IT is a surprising thing how difficult it is to get a satisfactory definition of the word vulgar. In common use the word is generally used to denote those people whom, in the social scale, we consider to rank immediately below ourselves. “ Such vulgar people!” — that is not a phrase as a rule applied to families whose ways of life are frankly different from our own, but rather to people whom we think socially rather beneath us, but who might be mistaken by careless observers for people on our own precise level. The mistress of the large villa applies it to the dwellers in the small villa, not to the inhabitants of the cottage. And, alas, there is no surer sign of the presence of the quality itself than a tendency to apply the term liberally to other people.
The difficulty of defining the word vulgarity precisely, arises from the fact that, like most vehement and expressive words, it covers a large variety of meanings, and is tinged with different kinds of contempt. It is sometimes applied to exterior manners, and means a certain loudness of tone, a tendency to boast of one’s mental and social resources, a disagreeable familiarity, a habit of patronizing, a patent conceit and self-satisfaction. Sometimes it stands for pretentiousness, for an assumption of knowledge, or experience, or consideration, which the individual who professes to possess them does not in reality enjoy. Sometimes, in the mouth of refined people, — or at all events of people who lay claim to a certain degree of refinement, — it means a coarseness and commonness of view, a tendency to jest broadly about things like love and marriage and domestic trials, which are more appropriately veiled from public view.
But perhaps we shall best track this evasive quality to its lair if we begin by considering its opposites, and think what it certainly is not, and what qualities there are that seem to be absolutely exclusive of vulgarity.
Now there are certain nations who have the quality strongly in the blood; and, indeed, it seems to testify to a strong and full-blooded vitality, a desire for selfassertion; and thus we may expect to find vulgarity dogging, like a shadow, the footsteps of strong, capable, and pushing nationalities. But there are certain nations who have been accused of many faults, who yet have never been accused of being vulgar. The Irish are a case in point. They have been accused of levity, of undue conviviality, of frivolity, of a tendency to romance, of untrustworthiness, of irresponsibility; but they have never been accused of vulgarity. Such a character, for instance, as Captain Costigan in Pendennis is deplorably unsatisfactory. He is vain, irascible, undignified, fond of strong liquor, unduly rhetorical; but he is never exactly vulgar. He has a curious inner dignity of spirit, which emerges when you would least expect it. He has a fervid admiration for fine moral qualities, such as generosity,courage,and loyalty. The truth is that the Irish have the poetical quality; they are all idealists, sometimes almost inconveniently so; and it may be safely stated, without fear of contradiction, that vulgarity is inconsistent with the poetical quality. There lies deep in the Celtic temperament a rich vein of emotion, a strong relish for the melancholy side of life; it is on this that their incomparable sense of humor is based; and it may be said that no one who feels at home with melancholy, who luxuriates in the strange contrast between the possibilities and the performances of humanity, is in any danger of vulgarity; for one of the essential components of vulgarity is a complacent selfsatisfaction; and if a man is apt to dwell regretfully on what might have been, rather than cheerfully upon what is, there is but little room for complacency. In fact it may be said that the Irish race has a strong sense of the poetry of failure and disappointment; whereas to the vulgar person failure is simply an intolerable evil, to be thrust out of sight as far as possible.
Then, too, there is another quality, the quality of reverence, which is inconsistent with vulgarity. The Irish are certainly not a naturally reverent nation,— superficially; but I should hold that, though their sense of humor may sometimes create a hopelessly different impression, they have a strong sense of inner reverence for what is noble and beautiful. Deference is too often mistaken for reverence, but deference is too often only a superficial courtesy. Much, too, depends upon what the objects of reverence are. A reverence for pomp and rank and wealth is not the reverence I mean, when it is conceded to the possessors of such advantages irrespective of any personal merit. I rather mean the reverence which is evoked by fine qualities and noble actions and great principles. Men who have this quality of inner reverence have very little temptation to be vulgar.
But, if the poetical sense or the sense of reverence saves a man from vulgarity, there is another quality which rescues him once and for all from the taint. That is the quality of simplicity. The simple, sincere, straightforward person, who approaches his fellow men frankly and unsuspiciously, who expects to admire and like others, who judges people and events on their own merits, who is not uneasy about his own dignity, who has no taste for recognition, — such a person is entirely free from any possibility of being vulgar. Indeed, it may be said that one of the commonest forms of vulgarity is the fear of being thought vulgar. And one of the reasons which makes simple people slow to suspect vulgarity in others is because they are not on the lookout for it; and further, there is nothing which so generates vulgarity in others as the presence of it in one’s self; so, also, there is nothing which so arouses simplicity in others as to be met with simplicity. For if one of the essential attributes of vulgarity is pretentiousness, there is nothing which so disposes of pretentiousness as the consciousness that one is dealing with a person who will not be impressed by any parade of qualities, but recognizes instinctively the true characteristics of those with whom he is brought in contact.
Vulgarity, again, is certainly commoner among men than among women; and, indeed, when a woman is vulgar, she is apt to display the quality in high perfection. The reason why it is rare among women is that the emotional nature is stronger among women than among men; and thus, where men are ambitious, fond of displaying power, anxious to carry out designs, desirous of recognition, women are sympathetic, tender, affectionate, subtle; they value relations with others more than performances; they encourage and console, because they are interested in the person who desires sympathy more than in the aims which he nourishes. A man is often more dear to a woman in failure than in success, because in success a woman can often only applaud, whereas in failure she can sustain and help. If one’s main interest in life is in the personalities that surround one, if one is more attracted by the display of qualities than by the performance of undertakings, one is not likely to be tempted by vulgarity; because the essence, again, of vulgarity is that it tends to affix an altogether fictitious value to material things. A man who pursues wealth, comfort, power, position, is always in danger of vulgarity; a man whose aim is wisdom, truth, peace, is not likely to indulge in the complacent sense of attainment, because he is in pursuit of the infinite rather than of the finite.
Hitherto we have dealt with the outward and superficial manifestations of vulgarity, and in the region of manners rather than of morals. Let us now try to probe a little deeper, and to see whether vulgarity is of its essence sinful. Of course, there is a great deal of superficial vulgarity that is not at all sinful, but is simply the natural buoyancy of a rather ill-bred temperament. But this kind of vulgarity, distressing and disagreeable as it is to be brought into contact with, is rather a lack of finer consideration for the rights and tastes of others, and is not inconsistent with great kindness, generosity, affection, and loyalty, and even enthusiasm.
There is, however, a deep-seated and inner vulgarity of soul which may be certainly held to be a grave and disfiguring moral fault, and this species of vulgarity is a commoner thing than is sometimes suspected, because it may coexist with a high degree of mental and social refinement. This inner and deeper vulgarity is sometimes accompanied with an almost Satanical power of suppressing its outward manifestations. A fine typical instance of it is to be found in Mr. Henry James’s wonderful novel, The Portrait of a Lady, where Gilbert Osmond, who marries the heroine, is slowly revealed as a man of a deep and innate vulgarity of spirit. When he first appears in the book, he comes upon the scene as a man of intense and sensitive refinement, living in great simplicity and seclusion in a villa near Florence, fond of art and artistic emotions, a collector of bric-a-brac, who appears to the romantic Isabel as one who has solemnly and deliberately eschewed the world because he cannot bring himself to strive, to desire, to fight. She marries him, and endows him with her wealth; and then, by a ghastly series of small discoveries, she finds that his one aim has been to mystify the world, and that his ambition has been to stimulate the curiosity of others about himself, and to refuse to gratify it. His one desire has been to be a personage, and as he could not achieve this by performance, he has tried to achieve it by pose. The man whom she thought a kind of gentle Quietist appears to be nothing but a mass of ignoble and snobbish traditions.
Now it may be said that this species is not a very uncommon one, and it may be seen to its perfection among wealthy aristocracies. You may meet people who are the perfection of breeding, of courtesy, of consideration, and you may then, as you penetrate deeper, discover that all this elaborate panoply is the result not of sympathy, but of a mere sense of dignity and of what is due from people of position. Such people are often so intensely secure of consideration that it is not worth their while to claim it or parade it. Then one finds that a certain status or position — it is not wealth, or even rank that they admire, so much as a certain weight of tradition — is the one thing that they value. They take themselves with an infinite seriousness. They have no respect for energy, intellect, nobleness of character, activity, capacity, except in so far as such qualities tend to make people socially important. Their attitude to all these qualities, if they are unaccompanied by social status, is that of a condescension so delicate that it is hardly observable. There was a delightful picture in Punch, about the time that Tennyson accepted a peerage, representing two of these graceful and attenuated aristocrats, faultlessly attired, and destitute of chin and forehead alike, standing together in a drawing-room. One of them says amiably to the other, “I hear that what’s-his-name, that poet feller, is going to become one of us.”
It is such deep-seated vulgarity, such ineffable and courteous complacency, that has plunged countries into civil war, and that, indeed, ultimately produced the French Revolution. Argument, rhetoric, persuasion are thrown away on these impenetrable natures; and even when their estates are confiscated and they are reduced to poverty, their sense of inner dignity is undisturbed.
Thus vulgarity, when it is seen in its deepest and most recondite form, is undoubtedly a heinous moral fault. It results in tyranny and oppression, and is fatal to the rights of man. It was this kind of vulgarity, the sense of rightness and superiority, that our Lord assailed so fiercely and denounced so unsparingly in the Pharisees. The essence of it is to know one’s place, and to despise those who have not one’s own advantages. Thus it may be found also in both intellectual and even highly moral people. There is a species of intellectual vulgarity which shows itself in contemptuous derision of sentiment and emotion; which makes a certain type of reviewer trample disdainfully upon literary work with which he does not happen to be in sympathy. There is a terrible species of moral vulgarity which is to be found in great force among members of the religious middle class, which tends to suspect the morals of all other classes, and to consider its own ways of life the perfection of simplicity, rightness, and virtue.
Indeed, a very curious problem arises out of the fact that there are many undeniably effective forms of religion which are yet strongly mixed up with vulgarity. Not to travel far for instances, the preaching of the late Mr. Spurgeon was highly spiced by a kind of superficial vulgarity of treatment. Yet, if one reads the Gospel, one instinctively feels that it is in its essence opposed to every kind of vulgarity. The explanation probably is that the part of Mr. Spurgeon’s religion which proved effective from a spiritual point of view was not the vulgar part of it; but that, dealing, as he was compelled to do, with people whose native refinement was not very deep, he made a practical compromise, and preached a religion which was superficially attractive to shrewd and sensible minds, in order that he might insensibly allure them past the outworks and into the inner citadel of personal holiness; and that, as Coventry Patmore writes, “the sweetness melted from the barbèd hook” as soon as the capture was made.
It seems, then, that the essence of all vulgarity is the favorable comparison of one’s self, upon whatever ground, with the characters and habits of others. The duchess who considers herself a model of unimpeachable dignity is vulgar if she pities those who have not her advantages. The mechanic who has a strong sense of his own rectitude and ability is vulgar, if he despises those who are not equally endowed.
It is a subtle poison, and perhaps of all the dangerous essences of the soul the most difficult to expel, because it is so often based on a consciousness of what is really there. Rank and rectitude alike are pleasant gifts; but the moment that one derives a sense of merit from the fortuitous possession of them, that moment one crosses the border-line of vulgarity, and is daubed with its malodorous slime.