The Moral Character of the Monkey

Monkeys are ungrateful creatures, but can be caught with pitch-lined gloves. They like to ride pigs. A monkey will unfold all your papers and scatter them about the room.

A monkey.

[The Animal Illustrated, 1550-1900: from the collections of the New York Public Library]

A GENTLEMAN whose premises were infested by a large breed of sparrows, said they were birds of no principle. Of all monkeys it may be said, with much more propriety, that they are beasts of no principle ; for they have every evil quality, and not one good one. They are saucy and insolent; always making an attempt to bully and terrify people, and biting those first who are most afraid of them. An impertinent curiosity runs through all their actions; they never can let things alone, but must know what is going forward. If a pot or a kettle is set on the fire, and the cook turns her back, the monkey whips off the cover to see what she has put into it; even though he cannot get at it without setting his feet upon the hot bars of the grate. Mimicry is another of the monkey's qualities. Whatever he sees men do, he must affect to do the like himself. He seems to have no rule of his own, and so is ruled by the actions of men or beasts; as weak people follow the fashion of the world, whether it be good or bad. No monkey has any sense of gratitude, but takes his victuals with a snatch, and then grins in the face of the person that gives it him, lest he should take it away again; for he supposes that all men will snatch away what they can lay hold of, as all monkeys do. Through an invincible selfishness, no monkey considers any individual but himself, as the poor cat found to her cost, when the monkey burned her paws with raking his chestnuts out of the fire. They can never eat together in company without quarrelling and plundering one another. Every monkey delights in mischief, and cannot help doing it when it is in his power. If anything he takes hold of can be broken or spoiled, he is sure to find the way of doing it; and he chatters with pleasure when he hears the noise of a china vessel smashed to pieces upon the pavement. If he takes up a bottle of ink, he empties it upon the floor. He unfolds all your papers, and scatters them about the room, and what he cannot undo he tears to pieces; and it is wonderful to see how much of this work he will do in a few minutes when he happens to get loose. Everybody has heard of the monkey whose curiosity led him to the mouth of a cannon to see how it went off; when he paid for his peeping with the loss of his head. In a ship where a relation of mine was an officer, while the men were busy in fetching powder from below, and making cartridges, a monkey on board took up a lighted candle, and ran down to the powder-room to see what they were about; but happily was overtaken just as he got to the lantern, and thrown out at the nearest port-hole into the sea with the lighted candle in his hand. Another lost his life by the spirit of mimicry; he had seen his master shaving his own face, and at the first opportunity took up the razor to shave himself, and made shift to cut his own throat. When the wild monkeys have escaped to the top of trees, the people below who want to catch them show them the use of gloves, by putting them on and pulling them off repeatedly; and when the monkeys are supposed to have taken the hint, they leave plenty of gloves on the ground, having first lined them with pitch. The monkeys came down, put on the gloves, but cannot pull them off again; and when they are surprised, betaking themselves to the trees as usual, they slide backwards and are taken. A monkey who had seen his mistress upon her pillow in a nightcap, which at her rising she pulled off and hung upon a chair, puts on the cap, lays his head upon the pillow, and by personating the lady, made himself ten times more frightful and ridiculous; as awkward people do, when they ape their superiors, and affect a fashion which is above their sphere. A mischievous disposition is always inclined to persecution. There are minds whose greatest pleasure it is to ride and tease the minds of other people. A late friend and neighbor of mine in the country kept a monkey who took to riding his hogs, especially one of them, which he commonly singled out as fittest for his use; and leaping upon its back, with his face towards the tail, he whipped it unmercifully, and drove it about, till it could run no longer. The hogs lived under such continual terrors of mind, that when the monkey first came abroad in the morning, they used to set up a great cry at the sight of him. A well-known nobleman once had a wild horse whom nobody could ride. “I know not what your lordship can do with him,” said one, “but to set the monkey upon his back.” So they put a pad to the horse, and set the monkey upon it with a switch in his hand, which he used upon the horse, and set him into a furious kicking and galloping; but Pug kept his seat and exercised his switch. The horse lay down upon the ground; but when he threw himself on one side, the monkey was up on the other: he ran into a wood with him, to brush him off; but if a tree or a bush occurred on one side, the monkey slipped to the other side; till at last the horse was so sickened and fatigued and broken-spirited, that he ran home to the stable for protection. When the monkey was removed, a boy mounted him, who managed the horse with ease, and he never gave any trouble afterwards. In all the actions of the monkey, there is no appearance of anything good or useful, nor any species of evil that is wanting in them. They are, indeed, like to mankind: they can ride a pig as a man rides a horse, or better, and are most excellent jockeys; but, after all, they are only like the worst of the human species. If all the qualities of the monkey are put together, they constitute what is properly called ill-nature; and if any person would know what an ill-natured man is, that man is a monkey to all intents and purposes, with the addition of reason, which makes his character much worse, and the loss of religion and conscience, which is worst of all; for without these reason is rather a disadvantage.




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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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© 1974-2011 Paul Ford


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