William Edward Hartpole Lecky.

The map of life, conduct, and character online

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ways in which education may conduce to the real happiness of man, its
power of supplying pleasant or soothing thoughts for those dreary hours
is not the least, though it is seldom or never noticed in books or
speeches. It is, perhaps, in this respect that the early habit of
committing poetry - and especially religious poetry - to memory is most

In estimating the value of those intermissions of labour which are not
spent in active enjoyment one other consideration may be noted. There
are times when the mind should lie fallow, and all who have lived the
intellectual life with profit have perceived that it is often in those
times that it most regains the elasticity it may have lost and becomes
most prolific in spontaneous thought. Many periods of life which might
at first sight appear to be merely unused time are, in truth, among the
most really valuable.

We have all noticed the curious fact of the extreme apparent
inequalities of time, though it is, in its essence, of all things the
most uniform. Periods of pain or acute discomfort seem unnaturally
long, but this lengthening of time is fortunately not true of all the
melancholy scenes of life, nor is it peculiar to things that are
painful. An invalid life with its almost unbroken monotony, and with the
large measure of torpor that often accompanies it, usually flies very
quickly, and most persons must have observed how the first week of
travel, or of some other great change of habits and pursuits, though
often attended with keen enjoyment, appears disproportionately long.
Routine shortens and variety lengthens time, and it is therefore in the
power of men to do something to regulate its pace. A life with many
landmarks, a life which is much subdivided when those subdivisions are
not of the same kind, and when new and diverse interests, impressions,
and labours follow each other in swift and distinct succession, seems
the most long, and youth, with its keen susceptibility to impressions,
appears to move much more slowly than apathetic old age. How almost
immeasurably long to a young child seems the period from birthday to
birthday! How long to the schoolboy seems the interval between vacation
and vacation! How rapid as we go on in life becomes the awful beat of
each recurring year! When the feeling of novelty has grown rare, and
when interests have lost their edge, time glides by with an
ever-increasing celerity. Campbell has justly noticed as a beneficent
provision of nature that it is in the period of life when enjoyments are
fewest, and infirmities most numerous, that the march of time seems most

The more we live, more brief appear
Our life's succeeding stages,
A day to childhood seems a year,
And years like passing ages.

* * * * *

When Joys have lost their bloom and breath,
And life itself is vapid,
Why as we reach the Falls of death
Feel we its tide more rapid?

* * * * *

Heaven gives our years of fading strength
Indemnifying fleetness;
And those of youth a seeming length
Proportioned to their sweetness.

The shortness of life is one of the commonplaces of literature. Yet
though we may easily conceive beings with faculties both of mind and
body adapted to a far longer life than ours, it will usually be found,
with our existing powers, that life, if not prematurely shortened, is
long enough. In the case of men who have played a great part in public
affairs, the best work is nearly always done before old age. It is a
remarkable fact that although a Senate, by its very derivation, means an
assembly of old men, and although in the Senate of Rome, which was the
greatest of all, the members sat for life, there was a special law
providing that no Senator, after sixty, should be summoned to attend his
duty.[76] In the past centuries active septuagenarian statesmen were
very rare, and in parliamentary life almost unknown. In our own century
there have been brilliant exceptions, but in most cases it will be
found that the true glory of these statesmen rests on what they had done
before old age, and sometimes the undue prolongation of their active
lives has been a grave misfortune, not only to their own reputations,
but also to the nations they influenced. Often, indeed, while faculties
diminish, self-confidence, even in good men, increases. Moral and
intellectual failings that had been formerly repressed take root and
spread, and it is no small blessing that they have but a short time to
run their course. In the case of men of great capacities the follies of
age are perhaps even more to be feared than the follies of youth. When
men have made a great reputation and acquired a great authority, when
they become the objects of the flattery of nations, and when they can,
with little trouble or thought or study, attract universal attention, a
new set of temptations begins. Their heads are apt to be turned. The
feeling of responsibility grows weaker; the old judgment, caution,
deliberation, self-restraint, and timidity disappear. Obstinacy and
prejudice strengthen, while at the same time the force of the reasoning
will diminishes. Sometimes, through a failing that is partly
intellectual, but partly also moral, they almost wholly lose the power
of realising or recognising new conditions, discoveries and necessities.
They view with jealousy the rise of new reputations and of younger men,
and the well-earned authority of an old man becomes the most formidable
obstacle to improvement. In the field of politics, in the field of
science, and in the field of military organisation, these truths might
be abundantly illustrated. In the case of great but maleficent genius
the shortness of life is a priceless blessing. Few greater curses could
be imagined for the human race than the prolongation for centuries of
the life of Napoleon.

In literature also the same law may be detected. A writer's best
thoughts are usually expressed long before extreme old age, though the
habit and desire of production continue. The time of repetition, of
diluted force, and of weakened judgment - the age when the mind has lost
its flexibility and can no longer assimilate new ideas or keep pace with
the changing modes and tendencies of another generation - often sets in
while physical life is but little enfeebled. In this case, it is true,
the evil is not very great, for Time may be trusted to sift the chaff
from the wheat, and though it may not preserve the one it will
infallibly discard the other. 'While I live,' Victor Hugo said with some
grandiloquence, but also with some justice, 'it is my duty to produce.
It is the duty of the world to select, from what I produce, that which
is worth keeping. The world will discharge its duty. I shall discharge
mine.' At the same time, no one can have failed to observe how much in
our own generation the long silence of Newman in his old age added to
his dignity and his reputation, and the same thing might have been said
of Carlyle if a beneficent fire had destroyed the unrevised manuscripts
which he wrote or dictated when a very old man.

We are here, however, dealing with great labours, and with men who are
filling a great place in the world's strife. The decay of faculty and
will, that impairs power in these cases, is often perceptible long
before there is any real decay in the powers that are needed for
ordinary business or for the full enjoyment of life. But the time comes
when children have grown into maturity, and when it becomes desirable
that a younger generation should take the government of the world,
should inherit its wealth, its power, its dignities, its many means of
influence and enjoyment; and this cannot be fully done till the older
generation is laid to rest. Often, indeed, old age, when it is free from
grave infirmities and from great trials and privations, is the most
honoured, the most tranquil, and perhaps on the whole the happiest
period of life. The struggles, passions, and ambitions of other days
have passed. The mellowing touch of time has allayed animosities,
subdued old asperities of character, given a larger and more tolerant
judgment, cured the morbid sensitiveness that most embitters life. The
old man's mind is stored with the memories of a well-filled and
honourable life. In the long leisures that now fall to his lot he is
often enabled to resume projects which in a crowded professional life he
had been obliged to adjourn; he finds (as Adam Smith has said) that one
of the greatest pleasures in life is reverting in old age to the studies
of youth, and he himself often feels something of the thrill of a second
youth in his sympathy with the children who are around him. It is the
St. Martin's summer, lighting with a pale but beautiful gleam the brief
November day. But the time must come when all the alternatives of life
are sad, and the least sad is a speedy and painless end. When the eye
has ceased to see and the ear to hear, when the mind has failed and all
the friends of youth are gone, and the old man's life becomes a burden
not only to himself but to those about him, it is far better that he
should quit the scene. If a natural clinging to life, or a natural
shrinking from death, prevents him from clearly realising this, it is at
least fully seen by all others.

Nor, indeed, does this love of life in most cases of extreme old age
greatly persist. Few things are sadder than to see the young, or those
in mature life, seeking, according to the current phrase, to find means
of "killing time." But in extreme old age, when the power of work, the
power of reading, the pleasures of society, have gone, this phrase
acquires a new significance. As Madame de Staël has beautifully said,
'On dépose fleur à fleur la couronne de la vie.' An apathy steals over
every faculty, and rest - unbroken rest - becomes the chief desire. I
remember a touching epitaph in a German churchyard: 'I will arise, O
Christ, when Thou callest me; but oh! let me rest awhile, for I am very

After all that can be said, most men are reluctant to look Time in the
face. The close of the year or a birthday is to them merely a time of
revelry, into which they enter in order to turn away from depressing
thought. They shrink from what seems to them the dreary truth, that they
are drifting to a dark abyss. To many the milestones along the path of
life are tombstones, every epoch being mainly associated in their
memories with a death. To some, past time is nothing - a closed chapter
never to be reopened.

The past is nothing, and at last,
The future can but be the past.

To others, the thought of the work achieved in the vanished years is the
most real and abiding of their possessions. They can feel the force of
the noble lines of Dryden:

Not Heaven itself upon the past has power,
But what has been has been, and I have had my hour.

He who would look Time in the face without illusion and without fear
should associate each year as it passes with new developments of his
nature; with duties accomplished, with work performed. To fill the time
allotted to us to the brim with action and with thought is the only way
in which we can learn to watch its passage with equanimity.


[74] Monte-Naken.

[75] See _The Mystery of Sleep_, by John Bigelow.

[76] Seneca, _de Brevitate Vitæ_, cap. XX.



It is easy to conceive circumstances not widely different from those of
actual life that would, if not altogether, at least very largely, take
from death the gloom that commonly surrounds it. If all the members of
the human race died either before two or after seventy; if death was in
all cases the swift and painless thing that it is with many; and if the
old man always left behind him children to perpetuate his name, his
memory, and his thoughts, Death, though it might still seem a sad thing,
would certainly not excite the feelings it now so often produces. Of all
the events that befall us, it is that which owes most of its horror not
to itself, but to its accessories, its associations, and to the
imaginations that cluster around it. 'Death,' indeed, as a great stoical
moralist said, 'is the only evil that can never touch us. When we are,
death is not. When death comes, we are not.'

The composition of treatises of consolation intended to accustom men to
contemplate death without terror was one of the favourite exercises of
the philosophers in the Augustan and in the subsequent periods of Pagan
Rome. The chapter which Cicero has devoted to this subject in his
treatise on old age is a beautiful example of how it appeared to a
virtuous pagan, who believed in a future life which would bring him into
communion with those whom he had loved and lost on earth, but who at the
same time recognised this only as a probability, not a certainty.
"Death," he said, 'is an event either utterly to be disregarded if it
extinguish the soul's existence, or much to be wished if it convey her
to some region where she shall continue to exist for ever. One of these
two consequences must necessarily follow the disunion of soul and body;
there is no other possible alternative. What then have I to fear if
after death I shall either not be miserable or shall certainly be

Vague notions, however, of a dim, twilight, shadowy world where the
ghosts of the dead lived a faint and joyless existence, and whence they
sometimes returned to haunt the living in their dreams, were widely
spread through the popular imaginations, and it was as the extinction of
all superstitious fears that the school of Lucretius and Pliny welcomed
the belief that all things ended with death - 'Post mortem nihil est,
ipsaque mors nihil.' Nor is it by any means certain that even in the
school of Plato the thought of another life had a great and operative
influence on minds and characters. Death was chiefly represented as
rest; as the close of a banquet; as the universal law of nature which
befalls all living beings, though the immense majority encounter it at
an earlier period than man. It was thought of simply as
sleep - dreamless, undisturbed sleep - the final release from all the
sorrows, sufferings, anxieties, labours, and longings of life.

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.[77]

The best of rest is sleep,
And that thou oft provok'st; yet grossly fear'st
Thy death, which is no more.[78]

To die is landing on some silent shore
Where billows never break, nor tempests roar.[79]

It is a strange thing to observe to what a height not only of moral
excellence, but also of devotional fervour, men have arisen without any
assistance from the doctrine of a future life. Only the faintest and
most dubious glimmer of such a belief can be traced in the Psalms, in
which countless generations of Christians have found the fullest
expression of their devotional feelings, or in the Meditations of Marcus
Aurelius, which are perhaps the purest product of pagan piety.

As I have already said, I am endeavouring in this book to steer clear of
questions of contested theologies; but it is impossible to avoid
noticing the great changes that have been introduced into the conception
of death by some of the teaching which in different forms has grown up
under the name of Christianity, though much of it may be traced in germ
to earlier periods of human development. Death in itself was made
incomparably more terrible by the notion that it was not a law but a
punishment; that sufferings inconceivably greater than those of Earth
awaited the great masses of the human race beyond the grave; that an
event which was believed to have taken place ages before we were born,
or small frailties such as the best of us cannot escape, were sufficient
to bring men under this condemnation; that the only paths to safety were
to be found in ecclesiastical ceremonies; in the assistance of priests;
in an accurate choice among competing theological doctrines. At the same
time the largest and most powerful of the Churches of Christendom has,
during many centuries, done its utmost to intensify the natural fear of
death by associating it in the imaginations of men with loathsome images
and appalling surroundings. There can be no greater contrast than that
between the Greek tomb with its garlands of flowers, its bright,
youthful and restful imagery, and the mortuary chapels that may often be
found in Catholic countries, with their ghastly pictures of the _saved_
souls writhing in purgatorial flames, while the inscription above and
the moneybox below point out the one means of alleviating their lot.

Fermati, O Passagiero, mira tormenti.
Siamo abbandonati dai nostri parenti.
Di noi abbiate pietà, o voi amici cari.

This is one side of the picture. On the other hand it cannot be
questioned that the strong convictions and impressive ceremonies, even
of the most superstitious faith, have consoled and strengthened
multitudes in their last moments, and in the purer and more enlightened
forms of Christianity death now wears a very different aspect from what
it did in the teaching of mediæval Catholicism, or of some of the sects
that grew out of the Reformation. Human life ending in the weakness of
old age and in the corruption of the tomb will always seem a humiliating
anti-climax, and often a hideous injustice. The belief in the rightful
supremacy of conscience, and in an eternal moral law redressing the many
wrongs and injustices of life, and securing the ultimate triumph of good
over evil; the incapacity of earth and earthly things to satisfy our
cravings and ideals; the instinctive revolt of human nature against the
idea of annihilation, and its capacity for affections and attachments,
which seem by their intensity to transcend the limits of earth and carry
with them in moments of bereavement a persuasion or conviction of
something that endures beyond the grave, - all these things have found in
Christian beliefs a sanction and a satisfaction that men had failed to
find in Socrates or Cicero, or in the vague Pantheism to which
unassisted reason naturally inclines.

Looking, however, on death in its purely human aspects, the mourner
should consider how often in a long illness he wished the dying man
could sleep; how consoling to his mind was the thought of every hour of
peaceful rest; of every hour in which the patient was withdrawn from
consciousness, insensible to suffering, removed for a time from the
miseries of a dying life. He should ask himself whether these intervals
of insensibility were not on the whole the happiest in the
illness - those which he would most have wished to multiply or to
prolong. He should accustom himself, then, to think of death as
sleep - undisturbed sleep - the only sleep from which man never wakes to

You find yourself in the presence of what is a far deeper and more
poignant trial than an old man's death - a young life cut off in its
prime; the eclipse of a sun before the evening has arrived. Accustom
yourself to consider the life that has passed as a whole. A human being
has been called into the world - has lived in it ten, twenty, thirty
years. It seems to you an intolerable instance of the injustice of fate
that he is so early cut off. Estimate, then, that life as a whole, and
ask yourself whether, so judged, it has been a blessing or the reverse.
Count up the years of happiness. Count up the days, or perhaps weeks, of
illness and of pain. Measure the happiness that this short life has
given to some who have passed away; who never lived to see its early
close. Balance the happiness which during its existence it gave to those
who survived, with the poignancy and the duration of pain caused by the
loss. Here, for example, is one who lived perhaps twenty-five years in
health and vigour; whose life during that period was chequered by no
serious misfortune; whose nature, though from time to time clouded by
petty anxieties and cares, was on the whole bright, buoyant, and happy;
who had the capacity of vivid enjoyment and many opportunities of
attaining it; who felt all the thrill of health and friendship and
ecstatic pleasure. Then came a change, - a year or two with a crippled
wing - life, though not abjectly wretched, on the whole a burden, and
then the end. You can easily conceive - you can ardently desire - a better
lot, but judge fairly the lights and shades of what has been. Does not
the happiness on the whole exceed the evil? Can you honestly say that
this life has been a curse and not a blessing? - that it would have been
better if it had never been called out of nothingness? - that it would
have been better if the drama had never been played? It is over now. As
you lay in his last home the object of so much love, ask yourself
whether, even in a mere human point of view, this parenthesis between
two darknesses has not been on the whole productive of more happiness
than pain to him and to those around him.

It was an ancient saying that 'he whom the gods love dies young,' and
more than one legend representing speedy and painless death as the
greatest of blessings has descended to us from pagan antiquity; while
other legends, like that of Tithonus, anticipated the picture which
Swift has so powerfully but so repulsively drawn of the misery of old
age and its infirmities, if death did not come as a release. I have
elsewhere related an old Irish legend embodying this truth. 'In a
certain lake in Munster, it is said, there were two islands; into the
first death could never enter, but age and sickness, and the weariness
of life and the paroxysms of fearful suffering were all known there, and
they did their work till the inhabitants, tired of their immortality,
learned to look upon the opposite island as upon a haven of repose. They
launched their barks upon its gloomy waters; they touched its shore, and
they were at rest.'[80]

No one, however, can confidently say whether an early death is a
misfortune, for no one can really know what calamities would have
befallen the dead man if his life had been prolonged. How often does it
happen that the children of a dead parent do things or suffer things
that would have broken his heart if he had lived to see them! How often
do painful diseases lurk in germ in the body which would have produced
unspeakable misery if an early and perhaps a painless death had not
anticipated their development! How often do mistakes and misfortunes
cloud the evening and mar the beauty of a noble life, or moral
infirmities, unperceived in youth or early manhood, break out before the
day is over! Who is there who has not often said to himself as he looked
back on a completed life, how much happier it would have been had it
ended sooner? 'Give us timely death' is in truth one of the best prayers
that man can pray. Pain, not Death, is the real enemy to be combated,
and in this combat, at least, man can do much. Few men can have lived
long without realising how many things are worse than death, and how
many knots there are in life that Death alone can untie.

Remember, above all, that whatever may lie beyond the tomb, the tomb
itself is nothing to you. The narrow prison-house, the gloomy pomp, the
hideousness of decay, are known to the living and the living alone. By a
too common illusion of the imagination, men picture themselves as
consciously dead, - going through the process of corruption, and aware of
it; imprisoned with the knowledge of the fact in the most hideous of
dungeons. Endeavour earnestly to erase this illusion from your mind, for
it lies at the root of the fear of death, and it is one of the worst
sides of mediæval and of much modern teaching and art that it tends to
strengthen it. Nothing, if we truly realise it, is less real than the
grave. We should be no more concerned with the after fate of our
discarded bodies than with that of the hair which the hair-cutter has
cut off. The sooner they are resolved into their primitive elements the
better. The imagination should never be suffered to dwell upon their

Bacon has justly noticed that while death is often regarded as the
supreme evil, there is no human passion that does not become so powerful
as to lead men to despise it. It is not in the waning days of life, but
in the full strength of youth, that men, through ambition or the mere
love of excitement, fearlessly and joyously encounter its risk.
Encountered in hot blood it is seldom feared, and innumerable accounts

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Online LibraryWilliam Edward Hartpole LeckyThe map of life, conduct, and character → online text (page 24 of 25)