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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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race ? "

The ideal dependence of man on his race, even in the
extremest instances of withdrawal, has been forcibly ex-
pressed by Isaac Taylor in his masterly treatise on Fanat-
icism : " Nothing appears too great, sometimes, to be
grasped by the conceits of self-importance ; nothing too
big for the stomach of vanity ; and yet it is found that
the imagination refuses to yield itself, except for a mo-



100 THE MORALS OF SOLITUDE.

ment, or in a very limited degree, to those excitements
that are drawn from the solitary bosom of the individual.
Man, much as he may boast himself, is by far too poor at
home to maintain the expense of his own splendid con-
ceptions of personal greatness. Only let some breath-
less messenger reach the cavern of the hermit, and an-
nounce to him that his love of solitude was at length
effectively sealed by the utter extinction of the human
race, solitude, from that instant, would not merely lose
its fancied charms, but would become terrible and insuf-
ferable ; and this man of seclusion, starting like a maniac
from his wilderness, would run round the world in search
if haply it might be of some straggling survivors
No conception much more appalling can be entertained
than that of a proud demi-god, who, finding within his
own bosom an expanse of greatness wherein he could
take ample sweep, and incessantly delight himself, should
start off from the populous universe, and dwell content
in the centre of an eternal solitude."

With the ordinary man the four great units self,
mankind, the material universe or nature, and the intel-
lectual universe or God are obscurely outlined, con-
fused, with vague and feeble reactions. In the mind of
the man of genius these four units are sharply defined
from each other, with distinct and intense reactions. For
health and peace it is necessary that the relations of these
units to each other be truly apprehended and observed.
Any discord or insubordination here is sure to breed
morbidity and wretchedness.

The jarring of the individual with the whole is so sad
and common a disease, the revulsion from the world into
a painful and angry solitude is exhibited in the experience
of so many superior persons, that the whole subject of its
causes, bearings, and cure, deserves careful consideration.
The more so as the disease usually passes by the cold
and shallow to fasten on those of warm hearts and rich
minds. The greatest number of isolated and resentful
flingers at the world will be found to be those who first
went out to the world with the most impulsive affection
and soaring enthusiasm. Disappointment, disgust, and



THE DANGERS OF SOLITUDE. IOI

pride made such a man of Hazlitt, whose quarrelsome
humor and fierce contempt caused most of his acquaint-
ances to regard him as a mere misanthrope, but of whom
Charles Lamb says, "I wish he would not quarrel with
the world at the rate he does ; but, judging him by his
conversation, which I enjoyed so long, and relished so
deeply, or by his books, in those places where no cloud-
ing passion intervenes, I should belie my own conscience
if I said less than that I think him to be, in his natural
and healthy state, one of the wisest and finest spirits
breathing ; and I think I shall go to my grave without
finding, or expecting to find, such another companion."
The founder of the Christian religion propounds as
one half of his system of duty the commandment, "Thou
shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." Interpreting these
words either according to their grammatical and logical
force, or according to the laws of a scientific morality,
we must suppose the term as to refer to kind and not to de 7
gree : thou shalt feel towards him in the same way, though
not to the same extent, as towards thyself. It is impos-
sible for each man to love all men with the same inten-
sity that he loves himself, though he may love them in
the same manner. Besides, were it possible for each
one to love his fellows in exactly the same degree as he
loves himself, it would be fatal. The divine plan of
having each one look out first and chiefly for himself, is
the only plan that could work. Each one has the most
intimate knowledge of his own wants, is best fitted to
supply and defend himself. Give to every one an inter-
est in the welfare of all others as keen and massive as
that he feels in his own, and the exactions it would make
on him would exhaust his powers, and utterly break him
down in futile efforts to respond to their claims. Were
philanthropy universally as strong as self-love, it would
be necessary to legislate against it, invoke public opinion
against it, conventionally enact penalties against disinter-
estedness, and rewards for selfishness, in order to protect
the whole of society by the preservation of the separate
individuals who compose it. Each primarily for himself,
secondarily for a, 1 !, is the necessary method of nature.



102 THE MORALS OF SOLITUDE.

But there is a strong tendency in man, a tendency
inherited from the conditions of a barbaric past, for
the individual, instead of balancing his love of self with
a love for others as much greater in diffusion as it is
feebler in degree, to balance it with a general hatred for
others, as hostile rivals striving for the goods he wishes
to monopolize. There is in unregenerate man a natural
motion to regard his fellows as enemies in the scramble
for the fruitions of life ; to turn from them with aversion,
and wish them injury, as though their successes were so
much taken from him. It is against this malign tendency
that the sublime precept of Jesus finds its application.
It is the duty of each to exercise towards his fellow men
the same kind of feelings which he directs upon himself.
He may not love, forgive, protect them as much as he
does himself, but he ought to as sincerely. Instead of
inverting the self-regarding feelings by antipathy into
animosity towards others, he ought by sympathy to reflect
those feelings over them, unaltered in kind if thinner and
paler in vigor.

It is actually impossible, then, and, if possible, would
be ruinous, for us to feel in detail the same degree of in-
terest and affection for the bulk of mankind that we do
for ourselves, though we may feel towards them in the
same mode ; and there are grand generalities of human
beings or human interests for which we can joyously sac-
rifice our lives. However instinctive it may be, it is
wicked to have one set of feelings for ourselves, and an
opposite for our brethren. This is the fundamental law
of morality, and with its fulfilment are bound up both the
happiness of the individual and the well-being of the
whole. The violation of this law is more prolific of lone-
liness and misery than any other cause. It is written in
one of the ancient sagas of the North, " The tree which
stands within the village, deprived of its sheltering fel-
lows, droops and fades away ; so it is with the man whom
no one loves ; why should he live long ? "

There are many misanthropes in the world, made such
by different influences ; and they are all, so far forth, iso-
lated and wretched. Some are made misanthropes, sin-



THE DANGERS OF SOLITUDE. 103

gular as it may seem, by too much tenderness of heart.
Their fine, rich, clinging, modest natures want more sym-
pathy than the coarse and careless crowd can give them.
Sometimes they crave appreciating respect and kindness
so strongly, and, in their neglected state, feel so certain of
securing what they desire, if they can only gain an inter-
ested attention, that they importunately display to chosen
ones their treasures and claims ; as much as to say, " See
here, how I love all noble things, my country, my kind,
truth, virtue, beauty. Deign to notice the proofs of a mind
not poor or vulgar, a heart soft and expansive. Feel to-
wards me as I deserve and want, and there shall be no
bounds to my profiting gratitude." Every generous soul
will feel more disposed to pity the pain that underlies
such an experience, love the sympathy that so needs re-
lief, and admire the ingenuousness that dares thus unveil
itself, than to despise it as vanity or hate it as conceit.
Yet the latter is the more common treatment it receives.
It is not strange that many a grieved spirit, after such cruel
misinterpretation, retires into himself apart from the public
course, as a fawn who, venturing near a nest of hornets,
has been stung, bounds back to the friendly coverts of
lake and forest, surprised, terrified, smarting. It is but
too natural that he should then feel, as Chateaubriand
says, " Why should we open our hearts to the world ? It
laughs at our weaknesses ; it does not believe in our vir-
tues ; it does not pity our sorrows." Of all the solitudes
in society there is no other so deep and fatal as the soli-
tude of those who love too much and desire too much.
The occupants of that solitude, unless their tempers have
a saintly quality, are apt to be exasperated to acrid re-
turns. Wordsworth gives a forcible description of such
an experience in the case of one who owned no common
soul and had grown up in lofty hopes.

He to the world went forth,
A favored being, knowing no desire
Which genius did not hallow : 'gainst the taint
Of dissolute tongues, and jealousy, and hate,
And scorn, against all enemies prepared,
All but neglect. The world, for so it thought;



IO4 THE MORALS OF SOLITUDE.

Owed him no service ; wherefore he at once
With indignation turned himself away,
And with the food of pride sustained his soul
In solitude.

The one eternal want of man is to feel himself reflected
in the souls of his brethren. If too great a quantity and
too high a quality of sensibility, render him too unlike his
neighbors, his desires are constantly disappointed, and he
is in danger of disliking men, because they hurt him.
The following lines are a revelation from the heart of
poor Gerald Griffin, the Irish novelist. The lines are
obviously morbidly sentimental ; but in their genuineness
they are touching to a gentle spirit, who will respond to
them with grieving sympathy, and deem it inhuman to
sneer at the experience they express.

I would I were the lonely breeze
That mourns among the leafless trees,
That I might sigh from morn till night
O'er vanished peace and lost delight

I would I were the murmuring shower
That falls in spring on leaf and flower,
That I might weep the live-long day
For erring man and hope's decay.

It is impossible that such a spirit should be otherwise
than solitary amidst the hard hearts that make up the
majority of the world. He says, describing the life he
led, " I used not to see a face that I knew, and after writ-
ing all day, when I walked the streets in the evening, it
actually seemed to me as if I were of a different species
from the people about me."

Men of this temperament are easily induced to with-
draw from social scenes in grief and despair, and shut
themselves up in such protecting seclusions as they can
find or make. An extract from the diary of John Fos-
ter who certainly was no weakling betrays such an
experience. "I can never become deeply important to
any one ; and the unsuccessful effort to become so costs
too much in the painful sentiment which the affections
feel when they return mortified from the fervent attempt
to give themselves to some heart which would welcome



THE DANGERS OF SOLITUDE. IO^

them with a pathetic warmth. My heart then shuts itself
up and feels a painful chill. I am glad to be gone tc
indulge alone my musings of regret and insulation.' 1
Even the noble Schiller sank for a time into a state of
dislijdng sourness towards his kind. " I had clasped ths
world," he says, "with the most glowing emotions, and
found a lump of ice in my embrace." He then proposed
to translate Shakespeare's Timon, affirming that no
other piece spoke so eloquently to his heart or taught
him so much of the science of life. Bulwer a little exag-
geratedly remarks, in allusion to this unhappy passage in
the life of Schiller, " It is a state common to all good
men in proportion to their original affection for their
species. No man ever was, in reality, a misanthrope,
but from too high an opinion of mankind, and too keen a
perception of ideal virtue."

The touchstone of actual intercourse, too often and rude-
ly applied to natures under the sway of their own ideal
creations and demands, is cruel in its effects. Those
whose imaginative sensitiveness disqualifies them for
comfort in the cold contact of reality, may sometimes
wholesomely retreat from an intercourse unsuited for
them ; but they must take especial care not to be embit-
tered so as to regard their fellow beings with contempt
or rancor. That would only aggravate the evil they
surfer. Vain and foolish is it likewise to utter lamenta-
tions or blames to the world. Motenebbi, the great
Arabic poet, says, " Complain not of thy woes to the
public ; they will no more pity thee than birds of prey
pity the wounded deer." There is but one medicinal
refuge for him who flees from his fellow men because
they wound his too tender heart ; and that is a solitude
in which he can brood over them in imaginative sympa-
thy. If his imagination be filled with scorn and hate,
melancholy and dark indeed is his doom. Goethe, who
seems to have experienced almost everything, has de-
picted this loneliness in his Harz Journey in Winter.
"But who is this, apart? His path vanishes in the
bushes, the twigs close behind him, the grass rises again,
the desert swallows him. Ah, who can heal the pains of



106 THE MORALS OF SOLITUDE.

him to whom balsam has become poison ? who out of the
fulness of love drinks misanthropy ? First despised, now
a despiser, he secretly devours his own worth in discon-
tented self-seeking."

In addition to those who have become misanthropic
by revulsion from a world wherein their affection fails
to grasp what it reaches after, there is a class of a darker
and intenser type composed of men who have been de-
ceived and abused by those in whom they trusted, or
persecuted and wronged by those whose favor they
sought. Their personal experience of. the tricks, plots,
and cabals of mean men, of the slanders and hate of en-
vious inferiors and malignant rivals, of the petty stings
of critics, has disenchanted them of their early illusions
and led them to form an estimate of humanity as much too
base as their original estimate was too exalted. Timon
is the representative of these ; the noble Timon, who
"the middle of humanity never knew, but both ends,"
whose final relenting before the good Flavius, showed
that his nature, " sick of man's unkindness, was yet
hungry." Sir Samuel Egerton Brydges, defeated in a
suit which he brought for a noble title, a claim which
all but himself thought purely fanciful, was so soured
and envenomed by a perpetual brooding over his great
wrong, that he retreated into a haughty exile and solitude,
and became almost a monomaniac as well as misan-
thrope. This is to make the mistake of confounding the
whole species with the worst specimens that belong to it,
instead of carefully discriminating, so as to keep our
reverence for the good and high unharmed in the pres-
ence of the low and contemptible. Sometimes one who
begins with hating men because he has himself been dis-
appointed and ill-treated by them, goes on to hate them
because he believes them intrinsically bad. He forms
this perverse belief by putting on all men the stamp of
the bad men he has known. He should reverse the
procedure. The ideal type of the race, as divinely fair
and good, affixed even to individuals who injure us,
makes it possible for us to love them. But an ideal type
of individuals, as foul and bad, affixed by transference to



THE DANGERS OF SOLITUDE. 1 07

the "race, breeds a universal disgust and rancor. The
data for forming the typical idea of man are the cardinal
elements of our nature, the great principles of morality,
the choice qualities of our parents and friends, the chai-
acters of the illustrious exemplars in history, the noblest
representations in literature, and the best experiences of
our own hearts. No single tyrannous experience or
person should be allowed to mould it ; and all malignant
infiltrations from foes or from our own depravity should
be kept out of it. The typical idea unconsciously affixed
to individuals or the race is what principally determines
the blessedness or the misery of our relations with our
fellow men. Be that idea exalted to its best, as it was in
Channing, and all history becomes a honey-pasturage for
our thought. Be it debased to its worst, as it was in
Schopenhauer, and the whole world becomes the forage
of our spleen.

But, however natural it may be to do so, there is no
justification for those who, when wronged, turn against
mankind with retaliating animosity. They are guilty of
both folly and sin in retorting hate on the level of those
who have injured them, instead of rising above them in
serene devotion to the great ends of existence, truth,
virtue, faith, God. How much better to look down from
this height on the ignoble, with a divine tenderness of
pity, than to fall in rancorous revengefulness to their
range. Every truly wise and good man, though he may
sometimes fail, will always aim at this, a mood of bland
and magnanimous benignity towards the most unculti-
vated, the most degraded, the most unjust and unkind.
The effort will often try him, but he is bound to perse-
vere till he conquers every impulse of arrogance. Sir
Walter Scott, in his pecuniary troubles, faced the igno-
rant and cruel rabble at the court house of Jedburgh, held
his great loving heart down, and calmly braved their
hootings. Agonized by this outrageous injustice heaped
on his misfortunes, with a fore-feeling of his doom of
mental decay and speedy death, he addressed to them,
as he sadly turned away, the words the fallen gladiator
in the Coliseum was accustomed to address to Caesar,



108 THE MORALS OF SOLITUDE.

Moriturus vos saluto I Ah, brave Sir Walter, noble,
tender and true, even in response to the heartless injus-
tice of thine inferiors !

It is beautiful to study the examples set by many great
men, of magnanimous forbearance and sweetness in the
face of aggravated wrongs. Anaxagoras, the friend of
Euripides and Pericles, by his bold philosophical teach-
ings, offended the superstitious crowd, and more than
once came near being condemned to death. At length
he was exiled to Lampsacus. When some one there
pitied him that he was deprived of Athens, he proudly
replied, il Rather Athens is deprived of me." The citi-
zens asking him on his death-bed what honors they
should pay to his memory, he said, "Let the anniver-
sary of my death be kept as a holiday by the school
children." And it was so. Phocion bore himself with
imposing dignity and serenity before the frenzied mob,
who refused to grant him a hearing, and clamored for
his death. Asked what message he would like carried
to his son, he answered, " That he bear no grudge
against the Athenians." No one can forget how Aris-
tides wrote his own name on the shell, that the vulgar
wretch who was tired of hearing him called the just,
might vote for his banishment. When Harvey's book
on the Circulation of the Blood came out, " he fell
mightily in his practice. It was believed by the vulgar
that he was crack-brained ; and all the physicians were
against him, and envied him." After describing how
much abuse he had suffered, Harvey adds : " But I
think it a thing unworthy of a philosopher and a searcher
of the truth to return bad words for bad words ; and I
think I shall do better and more advised, if, with the
light of true and evident observations, I shall wipe away
those symptoms of incivility."

Another class of misanthropes is made up of persons
naturally of a savage temper, who bitterly envy others
their advantages, but have neither sympathy with their
feelings nor interest in their pursuits ; meagre and icy
hearts, born under the Wormwood Star. Their own mean
and fierce characters, seen in themselves, are prevented



THE DANGERS OF SOLITUDE. 1 09

by self-love from appearing detestable ; but forming out
of their own feelings and conduct their idea of other men,
they recognize its detestableness, as seen in them, and are
filled with hatred of it. So the ugly mastiff, seeing him-
self in a mirror, takes the reflection for another dog, and
flies at him in a rage. Such men instinctively hold them-
selves aloof from the hearths and bosoms of their kind,
cynically sneering at their sentiments, their aims, their
doings, their joys and their miseries. This is the surliest
and most repulsive, as it is the smallest, class of men-
haters. Its type is energetically set forth by Shakespeare
in Apemantus, the fierce low cur who was

Set so only to himself,

That nothing but himself which looked like man,
Was friendly with him.

The doctrine of total depravity, as held by Calvin, legit-
imately nourishes a terrible misanthropy. Any one who
holds this theory in vital consistency, that all men are
naturally utter haters of good, and lovers of evil, detest-
ing God and detested by God, must become a virtual
misanthrope, and desire to escape from the scene of such
a demoniac race. Isaac Taylor has shown, in his pro-
found and terrible analysis of fanaticism, that a rancorous
contempt or hatred for the mass of mankind is the appro-
priate sentiment of him who regards them as religiously
cursed and abominable. " There is a combination of the
religious sentiments with the passionate workings of self-
love, pride, jealousy, and the sense of personal and cor-
porate welfare, which brings with it the most peculiar and
virulent species of misanthropy known to the human
bosom ; and an arrogance that far transcends other kinds
of aristocratic pride. With an anathematizing Deity, an
anathematized world, and himself safe in the heart of the
only Church, the zealot wants nothing that can render
him malign and insolent."

But the largest class of misanthropes consists of the
lofty men who are repelled and angered by the frivolity
of average society. Turning from their own schemes of
advancement and usefulness, their own enthusiasm and



110 THE MORALS OF SOLITUDE.

industry, to the pestering jealousies, littlenesses, sloths of
the multitude, the spectacle fills them with pity and scorn.
Accordingly a marked characteristic of most of the great
men who have left an impression of themselves in litera-
ture, or whose spiritual portraits have been truly drawn
for us, is the superb feeling they have had of their own
superiority to the crowd. Dante said,

To their babblings leave
The crowd : be as a tower that, firmly set,
Shakes not its top for any blast that blows.

Michael Angelo said, " 111 hath he chosen his part who
seeks to please the worthless world." Milton calls the
early history of Britain "a mere battle of kites and crows."
Carlyle entitles the population of Great Britain " twenty-
seven millions, mostly fools"; characterizes the Americans,
from the few specimens who visited him, as " eighteen
million bores"; and generally speaks of all great masses
of men in a tone of supreme contempt. Walter Savage
Landor uses a host of similar expressions, and adds the
original remark, which well shows how deeply the sore-
ness had penetrated his noble mind, that "there is now
no great man in existence." Even the kindly Emerson
illustrates the temptation of the great to scorn the com-
monalty, when he speaks of "enormous populations, like
moving cheese, the more, the worse " ; " the guano-
races of mankind " ; " the worst of charity is, that the
lives you are asked to preserve are not worth preserv-
ing " ; " masses ! the calamity is the masses ; I do not
wish any shovel-handed, narrow-brained, gin-drinking mass"
at all." The influence of such phrases is unhappy. They
betray in their use an absence of that sympathy which
goes downward for the purpose of lifting upward. They
betray that proud aspiration which uses the thought of in-
feriors as a footboard wherefrom to bound into an ag-
gravation of its own superiority. How much better the
precept of Paul, " Honor all men ! " How much diviner
the sentiment of Channing, " I recognize God even in the
lowest man ! " An American lecturer is reported to have
said, " Ever}' Irishman who lands on our coast is a



THE DANGERS OF SOLITUDE. Ill

wheelbarrow-load of guano for a Western prairie." The ab-
sence of sympathy in such an utterance is shocking. The
body of the daintiest philosopher is certainly fashioned



Online LibraryWilliam Rounseville AlgerThe solitudes of nature and of man; or, The loneliness of human life → online text (page 8 of 35)