William Rounseville Alger.

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

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He wore an iron girdle stuck full of steel thorns, which
he pressed into his side whenever worldly thoughts allured
him. " Seek no satisfaction on earth," he said ; " hope
nothing from men ; your good is in God alone." A true
religious philosophy would rather say, Seek a relative sat-
isfaction in every normal fact of nature, every finite man-
ifestation of the will of God ; never despair of your fellow
men. Whatever the God of nature has made is good ;


whatever the God of grace does is well. The sound mas-
ter of moral insight labors to ennoble human nature and
life by every possible imaginative aggrandizement and
exaltation. The school represented by Pascal strives to
demean human nature and life by every possible imagina-
tive impoverishment and degradation. This direful mis-
take is committed in the imagined interest of a supernat-
ural antidote for the bane of a ruined world. It aggravates
the evils it seeks to cure, by exciting what needs to be
soothed, namely, the friction of man with his fate.

The noble but overstrung sensibility of Pascal is shown
by the fact that once, when Arnauld seemed to prefer
peace to truth, the shock of grief and pain was so great
that he fainted away. To read his meditations on the
nature and state of man, is like wandering through some
mighty realm of desolation, where gleams of light fall
on majestic ruins, lonely columns, crumbling aqueducts,
shattered and moss-grown temples. His logic, his vigor,
his irony, did shining and permanent service to morality
in the Provincial Letters. But in his " Thoughts " a
dark tinge of disease, a perverse extravagance, vitiate the
unquestionable originality, and give the whole strain of
argument an unsoundness as gloomy and pervading as
the intellect is powerful and the rhetoric brilliant. He
sees man suspended between the two abysses of infinity
and nothingness. He never wearies of varying the mel-
ancholy antithesis of the sublimity and the contemptible-
ness of man, the grandeur and the misery of our nature
and lot. Man is a chimera, an incomprehensible monster,
a contradiction, a chaos, judge of all things, victim of all,
depositary of truth, sewer of error, the brother of the
brutes, the equal of the angels, the glory and the scum
of the universe. He is a closed and inexplicable enigma,
unless we accept the scheme of Christianity in the dog-
matic exposition of the Catholic Church. Original sin is
the key to the otherwise incomprehensible riddle. The
violence of its fall in Adam crushed human nature into a
mass of piteous and venerable ruins, an incongruous col-
lection of suns and dungheaps.

The genius of Pascal is displayed in the magnificence


of his lamentations, the gorgeous ornaments with which
he enhances the degeneracy he describes. His disease
is revealed in the dismal melancholy he throws over all,
and in the perverse factitiousness of his remedial devices.
"Vulgar Calvinism," Hallam says, "exhibits man as a
grovelling Caliban, Pascal paints him as a ruined arch-
angel." But both endeavor to exaggerate the evils of
our nature and deepen the darkness of our state, in order
to lend increased preciousness and splendor to the super-
natural remedy. This method surely violates the mod-
eration of nature, the sanity of reason. Imagination is
given us to secure equilibrium in our powers and con-
ditions, to bring in ideal compensations for actual defects,
to harmonize our nature and lot. It is a dreadful abuse
to employ it to multiply incongruities and annoyances,
enlarge existing disbalancements, and intensify the dis-
cords already experienced. To see the truth and conform
to it what is out of proportion, is the final cure for every
human ill. To aggravate a malady, half supposititious,
so as to give imaginary value to some artificial panacea, is
the method of quacks and dupes.

The soul of Pascal was a lonely battle-field, the scene
of a struggle between opposite tendencies, which must
sometimes have been as terrible as it was noiseless and
hidden. His logical acuteness and intrepidity penetrated
sophisms, and exposed the innumerable difficulties and
perplexities of human life in their most formidable array ;
while his fears, affections, weakness, made him cling to
the Catholic creed. His sublime imagination pictured
man as a grain of dust on the earth, the earth itself as a
grain of dust in the bosom of nature, the eternal silence
of whose boundless spaces was frightful to him. Disease
made deeper encroachments on his digestive organs and
on his brain. He was weary of the struggles of the few
for glory, sick of the insincerity and frivolity of the many;
and often said, " I shall die alone." Although he was
never personally a misanthrope, his fearful insight of the
frenzied self-love, the folly, vanity, flippancy, and false-
hood of common men painfully alienated him from them.
He says, " If all men knew what others say of them, there


would not be four friends in the world." And his desire
for friendly fellowship, his feeling of his own loneliness,
appear clearly enough from the following paragraph :
" The little communication that we can have in the study
of the abstract sciences disgusted me with them. But I
expected to find many companions in the study of man.
I was deceived. There are still fewer who study man
than who study geometry."

He had suffered two attacks of partial paralysis in his
limbs, attacks which seemed, however, not to touch his
mind. While in this weak condition driving across one
of the bridges over the Seine, the horses took fright and
leaped off, leaving the carriage poised on the edge. The
shock affected him so severely that he from that time fre-
quently had the hallucination of an abyss yawning at his
side. In this state, his sister, a devoted nun, persuaded
him forever to abandon the world. Disappointed, sick,
excited, his capacious mind hungering for truth and peace
in the infinite, he turned with a morbid eagerness to the
seclusion and austerity of Port Royal. Here he gave
the last eight years of his life from his thirty-first to
his thirty-ninth year almost exclusively to religious
meditation, and to literary labors for the cause of Chris-

The hypochondriacal state of Pascal betrays itself
through all his poetic sophistry and glorious declamation.
Health, without denying the evil of the world, enjoys its
good, and tries, by making the best of it, to rise into
something better. It is disease that reacts against it in
disgust and horror, and paints it a thousand times worse
than it is, in order to lend a keener relish to some theo-
retic good. The incongruities of human nature are bet-
ter explained by the doctrine of a tentative progress
towards our destiny, an advance still incomplete, with
complicated faculties not yet' harmonized, than by the
doctrine of the Fall, which simply adds a new problem
more fearful than the one it professes to solve. If man
stands midway between infinity and nothing, which is
an oratoric, not a philosophic, expression, his desires
allying him to that, his attainments to this : if he ciasps


hands on one side with the ape, on the other side with the
angel, it is that he has risen thus high and his passions
are not yet equilibrated with his conditions, rather than
that he has fallen thus low, and in his plunge been caught
there by grace, and is now forn by the contradictory at-
tractions of salvation and perdition. The facts of the
problem are far more satisfactorily solved by the idea that
the exorbitant faculties and demands of man are the pre
paratory rudiments of the divine estate he is to inherit,
than by the idea that they are the discordant fragments
of a celestial state from which he has been expelled.
Man is a child of nature sensuously chained to the earth,
but ideally scaling the heights of immensity ; not a lord of
heaven tumbled in ruins, mourning over what he has lost
while clutching aj; what is within his reach. But Pascal
took the latter view. He fought down his doubts, or
thrust them out of sight, and clung frantically to the tra-
ditional theology as a shipwrecked man to a spar. We see
his face look out at us as he drifts, a white and piteous
speck of humanity, in the black flood. He regarded the
soul as the convulsed ground of a supernatural conflict
between the fiends of nature and the ministry of grace.
He called man a reed that thinks. His soul was alone,
a geometric point of thought in the infinitude of space.
Impelled by the grandeur of his soaring mind and the
wretchedness of his tortured body, both aggravated by
the theological scheme reciprocally ministering to them
and ministered to by them, he was constantly darting to
and fro between the two poles of imagination, All and
Nothing, and constantly associating one of these mon-
strous extremes with everything human. Shocked and
lacerated by such a tremendous vibration, no wonder his
strength so early gave way, no wonder his view of life was
so overwrought. The disease which the surgeons laid
bare in his gangrened vitals- and brain, is equally revealed
by a psychological autopsy of his writings, gangrenous
blotches interspersing the splendid and electric pages.
Thus, in his self-depreciating unhappiness and solitude,
he affirmed that it was sinful for any one to love a crea-
ture so unworthy as he, and so soon to perish.


Perhaps the most pathetic passage from his pen,
when we view it in the light of his pure character, tran-
scendent talents, and sad biography, is the following:
" Man has, springing from the sense of his continued
misery, a secret instinct that leads him to seek diversion
and employment from without. And he has, remaining
from the original greatness of his nature, another secret
instinct, which teaches him that happiness can exist only
in repose. From these two contrary instincts there arises
in him an obscure propensity which prompts him to seek
repose through agitation, and even to fancy that the con-
tentment he does not enjoy will be found, if, by strug-
gling yet a little longer, he can open a door to rest." He
had known long ages in thought and feeling, but not forty
years in time, when death kindly opened^ for him the door
to rest.


ROUSSEAU was so lonely a man that the ground of his
life was one long soliloquy, interrupted only as its sur-
face now and then broke into distasted dialogues. He
had singularities which made sustained companionship
extremely difficult ; singularities for the understanding of
which few of his critics have had the only available key,
namely, sympathetic insight. The connection of heart
and brain in him was wonderfully intimate, the quantity
and obstinacy of emotion extraordinary. His states of
consciousness had greater impulsive force in their origin,
greater vascular diffusion in his system, greater persist-
ency in his nerves, than those of other people. In his
youth he sought to avoid the other boys who wanted him
to join them in their sports. "But," he says, "once
really in their games, I was more ardent and went fur-
ther than any. Difficult to start, and difficult to re-
strain such was ever my disposition." Again he says :
" If no better than others, I am at least different from
them. I am made unlike any one I have ever seen."
Tragedies lie latent in those simple, daring words.

A truer picture of the shaded glory and prominent


wretchedness of the youth of genius has never been
drawn than that painted in the " Confessions " of Rous-
seau. At sixteen, discontented with himself and every-
thing about him, devoured by desires of whose object he
could form no conception, weeping without any cause for
tears, sighing for he knew not what, given up to caressing
the creations of his own fancy, he was happy only when
he could escape, alone, among the lonely charms of
nature, and abandon himself to impassioned visions,
ideas, and dreams. " My delight in the world of imagi-
nation and my disgust with the real world gave rise to
that love of solitude which has never since left me. This
disposition, apparently so misanthropic and so melan-
choly, in reality proceeds from a heart all too fond, too
loving, too tender; a heart which, failing to find real
beings with whom to sympathize, is fain to feed on fic-

In the case of Rousseau, the sensitive pride imbedded
in his constitution, too deep and constant for his own
recognition, his fiery and persistent consciousness of his
own soul, of objects, ideas, and emotions, required a
soothing, deferential sympathy more pronounced and sus-
tained than men were willing to give. The failure to
receive what he wanted cut him to the quick. He re-
garded the disappointment as a cruel injustice, and re-
treated for solace into his own fancy and into seclusion.
" The beings of my imagination," he declares, " disgust
me with all the society I have left.'' Yes ; because the
reactions towards him of the beings of his imagination
were under the domination of his own will, while the per-
sons he met in society exercised their own opinions and
feelings towards him, however much they fell below his.
It is plain that for many years he disliked society because
he did not shine in it as he thought he ought. In his first
letter to Malesherbes he repudiates this conclusion, even
for the past, when it was true, because it was now no longer
true He claims as the real reason, " An indomitable
spirit of liberty, arising less from pride than from my in-
credible dislike of effort. The slightest duty laid on me
in social life is insupportable. Therefore is ordinary


intercourse with men odious to me ; but intimate friend-
ship is dear, because it imposes no duty ; one follows his
heart, and all is done." A deeper analysis would have
shown him that this " indomitable spirit of liberty " was
itself based on a perversity of pride. Friendship was
dear because it reflected himself to himself; ordinary
intercourse was odious because it asked him equally to
reflect others to themselves. He would not havebeen
unhappy in society if he had been either humble in him-
self or indifferent as to the opinions others entertained
of him. To have a high idea of self and to need the
sympathy of others to sustain it, is to be miserable in all
society except the most congenial. The only cure is to
be found either in self-sufficingness or in self-renuncia-

The fervid quickness and strength of Rousseau's feel-
ings keyed him on so high a pitch that he could hardly
sink into contentful unison with others. Finding every
response distressingly inadequate to his craving he al-
most' ceased to ask a response. "The evening," he
writes, " when I have spent the day alone, finds me
happy and gay ; when I have passed the time in com-
pany it finds me taciturn and depressed." Accordingly
he took refuge in imagination and solitude. Once, when
his friend Diderot had long been confined in the Bastile,
he obtained permission to visit him. On being admitted
he rushed forward in convulsive joy, fell on his neck, and
covered his face with kisses and tears. Diderot, instead
of returning the demonstration of affection, coolly said to
his jailer : " You see, sir, how my friends love me." The
ice that fell on his heart in that moment poor Rousseau
never forgot. And when, at a later time, Diderot, with
direct reference to him, said that no one but a bad man
could love to live in solitude, it was no wonder that with a
deep sense of injury he indignantly repelled the assertion.
One of his most characteristic works, published after his
death, was entitled " Reveries of a Lonely Walker." The
first reverie begins with these words : " Behold me, then,
alone on the earth, with no brother, neighbor, friend, so-
ciety, save myself." And on a later page he writes : " I


was born with a natural love for solitude, which has grown
the more I have known men." His pride was incompara-
bly greater than his vanity, making it difficult for him to
sympathize with those socially above him. His democratic
dislike for royalty and the nobility was vehement. But
his sympathy with his inferiors was easy and strong. He
even says : "My dog is not my servant, but my friend."
When the pent lava-flood rose too high in his breast, it
forced a ravaging vent in literature, setting whole coun-
tries aflame, and fevering successive generations. His
electric words, as fresh to-day as a hundred years ago, as
fresh a hundred years hence as to-day, compel sighs and
tears to answer them, and can strike no inflammable soul
without kindling it into a blaze. From the nature of the
case it was scarcely to be expected that such a man would
achieve peaceful and sufficing intercourse with his con-
temporaries. Thirsting for an ocean of love and admira-
tion, when but a cupful was offered he turned away dis-
appointed, chagrined, unhappy, and fled into the wild and
lovely retreats of the country, to soothe his fever with the
grass and rocks, the snows, the woods, the waters, and
the stars. The expression he gave to his impassioned
sensibility for the charms of romantic scenery and the
sweets of loneliness has impregnated much of subsequent
literature, and has given him a high rank among the mis-
sionaries of the love of nature and solitude.

When staying at Vevay, on the borders of Lake Leman,
he experienced overpowering expansions of sentiment.
" My heart poured itself out in a thousand innocent and
ardent joys. Melting into tenderness I sighed and wept
like a child. How often, stopping to indulge my feel-
ings, seated on some projecting piece of rock, I occupied
myself with watching my tears drop into the stream."
This was morbid sentimentality, beyond a question. But
it is unjust to stigmatize it thus, as if that were all. This
wealth of soul, this passionate mental sensibility so much
above the common endowment, was the hiding-place of
his genius.

Theodore Parker wrote in his diary, " I have just been
reading the Confessions of Rousseau. A thief ! a liar 1


a great knave ! how I abhor him ! " And to give this
as the proper valuation of the man whose immense fire-
soul inspired whole nations and ages with the love of
nature, the love of liberty, the love of man, and the love
of nobleness ! The estimate is as fair and adequate as
the estimate pronounced by Sir Isaac Newton on the art
of sculpture, when he called the statuary in the gallery of
the Duke of Devonshire " stone dolls." The purloining
of the ribbon and the dastardly falsehood he told to con-
ceal the act, were not chronic traits of the character of
Rousseau, but violent deviations from it ; and he atoned
for them by the heroic confession of his guilt before the
whole world. His foibles and vices, gross as they were,
would appear venial in contrast with those of the most of
his compeers, had these unveijed their shame as fully as
he, for a high moral purpose, did his. It is to be remem-
bered that he has made us know the very worst of him,
so stripping his soul and life in the "Confessions" that
he might dare, as he startlingly affirmed, present himself
before the judgment-seat of God with his book in his
hand ! And, on the other side, the mass and keenness
of his love for mankind and for moral beauty were super-
lative, in spite of his frequent personal defections. Des
pite those defections, too, he defended the cause and
served the interests of freedom, virtue, and humanity,
with an eloquence never equalled, and with a practical
effectiveness rarely surpassed. One of the best read and
wisest writers of recent days says : " The modern fashion
of gentleness in feeling and manners was introduced
mainly through the influence of Rousseau." He recalled
mothers to the nursing of their own children. He vin-
dicated with peerless energy the simplicities of nature
against the cruel corruptions of luxurious conventionality.
He was the first French gentleman to put off the wearing
of gold lace and a sword, and adopt a simple costume.
He inaugurated the most invaluable reforms in educa-
tion, and in behalf of the equal rights of all men struck
blows that made the old despotisms of Europe 'reel on
their thrones. And as to his jealousy, quarrels, moral
extravagances, it is to be borne in mind that the sufferings


of disappointment and disease, together with the various
peculiar trials" to which he was subjected, had repeatedly
wrought him into a state of virtual insanity : " His mind
had grown suspicion's sanctuary." To name the men of
illustrious worth, from Kant to Channing, from Schiller
to Whittier, who, well aware of his vices, have yet loved
and honored him for his matchless merit, would be an-
swer enough to an abusive condemnation of him by
wholesale. His genius is a glory and inspiration to his
race ; his services claim grateful homage ; his errors and
sins plead for forbearance.
Schiller says :

In Rousseau, Christians marked their victim when
Rousseau enlisted Christians into men !

Banned by church and state, hated by bigots, feared
by good men, unloved by the common people whose
wrongs had so deeply moved him, he lived apart and
misunderstood. He reminds us herein of the remark
made by Zimmermann : " There is always something
great in the man against whom the world exclaims, at
whom every one throws a stone, on whose character all
attempt to fasten a thousand crimes without being able
to prove one." Rousseau rejected not the sanctities and
authorities of nature and conscience, only the base coun-
terfeits substituted for them.

For peace or rest too well he saw

The fraud of priests, the wrong of law ;

And felt how hard between the two

Their breath of pain the millions drew.

A prophet-utterance strong and wild,

The weakness of an unweaned child,

A sun-bright hope for human kind,

And self-despair in him combined.

The love lie sent forth, void returned ;

The fame that crowned him scorched and burned,

Burning, yet cold, and drear, and lone

A fire-mount in a frozen zone.

Born with delicate organs and irritable nerves, devel-
oping a precocious sensibility, his early reading of Plu-
tarch and romances joined with his native bent to blend


in his soul the heroic ideality of Rome and Sparta with
the poetic ideality of chivalry. Lacking the equilibrium
of sober reason, at the frequent sight of individual in-
stances of cruelty and meanness he reacted from his high-
strung notions of absolute good and human perfectibility
into a wretched despondency. Had he invariably turned
from the special examples of wrong to the general laws
of right, to the deep, steady, moral sanctions and tenden-
cies in the nature of things and in the nature of man, he
might have been happy. But he kept up a vibratory
action between the thought of himself and the' thought
of those he disliked or suspected. And he had known
but too many reasons for dislike and suspicion. Thrown
into contact with many vile characters, he suffered base
misinterpretations at their hands. He was so often be-
lied, cheated, slandered, that his outraged mind took on
a chronic impression of his wrongs and colored the whole
world with them. He lost his health and became a hyp-
ochondriac, tremulously shrinking from contact with men.
Henri Martin says : " He fancied himself surrounded
with a universal conspiracy to degrade his character and
blight his memory before posterity. Instead of exagger-
ating his influence he exaggerated his isolation. He
disbelieved the sincerity of the disciples who flocked to
him ; and did not taste the highest consolation, to a heart
like his, of enjoying the good that he had done to his
fellow-beings. This was doubtless a harsh expiation of
the offences he may have committed in this world."

Unquestionably there is a basis for the severe judg-
ment pronounced on him by Joubert, who yet ascribes to
him a vast moral superiority over Voltaire. Joubert says
that Rousseau was envious, vain, proud, voluptuous, irre-
ligious in his piety, corrupt in his severity, dogmatic
against authority, discontented with everything beyond
himself, a beggar basking in the sun and deliciously de-
spising the human race ! I cite this judgment that it may
have its effect ; for there is a truth in it, though it is only
one side of the truth, and that side most uncharitably
heightened. He did voluptuously pamper the notion of
himself, had the egoistic vices of excessive sentiment and

Online LibraryWilliam Rounseville AlgerThe solitudes of nature and of man; or, The loneliness of human life → online text (page 21 of 35)