The Citizen of the World by Oliver Goldsmith

"The Citizen of the World," after appearing in the "Public Ledger" newspaper in 1760–61, was published in two volumes in 1762, with the sub-title, "Letters from a Chinese Philosopher, Residing in London, to his Friends in the East." It established Goldsmith's literary reputation (see Vol. IV, p. 275). The author's main purpose was to indulge in a keen, but not ill-natured, satire upon Western, and especially upon English, civilisation; but sometimes the satiric manner yields place to the philosophical.

The Troubles of the Great

The princes of Europe have found out a manner of rewarding their subjects who have behaved well, by presenting them with about two yards of blue ribbon, which is worn over the shoulder. They who are honoured with this mark of distinction are called knights, and the king himself is always the head of the order. This is a very frugal method of recompensing the most important services, and it is very fortunate for kings that their subjects are satisfied with such trifling rewards. Should a nobleman happen to lose his leg in battle, the king presents him with two yards of ribbon, and he is paid for the loss of his limb. Should an ambassador spend all his paternal fortunes in supporting the honour of his country abroad, the king presents him with two yards of ribbon, which is to be considered as an equivalent to his estate. In short, while a European king has a yard of blue or green ribbon left, he need be under no apprehension of wanting statesmen, generals, and soldiers.

I cannot sufficiently admire those kingdoms in which men with large patrimonial estates are willing thus to undergo real hardships for empty favours. A person, already possessed of a competent fortune, who undertakes to enter the career of ambition feels many real inconveniences from his station, while it procures him no real happiness that he was not possessed of before. He could eat, drink, and sleep before he became a courtier, as well, perhaps better, than when invested with his authority.

What real good, then, does an addition to a fortune already sufficient procure? Not any. Could the great man, by having his fortune increased, increase also his appetite, then precedence might be attended with real amusement. But, on the contrary, he finds his desire for pleasure often lessen as he takes pains to be able to improve it; and his capacity of enjoyment diminishes as his fortune happens to increase.

Instead, therefore, of regarding the great with envy, I generally consider them with some share of compassion. I look upon them as a set of good-natured, misguided people, who are indebted to us, and not to themselves, for all the happiness they enjoy. For our pleasure, and not their own, they sweat under a cumbrous heap of finery; for our pleasure, the hackneyed train, the slow-parading pageant, with all the gravity of grandeur, moves in review; a single coat, or a single footman, answers all the purposes of the most indolent refinement as well; and those who have twenty may be said to keep one for their own pleasure, and the other nineteen for ours. So true is the observation of Confucius, "That we take greater pains to persuade others that we are happy than in endeavouring to think so ourselves."

But though this desire of being seen, of being made the subject of discourse, and of supporting the dignities of an exalted station, be troublesome to the ambitious, yet it is well that there are men thus willing to exchange ease and safety for danger and a ribbon. We lose nothing by their vanity, and it would be unkind to endeavour to deprive a child of its rattle.... Adieu.

The Folly of the Recluse

Books, my son, while they teach us to respect the interests of others, often make us unmindful of our own; while they instruct the youthful reader to grasp at social happiness, he grows miserable in detail. I dislike, therefore, the philosopher, who describes the inconveniences of life in such pleasing colours that the pupil grows enamoured of distress, longs to try the charms of poverty, meets it without dread, nor fears its inconveniences till he severely feels them.

A youth who has thus spent his life among books, new to the world, and unacquainted with man but by philosophic information, may be considered as a being whose mind is filled with the vulgar errors of the wise. He first has learned from books, and then lays it down as a maxim that all mankind are virtuous or vicious in excess; warm, therefore, in attachments, and steadfast in enmity, he treats every creature as a friend or foe. Upon a closer inspection of human nature he perceives that he should have moderated his friendship, and softened his severity; he finds no character so sanctified that has not its failings, none so infamous but has somewhat to attract our esteem; he beholds impiety in lawn, and fidelity in fetters.

He now, therefore, but too late, perceives that his regards should have been more cool, and his hatred less violent; that the truly wise seldom court romantic friendships with the good, and avoid, if possible, the resentment even of the wicked; every movement gives him fresh instances that the bonds of friendship are broken if drawn too closely, and that those whom he has treated with disrespect more than retaliate the injury; at length, therefore, he is obliged to confess that he has declared war upon the vicious half of mankind, without being able to form an alliance among the virtuous to espouse his quarrel.

Our book-taught philosopher, however, is now too far advanced to recede; and though poverty be the just consequence of the many enemies his conduct has created, yet he is resolved to meet it without shrinking. "Come, then, O Poverty! for what is there in thee dreadful to the Wise? Temperance, Health, and Frugality walk in thy train; Cheerfulness and Liberty are ever thy companions. Come, then, O Poverty, while kings stand by, and gaze with admiration at the true philosopher's resignation!"

The goddess appears, for Poverty ever comes at the call; but, alas! he finds her by no means the charming figure books and his warm imagination had painted. All the fabric of enthusiasm is at once demolished, and a thousand miseries rise upon its ruins, while Contempt, with pointing finger, is foremost in the hideous procession.

The poor man now finds that he can get no kings to look at him while he is eating; he finds that, in proportion as he grows poor, the world turns its back upon him, and gives him leave to act the philosopher in all the majesty of solitude. Spleen now begins to take up the man; not distinguishing in his resentments, he regards all mankind with detestation, and commencing man-hater, seeks solitude to be at liberty to rail.

It has been said that he who retires to solitude is either a beast or an angel. The censure is too severe, and the praise unmerited; the discontented being who retires from society is generally some good-natured man, who has begun life without experience, and knew not how to gain it in his intercourse with mankind. Adieu.

On Mad Dogs

Indulgent Nature seems to have exempted this island from many of those epidemic evils which are so fatal in other parts of the world. But though the nation be exempt from real evils, think not, my friend, that it is more happy on this account than others. They are afflicted, it is true, with neither famine nor pestilence, but then there is a disorder peculiar to the country, which every season makes strange ravages among them; it spreads with pestilential rapidity, and infects almost every rank of people; what is still more strange, the natives have no name for this peculiar malady, though well enough known to foreign physicians by the name of epidemic terror.

A season is never known to pass in which the people are not visited by this cruel calamity in one shape or another, seemingly different, though ever the same. The people, when once infected, lose their relish for happiness, saunter about with looks of despondence, ask after the calamities of the day, and receive no comfort but in heightening each other's distress. A dread of mad dogs is the epidemic terror which now prevails, and the whole nation is at present actually groaning under the malignity of its influence.

It is pleasant enough for a neutral being like me, who have no share in these ideal calamities, to mark the stages of this national disease. The terror at first feebly enters with a little dog that had gone through a neighbouring village, that was thought to be mad by several who had seen him. The next account comes that a mastiff ran through a certain town, and had bit five geese, which immediately ran mad, foamed at the bill, and died in great agonies soon after. Then comes an affecting history of a little boy bit in the leg, and gone down to be dipped in the salt water; when the people have sufficiently shuddered at that, they are next congealed with a frightful account of a man who was said lately to have died from a bite he had received some years before.

My landlady, a good-natured woman, but a little credulous, waked me some mornings ago, before the usual hour, with horror and astonishment in her looks; she desired me, if I had any regard for my safety, to keep within, for a few days ago so dismal an accident had happened as to put all the world upon their guard. A mad dog down in the country, she assured me, had bit a farmer who, soon becoming mad, ran into his own yard, and bit a fine brindled cow; the cow quickly became as mad as the man, began to foam at the mouth, and raising herself up, walked about on her hind legs, sometimes barking like a dog, and sometimes attempting to talk like the farmer.

Were most stories of this nature thoroughly examined, it would be found that numbers of such as have been said to suffer were in no way injured; and that of those who have been actually bitten, not one in a hundred was bit by a mad dog. Such accounts in general, therefore, only serve to make the people miserable by false terrors.

Of all the beasts that graze the lawn or hunt the forest, a dog is the only animal that, leaving his fellows, attempts to cultivate the friendship of man; no injuries can abate his fidelity; no distress induce him to forsake his benefactor; studious to please and fearing to offend, he is still an humble, steadfast dependent, and in him alone fawning is not flattery. How unkind, then, to torture this faithful creature who has left the forest to claim the protection of man! How ungrateful a return to the trusty animal for all his services! Adieu.

On Elections

The English are at present employed in celebrating a feast, which becomes general every seventh year: the parliament of the nation being then dissolved, and another appointed to be chosen. This solemnity falls infinitely short of our Feast of the Lanterns in magnificence and splendour; it is also surpassed by others of the East in unanimity and pure devotion; but no festival in the world can compare with it for eating.

To say the truth, eating seems to make a grand ingredient in all English parties of zeal, business, or amusement. When a church is to be built, or an hospital endowed, the directors assemble, and instead of consulting upon it, they eat upon it, by which means the business goes forward with success. When the poor are to be relieved, the officers appointed to dole out public charity assemble and eat upon it. Nor has it ever been known that they filled the bellies of the poor till they had satisfied their own. But in the election of magistrates the people seem to exceed all bounds.

What amazes me is that all this good living no way contributes to improve their good humour. On the contrary, they seem to lose their temper as they lose their appetites; every morsel they swallow, and every glass they pour down, serves to increase their animosity. Upon one of these occasions I have actually seen a bloody-minded man-milliner sally forth at the head of a mob, to face a desperate pastrycook, who was general of the opposite party.

I lately made an excursion to a neighbouring village, in order to be a spectator of the ceremonies practised. Mixing with the crowd, I was conducted to the hall where the magistrates are chosen; but what tongue can describe this scene of confusion! The whole crowd seemed equally inspired with anger, jealousy, politics, patriotism, and punch. I remarked one figure that was carried up by two men upon this occasion. I at first began to pity his infirmities as natural, but soon found the fellow so drunk that he could not stand; another made his appearance to give his vote, but though he could stand, he actually lost the use of his tongue, and remained silent; a third, who, though excessively drunk, could both stand and speak, being asked the candidate's name for whom he voted, could be prevailed upon to make no other answer but "Tobacco and brandy!" In short, an election-hall seems to be a theatre, where every passion is seen without disguise; a school where fools may readily become worse, and where philosophers may gather wisdom. Adieu.

Opinions and Anecdotes

The most ignorant nations have always been found to think most highly of themselves.

It may sound fine in the mouth of a declaimer, when he talks of subduing our appetites, of teaching every sense to be content with a bare sufficiency, and of supplying only the wants of nature; but is there not more satisfaction in indulging these appetites, if with innocence and safety, than in restraining them? Am I not better pleased in enjoyment, than in the sullen satisfaction of thinking that I can live without enjoyment?

When five brethren had set upon the great Emperor Guisong, alone with his sabre he slew four of them; he was struggling with the fifth, when his guards, coming up, were going to cut the conspirator into a thousand pieces. "No, no!" cried the emperor, with a placid countenance. "Of all his brothers he is the only one remaining; at least let one of the family be suffered to live, that his aged parents may have somebody left to feed and comfort them."

 It was a fine saying of Nangfu the emperor, who, being told that his enemies had raised an insurrection in one of the distant provinces, said: "Come, then, my friends, follow me, and I promise you that we shall quickly destroy them." He marched forward, and the rebels submitted upon his approach. All now thought that he would take the most signal revenge, but were surprised to see the captives treated with mildness and humanity. "How!" cries his first minister, "is this the manner in which you fulfil your promise? Your royal word was given that your enemies should be destroyed, and behold, you have pardoned all, and even caressed some!" "I promised," replied the emperor, with a generous air, "to destroy my enemies; I have fulfilled my word, for see, they are enemies no longer; I have made friends of them."

Well it were if rewards and mercy alone could regulate the commonwealth; but since punishments are sometimes necessary, let them at least be rendered terrible, by being executed but seldom; and let justice lift her sword rather to terrify than revenge.