——Quæ nec Sarmentus iniquas
Cæsaris ad mensas, nec vilis Galba talisset.
Juv. Sat. v. 3.
Which not Sarmentus brook’d at Cæsar’s board,
Nor grov’ling Galba from his haughty Lord.
TO THE AUTHOR OF THE RAMBLER.
You have often endeavoured to impress upon your readers an observation of more truth than novelty, that life passes, for the most part, in petty transactions; that our hours glide away in trifling amusements and slight gratifications; and that there very seldom emerges any occasion that can call forth great virtue or great abilities.
It very commonly happens that speculation has no influence on conduct. Just conclusions, and cogent arguments, formed by laborious study, and diligent inquiry, are often reposited in the treasuries of memory, as gold in a miser’s chest, useless alike to others and himself. As some are not richer for the extent of their possessions, others are not wiser for the multitude of their ideas.
You have truly described the state of human beings, but it may be doubted whether you have accommodated your precepts to your description; whether you have not generally considered your readers as influenced by the tragick passions, and susceptible of pain or pleasure only from powerful agents, and from great events.
To an author who writes not for the improvement of a single art, or the establishment of a controverted doctrine, but equally intends the advantage and equally courts the perusal of all the classes of mankind, nothing can justly seem unworthy of regard, by which the pleasure of conversation may be increased, and the daily satisfactions of familiar life secured from interruption and disgust.
For this reason you would not have injured your reputation, if you had sometimes descended to the minuter duties of social beings, and enforced the observance of those little civilities and ceremonious delicacies, which, inconsiderable as they may appear to the man of science, and difficult as they may prove to be detailed with dignity, yet contribute to the regulation of the world, by facilitating the intercourse between one man and another, and of which the French have sufficiently testified their esteem, by terming the knowledge and practice of them Sçavoir vivre, The art of living.
Politeness is one of those advantages which we never estimate rightly but by the inconvenience of its loss. Its influence upon the manners is constant and uniform, so that, like an equal motion, it escapes perception. The circumstances of every action are so adjusted to each other, that we do not see where any errour could have been committed, and rather acquiesce in its propriety than admire its exactness.
But as sickness shews us the value of ease, a little familiarity with those who were never taught to endeavour the gratification of others, but regulate their behaviour merely by their own will, will soon evince the necessity of established modes and formalities to the happiness and quiet of common life.
Wisdom and virtue are by no means sufficient, without the supplemental laws of good-breeding, to secure freedom from degenerating to rudeness, or self-esteem from swelling into insolence; a thousand incivilities may be committed, and a thousand offices neglected, without any remorse of conscience or reproach from reason.
The true effect of genuine politeness seems to be rather ease than pleasure. The power of delighting must be conferred by nature, and cannot be delivered by precept, or obtained by imitation; but though it be the privilege of a very small number to ravish and to charm, every man may hope by rules and caution not to give pain, and may, therefore, by the help of good-breeding, enjoy the kindness of mankind, though he should have no claim to higher distinctions.
The universal axiom in which all complaisance is included, and from which flow all the formalities which custom has established in civilized nations, is, That no man shall give any preference to himself. A rule so comprehensive and certain, that, perhaps, it is not easy for the mind to image an incivility, without supposing it to be broken.
There are, indeed, in every place some particular modes of the ceremonial part of good-breeding, which, being arbitrary and accidental, can be learned only by habitude and conversation; such are the forms of salutation, the different gradations of reverence, and all the adjustments of place and precedence. These, however, may be often violated without offence, if it be sufficiently evident, that neither malice nor pride contributed to the failure; but will not atone, however rigidly observed, for the tumour of insolence, or petulance of contempt.
I have, indeed, not found among any part of mankind, less real and rational complaisance, than among those who have passed their time in paying and receiving visits, in frequenting publick entertainments, in studying the exact measures of ceremony, and in watching all the variations of fashionable courtesy.
They know, indeed, at what hour they may beat the door of an acquaintance, how many steps they must attend him towards the gate, and what interval should pass before his visit is returned; but seldom extend their care beyond the exterior and unessential parts of civility, nor refuse their own vanity any gratification, however expensive to the quiet of another.
Trypherus is a man remarkable for splendour and expense; a man, that having been originally placed by his fortune and rank in the first class of the community, has acquired that air of dignity, and that readiness in the exchange of compliments, which courts, balls, and levees, easily confer.
But Trypherus, without any settled purposes of malignity, partly by his ignorance of human nature, and partly by the habit of contemplating with great satisfaction his own grandeur and riches, is hourly giving disgust to those whom chance or expectation subjects to his vanity.
To a man whose fortune confines him to a small house, he declaims upon the pleasure of spacious apartments, and the convenience of changing his lodging-room in different parts of the year; tells him, that he hates confinement; and concludes, that if his chamber was less, he should never wake without thinking of a prison.
To Eucretas, a man of birth equal to himself, but of much less estate, he shewed his services of plate, and remarked that such things were, indeed, nothing better than costly trifles, but that no man must pretend to the rank of a gentleman without them; and that for his part, if his estate was smaller, he should not think of enjoying but increasing it, and would inquire out a trade for his eldest son.
He has, in imitation of some more acute observer than himself, collected a great many shifts and artifices by which poverty is concealed; and among the ladies of small fortune, never fails to talk of frippery and slight silks, and the convenience of a general mourning.
I have been insulted a thousand times with a catalogue of his pictures, his jewels, and his rarities, which, though he knows the humble neatness of my habitation, he seldom fails to conclude by a declaration, that wherever he sees a house meanly furnished, he despises the owner’s taste, or pities his poverty.
This, Mr. Rambler, is the practice of Trypherus, by which he is become the terrour of all who are less wealthy than himself, and has raised innumerable enemies without rivalry, and without malevolence.
Yet though all are not equally culpable with Trypherus, it is scarcely possible to find any man who does not frequently, like him, indulge his own pride by forcing others into a comparison with himself when he knows the advantage is on his side, without considering that unnecessarily to obtrude unpleasing ideas, is a species of oppression; and that it is little more criminal to deprive another of some real advantage, than to interrupt that forgetfulness of its absence which is the next happiness to actual possession.
I am, &c.