By Thomas May, Esquire London, Print. by I. B. for Thomas Walkley, 1633.
The Epistle and Dedicary To the Right Honourable,
Richard, Lord Weston,
Lord high Treasurer of England, Knight of the most Noble Order, & c. My Lord,
I might be fearful that so great a master of the learned languages (as your Lordship is known to be), having before read this acute discourse in the original and enjoyed the author in his own strength and elegance, might not only severely censure my weak translation, but justly neglect the presentation of it, as a thing needless and improper to your learned self. But may it please your Lordship to admit my reasons?
First, the greater your abilities are, the more authority will your name give the work to those that are mere English readers and to whom my pains most properly do belong. Barclay, the learned author, having with a sharp and penetrating sight surveyed the difference of human dispositions, and loth to bound his fame within the narrow limits of his own language, clothed his work (and that most elegantly) in the Roman tongue. I, lest our English Gentlemen (as many of them as cannot master the original) should lose the sense of such a work, have made adventure to benefit them, and with the loss (perchance) of mine own fame, to extend the fame of Barclay. The second reason and the chief why I present it to your Lordship is drawn from that analogy which I conceive between the matter of this book and your mind, being such as it may be thought, if the author himself had lived in this state, he would have chosen the same patron; your mind, my Lord, being not only moulded for the Muses to love but made for public and high employments, has not only occasion to meet the differences of human dispositions, but ability of judgment to discern them; and with a conscious delight may run over the mention of those things here, which yourself have by experience already found, and meet in some parts of this discourse, your own perfections truly charactered.
To you, my Lord, to whose noble bosom the Muses heretofore have resorted for delight, they now fly for patronage and shelter: To your hands I humbly present this weak endeavour, beseeching almighty God to bless you with continuance and increase of temporal honors; and after, with eternal happiness: so prayeth
The four ages of man: Childhood, Youth, Middle-age, Old age
The making or marring of mankind, as of other creatures, is especially in their first age. In trees, the sprigs, whilst they are tender, will yield with ease to the grafter’s hand and grow by his direction, either straight or crooked. So the minds of infants by their parents’ skill, no less than their bodies by the midwife’s hand, may with ease be moulded into such a fashion as will be durable in after-ages. The seeds especially and fundamental parts of virtue are by an early and strong persuasion to be so engrafted into them, that they need not know whether nature or precept were the teachers of them. To be dutiful to their parents and obedient to their counsels; to abhor intemperance, lying, and deceit as prodigies and things unusual; to adore especially the power of God, and sometimes by mercy, sometimes by judgment, to consider of it — these things must be taught them without trouble or severity; for whatever we follow for fear of punishment, from the same things with a sad loathing we use to be averse, and the hatred conceived in our youth, I know not by what custom of horror, we often nourish in our old age. They must daily be seasoned with instruction concerning the excellency and rewards of virtue; and vices in shameful and disdainful manner must be named to them, to make them altogether ignorant that such vices are so often in public practiced and without infamy.
Being thus brought up in such gentle rudiments, they will hate vices and learn not to fear virtue as too rigid and harsh a mistress. They will easily be brought to these beginnings of right discipline by the guidance of their parents and teachers, whose opinion, like divine oracles, will altogether sway their minds yet weak and not troubled with the ambition of judging. Besides this, they cannot be allured by the flattering promises of any vice, whose age as yet is not only inexperienced of pleasure, but utterly incapable of it. They will therefore easily condemn that thing, which in the judgment of their friends is dishonest and commended to themselves by no temptation. Nor would we here initiate their childhood in any such torment, [such] as superstitious and anxious piety, in but manly and wary virtue; for since the minds of men, by an inbred weight, bend heavily downward to the worst things, we had need to bow them, while yet they are tender, quite contrary; that by this means when their natural force shall bring them back, they may yet retain a happy mean betwixt their nature and education.
But in this discipline of tender youth, as soon as their minds are sensible of praise, the desire of it is to be kindled in them, that they may then learn and accustom themselves to affect honour, and in all exercises, either in schools or abroad at play, they may labour with delight to excel their equals. Beside, when their age increasing shall bring them by degrees (as it were) out of bondage, so that both the awe of their parents may not too sensibly decrease in them, and they not wanton it through a sudden and unexpected increase of liberty, [then] we must leave their childhood to those delights which are proper to that age, lest we should seem to accuse nature, which hath ordained that age to be weak and feeble, and unseasonable sowing of wisdom in them corrupt their natures, not yet ripe for such instructions. Let harmless wantonness be freely allowed them; let them gently be taught learning, rather as a change of recreation than a loathsome burthen; and rather fear than feel the correction of their parents. Let them lastly enjoy that freedom which nature in pity hath bestowed on them; nor be forced to endure the punishment of human cares before they have deserved them; unless we think it may be accounted among the least of mischiefs, when children altogether restrained from playing are (like the wife of that Stolo1) terrified at all noise of rods; and revolve wisdom in the shape of an hobgoblin, whose sour and sharp documents they are not yet capable of.
That sense of misery which is most cruelly exquisite is most incident to that age, whilst their tender minds do want ability to govern their fear, and [they] judge of miseries, which yet they know not, worse than they are. And as men whom fortune hath broken with great calamities, howsoever large their capacities are, [they] will fill them all with the sense and contemplation of their own miseries; even so in children, when that happens which they fear the worst, all their ability of fearing and grieving is spent upon it. A man, who by chance had escaped the hands of thieves who threatened to hang him, being asked with what mind he expected death: “With the same,” quoth he, “that, when I was a boy, I expected whipping.” Moreover, the bitterness of perpetual fear in children’s minds consumeth that moisture which nature intendeth to make abundant for the spreading of their limbs and growth of their bodies. For the stomach (we see) doth then want his natural vigour, when the heat and spirits are called from thence to aid the distressed brain; nor is the blood strongly diffused upon promise of joy, being too much consumed with the interruptions of sadness. Therefore such dispositions in the bondage of severe custody, the abilities of their minds either frighted or wasted will stand at so unhappy a stay, that those who were wise above their childhood do afterwards want the ordinary wisdom required at man’s estate.2 To colts and young cattle we freely allow an uncurbed wantonness, lest their first strength, which is then growing, should be hindered by a fearful apprehension of future bondage. And are we so blinded in mind, that what we behold in other creatures, we either neglect or will not understand in our own children?
Neither yet is this age of infancy to be let loose to an infinite liberty. Let them with moderation be kept in awe, taught to reverence their parents highly, and be ever ignorant how much liberty is permitted to them. For if the nature of a child be too malapert and full of fierceness, these precepts of lenity belong not to him; that swelling which the vice of nature has engendered in him and which often the parents too much gentleness hath ripened and brought to a perfect ulcer, may be easily lanced and taken away, whilst yet it is green and of easy growth. After this manner, their delighted childhood shall be freely left both to their own, and their parents’ pleasure, and after they have fulfilled the folly of their harmless concupiscence, age itself will by little and little change their desires; and the roots of virtue will spring up in them, which they will love, not so much by heat of nature, as judgment. Then they will bring to their first youth and twilight of wisdom, a mind free, altogether quiet, which by the virtue of their education, will easily embrace the beauty of that light.
But as every mean is directly opposed to two extreme vices more contrary to each other than to the middle virtue; so those that would call the raw minds of children to too hasty a ripeness of studies may well be accused as ignorant of the strength which nature hath bestowed upon that age. For besides, that some children have rath-ripe3 wits, as Papyrius’s childhood was judged worthy of the Roman senate. There is also a natural dowry and wealth bestowed upon those years, a strength of capacious and easy memory, which is ever greatest in the time of their childhood, and with an obstinate felicity able to retain what ever it hath then learned; but as age increaseth, the memory by little and little decayeth, like to a dew of sovereign medicine to the body of man, which in the hot countries falls upon the leaves of holly:4 unless it be gathered at the break of day, it will afterwards vanish at the sun rising. Therefore with many and often discourses, with much reading of profitable history let their minds be filled, that children unwittingly may receive such good things as will afterwards grow up in them whether they will or no. The variety also of languages which is gotten by us with much expense of time will be easily taught our growing children by often discoursing and conversing with them; so that these things of little labour and no judgment will easily be attained unto by that age, which is neither strong for labour nor ripe for judgment. But if we shall suffer this easy and moist memory to grow emptily dry, those very things must be afterwards learned with long and wearisome labour, which in our infancy had been better and with less wearisomeness stored up. For what is more miserable than to be enforced to spend that time of man’s estate, which nature hath ordained a time of wisdom (though too, too short for so many arts and sciences) in such things as our empty childhood, if well nurtured, had stored up safely in the closets of our memories.
But in the childhood, there are often presages of future virtues or vices, nature beginning to build a foundation fit for their following abilities. Cyrus, that first founded the Persian Monarchy, was then believed to be a shepherd’s child, when there appeared in him that great spirit which afterward put a yoke upon the necks of the whole East. When he was a boy, he played among boys of his own age, and being chosen king by the chance of play, he truly exercised the regal power over his play fellows; those that where stubborn, with a high and confident (if not too proud) majesty he severely punished. The fathers of those children, whom Cyrus had beaten, complained of it to King Astyages. The king commanded Cyrus to be brought to him, who was nothing daunted nor expressed any childish or low fear at sight of the throne and royal diadem. He said he was chosen king among the boys and had done nothing but the office of a king. Astyages, suspecting from this some greater matters than the present fortunes of the boy persuaded, enquired more narrowly of his birth and parentage, and at last found him to be his own grandchild, his daughter’s son. That Cato, who was afterwards called Uticensis, from the city of Utica where he killed himself, was in his infancy more than a child. When the Latin ambassadors were come to Rome as suitors for the endenization5 of their country, they went to the house of Liuius Drusus, Cato’s uncle, who brought him up. There the ambassadors asking the child in jest if he would entreat his uncle for them, he answered not a word, but looked upon them with a fierce countenance. The ambassadors wondering at the stubbornness of so young a boy, began to flatter and afterward to threaten him, but could not extort a word from him. At last lifting him out of the window in a high chamber, they made him believe they would throw him down; but scorning to fear at all, [he] knit his brows, and looked more fiercely on them than he did before: a presage, or beginning (as it were) of that awful severity which his whole life did afterward express.
But they are often deceived, who by the behaviour of children will judge too hastily of their future dispositions. For it must be some great sign, and firmly constant above the lenity of that age, which must be brought as an effectual argument, to judge of the inclination of the future and flexible years. There is one presage which seldom or never deceiveth us: the easy shedding of tears in a child. For those children which at the first apprehension of grief can truly weep are of a softer nature and moulded, as it were, for humanity and love. Some other children you shall see, though they cry aloud, yet maugre6 the threatening or beating of their parents, are dry-eyed; those, when they grow up, are of fierce natures, or else their dissembling and dark bosoms do never entertain either true affections or just fears.
At their first entrance into man’s estate, the heat of blood and too great an apprehension of their own strength doth breed in them a wonderful change and carry away their minds, as it were with a tide of inconsiderate confidence and vain security. That age is the first that is fitted to entertain delight, and rejoices not more in the taste of pleasures than in the freedom and liberty which they have to enjoy them. They know not how to be provident for after-times, for their strength, yet raw, cannot consider how obnoxious they are to the turns of fortune; and the many objects of pleasure and delight have so possessed their souls, [that] they have left no room nor leisure to entertain severe wisdom, which at the first view doth seem troublesome. Then indeed, doth nature most strongly carry every disposition, not with a fain, or dissembled desire, to his own studies for which especially he was first formed. For then those, whom an humble fancy doth invite to low mechanical trades, do by the guidance of Fate embrace those arts which were ordained for them: Some are addicted to the discipline of war: others by the vigour and ability of wit are carried to the Muses or public business; and every kind of human dispositions, by the conduct of Nature, is thus adopted into his own tribe. For if Nature do not join a certain and sweetness to the profit of those labours which she doth prescribe, certainly youth, which is scarce governed by any reason nor apt to entertain anything unpleasant, might almost be excused though it went astray.
Moreover, that natural vigour and invitation of industry will show itself even in those careless lives which are altogether sequestered from labour and business. Like the seeds of grass, which in spite of stones that oppose their growth, will shoot out their tops through little crannies; to show (at the least) that their growth is killed. For when young men have lost themselves, either by sloth, riot, or a mad desire of too much society, and wearied with their sports and pleasures, they retire sometimes to a show of labour and slightly busy themselves in it, only to serve them as a change of delight; they will fall especially upon that business which Nature had give them a fit mind and genius to follow with industry. So that those motions to certain actions, infused by Fate into every man, can never be wholly extinguished or perish.
But as trees out of strength and plenty of nourishment do grow too rank and spread themselves into unnecessary branches, but when that rankness is better ripened and concocted they prosper with happy fruit; so a young man of a hot and high soul, after his first freedom is over past, may well take up in such a moderation as is fit to entertain the best wisdom. But if from the beginning of his youth, he have always showed a mature and sober strength of mind, he will languish away in unprofitable dullness before his old age. But this especially is a great token of future virtue, if amongst all his pleasures and delight, he love with eagerness any one thing, and follow that delight (whatsoever it be) with too seemingly vehement and fierce an appetite. For this hot desire of his at the least declares that he is able to entertain a true and laborious desire of those studies which he affects, without which disposition no man can truly either follow virtue, or dedicate himself to glory.
But although the counsels of old age be sometimes distasteful to the freedom of youth, yet the opinion which young men have — that their own wisdom will yet increase — begets in them a high esteem of old men, as thinking that they which have already traveled through the paths of youth are able to direct those which are now in it. The mind of man, in this age, is wondrously ambitious of praise and glory; impatient of disgrace; not long persisting in the same resolutions; much self-admiring; not able enough to choose friends nor to resist that loathing which may afterwards grow. But for any exploit, which by a sudden strength and ability of mind may be invented or done, no age of mortality is fitter than the heat of youth; so that we might judge that the office of childhood is to learn and retain by a strong memory the deeds and speeches of their ancestors; of youth, to invent, act, and speak things altogether new; and lastly, of middle-age to moderate itself by observations from both the former.
The next is the middle age of man, equally distant from the dangerous giddiness of youth and the burden of old age, in which the mind and body do both so flourish that then only you would think them to be truly men, and that all the life which man enjoys may seem to be give him for this age’s sake. The body and mind are both exceedingly changed from what in youth they were: as their choice of meats and pleasures are not the same, so their manners and all their desires are much different and moulded, as it were, anew. The mind is strong enlightened and enlarged (as it were) from the dark mists of youth; it begins to censure with much rigour the trespassed errors of the same, and wonder at itself, that before it could go astray so improvidently. From thence arises a profitable repentance and diligence to repair the ruins which youth has made.
They are great seekers of wealth and honour, and so greedily labour to acquire the ornaments and supporters of life, as if they thought their life were endless. No age is more cunning than this middle age in dissembling friendship, and governing their affections. They then begin to be truly valiant, moderating, not extinguishing that heat of courage, by which youth was rashly carried upon revenge and fury. The judgment then is found and perfect, nor carried hastily by the torrent of youth, nor suffering under the infirmities of a crazed body. They are wary in their vices and love not virtue (for the most part) without hope of reward.
But old age by little and little, like a tide overflowing this happy middle estate of man’s life, doth benumb his blood, and afterward his understanding. This age differing in habit, affections, and manners, doth partly increase the virtues of the former ages and partly make them degenerate into vices. Fear especially is the companion of that age and disturbeth the mind, a seat otherwise fit to contain wisdom. For old men, destitute of that heat of mind which inspires fortitude, and through many courses both of their own and other men’s dangers, having arrived at that age, are usually too much perplexed, in consideration of those evils which either themselves have escaped or other have been ruined by. From hence it happens that the strength of counsel and wisdom, the greatest endowment of old age, is often corrupted by too much fear, whilst it looketh too warily even into the safest things, and had rather have wounds unhappily concealed than come into the venturous danger of a cure.
Happy was that Delayer, who closely encamped kept off (as it were with a shield or buckler) the fury of Hannibal from the ruin of Italy, that Fabius, the chief preserver of the Roman Empire. Yet how near was it that this Fabius, by too too fearful and superstitious an opinion, had averted again from Rome her felicity, which was then returning. Publius Scipio had laid the project of carrying the war into Africa; by that means only was Hannibal to be removed and drawn out of the bowels of Italy to relieve the distress of his own country. Fabius Maximus, too fearfully weighing all the dangers of so great an expedition (when to his own too much delaying nature old age was added), had almost interverted this wholesome project of so brave a general, and in that, the safety of the Roman Empire. But this one blemish in old men their other virtues may well excuse, especially their wisdom in conjecturing of things to come. Which wisdom confirmed in them by the remembrance of times past, the less it is obliged7 to the organs of the body, with the greater purity, and consulting, (as it were, with heaven itself) it foreseeth all things.
How many cities and empires have been preserved by their wisdom; how many benefits private men, who have followed the counsel of the aged, have reaped thereby, as ancient histories have all recorded, so daily experience may well instruct us. And from hence (perhaps) proceeds that great and unwearied desire of talking in old men, as if it were a spur given by Nature, for fear it should be wearisome to those men to teach and instruct, who of all others are most able to do it.
But many of them in this matter can seldom observe a moderation, but in an infinite discourse (when young men apply themselves unto them) relate all needless passages and actions whatsoever of their former lives, and not contented (which is most troublesome) with one vexation, as they light upon the same young man, they will either find or make an occasion for the same discourse; and the more patient or shamefast the young man is, whom they have gotten to this torture of hearing, the more cruelly they will be sure to punish him. Nor do they love only to be hear; but when their counsel is asked in anything, or they of their own accords do give counsel, they are too imperious in enjoining belief and prescribing everything after their own way, urging men against their wills, and supposing themselves to be then neglected, when they in all things are not ruled by them. The counsels and actions of youths and men they behold and censure with great scorn, being placed (as it were) in the higher seat. Do thou therefore, if thou wouldst truly deserve that young men hereafter should excuse the errors of thy old age, endeavour to please them and suffer them in an harmless delight to applaud themselves. Hear then with gentleness and seem (at least with a pleased countenance) joyfully to accept whatsoever they deliver. For what less reverence can be at any time showed to that great age which deserveth a fatherly respect and honour, than to seem to like and approve their sayings? And with a gentle obsequiousness (which cannot disparage us) suffer so venerable an age as that to enjoy a delight which is proper to it.
But the long experience of worldly affairs, which hath followed them to this age, and the sad examples of other men, who have fallen into poverty, doth commonly breed an extreme covetousness in old men. What a strange prodigy, or mockery of mankind is it, with greatest greediness to affect wealth at that time, when we can neither keep it long nor enjoy at all the delights of wealth, by reason of the decay of strength? But this mischievous affection is still fostered in those dry breasts, and Nature decaying is then most fearful to fall into poverty, when she is least able, by reason of weakness, to relieve herself.
But as for those old men whose wisdom has avoided such rocks as before we mentioned: there are none more beneficial to human society than they are. They are happy in government, both of public states and private families; they can vanquish those ill affections, which transport younger minds with unadvised fury; they can advise young men and forgive their errors, not forgetting what themselves once were, and what then they thought; lastly, their grave wisdom has made them worthy, long to enjoy that old age and compose the affairs of the whole world with that excellent philosophy, which experience has taught them.