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but actions and passions, &c. are the subject of ridicule, is, because these latter are relative terms implying approbation and blame. But are not the former as much relative terms, implying assent and denial? And does not an absurd proposition as frequently afford materials for ridicule as an absurd action? Let the reader determine by what he finds before him. To ask then, (says he) whether ridicule be a test of truth, is, in other words, to ask whether that which is ridiculous can be morally true; can be just and becoming; or whether that which is just and becoming can be ridiculous. A question that does not deserve a serious answer. Why then did he put
: it? For it is of nobody's asking but his own. However, in civility to his master, or rather indeed to his master's masters, the ancient sophists, who, we are told * in the Characteristics, said something very like it, I shall shew it deserves a very serious anster. For how, I pray, comes
I it to pass, that to ask whether ridicule be a test of truth, is the same thing as to ask whether that which is ridiculous can be morally true? As if, whatever ridicule was applied to, as a test, must needs be ridiculous. Might not one ask, Whether the copelt be a test of gold, without incurring the absurdity of questioning whether the matter of the copel was not standard gold? What was the man dreaming of? That a test of truth, and a detection of falsehood, were one and the same thing? or that it was the practice to bring nothing to the test but what was known, beforehand, whether it was true or false? His master seems much better versed in the use of things. He says !, Now, what rule or measure is there in the world, except in considering the real temper of things, to find which are truly serious, and which ridiculous ? And how can this be done, unless by applying the ridicule TO SEE WHETHER IT WILL BEAR?
* 'Twas the saying of an ancient Suge, that humour was the only test of ridicule. Vol. I. p. 74.,
+ I chuse this instance of the refiner's copel, because the English for it, wbich is Italian, is test; from whence the latter word was metaphorically used to signify all kinds of sure trial. This was proper to observe, as our Poet seems not to know the meaning of the word.
Char. Vol. I. p. 12.
But if the reader. be curious to see to the bottom of this affair, we must go a little deeper. Lord S-, we find, was willing to know, as every honest man would, whether those things, which had the appearance of seriousness and sanctity, were indeed what they appeared. The plain way of coming to this knowledge had been hitherto by the test of reason. But this was too long and too slow a progress for so sublime a genius. He would go a shorter and a quicker way to work, and do the business by ridicule, given us, as his disciple tells us, for
, this very end, to aid the tardy steps of reason. This therefore the noble Author would needs apply, to see whether these appearances would bear the touch. Now it was this ingenious expedient, which I thought I had cause to object to. For when you have applied this touch, and that, to which it is applied, is found to bear it, what reparation will you make to truth, for the ridiculous light in which you have placed her, in order only, as you pretend, to judge right of her? 0, for that, says his Lordship, she has the amends in her own hands: let her railley again; for why should fair honesty be denied the use of this weapon*? To this so wanton a liberty with
sacred truth, I thought I had many good reasons to oppose; and so, it seems, thought our Poet likewise: and therefore he endeavours to excuse his master, by putting another sense on the application of ridicule as a test, which supposes the truth or falsehood of the thing tried, to be already known. But the shift is uplucky'; for while it covers his master, it exposes himself. For now it may be asked, what need of ridicule at all, after the truth is known; since you make its sole use to consist in the discovery of the true state of things ?
But the odd fortune of our Poet's pen makes the pleasant part of the story. Here, we see, where he aims to make an absurd proposition, for the use of others, it proves a reasonable one: 'Tis odds but we find him, before we have done, trying to make a reasonable one, for his own use, that turns out at last an absurdity.
But let us come to the philosophy of his criticism: For it is most evident, that as in a metaphysical propositions
# Char. Vol. I. 128.
offered offered to the understanding for its assent, the faculty of reason eramines the terms of the proposition; and finding one idea, which was supposed equal to another, to be in fact unequal, of consequence rejects the proposition as a falsehood: so in objects offered to the mind for its esteem or applause, the faculty of ridicule feeling an incongruity in the claim, urges the mind to reject it with laughter and contempt. And now, how does this sublime account, of reason and ridicule, prove the foregoing proposition to be absurd? Just as much, I suppose, as the height of St. Paul's proves Grantham steeple to stand awry. I, for my part
, can collect nothing from it, unless it be that the Poet thought metaphysical propositions were the only proper objects of the understanding's assent, and the reason's examination.
However, if it cannot prove what precedes, he will try to make it infer what follows: IVhen THEREFORE (says he) we observe such a claim obtruded upon mankind, and the inconsistent circumstances carefully concealed from the eye of the public, it is our business, if the matter be of importance to society, to drag out those latent circumstances, and, by setting them full in view, convince the world how ridiculous the claim is; and thus a double advantage is gained; for we both detect the moral falsehood sooner than in the way of speculative inquiry, and impress the minds of men with a stronger sense of the vanity and error of its authors. And this, and no more, is meant by the application of ridicule. A little more, if we may believe his master: who says, it is not only to detect error, but to try truth, that is, in his own expression, to see whether it will bear. But why all this ado; for now, we see, nobody mistook what was meant by the application of ridicule, but himself-As to what he said before, that when objects are offered to the mind for its esteem and applause, the faculty of ridicule, feeling an incongruity in the claim, urges the mind to reject it with laughter and contempt; it is so expressed, as if he intended it not for the description of the use, but the essence of ridicule. Whereas the dealers in this trash frequently urge the mind to reject many things with laughter and contempt, without feeling any other incont
gruity, than in their own pretensions to truth and lionesty. And this our Poet very well knowns.
For now he comes to the point. But it is said the practice is dangerous, and may be inconsistent with the regard we owe to objects of real dignity and excellence. I answer, the practice FAIRLY MANAGED, can never be dangerous. An answer which has only taught me to reply, that the use of stillettos and poisons, fairly managed, can never be dangerous. And yet all wise states, for the security of its members, when any of them have shewn a violent propensity to these things, have ever forbidden their promiscuous use and sale.
However, he allows at length, that men may be dishonest in obtruding circumstances foreign to the object; and we may be inadvertent in allowing these circumstances to impose upon us; but—but what? Why ihe SENSE OF RIDICULE ALWAYS JUDGES NIGHT. And, lie had told us before, that this is a natural sense, and bestowed upon us bij the Supreme Being, to aid our tardy steps in pursuit of reason. Why, as le says, who can withstand this ? Nothing can be clearer! Writers may be dishonest; readers may be imposed on; the public may be misled; and men may judge wrong. But what then, the sense of ridicule always judges right. And while we can support our Platonic republic of ideas, what signifies what becomes of the feces Romuli, the actions of the people? And so again it is, we see, in the use of poisons: though men may be dishonest in obtruding them, and we may be inadvertent enough to suffer them to impose upon us; yet what then? The efficacy of poison is without malice; and does but do its kind; is a natural power, and bestowed upon us by the Supreme Being, to aid our tardy steps in pursuit of vermin.-In truth, one would imagine, by so extraordinary an argument, that the question was not, of the injury to society by the abuse of ridicule, but of the injury to ridicule itself.
But let us hear him out: The Socrates of Aristophanes is as truly ridiculous a character as ever was drawn.
but it is not the character of Socrates, the divine moralist, and father of ancient wisdom. Indeed!- But then, it, like the true Sosia, in the other comedy, he must 3
bear the blows of his fictitious brother, what significs it to injured virtue, to tell us, that he did not deserve then ?
Ilhat then? (says tre) did the ridicule of the Poct hinder the philosopher from detecting and disclaiming those forcign circumstances which he had falsely intro
duced into his character, and thus rendering the Satirist doubly ridiculous in his turn. See here again ! all his concern, we find, is, lest good raillery should be beat at its own weapons. No, indeed, I cannot see how it could possibly hinder the philosopher from detecting and dis-, claiming. But this it did, which surely deserves a little reflection, it hindered the people from seeing what he had detected and disclaimed- A mighty consolation, truly, to expiring virtue, that he disclaimed the fool's coat they had put upon him ; though it stuck to him like a sambënito; and at last brought him to his execution.
But what is the sacrifice of a Socrates now and then, to secure the free use of that inestimable blessing, buffoonry? So thinks our Poet; when all the answer he gives to so natural, so compassionate an objection as this, No: but it nevertheless had an ill influence on the minds of the people, is telling us a story of the Atheist Spinoza; while the godlike Socrates is left neglected, and in the hands of his judges; whither ridicule, this noble guide of truth, had safely brought him.
But let us hear the concluding answer which the respectable Spinoza is employed to illustrate. — And 50
so (says he) has the reasoning of Spinoza made many Atheists; he has founded it indeed on suppositions utterly false; buit allow him these, and his conclusions are unavoidably true. And if we must reject the use of ridicule because, by the imposition of false circumstances, things may be made to seein ridiculous, which are not so in themselves ; why we ought not in the same manner to reject the use of reason, because, by proceeding on false principles, conclusions, will appear true which are impossible in nature, let the vehement and obstinate declaimers against ridicule determine.
Nay, we . dare trust it with any one ; whose common sense is not all turned to taste. What! Because