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 34 of 35)
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before so many restless and weary aspirants, out of tune
with their neighbors, dissatisfied with their lot, unsettled
in their faith, morbidly sensitive, sad, and solitary. To
make a true estimate of what the trouble is with these
victims of self-love and the social struggle, to give them


,V)uiid sanitary directions, explaining the causes of their
wounds, and the best curative treatment, we cannot but
chink will be a service of especial timeliness. To these
innumerable sufferers, writhing under distressful relations
with themselves and others, would it not be an invaluable
boon to be guided to a tranquil oblivion of their injuries
and resentments, their uneasy desires and woes, in remote
retreats of thought, in cool and sweet sanctuaries of senti-
ment, in undisturbed temples and glens of faith and love ?
If the studies of the preceding chapters, and the personal
experience which first led to those studies, furnish any
qualification for this office, it may be in some degree
discharged by summarizing for the reader the practical
results of the whole investigation. He to whom a hun-
dred veiled wounds of his own have given an accurate
knowledge of the wounds of other people should know
how to impart therapeutical instructions, and also how
to soothe the unhappy souls about him with soft mag-
netic strokes of sympathy. Blessed art, why do so few
practise thee ?

There is inexhaustible help for the suffering man in an
adequate knowledge of the sufferings of others ; how they
originated, and to what issues they led ; the warnings of
those who were defeated by their trials and ignominiously
perished under them ; the examples of those who van-
quished theirs and came out in victorious cheer. Nothing
can be more stimulative and fruitful for the unambitious
recluse than sympathetic contact with the experience of
the noble spiritual heroes who have spotlessly worn their
crowns, throned on the summits of society. On the other
hand, nothing can be more blessedly solacing and sed-
ative for the overwrought champion of the arena than
contemplation of the inner drama of those delicate and
listening minds, those deep and dreamy hearts, who pass
their days in an ideal sphere detached from the intoxicat-
ing prizes of outward life, far from the bewildering roar
of the world. This is indeed the choicest value of liter-
ature, the deepest art of life, to supplement the defects
:>f our own experience by appropriating from the experi-
nee of others what we stand in want of.


Beyond a question, the welfare of society and the hap-
piness of the multitude have increased from the palmy
da) s of Egypt, or those of Sparta, to the time when the
serfs of Russia were emancipated, and when the tele-
graphic cable girdled the world. Beyond a question, on
the other hand, when we turn from Cyrus to Napoleon,
from Pericles to Pitt, from Socrates to Schopenhauer, from
Pindar to Lamartine, we must see that the moral discon-
tent of individuals, the difficulties in the way of inward
unity, the mental fatigue and soreness of superior persons,
have been increasing. This is owing to the greater com-
plexity of elements and stimuli in modern life ; also to
the greater development of conscience, alliances with
impersonal interests, obscure connections of dependence
and responsibility with huge masses of public good and
evil. The greater the number of the interests a man
carries, and the greater the number of external relations
he sustains, the more delicate and arduous becomes the
problem of harmonizing them, fulfilling his duties, and
satisfying his desires. The sympathetic ties of the indi-
vidual were far less numerous and extended formerly than
at present. Consciousness spreads over a wider surface
and along more lines ; every breast is a telegraphic office
throbbing with the vibrations of the communicating web
of civilization. Christianity, the historic moral progress
of the race, has also introduced quicker and larger stand-
ards of right and wrong, developed an intenser sense of
divine authority and human brotherhood, and made men
feel themselves amenable to a much more diffused and
exacting spiritual tribunal than was known to the careless
children of the early world. All this increases the diffi-
culty of any chronic self-complacency ; and, as Aristotle
says, "happiness is the attribute of the self-complacent."
It is natural that as extension and complication remove
narrowness and simplicity from the life of the individual,
he should with diminishing frequency attain the happiness
of a contented unity with himself. This must be espe-
cially true when a profound sense of the presence and
perfection of God, of the rebuking examples of the saints,
of the infinite nature of duty, gives him a constant feeling
of his own unworthiness, vanity, and transitoriness.


In antiquity the individual was sunk in the mass as a
political tool. Now he has a keen feeling of a separate
personality, freedom, and responsibility ; yet, at the same
time, and as a consequence of the same causes which
have produced this, he has an acute feeling of his moral
relations with the mass. The deep sense of God, human-
ity, duty, eternity, which adds so much to our dignity and
joy when it is healthily co-ordinated with our nature,
often makes us so much more susceptible to self-reproach,
grief, and fear. In every age an earnest experience of
religion has segregated men from the world ; but Christi-
anity did this in an unprecedented degree when it filled
the deserts and valleys and mountains of Christendom
with hermits. One great consequence of the modern
enhancement of self-consciousness, and enhancement of
the consciousness of the external relations of self, has
been the feeling of individual loneliness in .the crowd, a
melancholy shrinking and sinking of the heart from the
miscellaneous public, a sad or fond courting of solitude
for the application there of ideal solaces to the soul.
There is in the following lines by Sterling a tone of
sentiment marking them so distinctly as a product of our
modern Christian epoch that no one could suppose them
written by any poet of antiquity.

Lonely pilgrim through a sphere

Where thou only art alone,
Still thou hast thyself to fear,

And canst hope for help from none.

Andrew Marvell, the friend of Milton, and quite his mate
in soul, thus describes a noble character withdrawn into
his garden and musing there ; a character rich in mind
and heart, and avid of a quiet retreat aside from the busy
littlenesses of life :

Nor he the hills, without the groves,
Nor height, but with retirement, loves.
Meanwhile the mind from pleasure less
Withdraws into its happiness,
Annihilating all that 's made
To a green thought in a green shade.


Marvell, depicting the glory of Adam in Eden, thinks
there was one drawback to his bliss, namely, that he
had a comrade.

But 't was beyond a mortal's share
To wander solitary there :
Two paradises are in one
To live in paradise alone.

It is a touch of sentiment tinged with humorous satire
impossible to any writer of India, Egypt, Persia, Greece,
or Rome. There is an ineffable charm for the modern
heart in the picture of Paul and Virginia alone together
on their island. But the Philoctetes of Sophocles, the
classic Crusoe, ten years alone on desolate Lemnos,
listening to the lonely dash of the breakers, himself his
only neighbor, the cliffs echoing his groans, reveals the
horror the social Athenians had of solitude, and shows
by contrast the joy the sunny-hearted Greek took in the
society of his fellow-men. There is something grand in
the words of Gotama Buddha, as reported in the Dham-
mapadam : " If you can find no peer to travel with you,
then walk cheerfully on alone, your goal before, the world
behind : better alone with your own heart than with a
crowd of babblers." But how clear the difference between
the temper of ancient Buddhist isolation and the temper
of modern Christian isolation is when we compare with
the above sentence the following one by Martineau !
" Leave yourself awhile in utter solitude ; shut out all
thoughts of other men, yield up whatever intervenes,
though it be the thinnest film, between yourself and
God ; and in this absolute loneliness, the germ of a holy
society will of itself appear ; a temper of sympathy, trust-
ful and gentle, suffuses itself through the whole mind ;
though you have seen no one, you have met all, and are
girt for any errand of service that love may find."

The same reasons that make the feeling of loneliness
and moral wretchedness more frequent and strong in
modern times than it was before the Christian era, like-
wise make the achievement of a steady concord and
happiness more arduous to the man of exceptional sensi-
bility and ambition than it is to average men. Unhap-


pinesrf results when the imagination outruns the heart;
when great faculties have no correspondent desires to ani-
mate and use them ; also when great energies have no ade-
quate motives and guides. A man with tremendous oars,
but no rudder, will hardly reach the port : and one with
a tremendous rudder, but neither sail nor paddle, prom-
ises as poorly. Glorious talents and affections, placed in
a lot of harsh adversity, may prove little better than a
gold saddle on a galled back. The vaster one's percep-
tions and emotions are, the harder it is to adjust them to
one another. Genius wants a life as prolonged in time
and space as its own ideas and feelings of itself are in its
own imagination. Destiny says, " Why dost thou build
the hall, son of the winged days ? Thou lookest from
thy towers to-day. Yet a few years, and the blast of the
desert comes ; it howls in thy empty court, and whistles
round thy half-worn shield." And with pride of mourn-
ful resignation genius replies, " Let the blast of the
desert come ! We shall be renowned in our day." In
the light of the collective biography of the finer members
of our race we are almost tempted to say that it is as hard
for a man of ambitious and sensitive genius to be happy,
as it is, according to the Scripture, for a rich man to enter
the kingdom of heaven. Schopenhauer says, with affecting
eloquence, " The great thoughts and beautiful works given
to the genius by nature, and which he gives to the world,
lead his name through open halls into the temple of fame;
but his heart goes bleeding through the narrow gate of
self-denial into the eternal realm of peace." In many
nations, for many generations, hundreds of the choicest
spirits have been kept wretched by the despotism of their
rulers, the slavery of their country, the dire necessity of
suppressing their noblest energies, silencing their divinest
inspirations. The history of Italy, Spain, France, Austria,
Poland, Russia, teems with touching examples of this mis-
ery in the lives of artists, poets, historians, musicians, re-
publican patriots and nobles, who have been gagged, im-
prisoned, executed, or banished. This was ever so in a
degree. Firdousi, after heartless persecution at court, died
in poverty and in a foreign land. Ovid knew a kindred


fate. But it has been more common since the facilities of
the printing-press and of travel have made the communi-
cation of ideas and sentiments swifter, and more danger-
ous to tyranny. Genius, while it is the most resentful of
despotic interference, is the most likely to suffer it. For
conventional establishment looks on genius as its foe.
Of the few famous names in Slavonic literature, the
greater part have chafed bitterly under their censorship,
or openly rebelled and paid the penalty. Pushkin was
exiled, and fell in a duel at thirty-seven. Lermontoff,
who, at thirty, also fell in a duel, before he went into
exile wrote to a friend, " Heaven taught me to love ; men
teach me to hate." A cloud hung over his soul, like a
fog over the blue sea. He said, " My whole life has been
a series of gloomy and miserable contradictions to my
mind and my heart."

Senancour, in his Obermann, that melancholy and beau-
tiful epic of the heart, that breathing psychological picture
of the nineteenth century, has portrayed the spiritual sor-
row and pain of our time with inimitable courage and ful-
ness, and has prescribed the cure. The recital of his
experience of misery, and the account of the process by
which he achieved peace, are marvellously truthful, and
should be medicinal for similarly afflicted spirits. Senan-
cour chanted this mysterious monody of the unhappiness
of his soul unheard by his contemporaries. At that very
time the kindred sufferings of Rousseau, Goethe, Byron,
and Chateaubriand, had won an immense popularity. By
none of these was the tragedy of the soul treated with
such- depth of sentiment and wisdom as in Obermann.
Yet the author scarcely won a hearing.

Some secrets may the poet tell,

For the world loves new ways ;
To tell too deep ones is not well,

It knows not what he says.

Matthew Arnold, in one of the worthiest of poems, and
George Sand, in one of the weightiest of prefaces, have
effectively called attention to this neglected but fascinat-
ing book. Its final lesson of self-renouncirg adjust-


ment in the love of nature and the love of man, contains
a benign medicament for the wounds of thousands of
suffering hearts.

George Sand says that " the present period is signalized
by a multitude of moral maladies, unobserved before, con-
tagious and mortal now." The great centres of civilization
abound with souls of febrile intensity, overtasked by
enormous toils. " The springs of personal interest, the
powers of egoism, stretched beyond measure, have given
birth to monstrous vices and torments to which psycholo-
gy has as yet assigned no place in its annals." There
are the sufferings of desire deprived of power, the suffer-
ings of power deprived of desire, the sufferings of dis-
appointed passion baffled in its aims, and the sufferings of
disenchanted passion finding nothing worthy of its ef-
forts. Different types of these unhappy experiences are
set forth in Saint Preux, Faust, Manfred and Childe
Harold, solemn figures marked by a complete individ-
uality, profoundly discontented and imposingly solitary.
George Sand refers the chief examples of constitutional un-
happiness to these three causes. First, passion opposed in
its development ; that is, the struggle of man with circum-
stances. Second, the feeling of superior faculties, but
without force to make them available. Third, the con-
fessed feeling of incomplete and insufficient faculties.
These three orders of wretchedness are exemplified in
Goethe's Werther, Chateaubriand's Rene, and Senari-
cour's Obermann. Werther illustrates the indignant re-
action of lofty faculties, irritated and injured, revenging
his wrongs both on the world and on himself. Rene
illustrates genius without will. Obermann illustrates
moral superiority without genius, a morbid sensibility
without commensurate intellectual energy. Werther,
whose violent passion has sombrely divorced him from
the hopes of human life, says, I have nothing to live for ;
cruel world, farewell ! Rene says, If I could wish, I
could do ! Obermann says, Why should I wish ? I could
not do ! " Werther is the captive who would die suffo-
cated in his cage : Rene is the wounded eagle who reat-
tempts his flight ; Obermann is that bird of the cliffs to


whom nature has denied wings, and who sings his mild
and melancholy lay on the strands where ships depart and
wrecks return." The first finds a barrier everywhere; the
second finds satiety everywhere ; the third finds vacuity
everywhere. An excessive chafing against fate, a reverted
pride, and habitual apathy, and ineffectual aspiration,
respectively make them unhappy. Instead of using faith
and imagination to embellish life and aggrandize its aims,
they suffer experience to disenchant the world, strip so-
ciety of every charm, and throw them back upon the
revolving of their own thoughts and emotions in a soli-
tude full of pain.

Obermann is a romance of the soul, tracing in firm and
tender lines the evolution of an entire destiny, the
destiny of a nature extraordinarily pensive, expansive,
and susceptible, but feeble and indeterminate. The suc-
cessive phases through which this soul passes in the in-
crease and decrease of its pain, are dismay in presence
of the overwhelming claims of a society all whose parts
are too rude for it, idleness, nullity, confusion, sourness,
anger, doubt, enervation, fatigue, tranquillization, benev-
olence, material labor, repose, forgetfulness, sweet and
peaceful friendship. It is the course of a soul of power-
less reverie, of desires merely sketched in pale outline.
It is the frank confession of a soul avowing the incom-
pleteness of its faculties ; the touching and noble exhibi-
tion of a weakness which becomes serene and happy by
renunciation of the ambitions too mighty for it, and res-
ignation to the humble conditions fitted for it. Ceasing
to groan over the infinity between what he was and what
he longed to be, he resigned himself to be only what he
was Formerly he had cried, " I wish no more desires ;
they only deceive me. If hope flings a glimmer into the
surrounding night, it only announces the abyss in which
it fades : it only illumines the vastness of the void
in which I seek, and where I find nothing." Now, in
the last and well-contented phase of his experience, he
effaces all egoism, and, in the stillness of the Swiss
valleys, in the peaceful cares of pastoral life, in the satis-
factions of a reciprocated friendship, his days glide away,


until finite illusions are lost in the infinite reality. Feel-
ing keenly the invisible grandeur of his soul, but knowing
perfectly his inability to reveal or assert that grandeur, he
wisely renounces his exactions and gives himself quietly
up to a modest existence in the love of nature and the
love of his friend. This is the great lesson for the innu-
merable sore and restless spirits of our age, whose too
much ambition and too little wisdom, excessive sensibili-
ty and defective will, fill the air with secret sighs.

The true destiny of man is the fruition of the functions
of his being, the purest and fullest exercise of his facul-
ties, in their due order, in internal unity and in external
harmony. He should therefore seek to perfect himself in
the light of the great standards of truth, virtue, beauty,
humanity, and God ; and to be contented with himself as
reflected by these standards. To seek, instead of this, to
see himself flatteringly reflected in the estimation of other
people, in whose judgments these standards are often re-
fracted in broken distortions, is the sure way to wretched-
ness. He who aims at perfection, going out and up in
thought and feeling from his defects to its standards, will
be happy. He who aims at fame, coming down in
thought and feeling from his rich desires to the poor
facts, will be miserable. Happiness is the successful
pursuit of an aim. Perfection is the grandest of aims,
and the only one in which a continuous success is moral-
ly possible for all. The happiest of men are the saints
and mystics, in whom the social exactions of self are
lost in a fruition of the sublimest standard ; each wave
of force goes out and dies in ecstasy on a shoreless good.
But the selfish plotter feels each wave of force rise and
move inward to die, with egotistic disgust, of extinction in
the centre. Whoever would live contented and die happy
must not pursue public applause, but must give more
than is given him, and love without asking a return.

The chief cause of failure to lead a blessed life is
the immodesty of our demands, and their fitfulness.
Happiness cannot consist of orgasms. Few can expect
to win either the heart or the eye of the world. And the
constant effort to gratify exorbitant desires exhausts the


soul into a chronic state of setf-nauseated weariness in-
capable of enjoyment. Here the finger touches the very
disease of modern genius, the reason why a Teian Anac-
reon was so much happier than an Alfred de Musset.
The vast sphere opened for emotion, the thousand excit-
ing interests concentrated in a man of cosmopolitan intel-
ligence, wear his nerves to a feverish feebleness. His
divineness makes him dainty. The glare and stare of
noisy society become odious to him while they enslave
him. Monotony clothes the world and tedium fills the
day. Nothing is worth anything; an eternal spiritlessness
in the breast creates a universal tastelessness in life. He
falls into the melancholy habit of valuing the live hopes
of other people by his own dead ones. His soul frets
and pines in a sour solitude : for, when disgusted with
ourselves, we have most need, but are least able, to de-
light in others. This condition breeds a feeling of being
wronged, a bitter mood of complaint, a general depres-
sion and discord. Giusti says, " The habit of believing
ourselves to be unhappy leads us to accuse the order of
nature of injustice, makes us think ourselves solitary on
the earth, and ends by reducing us to a state of apathy
degrading to a man." Men of genius are more exposed
to this than others, because they are more likely to over-
exert their powers, and thus disturb the balance of the
nervous system. The incessant spin of activity in their
brains drains their force. Unwise as this course is it is
hard for them to avoid it ; and many a son of glory, by
losing his health in the acquisition of knowledge and
fame, is

Like one who doth on armor spend
The sums that armor should defend.

The one prescription for him who would be happy is,
Keep yourself in generous health. Nerves glowing with
vigor shed the miseries which irritable nerves invite.
Power easily surmounts obstacles to which feebleness
as easily succumbs. The king strides over hecatombs ;
the beggar stumbles at a crumb. A brain well maga-
zined with energy by a good digestion, will make be-
leaguring trials raise their siege. An undertoned state


of the nervous centres is the greatest predisposing cause
of unhappiness. It is often an important relief for one
to know that his wretchedness has this physical cause,
and is not the shadow of some ominous calamity. For
the preservation of a victorious health faithful care must
be taken to secure nutrition and rest. No one can stand
an uninterrupted drain, especially if it come in disturbing
shocks or in a chronic harassment. The more over-
worked and unstrung one is the harder it is for him to
get rest and nourishing refreshment, and the more likely
he is to neglect their claims. Poor Lenau, one of the
finest of the German poets, who makes his solitary Faust
climb a mountain in a dripping fog, and sigh, " Ah, that
my doubts might melt and run off as these mists ! "
poor Lenau, whose extreme mental labor and worry
reduced him to a dyspeptic and wretched moral state,
could not stop his over-action ; would eat nothing but
tidbits, cake, and candy : and the cerebral impoverish-
ment that resulted filled him with weeping agony, and
he ended his days, a most pitiable object, in an asylum for
the insane. Proper rest and nutriment would have avert-
ed his misery and saved his life.

Pleasing thoughts, faith, affection, serene self-sur-
render, are helps for the assimilation of strength. Painful
thoughts, doubt, fear, hate, pride, are a great source of
spiritual waste. To fine souls emotions are as costly
as deeds. A feeling may draw off as much as a con-
vulsion. Hardly any one appreciates the effect which
his modes of thought have on his health and strength.
Pierce a butterfly with a pin and fasten him to the
wall, and he will flutter till his ganglia are emptied
of force and he is dead. Every dissatisfying fixed idea
is such a disastrous pin. The idea that truth is unattaina-
ble, the idea that you are wronged and undervalued, the
idea that the world is worthless and full of misery, the
idea that human nature is false and contemptible, the idea
that history is no benignant plan, but a frightful chaos
of chances, every such painful fixed idea is a probe,
pinning the soul against the wall of self-consciousness,
and keeping up the wasteful flutter of its forces. These


Online LibraryWilliam Rounseville AlgerThe solitudes of nature and of man; or, The loneliness of human life → online text (page 34 of 35)