Omniana/Volume 1/Motives and Impulses

119. Motives and Impulses.

It is a matter of infinite difficulty, but fortunately of comparative indifference, to determine what a man's motive may have been for this or that particular action. Rather seek to learn what his objects in general are. What does he habitually wish? habitually pursue? and thence deduce his impulses, which are commonly the true efficient causes of men's conduct; and without which the motive itself would not have become a motive. Let a haunch of venison represent the motive, and the keen appetite of health and exercise the impulse: then place the same or some more favourite dish, before the same man, sick, dyspeptic, and stomach-worn, and we may then weigh the comparative influences of motives and impulses. Without the perception of this truth, it is impossible to understand the character of Iago, who is represented as now assigning one, and then another, and again a third, motive for his conduct, all alike the mere fictions of his own restless nature, distempered by a keen sense of his intellectual superiority, and haunted by the love of exerting power, on those especially who are his superiors in practical and moral excellence. Yet how many among our modern critics have attributed to the profound author this, the appropriate inconsistency of the character itself!

A second illustration.—Did Curio, the quondam patriot, reformer, and semi-revolutionist, abjure his opinions, and yell the foremost in the hunt of persecution against his old friends and fellow-philosophists, with a cold clear pre-determination, formed at one moment, of making 5000l. a-year by his apostacy?—I neither know nor care. Probably not. But this I know, that to be thought a man of consequence by his contemporaries, to be admitted into the society of his superiors in artificial rank, to excite the admiration of Lords, to live in splendor and sensual luxury, have been the objects of his habitual wishes. A flash of lightning has turned at once the polarity of the compass needle: and so, perhaps, now and then, but as rarely, a violent motive may revolutionize a man's opinions and professions. But more frequently his honesty dies away imperceptibly from evening into twilight, and from twilight to utter darkness.—He turns hypocrite so gradually, and by such tiny atoms of motion, that by the time be has arrived at a given point, he forgets his own hypocrisy in the imperceptible degrees of his conversion. The difference between such a man and a bolder liar, is merely that between the hour-hand, and that which tells the seconds, on a watch. Of the former you can see only the motion, of the latter both the past motion and the present moving. Yet there is, perhaps, more hope of the latter rogue: for he has lied to mankind only and not to himself—the former lies to his own heart, as well as to the public.