The Humourist (January 29, 1754)

Today the Humourist shows us the personal essay at its best. In response to an earlier post, someone speculated that the Humourist was Benjamin Franklin. Although he is not Ben Franklin, this essay is on a par with Franklin’s essays, and, it is filled with pithy observations that could pass for Franklin aphorisms.

Of equal importance, this essay is chock-full of clues, especially as the Humourist describes his own demeanor!

Enjoy today’s essay!

Many a Man passes in the Crowd of Life for a Philosopher, because he looks one; a Dignity of Carriage demands Respect, and if it have not the Power of bestowing, at least it makes the World believe we have, Sense. —The Humourist

[Numb. 1024]
29 January 1754

The HUMOURIST.  No. V.
Reddere personae scit Convenientia cuique.
HORACE.1

Sir William Temple2 somewhere says, that he knew a Statesman, that had rather have said a smart Thing than done a wise one, and whose Bent of Inclination rather prompted him to set the Company in a Horse-Laugh, than the Nation rejoice.

I believe nothing is more common, than an Affectation of this kind; the World abounds with Men of this Stamp, studious to create Mirth, as well at the Expence of particular Objects, as their own Abilities.

In the small Concerns of Life wherein I have been engaged I always found that a certain Degree of Gravity was the surest Step towards distinguishing Eminence of Station.  I hate Moroseness, yet I detest Levity; I scorn an awful untimed Distance, as much as Wantonness; but it is essentially requisite, that a proper Distinction be made between these several Qualities, otherwise Reverence sinks into Freedom, and Awe becomes Contempt.

Our Actions ought to be suited to the Nature of our Professions, and be so tempered, as that Mankind may have it in their Power to say, that we discover Courtesy at the same Time that we preserve Respect.

We are apt to start at the mere Idea of a merry Judge, or a waggish Divine; at a facetious Statesman, or a ludicrous King; the Characters no way answer to the Nature of Levity, they are inconsistent, and it is impossible to excel in any Part where Ridicule comes unseasonably.

How weak that mortal seems, who aims at distinguishing himself from the Brute Creation, by the unruly Exercise of his risible Faculties, and not by Reason!  More bright Men have fallen victims to a Misapplication of their Talents than to the Sword:  One of this Volatile Turn of Mind labours under a Variety of Disadvantages; if he proves successful in the Pointings of his Repartee, he gains as his Reward Envy, and if unhappy in the marshalling of his Wit, Ridicule; at all Events the World soon discovers his weak Stile, and this habitual Freedom deprives him of the Authority which a Solemnity of Deportment never fails to give him.

I would always have a Man carry [one line of text is illegible] or rather come half-way into the Road of Courtesy, which must denote him affable, than impetuously press to the Threshhold of every Man’s door whose Business it is to wait on him.

It is not enough for a Man to have good Qualities, unless he knows the right Oeconomy of them:  We may be endowed with Excellence superior to the rest of our Fellow Creatures, but it is not sufficient to know that we possess them; Reason informs us, we should use them:  Levity of Carriage and a Distortion of Body and Countenance upon the least Occasion of a Jest, a Jest too dependant upon the Rack of Genius to discover the most distant Approach towards Wit, argues such a Profuseness of Spirits and Misapplication of Capacity, that the general Voice of Mankind must exclaim against it.

It is a good Piece of Marshal Policy, always to keep a Body of Reserve, and to be so prepared for the Worst Emergency, as we have it in our Power to draw for Succour where Necessity requires it:  The same Rule ought to be closely observed by every Individual; give a Pledge of your sprightly Turn, but mortgage not the whole, lest the Mortagee, taking an unfair Advantage, should put you under the Necessity of applying to Equity for Redress.

It is a Matter of the nicest Prudence to please without Satiety:  It is the noblest part of Finesse, not to give Occasion to any one for his laughing at me, when my Endeavours are that he should laugh at my Jest:  Many a Man passes in the Crowd of Life for a Philosopher, because he looks one; a Dignity of Carriage demands Respect, and if it have not the Power of bestowing, at least it makes the World believe we have, Sense.

The Paradox of the wise Man of Mitilene,3 that the half is better than the whole, may bear this Application, that one half of our Abilities properly husbanded, and the other half discovered, is of more real Importance, than the whole profusely squandered.

A Relaxation of Behaviour is not amiss upon some Occasions; where it is call’d in to enliven Conversation, or when so used as neither to discompose the Mind of the Hearer or injure the Speaker; where it neither derogates from Sense or infringes on the Laws of decency; for untim’d Mirth is Ill-Nature, and Humour void of a Moral is an Argument of Weakness.

NOTES

1 “He knows how to give the right part to each person” (Horace, Ars Poetica, 316).

2 Sir William Temple (1628-1699), Restoration diplomat, statesman, and essayist.  A graduate of Emmanuel College (part of the University of Cambridge), Temple wrote in a style, according to Samuel Johnson, worthy of commendation as “the first English prose to pay true attention to rhythmical cadence.”

3 Pittacus (c. 640-568 BC), one of the Seven Sages of Greece, and a native of Mytilene.

4 thoughts on “The Humourist (January 29, 1754)

  1. There is no “quick” read here. I had to read every paragraph twice. I’m afraid to comment more than this because it would likely expose my ignorance of the Whole–though maybe not of the Half.

    • You are so right: today’s Humourist essay is NOT a quick read. For me, that’s why I like this essay so much. It invites multiple readings. It is as compact and compressed and distilled as poetry! I find it to be wonderfully rich!

    • As I have noted already, this is one of my favorite posts, too!

      I am so delighted that the Humourist “dropped” a MAJOR clue in terms of his identify. I must share: “In the small Concerns of Life wherein I have been engaged I always found that a certain Degree of Gravity was the surest Step towards distinguishing Eminence of Station.” In my first reading of these essays, I missed that clue. This time, however, I sat up and took notice. What he says of himself, here in this essay, runs parallel with what others said of the man I believe to be the author of these essays!

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