Nimium risus pretium esi si probitatis impendis constat Quintil.
Laughter is bought too dear, if it be at the expense of honesty.
I have lately read, with much pleasure, the Essays upon several subjects published by Sir Richard Blackmore; and though I agree with him in many of his excellent observations, I cannot but take that reasonable freedom, which he himself makes use of, with regard to other writers, to dissent from him in some few particulars. In his reflexions upon works of wit and humour, he observes how unequal they are to combat vice and folly; and seems to think, that the finest rallery and satire, though directed by these generous views, never reclaimed one vicious man, or made one fool depart from his folly.
This is a position very hard to be contradicted, because no Author knows the number or names of his converts. As for the Tatlers and Spectators in particular, which are obliged to this ingenious and useful Author for the character he has given of them, they were so generally dispersed in single sheets, and have since been printed in so great numbers, that it is to be hoped they have made some proselytes to the interests, if not to the practice of wisdom and virtue, among such a multitude of readers.
I need not remind this learned Gentleman, that Socrates, who was the greatest propagator of morality in the heathen world, and a martyr for the Unity of the Godhead, was so famous for the exercise of this talent among the politest people of antiquity, that he gained the name of [Greek: ha Eibôn] the Drôle.
There are very good effects which visibly arose from the above-mentioned performances and others of the like nature; as, in the first place, they diverted rallery from improper objects, and gave a new turn to ridicule, which for many years had been exerted on persons and things of a sacred and serious nature. They endeavoured to make mirth instructive, and, if they failed in this great end, they must be allowed at least to have made it innocent. If wit and humour begin again to relapse into their former licentiousness, they can never hope for approbation from those who know that rallery is useless when it has no moral under it, and pernicious when it attacks any thing that is either unblameable or praise-worthy. To this we may add, what has been commonly observed, that it is not difficult to be merry on the side of vice, as serious objects act the most capable of ridicule; as the party, which naturally favour such a mirth, is the most numerous; and as there are the most standing jests and patterns for imitation in this kind of writing.
In the next place: Such productions of wit and humour, as have a tendency to expose vice and folly, furnish useful diversions to all kinds of readers. The good or prudent man may, by these means, be diverted without prejudice to his discretion, or morality. Rallery, under such regulations, unbends the mind from serious studies and severer contemplations, without throwing it off from its proper bias. It carries on the same design that is promoted by Authors of a graver turn, and only does it in another manner. It also awakens reflexion in those who are the most indifferent in the cause of virtue or knowledge, by setting before them the absurdity of such practices as are generally unobserved, by reason of their being common or fashionable: Nay, it sometimes catches the dissolute and abandoned before they are aware of it: who are often betrayed to laugh at themselves, and upon reflexion find, that they are merry at their own expence. I might farther take notice, that by entertainments of this kind, a man may be chearful in solitude, and not be forced to seek for company every time he has a mind to be merry.
The last advantage I shall mention from compositions of this nature when thus restrained, is, that they shew wisdom and virtue are far from being inconsistent with politeness and good humour. They make morality appear amiable to people of gay dispositions, and refute the common objection against religion, which represents it as only fit for gloomy and melancholy tempers. It was the motto of a Bishop very eminent for his piety and good works in King Charles the Second’s reign,
In servi Deo & lætare,
‘Serve God and be chearful.’
Those therefore who supply the world with such entertainments of mirth as are instructive, or at least harmless, may be thought to deserve well of mankind; to which I shall only add, that they retrieve the honour of polite learning, and answer those sour Enthusiasts who affect to stigmatize the finest and most elegant Authors, both ancient and modern, (which they have never read) as dangerous to religion, and destructive of all sound and saving knowledge.
Our nation are such lovers of mirth and humour, that it is impossible for detached papers, which come out on stated days, either to have a general run, or long continuance, if they are not diversified and enlivened from time to time, with subjects and thoughts, accommodated to this taste, which so prevails among our countrymen. No periodical Author, who always maintains his gravity, and does not sometimes sacrifice to the Graces, must expect to keep in vogue for any considerable time. Political speculations in particular, however just and important, are of so dry and austere a nature, that they will not go down with the public without frequent seasonings of this kind. The work may be well performed, but will never take, if it is not set off with proper scenes and decorations. A mere Politician is but a dull companion, and, if he is always wise, is in great danger of being tiresome or ridiculous.
Besides, papers of entertainment are necessary to increase the number of readers, especially among those of different notions and principles; who by this means may be betrayed to give you a fair hearing, and to know what you have to say for yourself. I might likewise observe, that in all political writings there is something that grates upon the mind of the most candid reader, in opinions which are not conformable to his own way of thinking; and that the harshness of reasoning is not a little softned and smoothed by the infusions of mirth and pleasantry.
Political speculations do likewise furnish us with several objects that may very innocently be ridiculed, and which are regarded as such by men of sense in all parties; of this kind are the passions of our States-women, and the reasonings of our Fox-hunters.
A Writer who makes fame the chief end of his endeavours, and would be more desirous of pleasing than of improving his readers, might find an inexhaustible fund of mirth in politics. Scandal and satire are never-failing gratifications to the public. Detraction and obloquy are received with as much eagerness as wit and humour. Should a writer single out particular persons, or point his rallery at any order of men, who by their profession ought to be exempt from it; should he slander the innocent, or satirize the miserable; or should he, even on the proper subjects of derision, give the full play to his mirth, without regard to decency and good-manners; he might be sure of pleasing a great part of his readers, but must be a very ill man, if by such a proceeding he could please himself.
Addison, Joseph. “The free-holder no. 45.” . Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 23 Nov 2006. 12 Dec 2013 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/addison/free-holder/>.
Quotidiana site founder Patrick Madden has just published a book of his own personal essays, including pieces formerly published in the Best American Spiritual Writing and Best Creative Nonfiction anthologies. If you enjoy the classical essays on this site, you'll enjoy these contemporary ruminations as well. Soon there'll be a web page here with further information, but for now, you can find out more (and perhaps purchase a copy) at Amazon.com.
"Patrick Madden is an essayist of verve, passion, wit, and dependable moral compass. Quotidiana drew me in powerfully, from page to page and from pleasure to pleasure." —Ian Frazier
Friend of Quotidiana Kim Dana Kupperman's Welcome Table Press is hosting a one-day symposium at Fordham University on Saturday, October 15th, 2011. In Praise of the Essay: Practice & Form will feature talks and discussions by Phillip Lopate, Robin Hemley, Barbara Hurd, and more.
Changes are happening beneath the hood of Quotidiana. Sign up for our Facebook group to stay up to date on site and essay news.
What a disgrace to a city calling itself free, that inhabitants, guiltless of offence, and seeking to perform their duties conscientiously, should be condemned to live in such incessant fear, and have nowhere to turn for protection!
I doubt not but this memorable affair will, in future times, mark the period whence chronologers will date the zenith of the polite arts in this island!
Anything regular soon gets taken for granted.
Now, humor is a pleasant thing, and a good thing; but perhaps it is being a little overdone, and overdone with a touch of priggery and a touch of stupidity.
As there is ‘a soul of goodness in things evil,’ so there is a soul of humour in things dry.