Andrew Kennedy Hutchison] [Boyd.

The every-day philosopher in town and country online

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you know : but you disapprove, sometimes very keenly,
its general character and tone ; and you think you are
so on your guard against these, inwardly protesting
against them each time you feel them, that no effect
will be produced by them upon you. You are mis-
taken in thinking so. You breathe and live in a moral
atmosphere, which is quite sure to tell on you. You
are cast on a current ; and it needs constant pulling
against it to keep you from drifting with it. And your
moral nature is not (so to speak) ever on the stretch
with the oars ; ever in an attitude of resistance to the
malaria. Yes ; that clever, heartless, cynical paper
will leave its impress on you by degrees. And on the
other side, you know that the influence of writings
which are not obtrusively instructive, may sink gently
into our nature and do us much good. There is not
much formal teaching in them ; but as you read them,
you feel you are breathing a general healthy atmos-
phere ; you are aware of a quiet but decided and
powerful current, setting steadily towards what is
good and magnanimous and true.



24 CONCERNING ATMOSPHERES.

No doubt, friendly reader, you feel that what I have
said is just. In talking to people, in living in places,
in reading books, you feel the atmosphere ; you are
aware of the current. I do not speak to people whose
moral nature is callous as the hide of the rhinoceros,
and who never feel the moi-al atmosphere at all. You
might endeavor to prick a rhinoceros with a pin for
some time without awaking any sensation in that ani-
mal. And there are human beings who, it is quite
evident from their conversation and their doings on
various occasions, are as little sensitive to the moral
atmosphere, and the laws and proprieties which arise
out of it, as the rhinoceros is to the very bluntest pin.
They are not aware of any influence weaker than a
physical push ; as you remember the man who would
take no hint less marked than a kicking. But you
know, my friend, that in talking to different people,
you insensibly take your tone from them ; and you
talk in a way accommodated to the particular case.
There are people to whom, unawares, and without
purpose prepense, you find yourself talking in a loud,
lively manner, which is far from your usual one.
There are others to whom you insensibly speak in a
quiet, thoughtful way. And you cannot help this ;
it is just that you feel the atmosphere, and yield to it.
It is as when you go out on a crisp frosty day, and
without any special intention to that effect, find your-
self walking smartly and briskly along. But if it be a
still, sunshiny October afternoon, amid the brown and



CONCERNING ATMOSPHERES. 25

golden woods, you will unconsciously accommodate
yourself to the surroundings : you will (if there be no
special call for haste) walk pensively and slow. Now,
some may unjustly fancy, as they remark how differ-
ent your demeanor is in the society of different people,
that you are an impostor, — a hypocrite, — not to sa^
a humbug ; that you are falsely assuming a manner
foreign to your own, that you may suit the different
people with whom you converse. It is not so. There
is no design in what you do. You are not desiring to
please the loud man by assuming a loud manner, re-
flecting his ; as I have heard of some one who was
regarded as having paid a delicate but effective com-
pliment to a great man who wore a very odd waistcoat,
by presenting himself in the presence of the great
man, clad in a waistcoat exactly like his own. There
is nothing of that kind ; nothing insincere ; nothing
flunkeyish. It is only that you have a sensitive na-
ture, which feels the atmosphere in which it is placed
for the time. You know how mercury in frost feels
the cold, and shrinks ; it cannot help it. Then in
warm weather it expands by the necessity of its na-
ture. It always appeared to me in my childhood that
Dr. Watts effectually justifies the most offensive de-
portment on the part of dogs, by suggesting that it is
their Maker's intention they they should exhibit such
a deportment. There is a passage, not much known,
in a lyric by that poet, which runs to the effect : "Let
dogs delight to bark and bite, for God has made them



26 CONCERNING ATMOSPHERES.

60.'* If the fact be admitted, the principle is sound ;
but as judicious discipline can greatly diminish the
tendency of these animals to bark and bite, I doubt
whether the words of Dr. Watts are to be construed
in their full meaning. But there can be no question
that mercury, which is a substance not accessible to
moral considerations, deserves neither blame nor praise
for expanding and shrinking according to its nature.
And while I admit that any doings of human beings,
partaking of a moral element, are (in the main) so
under the control of the will, that the human beings
may justly be held responsible for them, I hold that
this sensitiveness to the moral atmosphere is very
much a matter of original constitution, and that the
man who feels it may fairly plead that his Maker
" made him so." And very many people — shall we
say the most exquisitely constituted of the race? —
discern the moral atmosphere which surrounds some
men by a delicate and unerring intuition. There are
men who bring with them a frosty atmosphere ; there
are men who bring a sunshiny. You know people
whose stiiFness of manner freezes up the frankest and
most genial. You know there are people to whom you
would no more think of talking of the things which
interest you most, than you would think of talking to
a horse ; or, let us say, to a donkey. Do you suppose
that I should show my marked copy of In Memoriam
to either my friend Dr. Log, or my friend Mr. Snarl-
ing ?



CONCERNING ATMOSPHERES. 27

I dare say some of my readers, going to see an ac-
quaintance, have walked into his study, and found
themselves, physically, in a choky, confined, hot-house
atmosphere. And on entering into conversation with
the man in the study they have found, morally, the
same thing repeated. The moral atmosphere was just
the physical over again. You remember the morbid
views, the uncharitable judgments, the despondency
of tone. And I think your inward exclamation was.
Oh, for fresh air, physically and morally ! And, indeed,
I can hardly believe that sound and healthy judgments
are ever come to, or that manly and truthful thoughts
are produced, except when the physical atmosphere is
pure and healthful. I would not attach much im-
portance to the vote, upon some grave matter of prin-
ciple, which is come to by an excited mob of even
educated men, at four o'clock in the morning, in an
atmosphere so thoroughly pestilential that it might
knock a man down. And there are houses, on entering
which you feel directly the peculiar moral atmosphere.
It is oppressive. It catches your throat ; it get? into
your lungs ; it (morally) puts a bad taste into your
mouth. There are dwellings which, even in a physical
sense, seem never to have fresh air thoroughly admit-
ted ; never to have the lurking malaria that hangs in
corners and about window-curtains thoroughly cleared
out, and the pure fresh air of heaven let in to fill
every inch of space. There are more dwellings where
this is so in a moral sense. You enter such a dwell-



28 CONCERNING ATMOSPHERES.

ing ; you talk to the people in it. You at once feel
oppressed. You feel stupid ; worse than that, you
feel sore and cantankerous. You feel you are grow-
ing low-minded. Anythin<]f like magnanimity or gen-
erosity goes out of you. You listen to wretched sneers
against everything that is good or elevating. You
find a series of miserable little doings and misdoings
dwelt upon with weary iteration and bitter exaggera-
tion. You hear base motives suggested as having
really prompted the best people you know to their
best doings. Did you ever spend an evening in the
society of a cynical, sneering man, with some measure
of talent and energy ? You remember how you heard
anything noble or disinterested laughed at ; how you
heard selfish motives ascribed to everybody ; how some
degrading association was linked Mith everything pure
and excellent. Did you not feel deteriorated by that
evening ? Did you not feel that (morally) you were
breathing the atmosphere of a sewer or a pigsty ?
And even when the atmosphere was not so bad as
that, you have known the houses of really excellent
folk, which were pervaded by such a stiffness, such an
unnatural repression of all natural feeling, such a sene^i
of constraint of soul, that when you fairly got out of
the house at last, you would have liked to express
your relief, and to give way to your pent-up energies,
by wildly dancing on the pavement before the door
like a Red Indian. And, indeed, you might very
probably have done so, but for the dread of the po-



CONCERNING ATMOSPHERES. 29

lice ; and for the fear that, even through the dark,
you might be discerned by the eyes of Mrs. Grundy.
Some people are so energetic and so much in ear
nest, that they diffuse about them an atmosphere which
is keenly felt by most men. And it often happens
that you are very much affected by the moral in-
fluence of people, from almost all whose opinions you
differ. I have no doubt that human beings who differ
from Dr. Arnold and Mr. Hughes on almost every
point of belief, have been greatly influenced, and in-
fluenced for the. better, by these good men. There is
something in the atmosphere that breathes from both
of them that tends to higher and purer ways of think-
ing and feeling ; that tends to make you act more
constantly from principle, and to make you feel the
solemnity of this life. And without supposing any
special good fortune in the case of the reader, I may
take for granted that you have known two or three
persons whose presence you felt like a constant rebuke
to anything mean or wrong in thought or deed, and
like a constant stimulus to things good and worthy.
You have known people, in the atmosphere of whose
influence the evil in your nature seemed cowed and
abashed. It seemed to die out like a nettle in frost;
that clear, brisk, healthy atmosphere seemed to kill it.
And you may have known men, after reading whose
pages, or listening to whose talk, you felt more of
kindly charity towards all your brethren in the help-
lessness and sinfulness of humanity. Of course, to



30 CONCERNING ATMOSPHERES.

diffuse a powerful influence, whether towards evil or
good, a man must possess great force and earnestness
of character. Ordinary mortals are like the chame-
leon, which takes something of the color of any strong-
colored object it is placed near. They take their tone
very much from the more energetic folk with whom
they are placed in contact. I dare say you have known
a man who powerfully influences for good the ^^'hole
circle of men that surrounds him. Such a one must
have a vast stock of vital and moral energy. Most
people are like the electric eel, very much exhausted
after having given forth their influence. A few are
like an electric battery, of resources so vast that it can
be pouring out its energy without cease. There are
certain physical characteristics which often, though
not always, go with this moral characteristic. It is
generally found in connection with a loud, manly-
voice, a burly figure, a very frank address. Not al-
ways, indeed ; there have been puny, shrinking, silent
men, who mightily swayed their fellow-men, whether
to evil or to good. But in the presence of the stronger
physical nature, you feel something tending to make
you feel cheerful, hopeful, energetic. I have known
men who seemed always surrounded by a healthy,
bracing atmosphere. When with such, I defy you to
feel down-hearted, or desponding, or slothful. They
put new energy, hopefulness, and life into you. Yes,
my reader, perhaps you have found it for yourself,
that to gain the friendship of even one energetic,



CONCERNING ATMOSPHERES. 31

thoughtful, good man, may suffice to give a new and
heahhier tone to your whole life. Yes, the influence
of such a one may insensibly reach through all you
think, feel, and do ; as the material atmosphere per-
vades all material things. And such an influence
may be exerted either through a fiery energy, or by
an undefinable, gentle fascination. I believe that
most men felt the first of these, who knew much of
Dr. Chalmers. I believe that many have felt the
second of these, in their intercourse with Dr. Newman
or Mr. Jowett. Possibly, we might classify mankind
under two divisions : the little band whose pith or
whose fascination is such that they give the tone,
good or bad ; that they diffuse the atmosphere ; and
the larger host, whose soul is receptive rather than
diffusive ; the great multitude of human beings who
take the tone, feel the atmosphere, and go with the
current. It is probable that a third class ought to
be added, including those who never felt anything,
particularly, at all.

When you first enter a new moral atmosphere, you
feel it very keenly. But you grow less sensitive to
it daily, as you become accustomed to it. It may be
producing its moral effect as really ; but you are not
so much aware of its presence. Did you ever go to a
place new to you, of very unusual and striking aspect ;
and did you wonder if people there lived just as they
do in the commonplace scenes amid which you live ?
Let me confess that I cannot look at the pictures of



32 CONCERNING ATMOSPHERES.

the quaint old towns of Belgium, without vaguely ask*
ing myself that question. In a lesser degree, the fancy
steals in, even as one walks the streets of Oxford or
of Chester. You feel how fresh and marked an at-
mosphere you breathe, in a visit of a few days' length
to either town. But of course, if you live in the
strangest place for a long time, you will find that life
there is very much what life is elsewhere. I have
often thought that I should like to do my in-door
work in a room whose window opened upon the sea ;
so close to the sea that looking out you might have
the waves lapping on the rock fifteen feet below you ;
and that when you threw the window up, the salt
breeze might come into the chamber, a little feverish
perhaps with several toiling hours. Surely, I think,
some influence from the scene would mingle itself
with all that one's mind would there produce. And
it would be curious to look out, before going to bed,
far over the level surface in the moonlight ; to see the
spectral sails passing in the distance ; and to hear the
never-ceasing sound, old as Creation. I do not know
that the reader will sympathize with me ; but I should
like very much to live for a week or two at the Eddy-
stone Light-house. There would be a delightful sense
of quiet. There would be no worry. There would
be plenty of time to think. It would be absolutely
certain that the door-bell would never ring. And
though there would be but limited space for exercise,
there would unquestionably be the freshest and purest



CONCERNING ATMOSPHERES. 33

of air. No doubt if the wind rose at evening, you
might through the night feel the light-house vibrate
with the blow of the waves ; but you could recall all
you had read of the magnificent engineering of Smea-
ton ; and feel no more than the slight sense of danger
which adds a zest. T am aware that in a little while
one would get accustomed to the whole mode of life.
The flavor of all things goes with custom. "When
you go back to the sea-side, how salt the breeze tastes,
which you never remarked while you were living
there ! And sometimes, looking back, you will wish
you could revive the freshness and vividness of first
impressions.

We have been thinking of the atmosphere diffused
by books and by persons ; let it be said that the thing
about a book which affects your mind and character
most, is not its views or arguments ; it is its atmos-
phere. And it is so also with persons. It is not what
people expressly advise you that really sways you ;
it is the general influence that breathes from all their
life. A book may, for instance, set out sound religious
views ; but in such a hard cold way that the book will
repel from religion. That is to say, the arguments
may push one way, and the atmosphere the opposite
way ; and the atmosphere will neutralize the argu-
ments and something more. And you will find peo-
ple, too, whose advices and counsels are good ; who
often counsel their children or their friends to duty,
3



34 CONCERNINCx ATMOSPHERES.

and to earnestness in religion : but who neutralize
and reverse the bearing of all these good counsels by
the entire tone of their life. The words of some peo-
ple say, Choose the good part, Ask for the best of all
guidance and influence day by day ; but their atmos-
phere says, Anything for money, — for social stand-
ing, — for spitefulness, — for general unpleasantness.
You will find various Pharisees nowadays who loudly
exclaim, " God be merciful to me a sinner ; " but woe
betide you, if you venture to hint to such that anything
they can do is wrong !

Let me say, that you may read and you may hear
religious instruction, which without asserting anything
expressly wrong, still deteriorates you. Jt lowers you ;
you are the worse for it. There is an undefinable,
but strongly-felt lack of the Christian spirit about it.
Its views are mainly right ; but somehow its atmos-
phere is wrong. I do not say this in any narrow
spirit : it is not against one party of religionists more
than another that I should bring this charge. Per-
haps the teaching which is soundest in doctrine, is
sometimes the most useless, through its want of the
true Christian life ; or through merely giving you the
metaphysics of Christianity, without any real bring-
ing of the vital truths of Christianity home to the
heart, and to the actual case of those to whom they
are told. I have read a book, — a polished, scholarly
tale, the leading character in which was a clergyman
— but in reading the book you felt a strong smack



CONCERNING ATMOSPHERES. 35

of heatlienism. I do not mean the savage, cannibal
heatlienism which still exists in Uie islands of the
South Pacific ; but the pohslied heathenism which
was many centuries since in Greece and Rome. The
clergyman was sound in dogma, I dare say, if you had
asked him for a confession of his faith ; but his Chris-
tianity was an outside garment, wiiile his whole na-
ture was saturated with the old literature and mythol-
ogy of that ancient day. Then you may find a book,
a religious book, containing nothing on which you
could well put your finger as wrong : yet you were
left with a general impression of scepticism. . That
was the atmosphere. The views and arguments are
as the solid ground : but you touch the solid ground
but at a single point ; — the circumambient ether is
all around you, and within you. I have read pages
setting out somewhat sad and discouraging views ; yet
as you turned the pages, you were aware of a general
atmosphere of hopefulness and energy. And I have
listened to what might have made pages, if it had
been printed (pages which assuredly I should not
have read), setting out the subhmest and most glo-
rious hopes of humanity, in a way so dreary, dull,
wearisome, and stupid, that the atmosphere was most
depressing. You felt as though you were environed
by a damp, thick fog.

It would be an endless task to reckon up the moral
atmospheres in which human beings live ; or even



36 CONCERNING ATMOSPHERES.

the moral atmospheres which you yourself, my friend,
have breathed. But there are some that one remem-
bers vividly ; they did not come often enough, or con-
tinue Ions enoujjh, to lose their freshness. Such is
the atmosphere which surrounds all operations relat-
ing to the sale and purchase of horses. You remem-
ber how, Avhen you went to buy one of those noble
animals, you found yourself surrounded by a new
and strongly-flavored phase of life. Was there not a
general atmosphere as of swindling ? You were sur-
prised to hear lies, the grossest, told, even though
they \vere sure to be instantly detected. You felt
that your ignorance and capacity of being cheated
were being gauged with great skill. It is a singular
thing, indeed, that one of the most useful and beauti-
ful of God's creatures should diffuse around him a
most unhealthy moral atmosphere. You may have
remarked that the noble steed is not merely sur-
rounded by an ether filled with falsehoods ; but that
a less irritating, though still remarkable, ingredient,
mingles with it, like ozone — it is the element of
slang. I have remarked this with great interest, and
mused much on it without succeeding in satisfactorily
accounting for it. Why is it that to say a horse is a
good horse should stamp you as a green hand ; but
that to say the animal is no bad nag, or a fairish
style of hack, should convey tlie idea that you know
various things? And wherefore should it be, that a
shallow nature should be indicated by your saying



CONCERNIXG ATMOSPHERES. 37

you were Avilling to pay fifty pounds for the horse,
while untold depth and craft shall be held to be im-
plied by the statement that your tether was half a
hundred ?

A xery disagreeable atmosphere, diffused by vari-
ous persons, is that of suspicion. Some one has done
you a kind turn, and your heart warms to the doer
of it. But Mr. Snarling comes in ; and you tell him,
in hearty tones, of the kind turn, and of your warm
feeling towards the man that did it. Mr. Snarling
doubts, bints, insinuates, suggests a deep and trai-
torous design under that kind act ; perhaps succeeds
in chilling or souring your warm feeling ; till, on the
withdrawal of the unhealthy atmosphere, your better
nature gets the upperhand again. And when next
you meet the kind, open face of the friend who did
you the kind turn, your heart smites you as you think
what a wicked suspicious creature you were while with-
in the baleful atmosphere of Snarling. You have seen,
I dare say, very shallow and empty individuals, who
fancied that it made them look deep and knowing, to
say that beggars, for the most part, live in great lux-
ury, and have money in the bank. That may be so
in rare cases ; but I knoav that the want of the poor
is often very real. It comes, doubtless, in some meas-
ure, from their own sin or improvidence ; and as, of
course, you and I never do wrong, let us throw a
very large stone at the poor creature who is starving
to-day, because she took a full meal of bread and but-



38 CONCERNING ATMOSPHERES.

ter and tea four days since. I have heard a man,
with great depth of look, state that a certain cripple
known to me could walk quite well. I asked the
man for his authority. He had none, but vague sus-
picion. I told the man, with some acerbity (which I
do not at all regret), that I knew the poor man well,
and that I knew he was as crippled as he seemed. It
looks knowing to declare of some poor starved crea-
ture that he is more rogue than fool. Whenever you
hear that said, my reader, always ask what is the pre-
cise charge intended to be conveyed, and ask the
ground on which the charge is made. lo most cases
you will get no answer to the second question ; in
very many no intelligible answer to the first. It
would be a pleasant world to live in, if the people
who dwell in it were such as they are represented
by several persons known to me. I remember an
outspoken old Scotch lady, to whom I was offering
some Christian comfort after a great loss. I remem-
ber how she said, with a look as if she meant it, " If
I did not believe all that, I should take a knife and
cut my throat ! " It was an honest confession of her
faith, though made in unusually energetic terms. And
I might say for myself, if I had not some faith in my
race, it would be better to be off to the wilderness
at once, or, like Timon, to the desolate shore. The
wants of beggars, even of the least deserving, are, for
the most part, very real. As for their luxuries, they
are generally tea and buttered toast. Sometimes fried



CONCERNING ATMOSPHERES. 39

ham may also be found. Poor creatures ! These
tilings are the only enjoyments they have ; and I, for
one, am not ready with my anathema maranatha. I
have known very suspicious and uncharitable persons
who were extremely fat ; doubtless they lived en-
tirely on parched peas. And all the sufferings of
the poor are not shams, paraded to the end of ob-
taining pence. I look back now, over a good many
years, to the time when I was a youth at college. I
remember coming home one night, between eleven


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Online LibraryAndrew Kennedy Hutchison] [BoydThe every-day philosopher in town and country → online text (page 2 of 19)