Anxiety is the poison of human life. It is the parent of many sins, and of more miseries. In a world where everything is doubtful, where you may be disappointed, and be blessed in disappointment,what means this restless stir and commotion of mind? Can your solicitude alter the cause or unravel the intricacy of human events? Can your curiosity pierce through the cloud which the Supreme Being hath made impenetrable to mortal eye? To provide against every important danger by the employment of the most promising means is the office of wisdom; but at this point wisdom stops.
Between levity and cheerfulness there is a wide distinction; and the mind which is most open to levity is frequently a stranger to cheerfulness. It has been remarked that transports of intemperate mirth are often no more than flashes from the dark cloud; and that in proportion to the violence of the effulgence is the succeeding gloom. Levity may be the forced production of folly or vice; cheerfulness is the natural offspring of wisdom and virtue only. The one is an occasional agitation; the other a permanent habit. The one degrades the character; the other is perfectly consistent with the dignity of reason, and the steady and manly spirit of religion. To aim at a constant succession of high and vivid sensations of pleasure is an idea of happiness perfectly chimerical. Calm and temperate enjoyment is the utmost that is allotted to man. Beyond this we struggle in vain to raise our state; and in fact depress our joys by endeavouring to heighten them. Instead of those fallacious hopes of perpetual festivity with which the world would allure us, religion confers upon us a cheerful tranquillity. Instead of dazzling us with meteors of joy which sparkle and expire, it sheds around us a calm and steady light, more solid, more equal, and more lasting.
In young minds there is commonly a strong propensity to particular intimacies and friendships. Youth, indeed, is the season when friendships are sometimes formed which not only continue through succeeding life, but which glow to the last, with a tenderness unknown to the connections begun in cooler years. The propensity, therefore, is not to be discouraged, though, at the same time, it must be regulated with much circumspection and care. Too many of the pretended friendships of youth are mere combinations in pleasure. They are often founded on capricious likings, suddenly contracted and as suddenly dissolved. Sometimes they are the effect of interested complaisance and flattery on the one side, and of credulous fondness on the other. Such rash and dangerous connections should be avoided, lest they afterwards load us with dishonour.
We should ever have it fixed in our memories, that by the character of those whom we choose for our friends, our own is likely to be formed, and will certainly be judged of by the world. We ought, therefore, to be slow and cautious in contracting intimacy; but when a virtuous friendship is once established, we must ever consider it as a sacred engagement.
A fourth rule for constructing sentences with proper strength is to make the members of them go on rising and growing in their importance above one another. This sort of arrangement is called a climax, and is always considered as a beauty in composition.
Conscience is too great a power in the nature of man to be altogether subdued: it may for a time be repressed and kept dormant; but conjectures there are in human life which awaken it; and when once re-awakened, it flashes on the sinners mind with all the horrors of an invisible ruler and a future judgment.
The soul of man can never divest itself wholly of anxiety about its fate hereafter: there are hours when, even to the prosperous, in the midst of their pleasures, eternity is an awful thought; but how much more when those pleasures, one after another, begin to withdraw; when life alters its forms, and becomes dark and cheerlesswhen its changes warn the most inconsiderate that what is so mutable will soon pass entirely away. Then with pungent earnestness comes home that question to the heart, Into what world are we next to go? How miserable the man who, under the distractions of calamity, hangs doubtful about an event which so nearly concerns him; who, in the midst of doubts and anxieties, approaching to that awful boundary which separates this world from the next, shudders at the dark prospect before him, wishing to exist after death, and yet afraid of that existence; catching at every feeble hope which superstition can afford him, and trembling in the same moment from reflection upon his crimes!
Of all the means which human ingenuity has contrived for recalling the images of real objects, and awakening, by representation, similar emotions to those which were raised by the originals, none is so full and extensive as that which is created by words and writing.
As we advance from youth to middle age, a new field of action opens, and a different character is required. The flow of gay impetuous spirits begins to subside; life gradually assumes a graver cast; the mind a more sedate and thoughtful turn. The attention is now transferred from pleasure to interest; that is, to pleasure diffused over a wider extent and measured by a larger scale. Formerly the enjoyment of the present moment occupied the whole attention; now no action terminates ultimately in itself, but refers to some more distant aim. Wealth and power, the instruments of lasting gratification, are now coveted more than any single pleasure; prudence and foresight lay their plan; industry carries on its patient efforts; activity pushes forward; address winds around; here an enemy is to be overcome, there a rival to be displaced; competition warms, and the strife of the world thickens on every side.
Gentleness, which belongs to virtue, is to be carefully distinguished from the mean spirit of cowards, and the fawning assent of sycophants. It removes no just right from fear; it gives up no important truth from flattery; it is, indeed, not only consistent with a firm mind, but it necessarily requires a manly spirit and a fixed principle in order to give it any real value.
Such is the infatuation of self-love, that, though in the general doctrine of the vanity of the world all men agree, yet almost every one flatters himself that his own case is it to be an exception from the common rule.
The sinner is not only liable to that disappointment of success which so often prostrates all the designs of men, but liable to a disappointment still more cruel, of being successful and miserable at once.
A joyless and dreary season will old age prove, if we arrive at it with an unimproved or corrupted mind. For this period, as for everything, certain preparation is necessary; and that preparation consists in the acquisition of knowledge, friends, and virtue. Then is the time when a man would especially wish to find himself surrounded by those who love and respect him,who will bear with his infirmities, relieve him of his labours, and cheer him with their society. Let him, therefore, now in the summer of his days, while yet active and flourishing, by acts of seasonable kindness and benevolence insure that love, and by upright and honourable conduct lay the foundation for that respect which in old age he would wish to enjoy. In the last place, let him consider a good conscience, peace with God, and the hope of heaven, as the most effectual consolations he can possess when the evil days shall come.
From reading the most admired productions of genius, whether in poetry or prose, almost every one rises with some good impressions left on his mind; and though these may not always be durable, they are at least to be ranked among the means of disposing the heart to virtue. One thing is certain, that without possessing the virtuous affections in a strong degree, no man can attain eminence in the sublime parts of eloquence. He must feel what a good man feels, if he expects greatly to move or to interest mankind. They are the ardent sentiments of honour, virtue, magnanimity, and public spirit, that only can kindle that fire of genius, and call up into the mind those high ideas which attract the admiration of ages; and if this spirit be necessary to produce the most distinguished efforts of eloquence, it must be necessary also to our relishing them with proper taste and feeling.
Taste and genius are two words frequently joined together, and therefore, by inaccurate thinkers, confounded. They signify, however, two quite different things. The difference between them can be clearly pointed out, and it is of importance to remember it. Taste consists in the power of judging; genius, in the power of executing. One may have a considerable degree of taste in poetry, eloquence, or any of the fine arts, who has little or hardly any genius for composition or execution in any of these arts; but genius cannot be found without including taste also. Genius, therefore, deserves to be considered as a higher power of the mind than taste. Genius always imports something inventive or creative, which does not rest in mere sensibility to beauty where it is perceived, but which can, moreover, produce new beauties, and exhibit them in such a manner as strongly to impress the minds of others. Refined taste forms a good critic; but genius is further necessary to form the poet or the orator.
It is proper also to observe, that genius is a word which, in common acceptation, extends much further than to the objects of taste. It is used to signify that talent or aptitude which we receive from nature for excelling in any one thing whatever. Thus, we speak of a genius for mathematics, as well as a genius for poetryof a genius for war, for politics, or for any mechanical employment.
It is not easy to describe in words the precise impression which great and sublime objects make upon us when we behold them; but every one has a conception of it. It produces a sort of internal elevation and expansion; it raises the mind much above its ordinary state, and fills it with a degree of wonder and astonishment which it cannot well express. The emotion is certainly delightful, but it is altogether of the serious kind; a degree of awfulness and solemnity, even approaching to severity, commonly attends it when at its height, very distinguishable from the more gay and brisk emotion raised by beautiful objects.
There are indeed few good dispositions of any kind with which the improvement of taste is not more or less connected. A cultivated taste increases sensibility to all the tender and humane passions by giving them frequent exercise; while it tends to weaken the more violent and fierce emotions:
The elevated sentiments and high examples which poetry, eloquence, and history are often bringing under our view naturally tend to nourish in our minds public spirit, the love of glory, contempt of external fortune, and the admiration of what is truly illustrious and great.
I will not go so far as to say that the improvement of taste and of virtue is the same, or that they may always be expected to co-exist in an equal degree. More powerful correctives than taste can apply are necessary for reforming the corrupt propensities which too frequently prevail among mankind. Elegant speculations are sometimes found to float on the surface of the mind while bad passions possess the interior regions of the heart. At the same time, this cannot but be admitted, that the exercise of taste is, in its native tendency, moral and purifying.