The Humourist on Literary Criticism (February 12, 1754)

“… it is a Pity, that the World has not more Humanity and less Spirit, at least, that it is not better tempered; for, tho’ it is a glorious Thing to be possessed of the Strengths of Lions, yet ’tis tyrannous to use it.” — The Humourist

[12 February 1754]


Majores nusquam Rhonci, Juvenesq; Senesque,

Et Pueri Nasum Rhinocerontis habent.


When Phidias2 had completed the Athenian Minerva, a Critic, of much the same Discernment with these of the present Age, intimated to him, that the Waist was too thick; the silly Crowd, who always put an Implicit Faith in these malevolent Leaders, join’d in the Opinion, and the Statuary, in order to rectify the Blunder, chipp’d it to the Delicacy of their Fancy:  But when another Set of People came to see it, they insisted, that it was too slender; Phidias then threw aside his Tools, informing them, that it was impossible to chip any on again.

In this Manner these Triflers perplex the best Capacities, and sacrifice Excellence to the Attacks of insolent Curiosity:  The most unexceptional Writers, have dearly experienced the Consequences of Envy and Ill-Nature; none are exempt from it who enter the Lists of Authorism, because every weak Mortal (and weak Mortals abound every where) considers himself as the Censor of the Age.  It is a first Principle with these Gentlemen, to decry all Performances, not because they deserve Censure, but as soaring above their Comprehensions, not as void of Matter, but as a Taste for Censure seems to indicate a more refined Judgment and extensive Knowledge than Silence of Decorum can infer; to be pacific now a-Days, is to be tame and senseless; to take Things in the Sense intended, argues a narrow and limited capacity, discovers a Want of Fire and Animation, of Zeal and noble [one word illegible]; it is a Pity, that the World has not more Humanity and less Spirit, at least, that it is not better tempered; for, tho’ it is a glorious Thing to be possessed of the Strengths of Lions, yet ’tis tyrannous to use it.

The Critics may be ranged into Classes, or certain Orders of Distinction, as thus, one seizes upon your Title, another suggests, and by a wonderful Sagacity, hunts out an Author’s Name, some comment, some dissect, and all misconstrue.

This Accusation is principally aim’d at the modern Critics, for the Ancients were, generally speaking, a People of different Inclinations and better Dispositions.

Dyonisius, Longinus, and Quintilian3, were Men of acknowledged Parts, and what Remarks they may have passed against particular Authors, were intended to establish a true Taste, and reform Corruptions that might possibly creep into the Republic of Letters; they had Honesty eno’ to confess the Truth, and Generosity to admire Merit where they found it.,

Our modern Critics arrogate to themselves what does not belong to them:  They are Poets, Philosophers, and Divines; they are Orators, Statesmen and Prime Ministers; they are as knowing in Science as mechanic Operations:  In short, a Critic is an Abstract of every Thing, and is very communicatively inclined, always giving his Opinion, as the true Standard whereby to direct the Judgment and inform the Understanding of Mankind.

I need not add, that they are by Nature cruel, to use an Author with Raillery, whose highest Ambition  is to please, especially when he offers his Sentiments with a becoming Modesty:  I always made it a Rule with me, to read all Authors as Anonymo’s, regarding the Sense, not Names of Books, indifferent, like the Consulters of Oracles, who speaketh, provided what is spoken be sensible and just; true Wisdom being nothing else but an Induction from examined Judgments, making proper Applications to Discourse, and drawing the most natural Conclusions from an Author.

It seems annexed to the Fate of all Writers, from the Oracles, to the puny Ecchoes, of Learning, that they shall live in a State of War:  The Complaint against the Council of Trent4, was, that they condemned not so much Books as Authors, and indeed it is a general  Distemper, supported by the worst Principles, Pride and Envy.  Our Fancies are so bigoted to some particular Notions, that no one can be surprised at the Causes of intellectual Slavery, who takes Time to reflect upon the Perverseness of human Nature, which creates an obstinate Moroseness against any Man’s Light, not lighted at his Candle.

One Satisfaction however attends the Writer, superior to what other Men can boast under a critical  Survey, and that (confining myself only to the Instance of the Statuary) evidently appears; if a Writer errs in Judgment, he can easily correct himself, if he gives a false colouring, he has it in his Power to retouch; but the Statuary has no Resource left, he has the torturing Reflection, that his Work will stand as an eternal Subject for Animadversion and critical Reflection.

The true Nature of Criticism, widely differs from what we usually understand by the Expression; it is not the Art of finding Fault that merits the Appellation, it is the determined Resolution of a Reader neither to depreciate nor dignify by partial Representation, that constitutes the amiable Part of a Critic; the Ancients were regardless of particular Connexions, wholly solicitous to promulgate the Stamp of Truth, and rely on her Determinations, whatever she might dictate.


1 Martial (40–c. 102-104 AD), a Latin poet best known for his twelve books of Epigrams. The quote is from Book I, Verse III, which deals with the perils of publication: “Nobody sneers as loud / As a Roman: old or young, even newly-born / He turns his nose up like a rhino horn.”

2 Phidias (c.500-c.432 BC), one of the greatest sculptors of ancient Greece.

3 Longinus, also called Dionysius Longinus or Pseudo-Longinus (flourished 1st century AD), name sometimes assigned to the author of On the Sublime (Greek Peri Hypsous), one of the great seminal works of literary criticism. The earliest surviving manuscript, from the 10th century, first printed in 1554, ascribes it to Dionysius Longinus. Later it was noticed that the index to the manuscript read “Dionysius or Longinus.” (Read more about it at Encyclopedia Britannica.) Quintilian (AD 35-d. after 96), Latin teacher and writer known for his Institutio Oratoria, a major contribution to educational theory and literary criticism.

4 “The first official censorship had come in 1559 with the publication of the Index auctorum et librorum prohibitorum under the direction of Pope Paul IV. The Pauline index, as it became known, was the first in a long succession of papal indexes, forty-two in all. The purpose of these indexes was to guide censors in their decisions of what publications to authorize and which to disallow, for printers were not free to publish books without official permission. In January of 1562 the Council of Trent took up the issue of the Index and was deeply divided. The Pauline index had been seen by many as too controversial and excessively restrictive. After the opening speeches, the council appointed a commission to draft a new index. Although the council closed before the task of the commission was completed, the new Tridentine index was taken up by Pope Pius IV and published in 1564 by Paulus Manutius in Rome. This index constituted the most authoritative guide the church had yet published; its lists formed the basis of all subsequent indexes, while its rules were accepted as the guide for future censors and compilers.” (Read more about it at Modern History Sourcebook: Index Librorum Prohibitorum, 1557-1966.)

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