Impulsu, et cæcâ magnâque cupidine ducti.
Juv. Sat. x. 350.
Vain man runs headlong, to caprice resign’d;
Impell’d by passion, and with folly blind.
I was lately considering, among other objects of speculation, the new attempt of an universal register, an office, in which every man may lodge an account of his superfluities and wants, of whatever he desires to purchase or to sell. My imagination soon presented to me the latitude to which this design may be extended by integrity and industry, and the advantages which may be justly hoped from a general mart of intelligence, when once its reputation shall be so established, that neither reproach nor fraud shall be feared from it: when an application to it shall not be censured as the last resource of desperation, nor its informations suspected as the fortuitous suggestions of men obliged not to appear ignorant. A place where every exuberance may be discharged, and every deficiency supplied; where every lawful passion may find its gratifications, and every honest curiosity receive satisfaction; where the stock of a nation, pecuniary and intellectual, may be brought together, and where all conditions of humanity may hope to find relief, pleasure, and accommodation; must equally deserve the attention of the merchant and philosopher, of him who mingles in the tumult of business, and him who only lives to amuse himself with the various employments and pursuits of others. Nor will it be an uninstructing school to the greatest masters of method and dispatch, if such multiplicity can be preserved from embarrassment, and such tumult from inaccuracy.
While I was concerting this splendid project, and filling my thoughts with its regulation, its conveniences, its variety, and its consequences, I sunk gradually into slumber; but the same images, though less distinct, still continued to float upon my fancy. I perceived myself at the gate of an immense edifice, where innumerable multitudes were passing without confusion; every face on which I fixed my eyes, seemed settled in the contemplation of some important purpose, and every foot was hastened by eagerness and expectation. I followed the crowd without knowing whither I should be drawn, and remained a while in the unpleasing state of an idler, where all other beings were busy, giving place every moment to those who had more importance in their looks. Ashamed to stand ignorant, and afraid to ask questions, at last I saw a lady sweeping by me, whom, by the quickness of her eyes, the agility of her steps, and a mixture of levity and impatience, I knew to be my long-loved protectress, Curiosity. “Great goddess,” said I, “may thy votary be permitted to implore thy favour; if thou hast been my directress from the first dawn of reason, if I have followed thee through the maze of life with invariable fidelity, if I have turned to every new call, and quitted at thy nod one pursuit for another, if I have never stopped at the invitations of fortune, nor forgot thy authority in the bowers of pleasure, inform me now whither chance has conducted me.”
“Thou art now,” replied the smiling power, “in the presence of Justice, and of Truth, whom the father of gods and men has sent down to register the demands and pretentions of mankind, that the world may at last be reduced to order, and that none may complain hereafter of being doomed to tasks for which they are unqualified, of possessing faculties for which they cannot find employment, or virtues that languish unobserved for want of opportunities to exert them, of being encumbered with superfluities which they would willingly resign, or of wasting away in desires which ought to be satisfied. Justice is now to examine every man’s wishes, and Truth is to record them; let us approach, and observe the progress of this great transaction.”
She then moved forward, and Truth, who knew her among the most faithful of her followers, beckoned her to advance, till we were placed near the seat of Justice. The first who required the assistance of the office, came forward with a slow pace, and tumour of dignity, and shaking a weighty purse in his hand, demanded to be registered by Truth, as the Mæcenas of the present age, the chief encourager of literary merit, to whom men of learning and wit might apply in any exigence or distress with certainty of succour. Justice very mildly inquired, whether he had calculated the expense of such a declaration? whether he had been informed what number of petitioners would swarm about him? whether he could distinguish idleness and negligence from calamity, ostentation from knowledge, or vivacity from wit? To these questions he seemed not well provided with a reply, but repeated his desire to be recorded as a patron. Justice then offered to register his proposal on these conditions, that he should never suffer himself to be flattered; that he should never delay an audience when he had nothing to do; and that he should never encourage followers without intending to reward them. These terms were too hard to be accepted; for what, said he, is the end of patronage, but the pleasure of reading dedications, holding multitudes in suspense, and enjoying their hopes, their fears, and their anxiety, flattering them to assiduity, and, at last, dismissing them for impatience? Justice heard his confession, and ordered his name to be posted upon the gate among cheats and robbers, and publick nuisances, which all were by that notice warned to avoid.
Another required to be made known as the discoverer of a new art of education, by which languages and sciences might be taught to all capacities, and all inclinations, without fear of punishment, pain or confinement, loss of any part of the gay mein of ignorance, or any obstruction of the necessary progress in dress, dancing, or cards.
Justice and Truth did not trouble this great adept with many inquiries; but finding his address awkward and his speech barbarous, ordered him to be registered as a tall fellow who wanted employment, and might serve in any post where the knowledge of reading and writing was not required.
A man of very grave and philosophick aspect, required notice to be given of his intention to set out, a certain day, on a submarine voyage, and of his willingness to take in passengers for no more than double the price at which they might sail above water. His desire was granted, and he retired to a convenient stand, in expectation of filling his ship, and growing rich in a short time by the secrecy, safety, and expedition of the passage.
Another desired to advertise the curious, that he had, for the advancement of true knowledge, contrived an optical instrument, by which those who laid out their industry on memorials of the changes of the wind, might observe the direction of the weather-cocks on the hitherside of the lunar world.
Another wished to be known as the author of an invention, by which cities or kingdoms might be made warm in winter by a single fire, a kettle, and pipe. Another had a vehicle by which a man might bid defiance to floods, and continue floating in an inundation, without any inconvenience, till the water should subside. Justice considered these projects as of no importance but to their authors, and therefore scarcely condescended to examine them: but Truth refused to admit them into the register.
Twenty different pretenders came in one hour to give notice of an universal medicine, by which all diseases might be cured or prevented, and life protracted beyond the age of Nestor. But Justice informed them, that one universal medicine was sufficient, and she would delay the notification till she saw who could longest preserve his own life.
A thousand other claims and offers were exhibited and examined. I remarked, among this mighty multitude, that, of intellectual advantages, many had great exuberance, and few confessed any want; of every art there were a hundred professors for a single pupil; but of other attainments, such as riches, honours, and preferments, I found none that had too much, but thousands and ten thousands that thought themselves entitled to a larger dividend.
It often happened, that old misers, and women married at the close of life, advertised their want of children; nor was it uncommon for those who had a numerous offspring, to give notice of a son or daughter to be spared; but, though appearances promised well on both sides, the bargain seldom succeeded; for they soon lost their inclination to adopted children, and proclaimed their intentions to promote some scheme of publick charity: a thousand proposals were immediately made, among which they hesitated till death precluded the decision.
As I stood looking on this scene of confusion, Truth condescended to ask me, what was my business at her office? I was struck with the unexpected question, and awaked by my efforts to answer it.