The Humourist (February 5, 1754)

“Mankind plays the Cheat, and […] Fallacy and Disguise attend the minutest Actions of our Lives.” —The Humourist

[Numb. 1015]
5 February 1754


He hates Realities and hugs the Cheat,
And still the Pleasure lies in the Deceit.

The World is compared to the Theatre,2 and the Business of it is generally considered as the grand Drama thereof, both by ancient and modern Writers.  Human Life in some Degree resembles a Masquerade, wherein consists a Medley of incoherent Characters, rudely pressing upon each other, and acting Parts unequal to their several Abilities.  I have taken the Liberty to enlarge the Comparison, and I hope that it is a legal Licence, as it comes nearer to the Purpose of this Essay, and will assist me in proving, that Mankind plays the Cheat, and that Fallacy and Disguise attend the minutest Actions of our Lives.

Flavio (born to make all Mankind happy but himself) is a Gentleman of Birth and Education; he has run thro’ the several Stages with amazing Spirit and Vivacity; all his Possessions now center in his Name, indeed he still enjoys a certain Gaiety, and such a Correctness of Freedom, as adds Dignity to his Deportment and an easy Negligence to his Address.

His chief Happiness has even been to deceive himself:  In the worst Emergency of Affairs, he has never felt much Remorse at the Loss of Company, his fertile Genius always supplying him with Prospects of imaginary Happiness.

This surprising Genius can, by a very peculiar Discernment, find out, that an ideal Estate is preferable to a real one:  He used to apply these two remarkable Lines, after the Misfortune of losing his paternal Estate at Cards:

When House and Land is gone and spent
Then Learning is most excellent;3

From whence he drew these important Inferences, That Brick and Stone are perishable Materials, that they are Tenements of an uncertain Duration, and must necessarily fill the Mind with many anxious Reflections, arising from the precarious Tenure of such Possessions: The Parson and the Parish demand their Tythes and Taxes; the Tenant is perpetually perplexing one with want of Repairs; Casualties of all kinds, Distemper of the Cattle, Briefs at Church (and much is expected from a Lord of the Manor), Lawyers with their confounded Flaws and Doubts, Stewards with their unmerciful Charges, the Impertinence of Servants, Physicians prescribing under the Sanction of Eminence to cut off the Thread of human Life, and the Apothecary’s profuse Viands, are the eternal Incumbrances of Men of Wealth. A Coach, that pleasing Appendage to Independence, is rather an Inconvenience than an Ease; a Man wants Exercise, it promotes an Appetite and helps Digestion; besides, he is under a never ceasing Dread of dislocating his Neck, at least he endangers an Arm or a Leg, and these are Matters that demand our most serious Consideration. To a Man of Gallantry, there still remains an Objection, superior in point of Force to any yet mentioned; it is impossible to go incog. to see and not be seen, or partake of those pretty Divertisements that constitute the Life of a Man of Pleasure; a saucy Coachman, or an impudent Footman, or both, eternally fall in the Way of Gallantry and Love-Intrigues.

This is the Language of Flavio, whose greatest Ambition soars no higher than amusing himself with false and fancied Happiness, with Scenes of Rapture, and Prospects of Illusion and Deceit.

It is so exquisite a Joy to the Mind of Man, to be imposed upon, that if he cannot procure some Jugler to do the Job for him, he thinks himself in a State of never-ending Bliss, when he is imposing upon himself.  Tom Easy, who is a jocose Fellow, protests, that one strong Motive for our Devotion to the softer Sex is, because they are possessed of a most incomparable Method of cheating us, and that with wonderful Dexterity.  Miss Grave-airs cries, Lord! Mr. Sly-boots, I am all Amazement, that a Gentleman of your good natural Endowments, should devote yourself so entirely to the Art of Teazing; there is nothing so hateful to me, as being unmercifully kiss’d, and pull’d, and haul’d:  Who cannot perceive the Imposition, but who does not rejoice in the Perception?

To vary the Scene, and cast our Eyes in a different Point of View, we shall find the same Taste for Deceit, the same Appetite for illusive Schemes, tho’ the Method of their Operations differ.

The Patriot, bellowing with Iron Lungs against Men in Power, hazards his Fame upon a mere Contingency, and forfeits his Reputation by deceiving himself into a Place:  As formerly he sung of Liberty, he now makes Music of his Chains.

In one Place, I can observe an impious great Man, seemingly depressed with the Weight of Office, improving, tho’ not observing, Learning or Religion.

In another Place, a wealthy Monster sacrificing a numerous Family by Donations to Hospitals, thinking to procure a good Name, by Munificence abroad and Poverty at home.

I can observe a wealthy Pluralist, battening in the Sun-shine of Prosperity, and exulting in the Pomp of cathedral Glory, busied in Subscriptions for the Widows of poor deceased Clergymen, when his Abilities point out a quicker Remedy; deceiving at once, Mankind by the Imposition, and himself, by playing with his Conscience.

By such specious Pretences, and other insidious Means, Mankind deceive each other; and if there happens to fall in the Way one honest Man, free from Deceit, free from Imposition, his want of Judgment or Discernment renders him a Victim to the multiplied Attacks of fraudulent Conspiracies;

For neither Man nor Angel can discern

Hypocrisy, the only Evil that walks

Invisible, except to God alone.4


1 From Samuel Garth’s The Dispensary: A Poem in Six Cantos (1699). The quote is from Canto III, Lines 23-24,—a satire on apothecaries and physicians.
2 “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players” (Shakespeare, As You Like It).
3 “Look well to what you have in hand / For learning is better than house or land / When land is gone and money spent / Then learning is most excellent.”
4 From John Milton’s Paradise Lost (Book III, line 682).

4 thoughts on “The Humourist (February 5, 1754)

  1. When I started reading The Humourist’s articles I thought he was going to be a writer like humorists Dave Barry and Gene Weingarten (both Pulitzer Prize winners, though not directly for humor). However, so far it seems that every column is about the mystery of his identity. Was that the idea? Is that all he wrote?

    I was curious about “Flavio,” so I googled him, but didn’t find much beyond an opera and an overweight guy with a trophy wife. Next, I googled “When House and Land is gone and spent / Then Learning is most excellent,” and found a most interesting Wikipedia article on Samuel Foote, a college dropout who sounds a right rascal. No mention in Wiki that he ever spent time in the Colonies, though, so I guess he’s not the one. Still, I reckon they knew about each other.


    • Your comment, Miz Mamzelle Hepzibah, is most intriguing and most insightful.

      Keep in mind the various meanings of “Humourist.” You have leapt in the direction of Dave Barry and Gene Weingarten, both of whom fall more within the framework of the Oxford English Dictionary’s second definition of “Humourist”: “A facetious or comical person, a wag; a humourous talker, actor, or writer; in mod. Use esp. one skilled in the literary or artistic expression or humour. 1706. Tr. J. B. Morvan de Bellegarde Refl. Upon Ridicule 203. Men love to be Merry…and prefer the Conversation of Humourists before that of the Serious.”

      Our “Humourist,” as you have observed, really is not that type of writer. Rather, he falls within the Oxford English Dictionary’s first definition of the word: “A person subject to ‘humours’ or fancies; a fantastical or whimsical person; a faddist. Obs. I. Watts Improvemen. Mind I.i.22. The Notion of a Humourist is one that is greatly pleased or greatly displeased with little Things, who sets his Heart much upon Matters of very small Importance.”

      Do you not agree that the preceding definition captures OUR Humourist more accurately?

      Right from the beginning, he has shown delight in the seemingly small matters of life. He is fanciful. He is whimsical. He has an eye for detail. And, in his February 5, 1754, essay that prompted your comment, he seems really displeased by something! As I transcribed the essay, I kept wondering what prompted him into such a harangue! Today, he seems displeased and annoyed and, dare I venture to suggest, lashing out at someone who may have done him harm or wrong?

      Pray, do not interpret the preceding comment too literally. I have no evidence to offer up to help you understand who might have done what to him to cause him to be in such a twit, but he is in a twit! Would you not agree?

      As for Flavio, I am baffled, temporarily at least. Thus, I provided no note! I think it might be a reference to a Handel opera, Flavio. But the story lines do not seem to align. Also, I’m thinking that it could Biondo Flavio (1392-1463), a distinguished Italian archaeologist and historian. I am leaning toward the latter, but, again, I’m having trouble making the connection, especially since the Humourist suggests that the lengthy italicized passage in his essay comes from Flavio. (“This,” he writes “is the Language of Flavio.”)

      Bravo for you! The quotation “When House and Land is gone and spent, /Then Learning is most excellent” appears to be from Samuel Foote. At least, the lines appear near the end of Act I in his Taste; a Comedy of Two Acts (1752) as Lady Pentweazel says to Mr. Carmine, “The child has been two years and three quarters at school with Dr. Jerk, near Doncaster, and comes to-day by the York wagon; for it has always been my maxum, Mr. Carmine, to give my children learning enough; for as the old saying is, ‘When house and land are gone and spent / Then learning is most excellent.’” The question thus becomes, “Was it indeed an old saying or did Foote coin the expression?”

      However that may be, let me assure you, Miz Mamzelle Hepzibah, that Samuel Foote is NOT the Humourist, but, at the same time, let me assure you that they might very well have known one another.


      • Drat. I thought I was on to something.

        However, all is not lost. While reading about Samuel Foote I learned that among his nonsense writings he created the “Grand Panjandrum,” a personage who shows up from time to time in modern literature. Jasper Fforde, one of my favorite writers, deploys him to great effect in his Thursday Next novels.

        I had always sort of thought that L. Frank Baum created the Grand Panjandrum, but now I realize that I had confused him (the Grand Panjandrum) with H.M. Wogglebug, T.E., who administers a college in the Land of Oz.

        The Grand Panjandrum is fun to say out loud.


      • Yes! Yes!! Yes!!! Grand Panjandrum is wonderfully fun to say aloud! You must say it at least three times in quick succession in order to hear the REAL reverberance.

        Indeed you ARE on to something! You researched Foote. You discovered his Grand Panjandrum, AND you led me to comment that Foote and The Humourist might very well have known one another. What a wonderful Trinity! You must continue to “stay on to something.” Who knows where it might lead!


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