« AnteriorContinuar »
ON HUMAN VANITY.
MR. FRANKLIN, Meeting with the following curious little piece the other day, I send it to you to republish, as it is now in very few hands. There is something so elegant in the imagination, conveyed in so delicate a style, and accompanied with a moral so just and elevated, that it must yield great pleasure and instruction to every mind of real taste and virtue.
Cicero, in the first of his Tusculan questions, finely exposes the vain judgment we are apt to form of human life compared with eternity. In illustrating this argument, he quotes a passage of natural history from Aristotle, concerning a species of insects on the banks of the river Hypanis, that never outlive the day in which they are born.
To pursue the thought of this elegant writer, let us suppose one of the most robust of these Hypanians, so famed in history, was in a manner coeval with time itself ; that he began to exist at break of day, and that, from the uncommon strength of his constitution, he has been able to show himself active in life, through the numberless minutes of ten or twelve hours. Through so long a series of seconds, he must have acquired vast wisdom in his way, from observation and experience.
He looks upon his fellow-creatures who died about noon to be happily delivered from the many inconveniences of old age; and can, perhaps, recount to his great grandson a surprising tradition of actions before any records of their nation were extant. The young swarm of Hypanians, who may be advanced one hour in life, approach his person with respect, and listen to his improving discourse. Everything he says will seem wonderful to their short-lived generation. The compass of a day will be esteemed the whole duration of time; and the first dawn of light will, in their chronology, be styled the great era of their creation.
Let us now suppose this venerable insect, this Nestor of Hypania, should, a little before his death, and about sunset, send for all his descendants, his friends and his acquaintances, out of the desire he may have to impart his last thoughts to them, and to admonish them with his departing breath. They meet, perhaps, under the spacious shelter of a mushroom, and the dying sage addresses himself to them after the following manner:
“ Friends and fellow-citizens! I perceive the longest life must, however, end : the period of mine is now at hand; neither do I repine at my fate, since my great age has become a burden to me, and there is nothing new to me under the sun: the changes and revolutions I have seen in my country, the manifold private misfortunes to which we are all. liable, the fatal diseases incident to our race, have abundantly taught me this lesson, that no happiness can be secure and lasting which is placed in things that are out of our power. Great is the uncertainty of life! A whole brood of our infants have perished in a moment by a keen blast! Shoals of our straggling youth have been swept into the ocean by an unexpected breeze! What wasteful desolation have we not suffered from the deluge of à sudden shower! Our strongest holds are not proof against a storm of hail, and even a dark cloud damps the very stoutest heart.
“ I have lived in the first ages, and conversed with insects of a larger size and stronger make, and, I must add, of greater virtue than any can boast of in the present generation. I must conjure you to give yet further credit to my latest words, when I assure you that yonder sun, which now appears westward, beyond the water, and seems not to be far distant from the earth, in my remembrance stood in the middle of the sky, and shot his beams directly down upon us.
The world was much more enlightened in those ages, and the air much warmer. Think it not dotage in me if I affirni that glorious being moves : I saw his first setting out in the east, and I began my race of life near the time when he began his immense career. He has for several ages advanced along the sky with vast heat and unparalleled brightness; but now, by his declination and a sensible decay, more especially of late, in his vigour, I foresee that all nature must fall in a little time, and that the creation will lie buried in darkness in less than a century of minutes.
“Alas! my friends, how did I once flatter myself with the hopes of abiding here for ever! how magnificent are the cells which I hollowed out for myself! what confidence did I repose in the firmness and spring of my joints, and in the strength of my pinions! But I have lived long enough to nature, and even to glory. Neither will any of you, whom I leave behind, have equal satisfaction in life, in the dark declining age which I see is already begun.”
Thus far this agreeable unknown writer-too agreeable, we may hope, to remain always concealed. The fine allusion to the character of Julius Cæsar, whose words he has put into the mouth of this illustrious son of Hypanis, is perfectly just and beautiful, and aptly points out the moral of this inimitable piece, the design of which would have been quite perverted, had a virtuous character, a Cato or a Cicero, been made choice of to have been turned into ridicule. Had this life of a day been represented as employed in the exercise of virtue, it would have an equal dignity with a life of any limited duration, and, according to the exalted sentiments of Tully, would have been preferable to an immortality filled with all the pleasures of sense, if void of those of a higher kind: but as the views of this vainglorious insect were confined within the narrow circle of his own existence, as he only boasts the magnificent cells he has built, and the length of happiness he has enjoyed, he is the proper emblem of all such insécts of the human race, whose ambition does not extend beyond the like narrow limits; and notwithstanding the splendour they appear in at present, they will no more deservethe regard of posterity than the butterflies of the last spring. In vain has history been taken up in describing the numerous swarms of this mischievous species which has infested the earth in the successive ages : now it is worth the inquiry of the virtuous, whether the Rhine or the Adige may not, perhaps, swarm with them at present, as much as the banks of the Hypanis ; or whether that silver rivulet, the Thames, may not show a specious molehill, covered with inhabitants of the like dignity and importance. The busy race of beings attached to these. fleeting enjoyments are indeed all of them engaged in the pursuit of happiness, and it is owing to their imperfect notions of it that they stop so far short in their pursuit. The present prospect of pleasure seems to bound their views, and the more distant scenes of happiness, when what they now propose shall be attained, do not strike their imagination. It is a great stupidity or thoughtlessness not to perceive that the happiness of rational creatures is inseparably connected with immortality. Creatures only endowed with sensation may in a low sense be reputed happy, so long as their sensations are pleasing: and if these pleasing sensations are commensurate with the time of their existence, this measure of happiness is complete. But such beings as are endowed with thought and reflection cannot be made happy by any limited term of happiness, how great soever its duration may be. The more exquisite and more valuable their enjoyments are, the more painful must be the thought ihat they are to have an end; and this pain of expectation must be con
tinually increasing, the nearer the end approaches. And if these beings are themselves immortal, and yet insecure of the continuance of their happiness, the case is far worse, since an eternal void of delight, if not to say a state of misery, must succeed. It would be here of no moment, whether the time of their happiness were measured by days or hours, by months or years, or by periods of the most immeasurable length : these swiftly-flowing streams bear no proportion to that ocean of infinity where they must finish their course. The longest duration of finite happiness avails nothing when it is past : nor can the memory of it have any other effect than to renew a perpetual pining after pleasures never to return; and since virtue is the only pledge and security of a happy immortality, the folly of sacrificing it to any temporal advantage, how important soever they may appear, must be infinitely great, and cannot but leave behind it an eternal regret.
ON SMUGGLING, AND ITS VARIOUS SPE
Sir,—There are many people that would be thought, and even think themselves, honest men, who fail nevertheless in particular points of honesty; deviating from that character sometimes by the prevalence of mode or custom, and sometimes through mere inattention; so that their honesty is partial only, and not general or universal. Thus one who would scorn to overreach you in a bargain, shall make no scruple of tricking you a little now and then at cards: another, that plays with the utmost fairness, shall with great freedom cheat you