Four Kinds of Families, etc.

“There is a good deal of truth in what thou hast observed, Niece, replied Don Quixote; and I could tell thee such things, concerning families, as would raise thine admiration; but, these I suppress, that I may not seem to mix what’s human with what’s divine: take notice, however, my friends, and be attentive to what I am going to say: all the families in the world, may be reduced to four kinds, which are these, one that from low beginnings, hath extended and dilated to a pitch of power and greatness; another, that from great beginnings hath continued to preserve and maintain its original importance; a third, that from vast beginnings hath ended in a point, like a pyramid, diminishing and decaying from its foundation, into an inconsiderable point like that of a pyramid, which, in respect of its base, is next kin to nothing; a fourth, and that the most numerous, had neither a good foundation, nor reasonable superstructure, and therefore sinks into oblivion, unobserved; such are the families of plebeians and ordinary people.

Don Quixote (1605) by Miguel de Cervantes (the 1755 translation by Tobias Smollett with illustrations by Gustave Dore introduced by Carole Slade in 2004, Barnes and Noble Classics)

“The first, that from low beginnings, hath mounted to power and greatness, which it preserves to this day, is exemplified in the house of Ottoman, that from an humble shepherd, who gave rise to it, attained that pinnacle of grandeur on which it now stands: the second sort of pedigree, that without augmentation hath preserved its original importance, is exhibited in the persons of many princes, who are such by inheritance, and support their rank without addition or diminution, containing themselves peaceably within the limits of their own dominions: of those who, from illustrious beginnings, have dwindled into a point, there are a thousand examples, in the Pharaohs and Ptolemeys of Egypt, the Caesars of Rome, with all the tribe, if they may be so called, of your Median, Assyrian, Persian, Greek and barbarian princes, monarchs, and great men. All these families and states, together with their founders, have ended in a very inconsiderable point; since, at this day, it is impossible to trace out one of their descendants, or, if we could, he would be found in some base and low degree. I have nothing to say of the plebeians, who only serve to increase the number of the living, without deserving any other fame or panegyric. From what I have said, I would have you infer, my precious Wiseacre, that there is a great confusion of pedigrees, and that those only appear grand and illustrious, whose representative abound with virtue, generosity and wealth: I say, virtue, generosity and wealth, because, the vicious great man is no more than a great sinner; and the rich man, without generosity, a mere covetous beggar; for, happiness does not consist in possessing, but in spending riches, and that, not in squandering them away, but, in knowing how to use them with taste: now, a poor knight has no other way of signalizing his birth, but, the practice of virtue, being affable, well bred, courteous, kind, and obliging, a stranger to pride, arrogance, and slander, and, above all things, charitable; for, by giving two pennies cheerfully to the poor, he may show himself as generous as he that dispenses alms when he hears the bell: and whosoever sees him adorned with these virtues, altho’ he should be an utter stranger to his race, will conclude that he is descended of a good family. Indeed, it would be a sort of miracle to find it otherwise; so that praise is always the reward of virtue, and never fails to attend the righteous. There are two paths, my children, that lead to wealth and honour; one is that of learning, the other that of arms: now, I am better qualified for the last than for the first, and, (as I judge from my inclination to arms) was born under the influence of the planet Mars; so that I am, as it were, obliged to choose that road, which I will pursue, in spite of the whole universe: you will therefore fatigue yourselves to no purpose, in attempting to persuade me from that which heaven inspires, fortune ordains, reason demands, and above all things, my own inclination dictates: knowing, as I do, the innumerable toils annexed to knight-errantry, I am also well acquainted with the infinite benefits acquired in the exercise of that profession: I know the path of virtue is very narrow, while the road of vice is broad and spacious; I know their end and issue is different: the wide extended way of vice leads the traveller to death; while the narrow, toilful path of virtue, leads to happiness and life – not that which perisheth, but, that which hath no end; and I know, as our great Castillian poet observes, By these rough paths of toil and pain, / Th’ immortal seats of bliss we gain, / Deny’d to those who heedless stray / In tempting pleasure’s flow’ry way”

“Ah! woe is me! cried the cousin, my uncle is a poet too! he knows everything, and can do everything: I’ll lay a wager, if he should turn bricklayer, he could build a house like any cage.” “I do assure thee, niece, replied Don Quixote, if those knightly sentiments did not wholly engross my attention, there is not a thing on earth that I could not make; nor a curiosity that should no go thro’ my hands, especially bird-cages and tooth-picks.”

Here the conversation was interrupted by a knocking at the gate, which, as they found upon inquiry, was made by Sancho, whose presence was no sooner intimidated, than the housekeeper ran away to hide herself, that she might avoid the sight of him whom she abhorred: the niece, therefore, opened the door, and his master came out to receive him with open arms; then shutting themselves up together, another dialogue passed, no ways inferior to the former.


~ Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (trans. Tobias Smollett/Carol Slade, 1755/2004), Don Quixote (1605)


Don Quixote and Sancho Panza by Alexandre Gabriel Decamps


Don Quixote fights the windmill while Sancho Panza looks on, Gustave Dore, Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

Image Credit:

Featured: Cervantes by Juan de Jauregui y Aguilar (circa 1583 – 1641), Wikimedia Commons


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