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I like better the repartee of Antipater the Cyrenaic, when
women were condoling with him for his blindness : “What !” says he, “ do you think there are no pleasures in the dark ?”
“Nothing can be more destructive," says Fontenelle, “to ambition, and the passion for conquest, than the true system of astronomy. What a poor thing is even the whole globe in comparison of the infinite extent of Nature ?” This consideration is evidently too distant ever to have any effect. Or, if it had any, would it not destroy patriotism as well as ambition? The same gallant author adds, with some reason, that the bright eyes of the ladies are the only objects which lose nothing of their luster or value from the most extensive views of astronomy, but stand proof against every system. Would philosophers advise us to limit our affections to them?
“Exile," says Plutarch to a friend in banishment, “is no evil: mathematicians tell us that the whole earth is but a point, compared to the heavens. To change one's country, then, is little more than to remove from one street to another. Man is not a plant, rooted in a certain spot of earth : all soils and all climates are like suited to him." These topics are admirable, could they fall only into the hands of banished persons. But what if they come also to the knowledge of those who are employed in public affairs, and destroy all their attachment to their native country? Or will they operate like the quack's medicine, which is equally good for a diabetes and a dropsy?
It is certain, were a superior being thrust into a human body, that the whole of life would to him appear so mean, contemptible, and puerile, that he never could be induced to take part in anything, and would scarcely give attention to what passes around him. To engage him to such a condescension as to play even the part of a Philip with zeal and alacrity, would be much more difficult than to constrain the same Philip, after having been a king and a conqueror during fifty years, to mend old shoes with proper care and attention ; the occupation which Lucian assigns him in the infernal regions. Now all the same topics of disdain towards human affairs, which could operate on this supposed being, occur also to a philosopher; but being, in some measure, disproportioned to human capacity, and not being fortified by the experience of anything better, they make not a full impression on him. He sees, but he feels not sufficiently their truth: and is always a
sublime philosopher, when he needs not; that is, as long as nothing disturbs him, or rouses his affections. While others play, he wonders at their keenness and ardor; but he no sooner puts in his own stake than he is commonly transported with the same passions that he had so much condemned while he remained a simple spectator.
I shall conclude this subject with observing that, though virtue be undoubtedly the best choice, when it is attainable; yet such is the disorder and confusion of human affairs that no perfect or regular distribution of happiness and misery is ever, in this life, to be expected. Not only the goods of fortune, and the endowments of the body (both of which are important), not only these advantages, I say, are unequally divided between the virtuous and vicious, but even the mind itself partakes, in some degree, of this disorder; and the most worthy character, by the very constitution of the passions, enjoys not always the highest felicity.
It is observable that though every bodily pain proceeds from some disorder in the part or organ, yet the pain is not always proportioned to the disorder, but is greater or less, according to the greater or less sensibility of the part upon which the noxious humors exert their influence. A toothache produces more violent convulsions of pain than a phthisis or a.dropsy. In like manner, with regard to the economy of the mind, we may observe that all vice is indeed pernicious; yet the disturbance or pain is not measured out by nature with exact proportion to the degrees of vice; nor is the man of highest virtue, even abstracting from external accidents, always the most happy. A gloomy and melancholy disposition is certainly, to our sentimer a vice or imperfection ; but as it may be accompanied with great sense of honor and great integrity, it may be found in very worthy characters, though it is sufficient alone to imbitter life, and render the person affected with it completely miserable. On the other hand, a selfish villain may possess a spring and alacrity of temper, a certain gayety of heart, which is indeed a good quality, but which is rewarded much beyond its merit, and when attended with good fortune will compensate for the uneasiness and remorse arising from all the other vices.
I shall add, as an observation to the same purpose, that, if a man be liable to a vice or imperfection, it may often happen that a good quality, which he possesses along with it, will
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render him more miserable than if he were completely vicious. A person of such imbecility of temper as to be easily broken by affliction is more unhappy for being endowed with a generous and friendly disposition, which gives him a lively concern for others, and exposes him the more to fortune and accidents. A sense of shame, in an imperfect character, is certainly a virtue ; but produces great uneasiness and remorse, from which the abandoned villain is entirely free. A very amorous complexion, with a heart incapable of friendship, is happier than the same excess in love, with a generosity of temper, which transports a man beyond himself, and renders him a total slave to the object of his passion.
In a word, human life is more governed by fortune than by reason : is to be regarded more as a dull pastime than a serious occupation; and is more influenced by particular humor than by general principles. Shall we engage ourselves in it with passion and anxiety? It is not worthy of so much concern. Shall we be indifferent about what happens ? We lose all the pleasure of the game by our phlegm and carelessness. While we are reasoning concerning life, life is gone ; and death, though perhaps they receive him differently, yet treats alike the fool and the philosopher. To reduce life to exact rule and method is commonly a painful, oft a fruitless, occupation : and is it not also a proof that we overvalue the prize for which we contend ?
BY ROBERT BLAIR.
(ROBERT BLAIR was born probably in Edinburgh about 1700, educated at the University, traveled on the Continent, became a clergyman in 1731, and spent the rest of his life — till 1746 — in one pastorate. Of his poems, only this is remembered : it was illustrated by William Blake.]
DULL grave — thou spoil'st the dance of youthful blood,
To clapping theaters and shouting crowds,
Where are the mighty thunderbolts of war?
Death's shafts fly thick:- Here falls the village-swain, And there his pampered lord. - The cup goes round:
And who so artful as to put it by! 'Tis long since death had the majority; Yet strange! the living lay it not to heart. See yonder maker of the dead man's bed, The Sexton, hoary-headed chronicle,
Of hard unmeaning face, down which ne'er stole
On this side, and on that, men see their friends
sweep us in.