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No. 7. SATURDAY, MARCH 19, 1785.
TO THE AUTHOR OF THE LOUNGER.
Παρα τα δεινα φρονιμωτερος. .
SIR, The art of knowing ourselves has been recommended by the moralists of all ages; and its attainment inculcated with that earnestness which implies both a conviction of its high value, and a sense of its difficulty. The great obstacle to the acquisition of this most desirable species of instruction is acknowledged to be that self-deceit by which the same vices or defects which we keenly note in the character of others, and judge of with vigour and severity, are viewed in ourselves through a medium of partial indulgence. Though unable to resist the seductions to a deviation from duty, we cannot endure the avowal of our own depravity. We are anxious to hide our weakness from ourselves, as well as from others; and our ingenuity is exerted to devise specious apologies and subterfuges. Reason panders will;' and thus it may be said, though paradoxically, yet truly, that the love of virtue itself is a secondary cause of our continuance in the practice of vice.
The effectual removal of this veil of self-deceit is what the weakness of our nature, perhaps, prevents us to hope can ever be accomplished: yet, though not completely removed, it may be partially withdrawn. I have often thought, that should a man be really in earnest in the desire of attaining a knowledge of his own character, there are times and circumstances
which lay it open before him: there are situations which dissipate for a while that mist of errors which hides him from his own eyes, and force an acknowledgment of many defections from virtue, many a desertion to vice, which he would blush to be suspected of by others.
In estimating the characters of men, we are often sensible of great revolutions in our opinions. The same person who at one time possessed our approbation or esteem, at another is perhaps become the object of our aversion. The man whom formerly, perhaps, we disregarded as of a weak understanding, we afterwards discover to possess considerable abilities. He whom some unfavourable circumstances have led us to suspect of a deficiency in moral rectitude, may afterwards, on a more intimate acquaintance,
be found of the most scrupulous integrity.The frequent experience of those errors in judgment, will evince to us the folly and danger of an implicit reliance on our own opinions ; will inculcate a salutary distrust of their foundation, and a conviction of the perverting influence of our ruling passions and prejudices. And this, sir, is no inconsiderable advance in the science of self-knowledge.
In the perusal of history, or of the more limited pictures which biography presents to us, there is no reader who does not take a warm interest in
every thing that regards a truly deserving character; who does not feel a sensible pleasure in those instances where the benevolent purposes of such a person have been attended with success, or his virtuous actions followed by reward. This approbation paid to virtue is a tribute of the heart, which is given with ease, which is bestowed even with pleasure. But in life itself it is unhappily found that virtue has not the same concomitant approbation. The same instances of generosity, of humanity, of candour, temperance,
and humility, which we applaud in those records of the dead, we slightly regard in our intercourse with the living. The jealousy of a competitor is an insuperable obstacle to esteem. But of the competition of the dead we have no jealousy: for they arrogate no substantial rewards; their reputation anticipates no promotions which we seek, no emoluments which we covet; and therefore their praise is heard without the pang of envy or the fear of rivalship.
The contrast of opinions, of which we have daily experience in our own breasts, is an important object of attention to him who truly desires to attain a knowledge of his own character. It furnishes that species of proof which is attended with direct conviction, and which it is impossible to resist. We are compelled to acknowledge the depravity of our hearts : for where the same objects create opposite perceptions, the error must be in him who perceives them.
The effect of this change in our opinions, in substantiating (if I may so say) our defects, is never so perceptible as when, on the death of a person who was well known to us, we compare the idea we formed of his character when alive, with that which we now entertain of him. His excellencies and defects are now more impartially estimated. On the former, the memory dwells with peculiar satisfaction, and indulges a melancholy pleasure in bestowing its tribute of approbation. On the latter, we kindly throw the veil of charitable alleviation: we reflect on our own imbecility; we find apologies for another in the weakness of our own nature, and impute the error of the individual to the imperfection of the species.
But, above all, should it happen that the person thus removed by death was one who had approved himself our friend, and whose kind affections we had repeatedly experienced, the difference we now perceive
in our estimate of such a character is apt to strike the mind with the most forcible conviction of our own unworthiness. Memory is industrious to torment us with the recollection of numberless instances of merit we have overlooked, of kindness we have not returned, of services repaid with cold neglect. The injury we have done is aggravated by the reflection that it cannot be repaired; for he whose life was perhaps embittered by our ingratitude is now insensible to our contrition.
Ah, sir ! the man who now writes to you bears witness himself to the misery of that feeling which he describes. He who now addresses you was once blest with the affection of the best, the most amiable of women. When I married my Maria, engaged to her by that esteem which an acquaintance almost from infancy had produced, I knew not half her worth. The situation in which she was now placed brought to my view many points of excellence which were before undiscovered. Must I own to
my shame, that the possession of this treasure diminished its value? Fool that I was ! I knew not my own happiness till I had for ever lost it. Six years were the short period of our union : Would to Heaven that term were yet to live again! I loved Maria :-Severely as I am now disposed to review my past conduct, I cannot reproach myself with a failure in affection. But what human being could have been insensible to loveliness, to worth, to tenderness like hers? Poor was that affection which often preferred the most trivial selfish gratification to her wishes or requests; and of small value was that regard, which a sudden gust of passion could, at times, entirely obliterate.
It was my character, sir, as that of many, to see the path of duty and propriety, but to have the weakness to be for ever deviating from it. Educated in a respectable sphere of life, but possessing a narrow
income, which with strict economy was barely sufficient to maintain with decency that station which we occupied, it was the care of my Maria to superintend herself the minutest article of our domestic concerns, and thus to retrench a variety of the ordinary expenses of a family, from her own perfect skill in every useful accomplishment of her sex. Though fond of society, and formed to shine in it; though not insensible to admiration ; (and what woman with her graces
person could have been insensible to it?) though possessing the becoming pride of appearing among her equals with equal advantages of dress and ornament; she sparingly indulged in gratifications which ill accorded with our limited fortune. She weighed with admirable discretion the greater against the lesser duties of life, and made no scruple to sacrifice the one, when they interfered ever so little with the performance of the other.
Shall I own, that to me, thoughtless, extravagant, and vain, the conduct of this excellent woman appeared oftener to merit blame than approbation! Regardless of consequences, and careless of the future while I enjoyed the present, I censured that moderation, which was a continual reproach to my own profuseness. Incapable of imitating her example, I denied that it was meritorious; and what in her was real magnanimity, I, with equal weakness and ingratitude, attributed to poorness of spirit. How shall I describe to you, sir, her mild and gentle demeanour, the patience with which she bore the most unmerited reproofs, the tender solicitude and endearing efforts which she used, to wean me from those ruinous indulgences to which vanity or appetite was continually prompting me! Too often were these efforts repaid by me with splenetic indifference, or checked at once by sarcasm or by anger.
'Tis but a poor alleviation of the anguish I feel for