Mechanism in Thought and Morals. An Address Delivered Before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard University, June 29, 1870. With Notes and After-Thoughts


By OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES. Boston : James R. Osgood & Co.
SOME embarrassment, we have felt, would attend any systematic effort of ours to mark passages for extract or comment from this wise and charming little book. We fear we should find, on running over the pages when we had done, that every line had a black mark under it, and that every sentence was turning a parenthetical back upon its neighbors, — like a man who is getting on in the world. Does this indicate a dissatisfaction with the author ? Well, beggars will be choosers, whatever the proverb may say. But we have so seldom to complain of receiving too much !
After some consideration of the physical structure of the brain, and some conjecture as to its operation in conscious and unconscious thought, the writer arrives at discussion of materialism in the moral world, and, rejecting the “ mechanical doctrine which makes him the slave of outside influences, whether it work with the logic of Edwards or the averages of Buckle,” he declares that “ moral chaos began with the idea of transmissible responsibility.” Then he combats the idea of a penal hell, and of a measurement of guilt, not by the sin committed, but the quality of the Being offended, while he maintains that there is a divine recuperative force constantly working in human nature against the effects of evil. These ideas will be none the more palatable, we dare say, to the theologians whose notions they oppose, from the fact that their own opinions are characterized throughout as materialism. But neither they nor any one else will fail to read this part of Dr. Holmes’s address with attention and interest, or help feeling with what a singular combination of subtlety and frankness the subject is treated. We are rather glad, however, that it is no part of our business to pronounce upon the correctness of his ideas ; and, to tell the truth, we do not value this part of the book so much as that which records the experiences and observations of so acute a student of mental operations in himself and in others, and which abounds in passages like these apropos of unconscious mental action : —
“The poet sits down to his desk with an odd conceit in his brain ; and presently his eyes fill with tears, his thought slides into the minor key, and his heart is full of sad and plaintive melodies. Or he goes to his work, saying, ‘ To-night I would have tears ’ ; and, before he rises from his table, he has written a burlesque, such as he might think fit to send to one of the comic papers, if these were not so commonly cemeteries of hilarity interspersed with cenotaphs of wit and humor. These strange hysterics of the intelligence, which make us pass from weeping to laughter, and from laughter back again to weeping, must be familiar to every impressible nature ; and all is as automatic, involuntary, as entirely self-evolved by a hidden organic process, as are the changing moods of the laughing and crying woman. The poet always recognizes a dictation ab extra; and we hardly think it a figure of speech when we talk, of his inspiration.
“The mental attitude of the poet while writing, if I may venture to define it, is that of the ‘nun, breathless with adoration.’ Mental stillness is the first condition of the listening state ; and I think my friends the poets will recognize that the sense of effort, which is often felt, accompanies the mental spasm by which the mind is maintained in a state at once passive to the influx from without, and active in seizing only that which will serve its purpose.
Dr. Holmes studies the brain both as a physician and a metaphysician, and the reader starts with a glance at it as the great nervous centre. Then the dual form and possible dual function of this organ, the analogy between mental defects and peculiarities and the defects and peculiarities of other organs (“ the old brain thinks the world grows worse as the old retina thinks the eye of the needle grows smaller,” and “intellectual myopes, near-sighted specialists, are blind to all but the distant abstract "), conscious mental action, pictured thought, musical consciousness, the nature of will, the rapidity of thought, unconscious thought, unconscious sleep, passive thought, mental labor, memory, association, intellectual decay, — are the topics (we have somewhat inaccurately noted them) which are successively touched on in the essay, and by which the author arrives at the spiritual or moral phase of his problem.
But for a sense of its over-compactness, which we have hinted, this little book reminds us of the “Autocrat” in his best moods,—in those moments when, all barrier of invention and situation being broken down, the author talks face to face, or rather soul to soul, consciousness to consciousness, with the reader. By this we imagine ourselves to be saying that it is one of the most delightful, and one of the subtlest things we have read since the “Autocrat,’ and to be commending it in the strongest and only possible terms ; for in this most characteristic attitude we can have no one but himself to compare the author with.