A low voice and soft address are the common indications of a well-bred woman, and should seem to be the natural effects of a meek and quiet spirit; but they are only the outward and visible signs of it: for they are no more meekness itself, than a red coat is courage, or a black one devotion.
Yet nothing is more common than to mistake the sign for the thing itself; nor is any practice more frequent than that of endeavouring to acquire the exterior mark, without once thinking to labour after the interior grace. Surely this is beginning at the wrong end, like attacking the symptom and neglecting the disease. To regulate the features, while the soul is in tumults, or to command the voice while the passions are without restraint, is as idle as throwing odours into a stream when the source is polluted.
The sapient king, who knew better than any man the nature and the power of beauty, has assured us, that the temper of the mind has a strong influence upon the features: “Wisdom maketh the face to shine,” says that exquisite judge; and surely no part of wisdom is more likely to produce this amiable effect, than a placid serenity of soul.
It will not be difficult to distinguish the true from the artificial meekness. The former is universal and habitual, the latter, local and temporary. Every young female may keep this rule by her, to enable her to form a just judgment of her own temper: if she is not as gentle to her chambermaid as she is to her visitor, she may rest satisfied that the spirit of gentleness is not in her.
Who would not be shocked and disappointed to behold a well-bred young lady, soft and engaging as the doves of Venus, displaying a thousand graces and attractions to win the hearts of a large company, and the instant they are gone, to see her look mad as the Pythian maid, and all the frightened graces driven from her furious countenance, only because her gown was brought home a quarter of an hour later than she expected, or her ribbon sent half a shade lighter or darker than she ordered?
All men’s characters are said to proceed from their servants; and this is more particularly true of ladies: for as their situations are more domestic, they lie more open to the inspection of their families, to whom their real characters are easily and perfectly known; for they seldom think it worth while to practise any disguise before those, whose good opinion they do not value, and who are obliged to submit to their most insupportable humours, because they are paid for it.
Amongst women of breeding, the exterior of gentleness is so uniformly assumed, and the whole manner is so perfectly level and uni, that it is next to impossible for a stranger to know any thing of their true dispositions by conversing with them, and even the very features are so exactly regulated, that physiognomy, which may sometimes be trusted among the vulgar, is, with the polite, a most lying science.
A very termagant woman, if she happens also to be a very artful one, will be conscious she has so much to conceal, that the dread of betraying her real temper will make her put on an over-acted softness, which, from its very excess, may be distinguished from the natural, by a penetrating eye. That gentleness is ever liable to be suspected for the counterfeited, which is so excessive as to deprive people of the proper use of speech and motion, or which, as Hamlet says, makes them lisp and amble, and nick-name God’s creatures.
The countenance and manners of some very fashionable persons may be compared to the inscriptions on their monuments, which speak nothing but good of what is within; but he who knows any thing of the world, or of the human heart, will no more trust to the courtesy, than he will depend on the epitaph.
Among the various artifices of factitious meekness, one of the most frequent and most plausible, is that of affecting to be always equally delighted with all persons and all characters. The society of these languid beings is without confidence, their friendship without attachment, and their love without affection, or even preference. This insipid mode of conduct may be safe, but I cannot think it has either taste, sense, or principle in it.
These uniformly smiling and approving ladies, who have neither the noble courage to reprehend vice, nor the generous warmth to bear their honest testimony in the cause of virtue, conclude every one to be ill-natured who has any penetration, and look upon a distinguishing judgment as want of tenderness. But they should learn, that this discernment does not always proceed from an uncharitable temper, but from that long experience and thorough knowledge of the world, which lead those who have it to scrutinize into the conduct and disposition of men, before they trust entirely to those fair appearances, which sometimes veil the most insidious purposes.
We are perpetually mistaking the qualities and dispositions of our own hearts. We elevate our failings into virtues, and qualify our vices into weaknesses: and hence arise so many false judgments respecting meekness. Self-ignorance is at the root of all this mischief. Many ladies complain that, for their part, their spirit is so meek they can bear nothing; whereas, if they spoke truth, they would say, their spirit is so high and unbroken that they can bear nothing. Strange! to plead their meekness as a reason why they cannot endure to be crossed, and to produce their impatience of contradiction as a proof of their gentleness!
Meekness, like most other virtues, has certain limits, which it no sooner exceeds than it becomes criminal. Servility of spirit is not gentleness but weakness, and if allowed, under the specious appearances it sometimes puts on, will lead to the most dangerous compliances. She who hears innocence maligned without vindicating it, falsehood asserted without contradicting it, or religion prophaned without resenting it, is not gentle but wicked.
To give up the cause of an innocent, injured friend, if the popular cry happens to be against him, is the most disgraceful weakness. This was the case of Madame de Maintenon. She loved the character and admired the talents of Racine; she caressed him while he had no enemies, but wanted the greatness of mind, or rather the common justice, to protect him against their resentment when he had; and her favourite was abandoned to the suspicious jealousy of the king, when a prudent remonstrance might have preserved him.—But her tameness, if not absolute connivance in the great massacre of the protestants, in whose church she had been bred, is a far more guilty instance of her weakness; an instance which, in spite of all her devotional zeal and incomparable prudence, will disqualify her from shining in the annals of good women, however she may be entitled to figure among the great and the fortunate. Compare her conduct with that of her undaunted and pious countryman and contemporary, Bougi, who, when Louis would have prevailed on him to renounce his religion for a commission or a government, nobly replied, “If I could be persuaded to betray my God for a marshal’s staff, I might betray my king for a bribe of much less consequence.”
Meekness is imperfect, if it be not both active and passive; if it will not enable us to subdue our own passions and resentments, as well as qualify us to bear patiently the passions and resentments of others.
Before we give way to any violent emotion of anger, it would perhaps be worth while to consider the value of the object which excites it, and to reflect for a moment, whether the thing we so ardently desire, or so vehemently resent, be really of as much importance to us, as that delightful tranquillity of soul, which we renounce in pursuit of it. If, on a fair calculation, we find we are not likely to get as much as we are sure to lose, then, putting all religious considerations out of the question, common sense and human policy will tell us, we have made a foolish and unprofitable exchange. Inward quiet is a part of one’s self; the object of our resentment may be only a matter of opinion; and, certainly, what makes a portion of our actual happiness ought to be too dear to us, to be sacrificed for a trifling, foreign, perhaps imaginary good.
The most pointed satire I remember to have read, on a mind enslaved by anger, is an observation of Seneca’s. “Alexander (said he) had two friends, Clitus and Lysimachus; the one he exposed to a lion, the other to himself: he who was turned loose to the beast escaped, but Clitus was murdered, for he was turned loose to an angry man.”
A passionate woman’s happiness is never in her own keeping: it is the sport of accident, and the slave of events. It is in the power of her acquaintance, her servants, but chiefly of her enemies, and all her comforts lie at the mercy of others. So far from being willing to learn of him who was meek and lowly, she considers meekness as the want of a becoming spirit, and lowliness as a despicable and vulgar meanness. And an imperious woman will so little covet the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, that it is almost the only ornament she will not be solicitous to wear. But resentment is a very expensive vice. How dearly has it cost its votaries, even from the sin of Cain, the first offender in this kind! “It is cheaper (says a pious writer) to forgive, and save the charges.”
If it were only for mere human reasons, it would turn to a better account to be patient; nothing defeats the malice of an enemy like a spirit of forbearance; the return of rage for rage cannot be so effectually provoking. True gentleness, like an impenetrable armour, repels the most pointed shafts of malice: they cannot pierce through this invulnerable shield, but either fall hurtless to the ground, or return to wound the hand that shot them.
A meek spirit will not look out of itself for happiness, because it finds a constant banquet at home; yet, by a sort of divine alchymy, it will convert all external events to its own profit, and be able to deduce some good, even from the most unpromising: it will extract comfort and satisfaction from the most barren circumstances: “It will suck honey out of the rock, and oil out of the flinty rock.”
But the supreme excellence of this complacent quality is, that it naturally disposes the mind where it resides, to the practice of every other that is amiable. Meekness may be called the pioneer of all the other virtues, which levels every obstruction, and smooths every difficulty that might impede their entrance, or retard their progress.
The peculiar importance and value of this amiable virtue may be farther seen in its permanency. Honours and dignities are transient, beauty and riches frail and fugacious, to a proverb. Would not the truly wise, therefore, wish to have some one possession, which they might call their own in the severest exigencies? But this wish can only be accomplished by acquiring and maintaining that calm and absolute self-possession, which, as the world had no hand in giving, so it cannot, by the most malicious exertion of its power, take away.
More, Hannah. “On true and false meekness.” 1777. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 14 Feb 2007. 25 Apr 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/more/true_and_false_meekness/>.
It may amuse the reader to see the way in which I work out some of my conclusions underground, before throwing them up on the surface.
So it seems that the soul, being transported and discomposed, turns its violence upon itself, if not supplied with something to oppose it, and therefore always requires an object at which to aim, and whereon to act.
So far from the position holding true, that great wit (or genius, in our modern way of speaking), has a necessary alliance with insanity, the greatest wits, on the contrary, will ever be found to be the sanest writers.
There be so many false points of praise, that a man may justly hold it a suspect.
Systems and opinions change, but nature is always true.