The battle of the books.., p.13
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       The Battle of the Books and Other Short Pieces, p.13

           Jonathan Swift
 
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them are well to be endured. I say nothing here of the itch of

  dispute and contradiction, telling of lies, or of those who are

  troubled with the disease called the wandering of the thoughts,

  that they are never present in mind at what passeth in discourse;

  for whoever labours under any of these possessions is as unfit for

  conversation as madmen in Bedlam.

  I think I have gone over most of the errors in conversation that

  have fallen under my notice or memory, except some that are merely

  personal, and others too gross to need exploding; such as lewd or

  profane talk; but I pretend only to treat the errors of

  conversation in general, and not the several subjects of discourse,

  which would be infinite. Thus we see how human nature is most

  debased, by the abuse of that faculty, which is held the great

  distinction between men and brutes; and how little advantage we

  make of that which might be the greatest, the most lasting, and the

  most innocent, as well as useful pleasure of life: in default of

  which, we are forced to take up with those poor amusements of dress

  and visiting, or the more pernicious ones of play, drink, and

  vicious amours, whereby the nobility and gentry of both sexes are

  entirely corrupted both in body and mind, and have lost all notions

  of love, honour, friendship, and generosity; which, under the name

  of fopperies, have been for some time laughed out of doors.

  This degeneracy of conversation, with the pernicious consequences

  thereof upon our humours and dispositions, hath been owing, among

  other causes, to the custom arisen, for some time past, of

  excluding women from any share in our society, further than in

  parties at play, or dancing, or in the pursuit of an amour. I take

  the highest period of politeness in England (and it is of the same

  date in France) to have been the peaceable part of King Charles

  I.'s reign; and from what we read of those times, as well as from

  the accounts I have formerly met with from some who lived in that

  court, the methods then used for raising and cultivating

  conversation were altogether different from ours; several ladies,

  whom we find celebrated by the poets of that age, had assemblies at

  their houses, where persons of the best understanding, and of both

  sexes, met to pass the evenings in discoursing upon whatever

  agreeable subjects were occasionally started; and although we are

  apt to ridicule the sublime Platonic notions they had, or

  personated in love and friendship, I conceive their refinements

  were grounded upon reason, and that a little grain of the romance

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  is no ill ingredient to preserve and exalt the dignity of human

  nature, without which it is apt to degenerate into everything that

  is sordid, vicious, and low. If there were no other use in the

  conversation of ladies, it is sufficient that it would lay a

  restraint upon those odious topics of immodesty and indecencies,

  into which the rudeness of our northern genius is so apt to fall.

  And, therefore, it is observable in those sprightly gentlemen about

  the town, who are so very dexterous at entertaining a vizard mask

  in the park or the playhouse, that, in the company of ladies of

  virtue and honour, they are silent and disconcerted, and out of

  their element.

  There are some people who think they sufficiently acquit themselves

  and entertain their company with relating of facts of no

  consequence, nor at all out of the road of such common incidents as

  happen every day; and this I have observed more frequently among

  the Scots than any other nation, who are very careful not to omit

  the minutest circumstances of time or place; which kind of

  discourse, if it were not a little relieved by the uncouth terms

  and phrases, as well as accent and gesture peculiar to that

  country, would be hardly tolerable. It is not a fault in company

  to talk much; but to continue it long is certainly one; for, if the

  majority of those who are got together be naturally silent or

  cautious, the conversation will flag, unless it be often renewed by

  one among them who can start new subjects, provided he doth not

  dwell upon them, but leaveth room for answers and replies.

  CHAPTER XVI - THOUGHTS ON VARIOUS SUBJECTS.

  WE have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to

  make us love one another.

  Reflect on things past as wars, negotiations, factions, etc. We

  enter so little into those interests, that we wonder how men could

  possibly be so busy and concerned for things so transitory; look on

  the present times, we find the same humour, yet wonder not at all.

  A wise man endeavours, by considering all circumstances, to make

  conjectures and form conclusions; but the smallest accident

  intervening (and in the course of affairs it is impossible to

  foresee all) does often produce such turns and changes, that at

  last he is just as much in doubt of events as the most ignorant and

  inexperienced person.

  Positiveness is a good quality for preachers and orators, because

  he that would obtrude his thoughts and reasons upon a multitude,

  will convince others the more, as he appears convinced himself.

  How is it possible to expect that mankind will take advice, when

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  The Battle of the Books and

  Other Short Pieces

  they will not so much as take warning?

  I forget whether Advice be among the lost things which Aristo says

  are to be found in the moon; that and Time ought to have been

  there.

  No preacher is listened to but Time, which gives us the same train

  and turn of thought that older people have tried in vain to put

  into our heads before.

  When we desire or solicit anything, our minds run wholly on the

  good side or circumstances of it; when it is obtained, our minds

  run wholly on the bad ones.

  In a glass-house the workmen often fling in a small quantity of

  fresh coals, which seems to disturb the fire, but very much

  enlivens it. This seems to allude to a gentle stirring of the

  passions, that the mind may not languish.

  Religion seems to have grown an infant with age, and requires

  miracles to nurse it, as it had in its infancy.

  All fits of pleasure are balanced by an equal degree of pain or

  languor; it is like spending this year part of the next year's

  revenue.

  The latter part of a wise man's life is taken up in curing the

  follies, prejudices, and false opinions he had contracted in the

  former.

  Would a writer know how to behave himself with relation to

  posterity, let him consider in old books what he finds that he is

  glad to know, and what omissions he most laments.

  Whatever the poets pretend, it is plain they give immortality to

  none but themselves; it is Homer and Virgil we reverence and


  admire, not Achilles or AEneas. With historians it is quite the

  contrary; our thoughts are taken up with the actions, persons, and

  events we read, and we little regard the authors.

  When a true genius appears in the world you may know him by this

  sign; that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.

  Men who possess all the advantages of life, are in a state where

  there are many accidents to disorder and discompose, but few to

  please them.

  It is unwise to punish cowards with ignominy, for if they had

  regarded that they would not have been cowards; death is their

  proper punishment, because they fear it most.

  The greatest inventions were produced in the times of ignorance, as

  the use of the compass, gunpowder, and printing, and by the dullest

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  nation, as the Germans.

  One argument to prove that the common relations of ghosts and

  spectres are generally false, may be drawn from the opinion held

  that spirits are never seen by more than one person at a time; that

  is to say, it seldom happens to above one person in a company to be

  possessed with any high degree of spleen or melancholy.

  I am apt to think that, in the day of Judgment, there will be small

  allowance given to the wise for their want of morals, nor to the

  ignorant for their want of faith, because both are without excuse.

  This renders the advantages equal of ignorance and knowledge. But,

  some scruples in the wise, and some vices in the ignorant, will

  perhaps be forgiven upon the strength of temptation to each.

  The value of several circumstances in story lessens very much by

  distance of time, though some minute circumstances are very

  valuable; and it requires great judgment in a writer to

  distinguish.

  It is grown a word of course for writers to say, "This critical

  age," as divines say, "This sinful age."

  It is pleasant to observe how free the present age is in laying

  taxes on the next. FUTURE AGES SHALL TALK OF THIS; THIS SHALL BE

  FAMOUS TO ALL POSTERITY. Whereas their time and thoughts will be

  taken up about present things, as ours are now.

  The chameleon, who is said to feed upon nothing but air, hath, of

  all animals, the nimblest tongue.

  When a man is made a spiritual peer he loses his surname; when a

  temporal, his Christian name.

  It is in disputes as in armies, where the weaker side sets up false

  lights, and makes a great noise, to make the enemy believe them

  more numerous and strong than they really are.

  Some men, under the notions of weeding out prejudices, eradicate

  virtue, honesty, and religion.

  In all well-instituted commonwealths, care has been taken to limit

  men's possessions; which is done for many reasons, and among the

  rest, for one which perhaps is not often considered: that when

  bounds are set to men's desires, after they have acquired as much

  as the laws will permit them, their private interest is at an end,

  and they have nothing to do but to take care of the public.

  There are but three ways for a man to revenge himself of the

  censure of the world: to despise it, to return the like, or to

  endeavour to live so as to avoid it. The first of these is usually

  pretended, the last is almost impossible; the universal practice is

  for the second.

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  I never heard a finer piece of satire against lawyers than that of

  astrologers, when they pretend by rules of art to tell when a suit

  will end, and whether to the advantage of the plaintiff or

  defendant; thus making the matter depend entirely upon the

  influence of the stars, without the least regard to the merits of

  the cause.

  The expression in Apocrypha about Tobit and his dog following him I

  have often heard ridiculed, yet Homer has the same words of

  Telemachus more than once; and Virgil says something like it of

  Evander. And I take the book of Tobit to be partly poetical.

  I have known some men possessed of good qualities, which were very

  serviceable to others, but useless to themselves; like a sun-dial

  on the front of a house, to inform the neighbours and passengers,

  but not the owner within.

  If a man would register all his opinions upon love, politics,

  religion, learning, etc., beginning from his youth and so go on to

  old age, what a bundle of inconsistencies and contradictions would

  appear at last!

  What they do in heaven we are ignorant of; what they do not we are

  told expressly: that they neither marry, nor are given in

  marriage.

  It is a miserable thing to live in suspense; it is the life of a

  spider.

  The Stoical scheme of supplying our wants by lopping off our

  desires, is like cutting off our feet when we want shoes.

  Physicians ought not to give their judgment of religion, for the

  same reason that butchers are not admitted to be jurors upon life

  and death.

  The reason why so few marriages are happy, is, because young ladies

  spend their time in making nets, not in making cages.

  If a man will observe as he walks the streets, I believe he will

  find the merriest countenances in mourning coaches.

  Nothing more unqualifies a man to act with prudence than a

  misfortune that is attended with shame and guilt.

  The power of fortune is confessed only by the miserable; for the

  happy impute all their success to prudence or merit.

  Ambition often puts men upon doing the meanest offices; so climbing

  is performed in the same posture with creeping.

  Censure is the tax a man pays to the public for being eminent.

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  Although men are accused for not knowing their own weakness, yet

  perhaps as few know their own strength. It is, in men as in soils,

  where sometimes there is a vein of gold which the owner knows not

  of.

  Satire is reckoned the easiest of all wit, but I take it to be

  otherwise in very bad times: for it is as hard to satirise well a

  man of distinguished vices, as to praise well a man of

  distinguished virtues. It is easy enough to do either to people of

  moderate characters.

  Invention is the talent of youth, and judgment of age; so that our

  judgment grows harder to please, when we have fewer things to offer

  it: this goes through the whole commerce of life. When we are

  old, our friends find it difficult to please us, and are less

  concerned whether we be pleased or no.

  No wise man ever wished to be younger.

  An idle reason lessens the weight of the good ones you gave before.

  The motives of the best actions will not bear too strict an

  inquiry. It is allowe
d that the cause of most actions, good or

  bad, may he resolved into the love of ourselves; but the self-love

  of some men inclines them to please others, and the self-love of

  others is wholly employed in pleasing themselves. This makes the

  great distinction between virtue and vice. Religion is the best

  motive of all actions, yet religion is allowed to be the highest

  instance of self-love.

  Old men view best at a distance with the eyes of their

  understanding as well as with those of nature.

  Some people take more care to hide their wisdom than their folly.

  Anthony Henley's farmer, dying of an asthma, said, "Well, if I can

  get this breath once OUT, I'll take care it never got IN again."

  The humour of exploding many things under the name of trifles,

  fopperies, and only imaginary goods, is a very false proof either

  of wisdom or magnanimity, and a great check to virtuous actions.

  For instance, with regard to fame, there is in most people a

  reluctance and unwillingness to be forgotten. We observe, even

  among the vulgar, how fond they are to have an inscription over

  their grave. It requires but little philosophy to discover and

  observe that there is no intrinsic value in all this; however, if

  it be founded in our nature as an incitement to virtue, it ought

  not to be ridiculed.

  Complaint is the largest tribute heaven receives, and the sincerest

  part of our devotion.

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  The Battle of the Books and

  Other Short Pieces

  The common fluency of speech in many men, and most women, is owing

  to a scarcity of matter, and a scarcity of words; for whoever is a

  master of language, and hath a mind full of ideas, will be apt, in

  speaking, to hesitate upon the choice of both; whereas common

  speakers have only one set of ideas, and one set of words to clothe

  them in, and these are always ready at the mouth. So people come

  faster out of a church when it is almost empty, than when a crowd

  is at the door.

  Few are qualified to shine in company; but it is in most men's

  power to be agreeable. The reason, therefore, why conversation

  runs so low at present, is not the defect of understanding, but

  pride, vanity, ill-nature, affectation, singularity, positiveness,

  or some other vice, the effect of a wrong education.

  To be vain is rather a mark of humility than pride. Vain men

  delight in telling what honours have been done them, what great

  company they have kept, and the like, by which they plainly confess

  that these honours were more than their due, and such as their

  friends would not believe if they had not been told: whereas a man

  truly proud thinks the greatest honours below his merit, and

  consequently scorns to boast. I therefore deliver it as a maxim,

  that whoever desires the character of a proud man, ought to conceal

  his vanity.

  Law, in a free country, is, or ought to be, the determination of

  the majority of those who have property in land.

  One argument used to the disadvantage of Providence I take to be a

  very strong one in its defence. It is objected that storms and

  tempests, unfruitful seasons, serpents, spiders, flies, and other

  noxious or troublesome animals, with many more instances of the

  like kind, discover an imperfection in nature, because human life

  would be much easier without them; but the design of Providence may

  clearly be perceived in this proceeding. The motions of the sun

  and moon - in short, the whole system of the universe, as far as

  philosophers have been able to discover and observe, are in the

  utmost degree of regularity and perfection; but wherever God hath

  left to man the power of interposing a remedy by thought or labour,

  there he hath placed things in a state of imperfection, on purpose

  to stir up human industry, without which life would stagnate, or,

 
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