S. Austin Allibone, comp. Prose Quotations from Socrates to Macaulay. 1880.
Conversation, like the Romish religion, was so encumbered with show and ceremony, that it stood in need of a reformation to retrench its superfluities, and restore it to its natural good sense and beauty. At present, therefore, an unconstrained carriage, and a certain openness of behaviour, are the height of good breeding. The fashionable world is grown free and easy; our manners sit more loose upon us. Nothing is so modish as an agreeable negligence. In a word, good breeding shows itself most, where to an ordinary eye it appears the least.
Conversation with men of a polite genius is another method for improving our natural taste. It is impossible for a man of the greatest parts to consider anything in its whole extent, and in all of its variety of lights. Every man, besides those general observations which are to be made upon an author, forms several reflections that are peculiar to his own manner of thinking; so that conversation will naturally furnish us with hints which we did not attend to, and make us enjoy other mens parts and reflections as well as our own.
Method is not less requisite in ordinary conversation than in writing, provided a man would talk to make himself understood. I who hear a thousand coffee-house debates every day, am very sensible of this want of method in the thoughts of my honest countrymen. There is not one dispute in ten which is managed in those schools of politics, where, after the three first sentences, the question is not entirely lost. Our disputants put me in mind of the scuttle-fish, that, when he is unable to extricate himself, blackens all the water about him until he becomes invisible. The man who does not know how to methodize his thoughts, has always, to borrow a phrase from the Dispensary, a barren superfluity of words: the fruit is lost amidst the exuberance of leaves.
The superiority of Sir James Mackintosh to Jeffrey in conversation was then very manifest. His ideas succeeded each other much more rapidly; his expressions were more brief and terse, his repartee most felicitous. Jeffreys great talent consisted in amplification and illustration, and there he was eminently great; and he had been accustomed to Edinburgh society, where he had been allowed by his admiring auditors, male and female, to prelect and expand ad libitum. Sir James had not greater quickness of mind,for nothing could exceed Jeffrey in that respect,but much greater power of condensed expression, and infinitely more rapidity in changing the subject of conversation. Tout toucher, rien approfondir, was his practice, as it is of all men in whom the real conversational talent exists, and where it has been trained to perfection by frequent collision, in polished society, with equal or superior men and elegant and charming women. Jeffrey, in conversation, was like a skilful swordsman flourishing his weapon in the air; while Mackintosh, with a thin, sharp rapier, in the middle of his evolutions, ran him through the body.
Some in their discourse desire rather commendation of wit, in being able to hold all arguments, than of judgment, in discerning what is true; as if it were a praise to know what might be said, and not what should be thought. Some have certain common-places and themes, wherein they are good, and want variety; which kind of poverty is for the most part tedious; and, when it is once perceived, ridiculous.
He that questioneth much shall learn much, and content much; but especially if he apply his questions to the skill of the persons whom he asketh; for he shall give them occasion to please themselves in speaking, and himself shall continually gather knowledge: but let his questions not be troublesome, for that is fit for a poser; and let him be sure to leave other men their turns to speak: nay, if there be any that would reign and take up all the time, let him find means to take them off, and to bring others on; as musicians use to do with those that dance too long galliards . Discretion of speech is more than eloquence; and to speak agreeable to him with whom we deal, is more than to speak in good words, or in good order.
Whosoever hath his mind fraught with many thoughts, his wits and understanding do clarify and break up in the communicating and discoursing with another; he marshalleth his thoughts more orderly, he seeth how they look when they are turned into words.
Such facetiousness is not unreasonable or unlawful which ministereth harmless divertisement and delight to conversation; harmless, I say, that is, not intrenching upon piety, nor infringing charity or justice, not disturbing peace. For Christianity is not so tetrical, so harsh, so envious, as to bar us continually from innocent, much less from wholesome and useful, pleasure, such as human life doth need or require. And if jocular discourse may serve to good purposes of this kind; if it may be apt to raise our drooping spirits, to allay our irksome cares, to whet our blunted industry, to recreate our minds, being tired and cloyed with graver occupations; if it may breed alacrity, or maintain good humour among us; if it may conduce to sweeten conversation and endear society, then it is not inconvenient or unprofitable. If for these ends we may use other recreations, employing on them our ears and eyes, our hands and feet, our other instruments of sense and motion, why may we not so well accommodate our organs of speech and interior sense? Why should those gomes which excite our wit and fancies be less reasonable, since they are performed in a manly way, and have in them a smack of reason; seeing, also, they may be so managed as not only to divert and please, but to improve and profit the mind, rousing and quickening it, yea, sometimes enlightening and instructing it, by good sense, conveyed in jocular expression?
If anything in my conversation has merited your regard, I think it must be the openness and freedom with which I commonly express my sentiments. You are too wise a man not to know that such freedom is not without its use; and that by encouraging it, men of true ability are enabled to profit by hints thrown out by understandings much inferior to their own, and which they who first produce them are, by themselves, unable to turn to the best account.
Tassos conversation was neither gay nor brilliant. Dante was either taciturn or satirical. Butler was sullen or biting. Gray seldom talked or smiled. Hogarth and Swift were very absent-minded in company. Milton was unsociable, and even irritable, when pressed into conversation. Kirwan, though copious and eloquent in public addresses, was meagre and dull in colloquial discourse. Virgil was heavy in conversation. La Fontaine appeared heavy, coarse, and stupid; he could not describe what he had just seen; but then he was the model of poetry. Chaucers silence was more agreeable than his conversation. Drydens conversation was slow and dull, his humour saturnine and reserved. Corneille in conversation was so insipid that he never failed in wearying: he did not even speak correctly that language of which he was such a master. Ben Jonson used to sit silent in company and suck his wine and their humours. Southey was stiff, sedate, and wrapped up in asceticism. Addison was good company with his intimate friends, but in mixed company he preserved his dignity by a stiff and reserved silence. Fox in conversation never flagged; his animation and variety were inexhaustible. Dr. Bentley was loquacious. Grotius was talkative. Goldsmith wrote like an angel, and talked like poor Poll. Burke was eminently entertaining, enthusiastic, and interesting in conversation. Curran was a convivial deity: he soared into every region, and was at home in all. Dr. Birch dreaded a pen as he did a torpedo; but be could talk like running water. Dr. Johnson wrote monotonously and ponderously, but in conversation his words were close and sinewy; and if his pistol missed fire, he knocked down his antagonist with the butt of it. Coleridge in his conversation was full of acuteness and originality. Leigh Hunt has been well termed the philosopher of hope, and likened to a pleasant stream in conversation. Carlyle doubts, objects, and constantly demurs. Fisher Ames was a powerful and effective orator, and not the less distinguished in the social circle. He possessed a fluent language, a vivid fancy, and a well-stored memory.
One must be extremely exact, clear, and perspicuous in everything one says; otherwise, instead of entertaining or informing others, one only tires and puzzles them. The voice and manner of speaking, too, are not to be neglected; some people almost shut their mouths when they speak, and mutter so, that they are not to be understood; others speak so fast and sputter that they are not to be understood neither; some always speak as loud as if they were talking to deaf people, and others so low that one cannot hear them. All these habits are awkward and disagreeable; and are to be avoided by attention: they are the distinguishing marks of the ordinary people, who have had no care taken of their education. You cannot imagine how necessary it is to mind all these little things; for I have seen many people, with great talents, ill received, for want of having these talents too; and others well received, only from their little talents, and who had no great ones.
Lord Chesterfield: Letters to his Son, July 25, N. S., 1791.
Conversation is the music of the mind; an intellectual orchestra, where all the instruments should bear a part, but where none should play together. Each of the performers should have a just appreciation of his own powers; otherwise an unskilful noviciate, who might usurp the first fiddle, would infallibly get into a scrape. To prevent these mistakes, a good master of the band will be very particular in the assortment of the performers: if too dissimilar there will be no harmony, if too few there will be no variety, and if too numerous there will be no order: for the presumption of one prater might silence the eloquence of a Burke, or the wit of a Sheridan; as a single kettledrum would drown the finest solo of a Gioniwich or a Jordini.
It has been well observed that the tongue discovers the state of the mind no less than that of the body; but in either case, before the philosopher or the physician can judge, the patient must open his mouth. Some men envelope themselves in such an impenetrable cloak of silence, that the tongue will afford us no symptoms of the temperament of the mind. Such taciturnity, indeed, is wise if they are fools, but foolish if they are wise; and the only method to form a judgment of these mutes is narrowly to observe when, where, and how they smile. It shows much more stupidity to be grave at a good thing than to be merry at a bad one; and of all ignorance that which is silent is the least productive; for praters may suggest an idea, if they cannot start one.
Conversation warms the mind, enlivens the imagination, and is continually starting fresh game that is immediately pursued and taken, and which would never have occurred in the duller intercourse of epistolary correspondence.
The study of books is a languishing and feeble motion, that heats not; whereas conference teaches and exercises at once. If I confer with an understanding man and a rude jester, he presses hard upon me on both sides: his imagination raises up mine to more than ordinary pitch. Jealousy, glory, and contention, stimulate and raise me up to something above myself; and a consent of judgment is a quality totally offensive in conference.
Thomas Fuller: The Holy State and the Profane State.
Let your words be few, especially when your superiors, or strangers, are present, lest you betray your own weakness, and rob yourselves of the opportunity which you might otherwise have had, to gain knowledge, wisdom, and experience, by hearing those whom you silence by your impertinent talking . Be careful not to interrupt another when he is speaking: hear him out, and you will understand him the better, and be able to give him the better answer.
They have nearly an equal range of reading and of topics of conversation: but in the mind of the one we see nothing but fixtures; in the other everything is fluid. The ideas of the one are as formal and tangible as those of the other are shadowy and evanescent. Sir James Mackintosh walks over the ground; Mr. Coleridge is always flying off from it. The first knows all that has been said upon a subject; the last has something to say that was never said before . The conversation of Sir James Mackintosh has the effect of reading a well-written book; that of his friend is like hearing a bewildering dream. The one is an encyclopædia of knowledge; the other is a succession of Sibylline leaves.
That conversation may answer the ends for which it was designed, the parties who are to join in it must come together with a determined resolution to please and to be pleased. If a man feels that an east wind has rendered him dull and sulky, he should by all means stay at home till the wind changes, and not be troublesome to his friends: for dulness is infectious, and one sour face will make many, as one cheerful countenance is productive of others. If two gentlemen desire to quarrel, it should not be done in a company met to enjoy the pleasures of conversation.
We hear a great deal of lamentation nowadays, proceeding mostly from elderly people, on the decline of the Art of Conversation among us. Old ladies and gentlemen, with vivid recollections of the charms of society fifty years ago, are constantly asking each other why the great talkers of their youthful days have found no successors in this inferior present time. Wherethey inquire mournfullywhere are the illustrious men and women gifted with a capacity for perpetual outpouring from the tongue, who used to keep enraptured audiences deluged in a flow of eloquent monologue for hours together? Where are the solo talkers in this degenerate age of nothing but choral conversation? Embalmed in social tradition, or imperfectly preserved in books for the benefit of an ungrateful posterity, which reviles their surviving contemporaries, and would perhaps even have reviled them, as Bores.
What a change seems indeed to have passed over the face of society since the days of the great talkers! If they could rise from the dead, and wag their unresting tongues among us now, would they win their reputations anew, just as easily as ever? Would they even get listeners? Would they be actually allowed to talk? I should venture to say, decidedly not. They would surely be interrupted and contradicted; they would have their nearest neighbours at the dinner-table talking across them; they would find impatient people opposite, dropping things noisily, and ostentatiously picking them up; they would hear confidential whispering and perpetual fidgeting in distant corners, before they had got through their first half-dozen of eloquent opening sentences. Nothing appears to me so wonderful as that none of these interruptions (if we are to believe report) should ever have occurred in the good old times of the great talkers.
Mr. Spoke Wheeler is one of those mena large class, as it appears to mewho will talk, and who have nothing whatever in the way of a subject of their own to talk about. His constant practice is to lie silently in ambush for subjects started by other people, to take them forthwith from their rightful owners, turn them coolly to his own uses, and then cunningly wait again for the next topic, belonging to somebody else, that passes within his reach. It is useless to give up, and leave him to take the leadhe invariably gives up, too, and declines the honour. It is useless to start once more, hopefully, seeing him apparently silencedhe becomes talkative again the moment you offer him the chance of seizing on your new subjectdisposes of it without the slightest fancy, taste, or novelty of handling, in a momentthen relates into utter speechlessness as soon as he has silenced the rest of the company by taking their topic away from them.
Mrs. Marblemug has one subject of conversationher own vices. On all other topics she is sarcastically indifferent and scornfully mute. General conversation she consequently never indulges in; but the person who sits next to her is sure to be interrupted as soon as he attracts her attention by talking to her, by receiving a confession of her vicesnot made repentantly, or confusedly, or jocularlybut slowly declaimed with an ostentatious cynicism, with a hard eye, a hard voice, a hardno, an adamantinemanner. In early youth, Mrs. Marblemug discovered that her business in life was to be eccentric and disagreeable, and she is one of the women of England who fulfils her mission.
In all his productions the riches of his knowledge and the subtlety and force of his understanding are alike conspicuous; but I am not sure whether his characteristic qualities did not display themselves in a more striking way in his conversation. It was here, at least, that his astonishing memoryastonishing equally for its extent, exactness, and promptitudemade the greatest impression.
Lord Jeffrey: On Sir James Mackintosh: Mackintoshs Life.
Perhaps no kind of superiority is more flattering or alluring than that which is conferred by the powers of conversation, by extemporaneous sprightliness of fancy, copiousness of language, and fertility of sentiment. In other exertions of genius the greater part of the praise is unknown and unenjoyed: the writer, indeed, spreads his reputation to a wider extent, but receives little pleasure or advantage from the diffusion of his name, and only obtains a kind of nominal sovereignty over regions which pay no tribute. The colloquial wit has always his own radiance reflected on himself, and enjoys all the pleasure which he bestows; he finds his power confessed by every one that approaches him, sees friendship kindling with rapture, and attention swelling into praise.
The desire which every man feels of importance and esteem is so much gratified by finding an assembly, at his entrance, brightened with gladness, and hushed with expectation, that the recollection of such distinctions can scarcely fail to be pleasing whensoever it is innocent.
He that can only converse upon questions about which only a small part of mankind has knowledge sufficient to make them curious, must lose his days in unsocial silence, and live in the crowd of life without a companion. He that can only be useful on great occasions, may die without exerting his abilities, and stand a helpless spectator of a thousand vexations which fret away happiness, and which nothing is required to remove but a little dexterity of conduct and readiness of expedients.
Burke is an extraordinary man. His stream of talk is perpetual; and he does not talk from any desire of distinction, but because his mind is full . He is the only man whose common conversation corresponds with the general fame which he has in the world. Take him up where you please, he is ready to meet you . No man of sense could meet Burke by accident under a gateway, to avoid a shower, without being convinced that he was the first man in England . If he should go into a stable, and talk a few minutes with the hostlers about horses, they would venerate him as the wisest of human beings. They would say, We have had an extraordinary man here.
He that would please in company must be attentive to what style is most proper. The scholastic should never be used but in a select company of learned men. The didactic should seldom be used, and then only by judicious aged persons, or those who are eminent for piety or wisdom. No style is more extensively acceptable than the narrative, because this does not carry an air of superiority over the rest of the company, and therefore is most likely to please them: for this purpose we should store our memory with short anecdotes and entertaining pieces of history. Almost every one listens with eagerness to extemporary history. Vanity often co-operates with curiosity, for he that is a hearer in one place wishes to qualify himself to be a principal speaker in some inferior company, and therefore more attention is given to narrations than anything else in conversation. It is true, indeed, that sallies of wit and quick replies are very pleasing in conversation, but they frequently tend to raise envy in some of the company; but the narrative way neither raises this, nor any other evil passion, but keeps all the company nearly on an equality, and, if judiciously managed, will at once entertain and improve them all.
To stated and public instruction he [Dr. Watts] added familiar visits and personal application, and was careful to improve the opportunities which conversation offered of diffusing and increasing the influence of religion.
Whatever was valuable in the compositions of Sir James Mackintosh was the ripe fruit of study and meditation. It was the same with his conversation. In his most familiar talk there was no wildness, no inconsistency, no amusing nonsense, no exaggeration for the sake of momentary effect. His mind was a vast magazine admirably arranged: everything was there, and everything was in its place. His judgments on men, on sects, on books, had been often and carefully tested and weighed, and had then been committed each to its proper receptacle in the most capacious and accurately-constructed memory that any human being ever possessed. It would have been strange, indeed, if you had asked for anything that was not to be found in that immense warehouse . You never saw his opinions in the making,still rude, still inconsistent, and requiring to be fashioned by thought and discussion. They came forth, like the pillars of that temple in which no sound of axes or hammers was heard, finished, rounded, and exactly suited to their places.
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: Sir James Mackintosh, July, 1835.
His [Goldsmiths] fame was great, and was constantly rising. He lived in what was intellectually far the best society of the kingdom, in a society in which no talent or accomplishment was wanting, and in which the art of conversation was cultivated with splendid success. There probably were never four talkers more admirable in four different ways than Johnson, Burke, Beauclerc, and Garrick; and Goldsmith was on terms of intimacy with all the four. He aspired to share in their colloquial renown; but never was ambition more unfortunate. It may seem strange that a man who wrote with so much perspicuity, vivacity, and grace, should have been, whenever he took a part in conversation, an empty, noisy, blundering rattle. But on this point the evidence is overwhelming.
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: Life of Oliver Goldsmith, in Encyc. Brit. (Feb. 1856), 8th edit.
But though his [Dr. S. Johnsons] pen was now idle, his tongue was active. The influence exercised by his conversation, directly upon those with whom he lived, and indirectly on the whole literary world, was altogether without a parallel. His colloquial talents were indeed of the highest order. He had strong sense, quick discernment, wit, humour, immense knowledge of literature and of life, and an infinite store of curious anecdotes. As respected style, he spoke far better than he wrote. Every sentence which dropped from his lips was as correct in structure as the most nicely balanced period of the Rambler. But in his talk there were no pompous triads, and little more than a fair proportion of words in osity and ation. All was simplicity, ease, and vigour. He uttered his short, weighty, and pointed sentences with a power of voice, and a justness and energy of emphasis, of which the effect was rather increased than diminished by the rollings of his huge form, and by the asthmatic gaspings in which the peals of his eloquence generally ended. Nor did the laziness which made him unwilling to sit down to his desk prevent him from giving instruction or entertainment orally. To discuss questions of taste, of learning, of casuistry, in language so exact and so forcible that it might have been printed without the alteration of a word, was to him no exertion, but a pleasure. He loved, as he said, to fold his legs and have his talk out. He was ready to bestow the overflowings of his full mind on anybody who would start a subject,on a fellow-passenger in a stage-coach, or on the person who sate at the same table with him in an eating-house. But his conversation was nowhere so brilliant and striking as when he was surrounded by a few friends whose abilities and knowledge enabled them, as he once expressed it, to send him back every ball that he threw.
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: Life of Samuel Johnson, in Encyc. Brit. (Dec. 1856), 8th edit.
I never met with any person whose conversation was at once so delightful and so instructive. He possesses a vast quantity of well-arranged knowledge, grace, and facility of expression, and gentle and obliging manners. It would be hard to find another person of equal talents and acquitments so perfectly unassuming, or one so ready to talk whose conversation was so well worth listening to.
Earl of Dudley: On Sir James Mackintosh: Mackintoshs Life.
Conversation opens our views, and gives our faculties a more vigorous play; it puts us upon turning our notions on every side, and holds them up to a light that discovers those latent flaws which would probably have lain concealed in the gloom of unagitated abstraction. Accordingly, one may remark that most of those wild doctrines which have been let loose upon the world have generally owed their birth to persons whose circumstances or dispositions have given them the fewest opportunities of canvassing their respective systems in the way of free and friendly debate. Had the authors of many an extravagant hypothesis discussed their principles in private circles ere they had given vent to them in public, the observation of Varro had never perhaps been made (or never, at least, with so much justice), that there is no opinion so absurd but has some philosopher or other to produce in its support.
Upon this principle I imagine it is that some of the finest pieces of antiquity are written in the dialogue manner. Plato and Tully, it should seem, thought truth could never be examined with more advantage than amidst the amicable opposition of well-regulated converse.
It is probable, indeed, that subjects of a serious and philosophical kind were more frequently the topics of Greek and Roman conversation than they are of ours; as the circumstances of the world had not yet given occasion to those prudential reasons which may now perhaps restrain a more free exchange of sentiments amongst us. There was something likewise in the very scenes themselves where they usually assembled that almost unavoidably turned the stream of their conversations into this useful channel. Their rooms and gardens were generally adorned, you know, with the statues of the greatest masters of reason that had then appeared in the world; and while Socrates or Aristotle stood in their view it is no wonder their discourse fell upon those subjects which such animating representations would naturally suggest. It is probable, therefore, that many of those ancient pieces which are drawn up in the dialogue manner were no imaginary conversations invented by their authors, but faithful transcripts from real life. And it is this circumstance, perhaps, as much as any other, which contributes to give them that remarkable advantage over the generality of modern compositions which have been formed upon the same plan. I am sure, at least, I could scarcely name more than three or four of this kind which have appeared in our language worthy of notice. My Lord Shaftesburys dialogue entitled The Moralists, Mr. Addisons upon Ancient Coins, Mr. Spences upon the Odyssey, together with those of my very ingenious friend Philemon to Hydaspes, are almost the only productions in this way which have hitherto come forth amongst us with advantage. These, indeed, are all masterpieces of the kind, and written in the true spirit of learning and politeness. The conversation in each of these most elegant performances is conducted, not in the usual absurd method of introducing one disputant to be tamely silenced by the other, but in the more lively dramatic manner, where a just contrast of characters is preserved throughout, and where the several speakers support their respective sentiments with all the strength and spirit of a well-bred opposition.
The conversation of Burke must have been like the procession of a Roman triumph, exhibiting power and riches at every step,occasionally, perhaps, mingling the low Fescennine jest with the lofty music of its march, but glittering all over with the spoils of the whole ransacked world.
Be humble and gentle in your conversation, of few words, I charge you, but always pertinent when you speak, hearing out before you attempt to answer, and then speaking as if you would persuade, not impose.
There is nothing so delightful as the hearing or the speaking of truth. For this reason there is no conversation so agreeable as that of the man of integrity, who hears without any intention to betray, and speaks without any intention to deceive.
The pith of conversation does not consist in exhibiting your own superior knowledge on matters of small importance, but in enlarging, improving, and correcting the information you possess, by the authority of others.
The progress of a private conversation between two persons of different sexes is often decisive of their fate, and gives it a turn very distinct perhaps from what they themselves anticipated. Gallantry becomes mingled with conversation, and affection and passion come gradually to mix with gallantry. Nobles, as well as shepherd swains, will, in such a trying moment, say more than they intended, and queens, like village maidens, will listen longer than they should.
Till subdued by age and illness, his [Sir James Mackintoshs] conversation was more brilliant and instructive than that of any human being I ever had the good fortune to be acquainted with. His memory (vast and prodigious as it was) he so managed as to make it a source of pleasure and instruction, rather than that dreadful engine of colloquial oppression into which it is sometimes erected. He remembered things, words, thoughts, dates, and everything that was wanted. His language was beautiful, and might have gone from the fireside to the press.
Rev. Sydney Smith: Mackintoshs Life, and Smiths Works.
It is generally thought, that warmth of imagination, quick relish of pleasure, and a manner of becoming it, are the most essential qualities for forming this sort of man. But any one that is much in company will observe, that the height of good breeding is shown rather in never giving offence, than in doing obliging things; thus he that never shocks, you, though he is seldom entertaining, is more likely to keep your favour, than he who often entertains, and sometimes displeases you. The most necessary talent therefore in a man of conversation, which is what we ordinarily intend by a fine Gentleman, is a good judgment. He that hath this in perfection is master of his companion, without letting him see it; and has the same advantage over men of any other qualifications whatsoever, as one that can see would have over a blind man of ten times his strength.
His judgment is so good and unerring, and accompanied with so cheerful a spirit, that his conversation is a continual feast, at which he helps some, and is helped by others, in such a manner that the equality of society is perfectly kept up, and every man obliges as much as he is obliged; for it is the greatest and justest skill, in a man of superior understanding, to know how to be on a level with his companions.
Among others in that company we had Florio, who never interrupted any man living when he was speaking; or ever ceased to speak but others lamented that he had done. His discourse ever arises from a fulness of the matter before him, and not from ostentation or triumph of his understanding; for though he seldom delivers what he need fear being repeated, he speaks without having that end in view; and his forbearance of calumny or bitterness is owing rather to his good nature than his discretion; for which reason he is esteemed a gentleman perfectly qualified for conversation, in whom a general good will to mankind takes off the necessity of caution and circumspection.
It is a melancholy thing to consider, that the most engaging sort of men in conversation are frequently the most tyrannical in power, and the least to be depended upon in friendship. It is certain this is not to be imputed to their own disposition; but he, that is to be led by others, has only good luck if he is not the worst, though in himself the best, man living.
An easy manner of conversation is the most desirable quality a man can have; and for that reason coxcombs will take upon them to be familiar with people whom they never saw before. What adds to the vexation of it is, that they will act upon the foot of knowing you by fame; and rally with you, as they call it, by repeating what your enemies say of you; and court you, as they think, by uttering to your face, at a wrong time, all the kind things your friends speak of you in your absence.
These people are the more dreadful, the more they have of what is usually called wit: for a lively imagination, when it is not governed by a good understanding, makes such miserable havoc both in conversation and business, that it lays you defenceless, and fearful to throw the least word in its way that may give it new matter for its farther errors.
Tom Mercet has as quick a fancy as any one living; but there is no reasonable man can bear him half an hour. His purpose is to entertain, and it is of no consequence to him what is said, so it be what is called well said: as if a man must bear a wound with patience, because he that pushed at you came up with a good air and mien.
The hours which we spend in conversation are the most pleasing of any which we enjoy: yet methinks there is very little care taken to improve ourselves for the frequent repetition of them. The common fault in this case is that of growing too intimate, and falling into displeasing familiarities; for it is a very ordinary thing for men to make no other use of a close acquaintance with each others affairs, but to tease one another with unacceptable allusions. One would pass over patiently such as converse like animals, and salute each other with bangs on the shoulder, sly raps with canes, or other robust pleasantries practised by the rural gentry of this nation: but even among those who should have more polite ideas of things, you see a set of people who invert the design of conversation, and make frequent mention of ungrateful subjects; nay, mention them because they are ungrateful; as if the perfection of society were in knowing how to offend on the one part, and how to bear an offence on the other.
Equality is the life of conversation; and he is as much out who assumes to himself any part above another, as he who considers himself below the rest of the society. Familiarity in inferiors is sauciness; in superiors, condescension; neither of which are to have being among companions, the very word implying that they are to be equal. When, therefore, we have abstracted the company from all considerations of their quality or fortune, it will immediately appear, that to make it happy and polite, there must nothing be started which shall discover that our thoughts run upon any such distinctions. Hence it will arise, that benevolence must become the rule of society, and he that is most obliging must be most diverting.
In conversation, the medium is neither to affect silence or eloquence; not to value our approbation, and to endeavour to excel us who are of your company, are equal injuries. The great enemies therefore to good company, and those who transgress most against the laws of equality, which is the life of it, are the clown, the wit, and the pedant.
It is a secret known but to few, yet of no small use in the conduct of life, that when you fall into a mans conversation, the first thing you should consider is, whether he has a greater inclination to hear you, or that you should hear him. The latter is the more general desire, and I know very able flatterers that never speak a word in praise of the persons from whom they obtain daily favours, but still practise a skilful attention to whatever is uttered by those with whom they converse.
That part of life which we ordinarily understand by the word conversation, is an indulgence to the sociable part of our make; and should incline us to bring our proportion of good-will or good humour among the friends we meet with, and not to trouble them with relations which must of necessity oblige them to a real or feigned affliction. Cares, distresses, diseases, uneasinesses, and dislikes of our own, are by no means to be obtruded upon our friends. If we would consider how little of this vicissitude of motion and rest, which we call life, is spent with satisfaction, we should be more tender of our friends, than to bring them little sorrows which do not belong to them. There is no real life but cheerful life; therefore valetudinarians should be sworn, before they enter into company, not to say a word of themselves until the meeting breaks up.
One of the best rules in conversation is, never to say a thing which any of the company can reasonably wish we had rather left unsaid: nor can there anything be well more contrary to the ends for which people meet together, than to part unsatisfied with each other or themselves.
Amongst too many other instances of the great corruption and degeneracy of the age wherein we live, the great and general want of sincerity in conversation is none of the least. The world is grown so full of dissimulation and compliment, that mens words are hardly any signification of their thoughts; and if any man measure his words by his heart, and speaks as he thinks, and do not express more kindness to every man than men usually have for any man, he can hardly escape the censure of want of breeding.
John Tillotson: Sermon on Sincerity, July 29, 1694.
The dialect of conversation is nowadays so swelled with vanity and compliment, and so surfeited (as I may say) of expressions of kindness and respect, that it a man that lived an age or two ago should return into the world again, he would really want a dictionary to help him to understand his own language, and to know the true intrinsic value of the phrase in fashion; and would hardly at first believe at what a low rate the highest strains and expressions of kindness imaginable do commonly pass in current payment; and when he should come to understand it, it would be a great while before he could bring himself with a good countenance, and a good conscience, to converse with men upon equal terms and in their own way.
When a warm and imprudent talker adorns some common character with excessive praises, and carries it up to the stars, the moderate man puts in a cautious word, and thinks it is sufficient to raise it half so high. Or when he hears a vast and unreasonable load of accusation and infamy thrown upon some lesser mistakes in life, the moderate man puts in a soft word of excuse, lightens the burden of reproach, and relieves the good name of the sufferer from being pressed to death.
Among the many just and admirable remarks in this essay on Discourse, Bacon does not notice the distinctionwhich is an important onebetween those who speak because they wish to say something, and those who speak because they have something to say: that is, between those who are aiming at displaying their own knowledge or ability, and those who speak from fulness of matter, and are thinking only of the matter, and not of themselves and the opinion that will be formed of them. This latter, Bishop Butler calls (in reference to writings) a man writing with simplicity and in earnest. It is curious to observe how much more agreeable is even inferior conversation of this latter description, and how it is preferred by manythey know not whywho are not accustomed to analyze their own feelings, or to inquire why they like or dislike.
Something nearly coinciding with the above distinction, is that which some draw between an unconscious and a conscious manner; only that the latter extends to persons who are not courting applause, but anxiously guarding against censure. By a conscious manner is meant, in short, a continual thought about oneself, and about what the company will think of us. The continual effort and watchful care on the part of the speaker, either to obtain approbation, or at least to avoid disapprobation, always communicates itself in a certain degree to the hearers.
Some draw a distinction, again, akin to the above, between the desire to please, and the desire to give pleasure; meaning by the former an anxiety to obtain for yourself the good opinion of those you converse with, and by the other, the wish to gratify them.
Aristotle, again, draws the distinction between the Eiron and the Bomolochus,that the former seems to throw out his wit for his own amusement, and the other for that of the company. It is this latter, however, that is really the conscious speaker; because he is evidently seeking to obtain credit as a wit by his diversion of the company. The word seems nearly to answer to what we call a wag. The other is letting out his good things merely from his own fulness.
Richard Whately: Annot. on Bacons Essay, Of Discourse.