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      * Modesty
     · 1841 to 1843
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Home > Mezzofanti > Biography > 1838 to 1841 > Modesty

" With all his high qualifications," says the Rev. In-graham Kip, a clergyman of the American Episcopal church, " there is a modesty about Cardinal Mezzofanti which shrinks from anything like praise." "It would be a cruel misconception of his character," says Guido Gorres, "to imagine that, with all the admiration and all the wonder of which he habitually saw himself the object, he yet prided himself in the least upon this extraordinary gift. 'Alas!' he once said to a friend of mine, a good simple priest, who, sharing in the universal curiosity to see this wonderful celebrity, apologized to the Cardinal for his visit by some compliment upon his European reputation : —' alas ! what will all these languages avail me for the kingdom of heaven, since it is by works, not words, that we must win our way thither !'"

In truth Cardinal Mezzofanti possessed in an eminent degree the great safeguard of Christian humility —a habitual consciousness of what he was not, rather than a self-complacent recollection of what he was. He used to speak freely of his acquirement as one of little value, and one especially for which he himself had little merit—a mere physical endowment—a thing of instinct, and almost of routine. God, he said, had gifted him with a good memory and a quick ear. There lay the secret of his success—"What am I," he would pleasantly say, " but an ill-bound dictionary !", " He used to disparage his gifts to me," says Cardinal Wiseman ; " and he once quoted a saying ascribed to Catherine de Medici, who when told that Scaliger knew twenty languages, observed, ' that is twenty words for one idea ! For my part I would rather have twenty ideas for one word !' " On one occasion, after the publication of Cardinal Wiseman's Horae Syriacce, Mezzofanti said to him : " You have put your knowledge of languages to some purpose. When I go, I shall not leave a trace of what I know behind me !" And when his friend suggested that it was not yet too late, he '' shook his head and said it was"— which he also repeated to Guido Gorres, earnestly expressing his " regret that his youth had fallen upon a time when languages were not studied from that scientific point of view from which they are now regarded." In a word, the habitual tendency of his mind in reference to himself, and to his own acquirements, was to depreciate them, and to dwell rather upon his own deficiency and short-comings, than upon his success.

Accordingly, while he was always ready to gratify the learned interest, or even to amuse the lighter curiosity, with which his extraordinary talent was regarded, there was as little thought of himself in the performance, and as little idea of display, as though he were engaged in an ordinary animated conversation. It was to him an exciting agreeable exercise and nothing more. He engaged in it for its own sake. To him it was as natural to talk in a foreign language as it would be to another to sing, to relate a lively anecdote, or to take part in an interesting discussion. To his humble and guileless mind the notion of exhibition never presented itself. He retained to his latest hour and through all the successive steps of his advancement, the simplicity and light heartedness of boyhood. It was impossible to spend half an hour in his company without feeling the literal truth of what he himself said to Gorres regarding his relations to the pupils of the Propaganda;—that he went among them not as a Cardinal, but as a school-boy, (giovanetto) What Madame Paget puts down to the account of" small vanity," was in reality the result of these almost boyish spirits, and of this simple and unaffected good nature. He delighted in amusing and giving pleasure ; he was always ready to display his extraordinary gifts, partly for the gratification of others, partly because it was to himself an innocent and amusing relaxation : but, among the various impulses to which he yielded, unquestionably the idea of display was the last that occurred to him as a motive of action. I can say, from my own observation, that never in the most distinguished circle, did he give himself to those linguistic exercises with half the spirit which he evinced among his humble friends, the obscure and almost nameless students of the Propaganda.

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