Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Physical Strength

The objects of a widely-extended popular desire generally come to be valued not so much on account of their intrinsic importance, as because they are essential parts of the popular ideal, for the time being, of an eminent or admirable character. Thus, at one time, the popular favour is to be won only by ascetic and monastic virtues. At others, ability in and for itself attracts a degree of admiration disproportioned to its just claims on the esteem or admiration of mankind. So the sort of ability which public feeling delights to honour is not always the same. The tide sometimes sets in favour of practical, and sometimes in favour of speculative, talent; and it would be difficult to lay down any general rule which would enable those who take an interest in such things to predict whether one set of qualities, or another of an entirely opposite character, would meet with general admiration in any given time and country. Popular admiration is, in fact, granted, not so much to particular qualities in and for themselves, as to imaginary persons in whom the virtues which the age specially admires are exemplified in the fullest degree. Thus, when asceticism is in the highest favour, it is not the case that any large portion of mankind actually grasp and adopt the ascetic theory of morals, but they are haunted by an undefined notion that people who do, in the ordinary intercourse of life, adopt and act upon that standard of conduct must be great, wonderful, and worthy of veneration. The natural consequence is, that the quality admired is viewed pictorially, and not analytically, and is worshipped instead of being understood.

A forcible illustration of this is given by the sentiment which of late years has become at once powerful and common respecting physical strength, and all that belongs to it. All the younger generation of writers of fiction have, for many years past, been trying to excite and foster the sentiment that power of character, in all its shapes, goes with goodness, and that there is so intimate a connection between the various departments of life, physical and moral, that strength of mind may be expected to be closely connected with, or may, perhaps, be said to be reflected in, strength of body. This notion is closely connected with many of the most important of the opinions which are at present entertained respecting the great standing controversies of life. It is connected with what may be called the social as opposed to the ascetic conception of morals, with the disposition to look upon life as a whole, as opposed to the temptation—if it is to be so regarded—to cut it into parts, of which some only are susceptible of sacred associations, whilst others are and must always remain common and unclean. It is, perhaps, not altogether unrelated to the materialistic theory which views the soul as a function of the body, and expects to attain the power of assigning the physical conditions of mental greatness.

The body may obviously be looked upon in either of two lights. It may be regarded as an essential part of the man—as the outward and visible part of himself, containing and constituting, with its various powers and qualities, some of the most important elements of his character. Or, on the other hand, it may be regarded as something radically distinct from the man himself—a mere material instrument of the immaterial essence which properly constitutes the individual—a clog, necessary indeed to the action of the soul, but in its essence a mere appendage to it, and a somewhat degrading one. The popular estimate, as reflected in popular literature, of the importance and value of physical gifts, will depend almost entirely upon the degree in which the first or the second of these ideals lies at the bottom of popular feeling on the subject . If the former prevails, the popular notion of a great and good man will be a person of great physical and mental endowments, all harmonized together, and all directed towards good ends. If the second is the current theory, popular writers will delight in contrasting mental strength with physical weakness, and in showing how the mind, beset with a thousand difficulties from the imperfections of the machine with which it is associated, can, nevertheless, triumph over them all. There can be little doubt which of these two is the popular view in the present day. Almost every popular writer, from the one or two who are really great down to the crowd who merely show which way the popular taste sets, delights to make the body not the agent, but the partner, of the mind; and each, accordingly, invests his heroes with every imaginable bodily perfection. It would be easy to fill pages with descriptions, taken from novelists, of models of physical force who have acted as heroes. Who does not know all about the "short, crisp, black hair," the "pale, but healthy complexion," "the iron muscles," "knotted sinews," "vast chests," "long and sinewy arms," "gigantic frames," and other properties of the same kind, which always announce, in contemporary fiction, the advent of a model Christian hero?

The attempt to discuss which of the two views of the relations of mind and body just sketched out contains the greater amount of truth, would lead far; and there is the less need to enter upon the discussion, as they both appear to be essentially wrong. The relations of mind and body are a question of fact, to be studied, not in the light of any preconceived theory whatever, but, like all other questions of fact, by observation and comparison. Fiction, if it is to be anything more than a play- .thing, ought to proceed upon such observations, and not upon the assumption of the truth of general propositions, which, in reality, are only vague attempts to embody the small amount of knowledge and the large amount of conjecture and assertion which exists upon the subject . The most curious proof that modern popular writers have begun at the wrong end in their attempts to set forth in their novels the relations between mind and body, is to be found in the fact that they all appear to think that physical strength is a plain and simple matter, and that the proposition that a man is very strong is as simple as the proposition that he is six feet high. In fact, however, that unscientific experience which every one picks up in the ordinary course of life, proves the difficulty of affixing any definite meaning to the word "strong;" and when the difficulties inherent in it are scrutinized, they will be found to resolve themselves into the further difficulty that, when we use the word "body," we are using a word with the meaning—and, if such an expression is allowable— with the extent—of which we are imperfectly acquainted. It may be well to indicate shortly the character of a few of these difficulties.

The first, and perhaps the most formidable of all, is the difficulty of ascertaining, with any approach to precision, what the substantive is to which the adjective "strong" is applied. The following cases are taken from real life, and show how vague the word is. A. was a person of average size, with immense muscular power. He never had a day's illness till he was twenty-three or twenty-four years of age, and was well-known as the most athletic lad at one of the largest schools in England. He died of a rapid decline at twenty-five. B. was a delicate woman, for many years of her life hardly able to leave the sofa. She had a succession of illnesses of the most wearing kind, but she threw them off against all expectation, and passed all the middle and later period of her life in perfect health and great activity. For some years before her death, she laboured under distressing complaints: but notwithstanding this, she lived to a great age. It is obvious that if A. and B. had each been taken at a given point of time, A. would have been rightly called strong, and B. weak; and it is also clear that there was about B. a durability or toughness which was wanting in A., and that that toughness was manifested, not only by her recovery from her early diseases, but by the length of time during which she bore the disease of which she ultimately died. The interval of health and the length of life show that there was strength somewhere, even whilst the diseases were upon her; but where or in what did that strength reside? It is easy to say that A. had great personal strength, and B. a strong constitution, but the word "constitution" is a mere convenience. It points out a difficulty which it does not solve; for what unit was it which, though damaged, was strongly put together? That is a puzzle which has never been solved, and which has hardly been stated completely. A table would not be called strong if two of its legs were cracked and several of its joints loose, however tough might be its materials, and however good its original workmanship. But if the table showed a power of holding together and recovering itself, notwithstanding every sort of rough usage, it might well be called strong, though it was ultimately broken up; and its strength might not unnaturally be measured by the quantity of ill usage which it survived. It is precisely in this power of self-repair that the difference between a body and a mere machine resides. The difficulty of saying what is meant by physical strength lies in the difficulty of distinguishing between the mechanical, and what, for fault of a better word, must be called the vital powers of the body. Look upon the body as a machine—and the broken arm, the tubercles in the lungs, or the cancer in the liver prevent you from calling it strong; but if it goes on acting for years, and wonderfully recovering itself again and again from the catastrophe which these defects tend to produce, there must be a strong something somewhere. What and where is that something?

The whole subject is one of endless wonder; it is well deserving of far more notice than it has usually received—if for no other reason, at least for the sake of illustrating the crudity of the common notions about physical strength which popular writers are continually preaching. All that can be done here is to hint at a few of the endless varieties of what is called " constitution" which would require examination by any one who really wished to understand the subject. The power of supporting hardship is one obvious form of strength, but this power is by no means universally associated with great muscular force, and not uncommonly co-exists with excessive delicacy of organization. Dr. Kane was a wonderful instance of this. Though a professional sailor, he never went to sea without suffering from sea-sickness, and he suffered under both disease of the heart and chronic rheumatism; yet he underwent sufferings in the Arctic Seas under which the strongest men, specially trained to endure such hardships, sickened and died. In great catastrophes, such as wrecks, sieges, and the retreats of defeated armies, the finest men do not by any means endure hardship best, and the most delicate women will occasionally go through more than any one else. A vessel was wrecked in winter at the mouth of the Elbe; the crew had to make their way across the broken masses of ice to the nearest shore, some miles off. Several died of exhaustion, and amongst the rest a remarkably strong, fine woman, the wife of a soldier on board; whilst among the survivors was a delicate woman who had during the storm prematurely given birth to a child. The peculiarity of this, however, is that the power of bearing hardship does not always vary inversely with the power of making great muscular effort. As a rule, no doubt, in such a scene the powerful man or woman would have a better chance than the weak one, and this makes the exceptions the more remarkable.

Great power of exertion is another obvious test of strength. But here, again, every sort of variety exists. Great power of exertion is quite consistent with extreme delicacy, and with the presence of, or at least with a predisposition to, organic disease. Napoleon was perhaps capable of undergoing, and did, in fact, undergo, greater fatigues than almost any other man who ever lived; yet his digestion was always delicate and easily deranged, and he died of an hereditary organic disease, at the age of fifty-five. It is also a singular thing that great power of exertion in one direction does not always imply its existence in another. Many men can go through extraordinary muscular labour, and put up with all sorts of exposure and hardship, who are quite unequal to continuous severe exertion of the eyes, the brain, and the nerves; and the converse occasionally holds good as well. Long life and continued good health are also tests of strength; but they are often produced by a balance and proportion between powers which are inconsiderable in themselves. It seems a perversion of terms to speak of a person who keeps on living feebly and quietly — more like a vegetable than a man — for eighty years, as being stronger than one who dies, worn out at sixty by extreme labour, or even by long-continued and long-resisted disease. An old gentleman who has been rector of a remote country parish for half a century or more, without having ever experienced a day's illness or done a really hard day's work, is surely not a stronger man than Fox, who, though he never had good health, would pass any number of days and nights between Parliament, the race-course, and the gaming-table.

Saturday Review, December 10, 1859.

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