The commonest of all this family of commonplaces is that which asserts that the battle in the varied careers of life is not to the strong, and that success is an inadequate test of merit. Of the persons who are in the habit of promulgating this opinion, there is hardly one who does not repeat it with disgust and contempt. It admits, however, of a cheerful interpretation. If we read the ordinary remark as an assertion that there are many strong men whose victories are never known, and many good men whose merits are little noticed, we are led to the conclusion that the world is richer in such men, and that the general level of worth stands higher than we should have supposed. When some eminent person upon whom much of the national welfare seemed to depend is taken from us, it is surely a comfort to think that our prospect of an efficient successor is not confined within the narrow limits of those who have obtained a definite official recognition of distinction, but that the supply of men of merit in every walk of life is not only fully equal to, but indefinitely greater than, the demand. It cannot be seriously contested that such a state of things must always be highly beneficial to the nation in which it exists. This would be saying that it is no advantage to a merchant to have a larger amount of capital than the usual demands of his business absolutely require. If a full share of employment, dignity, and money were allotted to every able man in the precise ratio of his ability, society, like a dandy of the last century, would carry the most valuable part of its estate on its back in lace and jewels.
It is, in fact, impossible to exaggerate the importance of the social functions discharged by able men whose abilities are superior to the reputation which they earn. Some of these services must from their nature be obscure, whilst others are too indefinite to be capable of earning such rewards as society has to give; but their aggregate value is unspeakably great . Of those which are obscure some have obtained a picturesque and typical glory. Every one has been called upon to admire the curates of country villages, and the obscure philanthropists who live lives of devoted benevolence amongst the class —frequently an obscure one—to which they belong. But whatever is picturesque and affecting is sure to have ample justice done to it when it is discovered; and such occupations as these, whatever may be their moral grandeur, frequently do not require a corresponding degree of intellectual power. A less trite but not a less important observation arises on a class of persons to whom comparatively little interest is usually attracted—those who discharge obscure tasks which it requires rare mental power to discharge well, and which are but little noticed, however well they may be discharged. The number of such tasks is little known, but we cannot open our eyes without observing traces of them in every direction. There is no profession and no walk of life in which they do not occur. A highly artificial state of society has no doubt its evils, but it has one great advantage. It bears witness in all directions to the vast amount of skill, patience, and self-denial which is expended upon the common affairs of life by men as little remembered a few years after their death as those who built the Pyramids. The mere existence of civilized States throws a light upon the ingenuity, the ability, and the unwearied industry of man comparable only to that which geology throws upon the history of natural phenomena. Let any one think of the intellectual level of that large proportion of mankind who are either idle, stupid, or grossly self-indulgent, and he will hardly fail to conclude that hundreds of millions of such persons would not have made this country what it is in thousands of ages* What, then, must have been the aggregate ability of those who, in less than thirty generations, have changed the England of King Alfred into the England of Queen Victoria? Few of their names are known at all to the world at large—an infinitely small number are known out of the particular sphere to which they belonged.
Passing, however, from a consideration so wide as to be hardly manageable, it may be observed that every walk of life furnishes abundant instances of obscure labours quite as arduous as many of those which have been rewarded by permanent fame, and much more important. The poet Gray will probably be long remembered. The Elegy and the Ode on Eton College have a fair chance of lasting as long as the language; yet most of us have known men who were, in all probability, much superior to Gray, and whose names are not known to fifty people out of their own immediate circle. Gray was learned and accomplished, but how many men far more learned and quite as accomplished are scattered over the country now in colleges, rectories, and country-houses, where no one concerns himself about their accomplishments. A man's books or poems are only a specimen, generally a small one, of the general habit of his mind. The habit exists in hundreds of cases, and produces great but obscure effects, which are traceable only in their remote consequences by a careful observer. A country squire who might, if he had devoted himself to such pursuits, have written some thirty or forty immortal stanzas in the course of a lifetime, diffuses a certain refinement over the society in which he lives, trains family of children to habits of delicacy and honour, wins the affections and mitigates the hardships of the labourers on his estate, and, in a hundred ways, sets up a standard of taste and feeling which may mark the character of the neighbourhood for years together. In the more rugged walks of life, the number of monuments of skill and power condemned by their nature to obscurity are more frequent. Dim professional labours, forgotten by all but the members of the profession, and appreciated by but few of them, testify in great numbers to the profusion of power which exists in the world. How many persons ever heard the name of Comyn's Digest? but it is a work which shows powers of analysis and arrangement—to say nothing of perseverance—which, if they had been devoted to making canals or railways, would have furnished an inexhaustible subject of admiration to biographers and popular lecturers. If anyone would sift the enormous mass of knowledge which lies buried in blue books, he would find in many cases that the most repulsive matter had been sought out and set in order by unknown hands with a method, precision, and accuracy, which would have made the fortune of a historian. In hospitals and law-courts displays of skill daily take place, without attracting any remark at all, which could have been acquired only by a union of moral, mental, and physical qualifications fully equal to those displayed in many of the events which all mankind agree to consider memorable.
Nor is this all; not only is it true that actions which men willingly forget are often as arduous as those which they enthusiastically remember, but it is also true that many actions which would be gladly remembered are constantly forgotten. The Indian empire is perhaps the most marvellous proof of this that the history of the world can supply. Who reduced all those provinces to peace and order? Who welded them into one mass? How were they conquered and reconquered? And how shall we be able to rule them now? The world knows the show names well enough, and some of the more obscure ones came to light during the late mutiny; but how many of them have passed unknown? A man died a short time since who, at twenty-five years of age, with no previous training, was set to govern a kingdom, with absolute power, and who did govern it so wisely and firmly that he literally changed a wilderness into a fruitful land. Probably no one who reads these lines will guess to whom they allude, and indeed the statement would fit several different persons. Nor are such cases confined to India. The British empire itself, whatever may be its defects, was not put together nor held together without much skill and labour. How many heartburnings must have been soothed, how many jealousies composed, how much care and experience must have been exerted in negotiation, in legislation, in persuasion, before colonies equal in size to great European States could be brought to govern themselves, and to stand to their mother-country in a relation which has hardly a parallel in history. Yet we have no Solon or Lycurgus to credit with either India or Canada. Ingenious and curious inquirers might find out, if any one cared to know, how these things came to be; but to the world at large they are and always will be anonymous works, whose authors will soon be undiscoverable even by inquirers into the curiosities of politics.
Perhaps, however, the indefinite services which are rendered to society by able but unknown men are even more remarkable than their marked but obscure services. Fame gilds the elevations of a tableland, not the heights of a mountain. The one famous person whom the world worships is almost always the representative of a number of persons of much the same calibre, of whom nothing, or next to nothing, is either known or remembered. Hardly any man is great enough to be reduced to the sad necessity of living constantly with his inferiors. If he were, it is hard to conceive how he could be great, for he would be destitute of that which is infinitely the most powerful of all instruments of mental development — free intercourse with equals and superiors. Those who are obscure, or altogether unknown, are thus, to a great extent, partners in the fame of their more successful friends; and it should be observed that the obscurity of the majority is absolutely necessary to the formation of the atmosphere which is essential to the development of the minority who attain celebrity. The fact that a man has obtained a conspicuous social position is almost sure to deprive him to some extent of his ease and simplicity; and if all those with whom he is intellectually on a level were embarrassed with a reputation and position of the same kind, their intercourse could hardly escape a certain degree of stiffness and constraint. Thus, the great reserve fund of ability which healthy societies contain acts beneficially on society at large, by giving the tone and fixing the standard recognized by that small number of persons who succeed not only in attaining intrinsic greatness, but in convincing the world at large that they have attained it. The unseen influence which is thus exerted by men of whose very existence many well-informed persons are unaware, can hardly be appreciated by those who have not had an opportunity of observing it. From the nature of the case it is difficult to quote illustrations, but instances sometimes occur in which services of this sort have been commemorated by those who had the opportunity of appreciating their importance. Mr. Alexander Knox was an instance in the last generation; perhaps Mr. Stirling may be said to have supplied another in our own. (See for an example of the same sort the Life of Mr. Henry Lushington, by Mr. Venables, prefixed to his Essays. They were reviewed in the Saturday Review of August 20, 1859.)
It may be said that, however beneficial it may be to society at large, that there should exist a large number of men whose merits have not obtained full recognition, such a state of things implies hardship upon the persons concerned. This observation proceeds upon a false estimate both of the facts of the case and of the functions of society. The utmost that can be said of the injustice of society to meritorious persons is, that they get less fame and less money than they think they ought to get, and that other people, with less merit, get more. That merit is in a man's favour, as far as it goes, is incontestable. A well-connected, meritorious man will get on better than a well-connected man destitute of merit; but it is surely matter of great congratulation that there is not an invariable alliance between prosperity and desert, and it is perhaps even more fortunate that it is not the province of society at large to gauge the exact merits of its members, and to assign them precedence accordingly. If this were so, the result would be, not only a social slavery of the most degrading kind, but the introduction of a universal system of mammon-worship, such as the world has happily never seen. If society affected to class people according to their merits, the poor would not only be, but would feel that they always must be, the miserable slaves of the rich. At present, a poor man can feel that no one but an insolent fool would despise his poverty; but it would be far otherwise if poverty and misfortune were the sure marks of crime or folly. The vainglory, the worldliness, the brutal hardness of heart, which would follow from an attempt at such a classification cannot be conceived.
As things stand now, we have the satisfaction of knowing that no one need be ashamed of his condition in life, because his presence in it proves nothing against him; and of perceiving in all directions traces of skill and power which furnish a proof as cheering as it is irrefragable that there are amongst us men who ennoble nearly every walk of life, and who would have ennobled any.
September 24, 1859.