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The Works of Samuel Johnson

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form, therefore, contrary conclusions, and each
wonders at the other's absurdity.

We have less reason to be surprised or offended
when we find others differ from us in opinion, because
we very often differ from ourselves. How often we
alter our minds, we do not always remark; because
the change is sometimes made imperceptibly and
gradually, and the last conviction effaces all memory
of the former: yet every man, accustomed from time
to time to take a survey of his own notions, will by
a slight retrospection be able to discover, that his
mind has suffered many revolutions that the same
things have in the several parts of his life been
condemned and approved, pursued and shunned: and
that on many occasions, even when his practice has
been steady, his mind has been wavering, and he
has persisted in a scheme of action, rather because
he feared the censure of inconstancy, than because
he was always pleased with his own choice.

Of the different faces shown by the same objects,
as they are viewed on opposite sides, and of the
different inclinations which they must constantly raise
in him that contemplates them, a more striking example
cannot easily be found than two Greek epigrammatists
will afford us in their accounts of
human life, which I shall lay before the reader in
English prose.

Posidippus, a comick poet, utters this complaint:
"Through which of the paths of life is it eligible to
pass? In public assemblies are debates and troublesome
affairs: domestick privacies are haunted with
anxieties; in the country is labour; on the sea is
terrour: in a foreign land, he that has money must
live in fear, he that wants it must pine in distress:
are you married? you are troubled with suspicions;
are you single? you languish in solitude; children
occasion toil, and a childless life is a state of
destitution: the time of youth is a time of folly, and
gray hairs are loaded with infirmity. This choice
only, therefore, can be made, either never to receive
being, or immediately to lose it[o]."

[o] "Count o'er the joys thine hours have seen,
"Count o'er thy days from anguish free,
"And know, whatever thou hast been,
" 'Tis something better not to be."

Lord Byron's Euthanasia.

Compare also the plaintive chorus in the OEdipus at Colonos, 1211.
Among the tragedies of Sophocles this stands forth a mass of feeling.
See Schlegel's remarks upon it in his Dramatic Literature.

Such and so gloomy is the prospect, which
Posidippus has laid before us. But we are not to
acquiesce too hastily in his determination against the
value of existence: for Metrodorus, a philosopher of
Athens, has shown, that life has pleasures as well
as pains; and having exhibited the present state of
man in brighter colours, draws with equal appearance
of reason, a contrary conclusion.

"You may pass well through any of the paths of
life. In publick assemblies are honours and
transactions of wisdom; in domestick privacy is stillness
and quiet: in the country are the beauties of nature;
on the sea is the hope of gain: in a foreign land, he
that is rich is honoured, he that is poor may keep
his poverty secret: are you married? you have a
cheerful house; are you single? you are unincumbered;
children are objects of affection, to be without
children is to be without care: the time of
youth is the time of vigour, and gray hairs are made
venerable by piety. It will, therefore, never be a wise
man's choice, either not to obtain existence, or to
lose it; for every state of life has its felicity."

In these epigrams are included most of the
questions which have engaged the speculations of the
inquirers after happiness, and though they will not
much assist our determinations, they may, perhaps,
equally promote our quiet, by showing that no
absolute determination ever can be formed.

Whether a publick station or private life be
desirable, has always been debated. We see here both
the allurements and discouragements of civil
employments; on one side there is trouble, on the
other honour; the management of affairs is
vexatious and difficult, but it is the only duty in which
wisdom can be conspicuously displayed: it must
then still be left to every man to choose either ease
or glory; nor can any general precept be given, since
no man can be happy by the prescription of another.

Thus, what is said of children by Posidippus,
"that they are occasions of fatigue," and by
Metrodorus, "that they are objects of affection," is
equally certain; but whether they will give most
pain or pleasure, must depend on their future
conduct and dispositions, on many causes over which
the parent can have little influence: there is,
therefore, room for all the caprices of imagination, and
desire must be proportioned to the hope or fear that
shall happen to predominate.

Such is the uncertainty in which we are always
likely to remain with regard to questions wherein
we have most interest, and which every day affords
us fresh opportunity to examine: we may examine,
indeed, but we never can decide, because our faculties
are unequal to the subject; we see a little, and
form an opinion; we see more, and change it.
This inconstancy and unsteadiness, to which we
must so often find ourselves liable, ought certainly
to teach us moderation and forbearance towards
those who cannot accommodate themselves to our
sentiments: if they are deceived, we have no right
to attribute their mistake to obstinacy or negligence,
because we likewise have been mistaken; we
may, perhaps, again change our own opinion: and
what excuse shall we be able to find for aversion and
malignity conceived against him, whom we shall then
find to have committed no fault, and who offended
us only by refusing to follow us into errour?

It may likewise contribute to soften that
resentment which pride naturally raises against
opposition, if we consider, that he who differs from us,
does not always contradict us; he has one view of
an object, and we have another; each describes
what he sees with equal fidelity, and each regulates
his steps by his own eyes: one man with Posidippus,
looks on celibacy as a state of gloomy
solitude, without a partner in joy, or a comforter in
sorrow; the other considers it, with Metrodorus, as
a state free from incumbrances, in which a man is
at liberty to choose his own gratifications, to
remove from place to place in quest of pleasure, and
to think of nothing but merriment and diversion:
full of these notions one hastens to choose a wife,
and the other laughs at his rashness, or pities his
ignorance; yet it is possible that each is right, but
that each is right only for himself.

Life is not the object of science: we see a little,
very little; and what is beyond we only can
conjecture. If we inquire of those who have gone
before us, we receive small satisfaction; some have
travelled life without observation, and some
willingly mislead us. The only thought, therefore, on
which we can repose with comfort, is that which
presents to us the care of Providence, whose eye
takes in the whole of things, and under whose
direction all involuntary errours will terminate in

No. 108. SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 17, 1753

Nobis, quum semel occidit brevis lux,
Nox est perpetua una dormienda.

CATULLUS, Lib. v. El. v.

When once the short-liv'd mortal dies,
A night eternal seals his eyes. ADDISON.
IT may have been observed by every reader, that
there are certain topicks which never are
exhausted. Of some images and sentiments the mind
of man may be said to be enamoured; it meets
them, however often they occur, with the same
ardour which a lover feels at the sight of his
mistress, and parts from them with the same regret
when they can no longer be enjoyed.

Of this kind are many descriptions which the
poets have transcribed from each other, and their
successors will probably copy to the end of time;
which will continue to engage, or, as the French
term it, to flatter the imagination, as long as
human nature shall remain the same.

When a poet mentions the spring, we know that
the zephyrs are about to whisper, that the groves
are to recover their verdure, the linnets to warble
forth their notes of love, and the flocks and herds
to frisk over vales painted with flowers: yet, who is
there so insensible of the beauties of nature, so
little delighted with the renovation of the world,
as not to feel his heart bound at the mention of
the spring?

When night overshadows a romantick scene, all
is stillness, silence, and quiet; the poets of the grove
cease their melody, the moon towers over the world
in gentle majesty, men forget their labours and their
cares, and every passion and pursuit is for a while
suspended. All this we know already, yet we hear
it repeated without weariness; because such is
generally the life of man, that he is pleased to think on
the time when he shall pause from a sense of his

When a poetical grove invites us to its covert,
we know that we shall find what we have already
seen, a limpid brook murmuring over pebbles, a bank
diversified with flowers, a green arch that excludes
the sun, and a natural grot shaded with myrtles;
yet who can forbear to enter the pleasing gloom to
enjoy coolness and privacy, and gratify himself once
more by scenes with which nature has formed him
to be delighted?

Many moral sentiments likewise are so adapted to
our state, that they find approbation whenever
they solicit it, and are seldom read without
exciting a gentle emotion in the mind: such is the
comparison of the life of man with the duration of
a flower, a thought which perhaps every nation has
heard warbled in its own language, from the inspired
poets of the Hebrews to our own times; yet this
comparison must always please, because every heart
feels its justness, and every hour confirms it by

Such, likewise, is the precept that directs us to
use the present hour, and refer nothing to a distant
time, which we are uncertain whether we shall
reach: this every moralist may venture to inculcate,
because it will always be approved, and because
it is always forgotten.

This rule is, indeed, every day enforced, by
arguments more powerful than the dissertations of
moralists: we see men pleasing themselves with future
happiness, fixing a certain hour for the completion
of their wishes, and perishing, some at a greater and
some at a less distance from the happy time; all
compplaining of their disappointments, and lamenting
that they had suffered the years which heaven
allowed them, to pass without improvement, and
deferred the principal purpose of their lives to the
time when life itself was to forsake them.

It is not only uncertain, whether, through all the
casualties and dangers which beset the life of man,
we shall be able to reach the time appointed for
happiness or wisdom; but it is likely, that whatever
now hinders us from doing that which our reason
and conscience declare necessary to be done, will
equally obstruct us in times to come. It is easy for
the imagination, operating on things not yet existing,
to please itself with scenes of unmingled felicity,
or plan out courses of uniform virtue; but good
and evil are in real life inseparably united; habits
grow stronger by indulgence; and reason loses her
dignity, in proportion as she has oftener yielded to
temptation: "he that cannot live well to-day,"
says Martial, "will be less qualified to live well

Of the uncertainty of every human good, every
human being seems to be convinced; yet this
uncertainty is voluntarily increased by unnecessary
delay, whether we respect external causes, or consider
the nature of our own minds. He that now feels a
desire to do right, and wishes to regulate his life
according to his reason, is not sure that, at any future
time assignable, he shall be able to rekindle the same
ardour; he that has now an opportunity offered him
of breaking loose from vice and folly, cannot know,
but that he shall hereafter be more entangled, and
struggle for freedom without obtaining it.

We are so unwilling to believe anything to our
own disadvantage, that we will always imagine the
perspicacity of our judgment and the strength of
our resolution more likely to increase than to grow
less by time; and, therefore, conclude, that the will
to pursue laudable purposes, will be always seconded
by the power.

But, however we may be deceived in calculating
the strength of our faculties, we cannot doubt the
uncertainty of that life in which they must be
employed: we see every day the unexpected death of
our friends and our enemies, we see new graves
hourly opened for men older and younger than
ourselves, for the cautious and the careless, the
dissolute and the temperate, for men who like us were
providing to enjoy or improve hours now irreversibly
cut off: we see all this, and yet, instead of
living, let year glide after year in preparations to

Men are so frequently cut off in the midst of their
projections, that sudden death causes little emotion
in them that behold it, unless it be impressed upon
the attention by uncommon circumstances. I, like
every other man, have outlived multitudes, have
seen ambition sink in its triumphs, and beauty perish
in its bloom; but have been seldom so much affected
as by the fate of Euryalus, whom I lately lost as I
began to love him.

Euryalus had for some time flourished in a lucrative
profession; but having suffered his imagination
to be fired by an unextinguishable curiosity, he grew
weary of the same dull round of life, resolved to
harass himself no longer with the drudgery of getting
money, but to quit his business and his profit,
and enjoy for a few years the pleasures of travel.
His friends heard him proclaim his resolution without
suspecting that he intended to pursue it; but he
was constant to his purpose, and with great expedition
closed his accounts and sold his moveables,
passed a few days in bidding farewell to his
companions, and with all the eagerness of romantick
chivalry crossed the sea in search of happiness.
Whatever place was renowned in ancient or modern
history, whatever region art or nature had distinguished,
he determined to visit: full of design and
hope he landed on the continent; his friends expected
accounts from him of the new scenes that opened in
his progress, but were informed in a few days, that
Euryalus was dead.

Such was the end of Euryalus. He is entered that
state, whence none ever shall return; and can now
only benefit his friends, by remaining to their
memories a permanent and efficacious instance of the
blindness of desire, and the uncertainty of all terrestrial
good. But perhaps, every man has like me lost an
Euryalus, has known a friend die with happiness in
his grasp; and yet every man continues to think
himself secure of life, and defers to some future time
of leisure what he knows it will be fatal to have
finally omitted.

It is, indeed, with this as with other frailties
inherent in our nature; the desire of deferring to
another time, what cannot be done without endurance
of some pain, or forbearance of some pleasure, will,
perhaps, never be totally overcome or suppressed;
there will always be something that we shall wish
to have finished, and be nevertheless unwilling to
begin: but against this unwillingness it is our duty
to struggle, and every conquest over our passions
will make way for an easier conquest: custom is
equally forcible to bad and good; nature will always
be at variance with reason, but will rebel more feebly
as she is oftener subdued.

The common neglect of the present hour is more
shameful and criminal, as no man is betrayed to it
by errour, but admits it by negligence. Of the
instability of life, the weakest understanding never thinks
wrong, though the strongest often omits to think
justly: reason and experience are always ready to
inform us of our real state; but we refuse to listen
to their suggestions, because we feel our hearts
unwilling to obey them: but, surely, nothing is more
unworthy of a reasonable being, than to shut his
eyes, when he sees the road which he is commanded
to travel, that he may deviate with fewer reproaches
from himself: nor could any motive to tenderness,
except the consciousness that we have all been guilty
of the same fault, dispose us to pity those who thus
consign themselves to voluntary ruin.

{The end of etext of volume 4}

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