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may further observe, that men of the greatest abilities are most fired with ambition: and that, on the contrary, mean and narrow minds are the least actuated by it; whether it be that a man's sense of his own incapacities makes him despair of coming at fame, or that he has not enough range of thought to look out for any good which does not more immediately relate to his interest or convenience, or that Providence, in the very frame of his soul, would not subject him to such a passion as would be useless to the world, and a torment to himself.
Were not this desire of fame very strong, the difficulty of obtaining it, and the danger of losing it when obtained, would be sufficient to deter a man from so vain a pursuit.
How few are there who are furnished with abilities sufficient to recommend their actions to the admiration of the world, and to distinguish themselves from the rest of mankind ? Providence for the most part sets us upon a level, and observes a kind of proportion in its dispensations towards us. If it renders us perfect in one accomplishment, it generally leaves us defective in another, and seems careful rather of preserving every person from being mean and deficient in his qualifications, than-of making any single one eminent or extraordinary.
And among those who are the most richly endowed by nature, and accomplished by their own industry how few are there whose virtues are not obscured by the ignorance, prejudice, or envy, of their beholders ? Some men cannot discern between a noble and a mean action. Others are apt to attribute them to some false end or intention; and others purposely misrepresent or put a wrong interpretation on them.
But the more to enforce this consideration, we may observe, that those are generally most unsuccessful in their pursuit after fame, who are most desirous of obtaining it. It is Sallust's re
mark upon Cato, that the less he coveted glory, the more he acquired it."
Men take an ill-natured pleasure in crossing our inclinations, and disappointing us in what our hearts are most set upon. When, therefore, they have discovered the passionate desire of fame in the ambitious man, (as no temper of mind is more apt to shew itself) they become sparing and reserved in their commendations, they envy him the satisfaction of an applause, and look on their praises rather as a kindness done to his person, than as a tribute paid to his merit. Others who are free from this natural perverseness of temper, grow wary in their praises of one, who sets too great a value on them, lest they should raise him too high in his own imagination, and by consequence, remove him to a greater distance from themselves.
But further, this desire of fame naturally betrays the ambi tious man into such indecencies as are lessening to his reputation. He is still afraid lest any of his actions should be thrown away
in private, lest his deserts should be concealed from the notice of the world, or receive any disadvantage from the reports which others make of them. This often sets him on empty boasts and ostentations of himself, and betrays him into vain fantastic recitals of his own performances; his discourse generally leans one way, and whatever is the subject of it, tends obliquely either to the detracting from others, or the extolling of himself. Vanity is the natural weakness of an ambitious man, which exposes him to the secret scorn and derision of those he converses with, and ruins the character he is so industrious to advance by it. Fc. though his actions are never so glorious, they lose their lustre when they are drawn at large, and set to show by his own hand; and as the world is more apt to find fault than to commend, thie boast will probably be censured when the great action that occasioned it is forgotten.
i Bell Catil. 49. ---C.
Besides, this very desire of fame is looked on as a meanness and an imperfection in the greatest character. A solid and substantial greatness of soul looks down with a generous neglect on the censures and applauses of the multitude, and places a man beyond the little noise and strife of tongues. Accordingly we find in ourselves a secret awe and veneration for the character of one who moves above us in a regular and illustrious course of virtue, without any regard to our good or ill opinions of him, to our reproaches or commendations. As on the contrary, it is usual for us, when we would take off from the fame and reputation of an action, to ascribe it to vain-glory, and a desire of fame in the actor. Nor is this common judgment and opinion of mankind ill founded : for certainly it denotes no great bravery of mind to be worked up to any noble action by so selfish a motive, and to do that out of a desire of fame, which we could not be prompted to by a disinterested love to mankind, or by a generous passion for the glory of him that made us.
Thus is fame a thing difficult to be obtained by all, but particularly by those who thirst after it, since most men have so much either of ill-nature or of wariness, as not to gratify and sooth the vanity of the ambitious man; and since this very thirst after fame naturally betrays him into such indecencies as are a lessening to his reputation, and is itself looked upon as a weakness in the greatest characters.
In the next place, fame is easily lost, and as difficult to be preserved as it was at first to be acquired. But this I shall make the subject of a following paper.
C. 70L. VI.-1*
No. 256. MONDAY, DECEMBER 24.
φήμη γάρ τε κακή πέλεται• κούφη μέν αείραι
THERE are many passions and tempers of mind which naturally dispose us to depress and vilify the merit of one rising in the esteem of mankind. All those who made their entrance into the world with the same advantages, and were once looked on as his equals, are apt to think the fame of his merits a reflection on their own indeserts; and will therefore take care to reproach him with the scandal of some past action, or derogate from the worth of the present, that they may still keep him on the same level with themselves. The like kind of consideration often stirs up the envy of such as were once his superiors, who think it a detraction from their merit to see another get ground upon them, and overtake them in the pursuits of glory; and will therefore endeavour to sink his reputation, that they may the better preserve their own. Those who were once his equals, envy and defame him, because they now see him their superior; and those who were once his superiors, because they look upon him as their equal.
But further, a man whose extraordinary reputation thus lifts him up to the notice and observation of mankind, draws a multitude of eyes upon him that will narrowly inspect every part of him, consider him nicely in all views, and not be a little pleased when they have taken him in the worst and most disadvantageous light. There are many who find a pleasure in contradicting the common reports of fame, and in spreading abroad the weaknesses
of an exalted character. They publish their ill-natured discoveries with a secret pride, and applaud themselves for the singularity of their judgment, which has searched deeper than others, detected what the rest of the world have over-looked, and found a flaw in what the generality of mankind admire. Others there are who proclaim the errors and infirmities of a great man with an inward satisfaction and complacency, if they discover none of the like errors and infirmities in themselves; for while they are exposing another's weaknesses, they are tacitly aiming at their own commendations who are not subject to the like infirmities, and are apt to be transported with a secret kind of vanity, to see themselves superior in some respects to one of a sublime and celebrated reputation. Nay, it very often happens, that none are more industrious in publishing the blemishes of an extraordinary reputation, than such as lie open to the same censures in their own characters : as either hoping to excuse their own defects by the authority of so high an example, or raising an imaginary applause to then selves for resembling a person of an exalted reputation, though in the blameable parts of his character. If all these secret springs of detraction fail, yet very often a vain ostentation of wit sets a man on attacking an established name, and sacrificing it to the mirth and laughter of those about him. A satire or a libel on one of the common stamp, never meets with that reception and approbation among its readers, as what is aimed at a person whose merit places him upon an eminence, and gives him a more conspicuous figure among men.
Whether it be that we think it shews greater art to expose and turn to ridicule a man whose character seems so improper a subject for it, or that we are pleased by some implicit kind of revenge, to see
, him taken down and humbled in his reputation, and in some, ineasure reduced to our own rank, who had so far raised himself above us in the rsports and opinions of mankind