Jean de La Bruyère (1645–1696). Characters. 1885.
Of Society and of Conversation
(1.)A MAN must be very inert to have no character at all.
(2.)A fool is always troublesome, a man of sense perceives when he pleases or is tiresome; he goes away the very minute before it might have been thought he stayed too long.
(3.)Mischievous wags are a kind of insects which are in everybody’s way and plentiful in all countries. Real wit is rarely to be met with, and even if it be innate in a man, it must be very difficult to maintain a reputation for it during any length of time; for, commonly, he that makes us laugh does not stand high in our estimation.
(4.)There are a great many obscene minds, yet more railing and satirical, but very few fastidious ones. A man must have good manners, be very polite, and even have a great deal of originality to be able to jest gracefully and be felicitous in his remarks about trifles; to jest in such a manner and to make something out of nothing is to create.
(5.)If in ordinary conversation we were to pay great attention to every dull, vain, and puerile remark, we should be ashamed to speak or even to listen, and we should perhaps condemn ourselves to a perpetual silence, which would be more injurious to society than idle talk. We must, therefore, accommodate ourselves to all intellects, bear as a necessary evil the spreading of false news, of vague reflections on the Government or on the interests of princes, listen to the enunciation of fine sentiments which are always the same, and even allow Arontius to utter wise saws, and Melinda to speak of herself, her nerves, her headaches, and her want of rest.
(6.)We meet with persons who, in their conversation, or in the little intercourse we have with them, disgust us with their ridiculous expressions, the novelty, and, if I may say so, the impropriety of the phraseology they use, as well as by linking together certain words which never came together but in their mouths, and were never intended by their creators to have the meaning they give to them. In their conversation they neither follow reason nor custom, but only their own eccentricity; and their desire always to jest, and perhaps to shine, gradually changes it into a peculiar sort of dialect which at last becomes natural to them; they accompany this extraordinary language by affected gesticulations and a conceited kind of pronunciation. They are all highly delighted with themselves, and with their pleasant wit, of which, indeed, they are not entirely destitute; but we pity them for the little they have, and, what is worse, we suffer through it.
(7.)What do you say? What? I do not understand you. Will you be kind enough to say it again? I understand you still less. Oh, I guess your meaning at last; you wish to tell me, Acis, that it is cold! Why don’t you say so? You wish to let me know that it rains or snows; say at once that it rains or snows. You think I am looking well, and you wish to congratulate me; say that you think I am looking well. But you’ll reply that it is so plain and clear, anybody might have said it. What does that signify, Acis? Is it so very wrong to be intelligible in speaking, and to speak as everybody does? There is one thing, Acis, which you, and men like you, who utter phébus want very much; you have not the smallest suspicion of it, and I know I am going to surprise you. Do you know what that thing is? It is wit. But that is not all. There is too much of something else in you, which is the opinion that you have more intelligence than other men; this is the cause of all your pompous nonsense, of your mixed-up phraseology, and of all those grand words without any meaning. The next time I find you addressing anybody, or entering a room, I shall pull your coat-tails and whisper to you: “Do not pretend to be witty; be natural, that is better suited to you; use, if you can, plain language, such as those persons speak whom you fancy are without wit; then, perhaps, we may think you have some yourself.”
(8.)Who, that goes into society, can help meeting with certain vain, fickle, familiar, and positive people who monopolise all conversation, and compel every one else to listen to them? They can be heard in the anteroom, and a person may boldly enter without fear of interrupting them; they continue their story without paying the smallest attention to any comers or goers, or to the rank and quality of their audience; they silence a man who begins to tell an anecdote, so that they may tell it themselves according to their fashion, which is the best; they heard it from Zamet, from Ruccellaï, or from Concini, whom they do not know, to whom they never spoke in their lives, and whom they would address as “Your Excellency,” if ever they spoke to any one of them. They sometimes will go up to a man of the highest rank among those who are present, and whisper in his ear some circumstance which nobody else knows, and which they would not have divulged to others for the world; they conceal some names to disguise the anecdote they relate and to prevent the real persons being found out; you ask them to let you have these names, you urge them in vain. There are some things they must not tell, and some persons whom they cannot name; they have given their word of honour not to do so; it is a secret, a mystery of the greatest importance; moreover, you ask an impossibility. You might wish to learn something from them, but they know neither the facts nor the persons.
(9.)Arrias has read and seen everything, at least he would lead you to think so; he is a man of universal knowledge, or pretends to be, and would rather tell a falsehood than be silent or appear to ignore anything. Some person is talking at meal-time in the house of a man of rank of a northern court; he interrupts and prevents him telling what he knows; he goes hither and thither in that distant country as if he were a native of it; he discourses about the habits of its court, the native women, the laws and customs of the land; he tells many little stories which happened there, thinks them very entertaining, and is the first to laugh loudly at them. Somebody presumes to contradict him, and clearly proves to him that what he says is untrue. Arrias is not disconcerted; on the contrary, he grows angry at the interruption, and exclaims: “I aver and relate nothing but what I know on excellent authority; I had it from Sethon, the French ambassador at that court, who only a few days ago came back to Paris, and is a particular friend of mine; I asked him several questions, and he replied to them all without concealing anything.” He continues his story with greater confidence than he began it, till one of the company informs him that the gentleman whom he has been contradicting was Sethon himself, but lately arrived from his embassy.
(10.)In conversation there is a middle course between a certain backwardness in speaking or a kind of incogitancy which leads us to wander away from the subject under discussion, so as to make us ask untimely questions or return silly answers, and between paying too great attention to the least word said, in order to improve upon it, to joke about it, to discover in it some mystery hidden to all others, to find something shrewd and subtle in it, only to have an opportunity of showing how clever we are.
(11.)Any one who is infatuated with himself and quite convinced he is very clever, only shows that he has but very little intelligence or none at all. It is a misfortune for a man to listen to the conversation of such a person. What a great many affected phrases he has to endure! How many of those fanciful words which appear of a sudden, live for a short time, and then are never heard again! If such a person relates some trifling event, it is not so much to give some information to his hearers, as merely for the honour of telling it and of telling it cleverly. He amplifies it till it becomes a romance; he makes the people connected with it think as he does; he puts his own trivial expressions in their mouths, and renders them, like himself, very talkative; he falls then into some parentheses which may pass for episodes, and by which speaker and hearers forget what the story really was about. It is difficult to say what might have become of them, had not somebody fortunately come in to break up the company and put an end to the narrative.
(12.)Theodectes is heard in the anteroom; the nearer he comes the more he raises his voice; he enters, he laughs, he shouts, he vociferates; everybody stops his ears; he is a mere thunderer, and no less to be dreaded for what he says as for the loud tone in which he speaks. He becomes quiet and less boisterous only to stammer out some idle talk and some nonsense. So little regard has he for time, individuals, or decency, that he offends every one without intending it; before he has taken a seat he has already insulted the whole company. When dinner is served, he is the first to sit down, and always in the place of honour; the ladies are to the right and left of him, but he eats, drinks, talks, banters, and interrupts every one at the same time; he has no respect for any one, neither for master nor guests, and takes advantage of the foolish way they look up to him. Is it he or Euthydemes who is the host? He assumes all authority while at dinner; and it is better to give way to him than to quarrel with him about it. Neither eating nor drinking improve his temper. If some gambling is going on, and if he wins, he banters his antagonist and insults him; the laughers are on his side, and there is no sort of folly they do not overlook in him. At last I leave him and go away, unable to bear any longer with Theodectes and those who bear with him.
(13.)Troïlus is useful to those who have too much wealth; he eases them of their onerous superfluity, and saves them the trouble of hoarding up money, of making contracts, locking trunks, carrying keys about, and of dreading to be robbed by servants. He assists them in their pleasures, and afterwards is able to serve them in their passions; in a short time he regulates and dictates their conduct; he is the oracle of the house, whose decisions are anxiously expected, nay, even anticipated and surmised; he orders a slave to be punished, and he is flogged; another to be freed, and he is set at liberty. If a parasite does not make him laugh, he perhaps does not please him, and therefore must be dismissed. The master of the house may consider himself lucky if Troïlus leaves him his wife and children. If at table he declares that a certain dish is excellent, the master and the guests, who did not pay much attention to it, find it also excellent, and cannot eat enough of it; if, on the contrary, he says of some other dish that it is insipid, those who were just beginning to enjoy it dare not swallow the piece they had in their mouths, but throw it on the floor; every eye is on him, and every one observes his looks and his countenance before giving an opinion on the wine or the dishes before them. Do not look for him anywhere else but in the house of an opulent man, whose adviser he is; there he eats, sleeps, digests his food, quarrels with his servant, gives audience to those whom he employs, and puts off his creditors; he lays down the law in the drawing-room, and receives there the adulation and homage of those persons, who, more cunning than the rest, only wish to curry favour with the master through Troïlus’ intercession. If any one enters who is unfortunate enough to have a countenance which Troïlus does not like, he frowns and turns away his head; if a stranger accosts him, he sits still, and if the latter sits down close to him, he leaves his seat; if he talks to him, he does not reply, and if he continues to speak, Troïlus stalks away into another chamber; if the stranger follows him, he makes for the stairs, and would rather climb from one storey to another or throw himself out of a window, than encounter a man whose face and voice he dislikes. Both are very charming in Troïlus, and he has turned them to good account to insinuate himself or to overcome a difficulty. At last he considers everything unworthy of his attention, and he scorns to keep his position or to continue to please by exercising any of those talents by which he first brought himself into notice. It is a condescension if sometimes he leaves off his musings and his taciturnity to contradict, and deigns once a day to show his wit, though only to criticise. Do not expect him to listen to what you may have to say, to be courteous, or to commend you, for you are not even sure that he will permit you to approve him, or allow you to be polite.
(14.)Do not interrupt a stranger whom you meet by chance in a stage-coach, at an entertainment, or at any public exhibition; and if you listen to him, it will not be long before you’ll know who he is; he’ll tell you his name, his residence, his native country, what his property is worth, his position, and his father’s, his mother’s family, his kindred, his family connections, and even his coat-of-arms; for he will soon let you know that he is nobly born, and that he has a castle beautifully furnished, a suitable retinue, and a carriage.
(15.)Some men speak one moment before they think; others tediously study everything they say, and in conversation bore us as painfully as was the travail of their mind; they are, as it were, made up of phrases and quaint expressions, whilst their gestures are as affected as their behaviour. They call themselves “purists,” and do not venture to say the most trifling word not in use, however expressive it may be. Nothing comes from them worth remembering, nothing is spontaneous and unrestrained; they speak correctly, but they are very tiresome.
(16.)The true spirit of conversation consists more in bringing out the cleverness of others than in showing a great deal of it yourself; he who goes away pleased with himself and his own wit is also greatly pleased with you. Most men rather please than admire you; they seek less to be instructed, and even to be amused, than to be praised and applauded; the most delicate of pleasures is to please another person.
(17.)Too much imagination is to be avoided in our conversation and in our writings, as it often gives rise to idle and puerile ideas, neither tending to perfect our taste nor to improve our conduct. Our thoughts should originate from sound sense and reasoning, and always be the result of our judgment.
(18.)It is a sad thing when men have neither enough intelligence to speak well nor enough sense to hold their tongues; this is the root of all impertinence.
(19.)To say simply that a certain thing is good or bad, and to state the reasons for its being so, requires some common-sense and power of expression, which is not so easily found. A much shorter way is to give one’s opinion peremptorily, which is a convincing proof a man is right in his statement, namely, that the thing is execrable or wonderful.
(20.)Nothing is more displeasing to Heaven and to men than to confirm everything said in conversation, and even the most trifling subjects, with long and disgusting oaths. Whether a gentleman merely says “Yes” or “No,” he deserves to be believed; his reputation swears for him, adds weight to his words, and obtains for him every confidence.
(21.)He who continually affirms he is a man of honour and honest as well, that he wrongs no man but wishes the harm he has done to others to fall on himself, and raps out an oath to be believed, does not even know how to imitate an honest man.
An honest man, with all his modesty, cannot prevent people saying of him what a dishonest man says of himself.
(22.)Cléon talks always rather rudely or inaccurately; he does either the one or the other; but he says he cannot help it, and that it is his natural disposition to speak just as he thinks.
(23.)There are such things as to speak well, to speak easily, to speak correctly, and to speak seasonably. We offend against the last way of speaking if we mention a sumptuous entertainment we have just been present at before people who have not had enough to eat; if we boast of our good health before invalids; if we talk of our riches, our income, and our fine furniture to a man who has not so much as an income or a dwelling; in a word, if we speak of our prosperity before people who are wretched; such a conversation is too much for them, and the comparison which they then make between their condition and ours is very painful.
(24.)“As for you,” says Euthyphron, “you are rich, or ought to be so, for you have a yearly income of ten thousand livres, all from land. I think that glorious! charming! and a man could be happy with much less.” The person who talks in this fashion has fifty thousand livres a year, and thinks he has not half what he deserves. He settles what you’ll have to pay, values what you are worth, determines what you have to spend; and if he thought you deserved a better fortune, and even such a one as he himself aspires to, he would be certain to wish it to you. He is not the only man who makes such wretched estimations or such odious comparisons; the world is full of Euthyphrons.
(25.)A person inclined to the usual flattery, and accustomed to praise and exaggeration, congratulates Theodemus on a sermon he did not hear, and of which no one had, as yet, given him an account. He extols his genius, his delivery, and, above all, his excellent memory, when, in truth, Theodemus had stopped short in the middle of his sermon, and had forgotten what he wished to say.
(26.)Some abrupt, restless, conceited men, who are unemployed, and have no manner of business to call them away, will dismiss you from their presence in a few words, and only think to get rid of you; you are still speaking to them, and they are already gone and have disappeared. They are as impertinent as those people who stop you only to bore you; but the former are perhaps less irksome.
(27.)To speak and to offend is with some people but one and the same thing; they are biting and bitter; their words are steeped in gall and wormwood; sneers as well as insolent and insulting remarks flow from their lips. It had been well for them had they been born mute or stupid; the little vivacity and intelligence they have prejudices them more than dulness does others; they are not always satisfied with giving sharp answers, they often attack arrogantly those who are present, and damage the reputation of those who are absent; they butt all round like rams, for rams, of course, must use their horns. We therefore do not expect, by our sketch of them, to change such coarse, restless, and stubborn individuals. The best thing a man can do is to take to his heels as soon as he perceives them, without even turning round to look behind him.
(28.)There are persons of such a disposition or character that a man ought never to be compromised with them; of such persons he should complain as little as possible, and not even be permitted to vanquish them in arguments.
(29.)When two persons have had a violent quarrel, of whom one is in the right and the other is in the wrong, the bystanders, for fear of being appealed to, or through a certain frowardness which always seemed to me ill-timed, condemn both. This is an important lesson, and a weighty and necessary reason for going away, even when a coxcomb is seen in quite another direction, so as to avoid sharing in his disgrace.
(30.)I hate a man whom I cannot accost or salute before he bows to me, without debasing myself in his eyes, or sharing in the good opinion he has of himself. Montaigne would say: “I will have elbow-room: I will be courteous and affable according to my fancy, without fear or remorse. I cannot strive against my inclination nor go contrary to my disposition, which leads me to address myself to every one whom I meet. If such a person is my equal and not my enemy, I anticipate his courtesy; I ask him about his temper and his health, I offer him my services without any haggling, and am not always on my guard, as some people say. That man displeases me who by my knowledge of his habits and behaviour deprives me of such liberty and freedom. How should I remember, as soon as I see him afar off, to put on a grave and important look, and to let him know that I think I am as good as he, and better? To do this I must call to mind all my good qualities and points, and his bad ones, so as to compare them together. This is too much trouble for me, and I am not at all able of showing such an abrupt and sudden presence of mind; even if I had been successful at first, I am sure I should give way and lose my head a second time, for I cannot put any restraint on myself nor assume a certain haughtiness for any man.”
(31.)We may be virtuous, intelligent, and well-behaved, and yet be unbearable. By our manners, which we consider of no consequence, the world often forms either a good or a bad opinion of us; a little care to appear obliging and polite will prevent its condemning us. The least thing is enough to make people believe that we are proud, impolite, haughty, and disobliging; but, on the other hand, still less is needed to make them esteem us.
(32.)Politeness does not always produce kindness of heart, justice, complacency, or gratitude, but it gives to a man at least the appearance of it, and makes him seem externally what he really should be.
We may define all the essentials of politeness, but we cannot determine how and where they should be used; they depend on ordinary habits and customs, are connected with times and places, and are not the same in both sexes nor in different ranks of life; intelligence alone cannot find this out; politeness is acquired and perfected by imitation. Only some persons are naturally disposed to be polite, as others are in acquiring great talents and solid virtue. Politeness tends, undoubtedly, to advance merit and to render it agreeable; a man must have very eminent qualities to hold his own without being polite.
The very essence of politeness seems to be to take care that by our words and actions we make other people pleased with us as well as with themselves.
(33.)It is an offence against politeness to bestow excessive praise on a person’s singing or playing before any other who has sung or played for you, or to commend another poet in the presence of those who have read you their verses.
(34.)A man may be giving entertainments and feasts to certain persons, may make them presents, and let them enjoy themselves, and he may do this well; but he will do much better by acting according to their inclinations.
(35.)It is more or less rude to scorn indiscriminately all kinds of praise; we ought to be proud of that which comes from honest men, who praise sincerely those things in us which are really commendable.
(36.)An intelligent man, who is naturally proud, abates nothing of his pride and haughtiness because he is poor; on the contrary, if anything will mollify him and make him more pliant and sociable, it is a little prosperity.
(37.)Not to be able to bear with all bad-tempered people with whom the world is crowded, shows that a man has not a good temper himself: small change is as necessary in business as golden coin.
(38.)To live with people who have been quarrelling and to whose complaints you have to listen, is like being in a court of justice from morning till night listening to pleadings and lawsuits.
(39.)Two persons had all their lives been very intimate with one another; their incomes were in common, they lived together, and were never out of one another’s sight. After fourscore years they thought it was time to part and put an end to their intimacy; they had then but one day to live, and dared not attempt to pass it together: they hastened to break before death, as their complacency would hold out no longer. They would have been good models had they not lived so long, for had they died one moment sooner, they still would have been good friends and have left behind them a rare example of perseverance in friendship.
(40.)Families are often disturbed by mistrust, jealousy, and antipathy, while outwardly they seem happy, peaceable, and cheerful, and we suppose they enjoy a tranquillity which does not exist; there are very few who can bear investigation. The visit you pay only interrupts a domestic quarrel which awaits but your departure to break out afresh.
(41.)In all societies common-sense always gives way first. The most sensible people often are swayed by a most foolish and eccentric personage; they study his weakness, his temper, his fancies, and put up with them; they avoid thwarting him, and everybody gives him his way; when his countenance betrays he is cheerful, he is commended; they are grateful to him for not being always insufferable; he is feared, considered, obeyed, and sometimes beloved.
(42.)None but those persons who have had aged relatives, or those who have them still, and whose heirs they may become, can tell what they had, or have now, to endure.
(43.)Cleantes is a very worthy man; he has taken unto himself a wife, who is the best and most sensible person in the world; both, in their ways, are the life and soul of the company they keep; a more straightforward and more polite behaviour than theirs is nowhere to be met with. They are to part to-morrow, and the deed of separation is already drawn up at the lawyer’s. Surely they must possess certain merits which do not harmonise together and certain virtues which are incompatible.
(44.)A man may be sure of the dowry, the jointure, and his marriage settlements, but scarcely of the contract the parents have entered upon to board and lodge the young couple for a certain time; for that depends on the frail harmony between the mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law, which often ends the first year of the marriage.
(45.)A father-in-law loves both his son and daughter-in-law, a mother-in-law her son and not her daughter-in-law; the latter pays her back in her own coin.
(46.)What a step-mother loves the least in the wide world are her husband’s children; the fonder she is of her husband the worse step-mother she shows herself.
Step-mothers make of towns and villages complete deserts, and stock the country with more beggars, vagrants, servants, and slaves, than poverty does.
(47.)G… and H… are neighbours, living in the country; their lands are contiguous; they dwell in a secluded and solitary spot. Far from towns and all intercourse with men, we might have thought that the dread of being completely estranged from the world and from all society should have kept up their mutual intimacy; but it is difficult to say what trifling circumstance has caused their being at variance, renders them implacable, and transmits their hatred to their descendants. Relatives, or even brothers, never quarrelled about a thing of less consequence.
Suppose there were but two men on this habitable globe, the sole possessors of it, who should divide it between them, even then I am convinced that soon some cause of disagreement would spring up, though it were only about boundaries.
(48.)It is often easier as well as more advantageous to conform ourselves to other men’s opinions than to bring them over to ours.
(49.)I am now approaching a little town, and I am already on a hill whence I discover it. It is built on a slope, a river washes its walls and then meanders through a lovely meadow; a dense forest shelters it from cold winds and northern blasts. The weather is so bright that I can count its towers and steeples, and it seems, as it were, painted on the slope of the hill. I exclaim: “How agreeable must it be to dwell underneath such a pure sky and in such a delightful abode!” I enter the town, and have not spent there above two or three nights when I feel I am just like its inhabitants; I long to get away from it.
(50.)There is a certain thing which has never yet been seen under the canopy of heaven, and, in all likelihood, never will be: it is a small town without various parties, where all the families are united and all relations visit one another without reserve, where a marriage does not engender a civil war, where there are no disputes about precedence at the offertory, the carrying of the censer, or the giving of a cake to the church to be consecrated and distributed during mass, as well as about processions and funerals: whence gossiping, falsehoods, and slandering are banished; where the bailli and the president of the court, the élus and the assesseurs are on speaking terms together; where the dean is well with the canons, the canons do not disdain the choristers, and the choristers bear with the singing-boys.
(51.)Country people and fools are apt to get angry, and to fancy you make fun of them or despise them. You should never venture on the most innocent and inoffensive joke, unless it be with people of culture or intelligence.
(52.)A man should not pretend to show his talents in the society of men of rank; their very rank forbids it; nor with people of inferior degree who repel you by being always on their guard.
(53.)Men of merit discover, discern, and find out each other reciprocally; he who would be esteemed should frequent persons who are themselves estimable.
(54.)He who is of so lofty a rank as to be above repartee, ought never to joke in a racy kind of way.
(55.)There are some little failings which we freely abandon to censure, and about which we do not dislike being bantered; when we banter others we should select failings of the same kind.
(56.)It is a fool’s privilege to laugh at an intelligent man; he is in society what a jester is at court—of no consequence whatever.
(57.)Banter is often a proof of want of intelligence.
(58.)You fancy a man your dupe, but if he only pretends to be so, who is the greatest dupe, you or he?
(59.)If you observe carefully those people who praise nobody, who are always finding fault, and are never satisfied with any one, you will discover them to be persons with whom nobody is satisfied.
(60.)The proud and disdainful will find precisely in society the contrary of what they expect, which is to be esteemed.
(61.)The pleasure of social intercourse amongst friends is kept up by a similarity of morals and manners, and by slender differences in opinion about science; this confirms us in our sentiments, exercises our faculties or instructs us through arguments.
(62.)Two persons will not be friends long if they are not inclined to pardon each other’s little failings.
(63.)How many fine and useless arguments are laid before a person in great affliction to attempt to soothe him! Things from without which we call events are sometimes too strong for arguments and nature. Eat, drink, do not kill yourself with grief, think only to live, are magnificent admonitions, and impracticable as well. If we say to a man that it is not wise to unsettle his mind so much, do we not tell him in reality that he is a fool for being so unfortunate?
(64.)Advice which is necessary in all matters of business, is sometimes hurtful in social affairs to those who give it, and useless to the persons to whom it is given. You observe, perhaps, faults in manners and morals which are either not acknowledged, or, perhaps, considered virtues; you blot out some passages in a composition which please the author the most, and in which he thinks he has surpassed himself. By those means you lose the confidence of your friend without making him better or wiser.
(65.)Not long since certain persons of both sexes formed a society for intellectual conversation and interchange of ideas. They left to the vulgar herd the art of talking intelligibly; an expression used by them, and which was not very clear, was followed by another still more obscure, which was improved on by others still more enigmatic, which were always crowned with prolonged applause, so that at last, by what they were pleased to call refinements, sentiments, turn and delicacy of expression, they succeeded in becoming unintelligible to others and to themselves. Common-sense, judgment, memory, or the smallest capacity were unnecessary in their conversation; all that was wanted was a certain amount of intellect, and that not of the right sort, but of a spurious kind, and in which imagination was too predominant.
(66.)I know it, Theobaldus, you have grown old; but would you have me think you decline, that you are no longer a poet nor a wit, that you are now as bad a critic of all kind of writings as you are a wretched author, and that your conversation is neither ingenuous nor refined? Your careless and conceited behaviour reassures me, and convinces me of my error. You are the same to-day as you ever were, and perhaps better; for if you are so brisk and vivacious at your age, what name, Theobaldus, did you deserve in your youth, when you were the pet and the caprice of certain ladies who only swore by you, believed every word you uttered, and then exclaimed, “It is delightful! What has he said?”
(67.)We frequently speak hastily in conversation, often through vanity and natural inclination, seldom with the necessary caution, and only anxious to reply to what we have not heard; we follow our own ideas, and explain them without the smallest deference for other men’s arguments; we are very far from finding out the truth, as we are not yet agreed upon what we are looking for. If any man could hear such conversations and write them down, he would now and then find many good things said without the smallest result.
(68.)Some time ago a sort of insipid and puerile conversation was in fashion, which turned on trivial questions about the affections, and what people please to call passion or tenderness. The reading of some novels first introduced this talk amongst the most gentlemanly men in town and at court, but they soon discarded it, and then the citizens took it up, as well as puns and plays on words.
(69.)Some city ladies are so refined that they do not know or dare not pronounce the names of streets, squares, and public places, which they think are not noble enough to be known. They speak of the Louvre, the Place Royale, but they use certain circumlocutions and phrases rather than mention some names; and if, by chance, such a word escapes them, it is not without some alteration, and after some changes which reassure them; they are less natural in this than the ladies at court, who, when they have occasion to speak of the Halles, the Châtelet, or the like, simply say the Halles or the Châtelet.
(70.)If people pretend sometimes not to remember certain names which they think obscure, and affect to spoil them in the pronunciation, it is through the good opinion they have of their own names.
(71.)When we are in a good temper, and when we can talk as we like, we often say silly things, which, in truth, we do not pretend to be anything else, and which are considered very good, because they are very bad. This inferior kind of joking, fit only for the mob, has already infected a great part of the youth at court. It is true we need not fear it will spread further, for it is really too insipid and coarse to thrive in a country which is the centre of good taste and politeness. However, it should be rendered distasteful to those who employ it, for though it is never used seriously, yet it continually takes the place of better things in their mind and in their ordinary conversation.
(72.)Between saying bad things or saying such good things which everybody knows, and pretending they are quite new, there is so little difference that I do not know which to choose.
(73.)“Lucanus has said a pretty thing. There is a fine expression in Claudianus. There is a certain passage in Seneca;” and then follow a good many Latin words, often quoted before people who do not know what they mean, though they pretend to understand them. The right thing would be to have sense and intelligence ourselves, for then we might dispense with the ancients, or after having read them carefully, we might still select the best and quote them pertinently.
(74.)Hermagoras knows not who is king of Hungary, and wonders that no one talks about the king of Bohemia. Speak not to him of the wars in Flanders or in Holland, or, at least, you must excuse him from answering any questions about them; he mixes up all dates; he neither knows when they began nor ended; battles and sieges are all new to him; but he is very well read in the Titans’ war, and can tell you its progress and the most trifling details; nothing has escaped him; he unravels in the same way the horrible chaos of the Babylonian and Assyrian monarchies; he knows intimately the Egyptians and their dynasties. He never saw Versailles, nor ever will; but he has almost seen the tower of Babel, and counted its steps; he has found out how many architects were employed about that building, and even has their names at his fingers’ ends. He believes Henri IV. to be a son of Henri III., and neglects to know anything about the reigning houses of France, Austria, and Bavaria. He asks what is the use of studying such trifles; but he can quote to you all the kings of Media and Babylon, and the names of Apronal, Herigebal, Noesnemordach, and Mardokampad are to him as familiar as those of Valois and Bourbon are to us. He has yet to learn that the Emperor is married, but he can tell you that Ninus had two wives. He hears the king enjoys perfect health, and this reminds him that Thetmosis, a king of Egypt, was a valetudinarian, and that he inherited this disposition from his grandfather, Alipharmutosis. What does he not know? What in all venerable antiquity is hid from him? He will tell you that Semiramis, or, as some call her, Serimaris, spoke so much like her son Ninyas, that their voices could not be distinguished from one another; but he dare not decide whether the mother had a manly voice like her son, or the son an effeminate voice like his mother; he will confide to you that Nimrod was left-handed, and Sesostris ambidexter; that it is an error to imagine one of the Artaxerxes was called Longimanus because his arms reached down to his knees, and not because one of his hands was longer than the other; he adds that though some grave authors affirm that it was his right hand, he has good grounds to maintain it was the left hand.
(75.)Ascanius is a sculptor, Hegio an iron-founder, Æschines a fuller, and Cydias a wit, for that is his trade. He has a signboard, a shop, work that is ordered, and journeymen who work under him; he cannot possibly let you have those stanzas he has promised you in less than a month, unless he breaks his word with Dosithea, who has engaged him to write an elegy; he has also an idyl on the loom which is for Crantor, who presses him for it, and has promised him a liberal reward. You can have whatever you like—prose or verse, for he is just as good in one as in the other. If you want a letter of condolence, or one on some person’s absence, he will write them; he has them even ready made; step into his warehouse, and you may pick and choose. Cydias has a friend who has nothing else to do but to promise to certain people a long time beforehand that he will come to them, and who, finally, introduces him in some society as a man seldom to be met with, and exquisite in conversation. Then, just as a vocalist sings or as a lute-player touches his instrument in a company where it has been expected, Cydias, after having coughed, puts back his ruffles, extends his hand, opens his fingers, and very gravely utters his over-refined thoughts and his sophisticated arguments. Unlike those persons whose principles agree, and who know that reason and truth are one and the same thing, and snatch the words out of one another’s mouths to acquiesce in one another’s sentiments, he never opens his mouth but to contradict: “I think,” he says graciously, “it is just the opposite of what you say;” or, “I am not at all of your opinion,” or else, “Formerly I was under the same delusion as you are now; but,…” and then he continues, “There are three things to be considered,” to which he adds a fourth. He is an insipid chatterer; no sooner has he obtained a footing into any society, than he looks out for some ladies whom he can fascinate, before whom he can set forth his wit or his philosophy, and produce his rare conceptions; for, whether he speaks or writes, he ought never to be suspected of saying what is true or false, sensible or ridiculous; his only care is not to express the same sentiments as some one else, and to differ from everybody. Therefore, in conversation, he often waits till every one has given his opinion on some casual subject, or one which not seldom he has introduced himself, in order to utter dogmatically things which are perfectly new, but which he thinks decisive and unanswerable. “Lucianus and Seneca,” says Cydias, “come pretty near me; but as for Plato, Virgil, and Theocritus they are quite below me,” and his flatterer takes care to confirm him every morning in this opinion. As Cydias has the same taste and interest as the revilers of Homer, he quietly expects that mankind will be undeceived and prefer modern poets to the blind bard; then he will put himself at the head of these poets, and reserve the second place for a friend. He is, in a word, a compound of pedantry and formality, to be admired by cits and rustics, in whom, nevertheless, there is nothing great except the opinion he has of himself.
(76.)Profound ignorance makes a man dogmatical; he who knows nothing thinks he can teach others what he just now has learned himself; whilst he who knows a great deal can scarcely imagine any one should be unacquainted with what he says, and, therefore, speaks with more indifference.
(77.)Great things only require to be simply told, for they are spoiled by emphasis; but little things should be clothed in lofty language, as they are only kept up by expression, tone of voice, and style of delivery.
(78.)I think we generally say things more delicately than we write them.
(79.)Hardly any other men but born gentlemen or men of culture are capable of keeping a secret.
(80.)All confidence placed in another is dangerous if it is not perfect, for on almost all occasions we ought to tell everything or to conceal everything. We have already told too much of our secret, if one single circumstance is to be kept back.
(81.)Some men promise to keep your secret and yet reveal it without knowing they are doing so; they do not wag their lips, and yet they are understood; it is read on their brow and in their eyes; it is seen through their breast; they are transparent. Other men do not exactly tell a thing that has been intrusted to them, but they talk and act in such a manner that people discover it for themselves. Lastly, there are some who despise your secret, of whatever importance it may be: “it is something mysterious which such-a-one has imparted to me and forbade me to mention it,” and then out it comes.
If a secret is revealed, the person who has confided it to another is to be blamed.
(82.)Nicander converses with Eliza about the gentle and courteous way in which he lived with his wife from the day of their marriage to the hour of her death; he had already said how sorry he was he had no children by her, and he now repeats it; he talks of the houses he has in town, and then of an estate he has in the country; he calculates what it brings him in, draws a plan of the buildings, describes its situation, expatiates on the conveniency of the apartments as well as on the richness and elegance of the furniture; he assures her he loves good cheer and fine horses and carriages, and complains that his late wife did not care much for play and company. “You are so wealthy,” said one of his friends to him, “why do you not buy some official post, or why not a certain piece of ground which would enlarge your estate?” “People think I am richer than I really am,” replies Nicander. He neither forgets his birth nor his relatives, and speaks of his cousin, the superintendent of finances, or of his kinswoman, the Lord Chancellor’s wife. He informs Eliza how discontented he has become with his nearest relatives, and even with his heirs. “Am I wrong, and have I any cause for doing them good?” he asks her, and desires her to give her opinion. He then intimates that he is in a weak and wretched state of health, and speaks of the vault where he wishes to be interred. He insinuates himself, and fawns on all those who visit the lady he courts. But Eliza has not courage enough to grow rich at the cost of being his wife. Whilst he is thus conversing with her a military man is introduced, and by his mere presence defeats all the plans of the worthy citizen, who gets up disappointed and vexed, and goes somewhere else to say that he wishes to marry for the second time.
(83.)Wise men sometimes avoid the world, that they may not be surfeited with it.