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Life is a jest, and all things show it;
CHARLES, BARON DE
MONTESQUIEU (1689–1755) F the immortality of the soul were an error, I should
I so humble as the atheist; I know not how they think, but for me, I do not wish to exchange the idea of immortality against that of the beatitude of one day. I delight in believing myself as immortal as God himself. Independently of revealed ideas, metaphysical ideas give me a vigorous hope of my eternal well-being, which I would never renounce.2
LADY MARY WORTLEY
MONTAGU .. (1689–1762) I
HAVE long thought myself useless to the world.
I have seen one generation pass away, and it is gone; for I think there are very few of those left that flourished in my youth. You will perhaps call these melancholy reflections: they are not so. There is a quiet after the abandoning of pursuits, something like the rest that follows a laborious day. I tell you this for your comfort. It was formerly a terrifying view to
“My Own Epitaph.”
2 From Pensées Diverses.
me that I should one day be an' old woman.
I now find that Nature has provided pleasures for every state. Those are only unhappy who will not be contented with what she gives, but strive to break through her laws by affecting a perpetuity of youth.1
I believe, like all others of your age, you have long been convinced there is no real happiness to be found or expected in this world. You have seen a court near enough to know neither riches nor power can secure it; and all human endeavours after felicity are as childish as running after sparrows to lay salt on their tails; but I ought to give you another information, which can only be learned by experience, that liberty is an idea equally chimerical, and has no real existence in this life. I can truly assure you I have never been so little mistress of my own time and actions as since I have lived alone. Mankind is placed in a state of dependency, not only on one another (which all are in some degree), but so many inevitable accidents thwart our designs and limit our best-laid projects. The poor efforts of our utmost prudence and political schemes appear, I fancy, in the eyes of some superior beings like the pecking of a young linnet to break a wire cage, or the climbing of a squirrel in a hoop; the moral needs no explanation : let us sing as cheerfully as we can in our impenetrable confinement, and crack our nuts with pleasure from the little store that is allowed us.2
I thank God I can find playthings for my age. I am not of Cowley's mind, that this world is
1 Letter written to her daughter, the Countess of Bute, March 2, 1751.
2 To the same, January 23, 1755.
A dull, ill-acted comedy; Nor of Mrs. Philips's, that it is
A too well acted tragedy. I look upon it as a very pretty farce, for those that can see it in that light. I confess a severe critic, that would examine by ancient rules, might find many defects; but 'tis ridiculous to judge seriously of a puppetshow. Those that can laugh and be diverted with absurdities are the wisest spectators, be it of writings, actions, or people.
We have all our playthings; happy are they that can be contented with those they can obtain: those hours are spent in the wisest manner that can easiest shade the ills of life, and are the least productive of ill consequences.
(1689–1772) E must remain in this world as long as Divine
Providence deems fit. He who is conjoined to the Lord has already a foretaste of eternal life, and cares but little for this transitory state. Believe me,
if I knew that God would to-morrow take me from the world to Himself, I should like to have the musicians brought to me to-day, and, for a good conclusion, make myself right merry.
1 Letter written to her daughter, the Countess of Bute, September 22, 1755. 2 To the same, September 30, 1757.
3 To a Friend, in April 1769 (from Life and Writings, by W. White).
PHILIP, EARL OF
CHESTERFIELD (1694–1773) I
BELONG no more to social life, which, when I
quitted busy public life, I flattered myself would be the comfort of my declining days; but that, it seems, is not given me. I neither murmur nor despair; the lot of millions of my fellow-creatures is still worse than mine. Exquisite pains of the body, and still greater of the mind, conspire to torture many of them. I thank God I am free from both; and I look upon the privation of those ills as a real good.1
My deafness grows gradually worse, which in my mind implies a total one before it be long. In this unhappy situation, which I have reason to suppose will every day grow worse, I still keep up my spirits tolerably; that is, I am free from melancholy, which I think is all that can be expected. This I impute to that degree of philosophy which I have acquired by long experience of the world. I have enjoyed all its pleasures, and consequently know their futility, and do not regret their loss. I appraise them at their real value, which in truth is very low; whereas those who have not experienced always overrate them. They only see their gay outside, and are dazzled with their glare; but I have been behind the scenes. It is a common notion, and, like many common ones, a very
false one, that those who have led a life of pleasure and business can never be easy in retirement; whereas I am persuaded that they are the only people who can, if they have any
1 From letter written October 10, 1753.
sense and reflection. They can look back oculo irretorto (without an evil eye) upon what they from knowledge despise; others have always a hankering after what they are not acquainted with. I look
I look upon all that has passed as one of those romantic dreams that opium commonly occasions, and I do by no means desire to repeat the nauseous dose for the sake of the fugitive dream.
Fontenelle's last words at a hundred were, Je souffre d'étre. Deaf and infirm as I am, I can with truth say the same thing at sixty-three. In my mind, it is only the strength of our passions and the weakness of our reason that make us fond of life; but when the former subside and give way to the latter, we grow weary of being, and willing to withdraw.2
I always made the best of the best, and never made bad worse by fretting; this enabled me to go through the various scenes of life, in which I have been an actor, with more pleasure and less pain than most people. You will say, perhaps, one cannot change one's nature, and that if a person is born of a very sensible, gloomy temper, and apt to see things in the worst light, they cannot help it, nor new-make themselves. I will admit it to a certain degree, and but to a certain degree; for though we cannot totally change our nature, we may in a great measure correct it by reflection and philosophy; and some philosophy is a very necessary companion in this world, where, even to the most fortunate, the chances are greatly against happiness. 3
1 From letter written March 12, 1755.