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RULES FOR CONVERSATION.
mouth speaketh," so men’s words and conversation necessarily flow from the ruling principle within ; and, therefore, if by reading and reflection your mind is occupied upon wise and sensible objects, and your thoughts filled with them, you will be naturally led to communicate from your store; and your discourse, to the great emolument of those with whom you converse, will take the same useful and improving turn with. your thoughts.
However, one thing is carefully to be avoided—“a monopoly of the conversation.” Though your topic is most instructive; though you understand it completely, and can treat of it in the most masterly manner, nothing can excuse your assuming to yourself the principal part of the discourse, and not allowing to others their due share and portion of it. For conversation, founded upon equality, by no means allows of engrossing : every man has a right to claim his part, and expects to be heard. But this is not the only evil or offence of garrulity; it betrays a weak and an arrogant mind: and if it be accompanied, as too frequently happens, with an insolent and dogmatical air, with an over-bearing, presumptuous, and pedantic manner, it defeats the ends of conversation, and infallibly brands the intemperate prater with the stigma of contempt.
Pythagoras, my young friends, well convinced of the great wisdom and utility of knowing how to restrain the tongue, enjoined all his disciples a three years' silence : and be assured, there is more good sense and advantage in knowing how to keep silence properly, than you are aware of. Silence in company, if not dulness or sheepishness, is observation or discretion.” An attention to others conciliates their regard and attention to you; and a modest question thrown in, now and then, a kind of inquiring observation, never fails to conciliate to young men the esteem of all with whom they converse. Always to be more knowing than you appear to be, never
forwardly to obtrude yourself, or to wish to outshine others in company, but on all occasions to wear the garb of diffident modesty, is the infallible road to gain in conversation both knowledge and respect.
Besides engrossing the conversation, we must note another defect, the consequence generally of a love of talking—that fertile source of innumerable evils. Never, my young friends, on any account, unless immediately called upon, and urged by self-defence, “ make yourselves the topic of your discourse." Nothing so nauseous, so offensive as egotism : it bespeaks the empty, vain, and insignificant mind. Men, conscious of the source from whence this error springs, will suspect whatever you say, and withhold from you all the praise you propose to gain by holding forth your own perfections to view : and should you, with some, absurdly affect to condemn yourself in sober sadness, for some vice or evil (to which you unfortunately are addicted !) your hearers will have discernment enough, be sure, to see of what virtue you thus mean to claim the excess; and will ridicule the weakness which you alone are too blind to overlook. To please and to be instructed, you will act wisely to “annihilate yourself,” as it were, in conversation : nothing is so disgusting as a man “ too big" for his
” company; and nothing so despicable and tedious, as the insipid retailer of dull stories and circumstantial narratives—the miserable, minute, self-important historian of uninteresting details, which lull even sweet patience herself to sleep, and make good sense run mad!
But let me caution you, my young friends, as against the excess of talking on one hand, so against the defect on the other. A modest and respectful silence is doubtless most wise and amiable ; but a dull and morose one is hateful and disgusting. And I know not, whether the eternal shallow prater may not be the better companion of the two, than the man who in solemn silence hears, and speaks not; or only, perhaps,
in blunt honesty, as he calls it, now and then speaks his mind, to the pain and disgust of all present; or, with an importance, which nothing but his dulness can exceed, occasionally distills a sentence or two, drop by drop, from his oracular lips.
Politeness, in the common intercourse of the world, is a subsidium to what Christian love is in the better system of religion and virtue. The former may be defined, “A constant attention to oblige, to do or say nothing, which may give pain or offence.” And Christian love is a continual endeavour to please, in order to promote our neighbour's best welfare. While, therefore, my young friends, you act upon the amiable principles of Christian truth, let that love especially, which is the most refined politeness, be the principal regulator of your behaviour in conversation. Study always to please, in order to improve and do good.” Good sense, good humour, and good breeding, unite in nearly the same dictate ; and if they carry not the motive so far as it is carried by Christianity, rejoice, that you have the happy, the plain direction of a precept to form your behaviour, which is no less infallibly productive of your own internal peace and felicity, than it is certain to recommend you to the approbation and good esteem of others.
Anecdotes respecting Conversation. 1. Plutarch tells us, in a few words, what an infinite advantage Alexander reaped from the fine taste wherewith his preceptor Aristotle inspired him, even from his tenderest infancy. “He loved,” says our author, “to converse with learned men; to improve himself in knowledge ; and to study.” Three sources these, of a monarch's happiness, which enable him to secure himself from numberless difficulties; three certain and infallible methods of learning to reign without the assistance of others.
2. It was Mr Locke's peculiar art in conversation, to lead
people to talk of their own profession, or whatever they best understood. With a gardener, he discoursed of gardening; with a jeweller, of diamonds; with a chemist of chemistry; with a watchmaker, of clocks, watches, &c. “By this means," said he, “I please all those men, who commonly can speak pertinently upon nothing else. As they believe I have an esteem for their profession, they are charmed with shewing their abilities before me; and I in the meantime improve myself by their discourse.” By thus putting questions to artificers, he would sometimes find out a secret in their art which they did not understand themselves ; and often give them views of the subject entirely new, which they put into practice with advantage.
3. The faculty of interchanging our thoughts with one another, or what we express by conversation, has always been represented by moral writers, as one of the noblest privileges of reason, and which more particularly sets mankind above the brute part of creation. Monsieur Varillas once told his friend, the author of the Menagiana, that out of every ten things he knew, he had learned nine in conversation. And I too, says M. Menage, can in a great measure declare the same.
6. The utility and excellence of rational conversation cannot perhaps be expressed in words more beautiful and elegant than the following, by Dr Young :
Good sense will stagnate. Thoughts shut up want air,
ST BERNARD'S DYING CHARGE.
Speech ventilates our intellectual fire ;
8. Of all the inconveniences attending the intercourse of mankind, slander and detraction are the most frequent, and in a very high degree odious and detestable. We are told of St Bernard, that when he was drawing near his end, he thus solemnly addressed himself to his brethren, as a dying man bequeathing legacies to his friends. “ Three things I require you to keep and observe; which I remember to have kept, to the best of my power, as long as I have lived. 1. I have not willed to slander any person; and if any have fallen, I have hid it as much as possible. 2. I have ever trusted less to my own wit and understanding than to any other's. 3. If I were at any time hurt, harmed, and annoyed, I never wished vengeance against the party who so wronged me." This memorable sentence is peculiarly applicable to every branch of the present subject; defamation, insolent overbearing, and petulant animosity, being the chief ingredients that tend to embitter conversation, and preclude its improvement and advantage.
15. A prudent man will avoid talking much of any particular science, for which he is remarkably famous. There is