The Autocrat and His Fellow-Boarders

A tribute to Dr. Holmes and his "Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table"

"'Precisely so,' I replied, 'common sense as you understand it.'"

It was a discussion which had been carried on without interruption since the days when old Mr. Blackstone settled on the peninsula at the mouth of the Charles in order to get into primary relations with truth as he understood truth, and had his peace disturbed by the influx of people from Salem who came with the intention of getting into primary relations with truth as they understood it.

In Sunday preachments, in Thursday lectures, in councils and town meetings, in lecture-halls and drawing-rooms, the quest has been kept up. Mrs. Anne Hutchinson here got into primary relations with truth as she understood truth, and so did Margaret Fuller, and so has Mrs. Eddy.

Never has any one who had done this lacked followers in the good old town, and never has such an one lacked candid critics. So long as there is a keen delight in the give-and-take, the thrust and counter-thrust of opinion, that "state of mind" that is Boston will be recognized.

It was a state of mind that was particularly acute in those days when Lowell wrote of Theodore Parker and his co-religionists,—

           I know they all went
For a general union of total dissent:
He went a step farther; without cough or hem
He frankly avowed he believed not in them;
And, before he could be jumbled up or prevented,
From their orthodox kind of dissent he dissented.

Laurence Sterne, in Tristram Shandy, gives the secret of his own method of writing. "In course," said Yorick, "in a tone two parts jest and one part earnest." Dr. Holmes used these ingredients, but the proportions were reversed. Usually there are two parts earnest and one part jest. The earnest was always the earnest of the man of science, and of the keen physician. Much of his wit is of the nature of a quick diagnosis. We are moral hypochondriacs, going about with long faces imagining that we are suffering from a complication of formidable diseases. The little doctor looks us over and tells us what is the matter with us. The incongruity between what we thought was the matter and what is the matter, makes us smile. It is as if a man thought he had committed the unpardonable sin, and was told that the real sin that has produced his bad feelings was committed by his cook.

Here is a bit of social diagnosis: "There are persons who no sooner come within sight of you than they begin to smile in a way that conveys the idea that they are thinking about themselves, and that they are thinking, too, that you are thinking that they are thinking about themselves."

We are made to see that the troublesome complaint which we usually speak of as self-consciousness is not so simple as we had thought. It is a complication of disorders. It is not merely a consciousness of one's self. It is the consciousness of other people's consciousness that makes the trouble. All of which is amusing because it is true.

"'There is no power I envy so much,' said the Divinity Student, 'as that of seeing analogies. I don't understand how it is that some minds are constantly coupling thoughts or objects that seem not in the least related to each other, until all at once they are put in a certain light, and you wonder that you did not always see that they were as like as a pair of twins. It appears to me a sort of miraculous gift.'"

Now, to the Autocrat it was not a miraculous gift at all. To couple ideas into a train of thought was, as easy for him as it is for a railroad man to couple cars. But the connections which he saw were not like the analogies of the homilist, they were like the connection which the physician recognizes between the symptom and the disease: this thing means that.

That there is any likeness between an awkward visitor and a ship is not evident, till it is pointed out; after that it seems inevitable.

"Don't you know how hard it is for some people to get out of a room after their visit is really over. They want to be off, and you want them to be off, but they don't know how to manage it. One would think they had been built in your parlor, and were waiting to be launched."

Then follows the suggestion as to the best way of launching them. "I have contrived a sort of ceremonial inclined plane for such visitors, which being lubricated with certain smooth phrases, I back them down, metaphorically speaking, stern-foremost into their native element, the great ocean of out-of-doors."

Whoever has felt himself thus being launched recognizes the accuracy of the figure of speech.

Even the most confirmed dogmatist must get a glimpse of the meaning of "the relativity of knowledge," and the difference between opinion and truth, when the Professor at the Breakfast-Table explains it to him. "Do you know that every man has a religious belief peculiar to himself. Smith is always a Smithite. He takes exactly Smith's-worth of knowledge, Smith's-worth of truth, of beauty, of divinity. And Brown has from time immemorial been trying to burn him, to excommunicate him, to anonymous-article him, because he did not take in Brown's-worth of knowledge, truth, beauty, divinity. He cannot do it any more than a pint-pot can hold a quart, or a quart-pot be filled by a pint. Iron is essentially the same everywhere and always; but sulphate of iron is never the same as carbonate of iron. Truth is invariable, but the Smithate of Truth must always differ from the Brownate of Truth."

Presented by

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In