Isreal Smith Clare.

Library of Universal history and popular science ... (Volume 20) online

. (page 35 of 60)
Online LibraryIsreal Smith ClareLibrary of Universal history and popular science ... (Volume 20) → online text (page 35 of 60)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


immoderate influence on all we do, and is very prejudicial to our happi-
ness. We can trace it from a timorous and slavish regard for what other
people will say, up to the feeling which made Virginius plunge the
dagger into his daughter's heart, or induces many a man to sacrifice
quiet, riches, health and even life itself, for posthumous glory. Undoubt-
edly this feeling is a very convenient instrument in the hands of those
who have the control or direction of their fellow-men ; and accordingly
*e find that in every scheme for training up humanity in the way it
should go, the maintenance and strengthening of the feeling of honor
occup.es an important place. But it is quite a different matter in its
effect on haman happiness, of which it is here our object to treat ; and
we should rather be careful to dissuade people from setting too much
store by what others think of them. Daily experience shows us, how-
ever, that this is just the mistake people persist in making ; most men set
the utmost value precisely on what other people think, and are more
concerned about it than about what goes on in their own consciousness,
which is the thing most immediately and directly present to them. They
reverse the natural order, regarding the opinions of others as real exist-
ence and their own consciousness as something shadowy; making the
derivative and secondary into the principal, and considering the picture
they present to the world of more importance than their own selves. By
thus trying to get a direct and immediate result out of what has no really
direct or immediate existence, they fall into the kind of folly which is
called tam'ty the appropriate term for that which has no solid or intrinsic
value. Like a miser, such people forget the end in their eagerness to
obtain the means.

The truth is that the value we set upon the opinion of others, and

Scire tuum nihil est nisi te scire hoc sciat alter, (Persius i. 27) knowledge is no use
unless others know that you have it.

36



THE WISDOM OF LIFE. 297

our constant endeavor in respect of it, are each quite out of proportion
to any result we may reasonably hope to attain ; so that this attention to
other people's attitude may be regarded as a kind of universal mania which
anyone inherits. In all we do, almost the first thing we think about is, what
will people say; and nearly half the troubles and bothers of life may be traced
to our anxiety on this score; it is the anxiety which is at the bottom of all that
feeling of self-importance, which is so often mortified because it is so very
morbidly sensitive. It is solicitude about what others will say that under-
lies all our vanity and pretension, yes, and all our show and swagger too.
Without it, there would not be a tenth part of the luxury which exists.
Pride in every form, point d'honneur and punctilio, however varied their
kind or sphere, are at bottom nothing but this anxiety about what others
will say and what sacrifices it often costs ! One can see it even in a
child ; and though it exists at every period of life, it is strongest in age ;
because when the capacity for sensual pleasure fails, vanity and pride have
only avarice to share their dominion. Frenchmen, perhaps, afford the
best example of this feeling, and amongst them it is a regular epidemic,
appearing sometimes in the most absurd ambition, or in a ridiculous
kind of national vanity and the most shameless boasting. However, they
frustrate their own aims, for other people make fun of them and call them
la grande nation.

By way of specially illustrating this perverse and exuberant respect for
other people's opinion, let me take a passage from the Times of March
3ist, 1846, giving a detailed account of the execution of one Thomas
Wix, an apprentice who, from motives of vengeance, had murdered his
master. Here we have very unusual circumstances and an extraordinary
character, though one very suitable for our purpose ; and these combine
to give a striking picture of this folly, which is so deeply rooted in
human nature, and allow us to form an accurate notion of the extent to
which it will go. On the morning of the execution, says the report, Ike
rev. ordinary was early in attendance upon him, but Wix, beyond a quiet
demeanor, betrayed no interest in his ministrations, appearing to feel anxious
only to acquit himself " bravely " before the spectators of his ignominious end.
. . In the procession Wix fell into his proper place with alacrity,
and, as he entered the Chapel-yard, remarked, sufficiently loud to be heard by
several persons near him "Now, then, as Dr. D odd said, I shall soon know
the grand secret" On reaching the scaffold, the miserable wretch mounted
the drop without the slightest assistance, and when he got to the centre, he
bowed to the spectators twice, a proceeding which called forth a tremendous
cheer from the degraded crowd beneath.

This is an admirable example of the way in which a man, with death
in the most dreadful form before his very eyes, and eternity beyond it,
will care for nothing but the impression he makes upon a crowd of
gapers, and the opinion he leaves behind him in their heads. There was
much the same kind of thing in the case of Lecomte, who was executed

37



298 BEACON LIGHTS OF SCIENCE.

at Frankfurt, also in 1846, for an attempt on the king's life. At the trial
he was very much annoyed that he was not allowed to appear, in decent
attire, before the Upper House ; and on the day of the execution it was a
special grief to him that he was not permitted to shave. It is not only in
recent times that this kind of thing has been known to happen. Mateo
Aleman tells us, in the Introduction to his celebrated romance, Guzman
de Al/arache, that many infatuated criminals, instead of devoting their
last hours to the welfare of their souls, as they ought to have done,
neglect this duty for the purpose of preparing and committing to memory
ft speech to be made from the scaffold.

I take these extreme cases as being the best illustrations of what I
mean ; for they give us a magnified reflection of our own nature. The anxie-
ties of all of us, our worries, vexations, bothers, troubles, uneasy appre-
hensions, and strenuous efforts are due, in perhaps the large majority of
instances, to what other people will say ; and we are just as foolish in
this respect as those miserable criminals. Envy and hatred are very
often traceable to a similar source.

Now, it is obvious that happiness, which consists for the most part in
peace of mind and contentment, would be served by nothing so much as
by reducing this impulse of human nature within reasonable limits,
which would perhaps make it one fiftieth part of what it is now. By
doing so, we should get rid of a thorn in the flesh which is always caus-
ing us pain. But it is a very difficult task, because the impulse in ques-
tion is a natural and innate perversity of human nature. Tacitus says,
The lust of fame is the last that a wise man shakes off. 1 The only way of
putting an end to this universal folly is to see clearly that it is a folly ;
and this may be done by recognizing the fact that most of the opinions in
men's heads are apt to be false, perverse, erroneous and absurd, and so
in themselves unworthy of any attention ; further, that other people's
opinions can have very little real and positive influence upon us in most
of the circumstances and affairs of life. Again, this opinion is generally
of such an unfavorable character that it would worry a man to death to
hear everything that was said of him, or the tone in which he was spoken
of. And finally, among other things, we should be clear about the fact
that honor itself has no really direct, but only an indirect, value. If
people were generally converted from this universal folly, the result would
be such an addition to our peace of mind and cheerfulness as at present
seems inconceivable ; people would present a firmer and more confident
front to the world, and generally behave with less embarrassment and
restraint. It is observable that a retired mode of life has an exceedingly
beneficial influence on our peace of mind, and this is mainly because we
thus escape having to live constantly in the sight of others, and pay ever-
lasting regard to their casual opinions ; in a word, we are able to return
upon ourselves. At the same time a good deal of positive misfortune

i Hist., ir., 6.
38



THE WISDOM OF LIFE. 2 99

might be avoided, which we are now drawn into by striving after shad-
ows, or, to speak more correctly, by indulging a mischievous piece of
folly ; and we should consequently have more attention to give to solid
realities and enjoy them with less interruption than at present But
xaA.end rd xaAa what is worth doing is hard to do.

Section a. Pride.

The folly of our nature which we are discussing puts forth three
shoots, ambition, vanity and pride. The difference between the last two
is this : pride is an established conviction of one's own paramount worth
in some particular respect ; while vanity is the desire of rousing such a
conviction in others, and it is generally accompanied by the secret hope
of ultimately coming to the same conviction oneself. Pride works from
within ; it is the direct appreciation of oneself. Vanity is the desire to
arrive at this appreciation indirectly, from without. So we find that vain
people are talkative, and proud, taciturn. But the vain person ought to
be aware that the good opinion of others, which he strives for, may be
obtained much more easily and certainly by persistent silence than by
speech, even though he has very good things to say. Anyone who
wishes to effect pride is not therefore a proud man ; but he will soon have
to drop this, as every other, assumed character.

It is only a firm, unshakeable conviction of preeminent worth and
special value which makes a man proud in the true sense of the word, a
conviction which may, no doubt, be a mistaken one, or rest on advantages
which are of an adventitious and conventional character: still pride is not
the less pride for all that, so long as it be present in real earnest And
since pride is thus rooted in conviction, it resembles every other form of
knowledge in not being within our own arbitrament Pride's worst foe,
I mean its greatest obstacle, is vanity, which courts the applause of the
world in order to gain the necessary foundation for a high opinion of
one's own worth, whilst pride is based upon a pre-existing conviction of
it

It is quite true that pride is something which is generally found fault
with, and cried down ; but usually, I imagine, by those who have noth-
ing upon which they can pride themselves. In view of the impudence
and foolhardiness of most people, anyone who possesses any kind of
superiority or merit will do well to keep his eyes fixed on it, if he does
not want it to be entirely forgotten ; for if a man is good natured enough
to ignore his own privileges, and hob-nob with the generality of other
people, as if he were quite on their level, they will be sure to treat him,
frankly and candidly, as one of themselves. This is a piece of advice I
would specially offer to those whose superiority is of the highest kind
real superiority, I mean, of a purely personal nature which cannot, like
orders and titles, appeal to the eye or ear at every moment ; as, other-

39



3 oo BEACON LIGHTS OF SCIENCE.

wise, they will find that familiarity breeds contempt, or as the Romans
used to say, sus Minervam. Joke with a slave, and hell soon show his heels,
is an excellent Arabian proverb ; nor ought we to despise what Horace
says,

Sume superbiam
Qucesitam meritis.

usurp the fame you have deserved. No doubt, when modesty was
made a virtue, it was a very advantageous thing for the fools ; for every-
body is expected to speak of himself as if he were one. This is leveling
down indeed 1 for it comes to look as if there were nothing but fools in
the world.

The cheapest sort of pride is national pride ; for if a man is proud of
his own nation, it argues that he has no qualities of his own of which he
can be proud ; otherwise, he would not have recourse to those which he
shares with so many millions of his fellow-men. The man who is en-
dowed with important personal qualities will be only too ready to see
clearly in what respects his own nation falls short, since their failings
will be constantly before his eyes. But every miserable fool who has
nothing at all of which he can be proud adopts, as a last resource, pride
in the nation to which he belongs ; he is ready and glad to defend all its
faults and follies tooth and nail, thus re-imbursing himself for his own
inferiority. For example, if you speak of the stupid and degrading
bigotry of the English nation with the contempt it deserves, you will
hardly find one Englishman in fifty to agree with you ; but if there should
be one, he will generally happen to be an intelligent man.

The Germans have no national pride, which shows how honest they
are, as everybody knows ! and how dishonest are those who, by a piece
ridiculous affectation, pretend that they are proud of their country the
Deutsche Briider and the demagogues who flatter the mob in order to
mislead it. I have heard it said that gunpowder was invented by a
German. I doubt it. Lichtenberg asks, Why is it, that a man who is not
a German does not care about pretending that he is one ; and that if he makes
any pretence atoll, it is to be a Frenchman or an Englishman? '

However that may be, individuality is a far more important thing than
nationality, and in any given man deserves a thousand-fold more con-
sideration. And since you cannot speak of natural character without
referring to large masses of people, it is impossible to be loud in your
praises and at the same time honest. National character is only another
name for the particular form which the littleness, perversity and baseness
of mankind take in every country. If we become disgusted with one, we

1 Translator's Note. It should be remembered that these remarks were written in
the earlier part of the present century, and that a German philosopher nowadays, even
though he were as apt to say bitter things as Schopenhauer, could hardly write in a similar



THE WISDOM OF LIFE. 301

praise another, until we get disgusted with this too. Every nation mocks
at other nations, and all are right.

The contents of this chapter, which treats, as I have said, of what we
represent in the world, or what we are in the eyes of others, may be further
distributed under three heads : honor, rank and fame.

Section j. Rank.

Let us take rank first, as it may be dismissed in a few words, although
it plays an important part in the eyes of the masses and of the philistines,
and is a most useful wheel in the machinery of the State.

It has a purely conventional value. Strictly speaking, it is a sham ;
its method is to exact an artificial respect, and, as a matter of fact, the
whole thing is a mere farce.

Orders, it may be said, are bills of exchange drawn on public opinion,
and the measure of their value is the credit of the drawer. Of course, as
a substitute for pensions, they save the State a good deal of money ; and,
besides, they serve a very useful purpose, if they are distributed with dis-
crimination and judgment For people in general have eyes and ears,
it is true ; but not much else, very little judgment indeed, or even
memory. There are many services to the State quite beyond the range
of their understanding ; others, again, are appreciated and made much
of for a time, and then soon forgotten. It seems to me, therefore, very
proper, that a cross or a star should proclaim to the mass of people always
and everywhere, This man is not like you; he has done something. But orders
lose their value when they are distributed unjustly, or without due
selection, or in too great numbers : a prince should be as careful in con-
ferring them as a man of business is in signing a bill. It is a pleonasm
to inscribe on any order for distinguished service ; for every order ought to
be for distinguished service. That stands to reason.

Section 4. Honor.

Honor is a much larger question than rank, and more difficult to dis-
cuss. Let us begin by trying to define it

If I were to say Honor is external conscience, and conscience is inward
honor, no doubt a good many people would assent ; but there would be
more show than reality about such a definition, and it would hardly go to
the root of the matter. I prefer to say, Honor is, on its objective side, other
people's opinion of what we are worth ; on its subjective side, it is the respect
we pay to this opinion. From the latter point of view, to be a man of
honor is to exercise what is often a very wholesome, but by no means a
purely moral, influence.

The feelings of honor and shame exist in every man who is not utterly
depraved, and honor is everywhere recognized as something particularly
valuable. The reason of this is as follows: Bv and in himself a man can

41



BEACON LIGHTS OF SCIENCE.

accomplish very little ; he is like Robinson Crusoe on a desert island. It
is only in society that a man's powers can be called into full activity. He
very soon finds this out when his consciousness begins to develop, and
there arises in him the desire to be looked upon as a useful member of
society, as one, that is, who is capable of playing his part as a man pro
parte virili thereby acquiring a right to the benefits of social life. Now,
to be a useful member of society, one must do two things : firstly, what
everyone is expected to do everywhere ; and, secondly, what one's own
particular position in the world demands and requires.

But a man soon discovers that everything depends upon his being
useful, not in his own opinion, but in the opinion of others ; and so he
tries his best to make that favorable impression upon the world, to which
he attaches such a high value. Hence, this primitive and innate charac-
teristic of human nature, which is called the feeling of honor, or, under
another aspect, the feeling of shame verecundia. It is this which brings
a blush to his cheek at the thought of having suddenly to fall in the estima-
tion of others, even when he knows that he is innocent, nay, even if his
remissness extends to no absolute obligation, but only to one which he
has taken upon himself of his own free will. Conversely, nothing in life
gives a man so much courage as the attainment or renewal of the convic-
tion that other people regard him with favor ; because it means that
everyone joins to give him help and protection, which is an infinitely
stronger bulwark against the ills of life than anything he can do himself.

The variety of relations in which a man can stand to other people so
as to obtain their confidence, that is, their good opinion, gives rise to a
distinction between several kinds of honor, resting chiefly on the different
bearings that meum may take to tuum ; or, again, on the performance of
various pledges ; or finally, on the relation of the sexes. Hence, there
are three main kinds of honor, each of which takes various forms civic
honor, official honor, and sexual honor.

Civic honor has the widest sphere of all. It consists in the assumption
that we shall pay unconditional respect to the rights of others, and, there-
fore, never use any unjust or unlawful means of getting what we want
It is the condition of all peaceable intercourse between man and man ;
and it is destroyed by anything that openly and manifestly militate*
against this peaceable intercourse, anything, accordingly, which entails
punishment at the hands of the law, always supposing that the punish-
ment is a just one.

The ultimate foundation of honor is the conviction that moral charac-
ter is unalterable : a single bad action implies that future actions of the
same kind will, under similar circumstances, also be bad. This is well
expressed by the English use of the word character as meaning credit,
reputation, honor. Hence honor, once lost, can never be recovered ;
unless the loss rested on some mistake, such as may occur if a man is
slandered or his actions viewed in a false light So the law provide*

42



THE WISDOM OF LIFE. 303

remedies against slander, libel, and even insult : for insult, though it
amount to no more than mere abuse, is a kind of summary slander with
a suppression of the reasons. What I mean may be well put in the
Greek phrase not quoted from any author ednr r) \ot8opia 8ta/3olit}
dvvronos. It is true that if a man abuses another, he is simply showing that
he has no real or true causes of complaint against him ; as otherwise, he
would bring these forward as the premises, and rely upon his hearers to
draw the conclusion themselves : instead of which, he gives the conclu-
sion and leaves out the premises, trusting that people will suppose that
he has done so only for the sake of being brief.

Civic honor draws its existence and name from the middle classes ;
but it applies equally to all, not excepting the highest No man can dis-
regard it, and it is a very serious thing, of which every one should be
careful not to make light. The man who breaks confidence has forever
forfeited confidence, whatever he may do, and whoever he may be ; and
the bitter consequences of the loss of confidence can never be averted.

There is a sense in which honor may be said to have a negative charac-
ter in opposition to the positive character of fame. For honor is not the
opinion people have of particular qualities which a man may happen to
possess exclusively : it is rather the opinion they have of the qualities
which a man may be expected to exhibit, and to which he should not
prove false. Honor, therefore, means that a man is not exceptional ;
fame, that he is. Fame is something which must be won ; honor, only
something which must not be lost. The absence of fame is obscurity,
which is only a negative ; but loss of honor is shame, which is a positive
quality. This negative character of honor must not be confused with
anything passive ; for honor is above all things active in its working. It
is the only quality which preceeds directly from the man who exhibits it :
it is concerned entirely with what he does and leaves undone, and has noth-
ing to do with the actions of others or the obstacles they place in his
way. It is something entirely in our own power TK>Y i(pfffj.wv. This
distinction, as we shall see presently, marks off true honor from the wham
honor of chivalry.

Slander is the only weapon by which honor can be attacked from
without ; and the only way to repel . the attack is to confute the slander
with the proper amount of publicity, and a due unmasking of him who
utters it

The reason why respect is paid to age is that old people have neces-
sarily shown in the course of their lives whether or not they have been
able to maintain their honor unblemished ; while that of young people
has not yet been put to the proof, though they are credited with the pos-
session of it For neither length of years, equaled, as it is, and even
excelled, in the case of some of the lower animals, nor, again, experi-
ence, which is only a closer knowledge of the world's ways, can be any
sufficient reason for the respect which the >oung are everywhere required

43



3 o4 BEACON LIGHTS OF SCIENCE.

to show towards the old : for if it were merely a matter of years, the
weakness which attends on age would call rather for consideration than
for respect. It is, however, a remarkable fact that white hair always
commands reverence a reverence really innate and instinctive. Wrinkles
a much surer sign of old age command no reverence at all : you
never hear any one speak of venerable wrinkles ; but venerable white hair is
a common expression.

Honor has only an indirect value. For, as I explained at the begin-
ning of this chapter, what other people think of us, if it effects us at all,
can effect us only in so far as it governs their behavior towards us, and
only just so long as we live with, or have to do with, them. But it is to
society alone that we owe that safety which we and our possessions enjoy
in a state of civilization ; in all we do we need the help of others, and
they, in their turn, must have confidence in us before they can have any-
thing to do with us. Accordingly, their opinion of us is, indirectly, a
matter of great importance ; though I cannot see how it can have a direct
or immediate value. This is an opinion also held by Cicero. I quite
agree, he writes, with what Chrysippus and Diogenes used to say, that a good
reputation is not worth raising a finger to obtain, if it were not that it is so



Online LibraryIsreal Smith ClareLibrary of Universal history and popular science ... (Volume 20) → online text (page 35 of 60)