The Fate Element in Great Men

—One might roughly indicate the difference between ordinary men and men of eminent mark by referring to their relative possession of a consciousness of destiny. So often has a sense of being set apart and devoted to something accompanied great capacity that it would seem to be a natural and legitimate help to the carrying out of any arduous undertaking. Schopenhauer declares that no one can be blind to his own merit, any more than the man who is six feet high can remain ignorant of the fact that he towers above his fellows. He notes the pride with which Horace, Lucretius, Ovid, Dante, Shakespeare, and Bacon have spoken of themselves, and quotes the Englishman who wittily observed that merit and modesty have nothing in common except the initial letter. “ I have always a suspicion about modest celebrities,” he adds, “that they may be right. Goethe has frankly said, ‘ Only good-for-nothings are modest.’ ”

Certainly, the great German himself came well within the limits of his own estimate of worth, for no one would ever think of accusing him of being without personal poise and absolute confidence in the powers which influence human success. “I begin with this,” he told his mother as a small boy; “ later on in life I shall distinguish myself in far other ways.” The fact is that as long as he lived Goethe believed in oracles, and was as willing as Rousseau to trust his fortunes to the merest processes of chance. Rousseau was to be saved in the other world if the stone he threw hit the tree at which it was aimed, and had Goethe caught the plunge of the valuable pocket-knife which he tossed into the river Lahn from behind the bushes where he stood, he might have become a painter instead of a poet. There may be a “ divinity ” that shapes the ends of all men, but only the exceptional individual seems at all conscious of the fact, or in the way of turning it to practical account by actually relying upon it in daily life.

Thus it comes about that demonic men, men of a definite bent and direction which they cannot resist, are given to trusting more than those whose standpoint is merely personal and commonplace. Greene, the historian, tells us that “ Elizabeth had, as all strong natures have, an unbounded confidence in her luck.” “ Her Majesty counts much on Fortune,” Walsingham wrote bitterly; “ I wish she would trust more in Almighty God.” Lincoln never for an instant doubted that he was formed for some “ great or miserable end,” and freely talked about the impression to this effect which had been with him all his life, and which, after the year 1840, assumed the character of a positive conviction. His biographer asserts that this presentiment was as clear and certain as any image conveyed by the senses. “ The star under which he was born was at once brilliant and malignant. The horoscope was cast, fixed, irreversible; and he had no more power to divert it in the minutest particular than he had to reverse the law of gravitation.” Substitute the word Providence for Fate, and many other instances of this higher sort of confidence might be adduced, showing how large an influence trust has had in human success. It went into exile with Luther, and sustained Carlyle in sickness and neglect. In a general way it is to be doubted if any one has ever reached a very eminent station in life without something of this feeling in the attitude which he has assumed toward his work.