A journey from this world to the next, by Henry Fielding

Chapter XVI

The history of the wise man.

“I now returned to Rome, but in a very different character. Fortune had now allotted me a serious part to act. I had even in my infancy a grave disposition, nor was I ever seen to smile, which infused an opinion into all about me that I was a child of great solidity; some foreseeing that I should be a judge, and others a bishop. At two years old my father presented me with a rattle, which I broke to pieces with great indignation. This the good parent, being extremely wise, regarded as an eminent symptom of my wisdom, and cried out in a kind of ecstasy, ‘Well said, boy! I warrant thou makest a great man.’

“At school I could never be persuaded to play with my mates; not that I spent my hours in learning, to which I was not in the least addicted, nor indeed had I any talents for it. However, the solemnity of my carriage won so much on my master, who was a most sagacious person, that I was his chief favorite, and my example on all occasions was recommended to the other boys, which filled them with envy, and me with pleasure; but, though they envied me, they all paid me that involuntary respect which it is the curse attending this passion to bear towards its object.

“I had now obtained universally the character of a very wise young man, which I did not altogether purchase without pains; for the restraint I laid on myself in abstaining from the several diversions adapted to my years cost me many a yearning; but the pride which I inwardly enjoyed in the fancied dignity of my character made me some amends.

“Thus I passed on, without anything very memorable happening to me, till I arrived at the age of twenty-three, when unfortunately I fell acquainted with a young Neapolitan lady whose name was Ariadne. Her beauty was so exquisite that her first sight made a violent impression on me; this was again improved by her behavior, which was most genteel, easy, and affable: lastly, her conversation completed the conquest. In this she discovered a strong and lively understanding, with the sweetest and most benign temper. This lovely creature was about eighteen when I first unhappily beheld her at Rome, on a visit to a relation with whom I had great intimacy. As our interviews at first were extremely frequent, my passions were captivated before I apprehended the least danger; and the sooner probably, as the young lady herself, to whom I consulted every method of recommendation, was not displeased with my being her admirer.

“Ariadne, having spent three months at Rome, now returned to Naples, bearing my heart with her: on the other hand, I had all the assurances consistent with the constraint under which the most perfect modesty lays a young woman, that her own heart was not entirely unaffected. I soon found her absence gave me an uneasiness not easy to be borne or to remove. I now first applied to diversions (of the graver sort, particularly to music), but in vain; they rather raised my desires and heightened my anguish. My passion at length grew so violent, that I began to think of satisfying it. As the first step to this, I cautiously inquired into the circumstances of Ariadne’s parents, with which I was hitherto unacquainted: though, indeed, I did not apprehend they were extremely great, notwithstanding the handsome appearance of their daughter at Rome. Upon examination, her fortune exceeded my expectation, but was not sufficient to justify my marriage with her, in the opinion of the wise and prudent. I had now a violent struggle between wisdom and happiness, in which, after several grievous pangs, wisdom got the better. I could by no means prevail with myself to sacrifice that character of profound wisdom, which I had with such uniform conduct obtained, and with such caution hitherto preserved. I therefore resolved to conquer my affection, whatever it cost me; and indeed it did not cost me a little.

“While I was engaged in this conflict (for it lasted a long time) Ariadne returned to Rome: her presence was a terrible enemy to my wisdom, which even in her absence had with great difficulty stood its ground. It seems (as she hath since told me in Elysium with much merriment) I had made the same impressions on her which she had made on me. Indeed, I believe my wisdom would have been totally subdued by this surprise, had it not cunningly suggested to me a method of satisfying my passion without doing any injury to my reputation. This was by engaging her privately as a mistress, which was at that time reputable enough at Rome, provided the affair was managed with an air of slyness and gravity, though the secret was known to the whole city.

“I immediately set about this project, and employed every art and engine to effect it. I had particularly bribed her priest, and an old female acquaintance and distant relation of hers, into my interest: but all was in vain; her virtue opposed the passion in her breast as strongly as wisdom had opposed it in mine. She received my proposals with the utmost disdain, and presently refused to see or hear from me any more.

“She returned again to Naples, and left me in a worse condition than before. My days I now passed with the most irksome uneasiness, and my nights were restless and sleepless. The story of our amour was now pretty public, and the ladies talked of our match as certain; but my acquaintance denied their assent, saying, ‘No, no, he is too wise to marry so imprudently.’ This their opinion gave me, I own, very great pleasure; but, to say the truth, scarce compensated the pangs I suffered to preserve it.

“One day, while I was balancing with myself, and had almost resolved to enjoy my happiness at the price of my character, a friend brought me word that Ariadne was married. This news struck me to the soul; and though I had resolution enough to maintain my gravity before him (for which I suffered not a little the more), the moment I was alone I threw myself into the most violent fit of despair, and would willingly have parted with wisdom, fortune, and everything else, to have retrieved her; but that was impossible, and I had now nothing but time to hope a cure from. This was very tedious in performing it, and the longer as Ariadne had married a Roman cavalier, was now become my near neighbor, and I had the mortification of seeing her make the best of wives, and of having the happiness which I had lost, every day before my eyes.

“If I suffered so much on account of my wisdom in having refused Ariadne, I was not much more obliged to it for procuring me a rich widow, who was recommended to me by an old friend as a very prudent match; and, indeed, so it was, her fortune being superior to mine in the same proportion as that of Ariadne had been inferior. I therefore embraced this proposal, and my character of wisdom soon pleaded so effectually for me with the widow, who was herself a woman of great gravity and discretion, that I soon succeeded; and as soon as decency would permit (of which this lady was the strictest observer) we were married, being the second day of the second week of the second year after her husband’s death; for she said she thought some period of time above the year had a great air of decorum.

“But, prudent as this lady was, she made me miserable. Her person was far from being lovely, but her temper was intolerable.

“During fifteen years’ habitation, I never passed a single day without heartily cursing her, and the hour in which we came together. The only comfort I received, in the midst of the highest torments, was from continually hearing the prudence of my match commended by all my acquaintance.

“Thus you see, in the affairs of love, I bought the reputation of wisdom pretty dear. In other matters I had it somewhat cheaper; not that hypocrisy, which was the price I gave for it, gives one no pain. I have refused myself a thousand little amusements with a feigned contempt, while I have really had an inclination to them. I have often almost choked myself to restrain from laughing at a jest, and (which was perhaps to myself the least hurtful of all my hypocrisy) have heartily enjoyed a book in my closet which I have spoken with detestation of in public. To sum up my history in short, as I had few adventures worth remembering, my whole life was one constant lie; and happy would it have been for me if I could as thoroughly have imposed on myself as I did on others: for reflection, at every turn, would often remind me I was not so wise as people thought me; and this considerably embittered the pleasure I received from the public commendation of my wisdom. This self-admonition, like a memento mori or mortalis es, must be, in my opinion, a very dangerous enemy to flattery: indeed, a weight sufficient to counterbalance all the false praise of the world. But whether it be that the generality of wise men do not reflect at all, or whether they have, from a constant imposition on others, contracted such a habit of deceit as to deceive themselves, I will not determine: it is, I believe, most certain that very few wise men know themselves what fools they are, more than the world doth. Good gods! could one but see what passes in the closet of wisdom! how ridiculous a sight must it be to behold the wise man, who despises gratifying his palate, devouring custard; the sober wise man with his dram-bottle; or, the anti-carnalist (if I may be allowed the expression) chuckling over a b — dy book or picture, and perhaps caressing his house-maid!

“But to conclude a character in which I apprehend I made as absurd a figure as in any in which I trod the stage of earth, my wisdom at last but an end to itself, that is, occasioned my dissolution.

“A relation of mine in the eastern part of the empire disinherited his son, and left me his heir. This happened in the depth of winter, when I was in my grand climacteric, and had just recovered of a dangerous disease. As I had all the reason imaginable to apprehend the family of the deceased would conspire against me, and embezzle as much as they could, I advised with a grave and wise friend what was proper to be done; whether I should go myself, or employ a notary on this occasion, and defer my journey to the spring. To say the truth, I was most inclined to the latter; the rather as my circumstances were extremely flourishing, as I was advanced in years, and had not one person in the world to whom I should with pleasure bequeath any fortune at my death.

“My friend told me he thought my question admitted of no manner of doubt or debate; that common prudence absolutely required my immediate departure; adding, that if the same good luck had happened to him he would have been already on his journey; ‘for,’ continued he, ‘a man who knows the world so well as you, would be inexcusable to give persons such an opportunity of cheating you, who, you must be assured, will be too well inclined; and as for employing a notary, remember that excellent maxim, Ne facias per alium, quod fieri potest per te. I own the badness of the season and your very late recovery are unlucky circumstances; but a wise man must get over difficulties when necessity obliges him to encounter them.’

“I was immediately determined by this opinion. The duty of a wise man made an irresistible impression, and I took the necessity for granted without examination. I accordingly set forward the next morning; very tempestuous weather soon overtook me; I had not traveled three days before I relapsed into my fever, and died.

“I was now as cruelly disappointed by Minos as I had formerly been happily so. I advanced with the utmost confidence to the gate, and really imagined I should have been admitted by the wisdom of my countenance, even without any questions asked: but this was not my case; and, to my great surprise, Minos, with a menacing voice, called out to me, ‘You Mr. there, with the grave countenance, whither so fast, pray? Will you please, before you move any farther forwards, to give me a short account of your transactions below?’ I then began, and recounted to him my whole history, still expecting at the end of every period that the gate would be ordered to fly open; but I was obliged to go quite through with it, and then Minos after some little consideration spoke to me as follows:—

“‘You, Mr. Wiseman, stand forth if you please. Believe me, sir, a trip back again to earth will be one of the wisest steps you ever took, and really more to the honor of your wisdom than any you have hitherto taken. On the other side, nothing could be simpler than to endeavor at Elysium; for who but a fool would carry a commodity, which is of such infinite value in one place, into another where it is of none? But, without attempting to offend your gravity with a jest, you must return to the place from whence you came, for Elysium was never designed for those who are too wise to be happy.’

“This sentence confounded me greatly, especially as it seemed to threaten me with carrying my wisdom back again to earth. I told the judge, though he would not admit me at the gate, I hoped I had committed no crime while alive which merited my being wise any longer. He answered me, I must take my chance as to that matter, and immediately we turned our backs to each other.”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37