The Works of Samuel Johnson in Nine Volumes
Part 3 out of 9
excite in myself any curiosity after events which have been long passed,
and in which I can, therefore, have no interest; I am utterly
unconcerned to know whether Tully or Demosthenes excelled in oratory,
whether Hannibal lost Italy by his own negligence or the corruption of
his countrymen. I have no skill in controversial learning, nor can
conceive why so many volumes should have been written upon questions,
which I have lived so long and so happily without understanding. I once
resolved to go through the volumes relating to the office of justice of
the peace, but found them so crabbed and intricate, that in less than a
month I desisted in despair, and resolved to supply my deficiencies by
paying a competent salary to a skilful clerk.
I am naturally inclined to hospitality, and for some time kept up a
constant intercourse of visits with the neighbouring gentlemen; but
though they are easily brought about me by better wine than they can
find at any other house, I am not much relieved by their conversation;
they have no skill in commerce or the stocks, and I have no knowledge of
the history of families or the factions of the country; so that when the
first civilities are over, they usually talk to one another, and I am
left alone in the midst of the company. Though I cannot drink myself, I
am obliged to encourage the circulation of the glass; their mirth grows
more turbulent and obstreperous; and before their merriment is at an
end, I am sick with disgust, and, perhaps, reproached with my sobriety,
or by some sly insinuations insulted as a cit.
Such, Mr. Adventurer, is the life to which I am condemned by a foolish
endeavour to be happy by imitation; such is the happiness to which I
pleased myself with approaching, and which I considered as the chief end
of my cares and my labours. I toiled year after year with cheerfulness,
in expectation of the happy hour in which I might be idle: the privilege
of idleness is attained, but has not brought with it the blessing of
I am yours, &c.
 Johnson was too apt to destroy the _keeping_ of character in his
correspondences. A retired trader might desire a little more
slumber, "a little folding of the hands to sleep;" but the lofty
malignity of a fallen spirit sickening at the beams of day, would
not be among the feelings of an ordinary mind. Some good remarks on
this point may be seen in Miss Talbot's Letters to Mrs. Carter.
No. 107. TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 13, 1753.
--_Sub judice lis est._ HOR. De Ar. Poet. 78.
And of their vain disputings find no end. FRANCIS.
It has been sometimes asked by those who find the appearance of wisdom
more easily attained by questions than solutions, how it comes to pass,
that the world is divided by such difference of opinion? and why men,
equally reasonable, and equally lovers of truth, do not always think in
the same manner?
With regard to simple propositions, where the terms are understood, and
the whole subject is comprehended at once, there is such an uniformity
of sentiment among all human beings, that, for many ages, a very
numerous set of notions were supposed to be innate, or necessarily
co-existent with the faculty of reason: it being imagined, that universal
agreement could proceed only from the invariable dictates of the
In questions diffuse and compounded, this similarity of determination is
no longer to be expected. At our first sally into the intellectual
world, we all march together along one straight and open road; but as we
proceed further, and wider prospects open to our view, every eye fixes
upon a different scene; we divide into various paths, and, as we move
forward, are still at a greater distance from each other. As a question
becomes more complicated and involved, and extends to a greater number
of relations, disagreement of opinion will always be multiplied; not
because we are irrational, but because we are finite beings, furnished
with different kinds of knowledge, exerting different degrees of
attention, one discovering consequences which escape another, none
taking in the whole concatenation of causes and effects, and most
comprehending but a very small part, each comparing what he observes
with a different criterion, and each referring it to a different
Where, then, is the wonder, that they who see only a small part should
judge erroneously of the whole? or that they, who see different and
dissimilar parts, should judge differently from each other?
Whatever has various respects, must have various appearances of good and
evil, beauty or deformity; thus, the gardener tears up as a weed, the
plant which the physician gathers as a medicine; and "a general," says
Sir Kenelm Digby, "will look with pleasure over a plain, as a fit place
on which the fate of empires might be decided in battle, which the
farmer will despise as bleak and barren, neither fruitful of pasturage,
nor fit for tillage."
Two men examining the same question proceed commonly like the physician
and gardener in selecting herbs, or the farmer and hero looking on the
plain; they bring minds impressed with different notions, and direct
their inquiries to different ends; they form, therefore, contrary
conclusions, and each wonders at the other's absurdity.
We have less reason to be surprised or offended when we find others
differ from us in opinion, because we very often differ from ourselves.
How often we alter our minds, we do not always remark; because the
change is sometimes made imperceptibly and gradually, and the last
conviction effaces all memory of the former: yet every man, accustomed
from time to time to take a survey of his own notions, will by a slight
retrospection be able to discover, that his mind has suffered many
revolutions; that the same things have in the several parts of his life
been condemned and approved, pursued and shunned: and that on many
occasions, even when his practice has been steady, his mind has been
wavering, and he has persisted in a scheme of action, rather because he
feared the censure of inconstancy, than because he was always pleased
with his own choice.
Of the different faces shown by the same objects, as they are viewed on
opposite sides, and of the different inclinations which they must
constantly raise in him that contemplates them, a more striking example
cannot easily be found than two Greek epigrammatists will afford us in
their accounts of human life, which I shall lay before the reader in
Posidippus, a comick poet, utters this complaint: "Through which of the
paths of life is it eligible to pass? In public assemblies are debates
and troublesome affairs: domestick privacies are haunted with anxieties;
in the country is labour; on the sea is terrour: in a foreign land, he
that has money must live in fear, he that wants it must pine in
distress: are you married? you are troubled with suspicions; are you
single? you languish in solitude; children occasion toil, and a
childless life is a state of destitution: the time of youth is a time of
folly, and gray hairs are loaded with infirmity. This choice only,
therefore, can be made, either never to receive being, or immediately to
Such and so gloomy is the prospect, which Posidippus has laid before us.
But we are not to acquiesce too hastily in his determination against the
value of existence: for Metrodorus, a philosopher of Athens, has shown,
that life has pleasures as well as pains; and having exhibited the
present state of man in brighter colours, draws with equal appearance of
reason, a contrary conclusion.
"You may pass well through any of the paths of life. In publick
assemblies are honours and transactions of wisdom; in domestick privacy
is stillness and quiet: in the country are the beauties of nature; on
the sea is the hope of gain: in a foreign land, he that is rich is
honoured, he that is poor may keep his poverty secret: are you married?
you have a cheerful house; are you single? you are unincumbered;
children are objects of affection, to be without children is to be
without care: the time of youth is the time of vigour, and gray hairs
are made venerable by piety. It will, therefore, never be a wise man's
choice, either not to obtain existence, or to lose it; for every state
of life has its felicity."
In these epigrams are included most of the questions which have engaged
the speculations of the inquirers after happiness; and though they will
not much assist our determinations, they may, perhaps, equally promote
our quiet, by showing that no absolute determination ever can be formed.
Whether a publick station or private life be desirable, has always been
debated. We see here both the allurements and discouragements of civil
employments; on one side there is trouble, on the other honour; the
management of affairs is vexatious and difficult, but it is the only
duty in which wisdom can be conspicuously displayed: it must then still
be left to every man to choose either ease or glory; nor can any general
precept be given, since no man can be happy by the prescription of
Thus, what is said of children by Posidippus, "that they are occasions
of fatigue," and by Metrodorus, "that they are objects of affection," is
equally certain; but whether they will give most pain or pleasure, must
depend on their future conduct and dispositions, on many causes over
which the parent can have little influence: there is, therefore, room
for all the caprices of imagination, and desire must be proportioned to
the hope or fear that shall happen to predominate.
Such is the uncertainty in which we are always likely to remain with
regard to questions wherein we have most interest, and which every day
affords us fresh opportunity to examine: we may examine, indeed, but we
never can decide, because our faculties are unequal to the subject; we
see a little, and form an opinion; we see more, and change it.
This inconstancy and unsteadiness, to which we must so often find
ourselves liable, ought certainly to teach us moderation and forbearance
towards those who cannot accommodate themselves to our sentiments: if
they are deceived, we have no right to attribute their mistake to
obstinacy or negligence, because we likewise have been mistaken; we may,
perhaps, again change our own opinion: and what excuse shall we be able
to find for aversion and malignity conceived against him, whom we shall
then find to have committed no fault, and who offended us only by
refusing to follow us into errour?
It may likewise contribute to soften that resentment which pride
naturally raises against opposition, if we consider, that he who differs
from us, does not always contradict us; he has one view of an object,
and we have another; each describes what he sees with equal fidelity,
and each regulates his steps by his own eyes: one man with Posidippus,
looks on celibacy as a state of gloomy solitude, without a partner in
joy, or a comforter in sorrow; the other considers it, with Metrodorus,
as a state free from incumbrances, in which a man is at liberty to
choose his own gratifications, to remove from place to place in quest of
pleasure, and to think of nothing but merriment and diversion: full of
these notions one hastens to choose a wife, and the other laughs at his
rashness, or pities his ignorance; yet it is possible that each is
right, but that each is right only for himself.
Life is not the object of science: we see a little, very little; and
what is beyond we only can conjecture. If we inquire of those who have
gone before us, we receive small satisfaction; some have travelled life
without observation, and some willingly mislead us. The only thought,
therefore, on which we can repose with comfort, is that which presents
to us the care of Providence, whose eye takes in the whole of things,
and under whose direction all involuntary errours will terminate in
 Livy has described the Achaean leader, Philopaemen, as actually so
exercising his thoughts whilst he wandered among the rocky passes of
the Morea, xxxv. 28. In the graphic page of the Roman historian, as
in the stanzas of the "Ariosto of the North:"
"From shingles grey the lances start,
The bracken bush sends forth the dart,
The rushes and the willow wand
Are bristling into axe and brand."
Lady of the Lake, Canto v. 9.
"Count o'er the joys thine hours have seen,
Count o'er thy days from anguish free,
And know, whatever thou hast been,
'Tis something better not to be."
Lord Byron's Euthanasia.
Compare also the plaintive chorus in the Oedipus at Colonos, 1211.
Among the tragedies of Sophocles this stands forth a mass of
feeling. See Schlegel's remarks upon it in his Dramatic Literature.
No. 108. SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 17, 1753.
_Nobis, quum semet occidit brevis lux,
Nox est perpetua una dormienda._ CATULLUS. Lib. v. El. v.
When once the short-liv'd mortal dies,
A night eternal seals his eyes. ADDISON.
It may have been observed by every reader, that there are certain
topicks which never are exhausted. Of some images and sentiments the
mind of man may be said to be enamoured; it meets them, however often
they occur, with the same ardour which a lover feels at the sight of his
mistress, and parts from them with the same regret when they can no
longer be enjoyed.
Of this kind are many descriptions which the poets have transcribed from
each other, and their successors will probably copy to the end of time;
which will continue to engage, or, as the French term it, to flatter the
imagination, as long as human nature shall remain the same.
When a poet mentions the spring, we know that the zephyrs are about to
whisper, that the groves are to recover their verdure, the linnets to
warble forth their notes of love, and the flocks and herds to frisk over
vales painted with flowers: yet, who is there so insensible of the
beauties of nature, so little delighted with the renovation of the
world, as not to feel his heart bound at the mention of the spring?
When night overshadows a romantick scene, all is stillness, silence, and
quiet; the poets of the grove cease their melody, the moon towers over
the world in gentle majesty, men forget their labours and their cares,
and every passion and pursuit is for a while suspended. All this we know
already, yet we hear it repeated without weariness; because such is
generally the life of man, that he is pleased to think on the time when
he shall pause from a sense of his condition.
When a poetical grove invites us to its covert, we know that we shall
find what we have already seen, a limpid brook murmuring over pebbles, a
bank diversified with flowers, a green arch that excludes the sun, and a
natural grot shaded with myrtles; yet who can forbear to enter the
pleasing gloom to enjoy coolness and privacy, and gratify himself once
more by scenes with which nature has formed him to be delighted?
Many moral sentiments likewise are so adapted to our state, that they
find approbation whenever they solicit it, and are seldom read without
exciting a gentle emotion in the mind: such is the comparison of the
life of man with the duration of a flower, a thought which perhaps every
nation has heard warbled in its own language, from the inspired poets of
the Hebrews to our own times; yet this comparion must always please,
because every heart feels its justness, and every hour confirms it by
Such, likewise, is the precept that directs us to use the present hour,
and refer nothing to a distant time, which we are uncertain whether we
shall reach: this every moralist may venture to inculcate, because it
will always be approved, and because it is always forgotten.
This rule is, indeed, every day enforced, by arguments more powerful
than the dissertations of moralists: we see men pleasing themselves with
future happiness, fixing a certain hour for the completion of their
wishes, and perishing, some at a greater and some at a less distance
from the happy time; all complaining of their disappointments, and
lamenting that they had suffered the years which heaven allowed them, to
pass without improvement, and deferred the principal purpose of their
lives to the time when life itself was to forsake them.
It is not only uncertain, whether, through all the casualties and
dangers which beset the life of man, we shall be able to reach the time
appointed for happiness or wisdom; but it is likely, that whatever now
hinders us from doing that which our reason and conscience declare
necessary to be done, will equally obstruct us in times to come. It is
easy for the imagination, operating on things not yet existing, to
please itself with scenes of unmingled felicity, or plan out courses of
uniform virtue; but good and evil are in real life inseparably united;
habits grow stronger by indulgence; and reason loses her dignity, in
proportion as she has oftener yielded to temptation: "he that cannot
live well to-day," says Martial, "will be less qualified to live well
Of the uncertainty of every human good, every human being seems to be
convinced; yet this uncertainty is voluntarily increased by unnecessary
delay, whether we respect external causes, or consider the nature of our
own minds. He that now feels a desire to do right, and wishes to
regulate his life according to his reason, is not sure that, at any
future time assignable, he shall be able to rekindle the same ardour; he
that has now an opportunity offered him of breaking loose from vice and
folly, cannot know, but that he shall hereafter be more entangled, and
struggle for freedom without obtaining it.
We are so unwilling to believe any thing to our own disadvantage, that
we will always imagine the perspicacity of our judgment and the strength
of our resolution more likely to increase than to grow less by time;
and, therefore, conclude, that the will to pursue laudable purposes,
will be always seconded by the power.
But, however we may be deceived in calculating the strength of our
faculties, we cannot doubt the uncertainty of that life in which they
must be employed: we see every day the unexpected death of our friends
and our enemies, we see new graves hourly opened for men older and
younger than ourselves, for the cautious and the careless, the dissolute
and the temperate, for men who like us were providing to enjoy or
improve hours now irreversibly cut off: we see all this, and yet,
instead of living, let year glide after year in preparations to live.
Men are so frequently cut off in the midst of their projections, that
sudden death causes little emotion in them that behold it, unless it be
impressed upon the attention by uncommon circumstances. I, like every
other man, have outlived multitudes, have seen ambition sink in its
triumphs, and beauty perish in its bloom; but have been seldom so much
affected as by the fate of Euryalus, whom I lately lost as I began to
Euryalus had for some time flourished in a lucrative profession; but
having suffered his imagination to be fired by an unextinguishable
curiosity, he grew weary of the same dull round of life, resolved to
harass himself no longer with the drudgery of getting money, but to quit
his business and his profit, and enjoy for a few years the pleasures of
travel. His friends heard him proclaim his resolution without suspecting
that he intended to pursue it; but he was constant to his purpose, and
with great expedition closed his accounts and sold his moveables, passed
a few days in bidding farewell to his companions, and with all the
eagerness of romantick chivalry crossed the sea in search of happiness.
Whatever place was renowned in ancient or modern history, whatever
region art or nature had distinguished, he determined to visit: full of
design and hope he lauded on the continent; his friends expected
accounts from him of the new scenes that opened in his progress, but
were informed in a few days, that Euryalus was dead.
Such was the end of Euryalus. He is entered that state, whence none ever
shall return; and can now only benefit his friends, by remaining to
their memories a permanent and efficacious instance of the blindness of
desire, and the uncertainty of all terrestrial good. But perhaps, every
man has like me lost an Euryalus, has known a friend die with happiness
in his grasp; and yet every man continues to think himself secure of
life, and defers to some future time of leisure what he knows it will be
fatal to have finally omitted.
It is, indeed, with this as with other frailties inherent in our nature;
the desire of deferring to another time, what cannot be done without
endurance of some pain, or forbearance of some pleasure, will, perhaps,
never be totally overcome or suppressed; there will always be something
that we shall wish to have finished, and be nevertheless unwilling to
begin: but against this unwillingness it is our duty to struggle, and
every conquest over our passions will make way for an easier conquest:
custom is equally forcible to bad and good; nature will always be at
variance with reason, but will rebel more feebly as she is oftener
The common neglect of the present hour is more shameful and criminal, as
no man is betrayed to it by errour, but admits it by negligence. Of the
instability of life, the weakest understanding never thinks wrong,
though the strongest often omits to think justly: reason and experience
are always ready to inform us of our real state; but we refuse to listen
to their suggestions, because we feel our hearts unwilling to obey them:
but, surely, nothing is more unworthy of a reasonable being, than to
shut his eyes, when he sees the road which he is commanded to travel,
that he may deviate with fewer reproaches from himself: nor could any
motive to tenderness, except the consciousness that we have all been
guilty of the same fault, dispose us to pity those who thus consign
themselves to voluntary ruin.
No. 111. TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 27, 1753.
--Quae non fecimus ipsi,
Vix ea nostra voco. OVID.
The deeds of long descended ancestors
Are but by grace of imputation ours. DRYDEN
The evils inseparably annexed to the present condition of man, are so
numerous and afflictive, that it has been, from age to age, the task of
some to bewail, and of others to solace them; and he, therefore, will be
in danger of seeing a common enemy, who shall attempt to depreciate the
few pleasures and felicities which nature has allowed us.
Yet I will confess, that I have sometimes employed my thoughts in
examining the pretensions that are made to happiness, by the splendid
and envied condition of life; and have not thought the hour unprofitably
spent, when I have detected the imposture of counterfeit advantages, and
found disquiet lurking under false appearances of gaiety and greatness.
It is asserted by a tragick poet, that _est miser nemo nisi comparatus_,
"no man is miserable, but as he is compared with others happier than
himself:" this position is not strictly and philosophically true. He
might have said, with rigorous propriety, that no man is happy but as he
is compared with the miserable; for such is the state of this world,
that we find in it absolute misery, but happiness only comparative; we
may incur as much pain as we can possibly endure, though we can never
obtain as much happiness as we might possibly enjoy.
Yet it is certain, likewise, that many of our miseries are merely
comparative: we are often made unhappy, not by the presence of any real
evil, but by the absence of some fictitious good; of something which is
not required by any real want of nature, which has not in itself any
power of gratification, and which neither reason nor fancy would have
prompted us to wish, did we not see it in the possession of others.
For a mind diseased with vain longings after unattainable advantages, no
medicine can be prescribed, but an impartial inquiry into the real worth
of that which is so ardently desired. It is well known, how much the
mind, as well as the eye, is deceived by distance; and, perhaps, it will
be found, that of many imagined blessings it may be doubted, whether he
that wants or possesses them has more reason to be satisfied with his
The dignity of high birth and long extraction, no man, to whom nature
has denied it, can confer upon himself; and, therefore, it deserves to
be considered, whether the want of that which can never be gained, may
not easily be endured. It is true, that if we consider the triumph and
delight with which most of those recount their ancestors, who have
ancestors to recount, and the artifices by which some who have risen to
unexpected fortune endeavour to insert themselves into an honourable
stem, we shall be inclined to fancy that wisdom or virtue may be had by
inheritance, or that all the excellencies of a line of progenitors are
accumulated on their descendant. Reason, indeed, will soon inform us,
that our estimation of birth is arbitrary and capricious, and that dead
ancestors can have no influence but upon imagination; let it then be
examined, whether one dream may not operate in the place of another;
whether he that owes nothing to forefathers, may not receive equal
pleasure from the consciousness of owing all to himself; whether he may
not, with a little meditation, find it more honourable to found than to
continue a family, and to gain dignity than transmit it; whether, if he
receives no dignity from the virtues of his family, he does not likewise
escape the danger of being disgraced by their crimes; and whether he
that brings a new name into the world, has not the convenience of
playing the game of life without a stake, and opportunity of winning
much though he has nothing to lose.
There is another opinion concerning happiness, which approaches much
more nearly to universality, but which may, perhaps, with equal reason
be disputed. The pretensions to ancestral honours many of the sons of
earth easily see to be ill-grounded; but all agree to celebrate the
advantage of hereditary riches, and to consider those as the minions of
fortune, who are wealthy from their cradles, whose estate is _res non
parta labore, sed relicta_; "the acquisition of another, not of
themselves;" and whom a father's industry has dispensed from a laborious
attention to arts or commerce, and left at liberty to dispose of life as
fancy shall direct them.
If every man were wise and virtuous, capable to discern the best use of
time, and resolute to practise it, it might be granted, I think, without
hesitation, that total liberty would be a blessing; and that it would be
desirable to be left at large to the exercise of religious and social
duties, without the interruption of importunate avocations.
But, since felicity is relative, and that which is the means of
happiness to one man may be to another the cause of misery, we are to
consider, what state is best adapted to human nature in its present
degeneracy and frailty. And, surely, to far the greater number it is
highly expedient, that they should by some settled scheme of duties be
rescued from the tyranny of caprice, that they should be driven on by
necessity through the paths of life with their attention confined to a
stated task, that they may be less at leisure to deviate into mischief
at the call of folly.
When we observe the lives of those whom an ample inheritance has let
loose to their own direction, what do we discover that can excite our
envy? Their time seems not to pass with much applause from others, or
satisfaction to themselves: many squander their exuberance of fortune in
luxury and debauchery, and have no other use of money than to inflame
their passions, and riot in a wide range of licentiousness; others, less
criminal indeed, but surely not much to be praised, lie down to sleep,
and rise up to trifle, are employed every morning in finding expedients
to rid themselves of the day, chase pleasure through all the places of
publick resort, fly from London to Bath, and from Bath to London,
without any other reason for changing place, but that they go in quest
of company as idle and as vagrant as themselves, always endeavouring to
raise some new desire, that they may have something to pursue, to
rekindle some hope which they know will be disappointed, changing one
amusement for another which a few months will make equally insipid, or
sinking into languor and disease for want of something to actuate their
bodies or exhilarate their minds.
Whoever has frequented those places, where idlers assemble to escape
from solitude, knows that this is generally the state of the wealthy;
and from this state it is no great hardship to be debarred. No man can
be happy in total idleness: he that should be condemned to lie torpid
and motionless, "would fly for recreation," says South, "to the mines
and the galleys;" and it is well, when nature or fortune find employment
for those, who would not have known how to procure it for themselves.
He, whose mind is engaged by the acquisition or improvement of a
fortune, not only escapes the insipidity of indifference, and the
tediousness of inactivity, but gains enjoyments wholly unknown to those,
who live lazily on the toil of others; for life affords no higher
pleasure than that of surmounting difficulties, passing from one step of
success to another, forming new wishes, and seeing them gratified. He
that labours in any great or laudable undertaking, has his fatigues
first supported by hope, and afterwards rewarded by joy; he is always
moving to a certain end, and when he has attained it, an end more
distant invites him to a new pursuit.
It does not, indeed, always happen, that diligence is fortunate; the
wisest schemes are broken by unexpected accidents; the most constant
perseverance sometimes toils through life without a recompense; but
labour, though unsuccessful, is more eligible than idleness; he that
prosecutes a lawful purpose by lawful means, acts always with the
approbation of his own reason; he is animated through the course of his
endeavours by an expectation which, though not certain, he knows to be
just; and is at last comforted in his disappointment, by the
consciousness that he has not failed by his own fault.
That kind of life is most happy which affords us most opportunities of
gaining our own esteem; and what can any man infer in his own favour
from a condition to which, however prosperous, he contributed nothing,
and which the vilest and weakest of the species would have obtained by
the same right, had he happened to be the son of the same father?
To strive with difficulties, and to conquer them, is the highest human
felicity; the next is, to strive, and deserve to conquer: but he whose
life has passed without a contest, and who can boast neither success nor
merit, can survey himself only as a useless filler of existence; and if
he is content with his own character, must owe his satisfaction to
Thus it appears that the satirist advised rightly, when he directed us
to resign ourselves to the hands of Heaven, and to leave to superior
powers the determination of our lot:
_Permittes ipsis expendere Numinibus, quid
Conveniat nobis, rebusque sit utile nostris:--
Carior est illis homo quam sibi._ JUV. Sat. x. 347.
Intrust thy fortune to the Pow'rs above:
Leave them to manage for thee, and to grant
What their unerring wisdom sees the want.
In goodness as in greatness they excel:
Ah! that we lov'd ourselves but half so well. DRYDEN.
What state of life admits most happiness, is uncertain; but that
uncertainty ought to repress the petulance of comparison, and silence
the murmurs of discontent.
No. 115. TUESDAY, DECEMBER 11, 1753.
_Scribimus indocti doctique._ HOR. Lib. ii. Ep. i. 17.
All dare to write, who can or cannot read.
They who have attentively considered the history of mankind, know that
every age has its peculiar character. At one time, no desire is felt but
for military honours; every summer affords battles and sieges, and the
world is filled with ravage, bloodshed, and devastation: this sanguinary
fury at length subsides, and nations are divided into factions, by
controversies about points that will never be decided. Men then grow
weary of debate and altercation, and apply themselves to the arts of
profit; trading companies are formed, manufactures improved, and
navigation extended; and nothing is any longer thought on, but the
increase and preservation of property, the artifices of getting money,
and the pleasures of spending it.
The present age, if we consider chiefly the state of our own country,
may be styled, with great propriety, _The Age of Authors_; for,
perhaps, there never was a time in which men of all degrees of ability,
of every kind of education, of every profession and employment, were
posting with ardour so general to the press. The province of writing was
formerly left to those, who by study, or appearance of study, were
supposed to have gained knowledge unattainable by the busy part of
mankind; but in these enlightened days, every man is qualified to
instruct every other man: and he that beats the anvil, or guides the
plough, not content with supplying corporal necessities, amuses himself
in the hours of leisure with providing intellectual pleasures for his
It may be observed, that of this, as of other evils, complaints have
been made by every generation: but though it may, perhaps, be true, that
at all times more have been willing than have been able to write, yet
there is no reason for believing, that the dogmatical legions of the
present race were ever equalled in number by any former period: for so
widely is spread the itch of literary praise, that almost every man is
an author, either in act or in purpose: has either bestowed his favours
on the publick, or withholds them, that they may be more seasonably
offered, or made more worthy of acceptance.
In former times, the pen, like the sword, was considered as consigned by
nature to the hands of men; the ladies contented themselves with private
virtues and domestick excellence; and a female writer, like a female
warrior, was considered as a kind of eccentrick being, that deviated,
however illustriously, from her due sphere of motion, and was,
therefore, rather to be gazed at with wonder, than countenanced by
imitation. But as in the times past are said to have been a nation of
Amazons, who drew the bow and wielded the battle-axe, formed encampments
and wasted nations, the revolution of years has now produced a
generation of Amazons of the pen, who with the spirit of their
predecessors have set masculine tyranny at defiance, asserted their
claim to the regions of science, and seem resolved to contest the
usurpations of virility.
Some indeed there are, of both sexes, who are authors only in desire,
but have not yet attained the power of executing their intentions; whose
performances have not arrived at bulk sufficient to form a volume, or
who have not the confidence, however impatient of nameless obscurity, to
solicit openly the assistance of the printer. Among these are the
innumerable correspondents of publick papers, who are always offering
assistance which no man will receive, and suggesting hints that are
never taken; and who complain loudly of the perverseness and arrogance
of authors, lament their insensibility of their own interest, and fill
the coffee-houses with dark stories of performances by eminent hands,
which have been offered and rejected.
To what cause this universal eagerness of writing can be properly
ascribed, I have not yet been able to discover. It is said, that every
art is propagated in proportion to the rewards conferred upon it; a
position from which a stranger would naturally infer, that literature
was now blessed with patronage far transcending the candour or
munificence of the Augustan age, that the road to greatness was open to
none but authors, and that by writing alone riches and honour were to be
But since it is true, that writers, like other competitors, are very
little disposed to favour one another, it is not to be expected, that at
a time when every man writes, any man will patronize; and, accordingly,
there is not one that I can recollect at present, who professes the
least regard for the votaries of science, invites the addresses of
learned men, or seems to hope for reputation from any pen but his own.
The cause, therefore, of this epidemical conspiracy for the destruction
of paper, must remain a secret: nor can I discover, whether we owe it to
the influences of the constellations, or the intemperature of seasons:
whether the long continuance of the wind at any single point, or
intoxicating vapours exhaled from the earth, have turned our nobles and
our peasants, our soldiers and traders, our men and women, all into
wits, philosophers, and writers.
It is, indeed, of more importance to search out the cure than the cause
of this intellectual malady; and he would deserve well of this country,
who, instead of amusing himself with conjectural speculations, should
find means of persuading the peer to inspect his steward's accounts, or
repair the rural mansion of his ancestors; who could replace the
tradesman behind his counter, and send back the farmer to the mattock
and the flail.
General irregularities are known in time to remedy themselves. By the
constitution of ancient Egypt, the priesthood was continually
increasing, till at length there was no people beside themselves; the
establishment was then dissolved, and the number of priests was reduced
and limited. Thus among us, writers will, perhaps, be multiplied, till
no readers will be found, and then the ambition of writing must
But as it will be long before the cure is thus gradually effected, and
the evil should be stopped, if it be possible, before it rises to so
great a height, I could wish that both sexes would fix their thoughts
upon some salutary considerations, which might repress their ardour for
that reputation, which not one of many thousands is fated to obtain.
Let it be deeply impressed, and frequently recollected, that he who has
not obtained the proper qualifications of an author, can have no excuse
for the arrogance of writing, but the power of imparting to mankind
something necessary to be known. A man uneducated or unlettered may
sometimes start a useful thought, or make a lucky discovery, or obtain
by chance some secret of nature, or some intelligence of facts, of which
the most enlightened mind may be ignorant, and which it is better to
reveal, though by a rude and unskilful communication, than to lose for
ever by suppressing it.
But few will be justified by this plea; for of the innumerable books and
pamphlets that have overflowed the nation, scarce one has made any
addition to real knowledge, or contained more than a transposition of
common sentiments, and a repetition of common phrases.
It will be naturally inquired, when the man who feels an inclination to
write, may venture to suppose himself properly qualified; and, since
every man is inclined to think well of his own intellect, by what test
he may try his abilities, without hazarding the contempt or resentment
of the publick.
The first qualification of a writer is a perfect knowledge of the
subject which he undertakes to treat; since we cannot teach what we do
not know, nor can properly undertake to instruct others while we are
ourselves in want of instruction. The next requisite is, that he be
master of the language in which he delivers his sentiments: if he treats
of science and demonstration, that he has attained a style clear, pure,
nervous, and expressive; if his topicks be probable and persuasory, that
he be able to recommend them by the superaddition of elegance and
imagery, to display the colours of varied diction, and pour forth the
musick of modulated periods.
If it be again inquired, upon what principles any man shall conclude
that he wants those powers, it may be readily answered, that no end is
attained but by the proper means; he only can rationally presume that he
understands a subject, who has read and compared the writers that have
hitherto discussed it, familiarized their arguments to himself by long
meditation, consulted the foundations of different systems, and
separated truth from errour by a rigorous examination.
In like manner, he only has a right to suppose that he can express his
thoughts, whatever they are, with perspicuity or elegance, who has
carefully perused the best authors, accurately noted their diversities
of style, diligently selected the best modes of diction, and
familiarized them by long habits of attentive practice.
No man is a rhetorician or philosopher by chance. He who knows that he
undertakes to write on questions which he has never studied, may without
hesitation determine, that he is about to waste his own time and that of
his reader, and expose himself to the derision of those whom he aspires
to instruct: he that without forming his style by the study of the best
models hastens to obtrude his compositions on the publick, may be
certain, that whatever hope or flattery may suggest, he shall shock the
learned ear with barbarisms, and contribute, wherever his work shall be
received, to the depravation of taste and the corruption of language.
 See Knox. Essay 50.
No. 119. TUESDAY, DECEMBER 25, 1753.
_Latius regnes, avidum domando
Spiritum, quam si Libyam remotis
Gadibus jungas, et uterque Poenus
Serviat uni._ Hor. Lib. ii. Ode ii. 9.
By virtue's precepts to controul
The thirsty cravings of the soul,
Is over wider realms to reign
Unenvied monarch, than if Spain
You could to distant Lybia join,
And both the Carthages were thine. FRANCIS.
When Socrates was asked, "which of mortal men was to be accounted
nearest to the _gods_ in happiness?" he answered, "that man who is in
want of the fewest things."
In this answer, Socrates left it to be guessed by his auditors, whether,
by the exemption from want which was to constitute happiness, he meant
amplitude of possessions or contraction of desire. And, indeed, there is
so little difference between them, that Alexander the Great confessed
the inhabitant of a tub the next man to the master of the world; and
left a declaration to future ages, that if he was not Alexander he
should wish to be Diogenes.
These two states, however, though they resemble each other in their
consequence, differ widely with respect to the facility with which they
may be attained. To make great acquisitions can happen to very few; and
in the uncertainty of human affairs, to many it will be incident to
labour without reward, and to lose what they already possess by
endeavours to make it more: some will always want abilities, and others
opportunities to accumulate wealth. It is therefore happy, that nature
has allowed us a more certain and easy road to plenty; every man may
grow rich by contracting his wishes, and by quiet acquiescence in what
has been given him, supply the absence of more.
Yet so far is almost every man from emulating the happiness of the gods,
by any other means than grasping at their power, that it seems to be the
great business of life to create wants as fast as they are satisfied. It
has been long observed by moralists, that every man squanders or loses a
great part of that life, of which every man knows and deplores the
shortness: and it may be remarked with equal justness, that though every
man laments his own insufficiency to his happiness, and knows himself a
necessitous and precarious being, incessantly soliciting the assistance
of others, and feeling wants which his own art or strength cannot
supply; yet there is no man, who does not, by the superaddition of
unnatural cares, render himself still more dependent; who does not
create an artificial poverty, and suffer himself to feel pain for the
want of that, of which, when it is gained, he can have no enjoyment.
It must, indeed, be allowed, that as we lose part of our time because it
steals away silent and invisible, and many an hour is passed before we
recollect that it is passing; so unnatural desires insinuate themselves
unobserved into the mind, and we do not perceive that they are gaining
upon us, till the pain which they give us awakens us to notice. No man
is sufficiently vigilant to take account of every minute of his life, or
to watch every motion of his heart. Much of our time likewise is
sacrificed to custom; we trifle, because we see others trifle; in the
same manner we catch from example the contagion of desire; we see all
about us busied in pursuit of imaginary good, and begin to bustle in the
same chase, lest greater activity should triumph over us.
It is true, that to man as a member of society, many things become
necessary, which, perhaps, in a state of nature are superfluous; and
that many things, not absolutely necessary, are yet so useful and
convenient, that they cannot easily be spared. I will make yet a more
ample and liberal concession. In opulent states, and regular
governments, the temptations to wealth and rank, and to the distinctions
that follow them, are such as no force of understanding finds it easy to
If, therefore, I saw the quiet of life disturbed only by endeavours
after wealth and honour; by solicitude, which the world, whether justly
or not, considered as important; I should scarcely have had courage to
inculcate any precepts of moderation and forbearance. He that is engaged
in a pursuit, in which all mankind profess to be his rivals, is
supported by the authority of all mankind in the prosecution of his
design, and will, therefore, scarcely stop to hear the lectures of a
solitary philosopher. Nor am I certain, that the accumulation of honest
gain ought to be hindered, or the ambition of just honours always to be
repressed. Whatever can enable the possessor to confer any benefit upon
others, may be desired upon virtuous principles; and we ought not too
rashly to accuse any man of intending to confine the influence of his
acquisitions to himself.
But if we look round upon mankind, whom shall we find among those that
fortune permits to form their own manners, that is not tormenting
himself with a wish for something, of which all the pleasure and all the
benefit will cease at the moment of attainment? One man is beggaring his
posterity to build a house, which when finished he never will inhabit;
another is levelling mountains to open a prospect, which, when he has
once enjoyed it, he can enjoy it no more; another is painting ceilings,
carving wainscot, and filling his apartments with costly furniture, only
that some neighbouring house may not be richer or finer than his own.
That splendour and elegance are not desirable, I am not so abstracted
from life to inculcate; but if we inquire closely into the reason for
which they are esteemed, we shall find them valued principally as
evidences of wealth. Nothing, therefore, can show greater depravity of
understanding, than to delight in the show when the reality is wanting;
or voluntarily to become poor, that strangers may for a time imagine us
to be rich.
But there are yet minuter objects and more trifling anxieties. Men may
be found, who are kept from sleep by the want of a shell particularly
variegated! who are wasting their lives, in stratagems to obtain a book
in a language which they do not understand; who pine with envy at the
flowers of another man's parterre; who hover like vultures round the
owner of a fossil, in hopes to plunder his cabinet at his death; and who
would not much regret to see a street in flames, if a box of medals
might be scattered in the tumult.
He that imagines me to speak of these sages in terms exaggerated and
hyperbolical, has conversed but little with the race of virtuosos. A
slight acquaintance with their studies, and a few visits to their
assemblies, would inform him, that nothing is so worthless, but that
prejudice and caprice can give it value; nor any thing of so little use,
but that by indulging an idle competition or unreasonable pride, a man
may make it to himself one of the necessaries of life.
Desires like these, I may surely, without incurring the censure of
moroseness, advise every man to repel when they invade his mind; or if
he admits them, never to allow them any greater influence than is
necessary to give petty employments the power of pleasing, and diversify
the day with slight amusements.
An ardent wish, whatever be its object, will always be able to interrupt
tranquillity. What we believe ourselves to want, torments us not in
proportion to its real value, but according to the estimation by which
we have rated it in our own minds; in some diseases, the patient has
been observed to long for food, which scarce any extremity of hunger
would in health have compelled him to swallow; but while his organs were
thus depraved, the craving was irresistible, nor could any rest be
obtained till it was appeased by compliance. Of the same nature are the
irregular appetites of the mind; though they are often excited by
trifles, they are equally disquieting with real wants: the Roman, who
wept at the death of his lamprey, felt the same degree of sorrow that
extorts tears on other occasions.
Inordinate desires, of whatever kind, ought to be repressed upon yet a
higher consideration; they must be considered as enemies not only to
happiness but to virtue. There are men, among those commonly reckoned
the learned and the wise, who spare no stratagems to remove a competitor
at an auction, who will sink the price of a rarity at the expense of
truth, and whom it is not safe to trust alone in a library or cabinet.
These are faults, which the fraternity seem to look upon as jocular
mischiefs, or to think excused by the violence of the temptation: but I
shall always fear that he, who accustoms himself to fraud in little
things, wants only opportunity to practise it in greater; "he that has
hardened himself by killing a sheep," says Pythagoras, "will with less
reluctance shed the blood of a man."
To prize every thing according to its _real_ use ought to be the aim of
a rational being. There are few things which can much conduce to
happiness, and, therefore, few things to be ardently desired. He that
looks upon the business and bustle of the world, with the philosophy
with which Socrates surveyed the fair at Athens, will turn away at last
with his exclamation, "How many things are here which I do not want!"
No. 120. SATURDAY, DECEMBER 29, 1753.
Expectanda dies homini: dicique beatus
Ante obitum nemo supremaque funera debet._ OVID. Met. Lib. iii. 135.
But no frail man, however great or high,
Can be concluded blest before he die. ADDISON.
The numerous miseries of human life have extorted in all ages an
universal complaint. The wisest of men terminated all his experiments in
search of happiness, by the mournful confession, that "all is vanity;"
and the ancient patriarchs lamented, that "the days of their pilgrimage
were few and evil."
There is, indeed, no topick on which it is more superfluous to
accumulate authorities, nor any assertion of which our own eyes will
more easily discover, or our sensations more frequently impress the
truth, than, that misery is the lot of man, that our present state is a
state of danger and infelicity.
When we take the most distant prospect of life, what does it present us
but a chaos of unhappiness, a confused and tumultuous scene of labour
and contest, disappointment and defeat? If we view past ages in the
reflection of history, what do they offer to our meditation but crimes
and calamities? One year is distinguished by a famine, another by an
earthquake; kingdoms are made desolate, sometimes by wars, and sometimes
by pestilence; the peace of the world is interrupted at one time by the
caprices of a tyrant, at another by the rage of the conqueror. The
memory is stored only with vicissitudes of evil; and the happiness, such
as it is, of one part of mankind, is found to arise commonly from
sanguinary success, from victories which confer upon them the power, not
so much of improving life by any new enjoyment, as of inflicting misery
on others, and gratifying their own pride by comparative greatness.
But by him that examines life with a more close attention, the happiness
of the world will be found still less than it appears. In some intervals
of publick prosperity, or to use terms more proper, in some
intermissions of calamity, a general diffusion of happiness may seem to
overspread a people; all is triumph and exultation, jollity and plenty;
there are no publick fears and dangers, and "no complainings in the
streets." But the condition of individuals is very little mended by this
general calm: pain and malice and discontent still continue their
havock; the silent depredation goes incessantly forward; and the grave
continues to be filled by the victims of sorrow.
He that enters a gay assembly, beholds the cheerfulness displayed in
every countenance, and finds all sitting vacant and disengaged, with no
other attention than to give or to receive pleasure, would naturally
imagine, that he had reached at last the metropolis of felicity, the
place sacred to gladness of heart, from whence all fear and anxiety were
irreversibly excluded. Such, indeed, we may often find to be the opinion
of those, who from a lower station look up to the pomp and gaiety which
they cannot reach: but who is there of those who frequent these
luxurious assemblies, that will not confess his own uneasiness, or
cannot recount the vexations and distresses that prey upon the lives of
his gay companions?
The world, in its best state, is nothing more than a larger assembly of
beings, combining to counterfeit happiness which they do not feel,
employing every art and contrivance to embellish life, and to hide their
real condition from the eyes of one another.
The species of happiness most obvious to the observation of others, is
that which depends upon the goods of fortune; yet even this is often
fictitious. There is in the world more poverty than is generally
imagined; not only because many whose possessions are large have desires
still larger, and many measure their wants by the gratifications which
others enjoy; but great numbers are pressed by real necessities which it
is their chief ambition to conceal, and are forced to purchase the
appearance of competence and cheerfulness at the expense of many
comforts and conveniencies of life.
Many, however, are confessedly rich, and many more are sufficiently
removed from all danger of real poverty: but it has been long ago
remarked, that money cannot purchase quiet; the highest of mankind can
promise themselves no exemption from that discord or suspicion, by which
the sweetness of domestick retirement is destroyed; and must always be
even more exposed, in the same degree as they are elevated above others,
to the treachery of dependants, the calumny of defamers and the violence
Affliction is inseparable from our present state: it adheres to all the
inhabitants of this world, in different proportions indeed, but with an
allotment which seems very little regulated by our own conduct. It has
been the boast of some swelling moralists, that every man's fortune was
in his own power, that prudence supplied the place of all other
divinities, and that happiness is the unfailing consequence of virtue.
But, surely, the quiver of Omnipotence is stored with arrows, against
which the shield of human virtue, however adamantine it has been
boasted, is held up in vain: we do not always suffer by our crimes; we
are not always protected by our innocence.
A good man is by no means exempt from the danger of suffering by the
crimes of others; even his goodness may raise him enemies of implacable
malice and restless perseverance: the good man has never been warranted
by Heaven from the treachery of friends, the disobedience of children or
the dishonesty of a wife; he may see his cares made useless by
profusion, his instructions defeated by perverseness, and his kindness
rejected by ingratitude; he may languish under the infamy of false
accusations, or perish reproachfully by an unjust sentence.
A good man is subject, like other mortals, to all the influences of
natural evil; his harvest is not spared by the tempest, nor his cattle
by the murrain; his house flames like others in a conflagration; nor
have his ships any peculiar power of resisting hurricanes: his mind,
however elevated, inhabits a body subject to innumerable casualties, of
which he must always share the dangers and the pains; he bears about him
the seeds of disease, and may linger away a great part of his life under
the tortures of the gout or stone; at one time groaning with
insufferable anguish, at another dissolved in listlessness and languor.
From this general and indiscriminate distribution of misery, the
moralists have always derived one of their strongest moral arguments for
a future state; for since the common events of the present life happen
alike to the good and bad, it follows from the justice of the Supreme
Being, that there must be another state of existence, in which a just
retribution shall be made, and every man shall be happy and miserable
according to his works.
The miseries of life may, perhaps, afford some proof of a future state,
compared as well with the mercy as the justice of God. It is scarcely to
be imagined that Infinite Benevolence would create a being capable of
enjoying so much more than is here to be enjoyed, and qualified by
nature to prolong pain by remembrance, and anticipate it by terrour, if
he was not designed for something nobler and better than a state, in
which many of his faculties can serve only for his torment; in which he
is to be importuned by desires that never can be satisfied, to feel many
evils which he had no power to avoid, and to fear many which he shall
never feel: there will surely come a time, when every capacity of
happiness shall be filled, and none shall be wretched but by his own
In the mean time, it is by affliction chiefly that the heart of man is
purified, and that the thoughts are fixed upon a better state.
Prosperity, allayed and imperfect as it is, has power to intoxicate the
imagination, to fix the mind upon the present scene, to produce
confidence and elation, and to make him who enjoys affluence and honours
forget the hand by which they were bestowed. It is seldom that we are
otherwise, than by affliction, awakened to a sense of our own
imbecility, or taught to know how little all our acquisitions can
conduce to safety or to quiet; and how justly we may ascribe to the
superintendence of a higher Power, those blessings which in the
wantonness of success we considered as the attainments of our policy or
Nothing confers so much ability to resist the temptations that
perpetually surround us, as an habitual consideration of the shortness
of life, and the uncertainty of those pleasures that solicit our
pursuit; and this consideration can be inculcated only by affliction. "O
Death! how bitter is the remembrance of thee, to a man that lives at
ease in his possessions!" If our present state were one continued
succession of delights, or one uniform flow of calmness and
tranquillity, we should never willingly think upon its end; death would
then surely surprise us as "a thief in the night;" and our task of duty
would remain unfinished, till "the night came when no man can work."
While affliction thus prepares us for felicity, we may console ourselves
under its pressures, by remembering, that they are no particular marks
of divine displeasure; since all the distresses of persecution have been
suffered by those, "of whom the world was not worthy;" and the Redeemer
of mankind himself was "a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief!"
No. 126. SATURDAY, JANUARY 19, 1754.
--_Steriles nec legit arenas
Ut caner et paucis, mersitque hoc pulvere verum._ LUCAN.
Canst thou believe the vast eternal Mind Was e'er to Syrts and
Lybian sands confin'd? That he would choose this waste, this barren
ground, To teach the thin inhabitants around, And leave his truth in
wilds and deserts drown'd?
There has always prevailed among that part of mankind that addict their
minds to speculation, a propensity to talk much of the delights of
retirement: and some of the most pleasing compositions produced in every
age contain descriptions of the peace and happiness of a country life.
I know not whether those who thus ambitiously repeat the praises of
solitude, have always considered, how much they depreciate mankind by
declaring, that whatever is excellent or desirable is to be obtained by
departing from them; that the assistance which we may derive from one
another, is not equivalent to the evils which we have to fear; that the
kindness of a few is overbalanced by the malice of many; and that the
protection of society is too dearly purchased by encountering its
dangers and enduring its oppressions.
These specious representations of solitary happiness, however
opprobrious to human nature, have so far spread their influence over the
world, that almost every man delights his imagination with the hopes of
obtaining some time an opportunity of retreat. Many, indeed, who enjoy
retreat only in imagination, content themselves with believing, that
another year will transport them to rural tranquillity, and die while
they talk of doing what, if they had lived longer, they would never have
done. But many likewise there are, either of greater resolution or more
credulity, who in earnest try the state which they have been taught to
think thus secure from cares and dangers; and retire to privacy, either
that they may improve their happiness, increase their knowledge, or
exalt their virtue.
The greater part of the admirers of solitude, as of all other classes of
mankind, have no higher or remoter view, than the present gratification
of their passions. Of these, some, haughty and impetuous, fly from
society only because they cannot bear to repay to others the regard
which themselves exact; and think no state of life eligible, but that
which places them out of the reach of censure or control, and affords
them opportunities of living in a perpetual compliance with their own
inclinations, without the necessity of regulating their actions by any
other man's convenience or opinion.
There are others, of minds more delicate and tender, easily offended by
every deviation from rectitude, soon disgusted by ignorance or
impertinence, and always expecting from the conversation of mankind more
elegance, purity and truth, than the mingled mass of life will easily
afford. Such men are in haste to retire from grossness, falsehood and
brutality; and hope to find in private habitations at least a negative
felicity, an exemption from the shocks and perturbations with which
publick scenes are continually distressing them.
To neither of these votaries will solitude afford that content, which
she has been taught so lavishly to promise. The man of arrogance will
quickly discover, that by escaping from his opponents he has lost his
flatterers, that greatness is nothing where it is not seen, and power
nothing where it cannot be felt: and he, whose faculties are employed in
too close an observation of failings and defects, will find his
condition very little mended by transferring his attention from others
to himself: he will probably soon come back in quest of new objects, and
be glad to keep his captiousness employed on any character rather than
Others are seduced into solitude merely by the authority of great names,
and expect to find those charms in tranquillity which have allured
statesmen and conquerors to the shades: these likewise are apt to wonder
at their disappointment, for want of considering, that those whom they
aspire to imitate carried with them to their country-seats minds full
fraught with subjects of reflection, the consciousness of great merit,
the memory of illustrious actions, the knowledge of important events,
and the seeds of mighty designs to be ripened by future meditation.
Solitude was to such men a release from fatigue, and an opportunity of
usefulness. But what can retirement confer upon him, who having done
nothing can receive no support from his own importance, who having known
nothing can find no entertainment in reviewing the past, and who
intending nothing can form no hopes from prospects of the future? He
can, surely, take no wiser course than that of losing himself again in
the crowd, and filling the vacuities of his mind with the news of the
Others consider solitude as the parent of philosophy, and retire in
expectation of greater intimacies with science, as Numa repaired to the
groves when he conferred with Egeria. These men have not always reason
to repent. Some studies require a continued prosecution of the same
train of thought, such as is too often interrupted by the petty
avocations of common life: sometimes, likewise, it is necessary, that a
multiplicity of objects be at once present to the mind; and every thing,
therefore, must be kept at a distance, which may perplex the memory or
dissipate the attention.
But though learning may be conferred by solitude, its application must
be attained by general converse. He has learned to no purpose, that is
not able to teach; and he will always teach unsuccessfully, who cannot
recommend his sentiments by his diction or address.
Even the acquisition of knowledge is often much facilitated by the
advantages of society: he that never compares his notions with those of
others, readily acquiesces in his first thoughts, and very seldom
discovers the objections which may be raised against his opinions; he,
therefore, often thinks himself in possession of truth, when he is only
fondling an errour long since exploded. He that has neither companions
nor rivals in his studies, will always applaud his own progress, and
think highly of his performances, because he knows not that others have
equalled or excelled him. And I am afraid it may be added, that the
student who withdraws himself from the world, will soon feel that ardour
extinguished which praise or emulation had enkindled, and take the
advantage of secrecy to sleep, rather than to labour.
There remains yet another set of recluses, whose intention entitles them
to higher respect, and whose motives deserve a more serious
consideration. These retire from the world, not merely to bask in ease
or gratify curiosity, but that, being disengaged from common cares, they
may employ more time in the duties of religion; that they may regulate
their actions with stricter vigilance, and purify their thoughts by more
To men thus elevated above the mists of mortality, I am far from
presuming myself qualified to give directions. On him that appears to
"pass through things temporal," with no other care than not to "finally
lose the things eternal," I look with such veneration as inclines me to
approve his conduct in the whole, without a minute examination of its
parts; yet I could never forbear to wish, that while vice is every day
multiplying seducements, and stalking forth with more hardened
effrontery, virtue would not withdraw the influence of her presence, or
forbear to assert her natural dignity by open and undaunted perseverance
in the right. Piety practised in solitude, like the flower that blooms
in the desert, may give its fragrance to the winds of Heaven, and
delight those unbodied spirits that survey the works of God and the
actions of men; but it bestows no assistance upon earthly beings, and
however free from taints of impurity, yet wants the sacred splendour of
Our Maker, who, though he gave us such varieties of temper and such
difference of powers, yet designed us all for happiness, undoubtedly
intended that we should obtain that happiness by different means. Some
are unable to resist the temptations of importunity, or the impetuosity
of their own passions incited by the force of present temptations: of
these it is undoubtedly the duty to fly from enemies which they cannot
conquer, and cultivate, in the calm of solitude, that virtue which is
too tender to endure the tempests of publick life. But there are others,
whose passions grow more strong and irregular in privacy; and who cannot
maintain an uniform tenour of virtue, but by exposing their manners to
the publick eye, and assisting the admonitions of conscience with the
fear of infamy: for such it is dangerous to exclude all witnesses of
their conduct, till they have formed strong habits of virtue, and
weakened their passions by frequent victories. But there is a higher
order of men so inspired with ardour, and so fortified with resolution,
that the world passes before them without influence or regard: these
ought to consider themselves as appointed the guardians of mankind: they
are placed in an evil world, to exhibit publick examples of good life;
and may be said, when they withdraw to solitude, to desert the station
which Providence assigned them.
No. 128. SATURDAY, JANUARY 26, 1754.
_Ille sinistrorsum, hic dextrorsum abit; unus utrique
Error, sed variis illudit partibus._--HOR. Lib. ii. Sat. iii. 50.
When in a wood we leave the certain way,
One error fools us, though we various stray,
Some to the left, and some to t'other side. FRANCIS.
It is common among all the classes of mankind, to charge each other with
trifling away life: every man looks on the occupation or amusement of
his neighbour, as something below the dignity of our nature, and
unworthy of the attention of a rational being.
A man who considers the paucity of the wants of nature, and who, being
acquainted with the various means by which all manual occupations are
now facilitated, observes what numbers are supported by the labour of a
few, would, indeed, be inclined to wonder, how the multitudes who are
exempted from the necessity of working, either for themselves or others,
find business to fill up the vacuities of life. The greater part of
mankind neither card the fleece, dig the mine, fell the wood, nor gather
in the harvest; they neither tend herds nor build houses; in what then
are they employed?
This is certainly a question, which a distant prospect of the world will
not enable us to answer. We find all ranks and ages mingled together in
a tumultuous confusion, with haste in their motions, and eagerness in
their looks; but what they have to pursue or avoid, a more minute
observation must inform them.
When we analyze the crowd into individuals, it soon appears that the
passions and imaginations of men will not easily suffer them to be idle:
we see things coveted merely because they are rare, and pursued because
they are fugitive; we see men conspire to fix an arbitrary value on that
which is worthless in itself, and then contend for the possession. One
is a collector of fossils, of which he knows no other use than to show
them; and when he has stocked his own repository, grieves that the
stones which he has left behind him should be picked up by another. The
florist nurses a tulip, and repines that his rival's beds enjoy the same
showers and sunshine with his own. This man is hurrying to a concert,
only lest others should have heard the new musician before him; another
bursts from his company to the play, because he fancies himself the
patron of an actress; some spend the morning in consultations with their
tailor, and some in directions to their cook; some are forming parties
for cards, and some laying wagers at a horse-race.
It cannot, I think, be denied, that some of these lives are passed in
trifles, in occupations by which the busy neither benefit themselves nor
others, and by which no man could be long engaged, who seriously
considered what he was doing, or had knowledge enough to compare what he
is, with what he might be made. However, as people who have the same
inclination generally flock together, every trifler is kept in
countenance by the sight of others as unprofitably active as himself; by
kindling the heat of competition, he in time thinks himself important,
and by having his mind intensely engaged, he is secured from weariness
Some degree of self-approbation is always the reward of diligence; and I
cannot, therefore, but consider the laborious cultivation of petty
pleasures, as a more happy and more virtuous disposition, than that
universal contempt and haughty negligence, which is sometimes associated
with powerful faculties, but is often assumed by indolence when it
disowns its name, and aspires to the appellation of greatness of mind.
It has been long observed, that drollery and ridicule is the most easy
kind of wit: let it be added that contempt and arrogance is the easiest
philosophy. To find some objection to every thing, and to dissolve in
perpetual laziness under pretence that occasions are wanting to call
forth activity, to laugh at those who are ridiculously busy without
setting an example of more rational industry, is no less in the power of
the meanest than of the highest intellects.
Our present state has placed us at once in such different relations,
that every human employment, which is not a visible and immediate act of
goodness, will be in some respect or other subject to contempt; but it
is true, likewise, that almost every act, which is not directly vicious,
is in some respect beneficial and laudable. "I often," says Bruyere,
"observe from my window, two beings of erect form and amiable
countenance, endowed with the powers of reason, able to clothe their
thoughts in language, and convey their notions to each other. They rise
early in the morning, and are every day employed till sunset in rubbing
two smooth stones together, or, in other terms, in polishing marble."
"If lions could paint," says the fable, "in the room of those pictures
which exhibit men vanquishing lions, we should see lions feeding upon
men." If the stone-cutter could have written like Bruyere, what would he
"I look up," says he, "every day from my shop, upon a man whom the
idlers, who stand still to gaze upon my work, often celebrate as a wit
and a philosopher. I often perceive his face clouded with care, and am
told that his taper is sometimes burning at midnight. The sight of a man
who works so much harder than myself, excited my curiosity. I heard no
sound of tools in his apartment, and, therefore, could not imagine what
he was doing; but was told at last, that he was writing descriptions of
mankind, who when he had described them would live just as they had
lived before; that he sat up whole nights to change a sentence, because
the sound of a letter was too often repeated: that he was often
disquieted with doubts, about the propriety of a word which every body
understood; that he would hesitate between two expressions equally
proper, till he could not fix his choice but by consulting his friends;
that he will run from one end of Paris to the other, for an opportunity
of reading a period to a nice ear; that if a single line is heard with
coldness and inattention, he returns home dejected and disconsolate; and
that by all this care and labour, he hopes only to make a little book,
which at last will teach no useful art, and which none who has it not
will perceive himself to want. I have often wondered for what end such a
being as this was sent into the world; and should be glad to see those
who live thus foolishly, seized by an order of the government, and
obliged to labour at some useful occupation."
Thus, by a partial and imperfect representation, may every thing be made
equally ridiculous. He that gazed with contempt on human beings rubbing
stones together, might have prolonged the same amusement by walking
through the city, and seeing others with looks of importance heaping one
brick upon another; or by rambling into the country, where he might
observe other creatures of the same kind driving a piece of sharp iron
into the clay, or, in the language of men less enlightened, ploughing
As it is thus easy by a detail of minute circumstances to make every
thing little, so it is not difficult by an aggregation of effects to
make every thing great. The polisher of marble may be forming ornaments
for the palaces of virtue, and the schools of science; or providing
tables on which the actions of heroes and the discoveries of sages shall
be recorded, for the incitement and instruction of generations. The
mason is exercising one of the principal arts by which reasoning beings
are distinguished from the brute, the art to which life owes much of its
safety and all its convenience, by which we are secured from the
inclemency of the seasons, and fortified against the ravages of
hostility; and the ploughman is changing the face of nature, diffusing
plenty and happiness over kingdoms, and compelling the earth to give
food to her inhabitants.
Greatness and littleness are terms merely comparative; and we err in our
estimation of things, because we measure them by some wrong standard.
The trifler proposes to himself only to equal or excel some other
trifler, and is happy or miserable as he succeeds or miscarries: the man
of sedentary desire and unactive ambition sits comparing his power with
his wishes; and makes his inability to perform things impossible, an
excuse to himself for performing nothing. Man can only form a just
estimate of his own actions, by making his power the test of his
performance, by comparing what he does with what he can do. Whoever
steadily perseveres in the exertion of all his faculties, does what is
great with respect to himself; and what will not be despised by Him, who
has given to all created beings their different abilities: he faithfully
performs the task of life, within whatever limits his labours may be
confined, or how soon soever they may be forgotten.
We can conceive so much more than we can accomplish, that whoever tries
his own actions by his imagination, may appear despicable in his own
eyes. He that despises for its littleness any thing really useful, has
no pretensions to applaud the grandeur of his conceptions; since nothing
but narrowness of mind hinders him from seeing, that by pursuing the
same principles every thing limited will appear contemptible.
He that neglects the care of his family, while his benevolence expands
itself in scheming the happiness of imaginary kingdoms, might with equal
reason sit on a throne dreaming of universal empire, and of the
diffusion of blessings over all the globe: yet even this globe is
little, compared with the system of matter within our view! and that
system barely something more than nonentity, compared with the boundless
regions of space, to which neither eye nor imagination can extend.
From conceptions, therefore, of what we might have been, and from wishes
to be what we are not, conceptions that we know to be foolish, and
wishes which we feel to be vain, we must necessarily descend to the
consideration of what we are. We have powers very scanty in their utmost
extent, but which in different men are differently proportioned.
Suitably to these powers we have duties prescribed, which we must
neither decline for the sake of delighting ourselves with easier
amusements, nor overlook in idle contemplation of greater excellence or
more extensive comprehension.
In order to the right conduct of our lives, we must remember, that we
are not born to please ourselves. He that studies simply his own
satisfaction, will always find the proper business of his station too
hard or too easy for him. But if we bear continually in mind our
relation to the Father of Being, by whom we are placed in the world, and
who has allotted us the part which we are to bear in the general system
of life, we shall be easily persuaded to resign our own inclinations to
Unerring Wisdom, and do the work decreed for us with cheerfulness and
No. 131. TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 5, 1754.
Ergo aliquid nostris de moribus_. JUV. Sat. iv. 322.
And mingle something of our times to please. DRYDEN, Jun.
Fontanelle, in his panegyrick on Sir Isaac Newton, closes a long
enumeration of that great philosopher's virtues and attainments, with an
observation, that "he was not distinguished from other men, by any
singularity either natural or affected."
It is an eminent instance of Newton's superiority to the rest of
mankind, that he was able to separate knowledge from those weaknesses by
which knowledge is generally disgraced; that he was able to excel in
science and wisdom without purchasing them by the neglect of little
things; and that he stood alone, merely because he had left the rest of
mankind behind him, not because he deviated from the beaten track.
Whoever, after the example of Plutarch, should compare the lives of
illustrious men, might set this part of Newton's character to view with
great advantage, by opposing it to that of Bacon, perhaps the only man,
of later ages, who has any pretensions to dispute with him the palm of
genius or science.
Bacon, after he had added to a long and careful contemplation of almost
every other object of knowledge a curious inspection into common life,
and after having surveyed nature as a philosopher, had examined "men's
business and bosoms" as a statesman; yet failed so much in the conduct
of domestick affairs, that, in the most lucrative post to which a great
and wealthy kingdom could advance him, he felt all the miseries of
distressful poverty, and committed all the crimes to which poverty
incites. Such were at once his negligence and rapacity, that, as it is
said, he would gain by unworthy practices that money, which, when so
acquired, his servants might steal from one end of the table, while he
sat studious and abstracted at the other.
As scarcely any man has reached the excellence, very few have sunk to
the weakness of Bacon: but almost all the studious tribe, as they obtain
any participation of his knowledge, feel likewise some contagion of his
defects; and obstruct the veneration which learning would procure, by
follies greater or less, to which only learning could betray them.
It has been formerly remarked by _The Guardian_, that the world punishes
with too great severity the errours of those, who imagine that the
ignorance of little things may be compensated by the knowledge of great;
for so it is, that as more can detect petty failings than can
distinguish or esteem great qualifications, and as mankind is in general
more easily disposed to censure than to admiration, contempt is often
incurred by slight mistakes, which real virtue or usefulness cannot
Yet such mistakes and inadvertencies it is not easy for a man deeply
immersed in study to avoid; no man can become qualified for the common
intercourses of life, by private meditation: the manners of the world
are not a regular system, planned by philosophers upon settled
principles, in which every cause has a congruous effect, and one part
has a just reference to another. Of the fashions prevalent in every
country, a few have arisen, perhaps, from particular temperatures of the
climate; a few more from the constitution of the government; but the
greater part have grown up by chance; been started by caprice, been
contrived by affectation, or borrowed without any just motives of choice
from other countries.
Of all these, the savage that hunts his prey upon the mountains, and the
sage that speculates in his closet, must necessarily live in equal
ignorance: yet by the observation of those trifles it is, that the ranks
of mankind are kept in order, that the address of one to another is
regulated, and the general business of the world carried on with
facility and method.
These things, therefore, though small in themselves, become great by
their frequency: and he very much mistakes his own interest, who to the
unavoidable unskilfulness of abstraction and retirement, adds a
voluntary neglect of common forms, and increases the disadvantages of a
studious course of life by an arrogant contempt of those practices, by
which others endeavour to gain favour and multiply friendships.
A real and interior disdain of fashion and ceremony, is indeed, not very
often to be found: much the greater part of those who pretend to laugh
at foppery and formality, secretly wish to have possessed those
qualifications which they pretend to despise; and because they find it
difficult to wash away the tincture which they have so deeply imbibed,
endeavour to harden themselves in a sullen approbation of their own
colour. Neutrality is a state, into which the busy passions of man
cannot easily subside; and he who is in danger of the pangs of envy, is
generally forced to recreate his imagination with an effort of comfort.
Some, however, may be found, who, supported by the consciousness of
great abilities, and elevated by a long course of reputation and
applause, voluntarily consign themselves to singularity, affect to cross
the roads of life because they know that they shall not be jostled, and
indulge a boundless gratification of will because they perceive that
they shall be quietly obeyed. Men of this kind are generally known by
the name of Humourists, an appellation by which he that has obtained it,
and can be contented to keep it, is set free at once from the shackles
of fashion: and can go in or out, sit or stand, be talkative or silent,
gloomy or merry, advance absurdities or oppose demonstration, without
any other reprehension from mankind, than that it is his way, that he is
an odd fellow, and must be let alone.
This seems to many an easy passport through the various factions of
mankind; and those on whom it is bestowed, appear too frequently to
consider the patience with which their caprices are suffered as an
undoubted evidence of their own importance, of a genius to which
submission is universally paid, and whose irregularities are only
considered as consequences of its vigour. These peculiarities, however,
are always found to spot a character, though they may not totally
obscure it; and he who expects from mankind, that they should give up
established customs in compliance with his single will, and exacts that
deference which he does not pay, may be endured, but can never be
Singularity is, I think, in its own nature universally and invariably
displeasing. In whatever respect a man differs from others, he must be
considered by them as either worse or better: by being better, it is
well known that a man gains admiration oftener than love, since all
approbation of his practice must necessarily condemn him that gives it;
and though a man often pleases by inferiority, there are few who desire
to give such pleasure. Yet the truth is, that singularity is almost
always regarded as a brand of slight reproach; and where it is
associated with acknowledged merit, serves as an abatement or an allay
of excellence, by which weak eyes are reconciled to its lustre, and by
which, though kindness is not gained, at least envy is averted.
But let no man be in haste to conclude his own merit so great or
conspicuous, as to require or justify singularity: it is as hazardous
for a moderate understanding to usurp the prerogatives of genius, as for
a common form to play over the airs of uncontested beauty. The pride of
men will not patiently endure to see one, whose understanding or
attainments are but level with their own, break the rules by which they
have consented to be bound, or forsake the direction which they
submissively follow. All violation of established practice implies in
its own nature a rejection of the common opinion, a defiance of common
censure, and an appeal from general laws to private judgment: he,
therefore, who differs from others without apparent advantage, ought not
to be angry if his arrogance is punished with ridicule; if those whose
example he superciliously overlooks, point him out to derision, and hoot
him back again into the common road.
The pride of singularity is often exerted in little things, where right
and wrong are indeterminable, and where, therefore, vanity is without
excuse. But there are occasions on which it is noble to dare to stand
alone. To be pious among infidels, to be disinterested in a time of
general venality, to lead a life of virtue and reason in the midst of
sensualists, is a proof of a mind intent on nobler things than the
praise or blame of men, of a soul fixed in the contemplation of the
highest good, and superior to the tyranny of custom and example.
In moral and religious questions only, a wise man will hold no
consultations with fashion, because these duties are constant and
immutable, and depend not on the notions of men, but the commands of
Heaven: yet even of these, the external mode is to be in some measure
regulated by the prevailing taste of the age in which we live; for he is
certainly no friend to virtue, who neglects to give it any lawful
attraction, or suffers it to deceive the eye or alienate the affections
for want of innocent compliance with fashionable decorations.
It is yet remembered of the learned and pious Nelson, that he was
remarkably elegant in his manners, and splendid in his dress. He knew,
that the eminence of his character drew many eyes upon him; and he was
careful not to drive the young or the gay away from religion, by
representing it as an enemy to any distinction or enjoyment in which
human nature may innocently delight.
In this censure of singularity, I have, therefore, no intention to
subject reason or conscience to custom or example. To comply with the
notions and practices of mankind, is in some degree the duty of a social
being; because by compliance only he can please, and by pleasing only he
can become useful: but as the end is not to be lost for the sake of the
means, we are not to give up virtue to complaisance; for the end of
complaisance is only to gain the kindness of our fellow-beings, whose
kindness is desirable only as instrumental to happiness, and happiness
must be always lost by departure from virtue.
 The neglect of his writings must be considered as indicative of an
increasing neglect of that apostolical establishment, whose Fasts
and Festivals this author has illustrated with a raciness of style
and sentiment worthy of a primitive father of the Church.
No. 137. TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 26, 1754.
[Greek: Ti d erexa]; PYTHAG.
What have I been doing?
As man is a being very sparingly furnished with the power of prescience,
he can provide for the future only by considering the past; and as
futurity is all in which he has any real interest, he ought very
diligently to use the only means by which he can be enabled to enjoy it,
and frequently to revolve the experiments which he has hitherto made
upon life, that he may gain wisdom from his mistakes, and caution from
Though I do not so exactly conform to the precepts of Pythagoras, as to
practise every night this solemn recollection, yet I am not so lost in
dissipation as wholly to omit it; nor can I forbear sometimes to inquire
of myself, in what employment my life has passed away. Much of my time
has sunk into nothing, and left no trace by which it can be
distinguished; and of this I now only know, that it was once in my
power, and might once have been improved.
Of other parts of life, memory can give some account; at some hours I
have been gay, and at others serious; I have sometimes mingled in
conversation, and sometimes meditated in solitude; one day has been
spent in consulting the ancient sages, and another in writing
At the conclusion of any undertaking, it is usual to compute the loss
and profit. As I shall soon cease to write _Adventurers_, I could not
forbear lately to consider what has been the consequence of my labours;
and whether I am to reckon the hours laid out in these compositions, as
applied to a good and laudable purpose, or suffered to fume away in
That I have intended well, I have the attestation of my own heart: but
good intentions may be frustrated when they are executed without
suitable skill, or directed to an end unattainable in itself.
Some there are, who leave writers very little room for
self-congratulation; some who affirm, that books have no influence upon
the publick, that no age was ever made better by its authors, and that to
call upon mankind to correct their manners, is, like Xerxes, to scourge
the wind, or shackle the torrent.
This opinion they pretend to support by unfailing experience. The world
is full of fraud and corruption, rapine or malignity; interest is the
ruling motive of mankind, and every one is endeavouring to increase his
own stores of happiness by perpetual accumulation, without reflecting
upon the numbers whom his superfluity condemns to want: in this state of
things a book of morality is published, in which charity and benevolence
are strongly enforced; and it is proved beyond opposition, that men are
happy in proportion as they are virtuous, and rich as they are liberal.
The book is applauded, and the author is preferred; he imagines his
applause deserved, and receives less pleasure from the acquisition of
reward than the consciousness of merit. Let us look again upon mankind:
interest is still the ruling motive, and the world is yet full of fraud
and corruption, malevolence and rapine.
The difficulty of confuting this assertion, arises merely from its
generality and comprehension; to overthrow it by a detail of distinct
facts, requires a wider survey of the world than human eyes can take;
the progress of reformation is gradual and silent, as the extension of
evening shadows; we know that they were short at noon, and are long at
sunset, but our senses were not able to discern their increase: we know
of every civil nation, that it was once savage, and how was it reclaimed
but by precept and admonition?
Mankind are universally corrupt, but corrupt in different degrees; as
they are universally ignorant, yet with greater or less irradiations of
knowledge. How has knowledge or virtue been increased and preserved in
one place beyond another, but by diligent inculcation and rational
Books of morality are daily written, yet its influence is still little
in the world; so the ground is annually ploughed, and yet multitudes are
in want of bread. But, surely, neither the labours of the moralist nor
of the husbandman are vain: let them for a while neglect their tasks,
and their usefulness will be known; the wickedness that is now frequent
will become universal, the bread that is now scarce would wholly fail.
The power, indeed, of every individual is small, and the consequence of
his endeavours imperceptible, in a general prospect of the world.
Providence has given no man ability to do much, that something might be
left for every man to do. The business of life is carried on by a
general co-operation; in which the part of any single man can be no more
distinguished, than the effect of a particular drop when the meadows are
floated by a summer shower: yet every drop increases the inundation, and
every hand adds to the happiness or misery of mankind.
That a writer, however zealous or eloquent, seldom works a visible
effect upon cities or nations, will readily be granted. The book which
is read most, is read by few, compared with those that read it not; and
of those few, the greater part peruse it with dispositions that very
little favour their own improvement.
It is difficult to enumerate the several motives which procure to books
the honour of perusal: spite, vanity, and curiosity, hope and fear, love
and hatred, every passion which incites to any other action, serves at
one time or other to stimulate a reader.
Some are fond to take a celebrated volume into their hands, because they
hope to distinguish their penetration, by finding faults which have
escaped the publick; others eagerly buy it in the first bloom of
reputation, that they may join the chorus of praise, and not lag, as
Falstaff terms it, in "the rearward of the fashion."
Some read for style, and some for argument: one has little care about
the sentiment, he observes only how it is expressed; another regards not
the conclusion, but is diligent to mark how it is inferred: they read
for other purposes than the attainment of practical knowledge; and are
no more likely to grow wise by an examination of a treatise of moral
prudence, than an architect to inflame his devotion by considering
attentively the proportions of a temple.
Some read that they may embellish their conversation, or shine in
dispute; some that they may not be detected in ignorance, or want the
reputation of literary accomplishments: but the most general and
prevalent reason of study is the impossibility of finding another
amusement equally cheap or constant, equally independent on the hour or
the weather. He that wants money to follow the chase of pleasure through
her yearly circuit, and is left at home when the gay world rolls to Bath
or Tunbridge; he whose gout compels him to hear from his chamber the
rattle of chariots transporting happier beings to plays and assemblies,
will be forced to seek in books a refuge from himself.
The author is not wholly useless, who provides innocent amusements for
minds like these. There are, in the present state of things, so many
more instigations to evil, than incitements to good, that he who keeps
men in a neutral state, may be justly considered as a benefactor to
But, perhaps, it seldom happens, that study terminates in mere pastime.
Books have always a secret influence on the understanding; we cannot, at
pleasure, obliterate ideas: he that reads books of science, though
without any fixed desire of improvement, will grow more knowing; he that
entertains himself with moral or religious treatises, will imperceptibly
advance in goodness; the ideas which are often offered to the mind, will
at last find a lucky moment when it is disposed to receive them.
It is, therefore, urged without reason, as a discouragement to writers,
that there are already books sufficient in the world; that all the
topicks of persuasion have been discussed, and every important question
clearly stated and justly decided; and that, therefore, there is no room
to hope, that pigmies should conquer where heroes have been defeated, or
that the petty copiers of the present time should advance the great work
of reformation, which their predecessors were forced to leave
Whatever be the present extent of human knowledge, it is not only
finite, and therefore in its own nature capable of increase, but so
narrow, that almost every understanding may, by a diligent application
of its powers, hope to enlarge it. It is, however, not necessary that a
man should forbear to write, till he has discovered some truth unknown
before; he may be sufficiently useful, by only diversifying the surface
of knowledge, and luring the mind by a new appearance to a second view
of those beauties which it had passed over inattentively before. Every
writer may find intellects correspondent to his own, to whom his
expressions are familiar, and his thoughts congenial; and, perhaps,
truth is often more successfully propagated by men of moderate
abilities, who, adopting the opinions of others, have no care but to
explain them clearly, than by subtle speculatists and curious searchers,
who exact from their readers powers equal to their own, and if their
fabricks of science be strong, take no care to render them accessible.
For my part, I do not regret the hours which I have laid out in these
little compositions. That the world has grown apparently better, since
the publication of the _Adventurer_, I have not observed; but am willing
to think, that many have been affected by single sentiments, of which it
is their business to renew the impression; that many have caught hints
of truth, which it is now their duty to pursue; and that those who have
received no improvement, have wanted not opportunity but intention to
No. 138. SATURDAY, MARCH 2, 1754.
_Quid pure tranquillet; honos, an dulce lucellum,
An secretum iter, et fallentis semita vitae._ HOR. Lib, i. Ep.
Whether the tranquil mind and pure,
Honours or wealth our bliss ensure:
Or down through life unknown to stray,
Where lonely leads the silent way. FRANCIS.
Having considered the importance of authors to the welfare of the
publick, I am led by a natural train of thought, to reflect on their
condition with regard to themselves; and to inquire what degree of
happiness or vexation is annexed to the difficult and laborious
employment of providing instruction or entertainment for mankind.
In estimating the pain or pleasure of any particular state, every man,
indeed, draws his decisions from his own breast, and cannot with
certainty determine whether other minds are affected by the same causes
in the same manner. Yet by this criterion we must be content to judge,
because no other can be obtained; and, indeed, we have no reason to
think it very fallacious, for excepting here and there an anomalous
mind, which either does not feel like others, or dissembles its
sensibility, we find men unanimously concur in attributing happiness or
misery to particular conditions, as they agree in acknowledging the cold
of winter and the heat of autumn.
If we apply to authors themselves for an account of their state, it will
appear very little to deserve envy; for they have in all ages been
addicted to complaint. The neglect of learning, the ingratitude of the
present age, and the absurd preference by which ignorance and dulness
often obtain favour and rewards, have been from age to age topicks of
invective; and few have left their names to posterity, without some
appeal to future candour from the perverseness and malice of their own
I have, nevertheless, been often inclined to doubt, whether authors,
however querulous, are in reality more miserable than their fellow
mortals. The present life is to all a state of infelicity; every man,
like an author, believes himself to merit more than he obtains, and
solaces the present with the prospect of the future; others, indeed,
suffer those disappointments in silence, of which the writer complains,
to show how well he has learnt the art of lamentation.
There is at least one gleam of felicity, of which few writers have
missed the enjoyment: he whose hopes have so far overpowered his fears,
as that he has resolved to stand forth a candidate for fame, seldom
fails to amuse himself, before his appearance, with pleasing scenes of
affluence or honour: while his fortune is yet under the regulation of
fancy, he easily models it to his wish, suffers no thoughts of criticks
or rivals to intrude upon his mind, but counts over the bounties of
patronage, or listens to the voice of praise.
Some there are, that talk very luxuriously of the second period of an
author's happiness, and tell of the tumultuous raptures of invention,
when the mind riots in imagery, and the choice stands suspended between
These pleasures, I believe, may sometimes be indulged to those, who come
to a subject of disquisition with minds full of ideas, and with fancies
so vigorous, as easily to excite, select, and arrange them. To write is,
indeed, no unpleasing employment, when one sentiment readily produces
another, and both ideas and expressions present themselves at the first
summons; but such happiness, the greatest genius does not always obtain;
and common writers know it only to such a degree, as to credit its
possibility. Composition is, for the most part, an effort of slow
diligence and steady perseverance, to which the mind is dragged by
necessity or resolution, and from which the attention is every moment
starting to more delightful amusements.
It frequently happens, that a design which, when considered at a
distance, gave flattering hopes of facility, mocks us in the execution
with unexpected difficulties; the mind which, while it considered it in
the gross, imagined itself amply furnished with materials, finds
sometimes an unexpected barrenness and vacuity, and wonders whither all
those ideas are vanished, which a little before seemed struggling for
Sometimes many thoughts present themselves; but so confused and
unconnected, that they are not without difficulty reduced to method, or
concatenated in a regular and dependent series; the mind falls at once
into a labyrinth, of which neither the beginning nor end can be
discovered, and toils and struggles without progress or extrication.
It is asserted by Horace, that, "if matter be once got together, words
will be found with very little difficulty;" a position which, though
sufficiently plausible to be inserted in poetical precepts, is by no
means strictly and philosophically true. If words were naturally and
necessarily consequential to sentiments, it would always follow, that he
who has most knowledge must have most eloquence, and that every man
would clearly express what he fully understood: yet we find, that to
think, and discourse, are often the qualities of different persons: and
many books might surely be produced, where just and noble sentiments are
degraded and obscured by unsuitable diction.
Words, therefore, as well as things, claim the care of an author. Indeed
of many authors, and those not useless or contemptible, words are almost
the only care: many make it their study, not so much to strike out new
sentiments, as to recommend those which are already known to more
favourable notice by fairer decorations; but every man, whether he
copies or invents, whether he delivers his own thoughts or those of
another, has often found himself deficient in the power of expression,
big with ideas which he could not utter, obliged to ransack his memory
for terms adequate to his conceptions, and at last unable to impress
upon his reader the image existing in his own mind.
It is one of the common distresses of a writer, to be within a word of a
happy period, to want only a single epithet to give amplification its
full force, to require only a correspondent term in order to finish a
paragraph with elegance, and make one of its members answer to the
other; but these deficiencies cannot always be supplied: and after a
long study and vexation, the passage is turned anew, and the web unwoven
that was so nearly finished.
But when thoughts and words are collected and adjusted, and the whole
composition at last concluded, it seldom gratifies the author, when he
comes coolly and deliberately to review it, with the hopes which had
been excited in the fury of the performance: novelty always captivates
the mind; as our thoughts rise fresh upon us, we readily believe them
just and original, which, when the pleasure of production is over, we
find to be mean and common, or borrowed from the works of others, and
supplied by memory rather than invention.
But though it should happen that the writer finds no such faults in his
performance, he is still to remember, that he looks upon it with partial
eyes: and when he considers, how much men, who could judge of others
with great exactness, have often failed of judging of themselves, he
will be afraid of deciding too hastily in his own favour, or of allowing
himself to contemplate with too much complacence, treasure that has not
yet been brought to the test, nor passed the only trial that can stamp
From the publick, and only from the publick, is he to await a
confirmation of his claim, and a final justification of self-esteem; but
the publick is not easily persuaded to favour an author. If mankind were
left to judge for themselves, it is reasonable to imagine, that of such
writings, at least, as describe the movements of the human passions, and
of which every man carries the archetype within him, a just opinion
would be formed; but whoever has remarked the fate of books, must have
found it governed by other causes than general consent arising from
general conviction. If a new performance happens not to fall into the
hands of some who have courage to tell, and authority to propagate their
opinion, it often remains long in obscurity, and perishes unknown and
unexamined. A few, a very few, commonly constitute the taste of the
time; the judgment which they have once pronounced, some are too lazy to
discuss, and some too timorous to contradict; it may however be, I
think, observed, that their power is greater to depress than exalt, as
mankind are more credulous of censure than of praise.
This perversion of the publick judgment is not to be rashly numbered
amongst the miseries of an author; since it commonly serves, after
miscarriage, to reconcile him to himself. Because the world has
sometimes passed an unjust sentence, he readily concludes the sentence
unjust by which his performance is condemned; because some have been
exalted above their merits by partiality, he is sure to ascribe the
success of a rival, not to the merit of his work, but the zeal of his
patrons. Upon the whole, as the author seems to share all the common
miseries of life, he appears to partake likewise of its lenitives and
 See a pamphlet entitled "The Case of Authors by Profession," 8vo.
1758. It is the production of Mr. James Ralph, who knew from painful
experience the bitter evils incident to an employment which yielded
a bare maintenance to Johnson himself. For anecdotes of Ralph, and
the work alluded to, see Dr. Drake's Essays on Rambler, &c. vol. i.
The IDLER having omitted to distinguish the essays of his correspondents
by any particular signature, thinks it necessary to inform his readers,
that from the ninth, the fifteenth, thirty-third, forty-second,
fifty-fourth, sixty-seventh, seventy-sixth, seventy-ninth,
eighty-second, ninety-third, ninety-sixth, and ninety-eighth papers, he
claims no other praise than that of having given them to the publick.
 The names of the Authors of these Papers, as far as known, will be
given in the course of the present edition.
No. 1. SATURDAY, APRIL 15, 1758.
_--Vacui sub umbra
Lusimus_.--Hor. Lib. i. Ode xxxii. 1.
Those who attempt periodical essays seem to be often stopped in the
beginning, by the difficulty of finding a proper title. Two writers,
since the time of the Spectator, have assumed his name without any
pretensions to lawful inheritance; an effort was once made to revive the
Tatler, and the strange appellations, by which other papers have been
called, show that the authors were distressed, like the natives of
America, who come to the Europeans to beg a name.
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