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The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 17/Thoughts on Various Subjects

< The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift‎ | Volume 17

THOUGHTS

ON

VARIOUS SUBJECTS.


I.

PARTY is the madness of many, for the gain of a few.

II.

There never was any party, faction, sect, or cabal whatsoever, in which the most ignorant were not the most violent; for a bee is not a busier animal than a blockhead. However, such instruments are necessary to politicians; and perhaps it may be with states as with clocks, which must have some dead weight hanging at them to help and regulate the motion of the finer and more useful parts.

III.

To endeavour to work upon the vulgar with fine sense, is like attempting to hew blocks with a razor.

IV.

Fine sense and exalted sense are not half so useful as common sense: there are forty men of wit to one man of sense; and he that will carry nothing about him but gold, will be every day at a loss for want of readier change.

V.

Learning is like mercury, one of the most powerful and excellent things in the world in skilful hands: in unskilful, the most mischievous.

VI.

The nicest constitutions of government are often like the finest pieces of clockwork; which depending on so many motions, are therefore more subject to be out of order.

VII.

Every man has just as much vanity as he wants understanding.

VIII.

Modesty, if it were to be recommended for nothing else, this were enough, that the pretending to little, leaves a man at ease; whereas boasting requires a perpetual labour to appear what he is not. If we have sense, modesty best proves it to others; if we have none, it best hides our want of it. For, as blushing will sometimes make a whore pass for a virtuous woman, so modesty may make a fool seem a man of sense.

IX.

It is not so much the being exempt from faults, as the having overcome them, that is an advantage to us: it being with the follies of the mind, as with the weeds of a field, which, if destroyed and consumed upon the place of their birth, enrich and improve it more, than if none had ever sprung there.

X.

To pardon those absurdites in ourselves, which we cannot suffer in others, is neither better nor worse than to be more willing to be fools ourselves, than to have others so.

XI.

A man should never be ashamed to own he has been in the wrong, which is but saying, in other words, that he is wiser to day than he was yesterday.

XII.

Our passions are like convulsion fits, which, though they make us stronger for the time, leave us weaker ever after.

XIII.

To be angry, is to revenge the fault of others upon ourselves.

XIV.

A brave man thinks no one his superiour, who does him an injury; for he has it then in his power to make himself superiour to the other, by forgiving it.

XV.

To relieve the oppressed, is the most glorious act a man is capable of; it is in some measure doing the business of God and Providence.

XVI.

Superstition is the spleen of the soul.

XVII.

Atheists put on a false courage and alacrity in the midst of their darkness and apprehensions: like children, who, when they go in the dark, will sing for fear.

XVIII.

An atheist is but a mad, ridiculous derider of piety: but a hypocrite makes a sober jest of God and religion. He finds it easier to be upon his knees, than to rise to do a good action; like an impudent debtor, who goes every day and talks familiarly to his creditor, without ever paying what he owes.

XIX.

What Tully says of war, may be applied to disputing; it should be always so managed as to remember, that the only end of it is peace: but generally true disputants are like true sportsmen, their whole delight is in the pursuit: and a disputant no more cares for the truths, than the sportsman for the hare.

XX.

The Scripture, in time of disputes, is like an open town in time of war, which serves indifferently the occasions of both parties: each makes use of it for the present turn, and then resigns it to the next comer to do the same.

XXI.

Such as are still observing upon others, are like those who are always abroad at other men's houses, reforming every thing there, while their own run to ruin.

XXII.

When men grow virtuous in their old age, they only make a sacrifice to God of the devil's leavings.

XXIII.

When we are young, we are slavishly employed in procuring something whereby we may live comfortably when we grow old; and when we are old, we perceive it is too late to live as we proposed.

XXIV.

People are scandalized, if one laughs at what they call a serious thing. Suppose I were to have my head cut off to morrow, and all the world were talking of it to day, yet why might not I laugh to think, what a bustle is here about my head?

XXV.

The greatest advantage I know of being thought a wit by the world, is, that it gives one the greater freedom of playing the fool.

XXVI.

We ought in humanity, no more to despise a man for the misfortunes of the mind, than for those of the body, when they are such as he cannot help. Were this thoroughly considered, we should no more laugh at one for having his brains cracked, than for having his head broke.

XXVII.

A man of wit is not incapable of business, but above it. A sprightly generous horse is able to carry a packsaddle as well as an ass, but he is too good to be put to the drudgery.

XXVIII.

Wherever I find a great deal of gratitude in a poor man, I take it for granted, there would be as much generosity if he were a rich man.

XXIX.

Flowers of rhetorick, in sermons and serious discourses, are like the blue and red flowers in corn, pleasing to them who come only for amusement, but prejudicial to him who would reap the profit.

XXX.

When two people compliment each other with the choice of any thing, each of them generally gets that which he likes least.

XXXI.

He who tells a lie, is not sensible how great a task he undertakes; for he must be forced to invent twenty more to maintain that one.

XXXII.

Giving advice, is, many times, only the privilege of saying a foolish thing one's self, under pretence of hindering another from doing one.

XXXIII.

It is with followers at court as with followers on the road, who first bespatter those that go before, and then tread on their heels.

XXXIV.

False happiness is like false money; it passes for a time as well as the true, and serves some ordinary occasions: but when it is brought to the touch, we find the liglitness and allay, and feel the loss.

XXXV.

Dastardly men are like sorry horses, who have but just spirit and mettle enough left to be mischievous.

XXXVI.

Some people will never learn any thing, for this reason, because they understand every thing too soon.

XXXVII.

A person who is too nice an observer of the business of the crowd, like one who is too curious in observing the labour of the bees, will often be stung for his curiosity.

XXXVIII.

A man of business may talk of philosophy, a man who has none may practise it[1].

XXXIX.

There are some solitary wretches, who seem to have left the rest of mankind, only as Eve left Adam, to meet the devil in private.

XL.

The vanity of human life is, like a river, constantly passing away, and yet constantly coming on.

XLI.

I seldom see a noble building, or any great piece of magnificence and pomp, but I think, how little is all this to satisfy the ambition, or to fill the idea, of an immortal soul!

XLII.

It is a certain truth, that a man is never so easy, or so little imposed upon, as among people of the best sense: it costs far more trouble to be admitted or continued in ill company than in good; as the former have less understanding to be employed, so they have more vanity to be pleased; and to keep a fool constantly in good humour with himself, and with others, is no very easy task.

XLIII.

The difference between what is commonly called ordinary company and good company, is only hearing the same things said in a little room or in a large saloon, at small tables or at great tables, before two candles or twenty sconces.

XLIV.

It is with narrow-souled people as with narrow-necked bottles: the less they have in them the more noise they make in pouring it out.

XLV.

Many men have been capable of doing a wise thing, more a cunning thing, but very few a generous thing.

XLVI.

Since it is reasonable to doubt most things, we should most of all doubt that reason of ours, which would demonstrate all things.

XLVII.

To buy books, as some do who make no use of them, only because they were published by an eminent printer; is much as if a man should buy clothes that did not fit him, only because they were made by some famous tailor.

XLVIII.

It is as offensive to speak wit in a fool's company, as it would be ill manners to whisper in it; he is displeased at both for the same reason, because he is ignorant of what is said.

XLIX.

False criticks rail at false wits, as quacks and impostors are still cautioning us to beware of counterfeits, and decry others cheats only to make more way for their own.

L.

Old men for the most part are like old chronicles, that give you dull but true accounts of time past, and are worth knowing only on that score.

LI.

There should be, methinks, as little merit in loving a woman for her beauty, as in loving a man for his prosperity; both being equally subject to change.

LII.

We should manage our thoughts in composing any work, as shepherds do their flowers in making a garland: first select the choicest, and then dispose them in the most proper places, where they give a lustre to each other.

LIII.

As handsome children are more a dishonour to a deformed father than ugly ones, because unlike himself; so good thoughts, owned by a plagiary, bring him more shame than his own ill ones. When a poor thief appears in rich garments, we immediately know they are none of his own.

LIV.

Human brutes, like other beasts, find snares and poison in the provisions of life, and are allured by their appetites to their destruction.

LV.

The most positive men are the most credulous; since they most believe themselves, and advise most with their falsest flatterer, and worst enemy, their own self-love.

LVI.

Get your enemies to read your works, in order to mend them; for your friend is so much your second self, that he will judge too like you.

LVII.

Women use lovers as they do cards; they play with them awhile, and when they have got all they can by them, throw them away, call for new ones, and then perhaps lose by the new ones all they got by the old ones.

LVIII.

Honour in a woman's mouth, like an oath in the mouth of a gamester, is ever still most used, as their truth is most questioned.

LIX.

Women, as they are like riddles, in being unintelligible, so generally resemble them in this, that they please us no longer when once we know them.

LX.

A man who admires a fine woman, has yet no more reason to wish himself her husband, than one who admired the Hesperian fruit, would have had to wish himself the dragon that kept it.

LXI.

He who marries a wife, because he cannot always live chastely, is much like a man, who, finding a few humours in his body, resolves to wear a perpetual blister.

LXII.

Married people, for being so closely united, are but the apter to part; as knots, the harder they are pulled, break the sooner.

LXIII.

A family is but too often a commonwealth of malignants: what we call the charities and ties of affinity, prove but so many separate and clashing interests: the son wishes the death of the father; the younger brother that of the elder; the elder repines at the sisters portions: when any of them marry, there are new divisions, and new animosities. It is but natural and reasonable to expect all this, and yet we fancy no comfort but in a family.

LXIV.

Authors in France seldom speak ill of each other, but when they have a personal pique; authors in England seldom speak well of each other, but when they have a personal friendship.

LXV.

There is nothing wanting to make all rational and disinterested people in the world of one religion, but that they should talk together every day.

LXVI.

Men are grateful in the same degree that they are resentful.

LXVII.

The longer we live, the more we shall be convinced, that it is reasonable to love God, and despise man, as far as we know either.

LXVIII.

That character in conversation, which commonly passes for agreeable, is made up of civility and falsehood.

LXIX.

A short and certain way to obtain the character of a reasonable and wise man, is, whenever any one tells you his opinion, to comply with it.

LXX.

What is generally accepted as virtue in women, is very different from what is thought so in men: a very good woman would make but a paltry man.

LXXI.

Some people are commended for a giddy kind of good humour, which is as much a virtue as drunkenness.

LXXII.

Those people only will constantly trouble you with doing little offices for them, who least deserve you should do them any.

LXXIII.

We are sometimes apt to wonder to see those people proud, who have done the meanest things; whereas a consciousness of having done poor things, and a shame of hearing of them, often make the composition we call pride.

LXXIV.

An excuse is worse and more terrible than a lie: for an excuse is a lie guarded.

LXXV.

Praise is like ambergris; a little whiff of it, and by snatches, is very agreeable; but when a man holds a whole lump of it to your nose, it is a stink, and strikes you down.

LXXVI.

The general cry is against ingratitude, be sure the complaint is misplaced, it should be against vanity. None but direct villains are capable of wilful ingratitude; but almost every body is capable of thinking he has done more than another deserves, while the other thinks he has received less than he deserves.

LXXVII.

I never knew any man in my life, who could not bear another's misfortunes perfectly like a Christian.

Several explanations of casuists, to multiply the catalogue of sins, may be called amendments to the ten commandments.

LXXIX.

It is observable that the ladies frequent tragedies more than comedies: the reason may be, that in tragedy their sex is deified and adored, in comedy exposed and ridiculed.

LXXX.

The character of covetousness is what a man generally acquires more through some niggardliness, or ill grace, in little and inconsiderable things, than in expenses of any consequence. A very few pounds a year would ease that man of the scandal of avarice.

LXXXI.

Some men's wit is like a dark lantern, which serves their own turn, and guides them their own way: but is never known (according to the Scripture phrase) either to shine forth before men, or to glorify their Father in Heaven.

LXXXII.

It often happens that those are the best people, whose characters have been most injured by slanders; as we usually find that to be the sweetest fruit, which the birds have been pecking at.

LXXXIII.

The people all running to the capital city, is like a confluence of all the animal spirits to the heart; a symptom that the constitution is in danger.

LXXXIV.

The wonder we often express at our neighbours keeping dull company, would lessen, if we reflected, that most people seek companions less to be talked to than to talk.

LXXXV.

Amusement is the happiness of those that cannot think.

LXXXVI.

Never stay dinner for a clergyman, who is to make a morning visit ere he comes, for he will think it his duty to dine with any greater man that asks him.

LXXXVII.

A contented man is like a good tennis-player, who never fatigues and confounds himself with running eternally after the ball, but stays till it comes to him.

LXXXVIII.

Two things are equally unaccountable to reason, and not the object of reasonings the wisdom of God, and the madness of man.

LXXXIX.

Many men, prejudiced early in disfavour of mankind by bad maxims, never aim at making friendships; and, while they only think of avoiding the evil, miss of the good that would meet them. They begin the world knaves, for prevention, while others only end so after disappointment.

XC.

No woman hates a man for being in love with her; but many a woman hates a man for being a friend to her.

XCI.

The eye of a critick is often, like a microscope, made so very fine and nice, that it discovers the atoms, grains, and minutest particles, without ever comprehending the whole, comparing the parts, or seeing all at once the harmony.

XCII.

A king may be a tool, a thing of straw; but if he serves to frighten our enemies, and secure our property, it is well enough: a scarecrow is a thing of straw, but it protects the corn.

XCIII.

The greatest things and the most praiseworthy, that can be done for the publick good, are not what require great parts, but great honesty: therefore for a king to make an amiable character, he needs only to be a man of common honesty, well advised.

XCIV.

Notwithstanding the common complaint of the knavery of men in power, I have known no great ministers, or men of parts and business, so wicked as their inferiours; their sense and knowledge preserve them from a hundred common rogueries; and when they become bad, it is generally more from the necessity of their situation, than from a natural bent to evil.

XCV.

Whatever may be said against a premier or sole minister, the evil of such a one, in an absolute government, may not be great: for it is possible, that almost any minister may be a better man than a king born and bred.

XCVI.

A man coming to the waterside is surrounded by all the crew: every one is officious, every one makes applications, every one offering his services; the whole bustle of the place seems to be only for him. The same man going from the waterside, no noise is made about him, no creature takes notice of him, all let him pass with utter neglect! the picture of a minister when he comes into power, and when he goes out.


  1. The same sentiment occurs in a letter from Bolingbroke to Swift.