Nil desperandum. Lib. i. Od. vii. 27.
I have sometimes heard it disputed in conversation, whether it be more laudable or desirable, that a man should think too highly or too meanly of himself: it is on all hands agreed to be best, that he should think rightly; but since a fallible being will always make some deviations from exact rectitude, it is not wholly useless to inquire towards which side it is safer to decline.
The prejudices of mankind seem to favour him who errs by under-rating his own powers: he is considered as a modest and harmless member of society, not likely to break the peace by competition, to endeavour after such splendour of reputation as may dim the lustre of others, or to interrupt any in the enjoyment of themselves; he is no man’s rival, and, therefore, may be every man’s friend.
The opinion which a man entertains of himself ought to be distinguished, in order to an accurate discussion of this question, as it relates to persons or to things. To think highly of ourselves in comparison with others, to assume by our own authority that precedence which none is willing to grant, must be always invidious and offensive; but to rate our powers high in proportion to things, and imagine ourselves equal to great undertakings, while we leave others in possession of the same abilities, cannot with equal justice provoke censure.
It must be confessed, that self-love may dispose us to decide too hastily in our own favour: but who is hurt by the mistake? If we are incited by this vain opinion to attempt more than we can perform, ours is the labour, and ours is the disgrace.
But he that dares to think well of himself, will not always prove to be mistaken; and the good effects of his confidence will then appear in great attempts and great performances: if he should not fully complete his design, he will at least advance it so far as to leave an easier task for him that succeeds him; and even though he should wholly fail, he will fail with honour.
But from the opposite errour, from torpid despondency, can come no advantage; it is the frost of the soul, which binds up all its powers, and congeals life in perpetual sterility. He that has no hopes of success, will make no attempts; and where nothing is attempted, nothing can be done.
Every man should, therefore, endeavour to maintain in himself a favourable opinion of the powers of the human mind; which are, perhaps, in every man, greater than they appear, and might, by diligent cultivation, be exalted to a degree beyond what their possessor presumes to believe. There is scarce any man but has found himself able, at the instigation of necessity, to do what in a state of leisure and deliberation he would have concluded impossible; and some of our species have signalized themselves by such achievements, as prove that there are few things above human hope.
It has been the policy of all nations to preserve, by some public monuments, the memory of those who have served their country by great exploits: there is the same reason for continuing or reviving the names of those, whose extensive abilities have dignified humanity. An honest emulation may be alike excited; and the philosopher’s curiosity may be inflamed by a catalogue of the works of Boyle or Bacon, as Themistocles was kept awake by the trophies of Miltiades.
Among the favourites of nature that have from time to time appeared in the world, enriched with various endowments and contrarieties of excellence, none seems to have been exalted above the common rate of humanity, than the man known about two centuries ago by the appellation of the Admirable Crichton; of whose history, whatever we may suppress as surpassing credibility, yet we shall, upon incontestable authority, relate enough to rank him among prodigies.
“Virtue,” says Virgil, “is better accepted when it comes in a pleasing form:” the person of Crichton was eminently beautiful; but his beauty was consistent with such activity and strength, that in fencing he would spring at one bound the length of twenty feet upon his antagonist; and he used the sword in either hand with such force and dexterity, that scarce any one had courage to engage him.
Having studied at St. Andrew’s in Scotland, he went to Paris in his twenty-first year, and affixed on the gate of the college of Navarre a kind of challenge to the learned of that university to dispute with him on a certain day: offering to his opponents, whoever they should be, the choice of ten languages, and of all faculties and sciences. On the day appointed three thousand auditors assembled, when four doctors of the church and fifty masters appeared against him; and one of his antagonists confesses, that the doctors were defeated; that he gave proofs of knowledge above the reach of man; and that a hundred years passed without food or sleep, would not be sufficient for the attainment of his learning. After a disputation of nine hours, he was presented by the president and professors with a diamond and a purse of gold, and dismissed with repeated acclamations.
From Paris he went away to Rome, where he made the same challenge, and had in the presence of the pope and cardinals the same success. Afterwards he contracted at Venice an acquaintance with Aldus Manutius, by whom he was introduced to the learned of that city: then visited Padua, where he engaged in another publick disputation, beginning his performance with an extemporal poem in praise of the city and the assembly then present, and concluding with an oration equally unpremeditated in commendation of ignorance.
He afterwards published another challenge, in which he declared himself ready to detect the errours of Aristotle and all his commentators, either in the common forms of logick, or in any which his antagonists should propose of a hundred different kinds of verse.
These acquisitions of learning, however stupendous, were not gained at the expense of any pleasure which youth generally indulges, or by the omission of any accomplishment in which it becomes a gentleman to excel: he practised in great perfection the arts of drawing and painting, he was an eminent performer in both vocal and instrumental musick, he danced with uncommon gracefulness, and, on the day after his disputation at Paris, exhibited his skill in horsemanship before the court of France, where at a publick match of tilting, he bore away the ring upon his lance fifteen times together.
He excelled likewise in domestic games of less dignity and reputation: and in the interval between his challenge and disputation at Paris, he spent so much of his time at cards, dice, and tennis, that a lampoon was fixed upon the gate of the Sorbonne, directing those that would see this monster of erudition, to look for him at the tavern.
So extensive was his acquaintance with life and manners, that in an Italian comedy composed by himself, and exhibited before the court of Mantua, he is said to have personated fifteen different characters; in all which he might succeed without great difficulty, since he had such power of retention, that once hearing an oration of an hour, he would repeat it exactly, and in the recital follow the speaker through all his variety of tone and gesticulation.
Nor was his skill in arms less than in learning, or his courage inferior to his skill: there was a prize-fighter at Mantua, who travelling about the world, according to the barbarous custom of that age, as a general challenger, had defeated the most celebrated masters in many parts of Europe; and in Mantua, where he then resided, had killed three that appeared against him. The duke repented that he had granted him his protection; when Crichton, looking on his sanguinary success with indignation, offered to stake fifteen hundred pistoles, and mount the stage against him. The duke with some reluctance consented, and on the day fixed the combatants appeared: their weapon seems to have been single rapier, which was then newly introduced in Italy. The prize-fighter advanced with great violence and fierceness, and Crichton contented himself calmly to ward his passes, and suffered him to exhaust his vigour by his own fury. Crichton then became the assailant; and pressed upon him with such force and agility, that he thrust him thrice through the body, and saw him expire: he then divided the prize he had won among the widows whose husbands had been killed.
The death of this wonderful man I should be willing to conceal, did I not know that every reader will inquire curiously after that fatal hour, which is common to all human beings, however distinguished from each other by nature or by fortune.
The duke of Mantua, having received so many proofs of his various merit, made him tutor to his son Vicentio di Gonzaga, a prince of loose manners and turbulent disposition. On this occasion it was, that he composed the comedy in which he exhibited so many different characters with exact propriety. But his honour was of short continuance; for as he was one night in the time of Carnival rambling about the streets, with his guitar in his hand, he was attacked by six men masked. Neither his courage nor skill in his exigence deserted him: he opposed them with such activity and spirit, that he soon dispersed them, and disarmed their leader, who throwing off his mask, discovered himself to be the prince his pupil. Crichton, falling on his knees, took his own sword by the point, and presented it to the prince; who immediately seized it, and instigated, as some say, by jealousy, according to others, only by drunken fury and brutal resentment, thrust him through the heart.
Thus was the Admirable Crichton brought into that state, in which he could excel the meanest of mankind only by a few empty honours paid to his memory: the court of Mantua testified their esteem by a publick mourning, the contemporary wits were profuse of their encomiums, and the palaces of Italy were adorned with pictures, representing him on horseback with a lance in one hand and a book in the other