In attending to the subject of this Essay we have been led to observe the different ways, in which the mind of man may be brought into a position tending to exhibit its powers in a less creditable and prepossessing point of view, than that in which all men, idiots and extraordinary cases excepted, are by nature qualified to appear. Many, not contented with those occupations, modest and humble in certain cases, to which their endowments and original bent had designed them, shew themselves immoderately set upon more alluring and splendid pursuits in which they are least qualified to excel. Other instances there are, still more entitled to our regret, where the individual is seen to be gifted with no ordinary qualities, where his morning of life has proved auspicious, and the highest expectations were formed of a triumphant career, while yet in the final experiment he has been found wanting, and the "voyage of his life" has passed "in shallows and in miseries."
But our survey of the subject of which I treat will not be complete, unless we add to what has been said, another striking truth respecting the imperfection of man collectively taken. The examples of which the history of our species consists, not only abound in cases, where, from mistakes in the choice of life, or radical and irremediable imperfection in the adventurer, the most glaring miscarriages are found to result,—but it is also true, that all men, even the most illustrious, have some fatal weakness, obliging both them and their rational admirers to confess, that they partake of human frailty, and belong to a race of beings which has small occasion to be proud. Each man has his assailable part. He is vulnerable, though it be only like the fabled Achilles in his heel. We are like the image that Nebuchadnezzar saw in his dream, of which though the head was of fine gold, and the breast and the arms were silver, yet the feet were partly only of iron, and partly of clay. No man is whole and entire, armed at all points, and qualified for every undertaking, or even for any one undertaking, so as to carry it through, and to make the achievement he would perform, or the work he would produce, in all its parts equal and complete.
It is a gross misapprehension in such men as, smitten with admiration of a certain cluster of excellencies, or series of heroic acts, are willing to predicate of the individual to whom they belong, "This man is consummate, and without alloy." Take the person in his retirement, in his hours of relaxation, when he has no longer a part to play, and one or more spectators before whom he is desirous to appear to advantage, and you shall find him a very ordinary man. He has "passions, dimensions, senses, affections, like the rest of his fellow-creatures, is fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, warmed and cooled by the same summer and winter." He will therefore, when narrowly observed, be unquestionably found betraying human weaknesses, and falling into fits of ill humour, spleen, peevishness and folly. No man is always a sage; no bosom at all times beats with sentiments lofty, self-denying and heroic. It is enough if he does so, "when the matter fits his mighty mind."
The literary genius, who undertakes to produce some consummate work, will find himself pitiably in error, if he expects to turn it out of his hands, entire in all its parts, and without a flaw.
There are some of the essentials of which it is constituted, that he has mastered, and is sufficiently familiar with them; but there are others, especially if his work is miscellaneous and comprehensive, to which he is glaringly incompetent. He must deny his nature, and become another man, if he would execute these parts, in a manner equal to that which their intrinsic value demands, or to the perfection he is able to give to his work in those places which are best suited to his powers. There are points in which the wisest man that ever existed is no stronger than a child. In this sense the sublimest genius will be found infelix operas summa, nam ponere totum nescit. And, if he properly knows himself, and is aware where lies his strength, and where his weakness, he will look for nothing more in the particulars which fall under the last of these heads, than to escape as he can, and to pass speedily to things in which he finds himself at home and at his ease.
Shakespear we are accustomed to call the most universal genius that ever existed. He has a truly wonderful variety. It is almost impossible to pronounce in which he has done best, his Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear, or Othello. He is equally excellent in his comic vein as his tragic. Falstaff is in his degree to the full as admirable and astonishing, as what he achieved that is noblest under the auspices of the graver muse. His poetry and the fruits of his imagination are unrivalled. His language, in all that comes from him when his genius is most alive, has a richness, an unction, and all those signs of a character which admits not of mortality and decay, for ever fresh as when it was first uttered, which we recognise, while we can hardly persuade ourselves that we are not in a delusion. As Anthony Wood says(4), "By the writings of Shakespear and others of his time, the English tongue was exceedingly enriched, and made quite another thing than what it was before." His versification on these occasions has a melody, a ripeness and variety that no other pen has reached.
(4) Athenae Oxonienses, vol. i. p. 592.
Yet there were things that Shakespear could not do. He could not make a hero. Familiar as he was with the evanescent touches of mind en dishabille, and in its innermost feelings, he could not sustain the tone of a character, penetrated with a divine enthusiasm, or fervently devoted to a generous cause, though this is truly within the compass of our nature, and is more than any other worthy to be delineated. He could conceive such sentiments, for there are such in his personage of Brutus; but he could not fill out and perfect what he has thus sketched. He seems even to have had a propensity to bring the mountain and the hill to a level with the plain. Caesar is spiritless, and Cicero is ridiculous, in his hands. He appears to have written his Troilus and Cressida partly with a view to degrade, and hold up to contempt, the heroes of Homer; and he has even disfigured the pure, heroic affection which the Greek poet has painted as existing between Achilles and Patroclus with the most odious imputations.
And, as he could not sustain an heroic character throughout, so neither could he construct a perfect plot, in which the interest should be perpetually increasing, and the curiosity of the spectator kept alive and in suspense to the last moment. Several of his plays have an unity of subject to which nothing is wanting; but he has not left us any production that should rival that boast of Ancient Greece in the conduct of a plot, the OEdipus Tyrannus, a piece in which each act rises upon the act before, like a tower that lifts its head story above story to the skies. He has scarcely ever given to any of his plays a fifth act, worthy of those that preceded; the interest generally decreases after the third.
Shakespear is also liable to the charge of obscurity. The most sagacious critics dispute to this very hour, whether Hamlet is or is not mad, and whether Falstaff is a brave man or a coward. This defect is perhaps partly to be imputed to the nature of dramatic writing. It is next to impossible to make words, put into the mouth of a character, develop all those things passing in his mind, which it may be desirable should be known.
I spoke, a short time back, of the language of Shakespear in his finest passages, as of unrivalled excellence and beauty; I might almost have called it miraculous. O, si sic omnia! It is to be lamented that this felicity often deserts him. He is not seldom cramp, rigid and pedantic. What is best in him is eternal, of all ages and times; but what is worst, is crusted with an integument, almost more cumbrous than that of any other writer, his contemporary, the merits of whose works continue to invite us to their perusal.
After Shakespear, it is scarcely worth while to bring forward any other example, of a writer who, notwithstanding his undoubted claims to excellencies of the highest order, yet in his productions fully displays the inequality and non-universality of his genius. One of the most remarkable instances may be alleged in Richardson, the author of Clarissa. In his delineation of female delicacy, of high-souled and generous sentiments, of the subtlest feelings and even mental aberrations of virtuous distress strained beyond the power of human endurance, nothing ever equalled this author. But he could not shape out the image of a perfect gentleman, or of that winning gaiety of soul, which may indeed be exemplified, but can never be defined, and never be resisted. His profligate is a man without taste; and his coquettes are insolent and profoundly revolting. He has no resemblance of the art, so conspicuous in Fletcher and Farquhar, of presenting to the reader or spectator an hilarity, bubbling and spreading forth from a perennial spring, which we love as surely as we feel, which communicates its own tone to the bystander, and makes our very hearts dance within us with a responsive sportiveness. We are astonished however that the formal pedant has acquitted himself of his uncongenial task with so great a display of intellectual wealth; and, though he has not presented to us the genuine picture of an intellectual profligate, or of that lovely gaiety of the female spirit which we have all of us seen, but which it is scarcely possible to fix and to copy, we almost admire the more the astonishing talent, that, having undertaken a task for which it was so eminently unfit, yet has been able to substitute for the substance so amazing a mockery, and has treated with so much copiousness and power what it was unfit ever to have attempted.
ESSAY IV. OF THE DURABILITY OF HUMAN ACHIEVEMENTS AND PRODUCTIONS.
There is a view of the character of man, calculated more perhaps than any other to impress us with reverence and awe.
Man is the only creature we know, that, when the term of his natural life is ended, leaves the memory of himself behind him.
All other animals have but one object in view in their more considerable actions, the supply of the humbler accommodations of their nature. Man has a power sufficient for the accomplishment of this object, and a residue of power beyond, which he is able, and which he not unfrequently feels himself prompted, to employ in consecutive efforts, and thus, first by the application and arrangement of material substances, and afterward by the faculty he is found to possess of giving a permanent record to his thoughts, to realise the archetypes and conceptions which previously existed only in his mind.
One method, calculated to place this fact strongly before us, is, to suppose ourselves elevated, in a balloon or otherwise, so as to enable us to take an extensive prospect of the earth on which we dwell. We shall then see the plains and the everlasting hills, the forests and the rivers, and all the exuberance of production which nature brings forth for the supply of her living progeny. We shall see multitudes of animals, herds of cattle and of beasts of prey, and all the varieties of the winged tenants of the air. But we shall also behold, in a manner almost equally calculated to arrest our attention, the traces and the monuments of human industry. We shall see castles and churches, and hamlets and mighty cities. We shall see this strange creature, man, subjecting all nature to his will. He builds bridges, and he constructs aqueducts. He "goes down to the sea in ships," and variegates the ocean with his squadrons and his fleets. To the person thus mounted in the air to take a wide and magnificent prospect, there seems to be a sort of contest between the face of the earth, as it may be supposed to have been at first, and the ingenuity of man, which shall occupy and possess itself of the greatest number of acres. We cover immense regions of the globe with the tokens of human cultivation.
Thus the matter stands as to the exertions of the power of man in the application and arrangement of material substances.
But there is something to a profound and contemplative mind much more extraordinary, in the effects produced by the faculty we possess of giving a permanent record to our thoughts.
From the development of this faculty all human science and literature take their commencement. Here it is that we most distinctly, and with the greatest astonishment, perceive that man is a miracle. Declaimers are perpetually expatiating to us upon the shortness of human life. And yet all this is performed by us, when the wants of our nature have already by our industry been supplied. We manufacture these sublimities and everlasting monuments out of the bare remnants and shreds of our time.
The labour of the intellect of man is endless. How copious is the volume, and how extraordinary the variety, of our sciences and our arts! The number of men is exceedingly great in every civilised state of society, that make these the sole object of their occupation. And this has been more or less the condition of our species in all ages, ever since we left the savage and the pastoral modes of existence.
From this view of the history of man we are led by an easy transition to the consideration of the nature and influence of the love of fame in modifying the actions of the human mind. We have already stated it to be one of the characteristic distinctions of our species to erect monuments which outlast the existence of the persons that produced them. This at first was accidental, and did not enter the design of the operator. The man who built himself a shed to protect him from the inclemency of the seasons, and afterwards exchanged that shed for a somewhat more commodious dwelling, did not at first advert to the circumstance that the accommodation might last, when he was no longer capable to partake of it.
In this way perhaps the wish to extend the memory of ourselves beyond the term of our mortal existence, and the idea of its being practicable to gratify that wish, descended upon us together. In contemplating the brief duration and the uncertainty of human life, the idea must necessarily have occurred, that we might survive those we loved, or that they might survive us. In the first case we inevitably wish more or less to cherish the memory of the being who once was an object of affection to us, but of whose society death has deprived us. In the second case it can scarcely happen but that we desire ourselves to be kindly recollected by those we leave behind us. So simple is the first germ of that longing after posthumous honour, which presents us with so memorable effects in the page of history.
But, previously to the further consideration of posthumous fame, let us turn our attention for a moment to the fame, or, as in that sense it is more usually styled, popularity, which is the lot of a few favoured individuals while they live. The attending to the subject in this point of view, will be found to throw light upon the more extensive prospect of the question to which we will immediately afterwards proceed.
Popularity is an acquisition more level to the most ordinary capacities, and therefore is a subject of more general ambition, than posthumous fame. It addresses itself to the senses. Applause is a species of good fortune to which perhaps no mortal ear is indifferent. The persons who constitute the circle in which we are applauded, receive us with smiles of approbation and sympathy. They pay their court to us, seem to be made happy by our bare presence among them, and welcome us to their houses with congratulation and joy. The vulgar portion of mankind scarcely understand the question of posthumous fame, they cannot comprehend how panegyric and honour can "soothe the dull, cold ear of death:" but they can all conceive the gratification to be derived from applauding multitudes and loud huzzas.
One of the most obvious features however that attends upon popularity, is its fugitive nature. No man has once been popular, and has lived long, without experiencing neglect at least, if he were not also at some time subjected to the very intelligible disapprobation and censure of his fellows. The good will and kindness of the multitude has a devouring appetite, and is like a wild beast that you should stable under your roof, which, if you do not feed with a continual supply, will turn about and attack its protector.
One touch of nature makes the whole world kin,— That all, with one consent, praise new-born gauds, And give to dust, that is a little gilt, More laud than they will give to gold o'erdusted.
Cromwel well understood the nature of this topic, when he said, as we are told, to one of his military companions, who called his attention to the rapturous approbation with which they were received by the crowd on their return from a successful expedition, "Ah, my friend, they would accompany us with equal demonstrations of delight, if, upon no distant occasion, they were to see us going to be hanged!"
The same thing which happens to the popularity attendant on the real or imaginary hero of the multitude, happens also in the race after posthumous fame.
As has already been said, the number of men is exceedingly great in every civilised state of society, who make the sciences and arts engendered by the human mind, the sole or the principal objects of their occupation.
This will perhaps be most strikingly illustrated by a retrospect of the state of European society in the middle, or, as they are frequently styled, the dark ages.
It has been a vulgar error to imagine, that the mind of man, so far as relates to its active and inventive powers, was sunk into a profound sleep, from which it gradually recovered itself at the period when Constantinople was taken by the Turks, and the books and the teachers of the ancient Greek language were dispersed through Europe. The epoch from which modern invention took its rise, commenced much earlier. The feudal system, one of the most interesting contrivances of man in society, was introduced in the ninth century; and chivalry, the offspring of that system, an institution to which we are mainly indebted for refinement of sentiment, and humane and generous demeanour, in the eleventh. Out of these grew the originality and the poetry of romance.
These were no mean advancements. But perhaps the greatest debt which after ages have contracted to this remote period, arose out of the system of monasteries and ecclesiastical celibacy. Owing to these a numerous race of men succeeded to each other perpetually, who were separated from the world, cut off from the endearments of conjugal and parental affection, and who had a plenitude of leisure for solitary application. To these men we are indebted for the preservation of the literature of Rome, and the multiplied copies of the works of the ancients. Nor were they contented only with the praise of never-ending industry. They forged many works, that afterwards passed for classical, and which have demanded all the perspicacity of comparative criticism to refute. And in these pursuits the indefatigable men who were dedicated to them, were not even goaded by the love of fame. They were satisfied with the consciousness of their own perseverance and ingenuity.
But the most memorable body of men that adorned these ages, were the Schoolmen. They may be considered as the discoverers of the art of logic. The ancients possessed in an eminent degree the gift of genius; but they have little to boast on the score of arrangement, and discover little skill in the strictness of an accurate deduction. They rather arrive at truth by means of a felicity of impulse, than in consequence of having regularly gone through the process which leads to it. The schools of the middle ages gave birth to the Irrefragable and the Seraphic doctors, the subtlety of whose distinctions, and the perseverance of whose investigations, are among the most wonderful monuments of the intellectual power of man. The thirteenth century produced Thomas Aquinas, and Johannes Duns Scotus, and William Occam, and Roger Bacon. In the century before, Thomas a Becket drew around him a circle of literary men, whose correspondence has been handed down to us, and who deemed it their proudest distinction that they called each other philosophers. The Schoolmen often bewildered themselves in their subtleties, and often delivered dogmas and systems that may astonish the common sense of unsophisticated understandings. But such is man. So great is his persevering labour, his invincible industry, and the resolution with which he sets himself, year after year, and lustre after lustre, to accomplish the task which his judgment and his zeal have commanded him to pursue.
But I return to the question of literary fame. All these men, and men of a hundred other classes, who laboured most commendably and gallantly in their day, may be considered as swept away into the gulph of oblivion. As Swift humorously says in his Dedication to Prince Posterity, "I had prepared a copious list of Titles to present to your highness, as an undisputed argument of the prolificness of human genius in my own time: the originals were posted upon all gates and corner's of streets: but, returning in a very few hours to take a review, they were all torn down, and fresh ones put in their places. I enquired after them among readers and booksellers, but in vain: the memorial of them was lost among men; their place was no more to be found."
It is a just remark that had been made by Hume(5): "Theories of abstract philosophy, systems of profound theology, have prevailed during one age. In a successive period these have been universally exploded; their absurdity has been detected; other theories and systems have supplied their place, which again gave way to their successors; and nothing has been experienced more liable to the revolutions of chance and fashion than these pretended decisions of science. The case is not the same with the beauties of eloquence and poetry. Just expressions of passion and nature are sure, after a little time, to gain public applause, which they maintain for ever. Aristotle and Plato and Epicurus and Descartes may successively yield to each other: but Terence and Virgil maintain an universal, undisputed empire over the minds of men. The abstract philosophy of Cicero has lost its credit: the vehemence of his oratory is still the object of our admiration."
(5) Essays, Part 1, Essay xxiii.
A few examples of the instability of fame will place this question in the clearest light.
Nicholas Peiresk was born in the year 1580. His progress in knowledge was so various and unprecedented, that, from the time that he was twenty-one years of age, he was universally considered as holding the helm of learning in his hand, and guiding the commonwealth of letters. He died at the age of fifty-seven. The academy of the Humoristi at Rome paid the most extraordinary honours to his memory; many of the cardinals assisted at his funeral oration; and a collection of verses in his praise was published in more than forty languages.
Salmasius was regarded as a prodigy of learning; and various princes and powers entered into a competition who should be so fortunate as to secure his residence in their states. Christina, queen of Sweden, having obtained the preference, received him with singular reverence and attention; and, Salmasius being taken ill at Stockholm, and confined to his bed, the queen persisted with her own hand to prepare his caudles, and mend his fire. Yet, but for the accident of his having had Milton for his adversary, his name would now be as little remembered, even by the generality of the learned, as that of Peiresk.
Du Bartas, in the reign of Henry the Fourth of France, was one of the most successful poets that ever existed. His poem on the Creation of the World went through upwards of thirty editions in the course of five or six years, was translated into most European languages, and its commentators promised to equal in copiousness and number the commentators on Homer.
One of the most admired of our English poets about the close of the sixteenth century, was Donne. Unlike many of those trivial writers of verse who succeeded him after an interval of forty or fifty years, and who won for themselves a brilliant reputation by the smoothness of their numbers, the elegance of their conceptions, and the politeness of their style, Donne was full of originality, energy and vigour. No man can read him without feeling himself called upon for earnest exercise of his thinking powers, and, even with the most fixed attention and application, the student is often obliged to confess his inability to take in the whole of the meaning with which the poet's mind was perceptibly fraught. Every sentence that Donne writes, whether in verse or prose, is exclusively his own. In addition to this, his thoughts are often in the noblest sense of the word poetical; and passages may be quoted from him that no English poet may attempt to rival, unless it be Milton and Shakespear. Ben Jonson observed of him with great truth and a prophetic spirit: "Donne for not being understood will perish." But this is not all. If Waller and Suckling and Carew sacrificed every thing to the Graces, Donne went into the other extreme. With a few splendid and admirable exceptions, his phraseology and versification are crabbed and repulsive. And, as poetry is read in the first place for pleasure, Donne is left undisturbed on the shelf, or rather in the sepulchre; and not one in an hundred even among persons of cultivation, can give any account of him, if in reality they ever heard of his productions.
The name of Shakespear is that before which every knee must bow. But it was not always so. When the first novelty of his pieces was gone, they were seldom called into requisition. Only three or four of his plays were upon the acting list of the principal company of players during the reign of Charles the Second; and the productions of Beaumont and Fletcher, and of Shirley, were acted three times for once of his. At length Betterton revived, and by his admirable representation gave popularity to, Macbeth, Hamlet and Lear, a popularity they have ever since retained. But Macbeth was not revived (with music, and alterations by sir William Davenant) till 1674; and Lear a few years later, with love scenes and a happy catastrophe by Nahum Tate.
In the latter part of the reign of Charles the Second, Dryden and Otway and Lee held the undisputed supremacy in the serious drama.
Such was the insensibility of the English public to nature, and her high priest, Shakespear. The only one of their productions that has survived upon the theatre, is Venice Preserved: and why it has done so it is difficult to say; or rather it would be impossible to assign a just and honourable reason for it. All the personages in this piece are of an abandoned and profligate character. Pierre is a man resolved to destroy and root up the republic by which he was employed, because his mistress, a courtesan, is mercenary, and endures the amorous visits of an impotent old lecher. Jaffier, without even the profession of any public principle, joins in the conspiracy, because he has been accustomed to luxury and prodigal expence and is poor. He has however no sooner entered into the plot, than he betrays it, and turns informer to the government against his associates. Belvidera instigates him to this treachery, because she cannot bear the thought of having her father murdered, and is absurd enough to imagine that she and her husband shall be tender and happy lovers ever after. Their love in the latter acts of the play is a continued tirade of bombast and sounding nonsense, without one real sentiment, one just reflection, or one strong emotion working from the heart, and analysing the nature of man. The folly of this love can only be exceeded, by the abject and despicable crouching and fawning of Jaffier to the man he had so basely betrayed, and their subsequent reconciliation. There is not a production in the whole realms of fiction, that has less pretension to manly, or even endurable feeling, or to common propriety. The total defect of a moral sense in this piece is strongly characteristic of the reign in which it was written. It has in the mean while a richness of melody, and a picturesqueness of action, that enables it to delude, and that even draws tears from the eyes of, persons who can be won over by the eye and the ear, with almost no participation of the understanding. And this unmeaning rant and senseless declamation sufficed for the time to throw into shade those exquisite delineations of character, those transcendent bursts of passion, and that perfect anatomy of the human heart, which render the master-pieces of Shakespear a property for all nations and all times.
While Shakespear was partly forgotten, it continued to be totally unknown that he had contemporaries as inexpressibly superior to the dramatic writers that have appeared since, as these contemporaries were themselves below the almighty master of scenic composition. It was the fashion to say, that Shakespear existed alone in a barbarous age, and that all his imputed crudities, and intermixture of what was noblest with unparalleled absurdity and buffoonery, were to be allowed for to him on that consideration.
Cowley stands forward as a memorable instance of the inconstancy of fame. He was a most amiable man; and the loveliness of his mind shines out in his productions. He had a truly poetic frame of soul; and he pours out the beautiful feelings that possessed him unreservedly and at large. He was a great sufferer in the Stuart cause, he had been a principal member of the court of the exiled queen; and, when the king was restored, it was a deep sentiment among his followers and friends to admire the verses of Cowley. He was "the Poet." The royalist rhymers were set lightly by in comparison with him. Milton, the republican, who, by his collection published during the civil war, had shewn that he was entitled to the highest eminence, was unanimously consigned to oblivion. Cowley died in 1667; and the duke of Buckingham, the author of the Rehearsal, eight years after, set up his tomb in the cemetery of the nation, with an inscription, declaring him to be at once "the Pindar, the Horace and Virgil of his country, the delight and the glory of his age, which by his death was left a perpetual mourner."—Yet—so capricious is fame—a century has nearly elapsed, since Pope said,
Who now reads Cowley? If he pleases yet, His moral pleases, not his pointed wit; Forgot his epic, nay, Pindaric art, But still I love the language of his heart.
As Cowley was the great royalist poet after the Restoration, Cleveland stood in the same rank during the civil war. In the publication of his works one edition succeeded to another, yearly or oftener, for more than twenty years. His satire is eminently poignant; he is of a strength and energy of thinking uncommonly masculine; and he compresses his meaning so as to give it every advantage. His imagination is full of coruscation and brilliancy. His petition to Cromwel, lord protector of England, when the poet was under confinement for his loyal principles, is a singular example of manly firmness, great independence of mind, and a happy choice of topics to awaken feelings of forbearance and clemency. It is unnecessary to say that Cleveland is now unknown, except to such as feel themselves impelled to search into things forgotten.
It would be endless to adduce all the examples that might be found of the caprices of fame. It has been one of the arts of the envious to set up a contemptible rival to eclipse the splendour of sterling merit. Thus Crowne and Settle for a time disturbed the serenity of Dryden. Voltaire says, the Phaedra of Pradon has not less passion than that of Racine, but expressed in rugged verse and barbarous language. Pradon is now forgotten: and the whole French poetry of the Augustan age of Louis the Fourteenth is threatened with the same fate. Hayley for a few years was applauded as the genuine successor of Pope; and the poem of Sympathy by Pratt went through twelve editions. For a brief period almost each successive age appears fraught with resplendent genius; but they go out one after another; they set, "like stars that fall, to rise no more." Few indeed are endowed with that strength of construction, that should enable them to ride triumphant on the tide of ages.
It is the same with conquerors. What tremendous battles have been fought, what oceans of blood have been spilled, by men who were resolved that their achievements should be remembered for ever! And now even their names are scarcely preserved; and the very effects of the disasters they inflicted on mankind seem to be swept away, as of no more validity than things that never existed. Warriors and poets, the authors of systems and the lights of philosophy, men that astonished the earth, and were looked up to as Gods, even like an actor on the stage, have strutted their hour, and then been heard of no more.
Books have the advantage of all other productions of the human head or hand. Copies of them may be multiplied for ever, the last as good as the first, except so far as some slight inadvertent errors may have insinuated themselves. The Iliad flourishes as green now, as on the day that Pisistratus is said first to have stamped upon it its present order. The songs of the Rhapsodists, the Scalds, and the Minstrels, which once seemed as fugitive as the breath of him who chaunted them, repose in libraries, and are embalmed in collections. The sportive sallies of eminent wits, and the Table Talk of Luther and Selden, may live as long as there shall be men to read, and judges to appreciate them.
But other human productions have their date. Pictures, however admirable, will only last as long as the colours of which they are composed, and the substance on which they are painted. Three or four hundred years ordinarily limit the existence of the most favoured. We have scarcely any paintings of the ancients, and but a small portion of their statues, while of these a great part are mutilated, and various members supplied by later and inferior artists. The library of Bufo is by Pope described,
where busts of poets dead, And a true Pindar stood without a head.
Monumental records, alike the slightest and the most solid, are subjected to the destructive operation of time, or to the being removed at the caprice or convenience of successive generations. The pyramids of Egypt remain, but the names of him who founded them, and of him whose memory they seemed destined to perpetuate, have perished together. Buildings for the use or habitation of man do not last for ever. Mighty cities, as well as detached edifices, are destined to disappear. Thebes, and Troy, and Persepolis, and Palmyra have vanished from the face of the earth.
"Thorns and brambles have grown up in their palaces: they are habitations for serpents, and a court for the owl."
There are productions of man however that seem more durable than any of the edifices he has raised. Such are, in the first place, modes of government. The constitution of Sparta lasted for seven hundred years. That of Rome for about the same period. Institutions, once deeply rooted in the habits of a people, will operate in their effects through successive revolutions. Modes of faith will sometimes be still more permanent. Not to mention the systems of Moses and Christ, which we consider as delivered to us by divine inspiration, that of Mahomet has continued for twelve hundred years, and may last, for aught that appears, twelve hundred more. The practices of the empire of China are celebrated all over the earth for their immutability.
This brings us naturally to reflect upon the durability of the sciences. According to Bailly, the observation of the heavens, and a calculation of the revolutions of the heavenly bodies, in other words, astronomy, subsisted in maturity in China and the East, for at least three thousand years before the birth of Christ: and, such as it was then, it bids fair to last as long as civilisation shall continue. The additions it has acquired of late years may fall away and perish, but the substance shall remain. The circulation of the blood in man and other animals, is a discovery that shall never be antiquated. And the same may be averred of the fundamental elements of geometry and of some other sciences. Knowledge, in its most considerable branches shall endure, as long as books shall exist to hand it down to successive generations.
It is just therefore, that we should regard with admiration and awe the nature of man, by whom these mighty things have been accomplished, at the same time that the perishable quality of its individual monuments, and the temporary character and inconstancy of that fame which in many instances has filled the whole earth with its renown, may reasonably quell the fumes of an inordinate vanity, and keep alive in us the sentiment of a wholsome diffidence and humility.
ESSAY V. OF THE REBELLIOUSNESS OF MAN.
There is a particular characteristic in the nature of the human mind, which is somewhat difficult to be explained.
Man is a being of a rational and an irrational nature.
It has often been said that we have two souls. Araspes, in the Cyropedia, adopts this language to explain his inconsistency, and desertion of principle and honour. The two souls of man, according to this hypothesis, are, first, animal, and, secondly, intellectual.
But I am not going into any thing of this slight and every-day character.
Man is a rational being. It is by this particular that he is eminently distinguished from the brute creation. He collects premises and deduces conclusions. He enters into systems of thinking, and combines systems of action, which he pursues from day to day, and from year to year. It is by this feature in his constitution that he becomes emphatically the subject of history, of poetry and fiction. It is by this that he is raised above the other inhabitants of the globe of earth, and that the individuals of our race are made the partners of "gods, and men like gods."
But our nature, beside this, has another section. We start occasionally ten thousand miles awry. We resign the sceptre of reason, and the high dignity that belongs to us as beings of a superior species; and, without authority derived to us from any system of thinking, even without the scheme of gratifying any vehement and uncontrolable passion, we are impelled to do, or at least feel ourselves excited to do, something disordinate and strange. It seems as if we had a spring within us, that found the perpetual restraint of being wise and sober insupportable. We long to be something, or to do something, sudden and unexpected, to throw the furniture of our apartment out at window, or, when we are leaving a place of worship, in which perhaps the most solemn feelings of our nature have been excited, to push the grave person that is just before us, from the top of the stairs to the bottom. A thousand absurdities, wild and extravagant vagaries, come into our heads, and we are only restrained from perpetrating them by the fear, that we may be subjected to the treatment appropriated to the insane, or may perhaps be made amenable to the criminal laws of our country.
A story occurs to me, which I learned from the late Dr. Parr at Hatton, that may not unhappily illustrate the point I am endeavouring to explain.
Dr. Samuel Clarke, rector of St. James's, Westminster, the especial friend of Sir Isaac Newton, the distinguished editor of the poems of Homer, and author of the Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God, was one day summoned from his study, to receive two visitors in the parlour. When he came downstairs, and entered the room, he saw a foreigner, who by his air seemed to be a person of distinction, a professor perhaps of some university on the continent; and an alderman of London, a relation of the doctor, who had come to introduce the foreigner. The alderman, a man of uncultivated mind and manners, and whom the doctor had been accustomed to see in sordid attire, surrounded with the incumbrances of his trade, was decked out for the occasion in a full-dress suit, with a wig of majestic and voluminous structure. Clarke was, as it appears, so much struck with the whimsical nature of this unexpected metamorphosis, and the extraordinary solemnity of his kinsman's demeanour, as to have felt impelled, almost immediately upon entering the room, to snatch the wig from the alderman's head, and throw it against the ceiling: after which this eminent person immediately escaped, and retired to his own apartment. I was informed from the same authority, that Clarke, after exhausting his intellectual faculties by long and intense study, would not unfrequently quit his seat, leap upon the table, and place himself cross-legged like a tailor, being prompted, by these antagonist sallies, to relieve himself from the effect of the too severe strain he had previously put upon his intellectual powers.
But the deviousness and aberration of our human faculties frequently amount to something considerably more serious than this.
I will put a case.
I will suppose myself and another human being together, in some spot secure from the intrusion of spectators. A musket is conveniently at hand. It is already loaded. I say to my companion, "I will place myself before you; I will stand motionless: take up that musket, and shoot me through the heart." I want to know what passes in the mind of the man to whom these words are addressed.
I say, that one of the thoughts that will occur to many of the persons who should be so invited, will be, "Shall I take him at his word?"
There are two things that restrain us from acts of violence and crime. The first is, the laws of morality. The second is, the construction that will be put upon our actions by our fellow-creatures, and the treatment we shall receive from them.—I put out of the question here any particular value I may entertain for my challenger, or any degree of friendship and attachment I may feel for him.
The laws of morality (setting aside the consideration of any documents of religion or otherwise I may have imbibed from my parents and instructors) are matured within us by experience. In proportion as I am rendered familiar with my fellow-creatures, or with society at large, I come to feel the ties which bind men to each other, and the wisdom and necessity of governing my conduct by inexorable rules. We are thus further and further removed from unexpected sallies of the mind, and the danger of suddenly starting away into acts not previously reflected on and considered.
With respect to the censure and retaliation of other men on my proceeding, these, by the terms of my supposition, are left out of the question.
It may be taken for granted, that no man but a madman, would in the case I have stated take the challenger at his word. But what I want to ascertain is, why the bare thought of doing so takes a momentary hold of the mind of the person addressed?
There are three principles in the nature of man which contribute to account for this.
First, the love of novelty.
Secondly, the love of enterprise and adventure. I become insupportably wearied with the repetition of rotatory acts and every-day occurrences. I want to be alive, to be something more than I commonly am, to change the scene, to cut the cable that binds my bark to the shore, to launch into the wide sea of possibilities, and to nourish my thoughts with observing a train of unforeseen consequences as they arise.
A third principle, which discovers itself in early childhood, and which never entirely quits us, is the love of power. We wish to be assured that we are something, and that we can produce notable effects upon other beings out of ourselves. It is this principle, which instigates a child to destroy his playthings, and to torment and kill the animals around him.
But, even independently of the laws of morality, and the fear of censure and retaliation from our fellow-creatures, there are other things which would obviously restrain us from taking the challenger in the above supposition at his word.
If man were an omnipotent being, and at the same time retained all his present mental infirmities, it would be difficult to say of what extravagances he would be guilty. It is proverbially affirmed that power has a tendency to corrupt the best dispositions. Then what would not omnipotence effect?
If, when I put an end to the life of a fellow-creature, all vestiges of what I had done were to disappear, this would take off a great part of the control upon my actions which at present subsists. But, as it is, there are many consequences that "give us pause." I do not like to see his blood streaming on the ground. I do not like to witness the spasms and convulsions of a dying man. Though wounded to the heart, he may speak. Then what may be chance to say? What looks of reproach may he cast upon me? The musket may miss fire. If I wound him, the wound may be less mortal than I contemplated. Then what may I not have to fear? His dead body will be an incumbrance to me. It must be moved from the place where it lies. It must be buried. How is all this to be done by me? By one precipitate act, I have involved myself in a long train of loathsome and heart-sickening consequences.
If it should be said, that no one but a person of an abandoned character would fail, when the scene was actually before him, to feel an instant repugnance to the proposition, yet it will perhaps be admitted, that almost every reader, when he regards it as a supposition merely, says to himself for a moment, "Would I? Could I?"
But, to bring the irrationality of man more completely to the test, let us change the supposition. Let us imagine him to be gifted with the powers of the fabled basilisk, "to monarchise, be feared, and kill with looks." His present impulses, his passions, his modes of reasoning and choosing shall continue; but his "will is neighboured to his act;" whatever he has formed a conception of with preference, is immediately realised; his thought is succeeded by the effect; and no traces are left behind, by means of which a shadow of censure or suspicion can be reflected on him.
Man is in truth a miracle. The human mind is a creature of celestial origin, shut up and confined in a wall of flesh. We feel a kind of proud impatience of the degradation to which we are condemned. We beat ourselves to pieces against the wires of our cage, and long to escape, to shoot through the elements, and be as free to change at any instant the place where we dwell, as to change the subject to which our thoughts are applied.
This, or something like this, seems to be the source of our most portentous follies and absurdities. This is the original sin upon which St. Austin and Calvin descanted. Certain Arabic writers seem to have had this in their minds, when they tell us, that there is a black drop of blood in the heart of every man, in which is contained the fomes peccati, and add that, when Mahomet was in the fourth year of his age, the angel Gabriel caught him up from among his playfellows, and taking his heart from his bosom, squeezed out of it this first principle of frailty, in consequence of which he for ever after remained inaccessible to the weaknesses of other men(6).
(6) Life of Mahomet, by Prideaux.
It is the observation of sir Thomas Browne: "Man is a noble animal, splendid in ashes, and pompous in the grave." One of the most remarkable examples of this is to be found in the pyramids of Egypt. They are generally considered as having been erected to be the tombs of the kings of that country. They have no opening by which for the light of heaven to enter, and afford no means for the accommodation of living man. An hundred thousand men are said to have been constantly employed in the building; ten years to have been consumed in hewing and conveying the stones, and twenty more in completing the edifice. Of the largest the base is a square, and the sides are triangles, gradually diminishing as they mount in the air. The sides of the base are two hundred and twenty feet in length, and the perpendicular height is above one hundred and fifty-five feet. The figure of the pyramid is precisely that which is most calculated for duration: it cannot perish by accident; and it would require almost as much labour to demolish it, as it did to raise it at first.
What a light does this fact convey into the inmost recesses of the human heart! Man reflects deeply, and with feelings of a mortified nature, upon the perishableness of his frame, and the approaching close, so far as depends upon the evidence of our senses, of his existence. He has indeed an irrepressible "longing after immortality;" and this is one of the various and striking modes in which he has sought to give effect to his desire.
Various obvious causes might be selected, which should be calculated to give birth to the feeling of discontent.
One is, the not being at home.
I will here put together some of the particulars which make up the idea of home in the most emphatical sense of the word.
Home is the place where a man is principally at his ease. It is the place where he most breathes his native air: his lungs play without impediment; and every respiration brings a pure element, and a cheerful and gay frame of mind. Home is the place where he most easily accomplishes all his designs; he has his furniture and materials and the elements of his occupations entirely within his reach. Home is the place where he can be uninterrupted. He is in a castle which is his in full propriety. No unwelcome guests can intrude; no harsh sounds can disturb his contemplations; he is the master, and can command a silence equal to that of the tomb, whenever he pleases.
In this sense every man feels, while cribbed in a cabin of flesh, and shut up by the capricious and arbitrary injunctions of human communities, that he is not at home.
Another cause of our discontent is to be traced to the disparity of the two parts of which we are composed, the thinking principle, and the body in which it acts. The machine which constitutes the visible man, bears no proportion to our thoughts, our wishes and desires. Hence we are never satisfied; we always feel the want of something we have not; and this uneasiness is continually pushing us on to precipitate and abortive resolves.
I find in a book, entitled, Illustrations of Phrenology, by Sir George Mackenzie, Baronet, the following remark. 'If this portrait be correctly drawn, the right side does not quite agree with the left in the region of ideality. This dissimilarity may have produced something contradictory in the feelings of the person it represents, which he may have felt extremely annoying(7).' An observation of this sort may be urged with striking propriety as to the dissimilar attributes of the body and the thinking principle in man.
(7) The remark thus delivered is applied to the portrait of the author of the present volume.
It is perhaps thus that we are to account for a phenomenon, in itself sufficiently obvious, that our nature has within it a principle of boundless ambition, a desire to be something that we are not, a feeling that we are out of our place, and ought to be where we are not. This feeling produces in us quick and earnest sallies and goings forth of the mind, a restlessness of soul, and an aspiration after some object that we do not find ourselves able to chalk out and define.
Hence comes the practice of castle-building, and of engaging the soul in endless reveries and imaginations of something mysterious and unlike to what we behold in the scenes of sublunary life. Many writers, having remarked this, have endeavoured to explain it from the doctrine of a preexistent state, and have said that, though we have no clear and distinct recollection of what happened to us previously to our being launched in our present condition, yet we have certain broken and imperfect conceptions, as if, when the tablet of the memory was cleared for the most part of the traces of what we had passed through in some other mode of being, there were a few characters that had escaped the diligence of the hand by which the rest had been obliterated.
It is this that, in less enlightened ages of the world, led men to engage so much of their thoughts upon supposed existences, which, though they might never become subject to our organs of vision, were yet conceived to be perpetually near us, fairies, ghosts, witches, demons and angels. Our ancestors often derived suggestions from these, were informed of things beyond the ken of ordinary faculties, were tempted to the commission of forbidden acts, or encouraged to proceed in the paths of virtue.
The most remarkable of these phenomena was that of necromancy, sorcery and magic. There were men who devoted themselves to "curious arts," and had books fraught with hidden knowledge. They could "bedim"
The noon-tide sun, call forth the mutinous winds, And 'twixt the green sea and the azured vault Set roaring war: to the dread, rattling thunder They could give fire, and rift even Jove's stout oak With his own bolt—graves at their command Have waked their sleepers, oped and let them forth.
And of these things the actors in them were so certain, that many witches were led to the stake, their guilt being principally established on their own confessions. But the most memorable matters in the history of the black art, were the contracts which those who practised it not unfrequently entered into with the devil, that he should assist them by his supernatural power for ten or twenty years, and, in consideration of this aid, they consented to resign their souls into his possession, when the period of the contract was expired.
In the animal creation there are some species that may be tamed, and others whose wildness is irreclaimable. Horace says, that all men are mad: and no doubt mankind in general has one of the features of madness. In the ordinary current of our existence we are to a considerable degree rational and tractable. But we are not altogether safe. I may converse with a maniac for hours; he shall talk as soberly, and conduct himself with as much propriety, as any other of the species who has never been afflicted with his disease; but touch upon a particular string, and, before you are aware of it, he shall fly out into the wildest and most terrifying extravagances. Such, though in a greatly inferior degree, are the majority of human beings.
The original impulse of man is uncontrolableness. When the spirit of life first descends upon us, we desire and attempt to be as free as air. We are impatient of restraint. This is the period of the empire of will. There is a power within us that wars against the restraint of another. We are eager to follow our own impulses and caprices, and are with difficulty subjected to those who believe they best know how to control inexperienced youth in a way that shall tend to his ultimate advantage.
The most moderate and auspicious method in which the old may endeavour to guide and control the pursuits of the young, undoubtedly is by the conviction of the understanding. But this is not always easy. It is not at all times practicable fully to explain to the apprehension of a very young person the advantage, which at a period a little more advanced he would be able clearly to recognise.
There is a further evil appertaining to this view of the subject.
A young man even, in the early season of life, is not always disposed to obey the convictions of his understanding. He has prescribed to himself a task which returns with the returning day; but he is often not disposed to apply. The very sense that it is what he conceives to be an incumbent duty, inspires him with reluctance.
An obvious source of this reluctance is, that the convictions of our understanding are not always equally present to us. I have entered into a deduction of premises, and arrived at a conclusion; but some of the steps of the chain are scarcely obvious to me, at the time that I am called upon to act upon the conclusion I have drawn. Beside which, there was a freshness in the first conception of the reasons on which my conduct was to be framed, which, by successive rehearsals, and by process of time, is no longer in any degree spirit-stirring and pregnant.
This restiveness and impracticability are principally incident to us in the period of youth. By degrees the novelties of life wear out, and we become sober. We are like soldiers at drill, and in a review. At first we perform our exercise from necessity, and with an ill grace. We had rather be doing almost any thing else.
By degrees we are reconciled to our occupation. We are like horses in a manege, or oxen or dogs taught to draw the plough, or be harnessed to a carriage. Our stubbornness is subdued; we no longer exhaust our strength in vain efforts to free ourselves from the yoke.
Conviction at first is strong. Having arrived at years of discretion, I revolve with a sobered mind the different occupations to which my efforts and my time may be devoted, and determine at length upon that which under all the circumstances displays the most cogent recommendations. Having done so, I rouse my faculties and direct my energies to the performance of my task. By degrees however my resolution grows less vigorous, and my exertions relax. I accept any pretence to be let off, and fly into a thousand episodes and eccentricities.
But, as the newness of life subsides, the power of temptation becomes less. That conviction, which was at first strong, and gradually became fainter and less impressive, is made by incessant repetitions a part of my nature. I no more think of doubting its truth, than of my own existence. Practice has rendered the pursuits that engage me more easy, till at length I grow disturbed and uncomfortable if I am withheld from them. They are like my daily bread. If they are not afforded me, I grow sick and attenuated, and my life verges to a close. The sun is not surer to rise, than I am to feel the want of my stated employment.
It is the business of education to tame the wild ass, the restive and rebellious principle, in our nature. The judicious parent or instructor essays a thousand methods to accomplish his end. The considerate elder tempts the child with inticements and caresses, that he may win his attention to the first rudiments of learning.
He sets before him, as he grows older, all the considerations and reasons he can devise, to make him apprehend the advantage of improvement and literature. He does his utmost to make his progress easy, and to remove all impediments. He smooths the path by which he is to proceed, and endeavours to root out all its thorns. He exerts his eloquence to inspire his pupil with a love for the studies in which he is engaged. He opens to him the beauties and genius of the authors he reads, and endeavours to proceed with him hand in hand, and step by step. He persuades, he exhorts, and occasionally he reproves. He awakens in him the love of excellence, the fear of disgrace, and an ambition to accomplish that which "the excellent of the earth" accomplished before him.
At a certain period the young man is delivered into his own hands, and becomes an instructor to himself. And, if he is blessed with an ingenuous disposition, he will enter on his task with an earnest desire and a devoted spirit. No person of a sober and enlarged mind can for a moment delude himself into the opinion that, when he is delivered into his own hands, his education is ended. In a sense to which no one is a stranger, the education of man and his life terminate together. We should at no period of our existence be backward to receive information, and should at all times preserve our minds open to conviction. We should through every day of our lives seek to add to the stores of our knowledge and refinement. But, independently of this more extended sense of the word, a great portion of the education of the young man is left to the direction of the man himself. The epoch of entire liberty is a dangerous period, and calls upon him for all his discretion, that he may not make an ill use of that, which is in itself perhaps the first of sublunary blessings. The season of puberty also, and all the excitements from this source, "that flesh is heir to," demand the utmost vigilance and the strictest restraint. In a word, if we would counteract the innate rebelliousness of man, that indocility of mind which is at all times at hand to plunge us into folly, we must never slumber at our post, but govern ourselves with steady severity, and by the dictates of an enlightened understanding. We must be like a skilful pilot in a perilous sea, and be thoroughly aware of all the rocks and quicksands, and the multiplied and hourly dangers that beset our navigation.
In this Essay I have treated of nothing more than the inherent restiveness and indocility of man, which accompany him at least through all the earlier sections and divisions of his life. I have not treated of those temptations calculated to lead him into a thousand excesses and miseries, which originate in our lower nature, and are connected with what we call the passion of love. Nor have I entered upon the still more copious chapter, of the incentives and provocations which are administered to us by those wants which at all times beset us as living creatures, and by the unequal distribution of property generally in civil society. I have not considered those attributes of man which may serve indifferently for good or for ill, as he may happen to be or not to be the subject of those fiercer excitements, that will oft times corrupt the most ingenuous nature, and have a tendency to inspire into us subtle schemes and a deep contrivance. I have confined myself to the consideration of man, as yet untamed to the modes of civilised community, and unbroken to the steps which are not only prescribed by the interests of our social existence, but which are even in some degree indispensible to the improvement and welfare of the individual. I have considered him, not as he is often acted upon by causes and motives which seem almost to compel him to vice, but merely as he is restless, and impatient, and disdainful both of the control of others, and the shackles of system.
For the same reason I have not taken notice of another species of irrationality, and which seems to answer more exactly to the Arabic notion of the fomes peccati, the black drop of blood at the bottom of the heart. We act from motives apprehended by the judgment; but we do not stop at them. Once set in motion, it will not seldom happen that we proceed beyond our original mark. We are like Othello in the play:
Our blood begins our safer guides to rule; And passion, having our best judgment quelled, Assays to lead the way.
This is the explanation of the greatest enormities that have been perpetrated by man, and the inhuman deeds of Nero and Caligula. We proceed from bad to worse. The reins of our discretion drop from our hands. It fortunately happens however, that we do not in the majority of cases, like Phaeton in the fable, set the world on fire; but that, with ordinary men, the fiercest excesses of passion extend to no greater distance than can be reached by the sound of their voice.
ESSAY VI. OF HUMAN INNOCENCE.
One of the most obvious views which are presented to us by man in society is the inoffensiveness and innocence that ordinarily characterise him.
Society for the greater part carries on its own organization. Each man pursues his proper occupation, and there are few individuals that feel the propensity to interrupt the pursuits of their neighbours by personal violence. When we observe the quiet manner in which the inhabitants of a great city, and, in the country, the frequenters of the fields, the high roads, and the heaths, pass along, each engrossed by his private contemplations, feeling no disposition to molest the strangers he encounters, but on the contrary prepared to afford them every courteous assistance, we cannot in equity do less than admire the innocence of our species, and fancy that, like the patriarchs of old, we have fallen in with "angels unawares."
There are a few men in every community, that are sons of riot and plunder, and for the sake of these the satirical and censorious throw a general slur and aspersion upon the whole species.
When we look at human society with kind and complacent survey, we are more than half tempted to imagine that men might subsist very well in clusters and congregated bodies without the coercion of law; and in truth criminal laws were only made to prevent the ill-disposed few from interrupting the regular and inoffensive proceedings of the vast majority.
From what disposition in human nature is it that all this accommodation and concurrence proceed?
It is not primarily love. We feel in a very slight degree excited to good will towards the stranger whom we accidentally light upon in our path.
Neither is it fear.
It is principally forecast and prudence. We have a sensitiveness, that forbids us for a slight cause to expose ourselves to we know not what. We are unwilling to be disturbed.
We have a mental vis inertiae, analogous to that quality in material substances, by means of which, being at rest, they resist being put into a state of motion. We love our security; we love our respectability; and both of these may be put to hazard by our rashly and unadvisedly thrusting ourselves upon the course of another. We like to act for ourselves. We like to act with others, when we think we can foresee the way in which the proposed transaction will proceed, and that it will proceed to our wish.
Let us put the case, that I am passing along the highway, destitute and pennyless, and without foresight of any means by which I am to procure the next meal that my nature requires.
The vagrant, who revolves in his mind the thought of extorting from another the supply of which he is urgently in need, surveys the person upon whom he meditates this violence with a scrutinising eye. He considers, Will this man submit to my summons without resistance, or in what manner will he repel my trespass? He watches his eye, he measures his limbs, his strength, and his agility. Though they have met in the deserts of Africa, where there is no law to punish the violator, he knows that he exposes himself to a fearful hazard; and he enters upon his purpose with desperate resolve. All this and more must occur to the man of violence, within the pale of a civilised community.
Begging is the mildest form in which a man can obtain from the stranger he meets, the means of supplying his urgent necessities.
But, even here, the beggar knows that he exposes himself not only to refusal, but to the harsh and opprobrious terms in which that refusal may be conveyed. In this city there are laws against begging; and the man that asks alms of me, is an offender against the state. In country-towns it is usual to remark a notice upon entering, to say, Whoever shall be found begging in this place, shall be set in the stocks.
There are modes however in which I may accost a stranger, with small apprehension that I shall be made to repent of it. I may enquire of him my way to the place towards which my business or my pleasure invites me. Ennius of old has observed, that lumen de lumine, to light my candle at my neighbour's lamp, is one of the privileges that the practices of civil society concede.
But it is not merely from forecast and prudence that we refrain from interrupting the stranger in his way. We have all of us a certain degree of kindness for a being of our own species. A multitude of men feel this kindness for every thing that has animal life. We would not willingly molest the stranger who has done us no injury. On the contrary we would all of us to a certain extent assist him, under any unforeseen casualty and tribulation. A part therefore of the innocence that characterises our species is to be attributed to philanthropy.
Childhood is diffident. Children for the most part are averse to the addressing themselves to strangers, unless in cases where, from the mere want of anticipation and reflection, they proceed as if they were wholly without the faculty of making calculations and deducing conclusions. The child neither knows himself nor the stranger he meets in his path. He has not measured either the one or the other. He does not know what the stranger may be able, or may likely be prompted to do to him, nor what are his own means of defence or escape. He takes refuge therefore in a wary, sometimes an obstinate silence. It is for this reason that a boy at school often appears duller and more inept, than would be the amount of a fair proportion to what he is found to be when grown up to a man.
As we improve in judgment and strength, we know better ourselves and others, and in a majority of instances take our due place in the ranks of society. We acquire a modest and cautious firmness, yield what belongs to another, and assert what is due to ourselves. To the last however, we for the most part retain the inoffensiveness described in the beginning of this Essay.
How comes it then that our nature labours under so bitter an aspersion? We have been described as cunning, malicious and treacherous. Other animals herd together for mutual convenience; and their intercourse with their species is for the most part a reciprocation of social feeling and kindness. But community among men, we are told, is that condition of human existence, which brings out all our evil qualities to the face of day. We lie in wait for, and circumvent each other by multiplied artifices. We cannot depend upon each other for the truth of what is stated to us; and promises and the most solemn engagements often seem as if they were made only to mislead. We are violent and deadly in our animosities, easily worked up to ferocity, and satisfied with scarcely any thing short of mutilation and blood. We are revengeful: we lay up an injury, real or imaginary, in the store-house of an undecaying memory, waiting only till we can repay the evil we have sustained tenfold, at a time when our adversary shall be lulled in unsuspecting security. We are rapacious, with no symptom that the appetite for gain within us will ever be appeased; and we practise a thousand deceits, that it may be the sooner, and to the greater degree glutted. The ambition of man is unbounded; and he hesitates at no means in the course it prompts him to pursue. In short, man is to man ever the most fearful and dangerous foe: and it is in this view of his nature that the king of Brobdingnag says to Gulliver, "I cannot but conclude the bulk of your race to be the most pernicious generation of little, odious vermin, that were ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth." The comprehensive faculties of man therefore, and the refinements and subtlety of his intellect, serve only to render him the more formidable companion, and to hold us up as a species to merited condemnation.
It is obvious however that the picture thus drawn is greatly overcharged, that it describes a very small part of our race, and that even as to them it sets before us a few features only, and a partial representation.
History—the successive scenes of the drama in which individuals play their part—is a labyrinth, of which no man has as yet exactly seized the clue.
It has long since been observed, that the history of the four great monarchies, of tyrannies and free states, of chivalry and clanship, of Mahometanism and the Christian church, of the balance of Europe and the revolution of empires, is little else than a tissue of crimes, exhibiting nations as if they were so many herds of ferocious animals, whose genuine occupation was to tear each other to pieces, and to deform their mother-earth with mangled carcases and seas of blood.
But it is not just that we should establish our opinion of human nature purely from the records of history. Man is alternately devoted to tranquillity and to violence. But the latter only affords the proper materials of narration. When he is wrought upon by some powerful impulse, our curiosity is most roused to observe him. We remark his emotions, his energies, his tempest. It is then that he becomes the person of a drama. And, where this disquietude is not the affair of a single individual, but of several persons together, of nations, it is there that history finds her harvest. She goes into the field with all the implements of her industry, and fills her storehouses and magazines with the abundance of her crop. But times of tranquillity and peace furnish her with no materials. They are dismissed in a few slight sentences, and leave no memory behind.
Let us divide this spacious earth into equal compartments, and see in which violence, and in which tranquillity prevails. Let us look through the various ranks and occupations of human society, and endeavour to arrive at a conclusion of a similar sort. The soldier by occupation, and the officer who commands him, would seem, when they are employed in their express functions, to be men of strife. Kings and ministers of state have in a multitude of instances fallen under this description. Conquerors, the firebrands of the earth, have sufficiently displayed their noxious propensities.
But these are but a small part of the tenantry of the many-peopled globe. Man lives by the sweat of his brow. The teeming earth is given him, that by his labour he may raise from it the means of his subsistence. Agriculture is, at least among civilised nations, the first, and certainly the most indispensible of professions. The profession itself is the emblem of peace. All its occupations, from seed-time to harvest, are tranquil; and there is nothing which belongs to it, that can obviously be applied to rouse the angry passions, and place men in a frame of hostility to each other. Next to the cultivator, come the manufacturer, the artificer, the carpenter, the mason, the joiner, the cabinet-maker, all those numerous classes of persons, who are employed in forming garments for us to wear, houses to live in, and moveables and instruments for the accommodation of the species. All these persons are, of necessity, of a peaceable demeanour. So are those who are not employed in producing the conveniencies of life, but in conducting the affairs of barter and exchange. Add to these, such as are engaged in literature, either in the study of what has already been produced, or in adding to the stock, in science or the liberal arts, in the instructing mankind in religion and their duties, or in the education of youth. "Civility," "civil," are indeed terms which express a state of peaceable occupation, in opposition to what is military, and imply a tranquil frame of mind, and the absence of contention, uproar and violence. It is therefore clear, that the majority of mankind are civil, devoted to the arts of peace, and so far as relates to acts of violence innocent, and that the sons of rapine constitute the exception to the general character.
We come into the world under a hard and unpalatable law, "In the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat bread." It is a bitter decree that is promulgated against us, "He that will not work, neither shall he eat." We all of us love to do our own will, and to be free from the manacles of restraint. What our hearts "find us to do," that we are disposed to execute "with all our might." Some men are lovers of strenuous occupation. They build and they plant; they raise splendid edifices, and lay out pleasure-grounds of mighty extent. Or they devote their minds to the acquisition of knowledge; they
——outwatch the bear, With thrice great Hermes, or unsphere The spirit of Plato, to unfold What worlds, or what vast regions hold The immortal mind.
Others again would waste perhaps their whole lives in reverie and idleness. They are constituted of materials so kindly and serene, that their spirits never flag from want of occupation and external excitement. They could lie for ever on a sunny bank, in a condition divided between thinking and no thinking, refreshed by the fanning breeze, viewing the undulations of the soil, and the rippling of the brook, admiring the azure heavens, and the vast, the bold, and the sublime figure of the clouds, yielding themselves occasionally to "thick-coming fancies," and day-dreams, and the endless romances of an undisciplined mind;
And find no end, in wandering mazes lost.
But all men, alike the busy of constitution and the idle, would desire to follow the impulses of their own minds, unbroken in upon by harsh necessity, or the imperious commands of their fellows.
We cannot however, by the resistless law of our existence, live, except the few who by the accident of their birth are privileged to draw their supplies from the labour of others, without exerting ourselves to procure by our efforts or ingenuity the necessaries of food, lodging and attire. He that would obtain them for himself in an uninhabited island, would find that this amounted to a severe tax upon that freedom of motion and thought which would otherwise be his inheritance. And he who has his lot cast in a populous community, exists in a condition somewhat analogous to that of a negro slave, except that he may to a limited extent select the occupation to which he shall addict himself, or may at least starve, in part or in whole, uncontroled, and at his choice. Such is, as it were, the universal lot.
'Tis destiny unshunnable like death: Even then this dire necessity falls on us, When we do quicken.
I go forth in the streets, and observe the occupations of other men. I remark the shops that on every side beset my path. It is curious and striking, how vast are the ingenuity and contrivance of human beings, to wring from their fellow-creatures, "from the hard hands of peasants" and artisans, a part of their earnings, that they also may live. We soon become feelingly convinced, that we also must enter into the vast procession of industry, upon pain that otherwise,
Like to an entered tide, they all rush by, And leave you hindmost: there you lie, For pavement to the abject rear, o'errun And trampled on.
It is through the effect of this necessity, that civilised communities become what they are. We all fall into our ranks. Each one is member of a certain company or squadron. We know our respective places, and are marshaled and disciplined with an exactness scarcely less than that of the individuals of a mighty army. We are therefore little disposed to interrupt the occupations of each other. We are intent upon the peculiar employment to which we have become devoted. We "rise up early, and lie down late," and have no leisure to trouble ourselves with the pursuits of others. Hence of necessity it happens in a civilised community, that a vast majority of the species are innocent, and have no inclination to molest or interrupt each other's avocations.
But, as this condition of human society preserves us in comparative innocence, and renders the social arrangement in the midst of which we exist, to a certain degree a soothing and agreeable spectacle, so on the other hand it is not less true that its immediate tendency is, to clip the wings of the thinking principle within us, and plunge the members of the community in which we live into a barren and ungratifying mediocrity. Hence it should be the aim of those persons, who from their situation have more or less the means of looking through the vast assemblage of their countrymen, of penetrating "into the seeds" of character, and determining "which grain will grow, and which will not," to apply themselves to the redeeming such as are worthy of their care from the oblivious gulph into which the mass of the species is of necessity plunged. It is therefore an ill saying, when applied in the most rigorous extent, "Let every man maintain himself, and be his own provider: why should we help him?"
The help however that we should afford to our fellow-men requires of us great discernment in its administration. The deceitfulness of appearances is endless. And nothing can well be at the same time more lamentable and more ludicrous, than the spectacle of those persons, the weaver, the thresher, and the mechanic, who by injudicious patronage are drawn from their proper sphere, only to exhibit upon a larger stage their imbecility and inanity, to shew those moderate powers, which in their proper application would have carried their possessors through life with respect, distorted into absurdity, and used in the attempt to make us look upon a dwarf, as if he were one of the Titans who in the commencement of recorded time astonished the earth.
It is also true to a great degree, that those efforts of the human mind are most healthful and vigorous, in which the possessor of talents "administers to himself," and contends with the different obstacles that arise,
————throwing them aside, And stemming them with hearts of controversy.
Many illustrious examples however may be found in the annals of literature, of patronage judiciously and generously applied, where men have been raised by the kindness of others from the obscurest situations, and placed on high, like beacons, to illuminate the world. And, independently of all examples, a sound application of the common sense of the human mind would teach us, that the worthies of the earth, though miracles, are not omnipotent, and that a certain aid, from those who by counsel or opulence are enabled to afford it, have oft times produced the noblest effects, have carried on the generous impulse that works within us, and prompted us manfully to proceed, when the weakness of our nature was ready to give in from despair.
But the thing that in this place it was most appropriate to say, is, that we ought not quietly to affirm, of the man whose mind nature or education has enriched with extraordinary powers, "Let him maintain himself, and be his own provider: why should we help him?" It is a thing deeply to be regretted, that such a man will frequently be compelled to devote himself to pursuits comparatively vulgar and inglorious, because he must live. Much of this is certainly inevitable. But what glorious things might a man with extraordinary powers effect, were he not hurried unnumbered miles awry by the unconquerable power of circumstances? The life of such a man is divided between the things which his internal monitor strongly prompts him to do, and those which the external power of nature and circumstances compels him to submit to. The struggle on the part of his better self is noble and admirable. The less he gives way, provided he can accomplish the purpose to which he has vowed himself, the more he is worthy of the admiration of the world. If, in consequence of listening too much to the loftier aspirations of his nature, he fails, it is deeply to be regretted—it is a man to a certain degree lost—but surely, if his miscarriage be not caused by undue presumption, or the clouds and unhealthful atmosphere of self-conceit, he is entitled to the affectionate sympathy and sorrow of every generous mind.
ESSAY VII. OF THE DURATION OF HUMAN LIFE.
The active and industrious portion of the human species in civilised countries, is composed of those who are occupied in the labour of the hand, and in the labour of the head.
The following remarks expressly apply only to the latter of these classes, principally to such as are occupied in productive literature. They may however have their use to all persons a considerable portion of whose time is employed in study and contemplation, as, if well founded, they will form no unimportant chapter in the science of the human mind.
In relation to all the members of the second class then, I should say, that human life is made up of term and vacation, in other words, of hours that may be intellectually employed, and of hours that cannot be so employed.
Human life consists of years, months and days: each day contains twenty-four hours. Of these hours how many belong to the province of intellect?
"There is," as Solomon says, "a time for all things." There must be a time for sleep, a time for recreation, a time for exercise, a time for supplying the machine with nourishment, and a time for digestion. When all these demands have been supplied, how many hours will be left for intellectual occupation?
These remarks, as I have said, are intended principally to apply to the subject of productive literature. Now, of the hours that remain when all the necessary demands of human life have been supplied, it is but a portion, perhaps a small portion, that can be beneficially, judiciously, employed in productive literature, or literary composition.
It is true, that there are many men who will occupy eight, ten, or twelve hours in a day, in the labour of composition. But it may be doubted whether they are wisely so occupied.
It is the duty of an author, inasmuch as he is an author, to consider, that he is to employ his pen in putting down that which shall be fit for other men to read. He is not writing a letter of business, a letter of amusement, or a letter of sentiment, to his private friend. He is writing that which shall be perused by as many men as can be prevailed on to become his readers. If he is an author of spirit and ambition, he wishes his productions to be read, not only by the idle, but by the busy, by those who cannot spare time to peruse them but at the expence of some occupations which ought not to be suspended without an adequate occasion. He wishes to be read not only by the frivolous and the lounger, but by the wise, the elegant, and the fair, by those who are qualified to appreciate the merit of a work, who are endowed with a quick sensibility and a discriminating taste, and are able to pass a sound judgment on its beauties and defects. He advances his claim to permanent honours, and desires that his lucubrations should be considered by generations yet unborn.
A person, so occupied, and with such aims, must not attempt to pass his crudities upon the public. If I may parody a celebrated aphorism of Quintilian, I would say, "Magna debetur hominibus reverentia(8):" in other words, we should carefully examine what it is that we propose to deliver in a permanent form to the taste and understanding of our species. An author ought only to commit to the press the first fruits of his field, his best and choicest thoughts. He ought not to take up the pen, till he has brought his mind into a fitting tone, and ought to lay it down, the instant his intellect becomes in any degree clouded, and his vital spirits abate of their elasticity.
(8) Mankind is to be considered with reverence.
There are extraordinary cases. A man may have so thoroughly prepared himself by long meditation and study, he may have his mind so charged with an abundance of thought, that it may employ him for ten or twelve hours consecutively, merely to put down or to unravel the conceptions already matured in his soul. It was in some such way, that Dryden, we are told, occupied a whole night, and to a late hour in the next morning, in penning his Alexander's Feast. But these are the exceptions. In most instances two or three hours are as much as an author can spend at a time in delivering the first fruits of his field, his choicest thoughts, before his intellect becomes in some degree clouded, and his vital spirits abate of their elasticity.
Nor is this all. He might go on perhaps for some time longer with a reasonable degree of clearness. But the fertility which ought to be his boast, is exhausted. He no longer sports in the meadows of thought, or revels in the exuberance of imagination, but becomes barren and unsatisfactory. Repose is necessary, and that the soil should be refreshed with the dews of another evening, the sleep of a night, and the freshness and revivifying influence of another morning.
These observations lead, by a natural transition, to the question of the true estimate and value of human life, considered as the means of the operations of intellect.
A primary enquiry under this head is as to the duration of life: Is it long, or short?
The instant this question is proposed, I hear myself replied to from all quarters: What is there so well known as the brevity of human life? "Life is but a span." It is "as a tale that is told." "Man cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down: he fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not." We are "as a sleep; or as grass: in the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth."
The foundation of this sentiment is obvious. Men do not live for ever. The longest duration of human existence has an end: and whatever it is of which that may be affirmed, may in some sense be pronounced to be short. The estimation of our existence depends upon the point of view from which we behold it. Hope is one of our greatest enjoyments. Possession is something. But the past is as nothing. Remorse may give it a certain solidity; the recollection of a life spent in acts of virtue may be refreshing. But fruition, and honours, and fame, and even pain, and privations, and torment, when they ere departed, are but like a feather; we regard them as of no account. Taken in this sense, Dryden's celebrated verses are but a maniac's rant:
To-morrow, do thy worst, for I have lived to-day: Be fair, or foul, or rain, or shine, The joys I have possessed, in spite of fate are mine. Not heaven itself upon the past has power, But what has been has been, and I have had my hour.
But this way of removing the picture of human life to a certain distance from us, and considering those things which were once in a high degree interesting as frivolous and unworthy of regard, is not the way by which we shall arrive at a true and just estimation of life. Whatever is now past, and is of little value, was once present: and he who would form a sound judgment, must look upon every part of our lives as present in its turn, and not suffer his opinion to be warped by the consideration of the nearness or remoteness of the object he contemplates.
One sentence, which has grown into a maxim for ever repeated, is remarkable for the grossest fallacy: Ars longa, vita brevis(9). I would fain know, what art, compared with the natural duration of human life from puberty to old age, is long.
(9) Art is long; life is short.
If it is intended to say, that no one man can be expected to master all possible arts, or all arts that have at one time or another been the subject of human industry, this indeed is true. But the cause of this does not lie in the limited duration of human life, but in the nature of the faculties of the mind. Human understanding and human industry cannot embrace every thing. When we take hold of one thing, we must let go another. Science and art, if we would pursue them to the furthest extent of which we are capable, must be pursued without interruption. It would therefore be more to the purpose to say, Man cannot be for ever young. In the stream of human existence, different things have their appropriate period. The knowledge of languages can perhaps be most effectually acquired in the season of nonage.