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EPISTLE I. To Sir Richard Temple, Lord Cobham. OF THE KNOWLEDGE AND CHARACTERS OF MEN.
Argument. 1. That it is not sufficient for this knowledge to consider man
in the abstract: books will not serve the purpose, nor yet our own experience singly.--General maxims, unless they be formed upon both, will be but notional.--Some peculiarity in every man, characteristic to himself, yet varying from himself.--Difficulties arising from our own passions, fancies, faculties, &c. The shortness of life to observe in, and the uncertainty of the principles of action in men to observe by.–Our own principle of action often hid from ourselves.-Some few characters plain, but in general confounded, dissembled, or inconsistent.---The same man utterly different in different places and seasons.-Unimaginable weaknesses in the greatest.—Nothing constant and certain but God and nature.-No judging of the motires from the actions; the same actions proceeding from contrary motives, and the same motives influencing contrary actions.-Yet to form characters we can only take the strongest actions of a man's life, and try to make them agree : the utter uncertainty of this, from nature itself, and from policy.-Characters given according to the rank of men of the world ; and some reason for it. --Education alters the nature, or at least the character, of many.---ACtions, passions, opinions, manners, humours, or principles, all subject to change. No judging by nature.--3. It only remains to find (if we can) his ruling passion : that will certainly influence all the rest, and can reconcile the seeming or real inconsistency of all his actions.- Instanced in the extraordinary character of Clodio'.-A caution against mistaking second qualities for first, which will destroy all possibility of the knowledge of mankiod.--Examples of the strength of the ruling passion, and its continuation to the last breath.
Though what he learns he speaks, and may advance
And yet the fate of all extremes is such, Men may be read, as well as books, too much. To observations which ourselves we make, We grow more partial for the observer's sake; To written wisdom, as another's, less : Maxims are drawn from notions, these from guess. There's some peculiar in each leaf and grain, Some unmark'd fibre, or some varying vein. Shall only man be taken in the gross ? Grant but as many sorts of mind as moss.
That each from other differs, first confess; Next, that he varies from himself no less; Add nature's, custom's, reason's, passion's strife, And all opinion's colours cast on life.
Our depths who fathoms, or our shallows finds ? Quick whirls and shifting eddies of our minds. On human actions reason though you can, It may be reason, but it is not man: His principle of action once explore, That instant ’tis his principle no more. Like following life through creatures you dissect, You lose it in the moment you detect. .
Yet more; the difference is as great between The optics seeing as the objects seen. All manners take a tincture from our own, Or come discolour’d, through our passions shown; Or fancy's beam enlarges, multiplies, i Contracts, inverts, and gives ten thousand dyes.
Nor will life's stream for observation stay, It hurries all too fast to mark their way: In vain sedate reflections we would make, When half our knowledge we must snatch, not take. Oft in the passions' wild rotation toss'd, Our spring of action to ourselves is lost: Tired, not determined, to the last we yield, And what comes then, is master of the field. As the least image of that troubled heap, When sense subsides, and fancy sports in sleep, (Though past the recollection of the thought) Becomes the stuff of which our dream is wrought: Something as dim to our internal view Is thus, perhaps, the cause of most we do.
True, some are open, and to all men known; Others so very close, they're hid from none; (So darkness strikes the sense no less than light) Thuś gracious Chandos is beloved at sight; And every child hates Shylock, though his soul Still sits at squat, and peeps not from its hole. At half mankind when generous Manly raves, All know 'tis virtue, for he thinks them knaves : When universal homage Umbra pays, All see 'tis vice, and itch of vulgar praise. When flattery glares, all hate it in a queen, While one there is who charms us with his spleen.
But these plain characters we rarely find; Though strong the bent, yet quick the turns of mind: Or puzzling contraries confound the whole; Or affectations quite reverse the soul. The dull flat falsehood serves for policy; And in the cunning, truth itself's a lie: Unthought-of frailties cheat us in the wise: The fool lies hid in inconsistencies.
See the same man in vigour, in the gout,
Catius is ever moral, ever grave,
Who would not praise Patricio's high desert,
What made (say Montaigne, or more sage CharOtho a warrior, Cromwell a buffoon? [ron) A perjured prince a leaden saint revere, A godless regent tremble at a star? The throne a bigot keep, a genius quit, Faithless through piety, and duped through wit? Europe a woman, child, or dotard, rule; And just her wisest monarch made a fool?
Know, God and Nature only are the same: In man the judgment shoots at flying game, A bird of passage! gone as soon as found; Now in the moon, perhaps, now under ground,
PART II. IN vain the sage, with retrospective eye, Would from the' apparent. what conclude the why,
Infer the motive from the deed, and show
Not always actions show the man: we find
But grant that actions best discover man; Take the most strong, and sort them as you can: The few that glare each character must mark; You balance not the many in the dark. What will you do with such as disagree? Suppress them, or miscal them policy? Must then at once (the character to save) The plain rough hero turn a crafty knave? Alas! in truth the man but changed his mind; Perhaps was sick, in love, or had not dined. Ask why from Britain Cæsar would retreat ? Cæsar himself might whisper, he was beat. Why risk the world's great empire for a punk? Cæsar perhaps might answer, he was drunk. But, sage historians ! 'tis your task to prove : One action, conduct, one heroic love.