1. A man without characteristics is a most insipid character.
2. A fool is always an intruder: an intelligent man knows whether he is welcome or unwelcome; he manages to disappear the moment before he would be in the way.
3. Foolish jokers are thick on the ground, and it rains insects of that sort everywhere. A good joker is a rarity; even a man who is such by nature finds it hard to sustain the part for long; it seldom happens that the man who makes us laugh wins our esteem.
4. There are many indecent wits, and even more slanderous or satirical wits, but few delicate wits. To combine playfulness with grace, and express oneself felicitously on the most trifling subjects, requires too much subtlety, too much taste, and indeed too fertile an imagination: to jest thus is to create, and make something out of nothing.
5. If we paid serious attention to all the dull, vain and puerile remarks made in ordinary conversation, we should be ashamed to speak or listen, and we should perhaps condemn ourselves to perpetual silence, which would be even more trying in social relations than useless remarks. We must thus adapt ourselves to every type of mind, and accept as a necessary evil the telling of unfounded stories, vague reflections on the present government or the fortunes of princes, and the endless repetition of the same fine sentiments; we must let Aronce speak in proverbs and Melinda talk about herself, about her vapours, her headaches and her insomnia.
6. There are some people who, in conversation or in any dealings one has with them, repel one by their ridiculous way of talking, by the oddity and incorrectness of the terms they use and by the conjunction of certain words which are never heard together save on their lips, and to which they ascribe meanings which those who first used them never intended. Their speech is guided neither by reason nor by custom, but by their own eccentric nature which, inspired by the wish to seem continually amusing and perhaps brilliant, has gradually evolved a jargon peculiar to themselves, which eventually becomes their natural idiom; they accompany this far-fetched language with affected gestures and an unnatural pronunciation. They are pleased with themselves and with the charm of their wit, and it cannot be said that they are entirely devoid of wit; but one pities them for the sort of wit they have and, what is worse, one suffers from it.
7. What's that you say? I beg your pardon? I don't follow; would you mind beginning again? I'm even more at a loss. At last I guess: you're trying to tell me, Acis, that it is cold; why can't you say 'It's cold'? You want to inform me that it is raining or snowing; say: 'It's raining, it's snowing.' You think I am looking well, and you would like to congratulate me; say: 'I think you're looking well.' But, you may reply, all that is very simple and straightforward; anyone could say as much. What does that matter, Acis? Is it such a great misfortune to be understood when one speaks, and to speak like everybody else? There is just one thing, Acis, that all you phrasemongers are lacking in; you never suspect it, and I'm going to astonish you; there's one thing you are lacking in, and that is wit. Moreover, there's another thing that you could well do without, namely your belief that you are wittier than others: hence your pompous nonsense, your involved phrases and your long words that mean nothing. When I see you accosting someone, or entering a room, I shall pull you by the coat-tails and whisper in your ear:
'Don't aim at wit, don't be witty, it doesn't suit you; speak, if you can, in simple language, like those in whom you find no wit; perhaps, then, people will credit you with having some.'
8. Who can hope to avoid meeting, in society, certain vain, frivolous, and self-confident wits, who in any company are always the ones who speak, and whom others must listen to? You hear them from the antechamber; you go in unnoticed, without fear of disturbing them: they keep on talking without paying the slightest attention to those who come in or go out, nor to the rank or merit of their companions; they interrupt one who has just begun a story and proceed to tell it in their own way, which is the best: they have it from Zamet, or Ruccelay, or Conchini,(1) whom they don't know, to whom they have never spoken, and whom they would address as Monseigneur if they met; they sometimes go up to the most distinguished member of the company and whisper in his ear some choice detail that nobody else knows, and that they don't want the others to learn; they suppress a few names in order to disguise the story they are telling, and make its application difficult; you may beg them, press them in vain: there are certain things they will not tell, there are certain folk they cannot name, they have given their word, it's the greatest secret, it's a mystery; in any case, you are asking for the impossible, since as regards what you are hoping to learn from them, they know neither the facts nor the persons concerned.
9. Arrias has read everything, seen everything, or so he would like us to believe; he is a universal man, and he lets us know it; he would rather tell a lie than keep silence, or appear ignorant of anything. The talk, at a great noble's table, turns on some Northern court: Arrias holds forth, silencing those who were about to speak from personal knowledge; he finds his way about that distant region as though he had been born there; he discourses on the manners of that court, the women of the country, its laws and customs; he relates anecdotes that have taken place there; he finds them amusing, and roars with laughter at them before anyone else. Someone ventures to contradict him, and clearly proves that what he is saying is untrue. Arrias is not abashed, on the contrary he flares up and says to the man who has interrupted him:
'Everything I say, everything I describe I have learnt from first-hand witnesses: I had it from Sethon, the French Ambassador at that court, lately returned to Paris, whom I know intimately and who, when I questioned him closely, told me the story in every detail.'
He was resuming his narrative with even greater self-confidence than he had shown at first, when one of his fellow-guests said to him: 'You are speaking to Sethon himself, newly returned from his embassy.'
10. There is a middle course to be taken, in conversation, between a lazy reluctance to speak, or an occasional absent-mindedness that allows one to wander far from the subject under discussion and thus to ask stupid questions or make foolish replies, and the contrary habit of paying unnecessary attention to another's slightest remark, picking it up, joking about it, reading into it a mysterious meaning that no one else can see, and admiring its subtlety and shrewdness purely for the sake of displaying one's own.
11. To be self-infatuated and convinced of his own great wit is a misfortune that only befalls a man who is devoid of wit, or scantily endowed with it. Should one have the misfortune to be exposed to conversation with such a man, how many fine phrases one will have to endure! how many of those adventurous words that crop up suddenly and last for a while, but soon disappear for ever! If he relates a piece of news, it is less for the information of his hearers than to get the credit for telling it, and telling it well; in his hands it becomes a novel; he makes the characters think as he does and speak with his own mannerisms; and he always makes them speak at great length; then he indulges in parentheses, which may pass for episodes but which distract both the speaker and yourself, his longsuffering listener, from the main point of the story. What would become of you both, if somebody did not fortunately turn up to interrupt the gathering and make everyone forget the narrative?
12. I can hear Theodectus in the antechamber; as he draws nearer, he raises his voice the louder; now he comes in; he laughs, he shouts, he lets fly; one blocks one's ears; it's like thunder. And the things he says are as terrifying as the tone in which he speaks. He calms down, and recovers from this mighty to-do only to jabber nonsense. He pays so little regard to the occasion, the company and the proprieties that he lets everyone know what he thinks of them, without intending to; before he has even sat down he has unwittingly offended the whole party. When the meal is served, he sits down first at table and in the place of honour; the ladies are on his right and on his left. He eats, he drinks, he tells stories, makes jokes and interrupts other people, all at once. He has no respect for his host nor for the other guests; he takes advantage of the foolish deference people show him. Is it he or Euthydemus who is giving the dinner? He lords it over the whole table; and it is easier to allow him such authority than to question it. He's as bad after he has eaten and drunk as before. If there is card-playing, he wins; he taunts the loser, and hurts his feelings; he has the laugh on his side: he is excused any kind of foolishness. At last I cannot stand it any longer: I slip away, incapable of putting up with Theodectus and with those who put up with him.
13. Troilus is useful to those who have too much wealth; he rids them of their tiresome superfluity; he spares them the bother of hoarding money, making contracts, fastening safes, carrying keys about their person and living in fear of burglaries. He helps them in their pursuit of pleasure, and he soon becomes capable of furthering their passions; soon he controls and directs their conduct. He is the oracle of a household, the man whose decisions are expected, nay, predicted, guessed at. He says that one slave deserves punishment, and the man gets a whipping; that another should be enfranchised, and he is immediately set free. If some hanger-on fails to amuse him, or seems to displease him, he is given notice. The master is fortunate if Troilus lets him keep his wife and children. At meal times, if Troilus declares some dish is tasty, the master and his guests, who were eating it without noticing, find it so tasty that they can't have enough of it; if on the contrary he says that some other dish is insipid, those who were beginning to enjoy it dare not swallow a mouthful, but spit it out on to the floor: all eves are fixed on him, watching his attitude and his face before venturing an opinion on the wine or viands set before them. And it's no use looking for him elsewhere than in the home of the rich man whom he controls; that is where he eats, sleeps and digests, where he scolds his valet, receives his workmen and puts off his creditors. He lords it, he dominates in the great hall; here he accepts the homage and the flattery of those who, more cunning than the rest, will only approach the master through the intermediary of Troilus. If you are unlucky enough to have a face that he does not like, he frowns and averts his gaze when you come in; if you go up to him, he does not rise; if you sit down near him, he moves away; if you speak to him, he does not answer; if you go on talking, he proceeds into another room; if you follow him, he makes for the staircase; he would run up all the floors, or throw himself out of the window, rather than put up with the company of someone whose face or tone of voice he disliked. In his own case, both face and voice are agreeable, and he has taken advantage of this to insinuate himself or to conquer. Everything, in course of time, becomes unworthy of his attention, while he is above seeking to maintain his position or his prestige by any of the talents that first brought him into favour. At most, he may sometimes emerge from his meditative taciturnity to contradict one, and even, once a day, deign to display censorious wit. Far from expecting him to defer to your opinions, to be obliging and complimentary, you cannot even be sure that he is always pleased with your approval or that he will tolerate your civility.
14. You are obliged to listen to the stranger whom chance has put next to you in some public conveyance, or at some fete or entertainment; you have only to let him speak, and you'll soon be acquainted with him; you will know his name, where he lives, where he comes from, the state of his fortune, his position, that of his father, his mother's family, his relations, his connexions by marriage, his family arms; you will be informed that he is noble, that he has a country house, fine furniture, a retinue and a carriage.
15. There are some people who speak a minute before they think. There are others who are tediously attentive to what they say, and in whose company one endures all the laborious processes of their mind; they are, as it were, compact of phrases and nice turns of expression, they are studied in their gestures and in their whole behaviour, they are purists, and they never take a chance with any word, even though it would have the finest effect in the world; nothing felicitous ever escapes them, nothing spontaneous or free ever springs from them; they speak correctly and boringly.
16. The art of conversation consists far less in displaying much wit oneself than in helping others to be witty: the man who leaves your company pleased with himself and his own wit is very well pleased with you. Men don't want to admire you, they want to be found agreeable themselves; they are less anxious to be instructed or even amused than to be appreciated and praised; and the subtlest pleasure lies in giving pleasure to another.
17. There should not be too much imagination in our conversation or in our writings; it often produces only vain and puerile ideas, which cannot help to perfect our taste and improve our minds; our thoughts should be based on good sense and sound reason, and should be an effect of our judgement.
18. It is a great misfortune to have neither wit enough to talk well nor sense enough to keep silence. This is the basic source of all foolish speech.
19. To say of something simply that it is good or that it is bad, and the reasons why it is good or bad, requires good sense and the gift of expression: and these are not easily come by. It is quicker to assert in decisive tones, which imply the proof of what one is saying, either that it is execrable or that it is miraculous.
20. Nothing is less pleasing to God and to one's fellow-men than to underline everything one says, even the most trivial matters, with long and wearisome oaths. An honourable man who says yes or no deserves to be believed: his character swears for him, inspires belief in his words, and wins him everybody's trust.
21. The man who is constantly asserting that he is honourable and upright, that he does no harm to anyone, that he is ready to suffer himself any wrong he may have done to others, and who swears it to make you believe him, does not even know how to counterfeit goodness.
A good man, for all his modesty, cannot prevent people saying about him what an insincere man is capable of saying about himself.
22. Cleon's remarks are unkind or unfair, one or the other; but he adds that that's the way he is, he says what he thinks.
23. There is a difference between speaking well, speaking easily, speaking with judgement and speaking opportunely. We fail in this last respect when we enlarge upon the splendid meal we have just enjoyed in front of people who have to be thrifty of their bread; or boast of our health in the presence of invalids; or talk about our wealth, our fortune and property to a man who has neither home nor income; in a word, when we speak of our happiness in front of those who are wretched; such conversation is too painful for them, and the comparison they are bound to make between your state and their own is intolerable.
24. 'As for you,' says Euthyphron, 'you are rich, or you should think yourself so: your income and your estate come to ten thousand livres, that's fine, that's ample, one could be happy with far less,'
while he, who speaks like this, has an income of fifty thousand, and thinks that is only half what he deserves. He assesses you, he puts a price on you, he fixes your expenses, and if he considered you worthy of a better fortune, such as that to which he himself aspires, he would not fail to wish it you. He is not alone in making such faulty estimates or such unkind comparisons: the world is full of Euthyphrons.
25. Somebody, following the convention that requires one to praise, and being moreover inclined to flattery and exaggeration, congratulates Theodemus on a speech which he has not heard, and of which nobody has as yet given him an account; he repeatedly praises Theodemus's natural gifts, his gestures, and above all his infallible memory; but in fact, Theodemus's memory let him down, he dried up.
26. Some people are so brusque, so restless, so arrogant that although they have nothing to do, no urgent business elsewhere, they get rid of you with a few words, and their sole aim is to shake you off; before you have finished talking to them, they have vanished without a trace. They are no less foolish than those who buttonhole you solely to bore you: they are merely less tiresome.
27. For some people, speaking and giving offence are one and the same thing. They are spiteful and bitter; their style is infused with gall and wormwood; mockery, abuse and insults flow from their lips like spittle. They'd have been better off born dumb or stupid; what liveliness and wit they possess does them more harm than some others' foolishness. Not content with sharp repartee, they are often insolently aggressive; they attack whatever comes within reach of their tongue, those present and those absent; they hit out right and left, like rams: does one expect rams to give up their horns? In the same way one cannot hope to reform by means of this description people who are by nature so harsh, unfriendly and intractable. The best one can do, on catching sight of them from afar, is to run away from them as fast as possible, without looking back.
28. There are people of a certain calibre or character with whom one must never become involved, of whom one should complain as little as possible, and against whom one dare not even be in the right.
29. When two people have had a violent quarrel, where one is in the right and the other in the wrong, what most people who have witnessed the quarrel inevitably do, either to avoid having to pass judgement or by a spirit of compromise which I consider misplaced, is to blame them both: which teaches one how urgent and essential it is to run Eastward when the coxcomb is in the West, so as to avoid being in the wrong with him.
30. I dislike a man to whom I cannot make the first approach, nor greet before he greets me, without lowering myself in his eyes and contributing towards his own good opinion of himself. Montaigne would have said:
'I like to have elbow room, and to be courteous and affable as I choose, without remorse or consequence. I cannot strive against my own bent, nor go against the grain of my nature, which inclines me towards the man I happen to meet. When he is my equal, and is not hostile to me, I forestall his welcome, I inquire as to his health and state of mind, I offer my services without much haggling over details or standing upon ceremony. I cannot like the man who, through the knowledge I have of his habits and his way of behaving, deprives me of that ease and freedom. How am I constantly to remember, when I see such a man in the distance, to wear a solemn and self-important air, so as to let him know that I think myself as good or better than him? and to that end, to remind myself of my own good qualities and his bad ones, and make comparison between them. This is too hard a task for me, and I am not capable of such strict and sudden attention; and even if I had achieved it on a first occasion, I should probably weaken and fail on a second attempt; I cannot force and constrain myself to be proud, for any man's sake.'
31. A man may have virtue, ability and good conduct, and yet be unbearable. Manners, which are disregarded as being of small importance, are often what decide men's good or bad opinion of one: by taking a little care to be courteous and gentle, one can forestall their criticism. It needs little effort to be considered proud, uncivil, disdainful and disobliging: it needs even less to be esteemed quite the reverse.
32. Politeness does not always imply goodness, equity, obligingness and gratitude; it at least provides the appearance of these, and makes a man seem outwardly what he should be inwardly.
It is possible to define the spirit of politeness, but not to lay down rules for its practice: it depends on custom and convention; it is related to periods and places and people, and it is not the same for the two sexes nor for various social conditions; one cannot attain it through intelligence alone, yet intelligence can enable one to imitate it, and to acquire perfection in it. Certain temperaments are capable only of politeness, while others are conducive solely to great talents or solid virtue. It is true that good manners make virtue acceptable and attractive; and that it requires outstanding qualities to hold one's own without the aid of politeness.
It seems to me that the spirit of politeness lies in taking care to speak and act in such a way as to make others pleased with us and with themselves.
33. It is a fault against good manners to lavish praise, in front of someone whom you have invited to sing or play an instrument, on some other person having the same talents; or, in front of those who read their verse to you, to praise another poet.
34. When you offer other people a meal or an entertainment, when you give them presents or procure them any other sort of pleasure, you can do the thing well, or you can do it as they like it: this is the better course.
35. It would be uncivilized to reject every sort of praise indiscriminately: we should appreciate the approval of people we respect, when they praise us sincerely for our praiseworthy qualities.
36. An intelligent man who is proud by nature will lose none of his pride and haughtiness on becoming poor; on the contrary, the only thing likely to soften his temper, to make him gentler and more sociable, would be a touch of prosperity.
37. To be unable to endure all the unpleasant characters of whom the world is full is not an admirable characteristic: we need, in our dealings, both gold coins and small change.
38. To live with people who have quarrelled, and to whose mutual complaints one has to listen, is like spending one's life in the law courts, hearing counsels' speeches from morning till night.
39. Certain friends had spent their days closely united: their possessions were held in common, they shared the same home, they were constantly in one another's company. They became aware, at the age of eighty or more, that one day they would have to part and end their association; they had only one more day to live, and they dared not undertake to spend it together; they made haste to break off relations before dying; their capacity for kindness went no further. They lived too long to serve as a good example; a moment sooner, and they would have died companionably, and left behind them a rare model of perseverance in friendship.
40. Family life is often inwardly rent by mistrust, jealousy and antipathy, while its outward appearance of calm, contentment and good humour deceive us and make us falsely assume that peace reigns there: few families gain from being probed in depth. The visit you are paying has just interrupted a domestic quarrel, which will break out again as soon as you have left.
41. In social life, good sense is the first to surrender. The wisest members are often led by the craziest and most eccentric person: they study his foibles, his humour, his whims, and adapt themselves to these; they avoid offending him, everyone yields to him; the slightest satisfaction glimpsed on his face wins him praise; he is given credit for not being continually unbearable. He is feared, humoured, obeyed and sometimes loved.
42. Only those who have had aged relatives, or who still have them, and who hope to inherit from them, can tell what it costs them.
43. Cleantes is a very decent man; he has chosen a wife who's the best creature in the world, and the most sensible; each of them is the delight and joy of the company they happen to be in; you couldn't find more upright and courteous people anywhere. They are parting company tomorrow, and the notary has drawn up their writ of separation. The fact is that there are certain good qualities that are not made to live together, certain virtues that are incompatible.
44. One can confidently count on the dowry, the jointure and the articles set forth in the marriage contract, but less surely on the parents' promise of support; this depends on a fragile bond between the mother-in-law and the bride, which often perishes during the first year of marriage.
45. A father-in-law likes his son-in-law and his daughter-in-law. A mother-in-law likes her son-in-law and dislikes her daughter-in-law. These feelings are all mutual.
46. A stepmother dislikes her husband's children more than anything in the world: the more she adores her husband, the more stepmotherly she becomes.
Stepmothers drive people out of towns and villages, and they are responsible, no less than poverty, for filling the earth with beggars, wanderers, servants and slaves.
47. G— and H— are country neighbours, and their estates are contiguous; they live in a remote and unfrequented region. Being so far removed from towns and human intercourse, one would think that a dread of utter loneliness or a desire for companionship would have compelled them to associate with one another; it is, however, difficult to say quite what a trifle it was that caused the rupture between them, made them implacable towards one another and will perpetuate their hatred through their descendants. Never did relatives or even brothers quarrel over a slighter matter.
Supposing there were only two men left on the earth, owning it and sharing it between them, I am convinced that they would soon find some bone of contention, be it only their boundaries.
48. It is often quicker and more profitable to adapt oneself to others than to make others fit in with oneself.
49. I am on my way to a small town, and I am already standing on a hilltop from which I can perceive it. It lies half-way up the hill; a river runs round its walls, and then flows into a fine meadow; it is sheltered from cold north winds by a dense forest. I see it in so clear a light that I can count its towers and steeples; it looks as if it were painted on the slope of the hill. I exclaim admiringly: 'How pleasant it would be to live under so bright a sky and in so delightful a spot!' I go down into the town, and before I have slept two nights there I am just like its inhabitants: I want to get out of it.
50. There is one thing that has never been seen under the heavens and in all likelihood never will be seen: a small town which is not divided into factions; where families live united, and cousins meet in mutual trust; where a marriage does not engender civil war; where argument about precedence is not constantly stirred up over offerings, incense and consecrated bread, over processions and obsequies; from which tittle-tattle, lies and slander have been banished; where the bailiff and the president, the tax-collector and the assessor are on speaking terms; where the dean lives happily with his canons; where the canons don't look down on the chaplains, and the chaplains tolerate the precentors.
51. Provincial people and fools are always ready to take offence, and to think that they are being laughed at or despised; one should never risk a joke, even the mildest and least daring, except with people who are either well-bred or witty.
52. One can never get the better of great folk, for they shield themselves with their greatness; nor of humble folk, for they repulse you with their touchiness.
53. Good qualities are felt, discerned or guessed at mutually: if you would like to be esteemed, you should live with estimable people.
54. The man whose lofty position makes him safe from repartee ought never to make a cruel joke.
55. There are certain slight failings which we readily subject to criticism, and don't mind being teased about: these are the sort of failings about which we should choose to tease others.
56. To laugh at wise men is the privilege of fools: these are in society what jesters are at court, of little consequence.
57. Mockery often implies intellectual poverty.
58. You think you've made a fool of him: if he pretends to have been taken in, which of you has fooled the other?
59. If you notice carefully which are the people who can never praise but always blame, who are pleased with nobody, you will see that they are the very people with whom nobody is pleased.
60. The man who wants to be well thought of in society will find that arrogance and self-conceit have exactly the opposite effect.
61. The delight of social relations between friends is fostered by a shared attitude to life, together with certain differences of opinion on intellectual matters, through which either one is confirmed in one's own views, or else one gains practice and instruction through argument.
62. You will never go far in friendship unless you are ready to forgive each other's petty faults.
63. How many fine and useless arguments are put forward to try and pacify the man who is in great distress! The power of external events is sometimes greater than that of reason or nature. 'You should eat and sleep, don't let yourself die of grief, try to go on living': useless exhortations, which advocate the impossible. 'Is it reasonable to distress yourself thus?' or in other words, 'Aren't you a fool to be unhappy?'
64. Advice, which is so necessary in business matters, may when offered socially prove damaging to the giver and useless to the recipient. Discussing morals, you pick on faults in another person which he is unwilling to admit, or which he thinks of as virtues; discussing books, you condemn those passages that the author most admires, with which he is best pleased, in which he fancies he has surpassed himself. Thus you lose the confidence your friends had placed in you, without having improved either their minds or their talents.
65. Not so long ago, there was a group of people of both sexes who forgathered for the purpose of conversation and intellectual intercourse. The art of talking intelligibly they left to the vulgar herd; an obscure remark made by one of the group called forth another even more mysterious, and this would be capped by a set of riddles, invariably followed by lengthy applause: by dint of what they called delicacy, feeling, elegance and subtlety of expression, they finally succeeded in being understood by nobody, even by themselves. To play a part in these conversations neither good sense nor judgement was needed, nor memory, nor the slightest intellectual ability: only wit was required, and not the best sort, but that pinchbeck wit in which fancy plays too large a part.
66. I know, Theobald, that you have grown old; but do you want me to think that you have declined, that you are no longer a poet nor a wit, that you are now as poor a judge of writing as you are a feeble writer, that your conversation has lost its delicate natural charm? Your free, self-confident air reassures me, and convinces me that the contrary is true. You are as good today as you ever were, and perhaps better; for if at your age you are so lively and impetuous, how could we have described you, Theobald, in your youth, when you were all the rage among certain women who swore only by you and your witty remarks, exclaiming: 'That's delicious! What was that he said?'
67. In conversation we all talk impetuously, often moved by vanity or ill-humour, seldom paying enough attention; obsessed by the wish to reply to something we have not listened to, we follow our own ideas, expounding them without the least concern for other people's arguments; far from uniting to find truth, we are not even agreed as to what truth we are seeking. If such conversations were listened to and set down they would reveal occasional good things, with no sort of connexion between them.
68. There was, for a time, a fashion for an insipid and puerile kind of conversation consisting entirely of shallow discussions of what is called the tender passion. The reading of certain novels had made such conversations popular among people of breeding in the town and at court; these presently abandoned them, and the bourgeoisie took them over, together with conceits and puns.
69. Certain townswomen are so refined that they cannot, or dare not, pronounce the names of streets, squares or public places which they consider not noble enough for them to know. They say: The Louvre, the Place Royale, but they use far-fetched expressions and peri-phrases rather than utter certain names; and should they let slip such names, it is only in an altered form and accompanied by some reassuring mannerism: in this respect they are less natural than the ladies of the Court who, if they have to mention the Halles and the Chatelet, or similar places, simply say: The Halles, the Chatelet.
70. A person who pretends not to remember certain names that he considers obscure, and who affects a distorted pronunciation of them, does so because he has such a high opinion of his own.
71. When we are in a merry mood, and in familiar conversation, we sometimes make feeble jests which we openly admit to be feeble, and which only seem good because they are so very bad. This low sort of pleasantry, which sprang from the common people, has now affected a large section of the younger members of the Court . We need not be afraid that anything so tedious and so coarse should gain greater influence, or make further progress in the home of good taste and politeness. Yet we should seek to instil an aversion for it in those who practise it; for although they never do so seriously, it takes the place, in their minds and in ordinary conversation, of something better.
72. There is little to choose between saying feeble things, or saying good things that everyone knows and pretending they are one's own.
73. 'Lucan puts it prettily ... There's a fine phrase of Claudian's ... As Seneca says . . .' and then there follows a long string of Latin words, often quoted to people who don't understand Latin but who pretend to understand it. The secret would be to have a great deal of good sense as well as wit; for one would then do without the Classics, or else having read them carefully one would know how to choose the best of them, and quote them with tact.
74. Hermagoras does not know who is King of Hungary; he is surprised to hear no mention of the King of Bohemia;(2) don't talk to him about the wars in Flanders and the Netherlands, or at least excuse him from answering you; he confuses dates, he does not know when these wars began or ended; battles and sieges, all are unfamiliar to him; but he knows all about the war of the Titans, he can tell you of its progress in every detail, nothing has escaped him; in the same way, he can disentangle the horrible chaos of the Babylonian and Assyrian empires; he knows the Egyptians and their dynasties through and through. He has never seen Versailles, he will never see it; he has almost seen the Tower of Babel, he can count the steps of its staircase, he knows how many architects presided over its creation and he knows their names. Shall I add that he thinks Henri IV was the son of Henri III? He would scorn to know anything about the monarchies of France, Austria or Bavaria: 'What minutiae!' he remarks, while quoting from memory a whole list of the kings of the Medes or Babylonians, and while the names of Apronal, Herigebal, Noesnemordach and Mardokempad are as familiar to him as those of Valois and Bourbon are to ourselves. He asks whether the Emperor has ever been married; but you don't have to inform him that Ninus had two wives. He hears that the King enjoys perfect health: and he remembers that Thetmosis, an Egyptian king, was a valetudinarian and that he inherited this tendency from his ancestor Alipharmutosis. Is there anything he does not know? Is there any detail of Classical antiquity hidden from him? He will tell you that Semiramis or, as some call her, Serimaris, spoke just like her son Ninyas, that their voices were indistinguishable; whether this was because the mother had a masculine voice like her son, or the son a feminine voice like his mother, that he dare not decide. He will inform you that Nimrod was left-handed and Sesostris ambidextrous; that it is a mistake to imagine that Artaxerxes was called Longhanded because his arms reached to his knees, rather than because he had one hand longer than the other; and he adds that responsible authors have asserted that it was the right hand, whereas he himself feels justified in maintaining that it was the left.
75. Ascagnes is a sculptor, Hegion a metal-founder, Aeschines a fuller, and Cydias a wit: that is his profession. He has a shop sign, a workshop, he accepts orders for his work, and has journeymen working under him: he cannot deliver the stanzas he has promised you for at least a month, if he is to keep his word to Dositheus, who has commissioned an elegy from him; there is an idyll in hand, it is for Crantor, who wants it urgently and has promised a princely fee. Prose or verse, which would you like? He is equally successful at one or the other. Ask him for letters of condolence, or to an absent friend, he will undertake them; if you'd like one ready-made, just go into his shop, there are plenty to choose from. He has a friend who has no other function on earth than to promise him, for a long time, to a certain social set, and at last to introduce him into people's houses as a man of rare quality and an exquisite conversationalist; and there, just as a musician sings, or a lute-player touches his instrument in front of the audience to whom he has been promised, Cydias, after having coughed, turned back his cuff, stretched out his hand and spread out his fingers, solemnly utters his quintessential thoughts and his sophistical arguments. Unlike those who, being in agreement on principles, and acquainted with reason or the truth, which are identical, concur eagerly in their opinions, he opens his mouth only to contradict: 'It seems to me,' he tells you graciously, 'that the reverse of what you are saying is true'; or 'I utterly disagree with you'; or else: 'I was once as convinced of that as you are, but.... There are three points,' he goes on, 'to be considered . . . '. and he adds a fourth: a tedious speechifyer, who has no sooner set foot in any gathering than he seeks out a group of women among whom he can insinuate himself, show off his rare wit or his philosophy, and try out some of his precious notions; for whether he speaks or writes, one cannot suspect him of considering what is true or false, reasonable or ridiculous: his sole desire is to avoid agreeing with the views of others, or sharing anyone else's opinion; and thus in any company he waits till everyone has held forth on the subject which has come under discussion, and which has frequently been suggested by himself, in order to assert dogmatically the most surprising things, in his view decisive and unanswerable. Cydias considers himself equal to Lucian and Seneca, and superior to Plato, Virgil and Theocritus; and his flatterer is careful to confirm him, every morning, in this opinion. By inclination and by his interests he belongs to those who despise Homer, and he is calmly waiting for men to share their illusions, and prefer modern poets: in which case he will assign the first place to himself, and the second to a friend of his. In a word, he is a blend of pedantry and preciosity, made to win the admiration of bourgeois and provincials, and in whom, nevertheless, we can discern nothing great save his own self-conceit.
76. A dogmatic tone is generally inspired by abysmal ignorance. The man who knows nothing thinks he is informing others of something which he has that moment learnt; the man who knows a great deal can scarcely believe that people are ignorant of what he is telling them, and speaks more diffidently.
77. The greatest things need only to be said simply: emphasis spoils them. Things that are very slight have to be said with nobility: they need the support of expression, style and manner.
78. It seems to me that one can say things even more subtly than one can write them.
79. Only men of honourable birth or good education are capable of keeping a secret.
80. Any confidence is dangerous, if it is not complete: there are few occasions in which one should not either tell all or conceal all. We have already told too much of our secret to the person from whom we feel impelled to keep back some detail.
81. Certain people promise to keep a secret, and they give it away unwittingly; they never move their lips, yet one can understand them; one can read on their brows and in their eyes, one can see through their bosom, they are transparent. Others do not exactly betray the secret that has been entrusted to them, but they speak and act in such a way that one discovers it for oneself. Yet another sort, finally, despise your secret, however important it may be: 'It's a mystery, so-and-so told it me, and forbade me to tell it'; and they tell it.
The betrayal of any secret must be blamed on the person who confided it.
82. Nicander is talking to Elise about the delightful and easy-going way he lived with his wife from the day he chose her until her death; he has already told her how sorry he is that she left him no children, and he repeats it; he mentions the houses he owns in town, and an estate he has in the country; he reckons the income he gets from this, he draws the plan of the buildings, describes its situation, exaggerates the convenience of the living quarters and the richness and elegance of the furniture; he assures her of his fondness for good living and handsome carriages; he complains that his wife did not care enough for cards and company, 'You are so rich,' one of his friends has told him, 'why don't you buy such and such an office? why not acquire certain lands which would extend your estate? They think me richer than I am,' he adds. He does not forget his parentage and his connexion by marriage: Mr Treasurer, who is my cousin; the Chancellor's lady, who is my relative; and so forth. He tells a story which proves his right to be dissatisfied with his closest relatives, and even those who are his heirs: 'Am I wrong?' he asks Elise; 'have I any great reason to wish them well?' And he lets her be judge. He next implies that he is in weak and failing health, and speaks of the vault in which he is to be buried. He ingratiates himself, by means of flattery and attentiveness, with all those whom he finds in his lady's company. But Elise has not the courage to become rich by marrying him. Just as he is speaking, a gentleman is introduced who, by his mere presence, silences the bourgeois's guns; he rises discomfited and chagrined, and goes off to tell someone else that he wants to get married again.
83. The wise man sometimes avoids company, for fear of being irritated.
|« NEXT »||« Characters »||« Classics »||« Library »|