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already know it, and the moment when she (or he) knows it also will be
the moment of my triumph. She (or he) will not celebrate my triumph
openly, but it will be none the less real. And my reputation for
accuracy and calm restraint will be consolidated. If, by a rare
mischance, I am in error, it will be vastly better for me in the day of
my undoing that I have not been too positive now. Besides, nobody has
appointed me sole custodian of the great truth concerning the rent of
the Joneses' new flat. I was not brought into the world to be a
safe-deposit, and more urgent matters summon me to effort.' If one of us
had meditated thus, much needless friction would have been avoided and
power saved; _amour-propre_ would not have been exposed to risks; the
sacred cause of truth would not in the least have suffered; and the rent
of the Joneses' new flat would anyhow have remained exactly what it is.

In addition to straining the machine by our excessive anxiety for the
spread of truth, we give a very great deal too much attention to the
state of other people's machines. I cannot too strongly, too
sarcastically, deprecate this astonishing habit. It will be found to be
rife in nearly every household and in nearly every office. We are most
of us endeavouring to rearrange the mechanism in other heads than our
own. This is always dangerous and generally futile. Considering the
difficulty we have in our own brains, where our efforts are sure of
being accepted as well-meant, and where we have at any rate a rough
notion of the machine's construction, our intrepidity in adventuring
among the delicate adjustments of other brains is remarkable. We are
cursed by too much of the missionary spirit. We must needs voyage into
the China of our brother's brain, and explain there that things are
seriously wrong in that heathen land, and make ourselves unpleasant in
the hope of getting them put right. We have all our own brain and body
on which to wreak our personality, but this is not enough; we must
extend our personality further, just as though we were a colonising
world-power intoxicated by the idea of the 'white man's burden.'

One of the central secrets of efficient daily living is to leave our
daily companions alone a great deal more than we do, and attend to
ourselves. If a daily companion is conducting his life upon principles
which you know to be false, and with results which you feel to be
unpleasant, the safe rule is to keep your mouth shut. Or if, out of your
singular conceit, you are compelled to open it, open it with all
precautions, and with the formal politeness you would use to a stranger.
Intimacy is no excuse for rough manners, though the majority of us seem
to think it is. You are not in charge of the universe; you are in charge
of yourself. You cannot hope to manage the universe in your spare time,
and if you try you will probably make a mess of such part of the
universe as you touch, while gravely neglecting yourself. In every
family there is generally some one whose meddlesome interest in other
machines leads to serious friction in his own. Criticise less, even in
the secrecy of your chamber. And do not blame at all. Accept your
environment and adapt yourself to it in silence, instead of noisily
attempting to adapt your environment to yourself. Here is true wisdom.
You have no business trespassing beyond the confines of your own
individuality. In so trespassing you are guilty of impertinence. This is
obvious. And yet one of the chief activities of home-life consists in
prancing about at random on other people's private lawns. What I say
applies even to the relation between parents and children. And though my
precept is exaggerated, it is purposely exaggerated in order effectively
to balance the exaggeration in the opposite direction.

All individualities, other than one's own, are part of one's
environment. The evolutionary process is going on all right, and they
are a portion of it. Treat them as inevitable. To assert that they are
inevitable is not to assert that they are unalterable. Only the
alteration of them is not primarily your affair; it is theirs. Your
affair is to use them, as they are, without self-righteousness, blame,
or complaint, for the smooth furtherance of your own ends. There is no
intention here to rob them of responsibility by depriving them of
free-will while saddling _you_ with responsibility as a free agent. As
your environment they must be accepted as inevitable, because they _are_
inevitable. But as centres themselves they have their own
responsibility: which is not yours. The historic question: 'Have we
free-will, or are we the puppets of determinism?' enters now. As a
question it is fascinating and futile. It has never been, and it never
will be, settled. The theory of determinism cannot be demolished by
argument. But in his heart every man, including the most obstinate
supporter of the theory, demolishes it every hour of every day. On the
other hand, the theory of free-will can be demolished by ratiocination!
So much the worse for ratiocination! _If we regard ourselves as free
agents, and the personalities surrounding us as the puppets of
determinism_, we shall have arrived at the working compromise from which
the finest results of living can be obtained. The philosophic experience
of centuries, if it has proved anything, has proved this. And the man
who acts upon it in the common, banal contracts and collisions of the
difficult experiment which we call daily life, will speedily become
convinced of its practical worth.




XI

AN INTERLUDE


For ten chapters you have stood it, but not without protest. I know the
feeling which is in your minds, and which has manifested itself in
numerous criticisms of my ideas. That feeling may be briefly translated,
perhaps, thus: 'This is all very well, but it isn't true, not a bit!
It's only a fairy-tale that you have been telling us. Miracles don't
happen,' etc. I, on my part, have a feeling that unless I take your
feeling in hand at once, and firmly deal with it, I had better put my
shutters up, for you will have got into the way of regarding me simply
as a source of idle amusement. Already I can perceive, from the
expressions of some critics, that, so far as they are concerned, I
might just as well not have written a word. Therefore at this point I
pause, in order to insist once more upon what I began by saying.

The burden of your criticism is: 'Human nature is always the same. I
know my faults. But it is useless to tell me about them. I can't alter
them. I was born like that.' The fatal weakness of this argument is,
first, that it is based on a complete falsity; and second, that it puts
you in an untenable position. Human nature _does_ change. Nothing can be
more unscientific, more hopelessly mediæval, than to imagine that it
does not. It changes like everything else. You can't see it change.
True! But then you can't see the grass growing - not unless you arise
very early.

Is human nature the same now as in the days of Babylonian civilisation,
when the social machine was oiled by drenchings of blood? Is it the same
now as in the days of Greek civilisation, when there was no such thing
as romantic love between the sexes? Is it the same now as it was during
the centuries when constant friction had to provide its own cure in the
shape of constant war? Is it the same now as it was on 2nd March 1819,
when the British Government officially opposed a motion to consider the
severity of the criminal laws (which included capital punishment for
cutting down a tree, and other sensible dodges against friction), and
were defeated by a majority of only nineteen votes? Is it the same now
as in the year 1883, when the first S.P.C.C. was formed in England?

If you consider that human nature is still the same you should instantly
go out and make a bonfire of the works of Spencer, Darwin, and Wallace,
and then return to enjoy the purely jocular side of the present volume.
If you admit that it has changed, let me ask you how it has changed,
unless by the continual infinitesimal efforts, _upon themselves_, of
individual men, like you and me. Did you suppose it was changed by
magic, or by Acts of Parliament, or by the action of groups on persons,
and not of persons on groups? Let me tell you that human nature has
changed since yesterday. Let me tell you that to-day reason has a more
powerful voice in the directing of instinct than it had yesterday. Let
me tell you that to-day the friction of the machines is less screechy
and grinding than it was yesterday.

'You were born like that, and you can't alter yourself, and so it's no
use talking.' If you really believe this, why make any effort at all?
Why not let the whole business beautifully slide and yield to your
instincts? What object can there be in trying to control yourself in any
manner whatever if you are unalterable? Assert yourself to be
unalterable, and you assert yourself a fatalist. Assert yourself a
fatalist, and you free yourself from all moral responsibility - and other
people, too. Well, then, act up to your convictions, if convictions they
are. If you can't alter yourself, I can't alter myself, and supposing
that I come along and bash you on the head and steal your purse, you
can't blame me. You can only, on recovering consciousness,
affectionately grasp my hand and murmur: 'Don't apologise, my dear
fellow; we can't alter ourselves.'

This, you say, is absurd. It is. That is one of my innumerable points.
The truth is, you do not really believe that you cannot alter yourself.
What is the matter with you is just what is the matter with me - sheer
idleness. You hate getting up in the morning, and to excuse your
inexcusable indolence you talk big about Fate. Just as 'patriotism is
the last refuge of a scoundrel,' so fatalism is the last refuge of a
shirker. But you deceive no one, least of all yourself. You have not,
rationally, a leg to stand on. At this juncture, because I have made you
laugh, you consent to say: 'I do try, all I can. But I can only alter
myself a very little. By constitution I am mentally idle. I can't help
that, can I?' Well, so long as you are not the only absolutely
unchangeable thing in a universe of change, I don't mind. It is
something for you to admit that you can alter yourself even a very
little. The difference between our philosophies is now only a question
of degree.

In the application of any system of perfecting the machine, no two
persons will succeed equally. From the disappointed tone of some of your
criticisms it might be fancied that I had advertised a system for making
archangels out of tailors' dummies. Such was not my hope. I have no
belief in miracles. But I know that when a thing is thoroughly well
done it often has the air of being a miracle. My sole aim is to insist
that every man shall perfect his machine to the best of _his_ powers,
not to the best of somebody else's powers. I do not indulge in any hope
that a man can be better than his best self. I am, however, convinced
that every man fails to be his best self a great deal oftener than he
need fail - for the reason that his will-power, be it great or small, is
not directed according to the principles of common sense.

Common sense will surely lead a man to ask the question: 'Why did my
actions yesterday contradict my reason?' The reply to this question will
nearly always be: 'Because at the critical moment I forgot.' The supreme
explanation of the abortive results of so many efforts at
self-alteration, the supreme explanation of our frequent miserable
scurrying into a doctrine of fatalism, is simple forgetfulness. It is
not force that we lack, but the skill to remember exactly what our
reason would have us do or think at the moment itself. How is this skill
to be acquired? It can only be acquired, as skill at games is acquired,
by practice; by the training of the organ involved to such a point that
the organ acts rightly by instinct instead of wrongly by instinct. There
are degrees of success in this procedure, but there is no such
phenomenon as complete failure.

Habits which increase friction can be replaced by habits which lessen
friction. Habits which arrest development can be replaced by habits
which encourage development. And as a habit is formed naturally, so it
can be formed artificially, by imitation of the unconscious process, by
accustoming the brain to the new idea. Let me, as an example, refer
again to the minor subject of daily friction, and, within that subject,
to the influence of tone. A man employs a frictional tone through
habit. The frictional tone is an instinct with him. But if he had a
quarter of an hour to reflect before speaking, and if during that
quarter of an hour he could always listen to arguments against the
frictional tone, his use of the frictional tone would rapidly diminish;
his reason would conquer his instinct. As things are, his instinct
conquers his reason by a surprise attack, by taking it unawares. Regular
daily concentration of the brain, for a certain period, upon the
non-frictional tone, and the immense advantages of its use, will
gradually set up in the brain a new habit of thinking about the
non-frictional tone; until at length the brain, disciplined, turns to
the correct act before the old, silly instinct can capture it; and
ultimately a new sagacious instinct will supplant the old one.

This is the rationale. It applies to all habits. Any person can test its
efficiency in any habit. I care not whether he be of strong or weak
will - he can test it. He will soon see the tremendous difference between
merely 'making a good resolution' - (he has been doing that all his life
without any very brilliant consequences) - and concentrating the brain
for a given time exclusively upon a good resolution. Concentration, the
efficient mastery of the brain - all is there!




XII

AN INTEREST IN LIFE


After a certain period of mental discipline, of deliberate habit-forming
and habit-breaking, such as I have been indicating, a man will begin to
acquire at any rate a superficial knowledge, a nodding acquaintance,
with that wonderful and mysterious affair, his brain, and he will also
begin to perceive how important a factor in daily life is the control of
his brain. He will assuredly be surprised at the miracles which lie
between his collar and his hat, in that queer box that he calls his
head. For the effects that can be accomplished by mere steady,
persistent thinking must appear to be miracles to apprentices in the
practice of thought. When once a man, having passed an unhappy day
because his clumsy, negligent brain forgot to control his instincts at a
critical moment, has said to his brain: 'I will force you, by
concentrating you on that particular point, to act efficiently the next
time similar circumstances arise,' and when he has carried out his
intention, and when the awkward circumstances have recurred, and his
brain, disciplined, has done its work, and so prevented
unhappiness - then that man will regard his brain with a new eye. 'By
Jove!' he will say; 'I've stopped one source of unhappiness, anyway.
There was a time when I should have made a fool of myself in a little
domestic crisis such as to-day's. But I have gone safely through it. I
am all right. She is all right. The atmosphere is not dangerous with
undischarged electricity! And all because my brain, being in proper
condition, watched firmly over my instincts! I must keep this up.' He
will peer into that brain more and more. He will see more and more of
its possibilities. He will have a new and a supreme interest in _life_.
A garden is a fairly interesting thing. But the cultivation of a garden
is as dull as cold mutton compared to the cultivation of a brain; and
wet weather won't interfere with digging, planting, and pruning in the
box.

In due season the man whose hobby is his brain will gradually settle
down into a daily routine, with which routine he will start the day. The
idea at the back of the mind of the ordinary man (by the ordinary man I
mean the man whose brain is not his hobby) is almost always this: 'There
are several things at present hanging over me - worries, unfulfilled
ambitions, unrealised desires. As soon as these things are definitely
settled, then I shall begin to live and enjoy myself.' That is the
ordinary man's usual idea. He has it from his youth to his old age. He
is invariably waiting for something to happen before he really begins to
live. I am sure that if you are an ordinary man (of course, you aren't,
I know) you will admit that this is true of you; you exist in the hope
that one day things will be sufficiently smoothed out for you to begin
to live. That is just where you differ from the man whose brain is his
hobby. His daily routine consists in a meditation in the following vein:
'This day is before me. The circumstances of this day are my
environment; they are the material out of which, by means of my brain, I
have to live and be happy and to refrain from causing unhappiness in
other people. It is the business of my brain to make use of _this_
material. My brain is in its box for that sole purpose. Not to-morrow!
Not next year! Not when I have made my fortune! Not when my sick child
is out of danger! Not when my wife has returned to her senses! Not when
my salary is raised! Not when I have passed that examination! Not when
my indigestion is better! But _now!_ To-day, exactly as to-day is! The
facts of to-day, which in my unregeneracy I regarded primarily as
anxieties, nuisances, impediments, I now regard as so much raw material
from which my brain has to weave a tissue of life that is comely.'

And then he foresees the day as well as he can. His experience teaches
him where he will have difficulty, and he administers to his brain the
lessons of which it will have most need. He carefully looks the machine
over, and arranges it specially for the sort of road which he knows that
it will have to traverse. And especially he readjusts his point of view,
for his point of view is continually getting wrong. He is continually
seeing worries where he ought to see material. He may notice, for
instance, a patch on the back of his head, and he wonders whether it is
the result of age or of disease, or whether it has always been there.
And his wife tells him he must call at the chemist's and satisfy himself
at once. Frightful nuisance! Age! The endless trouble of a capillary
complaint! Calling at the chemist's will make him late at the office!
etc. etc. But then his skilled, efficient brain intervenes: 'What
peculiarly interesting material this mean and petty circumstance yields
for the practice of philosophy and right living!' And again: 'Is _this_
to ruffle you, O my soul? Will it serve any end whatever that I should
buzz nervously round this circumstance instead of attending to my usual
business?'

I give this as an example of the necessity of adjusting the point of
view, and of the manner in which a brain habituated by suitable
concentration to correct thinking will come to the rescue in unexpected
contingencies. Naturally it will work with greater certainty in the
manipulation of difficulties that are expected, that can be 'seen coming
'; and preparation for the expected is, fortunately, preparation for the
unexpected. The man who commences his day by a steady contemplation of
the dangers which the next sixteen hours are likely to furnish, and by
arming himself specially against those dangers, has thereby armed
himself, though to a less extent, against dangers which he did not dream
of. But the routine must be fairly elastic. It may be necessary to
commence several days in succession - for a week or for months,
even - with disciplining the brain in one particular detail, to the
temporary neglect of other matters. It is astonishing how you can weed
every inch of a garden path and keep it in the most meticulous order,
and then one morning find in the very middle of it a lusty, full-grown
plant whose roots are positively mortised in granite! All gardeners are
familiar with such discoveries.

But a similar discovery, though it entails hard labour on him, will not
disgust the man whose hobby is his brain. For the discovery in itself is
part of the material out of which he has to live. If a man is to turn
everything whatsoever into his own calm, dignity, and happiness, he must
make this use even of his own failures. He must look at them as
phenomena of the brain in that box, and cheerfully set about taking
measures to prevent their repetition. All that happens to him, success
or check, will but serve to increase his interest in the contents of
that box. I seem to hear you saying: 'And a fine egotist he'll be!'
Well, he'll be the right sort of egotist. The average man is not half
enough of an egotist. If egotism means a terrific interest in one's
self, egotism is absolutely essential to efficient living. There is no
getting away from that. But if egotism means selfishness, the serious
student of the craft of daily living will not be an egotist for more
than about a year. In a year he will have proved the ineptitude of
egotism.




XIII

SUCCESS AND FAILURE


I am sadly aware that these brief chapters will be apt to convey,
especially to the trustful and enthusiastic reader, a false impression;
the impression of simplicity; and that when experience has roughly
corrected this impression, the said reader, unless he is most solemnly
warned, may abandon the entire enterprise in a fit of disgust, and for
ever afterwards maintain a cynical and impolite attitude towards all
theories of controlling the human machine. Now, the enterprise is not a
simple one. It is based on one simple principle - the conscious
discipline of the brain by selected habits of thought - but it is just
about as complicated as anything well could be. Advanced golf is child's
play compared to it. The man who briefly says to himself: 'I will get
up at 8, and from 8.30 to 9 I will examine and control my brain, and so
my life will at once be instantly improved out of recognition' - that man
is destined to unpleasant surprises. Progress will be slow. Progress may
appear to be quite rapid at first, and then a period of futility may set
in, and the would-be vanquisher of his brain may suffer a series of the
most deadly defeats. And in his pessimism he may imagine that all his
pains have gone for nothing, and that the unserious loungers in
exhibition gardens and readers of novels in parlours are in the right of
it after all. He may even feel rather ashamed of himself for having
been, as he thinks, taken in by specious promises, like the purchaser of
a quack medicine.

The conviction that great effort has been made and no progress achieved
is the chief of the dangers that affront the beginner in
machine-tending. It is, I will assert positively, in every case a
conviction unjustified by the facts, and usually it is the mere result
of reaction after fatigue, encouraged by the instinct for laziness. I do
not think it will survive an impartial examination; but I know that a
man, in order to find an excuse for abandoning further effort, is
capable of convincing himself that past effort has yielded no fruit at
all. So curious is the human machine. I beg every student of himself to
consider this remark with all the intellectual honesty at his disposal.
It is a grave warning.

When the machine-tender observes that he is frequently changing his
point of view; when he notices that what he regarded as the kernel of
the difficulty yesterday has sunk to a triviality to-day, being replaced
by a fresh phenomenon; when he arises one morning and by means of a
new, unexpected glimpse into the recesses of the machine perceives that
hitherto he has been quite wrong and must begin again; when he wonders
how on earth he could have been so blind and so stupid as not to see
what now he sees; when the new vision is veiled by new disappointments
and narrowed by continual reservations; when he is overwhelmed by the
complexity of his undertaking - then let him unhearten himself, for he is
succeeding. The history of success in any art - and machine-tending is an
art - is a history of recommencements, of the dispersal and reforming of
doubts, of an ever-increasing conception of the extent of the territory
unconquered, and an ever-decreasing conception of the extent of the
territory conquered.

It is remarkable that, though no enterprise could possibly present more
diverse and changeful excitements than the mastering of the brain, the
second great danger which threatens its ultimate success is nothing but


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Online LibraryArnold BennettThe Human Machine → online text (page 4 of 6)