If we look at the proper sense of the word “earnest," it is very difficult to deny that almost every one is entitled to any credit which may be involved in its application. Almost every one is in earnest during almost the whole of his life. A man is perfectly serious when he orders dinner—he has no notion of making a joke when he tells his shoemaker to make him a pair of boots. He generally means what he says when he makes an appointment; and he must be a peculiar and exceptional person if he can justly be taxed with any want of eagerness to get through with his daily business, whatever it may be. The praises which in so many quarters are heaped upon this newly-found virtue can only be justified, or even understood, by supposing them to convey an inuendo that society, as at present constituted is justly chargeable with being without it; and if we look at the matter historically, we shall see that this is in fact the true explanation of them. Dr. Arnold and Mr. Carlyle were the first persons to make Goethe's “ernst ist das Leben" the text of repeated homilies on the flimsy, superficial, and insincere views of life and conduct, which, as they contended, were preeminently characteristic of modern English society; and as for art, is it not written in the books of Ruskin how, from the days of Michael Angelo downwards, people have gone astray after the conventional and artificial? Broadly stated, the general view which preachers of earnestness take of the existing state of things is, that all the common routine of life ought by right to be regulated according to certain deep and sacred principles, whereas in point of fact it is not regulated by them, but by others of an ignoble character. It is further maintained that the language in which people usually describe their principles—and which, if construed literally, would imply the existence of a more healthy and elevated state of things—is insincerely used, and represents, nothing but more, or less conscious hypocrisy. This is proved by the conventional way in which such language is generally introduced, and by the coolness and indifference with which people generally make use of it.
Our readers cannot need instances of the frequency with which such charges are brought against the world. They assume a thousand forms. They are sometimes lachrymose, as in Mr. Dickens—sometimes ironical, as in Mr. Thackeray–sometimes grotesque, as is so often the case with what have been described as “muscular Christians"—and sometimes outrageously contemptuous and arrogant, as in Mr. Ruskin. Some people wear beards to testify to our want of earnestness; some, and of these there are a considerable number, adopt wonderful crotchets about eating, drinking, and dressing ; and others, perhaps the most numerous class of all, content themselves with abusing the English language. This last habit is the worst of the set, for it insensibly tends to deprave and corrupt the popular taste. When people speak of their living, contemporaries by their Christian and surnames at full length, and without the Mr.— when they use “loyalty,” in the French sense of honourable— when they show a marked preference for words of a Saxon over those of a Latin origin—and when they put to strange uses such commonplace adjectives as “brave” and “true,” speaking of a “brave heart,” and a “true man,” while they merely mean that a person is honest and courageous—they are doing their best to give a certain strut and swagger to our everyday conversation, which is, at least in our opinion, very unbecoming. Surely it would be a change for the worse if every writer who wished to intimate that Mr. Bright was very popular, thought himself bound to say, as a gentleman did a day or two ago, “John Bright has won himself a heart-place amongst the English people."
The best way to estimate the justice of the charge brought in these various forms against society is to consider how an ordinary person would behave if he were ever so, earnest—in any good sense of the word—that is, if he acted habitually upon the very highest principles in the everyday business of life. If there is in the world a great deal of conduct which will stand this test, it is impossible to deny that there may be much earnestness. Much insincerity and pretence there must be in all societies, but unless it can be shown that there is amongst us a much larger allowance of it than usual, the clamour against this particular age of the world cannot be justified. Let us suppose, for example, that an apothecary in a country town, moderately skilful and moderately intelligent, were as earnest as you please, how would he differ, to external observation, from other apothecaries? His plain duty would be to maintain his family on the one hand, and to attend to his patients properly on the other. Such a man may of course be a fawning, lying, crawling sycophant and cheat, or he may be a person of unblemished honesty and manliness; or he may be something between the two—a man, in the main, and in a quiet way, desirous to do his duty, yet by no means superior to every form of temptation. Would there be any broad and clear difference between the behaviour of the pattern earnest hero and the man of mere average respectability? That there would be a difference, which a keen observer might possibly detect, may be true, but we do not believe that the one man's habitual manner and behaviour would differ in any marked way from that of the other. Each would be equally conventional in his language—each would be equally trite and insipid in his conversation, and in the maxims by which he would profess to be guided in life—each would in all probability pass through the world undistinguished, and by the generality of men undistinguishable from the great mass of man; And yet one of them would have realized the ideal which is so noisily prescribed to us, though his whole person and manner would have borne throughout the whole of his life those marks which are so often accepted as conclusive evidence of the insincerity and heartlessness of the whole generation.
The truth is, that what is called conventionality, whether it reside in manner, in language, in thought, or in the productions of the mind, is in reality no evidence of insincerity—just as originality in all these respects might happen to belong to the basest and falsest of mankind. As it is an intellectual gift to be original, it is an intellectual weakness to be commonplace; but this is the very worst that can fairly be said of a defect (if it can be called one) which, from the nature of the case, must be found in the overwhelming majority of human beings. What are called conventional manners and sentiments are, in fact, an essential part of the social apparatus. To all men, whatever may be their power, they are a necessary step in education—to all ordinary men they are the substitute which the action of society affords for vacancy and listlessness. Of two housemaids equally silly, idle, and careless, the one who has a dim knowledge of her catechism, coupled with a vague association of respect for it, is better off than the one who has none at all. Nothing can be so difficult as to argue with any approach to precision from the manners of the day to the spirit with which it is animated. Fortunately for our privacy and independence, our characters are for the most part screened from observation by a veil almost entirely impenetrable. There is a certain decent propriety of behaviour within which saints, heroes, rogues, liars, cowards, or swindlers, may entrench themselves with perfect security during the greater part of their lives. It is only from exceptional acts, or transient glimpses, that any one can tell to which of the classes the persons so screened may belong. The writers and speakers to whom we have been alluding are extremely anxious that every good man should throw down his screen and claim: the position to which he is entitled by some overt act of goodness. We cannot see what would be the good of gratifying their curiosity. Such conduct as they would take as evidence of goodness might be something very different. If circumstances enable a man to do his duty indoors he is fortunate, and he is surely entitled to complain if his neighbour placards the street with announcements that every one who does not open his windows has something discreditable to conceal. If there is in the world a curious and inconsistent spectacle, it is that of a man who unites the praises of sincerity, simplicity, and an earnest discharge of the common duties of life with a mass of oddities, crotchets, and protestations against the hollowness and insincerity of the world. He is like a person who should walk through Hyde Park, ringing a bell like a town-crier, and making, with a corresponding voice, some such proclamation as this:--"Look at me, ladies and gentlemen! look at me! You see before you a man who really does believe the Creed and the Ten Commandments. I do really, wish to follow, my business sedulously; strange and unnatural as you may think it, I really am fond of my wife and children; can you doubt it, when I take every opportunity in all I write, or say, or wear, to assure you of the fact? You, in your conventionality, make no fuss about these things. There is nothing remarkable in your behaviour, or even in your language. Dry, hollow, and heartless as you are, respect, if you refuse to imitate, the real original earnest man.”
Saturday Review, May 29, 1858.