William Rounseville Alger.

The solitudes of nature and of man; or, The loneliness of human life online

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mark and worth fret at being kept from the titular recog-
nitions which are usually given to factitious claims of
name and position, and usually withheld from men of
the greatest merit if they be unpopular or obscure ?

The character and experience of men depend on the
inmost modes of thought and feeling they cherish, their
favorite objects and kinds of contemplation, rather than
on the sociality or solitariness of their outward habits.
Man is a meditating atom, whose happiness or misery lies
in his meditations. The cynic, in his isolation of con-
temptuous hate, was cold, bitter, repulsive, and wretched.
The stoic was capable of enthusiasm ; could withdraw
into a glowing inner life. The man who separates him-
self from mankind to nourish dislike or contempt for
them, has in him a morbid element which must make
woe. True content, a life of divine delight, cannot be
attained through a sense of superiority secured by thrust-
ing others down ; but only through one secured by lifting
ourselves up, by communing with the great principles of
morality, contemplating the conditions of universal good,
laying hold of the will of God. Whoso would climb
over a staircase of subjected men into a lonely happiness,
will find it misery when he arrives. To be really happy
one must love and wish to elevate men, not despise and
wish to rule them. There is nothing in which the blind-
ness and deceit of self-love is more deeply revealed than
hi the supposition with which misanthropic recluses fre-
quently flatter themselves, of their complete detaclunenl


from other men, their lofty freedom. Spatial separation
is not spiritual independence. Of all men the man-hater
is the one who is fastened to his fellow-men by the closest
and the most degrading bond. Misanthropy, as a domi
nant characteristic, if thoroughly tracked and analyzed,
will be found almost always to be the revenge we take
on mankind for fancied wrongs it has inflicted on us,
especially for its failure to appreciate us and admire us
according to our fancied deserts. The powerful and
savagely alienated Arthur Schopenhauer, who said that,
in order to despise men as they deserved, it was neces-
sary not to hate them, was embittered, almost infuriated,
by disappointment in not obtaining the notice he thought
he merited. He came daily from his sullen retreat to
dine at a great public table where he could display his
extraordinary conversational powers. He eagerly gath-
ered every scrap of praise that fell from the press, and
fed on it with desperate hunger. He sat in his hotel at
Frankfort, in this age of newspapers and telegraphs, a
sublimer Diogenes, the whole earth his tub. An apa-
thetic carelessness for men shows that we really despise
them, but an angry and restless resentment towards them
betrays how great a place they occupy in our hearts.
Diogenes and Alcibiades were equally dependent on pub-
lic attention ; the one to feel the enjoyment of his pride
and scorn intensified by the reaction of hate and admira-
tion he called forth ; the other to feel the similar fruition
of his vanity and sympathy. Stylites made his column a
theatre ; Aurelius made his throne a hermitage. The
greatest egotists are the most fond both of retirement and
publicity. There they lave their wounds with the ano-
dyne of self-love ; here they display their claims to admi-
ration. The truly great and healthy man is not depend-
ent on either, but draws blessings out of both, resolve,
inspiration, consecration, sanity. In both he pleases him-
self by improving every possibility of indulging in senti-
ments of respect and affection towards his race.

The great danger of the couriers of solitude is the
vice of pampering a conviction and feeling of their own
worth by dwelling on the ignobleness of other men


They are tempted to make the meanness and wretche' 1 -
ness of the world foils to set off their own exceptional
magnanimity. They need especially to guard themselves
against this fallacy by laying bare to their own eyes the
occult operations of pride and vanity. An efficacious
antidote for their disease is a clear perception of the
humbling truth of the case, of the ignoble cause of the
disease. For it is unquestionably true that the man who
despises the world, and loathes mankind, is usually one
who cannot enjoy the boons of the world, or has been
disappointed of obtaining from his fellows the love and
honor he coveted. He then strives to console himself
for the prizes he cannot pluck, by industriously cultivat-
ing the idea of their iontemptibleness. Rousseau de-
manded more from men than they could give him. His
brain and heart were pitched too high ; with the fine in-
tensity of their tones the cold and coarse souls of com-
mon men made painful discords. Instead of wisely seeing
the truth, and nobly renouncing his excessive exactions,
he turned against the world and labored with misan-
thropic materials to build up his overweening self-love.
Of course he was not conscious of this himself. It was a
disease, and, fleeing from all antidotes, it fed in solitude ;
whence he looked abroad and fancied that he saw his
contemporaries leagued in a great plot against him. Zim-
mermann and Byron, two irascible and lonely spirits most
fond of retirement, noticed the danger of a chill shrivel-
ling of sympathy in a too isolated life. The former says,
" Solitude must render the heart callous." The latter
says :

In solitude
Small power the nipped affections have to grow.

Sir Thomas Browne well says : " He who discommendeth
others obliquely commendeth himself." What is the in-
evitable inference as to that man's opinion of himself
who withdraws from other men because they are unfit for
him to live with ? Even the gentle Shelley says to his
friend Hunt, " What motives have I to write ? I had
motives, and I thank the God of my heart they were
totally different from those of the other apes of humanity


who make mouths in the glass of time." The pride of
Byron burned with a darker fire. His self-exaltation
mounts in new strength, Antaeus-like, with every reaction
from his scorn of others. He describes himself as

Not to desperation driven
Because not altogether of such clay
As rots into the souls of those whom I survey.

In describing the ruined castles above the banks of
the Rhine, he says :

And there they stand as stands a lofty mind,
Worn, but unstooping to the baser crowd.

Again, after speaking of his passionate love of n5tuie,
he adds :

Should I not stem

A tide of suffering rather than forego
Such feelings for the hard and worldly phlegm
Of those whose eyes are only turned below,
Gazing upon the ground, with thoughts which dare not glow ?

Rebelling against all rule or influence from others, insisting
that they should passively accept his influence and rule,
and by reflecting confirm his estimate of himself, when
thwarted in these chronic and deep-sunk desires he grew
desolately proud and "forlornly brave," determined to
keep himself at his vantage-height. He felt

Himself the most unfit

Of men to herd with man, with whom he held
Little in common.

He once refused to have one of his plays put on the
stage, on the ground that its success would give him no
pleasure, while its failure would give him great pain. In
other words, he would not own that the approval of the
public could flatter him, and the tacit superiority assumed
by critics who should condemn, was insufferable to him.
In such instances, clearly, solitude is not courted for the
purpose of noble culture, growth in true wisdom and
virtue ; it is sought for self-protection from stings and
burdens, for self- fondling, and self-aggrandizement. And


these ends are pursued by the recluse at the expense
of his species ; the lower he can sink them in his esteem
the higher he rises in it himself. How much better is
Young's maxim : " No man can think too lowly of him-
self, or too highly of his nature." How much nobler is
Jowett's sentiment : " Better not have been than to live
in doubt and alienation from mankind." Thousands
have been impelled to solitude by resentment, as the
hermit confessed to Imlac he was, where one has been
led to it by devotion. The true improvement of our
lonely hours is not to cherish feelings of superiority to
our neighbors, but to make us really superior by a greater
advancement in the knowledge of truth, the practice of
virtue, communion with the grandeurs of nature, and
absorption in the mysteries of God. He who is contin-
ually exercising scorn towards the pleasures of society
and the prizes of the world, is one who has failed in the
experiment of life and been soured by his failure. The
truly successful man appreciates these goods at their
genuine value, sees that in their place they have sweet-
ness and worth, but knows that there are other prizes of
infinitely higher rank, and is so content with his posses-
sion and pursuit of these latter as to have no inclination
to complain of the deceitfulness and vileness of the for-
mer. To dwell alone is an evil when we use our solitude
to cherish an odious idea of our race, and a disgust for
the natural attractions of life. It should be improved,
not negatively for dislike and alienation, but positively
to cultivate a more earnest love for higher mental pur-
suits, choicer spiritual fruitions, than the average commu-
nity about us are wonted to. Scorn for man, disgust for
the world, is no sign of strength, loftiness, or victory, but
rather a sign of weakness, defeat, and misery. " The
great error of Napoleon was a continued obtrusion on
mankind of his want of all community of feeling for or
with them." He deceived himself in fancying his ruling
feelings unlike in kind to those of the bulk of men ; they
were the same in sort, only superior in scale and tenaci-
ty, and in the greater stage on which they were displayed.
He showed what a morbid author unjustly characterizes


as " that just habitual scorn which could contemn men
and their thoughts," because, himself vulgarly selfish and
vain, from his high position he saw the unprincipled
selfishness and vanities of other men unmasked and
writhing in virulent struggles. Let him whose standard
is the most august, whose ideal highest, who has the least
number to sympathize with him, endeavor most strenu-
ously to develop a genial and serene spirit of good-will
for his kind. Let him use imagination, faith, every di-
vine artifice, to dignify and adorn man, ever looking at
him through fair objects and great truths, and communing
with him by their help ; for thus alone,

Is founded a sure safeguard and defence
Against the weight of meanness, selfish cares,
Coarse manners, vulgar passions, that beat in
On all sides from the ordinary world
In which we traffic.

The true protection from the deteriorating tendencies
of intercourse with persons of empty minds, shallow
hearts, and idle lives, is in noble and strenuous occupa-
tion, and in friendship with the truly good and great.
Priestley says, " that right bent and firmness of mind
which the world would warp and relax, are to be kept up
by choice company and fellowship." Lamb quotes this
in a letter to Coleridge, and adds : "I love to write to
you. I take a pride in it. It makes me think less
meanly of myself. It makes me think myself not totally
disconnected from the better portion of mankind. I
know I am too dissatisfied with the beings around me. I
know I am noways better in practice than my neighbors,
but I have a taste for religion, an occasional earnest aspi-
ration after perfection, which they have not. We gain
nothing by being with such as ourselves. We encourage
one another in mediocrity. I am always longing to be
with men more excellent than myself."

Zimmermann says : " Our whole existence is occu-
pied with others; one half of it we spend in loving them,
the other half in slandering them." There is no other
problem in our life so difficult to solve as the problem of
our relation with our fellow men How much attention


and feeling shall we devote to them ? How much shall
we try to lead an independent life in self and nature ?
Such a complicated mass of considerations enter into the
subject that it would be too hard a task to answer the
question in detail. But the best conclusions from a great
deal of earnest pondering on it are contained in the fol-
lowing general precepts. First, let him who seeks to be
noble in character and blessed in experience, raise the
interest, respect, and love he gives his fellows, to the
maximum. Secondly, let him reduce his hate, scorn, in-
difference towards them, to the minimum. Thirdly, let
him strive to take the utmost possible pleasure in their
virtues and joys, and in their esteem and kindness for
him. Fourthly, let him strive to feel the least possible
annoyance from their neglect of him, injustice towards
him, or insults and persecutions of him. Fifthly, let him
endeavor to do practical good to them, and keep con-
stantly in mind, as the sovereign antidotes to misan-
thropy, the two great maxims of Platonic ethics : No
man is willingly bad ; Virtue may be taught. And finally,
let him labor above all to possess the greatest possible
resources of dignity and happiness in himself, nature, and
God, unexposed to the favor or frowns of capricious man ;
for, after all, the essence of our life, and by far the greater
part of its separate experiences, are alone, incommuni-
cably alone. Even the strong, wise, healthy, many-sided,
and fortunately-situated Goethe makes this personal con-
fession : " We may grow up under the protection of
parents and relatives, we may lean on brothers and
sisters and friends, be supported by acquaintances,
be blessed by beloved persons ; yet, in the end, every
man is always flung back on himself, and it seems as
though even God was unable to respond to our rever-
ence, trust, and love exactly at the moment of our need.
While quite young I often experienced that in the most
critical passages the cry is, ' physician, heal thyself ' ;
and how many times I was forced to sigh in anguish, * I
tread the wine-press alone ! ' When I looked around to
make myself independent, I found the surest basis to be
my creative talent. The old fable became liring in me


of Prometheus, who, separated from men and gods, peo-
pled a world from his own workshop."

It is an abuse of solitude to carry into it the passions,
cares, frivolities, and hypocrisies of society. Let it be
pure and still ; a cool grotto where the realities of nature
and God may woo the soul away from the hot fen of
emulation and vice.

But unfortunately it is not always to be kept thus clean
and silent. Though dedicated to sacred presences alone,
the annoyances and temptations that infest artificial
throngs will intrude. The influences of degradations and
crimes will come. Every soul that approaches brings its
own qualities and experiences, as well as its own capaci-
ties and aspirations with it. One especial seduction the
solitary should beware of, the tendency to a luxurious
melancholy, self-fondling sorrows. " Few reach middle
age without receiving wounds which never heal. We
hide these wounds when we can, or we forget them in
business, perhaps in dissipation ; but they remain with
us still, and in moments of solitude and depression open
to pain us." It is one of the subtlest and most destruc-
tive habits in which those fond of loneliness are tempted
to indulge, to reopen their old wounds in secret, and feel
again their bitter-sweet pains. We should, on the con-
trary, dedicate our seasons of still retreat to the cultiva-
tion of health, strength, and trusting joy, by a fresh com-
munion there with those principles of truth, those objects
of beauty, those sources of affection, which most elevate
and calm the soul.

Furthermore, a predominant solitariness of mood and
habit has evil exposures in a degree peculiar to itself.
The man of overmuch retirement and self-communion is
especially beset as we have already partially seen
by egotism, superstition, morbid views, disregard of the
real interests of this life, and sometimes by an asserting
rebound of the sensual nature in abnormal power. Wise
and saintly Madame Swetchine, when her dear friend,
the eloquent Lacordaire, had announced his intention
of forsaking the world and burying himself for a long
period in the seclusion of a convent, adjured him not ta
6* I


do it, warning him that the perfection of true self-detach-
ment would be more impossible of achievement there
than anywhere else. " Solitude," she writes, " may be
good for you, useful, perhaps necessary, solitude with its
cortege of calmness, liberty, self-possession ; but not that
isolation which in removing all barriers would also remove
all supports ; would force you to lose that habit of contact
with men which is so precious for those destined to live
with them and for them ; and would deprive your imagi-
nation both of the admonitions of reason and those of
sympathy. In all conditions, in all regions, the divine
word, ' It is not good for man to be alone,' finds its
application." This testimony is the weightier from the
profound familiarity of its writer with the opposite side
of the truth. For she has said elsewhere, " There are
times in life when we have a true* thirst for solitude.
While I was yet very young my instinct wrote, Solitude is
like gold ; the more of it one has, the more one desires."
The lonely man, if full, is quite likely to be full of himself,
and to look on others with scorn, or scornfully overlook
them. Wrapt in his own idiosyncrasies, out of connec
tion with the ordinary characters, views, and plans of
men, the aberrations of his individuality uncorrected by
their averages, by the common sense of the public, he is
exposed to manifold conceits and delusions, of which he
often becomes the helpless victim. In frequent inter-
course with others our foibles are kept in check by theirs,
the tendency of self-esteem to a crotchety exaggeration
of insignificant details is neutralized. But the recluse
granting him life and spirit enough ? is apt to indulge in
hyperbolical estimates of trifles, deeming them intrinsi-
cally great because of their factitious importance in rela-
tion to himself.

And now behold his lofty soul,
That whilom flew from pole to pole,
Settle on some elaborate flower,
And, like a bee, the sweets devour;
Now, in a lily's cup enshrined,
Forego the commerce of mankind.

Deprived of really great concerns, this is nature's resource


for making him happy. If he sees a humming-bird, an
animated flame of colors, dart on a vine, tear open the
belly of a grape, quench his thirst, and fly away, his bill
stained with the blood, it is the chief event of the
week. If he wanders in the forest, far from all civic
racket, he pampers his self-importance by feeling that he
is " Caesar of his leafy Rome." To unduly magnify and
enjoy the common little things near at hand is the felici-
tous illusion of superior minds. The much more fre-
quent habit of unduly magnifying and pining for distant
and extraordinary things is the wretched illusion of infe-
rior minds. The greatest and wisest minds of all, free
from both illusions, see everything as it is, value it at its
true worth, and stand firmly poised and self-sufficing in
their relations with the whole.

Peace of mind is the great prize of solitude ; but it
may be lost there as well as gained. It is not necessary
for us to be with other persons in, order to have inordi-
nate desires, hatreds, envies, and a rebellious will, nur-
tured and inflamed. Wild crotchets, obstinacy, besotted
errors and prejudices, cruelty, revolting sensuality, have too
often been the attributes of men sheerly separated from
the bosoms and ways of their fellow-creatures. There
are anchorites who in sourness and savageness of spirit
may match any specimen from the market or the stew.

The evil influences of conventual life have been dis-
cussed many times by extravagant partisans on both sides.
Perhaps Zimmermann, who handles the subject largely,
has held the balance as fairly as any one. The abandon-
ment of the world for the recluse life of the various orders
of monks and nuns has so much diminished in our day,
it is likely to be practised so much less still in the future,
that the portrayal of its evils is not nearly so important
as formerly anywhere ; in a Protestant country hardly
necessary at all, and of all countries in the world perhaps
the least needed in America. All that is requisite to be
said in order to do justice to the subject which we are
treating, may be stated within small compass.

First, it is a beautiful thing that there are such places
as the Catholic convents and monasteries, where persons,


unfitted to struggle with the world, may retreat from its
cruel storms, and spend their lives in peace and devotion.
There are those of exquisite sentiments, of a tremulous
sensibility, whose feelings have been torn and outraged,
whose worldly affections have been laid waste by some
tragic experience. To face and buffet the cold throngs,
to try to sustain themselves amidst interests and passions
so alien to their desires, is a lacerating conflict. It is a
blessed thing when such are enabled to turn away from a
world to which their hearts are dead, and, retiring within
the hallowed shelter of the cloister, there pass the residue
of their days in pursuits wholly congenial to their cruci-
fied affections and their immortal hopes. Altogether be-
nign and beautiful to the broken-hearted martyrs of life,
who long for it, is the solacing employment of religious
seclusion in that divine haven, the monastic retreat in its
best forms. When we think of the heartlessness of most
worldlings, the fearful excitements, the jading exhaus-
tions, the bitter pangs of deception and failure, known by
the ambitious and sensitive worshippers of wealth, power,
fashion, and pleasure, we cannot wonder that the utter
exemption from all such trials, and the noiseless repose
offered in a religious retreat, should often exert a delicious
spell on the worn and weary wanderers who approach
it. It is easy to enter into the feelings of the poet, who
left these words written on the wall in one of the cells of
La Trappe : " Happy solitude, sole beatitude, how sweet
is thy charm ! Of all the pleasures in the world, the pro-
foundest and the only one that endures, I have found
here ! "

A strange instance of abandonment of the world for a
solitary life is given in the history of Henry Welby, the
Hermit of Grub Street, who died in 1636, at the age of
eighty-four. This example affords an eccentric illustration
of one of those phases of human nature out of which the
anchoretic life has sprung. When forty years old Welby
was assailed in a moment of anger by a younger brother
with a loaded pistol. It flashed in the pan. "Thinking of
the danger he had escaped, he fell into many deep consid-
erations, on the which he grounded an irrevocable resolu-


tion to live alone." He had wealth and position, and was
of a social temper ; but the shock he had undergone
made him distrustful and meditative, not malignant nor
wretched, and engendered in him a purpose of surprising
tenacity. He had three chambers, one within another,
prepared for his solitude : the first for his diet, the second
for his lodging, the third for his study. While his food
was set on the table by one of his servants, he retired
into his sleeping-room ; and, while his bed was making,
into his study ; and so on, until all was clear. "There he
set up his rest, and, in forty-four years, never upon any
occasion issued out of those chambers till he was borne
thence upon men's shoulders. Neither, in all that time,
did any human being save, on some rare necessity, his
ancient maid-servant look upon his face." Supplied
with the best new books in various languages, he devoted
himself unto prayers and reading. He inquired out ob-
jects of charity and sent them relief. He would spy from
his chamber, by a private prospect into the street, any
sick, lame, or weak passing by, and send comforts and
money to them. " His hair, by reason no barber came
near him for the space of so many years, was so much
overgrown at the time of his death, that he appeared

Online LibraryWilliam Rounseville AlgerThe solitudes of nature and of man; or, The loneliness of human life → online text (page 10 of 35)