No. 169,177: Good Nature [from The Spectator] by Joseph Addison

Story type: Essay

Part One.

Sic vita erat: facile omnes perferre ac pati:
Cum quibus erat cunque una, his sese dedere,
Eorum obsequi studiis: advorsus nemini;
Nunquam praeponens se aliis. Ita facillime
Sine invidia invenias laudem.–

TER., Andr., Act i. se. 1.

His manner of life was this: to bear with everybody’s humours; to comply with the inclinations and pursuits of those he conversed with; to contradict nobody; never to assume a superiority over others. This is the ready way to gain applause without exciting envy.

Man is subject to innumerable pains and sorrows by the very condition of humanity, and yet, as if Nature had not sown evils enough in life, we are continually adding grief to grief, and aggravating the common calamity by our cruel treatment of one another. Every man’s natural weight of affliction is still made more heavy by the envy, malice, treachery, or injustice of his neighbour. At the same time that the storm beats on the whole species, we are falling foul upon one another.

Half the misery of human life might be extinguished, would men alleviate the general curse they lie under, by mutual offices of compassion, benevolence, and humanity. There is nothing, therefore, which we ought more to encourage in ourselves and others, than that disposition of mind which in our language goes under the title of good nature, and which I shall choose for the subject of this day’s speculation.

Good-nature is more agreeable in conversation than wit, and gives a certain air to the countenance which is more amiable than beauty. It shows virtue in the fairest light, takes off in some measure from the deformity of vice, and makes even folly and impertinence supportable.

There is no society or conversation to be kept up in the world without good nature, or something which must bear its appearance, and supply its place. For this reason, mankind have been forced to invent a kind of artificial humanity, which is what we express by the word good-breeding. For if we examine thoroughly the idea of what we call so, we shall find it to be nothing else but an imitation and mimicry of good nature, or, in other terms, affability, complaisance, and easiness of temper, reduced into an art. These exterior shows and appearances of humanity render a man wonderfully popular and beloved, when they are founded upon a real good nature; but, without it, are like hypocrisy in religion, or a bare form of holiness, which, when it is discovered, makes a man more detestable than professed impiety.

Good-nature is generally born with us: health, prosperity, and kind treatment from the world, are great cherishers of it where they find it; but nothing is capable of forcing it up, where it does not grow of itself. It is one of the blessings of a happy constitution, which education may improve, but not produce.

Xenophon, in the life of his imaginary prince whom he describes as a pattern for real ones, is always celebrating the philanthropy and good nature of his hero, which he tells us he brought into the world with him; and gives many remarkable instances of it in his childhood, as well as in all the several parts of his life. Nay, on his death-bed, he describes him as being pleased, that while his soul returned to Him who made it, his body should incorporate with the great mother of all things, and by that means become beneficial to mankind. For which reason, he gives his sons a positive order not to enshrine it in gold or silver, but to lay it in the earth as soon as the life was gone out of it.

An instance of such an overflowing of humanity, such an exuberant love to mankind, could not have entered into the imagination of a writer who had not a soul filled with great ideas, and a general benevolence to mankind.

In that celebrated passage of Sallust, where Caesar and Cato are placed in such beautiful but opposite lights, Caesar’s character is chiefly made up of good nature, as it showed itself in all its forms towards his friends or his enemies, his servants or dependents, the guilty or the distressed. As for Cato’s character, it is rather awful than amiable. Justice seems most agreeable to the nature of God, and mercy to that of man. A Being who has nothing to pardon in Himself, may reward every man according to his works; but he whose very best actions must be seen with grains of allowance, cannot be too mild, moderate, and forgiving. For this reason, among all the monstrous characters in human nature, there is none so odious, nor indeed so exquisitely ridiculous, as that of a rigid, severe temper in a worthless man.

This part of good nature however, which consists in the pardoning and overlooking of faults, is to be exercised only in doing ourselves justice, and that too in the ordinary commerce and occurrences of life; for, in the public administrations of justice, mercy to one may be cruelty to others.

It is grown almost into a maxim, that good-natured men are not always men of the most wit. This observation, in my opinion, has no foundation in nature. The greatest wits I have conversed with are men eminent for their humanity. I take, therefore, this remark to have been occasioned by two reasons. First, because ill-nature among ordinary observers passes for wit. A spiteful saying gratifies so many little passions in those who hear it, that it generally meets with a good reception. The laugh rises upon it, and the man who utters it is looked upon as a shrewd satirist. This may be one reason why a great many pleasant companions appear so surprisingly dull when they have endeavoured to be merry in print; the public being more just than private clubs or assemblies, in distinguishing between what is wit and what is ill-nature.

Another reason why the good-natured man may sometimes bring his wit in question is perhaps because he is apt to be moved with compassion for those misfortunes or infirmities which another would turn into ridicule, and by that means gain the reputation of a wit. The ill-natured man, though but of equal parts, gives himself a larger field to expatiate in; he exposes those failings in human nature which the other would cast a veil over, laughs at vices which the other either excuses or conceals, gives utterance to reflections which the other stifles, falls indifferently upon friends or enemies, exposes the person who has obliged him, and, in short, sticks at nothing that may establish his character as a wit. It is no wonder, therefore, he succeeds in it better than the man of humanity, as a person who makes use of indirect methods is more likely to grow rich than the fair trader.

Part Two.

Quis enim bonus, aut face dignus
Arcana, qualem Cereris vult esse sacerdos,
Ulla aliena sibi credat mala?
JUV., Sat. xv. 140.

Who can all sense of others’ ills escape,
Is but a brute, at best, in human shape.

TATE.

In one of my last week’s papers, I treated of good-nature as it is the effect of constitution; I shall now speak of it as it is a moral virtue. The first may make a man easy in himself and agreeable to others, but implies no merit in him that is possessed of it. A man is no more to be praised upon this account, than because he has a regular pulse or a good digestion. This good nature, however, in the constitution, which Mr. Dryden somewhere calls “a milkiness of blood,” is an admirable groundwork for the other. In order, therefore, to try our good-nature, whether it arises from the body or the mind, whether it be founded in the animal or rational part of our nature; in a word, whether it be such as is entitled to any other reward besides that secret satisfaction and contentment of mind which is essential to it, and the kind reception it procures us in the world, we must examine it by the following rules:

First, whether it acts with steadiness and uniformity in sickness and in health, in prosperity and in adversity; if otherwise, it is to be looked upon as nothing else but an irradiation of the mind from some new supply of spirits, or a more kindly circulation of the blood. Sir Francis Bacon mentions a cunning solicitor, who would never ask a favour of a great man before dinner; but took care to prefer his petition at a time when the party petitioned had his mind free from care, and his appetites in good humour. Such a transient temporary good-nature as this, is not that philanthropy, that love of mankind, which deserves the title of a moral virtue.

The next way of a man’s bringing his good-nature to the test is to consider whether it operates according to the rules of reason and duty: for if, notwithstanding its general benevolence to mankind, it makes no distinction between its objects; if it exerts itself promiscuously towards the deserving and the undeserving; if it relieves alike the idle and the indigent; if it gives itself up to the first petitioner, and lights upon any one rather by accident than choice–it may pass for an amiable instinct, but must not assume the name of a moral virtue.

The third trial of good-nature will be the examining ourselves whether or no we are able to exert it to our own disadvantage, and employ it on proper objects, notwithstanding any little pain, want, or inconvenience, which may arise to ourselves from it: in a word, whether we are willing to risk any part of our fortune, our reputation, our health or ease, for the benefit of mankind. Among all these expressions of good nature, I shall single out that which goes under the general name of charity, as it consists in relieving the indigent: that being a trial of this kind which offers itself to us almost at all times and in every place.

I should propose it as a rule, to every one who is provided with any competency of fortune more than sufficient for the necessaries of life, to lay aside a certain portion of his income for the use of the poor. This I would look upon as an offering to Him who has a right to the whole, for the use of those whom, in the passage hereafter mentioned, He has described as His own representatives upon earth. At the same time, we should manage our charity with such prudence and caution, that we may not hurt our own friends or relations whilst we are doing good to those who are strangers to us.

This may possibly be explained better by an example than by a rule.

Eugenius is a man of a universal good nature, and generous beyond the extent of his fortune; but withal so prudent in the economy of his affairs, that what goes out in charity is made up by good management. Eugenius has what the world calls two hundred pounds a year; but never values himself above nine-score, as not thinking he has a right to the tenth part, which he always appropriates to charitable uses. To this sum he frequently makes other voluntary additions, insomuch, that in a good year–for such he accounts those in which he has been able to make greater bounties than ordinary–he has given above twice that sum to the sickly and indigent. Eugenius prescribes to himself many particular days of fasting and abstinence, in order to increase his private bank of charity, and sets aside what would be the current expenses of those times for the use of the poor. He often goes afoot where his business calls him, and at the end of his walk has given a shilling, which in his ordinary methods of expense would have gone for coach-hire, to the first necessitous person that has fallen in his way. I have known him, when he has been going to a play or an opera, divert the money which was designed for that purpose upon an object of charity whom he has met with in the street; and afterwards pass his evening in a coffee-house, or at a friend’s fireside, with much greater satisfaction to himself than he could have received from the most exquisite entertainments of the theatre. By these means he is generous without impoverishing himself, and enjoys his estate by making it the property of others.

There are few men so cramped in their private affairs, who may not be charitable after this manner, without any disadvantage to themselves, or prejudice to their families. It is but sometimes sacrificing a diversion or convenience to the poor, and turning the usual course of our expenses into a better channel. This is, I think, not only the most prudent and convenient, but the most meritorious piece of charity which we can put in practice. By this method, we in some measure share the necessities of the poor at the same time that we relieve them, and make ourselves not only their patrons, but their fellow-sufferers.

Sir Thomas Brown, in the last part of his “Religio Medici,” in which he describes his charity in several heroic instances, and with a noble heat of sentiments, mentions that verse in the Proverbs of Solomon: “He that giveth to the poor lendeth to the Lord.” There is more rhetoric in that one sentence, says he, than in a library of sermons; and indeed, if those sentences were understood by the reader with the same emphasis as they are delivered by the author, we needed not those volumes of instructions, but might be honest by an epitome.

This passage of Scripture is, indeed, wonderfully persuasive; but I think the same thought is carried much further in the New Testament, where our Saviour tells us, in a most pathetic manner, that he shall hereafter regard the clothing of the naked, the feeding of the hungry, and the visiting of the imprisoned, as offices done to Himself, and reward them accordingly. Pursuant to those passages in Holy Scripture, I have somewhere met with the epitaph of a charitable man, which has very much pleased me. I cannot recollect the words, but the sense of it is to this purpose: What I spent I lost; what I possessed is left to others; what I gave away remains with me.

Since I am thus insensibly engaged in Sacred Writ, I cannot forbear making an extract of several passages which I have always read with great delight in the book of Job. It is the account which that holy man gives of his behaviour in the days of his prosperity; and, if considered only as a human composition, is a finer picture of a charitable and good-natured man than is to be met with in any other author.

“Oh that I were as in months past, as in the days when God preserved me: When his candle shined upon my head, and when by his light I walked through darkness: When the Almighty was yet with me; when my children were about me: When I washed my steps with butter, and the rock poured me out rivers of oil.

“When the ear heard me, then it blessed me; and when the eye saw me, it gave witness to me. Because I delivered the poor that cried, and the fatherless, and him that had none to help him. The blessing of him that was ready to perish came upon me, and I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy. I was eyes to the blind; and feet was I to the lame; I was a father to the poor, and the cause which I knew not I searched out. Did not I weep for him that was in trouble? Was not my soul grieved for the poor? Let me be weighed in an even balance, that God may know mine integrity. If I did despise the cause of my man-servant or of my maid- servant when they contended with me: What then shall I do when God riseth up? and when he visiteth, what shall I answer him? Did not he that made me in the womb, make him? and did not one fashion us in the womb? If I have withheld the poor from their desire, or have caused the eyes of the widow to fail; Or have eaten my morsel myself alone, and the fatherless hath not eaten thereof; If I have seen any perish for want of clothing, or any poor without covering; If his loins have not blessed me, and if he were not warmed with the fleece of my sheep; If I have lifted my hand against the fatherless, when I saw my help in the gate: Then let mine arm fall from my shoulder-blade, and mine arm be broken from the bone. If I [have] rejoiced at the destruction of him that hated me, or lifted up myself when evil found him: Neither have I suffered my mouth to sin, by wishing a curse to his soul. The stranger did not lodge in the street; but I opened my doors to the traveller. If my land cry against me, or that the furrows likewise thereof complain: If I have eaten the fruits thereof without money, or have caused the owners thereof to lose their life: Let thistles grow instead of wheat, and cockle instead of barley.”