Page images
PDF
EPUB

ESSAY XIV. OF NOBILITY.

WE will speak of nobility first as a portion of an estate,1 then as a condition of particular persons. A monarchy where there is no nobility at all is ever a pure and absolute tyranny, as that of the Turks; for nobility attempers sovereignty, and draws the eyes of the people somewhat aside from the line royal: but for democracies, they need it not, and they are commonly more quiet, and less subject to sedition than where there are stirps2 of nobles—for men's eyes are upon the business, and not upon the persons; or, if upon the persons, it is for the business' sake, as fittest, and not for flags and pedigree. We see the Switzers last well, notwithstanding their diversity of religion and of Cantons; for utility is their bond, and not respects.3 The United Provinces of the Low Countries in their government excel; for where there is an equality, the consultations are more indifferent,4 and the payments and tributes more cheerful. A great and potent nobility addeth majesty to a monarch, but diminisheth power; and putteth life and spirit into the people, but presseth their fortune. It is well when nobles are not too great for sovereignty, nor for justice; and yet maintained in that height, as the insolency5 of inferiors may be broken upon them before it come on too fast upon the majesty of kings. A numerous nobility causeth poverty and inconvenience in a State; for it is a surcharge of expense; and besides, it being of necessity that many of the nobility fall in time to be weak in fortune, it maketh a kind of disproportion between honour and means.

As for nobility in particular persons, it is a reverend thing to see an ancient castle or building not in decay, or to see a fair timber tree sound and perfect; how much more to behold an ancient noble family, which hath stood against the waves and weathers of time!—for new nobility is but the act of power, but ancient nobility is the act of time.

1 Estate. State; a political body; a commonieeahh.

'The estate is green and yet ungoverned '—Shakeepere. 'Stirps. Race; family. 'Sundry nations got footing on that land, of the which there yet remain divers great families and stirps.'Spenser.

3 Respects. Personal considerations. See page 119.

4 Indifierent. Impartial. See page 84.

5 Insolem-y. Insolence. 'The insolencies of traitors, and the violence of rebels.' —Ilithop Taylor.

Those that are first raised to nobility, are commonly more virtuous, but less innocent, than their descendants—for there is raTely any rising but by a commixture of good and evil arts, —but it is reason1 the memory of their virtues remain to their posterity, and their faults die with themselves. Nobility of birth commonly abateth industry; and he that is not industrious, envieth him that is: besides, noble persons cannot go much higher; and he that standeth at a stay* when others rise, can hardly avoid motions' of envy. On the other side, nobility extinguished the passive envy from others towards them, because they are in possession of honour. Certainly, kings that have able men of their nobility shall find ease in employing them, and a better slide into their business; for people naturally bend to them as born in some sort to command.

ANTITHETA ON NOBILITY.
Pro. Contra.

* * * * 'Raro ox virtutc nobilitas: rarius ex 'Nobilitas lauroa, qua tempus homines nobilitatc virtus.

coronat. 'Nobility has seldom sjyruiig from

'Iligh birth is the screath with which virtue: virtue sUH more rarely from men are crowned by time.' nobility!

'Antiquitatem etiam in mortuis mo- 'Nobiles, majorum deprecationc, ad

numentis veneramur: quanta nnigis in veniam, swpius utuntur, quam suflra

v i \ i s? gatione, ad honores.

We reverence antiquity even in life- 'Persons of high birth oftener resort less monuments; how much more in to Oieir ancestors as a pUa for escaping living ones f punishment Oian as a recommendation

* * * * to high posts.'

'Nobilitas virtutem invidiam subduoit, _ , . , . , ... u_fa_j« 'lanta snlet esse rndustna iwnumim

Nobility withdraws virtue from envy, "nvarum, ut nobiles pm ill* uuiquam

* Li'i!|i'ii I'll 1UIIIT11P

and commends it to favour.'

sUtua3 videantur.

'Sw:h is the activity of upstart* that men of high birth seem statues in comparison.'

'Nobiles in studio respectant nimis saepc; quod mali cursoris est.

* In running their race, men of birth look back too often; which is the mark of a hid runner.'

'Reason. Reasonable; right. Seepage 116.
* Stuy. Check; cessation of progress. Scepagor37,

3 Motions. Internal action; feilings; impulses. 'The motions of sin, which were by the law.'—Rumans vii. 5.

ANNOTATIONS.

* We will speak of nobility first as a portion of an estate.'

In reference to nobility as an institution, it is important to remark how great a difference it makes whether the Order of Nobles shall include—as in Germany and most other countries —all the descendants of noble families, or, as in ours, only the eldest; the rest sinking down into commoners. The former system is very bad, dividing society into distinct castes, almost like those of the Hindus. Our system, through the numerous younger branches of noble families, shades off, as it were, the distinction between noble and not-noble, and keeps up the continuity of the whole frame.

'As for nobility in particular persons'

In reference to nobility in individuals, nothing was ever better said than by Bishop Warburton—as is reported—in the House of Lords, on the occasion of some angry dispute which had arisen between a peer of noble family and one of a new creation. He said that, 'high birth was a thing which he never knew any one disparage, except those who had it not; and he never knew any one make a boast of it who had anything else to be proud of.' This is worthy of a place among Bacon's 'Pros and Cons,' though standing half-way between the two: 'Nobilitatem nemo contemnit, nisi cui abest; nemo jactitat, nisi cui nihil aliud est quo glorietur.'

It is curious to observe, however, that a man of high family will often look down on an upstart who is exactly such a person in point of merit and achievements as the very founder of his own family;—the one from whom his nobility is derived: as if it were more creditable to be the remote descendant of an eminent man, than to be that very man oneself.

It is also a remarkable circumstance that noble birth is regarded very much according to the etymology of the word, from 'nosco:' for, a man's descent from any one who was much known, is much more thought of than the moral worth of his ancestors. And it is curious that a person of so exceptionable a character that no one would like to have had him for & father, may confer a kind of dignity on his great-great-great-grandchildren. An instance has been known of persons, who were the descendants of a celebrated and prominent character in the Civil War, and who was one of the Regicides, being themselves zealous royalists, and professing to be ashamed of their ancestor. And it is likely that if he were now living, they would renounce all intercourse with him. Yet it may be doubted whether they would not feel mortified if any one should prove to them that they had been under a mistake, and that they were in reality descended from another person, a respectable but obscure individual, not at all akin to the celebrated regicide.

It was a remark by a celebrated man, himself a gentleman born, but with nothing of nobility, that the difference between a man with a long line of noble ancestors, and an upstart, is that 'the one knows for certain, what the other only conjectures as highly probable, that several of his forefathers deserved hanging.' Yet it is certain, though strange, that, generally speaking, the supposed upstart would rather have this very thing a certainty—provided there were some great and celebrated exploit in question—than left to conjecture. If he were to discover that he could trace up his descent distinctly to a man who had deserved hanging, for robbing—not a traveller of his purse, but a king of his empire, or a neighbouring State of a province,—he would be likely to make no secret of it, and even to be better pleased, inwardly, than if he had made out a long line of ancestors who had been very honest farmers.

The happiest lot for a man, as far as birth is concerned, is that it should be such as to give him but little occasion ever to think much about it; which will be the case, if it be neither too high nor too low for his existing situation. Those who have sunk much below, or risen much above, what suite their birth, are apt to be uneasy, and consequently touchy. The one feels ashamed of his situation; the other, of his ancestors and other relatives. A nobleman's or gentleman's son, or grandson, feels degraded by waiting at table, or behind a counter; and a member of a liberal profession is apt to be ashamed of his father's having done so; and both are apt to take offence readily, unless they are of a truly magnanimous character. It was remarked by a celebrated person, a man of a gentleman's family, and himself a gentleman by station, 'I have often thought that if I had risen like A. B., from the very lowest of the people, by my own honourable exertions, I should have rather felt proud of so great a feat, than, like him, sore and touchy; but I suppose I must be mistaken; for I observe that the far greater part of those who are so circumstanced, have just the opposite feeling.'

Those, however, of true inward nobility of character are ashamed of nothing but base conduct, and are not ready to take offence at supposed affronts; because they keep clear of whatever deserves contempt, and consider what is undeserved as beneath their notice.

« PreviousContinue »