Cato's Letter No. 113

Letter to Cato, concerning his many Adversaries and Answerers.

Thomas Gordon (Saturday, January 26, 1723)


SIR, I have had a long ambition to say something about you one way or other; but I doubted whether I had best write to you, or against you. That doubt is now decided; and lo! I who might have been your adversary, am become your correspondent and advocate. I send you your apology, and shew you the good that you do.

You have, sir, opened a new source of provision for the poor, by finding employment for all the wits mendicant about town: And though they ought to reverence your name, as that of another Sutton, by whose alms they are sustained, yet they vilely fly in your face, and pollute, by their matchless ingratitude, the very bread which you generously put into their mouths; like maggots, who prey upon the flesh that they are bred in, till they turn flies, which are vermin with wings. Thus reprobates serve heaven; they affront and blaspheme it, and receive their existence from it. You scarce had appeared in the world, but you recalled superannuated authors to life again; and, toothless as they were, set them a biting, biting at the hand that brought them back from oblivion. Obsolete and despairing authors once more violently grasped their pen: The lean and ill fed candidates for weekly work from the booksellers brightened up, and began to be clothed; and puny poets, and the humble composers of ditties, left their tags and ballads, to live upon Cato; even those who had got some reputation, thought that they had now a lucky opportunity to improve it, by breaking a lance with a champion who drew all eyes upon him, and was yet invincible: And Cato became at once the butt of the envious, the mark of the ambitious, and the stay and support of the needy.

It is the lot of grandeur: A great man must have his poor and impertinent dependents, as well as his useful and agreeable: They will serve to make up his train. A troop of beggars besetting his coach, or following it in the street, do, notwithstanding their rags, and ill-favoured looks, and dismal style, but add to the lustre of his figure. Jesters and buffoons, cynicks and declaimers, are likewise of the same use, to swell his pomp, and divert him, though they be often too free with him. Your retinue, sir, of this kind is infinite: From the Cockpit to Moorfields you maintain a wag, an orator, a critick, a poet, a journalist, in every street, and whole swarms in the alleys: Nor would I desire a surer patent for fame than such a shoal of calumniators. Their scolding is compliment; and while they aim blows at you, they only cudgel themselves on your behalf: Offendent solido; you know the fable of the viper biting the file.

Envy always praises those whom it rails at. It is indeed the only way that foul mouths can make your panegyric, or that of any man. Were they to extol you in earnest, it would be downright scandal and railing; a foul conspiracy against your reputation; like the fawning of a whelp, who, to express his fondness, pisses upon you. If therefore they meant their scurrilities and satyrical nonsense in love, you would have ground for provocation: But to mean them as they do the contrary way, is their only genuine way of thanking you for their food. There are many sorts of folks whose calumnies I would be proud of for the same reason why I would be ashamed of their praise. A great man at Athens was followed from a publick assembly, all the way home, by a very competent reviler, with a world of panegyrical ill names and acceptable abuses. That great man took all these kind volleys of defamation for so many huzzas; and calling to his servant, “Go,” says he, “take a light, and conduct that worthy gentleman, who has honoured me with all those civil acclamations, home to his lodging.”

Now, if this ill-tongued Athenian had not been in earnest, his courtesy would have been half lost. I hope that your numerous answerers and revilers mean what they say, else the obligation is but small; and the smaller, because these their panegyricks upon you are not at all encouraged. The town is still profoundly ignorant what a swarm of retailers, what loud and vehement flatterers, you have in it. They have filled, and do weekly fill, mighty reams of paper in extolling you, as great a secret as the world would make of it, to use the words of a witty author.

Love, they say, is blind; and perhaps from hence may be fetched a proof, that these your pretended adversaries are your real friends, since in their writings against you, that is, for you (for it is all one) they are guided by no other rule of right and wrong, than whether Cato affirms a thing, or denies it; and are always sure to take the contrary side: Nay, some of them contradict Cato, at the expence of their constant and favourite opinions. Does not this look like playing booty? By their works one would think that you had the licensing of your opponents, and, but for their hideous bulk, the overlooking of them: At least by your profound silence, and great meekness towards them, you seem well pleased with their labours. I dare say, you would not change them for any set of defamers that could be pick’d up for you.

A lady of my acquaintance is fond of dogs. She has at present two or three little curs, that are very noisy at every visitant who is taller than ordinary. The puny vermin have a spite at elevation. They once particularly, made an incessant and slanderous clamour at a noble lord, well known for his fine person, and graceful mien; nor could they be stilled. The lady was out of countenance: She told him that she would have them knocked on the head, or given away: “By no means, Madam,” says his lordship, sagely enough, “I know you cannot be without dogs, and perhaps the next may bite me.”

I think that I have read you impartially, and cannot say that I have found in you any knavish reasoning, any base or dishonest principles. You need not therefore be concerned who writes against you. However, as I would trust no body, in any circumstances, with any sort of absolute power, methinks I should not be displeased to see you checked and watched a little in that great authority which you have acquired over the minds of men. No body has shewn us better than yourself, that all discretionary power is liable to be abused, and ought not to be trusted, or cautiously trusted, to mortal and frail men. For this reason, though you be a monarch of the press, I would have you a limited monarch: As such it becomes you to bear with, and receive kindly, the admonitions and remonstrances of men of honour and sense, when such differ with you; and it is agreeable to your sense and character, to laugh at the profane contumelies of slaves. Your calumniators do your business. The viper carries within it a remedy for its own poison. You are secure, by the baseness of their fears, against the baseness of their malice; and their malice is harmless, by being obvious.

There is something diverting in the number and variety of your adversaries, and in their different views. Some are old stagers; and, being used to spill ink for pay in the quarrel of parties, made an offer of themselves to enter the lists again, and scold for wages at Cato. The finances were not in Cato’s disposal: This was a good and conscientious reason to them for being against him. But these volunteers are not suitably encouraged. One of them has in two years writ near a dozen pamphlets against you; but with ill success every way. The town will not buy them; the other end of the town will not reward the author; nor will you take any notice of them. A melancholy case; that learned Oxonian is at present in the slough of despond.

Others, who had not been used to receive pay, and I doubt never will, thought themselves qualified to earn it: For, alas! what is so deceiving as self-love? So upon Cato they fell; and, by way of answer, cracked jests, and called him names. Fraught with this merit, away they footed sweating to the office; where, after many petitions, and much waiting, they were admitted to the audience of one of the clerks. They begged to be considered as humble auxiliaries, and to have an acknowledgment, the smallest acknowledgment. These gentlemen had better luck than the above ancient author: They were fully rewarded; that is to say, they were civilly thanked by the aforesaid clerk, and owned to be well-meaning persons. And yet they are ungrateful, and make heavy complaints, as if they had nothing. They still hope for more another time.

A bookseller of my acquaintance tells me, that he has refused within this year, five and fifty pamphlets written against you; and that the authors, one and all, offered to write for him by the year. They were all of opinion, that they could carry through a weekly paper with as much reputation and success as any yet written against you: Which he did not deny; and yet dismissed them. He told me, it was but this winter, that a man in a livery came to him, and asked him, what he would give for a sermon to be preached by his master the doctor on a publick occasion? He answered, “Nothing.” “Oh, sir,” says the valet, “my master’s will sell like wild-fire. You cannot think, sir, how purely he claws off Cato: And you will see he’ll soon be made a . . .”[*]
You may see, sir, that you are a useful man to many, and even considered as a scale to great preferment. This sermon is since out, and it has neither hurt you nor exalted the preacher, though he has there laboured the point very hard. The doctor wanted no good will, whatever else he wants. Unluckily for him, there is not an argument (I should have said assertion) used by him against writing, but what will bear fifty times as strongly against preaching. I will, however, acquit him from meaning this consequence, or any other but that which his man meant; and which seems a consequence at least extremely remote. The doctor is, indeed, admirable: While he thought himself haranging and scattering words against libelling, he was actually inveighing virulently against himself, and preaching an angry libel against preaching. May the press and liberty be ever blessed with such foes! The doctor does not want words; it is pity but he knew the use of them.

Says Mr. Bayes, in The Rehearsal,

I bring out my bull and my bear; and what do you think I make them do, Mr. Johnson?

Johnson. Do! why fight, I suppose.

Bayes. See how you are mistaken now! I would as soon make them dance: No, igad, sir, I make them do no earthly thing.

There is this difference between the doctor’s bull and Mr. Bayes’s bull: The doctor’s bull bellows; besides this he does no earthly thing neither.

Pray, sir, be not so proud and lazy; read some of your adversaries, and their bulls will divert you.

Methinks, as great a man as the world takes you to be, and as you may think yourself, you treat your intended adversaries, but real friends, too superciliously, and, I conceive, with too much contempt. I am told by some of your intimate friends, that you have never read any of their works; and yet, to my knowledge, several of them please themselves with having mortified you, and do themselves no small credit amongst their acquaintance by bragging of it. Give your poor retainers this consolation, since they are like to have no other: Consider them as brats of your own begetting; and, since you have brought them into the world, that you ought to support them. Your taking but the least notice of them, and their performances, will give them food and raiment: But I will beg leave to say, that it is very unnatural, when you have given birth to so many innocent and harmless creatures, to leave them afterwards to starve. You see that they want no industry and application; and it is not their fault if they want success. Take, generous Cato, a little notice of them; and I am sure they will gratefully acknowledge your indulgence. Read their labours, and condescend to throw away a few leisure hours in contemplating the imbecility of human nature. It becomes the greatest men to know the weak sides of it as well as the strong; at least you will learn this lesson by it, that

"Man differs more from man, than man from beast."

Give me leave to conclude with a story: Once upon a time, I saw a large brave bull, of great comeliness and dignity, brought out upon a green near a country village to be baited. Among the bull-dogs fetched to bait him, were seen several dirty, deformed curs, called house dogs, that vented their choler in filthy noise. They barked aloud and bitterly, and disturbed every body but the bull, who, at all their snapping, snivelling, and snarling, never turned his head, nor moved a foot or horn. At last the squire of the place, who presided at the entertainment, shewed himself a man of taste and equity. “Take away,” says he, with a voice of authority, “take away these yelping mongrels: We do not use to bait bulls with turnspits.”

G I am, Sir,
Your humble servant,

[*] Here he mentioned one of the highest dignities in the church.

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