Thomas B. (Thomas Brackett) Reed.

Modern eloquence; (Volume 5) online

. (page 38 of 38)
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wrote " Thoughts on Different Subjects of the World and
Literature," which are intelligent and masculine if they
are not particularly pungent in expression. One of them
runs " He who will write interestingly must be able to
keep heart and reason in close and friendliest connection.
The heart must warm the reason, and the reason must in
turn blow on the embers if they are to burst into flame."
This illustrates what an aphorism should not be. Con-
trast its clumsiness with the brevity of the famous and
admirable French saying of Vauvenargues, that " Great
thoughts come from the heart."

It is only Goethe and Schiller, and especially Goethe,
" the strong, much-toiling sage, with spirit free from
mists, and sane and clear," who combine the higher and
the lower wisdom, and have skill to put moral truths into
forms of words that fix themselves with stings in the
reader's mind. All Goethe's work, whether poetry or
prose, his plays, his novels, his letters, his conversations,
are richly bestrewn with the luminous sentences of a keen-
eyed, steadfast, patient, indefatigable watcher of human
life. He deals gravely and sincerely with men. He has
none of that shallow irony by which small men who have
got wrong with the world seek a shabby revenge. He
tells us the whole truth. He is not of those second-rate
sages who keep their own secrets, externally complying
with all the conventions of speech and demeanor, while
privately nourishing unbridled freedom of opinion in the
inner sanctuary of the mind. He deals soberly, faith-
fully, laboriously, cheerfully, with motive and with con-
duct. He marks himself the friend, the well-wisher, and


helper. I will not begin to quote from Goethe, for I
should never end. The volume of Spriiche, or aphorisms
in rhyme and prose in his collected works is accessible to
everybody, but some of his wisest and finest are to be
found in the plays, like the well-known one in his
" Tasso," " In stillness Talent forms itself, but Char-
acter in the great current of the world."

But here is a concentrated admonition from the volume
that I have named, that will do as well as any other for an
example of his temper:

" Wouldst fashion for thyself a seemly life?
Then fret not over what is past and gone ;
And spite of all thou mayst have lost behind
Yet act as if thy life were just begun.
What each day wills, enough for thee to know;
What each day wills, the day itself will tell.
Do thine own task, and be therewith content;
What others do, that shalt thou fairly judge;
Be sure that thou no brother-mortal hate,
Then all besides leave to the Master Power."

If any of you should be bitten with unhappy passion
for the composition of aphorisms, let me warn such an
one that the power of observing life is rare, the power of
drawing new lessons from it is rarer still, and the power
of condensing the lesson into a pointed sentence is rarest
of all. Beware of cultivating this delicate art. The
effort is only too likely to add one more to that perverse
class described by Gibbon who strangle a thought in the
hope of strengthening it, and applaud their own skill when
they have shown in a few absurd words the fourth part of
an idea. Let me warmly urge anybody that so mistaken
an ambition instead of painfully distilling poor platitudes
of his own, to translate the shrewd saws of the wise-
browed Goethe.

Some have found light in the sayings of Balthasar Gra-
cian, a Spaniard, who flourished at the end of the Seven-
teenth century, whose maxims were translated into Eng-
lish at the very beginning of the Eighteenth, and who was
introduced to the British public in an excellent article by
Sir M. E. Grant-Duff a few years ago. The English title
is attractive: "The Art of Prudence, or a Companion


for a Man of Sense." I do not myself find Gracian much
of a companion, though some of his aphorisms give a neat
turn to commonplace. Thus :

" The pillow is a dumb sibyl. To sleep upon a thing that is to be
done, is better than to be wakened up by one already done."

" To equal a predecessor one mus^ have twice his worth."

" What is easy ought to be entered upon as though it were diffi-
cult, and what is difficult as though it were easy."

" Those things are generally best remembered which ought most to
be forgot. Not seldom the surest remedy of the evil consists in for-
getting it."

It is France that excels in the form apart from the
matter of aphorism, and for the good reason that in
France the arts of polished society were relatively at an
early date the objects of a serious and deliberate cultiva-
tion, which was and perhaps is unknown in the rest of
Europe. Conversation became a fine art. " I hate war,"
said one ; " it spoils conversation." The leisured class
found their keenest relish in delicate irony, in piquancy,
in contained vivacity, in the study of niceties of observa-
tion and finish of phrase. You have a picture of it in such
a play as Moliere's " Misanthropist," where we see a sec-
tion of the polished life of the time men and women
making and receiving compliments, discoursing on affairs
with easy lightness, flitting backwards and forwards with
a thousand petty hurries, and among them one singular
figure, hoarse, rough, sombre, moving with a chilling
reality in the midst of frolicking shadows. But the
shadows were all in all to one another. Not a point of
conduct, not a subtlety of social motive escaped detection
and remark.

Dugald Stewart has pointed to the richness of the
French tongue in appropriate and discriminating expres-
sions for varieties of intellectual turn and shade. How
many of us, who claim a reasonable knowledge of French
will undertake easily to find an English equivalent for
such distinctions as are expressed in the following
phrases Esprit juste ; esprit etendu, esprit fin, esprit
delie, esprit de lumiere? These numerous distinctions
are the evidence, as Stewart says, of that attention paid
by the cultivated classes to delicate shades, qf mind and


1 . * v _

feeling. Compare with them the colloquial use of our
overworked word " clever." Society and conversation
have not been among us the school of reflection, the
spring of literary inspiration that they have been in
France. The English rule has rather been like that of the
ancient Persians, that the great thing is to learn to ride, to
shoot with the bow, and to speak the truth. There is
much in that. But it has been more favorable to strength
than to either subtlety or finish.

One of the most commonly known of all books of
maxims, after the Proverbs of Solomon, is the Moral
Reflections of La Rochefoucauld. The author lived at
court, himself practised all the virtues which he seemed to
disparage, and took so much trouble to make sure of the
right expression that many of these short sentences were
more than thirty times revised. They were given to the
world in the latter half of the Seventeenth century in a
little volume which Frenchmen used to know by heart,
which gave a new turn to the literary taste of the nation,
and which has been translated into every civilized tongue.
It paints men as they would be, if self-love were the one
great mainspring of human action, and makes magna-
nimity itself no better than self-interest in disguise :

" Interest," he says, " speaks all sorts of tongues and plays all sorts
of parts, even the part of the disinterested."

" Gratitude is with most people only a strong desire for greater
benefits to come."

" Love of justice is with most of us nothing but the fear of suffering

"Friendship is only the reciprocal conciliation of interests, mutual
exchange of good offices ; it is a species of commerce out of which
self-love always intends to make something."

" We have all strength enough to endure the troubles of other

" Our repentance is not so much regret for the ill we have done as
fear of the ill that may come to us in consequence."

And everybody here knows the saying that " In the
adversity of our best friends we often find something that
is not exactly displeasing."

We cannot wonder that, in spite of their piquancy of
form, such sentences as these have aroused in many minds


an invincible repugnance for what would be so tremen-
dous a calumny on human nature, if the book were meant
to be a picture of human nature as a whole. " I count
Rochefoucauld's ' Maxims,' " says one critic, " a bad
book. As I am reading it, I feel discomfort; I have a
sense of suffering which I cannot define. Such thoughts
tarnish the brightness of the soul; they degrade the
heart." Yet as a faithful presentation of human selfish-
ness, and of you and me in so far as we happen to be
mainly selfish, the odious mirror has its uses by showing
us what manner of men we are or may become. Let us
not forget either that not quite all is selfishness in La
Rochefoucauld. Everybody knows his saying that hypoc-
risy is the homage that vice pays to virtue. There is
subtle truth in this, that to be in too great a hurry to
discharge an obligation is itself a kind of ingratitude.
Nor is there any harm in the reflection that no fool is so
troublesome as the clever fool ; or in this, that only great
men have any business with great defects ; nor, finally in
this, that we are never either so happy or so unhappy as
we imagine.

No more important name is associated with the litera-
ture of aphorisms than that of Pascal; but the Thoughts
of Pascal concern the deeper things of speculative philoso-
phy and religion, rather than the wisdom of daily life,
and, besides, though aphoristic in form, they are in sub-
stance systematic. " I blame equally," he said, " those
who take sides for praising man, those who are for blam-
ing him, and those who amuse themselves with him: the
only wise part is search for truth search with many
sighs." On man, as he exists in society, he said little;
and what he said does not make us hopeful. He saw the
darker side. " If everybody knew what one says of them,
there would not be four friends left in the world."
" Would you have men think well of you, then do not
speak well of yourself." And so forth. If you wish to
know Pascal's theory you may find it set out in brilliant
verse in the opening lines of the second book of Pope's
" Essay on Man." " What a chimera is Man ! " said Pas-
cal. " What a confused chaos ! What a subject of
contradiction! A professed judge of all things, and yet
a feeble worm of the earth; the great depository and


guardian of truth, and yet a mere huddle of uncertainty;
the glory and the scandal of the universe ! " Shakespeare
was wiser and deeper when under this quintessence of
dust, he discerned what a piece of work is man, how
noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and mov-
ing; how expressive and admirable. That serene and
radiant faith is the secret, added to the matchless gifts of
imagination and music, why Shakespeare is the greatest
of men.

There is a smart spurious wisdom of the world which
has the bitterness not of the salutary tonic, but of mortal
poison; and of this kind the master is Chamfort, who
lived through the French Revolution, and whose little
volume of Thoughts is often extremely witty, always
pointed, but not seldom cynical and false. " If you live
among men," he said, " the heart must either break or
turn to brass." " The public ! the public ! " he cried, " how
many fools does it take to make a public!" "What is
celebrity? The advantage of being known to people who
don't know you."

All literatures might be ransacked in vain for a more
repulsive saying than this, that " A man must swallow a
toad every morning if he wishes to be quite sure of finding
nothing more disgusting still before the day is over."
We cannot be surprised to hear of the lady who said that
a conversation with Chamfort in the morning made her
melancholy until bedtime. Yet Chamfort is the author of
the not unwholesome saying that " the most wasted of all
days is that on which one has not laughed." One of his
maxims lets us into the secret of his misanthropy.
" Whoever," he said, " is not a misanthropist at forty can
never have loved mankind." It is easy to know what this
means. Of course if a man is so superfine that he will not
love mankind any longer than he can believe them to be
demigods and angels, it is true that at forty he may have
discovered that they are neither. Beginning by looking
for men to be more perfect than they can be, he ends by
thinking them worse than they are, and then he secretly
plumes himself on his superior cleverness in having found
humanity out. For the deadliest of all wet blankets give
me a middle-aged man who has been most of a visionary
in his youth.


To correct all this, let us recall the saying that I have
already quoted [from Helvetius] which made so deep an
impression on Jeremy Bentham: " In order to love man-
kind, we must not expect too much from them." And
let us remember that Archbishop Fe'nelon, one of the
most saintly men that ever lived, and whose very counte-
nance bore such a mark of goodness that when he was in
a room men found that they could not desist from looking
at him, wrote to a friend the year before he died, " I ask
little from most men; I try to render them much, and to
expect nothing in return, and I get very well out of the

Chamfort I will leave, with his sensible distinction be-
tween pride and vanity. " A man," he says, " has ad-
vanced far in the study of morals who has mastered the
difference between pride and vanity. The first is lofty,
calm, immovable ; the second is uncertain, capricious, un-
quiet. The one adds to a man's stature ; the other puffs
him out. The one is the source of a thousand virtues;
the other is that of nearly all vices and all perversities.
There is a kind of pride in which are included all the com-
mandments of God; and a kind of vanity which contains
the seven mortal sins."

I will say little of La Bruyere, by far the greatest, broad-
est, strongest of French character-writers, because his is
not one of the houses of which you can judge by a brick
or two taken at random. For those in whom the excite-
ments of modern literature have not burnt up the faculty
of sober meditation on social man, La Bruyere must
always be one of the famous names. Macaulay some-
where calls him thin. But Macaulay has less ethical
depth, and less perception of ethical depth, than any
writer that ever lived with equally brilliant gifts in other
ways ; and thin is the very last word that describes this
admirable master. If one seeks to measure how far re-
moved the great classic moralists are from thinness, let
him turn from La Bruyere to the inane subtleties and
meaningless conundrums not worth answering that do
duty for analysis of character in some modern American

I will say nothing of Rivarol, a caustic wit of the revo-
lutionary time, nor of Joubert, a writer of sayings of this


century, of whom Mr. Matthew Arnold has said all that
needs saying. He is delicate, refined, acute, but his
thoughts were fostered in the hot-house of a coterie, and
have none of the salt and sapid flavor that comes to more
masculine spirits from active contact with the world.

I should prefer to close this survey in the saner moral
climate of Vauvenargues. He died one hundred and
forty years ago, leaving a little book of maxims behind,
which for tenderness, equanimity, cheerfulness, grace,
sobriety, and hope are not surpassed in prose literature.
" One of the noblest qualities in our nature," he said, " is
that we are able so easily to dispense with greater per-

" Magnanimity owes no account to prudence of its motives."

" To do great things a man must live as though he had never to

" The first days of spring have less grace than the growing virtue of
a young man."

" You must rouse in men all consciousness of their own prudence
and strength if you would rouse their character."

Just as somebody else [Tocqueville] said : " He who
despises mankind will never get the best out of either
others or himself."

The best known of Vauvenargues' sayings, as it is deep-
est and broadest, is the far-reaching sentence already
quoted, that " Great thoughts come from the heart."
And this is the truth that shines out as we watch the voy-
age of humanity from the " wide, gray, lampless depths "
of time. Those have been the greatest in thought who
have been best endowed with faith, hope, sympathy, and
the spirit of effort. And next to them come the great,
stern, mournful men, like Tacitus, Dante, Pascal, who,
standing as far aloof from the soft poetic dejection of
some of the moods of Shelley or Keats, as from the sav-
age fury of Swift, watch with a prophet's indignation the
heedless waste of faculty and opportunity, the triumph of
paltry motive and paltry aim, as if we were the flies of a
summer noon, which do more than any active malignity
to distort the great lines, and to weaken or to frustrate
the strong and healthy parts of human nature. For prac-


tical purposes all these complaints of men are of as little
avail as Johnson found the complaint that of the globe
so large a space should be occupied by the uninhabitable
ocean, encumbered by naked mountains, lost under bar-
ren sands, scorched by perpetual heat, or petrified by
perpetual frost, and so small a space be left for the pro-
duction of fruits, the pasture of cattle, and the accommo-
dation of men.

When we have deducted, said Johnson, all the time
that is absorbed in sleep, or appropriated to the other
demands of nature, or the inevitable requirements of so-
cial intercourse, all that is torn from us by violence and
disease, or imperceptibly stolen from us by languor, we
may realize of how small a portion of our time we are
truly masters. And the same consideration of the cease-
less and natural pre-occupations of man in the daily
struggle will reconcile the wise man to disappointments,
delays, shortcomings of the world, without shaking the
firmness of his own faith, or the intrepidity of his own



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