Page:The Harvard Classics Vol. 51; Lectures.djvu/175
cynical and subtly subservient, divulged that even he could not appease his sovereign's appetite for adulation. In general, however, it is now commonly the fashion to assume the virtue of modesty by those who have it not, and the professional flatterer finds fewer opportunities than formerly. Yet we need only glance at the biographies which have come down to us from the ages most addicted to artificial manners and speech in order to see that these, too, bear the stamp of sincerity. There is always the unconscious record, the expression or tone peculiar to the time, to betray them; and then, few writers have ever been cunning enough to dupe more than one generation—their own.
Nobody need forego the inestimable delights of biography from fear of being the dupe of some devious biographer. It requires no long practice to train yourself to sift the genuine from the false a branch of intellectual detective work which possesses the zest of mystery, abounds in surprises, and can be carried on at your own fireside.
So inevitably does temperament register itself that it cannot be concealed even in autobiography, which some persons unwisely avoid because they suppose that those who write their lives set out with the deliberate purpose of painting themselves as more wise or virtuous, clever or courageous, than they really were. But though any special incident narrated by a Benvenuto Cellini cannot be verified, the sum of his amazing "Life" reveals to us Cellini himself, that perfect product of the Italian Renaissance in its decline—versatile, brilliant, wicked, superstitious, infidel, fascinating, ready to kill himself toiling to perfect a medal, or to kill a neighbor for some passing whim. Even Goethe, who wrote the most artificial of autobiographies, recomposing the events of his childhood and youth so as to give them sequence and emphasis that belong to a work of fiction, even he, Olympian poseur that he was, could not by this device have hidden, if he had wished, his essential self from us.
We may well dismiss, therefore, the suspicion which has sometimes hovered over biography. The best lives are among the most precious possessions we have; even the mediocre, or those less than mediocre, can furnish us much solid amusement; and there are
- Harvard Classics, xxxi; and cf. Lecture III, below.