Irish-born English Playwright, Essayist and Editor
Richard Steele, fully Sir Richard Steele
Irish-born English Playwright, Essayist and Editor
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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.
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.
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.?
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.