Our tempers are merely the work of the transcriber. We are angry, where we saw that others were angry; and we are pleased, because it is the tone to be pleased. We pretend to have each of us a judgment of our own: but in truth we wait with the most patient docility, till he whom we regard as the leader of the chorus gives us the signal, here you are to applaud, and here you are to condemn.
The most calamitous and the most stupendous scenes are nothing but an eternal and wearisome repetition: executions, murders, plagues, famine and battle. Military executions, the demolition of cities, the conquest of nations, have been acted a hundred times before.
The greater part of the life of the mightiest genius that ever existed is spent in doing nothing, and saying nothing.
This brings us back to the question: "Is there indeed nothing new under the sun?" …..
Most certainly there is something that is new. If, as the beast dies, so died man, then indeed we should be without hope. But it is his distinguishing faculty that he can leave something behind, to testify that he has lived. And this is not only true of the pyramids of Egypt, and certain other works of human industry, that time seems to have no force to destroy.
It is the characteristic of the mind and the heart of man, that they are progressive.
The saying, that "there is nothing new under the sun," could never have been struck out, but in one of the two extreme states of man, by the naked savage, or by the highly civilized beings among whom the perfection of refinement has produced an artificial feeling of uniformity.
We have been taught to affirm, that we can have no express and pure regard for our fellow-creatures, but that all our benevolence and affection come to us through the strainers of a gross or a refined self-love. The coarser adherents of this doctrine maintain, that mankind are in all cases guided by views of the narrowest self-interest, and that those who advance the highest claims to philanthropy, patriotism, generosity and self-sacrifice, are all the time deceiving others, or deceiving themselves, and use a plausible and high-sounding language merely, that serves no other purpose than to veil from observation "that hideous sight, a naked human heart."
There are two circumstances required, to entitle an action to be denominated virtuous. It must have a tendency to produce good rather than evil to the race of man, and it must have been generated by an intention to produce such good. The most beneficent action that ever was performed, if it did not spring from the intention of good to others, is not of the nature of virtue. Virtue, where it exists in any eminence, is a species of conduct, modeled upon a true estimate of the good intended to be produced. He that makes a false estimate, and prefers a trivial and partial good to an important and comprehensive one, is vicious.
One man chooses travelling, another ambition, a third study, a fourth voluptuousness and a mistress. Why do these men take so different courses?
Because one is partial to new scenes, new buildings, new manners, and the study of character. Because a second is attracted by the contemplation of wealth and power. Because a third feels a decided preference for the works of Homer, or Shakespeare, or Bacon, or Euclid. Because a fourth finds nothing calculated to stir his mind in comparison with female beauty, female allurements, or expensive living.
Each of these finds the qualities he likes, intrinsically in the thing he chooses. One man feels himself strongly moved, and raised to ecstasy, by the beauties of nature, or the magnificence of architecture. Another is ravished with the divine excellencies of Homer, or of some other of the heroes of literature. A third finds nothing delights him so much as the happiness of others, the beholding that happiness increased, and seeing pain and oppression and sorrow put to flight. The cause of these differences is, that each man has an individual internal structure, directing his partialities, one man to one thing, and another to another.
The principal circumstance that divides our feelings for others from our feelings for ourselves, and that gives, to satirical observers, and superficial thinkers, an air of exclusive selfishness to the human mind, lies in this, that we can fly from others, but cannot fly from ourselves. While I am sitting by the bed-side of the sufferer, while I am listening to the tale of his woes, there is comparatively but a slight line of demarcation, whether they are his sorrows or my own. My sympathy is vehemently excited towards him, and I feel his twinges and anguish in a most painful degree. But I can quit his apartment and the house, in which he dwells, can go out in the fields, and feel the fresh air of heaven fanning my hair, and playing upon my cheeks. This is at first but a very imperfect relief. His image follows me; I cannot forget what I have heard and seen; I even reproach myself for the mitigation I involuntarily experience. But man is the creature of his senses. I am every moment further removed, both in time and place, from the object that distressed me. There he still lies upon the bed of agony: but the sound of his complaint, and the sight of all that expresses his suffering, are no longer before me. A short experience of human life convinces us that we have this remedy always at hand "I am unhappy, only while I please"; and we soon come therefore to anticipate the cure, and so, even while we are in the presence of the sufferer, to feel that he and ourselves are not perfectly one.
But with our own distempers and adversities it is altogether different. It is this that barbs the arrow. We may change the place of our local existence; but we cannot go away from ourselves. With chariots, and embarking ourselves on board of ships, we may seek to escape from the enemy. But grief and apprehension enter the vessel along with us; and, when we mount on horseback, the discontent that especially annoyed us, gets up behind, and cling to our sides with a hold never to be loosened.
Is it then indeed a proof of selfishness, that we are in a greater or less degree relieved from the anguish we endured for our friend, when other objects occupy us, and we are no longer the witnesses of his sufferings? If this were true, the same argument would irresistibly prove that we are the most generous of imaginable beings, the most disregardful of whatever relates to ourselves.
The most snail-blooded man that exists is not so selfish as he pretends to be. In spite of all the indifference he professes towards the good of others, he will sometimes be detected in a very heretical state of sensibility towards his wife, his child or his friend; he will shed tears at a tale of distress, and make considerable sacrifices of his own gratification for the relief of others.
On the other hand, the man who has embraced the creed of disinterested benevolence, will know that it is not his fitting element to "live for himself, or to die for himself." Whether he is under the dominion of family-affection, friendship, patriotism, or a zeal for his brethren of mankind, he will feel that he is at home.
(Adapted from THOUGHTS ON MAN, HIS NATURE, PRODUCTIONS AND DISCOVERIES by WILLIAM GODWIN at Anarchy Archives)