Table-talk Quotes

"Do As I Say, Not As I Do"

Context: John Selden, apparently believing that ministers of the gospel are not always given to following their own good advice to their flocks, quotes "Do as I say, not as I do." His contention is that one's practice should correspond exactly with his preaching. The same idea has been advanced by Bartholomew Young (with George Pettie) in The Civil Conversation of M. Stephen Guazzo (1586): "Take you no heed to that which I do, but mark that which I speak." James Mabbe in translating Celestina (1631) says: "Do you that good which I say, but not that ill which I do"; this version clearly indicates that one's advice is always better than his actions. Selden admirably illustrates his idea by indicating that a physician who prescribes one course of treatment for a patient and a different one for himself would do little to inspire confidence in his patients. As he puts it:

Preachers say, "Do as I say, not as I do." But if a physician had the same disease upon him that I have, and he should bid me do one thing and he do quite another, could I believe him?

Table-talk "Ignorance Of The Law Excuses No Man"

Context: When John Selden, jurist, antiquary, Orientalist, and author, says that ignorance of the law excuses no man from obeying it, he is repeating a legal maxim–"Ignorantia legis neminem excusat"–almost as old as law itself. Christopher St. German in Dialogues in English . . . (1554) says: "Ignorance of the law though it be invincible doth not excuse"; G. Delamothe in The Treasure of the French Tongue (1596) says: "Ignorance doth not excuse the fault"; and Thomas Adams in Meditation upon the Creed (1629) says: "Ignorantia Iurus will excuse no man." At first glance this principle seems somewhat unfair to the one who unknowingly breaks the law, but examination shows that it is the only possible system. Were it not the principle, anyone could commit even the most heinous crime if he were careful to keep himself in ignorance of what the law is; and, furthermore, it would be impossible to convict anyone who stoutly maintained that he was ignorant of the law he had violated. The complete remark that Selden made brings out this fact:

Ignorance of the law excuses no man; not that all men know the law, but because 'tis an excuse every man will plead, and no man can tell how to confute him.

Table-talk "Marriage Is Nothing But A Civil Contract"

Context: Contemporaries of tall John Selden, of the gray eyes and long nose in a thin, oval face, believed him a bachelor jurist who lived alone without servants, among his books, except for visits to widowed Lady Kent in Bedfordshire and London, to console her for the death of the Earl of Kent, in 1639. Not till after her death, in 1651, leaving him her heir and executor, was it discovered that all the time they had been married secretly, "upon some law account." After his graduation from Oxford, in 1602, Selden had been admitted to the bar, imprisoned briefly for political activities, elected member of Parliament in 1623, and then imprisoned again for five years for his activities against the crown. Later he served in the Long Parliament as representative of his Alma Mater, then retired to private life to devote himself to writing. John Selden was considered one of the most learned men of his time, a writer who displayed his knowledge in abstruse books written in a harsh style and archaic vocabulary that dealt with topics such as British and rabbinical law, and England's rights of sovereignty over the waters of the English Channel. However, there was another side to him. As a young man, Selden had been part of a brilliant conversational group at the Mermaid Tavern that included Sir Walter Raleigh, Drayton, Ben Jonson, and Shakespeare. Later, with money left him by Lady Kent, he set a bounteous table for his intellectual friends. His amanuensis, the Reverend Richard Milward (1609–1680), carefully set down his comments and quips; and after his employer's death, the secretary published his accumulation as Table Talk, sorted into 125 headings, from "Abbeys and Priories" to "Zealots." Samuel Johnson, though on the other side of the fence politically, spurned a French book of aphorisms with the comment: "A few in it are good, but we have one book of that kind better than any of them, Selden's Table Talk." Coleridge declared: "There is more weighty bullion sense in this book than I ever found in the same number of pages of any uninspired writer." Selden's views on marriage run counter to the often-repeated lines of John Lyly, "Marriage is Destiny, made in Heaven," and Tennyson's "Marriages are made in heaven." They are nearer to Southerne's cynical "If marriages are made in heaven, they should be happier." Perhaps the difficulties of Selden's own secret marriage motivated his views on the subject that fill one page of his small book.

1. Of all actions of a man's life, his marriage does least concern other people, yet of all actions of our life 't is most meddled with by other people.
2. Marriage is nothing but a civil contract. 'T is true, 't is an ordinance of God; so is every other contract; God commands me to keep it when I make it.
3. Marriage is a desperate thing. The frogs in Aesop were extreme wise; they had a great mind to some water, but they would not leap into the well, because they could not get out again.
4. We single out particulars, and apply God's Providence to them. Thus when two are married and have undone one another, they cry it was God's Providence we should come together, when God's Providence does equally concur to every thing.

Table-talk "Suspend Your Mad Career"

Context: After discussing kings, good and bad, with special reference to George III of England, the two who are conversing over the breakfast table, indicated only as A. and B., talk about the liberty-loving qualities of an Englishman, whom they name Nature's "favorite man of all mankind." A typical Frenchman cannot compare with him. But those who love liberty can sometimes carry this love to excess through the violence of their attempts to achieve it. This idea brings a discussion of the need for a magistrate who can keep this love of liberty under control, and so, naturally, they pause for a panegyric of the late William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, who had died in 1778. They wonder who will take his place in controlling England. When A. mentions an essay by the Reverend John Brown (1715–1766) on An Estimate of the Manners and Principles of the Times (1757), B. brings into the conversation a country, "One that I could name" (probably France on the eve of its revolution), and goes on to describe its present godless condition and warn of what will follow.

B. When profanation of the sacred cause
In all its parts, times, ministry, and laws,
Bespeaks a land, once Christian, fallen and lost
In all that wars against that title most;
What follows next let cities of great name
And regions long since desolate proclaim:
Nineveh, Babylon, and ancient Rome
Speak to the present times and times to come;
They cry aloud in every careless ear,
"Stop, while ye may, suspend your mad career!
O learn from our example and our fate,
Learn wisdom and repentance ere too late!"

Table-talk "Syllables Govern The World"

Context: Selden was a very learned scholar and jurist of the first half of the seventeenth century. Among his friends he numbered such literary lights as Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare, although that poetry of his which has come down to us is not first class. By far the largest part of his literary remains is concerned with the law; in fact, his treatise on tithing earned him the enmity of the narrow-minded and captious James I. He was arrested and imprisoned briefly for having the courage to stand by his convictions. Selden's Table-Talk consists of bits of his conversation taken down by his secretary, the Reverend Richard Milward, and arranged by subject matter. In this particular section are collected a number of Selden's comments concerning the power of the state and its officials:

1. There is no streching of Power. 'Tis a good rule, Eat within your Stomach, act within your Commission.
2. They that govern most make least noise. You see when they row in a Barge, they that do drudgery-work, slash, and puff, and sweat; but he that governs, sits quietly at the Stern, and scarce is seen to stir.
3. Syllables govern the world.
4. All power is of God, means no more than Fides est servanda. When St. Paul said this, the People had made Nero Emperor. They agree, he to command, they to obey. . . .
5. Christ himself was a great observer of the Civil power, and did many things only justifiable, because the State required it, which were things merely Temporary, for the time that State stood. . . .

Table-talk "The Lie That Flatters I Abhor The Most"

Context: In publishing his first collection of poetry, Cowper decided to lead off with the poem "Table Talk," because "it will repel the ordinary reader less than any of the others." He realized that his purpose in writing, to obtain "a monitor's though not a poet's praise" would result in somewhat dull verse. Yet he wrote satires of admonition and sermons in verse, "with a hope to do good." Though "Table Talk" is a dialogue, there seems to be little attempt to differentiate between the two speakers, A and B, and considerable difficulty in discovering the various subjects of their discussion. As far as can be discerned, the main theme is the need of character and integrity in public servants. Beginning with the premise that only the glory built on unselfish principles is admirable, the two speakers agree in admiration of wars fought for justice. This opinion leads to a discussion of the qualities of an ideal king, and what results is obviously a portrait of George III, in which the poet insists that he is speaking sincerely with no purpose of flattery. "The patriotic tribe" uses the word in its eighteenth century political meaning, as Johnson did when saying: "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." A patriot was one who upheld the nation, and was opposed to the king or the court. The following is the way B describes the qualities of King George III:

B. His life a lesson to the land he sways;
To touch the sword with conscientious awe,
Nor draw it but when duty bids him draw;
To sheath it in the peace-restoring close,
With joy beyond what victory bestows–
Blest country, when these kingly glories shine,
Blest England, if this happiness be thine!
A. Guard what you say: the patriotic tribe
Will sneer and charge you with a bribe. B. A bribe?
The worth of his three kingdoms I defy
To lure me to the baseness of a lie.
And of all lies (be that one poet's boast),
The lie that flatters I abhore the most.
Those arts be theirs who hate his gentle reign,
But he that loves him has no need to feign.

Table-talk "'Tis A Rare Bird In The Land"

Context: During Luther's later years, various friends and disciples, particularly Antony Lauterbach and John Aurifaber, made an effort to stay with him constantly and to record verbatim his various comments on everything. As William Hazlitt said, "Did he aspirate a thought above breath, it was caught by the intent ear of one or other of the listeners, and committed to paper." The result is a discontinuous but very revealing account of Luther's thoughts and feelings. The full anecdote about the comment on the rarity of good servants is this:

Dr. Luther's wife complaining to him of the indocility and untrustworthiness of servants, he said: A faithful and good servant is a real God-send, but, truly, 'tis a rare bird in the land. We find every one complaining of the idleness and profligacy of this class of people; we must govern them, Turkey fashion, so much work, so much victuals as Pharaoh dealt with the Israelites in Egypt.