A National Vice

“To be gregarious within proper limits tends to health and sanity, to good nature and charity. … but this much may be affirmed: every man’s life should have a background of solitude; there should be times when he walks alone, reads alone, thinks alone.”

In the heart of a crowded city, in the hot month of August, I once met a woman whom I had known some ten years before as a resident at one of the most beautiful spots in what is perhaps the most beautiful county of New England. She told me that she now lived, all the year round, in a big boarding-house on —— Square. “Fourteen lines of horse-cars,” she continued, not without pride, “pass the door, and there are two large hotels nearly opposite.” “Good God, madam,” I could not help exclaiming in pity, “how you must pine for the country!” “Pine for it?” she answered in astonishment. “Why, the folks wanted me to come up and visit them this summer, but I couldn’t bear to leave the city. And I forgot to tell you,” she added, with the air of one who caps the climax, “there’s a brass band that practices twice a week in the building next door.”1

When I heard all this, I still pitied the woman, but for a different reason. Her case, I take it, was a typical one. She was simply a victim to what I shall venture to call the national vice of undue gregariousness. Thus I assume, not without violence, as some people would think, that gregariousness can be overdone by the human race so as to constitute a vice, and presently I shall endeavor to justify this assumption; but first I might state a few examples by way of showing what I have in mind. This vice—or habit, if the reader prefers that term—is a characteristic of the age; it begins to attack even the morose and healthy nature of John Bull; but obviously its manifestations are most common and most extreme in our own country. Many proofs of this statement will at once occur to the reader: the railroad cars in which we travel; the apartments in which we live; the continual exodus from the farm to the village, and from the village to the town; the form which our amusements take; and, above all, the immense development of clubs. Almost every function of modern life is discharged through the medium of a club. To dine in a crowd; to be charitable in a crowd; to go out in a crowd to view the face of nature; and, perhaps greatest absurdity of all, to read poetry in a crowd, — such are the ambitions of a typical American. I believe that there are in existence societies of drunkards, not for legitimate purposes of conviviality, but with the weak intention of reforming in a body. There is certainly a club of persons whose bond of union is a desire to free themselves from the dreadful vice of procrastination; and I have observed advertisements of “Rest Classes” at the seashore for clergymen and school teachers. There are immense summer towns or camps on Cape Cod, where people are herded together almost as closely as the occupants of a tenement house in the city; and this for pleasure.

To what, again, but the same instinct can we attribute the excessive popularity among us of secret or semi-secret societies? To be sure, the possibility of being honored with a magnificent title and the certainty of being decorated with a badge count for a good deal, but the primary reason for the existence of these very numerous bodies must have been the gregarious passion. The same vice exhibits itself in the matter of picnics and of excursions generally. One would think that a middle-aged man, especially a dweller in the city, would like to spend his holiday in comparative solitude, — at some quiet spot in the country, with his family, for example. But the actual case is very different. Paterfamilias puts on a black coat, and, with fifty or five hundred of his fellows, crowds into a stuffy railroad train (the oldest and most uncomfortable cars are always used on these occasions), and is off for an excursion which very likely includes a dusty march through the streets of a neighboring town.

Moreover, the very slightest bonds are thought sufficient to unite excursionists. Three hundred undertakers, or tailors, or wholesale grocers, for example, will go down the harbor together for a day, although the excursion has nothing technical about it. The common employment is a mere excuse for being gregarious. Can any one fancy three hundred poets, or three hundred men who had written plays which never had been performed, picnicking together? And yet in both of these imaginary cases the bond of union would really be much greater than it is in the actual instances which I have cited. These mammoth excursions involve much speechifying, much eating, drinking, and smoking, but nothing that tends to serenity or elevation of mind. However, there is no need to multiply examples; it might be more useful to inquire what is the gregarious instinct, what are its proper limits, why is it harmful when indulged to excess. To be gregarious is to frequent the society of one’s kind. It is a habit necessary to certain wild creatures for protection against their natural enemies. So it was, arid to some extent still is, necessary for men to keep together for a like reason. But this instinct, essential at one time, is now comparatively superfluous, and its continuance prevents men from attaining their proper individuality of mind and of character. Mr. Galton gives an interesting account of the gregarious habits of South African cattle, comparing their conduct in this respect with that of the human race. He says: —

“The traveler finds great difficulty in procuring animals capable of acting the part of fore-oxen to his team, the ordinary members of the wild herd being wholly unfitted by nature to move in so prominent and isolated a position, even though, as is the custom, a boy is always in front to persuade or pull them onwards. Therefore a good fore-ox is an animal of an exceptionally independent disposition. Men who break in wild cattle for harness watch assiduously for those who show a self-reliant nature by grazing apart or ahead of the rest, and these they break in for fore-oxen. … The oxen who graze apart … are even preferred to the actual leaders of the herd; they dare to move more alone, and therefore their independence is undoubted. The leaders are safe enough from lions because their flanks and rear are guarded by their followers; but each of those who graze apart, and who represent the superabundant2 supply of self-reliant animals, have one flank and the rear exposed, and it is precisely those whom the lions take.”

Mr. Galton next shows how the same gregarious instinct is necessary for the safety of the various African tribes, and then he adds: “I hold, from what we know of the clannish fighting habits of our forefathers, that they [the gregarious instincts] are every whit as applicable to the earlier ancestors of our European stock as they are still to a large part of the black population of Africa.” And his final conclusion is as follows: “I hold that the blind instincts evolved under these long-continued conditions have been ingrained into our breed, and that they are a bar to our enjoying the freedom which the forms of modern civilization are otherwise capable of giving us. A really intelligent nation might be held together by far stronger forces than are derived from the purely gregarious instincts,” etc.

The gregarious instinct with which chiefly Mr. Galton is concerned, as we have seen, leads men to associate for mutual protection. It is, no doubt, the primary gregarious instinct; but it is reinforced by the social instinct, — the instinct to derive amusement and sympathy from mingling freely with one’s kind. This is very strong in all animals: it is especially strong in monkeys.

I do not wish to underestimate the value of this social instinct: it fosters sympathy and pity and charity. Gregariousness, indeed, makes the whole world kin. Not from the hermit, but from one who reads the daily papers, and talks over their contents with his neighbor, should we expect a contribution to feed the hungry in Ireland, or to relieve the political exile in Siberia.

To the social instinct we owe the salon, most kinds of cleverness in art and literature, the dramatic stage, and all those mental or intellectual qualities which come from the attrition of mind against mind. It is a commonplace that artists are of necessity gregarious. A single painter, confined to a New England village, for example, would pine and die, or take to drink, or come to some other ineffective end. The reason, perhaps, is that the painter works chiefly in the field of his perceptive faculties; his eye is turned outward, not inward: hence he is a creature not so much of thoughts as of impressions, and he can verify his impressions only by sharing or comparing them with those of his fellows. In popular estimation the painter is set down—and, on the whole, with truth—as being of a mercurial, superficial type of character. This levity of nature constitutes the price which he has to pay for being gregarious.

But when the intellectual element, and more especially the imaginative element, qualifies his work in a high degree; when, in short, he is a man of genius, then he becomes a law unto himself: his eye is turned inward, not outward, and the necessity for being gregarious disappears. Millet was the least gregarious of painters, excepting Turner, who alone, among modern artists, I suppose we may truly say, surpassed him in force of imagination.

What was true of Millet and of Turner is true of all intellectual workers, especially when they belong to the field of literature. Literary power can be stored, as water is stored in a reservoir. Experiences, internal or external, if not related on the spot, or little by little, may furnish, when accumulated, the material for a great work. Had the Bronté sisters passed their lives in a gossiping, tea-drinking society, they might have produced some clever stories and verses, but hardly the strong and original works which proceeded from that remote vicarage on the moors where they lived with a fortunately taciturn father. No abstract thinking can be done except in solitude. The thinker may find his solitude in the midst of London, as Addison did; at Craigenputtock or at Chelsea, as Carlyle did; in the woods and fields, as Wordsworth and Emerson did, — but find it he must.3

So, then, it appears, as indeed no one would deny, that the gregarious habit sharpens the wits, but dulls the higher intellectual powers. It might be urged that most men are incapable of abstract thinking, or of the exercise, in any real sense, of imagination, and therefore that solitude would be no advantage to them, and gregariousness no disadvantage. But this is an unduly pessimistic view. Every mind has in it some intellectual element, and that element can be nourished only in comparative solitude. Solitude tends to develop whatever there is in the individual which differentiates him from the race. Men of genius seldom arise in large cities. How very slight, for instance, has been the contribution made by London, notwithstanding its immense population, to the roll of great thinkers!

The former intellectual strength both of Scotland and of New England can be traced, in part at least, to the isolated lives of their rural population; and the admitted decline of intellectual power in New England accompanied, no doubt, by an increase of information on the part of the average man has kept pace with the advancing tide of gregarious habits. Who will assert that this is merely a coincidence!

It is, as I have implied all along, a question of degree. To be gregarious within proper limits tends to health and sanity, to good nature and charity. What these limits are it would be difficult to indicate in precise terms, but this much may be affirmed: every man’s life should have a background of solitude; there should be times when he walks alone, reads alone, thinks alone. Those who have not experienced these deep and tranquil delights, who have never refreshed themselves with solitude, as with a cool bath on a hot day, may find it difficult to imagine them. But there can be no difficulty in perceiving the evil effects of the opposite quality, gregariousness. “We descend to meet” is a saying of Emerson. And this is not a fault; it is not a weakness or a thing that can be remedied. It is a law of human nature. If a man have a noble aspiration, a holy ambition, let him keep it to himself, on penalty of becoming a self-satisfied egotist, if not a hypocrite. (I am, of course, speaking of impulses or resolves personal to one’s self, which cannot be communicated in general terms, as may be the admonitions of a preacher.)

Whenever an attempt is made to reverse this law, the results are disastrous. In certain Protestant bodies, there is a custom of holding “experience” or prayer meetings. At these meetings the practice is for one converted Christian or “professor” after another to get up and relate his experience: not his experience as a sinner, — that is passed over very lightly, — but the experience of his conversion, his spiritual resolves, hopes, and aspirations, his Christian deeds and thoughts. A coarse, self-satisfied nature will go through this performance very glibly; but a truer, better nature will accomplish it only by strong self-compulsion, and with a hesitation and shame-facedness painful to observe. I have witnessed them many times. Such persons have a natural and proper reluctance to lay bare the recesses of their hearts, to make public what should be kept secret; but under an erroneous sense of duty they violate their own instinct in the matter. I do not cite these religious meetings as examples of undue gregariousness, though perhaps I might fairly do so; but I cite them to show the futility, the sin, of endeavoring to reverse this law of nature, “We descend to meet.”

And if we descend to meet, that is a reason for not meeting overmuch. If we descend to meet, it must follow in a general way, with many exceptions no doubt, that those who meet the most descend the lowest. Now, if the reader will consult his own experience and observation, he will find, I think, that such is the case. Of course, in making this inquiry, we must compare, not one class with another, but the relatively isolated members of one class with the relatively gregarious members of the same class. Let us take drivers, for instance. A teamster who travels a lonely route is indefinitely superior to country hackmen, who spend half the day idling at the tavern and at the “deppo.” Such men are vile in their language almost in exact proportion as they have opportunity to cultivate the society of their equals. Among mechanics, the domestic shoe-maker, who sits at his bench alone all day, may be compared with his contemporary who works in a crowded shop. The former has ideas where the latter has only catch-words; and in respect to decency of thought and of language, the solitary workman will surpass the gregarious one even more widely. One of the most refined and thoughtful persons I ever knew was a mechanic who labored all day alone. Was such a man ever found in a roomful of men?

Thus far I have not sharply discriminated the two forms of evil that flow from gregariousness, namely, its tendency to dwarf the intellect, and its tendency to debase the manners. Gregariousness is always fatal to intellectual excellence; but is it always fatal to good manners? Is it always a source of vulgarity? Far from it. It will have occurred to the reader that what calls itself and with much truth the best society is excessively gregarious. The gregariousness of good society leads to an intellectual emptiness and monotony which in time disgust and weary even its own votaries, but it hardly tends to vulgarity. There can be no vulgarity without gregariousness, and yet it by no means follows that all gregarious people are vulgar. The truth seems to be that when people are fenced off from one another by the barriers of refinement, of a highly developed self-respect, and of a scrupulous regard for the personality of others, then gregariousness tends to lose its vulgarizing effect. In fact, gregarious habits are essential to the development of civility. Courtly manners are acquired at court, not on the farm nor in the library. And yet, so dangerous a thing is gregariousness, its baneful effects upon manners are seen even in the heart of the best society. When people slavishly adopt the same phrases, the same opinions, the same way of shaking hands, they are so far forth vulgar, whatever their refinement or consideration for others. And this brings us, I think, to the root of the whole matter.

The essence of good breeding is simplicity; not the simplicity of the peasant, although that is good in its way, but the simplicity of the really civilized man who has arrived at a kind of artificial naturalness. Treating of style in literature, the Saturday Review long ago remarked, “It is not given to every one to be simple.” This was a profound observation, and it is as true of life as of literature. The natural man has fitly been described as “a noisy, sensual savage.” Civilization teaches him to be quiet, to mind his own business, to refrain from offending or disgusting his neighbor, to respect himself, to stand on his own basis.

Now, if the essence of good breeding is simplicity, it may be said that the essence of vulgarity is a want of simplicity. To be vulgar is to be unquiet, to have no taste of one’s own, to be in continual disturbance on account of one’s neighbor, either by way of truckling to him, which is the manner of the snob, or of hating him, which is the vice of the radical, or of competing with him, which is the weakness of the parvenu. To be vulgar is to adopt other people’s language, to use their cant phrases, to copy the inflections of their voices, to espouse their ideas; in fine, to think and do and say, not what comes naturally to one, but what is supposed to be considered proper by other people. Thus to be vulgar is to lack simplicity.

This want of simplicity, this continual reference to outside standards, is possible only in a gregarious society. If a man lives in a solitary place, or alone in a city, he is forced back upon himself; the material for being vulgar does not exist. Apropos of that most accurately drawn heroine, Eustacia Vye, Thomas Hardy truly says, “It is impossible for any one living on a heath to be vulgar.” We associate vulgarity with large towns, because in the latter only can that measure of gregariousness obtain which is essential to the propagation of vulgarity. Vulgarity is a town growth, just as rusticity is a country quality.

The antidote to gregariousness is solitude, and especially solitude amidst natural objects. Hawthorne’s allegory of The Great Stone Face illustrates the influence of nature upon a receptive mind; and the same author thus concludes his account of a long and solitary ramble upon the seashore: —

“Such companionship works an effect upon a man’s character, as if he had been admitted to the society of creatures that are not mortal. And when at noontide I tread the crowded streets, the influence of this day will still be felt, so that I shall walk among men kindly, and as a brother, with affection and sympathy, but yet shall not melt me into the indistinguishable mass of humankind. I shall think my own thoughts, and feel my own emotions, and possess my individuality unviolated.”

The present age being greatly given to admiration of scenery, it might be thought that in respect to this taste, at least, the passion of gregariousness would be held in check. But alas! such is not the case. As I have said, men go out to view the face of nature in a crowd, and in the neighborhood of Boston there is a large and flourishing club for this very purpose. It has already left its trail upon almost every mountain slope in New England. Could any one fancy Wordsworth serving as president of the Grasmere Mountain Club, and pointing out the beauties of his beloved vale to a little group of one or two hundred fellow-members? It is true that we cannot all feel as Wordsworth felt, but every real lover of the mountains will approach them in precisely the same spirit that actuated him. One man alone—perhaps two men together, if congenial and reticent—can see a mountain, a valley, or a wood; but Nature hides her face from a crowd. Those unseen creatures of another world, to whom Hawthorne refers in the passage just quoted, will not reveal themselves to a party of picnickers eating hard-boiled eggs; they visit the imagination of the solitary rambler. The Dryades, I take it, would never have been discovered by a gay company rollicking homeward; they first appeared to some wanderer who passed through a wood alone at dusk.

“But there are no unseen creatures and no Dryades,” it might be objected. Perhaps not; and yet, since science cannot tell us what matter is or what life is, it may be that the thing which we call inanimate nature is a part of some conscious existence; or, at least, that the pagan conception of it is nearer to the truth than is our own mechanical view. I refrain from quoting here, as being too familiar, that famous passage in one of Newman’s sermons, which begins, “Every breath of air, every ray of light and heat,” etc.

At all events, thus much is certain: the landscape has a way of impressing upon the human mind ideas and emotions, vague but not unreal. Its influence is felt as is that of a person or of a book; and these subtle communications are made to man only as an isolated individual. They are not at the service of clubs or crowds. Solitude, good under any circumstances, is best in the face of nature; and although opportunities will often be wanting, yet it is in the power of almost every one to say with the old philosopher in his garret, “Ach, Mon lieber, I am alone with the stars!”

  1. These remarks are reported just as they occurred, without exaggeration.
  2. In the sense, as Mr. Galton elsewhere explains, that they are not needed for leadership of the herd.
  3. John Boyle O’Reilly used to say that the happiest years of his life were those which he passed in solitary confinement at Dartmoor prison; and although in this statement there may have been some unconscious exaggeration, those years could not have been unhappy, for the prisoner came out a sound and healthy man in mind and body.