Thomas B. (Thomas Brackett) Reed.

Modern eloquence; (Volume 5) online

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as ^Esop's Fables, as the oracular sentences that are to be
found in Homer and the Greek dramatists and orators;
as all that immense host of wise and pithy saws which,
to the number of between four thousand and five thousand,
were collected from all ancient literature by the industry
of Erasmus, in his great folio of Adages. As we turn
over these pages of old times, we almost feel that those
are right who tell us that everything has been said, that
the thing that has been is the thing that shall be, and
there is no new thing under the sun.

It is natural that this second kind of wisdom, being de-
tached and unsystematic, should embody itself in the short
and pregnant form of proverb, sentence, maxim, and
aphorism. The essence of aphorism is the compression
of a mass of thought and observation into a single saying.
It is the very opposite of dissertation and declamation ; its


distinction is not so much ingenuity, as good sense
brought to the point; it ought to be neither enigmatical,
nor flat, neither a truism on the one hand, nor a riddle on
the other. These wise sayings said Bacon, the author of
some of the wisest of them, are not only for ornament,
but for action and business, having point or edge whereby
knots in business are pierced and discovered. And he
applauds Cicero's description of such sayings as salt-pits,
that you may extract salt out of them, and sprinkle it
where you will. They are the guiding oracles which man
has found out for himself in that great business of ours, of
learning how to be, to do, to do without, and to depart.
Their range extends from prudential kitchen maxims such
as Franklin set forth in the sayings of Poor Richard
about thrift in time and money, up to such great and high
moralities of life as are the prose maxims of Goethe,
just as Bacon's Essays extend from precepts as to build-
ing and planting up to solemn reflections on truth, death,
and the vicissitudes of things. They cover the whole
field of man as he is and life as it is, not of either as they
ought to be ; friendship, ambition, money, studies, busi-
ness, public duty, in all their actual laws and conditions
as they are, and not as the ideal moralist may wish that
they were.

It has been said that the order of our knowledge is this :
that we know best, first what we have divined by native
instinct ; second, what we have learned by experience of
men and things ; third, what we have learned not in books,
but by books that is, by the reflections that they sug-
gest ; fourth, last and lowest, by what we have learned in
books or with masters. The virtue of an aphorism comes
under the third of these heads : it conveys a portion of a
truth with such point as to set us thinking on what
remains. Montaigne, who delighted in Plutarch, and
kept him ever on his table, praises him in that besides his
long discourses, " there are a thousand others, which he
has only touched and glanced upon, where he only points
with his finger to direct us which way we may go if we will
and contents himself sometimes with only giving one
brisk hit in the nicest article of the question, from whence
we grope out the rest ! " And this is what Plutarch him-
self is driving at when he warns young men that it is well

812 'jt)HN

to go for a light to another man's fire, but by no means
to tarry by it, instead of kindling a torch of their own.

Grammarians draw a distinction between a maxim and
an aphorism, and tell us that while an aphorism only
states some broad truths of general bearing, a maxim,
besides stating the truth, enjoins a rule of conduct as its
consequence. For instance, to say that " there are some
men with just imagination enough to spoil their judg-
ment " is an aphorism. But there is action as well as
thought in such sayings as this : " It is a great sign of
mediocrity to be always reserved in praise " ; or in this,
of Marcus Aurelius, " When thou wishest to give thyself
delight, think of the excellences of those who live with
thee ; for instance, of the energy of one, the modesty of
another, the liberal kindness of a third." Again, accord-
ing to this distinction of the word we are to give the name
of aphorism to Pascal's saying that " most of the mischief
in the world would never happen, if men would only be
content to sit still in their parlors." But we are to give
the name of maxim to the great and admirable counsel of
a philosopher of a very different school, that " if you
would love mankind, you should not expect too much
from them."

But the distinction is one without much difference; we
need not labor it nor pay it further attention. Aphorism
or maxim, let us remember that this wisdom of life is the
true salt of literature ; that those books at least in prose
are most nourishing which are most richly stored with it ;
and that it is one of the great objects, apart from the
mere acquisition of knowledge, which men ought to seek
in the reading of books.

A great living painter has said, that the longer he
works, the more does he realize how very little anybody
except the trained artist aerially perceives in the natural
objects constantly before him ; how blind they are to im-
pressions of color and light and form, which would be
full of interest and delight if people only knew how to see
them. Are not most of us just as blind to the thousand
lights and shades in the men and women around us? We
live in the world as we live among fellow inmates in a
hotel, or fellow-revellers at a masquerade. Yet this, to
bring knowledge of ourselves and others " home to our



business and onr bosoms " is one of the most important
parts of culture.

Some prejudice is attached in generous minds to this
wisdom of the world as being egotistical, poor, unimagin-
ative, of the earth earthy. Since the great literary reac-
tion at the end of the last century, men have been apt to
pitch the criticism of life in the high poetic key. They
have felt with Wordsworth :

" The human nature unto which I felt
That I belonged, and reverenced with love,
Was not a punctual presence, but a spirit
Diffused through time and space, with aid derived
Of evidence from monuments, erect,
Prostrate, or leaning towards their common rest
On earth, the widely scattered wreck sublime
Of vanished nations."

Then again extraordinary advances have been made in
ordered knowledge of the various stages of the long pre-
historic dawn of human civilization. The man of the flint
implement and the fire-drill, who could only count up to
five, and who was content to live in a hut like a beehive,
has drawn interest away from the man of the market and
the parlor. The literary passion for primitive times and
the raw material of man has thrust the polished man, the
manufactured article, into a secondary place. All this is
in the order of things. It is fitting that we should pierce
into the origins of human nature. It is right that the
great poets, the ideal interpreters of life, should be dearer
to us than those who stop short with mere deciphering
of what is real and actual. The poet has his own sphere
of the beautiful and the sublime. But it is no less true
that enduring weight of historian, moralist, political ora-
tor, or preacher, depends on the amount of the wisdom of
life that is hived in his pages. They may be admirable by
virtue of other qualities, by learning, by grasp, by maj-
esty of flight; but it is his moral sentences on mankind
or the State that rank the prose writer among the sages.
These show that he has an eye for the great truths of
action, for the permanent bearings of conduct, for things
that are for the guidance of all generations. What is it
that makes Plutarch's Lives "a pasture of great souls,"

as they were called by one who was herself a great soul?
Because his aim was much less to tell a story than, as he
says, "to decipher the man and his nature"; and in de-
ciphering the man to strike out many pregnant and fruit-
ful thoughts on all men. Why was it worth while for
Mr. Jowett the other day to give us a new translation of
Thucydicles' history of the Peloponnesian War? And
why is it worth your while at least to dip in a serious
spirit into its pages ? Partly because the gravity and con-
cision of Thucydides are of specially wholesome example
in these days of over-colored and over-voluminous narra-
tive ; partly because he knows how to invest the wreck and
overthrow of those small States with the pathos and
dignity of mighty imperial fall; but most of all, for the
sake of the wise sentences that are sown with apt but not
unsparing hand through the progress of the story. Well
might Gray ask his friend whether Thucydides' descrip-
tion of the final destruction of the Athenian host at
Syracuse was not the finest thing he ever read in his life ;
and assuredly the man who can read that stern tale with-
out admiration, pity, and awe, may be certain that he has
no taste for noble composition, and no feeling for the
deepest tragedy of mortal things. But it is the sagacious
sentences in the speeches of Athenians, Corinthians,
Lacedaemonians, that do most of all give the historian his
perpetuity of interest to every reader with the rudiments
of a political instinct, and make Thucydides as modern
as if he had written yesterday.

Tacitus belongs to a different class among the great
writers of the world. He had beyond almost any author
of the front rank that has ever lived, the art of condensing
his thought and driving it home to the mind of the reader
with a flash. Beyond almost anybody he suffered from
what a famous writer of aphorisms in our time has de-
scribed as " a cursed ambition to put a wholebook into a
page, a whole page into a phrase, and the phrase into a
word." But the moral thought itself in Tacitus mostly
belongs less to the practical wisdom of life than to sombre
poetic indignation like that of Dante against the perver-
sities of men and the blindness of fortune.

Horace's Epistles are a mine of genial, friendly, human
observation. Then, there is none of the ancient moral-


ists to whom the modern, from Montaigne, Charron,
Raleigh, Bacon, downwards, owes more than to Seneca.
Seneca has none of the kindly warmth of Horace ; he has
not the animation of Plutarch; he abounds too much in
the artificial and extravagant paradoxes of the Stoics.
But, for all that, he touches the great and eternal com-
monplaces of human occasion friendship, health, be-
reavement, riches, poverty, death with a hand that
places him high among the wise masters of life. All
through the ages men, tossed in the beating waves of cir-
cumstance, have found, in the essays and letters of
Seneca, more than in any other secular writer words of
good counsel and comfort. And let this fact not pass
without notice of the light that it sheds on the great fact
of the unity of literature, and of the absurdity of setting a
great gulf between ancient or classical literature and
modern, as if under all dialects, the partakers in Graeco-
Roman civilization, whether in Athens, Rome, Paris,
Weimar, Edinburgh, London, Dublin were not the heirs
of a great common stock of thought and speech.

I certainly do not mean anything so absurd as that the
moralities, whether major or minor, whether affecting the
foundation of conduct or the surface of manners, remain
fixed. On the contrary, one of the most interesting
things in literature is to mark the shifts and changes in
men's standards. Boswell tells a curious story of the
first occasion on which Johnson met Sir Joshua Reynolds.
Two ladies of the company were regretting the death of
a friend, to whom they owed great obligations. Rey-
nolds observed that they had, at any rate, the comfort of
being relieved from a debt of gratitude. The ladies were
naturally shocked at this singular alleviation of their grief,
but Johnson defended it in his clear and forcible manner,
and, says Boswell, " was much pleased with the mind, the
fair view of human nature, that it exhibited, like some of
the reflections of Rochefoucauld." On the strength of it
he went home with Reynolds, supped with him, and was
his friend for life. No moralist with a reputation to lose
would like to back Reynolds' remark in the Nineteenth

Our own generation in Great Britain has been singu-
larly unfortunate in the literature of aphorism. One too


famous volume of proverbial philosophy had immense
vogue, but it is so vapid, so wordy, so futile, as to have a
place among books that dispense with parody. Then,
rather earlier in the century, a clergyman, who ruined
himself by gambling, ran away from his debts to America,
and at last blew his brains out, felt peculiarly qualified to
lecture mankind on moral prudence. He wrote a little
book in 1820 called "Lacon; or, Many Things in Few
Words, addressed to those who think." It is an awful
example to anybody who is tempted to try his hand at an
aphorism. Thus, " Marriage is a feast where the grace is
sometimes better than the dinner." I had made some
other extracts from this unhappy sage, but you will thank
me for having thrown them into the fire. Finally a great
authoress of our time was urged by a friend to fill up the
gap in our literature by composing a volume of
" Thoughts " : the result was that most insufferable of all
deadly-lively prosings in our sublunary world, " Theo-
phrastus Such." One living writer of genius has given us
a little sheaf of subtle pointed maxims in the " Ordeal of
Richard Feverel," and perhaps he will one day divulge to
the world the whole contents of Sir Austin Feverel's
unpublished volume, " The Pilgrim's Scrip."

Yet the wisdom of life has its full part in our literature.
Keen insight into peculiarities of individual motive, and
concentrated interest in the play of character, shine not
merely in Shakespeare, whose mighty soul, as Hallam
says was saturated with moral observations, nor in the
brilliant phrases of Pope. For those who love meditative
reading on the woes and destinies of men, we have Burton
and Fuller and Sir Thomas Browne in one age, and Addi-
son, Johnson, and the rest of the essayists in another.
Sir Thomas Overbury's " Characters," written in the
Baconian age, are found delightful by some ; but for my
own part, though I have striven to follow the critics'
golden rule to have preferences but no exclusions, Over-
bury has for me no savor. In the great art of painting
moral portraits, or character writing, the characters in
Clarendon or in Burnet's " History of His Own Time "
are full of life, vigor, and coherency, and are attractive to
read. I cannot agree with those who put either Claren-
don or Burnet on a level with the characters in St. Simon


or the Cardinal de Retz : there is a subtlety of analysis, a
searching penetration, a breadth of moral comprehension,
in the Frenchmen, which I don't find, nor, in truth much
desire to find in our countrymen. The homelier hand
does well enough for homelier men. For all that, such
characters as those of Falkland, of Chillingworth, by
Clarendon, or Burnet's very different Lauclerdale, are
worth a thousand battle-pieces, cabinet plots, or parlia-
mentary combinations, of which we never can be sure that
the narrator either knew or has told the whole story. It
is true that these characters have not the strange quality
which some one imputed to the writing of Tacitus, that it
seems to put the reader himself and the secrets of his own
heart into the confessional. It is in the novel that, in this
country, the faculty of observing social man and his pecu-
liarities has found its most popular instrument. The
great novel, not of romance, or adventure, but of char-
acter and manners, from the mighty Fielding, down, at a
long interval, to Thackeray, covers the field that in France
is held and successfully held, against all comers, by her
maxim-writers, like La Rochefoucauld, and her great
character writers, like La Bruyere. But the literature of
aphorism contains one English name of magnificent and
immortal lustre the name of Francis Bacon. Bacon's
Essays are the unique masterpiece in our literature of this
oracular wisdom of life, applied to scattered occasions of
our existence ; the essays are known to all the world ; but
there is another and perhaps a weightier performance of
Bacon's which is less known, or not known at all, except
to students here and there. I mean the second chapter of
the eighth book of his famous treatise, " De Argumentis,"
which has been translated into pithy English.

In this chapter, among other things, he composes com-
ments on between thirty and forty of what he calls " The
Aphorisms or Proverbs of Solomon," which he truly de-
scribes as containing, besides thoughts of a theological
character, " not a few excellent civil precepts and cautions
springing from the inmost recesses of wisdom, and ex-
tending to a variety of occasions." I know not where
else to find more of the salt of common sense in an
uncommon degree than in these terse comments on the
Wise King's terse sentences, and in the keen, sagacious,


shrewd, wisdom of the world, lighted up by such bril-
liance of wit, and affluence of illustration, in the pages that
come after them.

This sort of wisdom was in the taste of the time ; witness
Ralegh's " Instructions to his Son," and that curious col-
lection " of political and polemical aphorisms grounded on
authority and experience," which he called by the name of
the " Cabinet Council." Harrington's " Political Aphor-
isms," which came a generation later, are not moral sen-
tences; they are a string of propositions in political
theory, breathing a noble spirit of liberty, but too abstract
for practical guidance through the troubles of the day.
But Bacon's admonitions have a depth and copiousness
that are all his own. He says that the knowledge of
advancement in life, though abundantly practised, had not
been sufficiently handled in books, and so he here lays
down the precepts for what he calls the " Architecture of
Fortune." They constitute a description of a man who
is politic for his own fortune, and show how he may best
shape a character that will attain the ends of fortune.

First, A man should accustom his mind to judge of the
proportion and value of all things as they conduce to his
fortune and ends.

Second, Not to undertake things beyond his strength
nor to row against the stream.

Third, Not to wait for occasions always, but sometimes
to challenge and induce them according to the saying of
Demosthenes : " In the same manner as it is a received
principle that the general should lead the army, so should
wise men lead affairs," causing things to be done, which
they think good, and not themselves waiting upon events.

Fourth, Not to take up anything which of necessity
takes up a great quantity of time, but to have this sound
ever ringing in our ears : " Time is flying, time that can
never be retrieved."

Fifth, Not to engage one's self too peremptorily in any-
thing, but ever to have either window open to fly out at,
or a secret way to retire by.

Sixth, To follow that ancient precept not construed to
any point of perfidiousness, but only to caution and mod-
eration that we are to treat our friend as if he might one
day be a foe, and our foe as if he should one day be friend.


All these Bacon called the good arts, as distinguished
from the evil arts, which had been described years before
by Machiavelli in his famous book " The Prince " and
also in his " Discourses." Bacon called Machiavelli's
sayings depraved and pernicious, and a corrupt wisdom,
as indeed they are. He .was conscious that his own
maxims, as well, were in some need of elevation and of
correction, for he winds up with wise warnings against
being carried away by the whirlwind or tempest of ambi-
tion; by the general reminder that "all things are vanity
and vexation of spirit," and the particular reminder that,
" Being without wellbeing is a curse, and the greater
being, the greater curse," and that " all virtue is most
rewarded, and all wickedness most punished in itself " ; by
the question whether this incessant, restless, and, as it
were, Sabbathless pursuit of fortune, leaves time for holier
duties, and what advantage it is to have a face erected
towards heaven, with the spirit perpetually grovelling upon
earth, eating dust like a serpent; and finally he says that
it will not be amiss for men, in this great and excited
chase of fortune, to cool themselves a little with that con-
ceit of Charles V in his instructions to his son, that " For-
tune hath somewhat of the nature of a woman, who, if she
be too closely wooed, is only the further off."

Nobody need go to such writings as these for moral
dignity or moral energy. They have no place in that
nobler literature from Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius
downwards, which lights up the young soul with generous
aims, and fires it with the love of all excellence. Yet the
most heroic cannot do without a dose of circumspection.
The counsels of old Polonius to Laertes are less sublime
than Hamlet's soliloquy, but they have their place.
Bacon's chapters are mainly of circumspection, whether
we choose to give circumspection a high or a low rank in
the list of virtues. Bacon knew of the famous city which
had three gates, and on the first the horseman read in-
scribed, " Be bold " ; and on the second gate yet again,
" Be bold and evermore be bold " ; and on the third it was
written, " Be not too bold."

This cautious tone had been brought about by the cir-
cumstances of the time. Government was strict ; dissent
from current opinions was dangerous ; there was no indif-


ference and hardly any tolerance ; authority was sus-
picious and it was vindictive. When the great genius of
Burke rose like a new sun in the sky, the times were
happier and nowhere in our literature does a noble pru-
dence wear statelier robes.

Those who are curious to follow the literature of aphor-
ism into Germany, will, with the mighty exceptions of
Goethe and Schiller, find but a parched and scanty har-
vest. The Germans too often justify the unfriendly defi-
nition of an aphorism as a form of speech that wraps up
something quite plain in words that turn it into some-
thing very obscure. As old Fuller says, the writers have
a hair hanging to the nib of their pen. Their shortness
does not prevent them from being tiresome. They re-
call the French wit to whom a friend showed a distich:
"Excellent," he said; "but isn't it rather spun out?"

Lichtenberg, a professor of physics, who was also a
considerable hand at satire a hundred years ago, com-
posed a collection of sayings, with a little wheat amid
much chaff:

" People who never have any time are the people who do least."

" The utmost that a weak head can get out of experience is an
extra readiness to find out the weakness of other people."

" Over anxiously to feel and think what one could have done is
the very worst thing one can do."

" He who has less than he desires should know that he has more
than he deserves."

" Enthusiasts without capacity are the really dangerous people."

This last, by the way, recalls a saying of the great
French reactionary, De Bonald, and which is never quite
out of date : " Follies committed by the sensible, extrava-
gances uttered by the clever, crimes committed by the
good, that is what makes revolutions."

Radowitz was a Prussian soldier and statesman who
died in 1853, and left among many other things two or
three volumes of short fragmentary pieces on politics,
religion, literature, and art. They are intelligent and
elevated, but contain hardly anything to our point to-
night, unless it be this, that what is called Stupidity
springs not at all from mere want of understanding, but
from the fact that the free use of a man's understanding is


hindered by some definite vice : Frivolity, Envy, Dissipa-
tion, Covetousness, all these darling vices of fallen man.
these are at the bottom of what we name Stupidity. This
is true enough, but it is not so much to the point as the
saying of a highly judicious aphorism of my acquaintance,
that " Excessive anger against human stupidity is itself
one of the most provoking of all forms of that stupidity."

Another author of aphorisms of the Goethe period was
Klinger, a play-writer, who led a curious and varied life in
camps and cities, who began with a vehement enthusiasm
for the sentimentalism of Rousseau, and ended, as such
men often do, with a hard and stubborn cynicism. He

Online LibraryThomas B. (Thomas Brackett) ReedModern eloquence; (Volume 5) → online text (page 37 of 38)