The Works of Samuel Johnson in Nine Volumes
Part 8 out of 9
yet what an addition to that nobleness could Raffaelle have given, had
the art of contrast been known in his time! but, above all, the flowing
line which constitutes grace and beauty! You would not have then seen an
upright figure standing equally on both legs, and both hands stretched
forward in the same direction, and his drapery, to all appearance,
without the least art of disposition." The following picture is the
Charge to Peter. "Here," says he, "are twelve upright figures; what a
pity it is that Raffaelle was not acquainted with the pyramidal
principle! He would then have contrived the figures in the middle to
have been on higher ground, or the figures at the extremities stooping
or lying, which would not only have formed the group into the shape of a
pyramid, but likewise contrasted the standing figures. Indeed," added
he, "I have often lamented that so great a genius as Raffaelle had not
lived in this enlightened age, since the art has been reduced to
principles, and had had his education in one of the modern academies;
what glorious works might we have then expected from his divine pencil!"
I shall trouble you no longer with my friend's observations, which, I
suppose, you are now able to continue by yourself. It is curious to
observe, that, at the same time that great admiration is pretended for a
name of fixed reputation, objections are raised against those very
qualities by which that great name was acquired.
Those criticks are continually lamenting that Raffaelle had not the
colouring and harmony of Rubens, or the light and shadow of Rembrant,
without considering how much the gay harmony of the former, and
affectation of the latter, would take from the dignity of Raffaelle; and
yet Rubens had great harmony, and Rembrant understood light and shadow:
but what may be an excellence in a lower class of painting, becomes a
blemish in a higher; as the quick, sprightly turn, which is the life and
beauty of epigrammatick compositions, would but ill suit with the
majesty of heroick poetry.
To conclude; I would not be thought to infer, from any thing that has
been said, that rules are absolutely unnecessary; but to censure
scrupulosity, a servile attention to minute exactness, which is
sometimes inconsistent with higher excellency, and is lost in the blaze
of expanded genius.
I do not know whether you will think painting a general subject. By
inserting this letter, perhaps, you will incur the censure a man would
deserve, whose business being to entertain a whole room, should turn his
back to the company, and talk to a particular person.
I am, Sir, &c.
 By Sir Joshua Reynolds.
No. 77. SATURDAY, OCTOBER 6, 1759.
Easy poetry is universally admired; but I know not whether any rule has
yet been fixed, by which it may be decided when poetry can be properly
called easy. Horace has told us, that it is such as "every reader hopes
to equal, but after long labour finds unattainable." This is a very
loose description, in which only the effect is noted; the qualities
which produce this effect remain to be investigated.
Easy poetry is that in which natural thoughts are expressed without
violence to the language. The discriminating character of ease consists
principally in the diction; for all true poetry requires that the
sentiments be natural. Language suffers violence by harsh or by daring
figures, by transposition, by unusual acceptations of words, and by any
licence, which would be avoided by a writer of prose. Where any artifice
appears in the construction of the verse, that verse is no longer easy.
Any epithet which can be ejected without diminution of the sense, any
curious iteration of the same word, and all unusual, though not
ungrammatical structure of speech, destroy the grace of easy poetry.
The first lines of Pope's Iliad afford examples of many licences which
an easy writer must decline:
Achilles' _wrath_, to Greece the _direful spring_
Of woes unnumber'd, _heav'nly_ Goddess sing;
The wrath which _hurl'd_ to Pluto's _gloomy reign_
The souls of _mighty_ chiefs untimely slain.
In the first couplet the language is distorted by inversions, clogged
with superfluities, and clouded by a harsh metaphor; and in the second
there are two words used in an uncommon sense, and two epithets inserted
only to lengthen the line; all these practices may in a long work easily
be pardoned, but they always produce some degree of obscurity and
Easy poetry has been so long excluded by ambition of ornament, and
luxuriance of imagery, that its nature seems now to be forgotten.
Affectation, however opposite to ease, is sometimes mistaken for it; and
those who aspire to gentle elegance, collect female phrases and
fashionable barbarisms, and imagine that style to be easy which custom
has made familiar. Such was the idea of the poet who wrote the following
verses to a _countess cutting paper_:
Pallas grew _vap'rish once and odd_,
She would not _do the least right thing_
Either for Goddess or for God,
Nor work, nor play, nor paint, nor sing.
Jove frown'd, and "Use (he cried) those eyes
So skilful, and those hands so taper;
Do something exquisite and wise"--
She bow'd, obey'd him, and cut paper.
This vexing him who gave her birth,
Thought by all Heaven a _burning shame_,
_What does she next_, but bids on earth
Her Burlington do just the same?
Pallas, you give yourself _strange airs_;
But sure you'll find it hard to spoil
The sense and taste of one that bears
The name of Savile and of Boyle.
Alas! one bad example shown,
How quickly all the sex pursue!
See, madam! see the arts o'erthrown
Between John Overton and _you_.
It is the prerogative of easy poetry to be understood as long as the
language lasts; but modes of speech, which owe their prevalence only to
modish folly, or to the eminence of those that use them, die away with
their inventors, and their meaning, in a few years, is no longer known.
Easy poetry is commonly sought in petty compositions upon minute
subjects; but ease, though it excludes pomp, will admit greatness. Many
lines in Cato's soliloquy are at once easy and sublime:
'Tis the Divinity that stirs within us;
'Tis Heaven itself that points out an hereafter,
And intimates eternity to man.
--If there's a Power above us,
And that there is all Nature cries aloud
Through all her works, he must delight in virtue,
And that which he delights in must be happy.
Nor is ease more contrary to wit than to sublimity; the celebrated
stanza of Cowley, on a lady elaborately dressed, loses nothing of its
freedom by the spirit of the sentiment:
Th' adorning thee with so much art
Is but a barb'rous skill;
'Tis like the pois'ning of a dart,
Too apt before to kill.
Cowley seems to have possessed the power of writing easily beyond any
other of our poets; yet his pursuit of remote thought led him often into
harshness of expression.
Waller often attempted, but seldom attained it; for he is too frequently
driven into transpositions. The poets, from the time of Dryden, have
gradually advanced in embellishment, and consequently departed from
simplicity and ease.
To require from any author many pieces of easy poetry, would be indeed
to oppress him with too hard a task. It is less difficult to write a
volume of lines swelled with epithets, brightened by figures, and
stiffened by transpositions, than to produce a few couplets graced only
by naked elegance and simple purity, which require so much care and
skill, that I doubt whether any of our authors have yet been able, for
twenty lines together, nicely to observe the true definition of easy
No. 78. SATURDAY, OCTOBER 13, 1759.
I have passed the summer in one of those places to which a mineral
spring gives the idle and luxurious an annual reason for resorting,
whenever they fancy themselves offended by the heat of London. What is
the true motive of this periodical assembly, I have never yet been able
to discover. The greater part of the visitants neither feel diseases nor
fear them. What pleasure can be expected more than the variety of the
journey, I know not, for the numbers are too great for privacy, and too
small for diversion. As each is known to be a spy upon the rest, they
all live in continual restraint; and having but a narrow range for
censure, they gratify its cravings by preying on one another.
But every condition has some advantages. In this confinement, a smaller
circle affords opportunities for more exact observation. The glass that
magnifies its object contracts the sight to a point; and the mind must
be fixed upon a single character to remark its minute peculiarities. The
quality or habit which passes unobserved in the tumult of successive
multitudes, becomes conspicuous when it is offered to the notice day
after day; and, perhaps, I have, without any distinct notice, seen
thousands like my late companions; for when the scene can be varied at
pleasure, a slight disgust turns us aside before a deep impression can
be made upon the mind.
There was a select set, supposed to be distinguished by superiority of
intellects, who always passed the evening together. To be admitted to
their conversation was the highest honour of the place; many youths
aspired to distinction, by pretending to occasional invitations; and the
ladies were often wishing to be men, that they might partake the
pleasures of learned society.
I know not whether by merit or destiny, I was, soon after my arrival,
admitted to this envied party, which I frequented till I had learned the
art by which each endeavoured to support his character.
Tom Steady was a vehement assertor of uncontroverted truth; and by
keeping himself out of the reach of contradiction had acquired all the
confidence which the consciousness of irresistible abilities could have
given. I was once mentioning a man of eminence, and, after having
recounted his virtues, endeavoured to represent him fully, by mentioning
his faults. "Sir," said Mr. Steady, "that he has faults I can easily
believe, for who is without them? No man, Sir, is now alive, among the
innumerable multitudes that swarm upon the earth, however wise, or
however good, who has not, in some degree, his failings and his faults.
If there be any man faultless, bring him forth into publick view, show
him openly, and let him be known; but I will venture to affirm, and,
till the contrary be plainly shown, shall always maintain, that no such
man is to be found. Tell not me, Sir, of impeccability and perfection;
such talk is for those that are strangers in the world: I have seen
several nations, and conversed with all ranks of people; I have known
the great and the mean, the learned and the ignorant, the old and the
young, the clerical and the lay; but I have never found a man without a
fault; and I suppose shall die in the opinion, that to be human is to be
To all this nothing could be opposed. I listened with a hanging head;
Mr. Steady looked round on the hearers with triumph, and saw every eye
congratulating his victory; he departed, and spent the next morning in
following those who retired from the company, and telling them, with
injunctions of secrecy, how poor Spritely began to take liberties with
men wiser than himself; but that he suppressed him by a decisive
argument, which put him totally to silence.
Dick Snug is a man of sly remark and pithy sententiousness: he never
immerges himself in the stream of conversation, but lies to catch his
companions in the eddy: he is often very successful in breaking
narratives and confounding eloquence. A gentleman, giving the history of
one of his acquaintance, made mention of a lady that had many lovers:
"Then," said Dick, "she was either handsome or rich." This observation
being well received, Dick watched the progress of the tale; and, hearing
of a man lost in a shipwreck, remarked, that "no man was ever drowned
upon dry land."
Will Startle is a man of exquisite sensibility, whose delicacy of frame
and quickness of discernment subject him to impressions from the
slightest causes; and who, therefore, passes his life between rapture
and horrour, in quiverings of delight, or convulsions of disgust. His
emotions are too violent for many words; his thoughts are always
discovered by exclamations. _Vile, odious, horrid, detestable_, and
_sweet, charming, delightful, astonishing_, compose almost his whole
vocabulary, which he utters with various contortions and gesticulations,
not easily related or described.
Jack Solid is a man of much reading, who utters nothing but quotations;
but having been, I suppose, too confident of his memory, he has for some
time neglected his books, and his stock grows every day more scanty.
Mr. Solid has found an opportunity every night to repeat, from Hudibras,
Doubtless the pleasure is as great
Of being cheated, as to cheat;
and from Waller,
Poets lose half the praise they would have got,
Were it but known what they discreetly blot.
Dick Misty is a man of deep research, and forcible penetration. Others
are content with superficial appearances; but Dick holds, that there is
no effect without a cause, and values himself upon his power of
explaining the difficult and displaying the abstruse. Upon a dispute
among us, which of two young strangers was more beautiful, "You," says
Mr. Misty, turning to me, "like Amaranthia better than Chloris. I do not
wonder at the preference, for the cause is evident: there is in man a
perception of harmony, and a sensibility of perfection, which touches
the finer fibres of the mental texture; and before reason can descend
from her throne, to pass her sentence upon the things compared, drives
us towards the object proportioned to our faculties, by an impulse
gentle, yet irresistible; for the harmonick system of the Universe, and
the reciprocal magnetism of similar natures, are always operating
towards conformity and union; nor can the powers of the soul cease from
agitation, till they find something on which they can repose." To this
nothing was opposed; and Amaranthia was acknowledged to excel Chloris.
Of the rest you may expect an account from,
No. 79. SATURDAY, OCTOBER 20, 1759.
TO THE IDLER.
Your acceptance of a former letter on painting gives me encouragement to
offer a few more sketches on the same subject.
Amongst the painters, and the writers on painting, there is one maxim
universally admitted and continually inculcated. _Imitate nature_ is the
invariable rule; but I know none who have explained in what manner this
rule is to be understood; the consequence of which is, that every one
takes it in the most obvious sense, that objects are represented
naturally when they have such relief that they seem real. It may appear
strange, perhaps, to hear this sense of the rule disputed; but it must
be considered, that, if the excellency of a painter consisted only in
this kind of imitation, painting must lose its rank, and be no longer
considered as a liberal art, and sister to poetry, this imitation being
merely mechanical, in which the slowest intellect is always sure to
succeed best: for the painter of genius cannot stoop to drudgery, in
which the understanding has no part; and what pretence has the art to
claim kindred with poetry, but by its powers over the imagination? To
this power the painter of genius directs his aim; in this sense he
studies nature, and often arrives at his end, even by being unnatural in
the confined sense of the word.
The grand style of painting requires this minute attention to be
carefully avoided, and must be kept as separate from it as the style of
poetry from that of history. Poetical ornaments destroy that air of
truth and plainness which ought to characterize history; but the very
being of poetry consists in departing from this plain narration, and
adopting every ornament that will warm the imagination. To desire to see
the excellencies of each style united, to mingle the Dutch with the
Italian school, is to join contrarieties which cannot subsist together,
and which destroy the efficacy of each other. The Italian attends only
to the invariable, the great and general ideas which are fixed and
inherent in universal nature; the Dutch, on the contrary, to literal
truth and a minute exactness in the detail, as I may say, of nature
modified by accident. The attention to these petty peculiarities is the
very cause of this naturalness so much admired in the Dutch pictures,
which, if we suppose it to be a beauty, is certainly of a lower order,
which ought to give place to a beauty of a superior kind, since one
cannot be obtained but by departing from the other.
If my opinion was asked concerning the works of Michael Angelo, whether
they would receive any advantage from possessing this mechanical merit,
I should not scruple to say, they would not only receive no advantage,
but would lose, in a great measure, the effect which they now have on
every mind susceptible of great and noble ideas. His works may be said
to be all genius and soul; and why should they be loaded with heavy
matter, which can only counteract his purpose by retarding the progress
of the imagination?
If this opinion should be thought one of the wild extravagancies of
enthusiasm, I shall only say, that those who censure it are not
conversant in the works of the great masters. It is very difficult to
determine the exact degree of enthusiasm that the arts of painting and
poetry may admit. There may, perhaps, be too great an indulgence, as
well as too great a restraint of imagination; and if the one produces
incoherent monsters, the other produces what is full as bad, lifeless
insipidity. An intimate knowledge of the passions, and good sense, but
not common sense, must at last determine its limits. It has been
thought, and I believe with reason, that Michael Angelo sometimes
trangressed those limits; and I think I have seen figures of him of
which it was very difficult to determine whether they were in the
highest degree sublime or extremely ridiculous. Such faults may be said
to be the ebullitions of genius; but at least he had this merit, that he
never was insipid, and whatever passion his works may excite, they will
always escape contempt.
What I have had under consideration is the sublimest style, particularly
that of Michael Angelo, the Homer of painting. Other kinds may admit of
this naturalness, which of the lowest kind is the chief merit; but in
painting, as in poetry, the highest style has the least of common
One may very safely recommend a little more enthusiasm to the modern
painters; too much is certainly not the vice of the present age. The
Italians seem to have been continually declining, in this respect, from
the time of Michael Angelo to that of Carlo Maratti, and from thence to
the very bathos of insipidity to which they are now sunk; so that there
is no need of remarking, that, where I mentioned the Italian painters in
opposition to the Dutch, I mean not the moderns, but the heads of the
old Roman and Bolognian schools; nor did I mean to include in my idea of
an Italian painter, the Venetian school, which may be said to be the
Dutch part of the Italian genius. I have only to add a word of advice to
the painters, that, however excellent they may be in painting naturally,
they would not flatter themselves very much upon it, and to the
connoisseurs, that when they see a cat or fiddle painted so finely,
that, as the phrase is, "it looks as if you could take it up," they
would not for that reason immediately compare the painter to Raffaelle
and Michael Angelo.
 By Sir Joshua Reynolds.
No. 80. SATURDAY, OCTOBER 27, 1759.
That every day has its pains and sorrows is universally experienced, and
almost universally confessed; but let us not attend only to mournful
truths; if we look impartially about us, we shall find that every day
has likewise its pleasures and its joys.
The time is now come when the town is again beginning to be full, and
the rusticated beauty sees an end of her banishment. Those whom the
tyranny of fashion had condemned to pass the summer among shades and
brooks, are now preparing to return to plays, balls and assemblies, with
health restored by retirement, and spirits kindled by expectation.
Many a mind, which has languished some months without emotion or desire,
now feels a sudden renovation of its faculties. It was long ago observed
by Pythagoras, that ability and necessity dwell near each other. She
that wandered in the garden without sense of its fragrance, and lay day
after day stretched upon a couch behind a green curtain, unwilling to
wake, and unable to sleep, now summons her thoughts to consider which of
her last year's clothes shall be seen again, and to anticipate the
raptures of a new suit; the day and the night are now filled with
occupation; the laces, which were too fine to be worn among rusticks,
are taken from the boxes and reviewed; and the eye is no sooner closed
after its labours, than whole shops of silk busy the fancy.
But happiness is nothing, if it is not known, and very little, if it is
not envied. Before the day of departure a week is always appropriated to
the payment and reception of ceremonial visits, at which nothing can be
mentioned but the delights of London. The lady who is hastening to the
scene of action flutters her wings, displays her prospects of felicity,
tells how she grudges every moment of delay, and, in the presence of
those whom she knows condemned to stay at home, is sure to wonder by
what arts life can be made supportable through a winter in the country,
and to tell how often, amidst the ecstasies of an opera, she shall pity
those friends whom she has left behind. Her hope of giving pain is
seldom disappointed; the affected indifference of one, the faint
congratulations of another, the wishes of some openly confessed, and the
silent dejection of the rest, all exalt her opinion of her own
But, however we may labour for our own deception, truth, though
unwelcome, will sometimes intrude upon the mind. They who have already
enjoyed the crowds and noise of the great city, know that their desire
to return is little more than the restlessness of a vacant mind, that
they are not so much led by hope as driven by disgust, and wish rather
to leave the country than to see the town. There is commonly in every
coach a passenger enwrapped in silent expectation, whose joy is more
sincere, and whose hopes are more exalted. The virgin whom the last
summer released from her governess, and who is now going between her
mother and her aunt to try the fortune of her wit and beauty, suspects
no fallacy in the gay representation. She believes herself passing into
another world, and images London as an elysian region, where every hour
has its proper pleasure, where nothing is seen but the blaze of wealth,
and nothing heard but merriment and flattery; where the morning always
rises on a show, and the evening closes on a ball; where the eyes are
used only to sparkle, and the feet only to dance.
Her aunt and her mother amuse themselves on the road, with telling her
of dangers to be dreaded, and cautions to be observed. She hears them as
they heard their predecessors, with incredulity or contempt. She sees
that they have ventured and escaped; and one of the pleasures which she
promises herself is to detect their falsehoods, and be freed from their
We are inclined to believe those whom we do not know, because they have
never deceived us. The fair adventurer may, perhaps, listen to the
Idler, whom she cannot suspect of rivalry or malice; yet he scarcely
expects to be credited when he tells her, that her expectations will
likewise end in disappointment.
The uniform necessities of human nature produce, in a great measure,
uniformity of life, and for part of the day make one place like another;
to dress and to undress, to eat and to sleep, are the same in London as
in the country. The supernumerary hours have, indeed, a great variety
both of pleasure and of pain. The stranger, gazed on by multitudes at
her first appearance in the Park, is, perhaps, on the highest summit of
female happiness; but how great is the anguish when the novelty of
another face draws her worshippers away! The heart may leap for a time
under a fine gown; but the sight of a gown yet finer puts an end to
rapture. In the first row at an opera, two hours may be happily passed
in listening to the musick on the stage, and watching the glances of the
company; but how will the night end in despondency when she, that
imagined herself the sovereign of the place, sees lords contending to
lead Iris to her chair! There is little pleasure in conversation, to her
whose wit is regarded but in the second place; and who can dance with
ease or spirit that sees Amaryllis led out before her? She that fancied
nothing but a succession of pleasures, will find herself engaged without
design in numberless competitions, and mortified, without provocation,
with numberless afflictions.
But I do not mean to extinguish that ardour which I wish to moderate, or
to discourage those whom I am endeavouring to restrain. To know the
world is necessary, since we were born for the help of one another; and
to know it early is convenient, if it be only that we may learn early to
despise it. She that brings to London a mind well prepared for
improvement, though she misses her hope of uninterrupted happiness, will
gain in return an opportunity of adding knowledge to vivacity, and
enlarging innocence to virtue.
No. 81. SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 3, 1759.
As the English army was passing towards Quebec along a soft savanna
between a mountain and a lake, one of the petty chiefs of the inland
regions stood upon a rock surrounded by his clan, and from behind the
shelter of the bushes contemplated the art and regularity of European
war. It was evening, the tents were pitched: he observed the security
with which the troops rested in the night, and the order with which the
march was renewed in the morning. He continued to pursue them with his
eye till they could be seen no longer, and then stood for some time
silent and pensive.
Then turning to his followers, "My children," said he, "I have often
heard from men hoary with long life, that there was a time when our
ancestors were absolute lords of the woods, the meadows and the lakes,
wherever the eye can reach or the foot can pass. They fished and hunted,
feasted and danced, and when they were weary lay down under the first
thicket, without danger and without fear. They changed their
habitations, as the seasons required, convenience prompted, or curiosity
allured them; and sometimes gathered the fruits of the mountain, and
sometimes sported in canoes along the coast.
"Many years and ages are supposed to have been thus passed in plenty and
security; when, at last, a new race of men entered our country from the
great ocean. They inclosed themselves in habitations of stone, which our
ancestors could neither enter by violence, nor destroy by fire. They
issued from those fastnesses, sometimes covered, like the armadillo,
with shells, from which the lance rebounded on the striker, and
sometimes carried by mighty beasts which had never been seen in our
vales or forests, of such strength and swiftness, that flight and
opposition were vain alike. Those invaders ranged over the continent
slaughtering, in their rage, those that resisted, and those that
submitted, in their mirth. Of those that remained, some were buried in
caverns, and condemned to dig metals for their masters; some were
employed in tilling the ground, of which foreign tyrants devour the
produce; and, when the sword and the mines have destroyed the natives,
they supply their place by human beings of another colour, brought from
some distant country to perish here under toil and torture.
"Some there are who boast their humanity, and content themselves to
seize our chases and fisheries, who drive us from every tract of ground
where fertility and pleasantness invite them to settle, and make no war
upon us except when we intrude upon our own lands.
"Others pretend to have purchased a right of residence and tyranny; but
surely the insolence of such bargains is more offensive than the avowed
and open dominion of force. What reward can induce the possessour of a
country to admit a stranger more powerful than himself? Fraud or terrour
must operate in such contracts; either they promised protection which
they never have afforded, or instruction which they never imparted. We
hoped to be secured by their favour from some other evil, or to learn
the arts of Europe, by which we might be able to secure ourselves. Their
power they never have exerted in our defence, and their arts they have
studiously concealed from us. Their treaties are only to deceive, and
their traffick only to defraud us. They have a written law among them,
of which they boast, as derived from Him who made the earth and sea, and
by which they profess to believe that man will be made happy when life
shall forsake him. Why is not this law communicated to us? It is
concealed because it is violated. For how can they preach it to an
Indian nation, when I am told that one of its first precepts forbids
them to do to others what they would not that others should do to them?
"But the time, perhaps, is now approaching, when the pride of usurpation
shall be crushed, and the cruelties of invasion shall be revenged. The
sons of rapacity have now drawn their swords upon each other, and
referred their claims to the decision of war; let us look unconcerned
upon the slaughter, and remember that the death of every European
delivers the country from a tyrant and a robber; for what is the claim
of either nation, but the claim of the vulture to the leveret, of the
tiger to the fawn? Let them then continue to dispute their title to
regions which they cannot people, to purchase by danger and blood the
empty dignity of dominion over mountains which they will never climb,
and rivers which they will never pass. Let us endeavour, in the mean
time, to learn their discipline, and to forge their weapons; and, when
they shall be weakened with mutual slaughter, let us rush down upon
them, force their remains to take shelter in their ships, and reign once
more in our native country."
 "How far the seizing on countries already peopled, and driving out
or massacring the innocent and defenceless natives, merely because
they differed from their invaders in language, in religion, in
customs, in government or in colour; how far such a conduct was
consonant to nature, to reason or to Christianity, deserved well to
be considered by those who have rendered their names immortal by
thus civilizing mankind." Blackstone, Com. ii. 7.
I love the University of Salamanca, said Johnson, with warm emotion,
for when the Spaniards were in doubt as to the lawfulness of their
conquering America, the University of Salamanca gave it as their
opinion, that it was not lawful. Boswell, i. 434.
The untaught eloquence of Indian feeling is well preserved in the
language of Gertrude of Wyoming.
No. 82. SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 10, 1759.
TO THE IDLER.
Discoursing in my last letter on the different practice of the Italian
and Dutch painters, I observed, that "the Italian painter attends only
to the invariable, the great and general ideas which are fixed and
inherent in universal nature."
I was led into the subject of this letter by endeavouring to fix the
original cause of this conduct of the Italian masters. If it can be
proved that by this choice they selected the most beautiful part of the
creation, it will show how much their principles are founded on reason,
and, at the same time, discover the origin of our ideas of beauty.
I suppose it will be easily granted, that no man can judge whether any
animal be beautiful in its kind, or deformed, who has seen only one of
that species: this is as conclusive in regard to the human figure; so
that if a man, born blind, was to recover his sight, and the most
beautiful woman was brought before him, he could not determine whether
she was handsome or not; nor, if the most beautiful and most deformed
were produced, could he any better determine to which he should give the
preference, having seen only those two. To distinguish beauty, then,
implies the having seen many individuals of that species. If it is
asked, how is more skill acquired by the observation of greater numbers?
I answer that, in consequence of having seen many, the power is
acquired, even without seeking after it, of distinguishing between
accidental blemishes and excrescences which are continually varying the
surface of Nature's works, and the invariable general form which Nature
most frequently produces, and always seems to intend in her productions.
Thus, amongst the blades of grass or leaves of the same tree, though no
two can be found exactly alike, yet the general form is invariable: a
naturalist, before he chose one as a sample, would examine many, since,
if he took the first that occurred, it might have, by accident or
otherwise, such a form as that it would scarcely be known to belong to
that species; he selects, as the painter does, the most beautiful, that
is, the most general form of nature.
Every species of the animal, as well as the vegetable creation, may be
said to have a fixed or determinate form towards which nature is
continually inclining, like various lines terminating in the centre; or
it may be compared to pendulums vibrating in different directions over
one central point; and as they all cross the centre, though only one
passes through any other point, so it will be found that perfect beauty
is oftener produced by nature than deformity; I do not mean than
deformity in general, but than any one kind of deformity. To instance in
a particular part of a feature: the line that forms the ridge of the
nose is beautiful when it is straight; this then is the central form,
which is oftener found than either concave, convex or any other
irregular form that shall be proposed. As we are then more accustomed to
beauty than deformity, we may conclude that to be the reason why we
approve and admire it, as we approve and admire customs and fashions of
dress for no other reason than that we are used to them; so that, though
habit and custom cannot be said to be the cause of beauty, it is
certainly the cause of our liking it; and I have no doubt but that, if
we were more used to deformity than beauty, deformity would then lose
the idea now annexed to it, and take that of beauty; as, if the whole
world should agree that _yes_ and _no_ should change their meanings,
_yes_ would then deny, and _no_ would affirm.
Whoever undertakes to proceed further in this argument, and endeavours
to fix a general criterion of beauty respecting different species, or to
show why one species is more beautiful than another, it will be required
from him first to prove that one species is really more beautiful than
another. That we prefer one to the other, and with very good reason,
will be readily granted; but it does not follow from thence that we
think it a more beautiful form; for we have no criterion of form by
which to determine our judgment. He who says a swan is more beautiful
than a dove, means little more than that he has more pleasure in seeing
a swan than a dove, either from the stateliness of its motions, or its
being a more rare bird; and he who gives the preference to the dove,
does it from some association of ideas of innocence that he always
annexes to the dove; but, if he pretends to defend the preference he
gives to one or the other by endeavouring to prove that this more
beautiful form proceeds from a particular gradation of magnitude,
undulation of a curve, or direction of a line, or whatever other conceit
of his imagination he shall fix on as a criterion of form, he will be
continually contradicting himself, and find at last, that the great
Mother of Nature will not be subjected to such narrow rules. Among the
various reasons why we prefer one part of her works to another, the most
general, I believe, is habit and custom; custom makes, in a certain
sense, white black, and black white; it is custom alone determines our
preference of the colour of the Europeans to the Aethiopians; and they,
for the same reason, prefer their own colour to ours. I suppose nobody
will doubt, if one of their painters were to paint the goddess of
beauty, but that he would represent her black, with thick lips, flat
nose, and woolly hair; and, it seems to me, he would act very
unnaturally if he did not; for by what criterion will any one dispute
the propriety of his idea? We, indeed, say, that the form and colour of
the European is preferable to that of the Aethiopian; but I know of no
reason we have for it, but that we are more accustomed to it. It is
absurd to say, that beauty is possessed of attractive powers, which
irresistibly seize the corresponding mind with love and admiration,
since that argument is equally conclusive in favour of the white and the
The black and white nations must, in respect of beauty, be considered as
of different kinds, at least a different species of the same kind; from
one of which to the other, as I observed, no inference can be drawn.
Novelty is said to be one of the causes of beauty: that novelty is a
very sufficient reason why we should admire, is not denied; but, because
it is uncommon, is it, therefore, beautiful? The beauty that is produced
by colour, as when we prefer one bird to another, though of the same
form, on account of its colour, has nothing to do with this argument,
which reaches only to form. I have here considered the word _beauty_ as
being properly applied to form alone. There is a necessity of fixing
this confined sense; for there can be no argument, if the sense of the
word is extended to every thing that is approved. A rose may as well be
said to be beautiful, because it has a fine smell, as a bird because of
its colour. When we apply the word _beauty_ we do not mean always by it
a more beautiful form, but something valuable on account of its rarity,
usefulness, colour, or any other property. A horse is said to be a
beautiful animal; but, had a horse as few good qualities as a tortoise,
I do not imagine that he would be then esteemed beautiful.
A fitness to the end proposed, is said to be another cause of beauty;
but supposing we were proper judges of what form is the most proper in
an animal to constitute strength or swiftness, we always determine
concerning its beauty, before we exert our understanding to judge of its
From what has been said, it may be inferred, that the works of nature,
if we compare one species with another, are all equally beautiful; and
that preference is given from custom, or some association of ideas: and
that, in creatures of the same species, beauty is the medium or centre
of all various forms.
To conclude, then, by way of corollary: If it has been proved, that the
painter, by attending to the invariable and general ideas of nature,
produces beauty, he must, by regarding minute particularities and
accidental discriminations, deviate from the universal rule, and pollute
his canvass with deformity.
 By Sir Joshua Reynolds.
No. 83. SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 17, 1759.
TO THE IDLER.
I suppose you have forgotten that many weeks ago I promised to send you
an account of my companions at the Wells. You would not deny me a place
among the most faithful votaries of idleness, if you knew how often I
have recollected my engagement, and contented myself to delay the
performance for some reason which I durst not examine because I knew it
to be false; how often I have sat down to write, and rejoiced at
interruption; and how often I have praised the dignity of resolution,
determined at night to write in the morning, and deferred it in the
morning to the quiet hours of night.
I have at last begun what I have long wished at an end, and find it more
easy than I expected to continue my narration.
Our assembly could boast no such constellation of intellects as
Clarendon's band of associates. We had among us no Selden, Falkland or
Waller; but we had men not less important in their own eyes, though less
distinguished by the publick; and many a time have we lamented the
partiality of mankind, and agreed that men of the deepest inquiry
sometimes let their discoveries die away in silence, that the most
comprehensive observers have seldom opportunities of imparting their
remarks, and that modest merit passes in the crowd unknown and unheeded.
One of the greatest men of the society was Sim Scruple, who lives in a
continual equipoise of doubt, and is a constant enemy to confidence and
dogmatism. Sim's favourite topick of conversation is the narrowness of
the human mind, the fallaciousness of our senses, the prevalence of
early prejudice, and the uncertainty of appearances. Sim has many doubts
about the nature of death, and is sometimes inclined to believe that
sensation may survive motion, and that a dead man may feel though he
cannot stir. He has sometimes hinted that man might, perhaps, have been
naturally a quadruped; and thinks it would be very proper, that at the
Foundling Hospital some children should be inclosed in an apartment in
which the nurses should be obliged to walk half upon four and half upon
two legs, that the younglings, being bred without the prejudice of
example, might have no other guide than nature, and might at last come
forth into the world as genius should direct, erect or prone, on two
legs or on four.
The next, in dignity of mien and fluency of talk, was Dick Wormwood,
whose sole delight is to find every thing wrong. Dick never enters a
room but he shows that the door and the chimney are ill-placed. He never
walks into the fields but he finds ground ploughed which is fitter for
pasture. He is always an enemy to the present fashion.
He holds that all the beauty and virtue of women will soon be destroyed
by the use of tea. He triumphs when he talks on the present system of
education, and tells us, with great vehemence, that we are learning
words when we should learn things. He is of opinion that we suck in
errours at the nurse's breast, and thinks it extremely ridiculous that
children should be taught to use the right hand rather than the left.
Bob Sturdy considers it as a point of honour to say again what he has
once said, and wonders how any man, that has been known to alter his
opinion, can look his neighbours in the face. Bob is the most formidable
disputant of the whole company; for, without troubling himself to search
for reasons, he tires his antagonist with repeated affirmations. When
Bob has been attacked for an hour with all the powers of eloquence and
reason, and his position appears to all but himself utterly untenable,
he always closes the debate with his first declaration, introduced by a
stout preface of contemptuous civility. "All this is very judicious; you
may talk, Sir, as you please; but I will still say what I said at
first." Bob deals much in universals, which he has now obliged us to let
pass without exceptions. He lives on an annuity, and holds that _there
are as many thieves as traders_; he is of loyalty unshaken, and always
maintains, that _he who sees a Jacobite sees a rascal_.
Phil Gentle is an enemy to the rudeness of contradiction and the
turbulence of debate. Phil has no notions of his own, and, therefore,
willingly catches from the last speaker such as he shall drop. This
flexibility of ignorance is easily accommodated to any tenet; his only
difficulty is, when the disputants grow zealous, how to be of two
contrary opinions at once. If no appeal is made to his judgment, he has
the art of distributing his attention and his smiles in such a manner,
that each thinks him of his own party; but if he is obliged to speak, he
then observes that the question is difficult; that he never received so
much pleasure from a debate before; that neither of the controvertists
could have found his match in any other company; that Mr. Wormwood's
assertion is very well supported, and yet there is great force in what
Mr. Scruple advanced against it. By this indefinite declaration both are
commonly satisfied; for he that has prevailed is in good humour; and he
that has felt his own weakness is very glad to have escaped so well.
I am, Sir, yours, &c. ROBIN SPRITELY.
 Dr. Johnson was, as he has humorously described himself, "a hardened
and shameless tea-drinker." See his amusing Review of a Journal of
Eight Days' Journey and his Reply to a paper in the Gazetteer, May
No. 84. SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 24, 1759.
Biography is, of the various kinds of narrative writing, that which is
most eagerly read, and most easily applied to the purposes of life.
In romances, when the wide field of possibility lies open to invention,
the incidents may easily be made more numerous, the vicissitudes more
sudden, and the events more wonderful; but from the time of life when
fancy begins to be overruled by reason and corrected by experience, the
most artful tale raises little curiosity when it is known to be
false; though it may, perhaps, be sometimes read as a model of a neat
or elegant style, not for the sake of knowing what it contains, but how
it is written; or those that are weary of themselves, may have recourse
to it as a pleasing dream, of which, when they awake, they voluntarily
dismiss the images from their minds.
The examples and events of history press, indeed, upon the mind with the
weight of truth; but when they are reposited in the memory, they are
oftener employed for show than use, and rather diversify conversation
than regulate life. Few are engaged in such scenes as give them
opportunities of growing wiser by the downfal of statesmen or the defeat
of generals. The stratagems of war, and the intrigues of courts, are
read by far the greater part of mankind with the same indifference as
the adventures of fabled heroes, or the revolutions of a fairy region.
Between falsehood and useless truth there is little difference. As gold
which he cannot spend will make no man rich, so knowledge which he
cannot apply will make no man wise.
The mischievous consequences of vice and folly, of irregular desires and
predominant passions, are best discovered by those relations which are
levelled with the general surface of life, which tell not how any man
became great, but how he was made happy; not how he lost the favour of
his prince, but how he became discontented with himself.
Those relations are, therefore, commonly of most value in which the
writer tells his own story. He that recounts the life of another,
commonly dwells most upon conspicuous events, lessens the familiarity of
his tale to increase its dignity, shows his favourite at a distance,
decorated and magnified like the ancient actors in their tragick dress,
and endeavours to hide the man that he may produce a hero.
But if it be true, which was said by a French prince, "that no man was a
hero to the servants of his chamber," it is equally true, that every man
is yet less a hero to himself. He that is most elevated above the crowd
by the importance of his employments, or the reputation of his genius,
feels himself affected by fame or business but as they influence his
domestick life. The high and low, as they have the same faculties and
the same senses, have no less similitude in their pains and pleasures.
The sensations are the same in all, though produced by very different
occasions. The prince feels the same pain when an invader seizes a
province, as the farmer when a thief drives away his cow. Men thus equal
in themselves will appear equal in honest and impartial biography; and
those whom fortune or nature places at the greatest distance may afford
instruction to each other.
The writer of his own life has, at least, the first qualification of an
historian, the knowledge of the truth; and though it may be plausibly
objected that his temptations to disguise it are equal to his
opportunities of knowing it, yet I cannot but think that impartiality
may be expected with equal confidence from him that relates the passages
of his own life, as from him that delivers the transactions of another.
Certainty of knowledge not only excludes mistake, but fortifies
veracity. What we collect by conjecture, and by conjecture only, can one
man judge of another's motives or sentiments, is easily modified by
fancy or by desire; as objects imperfectly discerned take forms from the
hope or fear of the beholder. But that which is fully known cannot be
falsified but with reluctance of understanding, and alarm of conscience:
of understanding, the lover of truth; of conscience, the sentinel of
He that writes the life of another is either his friend or his enemy,
and wishes either to exalt his praise or aggravate his infamy: many
temptations to falsehood will occur in the disguise of passions, too
specious to fear much resistance. Love of virtue will animate
panegyrick, and hatred of wickedness imbitter censure. The zeal of
gratitude, the ardour of patriotism, fondness for an opinion, or
fidelity to a party, may easily overpower the vigilance of a mind
habitually well disposed, and prevail over unassisted and unfriended
But he that speaks of himself has no motive to falsehood or partiality
except self-love, by which all have so often been betrayed, that all are
on the watch against its artifices. He that writes an apology for a
single action, to confute an accusation, to recommend himself to favour,
is, indeed, always to be suspected of favouring his own cause; but he
that sits down calmly and voluntarily to review his life for the
admonition of posterity, or to amuse himself, and leaves this account
unpublished, may be commonly presumed to tell truth, since falsehood
cannot appease his own mind, and fame will not be heard beneath the
 It is somewhere recorded of a retired citizen, that he was in the
habit of again and again perusing the incomparable story of Robinson
Crusoe without a suspicion of its authenticity. At length a friend
assured him of its being a work of fiction. What you say, replied
the old man mournfully, may be true; but your information has taken
away the only comfort of my age.
--Pol, me occidistis, amici,
Non servastis, ait; cui sic extorta voluptas,
Et demtus per vim mentis gratissimus error. HOR. Lib. ii. Ep. ii. 138.
No. 85. SATURDAY, DECEMBER 1, 1759.
One of the peculiarities which distinguish the present age is the
multiplication of books. Every day brings new advertisements of literary
undertakings, and we are flattered with repeated promises of growing
wise on easier terms than our progenitors.
How much either happiness or knowledge is advanced by this multitude of
authors, it is not very easy to decide.
He that teaches us any thing which we knew not before, is undoubtedly to
be reverenced as a master.
He that conveys knowledge by more pleasing ways, may very properly be
loved as a benefactor; and he that supplies life with innocent
amusement, will be certainly caressed as a pleasing companion.
But few of those who fill the world with books have any pretensions to
the hope either of pleasing or instructing. They have often no other
task than to lay two books before them, out of which they compile a
third, without any new materials of their own, and with very little
application of judgment to those which former authors have supplied.
That all compilations are useless, I do not assert. Particles of science
are often very widely scattered. Writers of extensive comprehension have
incidental remarks upon topicks very remote from the principal subject,
which are often more valuable than formal treatises, and which yet are
not known because they are not promised in the title. He that collects
those under proper heads is very laudably employed, for, though he
exerts no great abilities in the work, he facilitates the progress of
others, and by making that easy of attainment which is already written,
may give some mind, more vigorous or more adventurous than his own,
leisure for new thoughts and original designs.
But the collections poured lately from the press have been seldom made
at any great expense of time or inquiry, and, therefore, only serve to
distract choice without supplying any real want.
It is observed that "a corrupt society has many laws;" I know not
whether it is not equally true, that "an ignorant age has many books."
When the treasures of ancient knowledge lie unexamined, and original
authors are neglected and forgotten, compilers and plagiaries are
encouraged, who give us again what we had before, and grow great by
setting before us what our own sloth had hidden from our view.
Yet are not even these writers to be indiscriminately censured and
rejected. Truth like beauty varies its fashions, and is best recommended
by different dresses to different minds; and he that recalls the
attention of mankind to any part of learning which time has left behind
it, may be truly said to advance the literature of his own age. As the
manners of nations vary, new topicks of persuasion become necessary, and
new combinations of imagery are produced; and he that can accommodate
himself to the reigning taste, may always have readers who, perhaps,
would not have looked upon better performances.
To exact of every man who writes, that he should say something new,
would be to reduce authors to a small number; to oblige the most fertile
genius to say only what is new would be to contract his volumes to a few
pages. Yet, surely, there ought to be some bounds to repetition;
libraries ought no more to be heaped for ever with the same thoughts
differently expressed, than with the same books differently decorated.
The good or evil which these secondary writers produce is seldom of any
long duration. As they owe their existence to change of fashion, they
commonly disappear when a new fashion becomes prevalent. The authors
that in any nation last from age to age are very few, because there are
very few that have any other claim to notice than that they catch hold
on present curiosity, and gratify some accidental desire, or produce
some temporary conveniency.
But however the writers of the day may despair of future fame, they
ought at least to forbear any present mischief. Though they cannot
arrive at eminent heights of excellence, they might keep themselves
harmless. They might take care to inform themselves before they attempt
to inform others, and exert the little influence which they have for
But such is the present state of our literature, that the ancient sage,
who thought _a great book a great evil_, would now think the multitude
of books a multitude of evils. He would consider a bulky writer who
engrossed a year, and a swarm of pamphleteers who stole each an hour, as
equal wasters of human life, and would make no other difference between
them, than between a beast of prey and a flight of locusts.
No. 86. SATURDAY, DECEMBER 8, 1759.
TO THE IDLER.
I am a young lady newly married to a young gentleman. Our fortune is
large, our minds are vacant, our dispositions gay, our acquaintances
numerous, and our relations splendid. We considered that marriage, like
life, has its youth; that the first year is the year of gaiety and
revel, and resolved to see the shows and feel the joys of London, before
the increase of our family should confine us to domestick cares and
Little time was spent in preparation; the coach was harnessed, and a few
days brought us to London, and we alighted at a lodging provided for us
by Miss Biddy Trifle, a maiden niece of my husband's father, where we
found apartments on a second floor, which my cousin told us would serve
us till we could please ourselves with a more commodious and elegant
habitation, and which she had taken at a very high price, because it was
not worth the while to make a hard bargain for so short a time.
Here I intended to lie concealed till my new clothes were made, and my
new lodging hired; but Miss Trifle had so industriously given notice of
our arrival to all her acquaintance, that I had the mortification next
day of seeing the door thronged with painted coaches and chairs with
coronets, and was obliged to receive all my husband's relations on a
Inconveniencies are often balanced by some advantage: the elevation of
my apartments furnished a subject for conversation, which, without some
such help, we should have been in danger of wanting. Lady Stately told
us how many years had passed since she climbed so many steps. Miss Airy
ran to the window, and thought it charming to see the walkers so little
in the street; and Miss Gentle went to try the same experiment, and
screamed to find herself so far above the ground.
They all knew that we intended to remove, and, therefore, all gave me
advice about a proper choice. One street was recommended for the purity
of its air, another for its freedom from noise, another for its nearness
to the Park, another because there was but a step from it to all places
of diversion, and another because its inhabitants enjoyed at once the
town and country.
I had civility enough to hear every recommendation with a look of
curiosity, while it was made, and of acquiescence, when it was
concluded, but in my heart felt no other desire than to be free from the
disgrace of a second floor, and cared little where I should fix, if the
apartments were spacious and splendid.
Next day a chariot was hired, and Miss Trifle was despatched to find a
lodging. She returned in the afternoon, with an account of a charming
place, to which my husband went in the morning to make the contract.
Being young and unexperienced, he took with him his friend Ned Quick, a
gentleman of great skill in rooms and furniture, who sees, at a single
glance, whatever there is to be commended or censured. Mr. Quick, at the
first view of the house, declared that it could not be inhabited, for
the sun in the afternoon shone with full glare on the windows of the
Miss Trifle went out again, and soon discovered another lodging, which
Mr. Quick went to survey, and found, that, whenever the wind should blow
from the, east, all the smoke of the city would be driven upon it.
A magnificent set of rooms was then found in one of the streets near
Westminster-Bridge, which Miss Trifle preferred to any which she had yet
seen; but Mr. Quick, having mused upon it for a time, concluded that it
would be too much exposed in the morning to the fogs that rise from the
Thus Mr. Quick proceeded to give us every day new testimonies of his
taste and circumspection; sometimes the street was too narrow for a
double range of coaches; sometimes it was an obscure place, not
inhabited by persons of quality. Some places were dirty, and some
crowded; in some houses the furniture was ill-suited, and in others the
stairs were too narrow. He had such fertility of objections that Miss
Trifle was at last tired, and desisted from all attempts for our
In the mean time I have still continued to see my company on a second
floor, and am asked twenty times a day when I am to leave those odious
lodgings, in which I live tumultuously without pleasure, and expensively
without honour. My husband thinks so highly of Mr. Quick, that he cannot
be persuaded to remove without his approbation; and Mr. Quick thinks his
reputation raised by the multiplication of difficulties.
In this distress to whom can I have recourse? I find my temper vitiated
by daily disappointment, by the sight of pleasures which I cannot
partake, and the possession of riches which I cannot enjoy. Dear Mr.
Idler, inform my husband that he is trifling away, in superfluous
vexation, the few months which custom has appropriated to delight; that
matrimonial quarrels are not easily reconciled between those that have
no children; that wherever we settle he must always find some
inconvenience; but nothing is so much to be avoided as a perpetual state
of inquiry and suspense.
I am, Sir,
Your humble servant,
No. 87. SATURDAY, DECEMBER 15, 1759.
Of what we know not, we can only judge by what we know. Every novelty
appears more wonderful as it is more remote from any thing with which
experience or testimony has hitherto acquainted us; and, if it passes
further beyond the notions that we have been accustomed to form, it
becomes at last incredible.
We seldom consider that human knowledge is very narrow, that national
manners are formed by chance, that uncommon conjunctures of causes
produce rare effects, or that what is impossible at one time or place
may yet happen in another. It is always easier to deny than to inquire.
To refuse credit confers for a moment an appearance of superiority,
which every little mind is tempted to assume when it may be gained so
cheaply as by withdrawing attention from evidence, and declining the
fatigue of comparing probabilities. The most pertinacious and vehement
demonstrator may be wearied in time by continual negation; and
incredulity, which an old poet, in his address to Raleigh, calls _the
wit of fools_, obtunds the argument which it cannot answer, as woolsacks
deaden arrows though they cannot repel them.
Many relations of travellers have been slighted as fabulous, till more
frequent voyages have confirmed their veracity; and it may reasonably be
imagined, that many ancient historians are unjustly suspected of
falsehood, because our own times afford nothing that resembles what they
Had only the writers of antiquity informed us, that there was once a
nation in which the wife lay down upon the burning pile only to mix her
ashes with those of her husband, we should have thought it a tale to be
told with that of Endymion's commerce with the moon. Had only a single
traveller related, that many nations of the earth were black, we should
have thought the accounts of the Negroes and of the Phoenix equally
credible. But of black men the numbers are too great who are now
repining under English cruelty; and the custom of voluntary cremation is
not yet lost among the ladies of India.
Few narratives will either to men or women appear more incredible than
the histories of the Amazons; of female nations of whose constitution it
was the essential and fundamental law to exclude men from all
participation, either of publick affairs or domestick business; where
female armies marched under female captains, female farmers gathered the
harvest, female partners danced together, and female wits diverted one
Yet several ages of antiquity have transmitted accounts of the Amazons
of Caucasus; and of the Amazons of America, who have given their name to
the greatest river in the world, Condamine lately found such memorials,
as can be expected among erratick and unlettered nations, where events
are recorded only by tradition, and new settling in the country from
time to time, confuse and efface all traces of former times.
To die with husbands, or to live without them, are the two extremes
which the prudence and moderation of European ladies have, in all ages,
equally declined; they have never been allured to death by the kindness
or civility of the politest nations, nor has the roughness and brutality
of more savage countries ever provoked them to doom their male
associates to irrevocable banishment. The Bohemian matrons are said to
have made one short struggle for superiority; but, instead of banishing
the men, they contented themselves with condemning them to servile
offices; and their constitution, thus left imperfect, was quickly
There is, I think, no class of English women from whom we are in any
danger of Amazonian usurpation. The old maids seem nearest to
independence, and most likely to be animated by revenge against
masculine authority; they often speak of men with acrimonious vehemence,
but it is seldom found that they have any settled hatred against them,
and it is yet more rarely observed that they have any kindness for each
other. They will not easily combine in any plot; and if they should ever
agree to retire and fortify themselves in castles or in mountains, the
sentinel will betray the passes in spite, and the garrison will
capitulate upon easy terms, if the besiegers have handsome swordknots,
and are well supplied with fringe and lace.
The gamesters, if they were united, would make a formidable body; and,
since they consider men only as beings that are to lose their money,
they might live together without any wish for the officiousness of
gallantry or the delights of diversified conversation. But as nothing
would hold them together but the hope of plundering one another, their
government would fail from the defect of its principles; the men would
need only to neglect them, and they would perish in a few weeks by a
I do not mean to censure the ladies of England as defective in knowledge
or in spirit, when I suppose them unlikely to revive the military
honours of their sex. The character of the ancient Amazons was rather
terrible than lovely; the hand could not be very delicate that was only
employed in drawing the bow and brandishing the battle-axe; their power
was maintained by cruelty, their courage was deformed by ferocity, and
their example only shows that men and women live best together.
 _Le vrai n'est pas toujours le vraisemblable._ The researches of
Gibbon, Rennel and Mitford, the travels of Bruce and Belzoni have
fully proved the truth of this maxim in the case of Herodotus.
No. 88. SATURDAY, DECEMBER 22, 1759.
_Hodie quid egisti?_
When the philosophers of the last age were first congregated into the
Royal Society, great expectations were raised of the sudden progress of
useful arts; the time was supposed to be near, when engines should turn
by a perpetual motion, and health be secured by the universal medicine;
when learning should be facilitated by a real character, and commerce
extended by ships which could reach their ports in defiance of the
But improvement is naturally slow. The society met and parted without
any visible diminution of the miseries of life. The gout and stone were
still painful, the ground that was not ploughed brought no harvest, and
neither oranges nor grapes would grow upon the hawthorn. At last, those
who were disappointed began to be angry; those likewise who hated
innovation were glad to gain an opportunity of ridiculing men who had
depreciated, perhaps with too much arrogance, the knowledge of
antiquity. And it appears, from some of their earliest apologies, that
the philosophers felt with great sensibility the unwelcome importunities
of those who were daily asking, "What have ye done?"
The truth is, that little had been done compared with what fame had been
suffered to promise; and the question could only be answered by general
apologies and by new hopes, which, when they were frustrated, gave a new
occasion to the same vexatious inquiry.
This fatal question has disturbed the quiet of many other minds. He that
in the latter part of his life too strictly inquires what he has done,
can very seldom receive from his own heart such an account as will give
We do not indeed so often disappoint others as ourselves. We not only
think more highly than others of our own abilities, but allow ourselves
to form hopes which we never communicate, and please our thoughts with
employments which none ever will allot us, and with elevations to which
we are never expected to rise; and when our days and years have passed
away in common business or common amusements, and we find at last that
we have suffered our purposes to sleep till the time of action is past,
we are reproached only by our own reflections; neither our friends nor
our enemies wonder that we live and die like the rest of mankind; that
we live without notice, and die without memorial; they know not what
task we had proposed, and, therefore, cannot discern whether it is
He that compares what he has done with what he has left undone, will
feel the effect which must always follow the comparison of imagination
with reality; he will look with contempt on his own unimportance, and
wonder to what purpose he came into the world; he will repine that he
shall leave behind him no evidence of his having been, that he has added
nothing to the system of life, but has glided from youth to age among
the crowd, without any effort for distinction.
Man is seldom willing to let fall the opinion of his own dignity, or to
believe that he does little only because every individual is a very
little being. He is better content to want diligence than power, and
sooner confesses the depravity of his will than the imbecility of his
From this mistaken notion of human greatness it proceeds, that many who
pretend to have made great advances in wisdom so loudly declare that
they despise themselves. If I had ever found any of the self-contemners
much irritated or pained by the consciousness of their meanness, I
should have given them consolation by observing, that a little more than
nothing is as much as can be expected from a being, who, with respect to
the multitudes about him, is himself little more than nothing. Every man
is obliged by the Supreme Master of the universe to improve all the
opportunities of good which are afforded him, and to keep in continual
activity such abilities as are bestowed upon him. But he has no reason
to repine, though his abilities are small and his opportunities few. He
that has improved the virtue, or advanced the happiness of one
fellow-creature, he that has ascertained a single moral proposition, or
added one useful experiment to natural knowledge, may be contented with
his own performance, and, with respect to mortals like himself, may
demand, like Augustus, to be dismissed at his departure with applause.
No. 89. SATURDAY, DECEMBER 29, 1759.
[Greek: Anechou kai apechou.] EPICT.
How evil came into the world; for what reason it is that life is
overspread with such boundless varieties of misery; why the only
thinking being of this globe is doomed to think merely to be wretched,
and to pass his time from youth to age in fearing or in suffering
calamities, is a question which philosophers have long asked, and which
philosophy could never answer.
Religion informs us that misery and sin were produced together. The
depravation of human will was followed by a disorder of the harmony of
nature; and by that providence which often places antidotes in the
neighbourhood of poisons, vice was checked by misery, lest it should
swell to universal and unlimited dominion.
A state of innocence and happiness is so remote from all that we have
ever seen, that though we can easily conceive it possible, and may,
therefore, hope to attain it, yet our speculations upon it must be
general and confused. We can discover that where there is universal
innocence, there will probably be universal happiness; for, why should
afflictions be permitted to infest beings who are not in danger of
corruption from blessings, and where there is no use of terrour nor
cause of punishment? But in a world like ours, where our senses assault
us, and our hearts betray us, we should pass on from crime to crime,
heedless and remorseless, if misery did not stand in our way, and our
own pains admonish us of our folly.
Almost all the moral good, which is left among us, is the apparent
effect of physical evil.
Goodness is divided by divines into soberness, righteousness and
godliness. Let it be examined how each of these duties would be
practised, if there were no physical evil to enforce it.
Sobriety, or temperance, is nothing but the forbearance of pleasure; and
if pleasure was not followed by pain, who would forbear it? We see every
hour those in whom the desire of present indulgence overpowers all sense
of past and all foresight of future misery. In a remission of the gout,
the drunkard returns to his wine, and the glutton to his feast; and if
neither disease nor poverty were felt or dreaded, every one would sink
down in idle sensuality, without any care of others, or of himself. To
eat and drink, and lie down to sleep, would be the whole business of
Righteousness, or the system of social duty, may be subdivided into
justice and charity. Of justice one of the Heathen sages has shown, with
great acuteness, that it was impressed upon mankind only by the
inconveniencies which injustice had produced. "In the first ages," says
he, "men acted without any rule but the impulse of desire; they
practised injustice upon others, and suffered it from others in their
turn; but in time it was discovered, that the pain of suffering wrong
was greater than the pleasure of doing it; and mankind, by a general
compact, submitted to the restraint of laws, and resigned the pleasure
to escape the pain."
Of charity it is superfluous to observe, that it could have no place if
there were no want; for of a virtue which could not be practised, the
omission could not be culpable. Evil is not only the occasional, but the
efficient cause of charity; we are incited to the relief of misery by
the consciousness that we have the same nature with the sufferer, that
we are in danger of the same distresses, and may sometimes implore the
Godliness, or piety, is elevation of the mind towards the Supreme Being,
and extension of the thoughts to another life. The other life is future,
and the Supreme Being is invisible. None would have recourse to an
invisible power, but that all other subjects have eluded their hopes.
None would fix their attention upon the future, but that they are
discontented with the present. If the senses were feasted with perpetual
pleasure, they would always keep the mind in subjection. Reason has no
authority over us, but by its power to warn us against evil.
In childhood, while our minds are yet unoccupied, religion is impressed
upon them, and the first years of almost all who have been well educated
are passed in a regular discharge of the duties of piety. But as we
advance forward into the crowds of life, innumerable delights solicit
our inclinations, and innumerable cares distract our attention; the time
of youth is passed in noisy frolicks; manhood is led on from hope to
hope, and from project to project; the dissoluteness of pleasure, the
inebriation of success, the ardour of expectation, and the vehemence of
competition, chain down the mind alike to the present scene, nor is it
remembered how soon this mist of trifles must be scattered, and the
bubbles that float upon the rivulet of life be lost for ever in the
gulph of eternity. To this consideration scarcely any man is awakened
but by some pressing and resistless evil. The death of those from whom
he derived his pleasures, or to whom he destined his possessions, some
disease which shows him the vanity of all external acquisitions, or the
gloom of age, which intercepts his prospects of long enjoyment, forces
him to fix his hopes upon another state; and when he has contended with
the tempests of life till his strength fails him, he flies at last to
the shelter of religion.
That misery does not make all virtuous, experience too certainly informs
us; but it is no less certain that of what virtue there is, misery
produces far the greater part. Physical evil may be, therefore, endured
with patience, since it is the cause of moral good; and patience itself
is one virtue by which we are prepared for that state in which evil
shall be no more.
 For a fuller exposition of Johnson's sentiments on this dark and
deep subject, see his Review of Soame Jenyns' Nature and Origin of
No. 90. SATURDAY, JANUARY 5, 1760.
It is a complaint which has been made from time to time, and which seems
to have lately become more frequent, that English oratory, however
forcible in argument, or elegant in expression, is deficient and
inefficacious, because our speakers want the grace and energy of action.
Among the numerous projectors who are desirous to refine our manners,
and improve our faculties, some are willing to supply the deficiency of
our speakers. We have had more than one exhortation to study the
neglected art of moving the passions, and have been encouraged to
believe that our tongues, however feeble in themselves, may, by the help
of our hands and legs, obtain an uncontroulable dominion over the most
stubborn audience, animate the insensible, engage the careless, force
tears from the obdurate, and money from the avaricious.
If by sleight of hand, or nimbleness of foot, all these wonders can be
performed, he that shall neglect to attain the free use of his limbs may
be justly censured as criminally lazy. But I am afraid that no specimen
of such effects will easily be shown. If I could once find a speaker in
'Change-Alley raising the price of stocks by the power of persuasive
gestures, I should very zealously recommend the study of his art; but
having never seen any action by which language was much assisted, I have
been hitherto inclined to doubt whether my countrymen are not blamed too
hastily for their calm and motionless utterance.
Foreigners of many nations accompany their speech with action; but why
should their example have more influence upon us than ours upon them?
Customs are not to be changed but for better. Let those who desire to
reform us show the benefits of the change proposed. When the Frenchman
waves his hands and writhes his body in recounting the revolutions of a
game at cards, or the Neapolitan, who tells the hour of the day, shows
upon his fingers the number which he mentions; I do not perceive that
their manual exercise is of much use, or that they leave any image more
deeply impressed by their bustle and vehemence of communication.
Upon the English stage there is no want of action; but the difficulty of
making it at once various and proper, and its perpetual tendency to
become ridiculous, notwithstanding all the advantages which art and
show, and custom and prejudice can give it, may prove how little it can
be admitted into any other place, where it can have no recommendation
but from truth and nature.
The use of English oratory is only at the bar, in the parliament, and in
the church. Neither the judges of our laws nor the representatives of
our people would be much affected by laboured gesticulation, or believe
any man the more because he rolled his eyes, or puffed his cheeks, or
spread abroad his arms, or stamped the ground, or thumped his breast, or
turned his eyes sometimes to the ceiling and sometimes to the floor.
Upon men intent only upon truth, the arm of an orator has little power;
a credible testimony, or a cogent argument will overcome all the art of
modulation, and all the violence of contortion.
It is well known that, in the city which may be called the parent of
oratory, all the arts of mechanical persuasion were banished from the
court of supreme judicature. The judges of the Areopagus considered
action and vociferation as a foolish appeal to the external senses, and
unworthy to be practised before those who had no desire of idle
amusement, and whose only pleasure was to discover right.
Whether action may not be yet of use in churches, where the preacher
addresses a mingled audience, may deserve inquiry. It is certain that
the senses are more powerful as the reason is weaker; and that he whose
ears convey little to his mind, may sometimes listen with his eyes till
truth may gradually take possession of his heart. If there be any use of
gesticulation, it must be applied to the ignorant and rude, who will be
more affected by vehemence than delighted by propriety. In the pulpit
little action can be proper, for action can illustrate nothing but that
to which it may be referred by nature or by custom. He that imitates by
his hand a motion which he describes, explains it by natural similitude;
he that lays his hand on his breast, when he expresses pity, enforces
his words by a customary allusion. But theology has few topicks to which
action can be appropriated; that action which is vague and indeterminate
will at last settle into habit, and habitual peculiarities are quickly
It is, perhaps, the character of the English to despise trifles; and
that art may surely be accounted a trifle which is at once useless and
ostentatious, which can seldom be practised with propriety, and which,
as the mind is more cultivated, is less powerful. Yet as all innocent
means are to be used for the propagation of truth, I would not deter
those who are employed in preaching to common congregations from any
practice which they may find persuasive: for, compared with the
conversion of sinners, propriety and elegance are less than nothing.
 Johnson might here be glancing at the oratorical lectures of the
modern _Rhetor_ Sheridan, whose plans he delighted incessantly to
ridicule. See Boswell. Many acute remarks occur in Hume's Essay on
No. 91. SATURDAY, JANUARY 12, 1760.
It is common to overlook what is near, by keeping the eye fixed upon
something remote. In the same manner present opportunities are
neglected, and attainable good is slighted, by minds busied in extensive
ranges, and intent upon future advantages. Life, however short, is made
still shorter by waste of time, and its progress towards happiness,
though naturally slow, is yet retarded by unnecessary labour.
The difficulty of obtaining knowledge is universally confessed. To fix
deeply in the mind the principles of science, to settle their
limitations, and deduce the long succession of their consequences; to
comprehend the whole compass of complicated systems, with all the
arguments, objections and solutions, and to reposite in the intellectual
treasury the numberless facts, experiments, apophthegms and positions,
which must stand single in the memory, and of which none has any
perceptible connexion with the rest, is a task which, though undertaken
with ardour and pursued with diligence, must at last be left unfinished
by the frailty of our nature.
To make the way to learning either less short or less smooth, is
certainly absurd; yet this is the apparent effect of the prejudice which
seems to prevail among us in favour of foreign authors, and of the
contempt of our native literature, which this excursive curiosity must
necessarily produce. Every man is more speedily instructed by his own
language, than by any other; before we search the rest of the world for
teachers, let us try whether we may not spare our trouble by finding
them at home.
The riches of the English language are much greater than they are
commonly supposed. Many useful and valuable books lie buried in shops
and libraries, unknown and unexamined, unless some lucky compiler opens
them by chance, and finds an easy spoil of wit and learning. I am far
from intending to insinuate, that other languages are not necessary to
him who aspires to eminence, and whose whole life is devoted to study;
but to him who reads only for amusement, or whose purpose is not to deck
himself with the honours of literature, but to be qualified for
domestick usefulness, and sit down content with subordinate reputation,
we have authors sufficient to fill up all the vacancies of his time, and
gratify most of his wishes for information.
Of our poets I need say little, because they are, perhaps, the only
authors to whom their country has done justice. We consider the whole
succession from Spenser to Pope as superior to any names which the
continent can boast; and, therefore, the poets of other nations, however
familiarly they may be sometimes mentioned, are very little read, except
by those who design to borrow their beauties.
There is, I think, not one of the liberal arts which may not be
competently learned in the English language. He that searches after
mathematical knowledge may busy himself among his own countrymen, and
will find one or other able to instruct him in every part of those
abstruse sciences. He that is delighted with experiments, and wishes to
know the nature of bodies from certain and visible effects, is happily
placed where the mechanical philosophy was first established by a
publick institution, and from which it was spread to all other
The more airy and elegant studies of philology and criticism have little
need of any foreign help. Though our language, not being very
analogical, gives few opportunities for grammatical researches, yet we
have not wanted authors who have considered the principles of speech;
and with critical writings we abound sufficiently to enable pedantry to
impose rules which can seldom be observed, and vanity to talk of books
which are seldom read.
But our own language has, from the Reformation to the present time, been
chiefly dignified and adorned by the works of our divines, who,
considered as commentators, controvertists, or preachers, have
undoubtedly left all other nations far behind them. No vulgar language
can boast such treasures of theological knowledge, or such multitudes of
authors at once learned, elegant and pious. Other countries and other
communions have authors, perhaps, equal in abilities and diligence to
ours; but if we unite number with excellence, there is certainly no
nation which must not allow us to be superior. Of morality little is
necessary to be said, because it is comprehended in practical divinity,
and is, perhaps, better taught in English sermons than in any other
books, ancient and modern. Nor shall I dwell on our excellence in
metaphysical speculations, because he that reads the works of our
divines will easily discover how far human subtilty has been able to
Political knowledge is forced upon us by the form of our constitution;
and all the mysteries of government are discovered in the attack or
defence of every minister. The original law of society, the rights of
subjects and the prerogatives of kings, have been considered with the
utmost nicety, sometimes profoundly investigated, and sometimes
Thus copiously instructive is the English language; and thus needless is
all recourse to foreign writers. Let us not, therefore, make our
neighbours proud by soliciting help which we do not want, nor discourage
our own industry by difficulties which we need not suffer.
No. 92. SATURDAY, JANUARY 19, 1760.
Whatever is useful or honourable will be desired by many who never can
obtain it; and that which cannot be obtained when it is desired,
artifice or folly will be diligent to counterfeit. Those to whom fortune
has denied gold and diamonds decorate themselves with stones and metals,
which have something of the show, but little of the value; and every
moral excellence or intellectual faculty has some vice or folly which
imitates its appearance.
Every man wishes to be wise, and they who cannot be wise are almost
always cunning. The less is the real discernment of those whom business
or conversation brings together, the more illusions are practised; nor
is caution ever so necessary as with associates or opponents of feeble
Cunning differs from wisdom as twilight from open day. He that walks in
the sunshine goes boldly forward by the nearest way; he sees that where
the path is straight and even, he may proceed in security, and where it
is rough and crooked he easily complies with the turns, and avoids the
obstructions. But the traveller in the dusk fears more as he sees less;
he knows there may be danger, and, therefore, suspects that he is never
safe, tries every step before he fixes his foot, and shrinks at every
noise lest violence should approach him. Wisdom comprehends at once the
end and the means, estimates easiness or difficulty, and is cautious or
confident in due proportion. Cunning discovers little at a time, and has
no other means of certainty than multiplication of stratagems and
superfluity of suspicion. The man of cunning always considers that he
can never be too safe, and, therefore, always keeps himself enveloped in
a mist, impenetrable, as he hopes, to the eye of rivalry or curiosity.
Upon this principle Tom Double has formed a habit of eluding the most
harmless question. What he has no inclination to answer, he pretends
sometimes not to hear, and endeavours to divert the inquirer's attention
by some other subject; but if he be pressed hard by repeated
interrogation, he always evades a direct reply. Ask him whom he likes
best on the stage; he is ready to tell that there are several excellent
performers. Inquire when he was last at the coffee-house; he replies,
that the weather has been bad lately. Desire him to tell the age of any
of his acquaintance; he immediately mentions another who is older or
Will Puzzle values himself upon a long reach. He foresees every thing
before it will happen, though he never relates his prognostications till
the event is past. Nothing has come to pass for these twenty years of
which Mr. Puzzle had not given broad hints, and told at least that it
was not proper to tell. Of those predictions, which every conclusion
will equally verify, he always claims the credit, and wonders that his
friends did not understand them. He supposes very truly that much may be
known which he knows not, and, therefore, pretends to know much of which
he and all mankind are equally ignorant. I desired his opinion yesterday
of the German war, and was told, that if the Prussians were well
supported, something great may be expected; but that they have very
powerful enemies to encounter; that the Austrian general has long
experience, and the Russians are hardy and resolute; but that no human
power is invincible. I then drew the conversation to our own affairs,
and invited him to balance the probabilities of war and peace. He told
me that war requires courage, and negociation judgment, and that the
time will come when it will be seen, whether our skill in treaty is
equal to our bravery in battle. To this general prattle he will appeal
hereafter, and will demand to have his foresight applauded, whoever
shall at last be conquered or victorious.
With Ned Smuggle all is a secret. He believes himself watched by
observation and malignity on every side, and rejoices in the dexterity
by which he has escaped snares that never were laid. Ned holds that a
man is never deceived if he never trusts, and, therefore, will not tell
the name of his tailor or his hatter. He rides out every morning for the
air, and pleases himself with thinking that nobody knows where he has
been. When he dines with a friend, he never goes to his house the
nearest way, but walks up a by-street to perplex the scent. When he has
a coach called, he never tells him at the door the true place to which
he is going, but stops him in the way that he may give him directions
where nobody can hear him. The price of what he buys or sells is always
concealed. He often takes lodgings in the country by a wrong name, and
thinks that the world is wondering where he can be hid. All these
transactions he registers in a book, which, he says, will some time or
other amaze posterity.
It is remarked by Bacon, that many men try to procure reputation only by
objections, of which, if they are once admitted, the nullity never
appears, because the design is laid aside. "This false feint of wisdom,"
says he, "is the ruin of business." The whole power of cunning is
privative; to say nothing, and to do nothing, is the utmost of its
reach. Yet men thus narrow by nature, and mean by art, are sometimes
able to rise by the miscarriages of bravery and the openness of
integrity; and by watching failures and snatching opportunities, obtain
advantages which belong properly to higher characters.
No. 93. SATURDAY, JANUARY 26, 1760.
Sam Softly was bred a sugar-baker; but succeeding to a considerable
estate on the death of his elder brother, he retired early from
business, married a fortune, and settled in a country-house near
Kentish-town, Sam, who formerly was a sportsman, and in his
apprenticeship used to frequent Barnet races, keeps a high chaise, with
a brace of seasoned geldings. During the summer months, the principal
passion and employment of Sam's life is to visit, in this vehicle, the
most eminent seats of the nobility and gentry in different parts of the
kingdom, with his wife and some select friends. By these periodical
excursions Sam gratifies many important purposes. He assists the several
pregnancies of his wife; he shows his chaise to the best advantage; he
indulges his insatiable curiosity for finery, which, since he has turned
gentleman, has grown upon him to an extraordinary degree; he discovers
taste and spirit, and, what is above all, he finds frequent
opportunities of displaying to the party, at every house he sees, his
knowledge of family connexion. At first, Sam was contented with driving
a friend between London and his villa. Here he prided himself in
pointing out the boxes of the citizens on each side of the road, with an
accurate detail of their respective failures or successes in trade; and
harangued on the several equipages that were accidentally passing. Here,
too, the seats, interspersed on the surrounding hills, afforded ample
matter for Sam's curious discoveries. For one, he told his companion, a
rich Jew had offered money; and that a retired widow was courted at
another, by an eminent dry-salter. At the same time he discussed the
utility, and enumerated the expenses, of the Islington turnpike. But
Sam's ambition is at present raised to nobler undertakings.
When the happy hour of the annual expedition arrives, the seat of the
chaise is furnished with Ogilvy's Book of Roads, and a choice quantity
of cold tongues. The most alarming disaster which can happen to our
hero, who thinks he _throws a whip_ admirably well, is to be overtaken
in a road which affords no _quarter_ for wheels. Indeed, few men possess
more skill or discernment for concerting and conducting a _party of
pleasure_. When a seat is to be surveyed, he has a peculiar talent in
selecting some shady bench in the park, where the company may most
commodiously refresh themselves with cold tongue, chicken and French
rolls; and is very sagacious in discovering what cool temple in the
garden will be best adapted for drinking tea, brought for this purpose,
in the afternoon, and from which the chaise may be resumed with the
greatest convenience. In viewing the house itself, he is principally
attracted by the chairs and beds, concerning the cost of which his
minute inquiries generally gain the clearest information. An agate table
easily diverts his eyes from the most capital strokes of Rubens, and a
Turkey carpet has more charms than a Titian. Sam, however, dwells with
some attention on the family portraits, particularly the most modern
ones; and as this is a topick on which the housekeeper usually harangues
in a more copious manner, he takes this opportunity of improving his
knowledge of intermarriages. Yet, notwithstanding this appearance of
satisfaction, Sam has some objection to all he sees. One house has too
much gilding; at another, the chimney-pieces are all monuments; at a
third, he conjectures that the beautiful canal must certainly be dried
up in a hot summer. He despises the statues at Wilton, because he thinks
he can see much better carving in Westminster Abbey. But there is one
general objection which he is sure to make at almost every house,
particularly at those which are most distinguished. He allows that all
the apartments are extremely fine, but adds, with a sneer, that they are
too fine to be inhabited.
Misapplied genius most commonly proves ridiculous. Had Sam, as Nature
intended, contentedly continued in the calmer and less conspicuous
pursuits of sugar-baking, he might have been a respectable and useful
character. At present he dissipates his life in a specious idleness,
which neither improves himself nor his friends. Those talents, which
might have benefited society, he exposes to contempt by false
pretensions. He affects pleasures which he cannot enjoy, and is
acquainted only with those subjects on which he has no right to talk,
and which it is no merit to understand.
 This humorous paper was written by Mr. Thomas Warton, who is said to
have sketched from a character in real life, distantly related to
himself.--Drake's Essays, Vol. II.
No. 94. SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 2, 1760.
It is common to find young men ardent and diligent in the pursuit of
knowledge; but the progress of life very often produces laxity and
indifference; and not only those who are at liberty to choose their
business and amusements, but those likewise whose professions engage
them in literary inquiries, pass the latter part of their time without
improvement, and spend the day rather in any other entertainment than
that which they might find among their books.
This abatement of the vigour of curiosity is sometimes imputed to the
insufficiency of learning. Men are supposed to remit their labours,
because they find their labours to have been vain; and to search no
longer after truth and wisdom, because they at last despair of finding
But this reason is, for the most part, very falsely assigned. Of
learning, as of virtue, it may be affirmed, that it is at once honoured
and neglected. Whoever forsakes it will for ever look after it with
longing, lament the loss which he does not endeavour to repair, and
desire the good which he wants resolution to seize and keep. The Idler
never applauds his own idleness, nor does any man repent of the
diligence of his youth.
So many hindrances may obstruct the acquisition of knowledge, that there
is little reason for wondering that it is in a few hands. To the greater
part of mankind the duties of life are inconsistent with much study; and
the hours which they would spend upon letters must be stolen from their
occupations and their families. Many suffer themselves to be lured by
more sprightly and luxurious pleasures from the shades of contemplation,
where they find seldom more than a calm delight, such as, though greater
than all others, its certainty and its duration being reckoned with its
power of gratification, is yet easily quitted for some extemporary joy,
which the present moment offers, and another, perhaps, will put out of
It is the great excellence of learning, that it borrows very little from
time or place; it is not confined to season or to climate, to cities or
to the country, but may be cultivated and enjoyed where no other
pleasure can be obtained. But this quality, which constitutes much of
its value, is one occasion of neglect; what may be done at all times
with equal propriety, is deferred from day to day, till the mind is
gradually reconciled to the omission, and the attention is turned to
other objects. Thus habitual idleness gains too much power to be
conquered, and the soul shrinks from the idea of intellectual labour and
intenseness of meditation.
That those who profess to advance learning sometimes obstruct it, cannot
be denied; the continual multiplication of books not only distracts
choice, but disappoints inquiry. To him that has moderately stored his
mind with images, few writers afford any novelty, or what little they
have to add to the common stock of learning, is so buried in the mass of
general notions, that, like silver mingled with the ore of lead, it is
too little to pay for the labour of separation; and he that has often
been deceived by the promise of a title, at last grows weary of
examining, and is tempted to consider all as equally fallacious.
There are indeed some repetitions always lawful, because they never
deceive. He that writes the history of past times, undertakes only to
decorate known facts by new beauties of method or of style, or at most
to illustrate them by his own reflections. The author of a system,
whether moral or physical, is obliged to nothing beyond care of
selection and regularity of disposition. But there are others who claim
the name of authors merely to disgrace it, and fill the world with
volumes only to bury letters in their own rubbish. The traveller, who
tells, in a pompous folio, that he saw the Pantheon at Rome, and the
Medicean Venus at Florence; the natural historian, who, describing the
productions of a narrow island, recounts all that it has in common with
every other part of the world; the collector of antiquities, that
accounts every thing a curiosity which the ruins of Herculaneum happen
to emit, though an instrument already shown in a thousand repositories,
or a cup common to the ancients, the moderns and all mankind; may be
justly censured as the persecutors of students, and the thieves of that
time which never can be restored.
No. 95. SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 9, 1760.
TO THE IDLER.
It is, I think, universally agreed, that seldom any good is gotten by
complaint; yet we find that few forbear to complain, but those who are
afraid of being reproached as the authors of their own miseries. I hope,
therefore, for the common permission to lay my case before you and your
readers, by which I shall disburden my heart, though I cannot hope to
receive either assistance or consolation.
I am a trader, and owe my fortune to frugality and industry. I began
with little; but by the easy and obvious method of spending less than I
gain, I have every year added something to my stock, and expect to have
a seat in the common-council at the next election.
My wife, who was as prudent as myself, died six years ago, and left me
one son and one daughter, for whose sake I resolved never to marry
again, and rejected the overtures of Mrs. Squeeze, the broker's widow,
who had ten thousand pounds at her own disposal.
I bred my son at a school near Islington; and when he had learned
arithmetick, and wrote a good hand, I took him into the shop, designing,
in about ten years, to retire to Stratford or Hackney, and leave him
established in the business.
For four years he was diligent and sedate, entered the shop before it
was opened, and when it was shut, always examined the pins of the
window. In any intermission of business it was his constant practice to
peruse the leger. I had always great hopes of him, when I observed how
sorrowfully he would shake his head over a bad debt, and how eagerly he
would listen to me when I told him that he might at one time or other
become an alderman.
We lived together with mutual confidence, till, unluckily, a visit was
paid him by two of his school-fellows, who were placed, I suppose, in
the army, because they were fit for nothing better: they came glittering
in their military dress, accosted their old acquaintance, and invited
him to a tavern, where, as I have been since informed, they ridiculed
the meanness of commerce, and wondered how a youth of spirit could spend
the prime of life behind a counter. I did not suspect any mischief. I
knew my son was never without money in his pocket, and was better able
to pay his reckoning than his companions; and expected to see him return
triumphing in his own advantages, and congratulating himself that he was
not one of those who expose their heads to a musket bullet for three
shillings a day.
He returned sullen and thoughtful; I supposed him sorry for the hard
fortune of his friends; and tried to comfort him, by saying that the war
would soon be at an end, and that, if they had any honest occupation,
half-pay would be a pretty help. He looked at me with indignation; and
snatching up his candle, told me, as he went up stairs, that _he hoped
to see a battle yet_.
Why he should hope to see a battle, I could not conceive, but let him go
quietly to sleep away his folly. Next day he made two mistakes in the
first bill, disobliged a customer by surly answers, and dated all his
entries in the journal in a wrong month. At night he met his military
companions again, came home late, and quarrelled with the maid.
From this fatal interview he has gradually lost all his laudable
passions and desires. He soon grew useless in the shop, where, indeed, I
did not willingly trust him any longer; for he often mistook the price
of goods to his own loss, and once gave a promissory note instead of a
I did not know to what degree he was corrupted, till an honest tailor
gave me notice that he had bespoke a laced suit, which was to be left
for him at a house kept by the sister of one of my journeymen. I went to
this clandestine lodging, and found, to my amazement, all the ornaments
of a fine gentleman, which I know not whether he has taken upon credit,
or purchased with money subducted from the shop.
This detection has made him desperate. He now openly declares his
resolution to be a gentleman; says that his soul is too great for a
counting-house; ridicules the conversation of city taverns; talks of new
plays, and boxes and ladies; gives duchesses for his toasts; carries
silver, for readiness, in his waistcoat-pocket; and comes home at night
in a chair, with such thunders at the door, as have more than once
brought the watchmen from their stands.
Little expenses will not hurt us; and I could forgive a few juvenile
frolicks, if he would be careful of the main; but his favourite topick
is contempt of money, which, he says, is of no use but to be spent.
Riches, without honour, he holds empty things; and once told me to my
face, that wealthy plodders were only purveyors to men of spirit.
He is always impatient in the company of his old friends, and seldom
speaks till he is warmed with wine; he then entertains us with accounts
that we do not desire to hear, of intrigues among lords and ladies, and
quarrels between officers of the guards; shows a miniature on his
snuff-box, and wonders that any man can look upon the new dancer without
All this is very provoking; and yet all this might be borne, if the boy
could support his pretensions. But, whatever he may think, he is yet far
from the accomplishments which he has endeavoured to purchase at so dear
a rate. I have watched him in publick places. He sneaks in like a man
that knows he is where he should not be; he is proud to catch the
slightest salutation, and often claims it when it is not intended. Other
men receive dignity from dress, but my booby looks always more meanly
for his finery. Dear Mr. Idler, tell him what must at last become of a
fop, whom pride will not suffer to be a trader, and whom long habits in
a shop forbid to be a gentleman.
I am, Sir, &c.
No. 96. SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 16, 1760.
_Qui se volet esse potentem,
Animos domet ille feroces:
Nec victa libidine colla
Foedis submittat habenis._ BOETHIUS.
Hacho, a king of Lapland, was in his youth the most renowned of the
Northern warriors. His martial achievements remain engraved on a pillar
of flint in the rocks of Hanga, and are to this day solemnly carolled to
the harp by the Laplanders, at the fires with which, they celebrate
their nightly festivities. Such was his intrepid spirit, that he
ventured to pass the lake Vether to the isle of Wizards, where he
descended alone into the dreary vault in which a magician had been kept
bound for six ages, and read the Gothick characters inscribed on his
brazen mace. His eye was so piercing, that, as ancient chronicles
report, he could blunt the weapons of his enemies only by looking at
them. At twelve years of age he carried an iron vessel of a prodigious
weight, for the length of five furlongs, in the presence of all the
chiefs of his father's castle.
Nor was he less celebrated for his prudence and wisdom. Two of his
proverbs are yet remembered and repeated among Laplanders. To express
the vigilance of the Supreme Being, he was wont to say, "Odin's belt is
always buckled." To show that the most prosperous condition of life is
often hazardous, his lesson was, "When you slide on the smoothest ice,
beware of pits beneath." He consoled his countrymen, when they were once
preparing to leave the frozen deserts of Lapland, and resolved to seek
some warmer climate, by telling them, that the Eastern nations,
notwithstanding their boasted fertility, passed every night amidst the
horrours of anxious apprehension, and were inexpressibly affrighted, and
almost stunned, every morning, with the noise of the sun while he was
His temperance and severity of manners were his chief praise. In his
early years he never tasted wine; nor would he drink out of a painted
cup. He constantly slept in his armour, with his spear in his hand; nor
would he use a battle-axe whose handle was inlaid with brass. He did
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