“Thoughts on Various Subjects” by Jonathan Swift (From The Battle of the Books)
We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.
Reflect on things past as wars, negotiations, factions, etc. We enter so little into those interests, that we wonder how men could possibly be so busy and concerned for things so transitory; look on the present times, we find the same humour, yet wonder not at all.
A wise man endeavours, by considering all circumstances, to make conjectures and form conclusions; but the smallest accident intervening (and in the course of affairs it is impossible to foresee all) does often produce such turns and changes, that at last he is just as much in doubt of events as the most ignorant and inexperienced person.
Positiveness is a good quality for preachers and orators, because he that would obtrude his thoughts and reasons upon a multitude, will convince others the more, as he appears convinced himself.
How is it possible to expect that mankind will take advice, when they will not so much as take warning?
I forget whether Advice be among the lost things which Aristo says are to be found in the moon; that and Time ought to have been there.
No preacher is listened to but Time, which gives us the same train and turn of thought that older people have tried in vain to put into our heads before.
When we desire or solicit anything, our minds run wholly on the good side or circumstances of it; when it is obtained, our minds run wholly on the bad ones.
In a glass-house the workmen often fling in a small quantity of fresh coals, which seems to disturb the fire, but very much enlivens it. This seems to allude to a gentle stirring of the passions, that the mind may not languish.
Religion seems to have grown an infant with age, and requires miracles to nurse it, as it had in its infancy.
All fits of pleasure are balanced by an equal degree of pain or languor; it is like spending this year part of the next year’s revenue.
The latter part of a wise man’s life is taken up in curing the follies, prejudices, and false opinions he had contracted in the former.
Would a writer know how to behave himself with relation to posterity, let him consider in old books what he finds that he is glad to know, and what omissions he most laments.
Whatever the poets pretend, it is plain they give immortality to none but themselves; it is Homer and Virgil we reverence and admire, not Achilles or Æneas. With historians it is quite the contrary; our thoughts are taken up with the actions, persons, and events we read, and we little regard the authors.
When a true genius appears in the world you may know him by this sign; that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.
Men who possess all the advantages of life, are in a state where there are many accidents to disorder and discompose, but few to please them.
It is unwise to punish cowards with ignominy, for if they had regarded that they would not have been cowards; death is their proper punishment, because they fear it most.
The greatest inventions were produced in the times of ignorance, as the use of the compass, gunpowder, and printing, and by the dullest nation, as the Germans.
One argument to prove that the common relations of ghosts and spectres are generally false, may be drawn from the opinion held that spirits are never seen by more than one person at a time; that is to say, it seldom happens to above one person in a company to be possessed with any high degree of spleen or melancholy.
I am apt to think that, in the day of Judgment, there will be small allowance given to the wise for their want of morals, nor to the ignorant for their want of faith, because both are without excuse. This renders the advantages equal of ignorance and knowledge. But, some scruples in the wise, and some vices in the ignorant, will perhaps be forgiven upon the strength of temptation to each.
The value of several circumstances in story lessens very much by distance of time, though some minute circumstances are very valuable; and it requires great judgment in a writer to distinguish.
It is grown a word of course for writers to say, “This critical age,” as divines say, “This sinful age.”
It is pleasant to observe how free the present age is in laying taxes on the next. Future ages shall talk of this; this shall be famous to all posterity. Whereas their time and thoughts will be taken up about present things, as ours are now.
The chameleon, who is said to feed upon nothing but air, hath, of all animals, the nimblest tongue.
When a man is made a spiritual peer he loses his surname; when a temporal, his Christian name.
It is in disputes as in armies, where the weaker side sets up false lights, and makes a great noise, to make the enemy believe them more numerous and strong than they really are.
Some men, under the notions of weeding out prejudices, eradicate virtue, honesty, and religion.
In all well-instituted commonwealths, care has been taken to limit men’s possessions; which is done for many reasons, and among the rest, for one which perhaps is not often considered: that when bounds are set to men’s desires, after they have acquired as much as the laws will permit them, their private interest is at an end, and they have nothing to do but to take care of the public.
There are but three ways for a man to revenge himself of the censure of the world: to despise it, to return the like, or to endeavour to live so as to avoid it. The first of these is usually pretended, the last is almost impossible; the universal practice is for the second.
I never heard a finer piece of satire against lawyers than that of astrologers, when they pretend by rules of art to tell when a suit will end, and whether to the advantage of the plaintiff or defendant; thus making the matter depend entirely upon the influence of the stars, without the least regard to the merits of the cause.
The expression in Apocrypha about Tobit and his dog following him I have often heard ridiculed, yet Homer has the same words of Telemachus more than once; and Virgil says something like it of Evander. And I take the book of Tobit to be partly poetical.
I have known some men possessed of good qualities, which were very serviceable to others, but useless to themselves; like a sun-dial on the front of a house, to inform the neighbours and passengers, but not the owner within.
If a man would register all his opinions upon love, politics, religion, learning, etc., beginning from his youth and so go on to old age, what a bundle of inconsistencies and contradictions would appear at last!
What they do in heaven we are ignorant of; what they do not we are told expressly: that they neither marry, nor are given in marriage.
It is a miserable thing to live in suspense; it is the life of a spider.
The Stoical scheme of supplying our wants by lopping off our desires, is like cutting off our feet when we want shoes.
Physicians ought not to give their judgment of religion, for the same reason that butchers are not admitted to be jurors upon life and death.
The reason why so few marriages are happy, is, because young ladies spend their time in making nets, not in making cages.
If a man will observe as he walks the streets, I believe he will find the merriest countenances in mourning coaches.
Nothing more unqualifies a man to act with prudence than a misfortune that is attended with shame and guilt.
The power of fortune is confessed only by the miserable; for the happy impute all their success to prudence or merit.
Ambition often puts men upon doing the meanest offices; so climbing is performed in the same posture with creeping.
Censure is the tax a man pays to the public for being eminent.
Although men are accused for not knowing their own weakness, yet perhaps as few know their own strength. It is, in men as in soils, where sometimes there is a vein of gold which the owner knows not of.
Satire is reckoned the easiest of all wit, but I take it to be otherwise in very bad times: for it is as hard to satirise well a man of distinguished vices, as to praise well a man of distinguished virtues. It is easy enough to do either to people of moderate characters.
Invention is the talent of youth, and judgment of age; so that our judgment grows harder to please, when we have fewer things to offer it: this goes through the whole commerce of life. When we are old, our friends find it difficult to please us, and are less concerned whether we be pleased or no.
No wise man ever wished to be younger.
An idle reason lessens the weight of the good ones you gave before.
The motives of the best actions will not bear too strict an inquiry. It is allowed that the cause of most actions, good or bad, may he resolved into the love of ourselves; but the self-love of some men inclines them to please others, and the self-love of others is wholly employed in pleasing themselves. This makes the great distinction between virtue and vice. Religion is the best motive of all actions, yet religion is allowed to be the highest instance of self-love.
Old men view best at a distance with the eyes of their understanding as well as with those of nature.
Some people take more care to hide their wisdom than their folly.
Anthony Henley’s farmer, dying of an asthma, said, “Well, if I can get this breath once out, I’ll take care it never got in again.”
The humour of exploding many things under the name of trifles, fopperies, and only imaginary goods, is a very false proof either of wisdom or magnanimity, and a great check to virtuous actions. For instance, with regard to fame, there is in most people a reluctance and unwillingness to be forgotten. We observe, even among the vulgar, how fond they are to have an inscription over their grave. It requires but little philosophy to discover and observe that there is no intrinsic value in all this; however, if it be founded in our nature as an incitement to virtue, it ought not to be ridiculed.
Complaint is the largest tribute heaven receives, and the sincerest part of our devotion.
The common fluency of speech in many men, and most women, is owing to a scarcity of matter, and a scarcity of words; for whoever is a master of language, and hath a mind full of ideas, will be apt, in speaking, to hesitate upon the choice of both; whereas common speakers have only one set of ideas, and one set of words to clothe them in, and these are always ready at the mouth. So people come faster out of a church when it is almost empty, than when a crowd is at the door.
Few are qualified to shine in company; but it is in most men’s power to be agreeable. The reason, therefore, why conversation runs so low at present, is not the defect of understanding, but pride, vanity, ill-nature, affectation, singularity, positiveness, or some other vice, the effect of a wrong education.
To be vain is rather a mark of humility than pride. Vain men delight in telling what honours have been done them, what great company they have kept, and the like, by which they plainly confess that these honours were more than their due, and such as their friends would not believe if they had not been told: whereas a man truly proud thinks the greatest honours below his merit, and consequently scorns to boast. I therefore deliver it as a maxim, that whoever desires the character of a proud man, ought to conceal his vanity.
Law, in a free country, is, or ought to be, the determination of the majority of those who have property in land.
One argument used to the disadvantage of Providence I take to be a very strong one in its defence. It is objected that storms and tempests, unfruitful seasons, serpents, spiders, flies, and other noxious or troublesome animals, with many more instances of the like kind, discover an imperfection in nature, because human life would be much easier without them; but the design of Providence may clearly be perceived in this proceeding. The motions of the sun and moon—in short, the whole system of the universe, as far as philosophers have been able to discover and observe, are in the utmost degree of regularity and perfection; but wherever God hath left to man the power of interposing a remedy by thought or labour, there he hath placed things in a state of imperfection, on purpose to stir up human industry, without which life would stagnate, or, indeed, rather, could not subsist at all: Curis accuunt mortalia corda.
Praise is the daughter of present power.
How inconsistent is man with himself!
I have known several persons of great fame for wisdom in public affairs and counsels governed by foolish servants.
I have known great Ministers, distinguished for wit and learning, who preferred none but dunces.
I have known men of great valour cowards to their wives.
I have known men of the greatest cunning perpetually cheated.
I knew three great Ministers, who could exactly compute and settle the accounts of a kingdom, but were wholly ignorant of their own economy.
The preaching of divines helps to preserve well-inclined men in the course of virtue, but seldom or never reclaims the vicious.
Princes usually make wiser choices than the servants whom they trust for the disposal of places: I have known a prince, more than once, choose an able Minister, but I never observed that Minister to use his credit in the disposal of an employment to a person whom he thought the fittest for it. One of the greatest in this age owned and excused the matter from the violence of parties and the unreasonableness of friends.
Small causes are sufficient to make a man uneasy when great ones are not in the way. For want of a block he will stumble at a straw.
Dignity, high station, or great riches, are in some sort necessary to old men, in order to keep the younger at a distance, who are otherwise too apt to insult them upon the score of their age.
Every man desires to live long; but no man would be old.
Love of flattery in most men proceeds from the mean opinion they have of themselves; in women from the contrary.
If books and laws continue to increase as they have done for fifty years past, I am in some concern for future ages how any man will be learned, or any man a lawyer.
Kings are commonly said to have long hands; I wish they had as long ears.
Princes in their infancy, childhood, and youth are said to discover prodigious parts and wit, to speak things that surprise and astonish. Strange, so many hopeful princes, and so many shameful kings! If they happen to die young, they would have been prodigies of wisdom and virtue. If they live, they are often prodigies indeed, but of another sort.
Politics, as the word is commonly understood, are nothing but corruptions, and consequently of no use to a good king or a good ministry; for which reason Courts are so overrun with politics.
A nice man is a man of nasty ideas.
Apollo was held the god of physic and sender of diseases. Both were originally the same trade, and still continue.
Old men and comets have been reverenced for the same reason: their long beards, and pretences to foretell events.
A person was asked at court, what he thought of an ambassador and his train, who were all embroidery and lace, full of bows, cringes, and gestures; he said, it was Solomon’s importation, gold and apes.
Most sorts of diversion in men, children, and other animals, is an imitation of fighting.
Augustus meeting an ass with a lucky name foretold himself good fortune. I meet many asses, but none of them have lucky names.
If a man makes me keep my distance, the comfort is he keeps his at the same time.
Who can deny that all men are violent lovers of truth when we see them so positive in their errors, which they will maintain out of their zeal to truth, although they contradict themselves every day of their lives?
That was excellently observed, say I, when I read a passage in an author, where his opinion agrees with mine. When we differ, there I pronounce him to be mistaken.
Very few men, properly speaking, live at present, but are providing to live another time.
Laws penned with the utmost care and exactness, and in the vulgar language, are often perverted to wrong meanings; then why should we wonder that the Bible is so?
Although men are accused for not knowing their weakness, yet perhaps as few know their own strength.
A man seeing a wasp creeping into a vial filled with honey, that was hung on a fruit tree, said thus: “Why, thou sottish animal, art thou mad to go into that vial, where you see many hundred of your kind there dying in it before you?” “The reproach is just,” answered the wasp, “but not from you men, who are so far from taking example by other people’s follies, that you will not take warning by your own. If after falling several times into this vial, and escaping by chance, I should fall in again, I should then but resemble you.”
An old miser kept a tame jackdaw, that used to steal pieces of money, and hide them in a hole, which the cat observing, asked why he would hoard up those round shining things that he could make no use of? “Why,” said the jackdaw, “my master has a whole chest full, and makes no more use of them than I.”
Men are content to be laughed at for their wit, but not for their folly.
If the men of wit and genius would resolve never to complain in their works of critics and detractors, the next age would not know that they ever had any.
After all the maxims and systems of trade and commerce, a stander-by would think the affairs of the world were most ridiculously contrived.
There are few countries which, if well cultivated, would not support double the number of their inhabitants, and yet fewer where one-third of the people are not extremely stinted even in the necessaries of life. I send out twenty barrels of corn, which would maintain a family in bread for a year, and I bring back in return a vessel of wine, which half a dozen good follows would drink in less than a month, at the expense of their health and reason.
A man would have but few spectators, if he offered to show for threepence how he could thrust a red-hot iron into a barrel of gunpowder, and it should not take fire.
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Great thought-provoking stuff!