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William Rounseville Alger.

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

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DESCARTES. 239

uanquil life, calm and innocent pleasures, glory and treas-
ure won by merit, celestial peace of mind, and that which,
is dearest to my heart, the love of which love is the price,
delicious reciprocity of sincere faith, sweet images of hap-
piness, although but to aggravate my pain, still, come



again ! "



DESCARTES.



THE great Descartes, the pollen of whose thoughts,
borne on all the breezes of inquiry, fertilized the philos-
ophy of Europe for two centuries, is a fine example of
one who, in spite of brilliant accomplishments, extended
reputation, strong affections, and courteous manners, was
made essentially a solitary man by his intense devotion
to the discovery of truth. He repudiated traditional au-
thority and prejudice, and with a sublime force and hero-
ism of soul threw himself back on common sense and a
sceptical openness and freedom of search for the reality
of things. There are four ways in which most persons
arrive at their various degrees of wisdom : self-evident
notions, the experience of the senses, the conversation
of other men, the reading of books. There have been,
Descartes says, in all ages, great minds who have tried
to find a fifth road to wisdom, incomparably higher and
surer than the other four, namely, the search of first
causes and true principles from which may be deduced
the reasons of all that can be known.

On this fifth road few mightier travellers than he have
ever trod. Those who have passed him since were in-
debted to his guidance. He dared to strip off all past
beliefs that he might not be encumbered or misled.
" But," he says, " like one walking alone and in the dark,
I resolved to proceed so slowly and with such circum-
spection that if I did not advance far, I would at least
guard against falling." Regarding " the supreme good as
nothing more than the knowledge of truth through its first
causes," he allowed nothing to interfere with his pursuit
of it.

But his kind temper, good taste and prudence did not



240 SKETCHES OF LONELY CHARACTERS.

disarm the fears and foes awakened by the boldness of
his speculations. Stratagems and dangers surrounded
him. Cousin says, " After having run round the world
much, studying men on a thousand occasions, on the
battle-field, and at court, he concluded that he must live
a recluse. He became a hermit in Holland." Eight
years later he writes, " Here, in the midst of a great
crowd actively engaged in business and more careful of
their own affairs than curious about those of others, I
have been enabled to live without being deprived of any
of the conveniences to be had in the most populous cities,
and yet as solitary and as retired as in the midst of the
most remote deserts." At another time he says, " I shall
always hold myself more obliged to those through whose
favor I am permitted to enjoy my retirement without in-
terruption than to any one who might offer me the highest
earthly preferments." There is no reason to doubt the
sincerity of this declaration ; yet there is another side to
the truth. For when Queen Christina paid him honoring
attentions, and invited him to her court at Stockholm, he
went thither and occupied an academic post. His first
passion was the pursuit of truth ; his second, a love of
the esteem of his fellow men. His own frank words give
a pleasing proof of this. " My disposition making me
unwilling to be esteemed different from what I really
am, I thought it necessary by all means to render my-
self worthy of the reputation accorded to me. This desire
constrained me to remove from all those places where in-
terruption from any of my acquaintances was possible,
and to give myself up to studies." There was no misan-
thropic ingredient in his isolation. Yet, once or twice, a
little soreness, a little petulance at the neglect of the
public, at the lack of the co-operation he needed, escapes
him. " Seeing that the experiments requisite for the veri-
fication of my reasonings would demand an expenditure
to which the resources of a private individual are inade-
quate, and as I have no ground to expect public aid, I
believe I ought for the future to content myself with
studying for my own instruction, and posterity will ex-
cuse me if I fail to labor for them." But if, contrary to



DESCARTES. 841

his own opinion, the ambition of Descartes in relation to
society and mankind was superior to his fruition, so that
some dissatisfaction resulted, it did not sour or exasperate
him. On the whole, he kept his moral equipoise well and
sweetly. He has himself indicated his three great re-
serves of happiness.

First, his employment itself. " The brutes, which have
only their bodies to conserve, are continually occupied in
seeking sources of nourishment ; but men, of whom the
chief part is the mind, ought to make the search after wis-
dom their principal care ; for wisdom is the true nourish-
ment of the mind." " Although I have been accustomed
to think lowly enough of myself, and although when I
look with the eye of a philosopher at the varied courses
and pursuits of mankind at large, I find scarcely one which
does not appear vain and useless, I nevertheless derive the
highest satisfaction from the progress I conceive myself to
have already made in the search after truth, and cannot
help entertaining such expectations of the future as to be-
lieve that if, among the occupations of men as men, there
is any one really excellent and important, it is that which
I have chosen."

Second, intercourse with the highest minds of all times
and countries. "The perusal of excellent books is, as it
were, to enjoy an interview with the noblest men of past
ages, who have written them, and even a studied inter-
view in which are discovered to us only their choicest
thoughts."

And thirdly, the subjection of his wishes to his con-
dition. " My maxim was always to endeavor to conquer
myself rather than fortune, and change my desires rather
than the order of the world, and, in general, to accustom
myself to the persuasion that, except our own thoughts,
there is nothing absolutely in our power. Thus we learn
to regret nothing which is unchangeable, desire nothing
which is unattainable. I confess there is need of pro-
longed discipline and repeated meditation to accustom
the mind to view all objects in this light ; and I believe
that in this chiefly consisted the secret of the power of
such philosophers as in former times were enabled to rise
it p



242 SKETCHES OF LONELY CHARACTERS.

superior to the influence of fortune, and, amid suffering
and poverty, enjoy happiness which their gods might have
envied."

HOBBES.

THE famous philosopher of Malmesbury is an example
of the difficulty a man of great intellect and proud sensi-
tiveness experiences in reconciling himself to the disparity
between his own estimate of himself and the estimate set
on him by his unappreciative neighbors. He was one of
the most independent and powerful thinkers, one of the
most clear and energetic writers, that have ever appeared
in England. Macaulay even calls him " the most acute
and vigorous of human intellects." He lived to the age
of ninety-two, devoting his great endowments to a course
of earnest thought resulting in unpopular conclusions em-
bodied in unpopular works. He was misunderstood, mis-
represented, misvalued, ill treated.

Although haughty and irascible, he had many good
qualities, which drew the interest of numerous distin-
guished contemporaries to him. Three successive Earls
of Devonshire patronized him, thought highly of him,
gave him a home, with slight duties and great leisure.
He was a good hater, and evidently relished despising
the ignorant herd and dealing bitter blows against his
enemies. He comforted himself for his unpopularity by
cherishing friendly relations and correspondence with the
chief great men of his time, such as Bacon, Harvey,
Descartes, Ben Jonson, Aubrey, Clarendon ; and by nour
ishing his keen sense of his superiority to the vulgar
crowds of people. " What proof of madness," he asks,
" can there be greater than to clamor, strike, and throw
stones at our best friends? Yet this is less than the
multitude will do." His writings frequently betray how
warmly he welcomed every notice from others calculated
to soothe and confirm his self-estimate, how angrily he
resented whatever ruffled or tended to lower it. He
speaks of one of his lesser writings as little in bulk, and
yet "great enough if men count well for great." Again



HOBBES. 243

he says, " the clamorous multitude hide their envy of
the present under a reverence of antiquity." He also
said of his friend, the discoverer of the circulation of the
blood, " Harvey is the only man I know, that, conquer-
ing envy, hath established a new doctrine in his lifetime."
Likewise he wrote, when publishing his treatise on
Human Nature, " I know by experience how much greater
thanks will be due than paid me for telling men the
truth of what men are. But the burden I have taken
on me I mean to carry through, not striving to appease
but rather to revenge myself of envy by increasing it."

He waged a fierce war for many years with Wallis on
certain mathematical questions. When Wallis whom
he called "the pest of geometry" taunted him with
flattering himself and maligning others in his writings,
he replied as follows : "A certain Roman Senator, having
propounded something in the assembly of people which
they misliking made a noise at, boldly bade them hold
their peace, and told them he knew better what was good
for the commonwealth than all they. And his words are
transmitted to us as an argument of his virtue : so much
do truth and vanity alter the complexion of self-praise."

His strong peculiarities of habit no less than his ex-
traordinary powers marked Hobbes out as a man by
himself. Yet, after all his lonely walking, lonely think-
ing, lonely living, and repelling quarrels, he clung warmly
to his friends, had a horror of being left alone in his ill-
ness, bequeathed all his property to the faithful servant
and friend who had been his amanuensis. He was not
afraid of death, but said he should willingly " find some
hole to creep out of the world at," and was wont to
amuse himself with choosing for the epitaph to be graven
on his tombstone, " This is the true philosopher's stone"

His toughness of stock and copiousness of force ena-
bled him to weather the storms of nearly a century. His
colossal bulk of mind and earnest search for truth removed
him from the crowd. He was turned in upon himself
still more by the rivalry, envy, hate, slanders, aggravating
attacks provoked by his genius, fame, disagreeable specu-
lations, hot partisanship, and personal spleen. In half



244 SKETCHES OF LONELY CHARACTERS.

philosophic, half angry solitude, he sought to foster and
defend that reflex idea of himself in whose extension and
firmness the essential comfort of life resides for such men,
and every assault upon which he naturally resented as a
blow at the very vitality of his soul: His life, perforce,
was greatly solitary. Yet friendship, for the same reasons,
was particularly needful and precious to him, so far as he
could get it. The many high compliments he received
from the leading thinkers of his age must have thrilled
him with a fiery gladness impossible to colder and feebler
natures. It is pleasant to think of the pleasure he took
in the dedication of Gondibert to him by Davenant; also
of what a luxury the flattering and eloquent ode addressed
to him by Cowley must have yielded to his sensibility.

Nor can the snow which now cold age does shed

Upon thy reverend head
Quench or allay the noble fires within :

But all which thou hast been,
And all that youth can be, thou 'rt yet ;

So fully still dost thou
Enjoy the manhood and the bloom of wit
To things immortal time can do no wrong ;
And that which never is to die, forever must be young.



LEIBNITZ.

ALTHOUGH Leibnitz for much of his life held an office
at court, and carried on an extensive correspondence with
diplomatists, mathematicians, and philosophers, he was a
lonely man from his boyhood to his burial. He says :
" I always inclined less to conversation than to meditation
and solitude." Referring to the time when, a youth of
fifteen, he was an academic student, he says : " I used to
walk to and fro in a little grove near Leipzig, called the
Vale of Roses, in pleasing and solitary meditation, con-
sidering the questions of the Schoolmen." Prevented
from obtaining the degree of Doctor of Laws, he felt so
aggrieved and offended at the machinations of his rivals
that he at once left his native city, and never returned to
Saxony again, excepting for brief visits.



LEIBNITZ. 245

He ever had a high opinion of his own mind and worth,
and was easily irritated, though generous and forgiving in
F his temper. His secretary and intimate associate, Eck-
hart, says it was characteristic of him " to speak well of
every one, put the best construction on the actions of oth-
ers, and spare his enemies when having it in his power to
dispossess them of their places." He was never married,
but lived by himself absorbed in gigantic toils. Courtiers
and people for the most part neglected him. He was a
superior being whom they could not understand. The
clergy hated him, because he looked down with pity on
their superstitions ; and they publicly assailed him as a
contemner of the ecclesiastical creed. He said he had a
great many ideas which he held back, because the age
was not ripe for them, and also because he extremely
disliked being misunderstood and misrepresented. In
a letter to Burnet he says, in reference to his own sit-
uation : "There are many things which cannot be exe-
cuted by a single isolated Individual. But here one hardly
meets with anybody to speak to." In connection with
this statement it is pleasant to remember the beautiful and
impressive incident, that, when he was thirty years old,
Leibnitz paid a visit to Spinoza, at the Hague. When
these two vastest and loneliest intellects of their century
met in that little poor Dutch chamber, did the two brains
there together hold more mind than all the rest of
Europe ? Two years before he died he had formed a dis-
tinct plan of a universal language ; but, aged, over-occu-
pied, solitary, he failed to complete and publish it. He
writes to Remond de Montfort, that he had spoken of it
to several persons, and gained no more attention than if
he had related a dream. He adds : " I could easily work
it out if I were younger, or less busy, or enjoyed the con-
versation of men who would encourage me, or had by my
side young men of talent." This great man died in the
midst of as much local indifference as he had lived. His
friend Ker, who happened to arrive in Hanover on that
day, was grieved, not only by the event, but by the slight
nolice taken of it. The funeral, Ker testifies, "was more
like that of a highwayman than of one who had been the



246 SKETCHES OF LONELY CHARACTERS.

ornament of his country." The faithful Eckhart says.
that although the whole court were invited to attend the
solemnities, no one appeared but himself. The Royal
Academy of Sciences in Berlin, of which he was the
founder and the first president, remained silent. The
Royal Society at London, of which he was one of the
oldest and most distinguished members, took not the
slightest notice of the death of the great rival of Newton.
The French Academy alone paid a tribute becoming its
own chivalrous character, and worthy of one of the great-
est of human minds.

But if Leibnitz was neglected by the conspicuous ob-
scurities about him, in the high tasks of his genius he had
his place among the most illustrious heroes of humanity.
Pilgrims from far-away lands, who stand in the aisle of
the church at Hanover, and read beneath their feet the
laconic inscription, Ossa Leibnitii, thrill with reverence in
memory of him whose powerful thought is vibrating to
the ends of the earth, and whose fame will penetrate the
remotest future.

MILTON.

MANY of the chief conditions of spiritual solitude met
in a high degree in Milton. A proud and pure mind,
devotion to learning, a passion for liberty, a passion for
truth and virtue, a passion for lasting fame, a deep and
bold dissent from the prevalent theological doctrines and
religious forms about him, general neglect, repeated dan-
ger, and, at last, blindness. Numerous expressions of
this experience are to be found in his writings. He says,
referring to the text in Genesis, " Loneliness is the first
thing which God's eye named not good." While yet a
young man he wrote to his friend Diodati, " As to other
points, what God may have determined for me I know
not ; but this I know, that if he ever instilled an intense
love of moral beauty into the breast of any man, he has
instilled it into mine. Ceres, in the fable, pursued not
her daughter with a greater keenness of inquiry, than I,
day and night, the idea of perfection. Hence, wherever



MILTON. 247

I find a man despising the false estimates of the vulgar,
and daring to aspire to what the highest wisdom through
every age has taught us as most excellent, to him I. unite
myself by a sort of necessary attachment."

The sonnet in which Wordsworth addresses him, and
describes his holy seclusion and his noble services, is a
household word.

Thy soul was like a star, and dwelt apart ;

Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:

Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,

So didst thou travel on life's common way,

In cheerful godliness ; and yet thy heart,

The lowliest duties on herself did lay.

The outrageous warfare waged against him by such foes
as Du Moulin, Salmasius, and More, must have given
him a keen relish for the refuge, of a peaceful privacy.
And there are repeated passages in his poems which
plainly reveal a temperament fitted for the benefits of
loneliness, a mind accustomed to enjoy the delights of
it. Thus he makes Adam say to Eve,

If much converse perhaps
Thee satiate, to short absence I could yield ;
For solitude sometimes is best society,
And short retirement urges sweet return.

And a perception full of the heartiest feeling of reality
pervades the following lines :

In sweet retired solitude

He plumed his feathers and let grow his wings,
That in the various bustle of resort
Were all too ruffled, and sometimes impaired.

Johnson wrongfully accuses Milton of a dark revenge-
fulness, a bitter envy. His nature was profoundly sweet,
gentle, and regal. His passionate retorts and invectives
are not proofs of gall or hate, but either oratoric heats of
battle, or weapons wielded in self-defence. He was a man
of noble poetic angers, not of mean brooding enmities.
When his foes assailed him with ignorance and wrong he
repelled their slanderous insolence with contemptuous in
dignation.



248 SKETCHES OF LONELY CHARACTERS.

I did but prompt the age to quit their clogs

By the known rules of ancient liberty,

When straight a barbarous noise environs me

Of owls and cuckoos, asses, apes, and dogs :

As when those hinds that were transformed to frogs

Railed at Latona's twin-born progeny,

Which after held the sun and moon in fee.

But this is got by casting pearls to hogs,

That bawl for freedom in their senseless mood,

And still revolt when truth would set them free.

This retaliation shows more disturbance of spirit tran is
becoming ; but to infer from such language the existence
in the writer of " a malignity at whose frown hell grows
darker," is absurd. These jealous incompetents had, in
their judgment, hurled him down into a muddy pit of
error and wickedness, from the glorious peak of truth
and greatness on which, in his own judgment, he was
perched : and the vehemence of his scorn simply meas-
ures the intensity with which he resents their injustice
and replaces himself on his height. The true Milton is
less expressed in his rousing polemic invectives, the trum-
pet blasts of his embattled spirit, than in the melodious
passages of meditative reminiscence and description in
which the affections of his natural character exhale.

As one who long in populous city pent,
Where houses thick and sewers annoy the air,
Forth issuing on a summer's morn to breathe
Among the pleasant villages and farms
Adjoined, from each thing met conceives delight,
The smell of grain, or tedded grass, or kine,
Or dairy, each rural sight, each rural sound ;
If chance with nymph-like step fair virgin pass,
What pleasing seemed, for her now pleases more,
She most, and in her look sums all delight.

Deserted, blind, old, even harshly treated by his un-
grateful daughters, composing his immortal poem, he
depicts himself as singing,

With mortal voice, unchanged
To hoarse or mute, though fallen on evil days,
On evil days though fallen, and evil tongues.
In darkness, and with dangers compassed round,
And solitude. Yet not alone while thou



PASCAL. 249

Visits! my slumbers nightly, or when morn
Purples the east still govern thou my song,
Urania, and fit audience find, though few.

In this spirit he made his age sublime as he had made
his manhood heroic. Such steady approving respect had
he for himself as he grew lonelier in his age, such grand
memories of his bygone deeds, such high imaginative
communion with the present and the future, that we can-
not hesitate to apply to him his own words descriptive
of the Saviour :

And he still on was led, but with such thoughts
Accompanied of things past and to come
Lodged in his breast, as well might recommend
Such solitude before choicest society.

And so he died. And when strangers from distant
lands linger in the chancel of Saint Giles at Cripplegate,
as they read the inscription on his tomb they forget the
surrounding roar of London. They find it difficult to
think of him as sleeping there. They feel that he is truly
interred in a monument which is co-extensive with the
civilized world.

PASCAL.

PASCAL was a personality apart, with ideas proud as his
intellect, with faith apparently humble and sincere as his
heart, but in reality more wilful than natural, and under-
arched by a scepticism awful to himself. This sceptical
character of his mind is conclusively shown by Cousin in
his celebrated report to the French Academy on the
" Thoughts " ; and later editors of his- posthumous writ-
ings have brought to light the unscrupulous changes and
suppressions practised by the first editors. Dr. Lelut has
demonstrated, in his instructive treatise, " L'Amulette de
Pascal," the deeply diseased condition, in his later years,
of both the body and the mind of this great unfortunate
genius.

With a nervous system overcharged with force and out
of equilibrium, the brain expending an abnormal share
it*



250 SKETCHES OF LONELY CHARACTERS.

of his vitality, his strange precocity deprived him of boy-
hood. While others of his age were happy at their sports,
he was by himself, earnestly grappling with the deepest
questions, now wresting brilliant secrets from science with
joy and glory, now musing over the darker problems of
human nature, pale, weary, sad, hopelessly baffled in rea-
son, imperiously remanded by his education and his heart
to faith. He early became an invalid, and was scarcely ever
after free from pain. As time wore on his state grew
worse. His excessive mental labors shattered his consti-
tution. A morbid depreciation of the worth of all world
ly aims gradually possessed him. He became extremely
unhappy, not merely in his outward relations but also in
his speculations. His vast genius, out of tune and bal-
ance, saw disproportion, misery, and frightful mystery
everywhere. He furnished another exemplification of the
truth that great men, unless blessed with health, are more
unhappy than others, because their transcendent powers
are intrinsically less harmonized with their earthly con-
ditions. Their faculties overlap the world, and the super-
fluous parts, finding no correspondent object, no soothing
returns, are turned into wretchedness. Pascal asks, " Shall
he who alone knows nature alone be unhappy ? " Yes,
if knowledge of nature be the pioneer of discord and re-
bellion against nature. Only let love for what is known
and conformity to it keep even pace with knowledge, and
the more one knows the happier he will be. But there is
danger with great genius, especially if there is any dis-
balancement in it, that perception will generate undue
feeling, feeling out of tune with the facts, and therefore a
source of irritable wretchedness.

This is clearly to be seen in the case of Pascal himself.



Online LibraryWilliam Rounseville AlgerThe solitudes of nature and of man; or, The loneliness of human life → online text (page 20 of 35)