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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Abraham Cowley (1618–1667)

A Great Man’s Day

From “Essay on Liberty”

WITH us, generally, no condition passes for servitude that is accompanied with great riches, with honours, and with the service of many inferiors. This is but a deception of the sight through a false medium; for if a groom serve a gentleman in his chamber, that gentleman a lord, and that lord a prince, the groom, the gentleman, and the lord are as much servants one as the other. The circumstantial difference of the one getting only his bread and wages, the second a plentiful, and the third a superfluous estate, is no more intrinsical to this matter than the difference between a plain, a rich and gaudy livery. I do not say that he who sells his whole time and his own will for one hundred thousand is not a wiser merchant than he who does it for one hundred pounds; but I will swear they are both merchants, and that he is happier than both who can live contentedly without selling that estate to which he was born. But this dependence upon superiors is but one chain of the lovers of power.

Let us begin with the great man by break of day, for by that time he is besieged by two or three hundred suitors, and the hall and ante-chambers (all the outworks) possessed by the enemy. As soon as his chamber opens, they are ready to break into that, or to corrupt the guards for entrance. This is so essential a part of greatness, that whosoever is without it looks like a fallen favourite, like a person disgraced, and condemned to do what he please all the morning. There are some who, rather than want this, are contented to have their rooms filled up every day with murmuring and cursing creditors, and to charge bravely through a body of them to get to their coach. Now I would fain know which is the worst duty, that of any one particular person who waits to speak with the great man, or the great man’s, who waits every day to speak with all the company. A hundred businesses of other men (many unjust and most impertinent) fly continually about his head and ears, and strike him in the face like dors.

Let us contemplate him a little at another special scene of glory—and that is his table. Here he seems to be the lord of all Nature. The earth affords him her best metals for his dishes, her best vegetables and animals for his food; the air and sea supply him with their choicest birds and fishes; and a great many men who look like masters attend upon him; and yet, when all this is done, even all this is but table d’hôte. It is crowded with people for whom he cares not; with many parasites, and some spies, with the most burdensome sort of guests—the endeavourers to be witty.

But everybody pays him great respect, everybody commends his meat—that is, his money; everybody admires the exquisite dressing and ordering of it—that is, his clerk of the kitchen, or his cook; everybody loves his hospitality—that is, his vanity. But I desire to know why the honest innkeeper who provides a public table for his profits should be but of a mean profession, and he who does it for his honour a munificent prince. You’ll say, because one sells and the other gives. Nay, both sell, though for different things—the one for plain money, the other for I know not what jewels, whose value is in custom and in fancy. If, then, his table be made a snare (as the Scripture speaks) to his liberty, where can he hope for freedom? There is always and everywhere some restraint upon him. He is guarded with crowds, and shackled with formalities. The half hat, the whole hat, the half smile, the whole smile, the nod, the embrace, the positive parting with a little bow, the comparative at the middle of the room, the superlative at the door. And if the person be Pan huper sebastos, there’s a Huper superlative ceremony then of conducting him to the bottom of the stairs, or to the very gate—as if there were such rules set to these leviathans as are to the sea, “Hitherto shalt thou go, and no further.” Thus wretchedly the precious day is lost.