Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Richard Steele, fully Sir Richard Steele

Irish-born English Playwright, Essayist and Editor

"Raillery is no longer agreeable only while the whole company is pleased with it. I would least of all be understood to except the person rallied."

"Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body. As by the one health is preserved, strengthened, and invigorated; by the other, virtue, which is the health of the mind, is kept alive, cherished, and confirmed. But as exercise becomes tedious and painful when we make use of it only as the means of health, so reading is apt to grow uneasy and burdensome when we apply ourselves to it only for our improvement in virtue. For this reason, the virtue which we gather from a fable, or an allegory, is like the health we get by hunting; as we are engaged in an agreeable pursuit that draws us on with pleasure, and makes us insensible of the fatigues that accompany it."

"Shallow wits, superficial critics, and conceited fops, are with me so many blind men in respect of excellences. They can behold nothing but faults and blemishes, and indeed see nothing that is worth seeing. Show them a poem, it is stuff; a picture, it is daubing. They find nothing in architecture that Ls not irregular, or in music that is not out of tune. These men should consider that it is their envy which deforms everything, and that the ugliness is not in the object, but in the eye. And as for nobler minds, whose merits are either not discovered, or are misrepresented by the envious part of mankind, they should rather consider their defamers with pity than indignation. A man cannot have an idea of perfection in another, which he was never sensible of in himself."

"Since I am engaged unawares in quotations, I must not omit the satire which Horace has written against this impertinent talkative companion; and which, I think, is fuller of humor than any other satire he has written. This great author, who had the nicest taste of conversation, and was himself a most agreeable companion, had so strong an antipathy to a great talker that he was afraid, some time or other, it would be mortal to him; as he has very humorously described it in his conversation with an impertinent fellow, who had like to have been the death of him."

"Socrates, who is by all accounts the undoubted head of the sect of the hen-pecked, owned and acknowledged that he owed great part of his virtue to the exercise which his useful wife constantly gave it. There are several good instructions may be drawn from his wise answers to the people of less fortitude than himself on her subject. A friend, with indignation, asked him how so good a man could live with so violent a creature? He observed to him, that they who learn to keep a good seat on horseback mount the least manageable they can get; and when they have mastered them, they are sure never to be discomposed on the backs of steeds less restive. At several times, to different persons, on the same subject, he has said, ?My dear friend, you are beholden to Xantippe that I bear so well your flying out in a dispute.?"

"Such an envy as I have here described may possibly enter into an ingenuous mind; but the envy which makes a man uneasy to himself and others, is a certain distortion and perverseness of temper, that renders him unwilling to be pleased with anything without him, that has either beauty or perfection in it. I look upon it as a distemper in the mind, which I know no moralist that has described in this light, when a man cannot discern anything, which another is master of, that is agreeable. For which reason, I look upon the good-natured man to be endowed with a certain discerning faculty which the envious are altogether deprived of."

"That not one arrow can resistance find."

"That part of life which we ordinarily understand by the word conversation, is an indulgence to the sociable part of our make; and should incline us to bring our proportion of good-will or good humor among the friends we meet with, and not to trouble them with relations which must of necessity oblige them to a real or feigned affliction. Cares, distresses, diseases, uneasinesses, and dislikes of our own, are by no means to be obtruded upon our friends. If we would consider how little of this vicissitude of motion and rest, which we call life, is spent with satisfaction, we should be more tender of our friends, than to bring them little sorrows which do not belong to them. There is no real life but cheerful life; therefore valetudinarians should be sworn, before they enter into company, not to say a word of themselves until the meeting breaks up."

"That part of life which we spend in company is the most pleasing of all our moments; and therefore I think our behavior in it should have its laws as well as the part of our being which is generally esteemed the more important. From hence it is, that from long experience I have made it a maxim, That however we may pretend to take satisfaction in sprightly mirth and high jollity, there is no great pleasure in any company where the basis of the society is not mutual good will. When this is in the room, every trifling circumstance, the most minute accident, the absurdity of a servant, the repetition of an old story, the look of a man when he is telling it, the most indifferent and the most ordinary occurrences, are matters which produce mirth and good-humor."

"That which we call gallantry to women seems to be the heroic virtue of private persons; and there never breathed one man who did not, in that part of his days wherein he was recommending himself to his mistress, do something beyond his ordinary course of life. As this has a very great effect even upon the most slow and common men, so, upon such as it finds qualified with virtue and merit, it shines out in proportionable degrees of excellence. It gives new grace to the most eminent accomplishments; and he who of himself has either wit, wisdom, or valor exerts each of those noble endowments, when he becomes a lover, with a certain beauty of action above what was ever observed in him before; and all who are without any one of these qualities are to be looked upon as the rabble of mankind."

"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."

"The greatest evils in human society are such as no law can come at; as in the case of ingratitude, where the manner of obliging very often leaves the benefactor without means of demanding justice, though that very circumstance should be the more binding to the person who has received the benefit."

"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."

"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."

"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."

"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."

"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."

"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."

"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."

"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."

"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."

"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."

"The wild havoc affectation makes in that part of the world which should be most polite, is visible wherever we turn our eyes; it pushes men not only into impertinences in conversation, but also in their premeditated speeches. At the bar it torments the bench, whose business it is to cut off all superfluities in what is spoken before it by the practitioner; as well as several little pieces of injustice which arise from the law itself. I have seen it make a man run from the purpose before a judge who was, when at the bar himself, so close and logical a pleader, that, with all the pomp of eloquence in his power, he never spoke a word too much."

"There are several persons who have many pleasures and entertainments in their possession which they do not enjoy. It is therefore a kind and good office to acquaint them with their own happiness, and turn their attention to such instances of their good fortune as they are apt to overlook. Persons in the married state often want such a monitor; and pine away their days, by looking on the same condition in anguish and murmur, which carries with it in the opinion of others a complication of all the pleasures of life, and a retreat from its inquietudes."

"There can be no greater injury to human society than that good talents among men should be held honorable to those who are endowed with them, without any regard to how they are applied. The gifts of nature and accomplishments of art are valuable but as they are exerted in the interests of virtue or governed by the rules of honor. We ought to abstract our minds from the observation of an excellence in those we converse with, till we have taken some notice, or received some good information, of the disposition of their minds; otherwise the beauty of their persons, or the charms of their wit, may make us fond of those whom our reason and judgment will tell us we ought to abhor."

"There is a fault which, though common, wants a name. It is the very contrary to procrastination. As we lose the present hour by delaying from day to day to execute what we ought to do immediately, so most of us take occasion to sit still and throw away the time in our possession by retrospect on what is past, imagining we have already acquitted ourselves, and established our characters in the sight of mankind. But when we thus put a value upon ourselves for what we have already done, any farther than to explain ourselves in order to assist our future conduct, that will give us an overweening opinion of our merit, to the prejudice of our present industry. The great rule, methinks, should be, to manage the instant in which we stand, with fortitude, equanimity, and moderation, according to men?s respective circumstances. If our past actions reproach us, they cannot be atoned for by our own severe reflections so effectually as by a contrary behavior. If they are praiseworthy, the memory of them is of no use but to act suitably to them. Thus a good present behavior is an implicit repentance for any miscarriage in what is past; but present slackness will not make up for past activity."

"There is a kind of sympathy in souls, that fits them for each other; and we may be assured when we see two persons engaged in the warmths of a mutual affection, that there are certain qualities in both their minds which bear a resemblance to one another. A generous and constant passion in an agreeable lover, where there is not too great a disparity in other circumstances, is the greatest blessing that can befall the person beloved; and, if overlooked in one, may perhaps never be found in another."

"There is a particular fault which I have observed in most of the moralists in all ages, and that is, that they are always professing themselves, and teaching others, to be happy. This state is not to be arrived at in this life; therefore I would recommend to you to talk in a humbler strain than your predecessors have done, and, instead of presuming to be happy, instruct us only to be easy. The thoughts of him who would be discreet, and aim at practicable things, should turn upon allaying our pain, rather than promoting our joy. Great inquietude is to be avoided, but great felicity is not to be attained. The great lesson is equanimity, a regularity of spirit, which is a little above cheerfulness and below mirth. Cheerfulness is always to be supported if a man is out of pain, but mirth to a prudent man should always be accidental. It should naturally arise out of the occasion, and the occasion seldom be laid for it; for those tempers who want mirth to be pleased are like the constitutions which flag without the use of brandy. Therefore, I say, let your precept be, ?be easy.?"

"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."

"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."

"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."

"There is an oblique way of reproof which takes off from the sharpness of it."

"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."

"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."

"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?"

"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."

"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?"

"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."

"There is nothing more necessary to establish reputation than to suspend the enjoyment of it. He that cannot bear the sense of merit with silence must of necessity destroy it: for fame being the genial mistress of mankind, whoever gives it to himself insults all to whom he relates any circumstances to his own advantage."

"There is nothing which I contemplate with greater pleasure than the dignity of human nature, which often shows itself in all conditions of life. For, notwithstanding the degeneracy and meanness that is crept into it, there are a thousand occasions in which it breaks through its original corruption, and shows what it once was, and what it will be hereafter. I consider the soul of man as the ruin of a glorious pile of buildings; where, amidst great heaps of rubbish, you meet with noble fragments of sculpture, broken pillars and obelisks, and a magnificence in confusion. Virtue and wisdom are continually employed in clearing the ruins, removing these disorderly heaps, recovering the noble pieces that lie buried under them, and adjusting them as well as possible according to their ancient symmetry and beauty. A happy education, conversation with the finest spirits, looking abroad into the works of nature, and observations upon mankind, are the great assistances to this necessary and glorious work. But even among those who never have had the happiness of any of these advantages, there are sometimes such exertions of the greatness that is natural to the mind of man, as show capacities and abilities, which only want these accidental helps to fetch them out, and show them in a proper light."

"There is scarce a thinking man in the world, who is involved in the business of it, but lives under a secret impatience of the hurry and fatigue he suffers, and has formed a resolution to fix himself, one time or other, in such a state as is suitable to the end of his being. You hear men every day in conversation profess that all the honor, power, and riches, which they propose to themselves, cannot give satisfaction enough to reward them for half the anxiety they undergo in the pursuit or the possession of them. While men are in this temper (which happens very frequently), how inconsistent are they with themselves! They are wearied with the toil they bear, but cannot find it in their hearts to relinquish it: retirement is what they want, but they cannot betake themselves to it. While they pant after shade and covert, they still affect to appear in the most glittering scenes of life. Sure this is but just as reasonable as if a man should call for more light, when he has a mind to go to sleep."

"There is something sacred in misery to great and good minds; for this reason all wise lawgivers have been extremely tender how they let loose even the man who has right on his side, to act with any mixture of resentment against the defendant."

"There is something so natively great and good in a person that is truly devout, that an awkward man may as well pretend to be genteel, as a hypocrite to be pious. The constraint in words and actions are equally visible in both cases; and anything set up in their room does but remove the endeavors farther off from their pretensions. But, however the sense of true piety is abated, there is no other motive of action that can carry us through all the vicissitudes of life with alacrity and resolution."

"These are the toils in which I am taken, and I carry off my servitude as well as most men; but my application to you is in behalf of the hen-pecked in general, and I desire a dissertation from you in defense of us. You have, as I am informed, very good authorities in our favor, and hope you will not omit the mention of the renowned Socrates, and his philosophic resignation to his wife Xantippe. This would be a very good office to the world in general, for the hen-pecked are powerful in their quality and numbers, not only in cities, but in courts; in the latter they are ever the most obsequious, in the former the most wealthy, of all men."

"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."