Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Mental Stature

Since it became usual to write history and biography upon pictorial principles, the classifications of character which spring from party or personal predilections have come to wear a somewhat pedantic appearance. Mr. Carlyle has done more than any other writer to introduce the plan of looking, as the phrase is, at the essence of men's characters, to the neglect of the accidental phases of opinion or feeling which, by the force of circumstances, may have been associated with them. All his characters are drawn upon the supposition that every individual forms a whole, of which we can predicate all kinds of qualities which do not attach to any part of him in particular, but to the man himself, considered as an indivisible unit. For example, Mr. Carlyle would never content himself with saying of any man that he had a strong understanding, an imagination of average power, rather warm affections, a good deal of stinginess, and an inveterate habit of lying; but if he came across a person whom that description would suit, he would never rest till he had found some point of view from which he could take in all the various parts of the man's character as a single well-connected whole, capable of being placed before the world by a few vigorous characteristic epithets.

Much may be said in favour of this mode of proceeding, when it is carried on by a man of genius. It is incomparably lively and interesting. By the help of something which has no definite name, but which is to writing what gesture and mimicry are to conversation, it gives much information which is too delicate to be condensed into precise statements; and it illustrates the fact that the language by which we describe each other in common life is incomplete, far less exact than the precision of its terms would lead us to suppose it to be, and likely to make us forget that men are, after all, individuals, and not mere collections of qualities. It cannot be surprising that such a mode of viewing character should be extremely popular, not merely because it is new and gives little trouble to the reader, but because it has a strong and direct tendency to exalt the dignity of the writer. To take in a man's whole nature in one single view, and to describe it by a few bold, ingenious, and comprehensive phrases, implies higher powers, and appeals to wider sympathies, than the mere enumeration and measurement of a number of detached qualities. The process, however, has its weak as well as its strong points. Its value depends entirely on the genius with which it is applied, and it puts the reader at the mercy of the author. It is a method which places those who employ it beyond the reach of controversy or refutation. It is always possible to examine specific assertions, and to test specific inferences, but when the assertions range over the whole of a man's life, and the inferences extend to the whole of his character, it is all but impossible to attack either the one or the other. It is possible to argue the question whether, in a particular instance, Robespierre acted right or wrong; but who can possibly controvert the assertion that he was a "logic-formula"— especially against a man who is so satisfied that he was one, that he has constructed a theory of his whole life and conduct upon that supposition?

The truth is that, as painting can never supersede anatomy, so the study of human beings as individuals can never supersede the necessity for an independent study of the separate qualities which belong to them and distinguish them from each other. For serious and practical purposes, it is necessary not merely to know how people look, and how they affect the imagination, but also why they do so; and though pictorial accounts of human beings, taken individually, may suggest the direction which inquiries of this kind ought to take, they do not in themselves satisfy them. Their true value, apart from the pleasure which they give, appears to lie in the fact that they indicate more emphatically than any other process yet discovered, what the points are in anyone man which really interest others, and that they thus suggest an examination of the causes by which people are put into a position in which others are attracted to and interested in them.

Such inquiries would, of course, range over an immense number of subjects; but it may not be uninteresting, in order to illustrate the scope of the foregoing remarks, to give a single illustration of the sort of topics which they would have to embrace. There is no one subject which Mr. Carlyle so much delights to draw as the hero or great man. He always specifies what may be called the moral size of his characters, and he has probably never written a line which does not imply more or less directly that there is such a thing as general mental stature, apart from specific power in, or aptitude for, any particular mental quality or exercise. It is impossible to deny that there is some truth in this opinion. The assertion that Robespierre was essentially a small man, and Mirabeau essentially a large one, does undoubtedly convey a strong impression to the mind, though it is not easy to say in what it consists, and though its limits may be indefinite. If any one to whom such an impression had been conveyed by the portraits of Mr. Carlyle, or of any similar artist, could succeed in detecting the elements of character which are essential to its production, he would make a real addition to our knowledge. The utmost that can be attempted here is to indicate some of the branches of such a speculation.

Of the various classifications which have been made of human nature, one of the least inconvenient is that which views it under the heads of the reason, the imagination, the feelings, and the will. Whether it is complete or not, it is, at any rate, sufficiently wide to justify the assertion that, if greatness is in itself a specific quality which distinguishes some men from others, it will be traceable in one or more of these departments, or in the relations and proportions which they bear to each other. Taking, then, great ness in its relation to the intellect, what sort of intellect is required in order that a man may be great? That there are some kinds of intellect which, if they do not make a man great of themselves, would do so if they were used (a distinction which in itself would supply matter for a volume), is undeniable; but it is extremely difficult to say in what their specific peculiarity consists. Perhaps one of the most definite remarks that can be made on the subject is, that some of the powers of the intellect are positive, and scarcely admit of degrees, whilst others which do admit of degrees, and which are of the highest importance, may exist in the greatest force in men whom all the world agrees, and apparently with good reason, to consider as anything but great. The faculty of logic is an example of powers of the first kind. A man either has it or is without it, and though it is undoubtedly a great convenience, its possession in the fullest measure is consistent with extreme littleness of character, whilst a man might be very great without possessing it. To be logical means little more than to be consistent, to speak and to think habitually in such a manner that every specific thought can be referred to some more general conception, the truth of both of which the person who thinks is prepared to affirm. If, as is often the case, the specific thoughts are foolish, and the general conceptions absurd, there is no particular good in this. Its only effect is that bystanders have less difficulty than they would otherwise have in comprehending the extent of the folly of the person who possesses it. On the other hand, men may be habitually inconsistent, or rather inconsecutive, in their thoughts, and yet have that about them which all the world recognizes as great. Some men are so constituted as to perceive great truths at first hand without viewing them—perhaps without caring to view them —under the form of premiss and conclusion; and thus their assertions take a fragmentary shape, which, though at times great in the highest degree, cannot with truth be described as logical. If any one will compare the Epistle to the Romans with any of the popular expositions of it, he will see what greatness there may be where there is but little logic, and what littleness may co-exist with perfect consistency.

On the other hand, intellectual qualities which vary in intensity, and of which all men possess a certain quantity, sometimes appear to produce greatness by their vigour, and sometimes not. That which is called by the general name of force of understanding is an instance of this. As a powerful man is one who can lift a great weight, so power of mind may be said to be that quality which enables people to do with comparative ease what others find it impossible or difficult to do at all. Its principal elements are the power of attention and that of application, which is attention in the active, and not in the passive shape. To be able to direct the thoughts to a given subject, and, according to that most expressive of metaphors, to "turn it over" in the mind, is one thing—to be able to submit the mind passively to that which is presented to it is another. Where the two co-exist in unusual vigour, they may be said to constitute power of mind. In many cases, the mere possession and exertion of this power makes a man great—in others the possession and exertion of an equal power has not the same effect, or at least is not acknowledged to have it. It probably took at least as much mental labour— as much application and attention—to compose Comyn's Digest as to compose Gibbon's History. Yet, whilst every one acknowledges the greatness of the historian, few people would ascribe greatness to the judge. The most curious illustration of this, however, is to be found in the case of mathematicians. Newton is acknowledged to have been one of the greatest men that ever lived, and Mr. Adams's discovery of the new planet is universally looked upon as a splendid achievement; but the mere intellectual labour—the mental force necessary to reduce the discoveries from which these remarkable men derived their title to greatness from their original condition of conjectures to their ultimate condition of truths scientifically ascertained—probably did not exceed that which many men have put forth in the same branch of learning whose names are remembered principally by being labelled on some formula, like Taylor's theorem. Part of the explanation of these cases is that it is not the power alone, but the direction of the power also, by which the question of greatness is determined; and this direction is hardly an intellectual process. In the cases of Gibbon and Comyn, the cause which determined the one man to the path which led to permanent greatness, and the other to that which led merely to professional distinction, was partly moral, and partly external and circumstantial. Gibbon had £800. a year of his own, he liked literary quiet, and did not care to marry. Comyn probably pursued his profession from the ordinary motives, which, as a general rule, would produce more happiness than those which acted on Gibbon. In the case of the mathematicians, the difference lies in the imagination. The real greatness of Newton's achievement was not that he did a very hard sum and did it right, but that he had an imagination so powerful that he could conceive the possibility of devising a classification which should fit the motions of all heavy bodies whatever, from a sun to an apple.

Such is a single illustration of one small branch of the sort of inquiries which an analytical study of the problems presented by pictorial historians and biographers would suggest. A complete investigation of the subject would form a curious speculation, but it would require knowledge which hardly any one possesses.

Saturday Review, June 2, 1860.

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