Controlled Revelation #9: The Humourist as Cynic

Cynic. B. n. 2.  A person disposed to rail or find fault; now usually: One who shows a disposition to disbelieve in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions, and is wont to express this by sneers and sarcasms; a sneering fault-finder. (As defined in The Oxford English Dictionary)

As we re-examine The Humourist’s essay of February 5, 1754, it would be tempting for me—ever so tempting— to maintain that which is obvious: The Humourist is a lover of literature, especially poetry and drama.

He uses as the headnote to his February 5, 1754, essay a quote from Samuel Garth’s The Dispensary: A Poem in Six Cantos (1699), a satire on apothecaries and physicians:

He hates Realities and hugs the Cheat,
And still the Pleasure lies in the Deceit. (Canto III, Lines 23-24)

He ends the essay with a quote from John Milton’s Paradise Lost:

For neither Man nor Angel can discern
Hypocrisy, the only Evil that walks
Invisible, except to God alone. (Book III, line 682)

Betwixt and between, he sprinkles dramatic references.  He begins the essay with “The World is compared to the Theatre”—no doubt an allusion to Jacque’s lines in Shakespeare:  “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players” (As You Like It 2.7 139-40)). In the second paragraph, he observes that Flavio, has “run thro’ the several Stages with amazing Spirit and Vivacity”—again an allusion to Shakespeare’s Jacque:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. (As You Like It 2.7 139-43)

Further along in this essay he shows his interest in and knowledge of a literary genre relatively new on the British scene—the novel.  No doubt, his Miss Grave-Airs crying out, “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 Teasing” is an allusion to the character and sentiment of Miss Grave-Airs in Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews, or The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews and of his Friend Mr. Abraham Adams (1742)

Sly-boots, on the other hand, is a little more difficult to nail.  As the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) notes, it is a colloquial word meaning “A sly, cunning, or crafty person; one who does things on the sly.”  The word’s early usage, however, is most interesting.  According to the OED, it first appeared in B. E.’s A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew  (1699).  What the OED does not disclose is that this was the first English dictionary of the jargon of thieves and robbers!  (For those who are interested, this dictionary was re-issued by The Bodleian Library in 2010 under the title The First English Dictionary of Slang, 1699 with an introduction by John Simpson, chief editor of the OED. And, for those who are really interested, you might enjoy reading Angie Mlinko’s review of this re-issued version: “The Canting Crew: A New Edition of The First English Dictionary of Slang is a Saucy Survey of the Rogue Jargon of the Late Seventeenth Century.”)

And, even though I might be venturing out to the outer edge of the proverbial limb where I often like to go and where I am often found, it is possible—just possible—that the allusion to Mr. Sly-boots is to Colley Cibber’s 1701 play Love Makes a Man: or, The Fop’s Fortune, a Comedy:

Look, look!—look o’ Sly-boots! What she knows nothing of the matter! (ii. 15)

Be that as it may, one thing is clear—and I think we can agree on it:  The Humourist is a lover of literature.  So, for the moment, let us put that point aside as an established fact.  But another thing is clear as well—and I think we can agree on it, too:  I’ll continue to explore The Humourist’s literary loves as I continue to share with you more and more Controlled Revelations.

For now, however, I want to focus on what caught my attention as I explored—still one more time—The Humourist’s February 5, 1754, essay, the topic of today’s post.

What struck me smack dab in the middle of my sensibilities was how cynical The Humourist is in this essay.  In fact, the essay is so imbued with cynicism that I am surprised I let the essay’s dazzling prose so deceive me up to this point in my research.

How could I have missed the cynicism that get’s us started with this essay—the quote from Samuel Garth’s The Dispensary: A Poem in Six Cantos—a satire on apothecaries and physicians:

He hates Realities and hugs the Cheat,
And still the Pleasure lies in the Deceit. (Canto III, Lines 23-24)

How haunting:  “the Pleasure lies in the Deceit.”

How haunting—disturbingly so—that The Humourist would choose such a quote. (Writers are well aware of the important choices they make when they decide what to put in and what to leave out.)

Of all the quotes that he could have chosen, he chose:  “The Pleasure lies in the Deceit.”  And, indeed, deceit—elevated to a level of near celebration—is the topic of this entire essay which captures the mindset of a cynic at his best.

The OED gives several definitions for the noun cynic.  However, it is the second usage of the noun that best fits my take on how this essay reveals one aspect of The Humourist’s personality:

Cynic. B. n. 2.  A person disposed to rail or find fault; now usually: One who shows a disposition to disbelieve in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions, and is wont to express this by sneers and sarcasms; a sneering fault-finder.

Disposition to disbelieve in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions.

Precisely!  That is precisely what we find throughout The Humourist’s February 5, 1754, essay—from start to finish.

From this point forward—and I would hope that we can agree on this point, too—The Humourist has shown himself to be a cynic.

Let us explore the ways.

He disparages mankind:

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. [emphasis supplied]

He belittles the individual:

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 ever 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. [emphasis supplied]

He makes jabs at women:

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. [emphasis supplied]

He condemns Patriots and those who would seek Liberty:

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. [emphasis supplied]

He undermines those who hold office and those who hold wealth:

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

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. [emphasis supplied]

He erodes confidence in the munificence of the clergy:

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.

Finally he holds out no hope whatsoever—not one iota—for even one honest man, free of deceit:

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. [emphasis supplied]

What does all of this suggest about The Humourist’s world view?  Wait!  Don’t answer yet!  You must consider one more example of his cynicism, and it is revealing.  As I noted earlier, he ends his essay with a quote from Milton’s Paradise Lost:

For neither Man nor Angel can discern
Hypocrisy, the only Evil that walks
Invisible, except to God alone. (Book III, line 682).

It is so easy to be lulled into believing those lines.  But don’t be deceived.  Hypocrisy is not invisible.  Hypocrisy is not known to God alone.  Hypocrisy is visible to other hypocrites!  Hypocrisy is known to other hypocrites.

I am reminded of the conflict that presents itself in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famed short story, “Young Goodman Brown.”  Whenever I teach this story, students get caught up in trying to determine whether Young Goodman Brown dreamt that he lost his Faith or whether he had a real forest encounter with the Devil and thereby lost his Faith.

They lose sight of the fact that the answer does not matter.  What matters—whether the result of a dream or the result of a real encounter—is the fact that Young Goodman Brown came to see sin in the lives of all those around him:  his grandfather, Goody Cloyse, the Minister, Deacon Gookin, his wife Faith—indeed, all the Godly people of Salem.

Ironically, he could see sin in others, but he could not see the sin in his own sinful soul.  As a result, he became:

A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man … On the Sabbath day, when the congregation were singing a holy psalm, he could not listen because an anthem of sin rushed loudly upon his ear and drowned all the blessed strain. When the minister spoke from the pulpit with power and fervid eloquence, and, with his hand on the open Bible, of the sacred truths of our religion, and of saint-like lives and triumphant deaths, and of future bliss or misery unutterable, then did Goodman Brown turn pale, dreading lest the roof should thunder down upon the gray blasphemer and his hearers. Often, waking suddenly at midnight, he shrank from the bosom of Faith; and at morning or eventide, when the family knelt down at prayer, he scowled and muttered to himself, and gazed sternly at his wife, and turned away. And when he had lived long, and was borne to his grave a hoary corpse, followed by Faith, an aged woman, and children and grandchildren, a goodly procession, besides neighbors not a few, they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom.

Young Goodman Brown met his gloom because of his own spiritual smugness.  His was a holier-than-thou life wherein all around him—save for him—were sinners.

Isn’t that the case with cynics?  Smugness, spiritual and otherwise?  Isn’t that the case with cynics?  A holier-than-thou life?  Might not that have been the case with The Humourist?  We shall see, eventually.  For now, we can see this much clearly:  The Humourist is masterful at being a cynic.

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