No. 023 [from The Spectator] by Joseph Addison

Story type: Essay

No. 23
Tuesday, March 27, 1711 [1] Addison.

Savit atrox Volscens, nec teli conspicit usquam

Auctorem nec quo se ardens immittere possit.


There is nothing that more betrays a base, ungenerous Spirit, than the giving of secret Stabs to a Man’s Reputation. Lampoons and Satyrs, that are written with Wit and Spirit, are like poison’d Darts, which not only inflict a Wound, but make it incurable. For this Reason I am very much troubled when I see the Talents of Humour and Ridicule in the Possession of an ill-natured Man. There cannot be a greater Gratification to a barbarous and inhuman Wit, than to stir up Sorrow in the Heart of a private Person, to raise Uneasiness among near Relations, and to expose whole Families to Derision, at the same time that he remains unseen and undiscovered. If, besides the Accomplishments of being Witty and Ill-natured, a Man is vicious into the bargain, he is one of the most mischievous Creatures that can enter into a Civil Society. His Satyr will then chiefly fall upon those who ought to be the most exempt from it. Virtue, Merit, and every thing that is Praise-worthy, will be made the Subject of Ridicule and Buffoonry. It is impossible to enumerate the Evils which arise from these Arrows that fly in the dark, and I know no other Excuse that is or can be made for them, than that the Wounds they give are only Imaginary, and produce nothing more than a secret Shame or Sorrow in the Mind of the suffering Person. It must indeed be confess’d, that a Lampoon or a Satyr do not carry in them Robbery or Murder; but at the same time, how many are there that would not rather lose a considerable Sum of Mony, or even Life it self, than be set up as a Mark of Infamy and Derision? And in this Case a Man should consider, that an Injury is not to be measured by the Notions of him that gives, but of him that receives it.

Those who can put the best Countenance upon the Outrages of this nature which are offered them, are not without their secret Anguish. I have often observed a Passage in Socrates’s Behaviour at his Death, in a Light wherein none of the Criticks have considered it. That excellent Man, entertaining his Friends a little before he drank the Bowl of Poison with a Discourse on the Immortality of the Soul, at his entering upon it says, that he does not believe any the most Comick Genius can censure him for talking upon such a Subject at such a Time. This passage, I think, evidently glances upon Aristophanes, who writ a Comedy on purpose to ridicule the Discourses of that Divine Philosopher: [2] It has been observed by many Writers, that Socrates was so little moved at this piece of Buffoonry, that he was several times present at its being acted upon the Stage, and never expressed the least Resentment of it. But, with Submission, I think the Remark I have here made shows us, that this unworthy Treatment made an impression upon his Mind, though he had been too wise to discover it.

When Julius Caesar was Lampoon’d by Catullus, he invited him to a Supper, and treated him with such a generous Civility, that he made the Poet his friend ever after. [3] Cardinal Mazarine gave the same kind of Treatment to the learned Quillet, who had reflected upon his Eminence in a famous Latin Poem. The Cardinal sent for him, and, after some kind Expostulations upon what he had written, assured him of his Esteem, and dismissed him with a Promise of the next good Abby that should fall, which he accordingly conferr’d upon him in a few Months after. This had so good an Effect upon the Author, that he dedicated the second Edition of his Book to the Cardinal, after having expunged the Passages which had given him offence. [4]

Sextus Quintus was not of so generous and forgiving a Temper. Upon his being made Pope, the statue of Pasquin was one Night dressed in a very dirty Shirt, with an Excuse written under it, that he was forced to wear foul Linnen, because his Laundress was made a Princess. This was a Reflection upon the Pope’s Sister, who, before the Promotion of her Brother, was in those mean Circumstances that Pasquin represented her. As this Pasquinade made a great noise in Rome, the Pope offered a Considerable Sum of Mony to any Person that should discover the Author of it. The Author, relying upon his Holiness’s Generosity, as also on some private Overtures which he had received from him, made the Discovery himself; upon which the Pope gave him the Reward he had promised, but at the same time, to disable the Satyrist for the future, ordered his Tongue to be cut out, and both his Hands to be chopped off. [5] Aretine [6] is too trite an instance. Every

one knows that all the Kings of Europe were his tributaries. Nay, there is a Letter of his extant, in which he makes his Boasts that he had laid the Sophi of Persia under Contribution.

Though in the various Examples which I have here drawn together, these several great Men behaved themselves very differently towards the Wits of the Age who had reproached them, they all of them plainly showed that they were very sensible of their Reproaches, and consequently that they received them as very great Injuries. For my own part, I would never trust a Man that I thought was capable of giving these secret Wounds, and cannot but think that he would hurt the Person, whose Reputation he thus assaults, in his Body or in his Fortune, could he do it with the same Security. There is indeed something very barbarous and inhuman in the ordinary Scriblers of Lampoons. An Innocent young Lady shall be exposed, for an unhappy Feature. A Father of a Family turn’d to Ridicule, for some domestick Calamity. A Wife be made uneasy all her Life, for a misinterpreted Word or Action. Nay, a good, a temperate, and a just Man, shall be put out of Countenance, by the Representation of those Qualities that should do him Honour. So pernicious a thing is Wit, when it is not tempered with Virtue and Humanity.

I have indeed heard of heedless, inconsiderate Writers, that without any Malice have sacrificed the Reputation of their Friends and Acquaintance to a certain Levity of Temper, and a silly Ambition of distinguishing themselves by a Spirit of Raillery and Satyr: As if it were not infinitely more honourable to be a Good-natured Man than a Wit. Where there is this little petulant Humour in an Author, he is often very mischievous without designing to be so. For which Reason I always lay it down as a Rule, that an indiscreet Man is more hurtful than an ill-natured one; for as the former will only attack his Enemies, and those he wishes ill to, the other injures indifferently both Friends and Foes. I cannot forbear, on this occasion, transcribing a Fable out of Sir Roger l’Estrange, [7] which accidentally lies before me.

‘A company of Waggish Boys were watching of Frogs at the side of a Pond, and still as any of ’em put up their Heads, they’d be pelting them down again with Stones. Children (says one of the Frogs), you never consider that though this may be Play to you, ’tis Death to us.’

As this Week is in a manner set apart and dedicated to Serious Thoughts, [8] I shall indulge my self in such Speculations as may not be altogether unsuitable to the Season; and in the mean time, as the settling in our selves a Charitable Frame of Mind is a Work very proper for the Time, I have in this Paper endeavoured to expose that particular Breach of Charity which has been generally over-looked by Divines, because they are but few who can be guilty of it.


[Footnote 1: At the top of this paper in a 12mo copy of the Spectator, published in 17l2, and annotated by a contemporary Spanish merchant, is written, ‘The character of Dr Swift.’ This proves that the writer of the note had an ill opinion of Dr Swift and a weak sense of the purport of what he read. Swift, of course, understood what he read. At this time he was fretting under the sense of a chill in friendship between himself and Addison, but was enjoying his Spectators. A week before this date, on the 16th of March, he wrote,

‘Have you seen the ‘Spectators’ yet, a paper that comes out every day? It is written by Mr. Steele, who seems to have gathered new life and have a new fund of wit; it is in the same nature as his ‘Tatlers’, and they have all of them had something pretty. I believe Addison and he club.’

Then he adds a complaint of the chill in their friendship. A month after the date of this paper Swift wrote in his journal,

‘The ‘Spectator’ is written by Steele with Addison’s help; ’tis often very pretty.’

Later in the year, in June and September, he records dinner and supper with his friends of old time, and says of Addison,

‘I yet know no man half so agreeable to me as he is.’ ]

[Footnote 2: ‘Plato’s Phaedon’, Sec. 40. The ridicule of Socrates in ‘The Clouds’ of Aristophanes includes the accusation that he displaced Zeus and put in his place Dinos,–Rotation. When Socrates, at the point of death, assents to the request that he should show grounds for his faith

‘that when the man is dead, the soul exists and retains thought and power,’ Plato represents him as suggesting: Not the sharpest censor ‘could say that in now discussing such matters, I am dealing with what does not concern me.’ ]

[Footnote 3: The bitter attack upon Caesar and his parasite Mamurra was notwithdrawn, but remains to us as No. 29 of the Poems of Catullus. The doubtful authority for Caesar’s answer to it is the statement in the Life of Julius Caesar by Suetonius that, on the day of its appearance, Catullus apologized and was invited to supper; Caesar abiding also by his old familiar friendship with the poet’s father. This is the attack said to be referred to in one of Cicero’s letters to Atticus (the last of Bk. XIII.), in which he tells how Caesar was

‘after the eighth hour in the bath; then he heard De Mamurra; did not change countenance; was anointed; lay down; took an emetic.’ ]

[Footnote 4: Claude Quillet published a Latin poem in four books, entitled ‘Callipaedia, seu de pulchrae prolis habenda ratione,’ at Leyden, under the name of Calvidius Laetus, in 1655. In discussing unions harmonious and inharmonious he digressed into an invective against marriages of Powers, when not in accordance with certain conditions; and complained that France entered into such unions prolific only of ill, witness her gift of sovereign power to a Sicilian stranger.

‘Trinacriis devectus ab oris advena.’

Mazarin, though born at Rome, was of Sicilian family. In the second edition, published at Paris in 1656, dedicated to the cardinal Mazarin, the passages complained of were omitted for the reason and with the result told in the text; the poet getting ‘une jolie Abbaye de 400 pistoles,’ which he enjoyed until his death (aged 59) in 1661.]

[Footnote 5: Pasquino is the name of a torso, perhaps of Menelaus supporting the dead body of Patroclus, in the Piazza di Pasquino in Rome, at the corner of the Braschi Palace. To this modern Romans affixed their scoffs at persons or laws open to ridicule or censure. The name of the statue is accounted for by the tradition that there was in Rome, at the beginning of the 16th century, a cobbler or tailor named Pasquino, whose humour for sharp satire made his stall a place of common resort for the idle, who would jest together at the passers-by. After Pasquino’s death his stall was removed, and in digging up its floor there was found the broken statue of a gladiator. In this, when it was set up, the gossips who still gathered there to exercise their wit, declared that Pasquino lived again. There was a statue opposite to it called Marforio–perhaps because it had been brought from the Forum of Mars–with which the statue of Pasquin used to hold witty conversation; questions affixed to one receiving soon afterwards salted answers on the other. It was in answer to Marforio’s question, Why he wore a dirty shirt? that Pasquin’s statue gave the answer cited in the text, when, in 1585, Pope Sixtus V. had brought to Rome, and lodged there in great state, his sister Camilla, who had been a laundress and was married to a carpenter. The Pope’s bait for catching the offender was promise of life and a thousand doubloons if he declared himself, death on the gallows if his name were disclosed by another.]

[Footnote 6: The satirist Pietro d’Arezzo (Aretino), the most famous among twenty of the name, was in his youth banished from Arezzo for satire of the Indulgence trade of Leo XI. But he throve instead of suffering by his audacity of bitterness, and rose to honour as the Scourge of Princes, il Flagello de’ Principi. Under Clement VII. he was at Rome in the Pope’s service. Francis I of France gave him a gold chain. Emperor Charles V gave him a pension of 200 scudi. He died in 1557, aged 66, called by himself and his compatriots, though his wit often was beastly, Aretino ‘the divine.’]

[Footnote 7: From the ‘Fables of AEsop and other eminent Mythologists, with ‘Morals and Reflections. By Sir Roger l’Estrange.’ The vol. contains Fables of AEsop, Barlandus, Anianus, Abstemius, Poggio the Florentine, Miscellany from a Common School Book, and a Supplement of Fables out of several authors, in which last section is that of the Boys and Frogs, which Addison has copied out verbatim. Sir R. l’Estrange had died in 1704, aged 88.]

[Footnote 8: Easter Day in 1711 fell on the 1st of April.]

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