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

ESSAY IV.

OF THE DURABILITY OF HUMAN ACHIEVEMENTS AND PRODUCTIONS.

There is a view of the character of man, calculated more perhaps than any other to impress us with reverence and awe.

Man is the only creature we know, that, when the term of his natural life is ended, leaves the memory of himself behind him.

All other animals have but one object in view in their more considerable actions, the supply of the humbler accommodations of their nature. Man has a power sufficient for the accomplishment of this object, and a residue of power beyond, which he is able, and which he not unfrequently feels himself prompted, to employ in consecutive efforts, and thus, first by the application and arrangement of material substances, and afterward by the faculty he is found to possess of giving a permanent record to his thoughts, to realise the archetypes and conceptions which previously existed only in his mind.

One method, calculated to place this fact strongly before us, is, to suppose ourselves elevated, in a balloon or otherwise, so as to enable us to take an extensive prospect of the earth on which we dwell. We shall then see the plains and the everlasting hills, the forests and the rivers, and all the exuberance of production which nature brings forth for the supply of her living progeny. We shall see multitudes of animals, herds of cattle and of beasts of prey, and all the varieties of the winged tenants of the air. But we shall also behold, in a manner almost equally calculated to arrest our attention, the traces and the monuments of human industry. We shall see castles and churches, and hamlets and mighty cities. We shall see this strange creature, man, subjecting all nature to his will. He builds bridges, and he constructs aqueducts. He “goes down to the sea in ships,” and variegates the ocean with his squadrons and his fleets. To the person thus mounted in the air to take a wide and magnificent prospect, there seems to be a sort of contest between the face of the earth, as it may be supposed to have been at first, and the ingenuity of man, which shall occupy and possess itself of the greatest number of acres. We cover immense regions of the globe with the tokens of human cultivation.

Thus the matter stands as to the exertions of the power of man in the application and arrangement of material substances.

But there is something to a profound and contemplative mind much more extraordinary, in the effects produced by the faculty we possess of giving a permanent record to our thoughts.

From the development of this faculty all human science and literature take their commencement. Here it is that we most distinctly, and with the greatest astonishment, perceive that man is a miracle. Declaimers are perpetually expatiating to us upon the shortness of human life. And yet all this is performed by us, when the wants of our nature have already by our industry been supplied. We manufacture these sublimities and everlasting monuments out of the bare remnants and shreds of our time.

The labour of the intellect of man is endless. How copious is the volume, and how extraordinary the variety, of our sciences and our arts! The number of men is exceedingly great in every civilised state of society, that make these the sole object of their occupation. And this has been more or less the condition of our species in all ages, ever since we left the savage and the pastoral modes of existence.

From this view of the history of man we are led by an easy transition to the consideration of the nature and influence of the love of fame in modifying the actions of the human mind. We have already stated it to be one of the characteristic distinctions of our species to erect monuments which outlast the existence of the persons that produced them. This at first was accidental, and did not enter the design of the operator. The man who built himself a shed to protect him from the inclemency of the seasons, and afterwards exchanged that shed for a somewhat more commodious dwelling, did not at first advert to the circumstance that the accommodation might last, when he was no longer capable to partake of it.

In this way perhaps the wish to extend the memory of ourselves beyond the term of our mortal existence, and the idea of its being practicable to gratify that wish, descended upon us together. In contemplating the brief duration and the uncertainty of human life, the idea must necessarily have occurred, that we might survive those we loved, or that they might survive us. In the first case we inevitably wish more or less to cherish the memory of the being who once was an object of affection to us, but of whose society death has deprived us. In the second case it can scarcely happen but that we desire ourselves to be kindly recollected by those we leave behind us. So simple is the first germ of that longing after posthumous honour, which presents us with so memorable effects in the page of history.

But, previously to the further consideration of posthumous fame, let us turn our attention for a moment to the fame, or, as in that sense it is more usually styled, popularity, which is the lot of a few favoured individuals while they live. The attending to the subject in this point of view, will be found to throw light upon the more extensive prospect of the question to which we will immediately afterwards proceed.

Popularity is an acquisition more level to the most ordinary capacities, and therefore is a subject of more general ambition, than posthumous fame. It addresses itself to the senses. Applause is a species of good fortune to which perhaps no mortal ear is indifferent. The persons who constitute the circle in which we are applauded, receive us with smiles of approbation and sympathy. They pay their court to us, seem to be made happy by our bare presence among them, and welcome us to their houses with congratulation and joy. The vulgar portion of mankind scarcely understand the question of posthumous fame, they cannot comprehend how panegyric and honour can “soothe the dull, cold ear of death:” but they can all conceive the gratification to be derived from applauding multitudes and loud huzzas.

One of the most obvious features however that attends upon popularity, is its fugitive nature. No man has once been popular, and has lived long, without experiencing neglect at least, if he were not also at some time subjected to the very intelligible disapprobation and censure of his fellows. The good will and kindness of the multitude has a devouring appetite, and is like a wild beast that you should stable under your roof, which, if you do not feed with a continual supply, will turn about and attack its protector.

One touch of nature makes the whole world kin — That all, with one consent, praise new-born gauds, And give to dust, that is a little gilt, More laud than they will give to gold o’erdusted.

Cromwel well understood the nature of this topic, when he said, as we are told, to one of his military companions, who called his attention to the rapturous approbation with which they were received by the crowd on their return from a successful expedition, “Ah, my friend, they would accompany us with equal demonstrations of delight, if, upon no distant occasion, they were to see us going to be hanged!”

The same thing which happens to the popularity attendant on the real or imaginary hero of the multitude, happens also in the race after posthumous fame.

As has already been said, the number of men is exceedingly great in every civilised state of society, who make the sciences and arts engendered by the human mind, the sole or the principal objects of their occupation.

This will perhaps be most strikingly illustrated by a retrospect of the state of European society in the middle, or, as they are frequently styled, the dark ages.

It has been a vulgar error to imagine, that the mind of man, so far as relates to its active and inventive powers, was sunk into a profound sleep, from which it gradually recovered itself at the period when Constantinople was taken by the Turks, and the books and the teachers of the ancient Greek language were dispersed through Europe. The epoch from which modern invention took its rise, commenced much earlier. The feudal system, one of the most interesting contrivances of man in society, was introduced in the ninth century; and chivalry, the offspring of that system, an institution to which we are mainly indebted for refinement of sentiment, and humane and generous demeanour, in the eleventh. Out of these grew the originality and the poetry of romance.

These were no mean advancements. But perhaps the greatest debt which after ages have contracted to this remote period, arose out of the system of monasteries and ecclesiastical celibacy. Owing to these a numerous race of men succeeded to each other perpetually, who were separated from the world, cut off from the endearments of conjugal and parental affection, and who had a plenitude of leisure for solitary application. To these men we are indebted for the preservation of the literature of Rome, and the multiplied copies of the works of the ancients. Nor were they contented only with the praise of never-ending industry. They forged many works, that afterwards passed for classical, and which have demanded all the perspicacity of comparative criticism to refute. And in these pursuits the indefatigable men who were dedicated to them, were not even goaded by the love of fame. They were satisfied with the consciousness of their own perseverance and ingenuity.

But the most memorable body of men that adorned these ages, were the Schoolmen. They may be considered as the discoverers of the art of logic. The ancients possessed in an eminent degree the gift of genius; but they have little to boast on the score of arrangement, and discover little skill in the strictness of an accurate deduction. They rather arrive at truth by means of a felicity of impulse, than in consequence of having regularly gone through the process which leads to it. The schools of the middle ages gave birth to the Irrefragable and the Seraphic doctors, the subtlety of whose distinctions, and the perseverance of whose investigations, are among the most wonderful monuments of the intellectual power of man. The thirteenth century produced Thomas Aquinas, and Johannes Duns Scotus, and William Occam, and Roger Bacon. In the century before, Thomas a Becket drew around him a circle of literary men, whose correspondence has been handed down to us, and who deemed it their proudest distinction that they called each other philosophers. The Schoolmen often bewildered themselves in their subtleties, and often delivered dogmas and systems that may astonish the common sense of unsophisticated understandings. But such is man. So great is his persevering labour, his invincible industry, and the resolution with which he sets himself, year after year, and lustre after lustre, to accomplish the task which his judgment and his zeal have commanded him to pursue.

But I return to the question of literary fame. All these men, and men of a hundred other classes, who laboured most commendably and gallantly in their day, may be considered as swept away into the gulph of oblivion. As Swift humorously says in his Dedication to Prince Posterity, “I had prepared a copious list of Titles to present to your highness, as an undisputed argument of the prolificness of human genius in my own time: the originals were posted upon all gates and corner’s of streets: but, returning in a very few hours to take a review, they were all torn down, and fresh ones put in their places. I enquired after them among readers and booksellers, but in vain: the memorial of them was lost among men; their place was no more to be found.”

It is a just remark that had been made by Hume5: “Theories of abstract philosophy, systems of profound theology, have prevailed during one age. In a successive period these have been universally exploded; their absurdity has been detected; other theories and systems have supplied their place, which again gave way to their successors; and nothing has been experienced more liable to the revolutions of chance and fashion than these pretended decisions of science. The case is not the same with the beauties of eloquence and poetry. Just expressions of passion and nature are sure, after a little time, to gain public applause, which they maintain for ever. Aristotle and Plato and Epicurus and Descartes may successively yield to each other: but Terence and Virgil maintain an universal, undisputed empire over the minds of men. The abstract philosophy of Cicero has lost its credit: the vehemence of his oratory is still the object of our admiration.”

5 Essays, Part 1, Essay xxiii.

A few examples of the instability of fame will place this question in the clearest light.

Nicholas Peiresk was born in the year 1580. His progress in knowledge was so various and unprecedented, that, from the time that he was twenty-one years of age, he was universally considered as holding the helm of learning in his hand, and guiding the commonwealth of letters. He died at the age of fifty-seven. The academy of the Humoristi at Rome paid the most extraordinary honours to his memory; many of the cardinals assisted at his funeral oration; and a collection of verses in his praise was published in more than forty languages.

Salmasius was regarded as a prodigy of learning; and various princes and powers entered into a competition who should be so fortunate as to secure his residence in their states. Christina, queen of Sweden, having obtained the preference, received him with singular reverence and attention; and, Salmasius being taken ill at Stockholm, and confined to his bed, the queen persisted with her own hand to prepare his caudles, and mend his fire. Yet, but for the accident of his having had Milton for his adversary, his name would now be as little remembered, even by the generality of the learned, as that of Peiresk.

Du Bartas, in the reign of Henry the Fourth of France, was one of the most successful poets that ever existed. His poem on the Creation of the World went through upwards of thirty editions in the course of five or six years, was translated into most European languages, and its commentators promised to equal in copiousness and number the commentators on Homer.

One of the most admired of our English poets about the close of the sixteenth century, was Donne. Unlike many of those trivial writers of verse who succeeded him after an interval of forty or fifty years, and who won for themselves a brilliant reputation by the smoothness of their numbers, the elegance of their conceptions, and the politeness of their style, Donne was full of originality, energy and vigour. No man can read him without feeling himself called upon for earnest exercise of his thinking powers, and, even with the most fixed attention and application, the student is often obliged to confess his inability to take in the whole of the meaning with which the poet’s mind was perceptibly fraught. Every sentence that Donne writes, whether in verse or prose, is exclusively his own. In addition to this, his thoughts are often in the noblest sense of the word poetical; and passages may be quoted from him that no English poet may attempt to rival, unless it be Milton and Shakespear. Ben Jonson observed of him with great truth and a prophetic spirit: “Donne for not being understood will perish.” But this is not all. If Waller and Suckling and Carew sacrificed every thing to the Graces, Donne went into the other extreme. With a few splendid and admirable exceptions, his phraseology and versification are crabbed and repulsive. And, as poetry is read in the first place for pleasure, Donne is left undisturbed on the shelf, or rather in the sepulchre; and not one in an hundred even among persons of cultivation, can give any account of him, if in reality they ever heard of his productions.

The name of Shakespear is that before which every knee must bow. But it was not always so. When the first novelty of his pieces was gone, they were seldom called into requisition. Only three or four of his plays were upon the acting list of the principal company of players during the reign of Charles the Second; and the productions of Beaumont and Fletcher, and of Shirley, were acted three times for once of his. At length Betterton revived, and by his admirable representation gave popularity to, Macbeth, Hamlet and Lear, a popularity they have ever since retained. But Macbeth was not revived (with music, and alterations by sir William Davenant) till 1674; and Lear a few years later, with love scenes and a happy catastrophe by Nahum Tate.

In the latter part of the reign of Charles the Second, Dryden and Otway and Lee held the undisputed supremacy in the serious drama.

Such was the insensibility of the English public to nature, and her high priest, Shakespear. The only one of their productions that has survived upon the theatre, is Venice Preserved: and why it has done so it is difficult to say; or rather it would be impossible to assign a just and honourable reason for it. All the personages in this piece are of an abandoned and profligate character. Pierre is a man resolved to destroy and root up the republic by which he was employed, because his mistress, a courtesan, is mercenary, and endures the amorous visits of an impotent old lecher. Jaffier, without even the profession of any public principle, joins in the conspiracy, because he has been accustomed to luxury and prodigal expence and is poor. He has however no sooner entered into the plot, than he betrays it, and turns informer to the government against his associates. Belvidera instigates him to this treachery, because she cannot bear the thought of having her father murdered, and is absurd enough to imagine that she and her husband shall be tender and happy lovers ever after. Their love in the latter acts of the play is a continued tirade of bombast and sounding nonsense, without one real sentiment, one just reflection, or one strong emotion working from the heart, and analysing the nature of man. The folly of this love can only be exceeded, by the abject and despicable crouching and fawning of Jaffier to the man he had so basely betrayed, and their subsequent reconciliation. There is not a production in the whole realms of fiction, that has less pretension to manly, or even endurable feeling, or to common propriety. The total defect of a moral sense in this piece is strongly characteristic of the reign in which it was written. It has in the mean while a richness of melody, and a picturesqueness of action, that enables it to delude, and that even draws tears from the eyes of, persons who can be won over by the eye and the ear, with almost no participation of the understanding. And this unmeaning rant and senseless declamation sufficed for the time to throw into shade those exquisite delineations of character, those transcendent bursts of passion, and that perfect anatomy of the human heart, which render the master-pieces of Shakespear a property for all nations and all times.

While Shakespear was partly forgotten, it continued to be totally unknown that he had contemporaries as inexpressibly superior to the dramatic writers that have appeared since, as these contemporaries were themselves below the almighty master of scenic composition. It was the fashion to say, that Shakespear existed alone in a barbarous age, and that all his imputed crudities, and intermixture of what was noblest with unparalleled absurdity and buffoonery, were to be allowed for to him on that consideration.

Cowley stands forward as a memorable instance of the inconstancy of fame. He was a most amiable man; and the loveliness of his mind shines out in his productions. He had a truly poetic frame of soul; and he pours out the beautiful feelings that possessed him unreservedly and at large. He was a great sufferer in the Stuart cause, he had been a principal member of the court of the exiled queen; and, when the king was restored, it was a deep sentiment among his followers and friends to admire the verses of Cowley. He was “the Poet.” The royalist rhymers were set lightly by in comparison with him. Milton, the republican, who, by his collection published during the civil war, had shewn that he was entitled to the highest eminence, was unanimously consigned to oblivion. Cowley died in 1667; and the duke of Buckingham, the author of the Rehearsal, eight years after, set up his tomb in the cemetery of the nation, with an inscription, declaring him to be at once “the Pindar, the Horace and Virgil of his country, the delight and the glory of his age, which by his death was left a perpetual mourner.”— Yet — so capricious is fame — a century has nearly elapsed, since Pope said,

Who now reads Cowley? If he pleases yet, His moral pleases, not his pointed wit; Forgot his epic, nay, Pindaric art, But still I love the language of his heart.

As Cowley was the great royalist poet after the Restoration, Cleveland stood in the same rank during the civil war. In the publication of his works one edition succeeded to another, yearly or oftener, for more than twenty years. His satire is eminently poignant; he is of a strength and energy of thinking uncommonly masculine; and he compresses his meaning so as to give it every advantage. His imagination is full of coruscation and brilliancy. His petition to Cromwel, lord protector of England, when the poet was under confinement for his loyal principles, is a singular example of manly firmness, great independence of mind, and a happy choice of topics to awaken feelings of forbearance and clemency. It is unnecessary to say that Cleveland is now unknown, except to such as feel themselves impelled to search into things forgotten.

It would be endless to adduce all the examples that might be found of the caprices of fame. It has been one of the arts of the envious to set up a contemptible rival to eclipse the splendour of sterling merit. Thus Crowne and Settle for a time disturbed the serenity of Dryden. Voltaire says, the Phaedra of Pradon has not less passion than that of Racine, but expressed in rugged verse and barbarous language. Pradon is now forgotten: and the whole French poetry of the Augustan age of Louis the Fourteenth is threatened with the same fate. Hayley for a few years was applauded as the genuine successor of Pope; and the poem of Sympathy by Pratt went through twelve editions. For a brief period almost each successive age appears fraught with resplendent genius; but they go out one after another; they set, “like stars that fall, to rise no more.” Few indeed are endowed with that strength of construction, that should enable them to ride triumphant on the tide of ages.

It is the same with conquerors. What tremendous battles have been fought, what oceans of blood have been spilled, by men who were resolved that their achievements should be remembered for ever! And now even their names are scarcely preserved; and the very effects of the disasters they inflicted on mankind seem to be swept away, as of no more validity than things that never existed. Warriors and poets, the authors of systems and the lights of philosophy, men that astonished the earth, and were looked up to as Gods, even like an actor on the stage, have strutted their hour, and then been heard of no more.

Books have the advantage of all other productions of the human head or hand. Copies of them may be multiplied for ever, the last as good as the first, except so far as some slight inadvertent errors may have insinuated themselves. The Iliad flourishes as green now, as on the day that Pisistratus is said first to have stamped upon it its present order. The songs of the Rhapsodists, the Scalds, and the Minstrels, which once seemed as fugitive as the breath of him who chaunted them, repose in libraries, and are embalmed in collections. The sportive sallies of eminent wits, and the Table Talk of Luther and Selden, may live as long as there shall be men to read, and judges to appreciate them.

But other human productions have their date. Pictures, however admirable, will only last as long as the colours of which they are composed, and the substance on which they are painted. Three or four hundred years ordinarily limit the existence of the most favoured. We have scarcely any paintings of the ancients, and but a small portion of their statues, while of these a great part are mutilated, and various members supplied by later and inferior artists. The library of Bufo is by Pope described,

where busts of poets dead,
And a true Pindar stood without a head.

Monumental records, alike the slightest and the most solid, are subjected to the destructive operation of time, or to the being removed at the caprice or convenience of successive generations. The pyramids of Egypt remain, but the names of him who founded them, and of him whose memory they seemed destined to perpetuate, have perished together. Buildings for the use or habitation of man do not last for ever. Mighty cities, as well as detached edifices, are destined to disappear. Thebes, and Troy, and Persepolis, and Palmyra have vanished from the face of the earth.

“Thorns and brambles have grown up in their palaces: they are habitations for serpents, and a court for the owl.”

There are productions of man however that seem more durable than any of the edifices he has raised. Such are, in the first place, modes of government. The constitution of Sparta lasted for seven hundred years. That of Rome for about the same period. Institutions, once deeply rooted in the habits of a people, will operate in their effects through successive revolutions. Modes of faith will sometimes be still more permanent. Not to mention the systems of Moses and Christ, which we consider as delivered to us by divine inspiration, that of Mahomet has continued for twelve hundred years, and may last, for aught that appears, twelve hundred more. The practices of the empire of China are celebrated all over the earth for their immutability.

This brings us naturally to reflect upon the durability of the sciences. According to Bailly, the observation of the heavens, and a calculation of the revolutions of the heavenly bodies, in other words, astronomy, subsisted in maturity in China and the East, for at least three thousand years before the birth of Christ: and, such as it was then, it bids fair to last as long as civilisation shall continue. The additions it has acquired of late years may fall away and perish, but the substance shall remain. The circulation of the blood in man and other animals, is a discovery that shall never be antiquated. And the same may be averred of the fundamental elements of geometry and of some other sciences. Knowledge, in its most considerable branches shall endure, as long as books shall exist to hand it down to successive generations.

It is just therefore, that we should regard with admiration and awe the nature of man, by whom these mighty things have been accomplished, at the same time that the perishable quality of its individual monuments, and the temporary character and inconstancy of that fame which in many instances has filled the whole earth with its renown, may reasonably quell the fumes of an inordinate vanity, and keep alive in us the sentiment of a wholsome diffidence and humility.

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