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Joseph Joubert (1754–1824). Joubert: A Selection from His Thoughts. 1899.

Chapter XV.

Of Customs and Habits, both Public and Private, and the Character of Nations

[1]THERE are some manners and customs which belong to human nature, and will always be found everywhere. It is said of this or that custom that it is Greek, Roman, or barbarous; for my part, I say that it is human, and that men contrive and invent it wherever the need for it arises.

[2]If we would know everything that is worthy of imitation, we must devote some of our study and observation to legends. What is marvellous in the lives of the Saints is not their miracles, but their manner of life. Disbelieve their miracles, if you like, but at least believe in their lives, for nothing is better attested.

[3]The human race, taken as a whole, is a moving body, ever seeking to find its level.

[4]One should be a pebble in the torrent, keep one’s veining, and roll with the stream—without being either solvent or dissolved.

[5]Few men are worthy of experience. The greater part allow it to corrupt them.

[6]To ask of human nature that it should be infallible and incorruptible is to ask of the wind that it should not blow.

[7]The experience of many opinions gives the mind much flexibility, and strengthens it in those that it believes to be the best.

[8]If you are puzzled to know which of two opinions is the truest, choose the most seemly.

[9]Some opinions come from the heart; and whoever has no fixed opinion, has no steadfastness of feeling.

[10]The multitude are capable of virtue, but not of wisdom. More infallible in a question of value than in a question of preference, they can recognise, but they cannot choose. There is more meaning than one would think in the joke against a butcher who, having need of a lawyer, went into the law-courts, and there chose the stoutest.

[11]‘I think as my land thinks,’ said a landowner: a saying full of meaning, that we may apply every day. Some, in fact, think like their land, others like their shops, others like their hammers, and others like their empty purses that long to be filled.

[12]The character of the true bourgeois is to be the peaceful and idle possessor of what he has; he is always pleased with himself, and easily pleased with other people.

[13]In the uneducated classes, the women are superior to the men; in the upper classes, on the contrary, we find the men superior to the women. This is because men are more often rich in acquired virtues, and women in natural virtues.

[14]Men are never—even when the benefits are immense—capable of a constant affection for those who corrupt them.

[15]All luxury corrupts either conduct or taste.

[16]An idea of peace, as well as of intelligence, is associated with study, which makes uncultivated people respect it, and almost envy it as a happiness.

[17]After a soldier’s life, nothing is fine but study, or piety.

[18]When a people that has not much originality wishes to be distinguished in letters, its natural tendency is to throw itself into learning; this is the only way to its end. Nature gives greater patience to the minds that she has made less penetrating.

[19]Everything that corrupts, ferments.

[20]The same cold-bloodedness that makes us say, ‘The State is old, and ought to perish,’ might well make us say, ‘My father is old, and ought to die.’ It is a temper not to be tolerated.

[21]Power is a beauty; it even makes women like old age.

[22]There is a kind of quarrelsomeness in the nature of men and nations. When this spirit of dispute and contention spends itself on trifles, why lament? Those are the happy times. The evil to fear is that which attacks and disturbs what is fundamental in social order.

[23]In politics always let the grumblers have a bone to gnaw.

[24]It seems as though nations love perils, and when they have none, they create them.

[25]From all cries, and from all complaints, a vapour rises; from this vapour a cloud forms; and from this cloud issues lightnings and tempests.

[26]A great bond is set up between nations that have been long at war with one another. War is a kind of commerce that binds together even those whom it divides.

[27]The French are born frivolous; but they are born temperate. Their intelligence is nimble, pleasant, but not imposing. Among them even the wise men seem, in their writings, to be youths.

[28]Apart from family affection, all sustained feeling is impossible to the French.

[29]Newspapers and books are more dangerous in France than elsewhere, because every one there insists on being clever; and those who have no cleverness themselves, always suppose a great deal in the author they are reading, and at once try to think and speak like him.

[30]In France it seems as though people care for the arts, more to criticise them than to enjoy them.

[31]The wind should be tempered and chosen for French heads; for every wind makes them turn.

[32]Frenchmen are more capable than any one else in the world of going mad without losing their heads. They hardly ever make mistakes except on a system, so little are they made for system. Their reason goes more quickly and surely to the point than their reasoning.

[33]In the men of the South wickedness evaporates in words and thoughts. Less subtle and more serious in those of the North, it can only find satisfaction in deeds.

[34]It is a habit among Southern people to say indifferent things with animation and fire. This is because their usual vivacity is a matter of the blood, and not of the soul.

[35]Englishmen are honourable in their private affairs, but dishonourable in the affairs of their country.

[36]The English are brought up in the respect of serious things, and the French in the habit of mocking at them.

[37]In England the parliament is king, and the king minister, but a minister hereditary, perpetual, inviolate. A maimed, one-eyed, limping, one-armed monarch, but an honoured one.

[38]The Spaniards have the same inflation in their feelings that one finds in their books; an inflation all the more deplorable because it covers a real force and grandeur of character. They made themselves odious and criminal by a senseless love of display, and are still suffering to-day from the horror inspired in us by the conquerors of the Indies. Their example should teach other nations to be more careful of the honour of their name, and to keep it spotless; for, in spite of oneself, one applies to individuals, even in the relations of private life, the judgment which one has formed on the manners and general character of their nation.

[39]This is how one might apportion the commerce of nations according to their character. The Spaniard—jeweller, goldsmith, stone-cutter; the Englishman—manufacturer; the German—paper-merchant; the Dutchman—provision-merchant; and the Frenchman—fashion-monger. In navigation, the first is brave, the second clever, the third scientific, the fourth industrious, and the fifth adventurous. It would be well to give a ship a Spanish captain, an English pilot, a German boatswain, and Dutch sailors; the Frenchman sails on his own account.

You must hold out a conquest to the first, an enterprise to the second, research to the third, gain to the fourth, and coup de main to the fifth. The first likes long voyages, the second important, the third useful, the fourth lucrative, and the fifth rapid voyages. The first embarks to go, the second to act, the third to see, the fourth to make a profit, and the fifth to arrive. The sea, in fact, is to the Spaniard a road, to the Englishman a dwelling-place, to the German a study, to the Dutchman a means of transport, to the Frenchman a postchaise.