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Nothing can be great which is not right. Nothing which reason condemns can be suitable to the dignity of the human mind. To be driven by external motives from the path which our own heart approves, to give way to any thing but conviction, to suffer the opinion of others to rule our choice or overpower our resolves, is to submit tamely to the lowest and most ignominious slavery, and to resign the right of directing our own lives.
"The utmost excellence at which humanity can arrive, is a constant and determinate pursuit of virtue without regard to present dangers or advantage; a continual reference of every action to the divine will; an habitual appeal to everlasting justice; and an unvaried elevation of the intellectual eye to the reward which perseverance only can obtain. But that pride which many, who presume to boast of generous sentiments, allow to regulate their measures, has nothing nobler in view than the approbation of men; of beings whose superiority we are under no obligation to acknowledge, and who, when we have courted them with the utmost assiduity, can confer no valuable or permanent reward; of beings who ignorantly judge of what they do not understand, or partially determine what they never have examined; and whose sentence is therefore of no weight, till it has received the ratification of our own conscience.
"He that can descend to bribe suffrages like these at the price of his innocence; he that can suffer the delight of such acclamations to withhold his attention from the commands of the universal Sovereign, has little reason to congratulate himself upon the greatness of his mind; whenever he awakes to seriousness and reflection, he must become despicable in his own eyes, and shrink with shame from the remembrance of his cowardice and folly.
"Of him that hopes to be forgiven, it is indispensably required that he forgive. It is therefore superfluous to urge any other motive. On this great duty eternity is suspended; and to him that refuses to practise it the throne of mercy is inaccessible, and the SAVIOUR of the world has been born in vain." (1)
(1) Rambler, No. 185.
Admirably, however, as these noble precepts are expressed, the specimen that we have next to quote will, it is probable, be deemed still superior both in diction and imagery. The close is, indeed, one of the most exquisite and sublime passages in the works of its eloquent author. Speaking of those who retire from the world that" they may employ more time in the duties of religion; that they may regulate their actions with stricter vigilance, and purify their thoughts by more frequent meditation," he adds,
"To men thus elevated above the mists of mortality, I am far from presuming myself qualified to give directions. On him that appears to pass through things temporal,' with no other care than not to lose finally the things eternal,' I look with such veneration as inclines me to approve his conduct in the whole, without a minute examination of its parts; yet I could never forbear to wish, that while Vice is every day multiplying seducements, and stalking forth with more hardened effrontery, Virtue would not withdraw the influence of her presence, or forbear to assert her natural dignity by open and undaunted perseverance in the right. Piety practised in solitude, like the flower that blooms in the desert, may give its fragrance to the winds of heaven, and delight those unbodied spirits that survey the works of God and the actions of men; but it bestows no assistance upon earthly beings, and however free from taints of impurity, yet wants the sacred splendour of beneficence. (1)
The publication of the "Rambler" produced a very rapid revolution in the tone of English composition : an elevation and dignity, an harmony and energy, a precision and force of style, previously unknown in the history of our literature, speedily became objects of daily emulation; and the school of Johnson increased with such celerity, that it soon embraced the greater part of the rising literary characters of the day, and
was consequently founded on such a basis as will not easily be shaken by succeeding modes.
588. Johnson sketched by Himself.
The character of Sober in the "Idler," No. 31., was intended by the author as a delineation of himself. Johnson was constitutionally idle, nor was he roused to any great effort, but by the imperious call of necessity : his exertions, indeed, when sufficiently stimulated, were gigantic, but they were infrequent and uncertain. He was destined to complain of the miseries of idleness, and to mitigate his remorse by repeated but too often ineffectual resolutions of industry. The portrait which he has drawn is faithful and divested of flattery -8 result not common in autobiography :
"Sober is a man of strong desires and quick imagination, so exactly balanced by the love of ease, that they can seldom stimulate him to any difficult undertaking; they have, however, so much power, that they will not suffer him to lie quite at rest, and though they do not make him sufficiently useful to others, they make him at least weary of himself.
"Mr. Sober's chief pleasure is conversation; there is no end of his talk or his attention; to speak or to hear is equally pleasing; for he still fancies that he is teaching or learning something, and is free for the time from his own reproaches.
"But there is one time at night when he must go home, that his friends may sleep; and another time in the morning, when all the world agrees to shut out interruption. These are the moments of which poor Sober trembles at the thought. But the misery of these tiresome intervals, he has many means of alleviating. He has persuaded himself that the manual arts are undeservedly overlooked; he has observed in many trades the effects of close thought, and just ratiocination. From speculation he proceeded to practice, and supplied himself with the tools of a carpenter, with which he mended his coal-box very successfully, and which he still continues to employ as he finds occasion.
"He has attempted at other times the crafts of the shoemaker,
tinman, plumber, and potter; in all these arts he has failed, and resolves to qualify himself for them by better information. But his daily amusement is chemistry. He has a small furnace, which he employs in distillation, and which has long been the solace of his life. He draws oils, and waters, and essences, and spirits, which he knows to be of no use; sits and counts the drops as they come from his retort; and forgets that whilst a drop is falling, a moment flies away.
"Poor Sober! I have often teazed him with reproof, and he has often promised reformation; for no man is so much open to conviction as the idler, but there is none on whom it operates so little. What will be the effect of this paper I know not; perhaps he will read it, and laugh, and light the fire in his furnace; but my hope is, that he will quit his trifles, and betake himself to rational and useful diligence."
589. Horror of Death.
One of the best written and most impressive of the essays of the "Rambler" is No. 78., on the Power of Novelty, in which he appears to have exerted the full force of his genius. It is in this paper that the horror of Death, which embittered so many of the hours of Johnson, is depicted in more vivid colours, than in any other part of his periodical writings:
"Surely," he remarks, "nothing can so much disturb the passions or perplex the intellects of man, as the disruption of his union with visible nature; a separation from all that has hitherto delighted or engaged him; a change not only of the place, but the manner, of his being; an entrance into a state not simply which he knows not, but which perhaps he has not faculties to know; an immediate and perceptible communication with the Supreme Being, and, what is above all distressful and alarming, the final sentence, and unalterable allotment:".
a passage which, in its sentiment and tendency, strongly reminds us of the admirable description of Claudio in
"Ay, but to die, and go we know not where ;
The weariest and most loathed worldly life,
To what we fear of death."
Our author seems likewise to have remembered a couplet in the "Aureng-Zebe" of Dryden :
"Death in itself is nothing; but we fear
To be we know not what, we know not where."
It is in this paper, also, that one of the few pathetic paragraphs which are scattered through the pages of Johnson may be found. Whether considered with regard to its diction or its tender appeal to the heart, it is alike exquisite:
"It is not possible," observes the moralist, "to be regarded with tenderness except by a few. That merit which gives greatness and renown diffuses its influence to a wide compass, but acts weakly on every single breast; it is placed at a distance from common spectators, and shines like one of the remote stars, of which the light reaches us, but not the heat. The wit, the hero, the philosopher, whom their tempers or their fortunes have hindered from intimate relations, die, without any other effect than that of adding a new topic to the conversation of the day. They impress none with any fresh conviction of the fragility of our nature, because none had any particular interest in their lives, or was united to them by a reciprocation of benefits and endearments. Thus it often happens, that those who in