Chapter 05 : Of the Rebelliousness of Man

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Chapter 05

From: Thoughts on Man, His Nature, Productions and Discoveries Interspersed with some Particulares Respecting the Author by William Godwin


There is a particular characteristic in the nature of the human mind, which is somewhat difficult to be explained.

Man is a being of a rational and an irrational nature.

It has often been said that we have two souls. Araspes, in the Cyropedia, adopts this language to explain his inconsistency, and desertion of principle and honor. The two souls of man, according to this hypothesis, are, first, animal, and, secondly, intellectual.

But I am not going into any thing of this slight and every-day character.

Man is a rational being. It is by this particular that he is eminently distinguished from the brute creation. He collects premises and deduces conclusions. He enters into systems of thinking, and combines systems of action, which he pursues from day to day, and from year to year. It is by this feature in his constitution that he becomes emphatically the subject of history, of poetry and fiction. It is by this that he is raised above the other inhabitants of the globe of earth, and that the individuals of our race are made the partners of "gods, and men like gods."

But our nature, beside this, has another section. We start occasionally ten thousand miles awry. We resign the scepter of reason, and the high dignity that belongs to us as beings of a superior species; and, without authority derived to us from any system of thinking, even without the scheme of gratifying any vehement and uncontrolable passion, we are impelled to do, or at least feel ourselves excited to do, something disordinate and strange. It seems as if we had a spring within us, that found the perpetual restraint of being wise and sober insupportable. We long to be something, or to do something, sudden and unexpected, to throw the furniture of our apartment out at window, or, when we are leaving a place of worship, in which perhaps the most solemn feelings of our nature have been excited, to push the grave person that is just before us, from the top of the stairs to the bottom. A thousand absurdities, wild and extravagant vagaries, come into our heads, and we are only restrained from perpetrating them by the fear, that we may be subjected to the treatment appropriated to the insane, or may perhaps be made amenable to the criminal laws of our country.

A story occurs to me, which I learned from the late Dr. Parr at Hatton, that may not unhappily illustrate the point I am endeavoring to explain.

Dr. Samuel Clarke, rector of St. James's, Westminster, the especial friend of Sir Isaac Newton, the distinguished editor of the poems of Homer, and author of the Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God, was one day summoned from his study, to receive two visitors in the parlor. When he came downstairs, and entered the room, he saw a foreigner, who by his air seemed to be a person of distinction, a professor perhaps of some university on the continent; and an alderman of London, a relation of the doctor, who had come to introduce the foreigner. The alderman, a man of uncultivated mind and manners, and whom the doctor had been accustomed to see in sordid attire, surrounded with the incumbrances of his trade, was decked out for the occasion in a full-dress suit, with a wig of majestic and voluminous structure. Clarke was, as it appears, so much struck with the whimsical nature of this unexpected metamorphosis, and the extraordinary solemnity of his kinsman's demeanor, as to have felt impelled, almost immediately upon entering the room, to snatch the wig from the alderman's head, and throw it against the ceiling: after which this eminent person immediately escaped, and retired to his own apartment. I was informed from the same authority, that Clarke, after exhausting his intellectual faculties by long and intense study, would not unfrequently quit his seat, leap upon the table, and place himself cross-legged like a tailor, being prompted, by these antagonist sallies, to relieve himself from the effect of the too severe strain he had previously put upon his intellectual powers.

But the deviousness and aberration of our human faculties frequently amount to something considerably more serious than this.

I will put a case.

I will suppose myself and another human being together, in some spot secure from the intrusion of spectators. A musket is conveniently at hand. It is already loaded. I say to my companion, "I will place myself before you; I will stand motionless: take up that musket, and shoot me through the heart." I want to know what passes in the mind of the man to whom these words are addressed.

I say, that one of the thoughts that will occur to many of the persons who should be so invited, will be, "Shall I take him at his word?"

There are two things that restrain us from acts of violence and crime. The first is, the laws of morality. The second is, the construction that will be put upon our actions by our fellow-creatures, and the treatment we shall receive from them.--I put out of the question here any particular value I may entertain for my challenger, or any degree of friendship and attachment I may feel for him.

The laws of morality (setting aside the consideration of any documents of religion or otherwise I may have imbibed from my parents and instructors) are matured within us by experience. In proportion as I am rendered familiar with my fellow-creatures, or with society at large, I come to feel the ties which bind men to each other, and the wisdom and necessity of governing my conduct by inexorable rules. We are thus further and further removed from unexpected sallies of the mind, and the danger of suddenly starting away into acts not previously reflected on and considered.

With respect to the censure and retaliation of other men on my proceeding, these, by the terms of my supposition, are left out of the question.

It may be taken for granted, that no man but a madman, would in the case I have stated take the challenger at his word. But what I want to ascertain is, why the bare thought of doing so takes a momentary hold of the mind of the person addressed?

There are three principles in the nature of man which contribute to account for this.

First, the love of novelty.

Secondly, the love of enterprise and adventure. I become insupportably wearied with the repetition of rotatory acts and every-day occurrences. I want to be alive, to be something more than I commonly am, to change the scene, to cut the cable that binds my bark to the shore, to launch into the wide sea of possibilities, and to nourish my thoughts with observing a train of unforeseen consequences as they arise.

A third principle, which discovers itself in early childhood, and which never entirely quits us, is the love of power. We wish to be assured that we are something, and that we can produce notable effects upon other beings out of ourselves. It is this principle, which instigates a child to destroy his playthings, and to torment and kill the animals around him.

But, even independently of the laws of morality, and the fear of censure and retaliation from our fellow-creatures, there are other things which would obviously restrain us from taking the challenger in the above supposition at his word.

If man were an omnipotent being, and at the same time retained all his present mental infirmities, it would be difficult to say of what extravagances he would be guilty. It is proverbially affirmed that power has a tendency to corrupt the best dispositions. Then what would not omnipotence effect?

If, when I put an end to the life of a fellow-creature, all vestiges of what I had done were to disappear, this would take off a great part of the control upon my actions which at present subsists. But, as it is, there are many consequences that "give us pause." I do not like to see his blood streaming on the ground. I do not like to witness the spasms and convulsions of a dying man. Though wounded to the heart, he may speak. Then what may he chance to say? What looks of reproach may he cast upon me? The musket may miss fire. If I wound him, the wound may be less mortal than I contemplated. Then what may I not have to fear? His dead body will be an incumbrance to me. It must be moved from the place where it lies. It must be buried. How is all this to be done by me? By one precipitate act, I have involved myself in a long train of loathsome and heart-sickening consequences.

If it should be said, that no one but a person of an abandoned character would fail, when the scene was actually before him, to feel an instant repugnance to the proposition, yet it will perhaps be admitted, that almost every reader, when he regards it as a supposition merely, says to himself for a moment, "Would I? Could I?"

But, to bring the irrationality of man more completely to the test, let us change the supposition. Let us imagine him to be gifted with the powers of the fabled basilisk, "to monarchize, be feared, and kill with looks." His present impulses, his passions, his modes of reasoning and choosing shall continue; but his "will is neighbored to his act;" whatever he has formed a conception of with preference, is immediately realized; his thought is succeeded by the effect; and no traces are left behind, by means of which a shadow of censure or suspicion can be reflected on him.

Man is in truth a miracle. The human mind is a creature of celestial origin, shut up and confined in a wall of flesh. We feel a kind of proud impatience of the degradation to which we are condemned. We beat ourselves to pieces against the wires of our cage, and long to escape, to shoot through the elements, and be as free to change at any instant the place where we dwell, as to change the subject to which our thoughts are applied.

This, or something like this, seems to be the source of our most portentous follies and absurdities. This is the original sin upon which St. Austin and Calvin descanted. Certain Arabic writers seem to have had this in their minds, when they tell us, that there is a black drop of blood in the heart of every man, in which is contained the fomes peccati, and add that, when Mahomet was in the fourth year of his age, the angel Gabriel caught him up from among his playfellows, and taking his heart from his bosom, squeezed out of it this first principle of frailty, in consequence of which he for ever after remained inaccessible to the weaknesses of other men1.

It is the observation of sir Thomas Browne: "Man is a noble animal, splendid in ashes, and pompous in the grave." One of the most remarkable examples of this is to he found in the pyramids of Egypt. They are generally considered as having been erected to be the tombs of the kings of that country. They have no opening by which for the light of heaven to enter, and afford no means for the accommodation of living man. An hundred thousand men are said to have been constantly employed in the building; ten years to have been consumed in hewing and conveying the stones, and twenty more in completing the edifice. Of the largest the base is a square, and the sides are triangles, gradually diminishing as they mount in the air. The sides of the base are two hundred and twenty feet in length, and the perpendicular height is above one hundred and fifty-five feet. The figure of the pyramid is precisely that which is most calculated for duration: it cannot perish by accident; and it would require almost as much labor to demolish it, as it did to raise it at first.

What a light does this fact convey into the inmost recesses of the human heart! Man reflects deeply, and with feelings of a mortified nature, upon the perishableness of his frame, and the approaching close, so far as depends upon the evidence of our senses, of his existence. He has indeed an irrepressible "longing after immortality;" and this is one of the various and striking modes in which he has sought to give effect to his desire.

Various obvious causes might be selected, which should be calculated to give birth to the feeling of discontent.

One is, the not being at home.

I will here put together some of the particulars which make up the idea of home in the most emphatical sense of the word.

Home is the place where a man is principally at his ease. It is the place where he most breathes his native air: his lungs play without impediment; and every respiration brings a pure element, and a cheerful and gay frame of mind. Home is the place where he most easily accomplishes all his designs; he has his furniture and materials and the elements of his occupations entirely within his reach. Home is the place where he can be uninterrupted. He is in a castle which is his in full propriety. No unwelcome guests can intrude; no harsh sounds can disturb his contemplations; he is the master, and can command a silence equal to that of the tomb, whenever he pleases.

In this sense every man feels, while cribbed in a cabin of flesh, and shut up by the capricious and arbitrary injunctions of human communities, that he is not at home.

Another cause of our discontent is to be traced to the disparity of the two parts of which we are composed, the thinking principle, and the body in which it acts. The machine which constitutes the visible man, bears no proportion to our thoughts, our wishes and desires. Hence we are never satisfied; we always feel the want of something we have not; and this uneasiness is continually pushing us on to precipitate and abortive resolves.

I find in a book, entitled, Illustrations of Phrenology, by Sir George Mackenzie, Baronet, the following remark. 'If this portrait be correctly drawn, the right side does not quite agree with the left in the region of ideality. This dissimilarity may have produced something contradictory in the feelings of the person it represents, which he may have felt extremely annoying2." An observation of this sort may be urged with striking propriety as to the dissimilar attributes of the body and the thinking principle in man.

It is perhaps thus that we are to account for a phenomenon, in itself sufficiently obvious, that our nature has within it a principle of boundless ambition, a desire to be something that we are not, a feeling that we are out of our place, and ought to be where we are not. This feeling produces in us quick and earnest sallies and goings forth of the mind, a restlessness of soul, and an aspiration after some object that we do not find ourselves able to chalk out and define.

Hence comes the practice of castle-building, and of engaging the soul in endless reveries and imaginations of something mysterious and unlike to what we behold in the scenes of sublunary life. Many writers, having remarked this, have endeavored to explain it from the doctrine of a preexistent state, and have said that, though we have no clear and distinct recollection of what happened to us previously to our being launched in our present condition, yet we have certain broken and imperfect conceptions, as if, when the tablet of the memory was cleared for the most part of the traces of what we had passed through in some other mode of being, there were a few characters that had escaped the diligence of the hand by which the rest had been obliterated.

It is this that, in less enlightened ages of the world, led men to engage so much of their thoughts upon supposed existences, which, though they might never become subject to our organs of vision, were yet conceived to be perpetually near us, fairies, ghosts, witches, demons and angels. Our ancestors often derived suggestions from these, were informed of things beyond the ken of ordinary faculties, were tempted to the commission of forbidden acts, or encouraged to proceed in the paths of virtue.

The most remarkable of these phenomena was that of necromancy, sorcery and magic. There were men who devoted themselves to "curious arts," and had books fraught with hidden knowledge. They could "bedim

The noon-tide sun, call forth the mutinous winds,
And 'twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war: to the dread, rattling thunder
They could give fire, and rift even Jove's stout oak
With his own bolt--graves at their command
Have waked their sleepers, oped and let them forth.

And of these things the actors in them were so certain, that many witches were led to the stake, their guilt being principally established on their own confessions. But the most memorable matters in the history of the black art, were the contracts which those who practiced it not unfrequently entered into with the devil, that he should assist them by his supernatural power for ten or twenty years, and, in consideration of this aid, they consented to resign their souls into his possession, when the period of the contract was expired.

In the animal creation there are some species that may be tamed, and others whose wildness is irreclaimable. Horace says, that all men are mad: and no doubt mankind in general has one of the features of madness. In the ordinary current of our existence we are to a considerable degree rational and tractable. But we are not altogether safe. I may converse with a maniac for hours; he shall talk as soberly, and conduct himself with as much propriety, as any other of the species who has never been afflicted with his disease; but touch upon a particular string, and, before you are aware of it, he shall fly out into the wildest and most terrifying extravagances. Such, though in a greatly inferior degree, are the majority of human beings.

The original impulse of man is uncontrolableness. When the spirit of life first descends upon us, we desire and attempt to be as free as air. We are impatient of restraint. This is the period of the empire of will. There is a power within us that wars against the restraint of another. We are eager to follow our own impulses and caprices, and are with difficulty subjected to those who believe they best know how to control inexperienced youth in a way that shall tend to his ultimate advantage.

The most moderate and auspicious method in which the old may endeavor to guide and control the pursuits of the young, undoubtedly is by the conviction of the understanding. But this is not always easy. It is not at all times practicable fully to explain to the apprehension of a very young person the advantage, which at a period a little more advanced he would be able clearly to recognize.

There is a further evil appertaining to this view of the subject.

A young man even, in the early season of life, is not always disposed to obey the convictions of his understanding. He has prescribed to himself a task which returns with the returning day; but he is often not disposed to apply. The very sense that it is what he conceives to be an incumbent duty, inspires him with reluctance.

An obvious source of this reluctance is, that the convictions of our understanding are not always equally present to us. I have entered into a deduction of premises, and arrived at a conclusion; but some of the steps of the chain are scarcely obvious to me, at the time that I am called upon to act upon the conclusion I have drawn. Beside which, there was a freshness in the first conception of the reasons on which my conduct was to be framed, which, by successive rehearsals, and by process of time, is no longer in any degree spirit-stirring and pregnant.

This restiveness and impracticability are principally incident to us in the period of youth. By degrees the novelties of life wear out, and we become sober. We are like soldiers at drill, and in a review. At first we perform our exercise from necessity, and with an ill grace. We had rather be doing almost any thing else.

By degrees we are reconciled to our occupation. We are like horses in a manege, or oxen or dogs taught to draw the plow, or be harnessed to a carriage. Our stubbornness is subdued; we no longer exhaust our strength in vain efforts to free ourselves from the yoke.

Conviction at first is strong. Having arrived at years of discretion, I revolve with a sobered mind the different occupations to which my efforts and my time may be devoted, and determine at length upon that which under all the circumstances displays the most cogent recommendations. Having done so, I rouse my faculties and direct my energies to the performance of my task. By degrees however my resolution grows less vigorous, and my exertions relax. I accept any pretense to be let off, and fly into a thousand episodes and eccentricities.

But, as the newness of life subsides, the power of temptation becomes less. That conviction, which was at first strong, and gradually became fainter and less impressive, is made by incessant repetitions a part of my nature. I no more think of doubting its truth, than of my own existence. Practice has rendered the pursuits that engage me more easy, till at length I grow disturbed and uncomfortable if I am withheld from them. They are like my daily bread. If they are not afforded me, I grow sick and attenuated, and my life verges to a close. The sun is not surer to rise, than I am to feel the want of my stated employment.

It is the business of education to tame the wild ass, the restive and rebellious principle, in our nature. The judicious parent or instructor essays a thousand methods to accomplish his end. The considerate elder tempts the child with inticements and caresses, that he may win his attention to the first rudiments of learning.

He sets before him, as he grows older, all the considerations and reasons he can devise, to make him apprehend the advantage of improvement and literature. He does his utmost to make his progress easy, and to remove all impediments. He smooths the path by which he is to proceed, and endeavors to root out all its thorns. He exerts his eloquence to inspire his pupil with a love for the studies in which he is engaged. He opens to him the beauties and genius of the authors he reads, and endeavors to proceed with him hand in hand, and step by step. He persuades, he exhorts, and occasionally he reproves. He awakens in him the love of excellence, the fear of disgrace, and an ambition to accomplish that which "the excellent of the earth" accomplished before him.

At a certain period the young man is delivered into his own hands, and becomes an instructor to himself. And, if he is blessed with an ingenuous disposition, he will enter on his task with an earnest desire and a devoted spirit. No person of a sober and enlarged mind can for a moment delude himself into the opinion that, when he is delivered into his own hands, his education is ended. In a sense to which no one is a stranger, the education of man and his life terminate together. We should at no period of our existence be backward to receive information, and should at all times preserve our minds open to conviction. We should through every day of our lives seek to add to the stores of our knowledge and refinement. But, independently of this more extended sense of the word, a great portion of the education of the young man is left to the direction of the man himself. The epoch of entire liberty is a dangerous period, and calls upon him for all his discretion, that he may not make an ill use of that, which is in itself perhaps the first of sublunary blessings. The season of puberty also, and all the excitements from this source, "that flesh is heir to," demand the utmost vigilance and the strictest restraint. In a word, if we would counteract the innate rebelliousness of man, that indocility of mind which is at all times at hand to plunge us into folly, we must never slumber at our post, but govern ourselves with steady severity, and by the dictates of an enlightened understanding. We must be like a skillful pilot in a perilous sea, and be thoroughly aware of all the rocks and quicksands, and the multiplied and hourly dangers that beset our navigation.

In this Essay I have treated of nothing more than the inherent restiveness and indocility of man, which accompany him at least through all the earlier sections and divisions of his life. I have not treated of those temptations calculated to lead him into a thousand excesses and miseries, which originate in our lower nature, and are connected with what we call the passion of love. Nor have I entered upon the still more copious chapter, of the incentives and provocations which are administered to us by those wants which at all times beset us as living creatures, and by the unequal distribution of property generally in civil society. I have not considered those attributes of man which may serve indifferently for good or for ill, as he may happen to be or not to be the subject of those fiercer excitements, that will oft times corrupt the most ingenuous nature, and have a tendency to inspire into us subtle schemes and a deep contrivance. I have confined myself to the consideration of man, as yet untamed to the modes of civilized community, and unbroken to the steps which are not only prescribed by the interests of our social existence, but which are even in some degree indispensible to the improvement and welfare of the individual. I have considered him, not as he is often acted upon by causes and motives which seem almost to compel him to vise, but merely as he is restless, and impatient, and disdainful both of the control of others, and the shackles of system.

For the same reason I have not taken notice of another species of irrationality, and which seems to answer more exactly to the Arabic notion of the fomes peccati, the black drop of blood at the bottom of the heart. We act from motives apprehended by the judgment; but we do not stop at them. Once set in motion, it will not seldom happen that we proceed beyond our original mark. We are like Othello in the play:

Our blood begins our safer guides to rule;
And passion, having our best judgment quelled,
Assays to lead the way.

This is the explanation of the greatest enormities that have been perpetrated by man, and the inhuman deeds of Nero and Caligula. We proceed from bad to worse. The reins of our discretion drop from our hands. It fortunately happens however, that we do not in the majority of cases, like Phaeton in the fable, set the world on fire; but that, with ordinary men, the fiercest excesses of passion extend to no greater distance than can be reached by the sound of their voice.


1Life of Mahomet, by Prideaux.
2The remark thus delivered is applied to the portrait of the author of the present volume.

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