John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester

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A Satire Against Mankind

    Were I - who to my cost already am
    One of those strange, prodigious creatures, man -
    A spirit free to choose for my own share
    What sort of flesh and blood I pleased to wear,
5   I’d be a dog, a monkey, or a bear,
    Or anything but that vain animal,
    Who is so proud of being rational.
    His senses are too gross; and he’ll contrive
    A sixth, to contradict the other five;
10   And before certain instinct will prefer
    Reason, which fifty times for one does err.
    Reason, an ignis fatuus of the mind,
    Which leaving light of nature, sense, behind,
    Pathless and dangerous wand’ring ways it takes,
15   Through Error’s fenny bogs and thorny brakes;
    Whilst the misguided follower climbs with pain
    Mountains of whimseys, heaped in his own brain;
    Stumbling from thought to thought, falls headlong down,
    Into Doubt’s boundless sea where, like to drown,
20   Books bear him up awhile, and make him try
    To swim with bladders of Philosophy;
    In hopes still to o’ertake the escaping light;
    The vapour dances, in his dazzling sight,
    Till spent, it leaves him to eternal night.
25   Then old age and experience, hand in hand,
    Lead him to death, make him to understand,
    After a search so painful, and so long,
    That all his life he has been in the wrong:
    Huddled in dirt the reasoning engine lies,
30   Who was so proud, so witty, and so wise.
    Pride drew him in, as cheats their bubbles catch,
    And made him venture, to be made a wretch.
    His wisdom did his happiness destroy,
    Aiming to know that world he should enjoy;
35   And Wit was his vain, frivolous pretence
    Of pleasing others, at his own expense.
    For wits are treated just like common whores,
    First they’re enjoyed, and then kicked out of doors;
    The pleasure past, a threatening doubt remains,
40   That frights th’enjoyer with succeeding pains:
    Women and men of wit are dangerous tools,
    And ever fatal to admiring fools.
    Pleasure allures, and when the fops escape,
    ‘Tis not that they’re beloved, but fortunate,
45   And therefore what they fear, at heart they hate.
           But now, methinks some formal band and beard
    Takes me to task; come on sir, I’m prepared:
           Then by your favour, anything that’s writ
    Against this jibing, jingling knack called Wit
50   Likes me abundantly: but you take care
    Upon this point not to be too severe.
    Perhaps my Muse were fitter for this part,
    For I profess, I can be very smart
    On Wit, which I abhor with all my heart;
55   I long to lash it in some sharp essay,
    But your grand indiscretion bids me stay,
    And turns my tide of ink another way.
    What rage forments in your degenerate mind,
    To make you rail at reason, and mankind?
60   Blessed glorious man! To whom alone kind heaven
    An everlasting soul hath freely given;
    Whom his great maker took such care to make,
    That from himself he did the image take;
    And this fair frame in shining reason dressed,
65   To dignify his nature above beast.
    Reason, by whose aspiring influence
    We take a flight beyond material sense,
    Dive into mysteries, then soaring pierce
    The flaming limits of the universe,
70   Search heaven and hell, find out what’s acted there,
    And give the world true grounds of hope and fear.
           Hold might man, I cry, all this we know,
    From the pathetic pen of Ingelo;
    From Patrick’s Pilgrim, Sibbes’ Soliloquies,
75   And ‘tis this very Reason I despise,
    This supernatural gift that makes a mite
    Think he’s an image of the infinite;
    Comparing his short life, void of all rest,
    To the eternal, and the ever-blessed.
80   This busy, pushing stirrer-up of doubt,
    That frames deep mysteries, then finds them out;
    Filling with frantic crowds of thinking fools
    The reverend bedlams, colleges and schools;
    Borne on whose wings each heavy sot can pierce
85   The limits of the boundless universe:
    So charming ointments make an old witch fly,
    And bear a crippled carcass through the sky.
    ‘Tis the exalted power whose business lies
    In nonsense, and impossiblities.
90   This made a whimsical philosopher
    Before the spacious world his tub prefer,
    And we have modern cloistered coxcombs, who
    Retire to think ‘cause they have nought to do.
    But thoughts are given for action’s government;
95   Where action ceases, thought’s impertinent:
    Our sphere of action is life’s happiness,
    And he that thinks beyond thinks like an ass.
    Thus, whilst against false reasoning I inveigh,
    I own right reason, which I would obey:
100   That reason which distinguishes by sense,
    And gives us rules of good and ill from thence;
    That bounds desires, with a reforming will
    To keep ‘em more in vigour, not to kill.
    Your reason hinders, mine helps to enjoy,
105   Renewing appetites yours would destroy.
    My reason is my friend, yours is a cheat,
    Hunger calls out, my reason bids me eat;
    Perversely, yours your appetite does mock:
    This asks for food, that answers, ‘what’s o’clock?’
110   This plain distinction, sir, your doubt secures,
    ‘Tis not true reason I despise, but yours.
    Thus I think reason righted, but for man,
    I’ll ne’er recant, defend him if you can.
    For all his pride, and his philosophy,
115   ‘Tis evident: beasts are in their own degree
    As wise at least, and better far than he.
    Those creatures are the wisest who attain,
    By surest means, the ends at which they aim.
    If therefore Jowler finds and kills the hares,
120   Better than Meres supplies committee chairs;
    Though one’s a statesman, th’other but a hound,
    Jowler in justice would be wiser found.
    You see how far man’s wisdom here extends,
    Look next if human nature makes amends;
125   Whose principles are most generous and just,
    And to whose morals you would sooner trust:
    Be judge yourself, I’ll bring it to the test,
    Which is the basest creature, man or beast?
    Birds feed on birds, beasts on each other prey,
130   But savage man alone does man betray:
    Pressed by necessity, they kill for food,
    Man undoes man, to do himself no good.
    With teeth and claws, by nature armed, they hunt
    Nature’s allowance, to supply their want.
135   But man, with smiles, embraces, friendships, praise,
    Inhumanely his fellow’s life betrays;
    With voluntary pains works his distress,
    Not through necessity, but wantonness.
    For hunger or for love they bite, or tear,
140   Whilst wretched man is still in arms for fear.
    For fear he arms, and is of arms afraid:
    From fear, to fear, successively betrayed.
    Base fear, the source whence his best passions came,
    His boasted honour, and his dear-bought fame.
145   The lust of power, to whom he’s such a slave,
    And for the which alone he dares be brave;
    To which his various projects are designed,
    Which makes him generous, affable, and kind.
    For which he takes such pains to be thought wise,
150   And screws his actions, in a forced disguise;
    Leads a most tedious life in misery,
    Under laborious, mean hypocrisy.
    Look to the bottom of his vast design,
    Wherein man’s wisdom, power, and glory join:
155   The good he acts, the ill he does endure,
    ‘Tis all from fear, to make himself secure.
    Merely for safety after fame they thirst,
    For all men would be cowards if they durst.
    And honesty’s against all common sense,
160   Men must be knaves, ‘tis in their own defence.
    Mankind’s dishonest: if you think it fair
    Among known cheats to play upon the square,
    You’ll be undone.
    Nor can weak truth your reputation save,
165   The knaves will all agree to call you knave.
    Wronged shall he live, insulted o’er, oppressed,
    Who dares be less a villain than the rest.
    Thus sir, you see what human nature craves,
    Most men are cowards, all men should be knaves;
170   The difference lies, as far as I can see,
    Not in the thing itself, but the degree;
    And all the subject matter of debate
    Is only, who’s a knave of the first rate?

First published 1675 (?).

Contributed by Robert Clark.