IV. On Society.
In speaking of society my plan is not to speak of friendship, for,
though they have some connection, they are yet very different. The
former has more in it of greatness and humility, and the greatest merit
of the latter is to resemble the former.
For the present I shall speak of that particular kind of intercourse
that gentlemen should have with each other. It would be idle to show how
far society is essential to men: all seek for it, and all find it, but
few adopt the method of making it pleasant and lasting.
Everyone seeks to find his pleasure and his advantage at the expense of
others. We prefer ourselves always to those with whom we intend to
live, and they almost always perceive the preference. It is this which
disturbs and destroys society. We should discover a means to hide this
love of selection since it is too ingrained in us to be in our power to
destroy. We should make our pleasure that of other persons, to humour,
never to wound their self-love.
The mind has a great part to do in so great a work, but it is not merely
sufficient for us to guide it in the different courses it should hold.
The agreement we meet between minds would not keep society together for
long if she was not governed and sustained by good sense, temper, and by
the consideration which ought to exist between persons who have to live
It sometimes happens that persons opposite in temper and mind become
united. They doubtless hold together for different reasons, which cannot
last for long. Society may subsist between those who are our inferiors
by birth or by personal qualities, but those who have these advantages
should not abuse them. They should seldom let it be perceived that they
serve to instruct others. They should let their conduct show that
they, too, have need to be guided and led by reason, and accommodate
themselves as far as possible to the feeling and the interests of the
To make society pleasant, it is essential that each should retain
his freedom of action. A man should not see himself, or he should see
himself without dependence, and at the same time amuse himself. He
should have the power of separating himself without that separation
bringing any change on the society. He should have the power to pass by
one and the other, if he does not wish to expose himself to occasional
embarrassments; and he should remember that he is often bored when he
believes he has not the power even to bore. He should share in what he
believes to be the amusement of persons with whom he wishes to live, but
he should not always be liable to the trouble of providing them.
Complaisance is essential in society, but it should have its limits,
it becomes a slavery when it is extreme. We should so render a free
consent, that in following the opinion of our friends they should
believe that they follow ours.
We should readily excuse our friends when their faults are born with
them, and they are less than their good qualities. We should often avoid
to show what they have said, and what they have left unsaid. We should
try to make them perceive their faults, so as to give them the merit of
There is a kind of politeness which is necessary in the intercourse
among gentlemen, it makes them comprehend badinage, and it keeps
them from using and employing certain figures of speech, too rude
and unrefined, which are often used thoughtlessly when we hold to our
opinion with too much warmth.
The intercourse of gentlemen cannot subsist without a certain kind of
confidence; this should be equal on both sides. Each should have an
appearance of sincerity and of discretion which never causes the fear of
anything imprudent being said.
There should be some variety in wit. Those who have only one kind of
wit cannot please for long unless they can take different roads, and not
both use the same talents, thus adding to the pleasure of society, and
keeping the same harmony that different voices and different instruments
should observe in music; and as it is detrimental to the quiet of
society, that many persons should have the same interests, it is yet as
necessary for it that their interests should not be different.
We should anticipate what can please our friends, find out how to be
useful to them so as to exempt them from annoyance, and when we cannot
avert evils, seem to participate in them, insensibly obliterate without
attempting to destroy them at a blow, and place agreeable objects in
their place, or at least such as will interest them. We should talk of
subjects that concern them, but only so far as they like, and we
should take great care where we draw the line. There is a species of
politeness, and we may say a similar species of humanity, which does not
enter too quickly into the recesses of the heart. It often takes pains
to allow us to see all that our friends know, while they have still the
advantage of not knowing to the full when we have penetrated the depth
of the heart.
Thus the intercourse between gentlemen at once gives them familiarity
and furnishes them with an infinite number of subjects on which to talk
Few persons have sufficient tact and good sense fairly to appreciate
many matters that are essential to maintain society. We desire to
turn away at a certain point, but we do not want to be mixed up in
everything, and we fear to know all kinds of truth.
As we should stand at a certain distance to view objects, so we should
also stand at a distance to observe society; each has its proper point
of view from which it should be regarded. It is quite right that it
should not be looked at too closely, for there is hardly a man who in
all matters allows himself to be seen as he really is.