Popular Science Monthly/Volume 16/November 1879/Intellectual Straining in Authorship


WE hear a good deal of the joylessness of the present generation, and no doubt there is a greater unrest and a greater impatience among those who lead the forward movement of thought than in any former time. And partly, no doubt, this is due to want of trust, want of power to lean on any invisible hand; partly, too, to a habit closely connected with this want of trust—a habit contracted by men of the greatest intellect, of straining to see or say something new, as if such straining were the only healthy condition of the mind, as if without it one must sink into a sort of death. Carlyle was one of the first to set the example of this straining. His genius, great as it is, may be almost said to have grown out of the taste for abrupt changes of light and shadow, in the flickerings of which he has contrived to set so considerable a tract of life, both domestic and historic. His peculiar dialect itself is a great instrument for startling men, for giving them little shocks or thrills of unexpected impression. Very often, too, he has succeeded, as some great photographers have succeeded, in producing a very powerful impression by deliberately taking his portraits out of focus. Carlyle's influence is in this respect more or less reflected in Ruskin, who has taught the younger generation of Oxford men so much and yet often so grotesquely, who has fostered so much more excitement of mind than is healthy, and who has accustomed them to so much disproportion between the vehemence of what he says and its truth. And, of those of our younger generation who go abroad for tuition, how many prefer Victor Hugo to any home-bred master for this very reason alone—that his genius is so irregular and grotesque, that it combines so much excitement with so much insight, that there is such a piercing glance and so little law! It is the same in the New World. There are many who believe that Ralph Waldo Emerson is the greatest of living sages. And certainly his career has been calm and sedate enough, and there is real penetration in his glance. But, though he has never thrown much of emotional excitement into his teaching, his philosophy means nothing, if it does not mean that you get a truer view of life by standing on intellectual tiptoe and straining at a universal truth that is not quite within your reach than you do by humbly putting together what you may really be said to understand. There is no greater contrast between intellectual men than there is between the sedate calm of Emerson and the transcendental exultation or anguish of Victor Hugo. But, on a purely intellectual theme, the one reminds us curiously of the other. Here is a preface furnished by Emerson to a series of portraits of the hundred greatest men of the human race, which has just been begun by an enterprising publisher.[1] How does he try to interest the reader in the images of these hundred greatest figures of history? Why, by writing thus: "The great are our better selves, ourselves with advantages. It is the only platform on which all men can meet. If you deal with a vulgar mind, life is reduced to beggary. He makes me rich, him I call Plutus, who shows me that every man is mine, and every faculty is mine—who does not impoverish me in praising Plato, but contrariwise, is adding assets to my industry." Well, that alone seems to us pure strain to say something new, without much care whether or not it be true. Beethoven's faculty is not mine, whether I like to say so or not—nay, nothing can make it mine; probably nothing can make me even understand it. Great men are not our better selves, they are only something that our better selves very slowly learn to apprehend. But as if that were not overstrained enough, Emerson goes on: "An ethereal sea ebbs and flows, surges and rushes hither and thither, carrying its whole virtue into every creek and inlet which it bathes. To this sea, every human house has a water-front. Every truth is a power. Every idea, from the moment of its emergence, begins to gather material force, after a little while makes itself known. It works first on thoughts, then on things; makes feet, and afterward shoes; first hands, then gloves; makes men, and so the age and its material soon after. The history of the world is nothing but a procession of clothed ideas. As certainly as water falls in rain on the tops of mountains, and runs down into valleys, plains, and pits, so does thought fall first in the best minds, and runs down from class to class until it touches the masses, and so makes revolutions."

We have heard that kind of thing from Mr. Emerson now for so many years, that it has almost the charm of an old, old landscape, to find him saying again now what he said in the first volume which Mr. Carlyle introduced to the British public with the unique emphasis of one of his peculiar redundancies of repetition, "The words of such a man, what words he thinks fit to speak, are worth attending to." But no one, we think, who puzzled out Mr. Emerson in his youth, and has since compared his mode of presenting the Pantheistic idea with that of other thinkers, will regard it as a simple or natural mode—quite apart from any opinion as to the truth or falsehood of the idea itself. It is emphatically an unnatural and paradoxical mode of presenting it. It is the mode of a man who wishes to say something grander than any clear thought he can express, something that does not fit the thought so much as attract attention to it by phraseological unsuitability and extravagance. It is the style of one of the Illuminati, not of simple, sincere philosophy.

And even among a very different school—the school of what we may call physical skepticism, as distinguished from transcendental skepticism—there is the same tendency to intellectual strain, as in the case of the late Professor Clifford—a man of whom his biographer tells us that, before taking his degree at Cambridge, and for some little time afterward, he was "an ardent High Churchman," but who within ten years of that time gravely assured his Sunday audience as follows:

"On the whole, therefore, we seem entitled to conclude that, during such time as we can have evidence of, no intelligence or volition has been concerned in events happening within the range of the solar system, except that of animals living on the planets. The weight of such probabilities is, of course, estimated differently by different people, and these questions are only just beginning to receive the right sort of attention. But it does seem to me that we may expect in time to have negative evidence on this point of the same kind, and the same cogency, as that which forbids us to assume the existence between the earth and Venus of a planet as large as either of them."

It is hardly possible to regard a statement of that kind, made by a brilliant young man to a popular audience, within a few years of the time when he was himself an ardent Christian, and on the mere strength of the assumption that "mind without brain is a contradiction," except as the result of a delight in intellectual straining for its own sake. It is not merely that the atheistic drift is intrinsically so audacious and violent, but that the mode of its statement is still more audacious and violent. To assert that a disproof of a divine intelligence might be expected of the same degree of validity as the disproof of the existence of a large inferior planet, in a position in which its influence would long ago have been detected, both directly and indirectly—where, indeed, it would have vitiated every calculation made for a century and a half at least—can hardly have been the result of anything but a sheer desire to inflict a great intellectual shock, to produce the excitement of a new intellectual strain. It was, indeed, the product of the same state of mind which made the same brilliant paradox-monger enjoy saying, when at college, "There is one thing in the world more wicked than the desire to command, and that is the will to obey." But that startling saying was commonplace itself compared with those statements which he made as a mature man many years later, to a large and indiscriminate popular audience. And, in his great philippic against the sin of credulity, he strains matters often to a point as shrill. Nay, even Mr. Pollock, in writing his memoir of his friend, appears anxious to strike a similar chord. Speaking of Clifford's last days, he says: "Far be it from me, as it was far from him, to grudge to any man or woman the hope or comfort that may be found in sincere expectation of a better life to come. But let this be set down and remembered, plainly and openly, for the instruction and rebuke of those who fancy that these dogmas have a monopoly of happiness, and will not face the fact that there are true men, ay, and women, to whom the dignity of manhood and the fellowship of this life, undazzled by the magic of any revelation, unholpen of any promises holding out aught as higher or more enduring than the fountain of human love and the fulfillment of human duties, are sufficient to bear the weight of both life and death. Here was a man who utterly dismissed from his thoughts, as being unprofitable, or worse, all speculations on a future or unseen world; a man to whom life was holy and precious, a thing not to be despised, but to be used with joyfulness; a soul full of life and light, ever longing for activity, ever counting what was achieved as not worthy to be reckoned in comparison of what was left to do. And this is the witness of his ending, that as never man loved life more, so never man feared death less. He fulfilled well and truly that great saying of Spinoza, often in his mind and on his lips, 'Homo liber de nulla re minus quam de morte cogitat.'"

There is surely a clear straining after startling announcements in the very manner of this passage. Why does Mr. Pollock fall into the manner of our translators of Scripture, with his "unholpen of," and the unmeaning adjective which, from his point of view, he chooses for Professor Clifford's view of life, namely, "holy," unless he wants to emphasize, by the use of such affectations, the antithesis between his meaning and the meaning of the book of which his turns of phrase remind us? And, however true it may be, as it doubtless was, that Professor Clifford met death with the courage and calmness that befit a man in meeting the inevitable, it is clearly nothing but an exaggeration, and an attempt to strain beyond the truth, to endeavor to make us believe that, if, as we are told. Professor Clifford was a man of warm affections, he did not fear death any the more, believing it, as he did, to be the extinction of love, than he would have done if he had thought it but the entrance on a life of deeper and truer love. What Spinoza says is well said for a man of action and for a man of thought, but very ill said, indeed, for a man of loving nature. Thought and action are so full of the present that they do not live in the future. True affection can not but shiver at the thought of extinction, and with Professor Clifford, too, doubtless it was so, as it would be with any one else. It does not follow that, because a man is brave and reticent, he does not suffer from the pang he conceals. If it could be shown that in relation to his personal affections he really feared death less than those who do not regard it as the end of either life or love, all we can say is that the only proper inference would be that he feared it less, because to him it signified less, because he loved less. And that is not at all the inference we should draw from the facts of his life. We suspect that Mr. Pollock is only imitating his friend in straining after a startling saying, without considering that what is intellectually startling is not, on that account, the more, but the less likely to be true.

This tendency to strain after intellectual excitements and surprises, which has flowed from so many quarters upon the present generation, is a very natural accompaniment of an age of discovery and of popular education—an age when people have been taught to expect constantly new advances, and, in a rough kind of way, even to appreciate the enjoyment of an intellectual change of air. But though this love of change may be appropriate to a state of progress, we must remember, after all, that it is most inappropriate to a state of knowledge. The condition of the highest knowledge is the condition of least surprise. The more we have that is real to lean upon the less excuse there will be for this straining and craning of the neck after startling intellectual novelties. Even now we are sure that the tendency to grasp at new ideas is often fatal, not merely to the utilization of old truths, but to the mere holding of the ground which had been gained by our ancestors. All this razing to the earth of the moral and religious beliefs of former days is far more loss to man than the best of the new glimpses of truth are gain. And, indeed, the tendency is to eradicate the temper of repose, the heart of confidence in what has been gained, and to substitute for it a constant reliance on the stimulus of an intellectual excitement the very essence of which depends on change. Professor Clifford begins one of his lectures by pointing out that if any one will consider what he has done during that day, that which he has done oftenest is to change his mind—i. e., not to alter his resolves, but to change the subject-matter of thought and resolve. It is very true, but the tendency of Professor Clifford's and his clique's teaching is to something much more dangerous—to make change of mind an object of aspiration, and almost of moral duty; to depreciate the value of the leaning disposition which rests on what is old, and to overrate that of the mercurial disposition which cares only for what is novel.—Spectator.

  1. Messrs. Sampson Low & Co.