Samuel Johnson.

The Works of Samuel Johnson, Volume 03 The Rambler, Volume II online

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one avoids censure, the other aspires to praise; one is always in danger
of insipidity, the other continually on the brink of affectation.

When the subject has no intrinsick dignity, it must necessarily owe its
attractions to artificial embellishments, and may catch at all
advantages which the art of writing can supply. He that, like Pliny,
sends his friend a portion for his daughter, will, without Pliny's
eloquence or address, find means of exciting gratitude, and securing
acceptance; but he that has no present to make but a garland, a riband,
or some petty curiosity, must endeavour to recommend it by his manner of
giving it.

The purpose for which letters are written when no intelligence is
communicated, or business transacted, is to preserve in the minds of the
absent either love or esteem: to excite love we must impart pleasure,
and to raise esteem we must discover abilities. Pleasure will generally
be given, as abilities are displayed by scenes of imagery, points of
conceit, unexpected sallies, and artful compliments. Trifles always
require exuberance of ornament; the building which has no strength can
be valued only for the grace of its decorations. The pebble must be
polished with care, which hopes to be valued as a diamond; and words
ought surely to be laboured, when they are intended to stand for things.

No. 153. TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 3, 1751

_Turba Remi? Sequitur Fortunam, ut semper, et odit
Damnatos_. JUV. Sat. x. 73.

The fickle crowd with fortune comes and goes;
Wealth still finds followers, and misfortune foes.



There are occasions on which all apology is rudeness. He that has an
unwelcome message to deliver, may give some proof of tenderness and
delicacy, by a ceremonial introduction and gradual discovery, because
the mind, upon which the weight of sorrow is to fall, gains time for the
collection of its powers; but nothing is more absurd than to delay the
communication of pleasure, to torment curiosity by impatience, and to
delude hope by anticipation.

I shall therefore forbear the arts by which correspondents generally
secure admission, for I have too long remarked the power of vanity, to
doubt that I shall be read by you with a disposition to approve, when I
declare that my narrative has no other tendency than to illustrate and
corroborate your own observations.

I was the second son of a gentleman, whose patrimony had been wasted by
a long succession of squanderers, till he was unable to support any of
his children, except his heir, in the hereditary dignity of idleness.
Being therefore obliged to employ that part of life in study which my
progenitors had devoted to the hawk and hound, I was in my eighteenth
year despatched to the university, without any rural honours. I had
never killed a single woodcock, nor partaken one triumph over a
conquered fox.

At the university I continued to enlarge my acquisitions with little
envy of the noisy happiness which my elder brother had the fortune to
enjoy; and, having obtained my degree, retired to consider at leisure to
what profession I should confine that application which had hitherto
been dissipated in general knowledge. To deliberate upon a choice which
custom and honour forbid to be retracted, is certainly reasonable; yet
to let loose the attention equally to the advantages and inconveniencies
of every employment is not without danger; new motives are every moment
operating on every side; and mechanicks have long ago discovered, that
contrariety of equal attractions is equivalent to rest.

While I was thus trifling in uncertainty, an old adventurer, who had
been once the intimate friend of my father, arrived from the Indies with
a large fortune; which he had so much harassed himself in obtaining,
that sickness and infirmity left him no other desire than to die in his
native country. His wealth easily procured him an invitation to pass his
life with us; and, being incapable of any amusement but conversation, he
necessarily became familiarized to me, whom he found studious and
domestick. Pleased with an opportunity of imparting my knowledge, and
eager of any intelligence that might increase it, I delighted his
curiosity with historical narratives and explications of nature, and
gratified his vanity by inquiries after the products of distant
countries, and the customs of their inhabitants.

My brother saw how much I advanced in the favour of our guest, who,
being without heirs, was naturally expected to enrich the family of his
friend, but never attempted to alienate me, nor to ingratiate himself.
He was, indeed, little qualified to solicit the affection of a
traveller, for the remissness of his education had left him without any
rule of action but his present humour. He often forsook the old
gentleman in the midst of an adventure, because the horn sounded in the
court-yard, and would have lost an opportunity, not only of knowing the
history, but sharing the wealth of the mogul, for the trial of a new
pointer, or the sight of a horse-race.

It was therefore not long before our new friend declared his intention
of bequeathing to me the profits of his commerce, as the only man in the
family by whom he could expect them to be rationally enjoyed. This
distinction drew upon me the envy not only of my brother but my father.

As no man is willing to believe that he suffers by his own fault, they
imputed the preference which I had obtained to adulatory compliances, or
malignant calumnies. To no purpose did I call upon my patron to attest
my innocence, for who will believe what he wishes to be false? In the
heat of disappointment they forced their inmate by repeated insults to
depart from the house, and I was soon, by the same treatment, obliged to
follow him.

He chose his residence in the confines of London, where rest,
tranquillity, and medicine, restored him to part of the health which he
had lost. I pleased myself with perceiving that I was not likely to
obtain the immediate possession of wealth which no labour of mine had
contributed to acquire; and that he, who had thus distinguished me,
might hope to end his life without a total frustration of those
blessings, which, whatever be their real value, he had sought with so
much diligence, and purchased with so many vicissitudes of danger and

He, indeed, left me no reason to repine at his recovery, for he was
willing to accustom me early to the use of money, and set apart for my
expenses such a revenue as I had scarcely dared to image. I can yet
congratulate myself that fortune has seen her golden cup once tasted
without inebriation. Neither my modesty nor prudence was overwhelmed by
affluence; my elevation was without insolence, and my expense without
profusion. Employing the influence which money always confers, to the
improvement of my understanding, I mingled in parties of gaiety, and in
conferences of learning, appeared in every place where instruction was
to be found, and imagined that, by ranging through all the diversities
of life, I had acquainted myself fully with human nature, and learned
all that was to be known of the ways of men.

It happened, however, that I soon discovered how much was wanted to the
completion of my knowledge, and found that, according to Seneca's
remark, I had hitherto seen the world but on one side. My patron's
confidence in his increase of strength tempted him to carelessness and
irregularity; he caught a fever by riding in the rain, of which he died
delirious on the third day. I buried him without any of the heir's
affected grief or secret exultation; then preparing to take a legal
possession of his fortune, I opened his closet, where I found a will,
made at his first arrival, by which my father was appointed the chief
inheritor, and nothing was left me but a legacy sufficient to support me
in the prosecution of my studies.

I had not yet found such charms in prosperity as to continue it by any
acts of forgery or injustice, and made haste to inform my father of the
riches which had been given him, not by the preference of kindness, but
by the delays of indolence and cowardice of age. The hungry family flew
like vultures on their prey, and soon made my disappointment publick, by
the tumult of their claims, and the splendour of their sorrow.

It was now my part to consider how I should repair the disappointment. I
could not but triumph in my long list of friends, which comprised almost
every name that power or knowledge entitled to eminence; and, in the
prospect of the innumerable roads to honour and preferment, which I had
laid open to myself by the wise use of temporary riches, I believed
nothing necessary but that I should continue that acquaintance to which
I had been so readily admitted, and which had hitherto been cultivated
on both sides with equal ardour.

Full of these expectations, I one morning ordered a chair, with an
intention to make my usual circle of morning visits. Where I first
stopped I saw two footmen lolling at the door, who told me without any
change of posture, or collection of countenance, that their master was
at home, and suffered me to open the inner door without assistance. I
found my friend standing, and, as I was tattling with my former freedom,
was formally entreated to sit down; but did not stay to be favoured with
any further condescensions.

My next experiment was made at the levee of a statesman, who received me
with an embrace of tenderness, that he might with more decency publish
my change of fortune to the sycophants about him. After he had enjoyed
the triumph of condolence, he turned to a wealthy stockjobber, and left
me exposed to the scorn of those who had lately courted my notice, and
solicited my interest.

I was then set down at the door of another, who, upon my entrance,
advised me, with great solemnity, to think of some settled provision for
life. I left him, and hurried away to an old friend, who professed
himself unsusceptible of any impressions from prosperity or misfortune,
and begged that he might see me when he was more at leisure.

Of sixty-seven doors, at which I knocked in the first week after my
appearance in a mourning dress, I was denied admission at forty-six; was
suffered at fourteen to wait in the outer room till business was
despatched; at four, was entertained with a few questions about the
weather; at one, heard the footman rated for bringing my name; and at
two was informed, in the flow of casual conversation, how much a man of
rank degrades himself by mean company.

My curiosity now led me to try what reception I should find among the
ladies; but I found that my patron had carried all my powers of pleasing
to the grave. I had formerly been celebrated as a wit, and not
perceiving any languor in my imagination, I essayed to revive that
gaiety which had hitherto broken out involuntarily before my sentences
were finished. My remarks were now heard with a steady countenance, and
if a girl happened to give way to habitual merriment, her forwardness
was repressed with a frown by her mother or her aunt.

Wherever I come I scatter infirmity and disease; every lady whom I meet
in the Mall is too weary to walk; all whom I entreat to sing are
troubled with colds: if I propose cards, they are afflicted with the
head-ach; [Transcriber's note: sic] if I invite them to the gardens,
they cannot bear a crowd.

All this might be endured; but there is a class of mortals who think my
understanding impaired with my fortune, exalt themselves to the dignity
of advice, and, whenever we happen to meet, presume to prescribe my
conduct, regulate my economy, and direct my pursuits. Another race,
equally impertinent and equally despicable, are every moment
recommending to me an attention to my interest, and think themselves
entitled, by their superior prudence, to reproach me if I speak or move
without regard to profit.

Such, Mr. Rambler, is the power of wealth, that it commands the ear of
greatness and the eye of beauty, gives spirit to the dull, and authority
to the timorous, and leaves him from whom it departs, without virtue and
without understanding, the sport of caprice, the scoff of insolence, the
slave of meanness, and the pupil of ignorance.

I am, &c.

No. 154. SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 7, 1751.

_ - Tibi res antiquae laudis et artis
Ingredior, sanctos ausus recludere fontes_. VIR. Geo. ii. 174.

For thee my tuneful accents will I raise,
And treat of arts disclos'd in ancient days;
Once more unlock for thee the sacred spring. DRYDEN.

The direction of Aristotle to those that study politicks, is first to
examine and understand what has been written by the ancients upon
government; then to cast their eyes round upon the world, and consider
by what causes the prosperity of communities is visibly influenced, and
why some are worse, and others better administered.

The same method must be pursued by him who hopes to become eminent in
any other part of knowledge. The first task is to search books, the next
to contemplate nature. He must first possess himself of the intellectual
treasures which the diligence of former ages has accumulated, and then
endeavour to increase them by his own collections.

The mental disease of the present generation, is impatience of study,
contempt of the great masters of ancient wisdom, and a disposition to
rely wholly upon unassisted genius and natural sagacity. The wits of
these happy days have discovered a way to fame, which the dull caution
of our laborious ancestors durst never attempt; they cut the knots of
sophistry which it was formerly the business of years to untie, solve
difficulties by sudden irradiations of intelligence, and comprehend long
processes of argument by immediate intuition.

Men who have flattered themselves into this opinion of their own
abilities, look down on all who waste their lives over books, as a race
of inferior beings, condemned by nature to perpetual pupilage, and
fruitlessly endeavouring to remedy their barrenness by incessant
cultivation, or succour their feebleness by subsidiary strength. They
presume that none would be more industrious than they, if they were not
more sensible of deficiencies; and readily conclude, that he who places
no confidence in his own powers, owes his modesty only to his weakness.

It is however certain, that no estimate is more in danger of erroneous
calculations than those by which a man computes the force of his own
genius. It generally happens at our entrance into the world, that, by
the natural attraction of similitude, we associate with men like
ourselves, young, sprightly, and ignorant, and rate our accomplishments
by comparison with theirs; when we have once obtained an acknowledged
superiority over our acquaintances, imagination and desire easily extend
it over the rest of mankind, and if no accident forces us into new
emulations, we grow old, and die in admiration of ourselves.

Vanity, thus confirmed in her dominion, readily listens to the voice of
idleness, and sooths the slumber of life with continual dreams of
excellence and greatness. A man, elated by confidence in his natural
vigour of fancy and sagacity of conjecture, soon concludes that he
already possesses whatever toil and inquiry can confer. He then listens
with eagerness to the wild objections which folly has raised against the
common means of improvement; talks of the dark chaos of indigested
knowledge; describes the mischievous effects of heterogeneous sciences
fermenting in the mind; relates the blunders of lettered ignorance;
expatiates on the heroick merit of those who deviate from prescription,
or shake off authority; and gives vent to the inflations of his heart by
declaring that he owes nothing to pedants and universities.

All these pretensions, however confident, are very often vain. The
laurels which superficial acuteness gains in triumphs over ignorance
unsupported by vivacity, are observed by Locke to be lost, whenever real
learning and rational diligence appear against her; the sallies of
gaiety are soon repressed by calm confidence; and the artifices of
subtilty are readily detected by those, who, having carefully studied
the question, are not easily confounded or surprised.

But, though the contemner of books had neither been deceived by others
nor himself, and was really born with a genius surpassing the ordinary
abilities of mankind; yet surely such gifts of Providence may be more
properly urged as incitements to labour, than encouragements to
negligence. He that neglects the culture of ground naturally fertile, is
more shamefully culpable, than he whose field would scarcely recompense
his husbandry.

Cicero remarks, that not to know what has been transacted in former
times, is to continue always a child. If no use is made of the labours
of past ages, the world must remain always in the infancy of knowledge.
The discoveries of every man must terminate in his own advantage, and
the studies of every age be employed on questions which the past
generation had discussed and determined. We may with as little reproach
borrow science as manufactures from our ancestors; and it is as rational
to live in caves till our own hands have erected a palace, as to reject
all knowledge of architecture which our understandings will not supply.

To the strongest and quickest mind it is far easier to learn than to
invent. The principles of arithmetick and geometry may be comprehended
by a close attention in a few days; yet who can flatter himself that the
study of a long life would have enabled him to discover them, when he
sees them yet unknown to so many nations, whom he cannot suppose less
liberally endowed with natural reason, than the Grecians or Egyptians?

Every science was thus far advanced towards perfection, by the emulous
diligence of contemporary students, and the gradual discoveries of one
age improving on another. Sometimes unexpected flashes of instruction
were struck out by the fortuitous collision of happy incidents, or an
involuntary concurrence of ideas, in which the philosopher to whom they
happened had no other merit than that of knowing their value, and
transmitting, unclouded, to posterity, that light which had been kindled
by causes out of his power. The happiness of these casual illuminations
no man can promise to himself, because no endeavours can procure them;
and therefore whatever be our abilities or application, we must submit
to learn from others what perhaps would have lain hid for ever from
human penetration, had not some remote inquiry brought it to view; as
treasures are thrown up by the ploughman and the digger in the rude
exercise of their common occupations. The man whose genius qualifies him
for great undertakings, must at least be content to learn from books the
present state of human knowledge; that he may not ascribe to himself the
invention of arts generally known; weary his attention with experiments
of which the event has been long registered; and waste, in attempts
which have already succeeded or miscarried, that time which might have
been spent with usefulness and honour upon new undertakings.

But, though the study of books is necessary, it is not sufficient to
constitute literary eminence. He that wishes to be counted among the
benefactors of posterity, must add by his own toil to the acquisitions
of his ancestors, and secure his memory from neglect by some valuable
improvement. This can only be effected by looking out upon the wastes of
the intellectual world, and extending the power of learning over regions
yet undisciplined and barbarous; or by surveying more exactly our
ancient dominions, and driving ignorance from the fortresses and
retreats where she skulks undetected and undisturbed. Every science has
its difficulties, which yet call for solution before we attempt new
systems of knowledge; as every country has its forests and marshes,
which it would be wise to cultivate and drain, before distant colonies
are projected as a necessary discharge of the exuberance of inhabitants.

No man ever yet became great by imitation. Whatever hopes for the
veneration of mankind must have invention in the design or the
execution; either the effect must itself be new, or the means by which
it is produced. Either truths hitherto unknown must be discovered, or
those which are already known enforced by stronger evidence, facilitated
by clearer method, or elucidated by brighter illustrations.

Fame cannot spread wide or endure long that is not rooted in nature, and
matured by art. That which hopes to resist the blast of malignity, and
stand firm against the attacks of time, must contain in itself some
original principle of growth. The reputation which arises from the
detail or transposition of borrowed sentiments, may spread for awhile,
like ivy on the rind of antiquity, but will be torn away by accident or
contempt, and suffered to rot unheeded on the ground.

No. 155. TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 10, 1751.

_ - Steriles transmisimus annos,
Haec aevi mihi prima dies, haec limina vitae_. STAT. i. 362.

- Our barren years are past;
Be this of life the first, of sloth the last. ELPHINSTON.

No weakness of the human mind has more frequently incurred
animadversion, than the negligence with which men overlook their own
faults, however flagrant, and the easiness with which they pardon them,
however frequently repeated.

It seems generally believed, that as the eye cannot see itself, the mind
has no faculties by which it can contemplate its own state, and that
therefore we have not means of becoming acquainted with our real
characters; an opinion which, like innumerable other postulates, an
inquirer finds himself inclined to admit upon very little evidence,
because it affords a ready solution of many difficulties. It will
explain why the greatest abilities frequently fail to promote the
happiness of those who possess them; why those who can distinguish with
the utmost nicety the boundaries of vice and virtue, suffer them to be
confounded in their own conduct; why the active and vigilant resign
their affairs implicitly to the management of others; and why the
cautious and fearful make hourly approaches towards ruin, without one
sigh of solicitude or struggle for escape.

When a position teems thus with commodious consequences, who can without
regret confess it to be false? Yet it is certain that declaimers have
indulged a disposition to describe the dominion of the passions as
extended beyond the limits that nature assigned. Self-love is often
rather arrogant than blind; it does not hide our faults from ourselves,
but persuades us that they escape the notice of others, and disposes us
to resent censures lest we should confess them to be just. We are
secretly conscious of defects and vices, which we hope to conceal from
the publick eye, and please ourselves with innumerable impostures, by
which, in reality, nobody is deceived.

In proof of the dimness of our internal sight, or the general inability
of man to determine rightly concerning his own character, it is common
to urge the success of the most absurd and incredible flattery, and the
resentment always raised by advice, however soft, benevolent, and
reasonable. But flattery, if its operation be nearly examined, will be
found to owe its acceptance, not to our ignorance, but knowledge of our
failures, and to delight us rather as it consoles our wants than
displays our possessions. He that shall solicit the favour of his patron
by praising him for qualities which he can find in himself, will be
defeated by the more daring panegyrist who enriches him with
adscititious excellence. Just praise is only a debt, but flattery is a
present. The acknowledgment of those virtues on which conscience
congratulates us, is a tribute that we can at any time exact with
confidence; but the celebration of those which we only feign, or desire
without any vigorous endeavours to attain them, is received as a
confession of sovereignty over regions never conquered, as a favourable
decision of disputable claims, and is more welcome as it is more

Advice is offensive, not because it lays us open to unexpected regret,
or convicts us of any fault which had escaped our notice, but because it
shews us that we are known to others as well as to ourselves; and the
officious monitor is persecuted with hatred, not because his accusation
is false, but because he assumes that superiority which we are not
willing to grant him, and has dared to detect what we desired to

For this reason advice is commonly ineffectual. If those who follow the
call of their desires, without inquiry whither they are going, had

Online LibrarySamuel JohnsonThe Works of Samuel Johnson, Volume 03 The Rambler, Volume II → online text (page 19 of 38)