The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 13/From Henry St. John to Jonathan Swift - 26

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FROM MY FARM, JUNE 27, 1734.

I THANK you, Mr. dean; or, to use a name to me more sacred, I thank you, my friend, for your letter of the 23d of May, which came to me by post. I answer it by the same conveyance; and provided the diligent inspection of private men's correspondence do not stop our letters, they have my leave to do, what they will do without it, to open and read them. If they expect to find any thing which may do us hurt, or them good; their disappointment will give me pleasure, and in the proportion, I shall imagine it gives them pain. I should have another pleasure, of higher relish, if our epistles were to be perused by persons of higher rank. And who knows, considering the mighty importance we are of, whether that may not happen? How would these persons stare, to see such a thing as sincere cordial friendship subsist inviolate, and grow and strengthen from year to year, in spite of distance, absence, and mutual inutility!

But enough on this. Let us turn to other subjects. I have read, in the golden verses of Pythagoras, or in some other collection of wise apophthegms of the ancients, that a man of business may talk of philosophy, a man who has none may practise it. What do you think of this maxim? Is it exact? I have a strange distrust of maxims. We make as many observations as our time, our knowledge, and the other means we have, give us the opportunity of making on a physical matter. We find that they all correspond, and that one general proposition may be affirmed as the result of them. This we affirm, and in consequence, this becomes a maxim among our followers, if we have any. Thus the king of Siam affirmed, that water was always in a fluid state; and I doubt not but the talapoins (do they not call them so?) held this maxim. Neither he, or they, had ever climbed the neighbouring mountains of Ava; their observations were confined to the burning climate they inhabited. It is much the same in moral maxims, founded on observations of the conduct of men; for there are other moral maxims of universal truth, as there are moral duties of eternal obligation. We see what the conduct is, and we guess what the motives are, of great numbers of men; but then we see often at too great a distance, or through a faulty medium; we guess with much uncertainty from a thousand reasons concerning a thing as various, as changing, as inconsistent as the heart of man. And even when we see right, and guess right, we build our maxims on a small number of observations (for such they are comparatively, how numerous soever they may be, taken by themselves) which our own age and our own country chiefly have presented to us.

You and I have known one man in particular, who affected business he often hindered, and never did; who had the honour among some, and the blame among others, of bringing about great revolutions in his own country, and in the general affairs of Europe; and who was, at the same time, the idlest creature living; who was never more copious than in expressing, when that was the theme of the day, his indifference to power, and his contempt of what we call honours, such as titles, ribands, &c, who should, to have been consistent, have had this indifference, and have felt this contempt, since he knew neither how to use power, nor how to wear honours, and yet who was jealous of one, and fond of the other, even to ridicule. This character seems singular enough, and yet I have known some resembling it very much in general, and many exactly like it in the strongest marks it bore.

Now let us suppose, that some Rochefoucault or other, some anthroponomical sage, should discover a multitude of similar instances, and not stumble upon any one repugnant; you and I should not, however, receive for a maxim, that he who affects business, never does it: nor this, that be who brings about great revolutions, is always idle: nor this, that he who expresses indifference to power, and contempt of honours, is jealous of one, and fond of the others.

Proceed we now, dear doctor, to the application. A man in business, and a man who is out of it, may equally talk of philosophy; that is certain. The question is, whether the man in business may not practise it, as well as the man out of business? I think he may, in this sense, as easily; but sure I am, he may, in this sense, as usefully. If we look into the world, our part of it I mean, we shall find, I believe, few philosophers in business, or out of business. The greatest part of the men I have seen in business, perhaps all of them, have been so far from acting on philosophical principles, that is, on principles of reason and virtue, that they have not acted even on the highest principles of vice. I have not known a man of real ambition; a man who sacrificed all his passions, or made them all subservient to that one; but I have known many, whose vanity and whose avarice mimicked ambition. The greatest part of the men I have seen out of business, have been so far from practising philosophy, that they have lived in the world errant triflers; or retiring from it, have fallen into stupid indolence, and deserved such an inscription as Seneca mentions, in one of his letters to Lucilius, to have been put over the door of one Vattia. Hic situs est Vattia. But, for all this, I think that a man in business may practise philosophy as austerely to himself, and more beneficially to mankind, than a man out of it. The stoicks were an affected, pedantical sect; but I have always approved that rule of the Portique, that a philosopher was not to exempt himself from the duties of society, neither in the community to which he particularly belonged, nor in the great community of mankind. Mencius, and his master Confucius, were strange metaphysicians, but they were good moralists, and they divided their doctrines into three parts; the duties of a man, as an individual, as a member of a family, and as a member of a state. In short, a man may be, many men have been, and some, I believe, are philosophers in business; he that can be so out of it, can be so in it.

But it is impossible to talk so much of philosophy, and forget to speak of Pope. He is actually rambling from one friend's house to another. He is now at Cirencester; he came thither from my lord Cobham's; he came to my lord Cobham's from Mr. Dormer's; to Mr. Dormer's from London; to London from Chiswick; to Chiswick from my farm; to my farm from his own garden; and he goes soon from lord Bathurst's to lord Peterborow's; after which, he returns to my farm again. The demon of verse sticks close to him. He has been imitating the satire of Horace, which begins Ambubaiarum collegia pharmacopolæ, &c. and has chosen rather to weaken the images, than to hurt chaste ears overmuch. He has sent it me; but I shall keep his secret as he desires, and shall not, I think, return him the copy; for the rogue has fixed a ridicule upon me, which some events of my life would seem perhaps to justify him in doing. I am glad you approve his moral essays. They will do more good than the sermons and writings of some, who had a mind to find great fault with them. And if the doctrines taught, hinted at, and implied in them, and the trains of consequences deducible from these doctrines were to be disputed in prose, I think he would have no reason to apprehend either the freethinkers on one hand, or the narrow dogmatists on the other. Some few things may be expressed a little hardly; but none are, I believe, unintelligible. I will let him know your complaints of his silence; which I wonder at the more, because he has often spoke in such a manner, as made me conclude you heard from him pretty regularly. Your compliments shall be paid likewise to the other friends you mention.

You complain of the vast alteration which the last seven years have made in you; and do you believe, that they have not made proportionable alterations in us? Satisfy yourself they have. We all go the same road, and keep much the same stages. Let this consideration, therefore, not hinder you from coming among us. You shall ride, walk, trifle, meddle, chide, and be as illbred as you please; and the indulgence you receive on these heads you shall return on these or others. Adieu.

I will speak to you about books next time I write, if I can recollect what I intended to say upon a passage in your letter; or if any thing else, worth saying, comes into my head. Adieu, my friend.