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Cato’s Letter Number 46

September 23, 1721
Of the False Guises which Men put on, and their Ill Effect
Thomas Gordon
Published in the London Journal:
Saturday, September 23, 1721

SIR, Men are often capable of doing as much, whether it be good or evil, by the appearance of parts, as by possessing them; and become really considerable by being thought so. Some, by pretending to great interest with the gods, have gained great interest among men; and plagued the earth, to prove themselves favourites of heaven: Others grow great at court, by being thought great in a party; and grow at the same time great in a party, by being thought great at court: Twice liars, they meet with the double wages of lying.

Thus is the world deceived; a thing so easily done, that rarely any man sets about it but he succeeds in it, let his parts be ever so scanty or starved. Murderers have passed for saints, buffoons for wits, and solemn dunces for wise men.

I have been often provoked to see a whole assembly, sometimes neither contemptible for number, nor figure, nor sense, give themselves up to the guidance and management of a silly ignorant fellow, important only in grimace and assurance: Nay, parties, potent parties, generally throw themselves into the hands and direction of men, who, though they chop them and sell them, yet want every talent for this sort of negotiation, but what they possess in the credulity of those that trust them. This is the best qualification, and it is sufficient. These are the sidrophils, the cunning men in parties, as ignorant as those in Moorfields; they only know more than those whom they deceive, by pretending to more.

The affectation of wisdom is a prevailing folly in the world; men fall naturally into the practise of it; and it would be pardonable, as it is common, if it went no further than the aiming at a little notice and reverence, which every body may be innocently fond of. But when men seek credit this way, in order to betray, and make use of their grimace as a trap to deceive; when they turn their admirers into followers, and their followers into money; then appearing wisdom becomes real villainy, and these pretenders grow dangerous impostors.

And this is what men frequently get by trusting more to the understanding of others than to their own, though often the better of the two; and therefore we find, in many instances, that fools mislead and govern men of sense. In things where men know nothing, they are apt to think that others know more than they; and so blindly trust to bold pretensions: And here is the great cause and first rise of sharpers and bubbles of all denominations, from demagogues and their followers, down to mountebanks and their mobs.

I think that there is not a more foolish figure in the world than a man affectedly wise: But it is not every body that sees it: and such a one is often the admiration of one sort of people, and the jest of another, at the same time. Where we see much of the outside of wisdom, it is a shrewd sign that there is but little within; because they who have the least often make the greatest shew: As the greatest hypocrites are the loudest prayers.

The inside of such a man is not worth knowing; and every man must have observed his outside: His words fall from him with an uncommon weight and solemnity; his gait is stately and slow, and his garb has a turn in it of prudence and gravity, of which he that made it is the author, and by that means becomes a considerable instrument and artificer of wisdom.

This will be better illustrated in the character of Lord Plausible, who having long set up for a wise man, and taking eloquence to be the most effectual sign of wisdom, is an orator and a wise man in every circumstance of his life, and to every body; he is eloquent to his footman, to his children, and at his table. Lord Plausible never converses; no, talking carelessly as other people do, would not be wise enough; he therefore does not converse 1n company, but makes speeches; he meditates speeches in his closet, and pronounces them where he visits. Even while he drinks tea, or plays at cards, his language is lofty and sounding; and in his gait you see the same sublime as in his words. Add to all this, an unrelenting gravity in his looks, only now and then softened by a studied smile. He never laughs without checking his muscles: mirth would be a blot upon wisdom; the good man only creates mirth in others.

Thus he grows important, without suffering in his character for his natural shallowness and acquired folly, unseen by the bulk of his party, who, being for understanding and breeding pretty much in the lower class, think him an oracle, and believe him deep in the counsels and reverence of great men, who use him civilly and laugh at him.

As a man can hardly be severely just and constant to the ways which he approves, without some degree of austereness, or what the world calls so; it is no wonder if this character, always esteemed and often beloved, becomes mimicked by those who have no pretence to it. But I am at a loss whether it be more provoking or merry, to see creatures setting up for a severity of behaviour, without one grain ofjustice and honour about them; pretending to wisdom, with great conceit and stupidity; complaisant in every step and degree of corruption, yet preserving a stiffness in their behaviour, as if they were so many rigid Stoicks.

Quid? Si vultu torvo & pede nudo
Exiguaeque togae simulet textore Catonem;
Virtutemque repraesentet moresque Catonis.

There are mimicks of wisdom and virtue in all ages, as well as in that of Horace.

A man may be a lord, or a minister, or a considerable man, without declaring war against gaiety and easiness. But grave fellows, who become grave to gain importance, are by all men of sense disappointed. A wise man may be a merry fellow; and a very silly fellow may be a very grave man. The wisest men of my acquaintance are the merriest men that I know; nor could I ever find what wisdom had to to with an unpleasing and rebuking stateliness, that contradicts it. Mirth, and what these solemn drones call folly, is a piece of wisdom which they want sense to know and practise. Besides, there is a wise way of playing the fool, which wise men know how to practise, without losing their character. But your grave fellows are perhaps afraid of playing the fool, because they would do it too naturally; yet even that would be better than being thus ridiculously wise against nature.

Some men’s natural heaviness passes for wisdom, and they are admired for being blockheads. Sometimes forced gravity does the same thing. Nor is it any thing new to place wisdom in grimace; many of the old philosophers did the same, and made their long beards, in particular, an eminent type of it.

(Jussit sapientem poscere barbam).

Doubtless, like others who have lived since, they often possessed the sign only. The Schoolmen were reckoned deep and wise men, for talking unintelligibly, and their wisdom was jargon and obscurity.

They that are really wise, need not take much pains to be thought so; and they that do, are not really wise. We cannot live always upon the stretch, either of silence, or of eloquence, or of gaiety: and whoever endeavours it, shews his folly while he seeks renown.

A man of great quality and age, and of great reputation for wisdom, being once surprized by a foreign minister, while he was at play with his little children, was so far from confessing any shame for being thus caught indulging the fancy and fondness of a father, that he told the ambassador, who seemed to have found what he did not expect: “Sir, be in no pain for me; he who is accounted a wise man in the morning, will never be reckoned a fool at night.” This is, no doubt, true of a man truly wise . But it is as true, that many men have passed for wise men in the morning, who have been found fools before noon.

Men, affectedly wise, need only be examined to be despised; and we find by experience, that starched gravity creates more jest and laughter amongst men of sense, who are generally frank and pleasant men, than the most remarkable levity and giddiness can do. The reverence therefore paid to such men, if it be real, is constantly the effect of ignorance: We admire them at a distance; but when we see them a little nearer, we begin to admire at our own admiration.

But such examination is never like to be very popular, and consequently such discoveries are not like to be very formidable; the multitude will never make them; there will always be a great deal in resolving to be great and wise, and great success will be ever attending it: (Si populus vult decipi, decipiatur,) is at all times a safe way of reasoning. And hence drones and coxcombs will, by a false show of wisdom, be always bidding fair for the reputation of wisdom, and often for its rewards. This is more easily shewn, than mended.

G. (I am,&c).

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