The general ground upon which the ceremonies, the manners, and the rules of composition which are falling so much into disuse were justified, was the necessity of maintaining dignity in public and private life, and in literary composition. The first question, therefore, which arises in estimating the character of the change which they are undergoing is, what is dignity, and what is the use of it?
It would be useless to attempt a strict definition of that which in if essence is indefinite; but dignity may be described as that mode of behaviour which conveys the impression that the person who adopts it in his conduct, in his style of composition, or in his address and manner, has formed a just estimate of the amount of respect which is due to him from others and to others from him, and that he intends to assert his right to the one, and to acknowledge his obligation to the other. This is illustrated by the principal phrases in which the word occurs. Thus we often hear of personal dignity; and it is remarkable that it is assumed—and with truth—to be consistent with every possible condition of life, even the most degraded. There is no lower position than that of a criminal deservedly condemned to death for some atrocious crime, yet to the last moment of such a man's life the claims of personal dignity retain their hold, and are felt to do so. The assassin, who feels that if he has committed murder, he is there to die for it, and who accordingly performs with decency the only part which is left for him, challenges and obtains a certain degree of respect, and displays what may fairly claim to be called a certain amount of dignity. He takes the measure of his position, and adopts the rights and obligations which it imposes. The most degraded mob are accessible to this feeling, and are not without a sort of respect for a man who comes out to die quietly and courageously, whatever his crimes may have been; while they would feel nothing but horror and contempt for him if he struggled, and lamented, and cried for mercy.
Passing upwards from this, every rank of life will be found to have its appropriate form of dignity; and this is proved by the fact that in each class a strong sense of dignity, and a fixed determination to preserve it, is compatible with much that in other classes would be considered humiliating. Schoolboys, for example, have often the keenest sense of what is due to them, and would suffer intensely from anything which they looked upon as a degradation, but no boy feels degraded by being publicly flogged.
Such being the nature of personal dignity, its importance is hardly open to question. If it is true that the essence of dignity lies in the due appreciation of the rights and duties incidental to the different positions of life, it will follow that in so far as it is laid aside, these rights and duties will cease to be understood, the prevailing conception of them will become obscure, and every one of the great interests which depend on their proper discharge will infallibly suffer. This would be universally acknowledged in some cases. Every one, for example, would see the reasons which make it desirable that a sovereign, whose authority rests to a great extent on its effect on the imagination of mankind, should be dignified; but its extreme importance in the common pursuits of every-day life is not so easily recognized. "What," it might be asked," has an apothecary or a shopkeeper to do with dignity? and what does it matter if he is destitute of it?" The answer is, that its presence or absence may determine whether his influence shall elevate or degrade every one with whom he is brought into any kind of personal relation. The apothecary is constantly thrown, by the course of his profession, into relations in which it requires tact and delicacy to estimate the rights and duties which arise. If he forgets the nature of his duties to those who consult him, he has almost unlimited opportunities of gossip and scandal; he constantly has the means of injuring the professional reputation of rivals by injurious insinuations; he may interfere in nearly every kind of private business; he may, in some cases, erect himself into a domestic tyrant, and rule over the affairs of the households which he visits. If, on the other hand, he forgets his rights, he is in danger of becoming one of the most abject of mankind, the slave of every sort of caprice, and the pander to some of the most offensive of human weaknesses.
The only way by which he can secure himself against this is by remembering that he is admitted into the houses of his patients for professional purposes only, and that he ought to have neither eyes nor ears for anything else; and, on the other hand, that, in virtue of the character of his profession and of the education which it implies, he is entitled to be treated with respect, and to give his opinion with honesty and boldness. To such a man, therefore, the maintenance of personal dignity makes the difference, whether he is a worthy member of an honourable profession, or a contemptible drudge, or more contemptible busybody. It might be shown in the same way of other pursuits, that in the maintenance of dignity nothing less is involved than the question whether men are to derive any satisfaction and general elevation of character from their various employments, or whether they are to pursue them exclusively for the sake of the tangible results which they produce. The most wretched gossip and sycophant might pull out a tooth or prescribe for an indigestion as successfully as the most honourable member of his profession; but the first would learn from his calling nothing which was not degrading except technical skill, whilst the second might draw from it endless instruction and improvement.
If this view of the importance of dignity in every rank of life is true, it becomes an interesting question whether the change of practice referred to above tends to its diminution. The ceremonies and rules which it affects may be divided into several great classes. Some of them relate to public, others to private life, and others to literary composition. Of those which relate to public life, the best known prescribe the rules of behaviour which ought to be observed in royal courts, in parliaments, and other public assemblies, such as courts of law, or in public employments, and especially in those in which the subordination of ranks is strongly marked, of which the best illustration is given by the army and navy. Of those which refer to private life, the most remarkable regulate social intercourse. They are almost infinitely numerous, and vary, according to the classes to which they apply and the purposes for which they are designed, from a strictness all but legal to such a pitch of laxity that the power of recognizing their existence and obeying their injunctions is in itself a stringent test of refinement. Thus, one set of rules regulates the intercourse of superiors and inferiors; another, the behaviour of those who meet as social equals; a third, the conduct of persons who, without being socially equal, meet for a purpose which makes them equal for the time being, as, for example, the transaction of business; a fourth applies to the behaviour of persons of different sexes; and these, again, might be subdivided according to the age and rank of the persons and the purposes for which they meet. In short, the different rules which regulate social intercourse are as intricate (if delicate is not the better word) as social intercourse itself. The rules which ought to secure dignity in literary composition have never been collected into a single body, nor would there be much use in collecting them, as there is no authority which could enforce their observance. It may, however, be said that there is a common opinion which is practically disregarded by many popular living authors, that to dwell with great minuteness upon unimportant details, to write exclusively for purposes of amusement, to bring the personal feelings of the author needlessly before the reader, and, above all, to write about any subject whatever in a style falling below its importance, is undignified.
Such are the principal subjects to which the rules introduced for the preservation of dignity apply, but it may be asked whether they fully tend to preserve it. Have they, in fact, any considerable tendency to make those who stand in the various relations of life which they claim to regulate, form and act upon a true estimate of their rights and duties?
To judge by the sarcasms which are constantly directed against them, it might be supposed that they do not, but no one who considers the matter seriously can doubt that they do. No more hopelessly difficult task could be imposed on any man than that of assessing his own claims on the consideration of his neighbours, and his own duties towards them. Nor would it be much less difficult to devise, out of his own head, on every separate occasion, the exact means by which he ought to express the result at which he had arrived in his own mind. Established forms and ceremonies do this for him with a degree of precision which no individual skill could attain. The word "sir," in itself saves a world of trouble; by using or omitting it in conversation or in correspondence it is easy to mark, without giving offence, many different degrees of intimacy and friendliness. There is a distinct difference between "sir," "dear sir," and "my dear sir;" nor is the same meaning conveyed by the signatures "yours obediently," "your obedient servant," "I have the honour to be your most obedient servant." It is a fair question whether these and similar forms might not have been better constructed, but now that they have become merely formal, the power which they give of expressing shades of meaning, which it would be almost impossible to convey in any other manner, is a great convenience.
The case is the same with established ceremonies. If usage had not settled the question, it would be almost impossible for any one to decide what exact amount of respect he ought to show towards the Queen on his presentation at Court. Till there was some established mode of proceeding it would be exceedingly difficult to hit the exact mean between disrespect and servility; but when a custom has once been established by which every gesture is regulated, compliance with it involves nothing more than an admission that the person complying wishes to show as much respect as is habitually shown by the rest of the world. In fact, almost all forms and ceremonies are protections to individual dignity, in precisely the same manner as forms of another kind are an assistance in writing. There is no difficulty in drawing up the formal parts of any document with accuracy, because they are the same in all cases, and in just the same manner there is no difficulty in behaving well if there is an established rule which determines what is good behaviour, inasmuch as nothing is to be done but to follow its orders.
The change which has taken place in the feelings of the present generation respecting dignity has shown itself partly in the alteration of forms, and partly in their disuse and in the growth of practices opposed to the sentiments on which they were founded. In so far as it has operated on the forms themselves, it calls for no remark; its chief characteristic has been to simplify practices of which the principle has been retained. Titles of honour, for example, are still retained, though they are not used so frequently as they used to be; and almost all formalities of style have become shorter and simpler. This, as far as it goes, is no doubt matter of congratulation, but it has been accompanied by the growth of feelings and practices which are unquestionably opposed to the maintenance of a high standard of personal dignity, and which must, if persisted in, result in lowering it. The most important of these are the general craving for amusement, the insatiable and often reckless curiosity, and the petulant love of depreciation, which are natural to a busy and prosperous generation immersed for the most part in secure and profitable pursuits, and not threatened by any obvious danger compelling it to be serious.
The growth of these dispositions can nowhere be traced so well and nowhere produces such characteristic results, as in the fugitive literature of the day, the influence of which over minds not refined by elaborate education is extremely powerful. A variety of obvious causes have excited in the present generation an appetite for intellectual amusement so strong as almost to deserve the name of a passion. Notwithstanding the efforts which have been made of late years to bring into favour athletic amusements, it is true, and will no doubt come to be true of a constantly increasing number of persons, that the great characteristic amusement of the age is reading novels, and especially reading novels about common life. One of the heads into which the catalogues of old-fashioned circulating libraries were divided was “Tales and Romances;" the tales being stories about every-day people, and the romances descriptions of knights and ladies, courts and castles, sages and magicians. All fiction in the present day would fall under the head of Tales, and the ideal at which every writer who has attained any popularity aims, and which two or three have attained almost as completely as any ideal can be attained, is that of representing with minute accuracy the commonplace feelings and occurrences which are going on daily in thousands of private families. The result of this is that large numbers of people derive the principal part of the amusement of their lives from an interminable stream of impersonal gossip. They are constantly being fed with more or less well-conceived stories about the private affairs of families of their own class of life. Their births, deaths, and marriages, their love-making, their little vanities, their success, and their failure, form by turns the subjects of a series of representations which please the reader much in the same way, and for much the same reasons, which lead his servants to take a pleasure in gossiping across the area railing about similar transactions up and down the street. It is hardly unfair to say that the principal lesson which the most numerous class of readers in the country derive from their reading is that of looking for their amusement to an interest in the affairs of other people, real or imaginary. This habit of mind is altogether opposed to personal dignity, which, as has been shown already, involves an appreciation of the rights of others. There is hardly any right more sacred than that of privacy. This right is not by any means confined to the bare power of repelling unauthorized intrusion, nor would it be really acknowledged and fully respected by the most entire abstinence from direct interference with other men's affairs. In order to act up to the spirit of the rule, so as to maintain to that extent true dignity of character, it is necessary not merely to refrain from invading the privacy of others, but to check the temper of mind which would ultimately tend to such conduct—to avoid the prying, inquisitive impertinence which assumes that every one's conduct and character is a proper subject for mental discussion, and to remember that it is unworthy of any reasonable person to admit by the conduct of his mind that he has nothing better to do than to meddle with matters which do not concern him.
One special form of this habit of mind is the importance which a large part of the popular literature of the day attaches, and encourages those who read it to attach, to all sorts of trifles. The reaction which has been going on for many years against what used to be called the dignity of history has issued in the general adoption of the trick (for it is little more) of extracting from old books masses of insignificant details, and heaping them together under the pretence that they afford instructive illustrations of history, whereas, in fact, they are hardly ever anything better than means of enabling people to gratify, in relation to past times, that impertinent curiosity which no amount of gossip can satiate in respect to their own. Details of this sort may no doubt be of the highest value, but their value depends entirely on what they prove. The fact that William III. wore round his neck to the day of his death a locket containing his wife's hair, though in one sense a trifle, is important because it is one of many facts which, taken together, show that he was a man of strong affections, and particularly that he regarded his wife with affection, and each of these circumstances has an important bearing on the history of England. The fact that a Mr. Smith, of whom nothing else whoever was known, did the same thing, would be utterly immaterial, whether he died in the nineteenth or in any other century, and it would be a mere impertinence to publish it to the world; yet there are amongst us many writers and almost innumerable readers who would think that they had learnt something important about the last century if such a fact were established upon satisfactory authority, and were published to the world in what might be considered as an attractive form.
The mere formation of the habit of trifling is not the only way in which the style of writing under consideration diminishes dignity of character. The trifles which it brings into notice are far from being always harmless. They are often exceedingly vulgar and offensive. People who accustom themselves to read principally for amusement are soon led by a sort of fatal necessity to look upon the subjects which usually furnish them with amusement in a petty and trivial light. From constantly reading novels about every-day transactions, the transition to looking upon private life from the novelist's point of view is not only easy, but almost inevitable; and as many writers of fiction, especially those who address themselves to the least educated class of readers, owe their popularity to their skill in the use of caricature, their readers get a habit of viewing the different relations of life in the light in which they see them described. It sounds almost absurd to specify particular cases in which this result is produced, because the effect is so ludicrously disproportionate to the cause, but such cases do occur. It is, for example, highly probable that the silly jokes about mothers-in-law, and the innumerable caricatures in which they are represented as being almost of necessity meddling, selfish, intrusive, and ill-mannered, have caused considerable distrust, perhaps even considerable unhappiness, in many families.
In the same way, every one must have observed how injuriously the manners and the characters of young women are affected by the notion which a long course of novel-reading almost invariably suggests -- that every unmarried man ought to be regarded in the light of a contingent husband. There is no relation of life in which personal dignity is more important than in the intercourse between unmarried people of opposite sexes. Such intercourse ought always to be at least graceful and refining, and may lay the foundation of the strongest and sweetest of human passions, it may also degenerate into a wretched game of hide and seek fatal to all self-respect. The question whether it is to assume the one or the other aspect depends, to a great extent, on the degree of accuracy with which the persons interested estimate their relative position, and recognize by their conduct the rights and duties which it imposes; in other words, on the amount of personal dignity which they display. It is hardly possible that any one, and especially that any woman, should fail to be agitated and discomposed in such cases by the recollection that she has passed many of the pleasantest hours of her life in reading descriptions of all the thoughts and sensations which might, or ought, to be passing through her own mind and that of her companion, and of the different steps by which they may lead to the consequence towards which her attention has been so sedulously directed.
The want of dignity of character which is produced by the constant and almost exclusive dependence on domestic novels for amusement, is a fault into which the readers of such books are more likely to fall than their writers; but the writers are exposed to it also in the precise degree in which they lower themselves to the level of their readers, and lose sight of the higher functions which literature has to discharge. No doubt a man of genius may display his powers in minute descriptions of the most homely scenes; and as the direction of every man's genius is derived almost entirely from the temper of the age in which he lives, it would be unreasonable to blame contemporary authors of works of imagination for their fondness for such subjects. No doubt, also, there are persons in whose hands such descriptions may be made to convey important and impressive lessons; and if this were the place for criticism, several of the most remarkable works of this generation might be mentioned in illustration of this. It cannot, however, be denied that such works as these form rare exceptions, and that the great majority of the books which are at present so common have absolutely no claim whatever upon popularity, except that which they derive from the fact that they gratify a fundamentally vulgar curiosity about trifles and private affairs.
Authors whose works have a right to a high place in an important department of the permanent literature of the country would do well to consider whether they are not in some danger of producing similar results upon many of their readers, and results of an opposite, though a strictly analogous kind, upon a smaller and more cultivated class. The fondness for choosing domestic occurrences for the subject of works of imagination, and the power of setting them in a striking light, is frequently associated with a sort of pleasure in the belief that a vein of inevitable absurdity runs through human affairs, and that there are many things which a wise man will do, though, by doing them, he must place himself in a position to some extent undignified and absurd. It is easy to understand the satisfaction which a radically sceptical mind derives from this practical reductio ad absurdum of life. To maintain, for example, that love is essential to a happy marriage—that marriage is one of the great foundations of human happiness and virtue—and that people who are in love are in a position essentially and inevitably absurd, is a practical way of asserting the dignity of satire. It enables the person who takes such a view to please himself with the feeling that the most eminent of mankind, at one of the most interesting periods of their lives, fall under his lash, and are neither wiser nor better than their inferiors.
This satisfaction will, however, be found on examination to be at once ungenerous and unfounded. It is ungenerous, because it proceeds from a refined envy, which is slow to believe in the possibility of consistent self-respect, and which seeks to justify itself against those whose conduct would otherwise escape it by lying in wait to criticize their behaviour in moments when they may well be excused if they neglect to govern their conduct by the rules which they would usually apply to it. It is ill-founded, because it proceeds on a mistake as to the nature of that against which it is directed. It tries to prove that there is something essentially absurd in things which are indispensable to the happiness, if not to the existence, of society; but, in fact, it creates the absurdity which it affects to find for the purpose of insinuating that conclusion. A single illustration will explain this. An observant and ingenious writer lately described at some length the absurd side of marriage engagements. He depicted, with skilful details, all the inconveniences and all the absurdities which such an engagement produces. A room must be set apart in which the engaged couple may make love. Every domestic arrangement must be altered for their convenience. All sorts of anxious and delicate arrangements must be made by parents and friends that they may live for a few months in a sort of fairy-land. Though they are grown-up people, about to enter upon the most important and solemn of human engagements, they must be treated like children. All the business-like part of the affair must be transacted by third persons, in order that they may be able to dream themselves without interruption into that state of passionate attachment which will make their future lives either happy or endurable. All this inconvenience and absurdity, it was kindly intimated, form no objection to marriage engagements. They are necessary to human life, and must be accepted with all their absurd accompaniments, as one proof amongst many of the general absurdity of life, and the necessity of admitting that it is absurd.
Such an admission as this involves consequences which are almost, if not altogether, fatal—at least, to the apprehension of many minds -- to anything like interest in the affairs of the world. There are not a few men who would say, "I can, if necessary, do without sympathy; I can forego domestic affection; I can live alone and die alone; but I cannot, and will not, wilfully forfeit my own self-respect for any human consideration. "It is true that it is not only difficult but, in the nature of things, impossible, for a man to be in love—to pass through one of the most important transactions of his life—without becoming a legitimate object of contempt to others, and without incurring his own contempt, except in so far as an ignominious blindness, produced by a voluntary abdication of his powers of discernment, may protect him, love, whatever may be its charms, is a temptation from which it is a duty to refrain. Truth and conscience—of which self-respect is only one form—are the ultimate guides of life, and nothing ought to be done or felt which cannot be justified by the application of the severest tests which reason, criticism, ridicule, and conscience can apply. Willing self-deception, willing forfeiture of self-respect, are as little to be justified in relation to the subject-matter to which they apply as downright violations of morality. A man, no doubt, may, and sometimes must, place himself in situations in which it is very difficult to maintain a thoroughly just appreciation of the position in which he is placed,—just as he must sometimes place himself in positions where it is difficult not to do wrong; but he never can be called upon to give up the very notion of acting upon any principle whatever. There are places in which the eye is apt to be dazzled and the foot is likely to slip; but there is no place in which a man can hope to make satisfactory progress by shutting his eyes and lying down on the ground. This illustration supplies the true view of the relation of self-respect to all the passionate parts of life. It is difficult for a man to pass through them without doing and saying things which it would be wiser to leave unsaid and undone; but, though it is difficult, it is not impossible, and the risk is, beyond all question, worth running.
This being so, is it wise or humane to embarrass people who are already in a delicate position, by pointing out to them all its difficulties, and by exhausting all the resources of a practised ingenuity in trying to make them feel conscious and embarrassed in performing what, after all, is one of the most important transactions of their lives? It is not difficult to represent love-making in a ludicrous way. By artful tricks of language it may be made to look absurd that a man who has previously been a mere ordinary acquaintance in a family should have a room set apart in which he may exchange endearments with one of the daughters of the house; but it would surely be far more absurd that people should marry without having had the opportunity of becoming as intimately acquainted with each other as possible; and if this is in itself indispensable, the omission to take the only possible means of doing it would be the greatest of all absurdities. The art of turning such matters into ridicule affords, when closely observed, the best of all proofs of the fallacy which vitiates it. The bare statement that persons engaged to marry take opportunities of being in each other's company, and that on such occasions they are in the habit of talking about their prospects and their feelings, would be felt to have nothing ridiculous about it. In order to make it appear ridiculous it is necessary to associate the romantic part of the matter with impertinent details, and to make fun out of the contrast between them. The contrast between the feelings of two lovers, and the perplexity in which the mother of one of them is involved by having to decide in what room it will be least inconvenient to have the fire lighted for their convenience, may, by a little literary artifice, be made effective; but it is a mere trick, a trick which may be applied to every transaction of life, inasmuch as there is none which is not inevitably associated with details of an unimpressive kind. It would, for example, be easy to make death look ludicrous by describing the reasons which induce the undertaker to choose one winding-sheet rather than another; and nothing is more common or much more foolish than to get sarcastic capital out of the supposed contrast between the velvet cushions and red linings of a pew and the feelings which ought to be uppermost in the minds of those who make use of them.
Whatever be the subject to which such tricks are applied, they are always open to the same objection. They prove too much; for if they prove anything at all, they prove that dignity is impossible, for it is impossible to do anything whatever in general, without doing it at the same time in particular; and wherever anything is looked at in detail, it is capable of being made to look absurd. The most beautiful picture that ever was painted, was painted with specific brushes and colours upon a specific piece of canvas; and any one who wished to make a joke of the subject, might do so by half-good-humoured, half-melancholy banter about the contrast between the grandeur of the painter's conceptions and the paltry character of his materials, bought from some dealer in colours, who, perhaps, never got paid for the greasy pigments which were converted into a possession for ever for all mankind. It is the instinct of all sceptical writers to try to persuade themselves that, in pointing out the ludicrous phase of important subjects, they are only following the example of nature in coupling the ridiculous with the sublime; but, in fact, ridicule is always an attack against that at which it is directed. When associated with the deeper and more tender parts of life, it acts as a sort of poison, degrading those who accept the satirist's conclusion, that folly is a necessary ingredient in the most important of human transactions; and hardening and embittering the life of others, who, being determined to sacrifice their feelings rather than their self-respect, are induced to believe that they must choose between the two. Many popular writers would be surprised to discover the deep personal resentment with which they are regarded by persons whom they never saw, for having thrown over some of the best parts of human life an air of absurdity of which it is very difficult to divest them. Nothing has a stronger tendency to harden the character of a man who respects himself than the fondling, indulgent mockery with which many popular writers alternately laugh and cry over the feelings of lovers, married people, and parents.
In an age when the bulk of the population is engaged in pursuits which absorb and fatigue rather than exercise the mind, almost every one is tempted to take a slight, hasty view of the great pursuits of life, and to regard them as the subjects of amusement rather than of serious study. This is pre-eminently true of the modern view of literature. To write a thing down on paper, to send it to the press, to correct it, and to publish it abroad to all the world, are virtual assertions that it is worth knowing and recollecting. There are many remarks which would be natural and proper in conversation which no one would put into a letter, and there are many things which might properly be put into letters which it would be foolish to print and publish; but, obvious as this appears, the practice of modern literature is opposed to it. In America there seems to be absolutely no limit at all to the appetite which people feel for reading matter less important than the substance of most handbills. A man will write a letter to his friend to say that he has a cold, and that his tailor's bill is higher than he expected it to be; and the friend will publish it in newspapers which owe a fair share of their circulation to the amount of such matter which they contain. In England matters have not gone so far as this, but they have gone a long way. A large majority of the books which are published are not only not of any sort of permanent value, but found their pretensions to popularity on the want of it. They claim to be read on the ground that the author is no wiser than his readers, and that what he puts before them is nothing but a collection of the common thoughts of an ordinary man.
It seems to be supposed, and the supposition appears from the result to be recommended by considerable practical sagacity, that people in general will sympathize with the impulse which induces a man to write out at length, and put into a printed book, the sort of gossip in which many of the idler hours of their own lives are passed, especially if it is strung together by some arbitrary connection and written in a style of forced wit. It is hardly a caricature to say, that such a title as "Leaves from the Lives of remarkable Persons whose Names begin with L.," would be a fair sample of a large proportion of what, in the present day, is called popular literature. The harm which such books are capable of doing is incalculably great, and is all the greater because it is done without producing any violent shock to the feelings and consciences of those whom they affect. Open attacks upon established beliefs are not only discredited by the clamour which they excite, but demand a certain mental effort, and thus fail to affect the timid and the idle. Simply vapid, worthless books, on the contrary, are not supposed to be mischievous, though they have a power altogether peculiar to themselves of imparting to indolent and feeble minds that half-conscious satisfaction in their own imbecility which no one is too low to derive from sympathy. It gives a strong feeling of something like self-satisfaction to a thoroughly vulgar and trivial man to find that a vulgar and trivial literature is provided for him, by the aid of which he may view any subject he pleases in a vulgar and trivial light.
Such a person would be simply tired, if he were not shamed, by anything like an adequate description of any of the more striking passages in history; but he likes to fall in with flimsy, rollicking accounts of them which fulfil the double purpose of relieving him from absolute ignorance upon notorious incidents, and of enabling him to indulge in the comfortable reflection that those who used to be regarded as heroes and saints were really as petty as himself; so that he is justified in looking on himself and his equals as the standard to which mankind would do well to conform, and which it is mere folly and affectation to hope to transcend. Books are useful in so far as they make people grave and thoughtful, and teach them to see the broad principles on which daily life rests, and apart from which it is worthless and petty. Most of those which are written in the present day are little else than the ignoble instruments of the most enervating of all pleasures. A man would pass his evenings far better in going to sleep in an arm-chair before the fire than in saturating his senses—for such reading can hardly be said to reach anything that deserves to be called the mind—with most of the rubbish with which he is provided by monster circulating libraries.
The generation in which we live has no more important lesson to learn than that success in life is measured by the degree in which men succeed in developing the various parts of their nature, moral, intellectual, and physical. External triumphs, whatever may be the theatre on which they are won, are valuable, principally, if not exclusively, as evidence of this internal triumph; and it is altogether impossible to attain it, unless a man thinks of himself and of his pursuits at least as highly as he ought to think, and looks with aversion and contempt on every effort, however brilliant and ingenious, to give him a low notion of life, or to suggest that its great interests are traversed by veins of absurdity. The scepticism which insinuates the reverse in a thousand graceful and pleasant ways does not dare to assert it; for, if it did, it would fall at once into contradictions and confessions of impotence, which no tricks of style and no delicacy of humour could save from appearing in their true light. Dignity in conduct, in thought, and in style, is one great remedy for this frame of mind. It deserves to share with freedom the splendid title of the grave mother of majestic works, and as such should be ardently cultivated both in word and in deed by all who have any place, however humble, to fill in the nation which, "godlike, grasps the triple forks, and, kinglike, wears the crown."
Unhappily the temper of the days in which we live is such, that the assertion that the maintenance of a high standard of personal dignity is a duty which every one owes to his country, is likely to appear pompous and affected. It is, however, strictly true, and it is a truth specially likely to be forgotten, and specially important to be remembered. Every period of national history is critical, because at every period the choice between good and evil presents itself under some form or other. There are times at which great questions, national, religious, or political, press for answer, and at which the whole character of the framework in which society is to be set for centuries is at stake. Wars for national existence, like those between Rome and Carthage, or Persia and Greece—great religious epochs like the Reformation or the Crusades—or great political struggles like our own civil wars in the seventeenth century—raise such questions; and when they are at issue they carry men out of themselves, colour their whole lives, and give to large numbers of people something approaching to an adequate conception of the greatness the theatre on which they stand, and of the importance of the drama in which they act. This greatness, however, is only disclosed by tumultuous excitement of such times, and is not derived from it. The air and the sea are as vast when at rest, as when their collision strews the coast with wrecks. They make the storms: the storms do not make them, but only display their vastness and their power. It was not Philip II., Queen Elizabeth, and Henry IV., who dignified the Reformation by their policy and their wars: the Reformation dignified them. And the Reformation itself derived its importance from the still wider fact that men live and die, that they have immortal souls, and an eternal destiny. This is the true source of all dignity, and it is one which exists in all ages alike, though in some times and countries life is so quiet that it is hard to believe it. In these days we are like passengers in an ocean steamer in fine weather; the motion of the ship is so easy, the cabins are so comfortable, the passengers are so good-humoured, and the water is so smooth, that we can hardly believe that so gay and cheerful a scene contains any elements of terror or even of sublimity. Indeed, some reflective persons have been so much struck with the pettiness of the mass of their neighbours, that they seriously ask whether it is conceivable that creatures so essentially ephemeral should be destined either for heaven or for hell. Whatever their destiny may be hereafter, it is certain that they are destined here for some relations infinitely above the level into which their ordinary thoughts are being led by the influences described above. Happily they are all destined to suffer and to die, for if they were not, they would be repulsive anomalies; many of them are destined to be parents; almost all of them profess to acknowledge and to worship some being higher and better than themselves. These awful truths ought to be the fixed points from which attention may sometimes be lawfully, and even usefully, diverted, but which the mind ought continually though silently to contemplate, and from which it should derive its habitual colour. Peace and prosperity are curses to those whose thoughts they turn into another channel, and it is contemptible to be deadened to this sublimity of life even by the uninterrupted enjoyment of innocent happiness.
Cornhill Magazine, May 1861.