Page images
PDF
EPUB

but the gere breathes, he literary chair

but the general effect is classical, and the spirit of good sense breathes throughout the composition. The reflections on the literary character are both philosophical and highly original.”

ON THE LITERARY CHARACTER. To those who are capable of appreciating the immense improvement which the human mind derives from the study of literature, it cannot but appear surprising, that the same superiority of talents and information which qualifies a man for becoming the public instructor of his species, through the medium of the press, should yet give him little or no advantage in the ordinary intercourse of active life. Nothing in fact can be more unequal than the character of a man of letters, when considered in relation to the separate functions of the author and the private citizen. In the one view, we behold him enlarging the general stock of human knowledge, directing the opinions of whole nations, and perhaps deciding the fortunes of yet unborn millions ; but in the other, we would often look in vain for the proofs of that superior acuteness and ability which he displays in his literary capacity. This inconsistency is so glar. ing, that it has not failed to strike those who are least in the habit of weighing with critical minuteness the characters of such as are subject to their observation. The vulgar, who are remarkably prone to admire learned men at a distance, are astonished to find, on a nearer acquaintance, that the scholar is only great when he has the pen in his hand ; that on all other occasions he is a mere common mortal, often inferior in sagacity and practical wisdom to the most illiterate. Men of letters themselves look with disdain on this revolution of opinion in the vulgar, and consider their peculiar merits as too remote from common apprehension to be understood by any but those of their own class.

May they not, however, have formed to themselves a criterion of merit, which a rational and candid view of things would not justify? The vulgar are certainly excusable in regulating their opinion of those with whom they are connected in society, by the ability which they discover on such occasions as fall within the sphere of their own judgment; more especially when the transaction is of a nature so interesting to the individual in question, as that it may be reasonably supposed to have called forth the full strength of his mind. It is too much a common feature with the literary class, that they confine all the praise of intellectual merit to their own favourite pursuits, and consider nothing as pertaining to mental exertion, but what appears in the form of a poem or a philosophical treatise. Surely, however, this is a very circumscribed mode of thinking. As much of all that belongs to genius, as much originality of conception, as great powers of argument and persuasion, knowledge as profound of human nature, may be displayed by a man of the world in the management of his private concerns, as by an author in the design and execution of a literary composition; and, perhaps, to a benevolent mind, the obscure struggles of the former will not be a less interesting object of contemplation, than the more splendid labours of the latter, but less immediately connected with human happiness or misery. It by no means appears, that mind has so little share in the government of the world as many are willing to imagine. On a close examination, it will probably be found, that every individual naturally enjoys that degree of influ. ence and authority in his particular circle (which is usually composed of his equals in rank), to which the rate of his understanding entitles him, and is followed, consulted, and attended to by those around him, in exact proportion to their experience of the soundness of his judgment, and the extent of his mental resources.

Who is the man, in whatever circle, on whom, in any emergency, all eyes are turned, in whose opinion all acquiesce with alacrity, or are speedily brought over by his arguments, and who, in cases of more than common difficulty and importance, is always selected to act as the common representative? Be assured that this man, however uncultivated by letters, possesses talents of no ordinary standard ; and as in mere abstract capacity he may be equal to the literary character, so, with respect to the application of his powers, he need not blush at a comparison.

It is seldom that we find the man of letters acting this respectable part, however qualified he might appear by the cultivation of his powers, and the superiority of his acquired knowledge, to take the lead of the ablest of those who are merely men of the world. There are certain active qualities, to the acquisition of which the habits of a studious life are unfavourable, the want of which renders his advantages in other respects in a great measure unavailing. That confidence in our own resources, and the presence and intrepidity of mind resulting from it, which are so necessary to the conducting business with dignity and success, can only be acquired by familiarity with scenes of bustle and difficulty ; from such experience of our own powers as may enable us to act without timidity, and to retain the full possession of the faculty of recollection. In vain will the man of retirement, in the view of engaging in some public scene, fortify himself with the consciousness of his own superiority, and endeavour to reason himself out of his fears. In the moment of trial his presence of mind will infallibly forsake him, and he will act and speak with an ability as much below his ordinary standard as the importance of the occasion would require him to rise above it. On all occasions, therefore, when, not the mere pa. rade of intellect, but real strength of mind is required; firmness in danger, energy of language and sentiments, a cool yet decisive judgment; on all such occasions he will find himself thrown into the shade, and when his own safety is involved, will be glad to follow in the train of some less accomplished, but more experienced leader.

They who are conversant in the private history of men of genius, must have observed with surprise, that not an inconsiderable proportion of those who were disa tinguished by their superiority in the higher qualities of mind, have yet been unusually deficient in good sense. If we endeavour, however, to analyze this useful faculty, according to Pope, “ Although no science, fairly worth the seven,” our wonder will in a great measure cease. That intuitive sense of propriety in which good sense chiefly consists, is the result of natural quickness of apprehension, combined with much experience crowded into a little space, by an observation perpetually on the watch to dissect little incidents apparently not worth examining. In the former of these qualifications, the man of letters is generally abundantly provided, but he is seldom willing to bestow the time and attention requisite to collect the materials of judgment. Those minute forms of business and ceremony, which the customs of society render necessary to be known and practised, either escape his notice, or, if observed, appear beneath his regard. Hence, in the ordinary intercourse of life, he is perpetually liable to small mistakes and blunders, which place him in an awkward and inferior point of view, and are sometimes attended with more serious consequences.

It may perhaps have an invidious appearance to insist farther on the peculiar imperfections to which literary men are liable, but I cannot help adding, that there is often a defect in that very department in which they might be supposed to excel, in their scientific

knowledge, that renders it comparatively of little real utility to its possessor, or to others. Their information is not sufficiently minute or particular ; they are versed in the general principles of things, but they are not exercised in applying them to practical purposes ; and thus they lose both the benefit that would accrue to themselves from their knowledge, and the credit it. would give them with those around them. It is too much the characteristic of the general scholar, that he never has his knowledge ready to produce on sudden emergencies; satisfied with obtaining the principles of any process, he refers to the book in which it is found for the detail and manipulation, in case he should ever have occasion to apply it to practice. Books, however, are too unwieldy an apparatus for a man to carry about with him ; and it will frequently happen that, before the requisite information can be obtained, the occasion is lost. The mind of such a person is merely an index to his library, and is nearly as useless by itself as the table of contents torn out of a book.

From an impression of these facts, men of the world have set it down as a maxim, that nothing is more adverse to a man's success in life than a taste for literature. Were this really the case, it would indeed be matter of regret to every ingenuous mind. That the most exquisite pleasures of which the mind of man is susceptible, should be incompatible with the proper discharge of his active duties ; that studies, which enlarge his understanding, and refine his affections, should render him less capable of sustaining his part in the social intercourse of his species, would argue a degree of depravity in society, or an inconsistency in the constitution of human nature, more than our experience of either will authorise us to allow If we examine, however, the grounds of this opinion, as stated by those who entertain it, we will uniformly find it to be the result of

« PreviousContinue »