S. Austin Allibone, comp. Prose Quotations from Socrates to Macaulay. 1880.
If men of eminence are exposed to censure on one hand, they are as much liable to flattery on the other. If they receive reproaches which are not due to them, they likewise receive praises which they do not deserve. In a word, the man in a high post is never regarded with an indifferent eye, but always considered as a friend or an enemy. For this reason persons in great stations have seldom their true characters drawn till several years after their deaths. Their personal friendships and enmities must cease, and the parties they were engaged in be at an end, before their faults or their virtues can have justice done them. When writers have the least opportunities of knowing the truth, they are in the best disposition to tell it.
A multitude of eyes will narrowly inspect every part of an eminent man, consider him nicely in all views, and not be a little pleased when they have taken him in the worst and most disadvantageous lights.
Men in great place are thrice servants: servants of the sovereign or state, servants of fame, and servants of business; so as they have no freedom, neither in their persons, nor in their actions, nor in their times. It is a strange desire to seek power over others, and to lose power over a mans self.
Nay, retire men cannot when they would, neither will they when it were reason; but are impatient of privateness even in age and sickness, which require the shadow; like old townsmen that will be still sitting at their street door, though thereby they offer age to scorn.
Certainly great persons had need to borrow other mens opinions to think themselves happy; for if they judge by their own feeling, they cannot find it; but if they think with themselves what other men think of them, and that other men would fain be as they are, then they are happy, as it were, by report, when perhaps they find the contrary within: for they are the first who find their own griefs, though they be the last that find their own faults. Certainly, men in great fortunes are strangers to themselves, and while they are in the puzzle of business they have no time to tend their health either of body or mind.
We cannot look, however imperfectly, upon a great man without gaining something by him. He is the living light-fountain which it is good and pleasant to be near; the light which enlightens, which has enlightened, the darkness of the world; and this not as a kindled lamp only, but rather as a natural luminary, shining by the gift of Heaven; a flowing light-fountain, as I say, of native original insight, of manhood and heroic nobleness, in whose radiance all souls feel that it is well with them.
A great man is affable in his converse, generous in his temper, and immovable in what he has maturely resolved upon; and as prosperity does not make him haughty and imperious, so neither does adversity sink him into meanness and dejection; for if ever he shows more spirit than ordinary, it is when he is ill-used and the world frowns upon him; in short, he is equally removed from the extremes of servility and pride, and scorns either to trample upon a worm or sneak to an emperor.
Times of general calamity and confusion have ever been productive of the greatest minds. The purest ore is produced from the hottest furnace, and the brightest thunderbolt is elicited from the darkest storm.
In reading the life of any great man you will always, in the course of his history, chance upon some obscure individual who, on some particular occasion, was greater than him whose life you are reading.
Some men who know that they are great are so very haughty withal and insufferable that their acquaintance discover their greatness only by the tax of humility, which they are obliged to pay as the price of their friendship. Such characters are as tiresome and disgusting in the journey of life as rugged roads are to the weary traveller, which he discovers to be turnpikes only by the toll.
I have visited many countries, and have been in cities without number, yet never did I enter a town which could not produce ten or twelve of those little great men, all fancying themselves known to the rest of the world, and complimenting each other upon their extensive reputation. It is amusing enough when two of those domestic prodigies of learning mount the stage of ceremony, and give and take praise from each other.
The greatness of all actions is measured by the worthiness of the subject from which they proceed, and the object whereabout they are conversant: we must of necessity, in both respects, acknowledge that this present world affordeth not anything comparable unto the duties of religion.
Were we to distinguish the ranks of men by their genius and capacity, more than by their virtue and usefulness to the public, great philosophers would certainly challenge the first rank, and must be placed at the top of mankind. So rare is this character, that perhaps there has not as yet been above two in the world who can lay a just claim to it. At least Galileo and Newton seem to me so far to excel all the rest, that I cannot admit any other into the same place with them.
Great poets may challenge the second place; and this species of genius, though rare, is yet much more frequent than the former. Of the Greek poets that remain, Homer alone seems to merit this character; of the Romans, Virgil, Horace, and Lucretius; of the English, Milton and Pope; Corneille, Racine, Boileau, and Voltaire of the French; Tasso and Ariosto of the Italians.
If I am asked, Who is the greatest man? I answer, The best; and if I am required to say, Who is the best? I reply, He that has deserved most of his fellow-creatures. Whether we deserve better of mankind by the cultivation of letters, by obscure and inglorious attainments, by intellectual pursuits calculated rather to amuse than inform, than by strenuous exertions in speaking and acting, let those consider who busy themselves in studies unproductive of any benefit to their country or fellow-citizens, I think not.
Those who have read history with discrimination know the fallacy of those panegyrics and invectives which represent individuals as effecting great moral and intellectual revolutions, subverting established systems, and imprinting a new character on their age. The difference between one man and another is by no means so great as the superstitious crowd supposes. But the same feelings which in ancient Rome produced the apotheosis of a popular emperor, and in modern times the canonization of a devout prelate, lead men to cherish an illusion which furnishes them with something to adore. By a law of association, from the operation of which even minds the most strictly regulated by reason are not wholly exempt, misery disposes us to hatred, and happiness to love, although there may be no person to whom our misery or our happiness can be ascribed. The peevishness of an invalid vents itself even on those who alleviate his pain. The good humour of a man elated by success often displays itself towards enemies. In the same manner, the feelings of pleasure and admiration to which the contemplation of great events gives birth make an object where they do not find it. Thus nations descend to the absurdities of Egyptian idolatry and worship stocks and reptiles,Sacheverells and Wilkeses. They even fall prostrate before a deity to which they have themselves given the form which commands their veneration, and which, unless fashioned by them, would have remained a shapeless block. They persuade themselves that they are the creatures of what they have themselves created. For, in fact, it is the age that forms the man, not the man that forms the age.
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: John Dryden, Jan. 1828.
Great minds do indeed react on the society which has made them what they are; but they only pay with interest what they have received. We extol Bacon and sneer at Aquinas. But if their situations had been changed, Bacon might have been the Angelical Doctor, the most subtle Aristotelian of the schools; the Dominican might have led forth the sciences from their house of bondage. If Luther had been born in the tenth century, he would have effected no reformation. If he had never been born at all, it is evident that the sixteenth century could not have elapsed without a great schism in the church. Voltaire in the days of Louis the Fourteenth would probably have been, like most of the literary men of that time, a jealous Jansenist, eminent among the defenders of efficacious grace, a bitter assailant of the lax morality of the Jesuits and the unreasonable decisions of the Sorbonne. If Pascal had entered on his literary career when intelligence was more general, and abuses at the same time more flagrant, when the church was polluted by the Iscariot Dubois, the court disgraced by the orgies of Canillac, and the nation sacrificed to the juggles of Law, if he had lived to see a dynasty of harlots, an empty treasury and a crowded harem, an army formidable only to those whom it should have protected, a priesthood just religious enough to be intolerant, he might possibly, like every man of genius in France, have imbibed extravagant prejudices against monarchy and Christianity. The wit which blasted the sophisms of Escobarthe impassioned eloquence which defended the sisters of Port-Royalthe intellectual hardihood which was not beaten down even by Papal authoritymight have raised him to the Patriarchate of the Philosophical Church.
Society indeed has its great men and its little men, as the earth has its mountains and its valleys. But the inequalities of intellect, like the inequalities of the surface of our globe, bear so small a proportion to the mass that in calculating its great revolutions they may safely be neglected. The sun illuminates the hills whilst it is still below the horizon, and truth is discovered by the highest minds a little before it becomes manifest to the multitude. This is the extent of their superiority. They are the first to catch and reflect a light which, without their assistance, must in a short time be visible to those who lie far beneath them.
The same remark will apply equally to the fine arts. The laws on which depend the progress and decline of poetry, painting, and sculpture operate with little less certainty than those which regulate the periodical returns of heat and cold, of fertility and barrenness. Those who seem to lead the public taste are, in general, merely outrunning it in the direction which it is spontaneously pursuing.
He alone is worthy of the appellation [great] who does great things, or teaches how they may be done, or describes them with a suitable majesty when they have been done; but those only are great things which tend to render life more happy, which increase the innocent enjoyments and comforts of existence, or which pave the way to a state of future bliss more permanent and more pure.
Worthy deeds are not often destitute of worthy relaters; as, by a certain fate, great acts and great eloquence have most commonly gone hand in hand, equalling and honouring each other in the same ages.
The greatest man is he who chooses right with the most invincible resolution; who resists the sorest temptation from within and without; who bears the heaviest burdens cheerfully; who is calmest in storms, and most fearless under menaces and frowns; whose reliance on truth, on virtue, and on God is most unfaltering.
He is happiest who advances more gradually to greatness; whom the Public destines to every step of his preferment long before he arrives at it; in whom, upon that account, when it comes, it can excite no extravagant joy, and with regard to whom it cannot reasonably create either any jealousy in those he overtakes, or any envy in those he leaves behind.
There never was any heart truly great and generous that was not also tender and compassionate: it is this noble quality that makes all men to be of one kind; for every man would be a distinct species to himself were there no sympathy among individuals.
A nation may indeed abound with persons of such uncommon parts and worth as may make them rather a misfortune than a blessing to the public. Those, who singly might have been of infinite advantage to the age they live in, may, by rising up together in the same crisis of time, and by interfering in their pursuits of honour, rather interrupt, than promote, the service of their country. Of this we have a famous instance in the republic of Rome, when Cæsar, Pompey, Cato, Cicero, and Brutus, endeavoured to recommend themselves at the same time to the admiration of their contemporaries. Mankind was not able to provide for so many extraordinary persons at once, or find out posts suitable to their ambition and abilities. For this reason they were all as miserable in their deaths as they were famous in their lives, and occasioned not only the ruin of each other, but also that of the commonwealth.
It is therefore a particular happiness to a people when the men of superior genius and character are so justly disposed in the high places of honour, that each of them moves in a sphere which is proper to him, and requires those particular qualities in which he excels.
There can be no greater injury to human society than that good talents among men should be held honourable to those who are endowed with them, without any regard to how they are applied. The gifts of nature and accomplishments of art are valuable but as they are exerted in the interests of virtue or governed by the rules of honour. We ought to abstract our minds from the observation of an excellence in those we converse with, till we have taken some notice, or received some good information, of the disposition of their minds; otherwise the beauty of their persons, or the charms of their wit, may make us fond of those whom our reason and judgment will tell us we ought to abhor.
I take it to be the highest instance of a noble mind, to bear great qualities without discovering in a mans behaviour any consciousness that he is superior to the rest of the world. Or, to say it otherwise, it is the duty of a great person so to demean himself, as that whatever endowments he may have, he may appear to value himself upon no qualities but such as any man may arrive at. He ought to think no man valuable but for his public spirit, justice, and integrity: and all other endowments to be esteemed only as they contribute to the exerting those virtues.