Irish-born English Playwright, Essayist and Editor
Richard Steele, fully Sir Richard Steele
Irish-born English Playwright, Essayist and Editor
The happy marriage is where two persons meet and voluntarily make choice of each other without principally regarding and neglecting the circumstances of fortune or beauty. These may still love in spite of adversity or sickness: the former we may, in some measure, defend ourselves from; the other is the portion of our very make.
There is a sort of delight, which is alternately mixed with terror and sorrow, in the contemplation of death. The soul has its curiosity more than ordinarily awakened when it turns its thoughts upon the conduct of such who have behaved themselves with an equal, a resigned, a cheerful, a generous or heroic temper in that extremity. We are affected with these respective manners of behavior, as we secretly believe the part of the dying person imitated by ourselves, or such as we imagine ourselves more particularly capable of. Men of exalted minds march before us like princes, and are to the ordinary race of mankind rather subjects of their admiration than example. However, there are no ideas strike more forcibly upon our imaginations than those which are raised from reflections upon the exits of great and excellent men.
The happy talent of pleasing either those above you or below you, seems to be wholly owing to the opinion they have of your sincerity. This quality is to attend the agreeable man in all the actions of his life; and I think there need no more be said in honor of it than that it is what forces the approbation of your opponents.
There is a sort of littleness in the minds of men of strong sense, which makes them much more insufferable than mere fools, and has the farther inconvenience of being attended by an endless loquacity; for which reason it would be a very proper work if some well-wisher to human society would consider the terms upon which people meet in public places, in order to prevent the unseasonable declamations which we meet there. I remember, in my youth, it was the humor at the university, when a fellow pretended to be more eloquent than ordinary, and had formed to himself a plot to gain all our admiration, or triumph over us with an argument, to either of which he had no manner of call; I say, in either of these cases, it was the humor to shut one eye. This whimsical way of taking notice to him of his absurdity has prevented many a man from being a coxcomb. If amongst us, on such an occasion, each man offered a voluntary rhetorician some snuff, it would probably produce the same effect.
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.
There is no one passion which all mankind so naturally give in to as pride, nor any other passion which appears in such different disguises. It is to be found in all habits and all complexions. Is it not a question whether it does more harm or good in the world; and if there be not such a thing as what we may call a virtuous and laudable pride?
The vexatious life arises from a conjunction of two people of quick taste and resentment, put together for reasons well known to their friends, in which especial care is taken to avoid (what they think the chief of evils) poverty, and insure to them riches, with every evil besides. These good people live in a constant constraint before company, and too great familiarity alone. When they are within observation, they fret at each other?s carriage and behavior; when alone, they revile each other?s person and conduct. In company, they are in purgatory; when alone together, in a hell.
There is no passion so universal, however diversified or disguised under different forms and appearances, as the vanity of being known to the rest of mankind, and communicating a man?s parts, virtues, or qualifications, to the world: this is so strong upon men of great genius that they have a restless fondness for satisfying the world in the mistakes they might possibly be under with relation even to their physiognomy.
The advantages, as I was going to say, of sense, beauty, and riches, are what are certainly the chief motives to a prudent young woman of fortune for changing her condition; but as she is to have her eye upon each of these, she is to ask herself whether the man who has most of these recommendations in the lump is not the most desirable. He that has excellent talents, with a moderate estate, and an agreeable person, is preferable to him who is only rich, if it were only that good faculties may purchase riches; but riches cannot purchase worthy endowments. I do not mean that wit, and a capacity to entertain, is what should be highly valued, except it is founded on good nature and humanity. There are many ingenious men whose abilities do little else but make themselves and those about them uneasy.
The best good man, with the worst-natured muse, was the character among us of a gentleman as famous for his humanity as his wit.
The desire of pleasing makes a man agreeable or unwelcome to those with whom he converses, according to the motive from which that inclination appears to flow. If your concern for pleasing others arises from an innate benevolence, it never fails of success; if from a vanity to excel, its disappointment is no less certain. What we call an agreeable man, is he who is endowed with the natural bent to do acceptable things from a delight he takes merely as such; and the affectation of that character is what constitutes a fop.
The effects of pride and vanity are of consequence only to the proud and vain; and tend to no further ill than what is personal to themselves, in preventing their progress in anything that is worthy and laudable, and creating envy instead of emulation of superior virtue. These ill qualities are to be found only in such as have so little minds as to circumscribe their thoughts and designs within what properly relates to the value which they think due to their dear and valuable selves: but ambition, which is the third great impediment to honor and virtue, is a fault of such as think themselves born for moving in a higher orb, and prefer being powerful and mischievous to being virtuous and obscure. The parent of this mischief in life, so far as to regulate it into schemes, and make it possess a man?s whole heart without his believing himself a demon, was Machiavel. He first taught that a man must necessarily appear weak, to be honest. Hence it gains upon the imagination, that a great is not so despicable as a little villain; and men are insensibly led to a belief that the aggravation of crimes is a diminution of them. Hence the impiety of thinking one thing and speaking another. In pursuance of this empty and unsatisfying dream, to betray, to undermine, to kill in themselves all natural sentiments of love to friends or country, is the willing practice of such as are thirsty of power for any other reason than that of being useful and acceptable to mankind.
The great foundation of civil virtue is self-denial; and there is no one above the necessities of life, but has opportunities of exercising that noble quality, and doing as much as his circumstances will bear for the ease and convenience of other men; and he who does more than ordinary men practice upon such occasions as occur in his life, deserves the value of his friends, as if he had done enterprises which are usually attended with the brightest glory. Men of public spirit differ rather in their circumstances than their virtue; and the man who does all he can, in a low station, is more a hero than he who omits any worthy action he is able to accomplish in a great one.