Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Minor Virtues

In Mr. De Quincey's Essay on Murder considered as one of the Fine Arts, a master is introduced who lectures his servant on the impropriety of indulging too freely in a habit which is treated throughout as being at worst an amiable and artistic weakness. "I must, however," he observes, "warn you against an intemperate indulgence in this pursuit. From murder the step to dishonesty is short and imperceptible. Dishonesty tends to bad language, and no one can tell bow soon the downward course may end in downright incivility and unpunctuality. Many a man has owed his moral ruin to a murder of which he thought but little when he committed it." The estimate of incivility and unpunctuality indicated by this remarkable inversion of the ordinary conception of morality points to a whole class of qualities which, though they can hardly be called virtues, have probably a closer connection with prosperity than most of those which are acknowledged to have a right to that title. To be civil, punctual, economical in the management both of time and money, to be unprocrastinating—in a word, moral dexterity and handiness—are qualities of which the convenience can hardly be over-rated, though they may not excite any particular admiration or reverence. What are the functions of these minor virtues, and why, notwithstanding their immense practical importance, are they universally recognized as being only minor virtues?

It is easy to describe their functions, for they have a general family likeness, and almost always work into each other as to produce a common result.

The essence of all of them lies in a quick apprehension and recognition of the application of principles to details; and they are to morality what the power of rapid calculation is to mathematics. Thus the qualities which relate to the proper management of time—such as punctuality, the disposition (whatever it is to be called) which is opposed to loitering, and the power of working up spare moments for useful purposes—are all detailed applications of energy and resolution. A man who does at twelve o'clock what he engaged to do at that hour attaches to his own resolutions a clearer sense and a more definite and precise signification than one who sets about it at a quarter-past twelve. A man who sits down to a piece of work, and never leaves it till it is completed, has a more permanent and conscious determination to get through it than one who occasionally allows his mind to turn away from his task to some other object of attention. The importance of thus working out in detail the principles upon which all effort depends is not only generally acknowledged, but is often exaggerated. The temper of our times leads us all to consider such qualities not merely as those which are most frequently useful, but as those which are in their own nature most desirable and important. It is less common either to perceive or to inquire what is their specific tendency; but it is, nevertheless, definite and plain. They tend to success, but to nothing else. They enable a man to do whatever he undertakes in an easy, triumphant manner; but they do not determine his aims or his destiny in life. They give a man his place in his class, but they do not fix the class to which he belongs. This explains the subordinate position which ordinary language assigns to these qualities, and points at the same time to some limitations upon their importance which are usually overlooked; probably because the virtues in question are at once so useful and so difficult of attainment, that it is not considered safe to admit that their excellence is subject to any qualifications whatever.

That which determines the class into which a man is to be put can be indicated only vaguely. It is described by such words as genius, capacity, mental stature, and the like. It is impossible to say precisely what the difference is between a large and a small-minded man; but the fact that there is such a difference, and that it can no more be removed by any training whatever, than the difference between an oak and an elm, is unquestionable. Some men have more and wiser thoughts and stronger impulses, as others have larger bones and harder muscles, than their neighbours; but the promptness with which they use their powers and apply them to the details of the various subjects which come before them does not appear to bear any constant assignable relation to this distinction. A wise, and even a clever man, may be dilatory and slovenly, just as a strong man may be clumsy or may stammer. Mental and moral, like bodily dexterity, is simply an element of power, and it is that element which lies next to its immediate practical application. The limitations which are thus imposed on the value of the popular qualities in question deserve more acknowledgment than they have received.

The first of these limitations is, that such qualities are nothing in themselves. Robert Hall used to say of early rising, that the real question was not what time you get up, but what you do when you are up; and, in the same way, it should be remembered that to keep your appointment is infinitely less important than to be able to do your business when you have kept it. It is, generally speaking, better to do a thing well and late than to do it punctually and ill. It is important not only to admit this, but to dwell upon it, because the minor qualities are much better able to plead their own cause than the greater ones. The effects of real ability and sound judgment are often slow, and not immediately obvious. The effect of punctuality is instantaneous. It produces direct and immediate agreeable results to all the parties concerned. It greases the wheels of life sensibly and effectually, and thus frequently obtains a degree of credit which it is far from deserving. There are, on the other hand, many cases in which the highest qualities are lavishly employed upon results of which the importance is never tested. A man may wisely employ deep thought and great mental labour in providing for contingencies which may, after all, not arise, or which he may prevent so effectually as to discredit the very precautions by which he prevented them. If this is done in a slovenly and dilatory manner, the only impression conveyed to those who are aware of the fact will be unfavourable; whilst foolish measures, the absurdity of which is undetected by the event, will often, if punctually carried out, give a man a high character for prudence and energy. In days like these, when the mechanism of life has been so greatly improved, and when there is comparatively little room for the exhibition of the larger individual qualities, the smaller ones are invested with greater practical importance than they ever possessed before; and thus it becomes doubly necessary to remember that their only real value is derivative, and that they have no more power to do the business of life than a pulley has to lift a weight. All that they can do is to regulate the direction and expenditure of the force which is the real cause of motion.

The minor virtues are, in some cases, and for some purposes, undesirable—possibly even mischievous. In practical life this can hardly be the case, though even there they may and frequently do degenerate into priggishness, and lead people to suppose that the tool, and not the hand, or the mind which guides the hand, does the work; but in matters of thought, speculation, and literature, the exception to their utility is wider. There was a time when people believed that genius was essentially irregular, and perhaps no affectation is more puerile and more pernicious than that of despising common rules in order to get credit for possessing genius. The affectation and the belief are both out of fashion now, but there was a sort of foundation for each. The specific advantage of the minor virtues is their tendency to produce success and triumph; but these are not always desirable, and they are often especially undesirable for men whose lives are passed in thought. A man who by nature or early habit does everything neatly, completely, and punctually, whose mind has no loose ends, and who undertakes nothing that he does not perform, may be happy and useful, but he is a little apt to be blind to many things which he would see if he were less estimable and less respectable. The power of concentrating the mind on a given subject for a given time, finishing it off, and turning to something else, is a great gift;. but the man who dawdles, and loiters, and turns aside to other things, has a few set-offs. The mind is not a mere machine, and it cannot be used as if it were one. Our thoughts neither are, nor ought to be, entirely in our own control. At least, if a man chooses to tyrannize over himself, he must take the consequence. He will miss much that would otherwise have occurred to him. He will think and feel less deeply and less comprehensively than he would have felt. He will no doubt have done his work to the time. He will have walked his mental four miles in the hour, but he will have little notion of the road by which he has come. Perhaps no two men ever exemplified the advantages and disadvantages of the two tempers of mind more perfectly than Southey and Coleridge. Southey was as punctual, as businesslike, as prompt and industrious a man as ever lived. His life was blameless, manly, and honest, and his works are miracles of literary workmanship. Coleridge, on the other hand, passed his whole life out at elbows, morally and physically. He was inexact, he loitered, he wasted his time, he undertook schemes of all sorts which lie never carried out; and when he died he left behind him a heap of "remains," literary and philosophical, unfinished, dishevelled, and confused. For all this, however, Coleridge was far the greater man of the two; and it is difficult to deny that if there was not a direct connection, there was at least a strong sympathy, between his genius and his slovenliness. He had a gift for seeing the difficulties of life, its seamy side, its incongruities and contradictions, which he would probably have lost if he had been more respectable and victorious. If a man has to do justice to the world in which he lives, he must have a sympathy for the sceptical and unsuccessful view of things which a sturdy and resolute man is almost certain to despise. It is no doubt the great mystery of life that, whenever any good quality is traced up far enough, it is found to involve bad consequences. Good and evil are interwoven not merely in our conduct and our feelings, but, as it would seem, in our very faculties and in the constitution of our minds. It may be said of all sermons, lay or clerical, that have ever been preached, that, fortunate as it might be for mankind if the preacher's advice were generally followed, it would be unfortunate if it were followed universally.

Saturday Review, July 14, 1860.

No comments:

Post a Comment