27 March 2014

A Swarm of Dunces and Windbags

Edwin Percy Whipple, "The Ludicrous Side of Life," Lectures on Subjects Connected with Literature and Life (Boston: Ticknor, Reed, & Fields, 1850), pp. 142-143:
Among the countless deceptions passed off on our sham-ridden race, let me direct your attention to the deception of dignity, as it is one which includes many others. Among those terms which have long ceased to have any vital meaning, the word dignity deserves a disgraceful prominence. No word has fallen so readily as this into the designs of cant, imposture and pretence; none has played so well the part of verbal scarecrow, to frighten children of all ages and both sexes. It is at once the thinnest and most effective of all the coverings under which duncedom sneaks and skulks. Most of the men of dignity, who awe or bore their more genial brethren, are simply men possessing the art of passing off their insensibility for wisdom, their dulness for depth; and of concealing imbecility of intellect under haughtiness of manner. Their success in this small game is one of the stereotyped satires on mankind. Once strip from these pretenders their stolen garments, once disconnect their show of dignity from their real meanness, and they would stand shivering and defenceless, objects of the tears of pity, or targets for the arrows of scorn. But it is the misfortune of this world's affairs, that offices, fitly occupied only by talent and genius, which despise pretence, should be filled by respectable stupidity and dignified emptiness, to whom pretence is the very soul of life. Manner triumphs over matter; and throughout society, politics, letters and science, we are doomed to meet a swarm of dunces and windbags, disguised as gentlemen, statesmen and scholars. 
Found via Addison Peale Russell's Library Notes (Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1882).