« AnteriorContinuar »
THE question I have very often had asked me respecting the present subject of my lecture is, what has Wit to do with Moral Philosophy? Little or nothing, certainly, if by Moral Philosophy is merely understood practical Moral Philosophy, or Ethics; but if the term be taken as it universally is wherever Moral Philosophy is taught, —as in contradistinction to Physical Philosophy, or the philosophy which concerns itself with the laws of the material world,—then Moral Philosophy will include everything which relates to the human mind—of which mind these phenomena of wit and humour are very striking peculiarities. But if, though allowed to appertain to Moral Philosophy because they appertain to the human mind, they should be considered as very frivolous parts of that science, this must not, on any account, be allowed to pass for truth. The feeling of the ridiculous produces an immense effect upon human affairs. It is so far from being powerless or unimportant, that it has a strong tendency to overpower even truth, justice, and all those high-born qualities which have the lawful mastery of the human mind. Such sort of subjects are no less difficult than they are important. I may not always speak on them with the forms of modesty, but no man can be more thoroughly convinced than I am, of the difficulty with which such investigations are attended, and of the folly of dogmatising upon topics where the best understandings may arrive, and have arrived, at very opposite conclusions. In addition to this plea for indulgence, it so happens this year that I am extremely ill prepared for what I have undertaken. To read lectures upon Moral Philosophy is not a very easy thing under any circumstances; — to read them before a mirt audience of both seves, and for the first time, are accidents which do not come in diminution of that difficulty. These difficulties are best overcome by a little practice. The same indul. gence should be extended to young lecturers and young professors that is extended to the young of all other animals, — who cannot reasonably be supposed to have arrived at the top of their cunning, or to have reached the perfection of their strength. I shall only advertise my hearers, that when I have finished this lecture I have not finished this subject; — I shall have a great deal more to say upon it in my next lecture, and the two must be taken together, in order to analyse the ridiculous, and, perhaps, as some evil-disposed persons may say, to eremplify it.
“Wit,” says Dr. Barrow, “is a thing so subtle, so “versatile, and so multiform, - appearing in so many “shapes, so many postures, and so many garbs,-so “variously apprehended by several eyes and judgments, “that it seemeth no less hard to settle a clear and cer“tain notion thereof than to make a portrait of Proteus, “or to define the figure of the fleeting air. Sometime “it lieth in pat allusion to a known story, or in season“able application of a trivial saying, or in forging an “apposite tale;—sometimes it playeth in words and “ phrases, taking advantage of the ambiguity of their “sense, or the affinity of their sound;—sometimes it is “wrapt in a dress of humorous expression; —sometimes “it lurketh under an odd similitude;— sometimes it is “lodged in a sly question, in a smart answer, in a “quirkish reason, in a shrewd intimation, in cunningly “diverting, or cleverly retorting an objection;–some“times it is couched in a bold scheme of speech, in a “tart irony, a lusty hyperbole, a startling metaphor, a “plausible reconciling of contradictions, or in acute “nonsense;—sometimes a scenical representation of “persons or things, a counterfeit speech, a mimical look “ or gesture, passeth for it;-sometimes an affected “simplicity, sometimes a presumptuous bluntness, “giveth it being;-sometimes it ariseth only from a “lucky hititng upon what is strange;—often it con“sisteth in one knows not what, and ariseth one knows “not how; its ways are unaccountable and inexplicable, “being answerable to the numberless rovings of fancy “and windings of language. It is, in short, a manner “of speaking out of the plain way, which, by an un“couthness in conceit or expression, doth amuse the “fancy, stirring in it some wonder, and breeding some “delight. It raiseth admiration, as signifying a nimble “sagacity of apprehension, a special felicity of inven“tion, a vivacity of spirit, and reach of wit more than “vulgar. It seemeth to argue a rare quickness of parts “that can produce such applicable conceits, a notable “skill that can dextrously accommodate them to the “purpose before him, together with a lively briskness of “humour, not apt to damp those sportful flashes of ima“gination. It procures delight, by gratifying curiosity “with its rarity, by diverting the mind from its road of “serious thoughts, by instilling gaiety and airiness of “spirit, and by seasoning matters, otherwise distasteful “and insipid, with an unusual and a grateful twang.” This is Dr. Barrow's famous definition of wit, — which is very witty, and nothing else! and in which the author has managed as a man would do, who should take a degree in music by singing a song, or in medicine by healing a surfeit. He has exemplified his subject instead of explaining it; and given you a specimen, instead of a solution, of wit. It is surprising what very little has been written in the English language upon this curious subject. Congreve has written upon it in the same witty manner as Barrow, without throwing the smallest light upon the nature of wit. Cowley says, “Tell me, oh tell, what kind of thing is wit,
Thou who master art of it?
A thousand different shapes it bears,
Comely in thousand shapes appears.
Yonder we see it plain; and here 'tis now,
And so he goes on, with a string of witty allusions, for twenty stanzas, in an ode which Johnson calls inimitable, and which, as a mere piece of poetry of the school of the metaphysical poets, certainly is so; but has nothing to do with a serious explanation of the subject. Dryden says of wit, that it is a propriety of thoughts and words, or thoughts and words elegantly adapted to the subject; but there is a propriety of thoughts and words in one of Blair's Sermons, which I never yet heard praised for their wit. And the thoughts and words are elegantly adapted to the subject in Campbell's “Pleasures of Hope,” which is something much better than a witty poem. Pope says of wit,
“True wit is nature to advantage drest,
Then the Philippics of Cicero, the Orations of Demosthenes, are witty; Caesar's Commentaries are witty; Massillon is one of the greatest wits that ever lived; the Oraisons funèbres of Bossuet are prodigies of facetiousness. Sir Richard Blackmore's notion of wit is, that it is a series of high and exalted ferments. It very possibly may be; but not exactly comprehending what is meant by “a series of high and exalted ferments.” I do not think myself bound to waste much time in criticising the metaphysics of this learned physician.
The first definition of wit worth noticing is that of Mr. Locke, which I shall read to you. “How much “the imperfection of accurately discriminating ideas one “from another lies either in the dulness or faults of the “organs of sense, – or want of acuteness, exercise, or “attention in the understanding, -or hastiness and “precipitancy, natural to some tempers, –I will not “here examine: it sufficeth to take notice, that this is “one of the operations that the mind may reflect on “and observe in itself. It is of that consequence to its “other knowledge, that, so far as this faculty is in itself “dull, or not rightly made use of, for the distinguishing “one thing from another, so far our notions are con“fused, and our reason and judgment disturbed or “misled. If, in having our ideas in the memory ready “at hand, consists quickness of parts, -in this of having “them unconfused, and being able nicely to distinguish “one thing from another where there is but the least “difference, consists, in a great measure, the exactness “of judgment and clearness of reason, which is to be “observed in one man above another. And hence, “perhaps, may be given some reason of that common “observation, that men who have a great deal of wit, “and prompt memories, have not always the clearest “judgment or deepest reason: for wit lying mostly in “the assemblage of ideas, and putting those together “with quickness and variety wherein can be found any “resemblance or congruity, whereby to make up plea“sant pictures and agreeable visions in the fancy; “judgment, on the contrary, lies quite on the other side, “in separating carefully, one from another, ideas wherein “can be found the least difference,—thereby to avoid “being misled by similitude, and by affinity to take one “thing for another. This is a way of proceeding quite “contrary to metaphor and allusion, wherein, for the “most part, lies that entertainment and pleasantry of “wit which strikes so lively on the fancy, and there