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NUMB. 131. Tuesday, February 5, 1754.
FONTENELLE, in his panegyrick on Sir Isaac
Newton, closes a long enumeration of that great philosopher's virtues and attainments, with an observation, that “ he was not distinguished from other “ men, by any singularity either natural or af« fected.”
It is an eminent instance of Newton's superiority to the rest of mankind, that he was able to separate knowledge from those weaknesses by which knowledge is generally disgraced; that he was able to excel in science and wisdom, without purchasing them by the neglect of little things; and that he stood alone, merely because he had left the rest of mankind behind him, not because he deviated from the beaten track.
Whoever, after the example of Plutarch, should compare the lives of illustrious men, might set this part of Newton's character to view with great advantage, by opposing it to that of Bacon, perhaps the only man of later ages, who has any pretensions to dispute with him the palm of genius or science.
Bacon, after he had added to a long and careful contemplation of almost every other object of knowledge a curious inspection into common life, and, after having surveyed nature as a philosopher, had examined « men's business and bosoms” as a statesman; yet failed so much in the conduct of domestick affairs, that, in the most lucrative post to which a great and wealthy kingdom could advance hiin, he felt all the miseries of distressful poverty, and committed all the crimes to which poverty incites. Such were at once his negligence and rapacity, that, as it is said, he would gain by unworthy practices that money, which, when so acquired, his servants might steal from one end of the table, while he fat ftudious and abstracted at the other.
As scarcely any man has reached the excellence, very few have funk to the weakness of Bacon: but almost all the studious tribe, as they obtain any participation of his knowledge, feel likewise some contagion of his defects; and obstruct the veneration which learning would procure, by follies greater or less to which only learning could betray them.
It has been formerly remarked by The Guardian, that the world punishes with too great severity the error of those, who imagine that the ignorance of little things may be compensated by the knowledge of great ; for so it is, that as more can detect petty failings than can distinguish or esteem great qualifications, and as mankind is in general more easily disposed to censure than to admiration, contempt is often incurred by flight mistakes, which real virtle or usefulness cannot counterbalance.
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Yet such mistakes and inadvertencies, it is not easy for a man deeply immersed in study to avoid ; no inan can become qualified for the common intercourses of life, by private meditation; the manners of the world are not a regular system, planned by philosophers upon settled principles, in which every cause has a congruous effect, and one part has a just reference to another. Of the fashions prevalent in every country, a few have arisen, perhaps, from particular temperatures of the climate; a few more from the constitution of the government; but the greater part have grown up by chance; been started by caprice, been contrived by affectation, or borrowed without any just motives of choice from other countries.
Of all these, the savage that hunts his prey upon the mountains, and the fage that speculates in his closet, must neceifarily live in equal ignorance; yet by the observation of these trifles it is, that the ranks of mankind are kept in order, that the address of one to another is regulated, and the general business of the world carried on with facility and method.
These things, therefore, though small in themselves, become great by their frequency; and he very much mistakes his own interest, who, to the unavoidable unskilfulness of abstraction and retirement, adds a voluntary neglect of common forms, and increases the disadvantages of a studious course of life by an arrogant contempt of those practices, by which others endeavour to gain favour and multiply friendships.
A real and interior disdain of fashion and ceremony, is, indeca, not very often to be found: much
the greater part of those who pretend to laugh at foppery and formality, secretly wish to have possessed those qualifications which they pretend to despise; and because they find it difficult to wash away the tin&ture which they have so deeply imbibed, endeavour to harden themselves in a lullen approbation of their own colour. Neutrality is a state, into which the busy passions of man cannot easily subside; and he who is in danger of the pangs of envy, is generally forced to recreate his imagination with an effort of comfort.
Some, however, may be found, whó, supported by the consciousness of great abilities, and elevated by a long course of reputation and applause, volun. tarily consign themselves to singularity, affect to cross the roads of life because they know that they shall not be justled, and indulge a boundless gracification of will because they perceive that they shall be quietly obeyed. Men of this kind are generally known by the name of Humourists, an appellation by which he that has obtained it, and can be contented to keep it, is set free at once from the shackles of fashion; and can go in or out, fit or ftand, be talkative or filent, gloomy or merry, advance absurdities or oppose demonstration, without any other reprehenfion from mankind, than that it is his way, that he is an odd fellow, and must be let alone.
This seems to many, an easy passport through the various factions of mankind; and those on whom it is bestowed, appear too frequently to consider the patience with which their caprices are suffered as an undoubted evidence of their own importance, of a genius to which fubmiffion is universally paid, and VOL. IX.
whose irregularities are only considered as consequences of its vigour. These peculiarities, how. ever, are always found to Ipot a character, though they may not totally obscure it; and he who expects from mankind, that they should give up established customs in compliance with his single will, and exacts that deference which he does not pay, inay be endured, but can never be approved.
Singularity is, I think, in its own nature universally and invariably difpleasing. In whatever
fpect a man differs from others, he must be conin thu them as either worfe or better : by being is as heel known that a man gains admiration oftener wall love, since all approbation of his practice must neceffarily condemn in that gives it; and though a man often pleases by inferiority, there are few who desire to give such pleasure. Yet the truth is, that fingularity is almost always regarded as a brand of fight reproach; and where it is associated with acknowledged merit, serves as an abatement or an allay of excellence, by which weak eyes are reconciled to its lustre, and by which, though kindness is not gained, at least envy is averted.
But let no man be in haste to conclude his own merit so great or conspicuous, as to require or justify angularity: it is as hazardous for a moderate understanding to usurp the prerogatives of genius, as for a com.non forn to play over the airs of uncontested beauty. The pride of men will not patiently endure to ire one, whule understanding or attainments are
!16 level with their own, break the rules by which they have consented to be bound, or forsake the diLolion which they submissively follow. All viola