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ESSA Y XIV.
ON RESPECTABLE PEOPLE.
If the person
There is not any term that is oftener misapplied, or that is a stronger instance of the abuse of language, than this same word respectable. By a respectable man is generally meant a person whom there is no reason for respecting, or none that we choose to name : for if there is any good reason for the opinion we wish to express, we naturally assign it as the ground of his respectability. If the whom you are desirous to characterise favourably, is distinguished for his good-nature, you
that he is a good-natured man; if by his zeal to serve his friends, you call him a friendly man; if by his wit or sense, you say that he is witty or sensible ; if by his honesty or learning, you say soat once; but if he is none of these, and there is no one quality which you can bring forward to justify the high opinion you would be thought to entertain of him, you then take the question for granted, and jump at a conclusion, by observing gravely, that “he is a very
respectable man.” It is clear, indeed, that where we have any striking and generally admitted reasons for respecting a man, the most obvious way to ensure the respect of others, will be to mention his estimable qualities; where these are wanting, the wisest course must be to say nothing about them, but to insist on the general inference which we have our particular reasons for drawing, only vouching for its authenticity. If, for instance, the only motive we have for thinking or speaking well of another is, that he gives us good dinners, as this is not a valid reason to those who do not, like us, partake of his hospitality, we may (without going into particulars) content ourselves with assuring them, that he is a most respectable man: if he is a slave to those above him, and an oppressor of those below him, but sometimes makes us the channels of his bounty or the tools of his caprice, it will be as well to say nothing of the matter, but to confine ourselves to the safer generality, that he is a person of the highest respectability: if he is a low dirty fellow, who has amassed an immense fortune, which he does not know what to do with, the possession of it alone will guarantee his respectability, if we say nothing of the manner in which he lias come by it, or in which he spends it. A man
may be a knave or a fool, or both (as it may happen) and yet be a most respectable man, in the common and authorized sense of the term, provided he saves appearances, and does not give common fame a handle for no longer keeping up the imposture. The best title to the character of respectability lies in the convenience of those who echo the cheat, and in the conventional hypocrisy of the world. Any one may lay claim to it who is willing to give himself airs of importance, and can find means to divert others from inquiring too strictly into his pretensions. It is a disposable commodity, not a part of the man, that sticks to him like his skin, but an appurtenance, like his goods and chattels. It is meat, drink, and clothing to those who take the benefit of it by allowing others the credit. It is the current coin, the circulating medium, in which the factitious intercourse of the world is carried on, the bribe which interest pays to vanity. Respectability includes all that vague and undefinable mass of respect floating in the world, which arises from sinister motives in the person who pays it, and is offered to adventitious and doubtful qualities in the person who receives it. It is spurious and nominal; hollow and venal. To suppose that it is to be taken literally or applied to sterling merit, would betray the greatest ignorance of the customary use of speech. When we hear the word coupled with the name of any individual, it would argue a degree of romantic simplicity to imagine that it implies any one quality of head or heart, any one excellence of body or mind, any one good action or praise-worthy sentiment; but as soon as it is mentioned, it conjures up the ideas of a handsome house with large acres round it, a sumptuous table, a cellar well stocked with excellent wines, splendid furniture, a fashionable equipage, with a long list of elegant contingencies. It is not what a man is, but what he has, that we speak of in the significant use of this term. He may be the poorest creature in the world in himself, but if he is well to do, and can spare some of his superfluities, if he can lend us his purse or his countenance upon occasion, he then “buys golden opinions of us ;-it is but fit that we should speak well of the bridge that carries us over, and in return for what we can get from him, we embody our servile gratitude, hopes, and fears, in this word respectability. By it we pamper his pride, and feed our own nécessities. It must needs be a very honest úncorrupted word that is the gobetween in this disinterested kind of traffic. We do not think of applying this word to a great poet or a great painter, to the man of genius, or the man of virtue, for it is seldom we can spunge upon them. It would be a solecism for any one to pretend to the character who has a shabby coat to his back, who goes without a dinner, or has not a good house over his head. He who has reduced himself in the world by devoting himself to a particular study, or adhering to a particular cause, occasions only a smile of pity or a shrug of contempt at the mention of his name ; while he who has raised himself in it by a different course, who has become rich for want of ideas, and powerful from want of principle, is looked up to with silent homage, and passes for a respectable man. “ The learned pate ducks to the golden fool.” We spurn at virtue and genius in rags ; and lick the dust in the presence of vice and folly in purple. When Otway was left to starve after having produced “Venice Preserv'd,” there was nothing in the phrenzied action with which he devoured the food that choked him, to provoke the respect of the mob, who would have hooted at him the more for knowing that he was a poet. Spenser, kept waiting for the hundred pounds which Burleigh grudged him “for a song,” might feel the mortification of his situation ; but the statesman never felt any diminution of his Sovereign's