Found In: The Works of Benjamin Franklin; Containing Several Political and Historical Tracts not Included in any Former Edition, and Many Letters Official and Private not Hitherto Published; with Notes and A Life of the Author. By Jared Sparks. Vol. II. Boston: Hilliard, Gray and Company, 1836.
THE BUSY-BODY. — No. II.
TUESDA, FEBRUARY 11, 1728-9.
All fools have still an itching to deride,
and fain would be upon the laughing side. (Pope)
Monsieur de la Rochefoucault tells us somewhere in his Memoirs, that the Prince of Conde delighted much in ridicule, and used frequently to shut himself up for half a day together in his chamber, with a gentleman that was his favorite, purposely to divert himself with examining what was the foible or ridiculous side of every noted person in the court. That gentleman said afterwards in some company, that he thought nothing was more ridiculous in anybody, than this same humor in the Prince; and I am somewhat inclined to be of this opinion. The general tendency there is among us to this embellishment, which I fear has too often grossly imposed upon my loving countrymen instead of wit, and the applause it meets with from a rising generation, fill me with fearful apprehensions for the future reputation of my country. A young man of modesty (which is the most certain indication of large capacities) is hereby discouraged from attempting to make any figure in life; his apprehensions of being out-laughed will force him to continue in a restless obscurity, without having an opportunity of knowing his own merit himself or discovering it to the world, rather than venture to oppose himself in a place where a pun or a sneer shall pass for wit, noise for reason, and the strength of the argument be judged by that of the lungs.
Among these witty gentlemen let us take a view of Ridentius. What a contemptible figure does he make with his train of paltry admirers! This wight shall give himself an hour’s diversion with the cook of a man’s hat, the heels of his shoes, an unguarded expression in his discourse, or even some personal defect; and the height of his low ambition is to put some one of the company to the blush, who perhaps must pay an equal share of the reckoning with himself. If such a fellow makes laughing the sole end and purpose of his life, if it is necessary to his constitution, or if he has a great desire of growing suddenly fat, let him eat; let him give public notice where any dull stupid rogues may get a quart of four-penny for being laughed at; but it is barbarously unhandsome, when friends meet for the benefit of conversation and proper relaxation from business, that one should be the butt of the company, and four men made merry at the cost of the fifty.
How different from this character is that of the good-natured, gay Eugenius, who never spoke yet but with a design to divert and please, and who was never yet baulked in his intention. Eugenius takes more delight in applying the wit of his friends, than in being admired himself; and if any one of the company is so unfortunate as to be touched a little too nearly, he will make use of some ingenious artifice to turn the edge of ridicule another way, choosing rather to make himself a public jest, than be at the pain of seeing his friend in confusion.
Among the tribe of laughers, I reckon the petty gentlemen that write satires, and carry them about in their pockets, reading them themselves in all company they happen into; taking an advantage of the ill taste of the town to make themselves famous for a pack of paltry, low nonsense, for which they deserve to be kicked rather than admired, by all who have the least tincture of politeness. These I take to be the most incorrigible of all my readers; nay, I expect they will be squibbing at the Busy-Body himself. However, the only favor he begs of them is this, that if they cannot control their overbearing itch of scribbling, let him be attacked in downright biting lyrics; for there is no satire he dreads half so much as an attempt towards a panegyric.