William Temple

Heads designed for an essay on conversations

Men naturally or generally seek it with others, and avoid it with themselves.

Both are necessary, one gives the stock, the other improves it: one, without the other, unrefined.

Ability is drawn out into use by occasions and accidents.

Paulum sepultae distat inertiae
Celata virtus.

Sometimes, in one age, great men are without great occasions; in another, great occasions without great men; and in both, one lost for want of the other.

No man willingly lives without some conversation: delicacy and distinction make men called solitary; those that do upon vows or choice, in danger of some degrees of frenzy, the mind, like the stomach, when empty preying upon itself.

Scipio, of all active and great men the most contemplative, yet open to Lælius and other private friends.

Women and children, some sort of fools and madmen, the greatest talkers.

Order, the effect of thought, and cause of all good productions.

Men talk without thinking, and think without talking.

Silence in company (if not dulness or modesty) is observation or discretion.

To play or wrestle well should be used with those that do it better than you.

A man among children, long a child: a child among men, soon a man.

Nothing keeps a man from being rich, like thinking he has enough; nothing from knowledge and wisdom, like thinking he has both.

Nothing so unreasonable or insufferable in common conversation, as sufficiency.

Measuring all reason by our own, the commonest and greatest weakness; is an encroachment upon the common right of mankind.

Neither general rules, nor general practice, to be found further than notion.

Taste in conversation, from love or friendship, esteem or interest, pleasantness or amusement: the two first engage the first part of our lives; the two second, the middle; and the last the latter end.

Something like home that is not home, like alone that is not alone, to be wished, and only found in a friend, or in his house.

Men that do not think of the present, will be thinking of the past or future: therefore business or conversation is necessary to fix their thoughts on the present. In the rest, seldom satisfaction, often discontent and trouble, unless to very sanguine humours.

The same in general speculations: witness Solomon and Antoninus; for whose thoughts are not lost in the immensity of matter, the infinity of forms, the variety of productions, and continual vicissitude or change of one to the other.

In conversation, humour is more than wit, easiness more than knowledge; few desire to learn, or think they need it; all desire to be pleased, or, if not, to be easy.

A fool may say many wise things, a wise man no foolish ones: good sense runs throughout.

Mr. Grantam’s fool’s reply to a great man that asked whose fool he was? “I am Mr. Grantam’s fool: pray whose fool are you?”

Of all passions, none so soon and so often turns the brain as pride.

Sudden replies esteemed the best and pleasantest veins of wit; not always so of good sense.

A little vein of folly or whim, pleasant in conversation; because it gives a liberty of saying things, that discreet men, though they will not say, are willing to hear.

The first ingredient in conversation is truth, the next good sense, the third good humour, and the fourth wit.

This last was formerly left to fools and buffoons kept in all great families.

Henry IV of France, and King James I. of England, first gave repute to that sort of wit; increased by King Charles II.

In King Charles the First’s time, all wit, love, and honour, heightened by the wits of that time into romance.

Lord Goreign took the contrepied, and turned all into ridicule.

He was followed by the Duke of Buckingham, and that vein favoured by King Charles II brought it in vogue.

Truth is allowed the most esteemable quality: the lie is the greatest reproach; therefore allowed formerly a just occasion of combat by law, and since that time, by honour, in private duels.

Good breeding as necessary a quality in conversation to accomplish all the rest, as grace in motion and dancing

It is harder, in that, to dance a corrant well than a jig: so in conversation, even, easy, and agreeable, more than points of wit; which, unless very naturally they fall in of themselves, and not too often, are disliked in good company; because they pretend to more than the rest, and turn conversation from good sense to wit, from pleasant to ridicule, which are the meaner parts.

To make others wit appear more than one’s own, a good rule in conversation: a necessary one, to let others take notice of your wit, and never do it yourself.

Flattery, like poison, requires of all others the finest infusion.

Of all things the most nauseous, the most shocking and hardest to bear.

King James I used to say, “Nay, by my soul, that is too hard.”

Pride and roughness may turn one’s humour, but flattery turns one’s stomach.

Both extremes to be avoided: if we must lean one way, better to bluntness and coldness, which is most natural, than to flattery, which is artificial.

This is learned in the slavery of Courts, or ill fortune; the other in the freedom of the country and a fortune one is content with.

Nothing so nauseous as undistinguished civility; it is like a whore, or an hostess, who looks kindly upon every body that comes in.

It is fit only for such persons of quality as have no other way to draw company, and draws only such as are not welcome any where else.

Court conversation, without love or business, of all the other the most tasteless.

A Court, properly a fair, the end of it trade and gain: for none would come to be justled in a crowd, that is easy at home, nor go to service, that thinks he has enough to live well of himself.

Those that come to either for entertainment, are the dupes of the traders, or, at least, the raillery.

All the skill of a Court is to follow the Prince’s present humour, talk the present language, serve the present turn, and make use of the present interest of one’s friends.

Bluntness and plainness in a Court, the most refined breeding.

Like something in a dress that looks neglected, and yet is very exact.

When I consider how many noble and esteemable men, how many lovely and agreeable women, I have outlived among my acquaintance and friends, methinks it looks impertinent to be still alive.

Changes in veins of wit, like those of habits, or other modes.

Upon King Charles the Second’s return, none more out of fashion among the new courtiers than the old Earl of Norwich, that was esteemed the greatest wit in his father’s time, among the old.

Our thoughts are expressed by speech, our passions and motions as well without it.

Telling our griefs lessens them, and doubles our joys.

To hate company unnatural, or to be always silent in it.

Sociable, a quality ascribed to mankind.

Yet hatred, or distaste, brought Timon to live alone, and the shipwrecked men in an island of the Indies.

It is very different to live in little company, or in none.

Proper for age to retire, as for youth to produce itself in the world.

One shews merit, or the hopes that they may one day have it; the other has none, they never can.

Proper for one to shew excellencies in any kind; for the other to hide their defaults.

It is not to live, to be hid all one’s life; but, if one has been abroad all day, one may be allowed to go home upon any great change of weather or company.

Nothing so useful as well chosen conversation, or so pernicious as ill.

There may be too much as well as too little.

Solitude damps thought and wit; too much company dissipates and hinders it from fixing.

In retreat a man feels more how life passes; if he likes it, is the happier; if he dislikes it, the more miserable, and ought to change for company, business, or entertainments, which keep a man from his own thoughts and reflections.

Study gives strength to the mind; conversation, grace: the first apt to give stiffness, the other suppleness: one gives substance and form to the statue, the other polishes it.

The great happiness is to have a friend to observe and tell one of one’s faults, whom one has reason to esteem, and is apt to believe.

The great miscarriages of life come from the want of a good pilot, or from a sufficiency to follow one’s own course or humour.

Sometimes out of pride to contradict others, or shew one needs no instruction.

Do nothing to lose common reputation, which is the best possession of life, especially that of honour and truth.

Roughness or authority in giving counsel, easiness to receive all, or obstinacy to receive none, equally to be avoided.

Too much delicacy in one or the other, of ill effect.

Mark what makes other men esteemed, and imitate; what disesteemed, and avoid it.

Many very learned and able, without being agreeable; more the contrary.

Company to be avoided, that are good for nothing; to be sought and frequented, that excel in some quality or other.

Of all excellencies that make conversation, good sense and good nature the most necessary, humour the pleasantest.

To submit blindly to none, to preserve the liberty of one’s own reason, to dispute for instruction, not victory, and yield to reason as soon as it appears to us, from whence soever it comes.

This is to be found in all conditions and degrees of men, in a farmer or miller sometimes, as well as a lawyer or divine, among the learned and the great; though their reputation or manner often imposes on us.

The best rules to form a young man: to talk little, to hear much, to reflect alone upon what has passed in company, to distrust one’s own opinions, and value others that deserve it.

The chief ingredients into the composition of those qualities that gain esteem and praise, are good nature, truth, good sense, and good breeding.

Good nature is seen in a disposition to say and do what one thinks will please or profit others.

Good breeding in doing nothing one thinks will either hurt or displease them.

Good nature and good sense come from our births or tempers: good breeding and truth, chiefly by education and converse with men. Yet truth seems much in one’s blood, and is gained too by good sense and reflection; that nothing is a greater possession, nor of more advantage to those that have it, as well as those that deal with it.

Offensive and undistinguished raillery comes from ill nature, and desire of harm to others, though without good to one’s self; or vanity and a desire of valuing ourselves, by shewing others faults and follies, and the comparison with ourselves, as free from them.

This vein in the world was originally railing; but, because that would not pass without return of blows, men of more wit than courage brought in this refinement, more dangerous to others, and less to themselves.

Charles Brandon’s motto at a tournament, upon his marriage with the Queen; the trappings of his horse being half cloth of gold, and the other half frize:

Cloth of gold, do not despise,
Though thou art match’d with cloth of frize.
Cloth of frize, be not too bold,
Though thou art match’d with cloth of gold.


MLA Citation

Temple, William. “Heads designed for an essay on conversations.” 1699. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 5 Oct 2007. 22 Feb 2024 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/temple/heads_for_conversation/>.

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