Thoughts on Man - His Nature, Productions and Discoveries, Interspersed with - Some Particulars Respecting the Author
by William Godwin
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By William Godwin

Oh, the blood more stirs To rouse a lion, than to start a hare!






In the ensuing volume I have attempted to give a defined and permanent form to a variety of thoughts, which have occurred to my mind in the course of thirty-four years, it being so long since I published a volume, entitled, the Enquirer,—thoughts, which, if they have presented themselves to other men, have, at least so far as I am aware, never been given to the public through the medium of the press. During a part of this period I had remained to a considerable degree unoccupied in my character of an author, and had delivered little to the press that bore my name.—And I beg the reader to believe, that, since I entered in 1791 upon that which may be considered as my vocation in life, I have scarcely in any instance contributed a page to any periodical miscellany.

My mind has been constitutionally meditative, and I should not have felt satisfied, if I had not set in order for publication these special fruits of my meditations. I had entered upon a certain career; and I held it for my duty not to abandon it.

One thing further I feel prompted to say. I have always regarded it as my office to address myself to plain men, and in clear and unambiguous terms. It has been my lot to have occasional intercourse with some of those who consider themselves as profound, who deliver their oracles in obscure phraseology, and who make it their boast that few men can understand them, and those few only through a process of abstract reflection, and by means of unwearied application.

To this class of the oracular I certainly did not belong. I felt that I had nothing to say, that it should be very difficult to understand. I resolved, if I could help it, not to "darken counsel by words without knowledge." This was my principle in the Enquiry concerning Political Justice. And I had my reward. I had a numerous audience of all classes, of every age, and of either sex. The young and the fair did not feel deterred from consulting my pages.

It may be that that book was published in a propitious season. I am told that nothing coming from the press will now be welcomed, unless it presents itself in the express form of amusement. He who shall propose to himself for his principal end, to draw aside in one particular or another the veil from the majesty of intellectual or moral truth, must lay his account in being received with little attention.

I have not been willing to believe this: and I publish my speculations accordingly. I have aimed at a popular, and (if I could reach it) an interesting style; and, if I am thrust aside and disregarded, I shall console myself with believing that I have not neglected what it was in my power to achieve.

One characteristic of the present publication will not fail to offer itself to the most superficial reader. I know many men who are misanthropes, and profess to look down with disdain on their species. My creed is of an opposite character. All that we observe that is best and most excellent in the intellectual world, is man: and it is easy to perceive in many cases, that the believer in mysteries does little more, than dress up his deity in the choicest of human attributes and qualifications. I have lived among, and I feel an ardent interest in and love for, my brethren of mankind. This sentiment, which I regard with complacency in my own breast, I would gladly cherish in others. In such a cause I am well pleased to enrol myself a missionary.

February 15, 1831.

The particulars respecting the author, referred to in the title-page, will be found principally in Essays VII, IX, XIV, and XVIII.


Essay. I. Of Body and Mind. The Prologue II. Of the Distribution of Talents III. Of Intellectual Abortion IV. Of the Durability of Human Achievements and Productions V. Of the Rebelliousness of Man VI. Of Human Innocence VII. Of the Duration of Human Life VIII. Of Human Vegetation IX. Of Leisure X. Of Imitation and Invention XI. Of Self-Love and Benevolence XII. Of the Liberty of Human Actions XIII. Of Belief XIV. Of Youth and Age XV. Of Love and Friendship XVI. Of Frankness and Reserve XVII. Of Ballot XVIII. Of Diffidence XIX. Of Self Complacence XX. Of Phrenology XXI. Of Astronomy XXII. Of the Material Universe XXIII. Of Human Virtue. The Epilogue




There is no subject that more frequently occupies the attention of the contemplative than man: yet there are many circumstances concerning him that we shall hardly admit to have been sufficiently considered.

Familiarity breeds contempt. That which we see every day and every hour, it is difficult for us to regard with admiration. To almost every one of our stronger emotions novelty is a necessary ingredient. The simple appetites of our nature may perhaps form an exception. The appetite for food is perpetually renewed in a healthy subject with scarcely any diminution and love, even the most refined, being combined with one of our original impulses, will sometimes for that reason withstand a thousand trials, and perpetuate itself for years. In all other cases it is required, that a fresh impulse should be given, that attention should anew be excited, or we cannot admire. Things often seen pass feebly before our senses, and scarcely awake the languid soul.

"Man is the most excellent and noble creature of the world, the principal and mighty work of God, the wonder of nature, the marvel of marvels(1)."

(1) Anatomy of Melancholy, p. 1.

Let us have regard to his corporeal structure. There is a simplicity in it, that at first perhaps we slightly consider. But how exactly is it fashioned for strength and agility! It is in no way incumbered. It is like the marble when it comes out of the hand of the consummate sculptor; every thing unnecessary is carefully chiseled away; and the joints, the muscles, the articulations, and the veins come out, clean and finished. It has long ago been observed, that beauty, as well as virtue, is the middle between all extremes: that nose which is neither specially long, nor short, nor thick, nor thin, is the perfect nose; and so of the rest. In like manner, when I speak of man generally, I do not regard any aberrations of form, obesity, a thick calf, a thin calf; I take the middle between all extremes; and this is emphatically man.

Man cannot keep pace with a starting horse: but he can persevere, and beats him in the end.

What an infinite variety of works is man by his corporeal form enabled to accomplish! In this respect he casts the whole creation behind him.

What a machine is the human hand! When we analyse its parts and its uses, it appears to be the most consummate of our members. And yet there are other parts, that may maintain no mean rivalship against it.

What a sublimity is to be attributed to his upright form! He is not fashioned, veluti pecora, quae natura prona atque ventri obedientia finxit. He is made coeli convexa tueri. The looks that are given him in his original structure, are "looks commercing with the skies."

How surpassingly beautiful are the features of his countenance; the eyes, the nose, the mouth! How noble do they appear in a state of repose! With what never-ending variety and emphasis do they express the emotions of his mind! In the visage of man, uncorrupted and undebased, we read the frankness and ingenuousness of his soul, the clearness of his reflections, the penetration of his spirit. What a volume of understanding is unrolled in his broad, expanded, lofty brow! In his countenance we see expressed at one time sedate confidence and awful intrepidity, and at another godlike condescension and the most melting tenderness. Who can behold the human eye, suddenly suffused with moisture, or gushing with tears unbid, and the quivering lip, without unspeakable emotion? Shakespear talks of an eye, "whose bend could awe the world."

What a miraculous thing is the human complexion! We are sent into the world naked, that all the variations of the blood might be made visible. However trite, I cannot avoid quoting here the lines of the most deep-thinking and philosophical of our poets:

We understood Her by her sight: her pure and eloquent blood Spoke in her cheeks, and so distinctly wrought, That one might almost say her body thought.

What a curious phenomenon is that of blushing! It is impossible to witness this phenomenon without interest and sympathy. It comes at once, unanticipated by the person in whom we behold it. It comes from the soul, and expresses with equal certainty shame, modesty, and vivid, uncontrollable affection. It spreads, as it were in so many stages, over the cheeks, the brow, and the neck, of him or her in whom the sentiment that gives birth to it is working.

Thus far I have not mentioned speech, not perhaps the most inestimable of human gifts, but, if it is not that, it is at least the endowment, which makes man social, by which principally we impart our sentiments to each other, and which changes us from solitary individuals, and bestows on us a duplicate and multipliable existence. Beside which it incalculably increases the perfection of one. The man who does not speak, is an unfledged thinker; and the man that does not write, is but half an investigator.

Not to enter into all the mysteries of articulate speech and the irresistible power of eloquence, whether addressed to a single hearer, or instilled into the ears of many,—a topic that belongs perhaps less to the chapter of body than mind,—let us for a moment fix our thoughts steadily upon that little implement, the human voice. Of what unnumbered modulations is it susceptible! What terror may it inspire! How may it electrify the soul, and suspend all its functions! How infinite is its melody! How instantly it subdues the hearer to pity or to love! How does the listener hang upon every note praying that it may last for ever,

——that even silence Was took ere she was ware, and wished she might Deny her nature, and be never more, Still to be so displaced.

It is here especially that we are presented with the triumphs of civilisation. How immeasurable is the distance between the voice of the clown, who never thought of the power that dwells in this faculty, who delivers himself in a rude, discordant and unmodulated accent, and is accustomed to confer with his fellow at the distance of two fields, and the man who understands his instrument as Handel understood the organ, and who, whether he thinks of it or no, sways those that hear him as implicitly as Orpheus is said to have subdued the brute creation!

From the countenance of man let us proceed to his figure. Every limb is capable of speaking, and telling its own tale. What can equal the magnificence of the neck, the column upon which the head reposes! The ample chest may denote an almost infinite strength and power. Let us call to mind the Apollo Belvidere, and the Venus de Medicis, whose very "bends are adornings." What loftiness and awe have I seen expressed in the step of an actress, not yet deceased, when first she advanced, and came down towards the audience! I was ravished, and with difficulty kept my seat! Pass we to the mazes of the dance, the inimitable charms and picturesque beauty that may be given to the figure while still unmoved, and the ravishing grace that dwells in it during its endless changes and evolutions.

The upright figure of man produces, incidentally as it were, and by the bye, another memorable effect. Hence we derive the power of meeting in halls, and congregations, and crowded assemblies. We are found "at large, though without number," at solemn commemorations and on festive occasions. We touch each other, as the members of a gay party are accustomed to do, when they wait the stroke of an electrical machine, and the spark spreads along from man to man. It is thus that we have our feelings in common at a theatrical representation and at a public dinner, that indignation is communicated, and patriotism become irrepressible.

One man can convey his sentiments in articulate speech to a thousand; and this is the nursing mother of oratory, of public morality, of public religion, and the drama. The privilege we thus possess, we are indeed too apt to abuse; but man is scarcely ever so magnificent and so awful, as when hundreds of human heads are assembled together, hundreds of faces lifted up to contemplate one object, and hundreds of voices uttered in the expression of one common sentiment.

But, notwithstanding the infinite beauty, the magazine of excellencies and perfections, that appertains to the human body, the mind claims, and justly claims, an undoubted superiority. I am not going into an enumeration of the various faculties and endowments of the mind of man, as I have done of his body. The latter was necessary for my purpose. Before I proceeded to consider the ascendancy of mind, the dominion and loftiness it is accustomed to assert, it appeared but just to recollect what was the nature and value of its subject and its slave.

By the mind we understand that within us which feels and thinks, the seat of sensation and reason. Where it resides we cannot tell, nor can authoritatively pronounce, as the apostle says, relatively to a particular phenomenon, "whether it is in the body, or out of the body." Be it however where or what it may, it is this which constitutes the great essence of, and gives value to, our existence; and all the wonders of our microcosm would without it be a form only, destined immediately to perish, and of no greater account than as a clod of the valley.

It was an important remark, suggested to me many years ago by an eminent physiologer and anatomist, that, when I find my attention called to any particular part or member of my body, I may be morally sure that there is something amiss in the processes of that part or member. As long as the whole economy of the frame goes on well and without interruption, our attention is not called to it. The intellectual man is like a disembodied spirit.

He is almost in the state of the dervise in the Arabian Nights, who had the power of darting his soul into the unanimated body of another, human or brute, while he left his own body in the condition of an insensible carcase, till it should be revivified by the same or some other spirit. When I am, as it is vulgarly understood, in a state of motion, I use my limbs as the implements of my will. When, in a quiescent state of the body, I continue to think, to reflect and to reason, I use, it may be, the substance of the brain as the implement of my thinking, reflecting and reasoning; though of this in fact we know nothing.

We have every reason to believe that the mind cannot subsist without the body; at least we must be very different creatures from what we are at present, when that shall take place. For a man to think, agreeably and with serenity, he must be in some degree of health. The corpus sanum is no less indispensible than the mens sana. We must eat, and drink, and sleep. We must have a reasonably good appetite and digestion, and a fitting temperature, neither too hot nor cold. It is desirable that we should have air and exercise. But this is instrumental merely. All these things are negatives, conditions without which we cannot think to the best purpose, but which lend no active assistance to our thinking.

Man is a godlike being. We launch ourselves in conceit into illimitable space, and take up our rest beyond the fixed stars. We proceed without impediment from country to country, and from century to century, through all the ages of the past, and through the vast creation of the imaginable future. We spurn at the bounds of time and space; nor would the thought be less futile that imagines to imprison the mind within the limits of the body, than the attempt of the booby clown who is said within a thick hedge to have plotted to shut in the flight of an eagle.

We never find our attention called to any particular part or member of the body, except when there is somewhat amiss in that part or member. And, in like manner as we do not think of any one part or member in particular, so neither do we consider our entire microcosm and frame. The body is apprehended as no more important and of intimate connection to a man engaged in a train of reflections, than the house or apartment in which he dwells. The mind may aptly be described under the denomination of the "stranger at home." On set occasions and at appropriate times we examine our stores, and ascertain the various commodities we have, laid up in our presses and our coffers. Like the governor of a fort in time of peace, which was erected to keep out a foreign assailant, we occasionally visit our armoury, and take account of the muskets, the swords, and other implements of war it contains, but for the most part are engaged in the occupations of peace, and do not call the means of warfare in any sort to our recollection.

The mind may aptly be described under the denomination of the "stranger at home." With their bodies most men are little acquainted. We are "like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass, who beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he is." In the ruminations of the inner man, and the dissecting our thoughts and desires, we employ our intellectual arithmetic, we add, and subtract, and multiply, and divide, without asking the aid, without adverting to the existence, of our joints and members. Even as to the more corporeal part of our avocations, we behold the external world, and proceed straight to the object of our desires, without almost ever thinking of this medium, our own material frame, unaided by which none of these things could be accomplished. In this sense we may properly be said to be spiritual existences, however imperfect may be the idea we are enabled to affix to the term spirit.

Hence arises the notion, which has been entertained ever since the birth of reflection and logical discourse in the world, and which in some faint and confused degree exists probably even among savages, that the body is the prison of the mind. It is in this sense that Waller, after completing fourscore years of age, expresses himself in these affecting and interesting couplets.

When we for age could neither read nor write, The subject made us able to indite. The soul's dark cottage, battered and decayed, Lets in new light by chinks that time hath made: Stronger by weakness, wiser, men become, As they draw near to their eternal home.

Thus it is common with persons of elevated soul to talk of neglecting, overlooking, and taking small account of the body. It is in this spirit that the story is recorded of Anaxarchus, who, we are told, was ordered by Nicocreon, tyrant of Salamis, to be pounded in a mortar, and who, in contempt of his mortal sufferings, exclaimed, "Beat on, tyrant! thou dost but strike upon the case of Anaxarchus; thou canst not touch the man himself." And it is in something of the same light that we must regard what is related of the North American savages. Beings, who scoff at their tortures, must have an idea of something that lies beyond the reach of their assailants.

It is just however to observe, that some of the particulars here related, belong not less to the brute creation than to man. If men are imperfectly acquainted with their external figure and appearance, this may well be conceived to be still more predicable of the inferior animals. It is true that all of them seem to be aware of the part in their structure, where lie their main strength and means of hostility. Thus the bull attacks with his horns, and the horse with his heels, the beast of prey with his claws, the bird with his beak, and insects and other venomous creatures with their sting. We know not by what impulse they are prompted to the use of the various means which are so intimately connected with their preservation and welfare; and we call it instinct. We may be certain it does not arise from a careful survey of their parts and members, and a methodised selection of the means which shall be found most effectual for the accomplishment of their ends. There is no premeditation; and, without anatomical knowledge, or any distinct acquaintance with their image and likeness, they proceed straight to their purpose.

Hence, even as men, they are more familiar with the figures and appearance of their fellows, their allies, or their enemies, than with their own.

Man is a creature of mingled substance. I am many times a day compelled to acknowledge what a low, mean and contemptible being I am. Philip of Macedon had no need to give it in charge to a page, to repair to him every morning, and repeat, "Remember, sir, you are a man." A variety of circumstances occur to us, while we eat, and drink, and submit to the humiliating necessities of nature, that may well inculcate into us this salutary lesson. The wonder rather is, that man, who has so many things to put him in mind to be humble and despise himself, should ever have been susceptible of pride and disdain. Nebuchadnezzar must indeed have been the most besotted of mortals, if it were necessary that he should be driven from among men, and made to eat grass like an ox, to convince him that he was not the equal of the power that made him.

But fortunately, as I have said, man is a "stranger at home." Were it not for this, how incomprehensible would be

The ceremony that to great ones 'longs, The monarch's crown, and the deputed sword, The marshal's truncheon, and the judge's robe!

How ludicrous would be the long procession and the caparisoned horse, the gilded chariot and the flowing train, the colours flying, the drums beating, and the sound of trumpets rending the air, which after all only introduce to us an ordinary man, no otherwise perhaps distinguished from the vilest of the ragged spectators, than by the accident of his birth!

But what is of more importance in the temporary oblivion we are enabled to throw over the refuse of the body, it is thus we arrive at the majesty of man. That sublimity of conception which renders the poet, and the man of great literary and original endowments "in apprehension like a God," we could not have, if we were not privileged occasionally to cast away the slough and exuviae of the body from incumbering and dishonouring us, even as Ulysses passed over his threshold, stripped of the rags that had obscured him, while Minerva enlarged his frame, and gave loftiness to his stature, added a youthful beauty and grace to his motions, and caused his eyes to flash with more than mortal fire. With what disdain, when I have been rapt in the loftiest moods of mind, do I look down upon my limbs, the house of clay that contains me, the gross flesh and blood of which my frame is composed, and wonder at a lodging, poorly fitted to entertain so divine a guest!

A still more important chapter in the history of the human mind has its origin in these considerations. Hence it is that unenlightened man, in almost all ages and countries, has been induced, independently of divine revelation, to regard death, the most awful event to which we are subject, as not being the termination of his existence. We see the body of our friend become insensible, and remain without motion, or any external indication of what we call life. We can shut it up in an apartment, and visit it from day to day. If we had perseverance enough, and could so far conquer the repugnance and humiliating feeling with which the experiment would be attended, we might follow step by step the process of decomposition and putrefaction, and observe by what degrees the "dust returned unto earth as it was." But, in spite of this demonstration of the senses, man still believes that there is something in him that lives after death. The mind is so infinitely superior in character to this case of flesh that incloses it, that he cannot persuade himself that it and the body perish together.

There are two considerations, the force of which made man a religious animal. The first is, his proneness to ascribe hostility or benevolent intention to every thing of a memorable sort that occurs to him in the order of nature. The second is that of which I have just treated, the superior dignity of mind over body. This, we persuade ourselves, shall subsist uninjured by the mutations of our corporeal frame, and undestroyed by the wreck of the material universe.


{Greek—omitted} Thucydides, Lib.I, cap. 84.



One of the earliest judgments that is usually made by those whose attention is turned to the characters of men in the social state, is of the great inequality with which the gifts of the understanding are distributed among us.

Go into a miscellaneous society; sit down at table with ten or twelve men; repair to a club where as many are assembled in an evening to relax from the toils of the day—it is almost proverbial, that one or two of these persons will perhaps be brilliant, and the rest "weary, stale, flat and unprofitable."

Go into a numerous school—the case will be still more striking. I have been present where two men of superior endowments endeavoured to enter into a calculation on the subject; and they agreed that there was not above one boy in a hundred, who would be found to possess a penetrating understanding, and to be able to strike into a path of intellect that was truly his own. How common is it to hear the master of such a school say, "Aye, I am proud of that lad; I have been a schoolmaster these thirty years, and have never had such another!"

The society above referred to, the dinner-party, or the club, was to a considerable degree select, brought together by a certain supposed congeniality between the individuals thus assembled. Were they taken indiscriminately, as boys are when consigned to the care of a schoolmaster, the proportion of the brilliant would not be a whit greater than in the latter case.

A main criterion of the superiority of the schoolboy will be found in his mode of answering a casual question proposed by the master. The majority will be wholly at fault, will shew that they do not understand the question, and will return an answer altogether from the purpose. One in a hundred perhaps, perhaps in a still less proportion, will reply in a laudable manner, and convey his ideas in perspicuous and spirited language.

It does not certainly go altogether so ill, with men grown up to years of maturity. They do not for the most part answer a plain question in a manner to make you wonder at their fatuity.

A main cause of the disadvantageous appearance exhibited by the ordinary schoolboy, lies in what we denominate sheepishness. He is at a loss, and in the first place stares at you, instead of giving an answer. He does not make by many degrees so poor a figure among his equals, as when he is addressed by his seniors.

One of the reasons of the latter phenomenon consists in the torpedo effect of what we may call, under the circumstances, the difference of ranks. The schoolmaster is a despot to his scholar; for every man is a despot, who delivers his judgment from the single impulse of his own will. The boy answers his questioner, as Dolon answers Ulysses in the Iliad, at the point of the sword. It is to a certain degree the same thing, when the boy is questioned merely by his senior. He fears he knows not what,—a reprimand, a look of lofty contempt, a gesture of summary disdain. He does not think it worth his while under these circumstances, to "gird up the loins of his mind." He cannot return a free and intrepid answer but to the person whom he regards as his equal. There is nothing that has so disqualifying an effect upon him who is to answer, as the consideration that he who questions is universally acknowledged to be a being of a higher sphere, or, as between the boy and the man, that he is the superior in conventional and corporal strength.

Nor is it simple terror that restrains the boy from answering his senior with the same freedom and spirit, as he would answer his equal. He does not think it worth his while to enter the lists. He despairs of doing the thing in the way that shall gain approbation, and therefore will not try. He is like a boxer, who, though skilful, will not fight with one hand tied behind him. He would return you the answer, if it occurred without his giving himself trouble; but he will not rouse his soul, and task his strength to give it. He is careless; and prefers trusting to whatever construction you may put upon him, and whatever treatment you may think proper to bestow upon him. It is the most difficult thing in the world, for the schoolmaster to inspire into his pupil the desire to do his best.

Among full-grown men the case is different. The schoolboy, whether under his domestic roof, or in the gymnasium, is in a situation similar to that of the Christian slaves in Algiers, as described by Cervantes in his History of the Captive. "They were shut up together in a species of bagnio, from whence they were brought out from time to time to perform certain tasks in common: they might also engage in pranks, and get into scrapes, as they pleased; but the master would hang up one, impale another, and cut off the ears of a third, for little occasion, or even wholly without it." Such indeed is the condition of the child almost from the hour of birth. The severities practised upon him are not so great as those resorted to by the proprietor of slaves in Algiers; but they are equally arbitrary and without appeal. He is free to a certain extent, even as the captives described by Cervantes; but his freedom is upon sufferance, and is brought to an end at any time at the pleasure of his seniors. The child therefore feels his way, and ascertains by repeated experiments how far he may proceed with impunity. He is like the slaves of the Romans on the days of the Saturnalia. He may do what he pleases, and command tasks to his masters, but with this difference—the Roman slave knew when the days of his licence would be over, and comported himself accordingly; but the child cannot foresee at any moment when the bell will be struck, and the scene reversed. It is commonly enough incident to this situation, that the being who is at the mercy of another, will practise, what Tacitus calls, a "vernacular urbanity," make his bold jests, and give utterance to his saucy innuendoes, with as much freedom as the best; but he will do it with a wary eye, not knowing how soon he may feel his chain plucked! and himself compulsorily reduced into the established order. His more usual refuge therefore is, to do nothing, and to wrap himself up in that neutrality towards his seniors, that may best protect him from their reprimand and their despotism.

The condition of the full-grown man is different from that of the child, and he conducts himself accordingly. He is always to a certain degree under the control of the political society of which he is a member. He is also exposed to the chance of personal insult and injury from those who are stronger than he, or who may render their strength more considerable by combination and numbers. The political institutions which control him in certain respects, protect him also to a given degree from the robber and assassin, or from the man who, were it not for penalties and statutes, would perpetrate against him all the mischiefs which malignity might suggest. Civil policy however subjects him to a variety of evils, which wealth or corruption are accustomed to inflict under the forms of justice; at the same time that it can never wholly defend him from those violences to which he would be every moment exposed in what is called the state of nature.

The full-grown man in the mean time is well pleased when he escapes from the ergastulum where he had previously dwelt, and in which he had experienced corporal infliction and corporal restraint. At first, in the newness of his freedom, he breaks out into idle sallies and escapes, and is like the full-fed steed that manifests his wantonness in a thousand antics and ruades. But this is a temporary extravagance. He presently becomes as wise and calculating, as the schoolboy was before him.

The human being then, that has attained a certain stature, watches and poises his situation, and considers what he may do with impunity. He ventures at first with no small diffidence, and pretends to be twice as assured as he really is. He accumulates experiment after experiment, till they amount to a considerable volume. It is not till he has passed successive lustres, that he attains that firm step, and temperate and settled accent, which characterise the man complete. He then no longer doubts, but is ranged on the full level of the ripened members of the community.

There is therefore little room for wonder, if we find the same individual, whom we once knew a sheepish and irresolute schoolboy, that hung his head, that replied with inarticulated monotony, and stammered out his meaning, metamorphosed into a thoroughly manly character, who may take his place on the bench with senators, and deliver a grave and matured opinion as well as the best. It appears then that the trial and review of full-grown men is not altogether so disadvantageous to the reckoning of our common nature, as that of boys at school.

It is not however, that the full-grown man is not liable to be checked, reprimanded and rebuked, even as the schoolboy is. He has his wife to read him lectures, and rap his knuckles; he has his master, his landlord, or the mayor of his village, to tell him of his duty in an imperious style, and in measured sentences; if he is a member of a legislature, even there he receives his lessons, and is told, either in phrases of well-conceived irony, or by the exhibition of facts and reasonings which take him by surprise, that he is not altogether the person he deemed himself to be. But he does not mind it. Like Iago in the play, he "knows his price, and, by the faith of man, that he is worth no worse a place" than that which he occupies. He finds out the value of the check he receives, and lets it "pass by him like the idle wind"—a mastery, which the schoolboy, however he may affect it, never thoroughly attains to.

But it unfortunately happens, that, before he has arrived at that degree of independence, the fate of the individual is too often decided for ever. How are the majority of men trampled in the mire, made "hewers of wood, and drawers of water," long, very long, before there was an opportunity of ascertaining what it was of which they were capable! Thus almost every one is put in the place which by nature he was least fit for: and, while perhaps a sufficient quantity of talent is extant in each successive generation, yet, for want of each man's being duly estimated, and assigned his appropriate duty, the very reverse may appear to be the case. By the time that they have attained to that sober self-confidence that might enable them to assert themselves, they are already chained to a fate, or thrust down to a condition, from which no internal energies they possess can ever empower them to escape.



The reflections thus put down, may assist us in answering the question as to the way in which talents are distributed among men by the hand of nature.

All things upon the earth and under the earth, and especially all organised bodies of the animal or vegetable kingdom, fall into classes. It is by this means, that the child no sooner learns the terms, man, horse, tree, flower, than, if an object of any of these kinds which he has never seen before, is exhibited to him, he pronounces without hesitation, This is a man, a horse, a tree, a flower.

All organised bodies of the animal or vegetable kingdom are cast in a mould of given dimension and feature belonging to a certain number of individuals, though distinguished by inexhaustible varieties. It is by means of those features that the class of each individual is determined.

To confine ourselves to man.

All men, the monster and the lusus naturae excepted, have a certain form, a certain complement of limbs, a certain internal structure, and organs of sense—may we not add further, certain powers of intellect?

Hence it seems to follow, that man is more like and more equal to man, deformities of body and abortions of intellect excepted, than the disdainful and fastidious censors of our common nature are willing to admit.

I am inclined to believe, that, putting idiots and extraordinary cases out of the question, every human creature is endowed with talents, which, if rightly directed, would shew him to be apt, adroit, intelligent and acute, in the walk for which his organisation especially fitted him.

But the practices and modes of civilised life prompt us to take the inexhaustible varieties of man, as he is given into our guardianship by the bountiful hand of nature, and train him in one uniform exercise, as the raw recruit is treated when he is brought under the direction of his drill-serjeant.

The son of the nobleman, of the country-gentleman, and of those parents who from vanity or whatever other motive are desirous that their offspring should be devoted to some liberal profession, is in nearly all instances sent to the grammar-school. It is in this scene principally, that the judgment is formed that not above one boy in a hundred possesses an acute understanding, or will be able to strike into a path of intellect that shall be truly his own.

I do not object to this destination, if temperately pursued. It is fit that as many children as possible should have their chance of figuring in future life in what are called the higher departments of intellect. A certain familiar acquaintance with language and the shades of language as a lesson, will be beneficial to all. The youth who has expended only six months in acquiring the rudiments of the Latin tongue, will probably be more or less the better for it in all his future life.

But seven years are usually spent at the grammar-school by those who are sent to it. I do not in many cases object to this. The learned languages are assuredly of slow acquisition. In the education of those who are destined to what are called the higher departments of intellect, a long period may advantageously be spent in the study of words, while the progress they make in theory and dogmatical knowledge is too generally a store of learning laid up, to be unlearned again when they reach the period of real investigation and independent judgment. There is small danger of this in the acquisition of words.

But this method, indiscriminately pursued as it is now, is productive of the worst consequences. Very soon a judgment may be formed by the impartial observer, whether the pupil is at home in the study of the learned languages, and is likely to make an adequate progress. But parents are not impartial. There are also two reasons why the schoolmaster is not the proper person to pronounce: first, because, if he pronounces in the negative, he will have reason to fear that the parent will be offended; and secondly, because he does not like to lose his scholar. But the very moment that it can be ascertained, that the pupil is not at home in the study of the learned languages, and is unlikely to make an adequate progress, at that moment he should be taken from it.

The most palpable deficiency that is to be found in relation to the education of children, is a sound judgment to be formed as to the vocation or employment in which each is most fitted to excel.

As, according to the institutions of Lycurgus, as soon as a boy was born, he was visited by the elders of the ward, who were to decide whether he was to be reared, and would be made an efficient member of the commonwealth, so it were to be desired that, as early as a clear discrimination on the subject might be practicable, a competent decision should be given as to the future occupation and destiny of a child.

But this is a question attended with no common degree of difficulty. To the resolving such a question with sufficient evidence, a very considerable series of observations would become necessary. The child should be introduced into a variety of scenes, and a magazine, so to speak, of those things about which human industry and skill may be employed, should be successively set before him. The censor who is to decide on the result of the whole, should be a person of great sagacity, and capable of pronouncing upon a given amount of the most imperfect and incidental indications. He should be clear-sighted, and vigilant to observe the involuntary turns of an eye, expressions of a lip, and demonstrations of a limb.

The declarations of the child himself are often of very small use in the case. He may be directed by an impulse, which occurs in the morning, and vanishes in the evening. His preferences change as rapidly as the shapes we sometimes observe in the evening clouds, and are governed by whim or fantasy, and not by any of those indications which are parcel of his individual constitution. He desires in many instances to be devoted to a particular occupation, because his playfellow has been assigned to it before him.

The parent is not qualified to judge in this fundamental question, because he is under the dominion of partiality, and wishes that his child may become a lord chancellor, an archbishop, or any thing else, the possessor of which condition shall be enabled to make a splendid figure in the world. He is not qualified, because he is an interested party, and, either from an exaggerated estimate of his child's merits, or from a selfish shrinking from the cost it might require to mature them, is anxious to arrive at a conclusion not founded upon the intrinsic claims of the case to be considered.

Even supposing it to be sufficiently ascertained in what calling it is that the child will be most beneficially engaged, a thousand extrinsical circumstances will often prevent that from being the calling chosen. Nature distributes her gifts without any reference to the distinctions of artificial society. The genius that demanded the most careful and assiduous cultivation, that it might hereafter form the boast and ornament of the world, will be reared amidst the chill blasts of poverty; while he who was best adapted to make an exemplary carpenter or artisan, by being the son of a nobleman is thrown a thousand fathoms wide of his true destination.

Human creatures are born into the world with various dispositions. According to the memorable saying of Themistocles, One man can play upon a psaltery or harp, and another can by political skill and ingenuity convert a town of small account, weak and insignificant, into a city noble, magnificent and great.

It is comparatively a very little way that we can penetrate into the mysteries of nature.

Music seems to be one of the faculties most clearly defined in early youth. The child who has received that destination from the hands of nature, will even in infancy manifest a singular delight in musical sounds, and will in no long time imitate snatches of a tune. The present professor of music in the university of Oxford contrived for himself, I believe at three years old, a way for playing on an instrument, the piano forte, unprompted by any of the persons about him. This is called having an ear.

Instances nearly as precocious are related of persons, who afterwards distinguished themselves in the art of painting.

These two kinds of original destination appear to be placed beyond the reach of controversy.

Horace says, The poet is born a poet, and cannot be made so by the ingenuity of art: and this seems to be true. He sees the objects about him with an eye peculiarly his own; the sounds that reach his ear, produce an effect upon him, and leave a memory behind, different from that which is experienced by his fellows. His perceptions have a singular vividness.

The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling, Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;

And his imagination bodies forth The forms of things unknown,

It is not probable that any trainings of art can give these endowments to him who has not received them from the gift of nature.

The subtle network of the brain, or whatever else it is, that makes a man more fit for, and more qualified to succeed in, one occupation than another, can scarcely be followed up and detected either in the living subject or the dead one. But, as in the infinite variety of human beings no two faces are so alike that they cannot be distinguished, nor even two leaves plucked from the same tree(2), so it may reasonably be presumed, that there are varieties in the senses, the organs, and the internal structure of the human species, however delicate, and to the touch of the bystander evanescent, which may give to each individual a predisposition to rise to a supreme degree of excellence in some certain art or attainment, over a million of competitors.

(2) Papers between Clarke and Leibnitz, p. 95.

It has been said that all these distinctions and anticipations are idle, because man is born without innate ideas. Whatever is the incomprehensible and inexplicable power, which we call nature, to which he is indebted for his formation, it is groundless to suppose, that that power is cognisant of, and guides itself in its operations by, the infinite divisibleness of human pursuits in civilised society. A child is not designed by his original formation to be a manufacturer of shoes, for he may be born among a people by whom shoes are not worn, and still less is he destined by his structure to be a metaphysician, an astronomer, or a lawyer, a rope-dancer, a fortune-teller, or a juggler.

It is true that we cannot suppose nature to be guided in her operations by the infinite divisibleness of human pursuits in civilised society. But it is not the less true that one man is by his structure best fitted to excel in some one in particular of these multifarious pursuits, however fortuitously his individual structure and that pursuit may be brought into contact. Thus a certain calmness and steadiness of purpose, much flexibility, and a very accurate proportion of the various limbs of the body, are of great advantage in rope-dancing; while lightness of the fingers, and a readiness to direct our thoughts to the rapid execution of a purpose, joined with a steadiness of countenance adapted to what is figuratively called throwing dust in the eyes of the bystander, are of the utmost importance to the juggler: and so of the rest.

It is as much the temper of the individual, as any particular subtlety of organ or capacity, that prepares him to excel in one pursuit rather than a thousand others. And he must have been a very inattentive observer of the indications of temper in an infant in the first months of his existence, who does not confess that there are various peculiarities in that respect which the child brings into the world with him.

There is excellent sense in the fable of Achilles in the island of Scyros. He was placed there by his mother in female attire among the daughters of Lycomedes, that he might not be seduced to engage in the Trojan war. Ulysses was commissioned to discover him, and, while he exhibited jewels and various woman's ornaments to the princesses, contrived to mix with his stores a suit of armour, the sight of which immediately awakened the spirit of the hero.

Every one has probably within him a string more susceptible than the rest, that demands only a kindred impression to be made, to call forth its latent character. Like the war-horse described in the Book of Job: "He paweth in the valley, and rejoiceth in his strength; he goeth on to meet the armed men; he smelleth the battle afar off, the thunder of the captains, and the shouting."

Nothing can be more unlike than the same man to himself, when he is touched, and not touched, upon

the master-string That makes most harmony or discord to him.

It is like the case of Manlius Torquatus in Livy, who by his father was banished among his hinds for his clownish demeanour and untractableness to every species of instruction that was offered him, but who, understanding that his parent was criminally arraigned for barbarous treatment of him, first resolutely resorted to the accuser, compelling him upon pain of death to withdraw his accusation, and subsequently, having surmounted this first step towards an energetic carriage and demeanour, proved one of the most illustrious characters that the Roman republic had to boast.

Those children whose parents have no intention of training them to the highest departments of intellect, and have therefore no thought of bestowing on them a classical education, nevertheless for the most part send them to a school where they are to be taught arithmetic, and the principles of English grammar. I should say in this case, as I said before on the subject of classical education, that a certain initiation in these departments of knowledge, even if they are pursued a very little way, will probably be beneficial to all.

But it will often be found, in these schools for more ordinary education, as in the school for classical instruction, that the majority of the pupils will be seen to be unpromising, and, what is usually called, dull. The mistake is, that the persons by whom this is perceived, are disposed to set aside these pupils as blockheads, and unsusceptible of any species of ingenuity.

It is unreasonable that we should draw such a conclusion.

In the first place, as has been already observed, it is the most difficult thing in the world for the schoolmaster to inspire into his pupil the desire to do his best. An overwhelming majority of lads at school are in their secret hearts rebels to the discipline under which they are placed. The instructor draws, one way, and the pupil another. The object of the latter is to find out how he may escape censure and punishment with the smallest expence of scholastic application. He looks at the task that is set him, without the most distant desire of improvement, but with alienated and averted eye. And, where this is the case, the wonder is not that he does not make a brilliant figure. It is rather an evidence of the slavish and subservient spirit incident to the majority of human beings, that he learns any thing. Certainly the schoolmaster, who judges of the powers of his pupil's mind by the progress he makes in what he would most gladly be excused from learning, must be expected perpetually to fall into the most egregious mistakes.

The true test of the capacity of the individual, is where the desire to succeed, and accomplish something effective, is already awakened in the youthful mind. Whoever has found out what it is in which he is qualified to excel, from that moment becomes a new creature. The general torpor and sleep of the soul, which is incident to the vast multitude of the human species, is departed from him. We begin, from the hour in which our limbs are enabled to exert themselves freely, with a puerile love of sport. Amusement is the order of the day. But no one was ever so fond of play, that he had not also his serious moments. Every human creature perhaps is sensible to the stimulus of ambition. He is delighted with the thought that he also shall be somebody, and not a mere undistinguished pawn, destined to fill up a square in the chess-board of human society. He wishes to be thought something of, and to be gazed upon. Nor is it merely the wish to be admired that excites him: he acts, that he may be satisfied with himself. Self-respect is a sentiment dear to every heart. The emotion can with difficulty be done justice to, that a man feels, who is conscious that he is breathing his true element, that every stroke that he strikes will have the effect he designs, that he has an object before him, and every moment approaches nearer to that object. Before, he was wrapped in an opake cloud, saw nothing distinctly, and struck this way and that at hazard like a blind man. But now the sun of understanding has risen upon him; and every step that he takes, he advances with an assured and undoubting confidence.

It is an admirable remark, that the book which we read at the very time that we feel a desire to read it, affords us ten times the improvement, that we should have derived from it when it was taken up by us as a task. It is just so with the man who chooses his occupation, and feels assured that that about which he is occupied is his true and native field. Compare this person with the boy that studies the classics, or arithmetic, or any thing else, with a secret disinclination, and, as Shakespear expresses it, "creeps like snail, unwillingly, to school." They do not seem as if they belonged to the same species.

The result of these observations certainly strongly tends to support the proposition laid down early in the present Essay, that, putting idiots and extraordinary cases out of the question, every human creature is endowed with talents, which, if rightly directed, would shew him to be apt, adroit, intelligent and acute, in the walk for which his organisation especially fitted him.



What a beautiful and encouraging view is thus afforded us of our common nature! It is not true, as certain disdainful and fastidious censurers of their fellow-men would persuade us to believe, that a thousand seeds are sown in the wide field of humanity, for no other purpose than that half-a-dozen may grow up into something magnificent and splendid, and that the rest, though not absolutely extinguished in the outset, are merely suffered to live that they may furnish manure and nourishment to their betters. On the contrary, each man, according to this hypothesis, has a sphere in which he may shine, and may contemplate the exercise of his own powers with a well-grounded satisfaction. He produces something as perfect in its kind, as that which is effected under another form by the more brilliant and illustrious of his species. He stands forward with a serene confidence in the ranks of his fellow-creatures, and says, "I also have my place in society, that I fill in a manner with which I have a right to be satisfied." He vests a certain portion of ingenuity in the work he turns out. He incorporates his mind with the labour of his hands; and a competent observer will find character and individuality in it.

He has therefore nothing of the sheepishness of the ordinary schoolboy, the tasks imposed upon whom by his instructor are foreign to the true bent of his mind, and who stands cowed before his seniors, shrinking under the judgment they may pass upon him, and the oppression they may exercise towards him. He is probably competent to talk in a manner that may afford instruction to men in other respects wise and accomplished, and is no less clear and well-digested in his discourse respecting the subjects to which his study and labour have been applied, than they are on the questions that have exercised the powers of analysis with which they are endowed. Like Elihu in the Book of Job, he says, "I am young, and you are old; I said therefore, Days shall speak, and multitude of years shall teach wisdom. But there is a spirit in man; and the inspiration of the Almighty giveth him understanding. Great men are not always wise; neither do the aged understand judgment. Hearken therefore to me; and I also will shew my opinion."

What however in the last instance is affirmed, is not always realised in the experiment. The humblest mechanic, who works con amore, and feels that he discharges his office creditably, has a sober satisfaction in the retrospect, and is able to express himself perspicuously and well on the subject that has occupied his industry. He has a just confidence in himself. If the occasion arises, on which he should speak on the subject of what he does, and the methods he adopts for effecting it, he will undoubtedly acquit himself to the satisfaction of those who hear him. He knows that the explanations he can afford will be sound and masculine, and will stand the test of a rigid examination.

But, in proportion as he feels the ground on which he stands, and his own power to make it good, he will not fail to retire from an audience that is not willing to be informed by him. He will often appear in the presence of those, whom the established arrangements of society call his superiors, who are more copiously endowed with the treasures of language, and who, confident perhaps in the advantage of opulence, and what is called, however they may have received it, a liberal education, regard with disdain his artless and unornamented explanations. He did not, it may be, expect this. And, having experienced several times such unmerited treatment, he is not willing again to encounter it. He knew the worth of what he had to offer. And, finding others indisposed to listen to his suggestions, he contentedly confines them within the circle of his own thoughts.

To this it must be added that, though he is able to explain himself perspicuously, yet he is not master of the graces of speech, nor even perhaps of the niceties of grammar. His voice is not tuned to those winning inflections by which men, accustomed to the higher ranks of society, are enabled so to express themselves,

That aged ears play truant at their tales, And younger hearings are quite ravished, So sweet and voluble is their discourse.

On the contrary there is a ruggedness in his manner that jars upon the sense. It is easy for the light and supercilious to turn him into ridicule. And those who will not be satisfied with the soundness of his matter, expounded, as he is able to expound it, in clear and appropriate terms, will yield him small credit, and listen to him with little delight.

These considerations therefore bring us back again to the reasons of the prevalent opinion, that the majority of mankind are dull, and of apprehension narrow and confused. The mass of boys in the process of their education appear so, because little of what is addressed to them by their instructors, awakens their curiosity, and inspires them with the desire to excel. The concealed spark of ambition is not yet cleared from the crust that enveloped it as it first came from the hand of nature. And in like manner the elder persons, who have not experienced the advantages of a liberal education, or by whom small profit was made by those advantages, being defective in exterior graces, are generally listened to with impatience, and therefore want the confidence and the inclination to tell what they know.

But these latter, if they are not attended to upon the subjects to which their attention and ingenuity have been applied, do not the less possess a knowledge and skill which are intrinsically worthy of applause. They therefore contentedly shut up the sum of their acquisitions in their own bosoms, and are satisfied with the consciousness that they have not been deficient in performing an adequate part in the generation of men among whom they live.

Those persons who favour the opinion of the incessant improveableness of the human species, have felt strongly prompted to embrace the creed of Helvetius, who affirms that the minds of men, as they are born into the world, are in a state of equality, alike prepared for any kind of discipline and instruction that may be afforded them, and that it depends upon education only, in the largest sense of that word, including every impression that may be made upon the mind, intentional or accidental, from the hour of our birth, whether we shall be poets or philosophers, dancers or singers, chemists or mathematicians, astronomers or dissectors of the faculties of our common nature.

But this is not true. It has already appeared in the course of this Essay, that the talent, or, more accurately speaking, the original suitableness of the individual for the cultivation, of music or painting, depends upon certain peculiarities that we bring into the world with us. The same thing may be affirmed of the poet. As, in the infinite variety of human beings, there are no two faces so alike that they cannot be distinguished, nor even two leaves plucked from the same tree, so there are varieties in the senses, the organs, and the internal structure of the human species, however delicate, and to the touch of the bystander evanescent, which give to each individual a predisposition to rise to excellence in one particular art or attainment, rather than in any other.

And this view of things, if well considered, is as favourable, nay, more so, to the hypothesis of the successive improveableness of the human species, as the creed of Helvetius. According to that philosopher, every human creature that is born into the world, is capable of becoming, or being made, the equal of Homer, Bacon or Newton, and as easily and surely of the one as the other. This creed, if sincerely embraced, no doubt affords a strong stimulus to both preceptor and pupil, since, if true, it teaches us that any thing can be made of any thing, and that, wherever there is mind, it is within the compass of possibility, not only that that mind can be raised to a high pitch of excellence, but even to a high pitch of that excellence, whatever it is, that we shall prefer to all others, and most earnestly desire.

Still this creed will, after all, leave both preceptor and pupil in a state of feeling considerably unsatisfactory. What it sets before us, is too vast and indefinite. We shall be left long perhaps in a state of balance as to what species of excellence we shall choose; and, in the immense field of accessible improvement it offers to us, without land-mark or compass for the direction of our course, it is scarcely possible that we should feel that assured confidence and anticipation of success, which are perhaps indispensibly required to the completion of a truly arduous undertaking.

But, upon the principles laid down in this Essay, the case is widely different. We are here presented in every individual human creature with a subject better fitted for one sort of cultivation than another. We are excited to an earnest study of the individual, that we may the more unerringly discover what pursuit it is for which his nature and qualifications especially prepare him. We may be long in choosing. We may be even on the brink of committing a considerable mistake. Our subsequent observations may enable us to correct the inference we were disposed to make from those which went before. Our sagacity is flattered by the result of the laborious scrutiny which this view of our common nature imposes upon us.

In addition to this we reap two important advantages.

In the first place, we feel assured that every child that is born has his suitable sphere, to which if he is devoted, he will not fail to make an honourable figure, or, in other words, will be seen to be endowed with faculties, apt, adroit, intelligent and acute. This consideration may reasonably stimulate us to call up all our penetration for the purpose of ascertaining the proper destination of the child for whom we are interested.

And, secondly, having arrived at this point, we shall find ourselves placed in a very different predicament from the guardian or instructor, who, having selected at random the pursuit which his fancy dictates, and in the choice of which he is encouraged by the presumptuous assertions of a wild metaphysical philosophy, must often, in spite of himself, feel a secret misgiving as to the final event. He may succeed, and present to a wondering world a consummate musician, painter, poet, or philosopher; for even blind chance may sometimes hit the mark, as truly as the most perfect skill. But he will probably fail. Sudet multum, frustraque laboret. And, if he is disappointed, he will not only feel that disappointment in the ultimate result, but also in every step of his progress. When he has done his best, exerted his utmost industry, and consecrated every power of his soul to the energies he puts forth, he may close every day, sometimes with a faint shadow of success, and sometimes with entire and blank miscarriage. And the latter will happen ten thousand times, for once that the undertaking shall be blessed with a prosperous event.

But, when the destination that is given to a child has been founded upon a careful investigation of the faculties, tokens, and accidental aspirations which characterise his early years, it is then that every step that is made with him, becomes a new and surer source of satisfaction. The moment the pursuit for which his powers are adapted is seriously proposed to him, his eyes sparkle, and a second existence, in addition to that which he received at his birth, descends upon him. He feels that he has now obtained something worth living for. He feels that he is at home, and in a sphere that is appropriately his own. Every effort that he makes is successful. At every resting-place in his race of improvement he pauses, and looks back on what he has done with complacency. The master cannot teach him so fast, as he is prompted to acquire.

What a contrast does this species of instruction exhibit, to the ordinary course of scholastic education! There, every lesson that is prescribed, is a source of indirect warfare between the instructor and the pupil, the one professing to aim at the advancement of him that is taught, in the career of knowledge, and the other contemplating the effect that is intended to be produced upon him with aversion, and longing to be engaged in any thing else, rather than in that which is pressed upon his foremost attention. In this sense a numerous school is, to a degree that can scarcely be adequately described, the slaughter-house of mind. It is like the undertaking, related by Livy, of Accius Navius, the augur, to cut a whetstone with a razor—with this difference, that our modern schoolmasters are not endowed with the gift of working miracles, and, when the experiment falls into their hands, the result of their efforts is a pitiful miscarriage. Knowledge is scarcely in any degree imparted. But, as they are inured to a dogged assiduity, and persist in their unavailing attempts, though the shell of science, so to speak, is scarcely in the smallest measure penetrated, yet that inestimable gift of the author of our being, the sharpness of human faculties, is so blunted and destroyed, that it can scarcely ever be usefully employed even for those purposes which it was originally best qualified to effect.

A numerous school is that mint from which the worst and most flagrant libels on our nature are incessantly issued. Hence it is that we are taught, by a judgment everlastingly repeated, that the majority of our kind are predestinated blockheads.

Not that it is by any means to be recommended, that a little writing and arithmetic, and even the first rudiments of classical knowledge, so far as they can be practicably imparted, should be withheld from any. The mischief is, that we persist, month after month, and year after year, in sowing our seed, when it has already been fully ascertained, that no suitable and wholsome crop will ever be produced.

But what is perhaps worse is, that we are accustomed to pronounce, that that soil, which will not produce the crop of which we have attempted to make it fertile, is fit for nothing. The majority of boys, at the very period when the buds of intellect begin to unfold themselves, are so accustomed to be told that they are dull and fit for nothing, that the most pernicious effects are necessarily produced. They become half convinced by the ill-boding song of the raven, perpetually croaking in their ears; and, for the other half, though by no means assured that the sentence of impotence awarded against them is just, yet, folding up their powers in inactivity, they are contented partly to waste their energies in pure idleness and sport, and partly to wait, with minds scarcely half awake, for the moment when their true destination shall be opened before them.

Not that it is by any means to be desired that the child in his earlier years should meet with no ruggednesses in his way, and that he should perpetually tread "the primrose path of dalliance." Clouds and tempests occasionally clear the atmosphere of intellect, not less than that of the visible world. The road to the hill of science, and to the promontory of heroic virtue, is harsh and steep, and from time to time puts to the proof the energies of him who would ascend their topmost round.

There are many things which every human creature should learn, so far as, agreeably to the constitution of civilised society, they can be brought within his reach. He should be induced to learn them, willingly if possible, but, if that cannot be thoroughly effected, yet with half a will. Such are reading, writing, arithmetic, and the first principles of grammar; to which shall be added, as far as may be, the rudiments of all the sciences that are in ordinary use. The latter however should not be brought forward too soon; and, if wisely delayed, the tyro himself will to a certain degree enter into the views of his instructor, and be disposed to essay Quid valeant humeri, quid ferre recusent. But, above all, the beginnings of those studies should be encouraged, which unfold the imagination, familiarise us with the feelings, the joys and sufferings of our fellow-beings, and teach us to put ourselves in their place and eagerly fly to their assistance.



I knew a man of eminent intellectual faculties(3), one of whose favourite topics of moral prudence was, that it is the greatest mistake in the world to suppose, that, when we have discovered the special aspiration of the youthful mind, we are bound to do every thing in our power to assist its progress. He maintained on the contrary, that it is our true wisdom to place obstacles in its way, and to thwart it: as we may be well assured that, unless it is a mere caprice, it will shew its strength in conquering difficulties, and that all the obstacles that we can conjure up will but inspire it with the greater earnestness to attain final success.

(3) Henry Fuseli.

The maxim here stated, taken to an unlimited extent, is doubtless a very dangerous one. There are obstacles that scarcely any strength of man would be sufficient to conquer. "Chill penury" will sometimes "repress the noblest rage," that almost ever animated a human spirit: and our wisest course will probably be, secretly to favour, even when we seem most to oppose, the genuine bent of the youthful aspirer.

But the thing of greatest importance is, that we should not teach him to estimate his powers at too low a rate. One of the wisest of all the precepts comprised in what are called the Golden Verses of Pythagoras, is that, in which he enjoins his pupil to "reverence himself." Ambition is the noblest root that can be planted in the garden of the human soul: not the ambition to be applauded and admired, to be famous and looked up to, to be the darling theme of "stupid starers and of loud huzzas;" but the ambition to fill a respectable place in the theatre of society, to be useful and to be esteemed, to feel that we have not lived in vain, and that we are entitled to the most honourable of all dismissions, an enlightened self-approbation. And nothing can more powerfully tend to place this beyond our acquisition, even our contemplation, than the perpetual and hourly rebuffs which ingenuous youth is so often doomed to sustain from the supercilious pedant, and the rigid decision of his unfeeling elders.

Self-respect to be nourished in the mind of the pupil, is one of the most valuable results of a well conducted education. To accomplish this, it is most necessary that it should never be inculcated into him, that he is dull. Upon the principles of this Essay, any unfavourable appearances that may present themselves, do not arise from the dulness of the pupil, but from the error of those upon whose superintendence he is cast, who require of him the things for which he is not adapted, and neglect those in which he is qualified to excel.

It is further necessary, if self-respect is one of the most desirable results of a well-conducted education, that, as we should not humble the pupil in his own eyes by disgraceful and humiliating language, so we should abstain, as much as possible, from personal ill-treatment, and the employing towards him the measures of an owner towards his purchased or indentured slave. Indignity is of all things the most hostile to the best purposes of a liberal education. It may be necessary occasionally to employ, towards a human creature in his years of nonage, the stimulants of exhortation and remonstrance even in the pursuits to which he is best adapted, for the purpose of overcoming the instability and fits of idleness to which all men, and most of all in their early years, are subject: though in such pursuits a necessity of this sort can scarcely be supposed. The bow must not always be bent; and it is good for us that we should occasionally relax and play the fool. It may more readily be imagined, that some incitement may be called for in those things which, as has been mentioned above, it may be fit he should learn though with but half a will. All freaks must not be indulged; admonition is salutary, and that the pupil should be awakened by his instructor to sober reflection and to masculine exertion. Every Telemachus should have his Mentor.—But through the whole it is necessary that the spirit of the pupil should not be broken, and that he should not be treated with contumely. Stripes should in all instances be regarded as the last resort, and as a sort of problem set up for the wisdom of the wise to solve, whether the urgent case can arise in which it shall be requisite to have recourse to them.

The principles here laid down have the strongest tendency to prove to us how little progress has yet been made in the art of turning human creatures to the best account. Every man has his place, in which if he can be fixed, the most fastidious judge cannot look upon him with disdain. But, to effect this arrangement, an exact attention is required to ascertain the pursuit in which he will best succeed. In India the whole mass of the members of the community is divided into castes; and, instead of a scrupulous attention being paid to the early intimations of individual character, it is already decided upon each, before he comes into the world, which child shall be a priest, and which a soldier, a physician, a lawyer, a merchant, and an artisan. In Europe we do not carry this so far, and are not so elaborately wrong. But the rudiments of the same folly flourish among us; and the accident of birth for the most part decides the method of life to which each individual with whatever violence shall be dedicated. A very few only, by means of energies that no tyranny can subdue, escape from the operation of this murderous decree.

Nature never made a dunce. Imbecility of mind is as rare, as deformity of the animal frame. If this position be true, we have only to bear it in mind, feelingly to convince ourselves, how wholesale the error is into which society has hitherto fallen in the destination of its members, and how much yet remains to be done, before our common nature can be vindicated from the basest of all libels, the most murderous of all proscriptions.

There is a passage in Voltaire, in which he expresses himself to this effect: "It is after all but a slight line of separation that divides the man of genius from the man of ordinary mould." I remember the place where, and the time when, I read this passage. But I have been unable to find the expression. It is however but reasonable that I should refer to it on this occasion, that I may hereby shew so eminent a modern concurring with the venerable ancient in an early era of letters, whose dictum I have prefixed to this Essay, to vouch to a certain extent for the truth of the doctrine I have delivered.


In the preceding Essay I have endeavoured to establish the proposition, that every human creature, idiots and extraordinary cases excepted, is endowed with talents, which, if rightly directed, would shew him to be apt, adroit, intelligent and acute, in the walk for which his organisation especially fitted him.

There is however a sort of phenomenon, by no means of rare occurrence, which tends to place the human species under a less favourable point of view. Many men, as has already appeared, are forced into situations and pursuits ill assorted to their talents, and by that means are exhibited to their contemporaries in a light both despicable and ludicrous.

But this is not all. Men are not only placed, by the absurd choice of their parents, or an imperious concurrence of circumstances, in destinations and employments in which they can never appear to advantage: they frequently, without any external compulsion, select for themselves objects of their industry, glaringly unadapted to their powers, and in which all their efforts must necessarily terminate in miscarriage.

I remember a young man, who had been bred a hair-dresser, but who experienced, as he believed, the secret visitations of the Muse, and became inspired. "With sad civility, and aching head," I perused no fewer than six comedies from the pen of this aspiring genius, in no page of which I could discern any glimmering of poetry or wit, or in reality could form a guess what it was that the writer intended in his elaborate effusions. Such are the persons enumerated by Pope in the Prologue to his Satires,

a parson, much bemused in beer, A maudlin poetess, a rhyming peer, A clerk, foredoomed his father's sou to cross, Who pens a stanza, when he should engross.

Every manager of a theatre, and every publishing bookseller of eminence, can produce you in each revolving season whole reams, almost cartloads, of blurred paper, testifying the frequent recurrence of this phenomenon.

The cause however of this painful mistake does not lie in the circumstance, that each man has not from the hand of nature an appropriate destination, a sphere assigned him, in which, if life should be prolonged to him, he might be secure of the respect of his neighbours, and might write upon his tomb, "I have filled an honourable career; I have finished my course."

One of the most glaring infirmities of our nature is discontent. One of the most unquestionable characteristics of the human mind is the love of novelty. Omne ignotum pro magnifico est. We are satiated with those objects which make a part of our business in every day, and are desirous of trying something that is a stranger to us. Whatever we see through a mist, or in the twilight, is apt to be apprehended by us as something admirable, for the single reason that it is seen imperfectly. What we are sure that we can easily and adequately effect, we despise. He that goes into battle with an adversary of more powerful muscle or of greater practice than himself, feels a tingling sensation, not unallied to delight, very different from that which would occur to him, when his victory was easy and secure.

Each man is conscious what it is that he can certainly effect. This does not therefore present itself to him as an object of ambition. We have many of us internally something of the spirit expressed by the apostle: "Forgetting the things that are behind, we press forward to those that remain." And, so long as this precept is soberly applied, no conduct can be more worthy of praise. Improvement is the appropriate race of man. We cannot stand still. If we do not go forward, we shall inevitably recede. Shakespear, when he wrote his Hamlet, did not know that he could produce Macbeth and Othello.

But the progress of a man of reflection will be, to a considerable degree, in the path he has already entered. If he strikes into a new career, it will not be without deep premeditation. He will attempt nothing wantonly. He will carefully examine his powers, and see for what they are adapted. Sudet multum. He will be like the man, who first in a frail bark committed himself to the treachery of the waves. He will keep near to the shore; he will tremble for the audaciousness of his enterprise; he will feel that it calls for all his alertness and vigilance. The man of reflection will not begin, till he feels his mind swelling with his purposed theme, till his blood flows fitfully and with full pulses through his veins, till his eyes sparkle with the intenseness of his conceptions, and his "bosom labours with the God."

But the fool dashes in at once. He does not calculate the dangers of his enterprise. He does not study the map of the country he has to traverse. He does not measure the bias of the ground, the rising knolls and the descending slopes that are before him. He obeys a blind and unreflecting impulse.

His case bears a striking resemblance to what is related of Oliver Goldsmith. Goldsmith was a man of the most felicitous endowments. His prose flows with such ease, copiousness and grace, that it resembles the song of the sirens. His verses are among the most spirited, natural and unaffected in the English language. Yet he was not contented. If he saw a consummate dancer, he knew no reason why he should not do as well, and immediately felt disposed to essay his powers. If he heard an accomplished musician, he undertook to enter the lists with him. His conduct was of a piece with that of the countryman, who, cheapening spectacles, and making experiment of them for ever in vain upon the book before him, was at length asked, "Could you ever read without spectacles?" to which he was obliged to answer, "I do not know; I never tried." The vanity of Goldsmith was infinite; and his failure in such attempts must necessarily have been ludicrous.

The splendour of the thing presented to our observation, awakens the spirit within us. The applause and admiration excited by certain achievements and accomplishments infects us with desire. We are like the youthful Themistocles, who complained that the trophies of Miltiades would not let him sleep. We are like the novice Guido, who, while looking on the paintings of Michael Angelo, exclaimed, "I also am a painter." Themistocles and Guido were right, for they were of kindred spirit to the great men they admired. But the applause bestowed on others will often generate uneasiness and a sigh, in men least of all qualified by nature to acquire similar applause. We are not contented to proceed in the path of obscure usefulness and worth. We are eager to be admired, and thus often engage in pursuits for which perhaps we are of all men least adapted Each one would be the man above him.

And this is the cause why we see so many individuals, who might have passed their lives with honour, devote themselves to incredible efforts, only that they may be made supremely ridiculous.

To this let it be added, that the wisest man that ever existed, never yet knew himself, especially in the morning of life. The person, who ultimately stamped his history with the most heroic achievements, was far perhaps even from suspecting, in the dawn of his existence, that he should realise the miracles that mark its maturity. He might be ready to exclaim, with Hazael in the Scriptures, "Is thy servant more than man, that he should do this great thing?" The sublimest poet that ever sung, was peradventure, while a stripling, unconscious of the treasures which formed a part of the fabric of his mind, and unsuspicious of the high destiny that in the sequel awaited him. What wonder then, that, awaking from the insensibility and torpor which precede the activity of the soul, some men should believe in a fortune that shall never be theirs, and anticipate a glory they are fated never to sustain! And for the same reason, when unanticipated failure becomes their lot, they are unwilling at first to be discouraged, and find a certain gallantry in persevering, and "against hope believing in hope."

This is the explanation of a countless multitude of failures that occur in the career of literature. Nor is this phenomenon confined to literature. In all the various paths of human existence, that appear to have something in them splendid and alluring, there are perpetual instances of daring adventures, unattended with the smallest rational hope of success. Optat ephippia bos piger.

All quit their sphere, and rush into the skies.

But, beside these instances of perfect and glaring miscarriage, there are examples worthy of a deeper regret, where the juvenile candidate sets out in the morning of life with the highest promise, with colours flying, and the spirit-stirring note of gallant preparation, when yet his voyage of life is destined to terminate in total discomfiture. I have seen such an one, whose early instructors regarded him with the most sanguine expectation, and his elders admired him, while his youthful competitors unreluctantly confessed his superiority, and gave way on either side to his triumphant career; and all this has terminated in nothing.

In reality the splendid march of genius is beset with a thousand difficulties. "The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong." A multitude of unthought-of qualifications are required; and it depends at least as much upon the nicely maintained balance of these, as upon the copiousness and brilliancy of each, whether the result shall be auspicious. The progress of genius is like the flight of an arrow; a breath may turn it out of its course, and cause that course to terminate many a degree wide of its purposed mark. It is therefore scarcely possible that any sharpness of foresight can pronounce of the noblest beginnings whether they shall reach to an adequate conclusion.

I have seen such a man, with the most fervent imagination, with the most diligent study, with the happiest powers of memory, and with an understanding that apparently took in every thing, and arranged every thing, at the same time that by its acuteness it seemed able to add to the accumulated stores of foregone wisdom and learning new treasures of its own; and yet this man shall pass through the successive stages of human life, in appearance for ever active, for ever at work, and leave nothing behind that shall embalm his name to posterity, certainly nothing in any degree adequately representing those excellencies, which a chosen few, admitted to his retired and his serenest hours, knew to reside in him.

There are conceptions of the mind, that come forth like the coruscations of lightning. If you could fix that flash, it would seem as if it would give new brightness to the sons of men, and almost extinguish the luminary of day. But, ere you can say it is here, it is gone. It appears to reveal to us the secrets of the world unknown; but the clouds congregate again, and shut in upon us, before we had time to apprehend its full radiance and splendour.

To give solidity and permanence to the inspirations of genius two things are especially necessary. First, that the idea to be communicated should be powerfully apprehended by the speaker or writer; and next, that he should employ words and phrases which might convey it in all its truth to the mind of another. The man who entertains such conceptions, will not unfrequently want the steadiness of nerve which is required for their adequate transmission. Suitable words will not always wait upon his thoughts. Language is in reality a vast labyrinth, a scene like the Hercinian Forest of old, which, we are told, could not be traversed in less than sixty days. If we do not possess the clue, we shall infallibly perish in the attempt, and our thoughts and our memory will expire with us.

The sentences of this man, when he speaks, or when he writes, will be full of perplexity and confusion. They will be endless, and never arrive at their proper termination. They will include parenthesis on parenthesis. We perceive the person who delivers them, to be perpetually labouring after a meaning, but never reaching it. He is like one flung over into the sea, unprovided with the skill that should enable him to contend with the tumultuous element. He flounders about in pitiable helplessness, without the chance of extricating himself by all his efforts. He is lost in unintelligible embarrassment. It is a delightful and a ravishing sight, to observe another man come after him, and tell, without complexity, and in the simplicity of self-possession, unconscious that there was any difficulty, all that his predecessor had fruitlessly exerted himself to unfold.

There are a multitude of causes that will produce a miscarriage of this sort, where the richest soil, impregnated with the choicest seeds of learning and observation, shall entirely fail to present us with such a crop as might rationally have been anticipated. Many such men waste their lives in indolence and irresolution. They attempt many things, sketch out plans, which, if properly filled up, might illustrate the literature of a nation, and extend the empire of the human mind, but which yet they desert as soon as begun, affording us the promise of a beautiful day, that, ere it is noon, is enveloped in darkest tempests and the clouds of midnight. They skim away from one flower in the parterre of literature to another, like the bee, without, like the bee, gathering sweetness from each, to increase the public stock, and enrich the magazine of thought. The cause of this phenomenon is an unsteadiness, ever seduced by the newness of appearances, and never settling with firmness and determination upon what had been chosen.

Others there are that are turned aside from the career they might have accomplished, by a visionary and impracticable fastidiousness. They can find nothing that possesses all the requisites that should fix their choice, nothing so good that should authorise them to present it to public observation, and enable them to offer it to their contemporaries as something that we should "not willingly let die." They begin often; but nothing they produce appears to them such as that they should say of it, "Let this stand." Or they never begin, none of their thoughts being judged by them to be altogether such as to merit the being preserved. They have a microscopic eye, and discern faults unworthy to be tolerated, in that in which the critic himself might perceive nothing but beauty.

These phenomena have introduced a maxim which is current with many, that the men who write nothing, and bequeath no record of themselves to posterity, are not unfrequently of larger calibre, and more gigantic standard of soul, than such as have inscribed their names upon the columns of the temple of Fame. And certain it is, that there are extraordinary instances which appear in some degree to countenance this assertion. Many men are remembered as authors, who seem to have owed the permanence of their reputation rather to fortune than merit. They were daring, and stepped into a niche that was left in the gallery of art or of science, where others of higher qualifications, but of unconquerable modesty, held back. At the same time persons, whose destiny caused them to live among the elite of an age, have seen reason to confess that they have heard such talk, such glorious and unpremeditated discourse, from men whose thoughts melted away with the breath that uttered them, as the wisest of their vaunted contemporary authors would in vain have sought to rival.

The maxim however, notwithstanding these appearances, may safely be pronounced to be a fallacious one. It has been received in various quarters with the greater indulgence, inasmuch as the human mind is prone in many cases to give a more welcome reception to seeming truths, that present us at the first blush the appearance of falshood.

It must however be recollected that the human mind consists in the first instance merely of faculties prepared to be applied to certain purposes, and susceptible of improvement. It cannot therefore happen, that the man, who has chosen a subject towards which to direct the energy of his faculties, who has sought on all sides for the materials that should enable him to do that subject justice, who has employed upon it his contemplations by day, and his meditations during the watches of the night, should not by such exercise greatly invigorate his powers. In this sense there was much truth in the observation of the author who said, "I did not write upon the subject you mention because I understood it; but I understood it afterward, because I had written upon it."

The man who merely wanders through the fields of knowledge in search of its gayest flowers and of whatever will afford him the most enviable amusement, will necessarily return home at night with a very slender collection. He that shall apply himself with self-denial and an unshrinking resolution to the improvement of his mind, will unquestionably be found more fortunate in the end.

He is not deterred by the gulphs that yawn beneath his feet, or the mountains that may oppose themselves to his progress. He knows that the adventurer of timid mind, and that is infirm of purpose, will never make himself master of those points which it would be most honourable to him to subdue. But he who undertakes to commit to writing the result of his researches, and to communicate his discoveries to mankind, is the genuine hero. Till he enters on this task, every thing is laid up in his memory in a certain confusion. He thinks he possesses a thing whole; but, when he brings it to the test, he is surprised to find how much he was deceived. He that would digest his thoughts and his principles into a regular system, is compelled in the first place to regard them in all their clearness and perspicuity, and in the next place to select the fittest words by which they may be communicated to others. It is through the instrumentality of words that we are taught to think accurately and severely for ourselves; they are part and parcel of all our propositions and theories. It is therefore in this way that a preceptor, by undertaking to enlighten the mind of his pupil, enlightens his own. He becomes twice the man in the sequel, that he was when he entered on his task. We admire the amateur student in his public essays, as we admire a jackdaw or a parrot: he does considerably more than could have been expected from him.

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