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No. 373. THURSDAY, MAY 8, 1712.
Fallit enim vitium specie virtutis et umbrâ.
Vice oft is hid in Virtue's fair disguise,
MR. LOCKE, in his treatise of Human Understanding, has spent two chapters upon the abuse of words. The first and most palpable abuse of words, he says, is when they are used without clear and distinct ideas; the second, when we are so unconstant and unsteady in the application of them, that we sometimes use them to signify one idea, sometimes another. He adds, that the result of our contemplations and reasonings, while we have no precise ideas fixed to our words, must needs be very confused and absurd. To avoid this inconvenience, more especially in moral discourses, where the same word should be constantly used in the same sense, he earnestly recommends the use of definitions. 'A definition,' saye he, ‘is the only way whereby the precise meaning of moral words can be known. He therefore accuses those of great negligence who discourse of moral things with the least obscurity in the terms they make use of; since, upon the fore-mentioned ground, he does not scruple to say that he thinks 'morality is capable of demonstration as well as the mathematics.'
I know no two words that have been more abused by the different and wrong interpretations which are put upon them, than those two, modesty and assurance. To say such a one is a modest man, sometimes indeed passes for a good character; but at present is very often used to signify a
sheepish, awkward fellow, who has neither good breeding, politeness, nor any knowledge of the world.
Again, a man of assurance, though at first it only denoted a person of free and open carriage, is now very usually applied to a profligate wretch, who can break through all the rules of decency and morality without a blush.
I shall endeavour therefore in this essay to restore these words to their true meaning, to prevent the idea of modesty from being confounded with that of sheepishness, and to hinder impudence from passing for assurance.
If I was put to define modesty, I would call it 'the reflection of an ingenious* mind, either when a man has committed an action for which he censures himself, or fancies that he is exposed to the censure of others.'
For this reason a man truly modest is as much so when he is alone as in company, and as subject to a blush in his closet as when the eyes of multitudes are upon him.
I do not remember to have met with any instance of modesty with which I am so well pleased as that celebrated one of the young prince whose father being a tributary king to the Romans, had several complaints laid against him before the senate, as a tyrant and oppressor of his subjects. The prince went to Rome to defend his father; but coming into the senate, and hearing a multitude of crimes proved upon him, was so oppressed when it came to his turn to speak, that he was unable to utter a word. The story tells us, that the fathers were more moved at this instance of
Ingenious seems to be here used for ingenuous.
modesty and ingenuity* than they could have been by the most pathetic oration, and, in short, pardoned the guilty father for this early promise of virtue in the son.
I take assurance to be the faculty of possessing a man's self, or of saying and doing indifferent things without any uneasiness or emotion in the mind.' That which generally gives à man assurance is a moderate knowledge of the world, but above all a mind fixed and determined in itself to do nothing against the rules of honour and decency. An open an assured behaviour is the natural consequence of such a resolution. A man thus armed, if his words or actions are at any time misrepresented, retires within himself, and, from a consciousness of his own integrity, assumes force enough to despise the little censures of ignorance and malice.
Every one ought to cherish and encourage in himself the modesty and assurance I have here mentioned.
A man without assurance is liable to be made uneasy by the folly or ill-nature of every one he converses with. A man without modesty is lost to all sense of honour and virtue.
It is more than probable that the prince above mentioned possessed both these qualifications in a very eminent degree. Without assurance, he would never have undertaken to speak before the most august assembly in the world: without modesty, he would have pleaded the cause he had taken upon him, though it had appeared ever so scandalous.
From what has been said, it is plain that mo
Ingenuity seems here to be used in the sense of ingenu
desty and assurance are both amiable, and may very well meet in the same person. When they are thus mixed and blended together, they compose what we endeavour to express when we say < a modest assurance;' by which we understand the just mean between bashfulness and impudence.
I shall conclude with observing, that as the same man may be both modest and assured, so it is also possible for the same to be both impudent and bashful.
We have frequent instances of this odd kind of mixture in people of depraved minds and mean education, who, though they are not able to meet a man's eyes, or pronounce a sentence without confusion, can voluntarily commit the greatest villanies or most indecent actions.
Such a person seems to have made a resolution to do ill even in spite of himself, and in defiance of all those checks and restraints his temper and complexion seems to have laid in his way.
Upon the whole, I would endeavour to establish this maxim, that the practice of virtue is the most proper method to give a man a becoming assurance in his words and actions. Guilt always seeks to shelter itself in one of the extremes, and is sometimes attended with both.
No. 374. FRIDAY, MAY 9, 1712,
Nil actum reputans si quid superesset agendum.
He reckon'd not the past, while aught remain'd
THERE is a fault, which, though common, wants a name. It is the very contrary to proscrastination. As we lose the present hour by delaying from day to day to execute what we ought to do immediately, so most of us take occasion to sit still and throw away the time in our possession, by retrospect on what is past, imagining we have already acquitted ourselves, and established our characters in the sight of mankind. But when we thus put a value upon ourselves for what we have already done, any farther than to explain ourselves in order to assist our future conduct, that will give us an over-weening opinion of our merit, to the prejudice of our prudent industry. The great rule, methinks, should be, to manage the instant in which we stand, with fortitude, equanimity, and moderation, according to men's respective circumstances. If our past actions reproach us, they cannot be atoned for by our own severe reflections so effectually as by a contrary behaviour. If they are praise-worthy, the memory of them is of no use but to act suitably to them. Thus a good present behaviour is an implicit repentance for any miscarriage in what is past; but present slackness will not make up for past activity. Time has swallowed up all that we contemporaries did yesterday, as irrevocably as it has the actions of the antediluvians. But we are