Thoughts on Man, His Nature, Productions and Discoveries Interspersed with Some Particulars Respecting the Author, by William Godwin

ESSAY XVI.

OF FRANKNESS AND RESERVE.

Animals are divided into the solitary and the are gregarious: the former being only occasionally associated with its mate, and perhaps engaged in the care of its offspring; the latter spending their lives in herds and communities. Man is of this last class or division.

Where the animals of any particular species live much in society, it seems requisite that in some degree they should be able to understand each other’s purposes, and to act with a certain portion of concert.

All other animals are exceedingly limited in their powers of communication. But speech renders that being whom we justly entitle the lord of the creation, capable of a boundless interchange of ideas and intentions. Not only can we communicate to each other substantively our elections and preferences: we can also exhort and persuade, and employ reasons and arguments to convince our fellows, that the choice we have made is also worthy of their adoption. We can express our thoughts, and the various lights and shades, the bleedings, of our thoughts. Language is an instrument capable of being perpetually advanced in copiousness, perspicuity and power.

No principle of morality can be more just, than that which teaches us to regard every faculty we possess as a power intrusted to us for the benefit of others as well as of ourselves, and which therefore we are bound to employ in the way which shall best conduce to the general advantage.

“Speech was given us, that by it we might express our thoughts34;” in other words, our impressions, ideas and conceptions. We then therefore best fulfil the scope of our nature, when we sincerely and unreservedly communicate to each other our feelings and apprehensions. Speech should be to man in the nature of a fair complexion, the transparent medium through which the workings of the mind should be made legible.

34 Moliere.

I think I have somewhere read of Socrates, that certain of his friends expostulated with him, that the windows of his house were so constructed that every one who went by could discover all that passed within. “And wherefore not?” said the sage. “I do nothing that I would wish to have concealed from any human eye. If I knew that all the world observed every thing I did, I should feel no inducement to change my conduct in the minutest particular.”

It is not however practicable that frankness should be carried to the extent above mentioned. It has been calculated that the human mind is capable of being impressed with three hundred and twenty sensations in a second of time. At all events we well know that, even “while I am speaking, a variety of sensations are experienced by me, without so much as interrupting, that is, without materially diverting, the train of my ideas. My eye successively remarks a thousand objects that present themselves, and my mind wanders to the different parts of my body, without occasioning the minutest obstacle to my discourse, or my being in any degree distracted by the multiplicity of these objects35.” It is therefore beyond the reach of the faculty of speech, for me to communicate all the sensations I experience; and I am of necessity reduced to a selection.

35 See above, Essay 7.

Nor is this the whole. We do not communicate all that we feel, and all that we think; for this would be impertinent. We owe a certain deference and consideration to our fellow-men; we owe it in reality to ourselves. We do not communicate indiscriminately all that passes within us. The time would fail us; and “the world would not contain the books that might be written.” We do not speak merely for the sake of speaking; otherwise the communication of man with his fellow would be but one eternal babble. Speech is to be employed for some useful purpose; nor ought we to give utterance to any thing that shall not promise to be in some way productive of benefit or amusement.

Frankness has its limits, beyond which it would cease to be either advantageous or virtuous. We are not to tell every thing:

but we are not to conceal any thing, that it would be useful or becoming in us to utter. Our first duty regarding the faculty of speech is, not to keep back what it would be beneficial to our neighbour to know. But this is a negative sincerity only. If we would acquire a character for frankness, we must be careful that our conversation is such, as to excite in him the idea that we are open, ingenuous and fearless. We must appear forward to speak all that will give him pleasure, and contribute to maintain in him an agreeable state of being. It must be obvious that we are not artificial and on our guard. — After all, it is difficult to lay down rules on this subject: the spring of whatever is desirable respecting it, must be in the temper of the man with whom others have intercourse. He must be benevolent, sympathetic and affectionate. His heart must overflow with good-will; and he must be anxious to relieve every little pain, and to contribute to the enjoyment and complacent feelings, of those with whom he is permanently or accidentally connected. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.”

There are two considerations by which we ought to be directed in the exercise of the faculty of speech.

The first is, that we should tell our neighbour all that it would be useful to him to know. We must have no sinister or bye ends. “No man liveth to himself.” We are all of us members of the great congregation of mankind. The same blood should circulate through every limb and every muscle. Our pulses should beat time to each other; and we should have one common sensorium, vibrating throughout, upon every material accident that occurs, and when any object is at stake essentially affecting the welfare of our fellow-beings. We should forget ourselves in the interest that we feel for the happiness of others; and, if this were universal, each man would be a gainer, inasmuch as he lost himself, and was cared and watched for by many.

In all these respects we must have no reserve. We should only consider what it is that it would be beneficial to have declared.

We must not look back to ourselves, and consult the dictates of a narrow and self-interested prudence. The whole essence of communication is adulterated, if, instead of attending to the direct effects of what suggests itself to our tongue, we are to consider how by a circuitous route it may react upon our own pleasures and advantage.

Nor only are we bound to communicate to our neighbour all that it will be useful to him to know. We have many neighbours, beside those to whom we immediately address ourselves. To these our absent fellow-beings, we owe a thousand duties. We are bound to defend those whom we hear aspersed, and who are spoken unworthily of by the persons whom we incidentally encounter. We should be the forward and spontaneous advocates of merit in every shape and in every individual in whom we know it to exist. What a character would that man make for himself, of whom it was notorious that he consecrated his faculty of speech to the refuting unjust imputations against whomsoever they were directed, to the contradicting all false and malicious reports, and to the bringing forth obscure and unrecognised worth from the shades in which it lay hid! What a world should we live in, if all men were thus prompt and fearless to do justice to all the worth they knew or apprehended to exist! Justice, simple justice, if it extended no farther than barely to the faculty of speech, would in no long time put down all misrepresentation and calumny, bring all that is good and meritorious into honour, and, so to speak, set every man in his true and rightful position. But whoever would attempt this, must do it in all honour, without parade, and with no ever-and-anon looking back upon his achievement, and saying, See to how much credit I am entitled! — as if he laid more stress upon himself, the doer of this justice, than upon justice in its intrinsic nature and claims.

But we not only owe something to the advantage and interest of our neighbours, but something also to the sacred divinity of Truth. I am not only to tell my neighbour whatever I know that may be beneficial to him, respecting his position in society, his faults, what other men appear to contemplate that may conduce to his advantage or injury, and to advise him how the one may best be forwarded, or the other defeated and brought to nothing: I am bound also to consider in what way it may be in my power so to act on his mind, as shall most enlarge his views, confirm and animate his good resolutions, and meliorate his dispositions and temper. We are all members of one great community: and we shall never sufficiently discharge our duty in that respect, till, like the ancient Spartans, the love of the whole becomes our predominant passion, and we cease to imagine that we belong to ourselves, so much as to the entire body of which we are a part. There are certain views in morality, in politics, and various other important subjects, the general prevalence of which will be of the highest benefit to the society of which we are members; and it becomes us in this respect, with proper temperance and moderation, to conform ourselves to the zealous and fervent precept of the apostle, to “promulgate the truth and be instant, in season and out of season,” that we may by all means leave some monument of our good intentions behind us, and feel that we have not lived in vain.

There is a maxim extremely in vogue in the ordinary intercourses of society, which deserves to be noticed here, for the purpose of exposing it to merited condemnation. It is very common between friends, or persons calling themselves such, to say, “Do not ask my advice in a certain crisis of your life; I will not give it; hereafter, if the thing turns out wrong, you will reflect on me, and say that it was at my suggestion that you were involved in calamity.” This is a dastardly excuse, and shews a pitiful selfishness in the man that urges it.

It is true, that we ought ever to be on the alert, that we may not induce our friend into evil. We should be upon our guard, that we may not from overweening arrogance and self-conceit dictate to another, overpower his more sober judgment, and assume a rashness for him, in which perhaps we would not dare to indulge for ourselves. We should be modest in our suggestions, and rather supply him with materials for decision, than with a decision absolutely made. There may however be cases where an opposite proceeding is necessary. We must arrest our friend, nay, even him who is merely our fellow-creature, with a strong arm, when we see him hovering on the brink of a precipice, or the danger is so obvious, that nothing but absolute blindness could conceal it from an impartial bystander.

But in all cases our best judgment should always be at the service of our brethren of mankind. “Give to him that asketh thee; and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.”

This may not always be practicable or just, when applied to the goods of fortune: but the case of advice, information, and laws of conduct, comes within that of Ennius, to suffer our neighbour to light his candle at our lamp. To do so will enrich him, without making us a jot the poorer. We should indeed respect the right of private judgment, and scarcely in any case allow our will to supersede his will in his own proper province. But we should on no account suffer any cowardly fears for ourselves, to induce us to withhold from him any assistance that our wider information or our sounder judgment might supply to him.

The next consideration by which we should be directed in the exercise of the faculty of speech, is that we should employ it so as should best conduce to the pleasure of our neighbour. Man is a different creature in the savage and the civilised state. It has been affirmed, and it may be true, that the savage man is a stranger to that disagreeable frame of mind, known by the name of ennui. He can pore upon the babbling stream, or stretch himself upon a sunny bank, from the rising to the setting of the sun, and be satisfied. He is scarcely roused from this torpid state but by the cravings of nature. If they can be supplied without effort, he immediately relapses into his former supineness; and, if it requires search, industry and exertion to procure their gratification, he still more eagerly embraces the repose, which previous fatigue renders doubly welcome.

But, when the mind has once been wakened up from its original lethargy, when we have overstepped the boundary which divides the man from the beast, and are made desirous of improvement, while at the same moment the tumultuous passions that draw us in infinitely diversified directions are called into act, the case becomes exceedingly different. It might be difficult at first to rouse man from his original lethargy: it is next to impossible that he should ever again be restored to it. The appetite of the mind being once thoroughly awakened in society, the human species are found to be perpetually craving after new intellectual food. We read, we write, we discourse, we ford rivers, and scale mountains, and engage in various pursuits, for the pure pleasure that the activity and earnestness of the pursuit afford us. The day of the savage and the civilised man are still called by the same name. They may be measured by a pendulum, and will be found to be of the same duration. But in all other points of view they are inexpressibly different.

Hence therefore arises another duty that is incumbent upon us as to the exercise of the faculty of speech. This duty will be more or less urgent according to the situation in which we are placed.

If I sit down in a numerous assembly, if I become one of a convivial party of ten or twelve persons, I may unblamed be for the greater part, or entirely silent, if I please. I must appear to enter into their sentiments and pleasures, or, if I do not, I shall be an unwelcome guest; but it may scarcely be required for me to clothe my feelings with articulate speech.

But, when my society shall be that of a few friends only, and still more if the question is of spending hours or days in the society of a single friend, my duty becomes altered, and a greater degree of activity will be required from me. There are cases, where the minor morals of the species will be of more importance than those which in their own nature are cardinal. Duties of the highest magnitude will perhaps only be brought into requisition upon extraordinary occasions; but the opportunities we have of lessening the inconveniences of our neighbour, or of adding to his accommodations and the amount of his agreeable feelings, are innumerable. An acceptable and welcome member of society therefore will not talk, only when he has something important to communicate. He will also study how he may amuse his friend with agreeable narratives, lively remarks, sallies of wit, or any of those thousand nothings, which’ set off with a wish to please and a benevolent temper, will often entertain more and win the entire good will of the person to whom they are addressed, than the wisest discourse, or the vein of conversation which may exhibit the powers and genius of the speaker to the greatest advantage.

Men of a dull and saturnine complexion will soon get to an end of all they felt it incumbent on them to say to their comrades. But the same thing will probably happen, though at a much later period, between friends of an active mind, of the largest stores of information, and whose powers have been exercised upon the greatest variety of sentiments, principles, and original veins of thinking. When two such men first fall into society, each will feel as if he had found a treasure. Their communications are without end; their garrulity is excited, and converts into a perennial spring. The topics upon which they are prompted to converse are so numerous, that one seems to jostle out the other.

It may proceed thus from day to day, from month to month, and perhaps from year to year. But, according to the old proverb, “It is a long lane that has no turning.” The persons here described will have a vast variety of topics upon which they are incited to compare their opinions, and will lay down these topics and take them up again times without number. Upon some, one of the parties will feel himself entirely at home while the other is comparatively a novice, and, in others, the advantage will be with the other; so that the gain of both, in this free and unrestrained opening of the soul, will be incalculable. But the time will come, like as in perusing an author of the most extraordinary genius and the most versatile powers, that the reading of each other’s minds will be exhausted. They know so much of each other’s tone of thinking, that all that can be said will be anticipated. The living voice, the sparkling eye, and the beaming countenance will do much to put off the evil day, when we shall say, I have had enough. But the time will come in which we shall feel that this after all is but little, and we shall become sluggish, ourselves to communicate, or to excite the dormant faculties of our friend, when the spring, the waters of which so long afforded us the most exquisite delight, is at length drawn dry.

I remember in my childish years being greatly struck with that passage in the Bible, where it is written, “But I say unto you, that, for every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give an account in the day of judgment:” and, as I was very desirous of conforming myself to the directions of the sacred volume, I was upon the point of forming a sort of resolution, that I would on no account open my mouth to speak, without having a weighty reason for uttering the thing I felt myself prompted to say.

But practical directions of this sort are almost in all cases of ambiguous interpretation. From the context of this passage it is clear, that by “idle words” we are to understand vicious words, words tending to instil into the mind unauthorised impulses, that shew in the man who speaks “a will most rank, foul disproportion, thoughts unnatural,’ and are calculated to render him by whom they are listened to, light and frivolous of temper, and unstrung for the graver duties of human life.

But idle words, in the sense of innocent amusement, are not vicious. “There is a time for all things.” Amusement must not encroach upon or thrust aside the real business, the important engagements, and the animated pursuits of man. But it is entitled to take its turn unreproved. Human life is so various, and the disposition and temper of the mind of so different tones and capacity, that a wise man will “frame his face to all occasions.” Playfulness, if not carried to too great an extreme, is an additional perfection in human nature. We become relieved from our more serious cares, and better fitted to enter on them again after an interval. To fill up the days of our lives with various engagements, to make one occupation succeed to another, so as to liberate us from the pains of ennui, and the dangers of what may in an emphatical sense be called idleness, is no small desideratum. That king may in this sense be admitted to have formed no superficial estimate of our common nature, who is said to have proclaimed a reward to the individual that should invent a new amusement.

And, to consider the question as it stands in relation to the subject of the present Essay, a perpetual gravity and a vigilant watch to be placed on the door of our lips, would be eminently hostile to that frankness which is to be regarded as one of the greatest ornaments of our nature. “It is meet, that we should make merry and be glad.” A formal countenance, a demure, careful and unaltered cast of features, is one of the most disadvantageous aspects under which human nature can exhibit itself. The temper must be enterprising and fearless, the manner firm and assured, and the correspondence between the heart and the tongue prompt and instantaneous, if we desire to have that view of man that shall do him the most credit, and induce us to form the most honourable opinion respecting him. On our front should sit fearless confidence and unsubdued hilarity. Our limbs should be free and unfettered, a state of the animal which imparts a grace infinitely more winning than that of the most skilful dancer. The very sound of our voice should be full, firm, mellow, and fraught with life and sensibility; of that nature, at the hearing of which every bosom rises, and every eye is lighted up. It is thus that men come to understand and confide in each other. This is the only frame that can perfectly conduce to our moral improvement, the awakening of our faculties, the diffusion of science, and the establishment of the purest notions and principles of civil and political liberty.

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