“Liquidus, puroque simillimus amni,” [“Liquid, and likest the pure river.” —Horace, Ep., ii.
S, 120.] and so possesses the soul with his graces that we forget those of his fable.
This same consideration carries me further: I observe that the best of the ancient poets have avoided affectation and the hunting after, not only fantastic Spanish and Petrarchic elevations, but even the softer and more gentle touches, which are the ornament of all succeeding poesy.
And yet there is no good judgment that will condemn this in the ancients, and that does not incomparably more admire the equal polish, and that perpetual sweetness and flourishing beauty of Catullus’s epigrams, than all the stings with which Martial arms the tails of his.
This is by the same reason that I gave before, and as Martial says of himself: “Minus illi ingenio laborandum fuit, in cujus locum materia successerat:” [“He had the less for his wit to do that the subject itself supplied what was necessary.”—Martial, praef.
Viii.] The first, without being moved, or without getting angry, make themselves sufficiently felt; they have matter enough of laughter throughout, they need not tickle themselves; the others have need of foreign assistance; as they have the less wit they must have the more body; they mount on horseback, because they are not able to stand on their own legs.
As in our balls, those mean fellows who teach to dance, not being able to represent the presence and dignity of our noblesse, are fain to put themselves forward with dangerous jumping, and other strange motions and tumblers tricks; and the ladies are less put to it in dance; where there are various coupees, changes, and quick motions of body, than in some other of a more sedate kind, where they are only to move a natural pace, and to represent their ordinary grace and presence.
And so I have seen good drolls, when in their own everyday clothes, and with the same face they always wear, give us all the pleasure of their art, when their apprentices, not yet arrived at such a pitch of perfection, are fain to meal their faces, put themselves into ridiculous disguises, and make a hundred grotesque faces to give us whereat to laugh.
This conception of mine is nowhere more demonstrable than in comparing the AEneid with Orlando Furioso; of which we see the first, by dint of wing, flying in a brave and lofty place, and always following his point: the latter, fluttering and hopping from tale to tale, as from branch to branch, not daring to trust his wings but in very short flights, and perching at every turn, lest his breath and strength should fail. “Excursusque breves tentat.” [“And he attempts short excursions.” —Virgil, Georgics, iv. 194.] These, then, as to this sort of subjects, are the authors that best please me. As to what concerns my other reading, that mixes a little more profit with the pleasure, and whence I learn how to marshal my opinions and conditions, the books that serve me to this purpose are Plutarch, since he has been translated into French, and Seneca.
Both of these have this notable convenience suited to my humour, that the knowledge I there seek is discoursed in loose pieces, that do not require from me any trouble of reading long, of which I am incapable.
Such are the minor works of the first and the epistles of the latter, which are the best and most profiting of all their writings. ‘Tis no great attempt to take one of them in hand, and I give over at pleasure; for they have no sequence or dependence upon one another.
These authors, for the most part, concur in useful and true opinions; and there is this parallel betwixt them, that fortune brought them into the world about the same century: they were both tutors to two Roman emperors: both sought out from foreign countries: both rich and both great men.
Their instruction is the cream of philosophy, and delivered after a plain and pertinent manner.
Plutarch is more uniform and constant; Seneca more various and waving: the last toiled and bent his whole strength to fortify virtue against weakness, fear, and vicious appetites; the other seems more to slight their power, and to disdain to alter his pace and to stand upon his guard.
Plutarch’s opinions are Platonic, gentle, and accommodated to civil society; those of the other are Stoical and Epicurean, more remote from the common use, but, in my opinion, more individually commodious and more firm.
Seneca seems to lean a little to the tyranny of the emperors of his time, and only seems; for I take it for certain that he speaks against his judgment when he condemns the action of the generous murderers of Caesar.
Plutarch is frank throughout: Seneca abounds with brisk touches and sallies; Plutarch with things that warm and move you more; this contents and pays you better: he guides us, the other pushes us on. As to Cicero, his works that are most useful to my design are they that treat of manners and rules of our life.
But boldly to confess the truth (for since one has passed the barriers of impudence, there is no bridle), his way of writing appears to me negligent and uninviting: for his prefaces, definitions, divisions, and etymologies take up the greatest part of his work: whatever there is of life and marrow is smothered and lost in the long preparation.
When I have spent an hour in reading him, which is a great deal for me, and try to recollect what I have thence extracted of juice and substance, for the most part I find nothing but wind; for he is not yet come to the arguments that serve to his purpose, and to the reasons that properly help to form the knot I seek.
For me, who only desire to become more wise, not more learned or eloquent, these logical and Aristotelian dispositions of parts are of no use.
I would have a man begin with the main proposition.
I know well enough what death and pleasure are; let no man give himself the trouble to anatomise them to me.
I look for good and solid reasons, at the first dash, to instruct me how to stand their shock, for which purpose neither grammatical subtleties nor the quaint contexture of words and argumentations are of any use at all.
I am for discourses that give the first charge into the heart of the redoubt; his languish about the subject; they are proper for the schools, for the bar, and for the pulpit, where we have leisure to nod, and may awake, a quarter of an hour after, time enough to find again the thread of the discourse.
It is necessary to speak after this manner to judges, whom a man has a design to gain over, right or wrong, to children and common people, to whom a man must say all, and see what will come of it.
I would not have an author make it his business to render me attentive: or that he should cry out fifty times Oyez! as the heralds do.
The Romans, in their religious exercises, began with ‘Hoc age’ as we in ours do with ‘Sursum corda’; these are so many words lost to me: I come already fully prepared from my chamber.
I need no allurement, no invitation, no sauce; I eat the meat raw, so that, instead of whetting my appetite by these preparatives, they tire and pall it.
Will the licence of the time excuse my sacrilegious boldness if I censure the dialogism of Plato himself as also dull and heavy, too much stifling the matter, and lament so much time lost by a man, who had so many better things to say, in so many long and needless preliminary interlocutions? My ignorance will better excuse me in that I understand not Greek so well as to discern the beauty of his language.
I generally choose books that use sciences, not such as only lead to them.
The two first, and Pliny, and their like, have nothing of this Hoc age; they will have to do with men already instructed; or if they have, ’tis a substantial Hoc age; and that has a body by itself.
I also delight in reading the Epistles to Atticus, not only because they contain a great deal of the history and affairs of his time, but much more because I therein discover much of his own private humours; for I have a singular curiosity, as I have said elsewhere, to pry into the souls and the natural and true opinions of the authors, with whom I converse.
A man may indeed judge of their parts, but not of their manners nor of themselves, by the writings they exhibit upon the theatre of the world.
I have a thousand times lamented the loss of the treatise Brutus wrote upon Virtue, for it is well to learn the theory from those who best know the practice. But seeing the matter preached and the preacher are different things, I would as willingly see Brutus in Plutarch, as in a book of his own.
I would rather choose to be certainly informed of the conference he had in his tent with some particular friends of his the night before a battle, than of the harangue he made the next day to his army; and of what he did in his closet and his chamber, than what he did in the public square and in the senate.
As to Cicero, I am of the common opinion that, learning excepted, he had no great natural excellence.
He was a good citizen, of an affable nature, as all fat, heavy men, such as he was, usually are; but given to ease, and had, in truth, a mighty share of vanity and ambition.
Neither do I know how to excuse him for thinking his poetry fit to be published; ’tis no great imperfection to make ill verses, but it is an imperfection not to be able to judge how unworthy his verses were of the glory of his name.
For what concerns his eloquence, that is totally out of all comparison, and I believe it will never be equalled.
The younger Cicero, who resembled his father in nothing but in name, whilst commanding in Asia, had several strangers one day at his table, and, amongst the rest, Cestius seated at the lower end, as men often intrude to the open tables of the great.
Cicero asked one of his people who that man was, who presently told him his name; but he, as one who had his thoughts taken up with something else, and who had forgotten the answer made him, asking three or four times, over and over again; the same question, the fellow, to deliver himself from so many answers and to make him know him by some particular circumstance; “’tis that Cestius,” said he, “of whom it was told you, that he makes no great account of your father’s eloquence in comparison of his own.” At which Cicero, being suddenly nettled, commanded poor Cestius presently to be seized, and caused him to be very well whipped in his own presence; a very discourteous entertainer! Yet even amongst those, who, all things considered, have reputed his, eloquence incomparable, there have been some, who have not stuck to observe some faults in it: as that great Brutus his friend, for example, who said ’twas a broken and feeble eloquence, ‘fyactam et elumbem’.
The orators also, nearest to the age wherein he lived, reprehended in him the care he had of a certain long cadence in his periods, and particularly took notice of these words, ‘esse videatur’, which he there so often makes use of.
For my part, I more approve of a shorter style, and that comes more roundly off.
He does, though, sometimes shuffle his parts more briskly together, but ’tis very seldom.
I have myself taken notice of this one passage: “Ego vero me minus diu senem mallem, quam esse senem, antequam essem.” [“I had rather be old a brief time, than be old before old age. —”Cicero, De Senect., c. 10.] The historians are my right ball, for they are pleasant and easy, and where man, in general, the knowledge of whom I hunt after, appears more vividly and entire than anywhere else: [The easiest of my amusements, the right ball at tennis being that
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