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

ESSAY II.

OF THE DISTRIBUTION OF TALENTS.

{Greek — omitted} Thucydides, Lib.I, cap. 84.

SECTION I.

PRESUMED DEARTH OF INTELLECTUAL POWER. — SCHOOLS FOR THE EDUCATION OF YOUTH CONSIDERED. — THE BOY AND THE MAN COMPARED.

One of the earliest judgments that is usually made by those whose attention is turned to the characters of men in the social state, is of the great inequality with which the gifts of the understanding are distributed among us.

Go into a miscellaneous society; sit down at table with ten or twelve men; repair to a club where as many are assembled in an evening to relax from the toils of the day — it is almost proverbial, that one or two of these persons will perhaps be brilliant, and the rest “weary, stale, flat and unprofitable.”

Go into a numerous school — the case will be still more striking. I have been present where two men of superior endowments endeavoured to enter into a calculation on the subject; and they agreed that there was not above one boy in a hundred, who would be found to possess a penetrating understanding, and to be able to strike into a path of intellect that was truly his own. How common is it to hear the master of such a school say, “Aye, I am proud of that lad; I have been a schoolmaster these thirty years, and have never had such another!”

The society above referred to, the dinner-party, or the club, was to a considerable degree select, brought together by a certain supposed congeniality between the individuals thus assembled. Were they taken indiscriminately, as boys are when consigned to the care of a schoolmaster, the proportion of the brilliant would not be a whit greater than in the latter case.

A main criterion of the superiority of the schoolboy will be found in his mode of answering a casual question proposed by the master. The majority will be wholly at fault, will shew that they do not understand the question, and will return an answer altogether from the purpose. One in a hundred perhaps, perhaps in a still less proportion, will reply in a laudable manner, and convey his ideas in perspicuous and spirited language.

It does not certainly go altogether so ill, with men grown up to years of maturity. They do not for the most part answer a plain question in a manner to make you wonder at their fatuity.

A main cause of the disadvantageous appearance exhibited by the ordinary schoolboy, lies in what we denominate sheepishness. He is at a loss, and in the first place stares at you, instead of giving an answer. He does not make by many degrees so poor a figure among his equals, as when he is addressed by his seniors.

One of the reasons of the latter phenomenon consists in the torpedo effect of what we may call, under the circumstances, the difference of ranks. The schoolmaster is a despot to his scholar; for every man is a despot, who delivers his judgment from the single impulse of his own will. The boy answers his questioner, as Dolon answers Ulysses in the Iliad, at the point of the sword. It is to a certain degree the same thing, when the boy is questioned merely by his senior. He fears he knows not what — a reprimand, a look of lofty contempt, a gesture of summary disdain. He does not think it worth his while under these circumstances, to “gird up the loins of his mind.” He cannot return a free and intrepid answer but to the person whom he regards as his equal. There is nothing that has so disqualifying an effect upon him who is to answer, as the consideration that he who questions is universally acknowledged to be a being of a higher sphere, or, as between the boy and the man, that he is the superior in conventional and corporal strength.

Nor is it simple terror that restrains the boy from answering his senior with the same freedom and spirit, as he would answer his equal. He does not think it worth his while to enter the lists. He despairs of doing the thing in the way that shall gain approbation, and therefore will not try. He is like a boxer, who, though skilful, will not fight with one hand tied behind him. He would return you the answer, if it occurred without his giving himself trouble; but he will not rouse his soul, and task his strength to give it. He is careless; and prefers trusting to whatever construction you may put upon him, and whatever treatment you may think proper to bestow upon him. It is the most difficult thing in the world, for the schoolmaster to inspire into his pupil the desire to do his best.

Among full-grown men the case is different. The schoolboy, whether under his domestic roof, or in the gymnasium, is in a situation similar to that of the Christian slaves in Algiers, as described by Cervantes in his History of the Captive. “They were shut up together in a species of bagnio, from whence they were brought out from time to time to perform certain tasks in common:

they might also engage in pranks, and get into scrapes, as they pleased; but the master would hang up one, impale another, and cut off the ears of a third, for little occasion, or even wholly without it.” Such indeed is the condition of the child almost from the hour of birth. The severities practised upon him are not so great as those resorted to by the proprietor of slaves in Algiers; but they are equally arbitrary and without appeal. He is free to a certain extent, even as the captives described by Cervantes; but his freedom is upon sufferance, and is brought to an end at any time at the pleasure of his seniors. The child therefore feels his way, and ascertains by repeated experiments how far he may proceed with impunity. He is like the slaves of the Romans on the days of the Saturnalia. He may do what he pleases, and command tasks to his masters, but with this difference — the Roman slave knew when the days of his licence would be over, and comported himself accordingly; but the child cannot foresee at any moment when the bell will be struck, and the scene reversed. It is commonly enough incident to this situation, that the being who is at the mercy of another, will practise, what Tacitus calls, a “vernacular urbanity,” make his bold jests, and give utterance to his saucy innuendoes, with as much freedom as the best; but he will do it with a wary eye, not knowing how soon he may feel his chain plucked! and himself compulsorily reduced into the established order. His more usual refuge therefore is, to do nothing, and to wrap himself up in that neutrality towards his seniors, that may best protect him from their reprimand and their despotism.

The condition of the full-grown man is different from that of the child, and he conducts himself accordingly. He is always to a certain degree under the control of the political society of which he is a member. He is also exposed to the chance of personal insult and injury from those who are stronger than he, or who may render their strength more considerable by combination and numbers. The political institutions which control him in certain respects, protect him also to a given degree from the robber and assassin, or from the man who, were it not for penalties and statutes, would perpetrate against him all the mischiefs which malignity might suggest. Civil policy however subjects him to a variety of evils, which wealth or corruption are accustomed to inflict under the forms of justice; at the same time that it can never wholly defend him from those violences to which he would be every moment exposed in what is called the state of nature.

The full-grown man in the mean time is well pleased when he escapes from the ergastulum where he had previously dwelt, and in which he had experienced corporal infliction and corporal restraint. At first, in the newness of his freedom, he breaks out into idle sallies and escapes, and is like the full-fed steed that manifests his wantonness in a thousand antics and ruades. But this is a temporary extravagance. He presently becomes as wise and calculating, as the schoolboy was before him.

The human being then, that has attained a certain stature, watches and poises his situation, and considers what he may do with impunity. He ventures at first with no small diffidence, and pretends to be twice as assured as he really is. He accumulates experiment after experiment, till they amount to a considerable volume. It is not till he has passed successive lustres, that he attains that firm step, and temperate and settled accent, which characterise the man complete. He then no longer doubts, but is ranged on the full level of the ripened members of the community.

There is therefore little room for wonder, if we find the same individual, whom we once knew a sheepish and irresolute schoolboy, that hung his head, that replied with inarticulated monotony, and stammered out his meaning, metamorphosed into a thoroughly manly character, who may take his place on the bench with senators, and deliver a grave and matured opinion as well as the best. It appears then that the trial and review of full-grown men is not altogether so disadvantageous to the reckoning of our common nature, as that of boys at school.

It is not however, that the full-grown man is not liable to be checked, reprimanded and rebuked, even as the schoolboy is. He has his wife to read him lectures, and rap his knuckles; he has his master, his landlord, or the mayor of his village, to tell him of his duty in an imperious style, and in measured sentences; if he is a member of a legislature, even there he receives his lessons, and is told, either in phrases of well-conceived irony, or by the exhibition of facts and reasonings which take him by surprise, that he is not altogether the person he deemed himself to be. But he does not mind it. Like Iago in the play, he “knows his price, and, by the faith of man, that he is worth no worse a place” than that which he occupies. He finds out the value of the check he receives, and lets it “pass by him like the idle wind”— a mastery, which the schoolboy, however he may affect it, never thoroughly attains to.

But it unfortunately happens, that, before he has arrived at that degree of independence, the fate of the individual is too often decided for ever. How are the majority of men trampled in the mire, made “hewers of wood, and drawers of water,” long, very long, before there was an opportunity of ascertaining what it was of which they were capable! Thus almost every one is put in the place which by nature he was least fit for: and, while perhaps a sufficient quantity of talent is extant in each successive generation, yet, for want of each man’s being duly estimated, and assigned his appropriate duty, the very reverse may appear to be the case. By the time that they have attained to that sober self-confidence that might enable them to assert themselves, they are already chained to a fate, or thrust down to a condition, from which no internal energies they possess can ever empower them to escape.

SECTION II.

EQUALITY OF MAN WITH MAN. — TALENTS EXTENSIVELY DISTRIBUTED. — WAY IN WHICH THIS DISTRIBUTION IS COUNTERACTED. — THE APTITUDE OF CHILDREN FOR DIFFERENT PURSUITS SHOULD BE EARLY SOUGHT OUT. — HINTS FOR A BETTER SYSTEM OF EDUCATION. — AMBITION AN UNIVERSAL PRINCIPLE.

The reflections thus put down, may assist us in answering the question as to the way in which talents are distributed among men by the hand of nature.

All things upon the earth and under the earth, and especially all organised bodies of the animal or vegetable kingdom, fall into classes. It is by this means, that the child no sooner learns the terms, man, horse, tree, flower, than, if an object of any of these kinds which he has never seen before, is exhibited to him, he pronounces without hesitation, This is a man, a horse, a tree, a flower.

All organised bodies of the animal or vegetable kingdom are cast in a mould of given dimension and feature belonging to a certain number of individuals, though distinguished by inexhaustible varieties. It is by means of those features that the class of each individual is determined.

To confine ourselves to man.

All men, the monster and the lusus naturae excepted, have a certain form, a certain complement of limbs, a certain internal structure, and organs of sense — may we not add further, certain powers of intellect?

Hence it seems to follow, that man is more like and more equal to man, deformities of body and abortions of intellect excepted, than the disdainful and fastidious censors of our common nature are willing to admit.

I am inclined to believe, that, putting idiots and extraordinary cases out of the question, every human creature is endowed with talents, which, if rightly directed, would shew him to be apt, adroit, intelligent and acute, in the walk for which his organisation especially fitted him.

But the practices and modes of civilised life prompt us to take the inexhaustible varieties of man, as he is given into our guardianship by the bountiful hand of nature, and train him in one uniform exercise, as the raw recruit is treated when he is brought under the direction of his drill-serjeant.

The son of the nobleman, of the country-gentleman, and of those parents who from vanity or whatever other motive are desirous that their offspring should be devoted to some liberal profession, is in nearly all instances sent to the grammar-school. It is in this scene principally, that the judgment is formed that not above one boy in a hundred possesses an acute understanding, or will be able to strike into a path of intellect that shall be truly his own.

I do not object to this destination, if temperately pursued. It is fit that as many children as possible should have their chance of figuring in future life in what are called the higher departments of intellect. A certain familiar acquaintance with language and the shades of language as a lesson, will be beneficial to all. The youth who has expended only six months in acquiring the rudiments of the Latin tongue, will probably be more or less the better for it in all his future life.

But seven years are usually spent at the grammar-school by those who are sent to it. I do not in many cases object to this. The learned languages are assuredly of slow acquisition. In the education of those who are destined to what are called the higher departments of intellect, a long period may advantageously be spent in the study of words, while the progress they make in theory and dogmatical knowledge is too generally a store of learning laid up, to be unlearned again when they reach the period of real investigation and independent judgment. There is small danger of this in the acquisition of words.

But this method, indiscriminately pursued as it is now, is productive of the worst consequences. Very soon a judgment may be formed by the impartial observer, whether the pupil is at home in the study of the learned languages, and is likely to make an adequate progress. But parents are not impartial. There are also two reasons why the schoolmaster is not the proper person to pronounce: first, because, if he pronounces in the negative, he will have reason to fear that the parent will be offended; and secondly, because he does not like to lose his scholar. But the very moment that it can be ascertained, that the pupil is not at home in the study of the learned languages, and is unlikely to make an adequate progress, at that moment he should be taken from it.

The most palpable deficiency that is to be found in relation to the education of children, is a sound judgment to be formed as to the vocation or employment in which each is most fitted to excel.

As, according to the institutions of Lycurgus, as soon as a boy was born, he was visited by the elders of the ward, who were to decide whether he was to be reared, and would be made an efficient member of the commonwealth, so it were to be desired that, as early as a clear discrimination on the subject might be practicable, a competent decision should be given as to the future occupation and destiny of a child.

But this is a question attended with no common degree of difficulty. To the resolving such a question with sufficient evidence, a very considerable series of observations would become necessary. The child should be introduced into a variety of scenes, and a magazine, so to speak, of those things about which human industry and skill may be employed, should be successively set before him. The censor who is to decide on the result of the whole, should be a person of great sagacity, and capable of pronouncing upon a given amount of the most imperfect and incidental indications. He should be clear-sighted, and vigilant to observe the involuntary turns of an eye, expressions of a lip, and demonstrations of a limb.

The declarations of the child himself are often of very small use in the case. He may be directed by an impulse, which occurs in the morning, and vanishes in the evening. His preferences change as rapidly as the shapes we sometimes observe in the evening clouds, and are governed by whim or fantasy, and not by any of those indications which are parcel of his individual constitution. He desires in many instances to be devoted to a particular occupation, because his playfellow has been assigned to it before him.

The parent is not qualified to judge in this fundamental question, because he is under the dominion of partiality, and wishes that his child may become a lord chancellor, an archbishop, or any thing else, the possessor of which condition shall be enabled to make a splendid figure in the world. He is not qualified, because he is an interested party, and, either from an exaggerated estimate of his child’s merits, or from a selfish shrinking from the cost it might require to mature them, is anxious to arrive at a conclusion not founded upon the intrinsic claims of the case to be considered.

Even supposing it to be sufficiently ascertained in what calling it is that the child will be most beneficially engaged, a thousand extrinsical circumstances will often prevent that from being the calling chosen. Nature distributes her gifts without any reference to the distinctions of artificial society. The genius that demanded the most careful and assiduous cultivation, that it might hereafter form the boast and ornament of the world, will be reared amidst the chill blasts of poverty; while he who was best adapted to make an exemplary carpenter or artisan, by being the son of a nobleman is thrown a thousand fathoms wide of his true destination.

Human creatures are born into the world with various dispositions. According to the memorable saying of Themistocles, One man can play upon a psaltery or harp, and another can by political skill and ingenuity convert a town of small account, weak and insignificant, into a city noble, magnificent and great.

It is comparatively a very little way that we can penetrate into the mysteries of nature.

Music seems to be one of the faculties most clearly defined in early youth. The child who has received that destination from the hands of nature, will even in infancy manifest a singular delight in musical sounds, and will in no long time imitate snatches of a tune. The present professor of music in the university of Oxford contrived for himself, I believe at three years old, a way for playing on an instrument, the piano forte, unprompted by any of the persons about him. This is called having an ear.

Instances nearly as precocious are related of persons, who afterwards distinguished themselves in the art of painting.

These two kinds of original destination appear to be placed beyond the reach of controversy.

Horace says, The poet is born a poet, and cannot be made so by the ingenuity of art: and this seems to be true. He sees the objects about him with an eye peculiarly his own; the sounds that reach his ear, produce an effect upon him, and leave a memory behind, different from that which is experienced by his fellows. His perceptions have a singular vividness.

The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;

And his imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown,

It is not probable that any trainings of art can give these endowments to him who has not received them from the gift of nature.

The subtle network of the brain, or whatever else it is, that makes a man more fit for, and more qualified to succeed in, one occupation than another, can scarcely be followed up and detected either in the living subject or the dead one. But, as in the infinite variety of human beings no two faces are so alike that they cannot be distinguished, nor even two leaves plucked from the same tree2, so it may reasonably be presumed, that there are varieties in the senses, the organs, and the internal structure of the human species, however delicate, and to the touch of the bystander evanescent, which may give to each individual a predisposition to rise to a supreme degree of excellence in some certain art or attainment, over a million of competitors.

2 Papers between Clarke and Leibnitz, p. 95.

It has been said that all these distinctions and anticipations are idle, because man is born without innate ideas. Whatever is the incomprehensible and inexplicable power, which we call nature, to which he is indebted for his formation, it is groundless to suppose, that that power is cognisant of, and guides itself in its operations by, the infinite divisibleness of human pursuits in civilised society. A child is not designed by his original formation to be a manufacturer of shoes, for he may be born among a people by whom shoes are not worn, and still less is he destined by his structure to be a metaphysician, an astronomer, or a lawyer, a rope-dancer, a fortune-teller, or a juggler.

It is true that we cannot suppose nature to be guided in her operations by the infinite divisibleness of human pursuits in civilised society. But it is not the less true that one man is by his structure best fitted to excel in some one in particular of these multifarious pursuits, however fortuitously his individual structure and that pursuit may be brought into contact. Thus a certain calmness and steadiness of purpose, much flexibility, and a very accurate proportion of the various limbs of the body, are of great advantage in rope-dancing; while lightness of the fingers, and a readiness to direct our thoughts to the rapid execution of a purpose, joined with a steadiness of countenance adapted to what is figuratively called throwing dust in the eyes of the bystander, are of the utmost importance to the juggler: and so of the rest.

It is as much the temper of the individual, as any particular subtlety of organ or capacity, that prepares him to excel in one pursuit rather than a thousand others. And he must have been a very inattentive observer of the indications of temper in an infant in the first months of his existence, who does not confess that there are various peculiarities in that respect which the child brings into the world with him.

There is excellent sense in the fable of Achilles in the island of Scyros. He was placed there by his mother in female attire among the daughters of Lycomedes, that he might not be seduced to engage in the Trojan war. Ulysses was commissioned to discover him, and, while he exhibited jewels and various woman’s ornaments to the princesses, contrived to mix with his stores a suit of armour, the sight of which immediately awakened the spirit of the hero.

Every one has probably within him a string more susceptible than the rest, that demands only a kindred impression to be made, to call forth its latent character. Like the war-horse described in the Book of Job: “He paweth in the valley, and rejoiceth in his strength; he goeth on to meet the armed men; he smelleth the battle afar off, the thunder of the captains, and the shouting.”

Nothing can be more unlike than the same man to himself, when he is touched, and not touched, upon

the master-string
That makes most harmony or discord to him.

It is like the case of Manlius Torquatus in Livy, who by his father was banished among his hinds for his clownish demeanour and untractableness to every species of instruction that was offered him, but who, understanding that his parent was criminally arraigned for barbarous treatment of him, first resolutely resorted to the accuser, compelling him upon pain of death to withdraw his accusation, and subsequently, having surmounted this first step towards an energetic carriage and demeanour, proved one of the most illustrious characters that the Roman republic had to boast.

Those children whose parents have no intention of training them to the highest departments of intellect, and have therefore no thought of bestowing on them a classical education, nevertheless for the most part send them to a school where they are to be taught arithmetic, and the principles of English grammar. I should say in this case, as I said before on the subject of classical education, that a certain initiation in these departments of knowledge, even if they are pursued a very little way, will probably be beneficial to all.

But it will often be found, in these schools for more ordinary education, as in the school for classical instruction, that the majority of the pupils will be seen to be unpromising, and, what is usually called, dull. The mistake is, that the persons by whom this is perceived, are disposed to set aside these pupils as blockheads, and unsusceptible of any species of ingenuity.

It is unreasonable that we should draw such a conclusion.

In the first place, as has been already observed, it is the most difficult thing in the world for the schoolmaster to inspire into his pupil the desire to do his best. An overwhelming majority of lads at school are in their secret hearts rebels to the discipline under which they are placed. The instructor draws, one way, and the pupil another. The object of the latter is to find out how he may escape censure and punishment with the smallest expence of scholastic application. He looks at the task that is set him, without the most distant desire of improvement, but with alienated and averted eye. And, where this is the case, the wonder is not that he does not make a brilliant figure. It is rather an evidence of the slavish and subservient spirit incident to the majority of human beings, that he learns any thing. Certainly the schoolmaster, who judges of the powers of his pupil’s mind by the progress he makes in what he would most gladly be excused from learning, must be expected perpetually to fall into the most egregious mistakes.

The true test of the capacity of the individual, is where the desire to succeed, and accomplish something effective, is already awakened in the youthful mind. Whoever has found out what it is in which he is qualified to excel, from that moment becomes a new creature. The general torpor and sleep of the soul, which is incident to the vast multitude of the human species, is departed from him. We begin, from the hour in which our limbs are enabled to exert themselves freely, with a puerile love of sport. Amusement is the order of the day. But no one was ever so fond of play, that he had not also his serious moments. Every human creature perhaps is sensible to the stimulus of ambition. He is delighted with the thought that he also shall be somebody, and not a mere undistinguished pawn, destined to fill up a square in the chess-board of human society. He wishes to be thought something of, and to be gazed upon. Nor is it merely the wish to be admired that excites him: he acts, that he may be satisfied with himself. Self-respect is a sentiment dear to every heart. The emotion can with difficulty be done justice to, that a man feels, who is conscious that he is breathing his true element, that every stroke that he strikes will have the effect he designs, that he has an object before him, and every moment approaches nearer to that object. Before, he was wrapped in an opake cloud, saw nothing distinctly, and struck this way and that at hazard like a blind man. But now the sun of understanding has risen upon him; and every step that he takes, he advances with an assured and undoubting confidence.

It is an admirable remark, that the book which we read at the very time that we feel a desire to read it, affords us ten times the improvement, that we should have derived from it when it was taken up by us as a task. It is just so with the man who chooses his occupation, and feels assured that that about which he is occupied is his true and native field. Compare this person with the boy that studies the classics, or arithmetic, or any thing else, with a secret disinclination, and, as Shakespear expresses it, “creeps like snail, unwillingly, to school.” They do not seem as if they belonged to the same species.

The result of these observations certainly strongly tends to support the proposition laid down early in the present Essay, that, putting idiots and extraordinary cases out of the question, every human creature is endowed with talents, which, if rightly directed, would shew him to be apt, adroit, intelligent and acute, in the walk for which his organisation especially fitted him.

SECTION III.

ENCOURAGING VIEW OF OUR COMMON NATURE. — POWER OF SOUND EXPOSITION AFFORDED TO ALL. — DOCTRINE OF THIS ESSAY AND THE HYPOTHESIS OF

HELVETIUS COMPARED. — THE WILLING AND UNWILLING PUPIL CONTRASTED. — MISCHIEVOUS TENDENCY OF THE USUAL MODES OF EDUCATION.

What a beautiful and encouraging view is thus afforded us of our common nature! It is not true, as certain disdainful and fastidious censurers of their fellow-men would persuade us to believe, that a thousand seeds are sown in the wide field of humanity, for no other purpose than that half-a-dozen may grow up into something magnificent and splendid, and that the rest, though not absolutely extinguished in the outset, are merely suffered to live that they may furnish manure and nourishment to their betters. On the contrary, each man, according to this hypothesis, has a sphere in which he may shine, and may contemplate the exercise of his own powers with a well-grounded satisfaction. He produces something as perfect in its kind, as that which is effected under another form by the more brilliant and illustrious of his species. He stands forward with a serene confidence in the ranks of his fellow-creatures, and says, “I also have my place in society, that I fill in a manner with which I have a right to be satisfied.” He vests a certain portion of ingenuity in the work he turns out. He incorporates his mind with the labour of his hands; and a competent observer will find character and individuality in it.

He has therefore nothing of the sheepishness of the ordinary schoolboy, the tasks imposed upon whom by his instructor are foreign to the true bent of his mind, and who stands cowed before his seniors, shrinking under the judgment they may pass upon him, and the oppression they may exercise towards him. He is probably competent to talk in a manner that may afford instruction to men in other respects wise and accomplished, and is no less clear and well-digested in his discourse respecting the subjects to which his study and labour have been applied, than they are on the questions that have exercised the powers of analysis with which they are endowed. Like Elihu in the Book of Job, he says, “I am young, and you are old; I said therefore, Days shall speak, and multitude of years shall teach wisdom. But there is a spirit in man; and the inspiration of the Almighty giveth him understanding. Great men are not always wise; neither do the aged understand judgment. Hearken therefore to me; and I also will shew my opinion.”

What however in the last instance is affirmed, is not always realised in the experiment. The humblest mechanic, who works con amore, and feels that he discharges his office creditably, has a sober satisfaction in the retrospect, and is able to express himself perspicuously and well on the subject that has occupied his industry. He has a just confidence in himself. If the occasion arises, on which he should speak on the subject of what he does, and the methods he adopts for effecting it, he will undoubtedly acquit himself to the satisfaction of those who hear him. He knows that the explanations he can afford will be sound and masculine, and will stand the test of a rigid examination.

But, in proportion as he feels the ground on which he stands, and his own power to make it good, he will not fail to retire from an audience that is not willing to be informed by him. He will often appear in the presence of those, whom the established arrangements of society call his superiors, who are more copiously endowed with the treasures of language, and who, confident perhaps in the advantage of opulence, and what is called, however they may have received it, a liberal education, regard with disdain his artless and unornamented explanations. He did not, it may be, expect this. And, having experienced several times such unmerited treatment, he is not willing again to encounter it. He knew the worth of what he had to offer. And, finding others indisposed to listen to his suggestions, he contentedly confines them within the circle of his own thoughts.

To this it must be added that, though he is able to explain himself perspicuously, yet he is not master of the graces of speech, nor even perhaps of the niceties of grammar. His voice is not tuned to those winning inflections by which men, accustomed to the higher ranks of society, are enabled so to express themselves,

That aged ears play truant at their tales,
And younger hearings are quite ravished,
So sweet and voluble is their discourse.

On the contrary there is a ruggedness in his manner that jars upon the sense. It is easy for the light and supercilious to turn him into ridicule. And those who will not be satisfied with the soundness of his matter, expounded, as he is able to expound it, in clear and appropriate terms, will yield him small credit, and listen to him with little delight.

These considerations therefore bring us back again to the reasons of the prevalent opinion, that the majority of mankind are dull, and of apprehension narrow and confused. The mass of boys in the process of their education appear so, because little of what is addressed to them by their instructors, awakens their curiosity, and inspires them with the desire to excel. The concealed spark of ambition is not yet cleared from the crust that enveloped it as it first came from the hand of nature. And in like manner the elder persons, who have not experienced the advantages of a liberal education, or by whom small profit was made by those advantages, being defective in exterior graces, are generally listened to with impatience, and therefore want the confidence and the inclination to tell what they know.

But these latter, if they are not attended to upon the subjects to which their attention and ingenuity have been applied, do not the less possess a knowledge and skill which are intrinsically worthy of applause. They therefore contentedly shut up the sum of their acquisitions in their own bosoms, and are satisfied with the consciousness that they have not been deficient in performing an adequate part in the generation of men among whom they live.

Those persons who favour the opinion of the incessant improveableness of the human species, have felt strongly prompted to embrace the creed of Helvetius, who affirms that the minds of men, as they are born into the world, are in a state of equality, alike prepared for any kind of discipline and instruction that may be afforded them, and that it depends upon education only, in the largest sense of that word, including every impression that may be made upon the mind, intentional or accidental, from the hour of our birth, whether we shall be poets or philosophers, dancers or singers, chemists or mathematicians, astronomers or dissectors of the faculties of our common nature.

But this is not true. It has already appeared in the course of this Essay, that the talent, or, more accurately speaking, the original suitableness of the individual for the cultivation, of music or painting, depends upon certain peculiarities that we bring into the world with us. The same thing may be affirmed of the poet. As, in the infinite variety of human beings, there are no two faces so alike that they cannot be distinguished, nor even two leaves plucked from the same tree, so there are varieties in the senses, the organs, and the internal structure of the human species, however delicate, and to the touch of the bystander evanescent, which give to each individual a predisposition to rise to excellence in one particular art or attainment, rather than in any other.

And this view of things, if well considered, is as favourable, nay, more so, to the hypothesis of the successive improveableness of the human species, as the creed of Helvetius. According to that philosopher, every human creature that is born into the world, is capable of becoming, or being made, the equal of Homer, Bacon or Newton, and as easily and surely of the one as the other. This creed, if sincerely embraced, no doubt affords a strong stimulus to both preceptor and pupil, since, if true, it teaches us that any thing can be made of any thing, and that, wherever there is mind, it is within the compass of possibility, not only that that mind can be raised to a high pitch of excellence, but even to a high pitch of that excellence, whatever it is, that we shall prefer to all others, and most earnestly desire.

Still this creed will, after all, leave both preceptor and pupil in a state of feeling considerably unsatisfactory. What it sets before us, is too vast and indefinite. We shall be left long perhaps in a state of balance as to what species of excellence we shall choose; and, in the immense field of accessible improvement it offers to us, without land-mark or compass for the direction of our course, it is scarcely possible that we should feel that assured confidence and anticipation of success, which are perhaps indispensibly required to the completion of a truly arduous undertaking.

But, upon the principles laid down in this Essay, the case is widely different. We are here presented in every individual human creature with a subject better fitted for one sort of cultivation than another. We are excited to an earnest study of the individual, that we may the more unerringly discover what pursuit it is for which his nature and qualifications especially prepare him. We may be long in choosing. We may be even on the brink of committing a considerable mistake. Our subsequent observations may enable us to correct the inference we were disposed to make from those which went before. Our sagacity is flattered by the result of the laborious scrutiny which this view of our common nature imposes upon us.

In addition to this we reap two important advantages.

In the first place, we feel assured that every child that is born has his suitable sphere, to which if he is devoted, he will not fail to make an honourable figure, or, in other words, will be seen to be endowed with faculties, apt, adroit, intelligent and acute. This consideration may reasonably stimulate us to call up all our penetration for the purpose of ascertaining the proper destination of the child for whom we are interested.

And, secondly, having arrived at this point, we shall find ourselves placed in a very different predicament from the guardian or instructor, who, having selected at random the pursuit which his fancy dictates, and in the choice of which he is encouraged by the presumptuous assertions of a wild metaphysical philosophy, must often, in spite of himself, feel a secret misgiving as to the final event. He may succeed, and present to a wondering world a consummate musician, painter, poet, or philosopher; for even blind chance may sometimes hit the mark, as truly as the most perfect skill. But he will probably fail. Sudet multum, frustraque laboret. And, if he is disappointed, he will not only feel that disappointment in the ultimate result, but also in every step of his progress. When he has done his best, exerted his utmost industry, and consecrated every power of his soul to the energies he puts forth, he may close every day, sometimes with a faint shadow of success, and sometimes with entire and blank miscarriage. And the latter will happen ten thousand times, for once that the undertaking shall be blessed with a prosperous event.

But, when the destination that is given to a child has been founded upon a careful investigation of the faculties, tokens, and accidental aspirations which characterise his early years, it is then that every step that is made with him, becomes a new and surer source of satisfaction. The moment the pursuit for which his powers are adapted is seriously proposed to him, his eyes sparkle, and a second existence, in addition to that which he received at his birth, descends upon him. He feels that he has now obtained something worth living for. He feels that he is at home, and in a sphere that is appropriately his own. Every effort that he makes is successful. At every resting-place in his race of improvement he pauses, and looks back on what he has done with complacency. The master cannot teach him so fast, as he is prompted to acquire.

What a contrast does this species of instruction exhibit, to the ordinary course of scholastic education! There, every lesson that is prescribed, is a source of indirect warfare between the instructor and the pupil, the one professing to aim at the advancement of him that is taught, in the career of knowledge, and the other contemplating the effect that is intended to be produced upon him with aversion, and longing to be engaged in any thing else, rather than in that which is pressed upon his foremost attention. In this sense a numerous school is, to a degree that can scarcely be adequately described, the slaughter-house of mind. It is like the undertaking, related by Livy, of Accius Navius, the augur, to cut a whetstone with a razor — with this difference, that our modern schoolmasters are not endowed with the gift of working miracles, and, when the experiment falls into their hands, the result of their efforts is a pitiful miscarriage. Knowledge is scarcely in any degree imparted. But, as they are inured to a dogged assiduity, and persist in their unavailing attempts, though the shell of science, so to speak, is scarcely in the smallest measure penetrated, yet that inestimable gift of the author of our being, the sharpness of human faculties, is so blunted and destroyed, that it can scarcely ever be usefully employed even for those purposes which it was originally best qualified to effect.

A numerous school is that mint from which the worst and most flagrant libels on our nature are incessantly issued. Hence it is that we are taught, by a judgment everlastingly repeated, that the majority of our kind are predestinated blockheads.

Not that it is by any means to be recommended, that a little writing and arithmetic, and even the first rudiments of classical knowledge, so far as they can be practicably imparted, should be withheld from any. The mischief is, that we persist, month after month, and year after year, in sowing our seed, when it has already been fully ascertained, that no suitable and wholsome crop will ever be produced.

But what is perhaps worse is, that we are accustomed to pronounce, that that soil, which will not produce the crop of which we have attempted to make it fertile, is fit for nothing. The majority of boys, at the very period when the buds of intellect begin to unfold themselves, are so accustomed to be told that they are dull and fit for nothing, that the most pernicious effects are necessarily produced. They become half convinced by the ill-boding song of the raven, perpetually croaking in their ears; and, for the other half, though by no means assured that the sentence of impotence awarded against them is just, yet, folding up their powers in inactivity, they are contented partly to waste their energies in pure idleness and sport, and partly to wait, with minds scarcely half awake, for the moment when their true destination shall be opened before them.

Not that it is by any means to be desired. that the child in his earlier years should meet with no ruggednesses in his way, and that he should perpetually tread “the primrose path of dalliance.” Clouds and tempests occasionally clear the atmosphere of intellect, not less than that of the visible world. The road to the hill of science, and to the promontory of heroic virtue, is harsh and steep, and from time to time puts to the proof the energies of him who would ascend their topmost round.

There are many things which every human creature should learn, so far as, agreeably to the constitution of civilised society, they can be brought within his reach. He should be induced to learn them, willingly if possible, but, if that cannot be thoroughly effected, yet with half a will. Such are reading, writing, arithmetic, and the first principles of grammar; to which shall be added, as far as may be, the rudiments of all the sciences that are in ordinary use. The latter however should not be brought forward too soon; and, if wisely delayed, the tyro himself will to a certain degree enter into the views of his instructor, and be disposed to essay Quid valeant humeri, quid ferre recusent. But, above all, the beginnings of those studies should be encouraged, which unfold the imagination, familiarise us with the feelings, the joys and sufferings of our fellow-beings, and teach us to put ourselves in their place and eagerly fly to their assistance.

SECTION IV.

HOW FAR OUR GENUINE PROPENSITIES AND VOCATION SHOULD BE FAVOURED. — SELF-REVERENCE RECOMMENDED. — CONCLUSION.

I knew a man of eminent intellectual faculties3, one of whose favourite topics of moral prudence was, that it is the greatest mistake in the world to suppose, that, when we have discovered the special aspiration of the youthful mind, we are bound to do every thing in our power to assist its progress. He maintained on the contrary, that it is our true wisdom to place obstacles in its way, and to thwart it: as we may be well assured that, unless it is a mere caprice, it will shew its strength in conquering difficulties, and that all the obstacles that we can conjure up will but inspire it with the greater earnestness to attain final success.

3 Henry Fuseli.

The maxim here stated, taken to an unlimited extent, is doubtless a very dangerous one. There are obstacles that scarcely any strength of man would be sufficient to conquer. “Chill penury” will sometimes “repress the noblest rage,” that almost ever animated a human spirit: and our wisest course will probably be, secretly to favour, even when we seem most to oppose, the genuine bent of the youthful aspirer.

But the thing of greatest importance is, that we should not teach him to estimate his powers at too low a rate. One of the wisest of all the precepts comprised in what are called the Golden Verses of Pythagoras, is that, in which he enjoins his pupil to “reverence himself.” Ambition is the noblest root that can be planted in the garden of the human soul: not the ambition to be applauded and admired, to be famous and looked up to, to be the darling theme of “stupid starers and of loud huzzas;” but the ambition to fill a respectable place in the theatre of society, to be useful and to be esteemed, to feel that we have not lived in vain, and that we are entitled to the most honourable of all dismissions, an enlightened self-approbation. And nothing can more powerfully tend to place this beyond our acquisition, even our contemplation, than the perpetual and hourly rebuffs which ingenuous youth is so often doomed to sustain from the supercilious pedant, and the rigid decision of his unfeeling elders.

Self-respect to be nourished in the mind of the pupil, is one of the most valuable results of a well conducted education. To accomplish this, it is most necessary that it should never be inculcated into him, that he is dull. Upon the principles of this Essay, any unfavourable appearances that may present themselves, do not arise from the dulness of the pupil, but from the error of those upon whose superintendence he is cast, who require of him the things for which he is not adapted, and neglect those in which he is qualified to excel.

It is further necessary, if self-respect is one of the most desirable results of a well-conducted education, that, as we should not humble the pupil in his own eyes by disgraceful and humiliating language, so we should abstain, as much as possible, from personal ill-treatment, and the employing towards him the measures of an owner towards his purchased or indentured slave. Indignity is of all things the most hostile to the best purposes of a liberal education. It may be necessary occasionally to employ, towards a human creature in his years of nonage, the stimulants of exhortation and remonstrance even in the pursuits to which he is best adapted, for the purpose of overcoming the instability and fits of idleness to which all men, and most of all in their early years, are subject: though in such pursuits a necessity of this sort can scarcely be supposed. The bow must not always be bent; and it is good for us that we should occasionally relax and play the fool. It may more readily be imagined, that some incitement may be called for in those things which, as has been mentioned above, it may be fit he should learn though with but half a will. All freaks must not be indulged; admonition is salutary, and that the pupil should be awakened by his instructor to sober reflection and to masculine exertion. Every Telemachus should have his Mentor. — But through the whole it is necessary that the spirit of the pupil should not be broken, and that he should not be treated with contumely. Stripes should in all instances be regarded as the last resort, and as a sort of problem set up for the wisdom of the wise to solve, whether the urgent case can arise in which it shall be requisite to have recourse to them.

The principles here laid down have the strongest tendency to prove to us how little progress has yet been made in the art of turning human creatures to the best account. Every man has his place, in which if he can be fixed, the most fastidious judge cannot look upon him with disdain. But, to effect this arrangement, an exact attention is required to ascertain the pursuit in which he will best succeed. In India the whole mass of the members of the community is divided into castes; and, instead of a scrupulous attention being paid to the early intimations of individual character, it is already decided upon each, before he comes into the world, which child shall be a priest, and which a soldier, a physician, a lawyer, a merchant, and an artisan. In Europe we do not carry this so far, and are not so elaborately wrong. But the rudiments of the same folly flourish among us; and the accident of birth for the most part decides the method of life to which each individual with whatever violence shall be dedicated. A very few only, by means of energies that no tyranny can subdue, escape from the operation of this murderous decree.

Nature never made a dunce. Imbecility of mind is as rare, as deformity of the animal frame. If this position be true, we have only to bear it in mind, feelingly to convince ourselves, how wholesale the error is into which society has hitherto fallen in the destination of its members, and how much yet remains to be done, before our common nature can be vindicated from the basest of all libels, the most murderous of all proscriptions.

There is a passage in Voltaire, in which he expresses himself to this effect: “It is after all but a slight line of separation that divides the man of genius from the man of ordinary mould.” I remember the place where, and the time when, I read this passage. But I have been unable to find the expression. It is however but reasonable that I should refer to it on this occasion, that I may hereby shew so eminent a modern concurring with the venerable ancient in an early era of letters, whose dictum I have prefixed to this Essay, to vouch to a certain extent for the truth of the doctrine I have delivered.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/godwin/william/thoughts/chapter2.html

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37