Irish-born English Playwright, Essayist and Editor
Richard Steele, fully Sir Richard Steele
Irish-born English Playwright, Essayist and Editor
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.
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.
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.
To this end, nothing is to be more carefully consulted than plainness. In a lady?s attire this is the single excellence; for to be what some people call fine, is the same vice in that case, as to be florid is in writing or speaking. I have studied and writ on this important subject, until I almost despair of making reformation in the females of this island; where we have more beauty than any spot in the universe, if we did not disguise it by false garniture and detract from it by impertinent improvements.
When men look into their own bosoms, and consider the generous seeds which are there planted, that might, if rightly cultivated, ennoble their lives, and make their virtue venerable to futurity; how can they, without tears, reflect on the universal degeneracy from that public spirit which ought to be the first and principal motive of all their actions? In the Grecian and Roman nations, they were wise enough to keep up this great incentive, and it was impossible to be in the fashion without being a patriot.
Tom Mercet has as quick a fancy as anyone living; but there is no reasonable man can bear him half an hour. His purpose is to entertain, and it is of no consequence to him what is said, so it be what is called well said: as if a man must bear a wound with patience, because he that pushed at you came up with a good air and mien.
When modesty ceases to be the chief ornament of one sex, and integrity of the other, society is upon a wrong basis, and we shall be ever after without rules to guide our judgment in what is really becoming and ornamental. Nature and reason direct one thing, passion and humor another. To follow the dictates of these two latter is going into a road that is both endless and intricate; when we pursue the other, our passage is delightful, and what we aim at easily attainable.
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.