From Prosai-Poetico to Beauclerc

My dear Beauclerc,

Your old friend and associate, the Ex-Secretary of the Hermits’ Club, has the honour of announcing to you a new institution established on its ruins but similar only in the number of its members. We still retain the septagon table and seven-branched chandelier which signify the perfect equality which prevails among — but I will not designate my companions — let them speak for themselves.

“Friends and Brothers,” said I when first admitted to their septagon table, “the charter of this community requires that its seven seats should be filled by professors of the seven liberal sciences, but in me you will find only a student in the art of happiness. Another statute requires that every member on his admission should contribute to the amusement or advantage of this association, but as neither my past life nor my subdued fancy affords any supply, I hope to know where it exists is half the business of life, and we possess it in some degree while we consider it.”

A young man at the lowest corner of the table with a neglected coat and meagre countenance, replied eagerly, “Can any one doubt what happiness is? It is a quick and constant sense of whatever is graceful, beautiful and just. Imagination gives us what is lovely in nature and sublime in morals without alloy; therefore I ascribe our largest share of happiness to imagination.”

“Do you know,” interrupted our third Brother raising his eyes from an immense folio, “that you speak tautologically? Whatever is graceful must be beautiful, and whatever is beautiful is just: for grace is only the result of proportion which is the name of beauty; and this proportion or fitness of things is what we call justice in morals: ergo — ”

“Stop, Counsellor!” interposed a lean personage at his left hand. “This is a confusion of axioms. What you call beauty is only an association of ideas. A large mouth or a small grey eye would be as useful, perhaps more so, than those it is fashionable to admire. There is no such thing as beauty abstractedly considered. We do not call a thing beautiful because it is merely useful, but because we attack some idea of ease, delicacy, or cheerfulness with it.”

“We shall lose ourselves in this labyrinth,” said his next neighbour, smiling contemptuously, “let us return to the first point. If by happiness our poet means a succession of keen and ardent sensations, I cannot conceive an existence entirely composed of them. It is as impossible as an army of all generals of a nation without subjects. I know no pleasure which does not result from some deprivation or necessity; and ev’ry pleasure has its consequent and inevitable balance of evil, as the strongest lights in a picture result from the contrasted shades. And therefore I deem that man happiest whose life affords the most equal balance of pain and pleasure.”

“Your estimate would be just,” replied our poet, “if these were not some pleasures exempt from penalties. Of this class are all that result from kind and generous affections, and from an imagination employed only on the riches of nature. Whatever exercises our faculties to an useful purpose excites those sensations, in short, which without intoxicating the mind, afforded that food and support called happiness.”

The only well-dressed man in our circle shook his snuff-box superciliously and said, “It remains to be proved whether all useful employments are pleasant, and we cannot always agree what is useful. As for the graces and beauty our poet talks of, the notions of Hottentot, Chinese and Indian connoisseurs would make it as hard to discover what beauty is, as to decide upon grace in a committee of ancient and modern ladies. For my part, I have tried all kinds of happiness and know none that lasts above seven days; but I call myself happy when I am in fashion and can find something new.”

“What you say about different opinions in various times and countries avails nothing,” rejoined the lawyer. “The Hottentot admires his large-eared and round-nosed consort from the force of custom, and we attach an idea of grace to certain manners and dresses when they are in general use, because none but the capricious and the arrogant are supposed to resist custom, which (saith Bracton) is a law not written. But the abstract idea of beauty and grace is still the same, and always will be in all times and countries. We shall give the name of beauty always to the form which excites agreeable sensations, and call that manner graceful which expresses them.”

We looked for the casting vote to our seventh Brother, on whom in deference to his age and clerical functions, we bestow the title of Abbot. He smiled and said, “Our poet places happiness in the contemplation of beautiful objects, but our philosopher tells us that beauty is mere matter of opinion; our logician confines it to whatever is useful, and our physician considers beauty of nature only the balance of some defect. Let us try to reconcile their systems by one which may amend them all. Since whatever is beautiful in outward things is thus liable to the waverings of opinion, we must build our happiness on moral beauty in which there is no change or dependence on human caprice, and whose purpose is to rectify or hide the imperfections of nature. Our religious system of moral justice combines whatever is beautiful in imagination or useful in philosophy, and if real beauty exists in that which is best fitted to a noble purpose, a man acting on this system is himself the most beautiful object in creation.”

The pause which followed this decision gave mean opportunity to speech. “Since,” said I, “we have all different ideas of happiness, we have proved, at least, that it is of a various and general kind. Instead of detecting deficiencies in its growth, let us take the paths allotted to our several professions and glean whatever we may find in them which tends to cherish and enrich it. Our pupils of philosophy and fashion shall show us the progress of science and social refinement; our poet may represent the happiest attitude of things or collect the rules by which poetry excites agreeable sensations; while the physician, the lawyer and the divine supply us with those facts and evidences which vindicate the ways of God to man.”

My proposal was received with acclamations. As a signal for the adjournment of debate, our Abbot folded up a silver chain (his badge of office) and deposited it according to his favorite custom, in a basket of flowers. Communicate your thoughts on this subject, dear Beauclerc, and an unanimous vote of free-admission shall be conveyed to you by

Your Faithful Friend

Prosai-Poetico, Secretary

Our names and place of abode must be secret till you accept the vacant chair.