mysterious, moving, shifting light, like a pale flame, above it? The gloomy spot is a rent in the side of Vesuvius where the smouldering heat has burnt through the crust, and where a day or two before I saw a viscid stream of molten liquor, with the flames playing over it, creeping, creeping through the tunnelled ashes; and in the light above is the lip of Vesuvius itself, with its restless furnace at work, casting up a billowy swell of white oily smoke, while the glare of the fiery pit lights up the underside of the rising vapours. A ghastly manifestation, that, of sleepless and stern forces, ever at work upon some eternal and bewildering task; and yet so strangely made am I, that these fierce signal-fires, seen afar, but blend with the scents of the musky alleys for me into a thrill of unutterable wonder.
There are hundreds of such pictures stored in my mind, each stamped upon some sensitive particle of the brain, that cannot be obliterated, and each of which the mind can recall at will. And that, too, is a fact of surpassing wonder: what is the delicate instrument that registers, with no seeming volition, these amazing pictures, and preserves them thus with so fantastic a care, retouching them, fashioning them anew, detaching from the picture every sordid detail, till each is as a lyric, inexpressible, exquisite, too fine for words to touch?
Now it is useless to dictate to others the aims and methods of travel: each must follow his own taste. To myself the acquisition of knowledge and information is in these matters an entirely negligible thing. To me the one and supreme object is the gathering of a gallery of pictures; and yet that is not a definite object either, for the whimsical and stubborn spirit refuses to be bound by any regulations in the matter. It will garner up with the most poignant care a single vignette, a tiny detail. I see, as I write, the vision of a great golden-grey carp swimming lazily in the clear pool of Arethusa, the carpet of mesembryanthemum that, for some fancy of its own, chose to involve the whole of a railway viaduct with its flaunting magenta flowers and its fleshy leaves. I see the edge of the sea, near Syracuse, rimmed with a line of the intensest yellow, and I hear the voice of a guide explaining that it was caused by the breaking up of a stranded orange-boat, so that the waves for many hundred yards threw up on the beach a wrack of fruit; yet the same wilful and perverse mind will stand impenetrably dumb and blind before the noblest and sweetest prospect, and decline to receive any impression at all. What is perhaps the oddest characteristic of the tricksy spirit is that it often chooses moments of intense discomfort and fatigue to master some scene, and take its indelible picture. I suppose that the reason of this is that the mind makes, at such moments, a vigorous effort to protest against the tyranny of the vile body, and to distract itself from instant cares.
But another man may travel for archaeological or even statistical reasons. He may wish, like Ulysses, to study “manners, councils, customs, governments.” He may be preoccupied with questions of architectural style or periods of sculpture. I have a friend who takes up at intervals the study of the pictures of a particular master, and will take endless trouble and undergo incredible discomfort, in order to see the vilest daubs, if only he can make his list complete, and say that he has seen all the reputed works of the master. This instinct is, I believe, nothing but the survival of the childish instinct for collecting, and though I can reluctantly admire any man who spares no trouble to gain an end, the motive is dark and unintelligible to me.
There are some travellers, like Dean Stanley, who drift from the appreciation of natural scenery into the pursuit of historical associations. The story of Stanley as a boy, when he had his first sight of the snowy Alps on the horizon, always delights me. He danced about saying, “Oh, what shall I do, what shall I do?” But, in later days, Stanley would not go a mile to see a view, while he would travel all night to see a few stones of a ruin, jutting out of a farmyard wall, if only there was some human and historical tradition connected with the place. I do not myself understand that. I should not wish to see Etna merely because Empedocles is supposed to have jumped down the crater, nor the site of Jericho because the walls fell down at the trumpets of the host. The only interest to me in an historical scene is that it should be in such a condition as that one can to a certain extent reconstruct the original drama, and be sure that one’s eyes rest upon very much the same scene as the actors saw. The reason why Syracuse moved me by its acquired beauty, and not for its historical associations, was because I felt convinced that Thucydides, who gives so picturesque a description of the sea-fight, can never have set eyes on the place, and must have embroidered his account from scanty hearsay. But, on the other hand, there are few things in the world more profoundly moving than to see a place where great thoughts have been conceived and great books written, when one is able to feel that the scene is hardly changed. The other day, as I passed before the sacred gate of Rydal Mount, I took my hat off my head with a sense of indescribable reverence. My companion asked me laughingly why I did so. “Why?” I said. “From natural piety, of course! I know every detail here as well as if I had lived here, and I have walked in thought a hundred times with the poet, to and fro in the laurelled walks of the garden, up the green shoulder of Nab Scar, and sat in the little parlour, while the fire leapt on the hearth, and heard him ‘booing’ his verses, to be copied by some friendly hand.”
I thrill to see the stately rooms of Abbotsford, with all their sham feudal decorations, the little staircase by which Scott stole away to his solitary work, the folded clothes, the shapeless hat, the ugly shoes, laid away in the glass case; the plantations where he walked with his shrewd bailiff, the place where he stopped so often on the shoulder of the slope, to look at the Eildon Hills, the rooms where he sat, a broken and bereaved man, yet with so gallant a spirit, to wrestle with sorrow and adversity. I wept, I am not ashamed to say, at Abbotsford, at the sight of the stately Tweed rolling his silvery flood past lawns and shrubberies, to think of that kindly, brave, and honourable heart, and his passionate love of all the goodly and cheerful joys of life and earth.
Or, again, it was a solemn day for me to pass from the humble tenement where Coleridge lived, at Nether Stowey, before the cloud of sad habit had darkened his horizon, and turned him away from the wells of poetry into the deserts of metaphysical speculation, to find, if he could, some medicine for his tortured spirit. I walked with a holy awe along the leafy lanes to Alfoxden, where the beautiful house nestles in the green combe among its oaks, thinking how here, and here, Wordsworth and Coleridge had walked together in the glad days of youth, and planned, in obscurity and secluded joy, the fresh and lovely lyrics of their matin-prime.
I turn, I confess, more eagerly to scenes like these than to scenes of historical and political tradition, because there hangs for me a glory about the scene of the conception and genesis of beautiful imaginative work that is unlike any glory that the earth holds. The natural joy of the youthful spirit receiving the impact of mighty thoughts, of poignant impressions, has for me a liberty and a grace which no historical or political associations could ever possess. I could not glow to see the room in which a statesman worked out the details of a Bill for the extension of the franchise, or a modification of the duties upon imports and exports, though I respect the growing powers of democracy and the extinction of privilege and monopoly; but these measures are dimmed and tainted with intrigue and manoeuvre and statecraft. I do not deny their importance, their worth, their nobleness. But not by committees and legislation does humanity triumph. In the vanguard go the blessed adventurous spirits that quicken the moral temperature, and uplift the banner of simplicity and sincerity. The host marches heavily behind, and the commissariat rolls grumbling in the rear of all; and though my place may be with the work-a-day herd, I will send my fancy afar among the leafy valleys and the far-off hills of hope.
But I would not here quarrel with the taste of any man. If a mortal chooses to travel in search of comfortable rooms, new cookery and wines, the livelier gossip of unknown people, in heaven’s name let him do so. If another wishes to study economic conditions, standards of life, rates of wages, he has my gracious leave for his pilgrimage. If another desires to amass historical and archaeological facts, measurements of hypaethral temples, modes of burial, folk-lore, fortification, God forbid that I should throw cold water on the quest. But the only traveller whom I recognise as a kindred spirit is the man who goes in search of impressions and effects, of tone and atmosphere, of rare and curious beauty, of uplifting association. Nothing that has ever moved the interest, or the anxiety, or the care, or the wonder, of human beings can ever wholly lose its charm. I have felt my skin prickle and creep at the sight of that amazing thing in the Dublin museum, a section dug bodily out of a claypit, and showing the rough-hewn stones of a cist, deep in the earth, the gravel over it and around it, the roots of the withered grass forming a crust many feet above, and, inside the cist, the rude urn, reversed over a heap of charred ashes; it was not the curiosity of the sight that moved me, but the thought of the old dark life revealed, the dim and savage world, that was yet shot through and pierced, even as now, with sorrow for death, and care for the beloved ashes of a friend and chieftain. Such a sight sets a viewless network of emotion, which seems to interlace far back into the ages, all pulsating and stirring. One sees in a flash that humanity lived, carelessly and brutally perhaps, as we too live, and were confronted, as we are confronted, with the horror of the gap, the intolerable mystery of life lapsing into the dark. Ah, the relentless record, the impenetrable mystery! I care very little, I fear, for the historical development of funereal rites, and hardly more for the light that such things throw on the evolution of society. I leave that gratefully enough to the philosophers. What I care for is the touch of nature that shows me my ancient brethren of the dim past–who would have mocked and ridiculed me, I doubt not, if I had fallen into their hands, and killed me as carelessly as one throws aside the rind of a squeezed fruit–yet I am one of them, and perhaps even something of their blood flows in my veins yet.
As I grow older, I tend to travel less and less, and I do not care if I never cross the Channel again. Is there a right and a wrong in the matter, an advisability or an inadvisability, an expediency or an inexpediency? I do not think so. Travelling is a pleasure, if it is anything, and a pleasure pursued from a sense of duty is a very fatuous thing. I have no good reason to give, only an accumulation of small reasons. Dr. Johnson once said that any number of insufficient reasons did not make a sufficient one, just as a number of rabbits did not make a horse. A lively but misleading illustration: he might as well have said that any number of sovereigns did not make a cheque for a hundred pounds. I suppose that I do not like the trouble, to start with; and then I do not like being adrift from my own beloved country. Then I cannot converse in any foreign language, and half the pleasure of travelling comes from being able to lay oneself alongside of a new point of view. Then, too, I realise, as I grow older, how little I have really seen of my own incomparably beautiful and delightful land, so that, like the hero of Newman’s hymn,
“I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.”
And, lastly, I have a reason which will perhaps seem a far-fetched one. Travel is essentially a distraction, and I do not want to be distracted any more. One of the mistakes that people make, in these Western latitudes, is to be possessed by an inordinate desire to drown thought. The aim of many men whom I know seems to me to be occupied in some absolutely definite way, so that they may be as far as possible unaware of their own existence. Anything to avoid reflection! A normal Englishman does not care very much what the work and value of his occupation is, as long as he is occupied; and I am not at all sure that we came into the world to be occupied. Christ, in the Gospel story, rebuked the busy Martha for her bustling anxieties, her elaborate attentions to her guests, and praised the leisurely Mary for desiring to sit and hear Him talk. Socrates spent his life in conversation. I do not say that contemplation is a duty, but I cannot help thinking that we are not forbidden to scrutinise life, to wonder what it is all about, to study its problems, to apprehend its beauty and significance. We admire a man who goes on making money long after he has made far more than he needs; we think a life honourably spent in editing Greek books. Socrates in one of Plato’s dialogues quotes the opinion of a philosopher to the effect that when a man has made enough to live upon, he should begin to practise virtue. “I think he should begin even earlier,” says the interlocutor; and I am wholly in agreement with him. Travel is one of the expedients to which busy men resort, in order that they may forget their existence. I do not venture to think this exactly culpable, but I feel sure that it is a pity that people do not do less and think more. If a man asks what good comes from thinking, I can only retort by asking what good comes from the multiplication of unnecessary activity. I am quite as much at a loss as any one else to say what is the object of life, but I do not feel any doubt that we are not sent into the world to be in a fuss. Like the lobster in The Water-Babies, I cry, “Let me alone; I want to think!” because I believe that that occupation is at least as profitable as many others.
And then, too, without travelling more than a few miles from my door, I can see things fully as enchanting as I can see by ranging Europe. I went to-day along a well-known road; just where the descent begins to fall into a quiet valley, there stands a windmill–not one of the ugly black circular towers that one sometimes sees, but one of the old crazy boarded sort, standing on a kind of stalk; out of the little loopholes of the mill the flour had dusted itself prettily over the weather-boarding. From a mysterious hatch half-way up leaned the miller, drawing up a sack of grain with a little pulley. There is nothing so enchanting as to see a man leaning out of a dark doorway high up in the air. He drew the sack in, he closed the panel. The sails whirled, flapping and creaking; and I loved to think of him in the dusty gloom, with the gear grumbling among the rafters, tipping the golden grain into its funnel, while the rattling hopper below poured out its soft stream of flour. Beyond the mill, the ground sank to a valley; the roofs clustered round a great church tower, the belfry windows blinking solemnly. Hard by the ancient Hall peeped out from its avenue of elms. That was a picture as sweet as anything I have ever seen abroad, as perfect a piece of art as could be framed, and more perfect than anything that could be painted, because it was a piece out of the old kindly, quiet life of the world. One ought to learn, as the years flow on, to love such scenes as that, and not to need to have the blood and the brain stirred by romantic prospects, peaked hills, well-furnished galleries, magnificent buildings: mutare animum, that is the secret, to grow more hopeful, more alive to delicate beauties, more tender, less exacting. Nothing, it is true, can give us peace; but we get nearer it by loving the familiar scene, the old homestead, the tiny valley, the wayside copse, than we do by racing over Europe on the track of Giorgione, or over Asia in pursuit of local colour. After all, everything has its appointed time. It is good to range in youth, to rub elbows with humanity, and then, as the days go on, to take stock, to remember, to wonder, “To be content with little, to serve beauty well.”
It is a very curious thing to reflect how often an old platitude or axiom retains its vitality, long after the conditions which gave it birth have altered, and it no longer represents a truth. It would not matter if such platitudes only lived on dustily in vapid and ill-furnished minds, like the vases of milky-green opaque glass decorated with golden stars, that were the joy of Early Victorian chimney-pieces, and now hold spills in the second-best spare bedroom. But like the psalmist’s enemies, platitudes live and are mighty. They remain, and, alas! they have the force of arguments in the minds of sturdy unreflective men, who describe themselves as plain, straightforward people, and whose opinions carry weight in a community whose feelings are swayed by the statements of successful men rather than by the conclusions of reasonable men.
One of these pernicious platitudes is the statement that every one ought to know something about everything and everything about something. It has a speciously epigrammatic air about it, dazzling enough to persuade the common-sense person that it is an intellectual judgment.
As a matter of fact, under present conditions, it represents an impossible and even undesirable ideal. A man who tried to know something about everything would end in knowing very little about anything; and the most exhaustive programme that could be laid down for the most erudite of savants nowadays would be that he should know anything about anything, while the most resolute of specialists must be content with knowing something about something.
A well-informed friend told me, the other day, the name and date of a man who, he said, could be described as the last person who knew practically everything at his date that was worth knowing. I have forgotten both the name and the date and the friend who told me, but I believe that the learned man in question was a cardinal in the sixteenth century. At the present time, the problem of the accumulation of knowledge and the multiplication of books is a very serious one indeed. It is, however, morbid to allow it to trouble the mind. Like all insoluble problems, it will settle itself in a way so obvious that the people who solve it will wonder that any one could ever have doubted what the solution would be, just as the problem of the depletion of the world’s stock of coal will no doubt be solved in some perfectly simple fashion.
The dictum in question is generally quoted as an educational formula in favour of giving every one what is called a sound general education. And it is probably one of the contributory causes which account for the present chaos of curricula. All subjects are held to be so important, and each subject is thought by its professors to be so peculiarly adapted for educational stimulus, that a resolute selection of subjects, which is the only remedy, is not attempted; and accordingly the victim of educational theories is in the predicament of the man described by Dr. Johnson who could not make up his mind which leg of his breeches he would put his foot into first. Meanwhile, said the Doctor, with a directness of speech which requires to be palliated, the process of investiture is suspended.
But the practical result of the dilemma is the rise of specialism. The savant is dead and the specialist rules. It is interesting to try to trace the effect of this revolution upon our national culture.
Now, I have no desire whatever to take up the cudgels against the specialists: they are a harmless and necessary race, so long as they are aware of their limitations. But the tyranny of an oligarchy is the worst kind of tyranny, because it means the triumph of an average over individuals, whereas the worst that can be said of a despotism is that it is the triumph of an individual over an average. The tyranny of the specialistic oligarchy is making itself felt to-day, and I should like to fortify the revolutionary spirit of liberty, whose boast it is to detest tyranny in all its forms, whether it is the tyranny of an enlightened despot, or the tyranny of a virtuous oligarchy, or the tyranny of an intelligent democracy.
The first evil which results from the rule of the specialist is the destruction of the AMATEUR. So real a fact is the tyranny of the specialist that the very word “amateur,” which means a leisurely lover of fine things, is beginning to be distorted into meaning an inefficient performer. As an instance of its correct and idiomatic use, I often think of the delightful landlord whom Stevenson encountered somewhere, and upon whom he pressed some Burgundy which he had with him. The generous host courteously refused a second glass, saying, “You see I am an amateur of these things, and I am capable of leaving you not sufficient.” Now, I shall concern myself here principally with literature, because, in England at all events, literature plays the largest part in general culture. It may be said that we owe some of the best literature we have to amateurs. To contrast a few names, taken at random, Shakespeare, Dryden, Pope, Dr. Johnson, De Quincey, Tennyson, and Carlyle were professionals, it is true; but, on the other hand, Milton, Gray, Boswell, Walter Scott, Charles Lamb, Shelley, Browning, and Ruskin were amateurs. It is not a question of how much a man writes or publishes, it is a question of the spirit in which a man writes. Walter Scott became a professional in the last years of his life, and for the noblest of reasons; but he also became a bad writer. A good pair to contrast are Southey and Coleridge. They began as amateurs. Southey became a professional writer, and his sun set in the mists of valuable information. Coleridge, as an amateur, enriched the language with a few priceless poems, and then got involved in the morass of dialectical metaphysics. The point is whether a man writes simply because he cannot help it, or whether he writes to make an income. The latter motive does not by any means prevent his doing first-rate artistic work–indeed, there are certain persons who seem to have required the stimulus of necessity to make them break through an initial indolence of nature. When Johnson found fault with Gray for having times of the year when he wrote more easily, from the vernal to the autumnal equinox, he added that a man could write at any time if he set himself doggedly to it. True, no doubt! But to write doggedly is not to court favourable conditions for artistic work. It may be a finer sight for a moralist to see a man performing an appointed task heavily and faithfully, with grim tenacity, than it is to see an artist in a frenzy of delight dashing down an overpowering impression of beauty; but what has always hampered the British appreciation of literature is that we cannot disentangle the moral element from it: we are interested in morals, not in art, and we require a dash of optimistic piety in all writing that we propose to enjoy.
The real question is whether, if a man sets himself doggedly to work, the appetite comes with eating, and whether the caged bird begins to flutter its wings and to send out the song that it learnt in the green heart of the wood. When Byron said that easy writing made damned hard reading, he meant that careless conception and hasty workmanship tend to blur the pattern and the colour of work. The fault of the amateur is that he can make the coat, but he cannot be bothered to make it fit. But it is not by any means true that hard writing makes easy reading. The spirit of the amateur is the spirit of the lover, who trembles at the thought that the delicate creature he loves may learn to love him in return, if he can but praise her worthily. The professional spirit is the spirit in which a man carefully and courteously woos an elderly spinster for the sake of her comfortable fortune. The amateur has an irresponsible joy in his work; he is like the golfer who dreams of mighty drives, and practises “putting” on his back lawn: the professional writer gives his solid hours to his work in a conscientious spirit, and is glad in hours of freedom to put the tiresome business away. Yet neither the amateur nor the professional can hope to capture the spirit of art by joy or faithfulness. It is a kind of divine felicity, when all is said and done, the kindly gift of God.
Now into this free wild world of art and literature and music comes the specialist and pegs out his claim, fencing out the amateur, who is essentially a rambler, from a hundred eligible situations. In literature this is particularly the case: the amateur is told by the historian that he must not intrude upon history; that history is a science, and not a province of literature; that the time has not come to draw any conclusions or to summarise any tendencies; that picturesque narrative is an offence against the spirit of Truth; that no one is as black or as white as he is painted; and that to trifle with history is to commit a sin compounded of the sin of Ananias and Simon Magus. The amateur runs off, his hands over his ears, and henceforth hardly dares even to read history, to say nothing of writing it. Perhaps I draw too harsh a picture, but the truth is that I did, as a very young man, with no training except that provided by a sketchy knowledge of the classics, once attempt to write an historical biography. I shudder to think of my method and equipment; I skipped the dull parts, I left all tiresome documents unread. It was a sad farrago of enthusiasm and levity and heady writing. But Jove’s thunder rolled and the bolt fell. A just man, whom I have never quite forgiven, to tell the truth, told me with unnecessary rigour and acrimony that I had made a pitiable exhibition of myself. But I have thanked God ever since, for I turned to literature pure and simple.
Then, too, it is the same with art-criticism; here the amateur again, who, poor fool, is on the look-out for what is beautiful, is told that he must not meddle with art unless he does it seriously, which means that he must devote himself mainly to the study of inferior masterpieces, and schools, and tendencies. In literature it is the same; he must not devote himself to reading and loving great books, he must disentangle influences; he must discern the historical importance of writers, worthless in themselves, who form important links. In theology and in philosophy it is much the same: he must not read the Bible and say what he feels about it; he must unravel Rabbinical and Talmudic tendencies; he must acquaint himself with the heretical leanings of a certain era, and the shadow cast upon the page by apocryphal tradition. In philosophy he is still worse off, because he must plumb the depths of metaphysical jargon and master the criticism of methods.
Now, this is in a degree both right and necessary, because the blind must not attempt to lead the blind; but it is treating the whole thing in too strictly scientific a spirit for all that. The misery of it is that the work of the specialist in all these regions tends to set a hedge about the law; it tends to accumulate and perpetuate a vast amount of inferior work. The result of it is, in literature, for instance, that an immense amount of second-rate and third-rate books go on being reprinted; and instead of the principle of selection being applied to great authors, and their inferior writings being allowed to lapse into oblivion, they go on being re-issued, not because they have any direct value for the human spirit, but because they have a scientific importance from the point of view of development. Yet for the ordinary human being it is far more important that he should read great masterpieces in a spirit of lively and enthusiastic sympathy than that he should wade into them through a mass of archaeological and philological detail. As a boy I used to have to prepare, on occasions, a play of Shakespeare for a holiday task. I have regarded certain plays with a kind of horror ever since, because one ended by learning up the introduction, which concerned itself with the origin of the play, and the notes which illustrated the meaning of such words as “kerns and gallowglasses,” and left the action and the poetry and the emotion of the play to take care of themselves. This was due partly to the blighting influence of examination-papers set by men of sterile, conscientious brains, but partly to the terrible value set by British minds upon correct information. The truth really is that if one begins by caring for a work of art, one also cares to understand the medium through which it is conveyed; but if one begins by studying the medium first, one is apt to end by loathing the masterpiece, because of the dusty apparatus that it seems liable to collect about itself.
The result of the influence of the specialist upon literature is that the amateur, hustled from any region where the historical and scientific method can be applied, turns his attention to the field of pure imagination, where he cannot be interfered with. And this, I believe, is one of the reasons why belles-lettres in the more precise sense tend to be deserted in favour of fiction. Sympathetic and imaginative criticism is so apt to be stamped upon by the erudite, who cry out so lamentably over errors and minute slips, that the novel seems to be the only safe vantage-ground in which the amateur may disport himself.
But if the specialist is to the amateur what the hawk is to the dove, let us go further, and in a spirit of love, like Mr. Chadband, inquire what is the effect of specialism on the mind of the specialist. I have had the opportunity of meeting many specialists, and I say unhesitatingly that the effect largely depends upon the natural temperament of the individual. As a general rule, the great specialist is a wise, kindly, humble, delightful man. He perceives that though he has spent his whole life upon a subject or a fraction of a subject, he knows hardly anything about it compared to what there is to know. The track of knowledge glimmers far ahead of him, rising and falling like a road over solitary downs. He knows that it will not be given to him to advance very far upon the path, and he half envies those who shall come after, to whom many things that are dark mysteries to himself will be clear and plain. But he sees, too, how the dim avenues of knowledge reach out in every direction, interlacing and combining, and when he contrasts the tiny powers of the most subtle brain with all the wide range of law–for the knowledge which is to be, not invented, but simply discovered, is all assuredly there, secret and complex as it seems–there is but little room for complacency or pride. Indeed, I think that a great savant, as a rule, feels that instead of being separated by his store of knowledge, as by a wide space that he has crossed, from smaller minds, he is brought closer to the ignorant by the presence of the vast unknown. Instead of feeling that he has soared like a rocket away from the ground, he thinks of himself rather as a flower might think whose head was an inch or two higher than a great company of similar flowers; he has perhaps a wider view; he sees the bounding hedgerow, the distant line of hills, whereas the humbler flower sees little but a forest of stems and blooms, with the light falling dimly between. And a great savant, too, is far more ready to credit other people with a wider knowledge than they possess. It is the lesser kind of savant, the man of one book, of one province, of one period, who is inclined to think that he is differentiated from the crowd. The great man is far too much preoccupied with real progress to waste time and energy in showing up the mistakes of others. It is the lesser kind of savant, jealous of his own reputation, anxious to show his superiority, who loves to censure and deride the feebler brother. If one ever sees a relentless and pitiless review of a book–an exposure, as it is called, by one specialist of another’s work–one may be fairly certain that the critic is a minute kind of person. Again, the great specialist is never anxious to obtrude his subject; he is rather anxious to hear what is going on in other regions of mental activity, regions which he would like to explore but cannot. It is the lesser light that desires to dazzle and bewilder his company, to tyrannise, to show off. It is the most difficult thing to get a great savant to talk about his subject, though, if he is kind and patient, will answer unintelligent questions, and help a feeble mind along, it is one of the most delightful things in the world. I seized the opportunity some little while ago, on finding myself sitting next to a great physicist, of asking him a series of fumbling questions on the subject of modern theories of matter; for an hour I stumbled like a child, supported by a strong hand, in a dim and unfamiliar world, among the mysterious essences of things. I should like to try to reproduce it here, but I have no doubt I should reproduce it all wrong. Still, it was deeply inspiring to look out into chaos, to hear the rush and motion of atoms, moving in vast vortices, to learn that inside the hardest and most impenetrable of substances there was probably a feverish intensity of inner motion. I do not know that I acquired any precise knowledge, but I drank deep draughts of wonder and awe. The great man, with his amused and weary smile, was infinitely gentle, and left me, I will say, far more conscious of the beauty and the holiness of knowledge. I said something to him about the sense of power that such knowledge must give. “Ah!” he said, “much of what I have told you is not proved, it is only suspected. We are very much in the dark about these things yet. Probably if a physicist of a hundred years hence could overhear me, he would be amazed to think that a sensible man could make such puerile statements. Power–no, it is not that! It rather makes one realise one’s feebleness in being so uncertain about things that are absolutely certain and precise in themselves, if we could but see the truth. It is much more like the apostle who said, ‘Lord, I believe; help Thou my unbelief.’ The thing one wonders at is the courage of the men who dare to think they KNOW.”
In one region I own that I dread and dislike the tyranny of the specialist, and that is the region of metaphysical and religious speculation. People who indulge themselves in this form of speculation are apt to be told by theologians and metaphysicians that they ought to acquaint themselves with the trend of theological and metaphysical criticism. It seems to me like telling people that they must not ascend mountains unless they are accompanied by guides, and have studied the history of previous ascents. “Yes,” the professional says, “that is just what I mean; it is mere foolhardiness to attempt these arduous places unless you know exactly what you are about.”
To that I reply that no one is bound to go up hills, but that every one who reflects at all is confronted by religious and philosophical problems. We all have to live, and we are all more or less experts in life. When one considers the infinite importance to every human spirit of these problems, and when one further considers how very little theologians and philosophers have ever effected in the direction of enlightening us as to the object of life, the problem of pain and evil, the preservation of identity after death, the question of necessity and free-will, surely, to attempt to silence people on these matters because they have not had a technical training is nothing more than an attempt wilfully to suppress evidence on these points? The only way in which it may be possible to arrive at the solution of these things is to know how they appeal to and affect normal minds. I would rather hear the experience of a life-long sufferer on the problem of pain, or of a faithful lover on the mystery of love, or of a poet on the influence of natural beauty, or of an unselfish and humble saint on the question of faith in the unseen, than the evidence of the most subtle theologian or metaphysician in the world. Many of us, if we are specialists in nothing else, are specialists in life; we have arrived at a point of view; some particular aspect of things has come home to us with a special force; and what really enriches the hope and faith of the world is the experience of candid and sincere persons. The specialist has often had no time or opportunity to observe life; all he has observed is the thought of other secluded persons, persons whose view has been both narrow and conventional, because they have not had the opportunity of correcting their traditional preconceptions by life itself.
I call, with all the earnestness that I can muster, upon all intelligent, observant, speculative people, who have felt the problems of life weigh heavily upon them, not to be dismayed by the disapproval of technical students, but to come forward and tell us what conclusions they have formed. The work of the trained specialist is essentially, in religion and philosophy, a negative work. He can show us how erroneous beliefs, which coloured the minds of men at certain ages and eras, grew up. He can show us what can be disregarded, as being only the conventional belief of the time; he can indicate, for instance, how a false conception of supernatural interference with natural law grew up in an age when, for want of trained knowledge, facts seemed fortuitous occurrences which were really conditioned by natural laws. The poet and the idealist make and cast abroad the great vital ideas, which the specialist picks up and analyses. But we must not stop at analysis; we want positive progress as well. We want people to tell us, candidly and simply, how their own soul grew, how it cast off conventional beliefs, how it justified itself in being hopeful or the reverse. There never was a time when more freedom of thought and expression was conceded to the individual. A man is no longer socially banned for being heretical, schismatic, or liberal- minded. I want people to say frankly what real part spiritual agencies or religious ideas have played in their lives, whether such agencies and ideas have modified their conduct, or have been modified by their inclinations and habits. I long to know a thousand things about my fellow-men–how they bear pain, how they confront the prospect of death, the hopes by which they live, the fears that overshadow them, the stuff of their lives, the influence of their emotions. It has long been thought, and it is still thought by many narrow precisians, indelicate and egotistical to do this. And the result is that we can find in books all the things that do not matter, while the thoughts that are of deep and vital interest are withheld.
Such books as Montaigne’s Essays, Rousseau’s Confessions, Mrs. Carlyle’s Letters, Mrs. Oliphant’s Memoirs, the Autobiography of B. R. Haydon, to name but a few books that come into my mind, are the sort of books that I crave for, because they are books in which one sees right into the heart and soul of another. Men can confess to a book what they cannot confess to a friend. Why should it be necessary to veil this essence of humanity in the dreary melodrama, the trite incident of a novel or a play? Things in life do not happen as they happen in novels or plays. Oliver Twist, in real life, does not get accidentally adopted by his grandfather’s oldest friend, and commit his sole burglary in the house of his aunt. We do not want life to be transplanted into trim garden-plots; we want to see it at home, as it grows in all its native wildness, on the one hand; and to know the idea, the theory, the principle that underlie it on the other. How few of us there are who MAKE our lives into anything! We accept our limitations, we drift with them, while we indignantly assert the freedom of the will. The best sermon in the world is to hear of one who has struggled with life, bent or trained it to his will, plucked or rejected its fruit, but all upon some principle. It matters little what we do; it matters enormously how we do it. Considering how much has been said, and sung, and written, and recorded, and prated, and imagined, it is strange to think how little is ever told us directly about life; we see it in glimpses and flashes, through half-open doors, or as one sees it from a train gliding into a great town, and looks into back windows and yards sheltered from the street. We philosophise, most of us, about anything but life; and one of the reasons why published sermons have such vast sales is because, however clumsily and conventionally, it is with life that they try to deal.
This kind of specialising is not recognised as a technical form of it at all, and yet how far nearer and closer and more urgent it is for us than any other kind. I have a hope that we are at the beginning of an era of plain-speaking in these matters. Too often, with the literary standard of decorum which prevails, such self- revelations are brushed aside as morbid, introspective, egotistical. They are no more so than any other kind of investigation, for all investigation is conditioned by the personality of the investigator. All that is needed is that an observer of life should be perfectly candid and sincere, that he should not speak in a spirit of vanity or self-glorification, that he should try to disentangle what are the real motives that make him act or refrain from acting.
As an instance of what I mean by confession of the frankest order, dealing in this case not only with literature but also with morality, let me take the sorrowful words which Ruskin wrote in his Praeterita, as a wearied and saddened man, when there was no longer any need for him to pretend anything, or to involve any of his own thoughts or beliefs in any sort of disguise. He took up Shakespeare at Macugnaga, in 1840, and he asks why the loveliest of Shakespeare’s plays should be “all mixed and encumbered with languid and common work–to one’s best hope spurious certainly, so far as original, idle and disgraceful–and all so inextricably and mysteriously that the writer himself is not only unknowable, but inconceivable; and his wisdom so useless, that at this time of being and speaking, among active and purposeful Englishmen, I know not one who shows a trace of ever having felt a passion of Shakespeare’s, or learnt a lesson from him.”
That is of course the sad cry of one who is interested in life primarily, and in art only so far as it can minister to life. It may be strained and exaggerated, but how far more vital a saying than to expand in voluble and vapid enthusiasm over the insight and nobleness of Shakespeare, if one has not really felt one’s life modified by that mysterious mind!
Of course such self-revelation as I speak of will necessarily fall into the hands of unquiet, dissatisfied, melancholy people. If life is a common-place and pleasant sort of business, there is nothing particular to say or to think about it. But for all those–and they are many–who feel that life misses, by some blind, inevitable movement, being the gracious and beautiful thing it seems framed to be, how can such as these hold their peace? And how, except by facing it all, and looking patiently and bravely at it, can we find a remedy for its sore sicknesses? That method has been used, and used with success in every other kind of investigation, and we must investigate life too, even if it turns out to be all a kind of Mendelism, moved and swayed by absolutely fixed laws, which take no account of what we sorrowfully desire.
Let us, then, gather up our threads a little. Let us first confront the fact that, under present conditions, in the face of the mass of records and books and accumulated traditions, arts and sciences must make progress little by little, line by line, in skilled technical hands. Fine achievement in every region becomes more difficult every day, because there is so much that is finished and perfected behind us; and if the conditions of our lives call us to some strictly limited path, let us advance wisely and humbly, step by step, without pride or vanity. But let us not forget, in the face of the frigidities of knowledge, that if they are the mechanism of life, emotion and hope and love and admiration are the steam. Knowledge is only valuable in so far as it makes the force of life effective and vigorous. And thus if we have breasted the strange current of life, or even if we have been ourselves overpowered and swept away by it, let us try, in whatever region we have the power, to let that experience have some value for ourselves and others. If we can say it or write it, so much the better. There are thousands of people moving through the world who are wearied and bewildered, and who are looking out for any message of hope and joy that may give them courage to struggle on; but if we cannot do that, we can at least live life temperately and cheerfully and sincerely: if we have bungled, if we have slipped, we can do something to help others not to go light-heartedly down the miry path; we can raise them up if they have fallen, we can cleanse the stains, or we can at least give them the comfort of feeling that they are not sadly and insupportably alone.
OUR LACK OF GREAT MEN
It is often mournfully reiterated that the present age is not an age of great men, and I have sometimes wondered if it is true. In the first place I do not feel sure that an age is the best judge of its own greatness; a great age is generally more interested in doing the things which afterwards cause it to be considered great, than in wondering whether it is great. Perhaps the fact that we are on the look-out for great men, and complaining because we cannot find them, is the best proof of our second-rateness; I do not imagine that the Elizabethan writers were much concerned with thinking whether they were great or not; they were much more occupied in having a splendid time, and in saying as eagerly as they could all the delightful thoughts which came crowding to the utterance, than in pondering whether they were worthy of admiration. In the annals of the Renaissance one gets almost weary of the records of brilliant persons, like Leo Battista Alberti and Leonardo da Vinci, who were architects, sculptors, painters, musicians, athletes, and writers all in one; who could make crowds weep by twanging a lute, ride the most vicious horses, take standing jumps over the heads of tall men, and who were, moreover, so impressionable that books were to them as jewels and flowers, and who “grew faint at the sight of sunsets and stately persons.” Such as these, we may depend upon it, had little time to give to considering their own effect upon posterity. When the sun rules the day, there is no question about his supremacy; it is when we are concerned with scanning the sky for lesser lights to rule the night that we are wasting time. To go about searching for somebody to inspire one testifies, no doubt, to a certain lack of fire and initiative. But, on the other hand, there have been many great men whose greatness their contemporaries did not recognise. We tend at the present time to honour achievements when they have begun to grow a little mouldy; we seldom accord ungrudging admiration to a prophet when he is at his best. Moreover, in an age like the present, when the general average of accomplishment is remarkably high, it is more difficult to detect greatness. It is easier to see big trees when they stand out over a copse than when they are lost in the depths of the forest.
Now there are two modes and methods of being great; one is by largeness, the other by intensity. A great man can be cast in a big, magnanimous mould, without any very special accomplishments or abilities; it may be very difficult to praise any of his faculties very highly, but he is there. Such men are the natural leaders of mankind; they effect what they effect not by any subtlety or ingenuity. They see in a wide, general way what they want, they gather friends and followers and helpers round them, and put the right man on at the right piece of work. They perform what they perform by a kind of voluminous force, which carries other personalities away; for lesser natures, as a rule, do not like supreme responsibility; they enjoy what is to ordinary people the greatest luxury in the world, namely, the being sympathetically commandeered, and duly valued. Inspiration and leadership are not common gifts, and there are abundance of capable people who cannot strike out a novel line of their own, but can do excellent work if they can be inspired and led. I was once for a short time brought into close contact with a man of this kind; it was impossible to put down on paper or to explain to those who did not know him what his claim to greatness was. I remember being asked by an incredulous outsider where his greatness lay, and I could not name a single conspicuous quality that my hero possessed. But he dominated his circle for all that, and many of them were men of far greater intellectual force than himself. He had his own way; if he asked one to do a particular thing, one felt proud to be entrusted with it, and amply rewarded by a word of approval. It was possible to take a different view from the view which he took of a matter or a situation, but it was impossible to express one’s dissent in his presence. A few halting, fumbling words of his were more weighty than many a facile and voluble oration. Personally I often mistrusted his judgment, but I followed him with an eager delight. With such men as these, posterity is often at a loss to know why they impressed their contemporaries, or why they continue to be spoken of with reverence and enthusiasm. The secret is that it is a kind of moral and magnetic force, and the lamentable part of it is that such men, if they are not enlightened and wise, may do more harm than good, because they tend to stereotype what ought to be changed and renewed.
That is one way of greatness; a sort of big, blunt force that overwhelms and uplifts, like a great sea-roller, yielding at a hundred small points, yet crowding onwards in soft volume and ponderous weight.
Two interesting examples of this impressive and indescribable greatness seem to have been Arthur Hallam and the late Mr. W. E. Henley. In the case of Arthur Hallam, the eulogies which his friends pronounced upon him seem couched in terms of an intemperate extravagance. The fact that the most splendid panegyrics upon him were uttered by men of high genius is not in itself more conclusive than if such panegyrics had been conceived by men of lesser quality, because the greater that a man is the more readily does he perceive and more magniloquently acknowledge greatness. Apart from In Memoriam, Tennyson’s recorded utterances about Arthur Hallam are expressed in terms of almost hyperbolical laudation. I once was fortunate enough to have the opportunity of asking Mr. Gladstone about Arthur Hallam. Mr. Gladstone had been his close friend at Eton and his constant companion. His eye flashed, his voice gathered volume, and with a fine gesture of his hand he said that he could only deliberately affirm that physically, intellectually, and morally, Arthur Hallam approached more nearly to an ideal of human perfection than any one whom he had ever seen. And yet the picture of Hallam at Eton represents a young man of an apparently solid and commonplace type, with a fresh colour, and almost wholly destitute of distinction or charm; while his extant fragments of prose and poetry are heavy, verbose, and elaborate, and without any memorable quality. It appears indeed as if he had exercised a sort of hypnotic influence upon his contemporaries. Neither does he seem to have produced a very gracious impression upon outsiders who happened to meet him. There is a curious anecdote told by some one who met Arthur Hallam travelling with his father on the Continent only a short time before his sudden death. The narrator says that he saw with a certain satisfaction how mercilessly the young man criticised and exposed his father’s statements, remembering how merciless the father had often been in dealing summarily with the arguments and statements of his own contemporaries. One asks oneself in vain what the magnetic charm of his presence and temperament can have been. It was undoubtedly there, and yet it seems wholly irrecoverable. The same is true, in a different region, with the late Mr. W. E. Henley. His literary performances, with the exception of some half-a-dozen poetical pieces, have no great permanent value. His criticisms were vehement and complacent, but represent no great delicacy of analysis nor breadth of view. His treatment of Stevenson, considering the circumstances of the case, was ungenerous and irritable. Yet those who were brought into close contact with Henley recognised something magnanimous, noble, and fiery about him, which evoked a passionate devotion. I remember shortly before his death reading an appreciation of his work by a faithful admirer, who described him as “another Dr. Johnson,” and speaking of his critical judgment, said, “Mr. Henley is pontifical in his wrath; it pleased him, for example, to deny to De Quincey the title to write English prose.” That a criticism so arrogant, so saugrenu, should be re-echoed with such devoted commendation is a proof that the writer’s independent judgment was simply swept away by Henley’s personality; and in both these cases one is merely brought face to face with the fact that though men can earn the admiration of the world by effective performance, the most spontaneous and enduring gratitude is given to individuality.
The other way of greatness is the way of intensity, that focuses all its impact at some brilliant point, like a rapier-thrust or a flash of lightning. Men with this kind of greatness have generally some supreme and dazzling accomplishment, and the rest of their nature is often sacrificed to one radiant faculty. Their power, in some one single direction, is absolutely distinct and unquestioned; and these are the men who, if they can gather up and express the forces of some vague and widespread tendency, some blind and instinctive movement of men’s minds, form as it were the cutting edge of a weapon. They do not supply the force, but they concentrate it; and it is men of this type who are often credited with the bringing about of some profound and revolutionary change, because they summarise and define some huge force that is abroad. Not to travel far for instances, such a man was Rousseau. The air of his period was full of sentiments and emotions and ideas; he was not himself a man of force; he was a dreamer and a poet; but he had the matchless gift of ardent expression, and he was able to say both trenchantly and attractively exactly what every one was vaguely meditating.
Now let us take some of the chief departments of human effort, some of the provinces in which men attain supreme fame, and consider what kinds of greatness we should expect the present day to evoke. In the department of warfare, we have had few opportunities of late to discover high strategical genius. Our navy has been practically unemployed, and the South African war was just the sort of campaign to reveal the deficiencies of an elaborate and not very practical peace establishment. Though it solidified a few reputations and pricked the bubble of some few others, it certainly did not reveal any subtle adaptability in our generals. It was Lord North, I think, who, when discussing with his Cabinet a list of names of officers suggested for the conduct of a campaign, said, “I do not know what effect these names produce upon you, gentlemen, but I confess they make me tremble.” The South African war can hardly be said to have revealed that we have many generals who closely corresponded to Wordsworth’s description of the Happy Warrior, but rather induced the tremulousness which Lord North experienced. Still, if, in the strategical region, our solitary recent campaign rather tends to prove a deficiency of men of supreme gifts, it at all events proved a considerable degree of competence and devotion. I could not go so far as a recent writer who regretted the termination of the Boer War because it interrupted the evolution of tactical science, but it is undoubtedly true that the growing aversion to war, the intense dislike to the sacrifice of human life, creates an atmosphere unfavourable to the development of high military genius; because great military reputations in times past have generally been acquired by men who had no such scruples, but who treated the material of their armies as pawns to be freely sacrificed to the attainment of victory.
Then there is the region of statesmanship; and here it is abundantly clear that the social conditions of the day, the democratic current which runs with increasing spirit in political channels, is unfavourable to the development of individual genius. The prize falls to the sagacious opportunist; the statesman is less and less of a navigator, and more and more of a pilot, in times when popular feeling is conciliated and interpreted rather than inspired and guided. To be far-seeing and daring is a disadvantage; the most approved leader is the man who can harmonise discordant sections, and steer round obvious and pressing difficulties. Geniality and bonhomie are more valuable qualities than prescience or nobility of aim. The more representative that government becomes, the more does originality give place to malleability. The more fluid that the conceptions of a statesman are, the greater that his adaptability is, the more acceptable he becomes. Since Lord Beaconsfield, with all his trenchant mystery, and Mr. Gladstone, with his voluble candour, there have been no figures of unquestioned supremacy on the political stage. Even so, the effect in both cases was to a great extent the effect of personality. The further that these two men retire into the past, the more that they are judged by the written record, the more does the tawdriness of Lord Beaconsfield’s mind, his absence of sincere convictions appear, as well as the pedestrianism of Mr. Gladstone’s mind, and his lack of critical perception. I have heard Mr. Gladstone speak, and on one occasion I had the task of reporting for a daily paper a private oration on a literary subject. I was thrilled to the very marrow of my being by the address. The parchment pallor of the orator, his glowing and blazing eyes, his leonine air, the voice that seemed to have a sort of physical effect on the nerves, his great sweeping gestures, all held the audience spellbound. I felt at the time that I had never before realised the supreme and vital importance of the subject on which he spoke. But when I tried to reconstruct from the ashes of my industrious notes the mental conflagration which I had witnessed, I was at a complete loss to understand what had happened. The records were not only dull, they seemed essentially trivial, and almost overwhelmingly unimportant. But the magic had been there. Apart from the substance, the performance had been literally enchanting. I do not honestly believe that Mr. Gladstone was a man of great intellectual force, or even of very deep emotions. He was a man of extraordinarily vigorous and robust brain, and he was a supreme oratorical artist.
There is intellect, charm, humour in abundance in the parliamentary forces; there was probably never a time when there were so many able and ambitious men to be found in the rank and file of parliamentarians. But that is not enough. There is no supremely impressive and commanding figure on the stage; greatness seems to be distributed rather than concentrated; but probably neither this, nor political conditions, would prevent the generous recognition of supreme genius, if it were there to recognise.
In art and literature, I am inclined to believe that we shall look back to the Victorian era as a time of great activity and high performance. The two tendencies here which militate against the appearance of the greatest figures are, in the first place, the great accumulations of art and literature, and in the second place the democratic desire to share those treasures. The accumulation of pictures, music, and books makes it undoubtedly very hard for a new artist, in whatever region, to gain prestige. There is so much that is undoubtedly great and good for a student of art and literature to make acquaintance with, that we are apt to be content with the old vintages. The result is that there are a good many artists who in a time of less productivity would have made themselves an enduring reputation, and who now must be content to be recognised only by a few. The difficulty can, I think, only be met by some principle of selection being more rigidly applied. We shall have to be content to skim the cream of the old as well as of the new, and to allow the second-rate work of first-rate performers to sink into oblivion. But at the same time there might be a great future before any artist who could discover a new medium of utterance. It seems at present, to take literature, as if every form of human expression had been exploited. We have the lyric, the epic, the satire, the narrative, the letter, the diary, conversation, all embalmed in art. But there is probably some other medium possible which will become perfectly obvious the moment it is seized upon and used. To take an instance from pictorial art. At present, colour is only used in a genre manner, to clothe some dramatic motive. But there seems no prima facie reason why colour should not be used symphonically like music. In music we obtain pleasure from an orderly sequence of vibrations, and there seems no real reason why the eye should not be charmed with colour-sequences just as the ear is charmed with sound-sequences. So in literature it would seem as though we might get closer still to the expression of mere personality, by the medium of some sublimated form of reverie, the thought blended and tinged in the subtlest gradations, without the clumsy necessity of sacrificing the sequence of thought to the barbarous devices of metre and rhyme, or to the still more childish devices of incident and drama. Flaubert, it will be remembered, looked forward to a time when a writer would not require a subject at all, but would express emotion and thought directly rather than pictorially. To utter the unuttered thought–that is really the problem of literature in the future; and if a writer could be found to free himself from all stereotyped forms of expression, and to give utterance to the strange texture of thought and fancy, which differentiates each single personality so distinctly, so integrally, from other personalities, and which we cannot communicate to our dearest and nearest, he might enter upon a new province of art.
But the second tendency which at the present moment dominates writers is, as I have said, the rising democratic interest in the things of the mind. This is at present a very inchoate and uncultivated interest: but in days of cheap publication and large audiences it dominates many writers disastrously. The temptation is a grievous one–to take advantage of a market–not to produce what is absolutely the best, but what is popular and effective. It is not a wholly ignoble temptation. It is not only the temptation of wealth, though in an age of comfort, which values social respectability so highly, wealth is a great temptation. But the temptation is rather to gauge success by the power of appeal. If a man has ideas at all, he is naturally anxious to make them felt; and if he can do it best by spreading his ideas rather thinly, by making them attractive to enthusiastic people of inferior intellectual grip, he feels he is doing a noble work. The truth is that in literature the democracy desires not ideas but morality. All the best-known writers of the Victorian age have been optimistic moralists, Browning, Ruskin, Carlyle, Tennyson. They have been admired because they concealed their essential conventionality under a slight perfume of unorthodoxy. They all in reality pandered to the complacency of the age, in a way in which Byron, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats did not pander. The democracy loves to be assured that it is generous, high-minded, and sensible. It is in reality timid, narrow-minded, and Pharisaical. It hates independence and originality, and loves to believe that it adores both. It loves Mr. Kipling because he assures them that vulgarity is not a sin; it loves Mr. Bernard Shaw because he persuades them that they are cleverer than they imagined. The fact is that great men, in literature at all events, must be content, at the present time, to be unrecognised and unacclaimed. They must be content to be of the happy company of whom Mr. Swinburne writes:–
“In the garden of death, where the singers, whose names are deathless, One with another make music unheard of men.”
Then there is the region of Science, and here I am not qualified to speak, because I know no science, and have not even taught it, as Mr. Arthur Sidgwick said. I do not really know what constitutes greatness in science. I suppose that the great man of science is the man who to a power of endlessly patient investigation joins a splendid imaginative, or perhaps deductive power, like Newton or Darwin. But we who stand at the threshold of the scientific era are perhaps too near the light, and too much dazzled by the results of scientific discovery to say who is great and who is not great. I have met several distinguished men of science, and I have thought some of them to be men of obviously high intellectual gifts, and some of them men of inert and secretive temperaments. But that is only natural, for to be great in other departments generally implies a certain knowledge of the world, or at all events of the thought of the world; whereas the great man of science may be moving in regions of thought that may be absolutely incommunicable to the ordinary person. But I do not suppose that scientific greatness is a thing which can be measured by the importance of the practical results of a discovery. I mean that a man may hit upon some process, or some treatment of disease, which may be of incalculable benefit to humanity, and yet not be really a great man of science, only a fortunate discoverer, and incidentally a great benefactor to humanity. The unknown discoverers of things like the screw or the wheel, persons lost in the mists of antiquity, could not, I suppose, be ranked as great men of science. The great man of science is the man who can draw some stupendous inference, which revolutionises thought and sets men hopefully at work on some problem which does not so much add to the convenience of humanity as define the laws of nature. We are still surrounded by innumerable and awful mysteries of life and being; the evidence which will lead to their solution is probably in our hands and plain enough, if any one could but see the bearing of facts which are known to the simplest child. There is little doubt, I suppose, that the greatest reputations of recent years have been made in science; and perhaps when our present age has globed itself into a cycle, we shall be amazed at the complaint that the present era is lacking in great men. We are busy in looking for greatness in so many directions, and we are apt to suppose, from long use, that greatness is so inseparably connected with some form of human expression, whether it be the utterance of thought, or the marshalling of armies, that we may be overlooking a more stable form of greatness, which will be patent to those that come after. My own belief is that the condition of science at the present day answers best to the conditions which we have learnt to recognise in the past as the fruitful soil of greatness. I mean that when we put our finger, in the past, on some period which seems to have been producing great work in a great way, we generally find it in some knot or school of people, intensely absorbed in what they were doing, and doing it with a whole-hearted enjoyment, loving the work more than the rewards of it, and indifferent to the pursuit of fame. Such it seems to me is the condition of science at the present time, and it is in science, I am inclined to think, that our heroes are probably to be found.
I do not, then, feel at all sure that we are lacking in great men, though it must be admitted that we are lacking in men whose supremacy is recognised. I suppose we mean by a great man one who in some region of human performance is confessedly pre-eminent; and he must further have a theory of his own, and a power of pursuing that theory in the face of depreciation and even hostility. I do not think that great men have often been indifferent to criticism. Often, indeed, by virtue of a greater sensitiveness and a keener perception, they have been profoundly affected by unpopularity and the sense of being misunderstood. Carlyle, Tennyson, Ruskin, for instance, were men of almost morbid sensibility, and lived in sadness; and, on the other hand, there are few great men who have not been affected for the worse by premature success. The best soil for greatness to grow up in would seem to be an early isolation, sustained against the disregard of the world by the affection and admiration of a few kindred minds. Then when the great man has learned his method and his message, and learned too not to over- value the popular verdict, success may mature and mellow his powers. Yet of how many great men can this be said? As a rule, indeed, a great man’s best work has been done in solitude and disfavour, and he has attained his sunshine when he can no longer do his best work.
The question is whether the modern conditions of life are unfavourable to greatness; and I think that it must be confessed that they are. In the first place, we all know so much too about each other, and there is so eager a personal curiosity abroad, a curiosity about the smallest details of the life of any one who seems to have any power of performance, that it encourages men to over-confidence, egotism, and mannerism. Again, the world is so much in love with novelty and sensation of all kinds, that facile successes are easily made and as easily obliterated. What so many people admire is not greatness, but the realisation of greatness and its tangible rewards. The result of this is that men who show any faculty for impressing the world are exploited and caressed, are played with as a toy, and as a toy neglected. And then, too, the age is deeply permeated by social ambitions. Men love to be labelled, ticketed, decorated, differentiated from the crowd. Newspapers pander to this taste; and then the ease and rapidity of movement tempt men to a restless variety of experience, of travel, of society, of change, which is alien to the settled and sober temper in which great designs are matured. There is a story, not uncharacteristic, of modern social life, of a hostess who loved to assemble about her, in the style of Mrs. Leo Hunter, notabilities small and great, who was reduced to presenting a young man who made his appearance at one of her gatherings as “Mr. —-, whose uncle, you will remember, was so terribly mangled in the railway accident at S—-.” It is this feverish desire to be distinguished at any price which has its counterpart in the feverish desire to find objects of admiration. Not so can solid greatness be achieved.
The plain truth is that no one can become great by taking thought, and still less by desiring greatness. It is not an attainable thing; fame only is attainable. A man must be great in his own quiet way, and the greater he is, the less likely is he to concern himself with fame. It is useless to try and copy some one else’s greatness; that is like trying to look like some one else’s portrait, even if it be a portrait by Velasquez. Not that modesty is inseparable from greatness; there are abundance of great men who have been childishly and grotesquely vain; but in such cases it has been a greatness of performance, a marvellous faculty, not a greatness of soul. Hazlitt says somewhere that modesty is the lowest of the virtues, and a real confession of the deficiency which it indicates. He adds that a man who underrates himself is justly undervalued by others. This is a cynical and a vulgar maxim. It is true that a great man must have a due sense of the dignity and importance of his work; but if he is truly great, he will have also a sense of relation and proportion, and not forget the minuteness of any individual atom. If he has a real greatness of soul, he will not be apt to compare himself with others, and he will be inclined to an even over-generous estimate of the value of the work of others. In no respect was the greatness of D. G. Rossetti more exemplified than in his almost extravagant appreciation of the work of his friends; and it was to this royalty of temperament that he largely owed his personal supremacy.
I would believe then that the lack of conspicuous greatness is due at this time to the overabundant vitality and eagerness of the world, rather than to any languor or listlessness of spirit. The rise of the decadent school in art and literature is not the least sign of any indolent or corrupt deterioration. It rather shows a desperate appetite for testing sensation, a fierce hunger for emotional experience, a feverish ambition to impress a point-of- view. It is all part of a revolt against settled ways and conventional theories. I do not mean that we can expect to find greatness in this direction, for greatness is essentially well- balanced, calm, deliberate, and decadence is a sign of a neurotic and over-vitalised activity.
Our best hope is that this excessive restlessness of spirit will produce a revolt against itself. The essence of greatness is unconventionality, and restlessness is now becoming conventional. In education, in art, in literature, in politics, in social life, we lose ourselves in denunciations of the dreamer and the loafer. We cannot bear to see a slowly-moving, deliberate, self-contained spirit, advancing quietly on its discerned path. Instead of being content to perform faithfully and conscientiously our allotted task, which is the way in which we can best help the world, we demand that every one should want to do good, to be responsible for some one else, to exhort, urge, beckon, restrain, manage. That is all utterly false and hectic. Our aim should be patience rather than effectiveness, sincerity rather than adaptability, to learn rather than to teach, to ponder rather than to persuade, to know the truth rather than to create illusion, however comforting, however delightful such illusion may be.
I have no doubt that shyness is one of the old, primitive, aboriginal qualities that lurk in human nature–one of the crude elements that ought to have been uprooted by civilisation, and security, and progress, and enlightened ideals, but which have not been uprooted, and are only being slowly eliminated. It is seen, as all aboriginal qualities are seen, at its barest among children, who often reflect the youth of the world, and are like little wild animals or infant savages, in spite of all the frenzied idealisation that childhood receives from well-dressed and amiable people.
Shyness is thus like those little bits of woods and copses which one finds in a country-side that has long been subdued and replenished, turned into arable land and pasture, with all the wildness and the irregularity ploughed and combed out of it; but still one comes upon some piece of dingle, where there is perhaps an awkward tilt in the ground, or some ancient excavation, or where a stream-head has cut out a steep channel, and there one finds a scrap of the old forest, a rood or two that has never been anything but woodland. So with shyness; many of our old, savage qualities have been smoothed out, or glazed over, by education and inheritance, and only emerge in moments of passion and emotion. But shyness is no doubt the old suspicion of the stranger, the belief that his motives are likely to be predatory and sinister; it is the tendency to bob the head down into the brushwood, or to sneak behind the tree-bole on his approach. One sees a little child, washed and brushed and delicately apparelled, with silken locks and clear complexion, brought into a drawing-room to be admired; one sees the terror come upon her; she knows by experience that she has nothing to expect but attention, and admiration, and petting; but you will see her suddenly cover her face with a tiny hand, relapse into dismal silence, even burst into tears and refuse to be comforted, till she is safely entrenched upon some familiar knee.
I have a breezy, boisterous, cheerful friend, of transparent simplicity and goodness, who has never known the least touch of shyness from his cradle, who always says, if the subject is introduced, that shyness is all mere self-consciousness, and that it comes from thinking about oneself. That is true, in a limited degree; but the diagnosis is no remedy for the disease, because shyness is as much a disease as a cold in the head, and no amount of effort can prevent the attacks of the complaint; the only remedy is either to avoid the occasions of the attacks,–and that is impossible, unless one is to abjure the society of other people for good and all;–or else to practise resolutely the hardening process of frequenting society, until one gets a sort of courage out of familiarity. Yet even so, who that has ever really suffered from shyness does not feel his heart sink as he drives up in a brougham to the door of some strange house, and sees a grave butler advancing out of an unknown corridor, with figures flitting to and fro in the background; what shy person is there who at such a moment would not give a considerable sum to be able to go back to the station and take the first train home? Or who again, as he gives his name to a servant in some brightly-lighted hall, and advances, with a hurried glance at his toilet, into a roomful of well-dressed people, buzzing with what Rossetti calls a “din of doubtful talk,” would not prefer to sink into the earth like Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, and be reckoned no more among the living?
It is recorded in Tennyson’s Life that he used to recommend to a younger brother the thought of the stellar spaces, swarming with constellations and traversed by planets at ineffable distances, as a cure for shyness; and a lady of my acquaintance used to endeavour as a girl to stay her failing heart on the thought of Eternity at such moments. It is all in vain; at the urgent moment one cares very little about the stellar motions, or the dim vistas of futurity, and very much indeed about the cut of one’s coat, and the appearance of one’s collar, and the glances of one’s enemies; the doctrines of the Church, and the prospects of ultimate salvation, are things very light in the scales in comparison with the pressing necessities of the crisis, and the desperate need to appear wholly unconcerned!
The wild and fierce shyness of childhood is superseded in most sensitive people, as life goes on, by a very different feeling–the shyness of adolescence, of which the essence, as has been well said, is “a shamefaced pride.” The shyness of early youth is a thing which springs from an intense desire to delight, and impress, and interest other people, from wanting to play a far larger and brighter part in the lives of every one else than any one in the world plays in any one else’s life. Who does not recognise, with a feeling that is half contempt and half compassion, the sight of the eager pretentiousness of youth, the intense shame of confessing ignorance on any point, the deep desire to appear to have a stake in the world, and a well-defined, respected position? I met the other day a young man, of no particular force or distinction, who was standing in a corner at a big social gathering, bursting with terror and importance combined. He was inspired, I would fain believe, by discerning a vague benevolence in my air and demeanour, to fix his attention on me. He had been staying at a house where there had been some important guests, and by some incredibly rapid transition of eloquence he was saying to me in a minute or two, “The Commander-in-Chief said to me the other day,” and “The Archbishop pointed out to me a few days ago,” giving, as personal confidences, scraps of conversation which he had no doubt overheard as an unwelcome adjunct to a crowded smoking-room, with the busy and genial elders wondering when the boys would have the grace to go to bed. My heart bled for him as I saw the reflection of my own pushing and pretentious youth, and I only desired that the curse should not fall upon him which has so often fallen upon myself, to recall ineffaceably, with a blush that still mantles my cheek in the silence and seclusion of my bedroom, in a wakeful hour, the thought of some such piece of transparent and ridiculous self- importance, shamefully uttered by myself, in a transport of ambitious vanity, long years ago. How out of proportion to the offence is the avenging phantom of memory which dogs one through the years for such stupidities! I remember that as a youthful undergraduate I went to stay in the house of an old family friend in the neighbourhood of Cambridge. The only other male guest was a grim and crusty don, sharp and trenchant in speech, and with a determination to keep young men in their place. At Cambridge he would have taken no notice whatever of me; but there, on alien ground, with some lurking impulse of far-off civility, he said to me when the ladies retired, “I am going to have a cigar; you know your way to the smoking-room?” I did not myself smoke in those days, so foolish was I and innocent; but recalling, I suppose, some similar remark made by an elderly and genial non-smoker under the same circumstances, I said pompously–I can hardly bring myself even now to write the words–“I don’t smoke, but I will come and sit with you for the pleasure of a talk.” He gave a derisive snort, looked at me and said, “What! not allowed to smoke yet? Pray don’t trouble to come on my account.” It was not a genial speech, and it made me feel, as it was intended to do, insupportably silly. I did not make matters better, I recollect, on the following day, when on returning to Cambridge I offered to carry his bag up from the station, for he insisted on walking. He refused testily, and no doubt thought me, as in fact I was, a very spiritless young man.
I remember, too, another incident of the same kind, happening about the same time. I was invited by a fellow-undergraduate to come to tea in his rooms, and to meet his people. After tea, in the lightness of his heart, my friend performed some singular antics, such as standing on his head like a clown, and falling over the back of his sofa, alighting on his feet. I, who would not have executed such gambols for the world in the presence of the fairer sex, but anxious in an elderly way to express my sympathy with the performer, said, with what was meant to be a polite admiration: “I can’t think how you do that!” Upon which a shrewd and trenchant maiden-aunt who was present, and was delighting in the exuberance of her nephew, said to me briskly, “Mr. Benson, have you never been young?” I should be ashamed to say how often since I have arranged a neat repartee to that annoying question. At the same time I think that the behaviour both of the don and the aunt was distinctly unjust and unadvisable. I am sure that the one way to train young people out of the miseries of shyness is for older people never to snub them in public, or make them appear in the light of a fool. Such snubs fall plentifully and naturally from contemporaries. An elder person is quite within his rights in inflicting a grave and serious remonstrance in private. I do not believe that young people ever resent that, if at the same time they are allowed to defend themselves and state their case. But a merciless elder who inflicts a public mortification is terribly unassailable and impregnable. For the shy person, who is desperately anxious to bear a sympathetic part, is quite incapable of retort; and that is why such assaults are unpardonable, because they are the merest bullying.
The nicest people that I have known in life have been the people of kindly and sensible natures, who have been thoroughly spoilt as children, encouraged to talk, led to expect not only toleration, but active kindness and sympathy from all. The worst of it is that such kindness is generally reserved for pretty and engaging children, and it is the awkward, unpleasing, ungainly child who gets the slaps in public. But, as in Tennyson-Turner’s pretty poem of “Letty’s Globe,” a child’s hand should be “welcome at all frontiers.” Only deliberate rudeness and insolence on the part of children should be publicly rebuked; and as a matter of fact both rudeness and insolence are far oftener the result of shyness than is easily supposed.
After the shyness of adolescence there often follows a further stage. The shy person has learnt a certain wisdom; he becomes aware how easily he detects pretentiousness in other people, and realises that there is nothing to be gained by claiming a width of experience which he does not possess, and that the being unmasked is even more painful than feeling deficient and ill-equipped. Then too he learns to suspect that when he has tried to be impressive, he has often only succeeded in being priggish; and the result is that he falls into a kind of speechlessness, comforting himself, as he sits mute and awkward, unduly elongated, and with unaccountable projections of limb and feature, that if only other people were a little less self-absorbed, had the gift of perceiving hidden worth and real character, and could pierce a little below the surface, they would realise what reserves of force and tenderness lay beneath the heavy shapelessness of which he is still conscious. Then is the time for the shy person to apply himself to social gymnastics. He is not required to be voluble; but if he will practise bearing a hand, seeing what other people need and like, carrying on their line of thought, constructing small conversational bridges, asking the right questions, perhaps simulating an interest in the pursuits of others which he does not naturally feel, he may unloose the burden from his back. Then is the time to practise a sympathetic smile, or better still to allow oneself to indicate and even express the sympathy one feels; and the experimentalist will soon become aware how welcome such unobtrusive sympathy is. He will be amazed at first to find that, instead of being tolerated, he will be confided in; he will be regarded as a pleasant adjunct to a party, and he will soon have the even pleasanter experience of finding that his own opinions and adventures, if they are not used to cap and surpass the opinions and adventures of others, but to elicit them, will be duly valued. Yet, alas, a good many shy people never reach that stage, but take refuge in a critical and fastidious attitude. I had an elderly relative of this kind–who does not know the type?–who was a man of wide interests and accurate information, but a perfect terror in the domestic circle. He was too shy to mingle in general talk, but sat with an air of acute observation, with a dry smile playing over his face; later on, when the circle diminished, it pleased him to retail the incautious statements made by various members of the party, and correct them with much acerbity. There are few things more terrific than a man who is both speechless and distinguished. I have known several such, and their presence lies like a blight over the most cheerful party. It is unhappily often the case that shyness is apt to exist side by side with considerable ability, and a shy man of this type regards distinction as a kind of defensive armour, which may justify him in applying to others the contempt which he has himself been conscious of incurring. One of the most disagreeable men I know is a man of great ability, who was bullied in his youth. The result upon him has been that he tends to believe that most people are inspired by a vague malevolence, and he uses his ability and his memory, not to add to the pleasure of a party, but to make his own power felt. I have seen this particular man pass from an ungainly speechlessness into brutal onslaughts on inoffensive persons; and it is one of the most unpleasant transformations in the world. On the other hand, the modest and amiable man of distinction is one of the most agreeable figures it is possible to encounter. He is kind and deferential, and the indulgent deference of a distinguished man is worth its weight in gold.
I was lately told a delightful story of a great statesman staying with a humble and anxious host, who had invited a party of simple and unimportant people to meet the great man. The statesman came in late for dinner, and was introduced to the party; he made a series of old-fashioned bows in all directions, but no one felt in a position to offer any observations. The great man, at the conclusion of the ceremony, turned to his host, and said, in tones that had often thrilled a listening senate: “What very convenient jugs you have in your bedrooms! They pour well!” The social frost broke up; the company were delighted to find that the great man was interested in mundane matters of a kind on which every one might be permitted to have an opinion, and the conversation, starting from the humblest conveniences of daily life, melted insensibly into more liberal subjects. The fact is that, in ordinary life, kindness and simplicity are valued far more than brilliance; and the best brilliance is that which throws a novel and lambent light upon ordinary topics, rather than the brilliance which disports itself in unfamiliar and exalted regions. The hero only ceases to be a hero to his valet if he is too lofty-minded to enter into the workings of his valet’s mind, and cannot duly appraise the quality of his services.
And then, too, to go back a little, there are certain defects, after all, which are appropriate at different times of life. A certain degree of shyness and even awkwardness is not at all a disagreeable thing–indeed it is rather a desirable quality–in the young. A perfectly self-possessed and voluble young man arouses in one a vague sense of hostility, unless it is accompanied by great modesty and ingenuousness. The artless prattler, who, in his teens, has an opinion on all subjects, and considers that opinion worth expressing, is pleasant enough, and saves one some embarrassment; but such people, alas, too often degenerate into the bores of later life. If a man’s opinion is eventually going to be worth anything, he ought, I think, to pass through a tumultuous and even prickly stage, when he believes that he has an opinion, but cannot find the aplomb to formulate it. He ought to be feeling his way, to be in a vague condition of revolt against what is conventional. This is likely to be true not only in his dealings with his elders, but also in his dealings with his contemporaries. Young people are apt to regard a youthful doctrinaire, who has an opinion on everything, with sincere abhorrence. He bores them, and to the young boredom is not a condition of passive suffering, it is an acute form of torture. Moreover, the stock of opinions which a young man holds are apt to be parrot-cries repeated without any coherence from talks overheard and books skimmed. But in a modest and ingenuous youth, filled to the brim with eager interest and alert curiosity, a certain deference is an adorable thing, one of the most delicate of graces; and it is a delightful task for an older person, who feels the sense of youthful charm, to melt stiffness away by kindly irony and gentle provocation, as Socrates did with his sweet- natured and modest boy-friends, so many centuries ago.
The aplomb of the young generally means complacency; but one who is young and shy, and yet has the grace to think about the convenience and pleasure of others, can be the most perfect companion in the world. One has then a sense of the brave and unsophisticated freshness of youth, that believes all things and hopes all things, the bloom of which has not been rubbed away by the rough touch of the world. It is only when that shyness is prolonged beyond the appropriate years, when it leaves a well-grown and hard-featured man gasping and incoherent, jerky and ungracious, that it is a painful and disconcerting deformity. The only real shadow of early shyness is the quite disproportionate amount of unhappiness that conscious gaucherie brings with it. Two incidents connected with a ceremony most fruitful in nervousness come back to my mind.
When I was an Eton boy, I was staying with a country squire, a most courteous old gentleman with a high temper. The first morning, I contrived to come down a minute or two late for prayers. There was no chair for me. The Squire suspended his reading of the Bible with a deadly sort of resignation, and made a gesture to the portly butler. That functionary rose from his own chair, and with loudly creaking boots carried it across the room for my acceptance. I sat down, covered with confusion. The butler returned; and two footmen, who were sitting on a little form, made reluctant room for him. The butler sat down on one end of the form, unfortunately before his equipoise, the second footman, had taken his place at the other end. The result was that the form tipped up, and a cataract of flunkies poured down upon the floor. There was a ghastly silence; then the Gadarene herd slowly recovered itself, and resumed its place. The Squire read the chapter in an accent of suppressed fury, while the remainder of the party, with handkerchiefs pressed to their faces, made the most unaccountable sounds and motions for the rest of the proceeding. I was really comparatively guiltless, but the shadow of that horrid event sensibly clouded the whole of my visit.
I was only a spectator of the other event. We had assembled for prayers in the dimly-lighted hall of the house of a church dignitary, and the chapter had begun, when a man of almost murderous shyness, who was a guest, opened his bedroom door and came down the stairs. Our host suspended his reading. The unhappy man came down, but, instead of slinking to his place, went and stood in front of the fire, under the impression that the proceedings had not taken shape, and addressed some remarks upon the weather to his hostess. In the middle of one of his sentences, he suddenly divined the situation, on seeing the row of servants sitting in a thievish corner of the hall. He took his seat with the air of a man driving to the guillotine, and I do not think I ever saw any one so much upset as he was for the remainder of his stay. Of course it may be said that a sense of humour should have saved a man from such a collapse of moral force, but a sense of humour requires to be very strong to save a man from the sense of having made a conspicuous fool of himself.
I would add one more small reminiscence, of an event from which I can hardly say with honesty that I have yet quite recovered, although it took place nearly thirty years ago. I went, as a schoolboy, with my parents, to stay at a very big country house, the kind of place to which I was little used, where the advent of a stately footman to take away my clothes in the morning used to fill me with misery. The first evening there was a big dinner-party. I found myself sitting next my delightful and kindly hostess, my father being on the other side of her. All went well till dessert, when an amiable, long-haired spaniel came to my side to beg of me. I had nothing but grapes on my plate, and purely out of compliment I offered him one. He at once took it in his mouth, and hurried to a fine white fur rug in front of the hearth, where he indulged in some unaccountable convulsions, rolling himself about and growling in an ecstasy of delight. My host, an irascible man, looked round, and then said: “Who the devil has given that dog a grape?” He added to my father, by way of explanation, “The fact is that if he can get hold of a grape, he rolls it on that rug, and it is no end of a nuisance to get the stain out.” I sat crimson with guilt, and was just about to falter out a confession, when my hostess looked up, and, seeing what had happened, said, “It was me, Frank–I forgot for the moment what I was doing.” My gratitude for this angelic intervention was so great that I had not even the gallantry to own up, and could only repay my protectress with an intense and lasting devotion. I have no doubt that she explained matters afterwards to our host; and I contrived to murmur my thanks later in the evening. But the shock had been a terrible one, and taught me not only wisdom, but the Christian duty of intervening, if I could, to save the shy from their sins and sufferings.
“Taught by the Power that pities me, I learn to pity them.”
But the consideration that emerges from these reminiscences is the somewhat bewildering one, that shyness is a thing which seems to be punished, both by immediate discomfort and by subsequent fantastic remorse, far more heavily than infinitely more serious moral lapses. The repentance that follows sin can hardly be more poignant than the agonising sense of guilt which steals over the waking consciousness on the morning that follows some such social lapse. In fact it must be confessed that most of us dislike appearing fools far more than we dislike feeling knaves; so that one wonders whether one does not dread the ridicule and disapproval of society more than one dreads the sense of a lapse from morality; the philosophical outcome of which would seem to be that the verdict of society upon our actions is at the base of morality. We may feel assured that the result of moral lapses will ultimately be that we shall have to face the wrath of our Creator; but one hopes that side by side with justice will be found a merciful allowance for the force of temptation. But the final judgment is in any case not imminent, while the result of a social lapse is that we have to continue to face a disapproving and even a contemptuous circle, who will remember our failure with malicious pleasure, and whose sense of justice will not be tempered by any appreciable degree of mercy. Here again is a discouraging circumstance, that when we call to mind some similarly compromising and grotesque adventure in the life of one of our friends, in spite of the fact that we well know the distress that the incident must have caused him, we still continue to hug, and even to repeat, our recollection of the occasion with a rich sense of joy. Is it that we do not really desire the peace and joy of others? It would seem so. How many of us are not conscious of feeling extremely friendly and helpful when our friend is in sorrow, or difficulty, or discredit, and yet of having no taste for standing by and applauding when our friend is joyful and successful! There is nothing, it seems, that we can render to our friend in the latter case, except the praise of which he has already had enough!
It seems then that the process of anatomising the nature and philosophy of shyness only ends in stripping off, one by one, as from an onion, the decent integuments of the human spirit, and revealing it every moment more and more in its native rankness. Let me forbear, consoling myself with the thought that the qualities of human beings are not meant to be taken up one by one, like coins from a tray, and scrutinised; but that what matters is the general effect, the blending, the grouping, the mellowed surface, the warped line. I was only yesterday in an old church, where I saw an ancient font-cover–a sort of carved extinguisher–and some dark panels of a rood-screen. They had been, both cover and panels, coarsely and brightly painted and gilt; and, horrible to reflect, it flashed upon me that they must have once been both glaring and vulgar. Yet to-day the dim richness of the effect, the dints, the scaling-off of the flakes, the fading of the pigment, the dulling of the gold, were incomparable; and I began to wonder if perhaps that was not what happened to us in life; and that though we foolishly regretted the tarnishing of the bright surfaces of soul and body with our passions and tempers and awkwardnesses and feeblenesses, yet perhaps it was, after all, that we were taking on an unsuspected beauty, and making ourselves fit, some far-off day, for the Communion of Saints!
It is often said that the Anglo-Saxon races suffer from a lack of ideals, that they do not hold enough things sacred. But there is assuredly one thing which the most elementary and barbarous Anglo- Saxon holds sacred, beyond creed and Decalogue and fairplay and morality, and that is property. At inquests, for instance, it may be noted how often inquiries are solicitously made, not whether the deceased had religious difficulties or was disappointed in love, but whether he had any financial worries. We hold our own property to be very sacred indeed, and our respect for other men’s rights in the matter is based on the fact that we wish our own rights to be respected. If I were asked what other ideals were held widely sacred in England and America I should find it very difficult to reply. I think that there is a good deal of interest taken in America in education and culture; whereas in England I do not believe that there is very much interest taken in either; almost the only thing which is valued in England, romantically, and with a kind of enthusiasm, besides property, is social distinction; the democracy in England is sometimes said to be indignant at the existence of so much social privilege; the word “class” is said to be abhorrent to the democrat; but the only classes that he detests are the classes above him in the social scale, and the democrat is extremely indignant if he is assigned to a social station which he considers to be below his own. I have met democrats who despise and contemn the social tradition of the so-called upper classes, but I have never met a democrat who is not much more infuriated if it is supposed that he has not social traditions of his own vastly superior to the social traditions of the lowest grade of precarious mendicity. The reason why socialism has never had any great hold in England is because equality is only a word, and in no sense a real sentiment in England. The reason why members of the lowest class in England are not as a rule convinced socialists is because their one ambition is to become members of the middle-class, and to have property of their own; and while the sense of personal possession is so strong as it is, no socialism worthy of the name has a chance. It is possible for any intelligent, virtuous, and capable member of the lower class to transfer himself to the middle class; and once there he does not favour any system of social equality. Socialism can never prevail as a political system, until we get a majority of disinterested men, who do not want to purchase freedom from daily work by acquiring property, and who desire the responsibility rather than the influence of administrative office. But administrative office is looked upon in England as an important if indirect factor in acquiring status and personal property for oneself and one’s friends.
I am myself a sincere believer in socialism; that is to say, I do not question the right of society to deprive me of my private property if it chooses to do so. It does choose to do so to a certain extent through the medium of the income-tax. Such property as I possess has, I think it as well to state, been entirely acquired by my own exertions. I have never inherited a penny, or received any money except what I have earned. I am quite willing to admit that my work was more highly paid than it deserved; but I shall continue to cling tenaciously to that property until I am convinced that it will be applied for the benefit of every one; I should not think it just if it was taken from me for the benefit of the idle and incompetent; and I should be reluctant to part with it unless I felt sure that it would pass into the hands of those who are as just-minded and disinterested as myself, and be fairly administered. I should not think it just if it were taken from me by people who intended to misuse it, as I have misused it, for their own personal gratification.
It was made a matter of merriment in the case of William Morris that he preached the doctrines of socialism while he was a prosperous manufacturer; but I see that he was perfectly consistent. There is no justice, for instance, about the principle of disarmament, unless all nations loyally disarm at the same time. A person cannot be called upon to strip himself of his personal property for disinterested reasons, if he feels that he is surrounded by people who would use the spoils for their own interest. The process must be carried out by a sincere majority, who may then coerce the selfish minority. I have no conception what I should do with my money if I determined that I ought not to possess it. It ought not to be applied to any public purpose, because under a socialist regime all public institutions would be supported by the public, and they ought not to depend upon private generosity. Still less do I think that it ought to be divided among individuals, because, if they were disinterested persons, they ought to refuse to accept it. The only good reason I should have for disencumbering myself of my possessions would be that I might set a good example of the simple life, by working hard for a livelihood, which is exactly what I do; and my only misfortune is that my earnings and the interest of my accumulated earnings produce a sum which is far larger than the average man ought to possess. Thus the difficulty is a very real one. Moreover the evil of personal property is that it tends to emphasise class- distinctions and to give the possessors of it a sense of undue superiority. Now I am democratic enough to maintain that I have no sense whatever of personal superiority. I do not allow my possession of property to give me a life of vacuous amusement, for the simple reason that my work amuses me far more than any other form of occupation, If it is asked why I tend to live by preference among what may be called my social equals, I reply that the only people one is at ease with are the people whose social traditions are the same as one’s own, for the simple reason that one does not then have to think about social traditions at all. I do not think my social traditions are better than the social traditions of any other stratum of society, whether it be described as above or below my own; all I would say is that they are different from the social traditions of other strata, and I much prefer to live without having to consider such matters at all. The manners of the upper middle-class to which scientifically I belong, are different from the manners of the upper, lower-middle, and lower class, and I feel out of my element in the upper class, just as I feel out of my element in the lower class. Of course if I were perfectly simple- minded and sincere, this would not be so; but, as it is, I am at ease with professional persons of my own standing; I understand their point-of-view without any need of explanation; in any class but my own, I am aware of the constant strain of trying to grasp another point-of-view; and to speak frankly, it is not worth the trouble. I do not at all desire to migrate out of my own class, and I have never been able to sympathise with people who did. The motive for doing so is not generally a good one, though it is of course possible to conceive a high-minded aristocrat who from motives based upon our common humanity might desire to apprehend the point-of-view of an artisan, or a high-minded artisan who for the same motive desired to apprehend the point-of-view of an earl. But one requires to feel sure that this is based upon a strong sense of charity and responsibility, and I can only say that I have not found that the desire to migrate into a different class is generally based upon these qualities.
The question is, what ought a man who believes sincerely in the principle of equality to do in the matter, if he is situated as I am situated? What I admire and desire in life is friendly contact with my fellows, interesting work, leisure for following the pursuits I enjoy, such as art and literature. I honestly confess that I am not interested in what are called Social Problems, or rather I am not at all interested in the sort of people who study them. Such problems have hardly reached the vital stage; they are in the highly technical stage, and are mixed up with such things as political economy, politics, organisation, and so forth, which, to be perfectly frank, are to me blighting and dreary objects of study. I honour profoundly the people who engage in such pursuits; but life is not long enough to take up work, however valuable, from a sense of duty, if one realises one’s own unfitness for such labours. I wish with all my heart that all classes cared equally for the things which I love. I should like to be able to talk frankly and unaffectedly about books, and interesting people, and the beauties of nature, and abstract topics of a mild kind, with any one I happened to meet. But, as a rule, to speak frankly, I find that people of what I must call the lower class are not interested in these things; people in what I will call the upper class are faintly interested, in a horrible and condescending way, in them–which is worse than no interest at all. A good many people in my own class are impatient of them, and think of them as harmless recreations; I fall back upon a few like-minded friends, with whom I can talk easily and unreservedly of such things, without being thought priggish or donnish or dilettanteish or unintelligible. The subjects in which I find the majority of people interested are personal gossip, money, success, business, politics. I love personal gossip, but that can only be enjoyed in a circle well acquainted with each other’s faults and foibles; and I do not sincerely care for talking about the other matters I have mentioned. Hitherto I have always had a certain amount of educational responsibility, and that has furnished an abundance of material for pleasant talk and interesting thoughts; but then I have always suffered from the Anglo-Saxon failing of disliking responsibility except in the case of those for whom one’s efforts are definitely pledged on strict business principles. I cannot deliberately assume a sense of responsibility towards people in general; to do that implies a sense of the value of one’s own influence and example, which I have never possessed; and, indeed, I have always heartily disliked the manifestation of it in others. Indeed, I firmly believe that the best and most fruitful part of a man’s influence, is the influence of which he is wholly unconscious; and I am quite sure that no one who has a strong sense of responsibility to the world in general can advance the cause of equality, because such a sense implies at all events a consciousness of moral superiority. Moreover, my educational experience leads me to believe that one cannot do much to form character. The most one can do is to guard the young against pernicious influences, and do one’s best to recommend one’s own disinterested enthusiasms. One cannot turn a violet into a rose by any horticultural effort; one can only see that the violet or the rose has the best chance of what is horribly called self- effectuation.
My own belief is that these great ideas like Equality and Justice are things which, like poetry, are born and cannot be made. That a number of earnest people should be thinking about them shows that they are in the air; but the interest felt in them is the sign and not the cause of their increase. I believe that one must go forwards, trying to avoid anything that is consciously harsh or pompous or selfish or base, and the great ideas will take care of themselves.
The two great obvious difficulties which seem to me to lie at the root of all schemes for producing a system of social equality are first the radical inequality of character, temperament, and equipment in human beings. No system can ever hope to be a practical system unless we can eliminate the possibility of children being born, some of them perfectly qualified for life and citizenship, and others hopelessly disqualified. If such differences were the result of environment it would be a remediable thing. But one can have a strong, vigorous, naturally temperate child born and brought up under the meanest and most sordid conditions, and, on the other hand, a thoroughly worthless and detestable person may be the child of high-minded, well-educated people, with every social advantage. My work as a practical educationalist enforced this upon me. One would find a boy, born under circumstances as favourable for the production of virtue and energy as any socialistic system could provide, who was really only fitted for the lowest kind of mechanical work, and whose instincts were utterly gross. Even if the State could practise a kind of refined Mendelism, it would be impossible to guard against the influences of heredity. If one traces back the hereditary influences of a child for ten generations, it will be found that he has upwards of two thousand progenitors, any one of whom may give him a bias.
And secondly, I cannot see that any system of socialism is consistent with the system of the family. The parents in a socialistic state can only be looked upon as brood stock, and the nurture of the rising generation must be committed to some State organisation, if one is to secure an equality of environing influences. Of course, this is done to a certain extent by the boarding-schools of the upper classes; and here again my experience has shown me that the system, though a good one for the majority, is not the best system invariably for types with marked originality–the very type that one most desires to propagate.
These are, of course, very crude and elementary objections to the socialistic scheme; all that I say is that until these difficulties seem more capable of solution, I cannot throw myself with any interest into the speculation; I cannot continue in the path of logical deduction, while the postulates and axioms remain so unsound.
What then can a man who has resources that he cannot wisely dispose of, and happiness that he cannot impart to others, but yet who would only too gladly share his gladness with the world, do to advance the cause of the general weal? Must he plunge into activities for which he has no aptitude or inclination, and which have as their aim objects for which he does not think that the world is ripe? Every one will remember the figure of Mrs. Pardiggle in Bleak House, that raw-boned lady who enjoyed hard work, and did not know what it was to be tired, who went about rating inefficient people, and “boned” her children’s pocket-money for charitable objects. It seems to me that many of the people who work at social reforms do so because, like Mrs. Pardiggle, they enjoy hard work and love ordering other people about. In a society wisely and rationally organised, there would be no room for Mrs. Pardiggle at all; the question is whether things must first pass through the Pardiggle stage. I do not in my heart believe it. Mrs. Pardiggle seems to me to be not part of the cure of the disease, but rather one of the ugliest of its symptoms. I think that she is on the wrong tack altogether, and leading other people astray. I do know some would-be social reformers, whom I respect and commiserate with all my heart, who see what is amiss, and have no idea how to mend it, and who lose themselves, like Hamlet, in a sort of hopeless melancholy about it all, with a deep-seated desire to give others a kind of happiness which they ought to desire, but which, as a matter of fact, they do not desire. Such men are often those upon whom early youth broke, like a fresh wave, with an incomparable sense of rapture, in the thought of all the beauty and loveliness of nature and art; and who lived for a little in a Paradise of delicious experiences and fine emotions, believing that there must be some strange mistake, and that every one must in reality desire what seemed so utterly desirable; and then, as life went on, there fell upon these the shadow of the harsh facts of life; the knowledge that the majority of the human race had no part or lot in such visions, but loved rather food and drink and comfort and money and rude mirth; who did not care a pin what happened to other people, or how frail and suffering beings spent their lives, so long as they themselves were healthy and jolly. Then that shadow deepens and thickens, until the sad dreamers do one of two things– either immure themselves in a tiny scented garden of their own, and try to drown the insistent noises without; or, on the other hand, if they are of the nobler sort, lose heart and hope, and even forfeit their own delight in things that are sweet and generous and pleasant and pure. A mournful and inextricable dilemma!
Perhaps one or two of such visionaries, who are made of sterner stuff, have deliberately embarked, hopefully and courageously, upon