Concerning People of Whom More Might Have Been Made
IT is recorded in history, that at a certain public dinner in America a Methodist preacher was called on to give a toast. It may be supposed that the evening was so far advanced that every person present had been toasted already, and also all the friends of every one present. It thus happened that the Methodist preacher was in considerable perplexity as to the question, What being, or class of beings, should form the subject of his toast. But the good man was a person of large sympathies; and some happy link of association recalled to his mind certain words with which he had a professional familiarity, and which set forth a subject of a most comprehensive character. Arising from his seat, the Methodist preacher said, that, without troubling the assembled company with any preliminary observations, be begged to propose the health of ALL PEOPLE THAT ON EARTH DO DWELL.
Not unnaturally, I have thought of that Methodist preacher and his toast, as I begin to write this essay. For, though its subject was suggested to me by various little things of very small concern to mankind in general, though of great interest to one or two individual beings, I now discern that the subject of this essay is in truth as comprehensive as the subject of that toast. I have something to say Concerning People of whom More might have been Made: I sec now that the class which I have named includes every human being. More might have been made, in some respects, possibly in many respects, of All People that on Earth do Dwell. Physically, intellectually, morally, spiritually, more might have been made of all. Wise and diligent training on the part of others, self-denial, industry, tact, decision, promptitude, on the part of the man himself, might have made something far better than he now is of every man that breathes. No one is made the most of. There have been human beings who have been made the most of as regards some one thing, who have had some single power developed to the utmost; but no one is made the most of, all round; no one is even made the most of as regards the two or three most important things of all. And, indeed, it is curious to observe that the things in which human beings seem to have attained to absolute perfection have for the most part been things comparatively frivolous, — accomplishments which certainly were not worth the labor and the time which it must have cost to master them. Thus, M. Blondin has probably made as much of himself as can be made of mortal, in the respect of walking on a rope stretched at a great height from the ground. Hazlitt makes mention of a man who had cultivated to the very highest degree the art of playing at rackets, and who accordingly played at rackets incomparably better than any one else ever did. A wealthy gentleman, lately deceased, by putting his whole mind to the pursuit, esteemed himself to have reached entire perfection in the matter of killing otters. Various individuals have probably developed the power of turning somersets, of picking pockets, of playing on the piano, jew’s-harp, banjo, and penny trumpet, of mental calculation in arithmetic, of insinuating evil about their neighbors without directly asserting anything, to a measure as great as is possible to man. Long practice and great concentration of mind upon these things have sufficed to produce what might seem to tremble on the verge of perfection, — what unquestionably leaves the attainments of ordinary people at an inconceivable distance behind. But I do not call it making the most of a man, to develop, even to perfection, the power of turning somersets and playing at rackets. I call it making the most of a man, when you make the best of his best powers and qualities,— when you take those things about him which are the worthiest and most admirable, and cultivate these up to their highest attainable degree. And it is in this sense that the statement is to be understood, that no one is made the most of. Even in the best, we see no more than the rudiments of good qualities which might have been developed into a great deal more ; and in very many human beings, proper management might have brought out qualities essentially different from those which these beings now possess. It is not merely that they are rough diamonds, which might have been polished into blazing ones, — not merely that they are thoroughbred colts drawing coal-carts, which with fair training would have been new Eclipses: it is that they are vinegar which might have been wine, poison which might have been food, wildcats which might have been harmless lambs, soured miserable wretches who might have been happy and useful, almost devils who might have been but a little lower than the angels. Oh, the unutterable sadness that is in the thought of what might have been !
Not always, indeed. Sometimes, as we look back, it is with deep thankfulness that we see the point at which we were (we cannot say how) inclined to take the right turning, when we were all but resolved to take that which we can now see would have landed us in wreck and ruin. And it is fit that we should correct any morbid tendency to brood upon the fancy of bow much better we might have been, by remembering also how much worse we might have been. Sometimes the present state of matters, good or bad, is the result of long training, of influences that were at work through many years, and that produced their effect so gradually that we never remarked the steps of the process, till some day we waken up to a sense of the fact, and find ourselves perhaps a great deal better, probably a great deal worse, than we had been vaguely imagining. But the case is not unfrequently otherwise. Sometimes one testing-time decided whether we should go to the left or to the right. There are in the moral world things analogous to the sudden accident which makes a man blind or lame for life : in an instant there is wrought a permanent deterioration. Perhaps a few minutes before man or woman took the step which can never be retraced, which must banish forever from all they hold dear, and compel to seek in some new country far away a place where to hide their shame and misery, they had just as little thought of taking that miserable step as you, my reader, have of taking one like it. And perhaps there are human beings in this world, held in the highest esteem, and with not a speck on their snow-white reputation, who know within themselves that they have barely escaped the gulf, that the moment has been in which all their future lot was trembling in the balance, and that a grain’s weight more in the scale of evil and by this time they might have been reckoned among the most degraded and abandoned of the race. But probably the first deviation, either to right or left, is in most cases a very small one. You know, my friend, what is meant by the points upon a railway. By moving a lever, the rails upon which the train is advancing are, at a certain place, broadened or narrowed by about the eighth of an inch. That little movement decides whether the train shall go north or south. Twenty carriages have come so far together; but here is a junction station, and the train is to be divided. The first ten carriages deviate from the main line by a fraction of an inch at first; but in a few minutes the two portions of the train are flying on, miles apart. You cannot see the one from the other, save by distant puffs of white steam through the clumps of trees. Perhaps already a high hill has intervened, and each train is on its solitary way, —one to end its course, after some hours, amid the roar and smoke and bare ugliness of some huge manufacturing town ; and the other to come through green fields to the quaint, quiet, dreamy-looking little city, whose place is marked, across the plain, by the noble spire of the gray cathedral rising into the summer blue. We come to such points in our journey through life,—railway-points, as it were, which decide not merely our lot in life, but even what kind of folk we shall be, morally and intellectually. A hair’s breadth may make the deviation at first. Two situations are offered you at once : you think there is hardly anything to choose between them. It does not matter which you accept; and perhaps some slight and fanciful consideration is allowed to turn the scale. But now you look back, and you can see that there was the turning-point in your life; it was because you went there to the right, and not to the left, that you are now a great English prelate, and not a humble Scotch professor. Was there not a time in a certain great man’s life, at which the lines of rail diverged, and at which the question was settled, Should he be a minister of the Scotch Kirk, or should he be Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain ? I can imagine a stage in the history of a lad in a counting-house, at which the little angle of rail may be pushed in or pushed back that shall send the train to one of two places five hundred miles asunder: it may depend upon whether he shall take or not take that half-crown, whether, thirty years after, he shall be taking the chair, a rubicund baronet, at a missionary society meeting, and receive the commendations of philanthropic peers and earnest bishops, or be laboring in chains at Norfolk Island, a brutalized, cursing, hardened, scourge-scarred, despairing wretch, without a hope for this life or the other. Oh, how much may turn upon a little thing! Because the railway train in which you were coming to a certain place was stopped by a snowstorm, the whole character of your life may have been changed. Because some one was in the drawing-room when you went to see Miss Smith on a certain day, resolved to put to her a certain question, you missed the tide, you lost your chance, you went away to Australia and never saw her more. It fell upon a day that a ship, coming from Melbourne, was weathering a rocky point on an iron-bound coast, and was driven close upon that perilous shore. They tried to put her about; it was the last chance. It was a moment of awful risk and decision. If the wind catches the sails, now shivering as the ship comes up, on the right side, then all on board are safe. If the wind catches the sails on the other side, then all on board must perish. And so it all depends upon which surface of certain square yards of canvas the uncertain breeze shall strike, whether John Smith, who is coining home from the diggings with twenty thousand pounds, shall go down and never be heard of again by his poor mother and sisters away in Scotland, — or whether he shall get safely back, a rich man, to gladden their hearts, and buy a pretty little place, and improve the house on it into the pleasantest picture, and purchase, and ride, and drive various horses, and be seen on market-days sauntering in the High Street of the county-town, and get married, and run about the lawn before his door, chasing his little children, and become a decent elder of the Church, and live quietly and happily for many years. Yes, from what precise point of the compass the next flaw of wind should come would decide the question between the long homely life in Scotland and a nameless burial deep in a foreign sea.
It seems to me to be one of the main characteristics of human beings, not that they actually are much, but that they are something of which much may be made. There are untold potentialities in human nature. The tree cut down, concerning which its heathen owner debated whether be should make it into a god or into a three-legged stool, was positively nothing in its capacity of coming to different ends and developments, when we compare it with each human being born into this world. Man is not so much a thing already, as he is the germ of something. He is, so to speak, material formed to the hand of circumstances. He is essentially a germ, either of good or evil. And he is not like the seed of a plant, in whose development the tether allows no wider range than that between the more or less successful manifestation of its inherent nature. Give a young tree fair play, good soil and abundant air,— tend it carefully, in short, and you will have a noble tree. Treat the young tree unfairly, — give it a bad soil, deprive it of needful air and light, and it will grow up a stunted and poor tree. But in the case of the human being, there is more than this difference in degree. There may be a difference in kind. The human being may grow up to be, as it were, a fair and healthful fruit-tree, or to be a poisonous one. There is something positively awful about the potentialities that are in human nature. The Archbishop of Canterbury might have grown up under influences which would have made him a bloodthirsty pirate or a sneaking pickpocket. The pirate or the pickpocket, taken at the right time, and trained in the right way, might have been made a pious, exemplary’ man. You remember that good divine, two hundred years since, who, standing in the market-place of a certain town, and seeing a poor wretch led by him to the gallows, said, “ There goes myself, but for the grace of God,” Of course, it is needful that human laws should hold all men as equally responsible. The punishment of such an offence is such an infliction, no matter who committed the offence. At least the mitigating circumstances which human laws can take into account must be all of a very plain and intelligible character. It would not do to recognize anything like a graduated scale of responsibility. A very bad training in youth would be in a certain limited sense regarded as lessening the guilt of any wrong thing done; and you may remember, accordingly, how that magnanimous monarch, Charles II., urged to the Scotch lords, in extenuation of the wrong things he had done, that his father had given him a very bad education. But though human laws and judges may vainly and clumsily endeavor to fix each
wrongdoer’s place in the scale of responsibility, and though they must, in a rough way, do what is rough justice in five cases out of six, still we may well believe that in the view of the Supreme Judge the responsibilities of men are most delicately graduated to their opportunities. There is One who will appreciate with entire accuracy the amount of guilt that is in each wrong deed of each wrong-doer, and mercifully allow for such as never had a chance of being anything but wrong-doers. And it will not matter whether it was from original constitution or from unhappy training that these poor creatures never had that chance. I was lately quite astonished to learn that some sincere, but stupid American divines have fallen foul of the eloquent author of “Elsie Venner,” and accused him of fearful heresy, because he declared his confident belief that “ God would never make a man with a crooked spine and then punish him for not standing upright.” Why, that statement of the “ Autocrat ” appears to me at least as certain as that two and two make four. It may, indeed, contain some recondite and malignant reference which the stupid American divines know, and which I do not; it may he a mystic Shibboleth, indicating far more than it asserts; as at one time in Scotland it was esteemed as proof that a clergyman preached unsound doctrine, if he made use of the Lord’s Prayer. But, understanding it simply as meaning that the Judge of all the Earth will do right, it appears to me an axiom beyond all question. And I take it as putting in a compact form the spirit of what I have been arguing for, — to wit, that, though human law must of necessity hold all rational beings as alike responsible, yet in the eye of God the difference may be immense. The graceful vase, that stands in the drawing-room under a glass shade, and never goes to the well, has no great right to despise the rough pitcher that goes often and is broken at last. It is fearful to think what malleable material we are in the hands of circumstances.
And a certain Authority, considerably wiser and incomparably more charitable than the American divines already mentioned, recognized the fact, when He taught us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation ! ” We shall think, in a little while, of certain influences which may make or mar the human being; but it may be said here that I firmly believe that happiness is one of the best of disciplines. As a general rule, if people were happier, they would be better. When you see a poor cabman on a winter-day, soaked with rain, and fevered with gin, violently thrashing the wretched horse he is driving, and perhaps howling at it, you may be sure that it is just because the poor cabman is so miserable that he is doing all that. It was a sudden glimpse, perhaps, of his bare home and hungry children, and of the dreary future which lay before himself and them, that was the true cause of those two or three furious lashes you saw him deal upon the unhappy screw’s ribs. Whenever I read any article in a review, which is manifestly malignant, and intended not to improve an author, but to give him pain, I cannot help immediately wondering what may have been the matter with the man who wrote the malignant article. Something must have been making him very unhappy, I think. I do not allude to playful attacks upon a man, made in pure thoughtlessness and buoyancy of spirit, — but to attacks which indicate a settled, deliberate, calculating rancor. Never be angry with the man who makes such an attack; you ought to be sorry for him. It is out of great misery that malignity for the most part proceeds. To give the ordinary mortal a fair chance, let him be reasonably successful and happy. Do not worry a man into nervous irritability, and he will be amiable. Do not dip a man in water, and he will not be wet.
Of course, my friend, I know who is to you the most interesting of all beings, and whose history is the most interesting of all histories. You are to yourself the centre of this world, and of all the interests of this world. And this is quite right. There is no selfishness about all this, except that selfishness which forms an essential element in personality,— that selfishness which must go with the fact of one’s having a self. You cannot help looking at all things as they appear from your own point of view; and things press themselves upon your attention and your feeling as they affect yourself. And apart from anything like egotism, or like vain self-conceit, it is probable that you may know that a great deal depends upon your exertion and your life. There are those at home who would fare but poorly, if you were just now to die. There are those who must rise with you, if you rise, and sink with you, if you sink. Does it sometimes suddenly strike you, what a little object you are, to have so much depending on you ? Vaguely, in your thinking and feeling, you add your circumstances and your lot to your personality ; and these make up an object of considerable extension. You do so with other people as well as with yourself. You have all their belongings as a background to the picture of them which you have in your mind; and they look very little when you see them in fact, because you see them without these belongings. I remember, when a boy, how disappointed I was at first seeing the Archbishop of Canterbury. It was Archbishop Howley. There he was, a slender, pale old gentleman, sitting in an arm-chair at a public meeting. I was chiefly disappointed, because there was so little of him. There was just the human being. There was no background of grand accessories. The idea of the Primate of England which I had in some confused manner in my mind included a vision of the venerable towers of Lambeth, — of a long array of solemn predecessors, from Thomas à Becket downwards,— of great historical occasions on which the Archbishop of Canterbury had been a prominent figure; and in some way I fancied, vaguely, that you would sec the primate surrounded by all these things. You remember the Highlander in “ Waverley,” who was much mortified when Hs chief came to meet an English guest, unattended by any retinue, and who exclaimed, in consternation and sorrow, “ He has come without his tail!” Even such was my early feeling. Yon understand later that associations are not visible, and that they do not add to a man’s extension in space. But (to go back) you do, as regards yourself, what you do as regards greater men: you add your lot to your personality, and thus you make up a bigger object. And when you see yourself in your tailor’s shop, in a large mirror (one of a series) wherein you see your figure all round, reflected several times, your feeling will probably be, What a little thing you are ! If you are a wise man, you will go away somewhat humbled, and possibly somewhat the better for the sight. You have, to a certain extent, done what Burns thought it would do all men much good to do : you have “seen yourself as others see you.” And even to do so physically is a step towards a juster and humbler estimate of yourself in more important things. It may here be said, as a further illustration of the principle set forth, that people who stay very much at home feel their stature, bodily and mental, much lessened when they go far away from home, and spend a little time among strange scenes and people. For, going thus away from home, you take only yourself. It is but a small part of your extension that goes. You go; but you leave behind your house, your study, your children, your servants, your horses, your garden. And not only do you leave them behind, but they grow misty and unsubstantial when you are far away from them. And somehow you feel, that, when you make the acquaintance of a new friend some hundreds of miles off, who never saw your home and your family, you present yourself before him only a twentieth part or so of what you feel yourself to be when you have all your belongings about you. Do you not feel all that ? And do you not feel, that, if you were to go away to Australia forever, almost as the English coast turned blue and then invisible on the horizon, your life in England would first turn cloud-like, and then melt away ?
But without further discussing the philosophy of how it comes to be, I return to the statement that you yourself, as you live in your home, are to yourself the centre of this world, — and that you feel the force of any great principle most deeply, when you feel it in your own case. And though every worthy mortal must be often taken out of himself, especially by seeing the deep sorrows and great failures of other men, still, in thinking of people of whom more might have been made, it touches you most to discern that you are one of these. It is a very sad thing to think of yourself, and to see how much more might have been made of you. Sit down by the fire in winter, or go out now in summer and sit down under a tree, and look back on the moral discipline you have gone through,—look back on what you have done and suffered. Oh, how much better and happier you might have been ! And how very near you have often been to what would have made you so much happier and better ! If you had taken the other turning when you took the wrong one, after much perplexity,—if you had refrained from saying such a hasty word, — if you had not thoughtlessly made such a man your enemy! Such a little thing may have changed the entire complexion of your life. Ah, it was because the points were turned the wrong way at that junction, that you are now running along a line of railway through wild moorlands, leaving the warm champaign below ever more hopelessly behind. Hastily, or pettedly, or despairingly, you took the wrong turning ; or you might have been dwelling now amid verdant fields and silver waters in the country of contentment and success. Many men and women, in the temporary bitterness of some disappointment, have hastily made marriages which will embitter all their future life,— or which at least make it certain that in this world they will never know a joyous heart any more. Men have died as almost briefless barristers, toiling into old age in heartless wrangling, who had their chance of high places on the bench, but ambitiously resolved to wait for something higher, and so missed the tide. Men in the church have taken the wrong path at some critical time, and doomed themselves to all the pangs of disappointed ambition. But I think a sincere man in the church has a great advantage over almost all ordinary disappointed men. He has less temptation, reading affairs by the light of after-time, to look back with bitterness on any mistake he may have made. For, if he be the man I mean, he took the decisive step not without seeking the best of guidance ; and the whole training of his mind has fitted him for seeing a higher Hand in the allotment of human conditions. And if a man acted for the best, according to the light he had, and if he truly believes that God puts all in their places in life, he may look back without bitterness upon what may appear the most grievous mistakes. I must be suffered to add, that, if he is able heartily to hold certain great truths and to rest on certain sure promises, hardly any conceivable earthly lot should stamp him a soured or disappointed man. If it he a sober truth, that “ all things shall work together for good ” to a certain order of mankind, and if the deepest sorrows in this world may serve to prepare us for a better, — why, then, I think that one might hold by a certain ancient philosopher (and something more) who said, “ I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.”
You see, reader, that, in thinking of People of whom, More might have been Made, we are limiting the scope of the subject. I am not thinking how more might have been made of us originally. No doubt, the potter had power over the clay. Give a larger brain, of finer quality, and the commonplace man might have been a Milton. A little change in the chemical composition of the gray matter of that little organ which is unquestionably connected with the mind’s working as no other organ of the body is, and, oh, what a different order of thought would have rolled off from your pen, when you sat down and tried to write your best! If we are to believe Robert Burns, some people have been made more of than was originally intended. A certain poem records how that which, in his homely phrase, he calls “ stuff to mak’ a swine,” was ultimately converted into a very poor specimen of a human being. The poet had no irreverent intention, I dare say; but I am not about to go into the field of speculation which is opened up by his words. I know, indeed, that, in the hands of the Creator, each of us might have been made a different man. The pounds of material which were fashioned into Shakspeare might have made a bumpkin with little thought beyond pigs and turnips, or, by some slight difference beyond man’s skill to trace, might have made an idiot. A little infusion of energy into the mental constitution might have made the mild, pensive day-dreamer who is wandering listlessly by the river-side, sometimes chancing upon noble thoughts, which he does not carry out into action, and does not even write down on paper, into an active worker, with Arnold’s keen look, who would have carved out a great career for himself, and exercised a real influence over the views and conduct of numbers of other men. A very little alteration in feature might have made a plain face into a beautiful one ; and some slight change in the position or the contractibility of certain of the muscles might have made the most awkward of manners and gaits into the most dignified and graceful. All that we all understand. But my present subject is the making which is in circumstances after our natural disposition is fixed, — the training, coming from a hundred quarters, which forms the material supplied by Nature into the character which each of us actually bears. And setting apart the case of great genius. whose bent towards the thing in which it will excel is so strong that it will find its own field by inevitable selection, and whose strength is such that no unfavorable circumstances can hold it down, almost any ordinary human being may be formed into almost any development. I know a huge massive beam of rough iron, which supports a great weight. Whenever I pass it, I cannot help giving it a pat with my hand, and saying to it, “ You might have been hair-springs for watches.” I know an odd-looking little man attached to a certain railway-station, whose business it is, when a train comes in, to go round it with a large box of a yellow concoction and supply grease to the wheels. I have often looked out of the carriage-window at that odd little man and thought to myself, “ Now you might have been a chief-justice.” And, indeed, I can say from personal observation that the stuff ultimately converted into cabinet-ministers does not at an early stage at all appreciably differ from that which never becomes more than country-parsons. There is a great gulf between the human being who gratefully receives a shilling, and touches his cap as he receives it, and the human being whose income is paid in yearly or half-yearly sums, and to whom a pecuniary tip would appear as an insult; yet, of course, that great gulf is the result of training alone. John Smith the laborer, with twelve shillings a week, and the bishop with eight thousand a year, had, by original constitution, precisely the same kind of feeling towards that much-sought, yet much-abused reality which provides the means of life. Who shall reckon up by what millions of slight touches from the hand of circumstance, extending over many years, the one man is gradually formed into the giving of the shilling, and the other man into the receiving of it with that touch of his hat ? Who shall read back the forming influences at work since the days in the cradle, that gradually formed one man into sitting down to dinner, and another man into waiting behind his chair? I think it would be occasionally a comfort, if one could believe, as American planters profess to believe about their slaves, that there is an original and essential difference between men ; for, truly, the difference in their positions is often so tremendous that it is painful to think that it is the self-same clay and the self-same common mind that are promoted to dignity and degraded to servitude. And if you sometimes feel that, — you, in whose favor the arrangement tends,—what do you suppose your servants sometimes think upon the subject? It was no wonder that the millions of Russia were ready to grovel before their Czar, while they believed that he was “ an emanation from the Deity.” But in countries where it is quite understood that every man is just as much an emanation from the Deity as any other, you will not long have that sort of thing. You remember Goldsmith’s noble lines, which Dr. Johnson never could read without tears, concerning the English character. Is it not true that it is just because the humble, but intelligent Englishman understands distinctly that we are all of us people of whom more might have been made, that he has “ learnt to venerate himself as man”? And thinking of influences which form the character, there is a sad reflection which has often occurred to me. It is, that circumstances often develop a character which it is hard to comtemplate without anger and disgust. And yet, in many such cases, it is rather pity that is due. The more disgusting the character formed in some men, the more you should pity them. Yet it is hard to do that. You easily pity the man whom circumstances have made poor and miserable; how much more you should pity the man whom circumstances have made bad ! You pity the man from whom some terrible accident has taken a limb or a hand; but how much more should you pity the man from whom the influences of years have taken a conscience and a heart ! And something is to be said for even the most unamiable and worst of the race. No doubt, it is mainly their own fault that they are so bad; but still it is hard work to be always rowing against wind and tide, and some people could be good only by doing that ceaselessly. I am not thinking now of pirates and pickpockets. But take the case of a sour, backbiting, malicious, wrong-headed, lying old woman, who gives her life to saying disagreeable things and making mischief between friends. There are not many mortals with whom one is less disposed to have patience. But yet, if you knew all, you would not be so severe in what you think and say of her. You do not know the physical irritability of nerve and weakness of constitution which that poor creature may have inherited ; you do not know the singular twist of mind which she may have got from Nature and from bad and unkind treatment in youth ; you do not know the bitterness of heart she has felt at the polite snubbings and ladylike tortures which in excellent society are often the share of the poor and the dependent. If you knew all these things, you would bear more patiently with my friend Miss Limejuice, though I confess that sometimes you would find it uncommonly hard to do so.
As I wrote that last paragraph, I began dimly to fancy that somewhere I had seen the idea which is its subject treated by an abler hand by far than mine. The idea, you may be Sure, was not suggested to me by books, but by what I have seen of men and women. But it is a pleasant thing to find that a thought which at the time is strongly impressing one’s self has impressed other men. And a modest person, who knows very nearly what his humble mark is, will be quite pleased to find that another man has not only anticipated his thoughts, but has expressed them much better than he could have done. Yes, let me turn to that incomparable essay of John Foster, “ On a Man’s writing Memoirs of Himself.” Here it is.
“Make the supposition that any given number of persons, — a hundred, for instance,— taken promiscuously, should be able to write memoirs of themselves so clear and perfect as to explain, to your discernment at least, the entire process by which their minds have attained their present state, recounting all the most impressive circumstances. If they should read these memoirs to you in succession, while your benevolence, and the moral principles according to which you felt and estimated, were kept at the highest pitch, you would often, during the disclosure, regret to observe how many things may be the causes of irretrievable mischief. ‘ Why is the path of life,’ you would say, ‘ so haunted as if with evil spirits of every diversity of noxious agency, some of which may patiently accompany, or others of which may suddenly cross, the unfortunate wanderer ?’ And you would regret to observe into how many forms of intellectual and moral perversion the human mind readily yields itself to be modified.
“‘I compassionate you,’ would, in a very benevolent hour, be your language to the wealthy, unfeeling tyrant of a family and a neighborhood, who seeks, in the overawed timidity and unretaliated injuries of the unfortunate beings within his power, the gratification that should have been sought in their affections. Unless you had brought into the world some extraordinary refractoriness to the influence of evil, the process that you have undergone could not easily fail of being efficacious. If your parents idolized their own importance in their son so much that they never opposed your inclinations themselves nor permitted it to be done by any subject to their authority,—if the humble companion, sometimes summoned to the honor of amusing you, bore your caprices and insolence with the meekness without which he had lost his enviable privilege, — if you could despoil the garden of some nameless dependent neighbor of the carefully reared flowers, and torment his little dog or cat, without his daring to punish you or to appeal to your infatuated parents,— if aged men addressed you in a submissive tone, and with the appellation of ‘ Sir,’ and their aged wives uttered their wonder at your condescension, and pushed their grandchildren away from around the fire for your sake, if you happened, though with the strut of pertness, and your hat on your head, to enter one of their cottages, perhaps to express your contempt of the homely dwelling, furniture, and fare, — if, in maturer life, you associated with vile persons, who would forego the contest of equality to be your allies in trampling on inferiors,— and if, both then and since, you have been suffered to deem your wealth the compendium or equivalent of every ability and every good quality, — it would indeed be immensely strange, if you had not become in due time the miscreant who may thank the power of the laws in civilized society that he is not assaulted with clubs and stones, to whom one could cordially wish the opportunity and the consequences of attempting his tyranny among some such people as those submissive sons of Nature in the forests of North America, and whose dependants and domestic relatives may be almost forgiven when they shall one day rejoice at his funeral.”
What do you think of that, my reader, as a specimen of embittered eloquence and nervous pith ? It is something to read massive and energetic sense, in days wherein mystical twaddle, and subtlety which hopelessly defies all logic, are sometimes thought extremely fine, if they are set out in a style which is refined into mere effeminacy.
I cherish a very strong conviction, (as has been said,) that, at least in the ease of educated people, happiness is a grand discipline for bringing out what is amiable and excellent. You understand, of course, what I mean by happiness. We all know, of course, that light-heartedness is not very familiar to grown-up people, who are doing the work of life, who feel its many cares, and who do not forget the many risks which hang over it. I am not thinking of the kind of thing which is suggested to the minds of children, when they read, at the end of a tale, concerning its heroine and hero, that “ they lived happily ever after.” No, we don't look for that. By happiness I mean freedom from terrible anxiety and from pervading depression of spirits, the consciousness that we are filling our place in life with decent success and approbation, religious principle and character, fair physical health throughout the family, and moderate good temper and good sense. And I hold, with Sydney Smith, and with that keen practical philosopher, Becky Sharpe, that happiness and success tend very greatly to make people passably good. Well, I see an answer to the statement, as I do to most statements ; but, at least, the beam is never subjected to the strain which would break it. I have seen the gradual working of what I call happiness and success in ameliorating character. I have known a man who, by necessity, by the pressure of poverty, was driven to write for the magazines,— a kind of work for which he had no special talent or liking, and which he had never intended to attempt. There was no more miserable, nervous, anxious, disappointed being on earth than he was, when he began his writing for the press. And sure enough, his articles were bitter and ill-set to a high degree. They were thoroughly ill-natured and bad. They were not devoid of a certain cleverness; but they were the sour products of a soured nature. But that man gradually got into comfortable circumstances: and with equal step with his lot the tone of his writings mended, till, as a writer, ho became conspicuous for the healthful, cheerful, and kindly nature of all he produced. I remember seeing a portrait of an eminent author, taken a good many years ago, at a time when he was struggling into notice, and when he was being very severely handled by the critics. That portrait was really truculent of aspect. It was sour, and even ferocious-looking. Years afterwards I saw that author, at a time when he had attained vast success, and was universally recognized as a great man. How improved that face 1 All the savage lines were gone; the bitter look was gone; the great man looked quite genial and amiable. And I came to know that he really was all he looked. Bitter judgments of men, imputations of evil motives, disbelief in anything noble or generous, a disposition to repeat tales to the prejudice of others, envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness, — all these things may possibly come out of a bad heart; but they certainly come out of a miserable one. The happier any human being is, the better and more kindly he thinks of all. It is the man who is always worried, whose means are uncertain, whose home is uncomfortable, whose nerves are rasped by some kind friend, who daily repeats and enlarges upon everything disagreeable for him to hear,— it is he who thinks hardly of the character and prospects of humankind, and who believes in the essential and unimprovable badness of the race.
This is not a treatise on the formation of character: it pretends to nothing like completeness. If this essay were to extend to a volume of about three hundred and eighty pages, I might be able to set out and discuss, in something like a full and orderly fashion, the influences under which human beings grow up, and the way in which to make the best of the best of these influences, and to evade or neutralize the worst. And if, after great thought and labor, I had produced such a volume, I am well aware that nobody would read it. So I prefer to briefly glance at a few aspects of a great subject just as they present themselves, leaving the complete discussion of it to solid individuals with more leisure at their command.
Physically, no man is made the most of. Look at an acrobat or a boxer: there is what your limbs might have been made for strength and agility : that is the potential which is in human nature in these respects. I never witnessed a prize-fight, and assuredly I never will witness one: but I am told, that, when the champions appear in the ring, stripped for the combat, (however bestial and blackguardlooking their countenances may be,) the clearness and beauty of their skin testify that by skilful physical discipline a great deal more may be made of that human hide than is usually made of it. Then, if you wish to see what may be made of the human muscles as regards rapid dexterity, look at the Wizard of the North or at an Indian juggler. I am very far, indeed, from saying or thinking that this peculiar preeminence is worth the pains it must cost to acquire it. Not that I have a word to say against the man who maintains his children by bringing some one faculty of the body to absolute perfection : I am ready even to admit that it is a very right and fit thing that one man in five or six millions should devote his life to showing the very utmost that can be made of the human fingers, or the human muscular system as a whole. It is fit that a rare man here and there should cultivate some accomplishment to a perfection that looks magical, just as it is fit that a man here and there should live in a house that cost a million of pounds to build, and round which a wide tract of country shows what may be made of trees and fields where unlimited wealth and exquisite taste have done their best to improve Nature to the fairest forms of which it is capable. But even if it were possible, it would not be desirable that all human beings should live in dwellings like Hamilton Palace or Arundel Castle; and it would serve no good end at all, certainly no end worth the cost, to have all educated men muscular as Tom Sayers, or swift of hand as Robert Houdin. Practical efficiency is what is wanted for the business of this world, not absolute perfection: life is too short to allow any but exceptional individuals, few and far between, to acquire the power of playing at rackets as well as rackets can possibly be played. We are obliged to have a great number of irons in the fire : it is needful that we should do decently well a great number of things ; and we must not devote ourselves to one thing, to the exclusion of all the rest. And accordingly, though we may desire to be reasonably muscular and reasonably active, it will not disturb us to think that in both these respects we are people of whom more miglit have been made. It may here be said that probably there is hardly an influenco which tends so powerfully to produce extreme self-complacency as the conviction, that, as regards some one physical accomplishment, one is a person of whom more could not have been made. It is a proud thing to think that you stand decidedly ahead of all mankind : that Eclipse is first, and the rest nowhere; even in the matter of keeping up six balls at once, or of noting and remembering twenty different objects in a shop-window as you walk past it at five miles an hour. I do not think I ever beheld a human being whose aspect was of such unutterable pride as a man I lately saw playing the drum as one of a certain splendid military band. He was playing in a piece in which the drum music was very conspicuous; and even an unskilled observer could remark that his playing was absolute perfection. He had the thorough mastery of his instrument. He did the most difficult things not only with admirable precision, but without the least appearance of effort, He was a great, tall fellow: and it was really a fine sight to see him standing very upright, and immovable save as to his arms, looking fixedly into distance, and his bosom swelling with the lofty belief, that, out of four or five thousand persons who were present, there was not one who, to save his life, could have done what ho was doing so easily.
So much of physical dexterity. As for physical grace, it will be admitted that in that respect more might be made of most human beings. It is not merely that they are ugly and awkward naturally, but that they are ugly and awkward artificially. Sir Bulwer Lytton, in his earlier writings, was accustomed to maintain, that, just as it is a man's duty to cultivate his mental powers, so is it his duty to cultivate his bodily appearance. And doubtless all the gifts of Nature are talents committed to us to be improved; they are things intrusted to us to make the best of. It may be difficult to fix the point at which the care of personal appearance in man or woman becomes excessive. It does so unquestionably when it engrosses the mind to the neglect of more important things. But I suppose that all reasonable people now believe that scrupulous attention to personal cleanliness, freshness, and neatness is a Christian duty. The days are past, almost everywhere, in which piety was held to be associated with dirt. Nobody would mention now, as a proof how saintly a human being was, that, for the love of God, he had never washed his face or brushed his hair for thirty years. And even scrupulous neatness need bring with it no suspicion of puppyism. The most trim and tidy of old men was good John Wesley; and he conveyed to the minds of all who saw him the notion of a man whose treasure was laid up beyond this world, quite as much as if he had dressed in such a fashion as to make himself an object of ridicule, or as if he had forsworn the use of soap. Some people fancy that slovenliness of attire indicates a mind above petty details. I have seen an eminent preacher ascend the pulpit with his bands hanging over his right shoulder, his gown apparently put on by being dropped upon him from the vestry ceiling, and his hair apparently unbrushed for several weeks. There was no suspicion of affectation about that good man; yet I regarded his untidiness as a defect, and not as an excellence. He gave a most eloquent sermon ; yet I thought it would have been well, had the lofty mind that treated so admirably some of the grandest realities of life and of immortality been able to address itself a little to the care of lesser things. I confess, that, when I heard the Bishop of Oxford preach, I thought the effect of his sermon was increased by the decorous and careful fashion in which he was arrayed in his robes. And it is to be admitted that the grace of the human aspect may be in no small measure enhanced by bestowing a little pains upon it. You, youthful matron, when you take your little children to have their photographs taken, and when their nurse, in contemplation of that event, attired them in their most tasteful dresses and arranged their hair in its prettiest curls, you know that the little things looked a great deal better than they do on common days. It is pure nonsense to say that beauty when unadorned is adorned the most. For that is as much as to say that a pretty young woman, in the matter of physical appearance, is a person of whom no more can be made. Now taste and skill can make more of almost anything. And you will set down Thomson’s lines as flatly opposed to fact, when your lively young cousin walks into your room to let you see her before she goes out to an evening party, and when you compare that radiant vision, in her robes of misty texture, and with hair arranged in folds the most complicated, wreathed, and satin-shoed, with the homely figure that took a walk with you that afternoon, russetgowned, tartan - plaided, and shod with serviceable boots for tramping through country mud. One does not think of loveliness in the case of men, because they have not got any ; but their aspect, such as it is, is mainly made by their tailors. And it is a lamentable thought, how very ill the clothes of most men are made. I think that the art of draping the male human body has been brought to much less excellence by the mass of those who practise it than any other of the useful and ornamental arts. Tailors, even in great cities, are generally extremely bad. Or it may be that the providing the human frame with decent and well-fitting garments is so very difficult a thing that (save by a great genius here and there) it can be no more than approximated to. As for tailors in little country villages, their power of distorting and disfiguring is wonderful. When i used to be a country clergyman, I remember how, when I went to the funeral of some simple rustic, I was filled with surprise to see the tall, strapping, fine young country lads, arrayed in their black suits. What awkward figures they looked in those unwonted garments ! How different from their easy, natural appearance in their every-day fustian ! Here you would see a young fellow with a coat whose huge collar covered half his head when you looked at him from behind ; a very common thing was to have sleeves which entirely concealed the hands ; and the wrinkled and baggy aspect of the whole suits could be imagined only by such as have seen them. It may be remarked here, that those strong country lads were in another respect people of whom more might have been physically made. Oh for a drill-sergeant to teach them to stand upright, and to turn out their toes, and to get rid of that slouching, hulking gait which gives such a look of clumsiness and stupidity ! If you could but have the well-developed muscles and the fresh complexion of the country with the smartness and alertness of the town ! You have there the rough material of which a vast deal may be made; you have the water-worn pebble which will take on a beautiful polish. Take from the moorland cottage the shepherd lad of sixteen ; send him to a Scotch college for four years ; let him be tutor in a good family for a year or two; and if he be an observant fellow, you will find in him the quiet, self-possessed air and the easy address of the gentleman who has seen the world. And it is curious to see one brother of a family thus educated and polished into refinement, while the other three or four, remaining in their father’s simple lot, retain its rough manners and its unsophisticated feelings. Well, look at the man who has been made a gentleman,— probably by the hard labor and sore self-denial of the others,—and see in him what each of the others might have been! Look with respect on the diamond which needed only to be polished ! Reverence the undeveloped potential which circumstances have held down ! Look with interest on these people of whom more might have been made !
Such a sight as this sometimes sets us thinking how many germs of excellence are in this world turned to no account. You see the polished diamond and the rough one side by side. It is too late now ; but the dull colorless pebble might have been the bright glancing gem. And you may polish the material diamond at any time ; but if you miss your season in the case of the human one, the loss can never be repaired. The bumpkin who is a bumpkin at thirty must remain a bumpkin to threescore and ten. But another thing that makes us think how many fair possibilities are lost is to remark the fortuitous way in which great things have often been done, — and done by people who never dreamt that they had in them the power to do anything particular. These cases, one cannot but think, are samples of millions more. There have been very popular writers who were brought out by mere accident. They did not know what precious vein of thought they had at command, till they stumbled upon it as if by chance, like the Indian at the mines of Potosi. It is not much that we know of Shakspeare, but it seems certain that it was in patching up old plays for acting that he discovered within himself a capacity for producing that which men will not easily let die. When a young military man, disheartened with the service, sought for an appointment as an Irish Commissioner of Excise, and was sadly disappointed because he did not get it, it is probable that he had as little idea as any one else had that he possessed that aptitude for the conduct of war which was to make him the Duke of Wellington. And when a young mathematician, entirely devoid of ambition, desired to settle quietly down and devote all his life to that unexciting study, he was not aware that he was a person of whom more was to be made, — who was to grow into the great Emperor Napoleon. I had other instances in my mind, but after these last it is needless to mention them. But such cases suggest to us that there may have been many Folletts who never held a brief, many Keans who never acted but in barns, many Vandyks who never earned more than sixpence a day, many Goldsmiths who never were better than penny-a-liners, many Michaels who never built their St. Peters, — and perhaps a Shakspeare who held horses at the theatre-door for pence, as the Shakspeare we know of did, and who stopped there.
Let it here be suggested, that it is highly illogical to conclude that you are yourself a person of whom a great deal more might have been made, merely because you are a person of whom it is the fact that very little has actually been made. This suggestion may appear a truism; but it is one of those simple truths of which we all need to be occasionally reminded. After all, the great test of what a man can do must be what a man does. But there are folk who live on the reputation of being pebbles capable of receiving a very high polish, though from circumstances they did not choose to be polished. There are people who stand high in general estimation on the ground of what they might have done, if they had liked. You will find students who took no honors at the university, but who endeavor to impress their friends with the notion, that, if they had chosen, they could have attained to unexampled eminence. And sometimes, no doubt, there are great powers that run to waste. There have been men whose doings, splendid as they were, were no more than a hint of how much more they could have done. In such a case as that of Coleridge, you see how the lack of steady industry and of all sense of responsibility abated the tangible result of the noble intellect God gave him. But as a general rule, and in, the case of ordinary people, you need not give a man credit for the possession of any powers beyond those which he has actually exhibited. If a boy is at the bottom of his class, it is probably because he could not attain its top. My friend Mr. Snarling thinks he can write much better articles than those which appear in the “ Atlantic Monthly ”; but as he has not done so, I am not inclined to give him credit for the achievement. But you can see that this principle of estimating people’s abilities, not by what they have done, but by what they think they could do, will be much approved by persons who are stupid and at the same time conceited. It is a pleasing arrangement, that every man should fix his own mental mark, and hold by his estimate of himself. And then, never measuring his strength with others, he can suppose that he could have beat them, if he had tried.
Yes, we are all mainly fashioned by circumstances; and had the circumstances been more propitious, they might have made a great deal more of us. You sometimes think, middle-aged man, who never have passed the limits of Britain, what an effect might have been produced upon your views and character by foreign travel. You think what an indefinite expansion of mind it might have caused, — how many narrow prejudices it might have rubbed away, — how much wiser and better a man it might have made you. Or more society and wider reading in your early youth might have improved you, — might have taken away the shyness and the intrusive individuality which you sometimes feel painfully, — might have called out one cannot say what of greater confidence and larger sympathy. How very little, you think to yourself, you have seen and known ! While others skim great libraries, you read the same few books over and over; while others come to know many lands and cities, and the faces and ways of many men, you look, year after year, on the same few square miles of this world, and you have to form your notion of human nature from the study of but few human beings, and these very commonplace. Perhaps it is as well. It is not so certain that more would have been made of you, if you had enjoyed what might seem greater advantages. Perhaps you learned more, by studying the little field before you earnestly and long, than you would have learned, if you had bestowed a cursory glance upon fields more extensive by far. Perhaps there was compensation for the fewness of the eases you had to observe in the keenness with which you were able to observe them. Perhaps the Great Disposer saw that in your case the pebble got nearly all the polishing it would stand,— the man nearly all the chances he could improve.
If there be soundness and justice in this suggestion, it may afford consolation to a considerable class of men and women : I mean those people who, feeling within themselves many defects of character, and discerning in their outward lot much which they would wish other than it is. are ready to think that some one thing would have put them right, — that some one thing would put them right even yet, — but something which they have hopelessly missed, something which can never be. There was just one testing event which stood between them and their being made a vast deal more of. They would have been far better and far happier, they think, had some single malign influence been kept away which has darkened all their life, or had some single blessing been given which would have made it happy. If you had got such a parish, which you did not get,— if you had married such a woman,— if your little child had not died,—if you had always the society and sympathy of such an energetic and hopeful friend,—if the scenery round your dwelling were of a different character,— if the neighboring town were four miles off, instead of fifteen, — if any one of these circumstances had been altered, what a different man you might have been ! Probably many people, even of middle age, conscious that the manifold cares and worries of life forbid that it should be evenly joyous, do yet cherish at the bottom of their heart some vague, yet rooted fancy, that, if but one thing were given on which they have set their hearts, or one care removed forever, they would be perfectly happy, even here. Perhaps you overrate the effect which would have been produced on your character by such a single cause. It might not have made you much better ; it might not even have made you very different. And assuredly you are wrong in fancying that any such single thing could have made you happy,— that is, entirely happy. Nothing in this world could ever make you that. It is not God’s purpose that we should be entirely happy here. “ This is not our rest.” The day will never come which will not bring its worry. And the possibility of terrible misfortune and sorrow hangs over all. There is but One Place where we shall be right; and that is far away.
Yes, more might have been made of all of us; probably, in the case of most, not much more will be made in this world. We are now, if we have reached middle life, very much what we shall be to the end of the chapter. We shall not, in this world, be much better; let us humbly trust that we shall not be worse. Yet, if there bo an undefinable sadness in looking at the marred material of which so much more might have been made, there is a sublime hopefulness in the contemplation of material, bodily and mental, of which a great deal more and better will certainly yet be made. Not much more may be made of any of us in life ; but who shall estimate what may be made of us in immortality ? Think of a “ spiritual body ” ! think of a perfectly pure and happy soul! I thought of this, on a beautiful evening of this summer, walking with a much valued friend through a certain grand ducal domain. In front of a noble sepulchre, where is laid up much aristocratic dust, there are sculptured, by some great artist, three colossal faces, which are meant to represent Life, Death, and Immortality. It was easy to represent Death: the face was one of solemn rest, with closed eyes ; and the sculptor’s skill was mainly shown in distinguishing Life from Immortality. And he had done it well. There was Life : a care-worn, anxious, weary face, that seemed to look at you earnestly, and with a vague inquiry for something, — the something that is lacking in all things here. And there was Immortality : life-like, but, oh, how different from mortal Life ! There was the beautiful face, calm, satisfied, selfpossessed, sublime, and with eyes looking far away. I see it yet, the crimson sunset warming the gray stone, — and a great hawthorn-tree, covered with blossoms, standing by. Yes, there was Immortality ; and you felt, as you looked at it, that it was MORE MADE OF LIFE !