Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
By John Evelyn (16201706)
From Public Employment preferred to Solitude
LET us therefore rather celebrate public employment and an active life, which renders us so nearly allied to virtue, defines and maintains our being, supports society, preserves kingdoms in peace, protects them in war; has discovered new worlds, planted the Gospel, increases knowledge, cultivates arts, relieves the afflicted; and in sum, without which the whole universe itself had still been but a rude and indigested chaos. Or if (to vie landscapes with our Celador1) you had rather see it represented in picture, behold here a sovereign sitting in his august assembly of Parliament enacting wholesome laws: next him my Lord Chancellor and the rest of the reverend judges and magistrates dispensing them for the good of the people; figure to yourself a Secretary of State making his dispatches and receiving intelligence: a statesman countermining some pernicious plot against the commonwealth; here a general bravely embattling his forces and vanquishing the enemy; there a colony planting an island, and a barbarous and solitary nation reduced to civility; cities, houses, forts, ships, building for society, shelter, defence, and commerce. In another table, the poor relieved and set to work, the naked clad, the oppressed delivered, the malefactor punished, the labourer busied, and the whole world employed for the benefit of mankind. In a word, behold him in the nearest resemblance to his Almighty Maker, always in action, and always doing good.
On the reverse, now represent to yourself, the goodliest piece of the creation, sitting on a cushion picking his teeth; his country gentleman taking tobacco, and sleeping after a gorgeous meal; there walks a contemplator, like a ghost in a churchyard, or sits poring on a book while his family starves; here lies a gallant at the feet of his pretty female, sighing and looking babies in her eyes, while she is reading the last new romance, and laughs at his folly; on yonder rock an anchorite at his beads; there one picking daisies, another playing at push-pin, and abroad the young poacher with his dog and kite, breaking his neighbours hedges or trampling over his corn for a bird not worth sixpence: this sits basking himself in the sun, that quivering in the cold; here one drinks poison: another hangs himself; for all these, and a thousand more, seem to prefer solitude and an inactive life as the most happy and eligible state of it. And thus have you landscape for your landscape.
The result of all is, solitude produces ignorance, renders us barbarous, feeds revenge, disposes us to envy, creates witches, dispeoples the world, renders it a desert, and would soon dissolve it; and if after all this, yet he admit not an active life to be by infinite degrees more noble; let the gentleman whose first contemplative piece he produces to establish his discourse, confute him by his example; since, I am confident, there lives not a person whose moments are more employed than Mr. Boyles, and that more confirms his contemplations by his actions and experience; and if it be objected, that his employments are not public, I can assure him there is nothing more public than the good he is always doing.
How happy in the mean time were it for this ingenious adventurer, could it produce us more such examples, were they but such as himself; for I cannot imagine, but that he who writes so well, must act well; and that he who declaims against public employment in essay, would refuse to essay a public employment that were worthy of him. These notices are not the result of inactive contemplation only, but of a public, refined, and generous spirit; or if in truth I be mistaken, I wish him store of proselytes, and that we had more such solitary gentlemen that could render an account of their retirements, and whilst they argue against conversation (which is the last of the appanages he disputes against) prove the sweetest conversation in the world.