« ZurückWeiter »
THE ROUND TABLE.-BY LEIGH HUNT.
No. 3. SUNDAY, JANUARY 15, 1815.
a.-MILTOX. A table in a social compact joined. It is our intention, in the course of these papers, occasionally to expose certain vulgar errors, which have crept into many of our reasonings on men and manners. Perhaps one of the most interesting of these, is that which relates to the source of our general attachment to life. We are not going to enter into the question, whether life is on the whole to be regarded as a blessing, though we are by no means inclined to adopt the opinion of that sage, who thought “ that the best thing that could have happened to a man was never to have been born, and the next best, to have died the moment after he came into existence.” The common argument, however, which is made use of to prove the value of life, from the strong desire which almost every one feels for its continuance, appears to be altogether inconclusive. The wise and the foolish, the weak and the strong, the lame and the blind, the prisoner and the free, the prosperous and the wretched, the beggar and the king, the rich and the poor, the young and the old, from the little child who tries to leap over his own shadow, to the old man who stumbles blindfold on his grave, all feel this desire in common. Our notions with respect to the importance of life, and our attachment to it, depend on a principle, which has very little to do with its happiness or its misery:
The love of life is, in general, the effect not of our enjoyments, but of our passions. We are not attached to it so much for its own sake, or as it is connected with happiness, as because it is necessary to action. Without life there can be no action-no objects of pursuit—no restless desires-no tormenting passions. Hence it is that we fondly cling to it--that we dread its termination, as the close, not of enjoyment, but of hope. The proof that our attachment to life is not absolutely owing to the immediate satisfaction we find in it is, that those persons are commonly found most loth to part with it who have the least enjoyment of it, and who have the greatest difficulties to struggle with, as losing gamesters are the most desperate. And farther, there are not many persons who, with all their pretended love of life, would not, if it had been in their power, have melted down the longest life to a few hours. “ The school-boy,” says Addison, “counts the time till the return of the holidays; the minor longs to be of age; the lover is impatient till be is married.”—“ Hope and fantastic expectations spend much of our lives: and while with passion we look for a coronation, or the death of an enemy, or a day of joy, passing from fancy to possession without any intermediate notices, we throw away a precious year.” JEREMY TayLOR.-We would willingly, and without remorse, sacrifice not only the present moment, but all the interval (no matter how long) that separates us from any favourite object. We chiefly look upon life, then, as the means to an end. Its common enjoyments and its daily evils are alike disregarded for the sake of any idle purpose we have in view. It should seem as if there were a few green sunny spots in the desert of life, to which we are always hastening forward: we eye them wistfully in the distance, and care not what perils or sufferings we endure, so that we arrive at them at last. However weary we may be of the same stale round-however sick of the past, however hopeless of the future—the mind still revolts at the thought of death, because the fancied possibility of good, which always remains with life, gathers strength as it is about to be torn from us for ever; and the dullest scene looks bright, compared with the darkness of the grave.-Our reluctance to part with existence, evidently does not depend on the calm and even current of our lives, but on the force and impulse of the passions. Hence that indifference to death which has been sometimes remarked in people who lead a solitary and peaceful life, in remote and barren districts. The pulse of life in them does not beat strong enough to occasion any violent revulsion of the frame when it ceases. He who treads the green mountain turf, or he who sleeps beneath it, enjoys an almost equal quiet. The death of those persons has always
been accounted happy, who had attained their utmost wishes, who had nothing left to regret or to desire. Our repugnance to death is in proportion to our consciousness of having lived in vain-to the violence of our efforts and the keenness of our disappointments—and to our earnest desire to find in the future, if possible, a rich amends for the past. may
be said to nurse our existence with the greatest tenderness, according to the pain it has cost us; and feel at every step of our varying progress the truth of that line of the poet->
“An ounce of sweet, is worth a pound of sour.”
The love of life is in fact the sum of all our passions and of all our enjoyments; but these are by no means the same thing, for the vehemence of our passions is irritated, not less by disappointment than by the prospect of success. Nothing seems to be a match for this general tenaciousness of existence, but such an extremity either of bodily or mental suffering, as destroys at once the power both of habit and imagination. In short, the question whether life is accompanied with a greater quantity of pleasure or pain, may be fairly set aside as frivolous and of no practical utility; for our attachment to life depends entirely on our interest in it; and it cannot be denied that we have more interest in this moving, busy scene, agitated with a thousand hopes and fears, and checkered with every diversity of joy and sorrow, than in a dreary blank. To be something is better than to be nothing, because we can feel no interest in nothing. Passion, imagination, self-will, the sense of power, the very consciousness of our existence, bind us to life, and hold us fast in its chains, as by a magic spell, in spite of every other consideration. Nothing can be more philosophical than the reasoning which Milton puts into the mouth of the fallen angel:
“ And that must end us, that must be our cure,
“Devoid of sense and motion?"* Nearly the same account may be given in answer to the question which has been sometimes asked, Why so few tyrants kill themselves? In the first place, they are never satisfied with the mischief they have done, and cannot quit their hold of power, after all sense of pleasure is fled. Besides, they absurdly argue from the means of happiness placed within their reach to the end itself; and dazzled by the pomp and pageantry of a throne, cannot relinquish the persuasion that they ought to be happier than other men. The prejudice of opinion, which attaches us to life, is in them stronger than in others, and incorrigible to experience. The Great are life's fools-dupes of the splendid shadows that surround them, and wedded to the very mockeries of opinion.
* Many persons have wondered how Bonaparte was able to survive the shock of that tremendous beight of power from which he fell. But it was that very height which still rivetted his backward gaze, and made it impossible for him to take his eye from it, more than from a hideous spectre. The sun of Austerlitz still rose upon his imagination, and could not set. The huge fabric of glory which he had raised, still " mocked his eyes with air.” He who had felt his existence so intensely, could not consent to loge it!
Whatever is our situation or pursuit in life, the result will be much the same. The strength of the passion seldom corresponds with the pleasure we find in its indulgence. The miser “robs himself to increase his store;" the ambitious man toils up a slippery precipice only to be tumbled headlong from its height: the lover is infatuated with the charms of his mistress, exactly in proportion to the mortification he has received from her. Even those who succeed in nothing, who, as it has been emphatically expressed
“ Are made desperate by too quick a sense
“ Than sentinels between two armies set,". are yet as unwilling as others to give over the unprofitable strife: their harassed feverish existence refuses rest, and frets the languor of exhausted hope into the torture of unavailing regret. The exile, who has been unexpectedly restored to his country and to liberty, often finds his courage fail with the accomplishment of all his wishes, and the struggle of life and hope ceases at the same instant.
We once more repeat, that we do not, in the foregoing remarks, mean to enter into a comparative estimate of the value of human life, but merely to show, that the strength of our attachment to it is a very fallacious test of its happiness.
No. 4. SUNDAY, JANUARY 22, 1815.
-Sociali fædere mensa.-Milton.
A Table in a social compact joined. As we have announced our intention of occasionally speaking in the first person singular as well as plural, and at the same time have not assumed any fictitious characters, there will be some readers, we are afraid, who, notwithstanding the numerous and evident claims we possess upon the public attention, and even the didactic infirunities which we have acknowledged, may not always chuse to recognise our right of instructing them, much less of alluding to any feelings or experiences of our own. Even our illustrious predecessors, the Tatler and Spectator, had great difficulty in carrying their pretensions on this score, though agreeably to the characters they had assumed, they seldom thought fit to allude to them. It
was soon discovered that old Isaac Bickerstaff, the Tatler, in Shire-lane, was a jovial young fellow about Saint James's, no better, of course, than any one else,—and that the silent, shortvisaged personage, who described himself as a philosophic Spectator, was the same identical person a little older, who would talk away till one or two o'clock in the morning, and was sometimes as short of cash as he was of countenance. With some, no doubt, the secret may have been of no disservice to this eminent instructor; the being one of themselves met with nothing at the bottom of their hearts to render them impatient of hearing him; it was an assurance to them, perhaps, that if he could detect their infirmities, he could also feel for them;-but not so with others. Among his numerous assailants, now forgotten, there was one, we remenber, who seemed to take it particularly ill that he had now and then a jerk in his walk, and a trick of driving his cane at the pave
How such a pedestrian, who had nothing remarkable about his general appearance, and who was, in fact, nobody but sir Richard Steele,-a sort of pleasant fellow enough, could think of setting up to instruct mankind, and of saying, “ I think,” or “ in my opinion,” or “ I remember once," was to this modest and indignant gentleman inconceivable.
This man was not aware that he was the egotist for having his self-love so annoyed; while sir Richard, who delivered, with a cordial and unaffected confidence, his thoughts and feelings as they arose, was in reality one of the humblest of self-inspectors, and often sat to himself for the weaknesses which he painted.
There is, in fact, no commoner mistake than this one about egotism, and none which stiffens and encrusts people more against the genial reception of knowledge.
We are no advocates for a man's talking of himself out of all season and measure; it is, to say the least of it, a mark of bad taste, and a want of reasonable consideration for others; though even in this respect, the talent and disposition of the person make a great deal of difference; and no reader of proper spirit would think of bringing the solid and generous Montaigne to the same account as a pretender like Boswell.
But among the idle sophistications and levellings which people, in certain stages of society, are apt to practice upon each other, there is nothing that more betrays a general soreness of self-love, and a want of all proper simplicity, than this extreme horror of seeing a man break in upon the jealous reserve of the majority. They attribute it to a want of modesty in him; but people are not apt to take so much interest in