Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
Scattered Thoughts upon several Subjects and Occasions
By John Tillotson (16301694)
From Reflections, printed in his life by Thomas Birch
ONE would be apt to wonder, that Nehemiah (chap. v. verses 16, 17, 18) should reckon a huge bill of fare, and a vast number of promiscuous guests amongst his virtues and good deeds, for which he desires God to remember him. But, upon better consideration, besides the bounty, and sometimes charity, of a great table (provided there be nothing of vanity or ostentation in it) there may be exercised two very considerable virtues; one is temperance, and the other self-denial, in a mans being contented, for the sake of the public, to deny himself so much, as to sit down every day to a feast, and to eat continually in a crowd, and almost never to be alone, especially when, as it often happens, a great part of the company that a man must have is the company that a man would not have. I doubt it will prove but a melancholy business, when a man comes to die, to have made a great noise and bustle in the world, and to have been known far and near, but all this while to have been hid and concealed from himself. It is a very odd and fantastical sort of life for a man to be continually from home, and most of all a stranger at his own house.
It is surely an uneasy thing, to sit always in a frame, and to be perpetually upon a mans guard; not to be able to speak a careless word, or to use a negligent posture, without observation and censure.
Men are apt to think, that they, who are in highest places, and have the most power, have most liberty to say and do what they please. But it is quite otherwise; for they have the least liberty, because they are most observed. It is not mine own observation; a much wiser man (I mean Tully) says, In maxima quaque fortuna minimum licere. They, that are in the highest and greatest condition, have of all others the least liberty.
In a moderate station it is sufficient for a man to be indifferently wise. Such a man has the privilege to commit little follies and mistakes without having any great notice taken of them. But he that lives in the light, i.e., in the view of all men, his actions are exposed to every bodys observation and censure.
We ought to be glad, when those, that are fit for government, and called to it, are willing to take the burden of it upon them: yea, and to be very thankful to them too, that they will be at the pains, and can have the patience, to govern, and to live publicly. Therefore it is happy for the world, that there are some, who are born and bred up to it; and that custom hath made it easy, or at least tolerable to them. Else who, that is wise, would undertake it, since it is certainly much easier of the two to obey a just and wise government (I had almost said any government) than to govern justly and wisely. Not that I find fault with those, who apply themselves to public business and affairs. They do well, and we are beholden to them. Some by their education, and being bred up to great things, and to be able to bear and manage great business with more ease than others, are peculiarly fitted to serve God and the public in this way: and they that do are worthy of double honour.
The advantage which men have by a more devout and retired and contemplative life is, that they are not distracted about many things; their minds and affections are set upon one thing, and the whole stream and force of their affections run one way. All their thoughts and endeavours are united in one great end and design, which makes their life all of a piece, and to be consistent with itself throughout.
Nothing but necessity, or the hope of doing more good than a man is capable of doing in a private station (which a modest man will not easily presume concerning himself) can recompense the trouble and uneasiness of a more public and busy life.
Besides that many men, if they understand themselves right, are at the best in a lower and more private condition, and make a much more awkward figure in a higher and more public station; when, perhaps, if they had not been advanced, every one would have thought them fit and worthy to have been so.
And thus I have considered and compared impartially both these conditions, and, upon the whole matter, without any thing either of disparagement or discouragement to the wise and great. And, in my poor judgment, the more retired and private condition is the better and safer, the more easy and innocent, and consequently the more desirable of the two.
Those, who are fitted and contented to serve mankind in the management and government of public affairs, are called benefactors, and if they govern well deserve to be called so, and to be so accounted for denying themselves in their own ease, to do good to many.
Not that it is perfection to go out of the world, and to be perfectly useless. Our Lord, by His own example, has taught us, that we can never serve God better than when doing good to men; and that a perpetual retirement from the world, and shunning the conversation of men, is not the most religious life; but living amongst men, and doing good to them. The life of Our Saviour is a pattern both of the contemplative and active life, and shews us, how to mix devotion and doing good to the greatest advantage. He would neither go out of the world, nor yet immerse himself in the cares and troubles, in the pleasures and plentiful enjoyments, much less in the pomp and splendour of it. He did not place religion (as too many have done since) in a total retirement from the world, and shunning the conversation of men, and taking care to be out of all condition and capacity of doing good to any body. He did not run away from the conversation of men, nor live in a wilderness, nor shut himself up in a pen. He lived in the world with great freedom, and with great innocency, hereby teaching us, that charity to men is a duty no less necessary than devotion towards God. He [avoided] the world without leaving it. We read indeed, that He was carried into the wilderness to be tempted; but we nowhere read that He chose to live in a wilderness to avoid temptation.
If it be said (which is the most spiteful thing that can be said) that some ambition is necessary to vindicate a man from being a fool; to this I think it may be fairly answered, and without offence, that there may perhaps be as much ambition in declining greatness, as in courting it: only it is of a more unusual kind, and the example of it less dangerous, because it is not like to be contagious.