Concerning Things Slowly Learnt
You will see in a little while what sort of things they are which I understand by Things Slowly Learnt. Some are facts, some are moral truths, some are practical lessons; but the great characteristic of all those which are to be thought of in this essay is, that we have to learn them and act upon them in the face of a strong bias to think or act in an opposite way. It is not that they are so difficult in themselves, not that they are hard to be understood, or that they are supported by arguments whose force is not apparent to every mind. On the contrary, the things which I have especially in view are very simple, and for the most part quite unquestionable. Put the difficulty of learning them lies in this: that, as regards them, the head seems to say one thing and the heart another. We see plainly’ enough what we ought to think or to do ; but we feel an irresistible inclination to think or to do something else. It is about three or four of these things that we are going, my friend, to have a little quiet talk. We are going to confine our view to a single class, though possibly the most important class, in the innumerable multitude of Things Slowly Learnt.
The truth is, a great many things are slowly learnt. I have lately had occasion to observe that the Alphabet is one of these. I remember, too, in my own sorrowful experience, how the Multiplication Table was another. A good many years since, an eminent dancing-master undertook to teach a number of my schoolboy companions a graceful and easy deportment; but comparatively few of us can be said as yet to have thoroughly attained it. I know men who have been practising the art of extempore speaking for many years, but who have reached no perfection in it, and who, if one may judge from their confusion and hesitation when they attempt to speak, are not likely ever to reach even decent mediocrity in that wonderful accomplishment. Analogous statements might be made, with truth, with regard to my friend Mr. Snarling’s endeavors to produce magazine articles ; likewise concerning his attempts to skate, and his efforts to ride on horseback unlike a tailor. Some folk learn with remarkable slowness that Nature never intended them for wits. There have been men who have punned, ever more and more wretchedly, to the end of a long and highly respectable life. People submitted in silence to the infliction ; no one liked to inform those reputable individuals that they had better cease to make fools of themselves. This, however, is part of a larger subject, which shall be treated hereafter.
On the other hand, there arc things which are very quickly learnt, — which are learnt by a single lesson. One liberal tip, or even a few kind words heartily said, to a manly little schoolboy, will establish in his mind the rooted principle that the speaker of the words or the bestower of the tip is a jolly and noble specimen of humankind. Boys are great physiognomists: they read a man’s nature at a glance. Well I remember how, when going to and from school, a long journey of four hundred miles, in days when such a journey implied travel by sea as well as by land, I used to know instantly the gentlemen or the railway officials to whom I might apply for advice or information. I think that this intuitive perception of character is blunted in after years. A man is often mistaken in his first impression of man or woman ; a boy hardly ever. And a boy not only knows at once whether a human being is amiable or the reverse, he knows also whether the human being is wise or foolish. In particular, he knows at once whether the human being always means what he says, or says a great deal more than he means. Inferior animals learn some lessons quickly. A dog once thrashed for some offence knows (quite well not to repeat it. A horse turns for the first time down the avenue to a house where he is well fed and cared for ; next week, or next month, you pass that gate, and though the horse has been long taught to submit his will to yours, you can easily see that he knows the place again, and that he would like, to go back to the stable with which, in his poor, dull, narrow mind, there are pleasant associations. I would give a good deal to know what a horse is thinking about. There is sometiling very curious and very touching about the limited intelligence and the imperfect knowledge of that immaterial principle in which the immaterial does not imply the immortal. And yet, if we are to rest the doctrine of a future life in any degree upon the necessity of compensation for the sufferings and injustice of the present, I think the sight of the cabhorses of any large town might plead for the admission of some quiet world of green grass and shady trees, where there should be no cold, starvation, over-work, or flogging. Some one has said that the most exquisite material scenery would look very cold and dead in the entire absence of irrational life. Trees suggest singingbirds; flowers and sunshine make us think of the drowsy bees. And it is curious to think how the future worlds of various creeds are described as not without their lowly population of animals inferior to man. We know what the “ poor Indian ” expects shall bear him company in his humble heaven ; and possibly various readers may know some dogs who in certain important respects are very superior to certain men. You remember how, when a war-chief of the Western prairies was laid by his tribe in his grave, his horse was led to the spot in the funeral procession, and at the instant when the earth was cast upon the dead warrior’s dust, an arrow reached the noble creature’s heart, that in the land of souls the man should find his old friend again. And though it has something of the grotesque, I think it has more of the pathetic, the aged huntsman of Mr. Assheton Smith desiring to be buried by his master, with two horses and a few couples of dogs, that they might all be ready to start together when they met again far away.
This is a deviation ; but that is of no consequence. It is of the essence of the present writer’s essays to deviate from the track. Only we must not forget the thread of the discourse ; and after our deviation we must go back to it. All this came of our remarking that some things are very quickly learnt; and that certain inferior classes of our fellow-creatures learn them quickly. But deeper and larger lessons are early learnt. Thoughtful children, a very few years old, have their own theory of human nature. Before studying the metaphysicians, and indeed while still imperfectly acquainted with their letters, young children have glimpses of the inherent selfishness of humanity. I was recently present when a small boy of three years old, together with his sister, aged five, was brought down to the dining-room at the period of dessert. The small boy climbed upon his mother’s knee, and began by various indications to display his affection for her. A stranger remarked wliat an affectionate child he was. “Oh,” said the little girl, “he suspects (by which she meant expects) that he is going to get something to eat! ” Not Hobbes himself had reached a clearer perception or a firmer belief of the selfish system in moral philosophy. “ He is always very affectionate,” the youtlitul philosopher proceeded, “ when he .suspects he is going to get something good to eat!”
By Things Slowly LearntI I mean not merely things which are in their nature such that it takes a long time to learn them,—such as the Greek language, or the law of vendors and purchasers. These things indeed take long time and much trouble to learn ; but once you have learnt them, you know them. Once you have come to understand the force of the second aorist, you do not find your heart whispering to you, as you are lying awake at night, that what the grammar says about the second aorist is all nonsense ; you do not feel an inveterate disposition, gaining force day by day, to think concerning the second aorist just the opposite of what the grammar says. By Things Slowly Learnt, I understand things which it is very hard to learn at the first, because, strong as the reasons which support them are, you find it so hard to make up your mind to them. I understand things which you can quite easily (when it is fairly put to you) see to be true, but which it seems as if it would change the very world you live in to accept. I understand things you discern to be true, but which you have all your life been accustomed to think false, and which you are extremely anxious to think false. And by Things Slowly Learnt I understand things which are not merely very hard to learn at the first, but which it is not enough to learn for once ever so well. I understand things which, when you have made the bitter effort and admitted to be true and certain, you put into your mind to keep (so to speak) ; and hardly a day has passed, when a soft, quiet hand seems to begin to crumble them down and to wear them away to nothing. You write the principle which was so hard to receive upon the tablet of your memory; and day by day a gentle hand comes over it with a bit of india-rubber, till the inscription loses its clear sharpness, grows blurred and indistinct, and finally quite disappears. Nor is the gentle hand content even then ; but it begins, very faintly at first, to trace letters which bear a very different meaning. Then it deepens and darkens them day by day, week by week, till at a month’s or a year’s end the tablet of memory bears, in great, sharp, legible letters, just the opposite thing to that which you had originally written down there. These are my Things Slowly Learnt: things you learn at first in the face of a strong bias against them; things, when once taught, you gradually forget, till you come back again to your old way of thinking. Such things, of course, lie within the realm to which extends the influence of feeling and prejudice. They are things in the accepting of which both head and heart are concerned. Once convince a man that two and two make four, and he learns the truth without excitement, and he never doubts it again. But prove to a man that he is of much less importance than he has been accustomed to think,—or prove to a woman that her children are very much like those of other folk, —or prove to the inhabitant of a country parish that Britain has hundreds of parishes which in soil and climate and production are just as good as his own, — or prove to the great man of a little country town that there are scores of towns in this world where the walks are as pleasant, the streets as well paved, and the population as healthy and as well conducted ; and in each such case you will find it very hard to convince the individual at the time, and you will find that in a very short space the individual has succeeded in entirely escaping from the disagreeable conviction. You may possibly find, if you endeavor to instil such belief into minds of but moderate cultivation, that your arguments will be met less by force of reason than by roaring of voice and excitement of manner; you may find that the person you address will endeavor to change the issue you are arguing, to other issues, wholly irrelevant, touching your own antecedents, character, or even personal appearance; and you may afterwards be informed by goodnatured friends, that the upshot ol your discussion had been to leave on the mind of your acquaintance the firm conviction that you yourself are intellectually a blockhead and morally a villain. And even when dealing with human beings who have reached that crowning result of a fine training, that they shall have got beyond thinking a man their “ enemy because be tells them the truth,” you may find that you have rendered a service like that rendered by the surgeon’s amputating knife, — salutary, yet very painful,— and leaving forever a sad association with your thought and your name. For among the things we slowly learn are truths and lessons which it goes terribly against the grain to learn at first, which must be driven into us time after time, and which perhaps are never learnt completely.
One thing very slowly learnt by most human beings is, that they are of no earthly consequence beyond a verv small circle indeed, and that really nobody is thinking or talking about them. Almost every commonplace man and woman in this world has a vague, but deeply-rooted belief that they are quite different from anybody else, and of course quite superior to everybody else, it may be in only one respect they fancy they are this, but that one respect is quite sufficient. I believe, that, if a grocer or silk-mercer in a little town has a hundred customers, each separate customer lives on under the impression that the grocer or the silkmercer is prepared to give to him or her certain advantages in buying and selling which will not be accorded to the other ninety-nine customers. “ Say it is for Mrs. Brown,” is Mrs. Brown’s direction to her servant, when sending for some sugar ; “ say it is for Mrs. Brown, and he will give it a little better.” The grocer, keenly alive to the weaknesses of his fellow-creatures, encourages this notion. “ This tea,” he says, “ would be four-and-sixpenee a pound to anyone else, but to you it is only four-and-threepenee.” Judging from my own observation, I should say that retail dealers trade a good deal upon this singular fact in the constitution of the human mind, that it is inexpressibly bitter to most people to believe that they stand on the ordinary level of humanity,—that, in the main, they are just like their neighbors. Mrs. Brown would be filled with unutterable wrath, if it were represented to her that the grocer treats her precisely as he does Mrs. Smith, who lives on one side of her, and Mrs. Snooks, who lives on the other. She would he still more angry, if you asked her what earthly reason there is why she should in any way be distinguished beyond Mrs. Snooks and Mrs. Smith. She takes for granted she is quite different from them, quite superior to them. Human beings do not like to be classed, at least, with the class to which in fact they belong. To he classed at all is painful to an average mortal, who firmly believes that there never was such a being in this world. I remember one of the cleverest friends I have — one who assuredly cannot he classed intellectually, except in a very small and elevated class — telling me how mortified he was, when a very clever boy of sixteen, at being classed at all. lie had told a literary lady that he admired Tennyson. “ Yes,” said the lady, “ I am not surprised at that: there is a class of young men who like Tennyson at your age.” It went like a dart to my friend’s heart. Class of young men, indeed ! Was it for this that I outstripped all competitors at school, that I have been fancying myself a unique phenomenon in Nature, different at least from every other being that lives, that I should be spoken of as one of a class of young men ? Now in my friend’s halfplayful reminiscence I see the exemplification of a great fact in human nature. Most human beings fancy themselves, and all their belongings, to be quite different from all other beings and the belongings of all other beings. I heard an old lady, whose son is a rifleman, and just like all the other volunteers of his corps, lately declare, that, on the occasion of a certain grand review, her Tom looked so entirely different from all the rest. No doubt be did to her, poor old lady,— for he was her own. But the irritating thing was, that the old lady wished it to be admitted that Tom’s superiority was an actual fact, equally patent to the eyes of all mankind. Yes, my friend : it is a thing very slowly learnt by most men, that they are very much like other people. You see the principle which underlies what you hear so often said by human beings, young and old, when urging you to do something which it is against your general rule to do. “ Oh, but you might do it for me!” Why for you more than for any one else ? would be the answer of severe logic. But a kindly man would not take that ground : for doubtless the Me, however little to every one else, is to each unit in humankind the centre of all the world.
Arising out of this mistaken notion of their own difference from all other men is the fancy entertained by many, that they occupy a much greater space in the thoughts of others than they really do. Most folk think mainly about themselves and their own affairs. Even a matter which “ everybody is talking about ” is really talked about by each for a very small portion of the twenty-four hours. And a name which is “ in everybody’s mouth” is not in each separate mouth for more than a few minutes at a time. And during those few minutes, it is talked of with an interest very faint, when compared with that you feel for yourself. You fancy it a terrible thing, when you yourself have to do something which you would think nothing about, if done by anybody else. A lady grows sick, and has to go out of church during the sermon. Well, you remark it; possibly, indeed, you don’t; and you say, “ Mrs.Thomson went out of church to-day ; she must be ill ”; and there the matter ends. But a day or two later you see Mrs. Thomson, and find her quite in a fever at the awful fact. It was a dreadful trial, walking out:, and facing all the congregation: they must have thought it so strange ; she would not run the risk of it again for any inducement. The fact is just this: Mrs. Thomson thinks a great deal of the thing, because it happened to herself. It did not happen to the other people, and so they hardly think of it at all. But nine in every ten of them, in Mrs. Thomson’s place, would have Mrs. Thomson’s feeling; for it is a thing which you, my reader, slowly learn, that people think very little about yon.
Yes, it is a thing slowly learnt, — by many not learnt at all. How many persons you meet walking along the street who evidently think that everybody is looking at them ! How few persons can walk through an exhibition of pictures at which are assembled the grand people of the town and all their own grand acquaintances, in a fashion thoroughly free from self-consciousness ! I mean without thinking of themselves at all, or of how they look; but in an unaffected manner, observing the objects and beings around them. Men who have attained recently to a moderate eminence are sometimes, if of small minds, much affected by this disagreeable frailty. Small literary men, and preachers with no great head or heart, have within my own observation suffered from it severely. I have witnessed a poet, whose writings I have never read, walking along a certain street. I call him a poet to avoid periphrasis. The whole get-up of the man, his dress, his hair, his hat, the style in which he walked, showed unmistakably that he fancied that everybody was looking at him, and that he was the admired of all admirers. In fact, nobody was looking at him at all. Some time since I beheld a portrait of a very, very small literary man. It was easy to discern from it that the small author lives in the belief, that, wherever he goes, he is the object of universal observation. The intense sell-conseiousness and self-conceit apparent in that portrait were, in the words of Mr. Squeers, “ more easier conceived than described.” The face was a very commonplace and rather good-looking one : the author, notwithstanding his most strenuous exertions, evidently could make nothing of the features to distinguish him from other men. But the length of his hair was very great: and, oh, what genius lie plainly fancied glowed in those eyes ! I never in my life witnessed such an extraordinary glare. I do not believe that any human being ever lived whose eyes habitually wore that expression : only by a violent effort could the expression be produced, and then for a very short time, without serious injury to the optic nerves. The eyes were made as large as possible; and the thing after which the poor fellow had been struggling was that peculiar look which may be conceived to penetrate through the beholder, and pierce his inmost thoughts. I never beheld the living original, but, if I saw him, I should like in a kind way to pat him on the head, and tell him that that sort of expression would produce a great effect on the gallery of a minor theatre. The other day I was at a public meeting. A great crowd of people was assembled in a large hall: the platform at one end of it remained unoccupied till the moment when the business of the meeting was to begin. It was an interesting sight for any philosophic observer seated in the body of the hall to look at the men who by-and-by walked in procession on to the platform, and to observe the different ways in which they walked in. There were several very great and distinguished men: every one of these walked on to the platform and took las seat in the most simple and unaffected way, as if quite unconscious of the many eyes that were looking at them with interest and curiosity. There were many highly respectable and sensible men, whom nobody cared particularly to see, and who took their places in a perfectly natural manner, as though well aware of the fact. But there were one or two small men, struggling for notoriety ; and I declare it was pitiful to behold their entrance. I remarked one, in particular, who evidently thought that the eyes of the whole meeting were fixed upon himself, and that, as he walked in, everybody was turning to his neighbor, and saying with agitation, “ See, that ’s Snooks ! ” Ills whole gait and deportment testified that he felt that two or three thousand eyes were burning him up: you saw it in the way he walked to his place, in the way he sat down, in the way he then looked about him. If anyone had tried to get up three cheers for Snooks, Snooks would not have known that he was being made a fool of. He would have accepted the incense of fame as justly his due. There once was a man who entered the Edinburgh theatre at the same instant with Sir Walter Scott. The audience cheered lustily; and while Sir Walter modestly took his seat, as though unaware that those cheers were to welcome the Great Magician, the other man advanced with dignity to the front of the box, and bowed in acknowledgment of the popular applause. This of course was but a little outburst of the great tide of vain self-estimation which the man had cherished within his breast for years. Let it be said here, that an affected unconsciousness of the presence of a multitude of people is as offensive an exhibition of self-consciousness as any that is possible. Entire naturalness, and a just sense of a man’s personal insignificance, will produce the right deportment. It is very irritating to see some clergymen walk into church to begin the service. They come in, with eyes affectedly cast down, and go to their place without ever looking up, and rise and begin without one glance at the congregation. To stare about them, as some clergymen do, in a free and easy manner, befits not the solemnity of the place and the worship; but the other is the worse thing. In a few cases it proceeds from modesty; in the majority from intolerable self-conceit. The man who keeps his eyes downcast in that affected manner fancies that everybody is looking at him; there is an insufferable self-consciousness about him; and he is much more keenly aware of the presence of other people than the man who does what is natural, and looks at the people to whom he is speaking. It is not natural nor rational to speak to one human being with your eyes fixed on the ground; and neither is it natural or rational to speak to a thousand. And I think that the preacher who feels in his heart that he is neither wiser nor better than his fellow-sinners to whom he is to preach, and that the advices he addresses to them are addressed quite as solemnly to himself, will assume no conceited airs of elevation above them, but will unconsciously wear the demeanor of any sincere worshipper, somewhat deepened in solemnity by the remembrance of his heavy personal responsibility in leading the congregation’s worship; but assuredly and entirely free from the vulgar conceit which may be fostered in a vulgar mind by the reflection, “Now everybody is looking at me ! ” I have seen, I regret to say, various distinguished preachers whose pulpit demeanor was made to me inexpressibly offensive by this taint of self-consciousness. And I have seen some, with half the talent, who made upon me an impression a thousandfold deeper than ever was made by the most brilliant eloquence ; because the simple earnestness of their manner said to every heart, “Now I am not thinking in the least about myself, or about what you may think of me: my sole desire is to impress on your hearts these truths I speak, which I believe will concern us all forever ! ” I have heard great preachers, after hearing whom you could walk home quite at your ease, praising warmly the eloquence and the logic of the sermon. I have heard others, (infinitely greater in my poor judgment,) after hearing whom you would have felt it profanation to criticize the literary merits of their sermon, high as those were: but you walked home thinking of the lesson and not of the teacher, solemnly revolving the truths you had heard, and asking the best of all help to enable you to remember them and act upon them.
There are various ways in which selfconsciousness disagreeably evinces its existence ; and there is not one, perhaps, more disagreeable than the affected avoidance of what is generally regarded as egotism. Depend upon it, my reader, that the straightforward and natural writer who frankly uses the first person singular, and says, “ I think thus and thus,” “ I have seen so and so,” is thinking of himself and his own personality a mighty deal less than the man who is always employing awkward and roundabout forms of expression to avoid the use of the obnoxious I. Every such periphrasis testifies unmistakably that tin* man was thinking of himself; but the simple, natural writer, warm with his subject, eager to press his views upon his readers, uses the I without a thought of self, just because it is the shortest, most direct, and most natural way of expressing himself. The recollection of his own personality probably never once crossed his mind during the composition of the paragraph from which an ill-set critic might pick out a score of I-s. To say, “It is submitted” instead of “ I think,” “ It has been observed ” instead of “ I have seen,” “ The present writer” instead of “I,” is much the more really egotistical. Try to write an essay without using that vowel which some men think the very shibboleth of egotism, and the remembrance of yourself will be in the background of your mind all the time you are writing. It will be always intruding and pushing in its face, and you will be able to give only half your mind to your subject. But frankly and naturally use the I, and the remembrance of yourself vanishes. You are grappling with the subject; you are thinking of it, and of nothing else. You use the readiest and most unaffected mode of speech to set out your thoughts of it. You have written I a dozen times, but you have not thought of yourself once.
Y ou may see the self-consciousness of some men strongly manifested in their handwriting. The handwriting of some men is essentially affected, — more especially their signature. It seems to be a very searching test whether a man is a conceited person or an unaffected person, to be required to furnish his autograph to be printed underneath his published portrait. I have fancied I could form a theory of a man’s whole character from reading, in such a situation, merely the words, “ Very faithfully yours, Eusebius Snooks.” You could see that Mr. Snooks was acting, when he wi-ote that signature. He was thinking of the impression it would produce on those who saw it. It was not the thing which a man would produce who simply wished to write his name legibly in as short a time and with as little needless trouble as possible. Let me say with sorrow that I have known even venerable bishops who were not superior to this irritating weakness. Some men aim at an aristocratic hand; some deal in vulgar flourishes. These arc the men who have reached no farther than that stage at which they are proud of the dexterity with which they handle their pen. Some strive after an affectedly simple and student-like hand; some at a dashing and military style. But there may be as much selfconsciousness evinced by handwriting as by anything else. Any clergyman who performs a good many marriages will be impressed by the fact that very few among the humbler classes can sign their name in an unaffected way. I am not thinking of the poor bride who shakily traces her name, or of the simple bumpkin who slowly writes his, making no secret of the difficulty with which he does it. These are natural and pleasing. You would like to help and encourage them. But it is irritating, when some forward fellow, after evincing his marked contempt for the slow and cramped performances of his friends, jauntily takes up the pen and dashes off his signature at a tremendous rate and with the air of an exploit, evidently expecting the admiration of his rustic friends, and laying a foundation for remarking to them on his way home that the parson could not touch him at penmanship. I have observed with a little malicious satisfaction that such persons, arising in their pride from the place where they wrote, generally smear their signature with their coat-sleeve, and reduce it to a state of comparative illegibility. I like to see the smirking, impudent creature a little taken down.
But it is endless to try to reckon up the fashions in which people show that they have not learnt the lesson of their own unimportance. Did you ever stop in the street and talk for a few minutes to some old bachelor ? If so, I dare say you have remarked a curious phenomenon. You have found that all of a sudden the mind of the old gentleman, usually reasonable enough, appeared stricken into a state approaching idiocy, and that the sentence which he had begun ni a rational and intelligible way was ending in a maze of wandering words, signifying nothing in particular. You had been looking in another direction, but in sudden alarm you look straight at the old gentleman to see what on earth is the matter; and you discern that his eyes are fixed on some passer-by, possibly a young lady, perhaps no more than a magistrate or the like, who is by this time a good many yards off, with the eyes still following, and slowly revolving on their axes so as to follow without the head being turned round. It is this spectacle which has drawn off your friend’s attention ; and you notice his whole figure twisted into an ungainly form, intended to be dignified or easy, and assumed because he fancied that the passerby was looking at him. Oh the pettiness of human nature ! Then you will find people afraid that they have given offence by saying or doing things which the party they suppose offended had really never observed that they had said or done. There are people who fancy that in church everybody is looking at them, when in truth no mortal is taking the trouble to do so. It is an amusing, though irritating sight, to behold a weak-minded lady walking into church and taking her seat under this delusion. You remember the affected air, the downcast eyes, the demeanor intended to imply a modest shrinking from notice, but through which there shines the real desire, “ Oh, for any sake, look at me ! ” There are people whose voice is utterly inaudible in church six feet off, who will tell you that a whole congregation of a thousand or fifteen hundred people was listening to their singing. Such folk will tell you that they went to a church where the singing was left too much to tiie choir, and began to sing as usual, on which the entire congregation looked round to see who it was that was singing, and ultimately proceeded to sing lustily too. I do not remember a more disgusting exhibition of vulgar self-conceit than I saw a few months ago at Westminster Abbey. It was a weekday afternoon service, and the congregation was small. Immediately before me there sat an insolent boor, who evidently did not belong to the Church of England. He had walked In when the prayers were half over, having with difficulty’ been made to take off his hat, and his manifest wish was to testify his contempt tor the whole place and service. Accordingly’ he persisted in sitting, in a lounging attitude, when the people stood, and in standing up and staring about with an air of curiosity while they knelt. He was very’ anxious to convey’ that he was not listening to the prayers; but rather inconsistently, be now and then uttered an audible grunt of disapproval. No one can enjoy the choral service more than I do. and the music that afternoon was very fine; but I could not enjoy it or join in it as I wished, for the disgust I felt at the animal before me, and for my burning desire to see him turned out of the sacred place he was profaning. But the thing which chiefly struck me about the individual was not his vulgar and impudent profanity; it was his intolerable selfconceit. He plainly thought that every eye under the noble old roof was watching all his movements. I could see that he would go home and boast of what he had done, and tell his friends that all the clergy, choristers, and congregation had von. vir, 45 been awestricken by him, and that possibly word bad by this time been conveyed to Lambeth or Fulham of the weakened influence and approaching downfall of the Church of England. I knew that the very thing he wished was that some one should rebuke his conduct, otherwise I should certainly have told him either to behave with decency or to be gone.
I have sometimes witnessed a curious manifestation of this vain sense of selfimportance. Did you ever, my reader, chance upon such a spectacle as this : a very commonplace man, and even a very great blockhead, standing in a drawingroom where a large party of people is assembled, with a grin of self-complacent superiority upon his unmeaning face ? I am sure you understand the thing I mean. I mean a look which conveyed, that, in virtue of some hidden store of genius or power, he could survey with a calm, cynical loftiness the little conversation and interests of ordinary mortals. You know the kind of interest with which a human being w-ould survey the distant approaches to reason of an intelligent dog or a colony of ants. I have seen this expression on the face of one or two of the greatest blockheads I ever knew. I have seen such a one wear it while clever men were carrying on a conversation in which he could not have joined to have saved his life. Yet you could see that (who can tell how?) the poor creature had somehow persuaded himself that he occupied a position from which he could look down upon his fellow-men in general. Or was it rather that the poor creature knew he was a fool, and fancied that thus he could disguise the fact ? I dare say there was a mixture of both feelings.
You may see many indications of vain self-importance in the fact that various persons, old ladies for the most part, are so ready to give opinions which are not wanted, on matters of which they are not competent to judge. Clever young curates suffer much annoyance from these people: they are always anxious to instruct the young curates how to preach.
I remember well, ten years ago, when I was a curate (which in Scotland we call an assistant") myself, what advices I used to receive (quite unsought by me) from well-meaning, but densely stupid old ladies. I did not think the advices worth much, even then; and now, by longer experience, I can discern that they were utterly idiotic. Yet they were given with entire confidence. No thought ever entered the heads of these well-meaning, but stupid individuals, that possibly they wei'e not competent to give advice on such subjects. And it is vexatious to think that people so stupid may do serious harm to a young clergyman by head-shakings and sly innuendoes as to his orthodoxy or his gravity of deportment. In the long run they will do no harm, but at the first start they may do a good deal of mischief. Not long since, such a person complained to me that a talented young preacher had taught unsound doctrine. She cited his words. I showed her that the words were taken verbatim from the “ Confession of Faith,” which is our Scotch Thirty-Nine Articles. I think it not unlikely that she would go on telling her tattling story just the same. I remember hearing a stupid old lady say, as though her opinion were quite decisive of the question, that no clergyman ought to have so much as a thousand a year; for, if he had, he would be sure to neglect his duty. You remember what Dr. Johnson said to a woman who expressed some opinion or other upon a matter she did not understand. “ Madam,” said the moralist, “ before expressing your opinion, you should consider what your opinion is worth.”
Rut this shaft would have glanced harmlessly from off the panoply of the stupid and self-complacent old lady of whom I am thinking. It was a fundamental axiom with her that her opinion was entirely infallible. Some people would feel as though the very world were crumbling away under their feet, if they realized the fact that they could go wrong.
Let it here be said, that this vain belief of their own importance, which most people cherish, is not at all a source of unmixed happiness. It will work either way. When my friend, Mr. Snarling, got his beautiful poem printed in the county newspaper, it no doubt pleased him to think, as he walked along the street, that every one was pointing him out as the eminent literary man who was the pride of the district, and that the whole town was ringing with that magnificent effusion. Mr. Tennyson, it is certain, felt that his crown was being reft away. But, on the other hand, there is no commoner form of morbid misery than that of the poor nervous man or woman who fancies that he or she is the subject of universal unkindly remark. You will find people, still sane for practical purposes, who think that the whole neighborhood is conspiring against them, when in fact nobody is thinking of them.
All these pages have been spent in discussing a single tiling slowly learnt: the remaining matters to be considered in this essay must be treated briefly.
Another thing slowly learnt is that we have no reason or right to be angry with people because they think poorly of us. This is a truth which most people find it very hard to accept, and at which, probably, very few arrive without pretty long thought and experience. Most people are angry, when they are informed that some one has said that their ability is small, or that their proficiency in any art is limited. Mrs. Malaprop was very indignant, when she found that some of her friends had spoken lightly of her parts of speech. Mr. Snarling was wroth, when he learned that Mr. Jollikin thought him no great preacher. Miss Brown was so, on hearing that Mr. Smith did not admire her singing; and Mr. Smith, on learning that Miss Brown did not admire his horsemanship. Some authors feel angry, on reading an unfavorable review of their book. The present writer has been treated very, very kindly by the critics,—far more so than he ever deserved; yet he remembers showing a notice of him, which was intended to extinguish him for all coming time, to a warmhearted friend, who read it with gathering wrath, and, vehemently starting up at its dose, exclaimed, (we knew who wrote the notice,) — “ Now I shall go straight and kick that fellow ! ” Now all this is very natural; but assuredly it is quite wrong. You understand, of course, that I am thinking of unfavorable opinions of you, honestly held, and expressed without malice. I do not mean to say that you would choose for your special friend or companion one who thought meanly of your ability or your sense; it would not be pleasant to have him always by you; and the very fact of his presence would tend to keep you from doing justice to yourself. For it is true, that, when with people who think you very clever and wise, you really are a good deal cleverer and wiser than usual; while with people who think you stupid and silly, you find yourself under a malign influence which tends to make you actually so for the time. If you want a man to gain any good quality, the way is to give him credit for possessing it. If he has but little, give him credit for all he has, at least; and you will find him daily get more. You know how Arnold made boys truthful; it was by giving them credit for truth. Oh that we all fitly understood that the same grand principle should be extended to all good qualities, intellectual and moral! Diligently instil into a boy that he is a stupid, idle, bad-hearted blockhead, and you are very likely to make him all that. And so you can see that it is not judicious to choose for a special friend and associate one who thinks poorly of one’s sense or one’s parts. Indeed, if such a one honestly thinks poorly of you, and has any moral earnestness, you could not get him for a special friend, if you wished it. Let us choose for our companions (if such can be found) those who think well and kindly of us, even though we may know within ourselves that they think too kindly and too well. For that favorable estimation will bring out and foster all that is good in us. There is between this and the unfavorable judgment all the difference between the warm, genial sunshine, that draws forth the flowers and encourages them to open their leaves, and the nipping frost or the blighting east-wind, that represses and disheartens all vegetable life. But though thus you would not choose for your special companion one who thinks poorly of you, and though you might not even wish to see him very often, you have no reason to have any angry feeling towards him. He cannot help his opinion. His opinion is determined by his lights. His opinion, possibly, founds on those aesthetic considerations as to which people will never think alike, with which there is no reasoning, and for which there is no accounting. God has made him so that he dislikes your book, or at least cannot heartily appreciate it; and that is not his fault. And, holding his opinion, he is quite entitled to express it. It may not be polite to express it to yourself. By common consent it is understood that you are never, exeept in cases of absolute necessity, to say to any man that which is disagreeable to him. And if you go, and, without any call to do so, express to a man himself that you think poorly of him, he may justly complain, not of your unfavorable opinion of him, but of the malice which is implied in your needlessly informing him of it. But if any one expresses such an unfavorable opinion of you in your absence, and some one comes and repeats it to you, be angry with the person who repeats the opinion to you, not with the person who expressed it. For what you do not know will cause you no pain. And all sensible folk, aware how estimates of any mortal must differ, will, in the long run, attach nearly the just weight to any opinion, favorable or unfavorable.
Yes, my friend, utterly put down the natural tendency in your heart to be angry with the man who thinks poorly of you. For you have, in sober reason, no right to be angry with him. It is more pleasant, and indeed more profitable, to live among those who think highly of youIt makes you better. You actually grow into what you get credit for. Oh, how much better a clergyman preaches to his own congregation, who listen with kindly and sympathetic attention to all he says, and always think too well of him, than to a set of critical strangers, eager to find faults and to pick holes! And how heartily and pleasantly the essayist covers his pages which are to go into a magazine whose readers have come to know him well, and to bear with all Ills ways! If every one thought him a dull and stupid person, he could not write at all: indeed, he would bow to the general belief, and accept the truth that he is dull and stupid. But further, my reader, let us be reasonable, when it is pleasant; and let us sometimes be irrational, when that is pleasant too. It is natural to have a very kindly feeling to those who think well of us. Now, though, in severe truth, we have no more reason for wishing to shake hands with the man who thinks well of us than for wishing to shake the man who thinks ill of us, yet let us yield heartily to the former pleasant impulse. It is not reasonable, but it is all right. You cannot help liking people who estimate you favorably and say a good word of you. No doubt we might slowly learn not to like them more than anybody else ; but we need not take the trouble to learn that lesson. Let ns all, my readers, be glad if we can reach that cheerful position of mind at which my eloquent friend SHIRLKY and I have long since arrived: that we are extremely gratified when we find ourselves favorably reviewed, and not in the least angry when we find ourselves reviewed unfavorably; that we have a very kindly feeling towards such as think well of us, and no unkind feeling whatever to those who think ill of us. Thus, at the beginning of the month, we look with equal minds at the newspaper notices of our articles; we arc. soothed and exhilarated when we find ourselves described as sages, and we are amused and interested when we find ourselves shown up as little better than geese.
Of course, it makes a difference in the feeling with which you ought to regard any unfavorable opinion of you, whether spoken or written, if the unfavorable opinion which is expressed be plainly not honestly held, and be maliciously expressed. You may occasionally hear a judgment expressed of a young girl’s music or dancing, of a gentleman’s horses, of a preacher’s sermons, of an author’s books, which is manifestly dictated bv personal spite and jealousy, and which is expressed with the intention of doing mischief and giving pain to the person of whom the judgment is expressed. You will occasionally find such judgments supported by wilful misrepresentation, and even by pure invention. In such a case as this, the essential thing is not the unfavorable opinion; it is the malice which leads to its entertainment and expression. And the conduct of the offending party should be regarded with that feeling which, on calm thought, you discern to be the right feeling with which to regard malice accompanied by falsehood. Then, is it well to he angry here ? I think not. You may see that it is not safe to have any communication with a person who will abuse and misrepresent you; it is not safe, and it is not pleasant. But don’t be angry. It is not worth while. That old lady, indeed, told all iTer friends that you said, in your book, something she knew quite well yon did not say. Mr. Snarling did the like. But the offences of such people are not worth powder and shot; and besides this, my friend, if you saw the case from their point of view, you might see that they have something to say for themselves. You failed to call for the old lady so often as she wished you should. You did not ask Mr. Snarling to dinner. These are bad reasons for pitching into you; but still they are reasons; and Mr. Snarling and the old lady, by long brooding over them, may have come to think that they are very just and weighty reasons. And did you never, my friend, speak rather unkindly of these two persons ? Bid you never give a ludicrous account of their goingson, or even an ill-set account, which some kind friend was sure to repeat to them? All, my reader, don't be too hard on Snarling; possibly you have yourself done something very like what he is doing now. Forgive, as you need to lie forgiven ! And try to attain that quite attainable temper in which you will read or listen to the most malignant attack upon you with curiosity and amusement, and with no angry feeling at all. I suppose great people attain to this : I mean cabinet-ministers and the like, who are daily flayed in print somewhere or other. They come to take it all quite easily. And if they were pure angels, somebody would attack them. Most people, even those who differ from him, know, that, if this world has a humble, conscientious, pious man in it, that man is the present Archbishop of Canterbury : yet last night I read in a certain powerful journal, that the great characteristics of that good man are cowardice, trickery, and simple rascality ! Honest Mr. Bumpkin, kind-hearted Miss Goodbody, do you fancy that you can escape ?
Then we ought to try to fix it. in our mind, that, in all matters into which taste enters at all, the most honest and the most able men may hopelessly, diametrically, differ : original idiosyncrasy has so much to say here ; and training Las also so much. One cultivated and honest man has an enthusiastic and most real love and enjoyment of Gothic architecture, and an absolute hatred for that of the classic revival; another man, equally cultivated and honest, has tastes which are the logical contradictory of these. No one can doubt the ability of Byron, or of Sheridan ; yet each of them thought very little of Shakspeare. The question is, What suits you? You may have the strongest conviction that you ought to like an author; you may be ashamed to confess that you don’t like him ; and yet you may feel that you detest him. For myself, I confess with shame, and I know the reason is in myself, I cannot for my life see anything to admire in the writings of Mr. Carlyle. His is style, both of thought and language, is to me insufferably irritating. I tried to read the “ Sartor Resartus,” and could not do it. So if all people who have learned to read English were like me, Mr. Carlyle would have no readers. Happily, the majority, in most cases, possesses the normal taste. At least there is no further appeal than to the deliberate judgment of the majority of educated men. I confess, further, that I would rather read Mr. Helps than Milton: I do not say that I think Mr. Helps the greater man, but that I feel he suits me better. I value the “ Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table ” more highly than all the writings of Shelley put together. It is a curious thing to read various reviews of the same book, — particularly if it be one of those books which, if you like at all, you will like very much, and which, if you don’t like, you will absolutely hate. It is curious to find opinions flatly contradictory of one another set forth in those reviews by very able, cultivated, and unprejudiced men. There is no newspaper published in Britain which contains abler writing than the “ Edinburgh Scotsman.” And of course no one need say anything as to the literary merits of the “ Times.” Well, one day within the last few months, the “ Times” and the “ Scotsman ” each published a somewhat elaborate review of a certain book. The reviews were flatly’ opposed to one another; they had no common ground at all; one said the book was extremely good, and the other that it was extremely bad. You must just make up your mind that in matters of taste there can oe no unvarying standard of truth. In æthetic matters, truth is quite relative. What is bad to you is good to me, perhaps. And indeed, if one might adduce the saddest of all possible proofs how even the loftiest and most splendid genius fails to commend itself to every cultivated mind, it may suffice to say, that that brilliant “ Scotsman ” has on several occasions found fault with the works of A. K. H. B.!
If you, my reader, are a wise and kindhearted person, (as I have no doubt whatever but you are,) I think you would like very much to meet and converse with any person who has formed a bad opinion of you. You would take great pleasure in overcoming such a one's prejudice against you ; and if the person were an honest and worthy person, you would be almost certain to do so. Very few folk are able to retain any bitter feeling towards a man they have actually talked with, unless the bitter feeling be one which is just. And a very great proportion of all the unfavorable opinions which men entertain of their fellow-men. found on some misconception. You take up somehow an impression that such a one is a conceited, stuck-up person : you come to know him, and you find he is the frankest and most unaffected of men. You had a belief that such another was a cynical, heartless being, till you met him one day coming down a long black stair, in a poor part of the town, from a bare chamber in which is a little sick child, with two large tears running down his face; and when you enter the poor apartment, you learn certain facts as to his quiet benevolence which compel you suddenly to construct a new theory of that man’s character. It is only people who are radically and essentially bad whom you can really dislike after you come to know them. And the human beings who are thus essentially bad are very few. Something of the original Image lingers yet in almost every human soul: and in many a homely, commonplace person, what with vestiges of the old, and a blessed planting-in of something new, there is a vast deal of it. And every human being, conscious of honest intention and of a kind heart, may well wish that the man who dislikes and abuses him could just know him.
But there are human beings whom, if you are wise, you would not wish to know you too well: I mean the human beings (if such there should be) who think very highly of you,— who imagine you very clever and very amiable. Keep out of the way of such ! Let them see as little of you as possible. For, when they come to know you well, they are quite sure to be disenchanted. The enthusiastic ideal which young people form of any one they admire is smashed by the rude presence of facts. I have got somewhat beyond the stage of feeling enthusiastic admiration, yet there are two or three living men whom I should be sorry to see : I know I should never admire them so much any more. I never saw Mr. Dickens: I don’t want to see him. Let us leave Yarrow unvisited: our sweet ideal is fairer than the fairest fact. No hero is a hero to his valet: and it may be questioned whether any clergyman is a saint to his beadle. Yet the hero may be a true hero, and the clergyman a very excellent man : but no human being can bear too close inspection. I remember hearing a clever and enthusiastic young lady complain of what she had suffered, on meeting a certain great bishop at dinner. No doubt he was dignified, pleasant, clever; but the mysterious halo was no longer round his head. Here is a sad circumstance in the lot of a very great man: I mean such a man as Mr. Tennyson or Professor Longfellow. As an elephant walks through a field, crushing the crop at every step, so do these men advance through life, smashing, every time they dine out, the enthusiastic fancies of several romantic young people.
This was to have been a short essay. But you see it is already long; and I have treated only two of the four Things Slowly Learnt which I had noted down. After much consideration I discern several courses which are open to me: —
1. To ask the editor to allow me forty or fifty pages of‘ the magazine for my essay.
2. To stop at once, and allow it to remain forever a secret what the two remaining things are.
3. To stop now, and continue my subject in a future number of the magazine.
4. To state briefly wliat the two things are, and get rid of the subject at, once.
The fundamental notion of Course No. 1 is manifestly vain. The editor is doubtless well aware that about sixteen pages is the utmost length of essay which his readers can stand. Nos. 2 and 3, for reasons too numerous to state, cannot be adopted. And thus I am in a manner compelled to adopt Course No. 4.
The first of the two things is a practical lesson. It is this: to allow for human folly, laziness, carelessness, and the like, just as you allow for the properties of matter, such as weight, friction, asad the like, without being surprised or angry at them. You know, that, it a man is lifting a piece of lead, he does not think of getting into a rage because it is heavy ; or if a man is dragging a tree along the ground, he does not get into a rage because it ploughs deeply into the earth as it comes. He is not surprised at these things. They are nothing new. It is just what he counted on. But you will find that the same man, if his servants are lazy, careless, and forgetful, or if his friends are petted, wrong-headed, and impracticable, will not only get quite angry, but will get freshly angry at each new action which proves that his friends or servants possess these characteristics. Would it not be better to make up your mind that such things are characteristic of humanity, and so that you must look for them in dealing with human beings ? And would it not be better, too, to regard each new proof of laziness, not as a new thing to be angry with, but merely as a piece of the one great fact that your servant is lazy, with which you get angry once for all, and have done with it? If your servant makes twenty blunders a day, do not regard them as twenty separate facts at which to get angry twenty several times : regard them just as twenty proofs of the one fact that your servant is a blunderer; and he angry just once, and no more. Or if some one you know gives twenty indications in a day that he or she (let us say she) is of a petted temper, regard these merely as twenty proof's of one lamentable fact, and not as twenty different facts to be separately lamented. You accept the fact that die person is petted and ill-tempered : you regret it and blame it once for all. And after this once you take as of course all new manifestations of pettedness and illtemper. And you are no more surprised at them, or angry with them, than you are at lead for being heavy, or at down for being light. It is their nature, and you calculate on it, and allow for it.
Then the second of the two remaining things is this, — that you have no right to complain, if you are postponed to greater people, or if you are treated with less consideration than you would be, if you were a greater person. Uneducated people arc very slow to learn this most obvious lesson. I remember hearing of a proud old lady who was proprietor of a small landed estate in Scotland. She had many relations,— some greater, some less. The greater she much affected, the less she wholly ignored. But they did not ignore her; and one morning an individual arrived at her mansion-house, bearing a large box on his back. He was a travelling peddler; and he sent up word to the old lady that he was her cousin, and hoped she would buy something from him. The old lady indignantly refused to see him, and sent orders that he should forthwith quit the house. The peddler went; but, on reaching the courtyard, he turned to the inhospitable dwelling, and in a loud voice exclaimed, in the ears of every mortal in the house, “ Ay, if I had come in my carriage-and-four, ye wad have been proud to have ta’en me in! ” The peddler fancied that he was hurling at his relative a scathing sarcasm: he did not see that he was simply stating a perfectly unquestionable fact. No doubt earthly, if he had come in a earriage-andfour, he would have got a hearty welcome, and he would have found his claim of kindred eagerly allowed. But he thought he was saying a bitter and cutting thing, and (strange to say) the old lady fancied she was listening to a bitter and cutting thing. He was merely expressing a certain and innocuous truth. But though all mortals know that in this world big people meet greater respect than small, (and quite right too,) most mortals seem to find the principle a very unpleasant one, when it comes home to themselves. And we learn but slowly to acquiesce in seeing ourselves plainly subordinated to other people. Poor Oliver Goldsmith was very angry, when at the club one night he was stopped in the middle of a story by a Dutchman, who had noticed that the Great Bear was rolling about in preparation for speaking, and who exclaimed to Goldsmith, “ Stop, stop ! Toctor Shonson is going to speak ! ” Once I arrived at a certain railway station. Two old ladies were waiting to iro by the. same train. I knew them well, and they expressed their delight that we were going the same way. “ Let us go in the same carriage,” said the younger, in earnest tones; “and will you be so very kind as to see about our luge-age ? ” After a few minutes of the lively talk of the period and district, the train came up. I feel the tremor of the platform yet. I handed my friends into a carriage, and then saw their baggage placed in the van. It was a station at which trains stop for a few minutes for refreshments. So I went to the door of the carriage into which I had put them, and waited a little before taking my seat. I expected that my friends would proceed with the conversation which had been interrupted ; but to my astonishment I found that I had become wholly invisible to them. They did not see me and speak to me at all. In the carriage with them was a living peer, of wide estates and great rank, whom they knew. And so thoroughly did he engross their eyes and thoughts and words, that they had become unaware of my presence, or even my existence. The stronger sensation rendered them unconscious of the weaker. Do you think I felt angry ? No, I did not. I felt very much amused. I recognized a slight manifestation of a grand principle. It was a straw showing how a current sets, but for which Britain would not be the country it is. I took my seat in another carriage, and placidly read my “ Times.” There was one lady in that carriage. I think she inferred, from the smiles which occasionally for the first few miles overspread my countenance without apparent cause, that my mind was slightly disordered.
These are the two things already mentioned. But you cannot understand, friendly reader, what an effort it has cost me to treat them so briefly. The experienced critic will discern at a glance that the author could easily have made sixteen pages out of the material you have here in two. The author takes his stand upon this,— that there are few people who can beat out thought so thin, or say so little in such a great number of words. But I remember how a very great prelate (who could compress all I have said into a page and a half) once comforted me by telling me that lor the consumption of many minds it was desirable that thought should be very greatly diluted ; that quantity as well as quality is needful in the dietetics both of the body and the mind. With this soothing reflection I close the present essay.