Item of the Day: Citizen of the World (1792)

Full Title: The Citizen of the World, or, Letters from a Chinese Philosopher residing in London to his friends in the East. By Oliver Goldsmith. Vol. 1. London. Printed for T. Vernor, W. Otridge, Scatchard & Whitaker, Ogilvy & Speare, Darton & Harvey & W. Millar. Dec. 1. 1792. [Originally pub. 1762.]

LETTER IV.

To the Same [From Lien Chi Altangi, to the care of Fipsihi, Resident in Moscow; to be forwarded by the Russian Ravan to Fum Hoam, First President of the Ceremonial Academy at Pekin, in China].

The English seem as silent as the Japanese, yet vainer than the inhabitants of Siam. Upon my arrival, I attributed the reserve to modesty, which I now find has its origins in pride.  Condescend to address them first, and you are sure of their acquaintance; stoop to flattery, and you conciliate their friendship and esteem. They bear hunger, cold, fatique, and all the miseries of life without shrinking: danger only calls forth their fortitude; they even exult in calamity; but contempt is what they cannot bear. An Englishman fears contempt more than death: he often flies to death as a refuge from its pressure; and dies when he fancies the world has ceased to esteem him.

Pride seems the source not only of their national vices, but of their national virtues. An Englishman is taught to love his king as his friend, but to acknowledge no other master than the laws which himself has contributed to enact. He despises those nations, who, that one may be free, are all content to be slaves; who first lift a tyrant into terror, and then shrink under his power as if delegated from heaven. Liberty is echoed in all their assemblies, and thousands might be found ready to offer up their lives for the sound, though perhaps not one of all the number understands its meaning. The lowest mechanic however looks upon it as his duty to be a watchful guardian of his country’s freedom, and often uses a language that might seem haughty, even in the mouth of the great emperor who traces his ancestry to the moon.  

A few days ago, passing by one of their prisons, I could not avoid stopping, in order to listen to a dialogue which I thought might afford me some entertainment. The conversation carried on between a debtor through the grate of his prison, a porter, who had stopped to rest his burthen, and a soldier at the window. The subject was upon a threatened invasion from France, and each seemed extremely anxious to rescue his country from the impending danger. “For my part, (cries the prisoner), the greatest of my apprehensions is for our freedom; if the French should conquer, what would become of English liberty? My dear friends, liberty is the Englishman’s prerogative; we must preserve that at the expence of our lives; of that the French shall never deprive us: it is not to be expected that men who are slaves themselves, would preserve our freedom should they happen to conquer:” Ay, slaves, cries the porter, they are all slaves, fit only to carry burthens every one of them. Before I would stoop to slavery, may this be my poison (and he held the goblet in his hand), may this be my poison–but I would sooner lift for a soldier.

The soldier, taking the goblet from his friend, with much awe (fervently cried out), It is not so much our liberties as our religion that would suffer by a change: Ay, our religion, my lads, May the devil sink me into flames, (such was the solemnity of his adjuration), if the French should come over, but our religion would be utterly undone. So saying, instead of a libation, he applied the goblet to his lips, and confirmed his sentiments with a ceremony of the most preseving devotion.

In short, every man here pretends to be a politician; even the fair sex are sometimes found to mix the severity of national altercation with the blandishments of love, and often become conquerors by more weapons of destruction than their eyes.

The universal passion for politics is gratified by Daily Gazettes, as with us at China. But as in ours, the emperor endeavors to instruct his people; in theirs they endeavor to instruct the administration. You must not, however, imagine, that they who compile these papers have any actual knowledge of the politics, or the goverment of a state; they only collect their materials from the oracle of some coffee-house, which oracle has himself gathered them the night before from a beau at a gaming table, who has pillaged his knowledge from a great man’s porter, who has all the information from the great man’s gentleman, who has invented the whole stroy for his own amusement the night preceding.

The English in general seem fonder of gaining the esteem than the love of those they converse with: this gives a formality to their amusements; their gayest conversations have something too wise for innocent relaxation; though in company you are seldom disgusted with the absurdity of a fool; you are seldom lifted into rapture by those strokes of vivacity which give instant, though not permanent, pleasure.

What they want, however, in gaiety thay make up in politeness. You smile at hearing me praise the English for their politeness; you who have heard very different accounts from missionaries at Pekin, who have seen such a different behaviour in their merchants and seamen at home. But I must still repeat it, the English seem more polite than any of their neighbours: their great art in this respect lies in endeavouring, while they oblige, to lessen the force of the favour. Other countries are fond of obliging a stranger; but seem desirous that he should be so sensible of the obligation. The English confer this kindness with the appearance of indifference, and give away benefits with an air as if they despised them.

Walking a few days ago between an English and a Frenchman in the suburbs of the city, we were overtaken by a heavy shower of rain. I was unprepared; but they each ahd large coats which defended them from what seemed to me a perfect inundation. The Englishman seeing me shrink from the wather, accosted me thus: “Psha, man, what dost shrink at? Here take this coat; I don’t want it; I find it no way useful to me: I had a lief be without it.” The Frenchman began to show his politeness in turn. “My dear friend, (cries he) why won’t you oblige me by making use of my coat; you see how well it defends me from the rain; I should not chuse to part with it to others, but to such a friend as you, I could even part with my skin to do him service.”

From such minute instances as these, most reverend Fum Hoam, I am sensible your sagacity will collect instruction. The volume of nature is the book of knowledge; and he becomes wise who makes the most judicious selection. Farewell.     

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Filed under 1790's, Fiction, Letters, Politics, Posted by Matthew Williams, Travel Literature

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