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knowledge. Mirtilla has of late turned her fine eyes from terrestrial objects to the study of astronomy; and
you cannot flatter her so much as by asking her opinion of the last new meteor, or the Georgium Sidus. And Euanthe, since she read Reaumur, has left her society of beaux for a curious collection of butterflies.
But while people are thus ambitious of being thought to possess talents and qualities to which they have no pretension, it does not thence follow, that they estimate at too low a rate those attainments in which they are allowed to excel. In judging at least of those around us, we are, I am afraid, too apt to undervalue such as may be deficient in any particular in which we have acquired eminence, however respectable such persons may otherwise be. The man of letters looks down with a conscious superiority on the man of business engaged in the ordinary affairs of life: the men of the world, on the other hand, feeling the importance of their own occupations, consider the pursuits of literature as at best but a finer species of dissipation, a mere pastime, leading to no end, and attended with no consequence.
This sort of mutual contempt is visible in every rank and condition of life ; and even the best, the most moderate, and the most cultivated minds, are not, perhaps, altogether exempted from it. Mr. Hume, in his History of England, expresses himself in the following terms: Such a superiority do the pursuits of literature possess above every ccher occupation, that even he who obtains but a mediocrity in them merits the pre-eminence above those that excel the most in the common and vulgar professions. It is not my object at present to inquire how far this opinion be well or ill founded : allowing it to be just, what must Mr. Hume's station be in the scale of excellence ? That question, I am persuaded, his gentle modesty hardly permitted him to consider. It is well known that Mr. Hume, a few years before his death, received a pension of 2001. a year. It might have been amusing at the time, to consider the opposite ideas entertained by the givers and the receiver of that pension. In the pride of present power, and amidst the self-importance fostered by perpetual adulation, the minister and his minions might view with a certain degree of contempt a man on whom they were bestowing so paltry a recompense : on the other hand, the author, while receiving this mark of favour, and expressing his gratitude for it, might not be able to check the rising thought, that his name would live for ever, ranked with those whose envied lot it had been to inform, to enlighten, to delight mankind; while his patrons, distinguished only by rank or station, were buried in oblivion with the common herd of kings, ministers, and statesmen, whose names posterity reads with the most perfect indifference, of whom little more is commonly known, than that they lived and died at such and such a period. Of this idea, Mr. Hume himself gives a fine illustration. Talking of the little regard paid to Milton when alive, “Whitlocke,' says he, “mentions one Milton, as he calls him, a blind man, who was employed in translating a treaty with Sweden into Latin. These forms of expression are amusing to us, who consider how obscure Whitlocke himself, though lord keeper and ambassador, and indeed a man of great abilities and merit, has become in comparison of Milton.'
When Lord Keeper Whitlocke expressed himself in those terms, he must have felt a conscious superiority over one Milton, employed to translate the Swedish treaty into Latin. But if we may guess at what passed in the mind of Milton while employed in that humble service, it is not improbable, that if
ever he was led to estimate his own merit in comparison with that of Whitlocke, a just sense of his own superior excellence might teach him, that though constrained by situation to submit to a drudgery so unworthy of him, yet still he was by nature entitled to a place in the temple of Fame far above his employer ; and he might perhaps enjoy, by a sort of anticipation, that ample justice which posterity has done him. Such examples may convey a useful lesson to the great, may teach them to smooth somewhat of their crested pride,' and to treat with more observance and regard than they are often disposed to do, men equal to them by nature, perhaps superior in nature's best and choicest gifts.
Of the last species of weakness taken notice of in this paper,
the credit we take for the talents we possess, the reason seems obvious enough, that partiality to ourselves, and our own possessions, which runs through every circumstance of life. Of the first, our desire to be remarked for talents to which we have no proper claim, the reason may, I think, be drawn from the period of life at which it commonly takes its rise. Our real endowments were ours, or began to be attained, at an early age, when we were but little liable to the impressions of vanity or self-conceit; but the new and imperfect acquirements on which men are apt very absurdly to plume themselves begin after the habit of vanity is formed, which appropriates to itself every acquisition, however trifling, which its possessor may happen to make.
But whatever may be the cause of such weaknesses, no doubt will be entertained of their existence. It will readily be acknowledged, that men are apt to fall into those two opposite and seemingly contradictory extremes, when they think of themselves and of others. On one hand, the childish vanity of new acquirements leads us to overlook those talents which
in reality we possess, and to value ourselves on those to which we have little or no pretensions; yet when we come to form a judgment of our own merit, in comparison with that of our neighbours, we are apt to despise every person who is deficient in any one particular in which we excel. We ought, however, to recollect, that to aim at universal excellence is a vain and fruitless attempt, which seldom fails to expose even men of the most superior talents to deserved ridicule : and, if this be allowed, it must follow, that it is no less unjust than ungenerous, to despise others for the want of a particular quality or accomplishment which we may happen to possess ; because it is extremely probable that we may be equally deficient in some article, perhaps more important and more useful to mankind, in which they have attained a high degree of excellence.
No. 4. SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 26, 1785.
Laudator temporis acti.
'Get thee a place, for I must be idle,' says Hamlet to Horatio at the play. It is often so with me at public places: I am more employed in attending to the spectators than to the entertainment; a practice which, in the present state of some of our entertainments, I frequently find very convenient. In me, however, it is an indolent, quiet sort of indulgence, which, if it affords some amusement to myself, does not disturb that of any other body.
At an assembly at which I happened to be present a few nights ago, my notice was peculiarly attracted by a gentleman with what is called a fresh look for his age,
dressed in a claret-coloured coat, with gold buttons, of a cut not altogether modern, an embroidered waistcoat with very large flaps, a major wig, long ruffles nicely plaited (that looked however as if the fashion had come to them rather than that they had been made for the fashion); his white silk stockings ornamented with figured clocks, and his shoes with high insteps, buckled with small round gold buckles. His sword, with a silver hilt somewhat tarnished, I might have thought only an article of his dress, had not a cockade in his hat marked him for a military man.
It was some time before I was able to find out who he was, till at last my friend Mr. S- informed me he was a very worthy relation of his, who had not been in town above twice these forty years; that an accidental piece of business had lately brought him from his house in the country, and he had been prevailed on to look on the ladies of Edinburgh at two or three public places before he went home again, that he might see whether they were as handsome as their mothers and grandmothers, whom he had danced' with at balls, and squired to plays and concerts, near half a century ago. was,' continued my friend, “a professed admirer and votary of the sex; and when he was a young man fought three duels for the honour of the ladies, in one of which he was run through the body, but luckily escaped with his life. The lady, however, for whom he fought, did not reward her knight as she ought to have done, but soon after married another man with a larger fortune; upon which he forswore society in a great measure, and though he continued for several years to do his duty in the army, and actually rose to the rank of lieutenant