1621 | Oxford

Endgames

Robert Burton on the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

It is a wonder to see how many poor, distressed, miserable wretches one shall meet almost in every path and street, begging for an alms—who have been well descended and sometime in flourishing estate. They are now ragged, tattered, and ready to be starved, lingering out a painful life in discontent and grief of body and mind—and all through immoderate lust, gaming, pleasure, and riot. ’Tis the common end of all sensual epicures and brutish prodigals that are stupefied and carried away headlong with their several pleasures and lusts. At their first coming they are generally entertained by Pleasure and Dalliance and have all the content that possibly may be given so long as their money lasts, but when their means fail, they are contemptibly thrust out a back door headlong and there left to Shame, Reproach, Despair. And he that had at first so many attendants, parasites, and followers, young and lusty, richly arrayed, and all the dainty fare that might be had, with all kind of welcome and good respect, is now upon a sudden stripped of all—pale, naked, old, diseased, and forsaken, cursing his stars, and ready to strangle himself, having no other company but Repentance, Sorrow, Grief, Derision, Beggary, and Contempt, which are his daily attendants to his life’s end. As the prodigal son had exquisite music, merry company, dainty fare at first, but a sorrowful reckoning in the end, so have all such vain delights and their followers.

Others, I say, are overthrown by those mad sports of Hawking and Hunting: honest recreations, and fit for some great men, but not for every base inferior person. Whilst they will maintain their Falconers, Dogs, and Hunting Nags, their wealth, saith Salmuth, runs away with Hounds, and their fortunes fly away with Hawks. They persecute beasts so long, till in the end, they themselves degenerate into beasts, Actaeon-like—for as he was eaten to death by his own dogs, so do they devour themselves and their patrimonies in such idle and unnecessary disports, neglecting in the meantime their more necessary business.

Leo Decimus, that hunting Pope, is much discommended by Jovius in his life for his immoderate desire of Hawking and Hunting, insomuch that (as he saith) he would sometimes live about Ostia weeks and months together, leave suitors unrespected, bulls and pardons unsigned, to his own prejudice and many private men’s loss: and if he had been by chance crossed in his sport, or his game not so good, he was so impatient, that he would revile and miscall many times men of great worth with most bitter taunts, look so sour, be so angry and waspish, so grieved and molested, that it is incredible to relate it. But if he had good sport, and been well pleased on the other side, with unspeakable bounty and munificence he would reward all his fellow hunters and deny nothing to any suitor when he was in that mood. To say truth, ’tis the common humor of all gamesters: if they win, no men living are so jovial and merry, but if they lose, though it be but a trifle, two or three games at Tables, or a dealing at Cards for two pence a game, they are so choleric and testy that no man may speak with them, and break many times into violent passions, oaths, imprecations, and unbeseeming speeches, little differing from mad men for the time. Generally of all gamesters and gaming, if it be excessive, thus much we may conclude—that whether they win or lose for the present, their winnings are not, as that wise Seneca determines, not fortune’s gifts, but its snares.

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Robert Burton

From The Anatomy of Melancholy. Leading in his own words a “silent, sedentary, solitary” life, the scholar and Anglican clergyman published his study of the malady in 1621, overseeing the printing of four subsequent editions in his lifetime. The work was admired by Samuel Johnson, borrowed from by Laurence Sterne, and introduced to the Romantics by Charles Lamb.