Essays (Cowley)/Of Avarice


There are two sorts of avarice; the one is but of a bastard kind; and that is, the rapacious appetite of gain, not for its own sake, but for the pleasure of refunding it immediately through all the channels of pride and luxury. The other is the true kind, and properly so called; which is a restless and unsatiable desire of riches, not for any further end of use, but only to hoard, and preserve, and perpetually increase them. The covetous man of the first kind is like a greedy ostrich, which devours any metal, but it is with an intent to feed upon it, and in effect it makes a shift to digest and excern it. The second is like the foolish chough, which loves to steal money only to hide it. The first does much harm to mankind, and a little good too, to some few. The second does good to none; no, not to himself. The first can make no excuse to God, or angels, or rational men for his actions. The second can give no reason or colour, not to the devil himself, for what he does: he is a slave to Mammon without wages. The first makes a shift to be beloved: aye, and envied, too, by some people. The second is the universal object of hatred and contempt. There is no vice has been so pelted with good sentences, and especially by the poets, who have pursued it with stories and fables, and allegories and allusions; and moved, as we say, every stone to fling at it, among all which, I do not remember a more fine and gentleman-like correction than that which was given it by one line of Ovid's.

Desunt luxuriæ multa, avaritiæ omnia.

Much is wanting to luxury; all to avarice

To which saying I have a mind to add one member and render it thus:—

Poverty wants some, luxury many, avarice all things.

Somebody says of a virtuous and wise man, that having nothing, he has all. This is just his antipode, who, having all things, yet has nothing. He is a guardian eunuch to his beloved gold: Audivi eos amatores esse maximos sed nil potesse. They are the fondest lovers, but impotent to enjoy.

And, oh, what man's condition can be worse
Than his, whom plenty starves, and blessings curse?
The beggars but a common fate deplore,
The rich poor man's emphatically poor.

I wonder how it comes to pass that there has never been any law made against him. Against him, do I say? I mean for him, as there is a public provision made for all other madmen. It is very reasonable that the king should appoint some persons (and I think the courtiers would not be against this proposition) to manage his estate during his life (for his heirs commonly need not that care), and out of it to make it their business to see that he should not want alimony befitting his condition, which he could never get out of his own cruel fingers. We relieve idle vagrants and counterfeit beggars, but have no care at all of these really poor men, who are, methinks, to be respectfully treated in regard of their quality. I might be endless against them, but I am almost choked with the superabundance of the matter. Too much plenty impoverishes me as it does them. I will conclude this odious subject with part of Horace's first Satire, which take in his own familiar style:—

I admire, Mæcenas, how it comes to pass,
That no man ever yet contented was,
Nor is, nor perhaps will be, with that state
In which his own choice plants him, or his fate.
Happy the merchant! the old soldier cries.
The merchant, beaten with tempestuous skies
Happy the soldier! one half-hour to thee
Gives speedy death or glorious victory.
The lawyer, knocked up early from his rest
By restless clients, calls the peasant blest.
The peasant, when his labours ill succeed,

Envies the mouth which only talk does feed.
'Tis not, I think you'll say, that I want store
Of instances, if here I add no more,
They are enough to reach at least a mile
Beyond long Orator Fabius his style.
But hold, you whom no fortune e'er endears,
Gentlemen, malcontents, and mutineers,
Who bounteous Jove so often cruel call,
Behold, Jove's now resolved to please you all.
Thou, soldier, be a merchant; merchant, thou
A soldier be; and lawyer to the plough.
Change all your stations straight. Why do they stay?
The devil a man will change now when he may.
Were I in General Jove's abused case,
By Jove, I'd cudgel this rebellious race;
But he's too good; be all, then, as you were;
However, make the best of what you are,
And in that state be cheerful and rejoice,
Which either was your fate or was your choice.
No; they must labour yet, and sweat and toil,
And very miserable be awhile.

But 'tis with a design only to gain
What may their age with plenteous ease maintain;
The prudent pismire does this lesson teach,
And industry to lazy mankind preach.
The little drudge does trot about and sweat,
Nor does he straight devour all he can get,
But in his temperate mouth carries it home,
A stock for winter which he knows must come.
And when the rolling world to creatures here
Turns up the deformed wrong side of the year,
And shuts him in with storms and cold and wet,
He cheerfully does his past labours eat.
Oh, does he so? your wise example, the ant
Does not at all times rest, and plenty want.
But, weighing justly a mortal ant's condition,
Divides his life 'twixt labour and fruition.
Thee neither heat, nor storms, nor wet, nor cold
From thy unnatural diligence can withhold,
To the Indies thou wouldst run rather than see
Another, though a friend, richer than thee.

Fond man! what good or beauty can be found
In heaps of treasure buried under ground?
Which, rather than diminished e'er to see,
Thou wouldst thyself, too, buried with them be
And what's the difference? is't not quite as bad
Never to use, as never to have had?
In thy vast barns millions of quartets store,
Thy belly, for all that, will hold no more
Than mine does. Every baker makes much bread,
What then? He's with no more than others fed.
Do you within the bounds of Nature live,
And to augment your own you need not strive;
One hundred acres will no less for you
Your life's whole business than ten thousand do.
But pleasant 'tis to take from a great store;
What, man? though you're resolved to take no more
Than I do from a small one; if your will
Be but a pitcher or a pot to fill,
To some great river for it must you go,
When a clear spring just at your feet does flow?

Give me the spring which does to human use,
Safe, easy, and untroubled stores produce;
He who scorns these, and needs will drink at Nile,
Must run the danger of the crocodile:
And of the rapid stream itself which may,
At unawares bear him perhaps away.
In a full flood Tantalus stands, his skin
Washed o'er in vain, for ever dry within;
He catches at the stream with greedy lips,
From his touched mouth the wanton torment slips.
You laugh now, and expand your careful brow:
'Tis finely said, but what's all this to you?
Change but the name, this fable is thy story,
Thou in a flood of useless wealth dost glory,
Which thou canst only touch, but never taste;
The abundance still, and still the want does last.
The treasures of the gods thou wouldst not spare,
But when they're made thine own, they sacred are,
And must be kept with reverence, as if thou
No other use of precious gold didst know

But that of curious pictures to delight
With the fair stamp thy virtuoso sight.
The only true and genuine use is this,
To buy the things which nature cannot miss
Without discomfort, oil, and vital bread,
And wine by which the life of life is fed,
And all those few things else by which we live
All that remains is given for thee to give.
If cares and troubles, envy, grief, and fear,
The bitter fruits be which fair riches bear,
If a new poverty grow out of store,
The old plain way, ye gods! let me be poor.

A Paraphrase on an Ode in Horace's Third
Book, beginning thus:—

"Inclusam Danaen turris ahenea."

A tower of brass, one would have said,
And locks, and bolts, and iron bars,
And guards as strict as in the heat of wars

Might have preserved one innocent maidenhood.
The jealous father thought he well might spare
All further jealous care;
And as he walked, to himself alone he smiled
To think how Venus' arts he had beguiled;
And when he slept his rest was deep,
But Venus laughed to see and hear him sleep.
She taught the amorous Jove
A magical receipt in love,
Which armed him stronger and which helped him more
Than all his thunder did and his almightyship before.


She taught him love's elixir, by which art

His godhead into gold he did convert;
No guards did then his passage stay,
He passed with ease, gold was the word;
Subtle as lightning, bright, and quick, and fierce,
Gold through doors and walls did pierce;
And as that works sometimes upon the sword,

Melted the maiden dread away,
Even in the secret scabbard where it lay.
The prudent Macedonian king,
To blow up towns, a golden mine did spring;
He broke through gates with this petar,
'Tis the gi'eat art of peace, the engine 'tis of war,
And fleets and armies follow it afar;
The ensign 'tis at land, and "tis the seaman's star.


Let all the world slave to this tyrant be,

Creature to this disguisèd deity,
Yet it shall never conquer me.
A guard of virtues will not let it pass,
And wisdom is a tower of stronger brass.
The muses' laurel, round my temples spread,
Does from this lightning's force secure my head,
Nor will I lift it up so high,
As in the violent meteor's way to lie.
Wealth for its power do we honour and adore?
The things we hate, ill fate, and death, have more.


From towns and courts, camps of the rich and great,

Tho vast Xerxean army, I retreat,
And to the small Laconic forces fly
Which hold the straits of poverty.
Cellars and granaries in vain we fill
With all the bounteous summer's store:
If the mind thirst and hunger still,
The poor rich man's emphatically poor.
Slaves to the things we too much prize,
We masters grow of all that we despise.


A field of corn, a fountain, and a wood,

Is all the wealth by nature understood.
The monarch on whom fertile Nile bestows
All which that grateful earth can bear,
Deceives himself, if he suppose
That more than this falls to his share.
Whatever an estate does beyond this afford,
Is not a rent paid to the Lord;

But is a tax illegal and unjust,
Exacted from it by the tyrant lust.
Much will always wanting be,
To him who much desires. Thrice happy he
To whom the wise indulgency of Heaven,
With sparing hand but just enough has given.