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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: The Spectator

From Washington Lawyer, April 2014

By Jacob A. Stein

Legal Spectator graphicIt was in the spring of 1991. I was invited to write a column appearing on the last page of the monthly journal Washington Lawyer. The column was named “Legal Spectator.” Why that word “Spectator” was selected, I did not know. Now, many years later, an acquaintance of mine living in London writes to tell me that she reads “Legal Spectator,” and in her retirement, she has the time to give the Spectator a short history about its word.

She opened by saying I must find an antiquarian bookstore where there will be 40 volumes in beautiful leather called The British Essayists. These include 10 volumes of the Spectator essays, together with the other essayists, the Idler, the Lounger, the Adventurer, and many more British essayists. First, what is an essayist? It begins with Michel de Montaigne’s thoughts, in the spirit of the French essay he was writing, “We are, I know not how, double in ourselves, so that what we believe and cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn.”

What is a British Essayist? Not much different. In his essay “The Indian Jugglers,” which appeared in the book Table Talk, William Hazlitt offers a definition:

What have I been doing all my life? Have I been idle, or have I nothing to show for all my labour and pains? Or have I passed my time in pouring words like water into empty sieves, rolling a stone up a hill and then down again, trying to prove an argument in the teeth of facts, and looking for causes in the dark, and not finding them? Is there no one thing in which I can challenge competition, that I can bring as an instance of exact perfection, in which others cannot find a flaw? . . . I can write a book: so can many others who have not even learned to spell. . . What errors, what ill-pieced transitions, what crooked reasons, what lame conclusions! How little is made out, and that little how ill! Yet they are the best I can do. I endeavor to recollect all I have ever observed or thought upon a subject, and to express it as nearly as I can.

In London in the 1700s, short essays were distributed to the coffeehouses. The Tatler was that kind. It was printed on a half sheet of paper and delivered three days a week to coffeehouses. Two papers for free and one for a penny.

The editor and publisher of the Tatler was Richard Steele (1672–1729), a Londoner who decided there was a need for an essay that disparaged London fops and bullies. The Tatler recommended, among other things, that an honorable person can get ahead in this competitive world.

Steele’s friend Joseph Addison was a prominent figure in London. Addison contributed several essays to the Tatler.

Even though the Tatler did well, Steele and Addison decided to close up the publication and create something better. They called it the Spectator. At its commencement, it sold 3,000 copies daily.

The Spectator set forth a philosophy of how to get ahead by using good manners, by being helpful, and, of course, by being honorable. Here is the Spectator essay concerning fame:

* * *
No. 255. SATURDAY, DECEMBER 22, 1711.

Laudis amore tumes? sunt certa piacula, quae te
Ter purèlecto-poterunt recreare libello.

 —HOR. Ep 1.lib. i. ver. 36.


Know there are rhymes, which (fresh and fresh apply’d)
Will cure the arrant’st puppy of his pride.  —POPE

We see a desire for fame is very strong, and the difficulty of obtaining it, and the danger of losing it when obtained, would be sufficient to deter a man from so vain a pursuit.

How few are there who are furnished with abilities sufficient to recommended [sic] their actions to the admiration of the world, and to distinguish themselves from the rest of mankind? . . . If it renders us perfect in one accomplishment, it generally leaves us defective in another, and seems careful rather of preserving every person from being mean and deficient in his qualifications, than of making any single one eminent or extraordinary.

* * *

My kind acquaintance who sent me the Spectator history says she is now studying quotations for her own Commonplace Book. Under the heading, “The Philosophy of the Third Act,” are two quotations she thinks are interesting:

He was skeptic enough to be indulgent to people who left what we like to believe is the path of virtue, epicurean enough to enjoy life without taking the petty miseries of human existence too tragically, and stoic enough to face death without flinching. 
                                 —The Eulogy of a Friend of Marcel Proust’s Father

Minutely traced man’s life; year after year
Thru all his days let all his deeds appear
And then, though some may in that life be strange
Yet there appears no vast and sudden change
The links that bind those various deeds are seen
And no mysterious void is left between.
                                 —George Crabbe (1754–1832)

And now back to next month’s “Legal Spectator” column.