William Edward Hartpole Lecky.

The map of life, conduct, and character online

. (page 18 of 25)
Online LibraryWilliam Edward Hartpole LeckyThe map of life, conduct, and character → online text (page 18 of 25)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

specialisation and concentration and by some exercise of the powers of
observation. 'Many tastes and one hobby' is no bad ideal to be aimed at.
The boy who learns to collect and classify fossils, or flowers, or
insects, who has acquired a love for chemical experiments, who has begun
to form a taste for some particular kind or department of knowledge, has
laid the foundation of much happiness in life.

In the selection of pleasures and the cultivation of tastes much wisdom
is shown in choosing in such a way that each should form a complement to
the others; that different pleasures should not clash, but rather cover
different areas and seasons of life; that each should tend to correct
faults or deficiencies of character which the others may possibly
produce. The young man who starts in life with keen literary tastes and
also with a keen love of out-of-door sports, and who possesses the means
of gratifying each, has perhaps provided himself with as many elements
of happiness as mere amusements can ever furnish. One set of pleasures,
however, often kills the capacity for enjoying others, and some which in
themselves are absolutely innocent, by blunting the enjoyment of better
things, exercise an injurious influence on character. Habitual
novel-reading, for example, often destroys the taste for serious
literature, and few things tend so much to impair a sound literary
perception and to vulgarise the character as the habit of constantly
saturating the mind with inferior literature, even when that literature
is in no degree immoral. Sometimes an opposite evil may be produced.
Excessive fastidiousness greatly limits our enjoyments, and the
inestimable gift of extreme concentration is often dearly bought. The
well-known confession of Darwin that his intense addiction to science
had destroyed his power of enjoying even the noblest imaginative
literature represents a danger to which many men who have achieved much
in the higher and severer forms of scientific thought are subject. Such
men are usually by their original temperament, and become still more by
acquired habit, men of strong, narrow, concentrated natures, whose
thoughts, like a deep and rapid stream confined in a restricted channel,
flow with resistless energy in one direction. It is by the sacrifice of
versatility that they do so much, and the result is amply sufficient to
justify it. But it is a real sacrifice, depriving them of many forms
both of capacity and of enjoyment.

The same pleasures act differently on different characters, especially
on the differences of character that accompany difference of sex. I have
myself no doubt that the movement which in modern times has so widely
opened to women amusements that were once almost wholly reserved for men
has been on the whole a good one. It has produced a higher level of
health, stronger nerves, and less morbid characters, and it has given
keen and innocent enjoyment to many who from their circumstances and
surroundings once found their lives very dreary and insipid. Yet most
good observers will agree that amusements which have no kind of evil
effect on men often in some degree impair the graces or characters of
women, and that it is not quite with impunity that one sex tries to live
the life of the other. Some pleasures, too, exercise a much larger
influence than others on the general habits of life. It is not too much
to say that the invention of the bicycle, bringing with it an immense
increase of outdoor life, of active exercise, and of independent habits,
has revolutionised the course of many lives. Some amusements which may
in themselves be but little valued are wisely cultivated as helping men
to move more easily in different spheres of society, or as providing a
resource for old age. Talleyrand was not wholly wrong in his reproach to
a man who had never learned to play whist: 'What an unhappy old age you
are preparing for yourself!'

I have already mentioned the differences that may be found in different
countries and ages, in the relative importance attached to external
circumstances and to dispositions of mind as means of happiness, and the
tendency in the more progressive nations to seek their happiness mainly
in improved circumstances. Another great line of distinction is between
education that acts specially upon the desires, and that which acts
specially upon the will. The great perfection of modern systems of
education is chiefly of the former kind. Its object is to make knowledge
and virtue attractive, and therefore an object of desire. It does so
partly by presenting them in the most alluring forms, partly by
connecting them as closely as possible with rewards. The great principle
of modern moral education is to multiply innocent and beneficent
interests, tastes, and ambitions. It is to make the path of virtue the
natural, the easy, the pleasing one; to form a social atmosphere
favourable to its development, making duty and interest as far as
possible coincident. Vicious pleasures are combated by the
multiplication of healthy ones, and by a clearer insight into the
consequences of each. An idle or inert character is stimulated by
holding up worthy objects of interest and ambition, and it is the aim
alike of the teacher and the legislator to make the grooves and channels
of life such as tend naturally and easily towards good. But the
education of the will - the power of breasting the current of the desires
and doing for long periods what is distasteful and painful - is much less
cultivated than in some periods of the past.

Many things contribute to this. The rush and hurry of modern existence
and the incalculable multitude and variety of fleeting impressions that
in the great centres of civilisation pass over the mind are very
unfavourable to concentration, and perhaps still more to the direct
cultivation of mental states. Amusements, and the appetite for
amusements, have greatly extended. Life has become more full. The long
leisures, the introspective habits, the _vita contemplativa_ so
conspicuous in the old Catholic discipline, grow very rare. Thoughts and
interests are more thrown on the external; and the comfort, the luxury,
the softness, the humanity of modern life, and especially of modern
education, make men less inclined to face the disagreeable and endure
the painful.

The starting-point of education is thus silently changing. Perhaps the
extent of the change is best shown by the old Catholic ascetic training.
Its supreme object was to discipline and strengthen the will: to
accustom men habitually to repudiate the pleasurable and accept the
painful; to mortify the most natural tastes and affections; to narrow
and weaken the empire of the desires; to make men wholly independent of
outward circumstances; to preach self-renunciation as itself an end.

Men will always differ about the merits of this system. In my own
opinion it is difficult to believe that in the period of Catholic
ascendency the moral standard was, on the whole and in its broad lines,
higher than our own. The repression of the sensual instincts was the
central fact in ascetic morals; but, even tested by this test, it is at
least very doubtful whether it did not fail. The withdrawal from secular
society of the best men did much to restrict the influences for good,
and the habit of aiming at an unnatural ideal was not favourable to
common, everyday, domestic virtue. The history of sacerdotal and
monastic celibacy abundantly shows how much vice that might easily have
been avoided grew out of the adoption of an unnatural standard, and how
often it led in those who had attained it to grave distortions of
character. Affections and impulses which were denied their healthy and
natural vent either became wholly atrophied or took other and morbid
forms, and the hard, cruel, self-righteous fanatic, equally ready to
endure or to inflict suffering, was a not unnatural result. But
whatever may have been its failures and its exaggerations, Catholic
asceticism was at least a great school for disciplining and
strengthening the will, and the strength and discipline of the will form
one of the first elements of virtue and of happiness.

In the grave and noble type of character which prevailed in English and
American life during the seventeenth century, the strength of will was
conspicuously apparent. Life was harder, simpler, more serious, and less
desultory than at present, and strong convictions shaped and fortified
the character. 'It was an age,' says a great American writer, 'when what
we call talent had far less consideration than now, but the massive
materials which produce stability and dignity of character a great deal
more. The people possessed by hereditary right the quality of reverence,
which, in their descendants, if it survive at all, exists in smaller
proportion and with a vastly diminished force in the selection and
estimate of public men. The change may be for good or ill, and is
partly, perhaps, for both. In that old day the English settler on these
rude shores, having left king, nobles, and all degrees of awful rank
behind, while still the faculty and necessity of reverence were strong
in him, bestowed it on the white hair and venerable brow of age; on
long-tried integrity; on solid wisdom and sad-coloured experience; on
endowments of that grave and weighty order which give the idea of
permanence and come under the general definition of respectability.
These primitive statesmen, therefore, - Bradstreet, Endicott, Dudley,
Bellingham, and their compeers, - who were elevated to power by the
early choice of the people, seem to have been not often brilliant, but
distinguished by a ponderous sobriety rather than activity of intellect.
They had fortitude and self-reliance, and in time of difficulty or peril
stood up for the welfare of the State like a line of cliffs against a
tempestuous tide.'[61]

The power of the will, however, even when it exists in great strength,
is often curiously capricious. History is full of examples of men who in
great trials and emergencies have acted with admirable and persevering
heroism, yet who readily succumbed to private vices or passions. The
will is not the same as the desires, but the connection between them is
very close. A love for a distant end; a dominating ambition or passion,
will call forth long perseverance in wholly distasteful work in men
whose will in other fields of life is lamentably feeble. Every one who
has embarked with real earnestness in some extended literary enterprise
which as a whole represents the genuine bent of his talent and character
will be struck with his exceptional power of traversing perseveringly
long sections of this enterprise for which he has no natural aptitude
and in which he takes no pleasure. Military courage is with most men
chiefly a matter of temperament and impulse, but there have been
conspicuous instances of great soldiers and sailors who have frankly
acknowledged that they never lost in battle an intense constitutional
shrinking from danger, though by the force of a strong will they never
suffered this timidity to govern or to weaken them. With men of very
vivid imagination there is a natural tendency to timidity as they
realise more than ordinary men danger and suffering. On the other hand
it has often been noticed how calmly the callous, semi-torpid
temperament that characterises many of the worst criminals enables them
to meet death upon the gallows.

In courage itself, too, there are many varieties. The courage of the
soldier and the courage of the martyr are not the same, and it by no
means follows that either would possess that of the other. Not a few men
who are capable of leading a forlorn hope, and who never shrink from the
bayonet and the cannon, have shown themselves incapable of bearing the
burden of responsibility, enduring long-continued suspense, taking
decisions which might expose them to censure or unpopularity. The active
courage that encounters and delights in danger is often found in men who
show no courage in bearing suffering, misfortune, or disease. In passive
courage the woman often excels the man as much as in active courage the
man exceeds the woman. Even in active courage familiarity does much;
sympathy and enthusiasm play great and often very various parts, and
curious anomalies may be found. The Teutonic and the Latin races are
probably equally distinguished for their military courage, but there is
a clear difference between them in the nature of that courage and in the
circumstances or conditions under which it is usually most splendidly
displayed. The danger incurred by the gladiator was far greater than
that which was encountered by the soldier, but Tacitus[62] mentions
that when some of the bravest gladiators were employed in the Roman
army they were found wholly inefficient, as they were much less capable
than the ordinary soldiers of military courage.

The circumstances of life are the great school for forming and
strengthening the will, and in the excessive competition and struggle of
modern industrialism this school is not wanting. But in ethical and
educational systems the value of its cultivation is often insufficiently
felt. Yet nothing which is learned in youth is so really valuable as the
power and the habit of self-restraint, of self-sacrifice, of energetic,
continuous and concentrated effort. In the best of us evil tendencies
are always strong and the path of duty is often distasteful. With the
most favourable wind and tide the bark will never arrive at the harbour
if it has ceased to obey the rudder. A weak nature which is naturally
kindly, affectionate and pure, which floats through life under the
impulse of the feelings, with no real power of self-restraint, is indeed
not without its charm, and in a well-organised society, with good
surroundings and few temptations, it may attain a high degree of beauty;
but its besetting failings will steadily grow; without fortitude,
perseverance and principle, it has no recuperative energy, and it will
often end in a moral catastrophe which natures in other respects much
less happily compounded would easily avoid. Nothing can permanently
secure our moral being in the absence of a restraining will basing
itself upon a strong sense of the difference between right and wrong,
upon the firm groundwork of principle and honour.

Experience abundantly shows how powerfully the steady action of such a
will can operate upon innate defects, converting the constitutional
idler into the indefatigably industrious, checking, limiting and
sometimes almost destroying constitutional irritability and vicious
passions. The natural power of the will in different men differs
greatly, but there is no part of our nature which is more strengthened
by exercise or more weakened by disuse. The minor faults of character it
can usually correct; but when a character is once formed, and when its
tendencies are essentially vicious, radical cure or even considerable
amelioration is very rare. Sometimes the strong influence of religion
effects it. Sometimes it is effected by an illness, a great misfortune,
or the total change of associations that follows emigration. Marriage
perhaps more frequently than any other ordinary agency in early life
transforms or deeply modifies the character, for it puts an end to
powerful temptations and brings with it a profound change of habits and
motives, associations and desires. But we have all of us encountered in
life depraved natures in which vicious self-indulgence had attained such
a strength, and the recuperating and moralising elements were so fatally
weak, that we clearly perceive the disease to be incurable, and that it
is hardly possible that any change of circumstances could even seriously
mitigate it. In what proportion this is the fault or the calamity of the
patient no human judgment can accurately tell.

Few things are sadder than to observe how frequently the inheritance of
great wealth or even of easy competence proves the utter and speedy ruin
of a young man, except when the administration of a large property, or
the necessity of carrying on a great business, or some other propitious
circumstance provides him with a clearly defined sphere of work. The
majority of men will gladly discard distasteful work which their
circumstances do not require; and in the absence of steady work, and in
the possession of all the means of gratification, temptations assume an
overwhelming strength, and the springs of moral life are fatally
impaired. It can hardly be doubted that the average longevity in this
small class is far less than in that of common men, and that even when
natural capacity is considerable it is more rarely displayed. To a man
with a real desire for work such circumstances are indeed of inestimable
value, giving him the leisure and the opportunities of applying himself
without distraction and from early manhood to the kind of work that is
most suited to him. Sometimes this takes place, but much more frequently
vicious tastes or a simply idle or purposeless life are the result.
Sometimes, indeed, a large amount of desultory and unregulated energy
remains, but the serious labour of concentration is shunned and no real
result is attained. The stream is there, but it turns no mill.

Most men escape this danger through the circumstances of life which make
serious and steady work necessary to their livelihood, and in the
majority of cases the kind of work is so clearly marked out that they
have little choice. When some choice exists, the rule which I have
already laid down should not be forgotten. Men should choose their work
not only according to their talents and their opportunities, but also,
as far as possible, according to their characters. They should select
the kinds which are most fitted to bring their best qualities into
exercise, or should at least avoid those which have a special tendency
to develop or encourage their dominant defects. On the whole it will be
found that men's characters are much more deeply influenced by their
pursuits than by their opinions.

The choice of work is one of the great agencies for the management of
character in youth. The choice of friends is another. In the words of
Burke, 'The law of opinion ... is the strongest principle in the
composition of the frame of the human mind, and more of the happiness
and unhappiness of man reside in that inward principle than in all
external circumstances put together.'[63] This is true of the great
public opinion of an age or country which envelops us like an
atmosphere, and by its silent pressure steadily and almost insensibly
shapes or influences the whole texture of our lives. It is still more
true of the smaller circle of our intimacies which will do more than
almost any other thing to make the path of virtue easy or difficult. How
large a proportion of the incentives to a noble ambition, or of the
first temptations to evil, may be traced to an early friendship, and it
is often in the little circle that gathers round a college table that
the measure of life is first taken, and ideals and enthusiasms are
formed which give a colour to all succeeding years. To admire strongly
and to admire wisely is, indeed, one of the best means of moral

Very much, however, of the management of character can only be
accomplished by the individual himself acting in complete isolation upon
his own nature and in the chamber of his own mind. The discipline of
thought; the establishment of an ascendency of the will over our courses
of thinking; the power of casting away morbid trains of reflection and
turning resolutely to other subjects or aspects of life; the power of
concentrating the mind vigorously on a serious subject and pursuing
continuous trains of thought, - form perhaps the best fruits of judicious
self-education. Its importance, indeed, is manifold. In the higher walks
of intellect this power of mental concentration is of supreme value.
Newton is said to have ascribed mainly to an unusual amount of it his
achievements in philosophy, and it is probable that the same might be
said by most other great thinkers. In the pursuit of happiness hardly
anything in external circumstances is so really valuable as the power of
casting off worry, turning in times of sorrow to healthy work, taking
habitually the brighter view of things. It is in such exercises of will
that we chiefly realise the truth of the lines of Tennyson:

Oh, well for him whose will is strong,
He suffers, but he will not suffer long.

In moral culture it is not less important to acquire the power of
discarding the demoralising thoughts and imaginations that haunt so
many, and meeting temptation by calling up purer, higher and restraining
thoughts. The faculty we possess of alternating and intensifying our own
motives by bringing certain thoughts, or images, or subjects into the
foreground and throwing others into the background, is one of our chief
means of moral progress. The cultivation of this power is a far wiser
thing than the cultivation of that introspective habit of mind which is
perpetually occupied with self-analysis or self-examination, and which
is constantly and remorsefully dwelling upon past faults or upon the
morbid elements in our nature. In the morals which are called minor,
though they affect deeply the happiness of mankind, the importance of
the government of thought is not less apparent. The secret of good or
bad temper is our habitual tendency to dwell upon or to fly from the
irritating and the inevitable. Content or discontent, amiability or the
reverse, depend mainly upon the disposition of our minds to turn
specially to the good or to the evil sides of our own lot, to the merits
or to the defects of those about us. A power of turning our thoughts
from a given subject, though not the sole element in self-control, is at
least one of its most important ingredients.

This power of the will over the thoughts is one in which men differ
enormously. Thus - to take the most familiar instance - the capacity for
worry, with all the exaggerations and distortions of sentiment it
implies, is very evidently a constitutional thing, and where it exists
to a high degree neither reason nor will can effectually cure it. Such a
man may have the clearest possible intellectual perception of its
uselessness and its folly. Yet it will often banish sleep from his
pillow, follow him with an habitual depression in all the walks of life,
and make his measure of happiness much less than that of others who with
far less propitious circumstances are endued by nature with the gift of
lightly throwing off the past and looking forward with a sanguine and
cheerful spirit to the future. It is hardly possible to exaggerate the
different degrees of suffering the same trouble will produce in
different men, and it is probable that the happiness of a life depends
much less on the amount of pleasurable or painful things that are
encountered, than upon the turn of thought which dwells chiefly on one
or on the other. It is very evident that buoyancy of temperament is not
a thing that increases with civilisation or education. It is mainly
physical. It is greatly influenced by climate and by health, and where
no very clear explanation of this kind can be given it is a thing in
which different nations differ greatly. Few good observers will deny
that persistent and concentrated will is more common in Great Britain
than in Ireland, but that the gift of a buoyant temperament is more
common among Irishmen than among Englishmen. Yet it co-exists in the
national character with a strong vein of very genuine melancholy, and it
is often accompanied by keen sensitiveness to suffering. This
combination is a very common one. Every one who has often stood by a
deathbed knows how frequently it will be found that the mourner who is
utterly prostrated by grief, and whose tears flow in torrents, casts off
her grief much more completely and much sooner than one whose tears
refuse to flow and who never for a moment loses her self-command.

But though natural temperament enables one man to do without effort what
another man with the utmost effort fails to accomplish, there are some
available remedies that can palliate the disease. Society, travel and
other amusements can do something, and such words as 'diversion' and
'distraction' embalm the truth that the chief virtue of many pleasures
is to divert or distract our minds from painful thoughts. Pascal
considered this a sign of the misery and the baseness of our nature, and
he describes as a deplorable spectacle a man who rose from his bed

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 18 20 21 22 23 24 25

Online LibraryWilliam Edward Hartpole LeckyThe map of life, conduct, and character → online text (page 18 of 25)