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No. 3. SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 19, 1785.
Quid nefert quantum habeas ? multo illud plus est quod non habes.
It is an old and a common observation, that men are more desirous to be thought to possess talents and qualities to which in truth they have no pretensions, than those in which they excel in an eminent degree. Of this Cicero was in ancient times a remarkable example; and the observation of every one must have furnished instances as striking in our own days. We see grave and profound statesmen wishing to pass for fine gentlemen, and fine gentlemen valuing themselves upon their knowledge of things of which they are most ignorant. If you wish to compliment the
gay, the elegant Lothario, you must not mention his taste in dress, his fine figure, or the lively elegance of his conversation : you must dwell upon his knowledge of the interests of the different states of Europe, his extensive political information, and his talents for business. Camillus is a barrister of the first eminence, possessed of great knowledge in his profession, an acute reasoner, and a powerful pleader. In external appearance nature has been less bountiful to Camillus : his figure is mean and ungraceful; and from his air and manner a stranger would be apt to take him for any thing rather than a gentleman. With all this, Camillus fancies that there is an uncommon degree of elegance in his form, and cannot conceal his ambition to be considered as a man of fashion.
But the most amusing instance of this sort I have met with was that of the late Duke of
His Grace was undoubtedly possessed of sound judgment, a cultivated understanding, a greater portion of knowledge than usually falls to the share of those of his rank; and though not perhaps calculated to make a brilliant figure in the senate, his talents were admirably adapted for business, and must in any age have entitled their possessor to respect and consideration. Amidst his other studies, the Duke had happened to look into some books of physic; from that moment he commenced a most skilful physician, and, compared to himself, considered the whole faculty as a set of ignorant blunderers. An artful courtier, well acquainted with this whimsey of his Grace's, contrived to let it be known, that he was affected with a particular disorder; in the cure of which the Duke thought himself more than commonly expert. He kindly offered his assistance, which was received with becoming gratitude ; and from time to time he was acquainted with the progress of the cure, and the effects of the medicine supposed to have been administered in consequence of his prescriptions. At the end of six weeks, the wily patient had to thank his noble physician, both for a complete cure, and a considerable employment which he had long in vain solicited.
Among the other sex, though, from their situation, and the narrow circle of their acquirements, this weakness has less room to display itself
, yet it is not unfrequently to be found. Elizabeth might be quoted as a counterpart to Cicero, were it not that the claim to beauty is so natural to a woman, that we do not wonder when we find even a queen not superior to that pretension. But there are, in our own times, ladies who forget the certain empire of their beauty, and aspire to the doubtful reputation of
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 ciher 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