Vivian Grey, by Benjamin Disraeli

Chapter 6

Vivian was now seventeen; and the system of private education having so decidedly failed, it was resolved that he should spend the years antecedent to his going to Oxford at home. Nothing could be a greater failure than the first weeks of his “course of study.” He was perpetually violating the sanctity of the drawing-room by the presence of Scapulas and Hederics, and outraging the propriety of morning visitors by bursting into his mother’s boudoir with lexicons and slippers.

“Vivian, my dear,” said his father to him one day, “this will never do; you must adopt some system for your studies, and some locality for your reading. Have a room to yourself; set apart certain hours in the day for your books, and allow no consideration on earth to influence you to violate their sacredness; and above all, my dear boy, keep your papers in order. I find a dissertation on ‘The Commerce of Carthage’ stuck in my large paper copy of ‘Dibdin’s Decameron,’ and an ‘Essay on the Metaphysics of Music’ (pray, my dear fellow, beware of magazine scribbling) cracking the back of Montfaucon’s ‘Monarchie.’”

Vivian apologised, promised, protested, and finally sat down “TO READ.” He had laid the foundations of accurate classical knowledge under the tuition of the learned Dallas; and twelve hours a day and self-banishment from society overcame, in twelve months, the ill effects of his imperfect education. The result of this extraordinary exertion may be conceived. At the end of twelve months, Vivian, like many other young enthusiasts, had discovered that all the wit and wisdom of the world were concentrated in some fifty antique volumes, and he treated the unlucky moderns with the most sublime spirit of hauteur imaginable. A chorus in the Medea, that painted the radiant sky of Attica, disgusted him with the foggy atmosphere of Great Britain; and while Mrs. Grey was meditating a visit to Brighton, her son was dreaming of the gulf of Salamis. The spectre in the Persae was his only model for a ghost, and the furies in the Orestes were his perfection of tragical machinery.

Most ingenious and educated youths have fallen into the same error, but few have ever carried such feelings to the excess that Vivian Grey did; for while his mind was daily becoming more enervated under the beautiful but baneful influence of Classic Reverie, the youth lighted upon PLATO.

Wonderful is it that while the whole soul of Vivian Grey seemed concentrated and wrapped in the glorious pages of the Athenian; while, with keen and almost inspired curiosity, he searched, and followed up, and meditated upon, the definite mystery, the indefinite development; while his spirit alternately bowed in trembling and in admiration, as he seemed to be listening to the secrets of the Universe revealed in the glorious melodies of an immortal voice; wonderful is it, I say, that the writer, the study of whose works appeared to the young scholar, in the revelling of his enthusiasm, to be the sole object for which man was born and had his being, was the cause by which Vivian Grey was saved from being all his life a dreaming scholar.

Determined to spare no exertions, and to neglect no means, by which he might enter into the very penetralia of his mighty master’s meaning, Vivian determined to attack the latter Platonists. These were a race of men, of whose existence he knew merely by the references to their productions which were sprinkled in the commentaries of his “best editions.” In the pride of boyish learning, Vivian had limited his library to Classics, and the proud leaders of the later schools did not consequently grace his diminutive bookcase. In this dilemma he flew to his father, and confessed by his request that his favourites were not all-sufficient.

“Father! I wish to make myself master of the latter Platonists. I want Plotinus, and Porphyry, and Iamblichus, and Syrirnus, and Maximus Tyrius, and Proclus, and Hierocles, and Sallustius, and Damascius.”

Mr. Grey stared at his son, and laughed.

“My dear Vivian! are you quite convinced that the authors you ask for are all pure Platonists? or have not some of them placed the great end rather in practical than theoretic virtue, and thereby violated the first principles of your master? which would be shocking. Are you sure, too, that these gentlemen have actually ‘withdrawn the sacred veil, which covers from profane eyes the luminous spectacles?’ Are you quite convinced that every one of these worthies lived at least five hundred years after the great master? for I need not tell so profound a Platonist as yourself that it was not till that period that even glimpses of the great master’s meaning were discovered. Strange! that TIME should alike favour the philosophy of theory and the philosophy of facts. Mr. Vivian Grey, benefiting, I presume, by the lapse of further centuries, is about to complete the great work which Proclus and Porphyry commenced.”

“My dear sir! you are pleased to be amusing this morning.”

“My dear boy! I smile, but not with joy. Sit down, and let us have a little conversation together. Father and son, and father and son on such terms as we are, should really communicate oftener together than we do. It has been, perhaps, my fault; it shall not be so again.”

“My dear sir!”

“Nay, nay, it shall be my fault now. Whose it shall be in future, Vivian, time will show. My dear Vivian, you have now spent upwards of a year under this roof, and your conduct has been as correct as the most rigid parent might require. I have not wished to interfere with the progress of your mind, and I regret it. I have been negligent, but not wilfully so. I do regret it; because, whatever may be your powers, Vivian, I at least have the advantage of experience. I see you smile at a word which I so often use. Well, well, were I to talk to you for ever, you would not understand what I mean by that single word. The time will come when you will deem that single word everything. Ardent youths in their closets, Vivian, too often fancy that they are peculiar beings; and I have no reason to believe that you are an exception to the general rule. In passing one whole year of your life, as you have done, you doubtless imagine that you have been spending your hours in a manner which no others have done before. Trust me, my boy, thousands have done the same; and, what is of still more importance, thousands are doing, and will do, the same. Take the advice of one who has committed as many, ay more, follies than yourself; but who would bless the hour that he had been a fool if his experience might be of benefit to his beloved son.”

“My father!”

“Nay, don’t agitate yourself; we are consulting together. Let us see what is to be done. Try to ascertain, when you are alone, what may be the chief objects of your existence in this world. I want you to take no theological dogmas for granted, nor to satisfy your doubts by ceasing to think; but, whether we are in this world in a state of probation for another, or whether we cease altogether when we cease to breathe, human feelings tell me that we have some duties to perform; to our fellow creatures, to our friends, to ourselves. Pray tell me, my dear boy, what possible good your perusal of the latter Platonists can produce to either of these three interests? I trust that my child is not one of those who look with a glazed eye on the welfare of their fellow-men, and who would dream away an useless life by idle puzzles of the brain; creatures who consider their existence as an unprofitable mystery, and yet are afraid to die. You will find Plotinus in the fourth shelf of the next room, Vivian.”

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:19