To speak highly of one with
whom we are intimate, is a species of egotism. Our modesty as well as
our jealousy teaches us caution on this subject.
What makes it so difficult to
do justice to others is that we are hardly sensible of merit, unless it
falls in with our own views and line of pursuit, and where this is the
case, it interferes with our pretensions. To be forward to praise
others, implies either great eminence, that can afford to part with
applause; or great quickness of discernment, with confidence in our own
judgments; or great sincerity and love of truth, getting the better of
Society is a more level
surface than we imagine. Wise men or absolute fools are hard to be met
with, as there are few giants or dwarfs. The heaviest charge we can
bring against the general texture of society is, that it is
common-place; and many of those who are singular, had better be
common-place. Our fancied superiority to others is in some one thing,
which we think most of, because we excel in it, or have paid most
attention to it; whilst we overlook their superiority to us in
something else, which they set equal and exclusive store by. This is
fortunate for all parties. I never felt myself superior to any one, who
did not go out of his way to affect qualities which he had not. In his
own individual character and line of pursuit, every one has knowledge,
experience, and skill: -- and who shall say which pursuit requires
most, thereby proving his own narrowness and incompetence to decide?
Particular talent or genius does not imply general capacity. Those who
are most versatile are seldom great in any one department: and the
stupidest people can generally do something. The highest preeminence in
any one study commonly arises from the concentration of the attention
and faculties on that one study. He who expects from a great name in
politics, in philosophy, in art, equal greatness in other things, is
little versed in human nature. Our strength lies in our weakness. The
learned in books is ignorant of the world. He who is ignorant of books
is often well acquainted with other things; for life is of the same
length in the learned and unlearned; the mind cannot be idle; if it is
not taken up with one thing, it attends to another through choice or
necessity; and the degree of previous capacity in one class or another
is a mere lottery.
There are few things in which
we deceive ourselves more than in the esteem we profess to entertain
for our friends. It is little better than a piece of quackery. The
truth is, we think of them as we please -- that is as they please or
displease us. As long as we are in good humour with them, we see
nothing but their good qualities; but no sooner do they offend us than
we rip up all their bad ones (which we before made a secret of, even to
ourselves) with double malice. He who but now was a little less than an
angel of light shall be painted in the blackest colors for a slip of
the tongue, "some trick not worth an egg," for the slightest suspicion
of offense given or received. We often bestow the most opprobrious
epithets on our best friends, and retract them twenty times in the
course of a day, while the man himself remains the same. In love, which
is all rhapsody and passion, this is excusable; but in the ordinary
intercourse of life it is preposterous.
It is well that there is no
one without a fault; for he would not have a friend in the world. He
would seem to belong to a different species.
The difficulty is for a man to
rise to high station, not to fill it; as it is easier to stand on an
eminence than to climb up to it. Yet he alone is truly great who is so
without the aid of circumstances and in spite of fortune, who is as
little lifted by the tide of opinion, as he is depressed by neglect or
obscurity, and who borrows dignity only from himself. It is a fine
compliment which Pope has paid to Lord Oxford --
- "A soul supreme, in each
hard instance tried,
Above all pain, all passion, and all pride;
The rage of power, the blast of public breath
The lust of lucre, and the dread of death!"
The greatest talents do not
generally attain to the highest stations. For though high, the ascent
to them is narrow, beaten, and crooked. The path of genius is free, and
its own. Whatever requires the concurrence and co-operation of others,
must depend chiefly on routine and an attention to rules and minutia.
Success in business is therefore seldom owing to uncommon talents or
original power, which is untractable and self-willed, but to the
greatest degree of common-place capacity.
It is great weakness to lay
ourselves open to others, who are reserved towards us. There is not
only no equality in it, but we may be pretty sure they will turn a
confidence, which they are so little disposed to initiate, against us.
Simplicity of character is the
natural result of profound thought.
We as often repent the good we
have done as the ill.
In public speaking, we must
appeal either to the prejudices of others, or to the love of truth and
justice. If we think merely of displaying our own ability, we shall
ruin every cause we undertake.
A person who talks with equal
vivacity on every subject, excite no interest in any. Repose is as
necessary in conversation as in a picture.
The best kind of conversation
is that which may be called thinking aloud. I like very well to speak
my mind on any subject (or to hear another do so) and to go into the
question according to the degree of interest it naturally inspires, but
not to have to get up a theses upon every topic. There are those, on
the other hand, who seem always to be practising on their audience, as
if they mistook them for a DEBATING SOCIETY, or to hold a general
retainer, by which they are bound to explain every difficulty, and
answer every objection that can be started. This, in private society,
and among friends, is not desirable. You thus lose the two great ends
of conversation, which are to learn the sentiments of others, and see
what they think of yours. One of the best talkers I ever knew had this
defect -- that he evidently seemed to be considering less what he felt
on any point than what might be said upon it, and that he listened to
you, not to weigh what you said, but to reply to it, like counsel on
the other side. This habit gave a brilliant smoothness and polish to
his general discourse, but, at the same time, took from its solidity
and prominence: it reduced it to a tissue of lively, fluent, ingenious
common-places (for original, genuine observations are like "minute
drops from off the eaves," and not an incessant shower) and, though his
talent in this way was carried to the very extreme of cleverness, yet I
think it seldom, if ever, went beyond it.
A man's reputation is not in
his own keeping, but lies at the mercy of the profligacy of others.
Calumny requires no proof. The throwing out malicious imputations
against any character leaves a stain, which no after-refutation can
wipe out. To create an unfavourable impression, it is not necessary
that certain things should be true, but that they have been said. The
imagination is of so delicate a texture, that even words wound it.
Want of principle is power.
Truth and honesty set a limit to our efforts, which impudence and
hypocrisy easily overleap.
In estimating the value of an
acquaintance or even a friend, we give a preference to intellectual or
convivial over moral qualities. The truth is, that in our habitual
intercourse with others, we much oftener required to be amused than
assisted. We consider less, therefore, what a person with whom we are
intimate is ready to do for us in critical emergencies, than what he
has to say on ordinary occasions. We dispense with his services, if he
only saves us from ennui. In civilized society, words are of as much
importance as things.
Insignificant people are a
necessary relief in society. Such characters are extremely agreeable,
and even favourites, if they appear satisfied with the part they have
The youth is better than the
old age of friendship.
In the course of a long
acquaintance we have repeated all our good things, and discussed all
our favourite topics several times over, so that our conversation
becomes a mockery of social intercourse. We might as well talk to
ourselves. The soil of friendship is worn out with constant use. Habit
may still attach us to each other, but we feel ourselves fettered by
it. Old friends might be compared to old married people without the tie
We grow tired of ourselves,
much more of other people. Use may in part reconcile us to our own
tediousness, but we do not adopt that of others on the same paternal
principle. We may be willing to sell a story twice, never to hear one
more than once.
To be capable of steady
friendship or lasting love, are the two greatest proofs, not only of
goodness of heart, but of strength of mind.
It makes us proud when our
love of a mistress is returned; it ought to make us prouder that we can
love her for herself alone. Without the aid of any such selfish
reflection. This is the religion of love.
It is wonderful how often we
see and hear of Shakespear's plays without being annoyed with it. Were
it any other writer, we should be sick to death of the very name. But
his volumes are like that of nature, we can turn to them again and
- "Age cannot wither, nor
His infinite variety.
The contempt of a wanton for a
man who is determined to think her virtuous, is perhaps the strongest
of all others. He officiously reminds her of what she ought to be; and
she avenges the galling sense of lost character on the fool who still
believes in it.
The only vice that cannot be
forgiven is hypocrisy. The repentance of a hypocrite is itself
There is less impertinence and
more independence in London than any other place in the kingdom.
To expect an author to talk as
he writes is ridiculous, or even if he did, you would find fault with
him as a pedant. We should read authors, and not converse with them.
Good and ill seems as
necessary to human life as light and shade are to a picture. We grow
weary of uniform success, and pleasure soon surfeits. Pain makes ease
delightful; hunger relishes the homeliest food, fatigue turns the
hardest bed to down; and the difficulty and uncertainty of pursuits is
all cases enhanced the value of possession. The wretched are in this
respect fortunate, that they have the strongest yearnings after
happiness; and to desire is in some sense to enjoy. If the schemes of
Utopians could be realized, the tone of society would be changed from
what it is, into a sort of insipid high life. There could be no fine
tragedies written; nor would there be any pleasure in seeing them. We
tend to this conclusion already with the progress of civilization.
It is remarkable how virtuous
and generously disposed every one is at a play. We uniformly applaud
what is right and condemn what is wrong, when it costs us nothing by
The best lessons we can learn
from witnessing the folly of mankind is not to irritate ourselves
Women never reason, and
therefore they are (comparatively) seldom wrong. They judge
instinctively of what falls under their immediate observation or
experience, and do not trouble themselves about remote or doubtful
consequences If they make no profound discoveries, they do not involve
themselves in gross absurdities. It is only by the help of reason and
logical inference, according to Hobbes, that "man becomes excellently
wise, or excellently foolish."
The French are fond of reading
as well as of talking. You may constantly see girls tending an
apple-stall in the coldest day in winter, and reading Voltaire or
Racine. Such a thing was never known in London as a barrow-woman
reading Shakespear. Yet we talk of our widespread civilization, and
ample provision for the education of the poor.
An awkward Englishman has an
advantage in going abroad. Instead of having his deficiency more
remarked, it is less so; for an all Englishmen are thought awkward
alike. Any slip in politeness or abruptness of address is attributed to
an ignorance of foreign manners, and you escape underneath the cover of
the national character. Your behavior is not more criticized than your
accent. They consider the barbarism of either as a compliment to their
own superior refinement.
The national precedence
between the English and Scotch may be settled by this, that the Scotch
are always asserting their superiority over the English, while the
English never say a word about their superiority over the Scotch. The
first have got together a great number of facts and arguments in their
own favour; the last never trouble their heads about the matter, but
have taken the point for granted as self-evident.
There is a double aristocracy
of rank and letters, which is hardly to be endured -- monstrum ingens,
biforme. A lord, who is a poet as well, regards the House of peers with
contempt as a set of dull fellows; and he considers his brother authors
as a Grub-street crew. A king is hardly good enough for him to touch; a
mere man of genius is no better than worm. He alone is
all-accomplished. Such people should be sent to Coventry; and they
generally are so, through their insufferable pride and
A copy is never so good as an
original. This would not be the case indeed, if great painters were in
the habit of copying bad pictures; but as the contrary practice holds,
it follows that the excellent parts of a fine picture must lose in the
imitation and the indifferent parts will not be proportionably improved
by an thing substituted at a venture for them.
In some situations, if you say
nothing, you are called dull; if you talk, you are thought impertinent
or arrogant. It is hard to know what to do in this case. The question
seems to be, whether your vanity or your prudence predominates.
Wit is the rarest quality to
be met with among people of education, and the most common among the
The most perfect style of
writing may be that, which treats strictly and methodically of a given
subject; the most amusing (if not he most instructive) is that, which
mixes up the personal character of the author with general reflection.
The seat of knowledge is in
the head; of wisdom, in the heart. We are sure to judge wrong, if we do
not feel right.
Fame is the inheritance not of
the dead, but of the living. It is we who look back with lofty pride to
the great names of antiquity, who drink of that flood of glory as of a
river, and refresh our wings in it for future flight.
Those who from a constant
change and dissipation of outward objects have not a moment's leisure
left for their own thoughts, can feel no respect for themselves, and
learn little consideration for humanity.
He will never have true
friends who is afraid of making enemies.
Those people who are fond of
giving trouble, like to take it; just as those who pay no attention to
the comforts of others, are generally indifferent to their own. We are
governed by sympathy; and the extent of out sympathy is determined by
that of our sensibility.
No one is idle, who can do any
Vice is man's nature: virtue
is a habit -- or a mask.
The foregoing maxim shows the
difference between truth and sarcasm.
Those who are fond of setting
things to rights, have no great objection to seeing them wrong. There
is often a good deal of spleen at the bottom of benevolence.