Popular Science Monthly/Volume 1/July 1872/The Study of Human Nature

578507Popular Science Monthly Volume 1 July 1872 — The Study of Human Nature1872Henry Ward Beecher


By Rev. H. W. BEECHER.

MY impression is, that preachers are quite as well acquainted with human nature as the average of well-informed citizens, but far less than lawyers, or merchants, or teachers, or, especially, politicians. I mean that, taking our American clergy generally, in their practical relations with society, while on the one hand they have shown themselves to be shrewd, discreet, and sagacious—and if their separate functions had lain in the conduct of affairs, socially, there would be but little to be criticised on the whole—yet, as preachers, they stand off toward the bottom of the list among students of human nature.

The school of the future (if I am a prophet, and I am, of course, satisfied in my own mind that I am!) is what may be called a Life School, with a style of preaching that is to proceed, not so much upon the theory of the sanctity of the Church and its ordinances, or upon a preexisting system of truth which is in the Church somewhere or somehow, as upon the necessity for all teachers, first, to study the strengths and the weaknesses of human nature minutely; and then to make use of such portions of the truth as are required by the special needs of man, and for the development of the spiritual side of human nature over the animal or lower side—the preparation of man in his higher nature for a nobler existence hereafter. It is a life-school in this respect, that it deals not with the facts of the past, except in so far as they can be made food for the present and factors of the life that now is; but rather studies to understand men, and to deal with them face to face and heart to heart—yea, even to mould them as an artist moulds his clay or carves his statue. And, in regard to such a school as that, while there has been a good deal done incidentally? the revised procedure of education yet awaits development and accomplishment; and I think that our profession is in danger, and in great danger, of going under, and of working effectively only among the relatively less informed and intelligent of the community; of being borne with, in a kind of contemptuous charity, or altogether neglected, by the men of culture who have been strongly developed on their moral side—not their moral side as connected with revealed religion, but as connected rather with human knowledge and worldly wisdom. The question, then, comes up, Do men need this intimately practical instruction; and, if so, must there be to meet it this life-school of preachers?

It is said, by some, "Has not Christianity been preached by plain men, who did not understand so very much about human nature, in every age of the world?" It has; and what has eighteen hundred years to show for it? To-day, three-fourths of the globe is heathen, or but semi-civilized. After eighteen hundred years of preaching of the faith under the inspiration of the living Spirit of God, how far has Christianity gone in the amelioration of the condition of the race? I think that one of the most humiliating things that can be contemplated, and one of the things most savory to the skeptical, and which seems the most likely to infuse a skeptical spirit into men, is to look at the pretensions of the men who boast of the progress of their work, and then to look at their performances. I concede that there has been a great deal done, and there has been a great deal of preparation for more; but I say that the torpors, the vast retrocessions, the long lethargic periods, and the wide degeneration of Christianity into a kind of ritualistic mummery and conventional usage, show very plainly that the past history of preaching Christianity is not to be our model. We must find a better mode of administration.

We need to study human nature, in the first place, because it is the Divine nature which we are to interpret to men. Divine attribute corresponds to our idea of human faculty. The terms are analogous. You cannot interpret the Divine nature except through some knowledge of human nature. There are those who believe that God transcends men, not simply in quality and magnitude, but in kind. Without undertaking to confirm or deny this, I say that the only part of the Divine nature that we can understand is that part which corresponds to ourselves, and that all which lies outside of what we can recognize is something that never can be interpreted by us. It is not within our reach. Whatever it may be, therefore, of God that, by searching we can find out, all that we interpret, and all that we can bring, in its moral influence, to bear upon men, is in its study but a higher form of mental philosophy.

Now, let us see what government is. It is the science of managing men. What is moral government? It is moral science, or the theory upon which God manages men. What is the management of men, again, but a thing founded upon human nature? so that, to understand moral government, you are run right back to the same necessity. You must comprehend that on which God's moral government itself stands, which is human nature.

But, again, the fundamental doctrine on which our labors stand is the need of the transformation of man's nature by the Divine Spirit. This is altogether a question of psychology. The old theological way of stating man's sinfulness, namely, "Total Depravity," was so gross and so discriminating, and was so full of endless misapprehensions, that it has largely dropped out of use. Men no longer are accustomed, I think, to use that term as once they did. That all men are sinful, is taught; but "What is meant by 'sinful?'" is the question which immediately comes back. Instantly, the schools begin to discuss it. Is it a state of the fibre of the substance or the soul? Is it any aberration, any excess, any disproportion of natural elements? Wherein does the fault lie? What is it? The moment you discuss this, you are discussing human nature. It is the mind you are discussing. In order to know what is an aberration, you must know what is normal. In order to know what is in excess, you must know what is the true measure. Who can tell whether a man is selfish, unless he knows what is benevolent? Who can tell whether a man has departed from the correct idea unless he has some conception of that idea? The very foundation on which you stand to-day necessitates knowledge of man as its chief basis.

Consider, too, how a minister, teaching the moral government of God, the nature of God, and the condition of man and his necessities, is obliged to approach the human soul. Men are sluggish, or are so occupied and filled with what are to them important interests, that, ordinarily, when a preacher comes into a community, he finds it either slumbering, or averse to his message, or indifferent to it; and, in either case, his business is to stimulate their moral nature. But how shall he know the art of stimulating man's moral nature, who has never studied it? You must arouse men and prepare them to be moulded. How can you do it, if you know nothing about them?

A man who would minister to a diseased body must have an accurate knowledge of the organs, and of the whole structure of the body, in a sanitary condition. We oblige our physicians to know anatomy and physiology. We oblige them to study morbid anatomy, as well as normal conditions. We say that no man is prepared to practise without this knowledge, and the law interferes, or does as far as it can, to compel it. Now, shall a man know how to administer to that which is a thousand times more subtle and important than the body, and which is the exquisite blossom of the highest development and perfection of the human system, namely, the mind in its modern development—shall a man assume to deal with that, and raise and stimulate it, being ignorant of its nature? A man may know the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation; he may know every theological treatise from the day of Augustine to the day of Dr. Taylor; and, if he does not understand human nature, he is not fit to preach.

Suppose a man should undertake to cut off your leg because he had been a tool-maker? He had made lancets, probes, saws, and that sort of thing all his life; but he had never seen a man's leg amputated, and did not know exactly where the arteries or veins lie. Suppose he should think that making surgeons' tools fitted him to be a surgeon—would it? The surgeon must know his tools and how to handle them, but he must know, too, the system on which he is going to use them. And shall a man, charged with the care of the soul, sharpen up his understanding with moral distinctions and learned arguments, and know all about the theories of theology, from Adam down to our day, and yet know nothing of the organism upon which all these instrumentalities are to be used? Shall he know nothing about man himself? The student who goes out to his work with a wide knowledge of theology, and no knowledge of human nature, is not half fitted for his duty. One reason why so many succeed is, that, although they have no formal instruction in human nature, they have learned much in the family and in the school and by other indirect methods, and so have a certain stock—I might say an illegitimate stock—of knowledge, but which was not provided in the system of their studies.

If I might be allowed to criticise the general theological course, or to recommend any thing in relation to it, I should say that one of the prime constituents of the training should be a study of the human soul and body from beginning to end. We must arouse and stimulate men, and seek to bring them into new relations with truth, with ourselves, and with the community.

There is another consideration that we cannot blink, and that is, that we are in danger of having the intelligent part of society go past us. The study of human nature is not going to be left in the hands of the church or the ministry. It is going to be a part of every system of liberal education, and. will be pursued on a scientific basis. There is being now applied among scientists a greater amount of real, searching, discriminating thought, tentative and experimental, to the whole structure and functions of man and the method of the development of mental force, than ever has been expended upon it in the whole history of the world put together. More men are studying it, and they are coming to results, and these results are starting, directly or indirectly, a certain kind of public thought and feeling. In religion, the psychological school of mental philosophers are not going to run in the old grooves of Christian doctrine. They are not going to hold the same generic ideas respecting men; and if ministers do not make their theological systems conform to facts as they are—if they do not recognize what men are studying, the time will not be far distant when the pulpit will be like the voice crying in the wilderness. And it will not be, "Prepare the way of the Lord," either. This work is going to be done. The providence of God is rolling forward a spirit of investigation that Christian ministers must meet and join. There is no class of people upon earth who can less afford to let truth run ahead of them than Christian ministers. You cannot wrap yourselves in professional mystery, for the glory of the Lord is such that it is preached with power throughout all the length and breadth of the world, by these investigators of His wondrous creation. You cannot go back and become an apostle of the dead past, drivelling after ceremonies, and letting the world do the thinking and studying. There must be a new spirit infused into the ministry. Some men are so afraid that, in breaking away from the old systems and original forms and usages, Christianity will get the go-by! Christianity is too vital, too really divine in its innermost self, to fear any such results. There is no trouble about Christianity. You take care of yourselves and of men, and learn the truth as God shows it to you all the time, and you need not be afraid of Christianity—that will take care of itself. You might as well be afraid that battles would rend the sky, or that something would stop the rising and setting of the sun. The power of Divine love and mercy is not going to be stopped, and will certainly not be stopped, by the things that are true.

You cannot afford to shut your eyes to the truths of human nature. Every Christian minister is bound to fairly look at these things. Every scientific man who is studying human nature is bound to open his eyes and ears, and to study all its phenomena. I read that Huxley refused to attend a séance of spiritualists. He said, contemptuously, that it was a waste of time, and gave expression to other sentiments of disdain. I am not an adherent of the spiritual doctrines; I have never seen my way clear to accept them. But phenomena which are wrapping up millions of men, and vitally affecting their condition, are not to be disdained by scientific men, whose business it is to study phenomenology of all kinds. No scientific man can excuse himself from examining them. He may say that he has no time to do it, and that some other man must investigate them. That would be right. All men cannot do all things. But to speak of any thing of this kind with contempt is not wise. I am not afraid to look at this thing, or any thing. I am not afraid that we are going to have the New Testament taken away from us. We must be more industrious in investigation, more honest in deduction, and more willing to take the truth in its new fulness; and we must be imbued with that simplicity in faith and truth which we inculcate in our people.

With this general statement of the necessity of the study of the human nature and mind in its structure and functions, I will pass on to the next point, which is, the way in which this study is to be prosecuted. How are we going about it?

In the first place, you must study facts, scientifically. I think that such works as Bain's, while criticisable in many directions, nevertheless are works of very great interest, as showing a wise tendency in the investigation of the mind of man—the founding of mental philosophy upon physiology. I do not commend the system in all its particulars, but I speak of its tendency, which is in the right direction. I would say the same, also, of Herbert Spencer's works. There is much in him that I believe will be found sovereign and noble in the final account of truth, when our knowledge of it is rounded up. There was never a field of wheat that ripened which did not have a good deal of straw and husk with it. I doubt not but Herbert Spencer will have much straw and husk that will need to be burned. Nevertheless, the direction he is moving in is a wise one, which is the study of human nature—of the totality of man.

It was believed once that man did not think by the brain. I believe that notion has gone by. Most men now admit that the brain is the organ of the mind. It is held that it cannot be partitioned off into provinces, and that there are no external indications of its various functions. I shall not dispute that question with you. It is now generally conceded that there is an organization which we call the nervous system in the human body, to which belong the functions of emotion, intelligence, and sensation, and that—that is connected intimately with the whole circulation of the blood, with the condition of the blood as affected by the liver, and by aeration in the lungs; that the manufacture of the blood is dependent upon the stomach: so a man is what he is, not in one part or another, but all over; one part is intimately connected with the other, from the animal stomach to the throbbing brain; and when a man thinks, he thinks the whole trunk through. Man's power comes from the generating forces that are in him, namely, the digestion of nutritious food into vitalized blood, made fine by oxygenation; an organization by which that blood has free course to flow and be glorified; a neck that will allow the blood to run up and down easily; a brain properly organized and balanced; the whole system so compounded as to have susceptibilities and recuperative force; immense energy to generate resources and facility to give them out—all these elements go to determine what a man's working power is. And shall a man undertake to study human nature, every thing depending upon his knowledge of it, and he not study the prime conditions under which human nature must exist?

I have often seen young ministers sit at the table, and even those of sixty years of age, eating out of all proportion, beyond the necessities of their systems; and I have seen, on the other hand, ministers who ate below the necessities of their systems, under a vague impression that sanctifying grace wrought better on an empty stomach than on a full one. It seems to me that all Divine grace and Divine instruments honor God's laws everywhere; and that the best condition for grace in the mental system is that in which the human body is in a perfect state of health. That is a question which every man can best settle for himself. Some men under-sleep and some over-sleep; some eat too much, and some too little. Some men use stimulants who do not need them, while others avoid them who need them and would be better for their use. There is a vast amount of truth relative to the individual that is not studied by the minister, though it ought to be, as to the incoming and the outflow of force. Some clergymen prepare themselves to preach on Sunday by sitting up very late on Saturday night, and exhausting their vitality, thus compelling themselves to force their overtasked powers to extraordinary exertion to perform their Sabbath duties; which entails upon them the horrors of Blue Monday, the result of a spasmodic and drastic excitement. It is, and it ought to be, a purgatory to them. You must study yourselves as men. Is there no self-knowledge that can be acquired, so that a man shall know how to be merciful to his beast?

You see that whatever relates to the whole organization of the human body and its relations to health and to perfect symmetry must be studied, for all these relations are intimate, and concern both your own working powers and the material among men that you will have to work on.

In studying mental philosophy after this fashion, I would not have you ignore metaphysics. The perceptions of those subtle relations, near and remote, specific and generic, that obtain among spiritual facts of different kinds, I understand to be metaphysics; and that, I suppose, must be studied. I think it sharpens men and renders them familiar with the operations of the human mind, if not carried too far, and gives them a grasp and penetration that they would not get otherwise. It is favorable to moral insight, when developed in connection with the other sides of human nature. While I say that you ought to study mental philosophy with a strong physiological side to it, I do not wish it to be understood that I decry mental philosophy with a strong metaphysical side to it.

There is one question beyond that. While studying mental philosophy for the sake of religious education, and studying both sides of it, you are doing one thing; but when the question comes up how to study mental philosophy, I do not know any thing that can compare in facility of usableness with Phrenology. I do not suppose that phrenology is a perfect system of mental philosophy. It hits here and there. It needs revising, as in its present shape it is crude; but, nevertheless, when it becomes necessary to talk to people about themselves, I know of no other nomenclature which so nearly expresses what we need, and which is so facile in its use, as phrenology. Nothing can give you the formulated analysis of mind, as that can. Now let me say, particularly, a few things about this, and personally, too. I suppose I inherited from my father a tendency or intuition to read man. The very aptitude that I recognize in myself for the exercise of this power would indicate a preexisting tendency. In my junior college year I became, during the visit of Spurzheim, enamoured of phrenology. For twenty years, although I have not made it a special study, it has been the foundation on which I have worked. Admit, if you please, it is not exactly the true thing; and admit, if you will, that there is little form or system in it; yet I have worked with it the same as botanists worked with the Linnæan system of botany, the classification of which is very convenient, although an artificial one. There is no natural system that seems to correspond to human nature so nearly as phrenology does.

For example, you assume that a man's brain is the general organ of the spiritual and intellectual functions.

I see a man with a small brow and big in the lower part of his head, like a bull, and I know that that man is not likely to be a saint. All the reasoning in the world would not convince me of the contrary, but I would say of such a man, that he has very intense ideas, and will bellow and push like a bull of Bashan. Now, practically, do you suppose I would commence to treat with such a man by flaunting a rag in his face? My first instinct in regard to him is what a man would have if he found himself in a field with a wild-bull, which would be to put himself on good manners, and use means of conciliation, if possible.

On the other hand, if I see a man whose forehead is very high and large, but who is thin in the back of the head, and with a small neck and trunk, I say to myself, "That is a man, probably, whose friends are always talking about how much there is in him, but who never does any thing. He is a man who has great organs, but nothing to drive them with. He is like a splendid locomotive without a boiler."

Again, you will see a man with a little bullet-head, having accomplished more than that big-headed man, who ought to have been a strong giant and a great genius. The bullet-headed man has outstripped the broad-browed man in every thing he undertook; and people say, "Where is your phrenology?" In reply, I say, "Look at that bullet-headed man, and see what he has to drive his bullet-head with!" His stomach gives evidence that he has natural forces to carry forward his purposes. Then look at the big-headed man. He can't make a spoonful of blood in twenty-four hours, and what he does make is poor and thin. Phrenology classifies the brain-regions well enough, but you must understand its relations to physiology, and the dependence of brain-work upon the quantity and quality of blood that the man's body makes.

You may ask, "What is the use of knowing these things?" All the use in the world. If a person comes to me, with dark, coarse hair, I know he is tough and enduring, and I know, if it is necessary, that I can hit him a rap to arouse him; but, if I see a person who has fine, silky hair, and a light complexion, I know that he is of an excitable temperament, and must be dealt with soothingly. Again, if I see one with a large blue, watery eye, and its accompanying complexion, I say to myself that all Mount Sinai could not wake that man up. I have seen men of that stamp, whom you could no more stimulate to action, than you could a lump of dough by blowing a resurrection-trump over it.

Men are like open books, if looked at properly. Suppose I attempt to analyze a man's deeds; I can do it with comparative facility, because I have in my eye the general outline of the man's disposition and mental tendencies. A deed is like a letter stamped from a die. The motive that directs the deed is like the matrix that moulds the stamp. You may know the mould from the impression made by the stamp. You must know what men are in order to reach them, and that is a part of the science of preaching. If there is any profession in the world that can afford to be without this practical knowledge of human nature, it certainly is not the profession of a preacher.—Abridged from the Christian Union.