Table of Contents
|Author:||Hazlitt, William H., 1778-1830|
|Author Alternative Name:||William H. Hazlitt|
|Author Nationality:||United Kingdom|
|Author Birth Place:||England; Europe; Maidstone, England; United Kingdom|
|Editor/Translator:||Wu, Duncan, 1961-|
|Editor/Translator Alternative Name:||Duncan Wu|
|First Published Date:||1828|
[p. 161] | [Page Image]
Search then the ruling passion: there, alone,
The wild are constant, and the cunning known:
The fool consistent, and the false sincere;
Priests, princes, women, no dissemblers here.
This clue once found unravels all the rest,
The prospect clears, and Wharton stands confest.[note] - POPE.
I am one of those who do not think that mankind are exactly governed by reason, or a cool calculation of consequences. I rather believe that habit, imagination, sense, passion, prejudice, words make a strong and frequent diversion from the right-line of prudence and wisdom. I have been told, however, that these are merely the irregularities and exceptions, and that reason forms the rule or basis; that the understanding, instead of being the sport of the capricious and arbitrary decisions of the will, generally dictates the line of conduct it is to pursue, and that self-interest, or the main-chance, is the unvarying load-star of our affections, or the chief ingredient in all our motives, that, thrown in as ballast, gives steadiness and direction to our voyage through life. I will not take upon me to give a verdict in this cause as judge; but I will try to plead one side of it as an advocate, perhaps a biassed and feeble one.
As the passions are said to be subject to the control of reason, and as reason is resolved (in the present case) into an attention to our own interest, or a practical sense of the value of money, it will not be amiss to inquire how much of this principle itself is founded in a rational estimate of things, or is calculated for the end it proposes, or how much of it will turn out (when analysed) to be mere madness and folly, or a mixture, like all the rest, of obstinacy, whim, fancy, vanity, ill-nature, and so forth, or a nominal pursuit of good. This passion, or an inordinate love of wealth, shows itself, when it is strong, equally in two opposite ways, in saving or in spending - in avarice (or stinginess) and in extravagance. To examine each of their order. That lowest and most familiar form of covetousness, commonly called stinginess, is at present (it must be owned) greatly on the wane in civilised society; it has been driven out of fashion either by ridicule and good sense, or by the spread of luxury, or by supplying the mind with other sources of interest, besides those
[p. 162] | [Page Image]which related to the bare means of subsistence; so that it may almost be considered as a vice, or absurdity, struck off the list, as a set-off to some that, in the change of manners and the progress of dissipation, have been brought upon the stage. It is not, however, so entirely banished from the world, but that examples of it may be found to our purpose. It seems to have taken refuge in the petty provincial towns, or in old baronial castles in the North of Scotland, where it is still triumphant. To go into this subject somewhat in detail, as a study of the surviving manners of the last age - Nothing is more common in these half-starved, barren regions, than to stint the servants in their wages, to allowance them in the merest necessaries, never to indulge them with a morsel of savoury food, and to lock up everything from them as if they were thieves, or common vagabonds, broke into the house. The natural consequence is, that the mistresses live in continual hot-water with their servants, keep watch and ward over them - the pantry is in a state of siege - grudge them every mouthful, every appearance of comfort, or moment of leisure, and torment their own souls every minute of their lives about what, if left wholly to itself, would not make a difference of five shillings at the year's end. There are families so notorious for this kind of surveillance and meanness, that no servant will go to live with them; for, to clench the matter, they are obliged to stay if they do; as, under these amiable establishments, and to provide against an evasion of their signal advantages, domestics are never hired but by the half-year. Instances have been known where servants have taken a pleasant revenge on their masters and mistresses without intending it; but where the example of sordid saving and meanness set to them, having taken possession of those even who were victims to it, they have conscientiously applied it to the benefit of all parties, and scarecely suffered a thing to enter the house for the whole six months they stayed in it. To pass over, however, those cases which may plead poverty as their excuse, what shall we say to a lady of fortune (the sister of one of their old-fashioned lairds) allowing the fruit to rot in the gardens and hot-houses of a fine old mansion in large quantities, sooner than let any of it be given away in presents to the neighbours; and, when peremptorily ordered by the master of the house to send a basket-full every morning to a sick friend, purchasing a small pottle for the purpose, and satisfying her mind (an intelligent and well-informed one) with this miserable subterfuge? Nay, farther, the same person, whenever they had green-peas, or other rarities, served up at table, could hardly be prevailed on to help the guests to them, but, if possible, sent them away, though no other use could now be made of them, and she would never see them again! Is there common sense in this; or is it not more like madness? But is it not, at the same time, human nature? Let us stop to explain a little. In my view, the real motive of action in this and other similar cases of grasping penuriousness has no more reference to self-love (properly so called) than artificial fruit and flowers have to natural ones. A certain form or outside appearance of utility may deceive the mind, but the natural, pulpy, wholesome, nutritious
[p. 163] | [Page Image]substance, the principle of vitality, is gone. To this callous, frigid habit of mind, the real uses of things harden and crystallise; the pith and marrow are extracted out of them, and leave nothing but the husk or shell. By a regular process, the idea of property is gradually abstracted from the advantage it may be of even to ourselves; and to a well-drilled, thorough-bred, Northern housekeeper (such as I have supposed), the fruits, or other produce of her garden, would come at last to be things no more to be eaten or enjoyed, than her jewels or trinkets of any description, which are, professedly, of no use but to be kept as symbols of wealth, to be occasionally looked at, and carefully guarded from the approach of any unhallowed touch. The calculation of consequences, or of benefit to accrue to any living person, is so far from being the main-spring in this mechanical operation, that it is never once thought of, or regarded with peevishness and impatience as an unwelcome intruder, because it must naturally divert the mind from the warped and false bias it has taken. The feeling of property is here, then, removed from the sphere of practice to a chimerical and fictitious one. In the case of not sending the fruit out of the house, there might be some lurking idea of its being possibly wanted at home, that it might be sent to some one else, or made up into conserves: but when different articles of food are actually placed on the table, to hang back from using or offering them to others, is a deliberate infatuation. They must be destroyed, they could not appear again; and yet this person's heart failed her, and shrank back from the only opportunity of making the proper use of them, with a petty, sensitive apprehension, as if it were a kind of sacrilege done to a cherished and favourite object. The impulse to save was become, by indulgence, a sort of desperate propensity and forlorn hope, no longer the understood means, but the mistaken end: habit had completely superseded the exercise and control of reason, and the rage of making the most of every thing by making no use of it at all, resisted to the last moment the shocking project of feasting on a helpless dish of green-peas (that would fetch so much in the market), as an offence against the Goddess of stinginess, and torture to the soul of thrift! The principle of economy is inverted; and in order to avoid the possibility of wasting any thing, the way with such philosophers and house-wives is to abstain from touching it altogether. Is not this a common error? Or are we conscious of our motives in such cases? Or do we not flatter ourselves by imputing every such act of idle folly to the necessity of adopting some sure and judicious plan to shun ruin, beggary, and the most profligate abuse of wealth?
Let us turn the tables and look at the other side of this sober, solid, ingrossing passion for property and its appendages. A man lays out a thousand, nay, sometimes many thousand pounds in purchasing a fine picture. This is thought, by the vulgar, a very fantastical folly, and unaccountable waste of money. Why so? No one would give such a sum for a picture, unless there were others ready to offer nearly the same sum, and who are likely to appreciate its value, and envy him the distinction. It is then a sign of taste, a proof of wealth to possess it, it is an ornament and a luxury.
[p. 164] | [Page Image]If the same person lays out the same sum of money in building or purchasing a fine house, or enriching it with costly furniture, no notice is taken - this is supposed to be perfectly natural and in order. Yet both are equally gratuitous pieces of extravagance, and the value of the objects is, in either case, equally ideal. It will be asked, 'But what is the use of the picture?' And what, pray, is the use of the fine house or costly furniture, unless to be looked at, to be admired, and to display the taste and magnificence of the owner? Are not pictures and statues as much furniture as gold plate or jasper tables; or does the circumstance of the former having a meaning in them, and appealing to the imagination as well as to the senses, neutralise their virtue, and render it entirely chimerical and visionary? It is true, every one must have a house of some kind, furnished somehow, and the superfluity so far grows imperceptibly out of the necessary. But a fine house, fine furniture, is necessary to no man, nor of more value than the plainest, except as a matter of taste, of fancy, of luxury and ostentation. Again, no doubt, if a person is in the habit of keeping a number of servants, and entertaining a succession of fashionable guests, he must have more room than he wants for himself, apartments suitably decorated to receive them, and offices and stables for their horses and retinue. But is all this unavoidably dictated as a consequence of his attention to the main-chance, or is it not sacrificing the latter, and making it a stalking-horse to his vanity, dissipation, or love of society and hospitality? We are at least as fond of spending money as of making it. If a man runs through a fortune in the way here spoken of, is it out of love to himself? Yet who scruples to run through a fortune in this way, or accuses himself of any extraordinary disinterestedness or love of others? One bed is as much as any one can sleep in, one room is as much as he can dine in, and he may have another for study or to retire to after dinner - but he can only want more than this for the accommodation of his friends, or the admiration of strangers. At Fonthill Abbey (to take an extreme illustration), there was not a single room fit to sit, lie, or stand in: the whole was cut up into pigeon holes, or spread out into long endless galleries. The building this huge, ill-assorted pile cost, I believe, nearly a million of money; and if the circumstance was mentioned, it occasioned an expression of surprise at the amount of the wealth that had been thus squandered - but if it was said that a hundred pounds had been laid out on a highly-finished picture, there was the same astonishment expressed at its misdirection. The sympathetic auditor makes up his mind to the first and greatest loss, by reflecting that in the case of the worst the building materials alone will fetch something considerable; or, in the very idea of stone walls and mortar there is something solid and tangible, that repels the charge of frivolous levity or fine sentiment. This quaint excrescence in architecture, preposterous and ill-contrived as it was, occasioned, I suspect, many a heart-ache and bitter comparison to the throng of fashionable visitants; and I conceive it was the very want of comfort and convenience that enhanced this feeling, by magnifying, as it were from contrast, the expense that had been incurred in realising
[p. 165] | [Page Image]an idle whim. When we judge thus perversely and invidiously of the employment of wealth by others, I cannot think that we are guided in our own choice of means to ends by a simple calculation of downright use and personal accommodation. The gentleman who purchased Fonthill,[note] and was supposed to be possessed of wealth enough to purchase half a dozen more Fonthills, lived there himself for some time in a state of the greatest retirement, rose at six and read till four, rode out for an hour for the benefit of the air, and dined abstemiously for the sake of his health. I would do all this myself. What then became of the rest of his fortune? It was lying in the funds, or embarked in business to make it yet greater, that he might still rise at six and read till four, &c. - it was of no other earthly use to him; for he did not wish to make a figure in the world, or to throw it away on studs of horses, on equipages, entertainments, gaming, electioneering, subscriptions to charitable institutions, or any of the usual fashionable modes of squandering wealth for the amusement and wonder of others and our own fancied enjoyment. Mr F. did not probably lay out five hundred a-year on himself: it cost Mr Beckford, who led a life of perfect seclusion, twenty thousand a-year to defray the expenses of his table and of his household establishment. When I find that such and so various are the tastes of men, I am a little puzzled to know what is meant by self-interest, of which some persons talk so fluently, as if it was a Jack-in-a-Box which they could take out and show you, and which they tell you is the object that all men equally aim at. If money, is it for its own sake or the sake of other things? Is it to hoard it or to spend it, on ourselves or others? In all these points, we find the utmost diversity and contradiction both of feeling and practice. Certainly, he who puts his money into a strong-box and he who puts it into a dice-box must be allowed to have a very different idea of the main-chance. If by this phrase be understood a principle of self-preservation, I grant that while we live, we must not starve, and that necessity has no law. Beyond this point, all seems nearly left to chance or whim; and so far are all the world from being agreed in their definition of this redoubtable term, that one half of them may be said to think and act in diametrical opposition to the other.
Avarice is the miser's dream, as fame is the poet's. A calculation of physical profit or loss is almost as much out of the question in the one case as in the other. The one has set his mind on gold, the other on praise, as the summum bonum or object of his bigoted idolatry and darling contemplation, not for any private and sinister ends. It is the immediate pursuit, not the remote or reflex consequence that gives wings to the passion. There is, indeed, a reference to self in either case that fixes and concentrates it, but not a gross or sordid one. Is not the desire to accumulate and leave a vast estate behind us equally romantic with the desire to leave a posthumous name behind us? Is not the desire of distinction, of something to be known and remembered by, the paramount consideration? And are not the privations we undergo, the sacrifices and exertions we make for either object, nearly akin? A child makes a huge snow-ball to show his skill and perseverance and as something to
[p. 166] | [Page Image]wonder at, not that he can swallow it as an ice, or warm his hands at it, and though the next day's sun will dissolve it; and the man accumulates a pile of wealth for the same reason principally, or to find employment for his time, imagination, and his will. I deny that it can be of any other use to him to watch and superintend the returns of millions, than to watch the returns of the heavenly bodies, or to calculate their distances, or to contemplate eternity, or infinity, or the sea, or the dome of St Peter's, or any other object that excites curiosity and interest from its magnitude and importance. Do we not look at the most barren mountain with thrilling awe and wonder? And is it strange that we should gaze at a mountain of gold with satisfaction, when we can besides say, 'This is ours,' with all the power that belongs to it? Every passion, however plodding and prosaic, has its poetical side to it. A miser is the true alchemist, or, like the magician in his cell, who overlooks a mighty experiment, who sees dazzling visions, and who wields the will of others at his nod; but to whom all other hopes and pleasures are dead, and who is cut off from all connexion with his kind. He lives in a splendid hallucination, a waking trance, and so far it is well: but if he thinks he has any other need or use for all this endless store (any more than to swell the ocean) he deceives himself, and is no conjuror after all. He goes on, however, mechanically adding to his stock, and fancying that great riches is great gain, that every particle that swells the heap is something in reserve against the evil day, and a defence against that poverty which he dreads more, the farther he is removed from it; as the more giddy the height to which we have attained, the more frightful does the gulph yawn below - so easily does habit get the mastery of reason, and so nearly is passion allied to madness! 'But he is laying up for his heirs and successors.' In toiling for them, and sacrificing himself, is he properly attending to the main-chance?
This is the turn the love of money takes in cautious, dry, recluse, and speculative minds. If it were the pure and abstract love of money it could take no other turn but this. But in a different class of characters, the sociable, the vain, and imaginative, it takes just the contrary one, viz. to expense, extravagance, and ostentation. It then loves to display itself in every fantastic shape and with every reflected lustre, in houses, in equipage, in dress, in a retinue of friends and dependants, in horses, in hounds - to glitter in the eye of fashion, to be echoed by the roar of folly, and buoyed up for a while like a bubble on the surface of vanity, to sink all at once and irrecoverably into an abyss of ruin and bankruptcy. Does it foresee this result? Does it care for it? What then becomes of the calculating principle that can neither be hoodwinked nor bribed from its duty? Does it do nothing for us in this critical emergency? It is blind, deaf, and insensible to all but the noise, confusion, and glare of objects by which it is fascinated and lulled into a fatal repose! One man ruins himself by the vanity of associating with lords, another by his love of low company, one by his fondness for building, another by his rage for keeping open house and private theatricals, one by philosophical experiments, another by embarking in
[p. 167] | [Page Image]every ticklish and fantastical speculation that is proposed to him, one throws away an estate on a law-suit, another on a die, a third on a horse-race, a fourth on virtù, a fifth on a drab, a sixth on a contested election, &c. There is no dearth of instances to fill the page, or complete the group of profound calculators and inflexible martyrs to the main-chance. Let any of these discreet and well-advised persons have the veil torn from their darling follies by experience, and be gifted with a double share of wisdom and a second fortune to dispose of, and each of them, so far from being warned by experience or disaster, will only be the more resolutely bent to assert the independence of his choice, and throw it away the self-same road it went before, on his vanity in associating with lords, on his love of low company, on his fondness for building, on his rage for keeping open house or private theatricals, on philosophical experiments, on fantastic speculations, on a law-suit, on a dice-box, on a favourite horse, on a picture, on a mistress, on an election contest, and so on, through the whole of the chapter of accidents and cross-purposes. There is an admirable description of this sort of infatuation with folly and ruin in Madame D'Arblay's account of Harrel in 'Cecilia;'[note] and though the picture is highly wrought and carried to the utmost length, yet I maintain that the principle is common. I myself have known more than one individual in the same predicament; and I therefore cannot think that the deviations from the line of strict prudence and wisdom are so rare or trilling as the theory I am opposing represents them, or I must have been singularly unfortunate in my acquaintance. Out of a score of persons of this class I could mention several that have ruined their fortunes out of mere freak, others that are in a state of dotage and imbecility for fear of being robbed of all they are worth. The rest care nothing about the matter. So that this boasted and unfailing attention to the main-chance resolves itself, when strong, into mad profusion or griping penury, or if weak, is null and yields to other motives. Such is the conclusion, to which my observation of life has led me: if I am quite wrong, it is hard that in a world abounding in such characters, I should not have met with a single practical philosopher.[note]
[p. 168] | [Page Image]
A girl in a country town resolves never to marry any one under a duke or a lord. Good. This may be very well as an ebullition of spleen or vanity; but is there much common sense or regard to her own satisfaction in it? Were there any likelihood of her succeeding in her resolution, she would not make it: for it is the very distinction to be attained that piques her ambition, and leads her to gratify her conceit of herself by affecting to look down on any lower matches. Let her suffer ever so much mortification or chagrin in the prosecution of her scheme, it only confirms her the more in it: the spirit of contradiction, and the shame of owning herself defeated, increase with every new disappointment and year of painful probation. At least this is the case while there is any chance left. But what, after all, is this haughty and ridiculous pretension founded on? Is it owing to a more commanding view and a firmer grasp of consequences, or of her own interest? No such thing: she is as much captivated by the fancied sound of 'my lady,' and dazzled by the image of a coronet-coach, as the girl who marries a footman is smit with his broad shoulders, laced coat, and rosy cheeks. 'But why must I be always in extremes? Few misses make vows of celibacy or marry their footmen.' Take then the broad question:- Do they generally marry from the convictions of the understanding, or make the choice that is most likely to ensure their future happiness, or that they themselves approve afterwards? I think the answer must be in the negative; and yet love and marriage are among the weightiest and most serious concerns of life. Mutual regard, good temper, good sense, good character, or a conformity of tastes and dispositions have notoriously and lamentably little to say in it. On the contrary, it is most frequently those things that pique and provoke opposition, instead of those which promise concord and sympathy, that decide the choice and inflame the will by the love of conquest or of overcoming difficulty. Or it is a complexion, or a fine set of teeth, or air, or dress, or a fine person, or false calves, or affected consequence, or a reputation for gallantry, or a flow of spirits, or a flow of words, or forward coquetry, or assumed indifference, something that appeals to the senses, the fancy, or to our pride, and determines us to throw away our happiness for life. Neither in this case, on which so much depends, are the main- chance and our real interest by any means the same thing.
Now all ye ladies of fair Scotland,
And ladies of England that happy would prove,
Marry never for houses, nor marry for land,
Nor marry for nothing but only love.[note] Old Ballad.
Or take the passion of love where it has other objects and consequences in view. Is reason any match for the poison of this passion, where it has been once imbibed? I might just as well be told that reason is a cure for madness or the bite of a venomous serpent. Are not health, fortune, friends, character, peace of mind, everything sacrificed to its idlest impulse? Are the instances rare, or are they not
[p. 169] | [Page Image]common and tragical? The main-chance does not serve the turn here. Does the prospect of certain ruin break the fascination to its frail victim, or does it not rather enhance and precipitate the result? Or does it not render the conquest more easy and secure that the seducer has already triumphed over and deserted a hundred other victims? A man à bonnes fortunes is the most irresistible personage in the lists of gallantry. - Take drunkenness again, that vice which till within these few years (and even still) was fatal to the health, the constitutions, the fortunes of so many individuals, and the peace of so many families in Great Britain. I would ask what remonstrance of friends, what lessons of experience, what resolutions of amendment, what certainty of remorse and suffering, however exquisite, would deter the confirmed sot (where the passion for this kind of excitement had once become habitual and the immediate want of it was felt) from indulging his propensity and taking his full swing, notwithstanding the severe and imminent punishment to follow upon his incorrigible excess? The consequence of not abstaining from his favourite beverage is not doubtful and distant (a thing in the clouds) but close at his side, staring him in the face, and felt perhaps in all its aggravations the very morning, yet the recollection of this and of the next day's dawn is of no avail against the momentary craving and headlong impulse given by the first application of the glass to his lips. The present temptation is indeed heightened by the threatened alternative. I know this as a rule, that the stronger the repentance, the surer the relapse and the more hopeless the cure! The being ingrossed by the present moment, by the present feeling, whatever it be, whether of pleasure or pain, is the evident cause of both. Few instances have been heard of, of final reformation on this head. Yet it is a clear case; and reason, if it were that Giant that it is represented in any thing but ledgers and books of accounts, would put down the abuse in an instant. It is true, this infirmity is more particularly chargeable to the English and to other Northern nations; and there has been a considerable improvement among us of late years; but I suspect it is owing to a change of manners, and to the opening of new sources of amusement, (without the aid of ardent spirits flung in to relieve the depression of our animal spirits,) more than to the excellent treatises which have been written against the 'Use of Fermented Liquors,' or to an increasing, tender regard to our own comfort, health, and happiness in the breasts of individuals. We still find plenty of ways of tormenting ourselves and sporting with the feelings of others! I will say nothing of a passion for gaming here, as too obvious an illustration of what I mean. It is more rare, and hardly to be looked on as epidemic with us. But few that have dabbled in this vice have not become deeply involved, and few (or none) that have done so have ever retraced their steps or returned to sober calculations of the main-chance. The majority, it is true, are not gamesters; but where the passion does exist, it completely tyrannises over and stifles the voice of common sense, reason and humanity. How many victims has the point of honour! I will not pretend that as
[p. 170] | [Page Image]matters stand, it may not be necessary to fight a duel under certain circumstances and on certain provocations, even in a prudential point of view, (though this proves how little the maxims and practices of the world are regulated by a mere consideration of personal safety and welfare) - but I do say that the rashness with which this responsibility is often incurred, and the even seeking for trilling causes of quarrel, shows any thing but a consistent regard to self-interest as a general principle of action, or rather betrays a total recklessness of consequences when opposed to pique, petulance, or passion.
Before I proceed to answer a principal objection (and indeed a staggering one at first sight) I will mention here that I think it strongly confirms my view of human nature, that men form their opinions much more from prejudice than reason. The proof that they do so is that they form such opposite ones, when the abstract premises and independent evidence are the same. How few Calvinists become Lutherans! How few Papists Protestants! How few Tories Whigs![note] Each shuts his eyes equally to facts or arguments, and persists in the view of the subject that custom, pride, and obstinacy dictate. Interest is no more regarded than reason; for it is often at the risk both of life and fortune that these opinions have been maintained, and it is uniformly when parties have run highest and the strife has been deadliest that people have been most forward to stake their existence and every thing belonging to them, on some unintelligible dogma or article of an old- fashioned creed. Half the wars and fightings, martyrdoms, persecutions, feuds, antipathies, heartburnings in the world, have been about some distinction, 'some trick not worth an egg'[note] - so ready are mankind to sacrifice their all to a mere name! It may be urged that the good of our souls or our welfare in a future state of being is a rational and well-grounded motive for these religious extravagances. And this is true, so far as religious zeal falls in with men's passions or the spirit of the times. A bigot was formerly ready to cut his neighbour's throat to go to Heaven, but not so ready to reform his own life, or give up a single vice or gratification for all the pains and penalties denounced upon it, and of which his faith in Holy Church did not suffer him to doubt a moment!
But it is contended here, that in matters not of doctrinal speculation but of private life and domestic policy, every one consults and understands his own interest; that whatever other hobbies he may have, he minds this as the main-object, and contrives to make both ends meet, in spite of seeming inattention and real difficulties. 'If we look around us (says a shrewd, hard-headed Scotchman)[note] and take examples from the neighbourhood in which we live, we shall find that allowing for occasional exceptions, diversities and singularities, the main-chance is still stuck to with rigid and unabated pertinacity - the accounts are wound up and every thing is right at
[p. 171] | [Page Image]the year's end, whatever freaks or fancies may have intervened in the course of it. The business of life goes on (which is the principal thing) and every man's house stands on its own bottom. This is the case in Nicholson-street, in the next street to it, and in the next street to that, and in the whole of Edinburgh, Scotland, and England to boot.' - This, I allow, is a home-thrust, and I must parry it, how I can. It is a kind of heavy, broad-wheeled wagon of an objection that makes a formidable, awkward appearance, and takes up so much of the road, that I shall have a lucky escape if I can dash by it in my light travelling gig without being upset or crushed to atoms. The persons who in the present instance have the charge of it, in its progress through the streets of Edinburgh, are a constitutional lawyer, a political economist, an opposition editor, and an ex-officio surveyor of the Customs - fearful odds to one poor metaphysician! Their machine of human life, I confess, puts me a little in mind of those square-looking caravans one sometimes meets on the road in which they transport wild beasts from place to place; and dull, heavy, safe and flat as they look, the inmates continue their old habits, the monkeys play their tricks, and the panthers lick their jaws for human blood, though cramped and confined in their excursions. So the vices and follies, when they cannot break loose, do their worst inside this formal conveyance, the main-chance. As this ovation is to pass up High-street, for the honour of the Scottish capital, I should wish it to stop at the shop-door of Mr Bartholine Saddletree,[note] to see if he is at home or in the courts. Also, to inquire whether the suit of Peter Peebles[note] is yet ended; and to take the opinion of counsel, how many of the Highland lairds or Scottish noblemen and gentlemen that were out in the fifteen and the forty-five, perilled their lives and fortunes in the good cause from an eye to the main-chance? The Baron of Bradwardine[note] would have scorned such a suggestion; nay, it would have been below Balmawhapple or even Killancureit. But 'the age of chivalry is gone, and that of sophists, economists, and calculators has succeeded.'[note] I should say that the risk, the secrecy, the possibility of the leaders having their heads stuck on Temple-Bar, and their estates confiscated, were among the foremost causes that inflamed their zeal and stirred their blood to the enterprise. Hardship, danger, exile, death, - these words 'smack of honour,'[note] more than the main-chance. The modern Scotch may be loyal on this thriving principle: their ancestors found their loyalty a very losing concern. Yet they persevered in it till and long after it became a desperate cause. But patriotism and loyalty (true or false) are important and powerful principles in human affairs, though not always selfish and calculating. Honour is one great standard-bearer and puissant leader in the struggle of human life; and less than honour (a nickname or a bugbear) is enough to set the multitude together by the ears, whether in civil, religious, or private brawls. The fault of reason in general, (which takes in the whole instead of parts,) is that objects, though of the utmost extent and importance, are not defined and tangible. This fault cannot be found with the pursuit of trade and commerce. It is not a mere, dry, abstract, undefined,
[p. 172] | [Page Image]speculative, however steady and well-founded conviction of the understanding. It has other levers and pulleys to enforce it, besides those of reason and reflection. As follows:-
1. The value of money is positive or specific. The interest in it is a sort of mathematical interest, reducible to number and quantity. Ten is always more than one; a part is never greater than the whole; the good we seek or attain in this way has a technical denomination, and I do not deny that in matters of strict calculation, the principle of calculation will naturally bear great sway. The returns of profit and loss are regular and mechanical, and the operations of business, or the main-chance, are so too. But, commonly speaking, we judge by the degree of excitement, not by the ultimate quantity. Thus we prefer a draught of nectar to the recovery of our health.[note] Yet there is a point at which self-will and humour stop. A man will take brandy, which is a kind of slow poison, but he will not take actual poison, knowing it to be such, however slow the operation or bewitching the taste; because here the effect is absolutely fixed and certain, not variable, nor in the power of the imagination to elude or trifle with it. I see no courage in battle, but in going on what is called the forlorn hope.
2. Business is also an affair of habit; it calls for incessant and daily application; and what was at first a matter of necessity to supply our wants, becomes often a matter of necessity to employ our time. The man of business wants work for his head, the labourer and mechanic for his hands; so that the love of action, of difficulty and competition, the stimulus of success or failure, is perhaps as strong an ingredient in men's ordinary pursuits as the love of gain. We find persons pursuing science, or any hobby-horsical whim or handicraft that they have taken a fancy to, or persevering in a losing concern, with just the same ardour and obstinacy. As to the choice of a pursuit in life, a man may not be forward to engage in business, but being once in, does not like to turn back amidst the pity of friends and the derision of enemies. How difficult is it to prevent those who have a turn for any art or science from going into these unprofitable pursuits! Nay, how difficult is it often to prevent those who have no turn that way, but prefer starving to a certain income! If there is one in a family brighter than the rest, he is immediately designed for one of the learned professions. Really, the dull and plodding people of the world have not much reason to boast of their superior wisdom or numbers: they are in an involuntary majority!
3. The value of money is an exchangeable value: that is, this pursuit is available towards and convertible into a great many others. A person is in want of money, and mortgages an estate, to throw it away upon a round of entertainments and company. The passion or motive here is not a hankering after money, but society, and the individual will ruin himself for this object. Another, who has the same passion for show and a certain style of living, tries to gain a fortune in trade to indulge it, and only goes to work in a more round-about way. I remember a story
[p. 173] | [Page Image]of a common mechanic at Manchester, who laid out the hard-earned savings of the week in hiring a horse and livery-servant to ride behind him to Stockport every Sunday, and to dine there at an ordinary like a gentleman. The pains bestowed upon the main-chance here was only a cover for another object, which exercised a ridiculous predominance over his mind. Money will purchase a horse, a house, a picture, leisure, dissipation, or whatever the individual has a fancy for that is to be purchased; but it does not follow that he is fond of all these, or of whatever will promote his real interest, because he is fond of money, but that he has a passion for some one of these objects, to which he would probably sacrifice all the rest, and his own peace and happiness into the bargain.
4. The main-chance is an instrument of various passions, but is directly opposed to none of them, with the single exception of indolence or the vis inertiœ, which of itself is seldom strong enough to master it, without the aid of some other incitement. A barrister sticks to his duty as long as he has only his love of ease to prevent; but he flings up his briefs, or neglects them, if he thinks he can make a figure in Parliament. No one flings away the main-chance without a motive, any more than he voluntaily walks into the fire or breaks his neck out of a window. A man must live; the first step is a point of necessity:- every man would live well; the second is a point of luxury. The having, or even acquiring wealth, does not prevent our enjoying it in various ways. A man may give his mornings to business, and his evenings to pleasure. There is no contradiction; nor does he sacrifice his ruling passion by this, more than the man of letters by study, or the soldier by an attention to discipline. Reason and passion are opposed, not passion and business. The sot, the glutton, the debauchee, the gamester, must all have money, to make their own use of it, and they may indulge all these passions and their avarice at the same time. It is only when the last becomes the ruling passion that it puts a prohibition on the others. In that case, everything else is lost sight of; but it is seldom carried to this length; or when it is, it is far from being another name, either in its means or ends, for reason, sense, or happiness, as I have already shown.
I have taken no notice hitherto of ambition or virtue, or scarcely of the pursuits of fame or intellect. Yet all these are important and respectable divisions of the map of human life. Who ever charged Mr Pitt with a want of common sense, because he did not die worth a plum? Had it been proposed to Lord Byron to forfeit every penny of his estate, or every particle of his reputation, would he have hesitated to part with the former? Is there not a loss of character, a stain upon honour, that is felt as a severer blow than any reverse of fortune? Do not the richest heiresses in the city marry for a title, and think themselves well off? Are there not patriots who think or dream all their lives about their country's good; philanthropists who rave about liberty and humanity at a certain yearly loss? Are there not studious men, who never once thought of bettering their circumstances? Are not the liberal professions held more respectable than business, though less lucrative? Might not
[p. 174] | [Page Image]most people do better than they do, but that they postpone their interest to their indolence, their taste for reading, their love of pleasure, or other pursuits? And is it not generally understood that all men can make a fortune, or succeed in the main- chance, who have but that one idea in their heads?[note] Lastly, are there not those who pursue or husband wealth for their own good, for the benefit of their friends, or the relief of the distressed? But as the examples are rare, and might be supposed to make against myself, I shall not insist upon them. I think I have said enough to vindicate or apologise for my first position -
Masterless passion sways us to the mood
Of what it likes or loaths - [note]
or if not to make good my ground, to march out with flying colours and beat of drum!