserable as this: he goes on in a pursuit he himself disapproves, and has no enjoyment but what is followed by remorse; no relief from remorse but the repetition of his crime. It is possible I may talk of this person with too much indulgence; but I must repeat it that I think this a character which is the most the object of pity of any in the world. The man in the pangs of the stone, gout, or any acute distemper is not in so deplorable a condition, in the eye of right sense, as he that errs and repents, and repents and errs on.
When I had run over several such in my thoughts, I concluded, however unaccountable the assertion might appear at first sight, that good-nature was an essential quality in a satirist, and that all the sentiments which are beautiful in this way of writing must proceed from that quality in the author. Good-nature produces a disdain of all baseness, vice, and folly: which prompts them to express themselves with smartness against the errors of men, without bitterness towards their persons. This quality keeps the mind in equanimity, and never lets an offence unseasonably throw a man out of his character. When Virgil said, ?he that did not hate Bavius might love M‘vius,? he was in perfect good humor; and was not so much moved at their absurdities as passionately to call them sots or blockheads in a direct invective, but laughed at them with a delicacy of scorn, without any mixture of anger.