Essays (Cowley)/The Dangers of an Honest Man in much Company

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Essays by Abraham Cowley
The Dangers of an Honest Man in much Company

If twenty thousand naked Americans were not able to resist the assaults of but twenty well-armed Spaniards, I see little possibility for one honest man to defend himself against twenty thousand knaves, who are all furnished cap-a-pie with the defensive arms of worldly prudence, and the offensive, too, of craft and malice. He will find no less odds than this against him if he have much to do in human affairs. The only advice, therefore, which I can give him is, to be sure not to venture his person any longer in the open campaign, to retreat and entrench himself, to stop up all avenues, and draw up all bridges against so numerous an enemy. The truth of it is, that a man in much business must either make himself a knave, or else the world will make him a fool: and if the injury went no farther than the being laughed at, a wise man would content himself with the revenge of retaliation: but the case is much worse, for these civil cannibals too, as well as the wild ones, not only dance about such a taken stranger, but at last devour him. A sober man cannot get too soon out of drunken company; though they be never so kind and merry among themselves, it is not unpleasant only, but dangerous to him. Do ye wonder that a virtuous man should love to be alone? It is hard for him to be otherwise; he is so, when he is among ten thousand; neither is the solitude so uncomfortable to be alone without any other creature, as it is to be alone in the midst of wild beasts. Man is to man all kind of beasts—a fawning dog, a roaring lion, a thieving fox, a robbing wolf, a dissembling crocodile, a treacherous decoy, and a rapacious vulture. The civilest, methinks, of all nations, are those whom we account the most barbarous; there is some moderation and good nature in the Toupinambaltians who eat no men but their enemies, whilst we learned and polite and Christian Europeans, like so many pikes and sharks, prey upon everything that we can swallow. It is the great boast of eloquence and philosophy, that they first congregated men dispersed, united them into societies, and built up the houses and the walls of cities. I wish they could unravel all they had woven; that we might have our woods and our innocence again instead of our castles and our policies. They have assembled many thousands of scattered people into one body: it is true, they have done so, they have brought them together into cities to cozen, and into armies to murder one another; they found them hunters and fishers of wild creatures, they have made them hunters and fishers of their brethren; they boast to have reduced them to a state of peace, when the truth is they have only taught them an art of war; they have framed, I must confess, wholesome laws for the restraint of vice, but they raised first that devil which now they conjure and cannot bind; though there were before no punishments for wickedness, yet there was less committed because there were no rewards for it. But the men who praise philosophy from this topic are much deceived; let oratory answer for itself, the tinkling, perhaps, of that may unite a swarm: it never was the work of philosophy to assemble multitudes, but to regulate only, and govern them when they were assembled, to make the best of an evil, and bring them, as much as is possible, to unity again. Avarice and ambition only were the first builders of towns, and founders of empire; they said, "Go to, let us build us a city and a tower whose top may reach unto heaven, and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth." What was the beginning of Rome, the metropolis of all the world? what was it but a concourse of thieves, and a sanctuary of criminals? it was justly named by the augury of no less than twelve vultures, and the founder cemented his walls with the blood of his brother.

Not unlike to this was the beginning even of the first town, too, in the world, and such is the original sin of most cities: their actual increase daily with their age and growth; the more people, the more wicked all of them. Every one brings in his part to inflame the contagion, which becomes at last so universal and so strong, that no precepts can be sufficient preservatives, nor anything secure our safety, but flight from among the infected. We ought, in the choice of a situation, to regard above all things the healthfulness of the place, and the healthfulness of it for the mind rather than for the body. But suppose (which is hardly to be supposed) we had antidote enough against this poison; nay, suppose, further, we were always and at all places armed and provided both against the assaults of hostility and the mines of treachery, it will yet be but an uncomfortable life to be ever in alarms; though we were compassed round with fire to defend ourselves from wild beasts, the lodging would be unpleasant, because we must always be obliged to watch that fire, and to fear no less the defects of our guard than the diligences of our enemy. The sum of this is, that a virtuous man is in danger to be trod upon and destroyed in the crowd of his contraries; nay, which is worse, to be changed and corrupted by them, and that it is impossible to escape both these inconveniences without so much caution as will take away the whole quiet, that is, the happiness of his life. Ye see, then, what he may lose; but, I pray, what can he get there? Quid Romae faciam? Mentiri nescio. What should a man of truth and honesty do at Rome? he can neither understand, nor speak the language of the place; a naked man may swim in the sea, but it is not the way to catch fish there; they are likelier to devour him than he them, if he bring no nets and use no deceits. I think, therefore, it was wise and friendly advice which Martial gave to Fabian when he met him newly arrived at Rome.

Honest and poor, faithful in word and thought;
What has thee, Fabian, to the city brought?
Thou neither the buffoon nor bawd canst play,
Nor with false whispers the innocent betray:
Nor corrupt wives, nor from rich beldams get
A living by thy industry and sweat:
Nor with vain promises and projects cheat,
Nor bribe or flatter any of the great.
   But you're a man of learning, prudent, just:
A man of courage, firm, and fit for trust.
   Why, you may stay, and live unenvied here;
But, 'faith! go back, and keep you where you were.

Nay, if nothing of all this were in the case, yet the very sight of uncleanness is loathsome to the cleanly; the sight of folly and impiety vexatious to the wise and pious.

Lucretius, by his favour, though a good poet, was but an ill-natured man, when he said, "It was delightful to see other men in a great storm." And no less ill-natured should I think Democritus, who laughed at all the world, but that he retired himself so much out of it that we may perceive he took no great pleasure in that kind of mirth. I have been drawn twice or thrice by company to go to Bedlam, and have seen others very much delighted with the fantastical extravagancy of so many various madnesses, which upon me wrought so contrary an effect, that I always returned not only melancholy, but even sick with the sight. My compassion there was perhaps too tender, for I meet a thousand madmen abroad, without any perturbation, though, to weigh the matter justly, the total loss of reason is less deplorable than the total depravation of it. An exact judge of human blessings, of riches, honours, beauty, even of wit itself, should pity the abuse of them more than the want.

Briefly, though a wise man could pass never so securely through the great roads of human life, yet he will meet perpetually with so many objects and occasions of compassion, grief, shame, anger, hatred, indignation, and all passions but envy (for he will find nothing to deserve that) that he had better strike into some private path; nay, go so far, if he could, out of the common way, ut nec facta audiat Pelopidarum; that he might not so much as hear of the actions of the sons of Adam. But, whither shall we fly, then? into the deserts, like the ancient hermits?

Qua terra patet fera regnat Erynnis.
   In facinus jurasse putes.

One would think that all mankind had bound themselves by an oath to do all the wickedness they can; that they had all, as the Scripture speaks, sold themselves to sin: the difference only is, that some are a little more crafty (and but a little, God knows) in making of the bargain. I thought, when I went first to dwell in the country, that without doubt I should have met there with the simplicity of the old poetical golden age: I thought to have found no inhabitants there, but such as the shepherds of Sir Philip Sidney in Arcadia, or of Monsieur d'Urfe upon the banks of Lignon; and began to consider with myself, which way I might recommend no less to posterity the happiness and innocence of the men of Chertsey: but to confess the truth, I perceived quickly, by infallible demonstrations, that I was still in old England, and not in Arcadia, or La Forrest; that if I could not content myself with anything less than exact fidelity in human conversation, I had almost as good go back and seek for it in the Court, or the Exchange, or Westminster Hall. I ask again, then, whither shall we fly, or what shall we do? The world may so come in a man's way that he cannot choose but salute it; he must take heed, though, not to go a whoring after it. If by any lawful vocation or just necessity men happen to be married to it, I can only give them St. Paul's advice: "Brethren, the time is short; it remains that they that have wives be as though they had none. But I would that all men were even as I myself."

In all cases they must be sure that they do mundum ducere, and not mundo nubere. They must retain the superiority and headship over it: happy are they who can get out of the sight of this deceitful beauty, that they may not be led so much as into temptation; who have not only quitted the metropolis, but can abstain from ever seeing the next market town of their country.

CLAUDIAN'S OLD MAN OF VERONA.

Happy the man who his whole time doth bound
Within the enclosure of his little ground.
Happy the man whom the same humble place
(The hereditary cottage of his race)
From his first rising infancy has known,
And by degrees sees gently bending down,
With natural propension to that earth
Which both preserved his life, and gave him birth.
Him no false distant lights by fortune set,
Could ever into foolish wanderings get.
He never dangers either saw, or feared,
The dreadful storms at sea he never heard.
He never heard the shrill alarms of war,
Or the worse noises of the lawyers' bar.
No change of consuls marks to him the year,
The change of seasons is his calendar.
The cold and heat winter and summer shows,
Autumn by fruits, and spring by flowers he knows.
He measures time by landmarks, and has found
For the whole day the dial of his ground.
A neighbouring wood born with himself he sees,
And loves his old contemporary trees.
Has only heard of near Verona's name,
And knows it, like the Indies, but by fame.
Does with a like concernment notice take
Of the Red Sea, and of Benacus lake.
Thus health and strength he to a third age enjoys,
And sees a long posterity of boys.
About the spacious world let other roam,
The voyage Life is longest made at home.