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Bolinbroke : Reflections on Exile

Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke

(1678-1751)




Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke

Reflections on Exile

(1716)



The Works of Lord Bolingbroke

Henry St. John Bolingbroke (Viscount)

H. G. Bohn, 1844





REFLECTIONS UPON EXILE .

MDCCXVI.



DISSIPATION of mind, and length of time, are the remedies to which the greatest part of mankind trust in their afflictions. But the first of these works a temporary, the second a slow, effect : and both are unworthy of a wise man.


Are we to fly from ourselves that we may fly from our misfortunes, and fondly to imagine that the disease is cured because we find means to get some moments of respite from pain ? Or shall we expect from time, the physician of brutes, a lingering and uncertain deliverance ? Shall we wait to be happy till we can forget that we are miserable, and owe to the weakness of our faculties a tranquillity which ought to be the effect of their strength ?


Far otherwise. Let us set all our past and our present afflictions at once before our eyes. Let us resolve to overcome them, instead of flying from them, or wearing out the sense of them by long and ignominious patience. Instead of palliating remedies, let us use the incision-knife and the caustic, search the wound to the bottom, and work an immediateand radical cure.


The recalling of former misfortunes serves to fortify the mind against later. He must blush to sink under the anguish of one wound, who surveys a body seamed over with the scars of many, and who has come victorious out of all the conflicts wherein he received them. Let sighs, and tears, and fainting under the lightest strokes of adverse fortune, be the portion of those unhappy people whose tender minds a long course of felicity has enervated: while such as have passed through years of calamity bear up, with a noble and immovable constancy, against the heaviest. Uninterrupted misery has this good effect, as it continually torments, it finally hardens.


Such is the language of philosophy: and happy is the man who acquires the right of holding it. But this right is not to be acquired by pathetic discourse. Our conduct can alone give it us: and therefore, instead of presuming on our strength, the surest method is to confess our weakness, and, without loss of time, to apply ourselves to the study of wisdom. This was the advice which the oracle gave to Zeno, and there is no other way of securing our tranquillity amidst all the accidents to which human life is exposed. Philosophy has, I know, her thrasos , as well as war: and among her sons many there have been who, while they aimed at being more than men, became something less.


The means of preventing this danger are easy and sure. It is a good rule, to examine well before we addict ourselves to any sect: but I think it is a better rule, to addict ourselves to none. Let us hear them all, with a perfect indifferency on which side the truth lies : and, when we come to determine, let nothing appear so venerable to us as our own understandings.


Let us gratefully accept the help of every one who has endeavored to correct the vices, and strengthen the minds of men; but let us choose for ourselves, and yield universal assent to none . Thus, that I may instance the sect already mentioned , when we have laid aside the wonderful and surprising sentences, and all the paradoxes of the Portique, we shall find in that school such doctrines as our unprejudiced reason submits to with pleasure, as nature dictates, and as experience confirms. Without this precaution, we run the risk of becoming imaginary kings, and real slaves. With it, we may learn to assert our native freedom, and live independent on fortune.


In order to which great end, it is necessary that we stand watchful, as sentinels, to discover the secret wiles and open attacks of this capricious goddess, before they reach us . Where she falls upon us unexpected, it is hard to resist ; but those who wait for her, will repel her with ease. The sudden invasion of an enemy overthrows such as are not on their guard ; but they who foresee the war, and prepare themselves for it before it breaks out, stand, without difficulty, the first and the fiercest onset.


I learned this important lesson long ago, and never trusted to fortune even while she seemed to be at peace with me. The riches, the honors, the reputation, and all the advantages which her treacherous indulgence poured upon me, I placed so, that she might snatch them away without giving me any disturbance. I kept a great interval between me and them. She took them, but she could not tear them from me. No man suffers by bad fortune, but he who has been deceived by good . If we grow fond of her gifts ; fancy that they belong to us, and are perpetually to remain with us, if we lean upon them, and expect to be considered for them ; we shall sink into all the bitterness of grief, as soon as these false and transitory benefits pass away, as soon as our vain and childish minds, unfraught with solid pleasures, become destitute even of those which are imaginary.


But, if we do not suffer ourselves to be transported by prosperity, neither shall we be reduced by adversity. Our souls will be of proof against the dangers of both these states: and, having explored our strength, we shall be sure of it ; for in the midst of felicity, we shall have tried how we can bear misfortune .


It is much harder to examine and judge, than to take up opinions on trust ; and therefore the far greatest part of the world borrow, from others, those which they entertain concerning all the affairs of life and death. Hence it proceeds that men are so unanimously eager in the pursuit of things, which, far from having any inherent real good, are varnished over with a specious and deceitful gloss, and contain nothing answerable to their appearances.


Hence it proceeds, on the other hand, that, in those things which are called evils, there is nothing so hard and terrible as the general cry of the world threatens. The word exile comes indeed harsh to the ear, and strikes us like a melancholy and execrable sound, through a certain persuasion which men have habitually concurred in. Thus the multitude has ordained. But the greatest part of their ordinances are abrogated by the wise.


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