image pending 326

A Modern Socrates.

To the Editor of the Monthly Magazine.


IT is strange that you book-
makers are a race of such grave,
abstruse people, that you are fond
of talking about things with which
most people have no concern, and
in a way that not many can under-
stand, and still fewer are pleased

They tell us, I think, of old So-
crates, that his great merit consist-

ed in bringing philosophy from
heaven down to earth; by which,
I suppose, is meant that, instead of
helping us to name the stars, to say
fine things in a senate-house, to get
the better in disputes about the na-
ture of the Gods, he was satisfied
with giving such instruction to the
tradesman and farmer who chanced
to fall in his way, as made them
contented with their lot, or enabled
them to improve it. He talked to
mankind, and reformed their errors,
upon subjects in which all of them,
from king to peasant, had an equal
concern. He taught them patience
under evils which they could not
elude, and kindness and frankness
to each other.

It is a pity that the Socratic race
is at an end; that none, or so few
of them, are to be found among us
who lay aside their long beard and
their mantle, creep forth from their
retirement, and, leaving their books
and diagrams behind them, converse
with their neighbours on the topics
of the day, with benevolence, fa-
miliarity, and adroitness.

A modern Socrates, indeed, is not
obliged to employ the same means
as the old, in order to communi-
cate instruction. He need not walk
about the streets and markets, nod
to every honest face, and enter into
talk with the lounger and the disen-
gaged. As most of us in this quar-
ter of the world are taught to read,
and are also willing to read; as the
means of writing and publishing
are extremely cheap, easy, and ex-
peditious, the modern Socrates will
put his dialogues and exhortations
upon paper, will print them in the
cheapest form, and disperse them
through the city in a twinkling.
He may thus hold half an hour's
conversation, every day, with some
thousands of his fellow citizens,
without showing his face out of
door, or robbing his wife and chil-
dren of his company, nay, without
even disclosing his name.

 image pending 327

How easy it is to say what ought
to be done in this or that situation,
and how hard to practice it! I can
easily imagine a man wise, benevo-
lent, and gifted with the power of
familiar eloquence; able to select
the proper topics, and to arrange
them in such a way that all shall be
eager to read, and all who read shall
be instructed and delighted; but
alas! how is this imagination to be
realized? Where is the man to be

It is common, especially for au-
thors, to talk much about the stu-
pidity and selfishness of mankind.
Men are occupied with gain, and
stick obstinately and all day long to
their compters and their desks.
Their leisure, if they have any, is
bestowed upon the coffee-house,
the tavern, the card-table, the chit-
chat of the fire-side, the chess-board,
the ball-room, or the theatre.

If they read, if they talk, if they
meditate on subjects unconnected
with their docket, or their ledger,
their only theme is politics, and to
this, their attachment is extreme.
Thousands of pens and hands are
incessantly busy in writing and
printing, but they give us merely
the history of Europe as it comes,
peace-meal, to their hands, the
things to be bought and sold in our
neighbourhood, and speculations
on the characters and conduct of
our governors. As to morality and
science, their pages are never pro-
faned by such intruders, since they
know that if these were admitted,
they would soon be forced to stop
the press and close the ledger.

There are many (authors, per-
haps, they may be called) among
ourselves, who have freely dealt in
these complaints and invectives,
but such complaints appear to me
very preposterous. That men in
general are luxurious and lucre-
loving; that they bestow most of
their time in obtaining the necessa-
ries of life, and seek recreations of

the body more than of the mind, is,
surely, nothing new. It is an evil
which entitles them to pity, and
not to scorn, and which we should
be far more laudably employed in
curing than lamenting.

Such a scolder appears to me
much like a physician, who, being
called to the assistance of a lunatic,
should waste his time in upbraiding
the unhappy wretch for losing his
reason, instead of labouring to re-
store it to him. To cure the dis-
ease, may, indeed, ask more pa-
tience or skill than he possesses,
but what then? How absurd is it
to fall to cursing and abusing the
sick? Go fool, and deplore in si-
lence thy own impatience and un-
skilfulness, or, what is better, go
and search for more potent drugs
and more salutary processes.

The truth is, that authors, like
those whom they revile, are gene-
rally instigated by selfish motives.
Reputation and money are their
idols; the objects of their pursuit;
and mankind, so far from paying
or praising them, will not even ad-
mit them to an audience. Hence
their disappointment and their an-
ger. It never occurs to them that
the fault lies with themselves, and
that to insure their success, they
need only make a better choice of
topics, or handle their topics with
more dexterity than they have
hitherto done. Every thing is pos-
sible to genius and to courage, but
the timid and weak will fly from
beetles, and find mole-hills insupe-

There are not wanting, even
among ourselves, instances of wri-
ters who have risen to great popu-
larity, and whose greediness of
praise and of money has been
abundantly gratified. Something in
these cases was doubtless owing to
the subjects and occasions chosen,
but much more to the genius of the
author. Topics that are useless
and remote from ordinary under-

 image pending 328

standings and daily experience, can
scarcely be made acceptable by any
skill in the workman; but these
ought to be neglected, and those
only adopted which are of practi-
cal utility.

Every man's ears are open to
politics, but it would be folly to
suppose them shut against every
other theme. Every man stands in
many relations besides those of go-
vernor and governed. He has fa-
mily and neighbourhood, and his
weal or woe essentially depends,
and is perceived, by himself, to de-
pend upon the treatment he gives
and receives from those around him.
If you cannot transform him to
angel or philosopher, you may
somewhat influence his taste, cha-
racter and manners. If you cannot
highly or lastingly benefit, you may
innocently entertain, you may gain
an occasional hearing, at least, you
may rouse his curiosity, and by a
skilful use of familiar illustrations,
by the lucky dexterity of inven-
tion and wit, blend his pleasure
with his benefit, and accomplish
by the same means, more ends than

The success of the Spectator is a
proof, that in the most factious
and corrupt times, a daily paper
may widely circulate and be
much read, which yet is not a pa-
per of news. As the world then
could be brought to listen to one
who told them nothing of the price
of stocks, the proceedings of par-
liament, and the events of the cam-
paign; who never suffered tories
or whigs, republicans or jacobites,
to dispute with him; who never
praised or censured Bolingbroke
or Marlborough, so at this day, it
only wants wit, eloquence and
learning, to be joined with benevo-
lence and knowledge of men, to
captivate all ears, without mention-
ing Adams or Jefferson; without
inveighing against aristocrats or ja-
cobins; without relating sea-fights

in the West Indies, or battles on
the Rhine.

We may lament that we want,
and that our friends want this ge-
nius and this virtue; but it is idle to
expect buyers and readers of our
lucubrations, as long as these are
not possessed. To revenge our-
selves upon an inattentive world;
by scolding it, is only to display our
own folly, and to act like the low
Irish, who, in their funeral la-
mentations, are said to put their
lips to the ears of their dead friends
and hollow, in the loudest key—
“Why, Paddy, why, Paddy, why
did ye die?”