Thursday, September 22, 2016

Foster on the Improvement of Time

“An Essay on the Improvement of Time, and other Literary Remains.” (by John Foster, 1863)

Many years have passed since the late Mr. Foster earned the modified celebrity which is involved in the title of Foster, the Essayist. He was a man decidedly worthy of notice; and one or two of his productions gained a reputation more durable than is usually achieved by mere essays. His essay on Decision of Character is still, we believe, read by particular classes; and his essay on the Aversion of Men of Taste to Evangelical Religion has been the means of raising in many minds far deeper questions than it has ever solved. In these, and in his other works, there is a great deal of one-sided originality, and of a certain kind of mental energy. He certainly has the habit of thinking for himself, and though his thoughts were neither elegant nor complete, they always deserved attention. The great defects of his style and mind were those to which Dissenters are almost invariably prone. It would be wrong and illiberal to refuse to them the possession of their full share both of virtue and of talent, but, whatever may be their learning or piety, they hardly ever write quite like gentlemen. There is almost always a want of ease in their style, which betrays the consciousness that they have got to assert themselves, that there is a presumption against them, and that they will be neglected unless they make an effort to be conspicuous. This feeling shows itself in very various ways. Sometimes, especially in our own days, it takes the form of an affectation of ease and the use of peculiarly fine words. It would be easy, though invidious, to name writings of this class on grave subjects and of some merit written in a style like that of Our Own Correspondent. In former times the attempt to be easy and facetious had not been thought of, and the indispensable self-assertion was made by the simple process of adopting the stiffest and most cumbrous form of composition. This is often the case with Foster, though the native sturdiness and energy of the man frequently breaks through his self-imposed fetters.

The essay which fills the bulk of the present volume—the remainder being composed of notes of sermons and letters— is not an unfavourable specimen of the author’s powers, though the subject is one on which, probably, no human being could write 171 8vo. pages worth reading. Indeed, it appears to have hung with awful weight on the soul of its author. He began it in 1805. It was still in an unfinished state in 1806, in 1809, in 1819, and is now at last published, some years after the author's death. There is a practical contradiction, which is not without piquancy, about an essay which hangs fire for forty years or more, and of which the object is to insist on such points as that the smallest excess in sleep is a gross insult to God. Every page of the book is, as it were, hung with black. It tends to convict every member of the human race of an all but life-long course of iniquity in not making the most of every passing instant; yet Balsam is so bored with the composition of his own curse that the generation to which it was addressed has perished in the wilderness before it is delivered. It is as if a judge allowed a criminal to die of old age before he could muster up energy enough to sentence him to death.

The essay consists for the most part of illustrations, and has been considerately divided into paragraphs, and furnished with headings to its three chapters, by Mr. Ryland, the editor. These headings show a strong practical appreciation of the value of the reader’s time, as they point out the parts of the book which may with regard to a due economy of time be skipped, and also give the substance of the essay in a few appropriate sentences. It is divided into two parts—illustrations of the nature of time and the uses to which it may be put, and practical observations on the way in which people generally do use and in which they ought to use it. The substance of the first part may be condensed into the following doctrine. Take the most active hour that you ever passed in a great emergency, and the sum total of the results which you are in duty bound to produce in the course of your life is to the results which you did produce in that hour, as the number of hours comprised in your waking life is to one. "Our time," says the author, after pages of illustration of the value of time in emergencies, “is a season of emergency in the strictest sense, for there is such a measure of duty pressing its claims on the whole length of life, and, therefore, on every distinct portion of it, as the utmost possible efforts cannot more than discharge, nay, which the utmost efforts will always do something less than discharge." From this general principle he proceeds to a set of specific comparisons, and gives all the well-known stories about the miracles of industry performed by Magliabecchi, Sir William Jones, Calmet, Baxter, and others. He illustrates the capacity of time by the number of voluntary motions performed in a given period by a man taking a walk, or the number of pulsations of the heart; and after much of this sort of matter, he goes on to show that nothing but a belief in a future state can supply an adequate motive for taking such trouble, but that that belief, as taught by Christianity, does. This is accompanied by a vast deal of awkward irony addressed to infidels as to the best way of spending time on their principles. The second part of the essay is composed of practical inferences. The most important is that it is a tremendous crime to sleep for more than six, or possibly seven, hours. “It seems to be allowed by all proper judges, that in mature life . . . the necessity of sleep may be confined to six hours, or perhaps extended to seven at the utmost, in a life of constant laborious exertion.” “The sinner” who “will come from ten hours' sleep into the breakfast-room with an arch and good-humoured confidence,” meets with his deserts in a most awful way. He is shown to be constructively guilty of no one can say what enormities. In one respect he is “worse than an atheist," for he has chosen not to be, rather than to be, for a certain space, whereas the atheist (who is not let off cheaply either) only believes in future annihilation. Moreover, he is guilty (constructively) of blasphemy, because, by artificially abridging his conscious existence, he indirectly tells his Maker that he need not have been created quite so soon. Then follow all the well-known calculations as to what a man might do if he were awake two hours a day extra for twenty years. The essay concludes with hints for using up the odds and ends of time, one of which is that it is well to carry about “the grammar of a language which a person has occasion to acquire or recover, the brief abstract of a science, chronological abridgment of history, a synopsis of the arguments relating to any interesting subject, which may with advantage be looked over 50 or 100 times" when the fortunate possessor is not hard at work—when, for instance, he is “waiting for admittance at some public office,” or “Wearing out the day in expectation of being called as a witness in Court”—cheerful exceptions to the prevailing duty of labouring like a steam-engine for eighteen hour! (less meal times) in every week-day, and being spiritually flogged on the Sunday. It is highly satisfactory to believe that Mr. Foster did not act up to his own principles, and that this tremendous pill was never administered, simply because he could not find time to make it up, though there is nothing to show that he lived a life of any superhuman industry.

The truth is, that the whole theory is simply baseless. It is the mere crotchet of a preacher and writer who set up an impossible standard because he thought that what was right must be disagreeable. His theory appears to have been, that the Day of Judgment is a fear-fully hard competitive examination, which can be passed only by a lifelong system of cram, and that the Creator is a taskmaster who impases upon man in general a slavery infinitely harder than Legree imposed on Uncle Tom. Intense labour, persevered in for a lifetime, and never relaxed for an hour, is his ideal of human life. It is a characteristic ideal, and a very low one. Men may preach for ever without persuading their neighbours to think that such a life as that of Magliabecchi is particularly admirable, or that Baxter is to be held in reverence because he was constantly writing pamphlets for nearly sixty years. No one denies the importance of industry and energy, but they mean something very different from that eager slavery which Foster so much admired. A grown-up man or woman who has no vigorous stated occupation in life is rightly an object either of contempt or of pity—contempt in the case of almost every man who has moderately good health, pity in the case of many women; but if a person has such an occupation, and follows it u well and vigorously, it is absurd to call him every kind of hard name because he might do other things which he leaves undone. Suppose, for instance, a man goes to bed at eleven and gets up at seven, committing thereby the awful sin of lying in bed eight hours a night. It is very well to tell him that he is worse than an atheist, and guilty of constructive blasphemy; but his accuser would look rather foolish if he replied—You may say what you please, but in the course of the last year I have earned enough by the assiduous exercise of a laborious profession to maintain a large family handsomely, to save a considerable sum of money, and to acquire a large quantity of knowledge, and I beg to ad that if I had had to write an essay on the improvement of time, I would have done it in a month, instead of pottering over it for forty years.

Foster's notions about time are just like the virtuous schemes which an undergraduate who had read Todd’s Student's Guide would make for spending his da on going to college. “I will get up at six and go to bed at twelve, I will read Latin from eight to eleven, and mathematics from twelve to two," and all the rest of it. It is not in this way that men do considerable things. When a. man once gets really to love his occupation, or really to need the money that he gets by it, he will in almost every case work hard enough for all practical purposes; But, as a rule, he will do no more, and it is hard to say why he should. Is every cabman in London bound to be knitting stockings all the time that he is waiting to be hired? or is it a great sin in the park-keepers in Hyde Park to spend their whole day in walking gently up and down a set of level gravel walks? Surely not. They do the business assigned to them in life, and do it well. If, however, they are justified in this, what are we to say of the case of a military officer in country quarters? Is every moment of spare time not spent in improving is mind a sin? If so, was Abraham engaged in the commission of a sinful act when the destruction of Sodom was announced to him as “he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day?” Any one who has had much to do with energetic men will say that many forms of energy—and those most important to the public—are incompatible with the constant drudgery so much admired by Foster. Men capable of and addicted to extreme exertion, both bodily and mental, on occasion, will often appear peculiarly sluggish till the occasion arrives which calls out their energy; and there is even a connexion between the two states of mind. for many years of his life the Duke of Wellington was far from being a laborious man, and many a soldier and sportsman, who on occasion will go through any Quantity of hardship and exertion, will, when off duty, spend days in lounging and gossiping. The true test of the employment of a man's time is what he does effect, no matter how. It is a quite distinct question what he might have effected, if his character had been totally different from what it is.

Saturday Review, June 27, 1863.

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