Open main menu

The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 12/From Jonathan Swift to Henry St. John - 5

< The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift‎ | Volume 12

DECEMBER 19, 1719.

I FIRST congratulate with you upon growing rich; for I hope our friend's information is true, Omne solum diti patria. Euripides makes the queen Jocasta ask her exiled son, how he got his victuals? But who ever expected to see you a trader or dealer in stocks? I thought to have seen you where you are, or perhaps nearer: but diis aliter visum. It may be with one's country as with a lady: if she be cruel and ill natured, and will not receive us, we ought to consider that we are better without her. But, in this case, we may add, she has neither virtue, honour, nor justice. I have gotten a metzotinto (for want of a better) of Aristippus, in my drawingroom: the motto at the top is, Omnis Aristippum, &c. and at the bottom, Tantâ fœdus cum gente ferire, commissum juveni. But, since what I heard of Mississippi, I am grown fonder of the former motto. You have heard that Plato followed merchandise three years, to show he knew how to grow rich, as well as to be a philosopher: and I guess, Plato was then about forty, the period which the Italians prescribe for being wise, in order to be rich at fifty — Senes ut in otia tuta recedant. I have known something of courts and ministers longer than you, who knew them so many thousand times better; but I do not remember to have ever heard of, or seen, one great genius, who had long success in the ministry: and recollecting a great many, in my memory and acquaintance, those who had the smoothest time, were, at best, men of middling degree in understanding. But, if I were to frame a romance of a great minister's life, he should begin it as Aristippus has done; then be sent into exile, and employ his leisure in writing the memoirs of his own administration; then be recalled, invited to resume his share of power, act as far as was decent; at last, retire to the country, and be a pattern of hospitality, politeness, wisdom, and virtue. Have you not observed, that there is a lower kind of discretion and regularity, which seldom fails of raising men to the highest stations, in the court, the church, and the law? It must be so: for, Providence, which designed the world should be governed by many heads, made it a business within the reach of common understandings; while one great genius is hardly found among ten millions. Did you never observe one of your clerks cutting his paper with a blunt ivory knife? did you ever know the knife to fail going the true way? whereas, if he had used a razor, or a penknife, he had odds against him of spoiling a whole sheet. I have twenty times compared the motion of that ivory implement, to those talents that thrive best at court. Think upon lord Bacon, Williams, Strafford, Laud, Clarendon, Shaftesbury, the last duke of Buckingham; and of my own acquaintance, the earl of Oxford and yourself, all great geniuses in their several ways; and if they had not been so great, would have been less unfortunate. I remember but one exception, and that was lord Somers, whose timorous nature, joined with the trade of a common lawyer, and the consciousness of a mean extraction, had taught him the regularity of an alderman, or a gentleman usher. But, of late years I have been refining upon this thought: for I plainly see, that fellows of low intellectuals, when they are gotten at the head of affairs, can sally into the highest exorbitances, with much more safety, than a man of great talents can make the least step out of the way. Perhaps it is for the same reason, that men are more afraid of attacking a vicious, than a mettlesome horse: but I rather think it owing to that incessant envy, wherewith the common rate of mankind pursues all superiour natures to their own. And I conceive, if it were left to the choice of an ass, he would rather be kicked by one of his own species, than a better. If you will recollect that I am toward six years older than when I saw you last, and twenty years duller, you will not wonder to find me abound in empty speculations: I can now express in a hundred words, what would formerly have cost me ten. I can write epigrams of fifty distichs, which might be squeezed into one. I have gone the round of all my stories three or four times with the younger people, and begin them again. I give hints how significant a person I have been, and nobody believes me: I pretend to pity them, but am inwardly angry. I lay traps for people to desire I would show them some things I have written, but cannot succeed; and wreak my spite, in condemning the taste of the people and company where I am. But it is with place, as it is with time. If I boast of having been valued three hundred miles off, it is of no more use than if I told how handsome I was when I was young. The worst of it is, that lying is of no use; for the people here will not believe one half of what is true. If I can prevail on any one to personate a hearer and admirer, you would wonder what a favourite he grows. He is sure to have the first glass out of the bottle, and the best bit I can carve. — Nothing has convinced me so much that I am of a little subaltern spirit, inopis atque pusilli animi, as to reflect how I am forced into the most trifling amusements, to divert the vexation of former thoughts, and present objects. — Why cannot you lend me a shred of your mantle, or why did not you leave a shred of it with me when you were snatched from me? — You see I speak in my trade, although it is growing fast a trade to be ashamed of.

I cannot but wish that you would make it possible for me to see a copy of the papers you are about; and I do protest it necessary that such a thing should be in some person's hands beside your own, and I scorn to say how safe they would be in mine. Neither would you dislike my censures, as far as they might relate to circumstantials. I tax you with two minutes a day, until you have read this letter, although I am sensible you have not half so much from business more useful and entertaining.

My letter which miscarried was, I believe, much as edifying as this, only thanking and congratulating with you for the delightful verses you sent me. And I ought to have expressed my vexation, at seeing you so much better a philosopher than myself; a trade you were neither born nor bred to: But I think it is observed, that gentlemen often dance better than those who live by the art. You may thank fortune that my paper is no longer, &c.