In praise of bricks

by Instant Noodle


The natural history of Bricks is interesting.

We are enabled to trace it without difficulty from very ancient periods, both with reference to its different structures, and with reference to building purposes.

It is pleasing to observe how the bitumen was first used, how it was moulded into form, and baked into hardness, by the heat of the Persian sun. We can trace it through many of its forms until we come to the great Roman Brick of nine inches long, three inches broad, and three inches thick. We now discover, with the satisfaction and pleasure of the antiquarian, how long these Bricks have endured; but, for many years, we were not aware of any application of the Brick, other than that of strength, stability, and support of edifices—edifices which, sometimes, might really raise the question: “To what extent the architect for Time meant to contend with Eternity?

We think we are indebted to our Cambridge friends—it may be to our Harrow friends, we cannot tell—for the first moral or ethical application of the word Brick.

How common it has been of late years to say to a man, whose virtuous tendencies are of the first order, “My dear fellow, you are a Brick.” It becomes, however, more emphatic in the usage of the third person. “Do you know Mr. So-and-So? Is he really a man I can trust? Is he a good fellow?” The answer in one word is, “He’s a Brick.” The answer is satisfactory, in all senses, to the propounder of the question—indeed, a more satisfactory reply cannot be uttered.

We have heard this kind of expression called slang—it really is not so. Gentlemen, take up your Plutarch, turn to the Life of Agesilaus, and what do you read? You’ll find, if you understand Greek—and if you don’t, set about learning it immediately, for the purposes of history, as well as poetry and elevation of thought—that when the Ambassador from Epirus went to Agesilaus, to have a diplomatic chit-chat with him, he said to him: “Where on earth are the walls of Sparta? In other States of Greece the principal towns have walls—but where are yours, dear Agesilaus?” The Sir Stratford Canning, or Lord Cowley, from Epirus, was answered by that amiable monarch: “I’ll to-morrow at morning dawn shew you the walls of Sparta. Breakfast with me, old chap; some of the best black soup that Sparta can afford shall be put on the table: and I’ll shew you the walls.”

They met: and Agesilaus had drawn out his Spartan army before him, and, with exulting cheer and dignified mien, said to his friend from Epirus, “Look! these are the Walls of Sparta, Sir; and every particular man you see is a Brick.” How classical becomes the phrase! how distinct from slang!

We do not say we have translated the great Plutarch literally, but we have translated him in spirit, and if that great man had been now living, and could have seen this, he would no doubt have been delighted, and grateful to us for our application of history to the correction of vulgarisms, and to the promotion of sound and sincere classical literature.

(October 1856)