Irish-born English Playwright, Essayist and Editor
Richard Steele, fully Sir Richard Steele
Irish-born English Playwright, Essayist and Editor
Tully says, virtue and decency are so nearly related that it is difficult to separate them from each other but in our imagination. As the beauty of the body always accompanies the health of it, so certainly is decency concomitant to virtue. As beauty of body, with an agreeable carriage, pleases the eye, and that pleasure consists in that we observe all the parts with a certain elegance are proportioned to each other; so does decency of behavior which appears in our lives obtain the approbation of all with whom we converse, from the order, consistency, and moderation of our words and actions.
When one considers the turn which conversation takes in almost every set of acquaintance, club, or assembly in this town or kingdom, one cannot but observe that, in spite of what I am every day saying, and all the moral writers since the beginning of the world have said, the subject of discourse is generally upon one another?s faults. This, in a great measure, proceeds from self-conceit, which were to be endured in one or other individual person; but the folly has spread itself almost over all the species; and one cannot only say Tom, Jack, or Will, but, in general, ?that man is a coxcomb.? From this source it is, that any excellence is faintly received, any imperfection unmercifully exposed.
We know the highest pleasure our minds are capable of enjoying with composure, when we read sublime thoughts communicated to us by men of great genius and eloquence. Such is the entertainment we meet with in the philosophic parts of Cicero?s writings. Truth and good sense have there so charming a dress, that they could hardly be more agreeably represented with the addition of poetical fiction and the power of numbers.
When our consciousness turns upon the main design of life, and our thoughts are employed upon the chief purpose either in business or pleasure, we shall never betray an affectation, for we cannot be guilty of it; but when we give the passion for praise an unbridled liberty, our pleasure in little perfections robs us of what is due to us for great virtues and worthy qualities. How many excellent speeches and honest actions are lost for want of being indifferent where we ought!
We may range the several kinds of laughter under the following heads:?the dimplers, the smilers, the laughers, the grinners, the horse-laughers. The dimple is practiced to give a grace to the features, and is frequently made a bait to entangle a gazing lover; this was called by the ancients the Chian laugh. The smile is for the most part confined to the fair sex and their male retinue. It expresses our satisfaction in a silent sort of approbation, doth not too much disorder the features, and is practiced by lovers of the most delicate address. This tender motion of physiognomy the ancients called the Ionic laugh. The laugh among us is the common risus of the ancients. The grin, by writers of antiquity is called the Syncrusian; and was then, as it is at this time, made use of to display a beautiful set of teeth. The horse-laugh, or the Sardonic, is made use of with great success in all kinds of disputation. The proficients in this kind, by a well-timed laugh, will baffle the most solid argument. This, upon all occasions, supplies the want of reason; is always received with great applause in coffee-house disputes; and that side the laugh joins with is generally observed to gain the better of his antagonist.
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.
This portable quality of good-humor seasons all the parts and occurrences we meet with, in such a manner that there are no moments lost, but they all pass with so much satisfaction that the heaviest of loads (when it is a load), that of time, is never felt by us. Varilas has this quality to the highest perfection, and communicates it whenever he appears. The sad, the merry, the severe, the melancholy, show a new cheerfulness when he comes among them. At the same time, no one can repeat anything that Varilas has ever said that deserves repetition; but the man has that innate goodness of temper that he is welcome to everybody; because every man thinks he is so to him. He does not seem to contribute anything to the mirth of the company; and yet upon reflection you find it all happened by his being there.
These people are the more dreadful, the more they have of what is usually called wit: for a lively imagination, when it is not governed by a good understanding, makes such miserable havoc both in conversation and business, that it lays you defenseless, and fearful to throw the least word in its way that may give it new matter for its farther errors.
These slight intimations will give you to understand that there are numberless little crimes which children take no notice of while they are doing, which, upon reflection, when they shall themselves become fathers, they will look upon with the utmost sorrow and contrition, that they did not regard before those whom they offended were to be no more seen. How many thousand things do I remember which would have highly pleased my father, and I omitted for no other reason but that I thought what he proposed the effect of humor and old age, which I am now convinced had reason and good sense in it! I cannot now go into the parlor to him and make his heart glad with an account of a matter which was of no consequence, but that I told it and acted in it. The good man and woman are long since in their graves, who used to sit and plot the welfare of us their children, while, perhaps, we were sometimes laughing at the old folks at the other end of the house.
The history I am going to speak of is that of Joseph in Holy Writ, which is related with such majestic simplicity, that all the parts of it strike us with strong touches of nature and compassion; and he must be a stranger to both, who can read it with attention and not be overwhelmed with the vicissitudes of joy and sorrow. I hope it will not be a profanation to tell it one?s own way here, that they who may be unthinking enough to be more frequently readers of such papers as this, than of Sacred Writ, may be advertised that the greatest pleasures the imagination can be entertained with are to be found there, and that even the style of the Scriptures is more than human.
There is a sort of man of wit and sense that can reflect upon his own make and that of his partner with eyes of reason and honor, and who believes he offends against both these if he does not look upon the woman who chose him to be under his protection in sickness and health with the utmost gratitude, whether from that moment she is shining or defective in person or mind: I say there are those who think themselves bound to supply with good-nature the failings of those who love them, and who always think those the objects of love and pity who came to their arms the objects of joy and admiration.
The hours which we spend in conversation are the most pleasing of any which we enjoy: yet methinks there is very little care taken to improve ourselves for the frequent repetition of them. The common fault in this case is that of growing too intimate, and falling into displeasing familiarities; for it is a very ordinary thing for men to make no other use of a close acquaintance with each other?s affairs, but to tease one another with unacceptable allusions. One would pass over patiently such as converse like animals, and salute each other with bangs on the shoulder, sly raps with canes, or other robust pleasantries practiced by the rural gentry of this nation: but even among those who should have more polite ideas of things, you see a set of people who invert the design of conversation, and make frequent mention of ungrateful subjects; nay, mention them because they are ungrateful; as if the perfection of society were in knowing how to offend on the one part, and how to bear an offence on the other.
There is an oblique way of reproof which takes off from the sharpness of it.
The humor of affecting a superior carriage generally rises from a false notion of the weakness of a female understanding in general, or an overweening opinion that we have of our own; for when it proceeds from a natural ruggedness and brutality of temper, it is altogether incorrigible, and not to be amended by admonition. Sir Francis Bacon, as I remember, lays it down as a maxim that no marriage can be happy in which the wife has no opinion of her husband?s wisdom; but, without offence to so great an authority, I may venture to say that a sullen wise man is as bad as a good-natured fool. Knowledge, softened with complacency and good breeding, will make a man equally beloved and respected; but when joined with a severe, distant, and unsociable temper, it creates rather fear than love.
There is another accidental advantage in marriage, which has likewise fallen to my share; I mean the having a multitude of children. These I cannot but regard as very great blessings. When I see my little troop before me, I rejoice in the additions which I have made to my species, to my country, and to my religion, in having produced such a number of reasonable creatures, citizens, and Christians. I am pleased to see myself thus perpetuated.
The lawyer who is vehement and loud in the cause wherein he knows he has not the truth of the question on his side, is a player as to the personated part, but incomparably meaner than he as to the prostitution of himself for hire: because the pleader?s falsehood introduces injustice; the player feigns for no other end but to divert or instruct you.
There is but one thing necessary to keep the possession of true glory, which is to hear the opposers of it with patience, and preserve the virtue by which it was acquired. When a man is thoroughly persuaded that he ought neither to admire, wish for, or pursue anything but what is exactly his duty, it is not in the power of seasons, persons, or accidents to diminish his value. He only is a great man who can neglect the applause of the multitude, and enjoy himself independent of its favor. This is indeed an arduous task; but it should comfort a glorious spirit that it is the highest step to which human nature can arrive. Triumph, applause, acclamation, are dear to the mind of man; but it is a still more exquisite delight to say to yourself, you have done well, than to hear the whole human race pronounce you glorious, except you yourself can join with them in your own reflections. A mind thus equal and uniform may be deserted by little fashionable admirers and followers, but will ever be had in reverence by souls like itself. The branches of the oak endure all the seasons of the year, though its leaves fall off in autumn; and these too will be restored with the returning spring.
The marriage-life is always an insipid, a vexatious, or a happy condition. The first is, when two people of no genius or taste for themselves meet together upon such a settlement as has been thought reasonable by parents and conveyancers, from an exact valuation of the lands and cash of both parties. In this case the young lady?s person is no more regarded than the house and improvements in purchase of an estate; but she goes with her fortune, rather than her fortune with her. These make up the crowd or vulgar of the rich, and fill up the lumber of the human race, without beneficence towards those below them, or respect towards those above them.
There is no calamity in life that falls heavier upon human nature than a disappointment in love; especially when it happens between two persons whose hearts are mutually engaged to each other. It is this distress which has given occasion to some of the finest tragedies that were ever written; and daily fills the world with melancholy, discontent, frenzy, sickness, despair, and death. I have often admired at the barbarity of parents, who so frequently interpose their authority in this grand article of life. I would fain ask Sylvia?s father, whether he thinks he can bestow a greater favor on his daughter, than to put her in the way to live happily?
The men of the greatest character in this kind were Horace and Juvenal. There is not, that I remember, one ill-natured expression in all their writings, not one sentence of severity, which does not apparently proceed from the contrary disposition. Whoever reads them will, I believe, be of this mind; and if they were read with this view, it might possibly persuade our young fellows that they might be very witty men without speaking ill of any but those who deserve it. But, in the perusal of these writers, it may not be unnecessary to consider that they lived in very different times.
There is no character more deservedly esteemed than that of a country gentleman who understands the station in which Heaven and Nature have placed him. He is father to his tenants, and patron to his neighbors, and is more superior to those of lower fortune by his benevolence than his possessions. He justly divides his time between solitude and company so as to use one for the other. His life is spent in the good offices of an advocate, a referee, a companion, a mediator, and a friend. His counsel and knowledge are a guard to the simplicity and innocence of those of lower talents, and the entertainment and happiness of those of equal. When a man in a country life has this turn, as it is hoped thousands have, he lives in a more happy condition than any that is described in the pastoral description of poets, or the vainglorious solitudes recorded by philosophers.
The pedant is so obvious to ridicule, that it would be to be one to offer to explain him. He is a gentleman so well known, that there is none but those of his own class who do not laugh at and avoid him. Pedantry proceeds from much reading and little understanding. A pedant among men of learning and sense is like an ignorant servant giving an account of a polite conversation. You may find he has brought with him more than could have entered into his head without being there, but still that he is not a bit wiser than if he had not been there at all.