Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Anecdotes of the Fairfax Family.

Will a mind of great capacity be reduced to mediocrity by the ill choice of a profession?

Parents are interested in the metaphysical discussion, whether there really exists an inherent quality in the human intellect which imparts to the individual an aptitude for one pursuit more than for another. What Lord Shaftesbury calls not innate, but connatural qualities of the human character, were, during the latter part of the last century, entirely rejected; but of late there appears a tendency to return to the notion which is consecrated by antiquity. Experience will often correct modern hypothesis. The term “predisposition” may be objectionable, as are all terms which pretend to describe the occult operations of Nature — and at present we have no other.

Our children pass through the same public education, while they are receiving little or none for their individual dispositions, should they have sufficient strength of character to indicate any. The great secret of education is to develope the faculties of the individual; for it may happen that his real talent may lie hidden and buried under his education. A profession is usually adventitious, made by chance views, or by family arrangements. Should a choice be submitted to the youth himself, he will often mistake slight and transient tastes for permanent dispositions. A decided character, however, we may often observe, is repugnant to a particular pursuit, delighting in another; talents, languid and vacillating in one profession, we might find vigorous and settled in another; an indifferent lawyer might become an admirable architect! At present all our human bullion is sent to be melted down in an university, to come out, as if thrown into a burning mould, a bright physician, a bright lawyer, a bright divine — in other words, to adapt themselves for a profession preconcerted by their parents. By this means we may secure a titular profession for our son, but the true genius of the avocation in the bent of the mind, as a man of great original powers called it, is too often absent! Instead of finding fit offices for fit men, we are perpetually discovering, on the stage of society, actors out of character! Our most popular writer has happily described this error.

“A laughing philosopher, the Democritus of our day, once compared human life to a table pierced with a number of holes, each of which has a pin made exactly to fit it, but which pins being stuck in hastily, and without selection, chance leads inevitably to the most awkward mistakes. For how often do we see,” the orator pathetically concluded — “how often, I say, do we see the round man stuck into the three-cornered hole!”

In looking over a manuscript life of Tobie Matthews, Archbishop of York in James the First’s reign, I found a curious anecdote of his grace’s disappointment in the dispositions of his sons. The cause, indeed, is not uncommon, as was confirmed by another great man, to whom the archbishop confessed it. The old Lord Thomas Fairfax one day finding the archbishop very melancholy, inquired the reason of his grace’s pensiveness: “My lord,” said the archbishop, “I have great reason of sorrow with respect of my sons; one of whom has wit and no grace, another grace but no wit, and the third neither grace nor wit.” “Your case,” replied Lord Fairfax, “is not singular. I am also sadly disappointed in my sons: one I sent into the Netherlands to train him up a soldier, and he makes a tolerable country justice, but a mere coward at fighting; my next I sent to Cambridge, and he proves a good lawyer, but a mere dunce at divinity; and my youngest I sent to the inns of court, and he is good at divinity, but nobody at the law.” The relater of this anecdote adds, “This I have often heard from the descendant of that honourable family, who yet seems to mince the matter, because so immediately related.” The eldest son was the Lord Ferdinando Fairfax — and the gunsmith to Thomas Lord Fairfax, the son of this Lord Ferdinando, heard the old Lord Thomas call aloud to his grandson, “Tom! Tom! mind thou the battle! Thy father’s a good man, but a mere coward! All the good I expect is from thee!” It is evident that the old Lord Thomas Fairfax was a military character, and in his earnest desire of continuing a line of heroes, had preconcerted to make his eldest son a military man, who we discover turned out to be admirably fitted for a worshipful justice of the quorum. This is a lesson for the parent who consults his own inclinations and not those of natural disposition. In the present case the same lord, though disappointed, appears still to have persisted in the same wish of having a great military character in his family: having missed one in his elder son, and settled his other sons in different avocations, the grandfather persevered, and fixed his hopes, and bestowed his encouragements, on his grandson, Sir Thomas Fairfax, who makes so distinguished a figure in the civil wars.

The difficulty of discerning the aptitude of a youth for any particular destination in life will, perhaps, even for the most skilful parent, be always hazardous. Many will be inclined, in despair of anything better, to throw dice with fortune; or adopt the determination of the father who settled his sons by a whimsical analogy which he appears to have formed of their dispositions or aptness for different pursuits. The boys were standing under a hedge in the rain, and a neighbour reported to the father the conversation he had overheard. John wished it would rain books, for he wished to be a preacher; Bezaleel, wool, to be a clothier like his father; Samuel, money, to be a merchant; and Edmund plums, to be a grocer. The father took these wishes as a hint, and we are told in the life of John Angier, the elder son, a puritan minister, that he chose for them these different callings, in which it appears that they settled successfully. “Whatever a young man at first applies himself to is commonly his delight afterwards.” This is an important principle discovered by Hartley, but it will not supply the parent with any determinate regulation how to distinguish a transient from a permanent disposition; or how to get at what we may call the connatural qualities of the mind. A particular opportunity afforded me some close observation on the characters and habits of two youths, brothers in blood and affection, and partners in all things, who even to their very dress shared alike; who were never separated from each other; who were taught by the same masters, lived under the same roof, and were accustomed to the same uninterrupted habits; yet had nature created them totally distinct in the qualities of their minds; and similar as their lives had been, their abilities were adapted for very opposite pursuits; either of them could not have been the other. And I observed how the “predisposition” of the parties was distinctly marked from childhood: the one slow, penetrating, and correct; the other quick, irritable, and fanciful: the one persevering in examination; the other rapid in results: the one exhausted by labour; the other impatient of whatever did not relate to his own pursuit: the one logical, historical, and critical; the other, having acquired nothing, decided on all things by his own sensations. We would confidently consult in the one a great legal character, and in the other an artist of genius. If nature had not secretly placed a bias in their distinct minds, how could two similar beings have been so dissimilar?

A story recorded of Cecco d’Ascoli and of Dante, on the subject of natural and acquired genius, may illustrate the present topic. Cecco maintained that nature was more potent than art, while Dante asserted the contrary. To prove his principle, the great Italian bard referred to his cat, which, by repeated practice, he had taught to hold a candle in its paw while he supped or read. Cecco desired to witness the experiment, and came not unprepared for his purpose; when Dante’s cat was performing its part, Cecco, lifting up the lid of a pot which he had filled with mice, the creature of art instantly showed the weakness of a talent merely acquired, and dropping the candle, flew on the mice with all its instinctive propensity. Dante was himself disconcerted; and it was adjudged that the advocate for the occult principle of native faculties had gained his cause.

To tell stories, however, is not to lay down principles, yet principles may sometimes be concealed in stories.1

1 I have arranged many facts, connected with the present subject, in the fifth chapter of “The Literary Character,” in the enlarged and fourth edition, 1828.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53