THOUGHTS ON MAN, HIS NATURE, PRODUCTIONS AND DISCOVERIES

“Man is the most excellent and noble creature of the world, the principal and mighty work of God, the wonder of nature, the marvel of marvels” (Anatomy of Melancholy). In the visage of man, uncorrupted and undebased, we read the frankness and ingenuousness of his soul, the clearness of his reflections, and the penetration of his spirit. Man is a creature of mingled substance. The wonder rather is, that man, who has so many things to put him in mind to be humble and despise himself, should ever have been susceptible of pride and disdain.
Go into a miscellaneous society; sit down at table with ten or twelve men; repair to a club where as many are assembled in an evening to relax from the toils of the day–it is almost proverbial, that one or two of these persons will perhaps be brilliant, and the rest “weary, stale, flat and unprofitable.”
Go into a numerous school–the case will be still more striking. There were two men of superior endowments endeavored to enter into a calculation on the subject; and they agreed that there was not above one boy in a hundred, who would be found to possess a penetrating understanding, and to be able to strike into a path of intellect that was truly his own. How common is it to hear the master of such a school say, “Aye, I am proud of that lad; I have been a schoolmaster these thirty years, and have never had such another!” A main criterion of the superiority of the schoolboy will be found in his mode of answering a casual question proposed by the master. The majority will be wholly at fault, will shew that they do not understand the question, and will return an answer altogether from the purpose.
One in a hundred perhaps, perhaps in a still less proportion, will reply in a laudable manner, and convey his ideas in perspicuous and spirited language. It does not certainly go altogether so ill, with men grown up to years of maturity. They do not for the most part answer a plain question in a manner to make you wonder at their fatuity.
A main cause of the disadvantageous appearance exhibited by the ordinary schoolboy lies in what we denominate sheepishness. He is at a loss, and in the first place stares at you, instead of giving an answer. He does not make by many degrees so poor a figure among his equals, as when he is addressed by his seniors. One of the reasons of the latter phenomenon consists in the torpedo effect of what we may call, under the circumstances, the difference of ranks. Nor is it simple terror that restrains the boy from answering his senior with the same freedom and spirit, as he would answer his equal. He does not think it worth his while to enter the lists. He despairs of doing the thing in the way that shall gain approbation, and therefore will not try. He is like a boxer, who, though skilful, will not fight with one hand tied behind him.
The condition of the full-grown man is different from that of the child, and he conducts himself accordingly. He is always to a certain degree under the control of the political society of which he is a member. He is also exposed to the chance of personal insult and injury from those who are stronger than he, or who may render their strength more considerable by combination and numbers. The political institutions which control him in certain respects protect him also to a given degree from the robber and assassin, or from the man who, were it not for penalties and statutes, would perpetrate against him all the mischief which malignity might suggest. Civil policy however subjects him to a variety of evils, which wealth or corruption are accustomed to inflict under the forms of justice; at the same time that it can never wholly defend him from those violence to which he would be every moment exposed in what is called the state of nature.
There is however a sort of phenomenon, by no means of rare occurrence, which tends to place the human species under a less favorable point of view. Many men, as has already appeared, are forced into situations and pursuits ill assorted to their talents, and by that means are exhibited to their contemporaries in a light both despicable and ludicrous. But this is not all. Men are not only placed, by the absurd choice of their parents, or an imperious concurrence of circumstances, in destinations and employments in which they can never appear to advantage: they frequently, without any external compulsion, select for themselves objects of their industry, glaringly unadapted to their powers, and in which all their efforts must necessarily terminate in miscarriage. Man is the only creature we know, that, when the term of his natural life is ended, leaves the memory of himself behind him.
The labor 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 civilized 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.
One of the most obvious features however that attend 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.
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.
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 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.
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 practice 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.
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. 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.
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 certain solidity; the recollection of a life spent in acts of virtue may be refreshing. But fruition, and honors, 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.
Many men without question, in a walk of the same duration as that above described between Temple-Bar and Hyde-Park-Corner, have passed their time in as much activity, and amidst as strong and various excitements, as those enumerated in the passage above quoted. But the lives of all men, the wise, and those whom by way of contrast we are accustomed to call the dull, are divided between animation and comparative vacancy; and many a man, who by the bursts of his genius has astonished the world, and commanded the veneration of successive ages, has spent a period of time equal to that occupied by a walk from Temple-Bar to Hyde-Park-Corner, in a state of mind as idle, and as little affording materials for recollection, as the dullest man that ever breathed the vital air.
We ought to consider that the opportunities and amusements of the lower orders of society are few. They do not frequent coffee-houses; theatres and places of public exhibition are ordinarily too expensive for them; and they cannot engage in rounds of visiting, thus cultivating a private and familiar intercourse with the few whose conversation might be most congenial to them. We certainly bear hard upon persons in this rank of society, if we expect that they should take all the severer labor, and have no periods of unbending and amusement. But in reality what occurs in the public-house we are too much in the habit of calumniating. If we would visit this scene, we should find it pretty extensively a theatre of eager and earnest discussion. It is here that the ardent and “unwashed artificer,” and the sturdy husbandman, compare notes and measure wits with each other. It is their arena of intellectual combat, the ludus literarius of their unrefined university. It is here they learn to think. Their minds are awakened from the sleep of ignorance; and their attention is turned into a thousand channels of improvement. They study the art of speaking, of question, allegation and rejoinder. They fix their thought steadily on the statement that is made, acknowledge its force, or detect its insufficiency. They examine the most interesting topics, and form opinions the result of that examination. They learn maxims of life, and become politicians. They canvas the civil and criminal laws of their country, and learn the value of political liberty. They talk over measures of state, judge of the intentions, sagacity and sincerity of public men, and are likely in time to become in no contemptible degree capable of estimating what modes of conducting national affairs, whether for the preservation of the rights of all, or for the vindication and assertion of justice between man and man, may be expected to be crowned with the greatest success: in a word, they thus become, in the best sense of the word, citizens.
As to excess in drinking, the same thing may be expected to occur here, as has been remarked of late years in better company. In proportion as the understanding is cultivated, men are found to be less the victims of drinking and the grosser provocative of sense. The king of Persia of old made it his boast that he could drink large quantities of liquor with greater impunity than any of his subjects. Such was not the case with the more polished Greeks. In the dark ages the most glaring enormities of that kind prevailed. Under Charles the Second coarse dissipation and riot characterized the highest circles. Rochester, the most accomplished man and the greatest wit of the island, related of himself that, for five years together, he could not affirm that for any one day he had been thoroughly sober.
In Ireland, a country less refined, the period is not long past, when on convivial occasions the master of the house took the key from his door that no one of his guests might escape without having had his dose. No small number of the contemporaries of youth fell premature victims to the intemperance which was then practiced. Now wine is merely used to excite a gayer and livelier tone of the spirits; and inebriety is scarcely known in the higher circles. In like manner, it may readily be believed that, as men in the lower classes of society become less ignorant and obtuse, as their thoughts are less gross, as they wear off the vestigia ruris, the remains of a barbarous state, they will find less need to set their spirits afloat by this animal excitement, and will devote themselves to those thoughts and that intercourse which shall inspire them with better and more honorable thoughts of our common nature.
Our tempers are merely the work of the transcriber. We are angry, where we saw that others were angry; and we are pleased, because it is the tone to be pleased. We pretend to have each of us a judgment of our own: but in truth we wait with the most patient docility, till he whom we regard as the leader of the chorus gives us the signal, here you are to applaud, and here you are to condemn.
The most calamitous and the most stupendous scenes are nothing but an eternal and wearisome repetition: executions, murders, plagues, famine and battle. Military executions, the demolition of cities, the conquest of nations, have been acted a hundred times before. The greater part of the life of the mightiest genius that ever existed is spent in doing nothing, and saying nothing.
This brings us back to the question: “Is there indeed nothing new under the sun?” …..
Most certainly there is something that is new. If, as the beast dies, so man died, then indeed we should be without hope. But it is his distinguishing faculty that he can leave something behind, to testify that he has lived. And this is not only true of the pyramids of Egypt, and certain other works of human industry, that time seems to have no force to destroy.
It is the characteristic of the mind and the heart of man, that they are progressive.
The saying, that “there is nothing new under the sun,” could never have been struck out, but in one of the two extreme states of man, by the naked savage, or by the highly civilized beings among whom the perfection of refinement has produced an artificial feeling of uniformity.
We have been taught to affirm, that we can have no express and pure regard for our fellow-creatures, but that all our benevolence and affection come to us through the strainers of a gross or a refined self-love. The coarser adherents of this doctrine maintain, that mankind are in all cases guided by views of the narrowest self-interest, and that those who advance the highest claims to philanthropy, patriotism, generosity and self-sacrifice, are all the time deceiving others, or deceiving themselves, and use a plausible and high-sounding language merely, that serves no other purpose than to veil from observation “that hideous sight, a naked human heart.”
There are two circumstances required, to entitle an action to be denominated virtuous. It must have a tendency to produce good rather than evil to the race of man, and it must have been generated by an intention to produce such good. The most beneficent action that ever was performed, if it did not spring from the intention of good to others, is not of the nature of virtue. Virtue, where it exists in any eminence, is a species of conduct, modeled upon a true estimate of the good intended to be produced. He that makes a false estimate, and prefers a trivial and partial good to an important and comprehensive one, is vicious.
One man chooses travelling, another ambition, a third study, a fourth voluptuousness and a mistress. Why do these men take so different courses? One is partial to new scenes, new buildings, new manners, and the study of character. A second is attracted by the contemplation of wealth and power. A third feels a decided preference for the works of Homer, or Shakespeare, or Bacon, or Euclid. A fourth finds nothing calculated to stir his mind in comparison with female beauty, female allurements, or expensive living. Each of these finds the qualities he likes, intrinsically in the thing he chooses. One man feels himself strongly moved, and raised to ecstasy, by the beauties of nature, or the magnificence of architecture. Another is ravished with the divine Excellencies of Homer, or of some other of the heroes of literature. A third finds nothing delights him so much as the happiness of others, the beholding that happiness increased, and seeing pain and oppression and sorrow put to flight. The cause of these differences is that each man has an individual internal structure, directing his partialities, one man to one thing, and another to another.
The principal circumstance that divides our feelings for others from our feelings for ourselves, and that gives, to satirical observers, and superficial thinkers, an air of exclusive selfishness to the human mind, lies in this, that we can fly from others, but cannot fly from ourselves. While I am sitting by the bed-side of the sufferer, while I am listening to the tale of his woes, there is comparatively but a slight line of demarcation, whether they are his sorrows or my own. My sympathy is vehemently excited towards him, and I feel his twinges and anguish in a most painful degree. But I can quit his apartment and the house, in which he dwells, can go out in the fields, and feel the fresh air of heaven fanning my hair, and playing upon my cheeks. This is at first but a very imperfect relief. His image follows me; I cannot forget what I have heard and seen; I even reproach myself for the mitigation I involuntarily experience. But man is the creature of his senses. We are every moment further removed, both in time and place, from the object that distressed us. There he still lies upon the bed of agony: but the sound of his complaint, and the sight of all that expresses his suffering, are no longer before us.
A short experience of human life convinces us that we have this remedy always at hand “I am unhappy, only while I please”; and we soon come therefore to anticipate the cure, and so, even while we are in the presence of the sufferer, to feel that he and ourselves are not perfectly one.
Is it then indeed a proof of selfishness, that we are in a greater or less degree relieved from the anguish we endured for our friend, when other objects occupy us, and we are no longer the witnesses of his sufferings? If this were true, the same argument would irresistibly prove that we are the most generous of imaginable beings, the most disregardful of whatever relates to ourselves.
The most snail-blooded man that exists is not as selfish as he pretends to be. In spite of all the indifference he professes towards the good of others, he will sometimes be detected in a very heretical state of sensibility towards his wife, his child or his friend; he will shed tears at a tale of distress, and make considerable sacrifices of his own gratification for the relief of others.
On the other hand, the man who has embraced the creed of disinterested benevolence, will know that it is not his fitting element to “live for himself, or to die for himself.” Whether he is under the dominion of family-affection, friendship, patriotism, or a zeal for his brethren of mankind, he will feel that he is at home.
(Adapted from THOUGHTS ON MAN, HIS NATURE, PRODUCTIONS AND DISCOVERIES by WILLIAM GODWIN at Anarchy Archives)

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