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A Minute Philosopher Post by :veynz Category :Essays Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :November 2011 Read :3264

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A Minute Philosopher

At Lord Falkland's court of intellect at Great Tew,--that delightful manor thrown open like a perpetual salon to worthy visitors, where Oxford scholars would arrive, order their bedroom, give notice of their intention to be present at dinner, and betake themselves to the library to read or talk,--there was at one time a constant and an honoured guest.

This was a certain Fellow of Merton, by name John Earles,(A) some ten years older than his host, and so devoted to his lordship that, as he himself tells us, he gave all the time that he could make his own to cultivating his society. And at first this was a good deal, for Earles was not a busy man; besides his Fellowship at Merton, he was merely chaplain to Lord Pembroke, and vicar of a distant Wiltshire parish to which he paid but few visits. Between him and Lord Falkland there was a kind of intellectual bargain; they read Greek together, and John said that he learnt more than he taught, and that he was amply repaid for his exertion by the fresh, lively light which that sympathetic mind cast upon the great variety of subjects which passed under review in that high argumentative atmosphere.

(A) (The name seems to have been spelt quite indifferently, Earl, Earle, or Earles. John Earles' father was Registrar of the Archbishop's Court at York; John Earles seems to have matriculated at Christ Church, on June 4, 1619. But, according to Wood's Fasti, he took his B.A. degree on July 8, 1619, at Merton, and obtained a Fellowship there in the same year.)

John was known to his friends as a singularly sweet-tempered, amiable man, one who could count no enemies--with the faults of a scholar, it is true, his hair tangled, his canonical coat dusty, slovenly and negligent in his habits; a bad man of business, and a forgetful, absent-minded fellow. But they condoned these faults as being so unconscious, the externals of a character which could afford to dispense with social ornament; the habit of a dreamy yet active mind, so bent upon reverie and so strenuous in thought, that it could not bear to waste time and trouble upon things that were undeniably unimportant. Genuine absent-mindedness has a great charm for thoughtful men; when it is the index of deliberate abstraction, they are apt to look upon it almost enviously, as the sign of a high aloofness from ordinary sublunary anxieties, an aloofness which they are themselves unable to command.

John was in the habit of thinking a great deal about his fellow-men; he was not philosophising nor calculating nor recording in those ruminating periods. He had keen eyes, this untidy, peering scholar, and when others talked he listened. He examined their features curiously; he dwelt with inward delight upon their instinctive gestures--the tones of their voices, the twinkling of their brows, the twitching of their hands; he did not brood and generalise; his taste was for the special, the particular, the individual, the characteristic. And every now and then, when pen and paper lay in his way, he would scribble off a rough sketch, as an artist jots down heads and limbs, towers and copses on his blotting-paper, a mental caricature of one of the strange fellows that he was for ever encountering in the world. Written on loose sheets, sometimes lying in his desk, sometimes left on the table, sometimes dropped over a friend's shoulder, he set no store on these fragments; he did not hand them round with affected carelessness, and come down with his candlestick to search for them when all the world was upstairs. He had no idea of rushing into print, no ambition connected with the publisher. The figure with all its oddities had risen in his mind, and he had the whim to describe it. Done for the moment, he had but a momentary interest in it; and, like the Sibyl, he saw the wind whirl the leaves about, without regard to the precious characters they bore.

Once or twice the humour took him to sketch himself, to outline such lineaments of his own as he had seen reflected in the looks and welcomes of his friends; to recall for his own amusement a humorous situation or two over which he had often made secret merriment. In words too intimate not to be autobiographical he had written of the downright scholar, whose "perplexitye of mannerliness will not let him feed, and he is sharp set at an argument when he should cut his meate." With a twinkling eye, thinking of the stable-gate at Tew and the big horse-block, he says how such an one "ascends a horse somewhat sinisterly, though not on the left side, and they both goe jogging in grief together;" he tells how he "cannot speak to a Dogge in his own dialect, and understands Greeke better than the language of a Falconer."

But like the squire who excuses trespassing and yet draws the line at poaching, he had suddenly to show his hand. To have his witty distinctions quoted, to see them go to form another's stock-in-trade--that he could put up with; it was merely another grotesque turn among the oddities of humanity that he was never tired of observing. But when, without his leave, those fly-sheets, those scrawls and sketches on which he had set so little store, suddenly appeared in print, garnered by some careful hand, then he flung himself into the world with a kind of challenge. Like Virgil he dared them to finish what they had professed to begin, and for himself he proceeded to finish what some one else had begun for him.

He did not set his name to the book, but allowed the world to know who was the author. It was published in 1628 by Edward Blount, stationer and translator, with a preface signed by the latter, but almost certainly inspired by Earles himself, in which he professes to bring forth to the light, as it were, infants which the father would have smothered; but the preface is so void of partiality, it makes so little attempt to compliment the book, or to insist, as even the most judicial friend would have done, on the merits of the work, that it is evidently by the hand of the author--and the author is no less evidently a modest man.

Authors have only been able to wake and find themselves famous since the days of improved communication; yet John Earles found himself famous as soon as the little ripple of delight could permeate to the outskirts of society. The book was so new and bright, the humour was so penetrating and yet so kind, and it was above all so innocent in its wisdom, that the reading world seized upon it with delight.

This fame resulting from so slender and nugatory a performance was a strange surprise to Earles, and had he not been a man who was apt all through his life to be surprised at his own successes, it might have turned his brain; but he broke off and wrote no more, at least in that manner. In five years the book ran through eight editions; and with the exception of adding a score of pieces to one of the editions--pieces which at his friends' earnest solicitation he gathered out of accumulated papers--he wrote nothing else in that kind. Nay, he was so austere, that he had suppressed many sheets in the first edition, because there was a dash of coarseness which had somehow invaded their fibre.

He rose quickly in the world after this, and no one envied him or would have detracted from him; he bore his greatness so quietly and salted it so well with gratitude that it never was anything but pure and fragrant.

The Earl of Pembroke was Lord Chamberlain, and took his chaplain to Court, where he conciliated so many, and showed himself of such even and gracious temper, and possessed of so genial an authority, that when Dr. Duppa was made Bishop of Sarum, John Earles stepped quickly into the post of tutor to the Prince of Wales, afterwards that most gracious monarch, Charles II.

When kings were kings, Arsenius was something of a potentate. A prince's tutor might without absurdity reflect that he held a high and solemn charge. The education of any human being is that; and the education of one born to rank and greatness will always be a serious undertaking, just because he is capable of being such a power in the world, and of influencing so large a number of people; but the education of a king had something national about it, and a tutor who could really affect such a pupil's character might hope to react upon a large section of the community.

Charles II. was undeniably a clever man, and made the most of a very difficult position. He was not a high-minded man in any sense of the word, and he was hopelessly, irretrievably frivolous. If he had been ambitious or serious, terrible complications might have ensued; he would either have fretted himself into madness, or the country into civil war. Fortunately he did neither, but stood in a spectatorial attitude, watching the world through wicked, humorous eyes, living a low kind of life among lazy friends, and sauntering through difficulties which would have wrecked an earnest man. A character like this is sure to have appreciated such a tutor, but Charles was probably far too cold and careless for Earles to have deeply influenced him. Charles II. must have been a hopeless case from the beginning. A clever man in a very great position, without a touch of generosity or affection in his nature, is for the educational experimentalist an impossible pupil; but though we cannot trace any good strain in Charles to the effect of Earles' influence, yet it was something to have conciliated such a prince's liking and to retain his esteem.

John had been made Chancellor of Sarum Church, and had just taken possession of one of those sweet gabled and mullioned houses of grey stone, where gardens run down to the placid, clear chalk-stream, wandering through its water-meadows,--when the troubles began. A man such as John had never a doubt as to his policy: he had no sort of sympathy with the Puritans; their total lack of humour and delicacy disgusted him as much as anything human could disgust him; and he was not a man who clung with any hankering to houses and lands. He threw up all his appointments and went across the sea to his master; and at one time or another gave him in instalments all the scanty fortune he had put aside.

He lived to be rewarded; no one was so eminently in his master's eye. At the Restoration he was made Dean of Westminster, then Bishop of Worcester, and then, on the death of Bishop Henchman, Duppa's successor, in 1663, he went back to Sarum as its Bishop; and he remained through it all the most simple-minded ecclesiastic that ever sat upon a throne. An easy task enough nowadays, when priests move among statesmen as a lamb moves among wolves,--so far as worldly prospects are concerned. If a Body has to face the possibility of disendowment within a few decades, that anticipation will preserve humility under worldly trappings, like the skull-beaker at Norwegian feasts; but in those days, when a bishop was in reality a petty prince, when he and his brethren made up nearly a third of the House of Peers, when their title to Church revenues was held (as it was in the first flush of the Restoration) as safer than many a country gentleman's, and as rather more sacred than the king's,--a courtier and a scholar, clad in pomp, dignified by secular observance and sanctified by heavenly authority, may be excused if he is a little elated by the flush of dignity; and to be gentle and natural and simple-minded under such an accession of respect signifies an unfailing plenitude of humility's saving spring.

Perhaps ill-health may have contributed a little to this balance and sanity of mind; it is a wonderful tonic in the midst of riotous prosperity. At any rate the Bishop died of a very painful disease which had long troubled him, in the sixty-fifth year of his age; he died at his own dear Oxford, and was buried in the chapel of his college, where he had first practised the piety that made his life so wholesome all along. A quaint and pompous epitaph there describes him as "Angel of the Church of Worcester, afterwards Angel of the Church of Sarum, and now Angel of the Church Triumphant. (Ecclesiæ Angelus Vigornensis, postmodo Sarisburiensis, jam Triumphantis.)"

At Salisbury, in the Palace, there is no portrait of him, but there is one at Westminster; and in a Wiltshire farmhouse, not far from Sarum, there are portraits, rude and ill-drawn, of himself and his wife. This lady is buried in a little churchyard, Stratford-sub-Castle, that lies below the huge embanked mound of Old Sarum, overshadowed by a pleasant avenue of limes. It was still rather an unpopular thing for a bishop to marry. Hardly more than half a century before, Abbot, a predecessor of Earles at Sarum, had been soundly scolded and threatened by his actual as well as spiritual brother, the Primate for marrying when in Episcopal Orders. Earles was not so severely handled: we hear little of the marriage, except that he was happy in it. His wife lived and died unnoticed: in those days bishops' wives were made even less of than they are now. He himself took no prominent place; it is probable that he was unconsciously drawn into the tide of practical affairs. At any rate for some reason he left next to nothing behind him besides the little book aforesaid; he wrote a few epitaphs and dedications, translated the Icon Basilike into Latin, and had nearly finished translating Hooker's Polity into the same language, when he died. The latter was lost through the carelessness of servants, who threw it into a waste-paper bin, and used it to wrap up butter and cheese. And perhaps one may be excused for saying that it was not a very inappropriate ending for it; why a man of brisk and original mind should ever have engaged in this dismal hack-work is the real problem. His contemporaries echo the loss with a howl of dismay that could hardly have been greater had Hooker's original manuscript itself been lost. Perhaps the Bishop wished to correct the impression he had created by his earlier book,--as Maurice used to buy up copies of Eustace Conway,--and so engaged in a graver and more appropriate work; he could hardly have selected one which could have been at once so decorous and so dull. Anyhow, the destruction of this document will be received by the modern student with, to say the least, equanimity.

We may now turn to a closer study of the book by which he still deserves to be well known, The Microcosmography, or, to give a free rendering, "Jottings from the Note-book of a Minute Philosopher."

This kind of writing was a favourite with the age; men were beginning to turn from the solemn impersonalities of chivalry and from the restricted limitations of the drama, to a more minute analysis of character, to a spectatorial interest in the more unpleasing types of which humanity affords such numerous instances. It was the foreshadowing of the modern novel; but it remained of course a somewhat elementary form of delineation of character. Its elementariness consists in the fact that the characters are labelled and classified: there can be no mistake about the effects intended to be produced, and the success of such work must depend upon the humour, the verisimilitude, the liveliness of the portraiture. There is consequently a great want of that complexity which is at once the delight and the despair of the draughtsman of human character, and such sketches are therefore as inferior to fine creations of character, as studies of expression like Le Brun's, where the whole skill of the artist is directed to the production of a single effect, are inferior to a noble portrait.

The aim of the Microcosmographist is to add touch after touch, every one of which shall indicate in different phases, from different points of view, the same actual characteristic; just as the physiognomist in imaginary portraits endeavours to make eyes, ears, mouth and brow all bear the same stamp, and illustrate the same expression. It is a concentration of effects as opposed to a combination of causes. Theophrastus, of course, and Aristotle are the fathers of the art; besides Earles, Hall and Overbury are the best of the English School.

What will at once strike the reader is the exceedingly miscellaneous and at the same time humorous nature of the contents. Under the general designation of character we have "A Childe, a meere dull Physitian, an Alderman, a younger Brother, a Tavern, an old College Butler, a Pot-poet, a Baker, The Common Singing Man, a Bowle-alley, a She-precise Hypocrite, a Trumpeter, a meere Complemental man, Paul's Walk, a Stayed Man," &c.; still the character-sketches formed by far the most considerable parts of these.

As instances of Earles' humour take the following extract:

"The Antiquary.--Hee will go you forty miles to see a Saint's well, or ruined Abbey; and if there be but a Crosse or a stone footstool in the way, hee'll be considering it so long till he forget his journey.... His very attire is that which is the eldest out of fashion, and you may pick a criticism out of his Breeches. He never looks upon himself till he is grey-haired, and then he is pleased at his own antiquity. His grave does not fright him, because he has been us'd to sepulchers, and he likes Death the better, because it gathers him to his fathers."

Or the following, from "A Plaine Country-Fellow":

"He seems to have the judgment of Nebuchadnezar; for his conversation is among beasts, and his tallons none of the shortest, only he eats not grasse, because he loves not Sallets (salads). He expostulates with his Oxen very understandingly, and speaks Gee and Ree better than English. His mind is not much distracted with objects, but if a good Fat Cow come in his way, he stands dumb and astonisht, and though his haste be never so greate, will fix here half an houre's contemplation."

Or this, from "A Universitie Dunne":

"He is like a rejected acquaintance, hunts those that care not for his company, and he knows it well enough; yet he will not away. The sole place to supply him is the Buttery, where he takes grievous use upon your name, and he is one much wrought upon with good Beere and Rhetorick."

This may illustrate Earles' penetration and sagacity of observation:

"A Suspicious Man.--It shall goe hard but you must abuse him whether you will or no. Not a word can be spoke but nips him somewhere.... You shall have him go fretting out of company with some twenty quarrels to every man, stung and gall'd, and no man knows less the occasion than they that have given it."

Or this, from "The Blunt Man":

"He is exceedingly in love with his Humour, which makes him always profess and proclaim it; and you must take what he says patiently, because he is a plaine man; his nature is his excuse still, and other men's Tyrant, for he must speake his mind, and that is his worst, though he love to teach others he is teaching himself."

"The Scepticke in Religion," a habit of mind with which Earles had little sympathy, is well drawn:

"The Fathers jostle him from one side to the other; now Sosinas and Vorstius afresh torture him, and he agrees with none worse than himself. He puts his foot into Heresies tenderly, as a cat in the water, and pulls it out again, and still something unanswered delays him; yet he bears away some parcell of each, and you may sooner pick all Religions out of him than one. He cannot think so many wise men can be in error, nor so many honest men out of the way, and his wonder is doubled when he sees these oppose one another. In summer his whole life is a question and his salvation a greater, which death only concludes, and then he is resolved."

But there is, beside these sharp stinging sentences, a lovely vein of gentle tenderness in his writing. "A Childe," which opens the series, is one of the most exquisite and feeling delineations in literature:

"His father has writ him as his own little story, wherein he reads those days of his life that he cannot remember; and sighs to see what innocence he has outlived. The elder he grows he is a stair lower from God, and like his first parent much worse in his breeches. Could he put off his body with his little coat, he had got eternity without a burthen, and exchanged one heaven for another."

But it would be easy to quote and quote, yet give no real idea of the fertility, the wit, the pathos of the man. All humanity is before him, and must be handled tenderly because he is a part of it himself, and because faults, like ugly features, are sent us to be modified, perhaps; to be eradicated, no!

The one strain in character which throughout afflicts him most, and for which he reserves his most distilled contempt, is the strain of unreality--the affectation whose sin is always to please, and which fails so singularly of its object. Hypocrisy, pretension, falseness--against everything which has that lack of simplicity so fatal to true life he sets his face. For the rest he can hardly read the enigma; he only states it reverently. Like the old Persian poet, he seems to say:


Oh Thou, who Man of baser earth didst make,
And e'en with Paradise devise the Snake,
For all the Sin wherewith the face of Man
Is blacken'd--Man's forgiveness give--and take,


(The end)
Arthur C. Benson's essay: Minute Philosopher

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