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

ESSAY VII.

OF THE DURATION OF HUMAN LIFE.

The active and industrious portion of the human species in civilised countries, is composed of those who are occupied in the labour of the hand, and in the labour of the head.

The following remarks expressly apply only to the latter of these classes, principally to such as are occupied in productive literature. They may however have their use to all persons a considerable portion of whose time is employed in study and contemplation, as, if well founded, they will form no unimportant chapter in the science of the human mind.

In relation to all the members of the second class then, I should say, that human life is made up of term and vacation, in other words, of hours that may be intellectually employed, and of hours that cannot be so employed.

Human life consists of years, months and days: each day contains twenty-four hours. Of these hours how many belong to the province of intellect?

“There is,” as Solomon says, “a time for all things.” There must be a time for sleep, a time for recreation, a time for exercise, a time for supplying the machine with nourishment, and a time for digestion. When all these demands have been supplied, how many hours will be left for intellectual occupation?

These remarks, as I have said, are intended principally to apply to the subject of productive literature. Now, of the hours that remain when all the necessary demands of human life have been supplied, it is but a portion, perhaps a small portion, that can be beneficially, judiciously, employed in productive literature, or literary composition.

It is true, that there are many men who will occupy eight, ten, or twelve hours in a day, in the labour of composition. But it may be doubted whether they are wisely so occupied.

It is the duty of an author, inasmuch as he is an author, to consider, that he is to employ his pen in putting down that which shall be fit for other men to read. He is not writing a letter of business, a letter of amusement, or a letter of sentiment, to his private friend. He is writing that which shall be perused by as many men as can be prevailed on to become his readers. If he is an author of spirit and ambition, he wishes his productions to be read, not only by the idle, but by the busy, by those who cannot spare time to peruse them but at the expence of some occupations which ought not to be suspended without an adequate occasion. He wishes to be read not only by the frivolous and the lounger, but by the wise, the elegant, and the fair, by those who are qualified to appreciate the merit of a work, who are endowed with a quick sensibility and a discriminating taste, and are able to pass a sound judgment on its beauties and defects. He advances his claim to permanent honours, and desires that his lucubrations should be considered by generations yet unborn.

A person, so occupied, and with such aims, must not attempt to pass his crudities upon the public. If I may parody a celebrated aphorism of Quintilian, I would say, “Magna debetur hominibus reverentia8:” in other words, we should carefully examine what it is that we propose to deliver in a permanent form to the taste and understanding of our species. An author ought only to commit to the press the first fruits of his field, his best and choicest thoughts. He ought not to take up the pen, till he has brought his mind into a fitting tone, and ought to lay it down, the instant his intellect becomes in any degree clouded, and his vital spirits abate of their elasticity.

8 Mankind is to be considered with reverence.

There are extraordinary cases. A man may have so thoroughly prepared himself by long meditation and study, he may have his mind so charged with an abundance of thought, that it may employ him for ten or twelve hours consecutively, merely to put down or to unravel the conceptions already matured in his soul. It was in some such way, that Dryden, we are told, occupied a whole night, and to a late hour in the next morning, in penning his Alexander’s Feast. But these are the exceptions. In most instances two or three hours are as much as an author can spend at a time in delivering the first fruits of his field, his choicest thoughts, before his intellect becomes in some degree clouded, and his vital spirits abate of their elasticity.

Nor is this all. He might go on perhaps for some time longer with a reasonable degree of clearness. But the fertility which ought to be his boast, is exhausted. He no longer sports in the meadows of thought, or revels in the exuberance of imagination, but becomes barren and unsatisfactory. Repose is necessary, and that the soil should be refreshed with the dews of another evening, the sleep of a night, and the freshness and revivifying influence of another morning.

These observations lead, by a natural transition, to the question of the true estimate and value of human life, considered as the means of the operations of intellect.

A primary enquiry under this head is as to the duration of life: Is it long, or short?

The instant this question is proposed, I hear myself replied to from all quarters: What is there so well known as the brevity of human life? “Life is but a span.” It is “as a tale that is told.” “Man cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down: he fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not.” We are “as a sleep; or as grass: in the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth.”

The foundation of this sentiment is obvious. Men do not live for ever. The longest duration of human existence has an end: and whatever it is of which that may be affirmed, may in some sense be pronounced to be short. The estimation of our existence depends upon the point of view from which we behold it. Hope is one of our greatest enjoyments. Possession is something. But the past is as nothing. Remorse may give it a certain solidity; the recollection of a life spent in acts of virtue may be refreshing. But fruition, and honours, and fame, and even pain, and privations, and torment, when they ere departed, are but like a feather; we regard them as of no account. Taken in this sense, Dryden’s celebrated verses are but a maniac’s rant:

To-morrow, do thy worst, for I have lived today:
Be fair, or foul, or rain, or shine,
The joys I have possessed, in spite of fate are mine.
Not heaven itself upon the past has power,
But what has been has been, and I have had my hour.

But this way of removing the picture of human life to a certain distance from us, and considering those things which were once in a high degree interesting as frivolous and unworthy of regard, is not the way by which we shall arrive at a true and just estimation of life. Whatever is now past, and is of little value, was once present: and he who would form a sound judgment, must look upon every part of our lives as present in its turn, and not suffer his opinion to be warped by the consideration of the nearness or remoteness of the object he contemplates.

One sentence, which has grown into a maxim for ever repeated, is remarkable for the grossest fallacy: Ars longa, vita brevis9. I would fain know, what art, compared with the natural duration of human life from puberty to old age, is long.

9 Art is long; life is short.

If it is intended to say, that no one man can be expected to master all possible arts, or all arts that have at one time or another been the subject of human industry, this indeed is true. But the cause of this does not lie in the limited duration of human life, but in the nature of the faculties of the mind. Human understanding and human industry cannot embrace every thing. When we take hold of one thing, we must let go another. Science and art, if we would pursue them to the furthest extent of which we are capable, must be pursued without interruption. It would therefore be more to the purpose to say, Man cannot be for ever young. In the stream of human existence, different things have their appropriate period. The knowledge of languages can perhaps be most effectually acquired in the season of nonage.

At riper years one man devotes himself to one science or art, and another man to another. This man is a mathematician; a second studies music; a third painting. This man is a logician; and that man an orator. The same person cannot be expected to excel in the abstruseness of metaphysical science, and in the ravishing effusions of poetical genius. When a man, who has arrived at great excellence in one department of art or science, would engage himself in another, he will be apt to find the freshness of his mind gone, and his faculties no longer distinguished by the same degree of tenacity and vigour that they formerly displayed. It is with the organs of the brain, as it is with the organs of speech, in the latter of which we find the tender fibres of the child easily accommodating themselves to the minuter inflections and variations of sound, which the more rigid muscles of the adult will for the most part attempt in vain.

If again, by the maxim, Ars longa, vita brevis, it is intended to signify, that we cannot in any art arrive at perfection; that in reality all the progress we can make is insignificant; and that, as St. Paul says, we must “not count ourselves to have already attained; but that, forgetting the things that are behind, it becomes us to press forward to the prize of our calling,”— this also is true. But this is only ascribable to the limitation of our faculties, and that even the shadow of perfection which man is capable to reach, can only be attained by the labour of successive generations. The cause does not lie in the shortness of human life, unless we would include in its protracted duration the privilege of being for ever young; to which we ought perhaps to add, that our activity should never be exhausted, the freshness of our minds never abate, and our faculties for ever retain the same degree of tenacity and vigour, as they had in the morning of life, when every thing was new, when all that allured or delighted us was seen accompanied with charms inexpressible, and, as Dryden expresses it10, “the first sprightly running” of the wine of life afforded a zest never after to be hoped for.

10 Aurengzebe.

I return then to the consideration of the alleged shortness of life. I mentioned in the beginning of this Essay, that “human life consists of years, months and days; each day containing twenty-four hours.” But, when I said this, I by no means carried on the division so far as it might be carried. It has been calculated that the human mind is capable of being impressed with three hundred and twenty sensations in a second of time.11

11 See Watson on Time, Chapter II.

“How infinitely rapid is the succession of thought! While I am speaking, perhaps no two ideas are in my mind at the same time, and yet with what facility do I slide from one to another! If my discourse be argumentative, how often do I pass in review the topics of which it consists, before I utter them; and, even while I am speaking, continue the review at intervals, without producing any pause in my discourse! How many other sensations are experienced by me during this period, without so much as interrupting, that is, without materially diverting, the train of my ideas! My eye successively remarks a thousand objects that present themselves. My mind wanders to the different parts of my body, and receives a sensation from the chair on which I sit, or the table on which I lean. It reverts to a variety of things that occurred in the course of the morning, in the course of yesterday, the most remote from, the most unconnected with, the subject that might seem wholly to engross me. I see the window, the opening of a door, the snuffing of a candle. When these most perceptibly occur, my mind passes from one to the other, without feeling the minutest obstacle, or being in any degree distracted by their multiplicity12.”

12 Political Justice, Book IV, Chapter ix.

If this statement should appear to some persons too subtle, it may however prepare us to form a due estimate of the following remarks.

“Art is long.” No, certainly, no art is long, compared with the natural duration of human life from puberty to old age. There is perhaps no art that may not with reasonable diligence be acquired in three years, that is, as to its essential members and its skilful exercise. We may improve afterwards, but it will be only in minute particulars, and only by fits. Our subsequent advancement less depends upon the continuance of our application, than upon the improvement of the mind generally, the refining of our taste, the strengthening our judgment, and the accumulation of our experience.

The idea which prevails among the vulgar of mankind is, that we must make haste to be wise. The erroneousness of this notion however has from time to time been detected by moralists and philosophers; and it has been felt that he who proceeds in a hurry towards the goal, exposes himself to the imminent risk of never reaching it.

The consciousness of this danger has led to the adoption of the modified maxim, Festina lente, Hasten, but with steps deliberate and cautious.

It would however be a more correct advice to the aspirant, to say, Be earnest in your application, but let your march be vigilant and slow.

There is a doggrel couplet which I have met with in a book on elocution:

Learn to speak slow: all other graces
Will follow in their proper places.

I could wish to recommend a similar process to the student in the course of his reading.

Toplady, a celebrated methodist preacher of the last age, somewhere relates a story of a coxcomb, who told him that he had read over Euclid’s Elements of Geometry one afternoon at his tea, only leaving out the A’s and B’s and crooked lines, which seemed to be intruded merely to retard his progress.

Nothing is more easy than to gabble through a work replete with the profoundest elements of thinking, and to carry away almost nothing, when we have finished.

The book does not deserve even to be read, which does not impose on us the duty of frequent pauses, much reflecting and inward debate, or require that we should often go back, compare one observation and statement with another, and does not call upon us to combine and knit together the disjecta membra.

It is an observation which has often been repeated, that, when we come to read an excellent author a second and a third time, we find in him a multitude of things, that we did not in the slightest degree perceive in a first reading. A careful first reading would have a tendency in a considerable degree to anticipate this following crop.

Nothing is more certain than that a schoolboy gathers much of his most valuable instruction when his lesson is not absolutely before him. In the same sense the more mature student will receive most important benefit, when he shuts his book, and goes forth in the field, and ruminates on what he has read. It is with the intellectual, as with the corporeal eye: we must retire to a certain distance from the object we would examine, before we can truly take in the whole. We must view it in every direction, “survey it,” as Sterne says, “transversely, then foreright, then this way, and then that, in all its possible directions and foreshortenings13;” and thus only can it be expected that we should adequately comprehend it.

13 Tristram Shandy, Vol. IV, Chap. ii.

But the thing it was principally in my purpose to say is, that it is one of the great desiderata of human life, not to accomplish our purposes in the briefest time, to consider “life as short, and art as long,” and therefore to master our ends in the smallest number of days or of years, but rather to consider it as an ample field that is spread before us, and to examine how it is to be filled with pleasure, with advantage, and with usefulness. Life is like a lordly garden, which it calls forth all the skill of the artist to adorn with exhaustless variety and beauty; or like a spacious park or pleasure-ground, all of whose inequalities are to be embellished, and whose various capacities of fertilisation, sublimity or grace, are to be turned to account, so that we may wander in it for ever, and never be wearied.

We shall perhaps understand this best, if we take up the subject on a limited scale, and, before we consider life in its assigned period of seventy years, first confine our attention to the space of a single day. And we will consider that day, not as it relates to the man who earns his subsistence by the labour of his hands, or to him who is immersed in the endless details of commerce. But we will take the case of the man, the whole of whose day is to be disposed of at his own discretion.

The attention of the curious observer has often been called to the tediousness of existence, how our time hangs upon our hands, and in how high estimation the art is held, of giving wings to our hours, and making them pass rapidly and cheerfully away. And moralists of a cynical disposition have poured forth many a sorrowful ditty upon the inconsistency of man, who complains of the shortness of life, at the same time that he is put to the greatest straits how to give an agreeable and pleasant occupation to its separate portions. “Let us hear no more,” say these moralists, “of the transitoriness of human existence, from men to whom life is a burthen, and who are willing to assign a reward to him that shall suggest to them an occupation or an amusement untried before.”

But this inconsistency, if it merits the name, is not an affair of artificial and supersubtle refinement, but is based in the fundamental principles of our nature. It is unavoidable that, when we have reached the close of any great epoch of our existence, and still more when we have arrived at its final term, we should regret its transitory nature, and lament that we have made no more effectual use of it. And yet the periods and portions of the stream of time, as they pass by us, will often be felt by us as insufferably slow in their progress, and we would give no inconsiderable sum to procure that the present section of our lives might come to an end, and that we might turn over a new leaf in the volume of existence.

I have heard various men profess that they never knew the minutes that hung upon their hands, and were totally unacquainted with what, borrowing a term from the French language, we call ennui. I own I have listened to these persons with a certain degree of incredulity, always excepting such as earn their subsistence by constant labour, or as, being placed in a situation of active engagement, have not the leisure to feel apathy and disgust.

But we are talking here of that numerous class of human beings, who are their own masters, and spend every hour of the day at the choice of their discretion. To these we may add the persons who are partially so, and who, having occupied three or four hours of every day in discharge of some function necessarily imposed on them, at the striking of a given hour go out of school, and employ themselves in a certain industry or sport purely of their own election.

To go back then to the consideration of the single day of a man, all of whose hours are at his disposal to spend them well or ill, at the bidding of his own judgment, or the impulse of his own caprice.

We will suppose that, when he rises from his bed, he has sixteen hours before him, to be employed in whatever mode his will shall decide. I bar the case of travelling, or any of those schemes for passing the day, which by their very nature take the election out of his hands, and fill up his time with a perpetual motion, the nature of which is ascertained from the beginning.

With such a man then it is in the first place indispensibly necessary, that he should have various successive occupations. There is no one study or intellectual enquiry to which a man can apply sixteen hours consecutively, unless in some extraordinary instances which can occur but seldom in the course of a life. And even then the attention will from time to time relax, and the freshness of mental zeal and activity give way, though perhaps, after the lapse of a few minutes they may be revived and brought into action again.

In the ordinary series of human existence it is desirable that, in the course of the same day, a man should have various successive occupations. I myself for the most part read in one language at one part of the day, and in another at another. I am then in the best health and tone of spirits, when I employ two or three hours, and no more, in the act of writing and composition. There must also in the sixteen hours be a time for meals. There should be a time for fresh air and bodily exercise. It is in the nature of man, that we should spend a part of every day in the society of our fellows, either at public spectacles and places of concourse, or in the familiar interchange of conversation with one, two, or more persons with whom we can give ourselves up to unrestrained communication. All human life, as I have said, every day of our existence, consists of term and vacation; and the perfection of practical wisdom is to interpose these one with another, so as to produce a perpetual change, a well-chosen relief, and a freshness and elastic tone which may bid defiance to weariness.

Taken then in this point of view, what an empire does the man of leisure possess in each single day of his life! He disposes of his hours much in the same manner, as the commander of a company of men whom it is his business to train in the discipline of war.

This officer directs one party of his men to climb a mountain, and another to ford or swim a stream which rushes along the valley. He orders this set to rush forward with headlong course, and the other to wheel, and approach by circuitous progress perhaps to the very same point. He marches them to the right and the left. He then dismisses them from the scene of exercise, to furbish their arms, to attend to their accoutrements, or to partake of necessary refection. Not inferior to this is the authority of the man of leisure in disposing of the hours of one single day of his existence. And human life consists of many such days, there being three hundred and sixty-five in each year that we live.

How infinitely various may be the occupations of the life of man from puberty to old age! We may acquire languages; we may devote ourselves to arts; we may give ourselves up to the profoundness of science. Nor is any one of these objects incompatible with the others, nor is there any reason why the same man should not embrace many. We may devote one portion of the year to travelling, and another to all the abstractions of study. I remember when I was a boy, looking forward with terror to the ample field of human life, and saying, When I have read through all the books that have been written, what shall I do afterwards? And there is infinitely more sense in this, than in the ludicrous exclamations of men who complain of the want of time, and say that life affords them no space in which to act their imaginings.

On the contrary, when a man has got to the end of one art or course of study, he is compelled to consider what he shall do next. And, when we have gone through a cycle of as many acquisitions, as, from the limitation of human faculties, are not destructive of each other, we shall find ourselves frequently reduced to the beginning some of them over again. Nor is this the least agreeable occupation of human leisure. The book that I read when I was a boy, presents quite a new face to me as I advance in the vale of years. The same words and phrases suggest to me a new train of ideas. And it is no mean pleasure that I derive from the singular sensation of finding the same author and the same book, old and yet not old, presenting to me cherished and inestimable recollections, and at the same time communicating mines of wealth, the shaft of which was till now unexplored.

The result then of these various observations is to persuade the candid and ingenuous man, to consider life as an important and ample possession, to resolve that it shall he administered with as much judgment and deliberation as a person of true philanthropy and wisdom would administer a splendid income, and upon no occasion so much to think upon the point of in how short a time an interesting pursuit is to be accomplished, as by what means it shall be accomplished in a consummate and masterly style. Let us hear no more, from those who have to a considerable degree the command of their hours, the querulous and pitiful complaint that they have no time to do what they ought to do and would wish to do; but let them feel that they have a gigantic store of minutes and hours and days and months, abundantly sufficient to enable them to effect what it is especially worthy of a noble mind to perform!

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