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Ch. 13: Essay on the Fates of Clergymen


This essay was first printed in Nos. v. and vii. of "The Intelligencer" (Dublin, 1728). In that periodical it bore the title: "A Description of what the World calls Discretion;" and had the following lines from Ben Jonson as a text:

"Described it's thus: Defined would you it have?
Then the World's honest Man's an errant knave."

The text here printed is based on the original issue, and collated with the "Miscellanies," vol. iii. of 1732, and the "Miscellanies," vol. ii., 1747.


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There is no talent so useful towards rising in the world, or which puts men more out of the reach of fortune, than that quality generally possessed by the dullest sort of people, and is in common speech called discretion; a species of lower prudence, by the assistance of which, people of the meanest intellectuals, without any other qualification, pass through the world in great tranquillity, and with universal good treatment, neither giving nor taking offence. Courts are seldom unprovided of persons under this character, on whom, if they happen to be of great quality, most employments, even the greatest, naturally fall, when competitors will not agree; and in such promotions, nobody rejoices or grieves. The truth of this I could prove by several instances within my own memory; for I say nothing of present times.

And, indeed, as regularity and forms are of great use in carrying on the business of the world, so it is very convenient, that persons endued with this kind of discretion, should have that share which is proper to their talents, in the conduct of affairs, but by no means meddle in matters which require genius, learning, strong comprehension, quickness of conception, magnanimity, generosity, sagacity, or any other superior gift of human minds. Because this sort of discretion is usually attended with a strong desire of money, and few scruples about the way of obtaining it; with servile flattery and submission; with a want of all public spirit or principle; with a perpetual wrong judgment, when the owners come into power and high place, how to dispose of favour and preferment; having no measures for merit and virtue in others, but those very steps by which themselves ascended; nor the least intention of doing good or hurt to the public, farther than either one or t'other is likely to be subservient to their own security or interest. Thus, being void of all friendship and enmity, they never complain or find fault with the times, and indeed never have reason to do so.

Men of eminent parts and abilities, as well as virtues, do sometimes rise in the court, sometimes in the law, and sometimes even in the Church. Such were the Lord Bacon, the Earl of Strafford, Archbishop Laud, in the reign of King Charles I., and others in our own times, whom I shall not name; but these, and many more, under different princes, and in different kingdoms, were disgraced or banished, or suffered death, merely in envy to their virtues and superior genius, which emboldened them in great exigencies and distresses of state, (wanting a reasonable infusion of this aldermanly discretion,) to attempt the service of their prince and country, out of the common forms.

This evil fortune, which generally attends extraordinary men in the management of great affairs, has been imputed to divers causes that need not be here set down, when so obvious a one occurs, if what a certain writer observes be true, that when a great genius appears in the world, the dunces are all in confederacy against him. And if this be his fate when he employs his talents[1] wholly in his closet, without interfering with any man's ambition or avarice, what must he expect, when he ventures out to seek for preferment in a court, but universal opposition when he is mounting the ladder, and every hand ready to turn him off when he is at the top? And in this point, fortune generally acts directly contrary to nature; for in nature we find, that bodies full of life and spirits mount easily, and are hard to fall, whereas heavy bodies are hard to rise, and come down with greater velocity, in proportion to their weight; but we find fortune every day acting just the reverse of this.

[Footnote 1: "And thus although he employs his talents." This is the reading of "The Intelligencer." [T.S.]]

This talent of discretion, as I have described it in its several adjuncts and circumstances, is nowhere so serviceable as to the clergy, to whose preferment nothing is so fatal as the character of wit, politeness in reading or manners, or that kind of behaviour which we contract by having too much conversation with persons of high station and eminency: these qualifications being reckoned, by the vulgar of all ranks, to be marks of levity, which is the last crime the world will pardon in a clergyman; to this I may add a free manner of speaking in mixed company, and too frequent an appearance in places of much resort, which are equally noxious to spiritual promotion.

I have known, indeed, a few exceptions to some parts of these observations.[2] I have seen some of the dullest men alive aiming at wit, and others, with as little pretensions, affecting politeness in manners and discourse: But never being able to persuade the world of their guilt, they grew into considerable stations, upon the firm assurance which all people had of their discretion, because they were of a size too low to deceive the world to their own disadvantage. But this, I confess, is a trial too dangerous often to engage in.

[Footnote 2: This word is "regulations" in "The Intelligencer." [T.S.]]

There is a known story of a clergyman, who was recommended for a preferment by some great men at court, to an archbishop.[3] His grace said, "he had heard that the clergyman used to play at whist and swobbers;[4] that as to playing now and then a sober game at whist for pastime, it might be pardoned, but he could not digest those wicked swobbers;" and it was with some pains that my Lord Somers could undeceive him. I ask, by what talents we may suppose that great prelate ascended so high, or what sort of qualifications he would expect in those whom he took into his patronage, or would probably recommend to court for the government of distant churches?

[Footnote 3: Archbishop Tenison, who, by all contemporary accounts, was a very dull man. There was a bitter sarcasm upon him usually ascribed to Swift, "That he was as hot and heavy as a tailor's goose." [S.]

In "The Intelligencer" the word "archbishop" is replaced by the letters A.B.C.T. [T.S.]]

[Footnote 4: "Swobbers" were four privileged cards used, at one time, for betting purposes, in the game of whist. [T.S.]]

Two clergymen, in my memory, stood candidates for a small free school in Yorkshire, where a gentleman of quality and interest in the country, who happened to have a better understanding than his neighbours, procured the place for him who was the better scholar, and more gentlemanly person, of the two, very much to the regret of all the parish: The other, being disappointed, came up to London, where he became the greatest pattern of this lower discretion that I have known, and possessed it with as heavy intellectuals; which, together with the coldness of his temper, and gravity of his deportment, carried him safe through many difficulties, and he lived and died in a great station; while his competitor is too obscure for fame to tell us what became of him.

This species of discretion, which I so much celebrate, and do most heartily recommend, hath one advantage not yet mentioned, that it will carry a man safe through all the malice and variety of parties, so far, that whatever faction happens to be uppermost, his claim is usually allowed for a share of what is going. And the thing seems to me highly reasonable: For in all great changes, the prevailing side is usually so tempestuous, that it wants the ballast of those whom the world calls moderate men, and I call men of discretion; whom people in power may, with little ceremony, load as heavy as they please, drive them through the hardest and deepest roads without danger of foundering, or breaking their backs, and will be sure to find them neither rusty nor vicious.

I[5] will here give the reader a short history of two clergymen in England, the characters of each, and the progress of their fortunes in the world; by which the force of worldly discretion, and the bad consequences from the want of that virtue, will strongly appear.

[Footnote 5: In "The Intelligencer," No. v., this paragraph reads as follows: "In some following Paper I will give the reader a short history of two Clergymen in England, the characters of each, and the progress of their fortunes in the world. By which the force of worldly discretion, and the bad consequences from the want of that virtue, will strongly appear." In No. vii. the subject is continued as in the next paragraph. [T.S.]]

Corusodes, an Oxford student, and a farmer's son, was never absent from prayers or lecture, nor once out of his college, after Tom had tolled. He spent every day ten hours in his closet, in reading his courses, dozing, clipping papers, or darning his stockings; which last he performed to admiration. He could be soberly drunk at the expense of others, with college ale, and at those seasons was always most devout. He wore the same gown five years without draggling or tearing. He never once looked into a playbook or a poem. He read Virgil and Ramus in the same cadence, but with a very different taste. He never understood a jest, or had the least conception of wit.

For one saying he stands in renown to this day. Being with some other students over a pot of ale, one of the company said so many pleasant things, that the rest were much diverted, only Corusodes was silent and unmoved. When they parted, he called this merry companion aside, and said, "Sir, I perceive by your often speaking, and your friends laughing, that you spoke many jests; and you could not but observe my silence: But sir, this is my humour, I never make a jest myself, nor ever laugh at another man's."

Corusodes, thus endowed, got into holy orders; having, by the most extreme parsimony, saved thirty-four pounds out of a very beggarly fellowship, he went up to London, where his sister was waitingwoman to a lady, and so good a solicitor, that by her means he was admitted to read prayers in the family twice a-day, at fourteen[1] shillings a month. He had now acquired a low, obsequious, awkward bow, and a talent of gross flattery both in and out of season; he would shake the butler by the hand; he taught the page his catechism, and was sometimes admitted to dine at the steward's table. In short, he got the good word of the whole family, and was recommended by my lady for chaplain to some other noble houses, by which his revenue (besides vales) amounted to about thirty pounds a-year: His sister procured him a scarf from my lord, who had a small design of gallantry upon her; and by his lordship's solicitation he got a lectureship in town of sixty pounds a-year; where he preached constantly in person, in a grave manner, with an audible voice, a style ecclesiastic, and the matter (such as it was) well suited to the intellectuals of his hearers. Some time after, a country living fell in my lord's disposal; and his lordship, who had now some encouragement given him of success in his amour, bestowed the living on Corusodes, who still kept his lectureship and residence in town; where he was a constant attendant at all meetings relating to charity, without ever contributing further than his frequent pious exhortations. If any woman of better fashion in the parish happened to be absent from church, they were sure of a visit from him in a day or two, to chide and to dine with them.

[Footnote 6: Scott has "ten shillings." [T.S.]]

He had a select number of poor constantly attending at the street door of his lodgings, for whom he was a common solicitor to his former patroness, dropping in his own halfcrown among the collection, and taking it out when he disposed of the money. At a person of quality's house, he would never sit down till he was thrice bid, and then upon the corner of the most distant chair. His whole demeanour was formal and starch, which adhered so close, that he could never shake it off in his highest promotion.

His lord was now in high employment at court, and attended by him with the most abject assiduity; and his sister being gone off with child to a private lodging, my lord continued his graces to Corusodes, got him to be a chaplain in ordinary, and in due time a parish in town, and a dignity in the Church.

He paid his curates punctually, at the lowest salary, and partly out of the communion money; but gave them good advice in abundance. He married a citizen's widow, who taught him to put out small sums at ten per cent., and brought him acquainted with jobbers in Change-alley. By her dexterity he sold the clerkship of his parish, when it became vacant.

He kept a miserable house, but the blame was laid wholly upon madam; for the good doctor was always at his books, or visiting the sick, or doing other offices of charity and piety in his parish.

He treated all his inferiors of the clergy with a most sanctified pride; was rigorously and universally censorious upon all his brethren of the gown, on their first appearance in the world, or while they continued meanly preferred; but gave large allowance to the laity of high rank, or great riches, using neither eyes nor ears for their faults: He was never sensible of the least corruption in courts, parliaments, or ministries, but made the most favourable constructions of all public proceedings; and power, in whatever hands, or whatever party, was always secure of his most charitable opinion. He had many wholesome maxims ready to excuse all miscarriages of state: Men are but men; Erunt vitia donec homines; and, Quod supra nos, nil ad nos; with several others of equal weight.

It would lengthen my paper beyond measure to trace out the whole system of his conduct; his dreadful apprehensions of Popery; his great moderation toward dissenters of all denominations; with hearty wishes, that, by yielding somewhat on both sides, there might be a general union among Protestants; his short, inoffensive sermons in his turns at court, and the matter exactly suited to the present juncture of prevailing opinions; the arts he used to obtain a mitre, by writing against Episcopacy; and the proofs he gave of his loyalty, by palliating or defending the murder of a martyred prince.

Endowed with all these accomplishments, we leave him in the full career of success, mounting fast toward the top of the Ladder Ecclesiastical, which he hath a fair probability to reach; without the merit of one single virtue, moderately stocked with the least valuable parts of erudition, utterly devoid of all taste, judgment, or genius; and, in his grandeur, naturally choosing to haul up others after him, whose accomplishments most resemble his own, except his beloved sons, nephews, or other kindred, be in competition; or, lastly, except his inclinations be diverted by those who have power to mortify, or further advance him.

Eugenio set out from the same university, and about the same time with Corusodes; he had the reputation of an arch lad at school, and was unfortunately possessed with a talent for poetry; on which account he received many chiding letters from his father, and grave advice from his tutor. He did not neglect his college learning, but his chief study was the authors of antiquity, with a perfect knowledge in the Greek and Roman tongues. He could never procure himself to be chosen fellow: For it was objected against him, that he had written verses, and particularly some wherein he glanced at a certain reverend doctor famous for dulness: That he been seen bowing to ladies, as he met them in the streets; and it was proved, that once he had been found dancing in a private family, with half a dozen of both sexes.

He was the younger son to a gentleman of good birth, but small estate; and his father dying, he was driven to London to seek his fortune: He got into orders, and became reader in a parish church at twenty pounds a-year; was carried by an Oxford friend to Will's coffee-house, frequented in those days by men of wit, where in some time he had the bad luck to be distinguished. His scanty salary compelled him to run deep in debt for a new gown and cassock, and now and then forced him to write some paper of wit or humour, or preach a sermon for ten shillings, to supply his necessities. He was a thousand times recommended by his poetical friends to great persons, as a young man of excellent parts who deserved encouragement, and received a thousand promises; but his modesty, and a generous spirit, which disdained the slavery of continual application and attendance, always disappointed him, making room for vigilant dunces, who were sure to be never out of sight.

He had an excellent faculty in preaching, if he were not sometimes a little too refined, and apt to trust too much to his own way of thinking and reasoning.

When, upon the vacancy of a preferment, he was hardly drawn to attend upon some promising lord, he received the usual answer, "That he came too late, for it had been given to another the very day before." And he had only this comfort left, that everybody said, "It was a thousand pities something could not be done for poor Mr. Eugenio."

The remainder of his story will be dispatched in a few words: Wearied with weak hopes, and weaker pursuits, he accepted a curacy in Derbyshire, of thirty pounds a-year, and when he was five-and-forty, had the great felicity to be preferred by a friend of his father's to a vicarage worth annually sixty pounds, in the most desert parts of Lincolnshire; where, his spirit quite sunk with those reflections that solitude and disappointments bring, he married a farmer's widow, and is still alive, utterly undistinguished and forgotten; only some of the neighbours have accidentally heard, that he had been a notable man in his youth.

Jonathan Swift