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

ESSAY XIX.

OF SELF-COMPLACENCY.

The subject of this Essay is intimately connected with those of Essays XI and XII, perhaps the most important of the series.

It has been established in the latter, that human creatures are constantly accompanied in their voluntary actions with the delusive sense of liberty, and that our character, our energies, and our conscience of moral right and wrong, are mainly dependent upon this feature in our constitution.

The subject of my present disquisition relates to the feeling of self-approbation or self-complacency, which will be found inseparable from the most honourable efforts and exertions in which mortal men can be engaged.

One of the most striking of the precepts contained in what are called the Golden Verses of Pythagoras, is couched in the words, “Reverence thyself.”

The duties which are incumbent on man are of two sorts, negative and positive. We are bound to set right our mistakes, and to correct the evil habits to which we are prone; and we are bound also to be generously ambitious, to aspire after excellence, and to undertake such things as may reflect honour on ourselves, and be useful to others.

To the practice of the former of these classes of duties we may be instigated by prohibitions, menaces and fear, the fear of mischiefs that may fall upon us conformably to the known series of antecedents and consequents in the course of nature, or of mischiefs that may be inflicted on us by the laws of the country in which we live, or as results of the ill will and disapprobation felt towards us by individuals. There is nothing that is necessarily generous or invigorating in the practice of our negative duties. They amount merely to a scheme for keeping us within bounds, and restraining us from those sallies and escapes, which human nature, undisciplined and left to itself, might betray us into. But positive enterprise, and great actual improvement cannot be expected by us in this way. All this is what the apostle refers to, when he speaks of “the law as a schoolmaster to bring us to liberty,” after which he advises us “not to be again entangled with the yoke of bondage.”

On the other hand, if we would enter ourselves in the race of positive improvement, if we would become familiar with generous sentiments, and the train of conduct which such sentiments inspire, we must provide ourselves with the soil in which such things grow, and engage in the species of husbandry by which they are matured; in other words, we must be no strangers to self-esteem and self-complacency.

The truth of this statement may perhaps be most strikingly illustrated, if we take for our example the progress of schoolboys under a preceptor. A considerable proportion of these are apt, diligent, and desirous to perform the tasks in which they are engaged, so as to satisfy the demands of their masters and parents, and to advance honourably in the path that is recommended to them. And a considerable proportion put themselves on the defensive, and propose to their own minds to perform exactly as much as shall exempt them from censure and punishment, and no more.

Now I say of the former, that they cannot accomplish the purpose they have conceived, unless so far as they are aided by a sentiment of self-reverence.

The difference of the two parties is, that the latter proceed, so far as their studies are concerned, as feeling themselves under the law of necessity, and as if they were machines merely, and the former as if they were under what the apostle calls “the law of liberty.”

We cannot perform our tasks to the best of our power, unless we think well of our own capacity.

But this is the smallest part of what is necessary. We must also be in good humour with ourselves. We must say, I can do that which I shall have just occasion to look back upon with satisfaction. It is the anticipation of this result, that stimulates our efforts, and carries us forward. Perseverance is an active principle, and cannot continue to operate but under the influence of desire. It is incompatible with languor and neutrality. It implies the love of glory, perhaps of that glory which shall be attributed to us by others, or perhaps only of that glory which shall be reaped by us in the silent chambers of the mind. The diligent scholar is he that loves himself, and desires to have reason to applaud and love himself. He sits down to his task with resolution, he approves of what he does in each step of the process, and in each enquires, Is this the thing I purposed to effect?

And, as it is with the unfledged schoolboy, after the same manner it is with the man mature. He must have to a certain extent a good opinion of himself, he must feel a kind of internal harmony, giving to the circulations of his frame animation and cheerfulness, or he can never undertake and execute considerable things.

The execution of any thing considerable implies in the first place previous persevering meditation. He that undertakes any great achievement will, according to the vulgar phrase, “think twice,” before he buckles up his resolution, and plunges into the ocean, which he has already surveyed with anxious glance while he remained on shore. Let our illustration be the case of Columbus, who, from the figure of the earth, inferred that there must be a way of arriving at the Indies by a voyage directly west, in distinction from the very complicated way hitherto practiced, by sailing up the Mediterranean, crossing the isthmus of Suez, and so falling down the Red Sea into the Indian Ocean. He weighed all the circumstances attendant on such an undertaking in his mind. He enquired into his own powers and resources, imaged to himself the various obstacles that might thwart his undertaking, and finally resolved to engage in it. If Columbus had not entertained a very good opinion of himself, it is impossible that he should have announced such a project, or should have achieved it.

Again. Let our illustration be, of Homer undertaking to compose the Iliad. If he had not believed himself to be a man of very superior powers to the majority of the persons around him, he would most assuredly never have attempted it. What an enterprise! To describe in twenty-four books, and sixteen thousand verses, the perpetual warfare and contention of two great nations, all Greece being armed for the attack, and all the western division of Asia Minor for the defence: the war carried on by two vast confederacies, under numerous chiefs, all sovereign and essentially independent of each other. To conceive the various characters of the different leaders, and their mutual rivalship. To engage all heaven, such as it was then understood, as well as what was most respectable on earth, in the struggle. To form the idea, through twenty-four books, of varying the incidents perpetually, and keeping alive the attention of the reader or hearer without satiety or weariness. For this purpose, and to answer to his conception of a great poem, Homer appears to have thought it necessary that the action should be one; and he therefore took the incidental quarrel of Achilles and the commander in chief, the resentment of Achilles, and his consequent defection from the cause, till, by the death of Patroclus, and then of Hector, all traces of the misunderstanding first, and then of its consequences, should be fully obliterated.

There is further an essential difference between the undertaking of Columbus and that of Homer. Once fairly engaged, there was for Columbus no drawing back. Being already at sea on the great Atlantic Ocean, he could not retrace his steps. Even when he had presented his project to the sovereigns of Spain, and they had accepted it, and still more when the ships were engaged, and the crews mustered, he must go forward, or submit to indelible disgrace.

It is not so in writing a poem. The author of the latter may stop whenever he pleases. Of consequence, during every day of its execution, he requires a fresh stimulus. He must look back on the past, and forward on what is to come, and feel that he has considerable reason to be satisfied. The great naval discoverer may have his intervals of misgiving and discouragement, and may, as Pope expresses it, “wish that any one would hang him.” He goes forward; for he has no longer the liberty to choose. But the author of a mighty poem is not in the same manner entangled, and therefore to a great degree returns to his work each day, “screwing his courage to the sticking-place.” He must feel the same fortitude and elasticity, and be as entirely the same man of heroic energy, as when he first arrived at the resolution to engage. How much then of self-complacency and self-confidence do his undertaking and performance imply!

I have taken two of the most memorable examples in the catalogue of human achievements: the discovery of a New World, and the production of the Iliad. But all those voluntary actions, or rather series and chains of actions, which comprise energy in the first determination, and honour in the execution, each in its degree rests upon self-complacency as the pillar upon which its weight is sustained, and without which it must sink into nothing.

Self-complacency then being the indispensible condition of all that is honourable in human achievements, hence we may derive a multitude of duties, and those of the most delicate nature, incumbent on the preceptor, as well as a peculiar discipline to be observed by the candidate, both while he is “under a schoolmaster,” and afterwards when he is emancipated, and his plan of conduct is to he regulated by his own discretion.

The first duty of the preceptor is encouragement.

Not that his face is to be for ever dressed in smiles, and that his tone is to be at all times that of invitation and courtship. The great theatre of the world is of a mingled constitution, made up of advantages and sufferings; and it is perhaps best that so should be the different scenes of the drama as they pass. The young adventurer is not to expect to have every difficulty smoothed for him by the hand of another. This were to teach him a lesson of effeminacy and cowardice. On the contrary it is necessary that he should learn that human life is a state of hardship, that the adversary we have to encounter does not always present himself with his fangs sheathed in the woolly softness which occasionally renders them harmless, and that nothing great or eminently honourable was ever achieved but through the dint of resolution, energy and struggle. It is good that the winds of heaven should blow upon him, that he should encounter the tempest of the elements, and occasionally sustain the inclemency of the summer’s heat and winter’s cold, both literally and metaphorically.

But the preceptor, however he conducts himself in other respects, ought never to allow his pupil to despise himself, or to hold himself as of no account. Self-contempt can never be a discipline favourable to energy or to virtue. The pupil ought at all times to judge himself in some degree worthy, worthy and competent now to attempt, and hereafter to accomplish, things deserving of commendation. The preceptor must never degrade his pupil in his own eyes, but on the contrary must teach him that nothing but resolution and perseverance are necessary, to enable him to effect all that the judicious director can expect from him. He should be encouraged through every step of his progress, and specially encouraged when he has gained a certain point, and arrived at an important resting-place. It is thus we are taught the whole circle of what are called accomplishments, dancing, music, fencing, and the rest; and it is surely a strange anomaly, if those things which are most essential in raising the mind to its true standard, cannot be communicated with equal suavity and kindness, be surrounded with allurements, and regarded as sources of pleasure and genuine hilarity.

In the mean time it is to be admitted that every human creature, especially in the season of youth, and not being the victim of some depressing disease either of body or mind, has in him a good obstinate sort of self-complacency, which cannot without much difficulty be eradicated. “Though he falleth seven times, yet will he rise again.” And, when we have encountered various mortifications, and have been many times rebuked and inveighed against, we nevertheless recover our own good opinion, and are ready to enter into a fresh contention for the prize, if not in one kind, then in another.

It is in allusion to this feature in the human character, that we have an expressive phrase in the English language — “to break the spirit.” The preceptor may occasionally perhaps prescribe to the pupil a severe task; and the young adventurer may say, Can I be expected to accomplish this? But all must be done in kindness. The generous attempter must be reminded of the powers he has within him, perhaps yet unexercised; with cheering sounds his progress must be encouraged; and, above all, the director of the course must take care not to tax him beyond his strength. And, be it observed, that the strength of a human creature is to be ascertained by two things; first, the abstract capacity, that the thing required is not beyond the power of a being so constituted to perform; and, secondly, we must take into the account his past achievements, the things he has already accomplished, and not expect that he is at once to overleap a thousand obstacles.

For there is such a thing as a broken spirit. I remember a boy who was my schoolfellow, that, having been treated with uncalled for severity, never appeared afterwards in the scene of instruction, but with a neglected appearance, and the articles of his dress scarcely half put on. I was very young at the time, and viewed only the outside of things. I cannot tell whether he had any true ambition previously to his disgrace, but I am sure he never had afterwards.

How melancholy an object is the man, who, “for the privilege to breathe, bears up and down the city

A discontented and repining spirit
Burthensome to itself,”

incapable of enterprise, listless, with no courage to undertake, and no anticipation of the practicability of success and honour! And this spectacle is still more affecting, when the subject shall be a human creature in the dawn of youth, when nature opens to him a vista of beauty and fruition on every side, and all is encouraging, redolent of energy and enterprise!

To break the spirit of a man, bears a considerable resemblance to the breaking the main spring, or principal movement, of a complicated and ingeniously constructed machine. We cannot tell when it is to happen; and it comes at last perhaps at the time that it is least expected. A judicious superintendent therefore will be far from trying consequences in his office, and will, like a man walking on a cliff whose extremes are ever and anon crumbling away and falling into the ocean, keep much within the edge, and at a safe distance from the line of danger.

But this consideration has led me much beyond the true subject of this Essay. The instructor of youth, as I have already said, is called upon to use all his skill, to animate the courage, and maintain the cheerfulness and self-complacency of his pupil. And, as such is the discipline to be observed to the candidate, while he is “under a schoolmaster,” so, when he is emancipated, and his plan of conduct is to be regulated by his own discretion, it is necessary that he should carry forward the same scheme, and cultivate that tone of feeling, which should best reconcile him to himself, and, by teaching him to esteem himself and bear in mind his own value, enable him to achieve things honourable to his character, and memorably useful to others. Melancholy, and a disposition anticipating evil are carefully to be guarded against, by him who is desirous to perform his part well on the theatre of society. He should habitually meditate all cheerful things, and sing the song of battle which has a thousand times spurred on his predecessors to victory. He should contemplate the crown that awaits him, and say to himself, I also will do my part, and endeavour to enrol myself in the select number of those champions, of whom it has been predicated that they were men, of whom, compared with the herd of ordinary mortals, “the world,” the species among whom they were rated, “was not worthy.”

Another consideration is to be recollected here. Without self-complacency in the agent no generous enterprise is to be expected, and no train of voluntary actions, such as may purchase honour to the person engaged in them.

But, beside this, there is no true and substantial happiness but for the self-complacent. “The good man,” as Solomon says, “is satisfied from himself.” The reflex act is inseparable from the constitution of the human mind. How can any one have genuine happiness, unless in proportion as he looks round, and, “behold! every thing is very good?” This is the sunshine of the soul, the true joy, that gives cheerfulness to all our circulations, and makes us feel ourselves entire and complete. What indeed is life, unless so far as it is enjoyed? It does not merit the name. If I go into a school, and look round on a number of young faces, the scene is destitute of its true charm, unless so far as I see inward peace and contentment on all sides. And, if we require this eminently in the young, neither can it be less essential, when in growing manhood we have the real cares of the world to contend with, or when in declining age we need every auxiliary to enable us to sustain our infirmities.

But, before I conclude my remarks on this subject, it is necessary that I should carefully distinguish between the thesis, that self-complacency is the indispensible condition of all that is honourable in human achievements, and the proposition contended against in Essay XI, that “self-love is the source of all our actions.” Self-complacency is indeed the feeling without which we cannot proceed in an honourable course; but is far from being the motive that impels us to act. The motive is in the real nature and absolute properties of the good thing that is proposed to our choice: we seek the happiness of another, because his happiness is the object of our desire. Self-complacency may be likened to the bottle-holder in one of those contentions for bodily prowess, so characteristic of our old English manners. The bottle-holder is necessary to supply the combatant with refreshment, and to encourage him to persist; but it would be most unnatural to regard him as the cause of the contest. No: the parties have found reason for competition, they apprehend a misunderstanding or a rivalry impossible to be settled but by open contention, and the putting forth of mental and corporeal energy; and the bottle-holder is an auxiliary called in afterwards, his interference implying that the parties have already a motive to act, and have thrown down the gauntlet in token of the earnest good-will which animates them to engage.

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