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N° 537. SATURDAY, NOV. 15, 1712.
It has been usual to remind persons of rank, on great occasions in life, of their race and quality, and to what expectations they were born; that by considering what is worthy of them, they may be withdrawn from mean pursuits, and encouraged to laudable undertakings. This is turning nobility into a principle of virtue, and making it productive of merit, as it is understood to have been originally a reward of it.
It is for the like reason, I imagine, that you have in some of your speculations asserted to your readers the dignity of human nature. But you cannot be insensible that this is a controverted doctrine; there are authors who consider human nature in a very different view, and books of maxims have been written to show the falsity of all human virtues*. The reflexions which are made on this subject usually take some tincture from the tempers and
An allusion to the following book, Reflexions et Maximes Morales de M. le Duc de la Rochefoucault.-Mad. L'Enclos says of him that he had no more belief in virtues than he had in ghosts.
characters of those that make them. Politicians can resolve the most shining actions among men into artifice and design; others, who are soured by discontent, repulses, or ill-usage, are apt to mistake their spleen for philosophy; men of profligate lives, and such as find themselves incapable of rising to any distinction among their fellow-creatures, are for pulling down all appearances of merit which seem to upbraid them; and satirists describe nothing but deformity. From all these hands we have such draughts of mankind, as are represented in those burlesque pictures which the Italians call caricaturas; where the art consists in preserving, amidst distorted proportions and aggravated features, some likeness of the person, but in such a manner as to transform the most agreeable beauty into the most odious monster.
'It is very disingenuous to level the best of mankind with the worst, and for the faults of particulars to degrade the whole species. Such methods tend not only to remove a man's good opinion of others, but to destroy that reverence for himself, which is a great guard of innocence, and a spring of virtue.
It is true indeed, that there are surprising mixtures of beauty and deformity, of wisdom and folly, virtue and vice, in the human make; such a disparity is found among numbers of the same kind. and every individual in some instances, or at some times, is so unequal to himself, that man seems to be the most wavering and inconsistent being in the whole creation. So that the question in morality concerning the dignity of our nature may at first sight appear like some difficult questions in natural philosophy, in which the arguments on both sides seem to be of equal strength. But, as I began with considering this point as it relates to action, I
shall here borrow an admirable reflexion from monsieur Paschal, which I think sets it in its proper light.
"It is of dangerous consequence," says he, "to represent to man how near he is to the level of beasts, without showing him at the same time his greatness. It is likewise dangerous to let him see his greatness without his meanness. It is more
dangerous yet to leave him ignorant of either; but very beneficial that he should be made sensible of both." Whatever imperfections we may have in our nature, it is the business of religion and virtue to rectify them, as far as is consistent with our present state. In the mean time, it is no small encouragement to generous minds to consider, that we shall put them all off with our mortality. That sublime manner of salutation with which the Jews ap. proach their kings,
"O king, live for ever!"
may be addressed to the lowest and most despised mortal among us, under all the infirmities and distresses with which we see him surrounded. And whoever believes the immortality of the soul, will not need a better argument for the dignity of his nature, nor a stronger incitement to actions suitable to it.
'I am naturally led by this reflexion to a subject I have already touched upon in a former letter, and cannot without pleasure call to mind the thoughts of Cicero to this purpose, in the close of his book concerning old age. Every one who is acquainted with his writings will remember that the elder Cato is introduced in that discourse as the speaker, and Scipio and Lelius as his auditors. This venerable person is represented looking forward as it were from the verge of extreme old age into a future state,
and rising into a contemplation on the unperishable part of his nature, and its existence after death. I shall collect part of his discourse. And as you have formerly offered some arguments for the soul's immortality, agreeable both to reason and the Christian doctrine, I believe your readers will not be displeased to see how the same great truth shines in the pomp of Roman eloquence.
"This, says Cato, is my firm persuasion, that since the human soul exerts itself with so great activity; since it has such a remembrance of the past, such a concern for the future; since it is enriched with so many arts, sciences, and discoveries; it is impossible but the Being which contains all these must be immortal.
"The elder Cyrus, just before his death, is represented by Xenophon speaking after this manner: Think not, my dearest children, that when I depart from you I shall be no more; but remember, that my soul, even while I lived among you, was invisible to you; yet by my actions you were sensi ble it existed in this body. Believe it therefore existing still, though it be still unseen. How quickly would the honours of illustrious men perish after death, if their souls performed nothing to preserve their fame! For my own part, I never could think that the soul while in a mortal body lives, but when departed out of it dies: or that its consciousness is lost when it is discharged out of an unconscious habitation. But when it is freed from all corporeal alliance, then it truly exists. Farther, since the human frame is broken by death, tell us what becomes of its parts? It is visible whither the materials of other beings are translated, namely, to the source from whence they had their birth. The soul alone, neither present nor departed, is the object of our eyes.'
"Thus Cyrus. But to proceed:-No one shall persuade me, Scipio, that your worthy father, or your grandfathers Paulus and Africanus, or Africanus his father or uncle, or many other excellent men whom I need not name, performed so many actions to be remembered by posterity, without being sensible that futurity was their right. And, if I may be allowed an old man's privilege to so speak of myself, do you think I would have endured the fatigue of so many wearisome days and nights, both at home and abroad, if I imagined that the same boundary which is set to my life must terminate my glory? Were it not more desirable to have worn out my days in ease and tranquillity, free from labour, and without emulation? But, I know not how, my soul has always raised itself, and looked forward on futurity, in this view and expectation, that when it shall depart out of life it shall then live for ever; and if this were not true, that the mind is immortal, the soul of the most worthy would not above all others have the strongest impulse to glory.
"What besides this is the cause that the wisest men die with the greatest equanimity, the ignorant with the greatest concern? Does it not seem that those minds which have the most extensive views foresee they are removing to a happier condition, which those of a narrow sight do not perceive? I, for my part, am transported with the hope of seeing your ancestors, whom I have honoured and loved; and am earnestly desirous of meeting not only those excellent persons whom I have known, but those too of whom I have heard and read, and of whom I myself have written; nor would I be detained from so pleasing a journey. O happy day, when I shall escape from this crowd, this heap of pollution, and be admitted to that divine assembly of exalted spirits! when I shall go not only to those great persons I