|←On the Morals of Epicurus||The Works of Monsieur de St. Evremond by , translated by Pierre Des Maizeaux
|Letter from M. de la Fontaine to the Dutchess of Bouillon→|
There’s nothing more common with old Men, than to desire a Retirement, and nothing so rare with them as not to repent it, when they are once retir’d. Their souls, that are in too great a subjection to their humours, are disgusted with the world for their own tiresomness; for scarce have they quitted this false object of their misfortune, but they are as angry with solitude, as they were with the world, being uneasy at themselves, where nothing but themselves can give them any uneasiness.
An essential reason that obliges us to withdraw our selves out of the World when we are old, is to prevent that ridicule and contempt to which age generally exposes us. If we quit the World in good time, they will still preserve the idea of that merit, which we had there. If we tarry too long in it, our defects will lie open; and what we are then, will efface the memory of what we were. Besides, ’tis a shame for a person of honour to drag about him the infirmities of age at the Court, where the end of his services occasions that of his interest.
Nature teaches us to reassume our liberty, when we have nothing more to hope from fortune. ’Tis what a sense of decency, what the care of our reputation, what good manners, and nature it self require from us. Nor is this all, for the world has likewise a right to demand the same thing of us. Its commerce furnish’d us with pleasures while we were capable of relishing ’em : and it would be ingratitude to be a burden to it, when we can give it nothing but disgust.
As for my self, I am fully resolved to live in a Convent, or a Desart, rather than to give my friends an occasion to pity me, or to furnish those that are not so, with a subject for their malicious mirth and raillery. But the mischief is, that a man is not sensible when he becomes either weak or ridiculous. It is not enough to know that we are gone for good and all; but we ought to be the first that perceive our selves to be upon the decline, and like prudent men, to prevent the publick knowledge of this change.
Not that every alteration that age brings along with it, ought to inspire us with the resolution of retiring. I own, we lose a great deal by growing old; but amongst the losses we sustain, some of them are recompens’d by considerable advantages. If after I have lost my Passions, the Affections continue with me still; I shall find less inquietude in my pleasures, and more discretion in the conduct of my life in relation to the world. If my Imagination decays, I shall not please so much sometimes; but then I shall be infinitely less troublesom for the general part. If I quit the crowd for a select company, my thoughts will be more composed. If I come from a large acquaintance to the conversation of a few; ’tis because I know how to make a better choice.
Besides, ’tis to be consider’d, that if we change, we do it amongst people that change as well as our selves : men of equal infirmities, or at least subject to the very same. Therefore I shall not be at all asham’d to search in their presence some relief against the weakness of Age; nor shall I be afraid to supply by art, what begins to fail me by nature. A nicer precaution against the injury of time, a more careful management of a health that daily becomes more feeble, cannot scandalize any man of sense, and we ought not to trouble our selves with those that are not so.
To say the truth, that which displeases in old people, is not too affected a care of their own preservation. We should easily forgive them every thing that relates to themselves, if they had but the same consideration for others. But the Authority they affirm, is full of injustice and indiscretion; for they preposterously thwart the inclinations even of those that bear the most with their infirmities. Their long course of life, it seems, has untaught them how to converse with mankind; for they shew nothing but a spirit of Moroseness, Austerity, and Contradiction, to those very persons from whom they exact affability, docility, and obedience. All that they themselves do, they imagine to be virtuous; and place among vices every thing that lies out of their power. And as they are constrain’d to follow Nature where she is tiresom and offensive, they would have others oppose what is sweet and agreeable in her.
There is no part of our life wherein we ought to study our own Humour with more application than in old age; for it is never so difficult to be discover’d as then. An impetuous young fellow has a hundred returns, when he is dissatisfied with his Extravagancies : but old people devote themselves to their Humour as if it was a virtue; and take pleasure in their own defects, because they carry a false resemblance of the most commendable qualities. In effect, as they grow more difficult, they vainly imagine that they become more delicate. They take up an aversion to Pleasure, believing that they are justly opposing the current of Vice. A serious air passes with them for judgment; phlegm for wisdom : and hence proceeds that supercilious authority they allow them selves to censure every thing : Spleen supplying the place of indignation against sin; and Gravity of sufficiency.
The only sure remedy when we are come to this pass, is to consult our Reason in the intervals, when she is disengag’d from our humour; and to take a resolution to conceal our defects from the sight of the world. ’Tis all that our wisdom can do at this juncture to hide them, and it would be a superfluous labour to endeavour wholly to get clear of them. ’Tis at this point of our Life that we ought to assign some time between it and Death, and to chuse a convenient place to pass it in Devotion if possible, at least with Prudence; either with a devotion that gives us confidence, or with reason that promises us repose. When our Reason, which qualified us for the world, is, if I may use the expression, worn out with long using, a wise man forms another out of it to serve him in his Retreat, which of ridiculous fools, as we were growing in conversation, makes us truly wise in respect of our selves.
Of all the Retreats that a man can chuse when he is Old, I should infinitely prefer that of a Convent to all the rest, if their Rules were less severe. ’Tis certain that old age shuns a crowd, out of a nice and retired humour, that cannot endure to be either importun’d or tired; and yet it avoids solitude with greater diligence, where it becomes a prey to its own black disquietudes, or to sullen vexatious imaginations. The only remaining relief against all this, is the Conversation of a virtuous Society : now, what Society can better agree with it than a religious one, where one would think, all manner of human helps should be afforded, with more charity than elsewhere, and where their vows should be united to demand those succours from heaven, which cannot reasonably be expected from men.
It is as natural for old people to take up with Devotion, as it is ordinary with young men to abandon themselves to Pleasures. In the latter, Nature full charg’d, throws out of her self her superfluity of vigour, hunting after voluptuousness in external Objects : in the others, languishing Nature seeks in God what she has lost, and adheres more closely to him, to provide for her self a kind of resource in her decay. Thus the same spirit that leads to Society in our wants, conducts us to God in our languishings; and if Convents were instituted as they ought to be, we should find in the same place both the support of Heaven, and the assistance of Men : but after the manner they are settled, instead of an alleviation of our miseries, we find there the hardship of a blind obedience, either in the performance of unprofitable things, or in the forbearance of innocent ones. We find there an ordinary sacrifice of Reason; Laws more difficult to be observ’d than the divine and political; Ordinances scandalously broke by Libertines, and impatiently borne by the most submissive.
I confess, we meet sometimes with some religious persons of an inestimable merit; such as knew the Vanities of the world which they have quitted; and the grimace of that kind of life which they have embrac’d. These are truly virtuous and devout then, who refine the dictates of Morality by those of Piety. They live not only exempt from the perturbation of passions, but enjoy a most admirable serenity of mind; and are more happy in desiring nothing, than the greatest Monarchs in possessing all. Such examples are indeed very rare : and the virtue of those religious persons is more to be admir’d, than their condition to be embraced.
For my part, I would never advise a Gentleman to engage in such obligations, wherein all the rights of one’s will are generally lost and swallow’d up. The pains which a man would willingly undergo, is made necessary; the sin he designs to avoid, must be shun’d by injunction, and the good which he would do, is to be pursu’d by constraint. Common slavery goes no farther than to force us to what we are unwilling to do : that of Convents lays a necessity upon us, even in things that we are willing to perform.
The late Queen of Portugal1 who was as capable to manage her own conduct in tranquillity, as to govern a state in a storm, had the fancy to turn Nun, upon her resigning the Government to her Son2 : but after having examin’d the rules of all the religious orders, with as much care as judgment, she found none that allow’d either the Body the necessary conveniences of Life, or the Mind a reasonable satisfaction. ’Tis certain, that the idea of a Convent is agreeable to one who seeks innocence and repose; but ’tis a hard matter to find there the contentment one fancied. If he does, which happens very rarely, he does not enjoy it long; and the best caution one can use against entering into a Monastery, is to consider that the generality of those religious persons continue there with regret, and get out from thence, when they can, with joy.
I could wish we had establish’d Societies, where Gentlemen might commodiously retire, after they have done the publick all the service they were able. When they were once enter’d here, whether out of a consideration of their future state, a dislike of the World, or a desire of Tranquillity, after so many different agitations of fortune, they might taste the delight of a pious Retreat, and the innocent pleasure of virtuous and agreeable conversation : but in this place of repose, I would have no other Rules than those of Christianity, which are generally receiv’d every where. And indeed, we have ills enough to suffer, and sins to commit, without creating new torments, and new crimes, by new Institutions. ’Tis a piece of folly, to seek far from Court, a Retreat where a man will live with more hardship, and damn himself with more ease, than in the conversation of men.
I hate the austerity of those, who, to enlarge duty, leave no room for good-will : they make all center in the necessity of obeying, without any other reason, than constantly to exercise our obedience; and, because they still delight in enjoying their power. Now, I don’t like subjection to their fancy; and am only for docility to a wise and discreet conduct. It is not reasonable, that the small remainder of liberty, which Nature preserves from the laws of Politicks and Religion, should be wholly lost in the Institutions of these new Legislators; and that persons who enter a Monastery, thro’ the notion of ease and repose, should find nothing there but slavery and pain.
As for my self, were I in such a place, I would freely make shift without delights, at an age when a man’s relish of pleasures is, as it were, extinguish’d; but then I would have all conveniences, at a time when we more sensibly feel whatever offends us, as in proportion we become less nice in the pursuit of what pleases us, or are less tender in relation to what affects us. These conveniences, desirable in old Age, ought to be as far remov’d from plenty, that causes perplexity, as from want, which creates anxiety. To explain my thoughts more clearly, I would have in a Convent, a cleanly and well-manag’d frugality; where God should not be look’d upon as a morose Master, who forbids agreeable things, because they are pleasing; but where nothing should please sound minds, but what’s just, or entirely innocent.
When Monsieur Fouquet was in prison, the Mareschal de Clerembaut had his head full of these thoughts about Retirement. "How happy might a Man live," said he, "in a Society, where he could divest fortune of that jurisdiction she pretends to have over him! We sacrifice to this fortune, our estates, our repose, our years, perhaps unprofitably; and if we arrive to possess its favours, we purchase the short-liv’d enjoyment, sometimes at the expence of our liberty, and sometimes of our lives. But, suppose all our greatness should continue as long as we liv’d, yet it would at least expire with our selves. And what use of their Grandeur have those great Favourites made, who never beheld the course of their fortune interrupted? Don’t they seem to have acquir’d this mighty stock of glory, and to have heap’d these prodigious riches for no other end, than to make themselves more sensible of the torment of being neither able to quit nor keep them?" This was his usual discourse for a whole month we were together; and that agreeable Courtier, whose conversation was the nicest delight his friends enjoy’d, suffer’d himself to be entirely possess’d with this train of thoughts, sometimes judicious, but always melancholy.
I confess there is a certain time when the wisest action we can do, is to quit the World : but as fully persuaded as I am of this truth, I should infinitely sooner be directed by Nature to retirement, than by my Reason. ’Tis by the impulse of the former, that in the midst of the World, I live now after such a fashion, as if I were retir’d out of it. I still continue in it, as far as I seek what pleases me; and am still out of it, as far as I avoid whatever incommodes me there. Every day I steal away from acquaintances that weary, and conversations that tire me. Every day I entertain my self in a sweet Commerce with my Friends, and find the most sensible pleasure in their company.
After my way of living, I neither enjoy a full Society, nor a perfect Retirement. ’Tis only an innocent confining of my self to those delights, which best agree with my inclinations. Disgusted with gross Vice, and offended by the practice of too rigid Virtue, I possess all those harmless pleasures that are most suitable to the repose of old Age, and affect me in proportion to what I am capable of relishing with satisfaction.
When we approach our fatal Urn,
And Life’s decreasing lamp does feebly burn,
Nature to innocence inclin’d,
Pursues the pleasures of the mind :
And she, whose fierce impetuous heat
Fir’d ev’ry vein, now seeks a blest Retreat.
’Tis true, when Love’s no more,
Our brightest Days are o’er;
But when our scorching Noon is past,
Soft Ev’ning’s gentler light succeeds at last;
Then gladly we forget th’intemperate blaze,
Reason prevails o’er rage, and solid judgment sways.
1. Luisa-Francisca de Gusman, Daughter to the Duke of Medina Sidonia, and Wife to Don Juan Duke of Bragansa, who afterwards became King of Portugal. She died the 18th of February 1666.
2. Don Alfonso.