« AnteriorContinuar »
There are two circumstances that may justly give us a mean opinion of the taste of the Romans for comic entertainments : that in the Augustan age itself, notwithstanding the censure of Horace, they preferred the low buffoonery and drollery of Plautus to the delicacy and civility of Terence, the faithful copier of Menander: and that Terence, to gratify an audience unacquainted with the real excellencies of the drama, found himself obliged to violate the simplicity of Menander's plots, and work up two stories into one in each of his comedies, except the excellent and exact Hecyra. But this duplicity of fable abounding in various turns of fortune, necessarily draws off the attention from what ought to be its chief object in a legitimate comedy, Character and Humour. Z.
I am, Sir,
No 106. SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 10, 1753.
Quo moriture ruis ?
Why wilt thou rush to Death?
I have before remarked, that human wit has never been able to render courage contemptible by ridicule : though courage, as it is sometimes a proof of exalted virtue, is also frequently an indication of enormous vice; for if he who effects a good purpose at the risk of life, is allowed to have the
strongest propensity to good, it must be granted, that he who at the risk of life effects an evil purpose, has an equal propensity to evil. But as ridicule has not distinguished courage into virtue and vice, neither has it yet distinguished insensibility
Every passion becomes weak in proportion as it is familiar with its object. Evil must be considered as the object of fear; but the passion is excited only when the evil becomes probable, or in other words, when we are in danger. As the same evil may become probable many ways, there are several species of danger: that danger to which men are continually exposed, soon becomes familiar, and fear is no longer excited. This, however, must not be considered as an example of courage; for equal danger of any other kind, will still produce the same degree of fear in the same mind.
Mechanical causes, therefore, may produce insensibility of danger; but it is absurd to suppose they can produce courage, for courage is an effort of the mind by which a sense of danger is surmounted; and it cannot be said, without the utmost perversion of language, that a man is courageous, merely because he discovers no fear when he is sensible of no danger.
It is indeed true, that insensibility and courage produce the same effect; and when we see another unconcerned and cheerful in a situation which would make us tremble, it is not strange that we should impute his tranquillity to the strength of his mind, and honour his want of fear with the name of courage. And yet when a mason whistles at his work on a plank of a foot broad and an inch thick, which is suspended by a rafter and a cord over a precipice, from which if he should fall he would inevitably perish, he is only reconciled by habit to a situation, in which more danger is generally apprehended than exists; he has acquired no strength of mind, by which a sense of danger is surmounted ; nor has he with respect to courage any ad-, vantage over him who, though he would tremble on the scaffold, would yet stand under it without apprehension; for the danger in both situations is nearly equal, and depends upon the same incidents.
But the same insensibility is often substituted for courage by habit, even when the danger is real, and in those minds which every other occasion would shew to be destitute of fortitude. The inhabitants of Sicily live without terror upon the declivity of a volcano, which the stranger ascends with an interrupted pace, looking round at every step, doubting whether to go forward or retire, and dreading the caprice of the flames which he hears roar beneath him, and sees issue at the summit: but let a woman, who is thus become insensible to the terrors of an earthquake, be carried to the mouth of the mines in Sweden, she will look down into the abyss with terror, she will shudder at the thought of descending it, and tremble lest the brink should give way.
Against insensibility of real danger we should not be less watchful than against unreasonable fear. Fear, when it is justly proportioned to its object, and not too strong to be governed by reason, is not only blameless but honourable; it is essential to the perfection of human nature, and the mind would be as defective without it as the body without a limb. Man is a being exposed to perpetual evil; every moment liable to destruction by innumerable accidents, which yet, if he foresees, he cannot frequently prevent: fear, therefore, was implanted in his breast for his preservation; to warn him when
danger approaches, and to prevent his being precipitated upon it either by wantonness or inattention. But those evils which, without fear, we should not have foreseen, when fear becomes excessive we are unable to shun; for cowardice and presumption are equally fatal, and are frequently found in the same mind.
A peasant in the north of England had two sons, Thomas and John. Tom was taken to sea when he was very young, by the master of a small vessel who lived at Hull: and Jack continued to work with his father till he was near thirty. Tom, who was now become master of a smack himself, took his brother on board for London, and promised to procure him some employment among the shipping on the waterside. After they had been some hours under sail, the wind became contrary, and blew very fresh; the waves began immediately to swell, dashing with violence against the prow, whitened into foam. The vessel, which now plied to windward, lay so much on one side, that the edge was frequently under water; and Jack, who expected it to overset every moment, was seized with terror which he could not conceal. He earnestly requested of Tom that the sails might be taken in; and lamented the folly that had exposed him to the violence of a tempest, from which he could not without a miracle escape. Tom, with a sovereign contempt of his pusillanimity, derided his distress; and Jack, on the contrary, admired the bravery of Tom and his crew, from whose countenances and behaviour he at length derived some hope ; he believed he had deserved the reproach which he suffered, and despised himself for the fear which he could not shake off. In the meantime the gale increased, and in less than an hour it blew a storm. Jack, who watched every countenance with the ut
most attention and solicitude, thought that his fears were now justified by the looks of the sailors; he, therefore, renewed his complaint, and perceiving his brother still unconcerned, again intreated him to take every possible precaution, and not increase their danger by presumption. In answer to these remonstrances he received such consolation as one lord of the creation frequently administers to another in the depth of distress ; • Pshaw, damme, you fool,' says Tom, don't be dead-hearted; the more sail we carry, the sooner we shall be out of the weather.' Jack's fear had, indeed, been alarmă ed before he was in danger: but Tom was insensible of the danger when it arrived: he, therefore, continued his course, exulting in the superiority of his courage, and anticipating the triumph of his vanity when they should come on shore. But the sails being still spread, a sudden gust bore
the mast, which in its fall so much injured the helm, that it became impossible to steer, and in a very short time afterwards the vessel struck. The first moment in which Tom became sensible of danger, he was seen to be totally destitute of courage. When the vessel struck, Jack, who had been ordered under hatches, came up, and found the hero, whom he had so lately regarded with humility and admiration, sitting on the quarter-deck wringing his hands, and uttering incoherent and clamorous exclamations. Jack now appeared more calm than before, and asked, if any thing could yet be done to save their lives. Tom replied, in a frantic tone, that they might possibly float to land on some parts of the wreck; and catching up an axe, instead of attempting to disengage the mast, he began to stave the boat. Jack, whose reason was still predomi. nant, though he had been afraid too soon, saw that Tom in his frenzy was about to cut off their last