Description of this Passion by Ancient Writers—Dion the Philosopher—Euripides—Aristotle—Plato—Anecdote of Alcibiades–Boethius—Sir George Mackenzie on this Passion—Anecdote from Horace—Avarice in a Cardinal and in a Pope—The Miser described by Old Burton; by Dryden; by Goldsmith; by Robert Pollok—Avarice in History—Analogy between Avarice and Prodigality—A Curious Anecdote—Avarice in the Great and "Noble"—The Great Duke of Marlborough—Another Ducal Miser of a more Modern Day—A Little Rustic and a Great Duke—The Insatiableness of Acquisitiveness—Jemmy Wood of Gloucester—Osterval and Danden both starved to Death—Strength and Durability of the Passion of Avarice—Virtue not quite Extinct—Benevolence and Parsimony often displayed by the same Individual—Guyot, a reputed Miser of Marseilles; his singular Will—An unexpected Contribution to a good Work, &c. &c.
ALTHOUGH a passion so common to mankind, there is none that has received such scorn and contempt, as that of avarice. Philosophers and poets of all ages, and of every nation, have exerted their wit and satire, to denounce, and expose, the evils of this ungodly lust. Moralists have declared this passion for gold and silver the most unpardonable, because the most detestable, of all passions. "There are men," exclaims an ancient satirist, "who do not profit to live, but who seem to live, for no other purpose than to gain." The denunciations of classic eloquence have been hurled against it. Heathens regarded it as a sin, the possession of which would exclude them from the favour of the gods. "Avarice," says Dion, the philosopher, "is the source of all wickedness." It was the opinion of the high-minded Euripides that an avaricious man could neither think nor desire, any good thing; and Lucilius, the friend of Scipio Africanus, does not forget to employ the pen of satire against this base and grovelling passion. "A miser," he writes, "is good to nobody, because he is wicked to himself." Plautus, in his character of Euclio, has graphically portrayed the meanness of avarice; nor can we even say that he exaggerates when he makes his miser repine, that he cannot save the smoke from his own miserable fire. "The lust of riches," says Aristotle, "is without end. Riches make a covetous man poor; for his avarice will not allow him to employ, for fear of losing them." Plato, the philosopher, once advised a miser, that if he was desirous of becoming truly rich, not to strive to increase his wealth, but to decrease his avarice—advice worthy of that great man. Valerius speaks of a miser who, in a famine, sold a mouse for two hundred pence, and died of starvation. [*Lib. 7. cap. vi.]
It was a keen rebuke with which Socrates humbled the pride of avarice in a wealthy ancient. Alcibiades, the great Athenian general, was boasting to the philosopher of the extent of his land, and the immensity of his riches. The stoic laid before the proud man a map of the world. "Pray," said he, "show me where your land lieth here?" The point of a pin would have covered all! "Though the rich miser," says Boethius, "should be in a flowing whirlpool of gold, he could not satisfy his appetite for wealth; let him adorn his neck with the berries of the Red Sea, and cleave his rich soils with a hundred oxen!" We might extract some curious anecdotes of misers from the lore of classic ages. Horace speaks of a man named Ovid, who was so abundantly rich that he could measure his gold and silver by bushels, and yet was so penurious that he would go almost naked about the streets, never eating enough to satisfy the demands of hunger. Fearing lest he should fall into poverty, he lived most wretchedly all his life.
Our old English writers have not been less severe in delineating the evils of avarice. "It is," says Brown in his Religio Medici, "not so much a vice as a species of madness." "I must beg rich and avaricious men's leave," says Sir George Mackenzie, "to laugh as much at their folly, as I should do at a shepherd who would weep and grieve, because his master would give him no more beasts to herd; or at a steward because his lord gave him no more servants to feed. Nor can I think a man who, having gained a great estate, is afraid to live comfortably upon it, less ridiculous, than I would do him, who having built a convenient, or it may be a stately house, should choose to walk in the rain, or expose himself to storms, lest he should defile or profane the floor of his almost idolized rooms." Pontanus speaks of a cardinal who was so extraordinarily avaricious, that he would often disguise himself as a poor slave, or groom, and steal away the corn from his own horses. Many of the vices of the popes—and history tells us they were not a few—sprang from their lust for gold. The sins of Boniface the Eighth, of whom it was said that "he crept into the popedom like a fox, ruled like a lion, and died like a dog," were principally the sins of avarice. We may illustrate his craft and avarice by an anecdote. In the year 1297 the Franciscans were anxious to obtain from this pope a bull of privileges, for which they offered him forty thousand ducats. The pope inquired if they had the money ready; they answered that they had, and that it was then at Rome in the hands of a certain banker, whom they named. He desired three days to consider the matter, at the end of which time they were requested to return. In the interval, the pope sent to the banker, and demanded the money which the holy friars had lodged in his hands; and in order to quiet the conscience of the Italian money changer, he accompanied this demand with an absolution for his breach of trust. When the three days were expired, the Franciscans waited upon his "holiness," fully anticipating success. The successor of Saint Peter received them graciously, but told them that on due consideration he could not grant their request, as it was opposed to the rule of Saint Francis; but, as to the money—why, it must remain for the use of the holy see!
Old Burton, with his usual learning, describes the characteristics of the miser. "He is commonly sad," says he, "as Ahab's spirit was, because he could not get Naboth's vineyard; and if he lay out his money at any time, though it be to necessary uses, to his own children's good, he brawls and scolds, his heart is heavy, much disquieted he is, and loth to part from it. He is of a wearish, dry, pale constitution, and cannot sleep for cares, and worldly business; 'his riches,' saith Solomon, 'will not let him sleep;' or if he do sleep, it is of a very unquiet, interrupt, unpleasing sleep, with his bags in his arms; and though he be at a banquet, or some merry feast, he sighs for grief of heart; his wearish body takes no rest; he is troubled in his abundance, and sorrowful in plenty; unhappy in the present, and more unhappy in the life to come. He is a perpetual drudge; restless in his thoughts, and never satisfied; a slave—a wretch—a dust worm, still seeking what sacrifice he may offer to his golden god!" Dryden SUMS up the misery of avarice in a few lines; he says,
Content is wealth, the riches of the mind,
And happy he who can that treasure find;
But the base miser starves amidst his store,
Broods on his gold; and griping still for more,
Sits sadly pining, and believes he's poor!
And Goldsmith, in his graphic and charming way, thus refers to the insatiable nature of this unholy passion:
As some lone miser visiting his store,
Bends at his treasure, counts, recounts it o'er;
Hoards after hoards, his rising raptures fill,
Yet still he sighs, for hoards are wanting still.
Moirre in his "L'Avare," and Shadwell in his "Miser," have both attempted to display the workings of avarice by dramatic representation. Far from exaggerating, their characters fall short of the reality, and have all been surpassed by the examples of niggardly saving, and penury, given to us in the lives of Daniel Dancer, John Elwes, Jemmy Taylor, and their eccentric clan. Robert Pollok, the author of "The Course of Time," thus paints in words the miser at his store:
But there was one in folly further gone;
With eye awry, incurable, and wild,
The laughing stock of devils and of men,
And by his guardian angel quite given up—
The miser, who with dust inanimate
Held wedded intercourse. Ill guided wretch!
Thou might'st have seen him at the midnight hour,
When good men slept, and in light winged dreams
Ascended up to God—in wasteful hall,
With vigilance and fasting worn to skin
And bone, and wrapped in moat debasing rags:
Thou might'st have seen him bending o'er his heaps,
And holding strange communion with his gold;
And as his thievish fancy seemed to hear
The nightman's foot approach, starting alarmed;
And in his old, decrepit, withered hand,
That palsy shook, grasping the yellow earth
To make it sure. Of all God made upright,
And in their nostrils breathed a living soul,
Most fallen, most prone, most earthy, most debased.
Of all that sold Eternity for Time,
None bargained on so easy terms for death.
Illustrious fool! nay, most inhuman wretch!
He sat among his bags, and, with a look
Which hell might be made ashamed of; drove the poor
Away unalmsed; and 'midst abundance died—
Sorest of evils—died of utter want!
If we were disposed to do so, it would be no difficult task to show the powerful influence of avarice upon the rise and progress of nations, and it would be instructive to comment, with the annals of our country before us, upon the working of this passion, in the history of the English people. We should observe, in the origin of those wars and tumults, which incessantly employed the arms, and fed the turbulent passions of our early kings, the grim features of avarice. We should behold in the tyranny and oppression of monarchs over their people, the power of the same greedy and selfish lust, and we should find the corruptions, and abominations, of the old popish church, to have sprang from the love of gold. The most glaring evils of society, and the grossest corruptions of religion, were instigated and supported by the promptings of avarice. Monarchs, ravenous to acquire, looked enviously at rival kingdoms; the more they obtained, the more did they demand. The miseries of war, the slaughter of legions of their subjects were as nothing, when opposed to their schemes of avarice and ambition. It was the treasures which the parsimony of the Jews accumulated that excited in old England the cupidity of Norman power. Christian kings and Israelitish money-lenders were alike greedy after wealth; and we all know what massacres and plundering arose from this love of gold. It was the avarice of monks and popish priests that excited the envy of Henry Tudor. In their case the love of gold was the root of all evil, as regarded their own interests at least; for had the monks adhered to their ancient rules of poverty, and prayer; their monasteries would not have been so zealously suppressed.
The passion of avarice has various manifestations; one craves for money but to hoard it in his chests, others crave for money to spend it in their selfish pleasures. Thus it is that avarice is sometimes found in the spendthrift, and thus it is that spendthrifts so often become inveterate misers. Perhaps the best illustration of this feeling is in the parsimony and extravagance which we sometimes observe combined in gamesters. Did we want a fearful lesson, we would go to the gaming table to behold the demon of avarice in his triumph—the haggard face—the feverish brow—the eager anxious eye—the nervous twitches of the mouth, and the clenching of the hands, are the outward signs of the fierce and deadly struggle within. The transition, indeed, from prodigality to avarice is so easy, that one would almost feel inclined to regard the spendthrift, greedy for sensual enjoyment and riotous pleasure, as only exhibiting another manifestation of avarice; it is a species of that same covetous feeling, longing to enjoy a greater portion of pleasure than usually falls to the lot of man: it is selfishness; and selfishness is next akin to avarice. A young man of vicious principles squandered in a few years a sumptuous fortune. His houses and his lands had one by one, and piece by piece, been forfeited to gamblers, or sold to gratify his profligacy. His fortune gone, and no longer possessing the means of dissipation, he found his companions desert him; he had treated them liberally during his mad career; they had feasted at his table, and drunk plenteously of his wine; but companions in sensual joys are seldom grateful or sincere in their friendship. Forsaken and alone, he began to despair, and formed a resolution, which when formed few, in the adversity of fortune, have the courage to resist—he resolved to terminate with his own hand, a life which he deemed no longer desirable, and in which he could see no further source of happiness. He left his home in this suicidal mind, and wandering about, he came almost unconsciously to the brow of an eminence, which looked down upon what were lately his estates. He threw himself upon the ground, and for the first time for many years began to meditate. It was a good spirit that was now struggling in the future miser, before which the demon of suicide fled. He sat for hours in that brown study, and he arose an altered and determined man He had formed a resolution that all those fair lands should be his again. He walked hastily forward, determined to avail himself of the first opportunity of earning money that presented itself; and when he had obtained it, he resolved to use it with rigid parsimony. He had conquered during those few hours of reflection every feeling of pride, and his first attempt to earn money was a sufficient test of the sincerity of this triumph. He saw a heap of coals shot out of a cart, on the pavement before a house; he offered to shovel them into the cellar; his services were accepted, and remunerated with a trifling sum; yet trifling as it was, he resolved to save the greatest portion. He embraced every means of obtaining money, and did not allow himself to consider the meanness or servility of the occupation. Everything that could be applied to a use he hoarded up, and when accumulated sold. By these means, step by step, and little by little, after years of patient labour, he saved enough to purchase a few cattle; these he improved, and after a while sold at a profit. During all this time he practiced the strictest parsimony, and he was ultimately enabled, by his accumulations, to recover his lost estates. Parsimony such as this we should feel disposed to excuse, but the result in his case, it is said, was disastrous, for parsimony became, by long habit, confirmed into avarice, and the man died a scraping, grasping miser, with sixty thousand pounds in his money chests.
It is not always that avarice assumes the garb of wretchedness; it is not always that the miser appears to the public eye, a lank and half-starved wretch, with loathsome rags upon his shoulders. The passion is sometimes associated with men, whose names have been renowned for great actions, and for vast achievements in the world. That great warrior, the Duke of Marlborough, allowed the promptings of avarice to tarnish a fame designed to live for centuries. Many and disreputable are the charges of peculation which have been advanced against him, and numerous are the anecdotes remembered by tradition, or recorded in books, of his pinching parsimony. When the clouds were gathering in the heavens, and infirmity had warned him of coming dissolution, he would walk from the public room in Bath to his lodgings, in a cold dark night, through wind and rain, to save sixpence for coach hire. Yet that great general left at his death a fortune of more than a million and a half of money, which, as if to show to others the folly of such meanless parsimony, was inherited by a grandson of Lord Trevors, who had been one of his bitterest enemies. But we need not go back so far to find noble misers; some of the members of our proud nobility of today, afford striking examples of parsimony and avarice in the great. We have known some whose riches are so great, that they may be compared with the riches of Croesus; grumble over their tradesmen's bills, and haggle for an hour to obtain the reduction of a shilling, did not interest prompt the tradesman sooner to submit, in hopes of future "patronage," from such distinguished and noble personages. If the reader will take the trouble to enquire, he may glean some curious anecdotes of a "noble" miser, of the present day, whose parsimony is so great, that he deprives his domestics of their perquisites, and has been known to have sold the refuse fat from his own kitchen for the trifle which it produced. This descendant of a valiant race may be seen, in the locality of his own mansion, with a huge basket on his arm, wandering from shop to shop, and from stall to stall, to pick up bargains or thrifty provender for his household. He not only attends to the economy of his kitchen, but even to the most minute affairs of his farm; his dairy receives no small share of his attention, and he will sometimes condescend to measure out, and sell his milk in retail, to the neighbouring villagers. One morning, it is related, a little girl presented herself at the castle, and giving in her jug and penny, was served by his grace, who, pleased with her appearance, gave the little damsel a kiss, telling her at the same time that she would always now be able to say, that she had been kissed by a duke. "Yes," replied the little rustic, "but you took the penny, though!" We could point to many such instances of aristocratic penury, but we do not wish to draw our illustrations from contemporary characters.
The total absence of all ulterior motive in the parsimony of the miser is a convincing proof of how powerful are the cravings of acquisitiveness, when unduly excited. "If a miser be the owner of fifty acres," said Dr. Combe, "it will give him delight to acquire fifty more; if of one thousand, or one hundred thousand, he will still be gratified in adding to this number. His understanding may be convinced that he already possesses ample store for any enjoyment, and abundant to provide against every want; yet if this faculty be active, he will feel his joys impaired if he cease to amass." The ever famous Jemmy Wood, of Gloucester, who died worth nearly two millions of money, did not cease to go on accumulating wealth after he had obtained more than he or his family could spend in their lifetime, if they spent with common prudence. But the propensity to acquire, when unduly active, absorbs all other powers and motives of the human mind. The love of accumulating gold is so intense that it defies all fear of death, and the being whose will is submissive to its dictates, would calmly look starvation in the face; and rather than invade his hoards to purchase a few extra comforts for the body, expire by lingering and slow degrees. Ostervald, the miser, died, because he would not spend a few shillings in the purchase of a little soup; and Danden, the miser, of Berlin, positively died of starvation, whilst he had secreted under his floor twenty thousand crowns in specie. He had no heir but a brother, with whom he had been at enmity for seven and thirty years, because he had once sent him a letter without paying the postage. Yet this sordid wretch was a man of intellectual talent, and a master of languages. "True it is," as Dr. Combe asserts, "that when the pursuit of wealth becomes the chief business of life, acquisitiveness engrosses the intellect, deadens the moral sentiments and debases the whole faculties of the mind."[* System of Phrenology, vol. i. p. 318.]
Other passions diminish in their strength, as age approaches. The sensual passions become palled by gratification. The sins of youth are forgotten, as the hair grows grey, and the eyes become dimmed with the film of age; but the passion of avarice, unlike other passions of the human mind, knows no satiety; it becomes strengthened by its gratification; it derives nourishment from its very excesses, and, like the sturdy oak, becomes stronger as its age increases. It is difficult to discover the motives of hoary avarice—with limbs bending beneath the weight of years—with hair blanched by the snows of many winters—sans sight—sans teeth—sans everything—yet gloating over gold which he can never live to want, and greedy for acquisitions which can procure no happiness. We can only imagine that the mind, so absorbed by avarice, is rendered imbecile to all other feelings; or that the thoughts become so engrossed in their mammon worship, as to forget the flight of years, and the phantom of the tomb! And yet, perhaps, even the worst passions of the human mind are incapable of extinguishing all semblance of a better nature. Some slight trace of virtue—some lingering remains of charity—some indications of benevolence, will lie slumbering in the heart, although the calculations of avarice, and the audacity of crime, may have buried those feelings, and incased them as in the grave. The heart of the miser—of the robber—of even the murderer; if studied with intense scrutiny—if probed with skill, will not be found totally impregnable. Vice may have contaminated the stream of thought, and guarded the heart with the watchfulness of a fiend; but there is no breast so besieged, that the angel of goodness may not redeem;—no heart, some avenue of which may not be surprised—no nature so obdurate, to which some good feeling or sentiment of love, may not appeal. Even where sin has most contaminated the heart, and excited the evil passions of the human mind, there is some trait of humanity still left to emulate the philanthropist to exertion, and to inspire the blackest sinner with the sunshine of hope.
What is more anomalous in nature than the mind of man? Sometimes passions and sentiments, diametrically opposite in their nature, are found existing in the same individual. Ferocity and tenderness—revenge and love—parsimony and charity grow up, and are made manifest side by side. Nothing, perhaps, has won so much for the philosophy of Gall and Spurzheim as this singular fact, for nothing seems to demonstrate so clearly the innateness of our ideas and capacities. The education or peculiar mental training that would tend to develop a grasping pinching parsimony, certainly does not appear to us the kind of training to implant principles of benevolence, and charity; in the human heart. And yet, perhaps, in these very anomalies, if we closely examine, we shall find a spirit of harmony, one propensity will seem to prompt and call into activity another feeling; the virtue becomes the excuse for the vice, and the mind is lulled by the gratification of two of its most opposite, but most powerful propensities, till the bad man thinks his motives good, and looks with complacency upon his evil deeds. We have a curious anecdote of the combination of parsimony with charity, to illustrate our meaning, and to show how a sordid vice is made by some subservient to their schemes of benevolence and love. We willingly forget the vice, and call it self-denial, whilst dwelling upon the munificence of the virtue.
Some years ago, there lived in Marseilles an old man of the name of Guyot; he was known to every inhabitant, and every urchin in the streets could point him out as a niggard in his dealings, and a wretch of the utmost penury in his habits of life. From his boyhood, this old man had lived in the City of Marseilles, and, although the people treated him with scorn and disgust, nothing could induce him to leave it. When he walked the streets he was followed by a crowd of boys, who, hating him as a grasping miser, hooted him vociferously—insulted him with the coarsest epithets, and sometimes annoyed him by casting stones and filth at his person. There was no one to speak a kind word in his favour—no one to bestow an act of friendship, or a nod of recognition upon Guyot. He was regarded by all as an avaricious, griping old miser, whose whole life was devoted to the hoarding up of gold. At last this object of universal scorn died, and it was found that, by his parsimony, he had amassed an ample fortune. What was the surprise of his executors on opening his will, to find these remarkable words:—"Having observed, from my infancy, that the poor of Marseilles are ill supplied with water, which can only be procured at a great price, I have cheerfully laboured the whole of my life to procure for them this great blessing, and I direct that the whole of my property shall be expended in building an aqueduct for their use!"
When it was proposed to build Bethlehem Hospital, many benevolent individuals volunteered to solicit contributions by calling upon the inhabitants of London. Two of these gentlemen went to a small house in an impoverished neighbourhood; for the pence of the poor were solicited as well as the pounds of the rich. The door was open, and, as they drew nigh, they overheard an old man scolding his female servant for having thrown away a match, only one end of which had been used. Although so trivial a matter, the master appeared to be much enraged, and the collectors remained sometime outside the door, before the old man had finished his angry lecture. When the tones of his voice were somewhat subdued, they entered, and presenting themselves to this strict observer of frugality and saving, explained the object of their application; but they did not anticipate much success. The miser, however, for such he was reputed in the neighbourhood, no sooner understood their object, than he opened a closet, and bringing forth a well filled bag, counted therefrom four hundred guineas, which he presented to the astonished applicants. They expressed their surprise and thankfulness, and could not refrain from telling the old gentleman that they had overheard his quarrel with his domestic, and how little they expected, in consequence, to have met with such munificence from him. "Gentlemen," replied the old man, "your surprise is occasioned by my care of a thing, of such little consequence; but I keep my house, and save my money in my own way; my parsimony enables me to bestow more liberally in charity. With regard to benevolent donations, you may always expect most from prudent people who keep their own accounts, and who pay attention to trifles." When he had thus addressed them, he somewhat abruptly requested them to withdraw, and closed the door after them; thinking, perhaps, more of the match which his maid had so wantonly destroyed, than of the four hundred guineas which his benevolence had prompted him to bestow.