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WIT AND HUMOUR.
I WISH, ' after all I have said about wit and humour, I could satisfy myself of the good effects upon the character and disposition ; but I am convinced the probable tendency of both is, to corrupt the understanding and the heart. I am not speaking of wit where it is kept down by more serious qualities of mind, and thrown into the background of the picture ; but where it stands out boldly and emphatically, and is evidently the master quality in any particular mind. Profound wits, though they are generally courted for the amusement they afford, are seldom respected for the qualities they possess. The habit of seeing things in a witty point of view increases, and makes incursions from its own proper regions, upon principles and opinions which are ever held sacred by the wise and good. A witty man is a dramatic performer: in process of time he can no more exist without applause than he can exist without air; if his audience be small, or if they are inattentive, or if a new wit defrauds him of any portion of his admiration, it is all over with him,—he sickens, and is extinguished. The applauses of the theatre on which he performs are so essential to him that he must obtain them at the expense of decency, friendship, and good feeling. It must always be probable, too, that a mere wit is a person of light and frivolous understanding. His business is not to discover relations of ideas that are useful, and have a real influence upon life, but to discover the more trifling relations which are only amusing; he never looks at things with the naked eye of common sense, but is always gazing at the world through a Claude Lorraine glass, discovering a thousand appearances which are created only by the instrument of inspection, and covering every object with factitious and unnatural colours. In short, the character of a mere wit it is impossible to consider as very amiable, very respectable, or very safe. So far the world, in judging of wit, where it has swallowed up all other qualities, judge aright; but I doubt if they are sufficiently indulgent to this faculty where it exists in a lesser degree, and as one out of many other ingredients of the understanding. There is an association in men's minds between dulness and wisdom, amusement and folly, which has a powerful influence in decision upon
character, and is not overcome without considerable difficulty. The reason is, that the outward signs of a dull man and a wise man are the same, and so are the outward signs of a frivolous man and a witty man ; and we are not to expect that the majority will be disposed to look to much more than the outward sign. I believe the fact to be, that wit is very seldom the only eminent quality which resides in the mind of any man: it is commonly accompanied by many other talents of every description, and ought to be considered as a strong evidence of a fertile and superior understanding. Almost all the great poets, orators, and statesmen of all times have been witty. Cæsar, Alexander, Aristotle, Descartes, and Lord Bacon, were witty men; so were Cicero, Shakespeare, Demosthenes, Boileau, Pope, Dryden, Fontenelle, Jonson, Waller, Cowley, Solon, Socrates, Dr. Johnson, as well as almost every man who has made a distinguished figure in the British House of Commons. I have talked of the danger of wit: I do not mean by that, to enter into commonplace declamation against faculties because they are dangerous ; wit is dangerous, eloquence is dangerous, a talent for observation is dangerous, every thing is dangerous that has efficacy and vigour for its characteristics ; nothing is safe but mediocrity. The business is, in conducting the understanding well, to risk something, to aim at uniting things that are commonly incompatible. The meaning of an extraordinary man is, that he is eight men, not one man ; that he has as much wit as if he had no sense, and as much sense as if he had no wit; that his conduct is as judicious as if he were the dullest of human beings, and his imagination as brilliant as if he were irretrievably ruined. But when wit is combined with sense and information ; when it is softened by benevolence, and restrained by strong principle ; when it is in the hands of a man who can use it and despise it ; who can be witty and something much better than witty ; who loves honour, justice, decency, good-nature, morality, and religion ten thousand times better than wit,—wit is then a beautiful and delightful part of our nature. There is no more interesting spectacle than to see the effects of wit upon the different characters of men,--than to observe it expanding caution, relaxing dignity, unfreezing coldness,-teaching age, and care, and pain to smile,—extorting reluctant gleams of pleasure from melancholy, and charming even the pangs of grief. It is pleasant to observe how it penetrates through the coldness and awkwardness of society, gradually bringing men nearer together, and, like the combined force of wine and oil, giving every man a glad heart and shining countenance. Genuine and innocent wit, like this, is surely the flavour of the mind ! Man could direct his ways by plain reason, and support his life by tasteless food ; but God has given us wit, and flavour, and brightness, and laughter, and perfumes, to enliven the days of man's pilgrimage, and to "charm his pained steps over the burning marle."
Lectures on Moral Philosophy.
SPEECH OF GEORGE CANNING AT PLYMOUTH IN 1823,
ON THE TRUE INTERESTS OF ENGLAND, MR. MAYOR AND GENTLEMEN,—I accept with thankfulness, and with greater satisfaction that I can express, this flattering testimony of your good opinion and good-will. I must add, that the value of the gift itself has been greatly enhanced by the manner in which your worthy and honourable Recorder has developed the motives which suggested it, and the sentiments which it is intended to convey.
Gentlemen, your Recorder has said very truly, that whoever in this free and enlightened state, aims at political eminence and discharges political duties, must expect to have his conduct scrutinized, and every action of his public life sifted, with no ordinary jealousy, and with no sparing criticism ; and such may have been my lot, as much as that of other public men. But, gentlemen, unmerited obloquy seldom fails of an adequate, though perhaps tardy compensation. I must think myself, as my honourable friend has said, eminently fortunate, if such compensation as he describes has fallen to me at an earlier period than to many others ; if I dare flatter myself (as his partiality has flattered me) that the sentiments that you are kind enough to entertain for me are in unison with those of the country ; if in addition to the justice done me by my friends, I may, as he has assured me, rely upon a candid construction even from political opponents.
But, gentlemen, the secret of such a result does not lie deep. It consists only in an honest and undeviating pursuit of what one conscientiously believes to be one's public duty,-a pursuit which, steadily continued, will, however detached and separate parts of a man’s conduct may be viewed under the influence of partialities or prejudices, obtain for it, when considered as a whole, the approbation of all honest and honourable minds. Any man may occasionally be mistaken as to the means most conducive to the end which he has in view ; but if the end be just and praiseworthy, it is by that he will be ultimately judged either by his contemporaries or by posterity.
Gentlemen, the end which I confess I have always had in view, and which appears to me the legitimate object of pursuit to a British statesman, I can describe in one word. The language of modern philosophy is wisely and diffusively benevolent ; it professes the perfection of our species, and the amelioration of the lot of all mankind. Gentlemen, I hope that my heart beats as high for the general interest of humanity-I hope that I have as friendly a disposition towards other nations of the earth—as any one who vaunts his philanthropy most highly; but I am contented to confess that, in the conduct of political affairs, the grand object of my contemplation is the interest of England.
Not, gentlemen, that the interest of England is an interest which stands isolated and alone. The situation which she holds forbids an exclusive selfishness ; her prosperity must contribute to the prosperity of other nations, and her stability to the safety of the world. But intimately connected as we are with the system of Europe, it does not follow that we are therefore called upon to mix ourselves on every occasion with a restless and meddling activity in the concerns of the nations that surround us. It is upon a just balance of conflicting duties, and of rival but sometimes incompatible advantages, that a government must judge when to put forth its strength, and when to husband it for occasion yet to come.
Our ultimate object must be the peace of the world. That object may sometimes be best attained by prompt exertions, sometimes by abstinence from interposition in contests which we cannot prevent. It is upon these principles that, as has been most truly observed by my worthy friend, it did not appear to the government of this country to be necessary that Great Britain should mingle in the recent contest between France and Spain. Your worthy Recorder has accurately classed the
persons who would have driven us into that contest. There were undoubtedly among them those who desired to plunge this country into the difficulties of war, partly from the hope that those difficulties would overwhelm the administration; but it would be most unjust not to admit that there were others who were actuated by nobler principles and more generous feelings, who would have. rushed forward at once from the sense of indignation at aggression, and who deemed that no act of injustice could be perpetrated from one end of the universe to the other, but that the sword of Great Britain should leap from its scabbard to avenge it. But as it is the province of law to control the excess even of laudable passions and propensities, in individuals, so it is the duty of government to restrain within due bounds the ebullition of national sentiment, and to regulate the cause and direction of impulses which it cannot blame. Is there any one among the latter class of persons described by my honourable friend (for to the former I have nothing to say) who continues to doubt whether the government did wisely, in declining to ob the precipitate enthusiasm which prevailed at the commencement of the contest in Spain ? Is there anybody who does not now think that it was the office of government to examine more closely, all the various bearings of so complicated a question, to consider whether they were called upon to assist a united nation, or to plunge themselves into the internal feuds by which that nation was divided—to aid in repelling a foreign invader, or to take part in a civil war ? Is there any man that does not now see what would have been the extent of burdens that would have been cast upon this country? Is there any one who does not acknowledge that, under such circumstances, the enterprise would have been one to be characterised only by a term borrowed from that part of the Spanish literature with which we are most familiar-Quixotic : an enterprise romantic in its origin, and thankless in the end ?
But, while we thus control even our feelings by our duty, let it not be said that we cultivate peace, either because we fear, or because we are unprepared for war ; on the contrary, if eight months
the government did not hesitate to proclaim that the country was prepared for war, if var should be unfortunately necessary, every month of peace that has since passed has but made us so much the more capable of exertion. The resources created by peace are means of war. In cherishing those resources, we but accumulate those means. Our present repose is no more a proof of inability to act, than the state of inertness and inactivity