William Rounseville Alger.

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

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of the same substance, and destined to the same end, as
that of his least advanced brother. The cultivated thinker,
from his height of scholarship and refinement, has no
right to express any sentiment towards his inferior except
sentiments of compassion and magnanimous desire to ele-
vate him. To fling down a bolt of scorn to beat him yet
lower is to show not the spirit of a good man. Contempt
for the plebeian majority, whom Thiers calls "the vile
multitude," is too easy and common in aristocratic minds,
and too pernicious, to need to be expressed in the writ-
ings of men of genius.

When men of genius have been poor and unappreci-
ated in their time, suspected and hunted by their con-
temporaries, this feeling has often easily kindled into
flaming dislike or curdled into acrid disgust. Then the
pride which underlies the genius of such persons leads
them to seek by every means to emphasize their unlike-
ness from other people, to intensify their abhorrence
of being confounded with the throng they consider so
despicable. Whatever exhibits their unlikeness they
prize as also showing their superiority. They affect to
despise what others admire, and to admire what others
despise. Their misanthropy is at bottom the resent-
ment of wounded pride joined with injured affection.
If it were pride alone, they would stay indifferently
among men ; but the hurt affection makes them flee
into solitude to hide their anguish and thicken their
armor. Vanity is the vice of the social ; but pride is
the vice of the recluse, and is by much the less amiable
of the two. In the man of vanity the idea of self ex-
pands or contracts according to its fancied dimensions
in the opinion of others. In the man of pride the idea
of self grows from its own centre, and maintains itself
independently of the opinion of others. Vanity acts
piecemeal, like fancy ; pride, in the mass, like imagina-
tion. That is acute and fickle ; this, chronic and weighty.
The wounds of mortified vanity are easily healed ; you


have only to reflect its own estimate of itself, and it is
soothed and pleased. But the wounds of offended pride
are almost incurable. The reflection of it in any less
glory than it is accustomed to envelop itself in, it re-
sents with lasting anger as an insulting and deadly
wrong. Against the chilling and killing effects of such
a demeaning estimate it seeks to protect itself by all pos-
sible arts. Unhappily the most easy and the most
effective of these resources is to aggrandize itself in a
palace of pride reared on contempt for others. The
man who despises all his race as selfish and sordid must
be excessively depraved or excessively proud ; for he
either reflects himself over them or contrasts himself
with them. It is really curious how instinctively the
lonely seek to solace themselves for their unlikeness to
the crowd, and for their sorrowful isolation, with consid-
erations that minister to their pride. Pope adjures some
god quickly to bear him to solitude,

Where contemplation prunes her ruffled wings,
And the freed soul looks down to pity kings I

They are fond of dwelling on such aphorisms as " the
best is always in a minority of one," each latently or
patently feeling himself to be that one. Thomas Taylor,
the fanatically solitary platonist, who by a great mistake
was born in the Christian era, bitterly denounces " the
attempt to educate the vulgar," as calculated " to disor-
ganize society by making them discontented with the
servile situations for which they are meant." Even un-
hurting Coleridge complacently speaks of " the plebifica-
tion of knowledge," and says, " I could write a treatise
in praise of the moral elevation of Rabelais that woulJ
make the Church stare and the Conventicle groan."

Men of the greatest powers of thought and feeling
instinctively insist on reality and justice, and are dis-
tressed at every violation of these by hypocrisy and pre-
tence. They must have men and things judged by the
intrinsic standards of truth and right. But they soon
learn that in ordinary society men and things are riot
esteemed for what they are, but for what they seem, 01


are reputed. Appearance and interest are constantly
put above desert. The current test is not, How power-
fully can a man think ? how purely feel ? how nobly act ?
not, What is he in himself? but, What is thought of him ?
what is his position ? how much space does he occupy in
the public eye? They are pained at discovering the
worthlessness of the thin and cold regard which is all
that most men at the best will give them. They are
grieved to find how mistaken they were in attributing to
the crowd the same reverential and glowing affection
which they themselves feel towards the illustrious bene-
factors of the world ; for the vulgar take delight in seeing
that the feet of great men are as low as their own, rather
than in seeing that their heads are higher. They are
shocked to perceive the common insincerity of profes-
sions of attachment in social circles, the private hate and
indifference often really existing between those who in
public appear to be friends. They are disgusted with
the obsequiousness and servility of the world before
success :

This common body,
Like a vagabond flag upon the stream,
Goes to and back, lackeying the varying tide.

No wonder the chivalrous Chateaubriand was sickened
by the fulsome time-servingness of the successive French
gazettes, when Bonaparte had sailed from Elba : " The
monster has escaped ! " " The army has declared for
Napoleon ! " " The Emperor is within three hours of
Paris ! " The indignant revulsion of a noble nature from
this cringing and fawning is seen in the anecdote of the
high-souled Persian poet, Saadi. When a friend had
been raised to office, and his acquaintances flocked to
felicitate him, Saadi stayed away, saying, " I shall go to
see him when his office expires ; sure then to go alone."
The delicacy of sensibility and taste belonging to gen-
ius, the range through which its powers are able to reach
and draw inspiring motives, the tenacity of its sympa-
thies and purposes, and the penetrating earnestness of
its demand for conduct of steady sincerity in accordance
with the facts, all four of these qualities set its pos-


sessors in distinction, not to say opposition, to the crowd)
who are. in comparison, insensible in their nerves, un-
clean in their habits, low in their admirations and desires,
frivolous and fickle in their attachments, conventional in
their judgments, and servile or insolent in their manners
When we understand the nobleness of Tiberius Grac-
chus it makes our hearts bleed to see him left to be mur-
dered by the selfish mob in the Senate-house, a martyr
for the oppressed and poor among his countrymen. Ju-
venal, in one of his fearful satires, inveighs against the
Roman populace for the shallow ferocity with which they
turned against the favorite Sejanus the moment his im-
perial master darkened on him :

This is e'er the base practice pursued by the throng ;
Men who ask nothing, heed nothing, seek right nor wrong,
But impulsively trample the man who is down ;
'T is a fool who would value their smile or their frown.

Well might Petrarch sigh over the sign made by his
favorite hero, Scipio Africanus, when, in exile at Liternum,
he had his tomb built with the words Ingrata Patria in-
scribed on its front. The illustrious patriots of Holland,
the noble brothers John and Cornelius de Witt, after all
their services, dragged out and massacred in the streets,
and their corpses, in a state of horrible mutilation, sus-
pended to the gallows, are a cruel example of the blind
brutality of the populace. A thousand powerful expres-
sions of revulsion from the reeking vulgarities of the mob,
from their cruel injustice, from their unprincipled fawn-
ing, are familiar to us from the mouths or the pens of
lofty and lonely men, who have now sorrowfully, now
bitterly, denounced the multitude as a "many-headed
monster," " sweaty citizens," " base and greasy crowd,"
whose opinion and love are " no surer than is the coal
of fire upon the ice, or hailstone in the sun."

Who deserves greatness
Deserves your hate ; and your affections are
A sick man's appetite, who desires most that
Which would increase his evil. He that depends
Upon your favors swims with fins of lead,
And hews down oaks with rushes. Hang ye ! trust ye?
With every minute you do change a mind,
And call him noble that was now your hate,
Him vile that was your garland.


Vulgar natures almost invariably affect to look down
on their superiors. They are conscious of the difference,
and interpret the difference as their own advantage. The
mechanical holders by tradition consider the prophetic
masters by original insight, heretics and inferiors. Dante
was accused of impiety, because he broke the basin in
the Florentine Baptistery to save a child who had fallen
into it and was drowning ; the idolaters of the letter
thought Lessing an infidel, and the mummers of a for-
mula called Spinoza an atheist.

The foolish can amuse and indirectly instruct the wise :
the wise are irksome to the foolish. For these have
only their own faculties and attainments wherewith to
measure the faculties and attainments of those ; that
which transcends or baffles their comprehension rebukes
and irritates them, hurts their self-love, and they take
vengeance on it by regarding it with hate and affected
contempt. It is a fearful wrong, a sort of blasphemy of
the Holy Ghost ; but it is natural, almost inevitable.
The ducks believe the swan that chances among them,
an uglier duck. Genius, ridiculed and despised by un-
feeling mediocrity, if too modest, sinks in shame and
agony ; if strong enough, supports itself by a rallying
indignation. Only the rarest saintliness can enable great
men to see themselves thus outrageously misvalued and
scorned by little men, and yet preserve a sweet serenity,
rising divinely superior to any heed of the injury.

We have seen, then, that while the crowd are unrefined,
superficial, ignoble, and unstable, the man of sensitive
genius is pure, profound, magnanimous, and wishes to
become ever more divinely rooted and constant in char-
acter. As he mixes with the crowd he is exposed to a
tendency to become like them, to be frittered and
dragged down to their likeness and level. He knows
that no one ever attained to supreme excellence in any
art without, in the phrase of Pope, "an inveterate resolu-
tion against the stream of mankind." Therefore he has
an instinct to shrink from them, to guard himself from all
deteriorating sympathies with them. Thus to guard
himself from their degrading influence is his duty ; but


in doing it, it is both his highest duty and interest not to
hate or despise them. Their nature, as exemplified in
its best specimens, is mysteriously beautiful and great, a
divine manifestation ; and his own destiny is ideally bound
up with theirs beyond the possibility of a real separation.
Therefore, in order to honor their Parent, God, in order
to bless and help them, and in order to secure his own
peace and health of mind, the exceptional man of genius
should cherish the utmost respect and kindness for the
plebeian mass of his race, a patient tolerance born of
magnanimity, and a placid love born of pity, but no
egotistic hate, no rancorous scorn, no pharisaic seclusion.

To fly from, need not be to hate, mankind :
All are not fit with them to stir and toil ;
Nor is it discontent to keep the mind
Deep in its fountain, lest it overboil
In the hot throng, where we become the spoil
Of our infection.

Nothing can be more unchristian, to a thoughtful mind
more inexcusable, than the swollen haughtiness of Corio-
lanus towards the crowd of his fellow citizens. When
they banish him he exclaims,

You common cry of curs ! whose breath I hate
As reek o' the rotten fens, whose loves I prize
As the dead carcasses of uuburied men
That do corrupt my air, I banish you.

The disposition of sympathy indicated in these words is
awful. The greatest men, who have sweet and gentle
spirits, will shrink with horror from such a strain of turgid
insolence. There is a true and beautiful tone in the sen-
timent of George MacDonald : "Despise a man, and you
become of the kind you would make him : love him, and
you lift him into yours." Yet the chasm that yawns be-
tween the extremes of human character and attainment,
or even between the best specimens and average speci-
mens, cannot be denied. Mrs. Hemans once said,
"Life has few companions for the delicate-minded." Old
Elwes, on hearing an unfortunate man ask for sympathy
in his calamities, turned on him gruffly, " What do you


\vant sympachy for ? I never want anybody to sympathize
with me/" The distance between the poetess and the
miser is as great as the difference between a bird of para-
dise and a grizzly bear.

A frequent motive for retreating from miscellaneous
society is to escape from the pain of conflict or partner-
ship with the mob of backbiters and quarrellers. Sir
Walter Scott says, " It requires no depth of philosophic
reflection to perceive that the petty warfare of Pope with
the dunces of his period could not have been carried on
without his suffering the most acute torture, such as a
man must endure from mosquitos, by whose stings he
suffers agony although he can crush them in his grasp by
myriads." It is the sorest trial of the man of a great and
loving spirit to be forced into contention with envious de-
tractors. It ought not to surprise us that he sometimes
impatiently exclaims, as the magnanimous and unworldly
Shelley exclaimed, ' How can I run the gauntlet further
through this hellish society of men " ; that he sometimes
cries, as the tender Tennyson haughtily cries,

Be mine a philosopher's life in the quiet woodland ways,
Where if I cannot be gay let a passionless peace be my lot,
Far off from the clamor of liars belied in the hubbub of lies ;
From the long-necked geese of the world that are ever hissing dis-

Because their natures are little, and, whether he heed it or not,
Where each man walks with his head in a cloud of poisonous flies.

What a man of large mind and liberal temper, who is im-
partial in thought and sentiment towards all, has to suffer
from the pestilential littleness of partisans and bigots is
forcibly described in the following extract from a letter by
Robertson of Brighton, in which he refers to a criticism
on himself.

" I could not help smiling good-humoredly at the writ-
er's utter misconception of my aims, views, and position.
If he think that what he calls a philosophic height above
contending parties is a position which any man can select
for his own comfort and retirement, he miscalculates
greatly. If he suppose that the desire to discern the
'soul of goodness in things evil,' to recognize the truth


which lies at the root of error, and to assimilate the good
in all sects and all men rather than magnify the evil, is a
plan which will conciliate the regard of all, secure a man's
own peace, ' and of course bring with it great popularity
with the multitude/ I can earnestly assure the writer that,
whenever he will try the experiment, he will find out his
mistake. He will, perhaps, then see a new light reflected
upon the expression, ' when I speak of peace, they make
them ready for the battle.' He will find himself, to his
painful surprise, charged on the one side, for his earnest-
ness, with heresy, and on the other, for his charity, with
latitudinarianism. His desire to exalt the spirit will be
construed into irreverence for the letter, his setting light
by maxims into a want of zeal for principles, his distinc-
tion between rules and spirit into lawlessness. He will
find his attempt to love men, and his yearnings for their
sympathy, met by suspicions of his motives and malig-
nant slanders upon his life ; his passionate desire to reach
ideas instead of words, and get to the root of what men
mean, he will find treated, even by those who think that
they are candid, as the gratification of a literary taste and
the affectation of a philosophic height above the strife of
human existence. I would not recommend him to try
that ' philosophic height,' which he thinks so self-indul-
gent, unless he has the hardihood to face the keenest
winds that blow over all lonely places, whether lonely
heights or lonely flats. If he can steel his heart against
distrust and suspicion, if he can dare to be pronounced
dangerous by the ignorant, hinted at by his brethren in
public and warned against in private ; if he can resolve
to be struck on every side and not strike again, giving all
quarter and asking none ; if he can struggle in the dark,
with the prayer for light of Ajax on his lips, in silence
and alone, then let him adopt the line which seems so
easy, and be fair and generous and chivalrous to all
But if he expects from it, ' of course considerable self-
applause and great popularity with the multitude,' I can
tell him they are not the rewards of that path. Rather
let him be content to remain a partisan, and call himself
by some name. Then he will be abused by many, but
his party will defend him."


It is the mark of a generous soul ever to appreciate
at their highest value the merits of his contemporaries,
and not confine his admiration to those departed worthies
with reference to whom rivalry and envy are impossible.
The shadows of the old patriarchs, prophets, and law-
givers Abraham, Moses, Zoroaster, Menu lie so vast
and long across the generations, not because they were
so much greater than we ; but because they lived when
the sun of history was low in the horizon. And with re-
gard to them we have every motive to employ the aggran-
dizing offices of the imagination. The saintly lover of
his fellow men will delight to dwell admiringly on the
gifts and graces of the highest spirits he knows, because
he is free from the littlenesses of vanity and jealousy.
In the peace of his spirit, remote from the madding
crowd of aspirants who rush through society contending
for its notice and prizes, he feels like one who, sheltered
in some deep forest, listens from his retreat to the tre-
mendous murmur that swells and rolls alorig the tops of
the trees. He avoids every thought calculated to inflame
vulgar ambition, cherishes every thought adapted to soften,
deepen, and strengthen the heart. Burns pausing over
the daisy he had ploughed up, is, for him, a finer picture
than Alexander conquering Porus. When he enters into
communion with the mighty spirits of the past, he returns
to meet his neighbors, not with flattered pride, but in-
spired with charity ; he does not transfer their greatness
to himself, but to his race. He would reject as a false
note the sentiment expressed by Count Oxenstiern in his
pleasant Essay on Solitude : "Occupied with the great
minds of antiquity, we are no longer annoyed by contem-
poraneous fools."

There has scarcely appeared in history a great genius
crowned with brilliant triumphs, who has not been pur-
sued by enemies writhing with envy and hate, envenomed
at being thrown into obscurity by his superiority. Virgil
had his Cornificius, Fannius, Bavius and Maevius, the
two latter of whom directed their spleen also against
Horace. The wretched cabals and quarrels of literary
men are notorious and innumerable. Bach, Handel, Mo-


zart, Beethoven, Weber, Mendelssohn, all were inex-
pressibly disgusted and annoyed by the hatreds, plots,
and persecutions of rivals and inferiors. The same has
been the case with the most celebrated actors : poorer
actors, fancying themselves robbed by these of the ap-
plause and profit they deserved, have sought to detract
from their talents and blast their laurels. So, too, with
the great statesmen, they have been forced to tread
their proud course amidst the sneers and slanders of
opponents. In every age envy has dogged the noblest
foims and calumny sat on the sacredest graves. Noth-
ing can be more foreign to the nature of great genius
than such conduct, nothing more painful than the ex-
perience of it from others. Nothing can be more sure
to awaken in a rich, sensitive breast a melancholy feeling
of loneliness in the crowd and estrangement from the
world. True genius, ever incapable of this base bearing
towards its brothers, delights to pay them its homage,
finds its choicest luxury in giving them encouragement
and love.

When Colbert died the pension of Corneille was
stopped by Louis the Fourteenth. Boileau hastened to
the king, represented that Corneille was old, poor, sick,
and dying, and offered to resign his own pension in his
favor. The petty Salieri indeed hated Mozart, but the
lofty Haydn adored him. Haydn says : " The history
of great genius is melancholy, and offers posterity but
slight encouragement to exertion ; which is the reason,
alas ! that many promising spirits are disheartened. I
feel indignant that this peerless Mozart is not yet en-
gaged at some imperial court. Forgive me if I stray
from the subject, but I love the man too much."

If, however, most men of great genius of whom we know
have been unhappy, it has not been the intrinsic penalty
of their genius, but a consequence of the exasperating
meanness of competitors and the indifference of the un-
appreciative multitude. The panacea for their wretch-
edness is to seek fulfilment and excellence instead of
fame and applause. It is not aspiration but ambition
that is the mother of misery in man. Aspiration is a


pure upward desire for excellence, without side-referen-
ces ; ambition is an inflamed desire to surpass others.
Great intellect, imagination, and heart, are conditions of
noble joy and content when free from that extravagant
desire for public approbation which so often accompanies
them. The spectacle of poor, starved, heart-broken Chat-
terton, dead in the London garret, his legs hanging
over the side of the bed, bits of arsenic in his teeth,
is not the proper tragedy of genius, but of a morbid hun-
gering and thirsting for social recognition and honor.
Let genius raise itself above the wild chase for human
praise, content itself with the fruition of its powers and
with the serving of men by the fruits of its powers, and
it will be as much happier than mediocrity as it is more
gifted. In one of his creative moods, Carl Maria von
Weber said : "I cannot understand my happiness. I
seem to wander in a dream where everything is flooded
by a rosy light ; and I must touch myself to be assured
that it is true." " I seem to myself to enjoy more with
my eyes in one glance than others do with all their
limbs in all their lives." That is a true trait of healthy
genius. But how terribly it is often perverted into sor
row and agony by an excessive regard for admiration and

That keen-sighted woman of the world, Miss Mary
Berry, once wrote to a friend : " I am much more dis-
gusted in society by the little impression made by real
merit than by the so often lamented tolerance of vice."
To appreciate general superiority of intellect and excel-
lence of character requires some nobleness of endow-
ments and of aims in the observers, and these are rare
amidst the self-indulging fickleness and frivolity of fash-
ionable circles. Therefore high-minded and original
characters, who cannot stoop to use dishonorable arts for
self-advancement, are often neglected in favor of those
pushing mediocrities who make their way by being always
in the way, so that it is " less trouble to notice them than
to avoid them." Conformity, obsequiousness, especially
inoffensiveness, are more likely than power and deseit
to get conventional honors.


The grandest writer of late ages,
Who wrapt up Rome in golden pages,
Whom scarcely Livius equalled, Gibbon,
Died without star or cross or ribbon.

Jonathan Edwards never had the degree of doctor of
divinity or of doctor of laws conferred on him, while they
were showered on scores of his commonplace contempo-
raries. A clear perception of these facts should comfort
in their disappointment the deserving who are wrongfully
deprived of the outer prizes of their deserts, and should
make them content to forego what the unprincipled win
from the conventional. Shall a man really of supreme

Online LibraryWilliam Rounseville AlgerThe solitudes of nature and of man; or, The loneliness of human life → online text (page 9 of 35)