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An essay by Henry Fielding

The Utmost Scope And End Of Reading Is Amusement Only

Title:     The Utmost Scope And End Of Reading Is Amusement Only
Author: Henry Fielding [More Titles by Fielding]


No. 10.


At nostri proavi Plautinos et numeros, et
Laudavere sales; nimium patienter utrumque,
Ne dicam stulte, mirati.


In former times this tasteless, silly town
Too fondly prais'd Tom D'Urfey and Tom Brown.

THE present age seems pretty well agreed in an opinion, that the utmost scope and end of reading is amusement only; and such, indeed, are now the fashionable books, that a reader can propose no more than mere entertainment, and it is sometimes very well for him if he finds even this, in his studies.

Letters, however, were surely intended for a much more noble and profitable purpose than this. Writers are not, I presume, to be considered as mere jack-puddings, whose business it is only to excite laughter: this, indeed, may sometimes be intermixed and served up with graver matters, in order to titillate the palate, and to recommend wholesome food to the mind; and for this purpose it hath been used by many excellent authors: "for why," as Horace says, "should not any one promulgate truth with a smile on his countenance?" Ridicule indeed, as he again intimates, is commonly a stronger and better method of attacking vice than the severer kind of satire.

When wit and humour are introduced for such good purposes, when the agreeable is blended with the useful, then is the writer said to have succeeded in every point. Pleasantry (as the ingenious author of Clarissa says of a story) should be made only the vehicle of instruction; and thus romances themselves, as well as epic poems, may become worthy the perusal of the greatest of men: but when no moral, no lesson, no instruction, is conveyed to the reader, where the whole design of the composition is no more than to make us laugh, the writer comes very near to the character of a buffoon; and his admirers, if an old Latin proverb be true, deserve no great compliments to be paid to their wisdom.

After what I have here advanced I cannot fairly, I think, be represented as an enemy to laughter, or to all those kinds of writing that are apt to promote it. On the contrary, few men, I believe, do more admire the works of those great masters who have sent their satire (if I may use the expression) laughing into the world. Such are the great triumvirate, Lucian, Cervantes, and Swift. These authors I shall ever hold in the highest degree of esteem; not indeed for that wit and humour alone which they all so eminently possest, but because they all endeavoured, with the utmost force of their wit and humour, to expose and extirpate those follies and vices which chiefly prevailed in their several countries. I would not be thought to confine wit and humour to these writers. Shakspeare, Moliere, and some other authors, have been blessed with the same talents, and have employed them to the same purposes. There are some, however, who, though not void of these talents, have made so wretched a use of them, that, had the consecration of their labours been committed to the hands of the hangman, no good man would have regretted their loss; nor am I afraid to mention Rabelais, and Aristophanes himself, in this number. For, if I may speak my opinion freely of these two last writers, and of their works, their design appears to me very plainly to have been to ridicule all sobriety, modesty, decency, virtue, and religion, out of the world. Now, whoever reads over the five great writers first mentioned in this paragraph, must either have a very bad head or a very bad heart if he doth not become both a wiser and a better man.

In the exercise of the mind, as well as in the exercise of the body, diversion is a secondary consideration, and designed only to make that agreeable which is at the same time useful, to such noble purposes as health and wisdom. But what should we say to a man who mounted his chamber-hobby, or fought with his own shadow, for his amusement only? how much more absurd and weak would he appear who swallowed poison because it was sweet?

How differently did Horace think of study from our modern readers!

Quid verum atque decens curo et rogo, et omnis in hoc sum:
Condo et compono, quae mox depromere possim.

"Truth and decency are my whole care and enquiry. In this study I am entirely occupied; these I am always laying up, and so disposing that I can at any time draw forth my stores for my immediate use." The whole epistle, indeed, from which I have paraphrased this passage, is a comment upon it, and affords many useful lessons of philosophy.

When we are employed in reading a great and good author, we ought to consider ourselves as searching after treasures, which, if well and regularly laid up in the mind, will be of use to us on sundry occasions in our lives. If a man, for instance, should be overloaded with prosperity or adversity (both of which cases are liable to happen to us), who is there so very wise, or so very foolish, that, if he was a master of Seneca and Plutarch, could not find great matter of comfort and utility from their doctrines? I mention these rather than Plato and Aristotle, as the works of the latter are not, I think, yet completely made English, and, consequently, are less within the reach of most of my countrymen.

But perhaps it may be asked, will Seneca or Plutarch make us laugh? Perhaps not; but if you are not a fool, my worthy friend, which I can hardly with civility suspect, they will both (the latter especially) please you more than if they did. For my own part, I declare, I have not read even Lucian himself with more delight than I have Plutarch; but surely it is astonishing that such scribblers as Tom Brown, Tom D'Urfey, and the wits of our age, should find readers, while the writings of so excellent, so entertaining, and so voluminous an author as Plutarch remain in the world, and, as I apprehend, are very little known.

The truth I am afraid is, that real taste is a quality with which human nature is very slenderly gifted. It is indeed so very rare, and so little known, that scarce two authors have agreed in their notions of it; and those who have endeavoured to explain it to others seem to have succeeded only in shewing us that they know it not themselves. If I might be allowed to give my own sentiments, I should derive it from a nice harmony between the imagination and the judgment; and hence perhaps it is that so few have ever possessed this talent in any eminent degree. Neither of these will alone bestow it; nothing is indeed more common than to see men of very bright imaginations, and of very accurate learning (which can hardly be acquired without judgment), who are entirely devoid of taste; and Longinus, who of all men seems most exquisitely to have possessed it, will puzzle his reader very much if he should attempt to decide whether imagination or judgment shine the brighter in that inimitable critic.

But as for the bulk of mankind, they are clearly void of any degree of taste. It is a quality in which they advance very little beyond a state of infancy. The first thing a child is fond of in a book is a picture, the second is a story, and the third a jest. Here then is the true Pons Asinorum, which very few readers ever get over.

From what I have said it may perhaps be thought to appear that true taste is the real gift of nature only; and if so, some may ask to what purpose have I endeavoured to show men that they are without a blessing which it is impossible for them to attain?

Now, though it is certain that to the highest consummation of taste, as well as of every other excellence, nature must lend much assistance, yet great is the power of art, almost of itself, or at best with only slender aids from nature; and, to say the truth, there are very few who have not in their minds some small seeds of taste. "All men," says Cicero, "have a sort of tacit sense of what is right or wrong in arts and sciences, even without the help of arts." This surely it is in the power of art very greatly to improve. That most men, therefore, proceed no farther than as I have above declared, is owing either to the want of any, or (which is perhaps yet worse) to an improper education.

I shall probably, therefore, in a future paper, endeavour to lay down some rules by which all men may acquire at least some degree of taste. In the meanwhile, I shall (according to the method observed in inoculation) recommend to my readers, as a preparative for their receiving my instructions, a total abstinence from all bad books. I do therefore most earnestly intreat all my young readers that they would cautiously avoid the perusal of any modern book till it hath first had the sanction of some wise and learned man; and the same caution I propose to all fathers, mothers, and guardians.

"Evil communications corrupt good manners," is a quotation of St Paul from Menander. Evil books corrupt at once both our manners and our taste.

[The end]
Henry Fielding's essay: The Utmost Scope And End Of Reading Is Amusement Only