Samuel Butler.

Selections from previous works, with remarks on G. J. Romanes' Mentl evolution in animals, and A psalm of Montreal online

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Online LibrarySamuel ButlerSelections from previous works, with remarks on G. J. Romanes' Mentl evolution in animals, and A psalm of Montreal → online text (page 20 of 23)
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the top of a very uncomfortable mountain could do this, so he at once
resigned his bishopric and chose Monte Caprasio as on the whole the most
comfortable uncomfortable mountain he could find.

The latter part of the story will seem strange to Englishmen. We can
hardly fancy the Archbishop of Canterbury or York resigning his diocese
and settling down quietly on the top of Scafell or Cader Idris to secure
his eternal welfare. They would hardly do so even on the top of Primrose
Hill. But nine hundred years ago human nature was not the same as now-a-

* * * * *

Comparing our own clergy with the best North Italian and Ticinese
priests, I should say there was little to choose between them. The
latter are in a logically stronger position, and this gives them greater
courage in their opinions; the former have the advantage in respect of
money, and the more varied knowledge of the world which money will
command. When I say Catholics have logically the advantage over
Protestants, I mean that starting from premises which both sides admit, a
merely logical Protestant will find himself driven to the Church of Rome.
Most men as they grow older will, I think, feel this, and they will see
in it the explanation of the comparatively narrow area over which the
Reformation extended, and of the gain which Catholicism has made of late
years here in England. On the other hand, reasonable people will look
with distrust upon too much reason. The foundations of action lie deeper
than reason can reach. They rest on faith - for there is no absolutely
certain incontrovertible premise which can be laid by man, any more than
there is any investment for money or security in the daily affairs of
life which is absolutely unimpeachable. The Funds are not absolutely
safe; a volcano might break out under the Bank of England. A railway
journey is not absolutely safe; one person at least in several millions
gets killed. We invest our money upon faith, mainly. We choose our
doctor upon faith, for how little independent judgment can we form
concerning his capacity? We choose schools for our children chiefly upon
faith. The most important things a man has are his body, his soul, and
his money. It is generally better for him to commit these interests to
the care of others of whom he can know little, rather than be his own
medical man, or invest his money on his own judgment; and this is nothing
else than making a faith which lies deeper than reason can reach, the
basis of our action in those respects which touch us most nearly.

On the other hand, as good a case could be made out for placing reason as
the foundation, inasmuch as it would be easy to show that a faith, to be
worth anything, must be a reasonable one - one, that is to say, which is
based upon reason. The fact is that faith and reason are like function
and organ, desire and power, or demand and supply; it is impossible to
say which comes first: they come up hand in hand, and are so small when
we can first descry them, that it is impossible to say which we first
caught sight of. All we can now see is that each has a tendency
continually to outstrip the other by a little, but by a very little only.
Strictly they are not two things, but two aspects of one thing; for
convenience' sake, however, we classify them separately.

It follows, therefore - but whether it follows or no, it is certainly
true - that neither faith alone nor reason alone is a sufficient guide: a
man's safety lies neither in faith nor reason, but in temper - in the
power of fusing faith and reason, even when they appear most mutually

That we all feel temper to be the first thing is plain from the fact that
when we see two men quarrelling we seldom even try to weigh their
arguments - we look instinctively at the tone or spirit or temper which
the two display and give our verdict accordingly.

A man of temper will be certain in spite of uncertainty, and at the same
time uncertain in spite of certainty; reasonable in spite of his resting
mainly upon faith rather than reason, and full of faith even when
appealing most strongly to reason. If it is asked, In what should a man
have faith? To what faith should he turn when reason has led him to a
conclusion which he distrusts? the answer is, To the current feeling
among those whom he most looks up to - looking upon himself with suspicion
if he is either among the foremost or the laggers. In the rough, homely
common sense of the community to which we belong we have as firm ground
as can be got. This, though not absolutely infallible, is secure enough
for practical purposes.

As I have said, Catholic priests have rather a fascination for me - when
they are not Englishmen. I should say that the best North Italian
priests are more openly tolerant than our English clergy generally are. I
remember picking up one who was walking along a road, and giving him a
lift in my trap. Of course we fell to talking, and it came out that I
was a member of the Church of England. "Ebbene, Caro Signore," said he
when we shook hands at parting; "mi rincresce che lei non crede come io,
ma in questi tempi non possiamo avere tutti i medesimi principii." {287}

* * * * *

The one thing, he said, which shocked him with the English, was the
manner in which they went about distributing tracts upon the Continent. I
said no one could deplore the practice more profoundly than myself, but
that there were stupid and conceited people in every country, who would
insist upon thrusting their opinions upon people who did not want them.
He replied that the Italians travelled not a little in England, but that
he was sure not one of them would dream of offering Catholic tracts to
people, for example, in the streets of London. Certainly I have never
seen an Italian to be guilty of such rudeness. It seems to me that it is
not only toleration that is a duty; we ought to go beyond this now; we
should conform, when we are among a sufficient number of those who would
not understand our refusal to do so; any other course is to attach too
much importance at once to our own opinions and to those of our
opponents. By all means let a man stand by his convictions when the
occasion requires, but let him reserve his strength, unless it is
imperatively called for. Do not let him exaggerate trifles, and let him
remember that everything is a trifle in comparison with the not giving
offence to a large number of kindly, simple-minded people. Evolution, as
we all know, is the great doctrine of modern times; the very essence of
evolution consists in the not shocking anything too violently, but
enabling it to mistake a new action for an old one, without "making
believe" too much.

One day when I was eating my lunch near a fountain, there came up a
moody, meditative hen, crooning plaintively after her wont. I threw her
a crumb of bread while she was still a good way off, and then threw more,
getting her to come a little closer and a little closer each time; at
last she actually took a piece from my hand. She did not quite like it,
but she did it. "A very little at a time," this is the evolution
principle; and if we wish those who differ from us to understand us, it
is the only method to proceed upon. I have sometimes thought that some
of my friends among the priests have been treating me as I treated the
meditative hen. But what of that? They will not kill and eat me, nor
take my eggs. Whatever, therefore, promotes a more friendly feeling
between us must be pure gain.

* * * * *

Sometimes priests say things, as a matter of course, which would make any
English clergyman's hair stand on end. At one town there is a remarkable
fourteenth-century bridge, commonly known as "The Devil's Bridge." I was
sketching near this when a jolly old priest with a red nose came up and
began a conversation with me. He was evidently a popular character, for
every one who passed greeted him. He told me that the devil did not
really build the bridge. I said I presumed not, for he was not in the
habit of spending his time so well.

"I wish he had built it," said my friend; "for then perhaps he would
build us some more."

"Or we might even get a church out of him," said I, a little slyly.

"Ha, ha, ha! we will convert him, and make a good Christian of him in the

When will our Protestantism, or Rationalism, or whatever it may be, sit
as lightly upon ourselves?

Another time I had the following dialogue with an old Piedmontese priest
who lived in a castle which I asked permission to go over: -

"Vous etes Anglais, monsieur?" said he in French.

"Oui, monsieur."

"Vous etes Catholique?"

"Monsieur, je suis de la religion de mes ancetres."

"Pardon, monsieur, vos ancetres etaient Catholiques jusqu'au temps de
Henri Huit."

"Mais il y a trois cents ans depuis le temps de Henri Huit."

"Eh bien; chacun a ses convictions; vous ne parlez pas contre la

"Jamais, jamais, monsieur, j'ai un respect enorme pour l'eglise

"Monsieur, faites comme chez vous; allez ou vous voulez; vous trouverez
toutes les portes ouvertes. Amusez vous bien."


Those who know the Italians will see no sign of decay about them. They
are the quickest-witted people in the world, and at the same time have
much more of the old Roman steadiness than they are generally credited
with. Not only is there no sign of degeneration, but, as regards
practical matters, there is every sign of health and vigorous
development. The North Italians are more like Englishmen, both in body,
and mind, than any other people whom I know; I am continually meeting
Italians whom I should take for Englishmen if I did not know their
nationality. They have all our strong points, but they have more grace
and elasticity of mind than we have.

Priggishness is the sin which doth most easily beset middle-class, and so-
called educated Englishmen; we call it purity and culture, but it does
not much matter what we call it. It is the almost inevitable outcome of
a university education, and will last as long as Oxford and Cambridge do,
but not much longer.

Lord Beaconsfield sent Lothair to Oxford; it is with great pleasure that
I see he did not send Endymion. My friend Jones called my attention to
this, and we noted that the growth observable throughout Lord
Beaconsfield's life was continued to the end. He was one of those who,
no matter how long he lived, would have been always growing: this is what
makes his later novels so much better than those of Thackeray or Dickens.
There was something of the child about him to the last. Earnestness was
his greatest danger, but if he did not quite overcome it (as who indeed
can? It is the last enemy that shall be subdued), he managed to veil it
with a fair amount of success. As for Endymion, of course if Lord
Beaconsfield had thought Oxford would be good for him, he could, as Jones
pointed out to me, just as well have killed Mr. Ferrars a year or two
later. We feel satisfied, therefore, that Endymion's exclusion from a
university was carefully considered, and are glad.

I will not say that priggishness is absolutely unknown among the North
Italians; sometimes one comes upon a young Italian who wants to learn
German, but not often. Priggism, or whatever the substantive is, is as
essentially a Teutonic vice as holiness is a Semitic characteristic; and
if an Italian happens to be a prig, he will, like Tacitus, invariably
show a hankering after German institutions. The idea, however, that the
Italians were ever a finer people than they are now, will not pass muster
with those who knew them.

At the same time, there can be no doubt that modern Italian art is in
many respects as bad as it was once good. I will confine myself to
painting only. The modern Italian painters, with very few exceptions,
paint as badly as we do, or even worse, and their motives are as poor as
is their painting. At an exhibition of modern Italian pictures, I
generally feel that there is hardly a picture on the walls but is a
sham - that is to say, painted not from love of this particular subject
and an irresistible desire to paint it, but from a wish to paint an
academy picture, and win money or applause.

The last rays of the sunset of genuine art are to be found in the votive
pictures at Locarno or Oropa, and in many a wayside chapel. In these,
religious art still lingers as a living language, however rudely spoken.
In these alone is the story told, not as in the Latin and Greek verses of
the scholar, who thinks he has succeeded best when he has most concealed
his natural manner of expressing himself, but by one who knows what he
wants to say, and says it in his mother-tongue, shortly, and without
caring whether or not his words are in accordance with academic rules. I
regret to see photography being introduced for votive purposes, and also
to detect in some places a disposition on the part of the authorities to
be a little ashamed of these pictures and to place them rather out of

The question is, how has the falling-off in Italian painting been caused?
And by doing what may we again get Bellinis and Andrea Mantegnas as in
old time? The fault does not lie in any want of raw material: nor yet
does it lie in want of taking pains. The modern Italian painter frets
himself to the full as much as his predecessor did - if the truth were
known, probably a great deal more. I am sure Titian did not take much
pains after he was more than about twenty years old. It does not lie in
want of schooling or art education. For the last three hundred years,
ever since the Caraccis opened their academy at Bologna, there has been
no lack of art education in Italy. Curiously enough, the date of the
opening of the Bolognese Academy coincides as nearly as may be with the
complete decadence of Italian painting. The academic system trains boys
to study other people's works rather than nature, and, as Leonardo da
Vinci so well says, it makes them nature's grandchildren and not her
children. This I believe is at any rate half the secret of the whole

If half-a-dozen young Italians could be got together with a taste for
drawing; if they had power to add to their number; if they were allowed
to see paintings and drawings done up to the year A.D. 1510, and votive
pictures and the comic papers; if they were left with no other assistance
than this, absolutely free to please themselves, and could be persuaded
not to try and please any one else, I believe that in fifty years we
should have all that was ever done repeated with fresh naivete, and as
much more delightfully than even by the best old masters, as these are
more delightful than anything we know of in classic painting. The young
plants keep growing up abundantly every day - look at Bastianini, dead not
ten years since - but they are browsed down by the academies. I remember
there came out a book many years ago with the title, "What becomes of all
the clever little children?" I never saw the book, but the title is

Any man who can write, can draw to a not inconsiderable extent. Look at
the Bayeux tapestry; yet Matilda probably never had a drawing lesson in
her life. See how well prisoner after prisoner in the Tower of London
has cut out this or that in the stone of his prison wall, without, in all
probability, having ever tried his hand at drawing before. Look at my
friend Jones, who has several illustrations in this book. {294} The
first year he went abroad with me he could hardly draw at all. He was no
year away from England more than three weeks. How did he learn? On the
old principle, if I am not mistaken. The old principle was for a man to
be doing something which he was pretty strongly bent on doing, and to get
a much younger one to help him. The younger paid nothing for
instruction, but the elder took the work, as long as the relation of
master and pupil existed between them. I, then, was mailing
illustrations for this book, and got Jones to help me. I let him see
what I was doing, and derive an idea of the sort of thing I wanted, and
then left him alone - beyond giving him the same kind of small criticism
that I expected from himself - but I appropriated his work. That is the
way to teach, and the result was that in an incredibly short time Jones
could draw. The taking the work is a _sine qua non_. If I had not been
going to have his work, Jones, in spite of all his quickness, would
probably have been rather slower in learning to draw. Being paid in
money is nothing like so good.

This is the system of apprenticeship _versus_ the academic system. The
academic system consists in giving people the rules for doing things. The
apprenticeship system consists in letting them do it, with just a trifle
of supervision. "For all a rhetorician's rules," says my great namesake,
"teach nothing but, to name his tools;" and academic rules generally are
much the same as the rhetorician's. Some men can pass through academies
unscathed, but they are very few, and in the main the academic influence
is a baleful one, whether exerted in a university or a school. While
young men at universities are being prepared for their entry into life,
their rivals have already entered it. The most university and
examination ridden people in the world are the Chinese, and they are the
least progressive.

Men should learn to draw as they learn conveyancing: they should go into
a painter's studio and paint on his pictures. I am told that half the
conveyances in the country are drawn by pupils; there is no more mystery
about painting than about conveyancing - not half in fact, I should think,
so much. One may ask, How can the beginner paint, or draw conveyances,
till he has learnt how to do so? The answer is, How can he learn,
without at any rate trying to do? It is the old story, organ and
function, power and desire, demand and supply, faith and reason, etc.,
the most virtuous action and interaction in the most vicious circle
conceivable. If the beginner likes his subject, he will try: if he
tries, he will soon succeed in doing something which shall open a door.
It does not matter what a man does; so long as he does it with the
attention which affection engenders, he will come to see his way to
something else. After long waiting he will certainly find one door open,
and go through it. He will say to himself that he can never find
another. He has found this, more by luck than cunning, but now he is
done. Yet by and by he will see that there is _one_ more small
unimportant door which he had overlooked, and he proceeds through this
too. If he remains now for a long while and sees no other, do not let
him fret; doors are like the kingdom of heaven, they come not by
observation, least of all do they come by forcing: let him just go on
doing what comes nearest, but doing it attentively, and a great wide door
will one day spring into existence where there had been no sign of one
but a little time previously. Only let him be always doing something,
and let him cross himself now and again, for belief in the wondrous
efficacy of crosses and crossing is the corner-stone of the creed of the
evolutionists. Then after years - but not probably till after a great
many - doors will open up all around, so many and so wide that the
difficulty will not be to find a door, but rather to obtain the means of
even hurriedly surveying a portion of those that stand invitingly open.

I know that just as good a case can be made out for the other side. It
may be said as truly that unless a student is incessantly on the watch
for doors he will never see them, and that unless he is incessantly
pressing forward to the kingdom of heaven he will never find it - so that
the kingdom does come by observation. It is with this as with everything
else - there must be a harmonious fusing of two principles which are in
flat contradiction to one another.

The question of whether it is better to abide quiet and take advantage of
opportunities that come, or to go farther afield in search of them, is
one of the oldest which living beings have had to deal with. It was on
this that the first great schism or heresy arose in what was heretofore
the catholic faith of protoplasm. The schism still lasts, and has
resulted in two great sects - animals and plants. The opinion that it is
better to go in search of prey is formulated in animals; the other - that
it is better on the whole to stay at home and profit by what comes - in
plants. Some intermediate forms still record to us the long struggle
during which the schism was not yet complete.

If I may be pardoned for pursuing this digression further, I would say
that it is the plants and not we who are the heretics. There can be no
question about this; we are perfectly justified, therefore, in devouring
them. Ours is the original and orthodox belief, for protoplasm is much
more animal than vegetable; it is much more true to say that plants have
descended from animals than animals from plants. Nevertheless, like many
other heretics, plants have thriven very fairly well. There are a great
many of them, and as regards beauty, if not wit - of a limited kind
indeed, but still wit - it is hard to say that the animal kingdom has the
advantage. The views of plants are sadly narrow; all dissenters are
narrow-minded; but within their own bounds they know the details of their
business sufficiently well - as well as though they kept the most nicely-
balanced system of accounts to show them their position. They are eaten,
it is true; to eat them is our intolerant and bigoted way of trying to
convert them: eating is only a violent mode of proselytising or
converting; and we do convert them - to good animal substance, of our own
way of thinking. If we have had no trouble with them, we say they have
"agreed" with us; if we have been unable to make them see things from our
points of view, we say they "disagree" with us, and avoid being on more
than distant terms with them for the future. If we have helped ourselves
to too much, we say we have got more than we can "manage." But then,
animals are eaten too. They convert one another, almost as much as they
convert plants. And an animal is no sooner dead than a plant will
convert it back again. It is obvious, however, that no schism could have
been so long successful, without having a good deal to say for itself.

Neither party has been quite consistent. Who ever is or can be? Every
extreme - every opinion carried to its logical end - will prove to be an
absurdity. Plants throw out roots and boughs and leaves: this is a kind
of locomotion; and as Dr. Erasmus Darwin long since pointed out, they do
sometimes approach nearly to what may be called travelling; a man of
consistent character will never look at a bough, a root, or a tendril
without regarding it as a melancholy and unprincipled compromise. On the
other hand, many animals are sessile, and some singularly successful
genera, as spiders, are in the main liers-in-wait. It may appear,
however, on the whole, like reopening a settled question to uphold the
principle of being busy and attentive over a small area, rather than
going to and fro over a larger one, for a mammal like man, but I think
most readers will be with me in thinking that, at any rate as regards art
and literature, it is he who does his small immediate work most carefully
who will find doors open most certainly to him, that will conduct him
into the richest chambers.

Many years ago, in New Zealand, I used sometimes to accompany a dray and
team of bullocks who would have to be turned loose at night that they
might feed. There were no hedges or fences then, so sometimes I could
not find my team in the morning, and had no clue to the direction in
which they had gone. At first I used to try and throw my soul into the
bullocks' souls, so as to divine if possible what they would be likely to
have done, and would then ride off ten miles in the wrong direction.
People used in those days to lose their bullocks sometimes for a week or
fortnight - when they perhaps were all the time hiding in a gully hard by
the place where they were turned out. After some time I changed my
tactics. On losing my bullocks I would go to the nearest accommodation
house, and stand drinks. Some one would ere long, as a general rule,
turn up who had seen the bullocks. This case does not go quite on all
fours with what I have been saying above, inasmuch as I was not very

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Online LibrarySamuel ButlerSelections from previous works, with remarks on G. J. Romanes' Mentl evolution in animals, and A psalm of Montreal → online text (page 20 of 23)