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. —The Humourist
Today we are exploring The Humourist’s essay of January 29, 1754. It’s one of my favorite essays because it discusses a serious topic—professional behavior. “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.”
Here’s what I said, in part, when I published that essay on January 29, 2013: “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.”
I stand by that assessment, and I urge you to reread the essay for the pure joy of savoring every sentence.
I also said that the essay was chock full of clues, especially as the Humourist reveals his own demeanor.
Indeed it is!
Note, for example, the comment: “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.” As you will come to discover—as we work our way through these Controlled Revelations—The Humourist held many professional positions during his life: some big; others, small. In all of them, however, those who spoke of him spoke of his gravity, his seriousness. This will serve as substantial corroborating authorial evidence.
Further in the essay, The Humourist writes: “Many a Man passes in the Crowd of Life for a Philosopher, because he looks one”. So, too, The Humourist took on many professional roles in his life—and, generally, he succeeded at them—because he looked the part and played the part well. Again, this will serve as substantial corroborating authorial evidence.
What intrigues me, though, as I write this Controlled Revelation post is the seeming casual beginning of the essay: “Sir William Temple 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.”
It is as if The Humourist knew that his readers would know that Sir William Temple (1628-1699) was a Restoration diplomat, statesman, and essayist. It is as if The Humourist knew that his readers might even know the “somewhere” behind the paraphrase.
And, on reflection, his Charlestonian readers most likely would have been that learned and that well read. In Building Charleston, Emma Hart observes that:
Charleston held its own in the polite discourse that filled the pages of the Gentleman’s Magazine, with men like Charles Lining receiving praise for their learned contributions to science and the arts, and engravings devoted to the fashionable architecture in the town. […] In one such article, Charleston remained the only city whose inhabitants were described as “very genteel and polite,” a character said to stem from sophisticated urban institutions such as public libraries. Maryland and Virginia, on the other hand, were dismissed in a few brief sentences precisely because of their lack of any significant towns. (140-41)
It’s important to keep The Humourist’s readers in mind as we examine his essays: Charlestonians were cosmopolitan and learned. Little wonder, then, that he ends this essay with an indirect reference to Pittacus (c. 640-568 BC), one of the Seven Sages of Greece, and a native of Mytilene: “The Paradox of the wise Man of Mitilene, 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.”
And have I told you—I think not—that unlike The Humourist’s Charleston readers, I have still not found where Sir William Temple says that he knew a statesman who would have rather said a smart thing than done a wise one! I remain clueless, at the moment, but as I continue to explore Temple’s works, I am certain I will find the primary source. I want to know precisely what he said. I want Temple’s words.
Why do I need to find the source? For no reason whatsoever other than to satisfy my own intellectual curiosity. Isn’t that the essence of research? Isn’t that the essence of lifelong learning? I think so.
And, therein, the challenges, discoveries, and joys—of research!