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As I am one of that sauntering tribe of mortals, who spend the greatest part of their time in taverns, coffeehouses, and other places of public resort, I have thereby an opportunity of observing an infinite variety of characters, which, to a person of a contemplative turn, is a much higher entertainment than a view of all the curiosities of art or nature. In one of these, my late rambles, I accidentally fell into a company of half a dozen gentlemen, who were engaged in a warm dispute about some political affair, the decision of which, as they were equally divided in their sentiments, they thought proper to refer to me, which naturally drew me in for a share of the conversation.
Amongst a multiplicity of other topics, we took occasion to talk of the different characters of the several nations of Europe ; when one of the gentlemen, cocking his hat, and assuming such an air of importance as if he had possessed all the merit of the English nation in his own person, declared, that the Dutch were a parcel of avaricious wretches ; the French a set of flattering sycophants ; that the Germans were drunken sots, and beastly gluttons ; and the Spaniards, proud, haughty, and surly tyrants ; but that in bravery, generosity, clemency, and in every other virtue, the English excelled all the rest of the world.
This very learned and judicious remark was received with a general smile of approbation by all the company. all, I mean, but your humble servant, who, endeavouring to keep my gravity as well as I could, and reclining my head upon my arm, continued for some time in a posture of affected thoughtfulness, as if I had been musing on sono thing else, and did not seem to attend to the subject. of conversation ; hoping by these means to avoid the disagreeable necessity of explaining myself, and thereby depriving the gentleman of his imaginary happiness.
But my pseudo-patriot had no mind to let me escape so easily. Not satisfied that his opinion should pass without contradiction, he was determined to have it ratified by the suffrage of every one in the company; for which purpose, addressing himself to me with an air of inexpressible confidence, he asked me if I was not of the same way of thinking. As I am never forward in giving my opinion, especially when I have reason to believe that it will not be agreeable; . so, when I am obliged to give it, I always hold it for a maxim to speak my real sentiments. I therefore told him, that for my own part, I should not have ventured to talk in such a peremptory strain, unless I had made the tour of Europe, and examined the manners of these several nations with great care and accuracy : that perhaps a more impartial judge would not scruple to affirm, that the Dutch were more frugal and industrious, the French more temperate and polite, the Germans more hardy and patient of labour and fatigue, and the Spaniards more staid and sedate, than the English ;, who, though undoubtedly brave and generous, were at the same time rash, headstrong, and impetuous ; too apt to be elated with prosperity, and to despond in adversity.
I could easily perceive, that all the company began to regard me with a jealous eye before I had finished my answer, which I had no sooner done, than the patriotic gentleman observed, with a contemptuous sneer, that he was greatly surprised how some people could have the conscience to live in a country which they did not love, and to enjoy the protection of a government, to which in their hearts they were inveterate enemies. Finding that by this modest declaration of my sentiments I had forfeited the good opinion of my companions, and given them occasion to call my political principles in question, and well knowing that it was in vain to argue with men who were so very full of themselves, I threw down my reckoning and retired to my own lodgings, reflecting on the absurd and ridiculous nature of national prejudice and prepossession.
Among all the famous sayings of antiquity, there is none that does greater honour to the author, or affords greater pleasure to the reader, (at least if he be a person of a generous and benevolent heart,) than that of the philosopher, who, being asked what countryman he was, replied, that he was a citizen of the world." How few are there to be found in modern times who can say the same, or whose conduct is consistent with such a profession! — We are now
so much Englishmen, Frenchmen, Dutchmen; Spaniards, or Germans, that we are no longer citizens of the world ; so much the natives of one particular spot, or members of one petty society, that we no longer consider ourselves as the general inhabitants of the globe, or members of that grand society which comprehends the whole human kind.
Did these prejudices prevail only among the meanest and lowest of the people, perhaps they might be excused, as they have few, if any, opportunities of correcting them by reading, travelling, or conversing with foreigners : but the misfortune is, that they infect the minds, and influence the conduct, even of our gentlemen ; of those, I mean, who have every title to this appellation but an exemption from prejudice, which, however, in my opinion, ought to be regarded as the characteristical mark of a gentleman; for, let a man's birth be ever so high, his station ever so exalted, or his fortune ever so large, yet if he is not free from national and other prejudices, I should make bold to tell him, that he had a low and vulgar mind, and had no just claim to the character of a gentleman. And, in fact, you will always find that those are most apt to boast of national merit, who have little or no merit of their own to depend on ; than which, to be sure, nothing is more natural : the slender vine twists around the sturdy oak, for no other reason in the world but because it has not strength sufficient to support itself.
Should it be alleged in defence of national prejudice, that it is the natural and necessary growth of love to our country, and that therefore the former cannot be destroyed without hurting the latter, I answer that this is a gross fallacy and delusion. That it is the growth of love to our country, I will allow ; but that it is the natural and necessary growth of it, I absolutely deny. Superstition and enthusiasm, too, are the growth of religion ; but who ever took it in his head to affirm, that they are the necessary growth of this noble principle ? They are, if you will, the bastard sprouts of this heavenly plant, but not its natural and genuine branches, and may safely enough be lopped off, without doing any harm to the parent stock: nay, perhaps, till once they are lopped off, this goodly tree can never flourish in perfect health and vigour. Is it not very possible that I
my own country, without hating the natives of other countries ? that I may exert the most heroic bravery, the most undaunted resolution, in defending its laws and liberty, without despising all the rest of the world as cowards and poltroons? Most certainly it is ; and if it were not-But why need I suppose what is absolutely impossible ? - But if it were not, I must own, I should prefer the title of the ancient philosopher, viz. a citizen of the world, to that of an Englishman, a Frenchman, a European, or to any other appellation whatever.
Amidst the frivolous pursuits and pernicious dissipations of the present age, a respect for the qualities of the understanding still prevails to such a degree, that almost every individual pretends to have a taste for the Belles Lettres. The spruce apprentice sets up for a critic, and the puny beau piques himself upon being a connoisseur. Without assigning causes for this universal presumption, we shall proceed to observe, that if it was attended with no other inconvenience than that of exposing the pretender to the ridicule of those few who can sift his pretensions, it might be unnecessary to undeceive the public, or to endeavour at the reformation of innocent folly, productive of no evil to the commonwealth. But in reality this folly is productive of manifold evils to the community. If the reputation of taste can be acquired, without the least assistance of literature, by reading modern poems, and seeing modern plays, what person will deny himself the pleasure of such an easy qualification ? Hence the youth of both sexes are debauched to diversion, and seduced from much more profitable occupations into idle endeavours after literary fame; and a superficial false taste, founded on ignorance and conceit, takes possession of the public. The acquisition of learning, the study of nature, is neglected as superfluous labour ; and the best faculties of the mind remain unexercised, and indeed unopened, by the power of thought and reflection. False taste will not only diffuse itself through all our amusements, but even influence our moral and political conduct ; for what is false taste, but want of perception to discern propriety and distinguish beauty?
It has often been alleged, that taste is a natural talent, as independent of art as strong eyes, or a delicate sense of smelling ; and, without all doubt, the principal ingredient in the composition of taste, is a natural sensibility, without which it cannot exist ; but it differs from the senses in this particular, that they are finished by nature, whereas taste cannot be brought to perfection without proper cultivation : for taste pretends to judge, not only of nature, but also of art; and that judgment is founded upon observation and comparison.
What Horace has said of genius is still more applicable to taste :
Naturâ fieret laudabile carmen, an arte,
HOR. Art. Poet.
'Tis long disputed, whether poets claim
We have seen genius shine without the help of art, but taste must be cultivated by art, before it will produce agreeable fruit. This, however, we must still inculcate with Quintilian, that study, precept, and observation, will nought avail, without the assistance of nature :
Illud tamen imprimis testandum est, nihil præcepta atque artes valere, nisi adjuvante naturâ.
Yet even though nature has done her part, by implanting the seeds of taste, great pains must be taken, and great skill exerted, in raising them to a proper pitch of vegetation. The judicious tutor must gradually and tenderly unfold the mental faculties of the youth committed to his charge. He must cherish his delicate perception; store his mind with proper ideas; point out the different channels of observation; teach him to compare objects ; to establish the limits of right and wrong, of truth and falsehood ; to distinguish