William Rounseville Alger.

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

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Online LibraryWilliam Rounseville AlgerThe solitudes of nature and of man; or, The loneliness of human life → online text (page 31 of 35)
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dwell on the pages of her writing is like entering a moun-
tain chapel, where we breathe at once the charm of na-
ture, the quiet of seclusion, and the peace of God. At
the same time there is an unspeakable pathos in the pale
face that looks out at us, and a strange sigh of human
want and woe in the voice that speaks so calmly. Alto-
gether the character and life of Eugenie de Guerin have
profound lessons for those of her sex gifted with natures


earnest enough to learn them ; a select number in that
throng of women whose attention is frittered on trifles
whose existence is a shallow distraction when it is not a
tedious drudgery.

The retirement and sameness of the life at La Cayla
were oppressive. To have a visit or pay one, to write a
letter, to receive a letter, were the great events. Eugenie
writes, " A poor stranger has passed by ; then a little
child. This is all that has shown itself to-day." Again,
" To-day nothing has come, nothing has stirred, nothing
has got done in our solitude." Once, when her sister
was absent, she wrote, " I have passed the day in com-
plete solitude, alone, quite alone. I am taking ac-
count of my thoughts by the light of a little lamp, now
my only companion at night." She said her days were
as like each other as drops of water. " Would that my
arms were long enough to reach all those I love ! "
" Everything belonging to the world soon wearies me,
since I always feel myself a stranger there." " God be
praised for this day, spent without any sadness ! Such
are so rare in life. A word, a memory, a tone of voice,
a sad expression of face, a nameless nothing, will often
disturb the serenity of my spirit, small sky, that the
lightest clouds can tarnish." Her heart was great, and
inconceivably susceptible even to the most delicate im-
pressions. Such hearts are indifferent to whatever does
not give them life ; they shrink with powerful instinct
from the careless slights and rude collisions that would
bruise them and drain them. Hence the inevitable soli-
tariness of such characters as Eugenie. Profoundly
humble as she was, she could not help saying, " When
mixing with the world, I feel that I am not like others."

" How much sadness in this isolation, this chill, this
frost, of which the heart is conscious while surrounded by
pleasures, and by those who partake of them ! " Eugenie
often expresses this forlorn and sorrowful desertedness.
After the death of her idolized brother, she writes to him
in her journal, " I feel a want to be alone, and not alone,

with God and thee. I feel myself shut out in the
midst of all others. O living solitude ! how long wilt
thou be ? "


But solitude, in spite of this bitter pain of unfulfilled
desires, was her best refuge, filled with her truest joys.
She abundantly celebrates its charms. " Nevers wearied
me with its little society, its little women, its great din-
ners, dresses, visits, and other tiresome things without
any compensation. Loneliness, calm, solitude, recom-
mencement of a life to my taste." While she was visit-
ing Paris, a woman having said that, for her, " friendship
was a velvet couch in a boudoir," she replied, "Let me be
outside the boudoir, sitting on a lofty peak, high above
the world. To sit apart from all, in this way, delights me
in the same manner." This thoughtful, down-looking
withdrawal removed the perturbations of her too suscep-
tible soul, and soothed and nourished her self-respect.
Yet, as we read over the confessing pages of her journal,
how obvious it is tha-t solitude is not the true destiny of
the human heart ; but only a retreat wherein, when that
destiny has been baffled, it comforts itself with consola-
tory substitutes ! The instinctive affections, extraordi-
narily strong in Eugenie, balked of their normal fulfil-
ment, in still loneliness solaced themselves with other ob-
jects, with ideal activities, with heavenly aspirations. No
pleasure rivalled that she knew in solitude, with God,
books, and the thought of Maurice. "Though talking
and loving each other much, two women alone find their
solitude very blank, great desert places in it : books,
books, are the only recourse." " Verily a book is a
priceless thing for me in this my desert and famine of
the soul." It is impressive to notice how constantly,
without her knowing it herself, the expressions of Eugenie
show solitude to be, not the normal fruition of our being,
but a retreat from a storm, a healing and compensatory
covert from hurts and griefs. " A convent is the true
home of sad spirits, of such as are strangers in the
world, or who are timid and take shelter there as in a
dovecote" " O, what enjoyment to be free from dis-
traction, with God, and with one's self! " Had not her
family held her back, she would gladly have adopted the
vocation of a nun. " For a long while I have been say-
ing, with St Bernard, ' O blessed solitude ! O sole beati
tude ! ' "


One of her most terrible trials was the frequent dis-
covery of baseness in those she had trusted and admired.
She passionately loved to reverence and confide ; and
the knowledge of the treacherous and deformed side of
human nature cost her too much. To see venerable and
beloved brows discrowned was an agony worse than
death to her. Then the calm of her little chamber, the
starry solitude of night, were guardian sanctuaries into
which her soul fled. " It is strange how much I enjoy
this being apart from everything." " This has been
one of my happy days, of those days that begin and end
sweet as a cup of milk. To be alone with God, O hap-
piness supreme ! " " When I am seated here alone, or
kneeling before my crucifix, I fancy myself Mary quietly
listening to the Saviour. During the deep silence, when
God alone speaks to it, my soul is happy, and, as it were,
dead to all that is going on below or above." A more
perfect picture of loneliness, a more convincing proof of
the genius of solitude in its author, than is afforded by
the following passage, can hardly be found : " My win-
dow is open. How tranquil everything is ! All the
little sounds from without reach me. I love the sound
of the brook. The church clock is striking, and ours
answering it. This sounding of the hours far away, and
in the hall, assumes by night a mysterious character. I
think of the Trappists who awake to pray, of the sick
who count hour after hour in suffering, of the afflicted
who weep, of the dead who sleep frozen in their beds."

Eugenie was well aware of the moral dangers of too
great and constant a withdrawal. She religiously strove
to neutralize them. " I observe that I hardly make any
mention of others, and that my egotism always occupies
the stage." "There is a weakness in this bias of thought
towards one's self and all that belongs to one. It is
self-love." The complaint does her injustice. For it is
the peculiar property of a suffering nature to tint the
world with its grief. And she only poured out her self-
burdened soul as a relief in her journal, never meant to
be seen. In all associations with others she was self-
forgetfully devoted to her duties, abundant in disinterested


attentions. Her morbid quality was really, not thinking
too much of herself separately, but too much thinking of
others in herself, and of herself in others. It was sym-
pathy that was tyrannical, not egotism. To accuse them-
selves of a blamable self-love is the painful fallacy of
those humble souls who are too tender, and not strong
enough, nor enough detached from their neighbors. To
be accused of such an excessive self-reference is the cruel
wiong such souls always suffer from conceited and im-
patient observers.

The threefold characteristic of genius in affection is
the richness, the intensity, and the tenacity of its emotions.
The emotions of a meagre nature are comparatively nar-
row, pallid, and evanescent. Whatever once entered the
heart of Eugenie de Guerin became complicated with
aggrandizing associations, royal or tragic ; throbbed with
her blood, and stayed as a fixed part of her life. " At
the foot of the hill there is a cross, where, two years ago,
having accompanied him so far, we parted with our dear
Maurice. For a long time the ground retained the im-
press of a horse's hoof where Maurice stopped to reach
out his hand to me. I never pass that way without look-
ing for that effaced mark of a farewell beside a cross."
The prints on the Cayla road were transient as strokes on the
air, compared with the perdurable impressions on that soft,
faithful heart. This peculiarity, joined with a retired and
leisure life, has a good side and an evil side : for " an
exclusive feeling grows to immensity in solitude." In a
soul of ample health and strength, it leads, by successive
conquests, through an accumulation of glorious associa-
tions, to the noblest greatness and happiness. Its powei
is seen in that story of La Picciola, where a simple flower
became the light, the comrade, the angel, the paradise, of
a poor prisoner in whose cell it grew. Eugenie affect-
ingly illustrates it when she says, " I must record my hap-
piness of yesterday : a very sweet, pure happiness, a
kiss from a poor creature to whom I was giving alms.
That kiss seemed to my heart like a kiss given by God."
Under such conditions, the littlest things are more than the
greatest things are in a crowding and dis'sipated existence.
16* x


On the other hand, this accreting and eral aiming
quality of genius, this incrusting of experience with asso-
ciations, in a drooping, timid soul, defective in elastic
energy, leads to the most melancholy results ; it exagger-
ates every evil, confirms and preserves every depressing
influence. It fastens on the unfavorable aspects of things,
heaps up sad experiences, emphasizes all dark omens,
until society becomes odious, action penance, life a way
of dolor, tne earth a tomb, the rain tears, and the sun a
funeral torch. How profoundly Eugenie suffered from
this evil, hundreds of passages in her writings reveal, like
so many wails and sobs translated into articulate speech.
Thoughts of death and feelings of sorrow occupy that
relative space, which, on any sound philosophy and esti-
mate of our existence, ought to be occupied by thoughts
of life and feelings of joy. " At night, when I am alone,
the faces of all my dead relatives and friends come before
me. I am not afraid ; but all my meditations dress them-
selves in black, and the world seems to me dismal as a
sepulchre." Her moods of spiritual exhaustion appear
from the grateful approval she gave to the word of Fene-
lon in relation to irksome prayer, " If God wearies you,
tell him that he wearies you." She says, referring to a
former period, " I got deeper and deeper among tombs :
for two years I thought of nothing but death and dying."
She calls " Inexorable dejection the groundwork of
human life"; and adds, "To endure, and to endure one's
self, is the height of wisdom." Surely, poor is the office
of the angel of religion, descending and ascending be-
tween God and men, if at the last he can only waft us this
message of despair. No, the highest wisdom is not, in
sackcloth and ashes, to endure existence and ourselves.
The highest wisdom is, instead of submitting to the will
of God as its penitential victims, to conform to it as its
grateful executives and usufructuaries, appreciating all
the goods of life in the just gradation of their values. In-
stead of saying with Bossuet, "At the bottom of every-
thing we find a blank, a nothingness," a healthy religious
faith finds, at the top of everything, the bottom of some-
thing better. The misery of Eugenie lay in her ungrati-


fied natural affections, whose disappointments held the
germs of death against which she had not sufficient
vitality to struggle into serene victory. Lack of life is the
ground-tone of her grievous music, which would sweetly
seduce the weak to death, but loudly warns the wise to a
better way. Her betraying pen writes, " My soul lives in
a coffin." Again, " I find myself alone, but half-alive,
as though I had only half a soul." And finally, with the
anguished heroism of a total renunciation, so willing to
perish as to be unwilling to leave a trace behind : " I am
dying of a slow moral agony. Go, poor little book, into
forgetfulness, with all the other things which vanish
away ! " Such an utterance proves the irritable feeble-
ness of the centres of life to be so great that it is painful
for them to re-act even upon the idea of posthumous
remembrance. The fondled thought of extinction and
oblivion is soothing then. Through its inner wounds, one
may almost say, the very soul itself slowly bleeds to

There is a bird, the arawonda, that lives in the lone-
liest glens and the thickest woods of Brazil. Its notes
are singularly like the distant and solemn tolling of a
church-bell, as they boom on the still air, and plaintively
die away. Sitting on the tops of the highest trees, in the
deepest parts of the forest, it is rarely seen, though often
heard. It is difficult to conceive anything of a more sol-
itary and lonesome nature than the breaking of the pro-
found silence of the woods by the mysterious toll of this
invisible bird, the swelling strokes with their pathetic
diminuendo coming from the air, and seeming to follow
wherever you go. The tones of the character of Eugenie
de Guerin are like the notes of the arawonda.

Her lot was thorny, yet not without roses. The world
itself was a convent, in which she lived as a vestal, with
bended knees, upraised eyes, a consecrated will, but an
aching and bleeding heart. Pool, nch, unhappy, blessed
maiden ! we cannot bid her farewell without deep emotion
and a lingering memory. Her journal is a nunnery of
sad, white thoughts, with here and there one among them
revealing, as the snowy robe of style is lifted, a heart of


agonizing flame. We pity her sufferings, admire her for*
titude, revere her holiness, bow before her saintly faith
and patience. What a thought of peace it is to think
that she is now in God ! There love is infinite, and re-
pose perfect. No ungenial society can vex, no weary
solitude burden, the freed inhabitants there.


THE character and life of Auguste Comte, author of the
Positive Philosophy, affords a forcible example of the lone-
liness of a mighty personality, of the trials it is subjected
to, of its temptations to misanthropy, and of the compara-
tive neutralization of those temptations by sublime ideas,
personal purity, and devotion. He believed himself born
to introduce a new and better faith in philosophy and in
religion. The burdensome superstitions which had so
long darkened the minds, clogged the efforts, disturbed
the souls, and afflicted the lives of men, these accu-
mulated errors and evils he would teach the world to
throw off, and, by a complete organization of the hie-
rarchy of the sciences, proceed more rapidly to fulfil and
enjoy their true destiny. Instead of wasting their energies
in vain attempts to discover the unknowable ultimate
causes of things, they should limit their inquiries to the
grouping of facts and appearances, and to the discovery
of their laws. He would instruct them how to outgrow
their selfish . antagonisms and rivalries, in a disinterested
co-operation for the perfection of each other and the
whole. They should no longer expend their devotional
sentiments in the worship of a metaphysical abstraction,
but should recognize, at last, with clear consciousness,
the true Supreme Being, namely, the collective Humanity,
made up of all the human beings who have lived, all who
now live, and all who are hereafter to live. This imper-
sonated totality of mankind they should love with all their
mind, heart, soul, and strength, and worship with appro-
priate rites of good works, expansive sentiments, and
symbolic offices.

COMTE. 373

There was in Comte, undoubtedly, all his life, an un-
balancing bias of egotism. Neither mental health and
modesty, nor a wide range of careful comparisons and
tests, enabled him to make a fit and sound estimate of
his own relative importance. He had a prodigious idea
of his own spiritual dimensions and rank. He had a most
despotic will, a morbid unwillingness to take his cue from
anybody else, no feminine abnegation in society, but a
masculine necessity for dominating. He irascibly re-
sented influence, and repelled commands. So, republi-
can in spirit and rebellious in disposition, he offended his
official superiors, and was expelled from one post after
another. He sympathized easily and strongly with the
great world of men below, whom he was to instruct and
uplift ; but to the nominal superiors, who overlooked or
despised him, he gave a proud scorn. He used to sing
the revolutionary Marseillaise with electric vehemence ;
and the prefaces to his different volumes express immeas-
urable contempt for his opponents. His feeling is shown
in his appeals to the two classes, women and proletaires,
as ready for the acceptance of his catechism. But, for the
great thinkers of earlier time he cherished a glowing
admiration, and scrupulously acknowledged his obliga-
tions to them. He felt allied to them as typical prede-
cessors of himself.

Deeming himself intrusted with a transcendent mis-
sion, he sought with heroic devotion to fulfil it by master-
ing all foregone history, philosophy, and science, eliminat-
ing the true from the false, supplementing the incomplete,
and imparting their perfected lesson to the world. To
this immense task he gave an immense toil. Shutting out
from his life all that could distract him, supplying his
humble wants by instructing private pupils, troubled by
no wish for premature fame, year after year, with stern
perseverance, he concentrated all his powers on his lofty
undertaking. So deep was his withdrawal, that, for many
years, he did not even read the newspapers. From the
retirement of his study he sent out volume after volume,
to gain few disciples, many assailants, and general neglect

Comte says he received from a very tender mother cer-


tain interior chords eminently feminine in their character.
He also speaks of writing, all in tears, some passages of
his positive philosophy. It is clear, in the evidence of
his whole life, that his capacity for loving was as much
greater than that of common men as his intellect was
more capacious. He was accustomed even to mystic and
rapturous expansions. His early teachers and co-laborers
had broken with him, he had lost public employment, he
was forced to earn a precarious livelihood by private
teaching and lecturing. He felt himself poor, solitary,
and injured, in the great, brilliant, careless city ; he who
believed that his thought was the most advanced and in-
clusive any man had ever known, and that to his work
coming ages would be the most deeply indebted. Re-
garding himself as a thinker for mankind, whose service
was of incomparable importance to the world, when some
of his admirers sent an annual contribution for his sup-
port he haughtily accepted it as his right, and angrily
resented as an inexcusable wrong the subsequent with-
holding of it. When he had acquired celebrity, his baffled
rivals and enemies, together with the theologians and
metaphysicians whose views and interests his doctrines
so scornfully swept aside, kept a pitiless storm of obloquy
blowing around him. Yet through all these provoking
conditions of bitterness and despair he held to his task
with unswerving consecration, with indomitable energy,
his mind calm at bottom, his heart sweet at the core.
For, deep below his disappointments and wrongs lay
certain authoritative assurances, far within his exasper-
ated personal relations lived -certain disinterested affec-
tions, which gave him inexhaustible support and comfort.
His angry feelings towards individuals were soothed,
their misanthropic tendency neutralized, by his philan-
thropic theory of the whole, by the heroic purity and
self-sacrifice of his life, and by his poetic and devotional
meditations. He had, perhaps, the completest and vivid-
est idea of Humanity, as a personified unit comprising
all human beings from the beginning to the end, that any
one has ever entertained. His religiousness of feeling
towards this grand ideal existence, his effusive communion

COMTE. 375

with it, worship of it, readiness to toil and suffer for it,
were unique. They healed his soreness, fed his aspira-
tions and strength, gave him rare joy, and have made
a fresh contribution of very great and enduring value to
the future development of the higher human feelings.
When he thought of this " Supreme Being," when he
worshippingly communed with the immortal thinkers of
the past forever incorporated with it in the grateful rev-
erence of mankind, he forgot his foes and his irritations,
had a fruition of his own greatness, and was wrapt in
wonder and love. The reflection, too, over his fellow-
men, of his own character, marked by such self-denial
and toil for truth and humanity, tended to ennoble and
aggrandize them in his eyes. He indeed says in one
place, " Many men remain in a parasitic state, swarms of
creatures which are in truth burdens on the Great Being,
reminding us of the energetic reprobation bestowed on
them by Ariosto as ' born upon the earth merely to ma-
nure it.' " But his constant motto, the phrase in which he
concentrated his entire system of morals, was, " Live for
others." He said, " The greatest pleasures are the pleas-
ures of devotedness to others." He repeatedly quoted
with unction the admirable sentiment of Metastasio :
" He deserved not to be born who thinks he was born for
himself alone." He everywhere expresses boundless in-
dignation and contempt for those who deny all disinter-
ested sentiments to human nature, and himself enthusi-
astically enforces those sentiments. The last pupil he
had testifies that his nature " was full of smothered kind-
liness," and that he was reminded in the sight 'of him of
one of " those pictures of the Middle Ages representing
St. Francis wedded to poverty." He offered three daily
prayers ; read every day in the sublime poem of Thomas
a Kempis, the Imitation of Christ ; was extremely fond
of Dante ; and never failed to devote his regular seasons
to the study of the highest strains of poetic emotion, and
to religious meditation on the Great Being and its worthi-
est representatives.

It is easy to sneer at the extraordinary egotism of
Comte, more helpful to appreciate his rare powers and


services. It is easy to throw ridicule on that remarkable
passage of affection, his sacred love for Madame Clotilde
de Vaux, a chaste passion which developed new faculties
in him and raised him from the style of a Priestley to
that of a Petrarch ; but ridicule is unseemly with refer-
ence to an experience so blameless in its conduct and so
profoundly instructive in the surprising ardor and tenaci-
ty of the purposes it inspired. To stigmatize his philos-
ophy as a shallow materialism, his religion as a puerile
and atheistic sentimentality, as if that were all that jus-
tice required to be said of him, is a cheap invective,
dishonoring less its object than its employer.

His name will live forever on the list of the illustrious
few who have imparted an original impulse to the intel-
lectual progress of the race, the evolution of the science
and faith of humanity. There is something imposing,
regal, in his self-sustained power of resolution, labor and
trust. Differenced from the community by despotic idio
syncrasies, an individual creed, a separate mode of life,
and peculiar aims and sympathies, he walked the streets
of Paris unnoticed or scorned, emerged from his chamber
alone, re-entered it alone, sat by his midnight lamp alone,
without the slightest faltering of his aim, his faith and pride
supporting him like a rock amidst the ineffectual lappings
of the battalions of cold waves of indifference and hate.
Sweeping over the ages with his generalizing eye, gather-
ing up their significance, lawgiver of history and science,
he felt, " I am the autocrat of mankind, the first intellect-
ual potentate of the earth, the supreme pontiff of the
church of 'humanity : all future generations will bring their
homage to my grave ! " Notwithstanding his defects, ex-

Online LibraryWilliam Rounseville AlgerThe solitudes of nature and of man; or, The loneliness of human life → online text (page 31 of 35)