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To Sir Richard Temple, Lord Cobham.
ARGUMENT. I. That it is not sufficient for this knowledge to consider Man
in the abstract ; books will not serve the purpose, nor yet our own experience singly. General maxims, unless they be formed upon both, will be but notional. Some peculiarity in every man, characteristic to himself, yet varying from himself. Difficulties arising from our own passions, fancies, faculties, &c. The shortness of life to observe in, and the uncertainty of the principles of action in men to observe by. Our own principle of action often hid from ourselves. Some few characters plain, but in general confounded, dissembled, or inconsistent. The same man utterly different in different places and seasons. Unimaginable weaknesses in the greatest. Nothing constant and certain but God and Nature. No judging of the motives from the actions; the same actions proceeding from contrary motives, and the same motive influencing contrary actions.-II. Yet, to form characters, we can only take the strongest actions of a man's life, and try to make them agree; the utter uncertainty of this, from Nature itself, and from policy. Characters given accord. ing to the rank of men of the world : and some reason for it. Education alters the nature, or at least character, of many. Actions, passions, opinions, manners, humours, or principles, all subject to change. No judging by Nature.—III. It only remains to find (if we can) his ruling passion : that will certainly influence all the rest, and can reconcile the seeming or real inconsistency of all his actions. Instanced in the extraordinary character of Clodio. A caution against mistaking second qualities for first, which will destroy all possibility of the knowledge of mankind. Examples of the strength of the raling passion, and its continuation to the last breath,
Who from his study rails at human kind;
Though many a passenger he rightly call,
And yet the fate of all extremes is such,
That each from other differs, first confess, Next, that he varies from himself no less; Add Nature's, Custom's, Reason's, Passion's, strife, And all Opinion's colours cast on life.
Our depths who fathoms, or who shallows finds, Quick whirls and shifting eddies of our minds ? On human actions reason though you can, It may be reason, but it is not man: His principle of action once explore, That instant 'tis his principle no more. Like following life through creatures you dissect, You lose it in the moment you detect.
Yet more; the difference is as great between The optics seeing as the objects seen. All manners take a tincture from our own, Or come discolour'd through our passions shown; Or Fancy's beam enlarges, multiplies, Contracts, inverts, and gives ten thousand dyes.
Nor will life's stream for observation stay, It hurries all too fast to mark their way : In vain sedate reflections we would make, When half our knowledge we must snatch, not take. Oft in the passions' wild rotation tost, Our spring of action to ourselves is lost : Tird, not determin'd, to the last we yield, And what comes then is master of the field. As the last image of that troubled heap, When sense subsides, and fancy sports in sleep,
(Though past the recollection of the thought)
True, some are open, and to all men koown:
But these plain characters we rarely find;
See the same man in vigour, in the gout,
Catius is ever moral, ever grave,
Who would not praise Patricio's high desert,
What made (say Montaigne, or more sage Charron)
Know, God and Nature only are the same.
Would from the apparent what conclude the why,
Not always actions shew the man : we find Who does a kindness is not therefore kind ; Perhaps prosperity becalm'd bis breast; Perhaps the wind just shifted from the east; Not therefore humble he who seeks retreat ; Pride guides his steps, and bids him shun the great. Who combats bravely is not therefore brave; He dreads a death-bed like the meanest slave. Who reasons wisely is not therefore wise ; His pride in reasoning, not in acting, lies.
But grant that actions best discover man ; Take the most strong, and sort them as you can: The few that glare each character must mark; You balance not the many in the dark. What will you do with such as disagree? Suppress them, or miscall them policy?
Must then at once (the character to save)
'Tis from high life high characters are drawn;
'Tis education forms the common mind;
That gay Freethinker, à fine talker once,