I know no Evil under the Sun so great as the Abuse of the Understanding, and yet there is no one Vice more common. It has diffus'd itself through both Sexes, and all Qualities of Mankind; and there is hardly that Person to be found, who is not more concerned for the Reputation of Wit and Sense, than Honesty and Virtue. But this unhappy Affectation of being Wise rather than Honest, Witty than Good-natur'd, is the Source of most of the ill Habits of Life. Such false Impressions are owing to the abandon'd Writings of Men of Wit, and the awkward Imitation of the rest of Mankind.
For this Reason, Sir ROGER was saying last Night, that he was of Opinion that none but Men of fine Parts deserve to be hanged. The Reflections of such Men are so delicate upon all Occurrences which they are concern'd in, that they should be expos'd to more than ordinary Infamy and Punishment, for offending against such quick Admonitions as their own Souls give them, and blunting the fine Edge of their Minds in such a Manner, that they are no more shock'd at Vice and Folly, than Men of slower Capacities. There is no greater Monster in Being, than a very ill Man of great Parts: He lives like a Man in a Palsy, with one Side of him dead. While perhaps he enjoys the Satisfaction of Luxury, of Wealth, of Ambition, he has lost the Taste of Good-will, of Friendship, of Innocence. Scarecrow, the Beggar in Lincoln's-Inn-Fields, who disabled himself in his Right Leg, and asks Alms all Day to get himself a warm Supper and a Trull at Night, is not half so despicable a Wretch as such a Man of Sense. The Beggar has no Relish above Sensations; he finds Rest more agreeable than Motion; and while he has a warm Fire and his Doxy, never reflects that he deserves to be whipped. Every Man who terminates his Satisfaction and Enjoyments within the Supply of his own Necessities and Passions, is, says Sir Roger, in my Eye as poor a Rogue as Scarecrow. But, continued he, for the loss of publick and private Virtue we are beholden to your Men of Parts forsooth; it is with them no matter what is done, so it is done with an Air. But to me who am so whimsical in a corrupt Age as to act according to Nature and Reason, a selfish Man in the most shining Circumstance and Equipage, appears in the same Condition with the Fellow above-mentioned, but more contemptible in Proportion to what more he robs the Publick of and enjoys above him. I lay it down therefore for a Rule, That the whole Man is to move together; that every Action of any Importance is to have a Prospect of publick Good; and that the general Tendency of our indifferent Actions ought to be agreeable to the Dictates of Reason, of Religion, of good Breeding; without this, a Man, as I have before hinted, is hopping instead of walking, he is not in his entire and proper Motion.
While the honest Knight was thus bewildering himself in good Starts, I look'd intentively upon him, which made him I thought collect his Mind a little. What I aim at, says he, is, to represent, That I am of Opinion, to polish our Understandings and neglect our Manners is of all things the most inexcusable. Reason should govern Passion, but instead of that, you see, it is often subservient to it; and, as unaccountable as one would think it, a wise Man is not always a good Man. This Degeneracy is not only the Guilt of particular Persons, but also at some times of a whole People; and perhaps it may appear upon Examination, that the most polite Ages are the least virtuous. This may be attributed to the Folly of admitting Wit and Learning as Merit in themselves, without considering the Application of them. By this Means it becomes a Rule not so much to regard what we do, as how we do it. But this false Beauty will not pass upon Men of honest Minds and true Taste. Sir Richard Blackmore says, with as much good Sense as Virtue, It is a mighty Dishonour and Shame to employ excellent Faculties and abundance of Wit, to humour and please Men in their Vices and Follies. The great Enemy of Mankind, notwithstanding his Wit and Angelick Faculties, is the most odious Being in the whole Creation. He goes on soon after to say very generously, That he undertook the writing of his Poem to rescue the Muses out of the Hands of Ravishers, to restore them to their sweet and chaste Mansions, and to engage them in an _Employment suitable to their Dignity.  This certainly ought to be the Purpose of every man who appears in Publick; and whoever does not proceed upon that Foundation, injures his Country as fast as he succeeds in his Studies. When Modesty ceases to be the chief Ornament of one Sex, and Integrity of the other, Society is upon a wrong Basis, and we shall be ever after without Rules to guide our Judgment in what is really becoming and ornamental. Nature and Reason direct one thing, Passion and Humour another: To follow the Dictates of the two latter, is going into a Road that is both endless and intricate; when we pursue the other, our Passage is delightful, and what we aim at easily attainable.
I do not doubt but England is at present as polite a Nation as any in the World; but any Man who thinks can easily see, that the Affectation of being gay and in fashion has very near eaten up our good Sense and our Religion. Is there anything so just, as that Mode and Gallantry should be built upon exerting ourselves in what is proper and agreeable to the Institutions of Justice and Piety among us? And yet is there anything more common, than that we run in perfect Contradiction to them? All which is supported by no other Pretension, than that it is done with what we call a good Grace.
Nothing ought to be held laudable or becoming, but what Nature it self should prompt us to think so. Respect to all kind of Superiours is founded methinks upon Instinct; and yet what is so ridiculous as Age? I make this abrupt Transition to the Mention of this Vice more than any other, in order to introduce a little Story, which I think a pretty Instance that the most polite Age is in danger of being the most vicious.
'It happen'd at Athens, during a publick Representation of some Play exhibited in honour of the Common-wealth that an old Gentleman came too late for a Place suitable to his Age and Quality. Many of the young Gentlemen who observed the Difficulty and Confusion he was in, made Signs to him that they would accommodate him if he came where they sate: The good Man bustled through the Crowd accordingly; but when he came to the Seats to which he was invited, the Jest was to sit close, and expose him, as he stood out of Countenance, to the whole Audience. The Frolick went round all the Athenian Benches. But on those Occasions there were also particular Places assigned for Foreigners: When the good Man skulked towards the Boxes appointed for the Lacedemonians, that honest People, more virtuous than polite, rose up all to a Man, and with the greatest Respect received him among them. The Athenians being suddenly touched with a Sense of the Spartan Virtue, and their own Degeneracy, gave a Thunder of Applause; and the old Man cry'd out, The Athenians understand what is good, but the Lacedemonians practise it.'
[Footnote 1: Richard Blackmore, born about 1650, d. 1729, had been knighted in 1697, when he was made physician in ordinary to King William. He was a thorough Whig, earnestly religious, and given to the production of heroic poems. Steele shared his principles and honoured his sincerity. When this essay was written, Blackmore was finishing his best poem, the 'Creation', in seven Books, designed to prove from nature the existence of a God. It had a long and earnest preface of expostulation with the atheism and mocking spirit that were the legacy to his time of the Court of the Restoration. The citations in the text express the purport of what Blackmore had written in his then unpublished but expected work, but do not quote from it literally.]Translation of motto: