Self-Help: With Illustrations of Character and Conduct

Samuel Smiles
Smiles, Samuel
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First Pub. Date
Boston: Ticknor and Fields
Pub. Date
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Chapter XI


"Is there one whom difficulties dishearten,—who bends to the storm? He will do little. Is there one who will conquer? That kind of man never fails."—John Hunter.

"C'est des difficultes qui naissent les miracles."—Bruyère.


THIS is an age preëminently distinguished for the facilities which it affords for human intercourse and the spread of knowledge. In travelling, telegraphing, printing, and postal communications, it surpasses every other. Tons upon tons of machine-made paper are constantly being converted into machine-printed books and machine-printed newspapers, which are spread abroad at a marvellously low price; and as we look on, we are accustomed to congratulate ourselves upon the marvellous "progress of the age." If machinery and horse-power of steam could accomplish this, our progress were indeed rapid. But it still remains to be seen whether the vast amount of printed matter in circulation is calculated to produce wiser and better men, actuated by higher and more beneficent principles of action, than existed in England in times comparatively remote, in which books were far rarer but much more highly prized,—such times, for instance, as those for which Shakspeare, Milton, Bacon, and Jeremy Taylor wrote. It will, perhaps, be acknowledged that, though the multiplication of books and newspapers by means of steam-engines and printing machines is accompanied by unquestionable advantages, the facilities thereby afforded for the spread of knowledge are not altogether an unmixed good. It doubtless furnishes unprecedented facilities for learning many things easily and without effort; but at the same time it probably tends rather towards superficialism than depth or vigor of thinking; for while readers are tempted by the multitude of books to skim many subjects, they may thereby be so distracted by the variety, as to be induced to bottom none of them thoroughly.


With all the facilities which exist for independent self-culture, it is even suspected that our life, like our literature, is becoming more mechanical. Large and increasing numbers of persons in our manufacturing districts occupy the chief part of their waking hours from day to day in watching machines spinning or winding threads, the tendency being to produce a sort of mechanical human beings almost as devoid of individuality of character as the machines they watch. This is one of the defects of modern civilization, daily operating upon large classes of the people, which, in these days, is perhaps too little regarded. While we have been perfecting our mechanisms, we have sometimes forgotten that the finest of all raw material is to be found in Men; and we have not yet done our utmost—indeed we have done comparatively little—to work up and improve that. Speaking of our division of labor processes, Mr. Ruskin has said, "It is not, truly speaking, the labor that is divided, but the men,—divided into mere segments of men,—broken into small fragments and crumbs of life, so that all the little piece of intelligence that is left in a man is not enough to make a pin, or a nail, but exhausts itself in making the point of a pin, or the head of a nail. Now it is a good and desirable thing, truly, to make many pins in a day; but if we could only see with what crystal sand their points were polished, sand of human soul, much to be magnified before it can be discerned for what it is, we should think there would be some loss in it also. And the great cry that rises from all our manufacturing cities, louder than their furnace blast, is all in very deed for this, that we manufacture everything there except men; we blanch cotton, and strengthen steel, and refine sugar, and shape pottery; but to brighten, to strengthen, to refine, or to form a single living spirit, never enters into our estimate of advantages."


The popular remedies proposed for existing social and political evils have also a strong mechanical tendency. There is a moral philosophy which proposes to measure our heads with callipers, and then cast up our propensities, moral sentiments, and intellectual faculties, like a sum in addition; thus determining the line of life we are to lead, or the moral hospital we are to be sent to. There are social reformers, who will have us established in parallelograms, and ripened into men by abnegation of all the hopes, struggles, and difficulties, by which men are made. We have logarithms ground out of a box, and calculations manufactured by merely turning a handle, over which men formerly educated their faculties by studying for months. And there are plans afloat for rescuing us from political infamy by the adoption of sundry arithmetical and mechanical expedients, the discussion of which need not here be entered on.


The improved mechanism in our schools also promises to become so perfect that we may, before long, be almost as highly educated as the Chinese, and with quite as impotent a result. The process of filling the memory with facts and formulas got by rote is rapidly extending; but the practice of independent thinking in any but the beaten tracks is not only not taught, but is often carefully prevented. But the facility with which young people are thus made to acquire knowledge, though it may be cramming, is not education. It fills, but does not fructify the mind. It imparts a stimulus for the time, and produces a sort of intellectual keenness and cleverness; but, without an implanted purpose and a higher object than mere knowledge, it will bring with it no solid advantage. The rapidity with which young people now get at a knowledge of many things tends to make them easily satisfied, and they often become blasé at an early age. They may have read many books, and gone through many branches of knowledge, but a lamentable indifference possesses them: their souls, without compass, without anchorage, are blown about by all winds; they may understand, but there is little active belief; their minds merely receive ideas with the passiveness of a mirror, and the impressions made are scarcely more permanent. Such persons are determined to no acts, have no desire to form convictions, arrive at no conclusions, and their will seems to be suspended, asleep, diseased, or dead. Knowledge, in cases of this sort, gives but a passing pleasure; a sensation, but no more; it is, in fact, the merest epicurism of intelligence—sensuous, but certainly not intellectual. The best part of such natures, that which is developed by vigorous effort and independent action, sleeps a deep sleep, and is often never called to life, except by the rough awakening of sudden calamity or suffering, which, in such cases, comes as a blessing, if it serves to rouse up a courageous spirit which, but for it, would have slumbered on.


Growing out of the facilities for reading which exist now-a-days, there is also to be observed a sort of mania for "making things pleasant" on the road to knowledge; and hence amusement and excitement are among the most popular methods employed to inculcate knowledge and inspire a taste for reading. Our books and periodicals must be highly spiced, amusing, and interesting. We have already had comic grammars and histories, and we may yet possibly reach the heights of a Comic Euclid and a Comic Prayer-book. Solid subjects are eschewed; and books demanding application and study lie upon bookshelves unread. Douglas Jerrold, in one of his graver moods, once observed of this tendency: "I am convinced the world will get tired (at least I hope so) of this eternal guffaw about all things. After all, life has something serious in it. It cannot be all a comic history of humanity. Some men would, I believe, write a Comic Sermon on the Mount. Think of a Comic History of England, the drollery of Alfred, the fun of Sir Thomas More, the farce of his daughter begging the dead head and clasping it in her coffin on her bosom. Surely the world will be sick of this blasphemy." Dr. Arnold, speaking of the same evil, once observed:—"Childishness, in boys even of good abilities, seems to me to be a growing fault, and I do not know to what to ascribe it, except to the greater number of exciting books of amusement. These completely satisfy all the intellectual appetites of a boy, which is rarely very voracious, and leave him totally palled, not only for his regular work, which I could well excuse in comparison, but for good literature of all sorts, even for history and poetry." John Sterling also, in a like spirit, said:—"Periodicals and novels are to all in this generation, but more especially to those whose minds are still unformed and in the process of formation, a new and more effectual substitute for the plagues of Egypt, vermin that corrupt the wholesome waters, and infest our chambers."


Accustomed to acquire information under the guise of amusement, young people will soon reject that which is presented to them under the aspect of study and labor. Learning their knowledge and science in sport, they will become apt to make sport of both; whilst the habit of intellectual dissipation, thus engendered, cannot fail, in course of time, to produce a thoroughly emasculating effect both upon their mind and character. The Novel is the most favorite refuge of the frivolous and the idle. As a rest from toil, and a relaxation from graver pursuits, the perusal of a well-written story, by a writer of genius, is a high intellectual pleasure; and it is a description of literature to which all classes of readers, old and young, are attracted as by a powerful instinct; nor would we have any of them debarred from its enjoyment in a reasonable degree. But to make it the exclusive literary diet, as some do,—to devour the garbage with which the shelves of circulating libraries are crowded,—and to occupy the greater portion of the leisure hours in studying the preposterous pictures of human life which so many of them present, is worse than waste of time,—it is positively pernicious. The habitual novel-reader indulges in fictitious feelings so much, that there is great risk of sound and healthy feeling becoming perverted or destroyed. For, the literary pity evoked by fiction leads to no corresponding action; the susceptibilities which it excites involve no inconvenience nor self-sacrifice; so that the heart that is touched too often by the fiction may at length become insensible to the reality The steel is gradually rubbed out of the character, and it insensibly loses its vital spring. As Nero was partial only to the mildest strains of music, so Robespierre's delight was to read stories only of love and endearment, displaying in his life what Montaigne calls "opinions super-célestes et mœurs souterreines." "Drawing fine pictures of virtue in one's mind," said Bishop Butler, "is so far from necessarily or certainly conducive to form a habitof it in him who thus employs himself, that it may even harden the mind in a contrary course, and render it gradually more insensible."


Amusement in moderation is wholesome, and to be commended; but amusement in excess vitiates the whole nature, and is a thing to be carefully guarded against. The maxim is often quoted of "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy;" but all play and no work makes him something greatly worse. Nothing can be more hurtful to a youth than to have his soul sodden with pleasure. The best qualities of his mind are thus frittered away; common enjoyments become tasteless; his appetite for the highest kind of pleasures is satiated and exhausted; and when he comes to face the work and the duties of life, the result is often only aversion and disgust. As the child turns from its heap of broken toys, so the blasé youth turns from his withered pleasures; and if frivolity have become his habit, he will find that the very capacity for enjoyment has been destroyed within him. "Fast men" soon waste and exhaust the powers of life, and dry up the very sources of true happiness. They have forestalled their spring, and can produce no healthy growth of either character or intellect. A child without simplicity, a maiden without innocence, a boy without truthfulness, are not more piteous sights than the man who has wasted and thrown away his youth in pleasure. It is amongst such persons especially, whose youth has been sullied by premature enjoyments, that we find that prevalence of skepticism. sneering, and egotism, which prove a soured nature. Having abused the sources of life, and thrown away their youth, they are tempted in their despair to throw their manhood after it. Injury of this kind, inflicted on the character, is most difficult to be repaired; for the habits formed in youth bind the man as in chains of adamant. "On ne jette point l'ancre dans le fleuve de la vie," is the happy phrase of an old French writer, in describing that continuity of life in all its parts which inseparably links youth and manhood, and makes the habits of the one more or less the interpreter of the other. So when Lord Bacon says, "Strength of nature in youth passeth over many excesses which are owing a man until he is old," he expresses a physical as well as a moral fact, which cannot be too well weighed in the conduct of early life. What are called wild oats, when sown, very often prove tares in the reaping. Youthful indiscretions soon "find a man out." But the worst of them is, not that they destroy health, so much as that they sully manhood. The dissipated youth becomes a tainted man; and often he cannot be pure, even if he would. If cure there be, it is only to be found in inoculating the mind with a fervent spirit of duty, and in energetic application to useful work.


One of the most gifted of Frenchmen, in point of great intellectual endowments, was Benjamin Constant; but, blasé at twenty, his life was only a prolonged wail, instead of a harvest of the great deeds which he was capable of accomplishing with ordinary diligence and self-control. He resolved upon doing so many things, which he never did, that people came to speak of him as Constant the Inconstant. He was a fluent and brilliant writer, and he cherished the ambition of writing many works "which the world would not willingly let die." But whilst Constant affected the highest thinking, unhappily he practised the lowest living; nor did the lofty transcendentalism of his books by any means palliate the acted meannesses of his life. He daily frequented the gaming-tables while engaged in preparing his work upon religion, and carried on a disreputable intrigue while writing his "Adolphe." With all his vast powers of intellect, he was powerless, because he had no faith in virtue. "Bah!" said he, "what are honor and dignity? The longer I live, the more clearly I see there is nothing in them." It was the howl of a miserable man. He described himself as but "ashes and dust." "I pass," said he, "like a shadow over the earth, accompanied by misery and ennui." He wished for Voltaire's energy, which he would rather have possessed than his genius. But he had no strength of purpose,—nothing but wishes; his life, prematurely exhausted, had become but a heap of broken links. He spoke of himself as a person with one foot in the air. He admitted that he had no principles, and no moral consistency. Hence, with his splendid talents, he contrived to do nothing; and, after living for many years miserable, he died worn out and wretched.


The career of Augustin Thierry, the author of the "History of the Norman Conquest," affords an admirable contrast to that of Constant. His entire life presented a striking example of perseverance, diligence, self-culture, and untiring devotion to knowledge. In the pursuit he lost his eyesight, lost his health, but never lost his love of truth. When so feeble that he was carried from room to room, like a helpless infant, in the arms of a nurse, his brave spirit never failed him; and blind and helpless though he was, he concluded his literary career in the following noble words: "If, as I think, the interest of science is counted in the number of great national interests, I have given my country all that the soldier, mutilated on the field of battle, gives her. Whatever may be the fate of my labors, this example, I hope, will not be lost. I would wish it to serve to combat the species of moral weakness which is the disease of our present generation; to bring back into the straight road of life some of those enervated souls that complain of wanting faith, that know not what to do, and seek everywhere, without finding it, an object of worship and admiration. Why say, with so much bitterness, that in the world, constituted as it is, there is no air for all lungs,—no employment for all minds? Is not calm and serious study there? and is not that a refuge, a hope, a field within the reach of all of us? With it, evil days are passed over without their weight being felt; every one can make his own destiny,—every one employ his life nobly. This is what I have done, and would do again if I had to recommence my career; I would choose that which has brought me where I am. Blind, and suffering without hope, and almost without intermission, I may give this testimony, which from me will not appear suspicious. There is something in the world better than sensual enjoyments, better than fortune, better than health itself,—it is devotion to knowledge."


Coleridge, in many respects, resembled Constant. He possessed equally brilliant powers, but was similarly infirm of purpose. With all his great intellectual gifts, he wanted the gift of industry, and had no liking for steady work. He wanted also the sense of manly independence, and thought it no degradation to leave his wife and children to be maintained by the brain-work of the noble Southey, while he himself retired to Highgate Grove to discourse transcendentalism to his disciples, looking down contemptuously upon the honest work going forward beneath him amidst the din and smoke of London. With remunerative and honorable employment at his command, he preferred stooping to accept the charity of friends; and with the loftiest ideas of philosophy, he yet condescended to humiliations in his life from which many a day-laborer would have shrunk. How different in spirit was Southey! always an indefatigable worker; laboring not merely at works of his own choice, and at taskwork often tedious and distasteful, but also unremittingly and with the utmost eagerness seeking and storing knowledge purely for the love of it. Every day, every hour had its allotted employment: engagements to publishers requiring punctual fulfilment; the current expenses of a large household (at one time including Coleridge's wife and children) duly to provide for; Southey had no crop growing while his pen was idle. "My ways," he used to say, "are as broad as the king's high-road, and my means lie in an inkstand."


Robert Nicoll wrote to a friend, after reading the "Recollections of Coleridge," "What a mighty intellect was lost in that man for want of a little energy,—a little determination." Nicoll himself was a true and brave spirit, cut off in his youth, but not before he had encountered and overcome great difficulties in life. At his outset, while carrying on a small business as a book-seller, he found himself weighed down with a debt of only twenty pounds, which he said he felt "weighing like a mill-stone round his neck," and that "if he had it paid he never would borrow again from mortal man." Writing to his mother at the time he said, "Fear not for me, dear mother; for I feel myself daily growing firmer and more hopeful in spirit. The more I think and reflect,—and thinking, not reading, is now my occupation,—I feel that, whether I be growing richer or not, I am growing a wiser man, which is far better. Pain, poverty, and all the other wild beasts of life which so affrighten others, I am so bold as to think I could look in the face without shrinking, without losing respect for myself, faith in man's high destinies, or trust in God. There is a point which it costs much mental toil and struggling to gain, but which, when once gained, a man can look down from, as a traveller from a lofty mountain, on storms raging below, while he is walking in sunshine. That I have yet gained this point in life I will not say, but I feel myself daily nearer to it."


It is not case, but effort,—not facility, but difficulty, that makes men. There is, perhaps, no station in life, in which difficulties have not to be encountered and overcome before any decided measure of success can be achieved. Those difficulties are, however, our best instructors, as our mistakes often form our best experience. Charles James Fox was accustomed to say that he hoped more from a man who failed, and yet went on in spite of his failure, than from the buoyant career of the successful. "It is all very well," said he, "to tell me that a young man has distinguished himself by a brilliant first speech. He may go on, or he may be satisfied with his first triumph; but show me a young man who has not succeeded at first, and nevertheless has gone on, and I will back that young man to do better than most of those who have succeeded at the first trial."


We learn wisdom from failure much more than from success; we often discover what will do, by finding out what will not do; and probably he who never made a mistake, never made a discovery. Horne Tooke used to say of his studies in intellectual philosophy, that he had become all the better acquainted with the country, through having had the good-luck sometimes to lose his way. And a distinguished investigator in physical science has left it on record that, whenever in the course of his researches he encountered an apparently insuperable obstacle, he generally found himself on the brink of some novel discovery. The very greatest things,—great thoughts, discoveries, inventions,—have generally been nurtured in hardship, often pondered over in sorrow, and at length established with difficulty.


Beethoven said of Rossini, that he had in him the stuff to have made a good musician, if he had only, when a boy, been well flogged; but that he had been spoilt by the facility with which he produced. Men who feel their strength within them need not fear to encounter adverse opinions; they have far greater reason to fear undue praise and too friendly criticism. When Mendelssohn was about to enter the orchestra at Birmingham, on the first performance of his "Elijah," he said laughingly to one of his friends and critics, "Stick your claws into me! Don't tell me what you like, but what you don't like!"*18


It has been said, and truly, that it is the defeat that tries the general more than the victory. Washington lost far more battles than he gained; but he succeeded in the end. The Romans, in their most victorious campaigns, almost invariably began with defeats. Moreau used to be compared by his companions to a drum, which nobody hears of except it be beaten. Wellington's military genius was perfected by encounter with difficulties of apparently the most overwhelming character, but which only served to nerve his resolution, and bring out more prominently his great qualities as a man and a general. So the skilful mariner obtains his best experience amidst storms and tempests, which train him to self-reliance, courage, and the highest discipline; and we probably owe to rough seas and wintry nights, the best training of our race of British seamen, who are certainly not surpassed by any in the world.


Necessity may be a hard schoolmistress; but she is generally found the best. Though the ordeal of adversity is one from which we naturally shrink, yet, when it comes, we must bravely and manfully encounter it. Burns truly says,

"Though losses and crosses
  Be lessons right severe,
There's wit there, you'll get there,
  You'll find no other where."


"Sweet indeed are the uses of adversity." They reveal to us our powers, and call forth our energies. If there be real worth in the character, like sweet herbs, it will give forth its finest fragrance when pressed. "Crosses," says the old proverb, "are the ladders that lead to heaven." "What is even poverty itself," asks Richter, "that a man should murmur under it? It is but as the pain of piercing a maiden's ear, and you hang precious jewels in the wound." In the experience of life it is found that the wholesome discipline of adversity in strong natures usually carries with it a self-preserving influence. Many are found capable of bravely bearing up under privations, and cheerfully encountering obstructions, who are afterwards found unable to withstand the more dangerous influences of prosperity. It is only a weak man whom the wind deprives of his cloak: a man of average strength is more in danger of losing it when assailed by the beams of a too genial sun. Thus it often needs a higher discipline and a stronger character to bear up under good fortune than under adverse. Some generous natures kindle and warm with prosperity, but there are many on whom wealth has no such influence. Base hearts it only hardens, making those who were mean and servile, mean and proud. But while prosperity is apt to harden the heart to pride, adversity in a man of resolution will only serve to ripen it to fortitude. Too much facility, ease, and prosperity is not good for a man; removing that wholesome stimulus to exertion, which is so essential to sound discipline. On the contrary, to use the words of Burke, "Difficulty is a severe instructor, set over us by the supreme ordinance of a parental guardian and instructor, who knows us better than we know ourselves, as He loves us better too. He that wrestles with us strengthens our nerves, and sharpens our skill; our antagonist is thus our helper." Without the necessity of encountering difficulty, life might be easier, but men would be worth less. For trials, wisely improved, train the character, and teach self-help; thus hardship itself may often prove the wholesomest discipline for us, though we recognize it not. When the gallant young Hodson, unjustly removed from his Indian command, felt himself sore pressed down by unmerited calumny and reproach, he yet preserved the courage to say to a friend, "I strive to look the worst boldly in the face, as I would an enemy in the field, and to do my appointed work resolutely and to the best of my ability, satisfied that there is a reason for all; and that even irksome duties well done bring their own reward, and that, if not, still they are duties."


The battle of life, in by far the greater number of cases, must necessarily be fought up-hill; and to win it without a struggle were perhaps to win it without honor. If there were no difficulties, there would be no success; if there were nothing to struggle for, there would be nothing to be achieved. Difficulties may intimidate the weak, but they act only as a wholesome stimulus to men of pluck and resolution. All experience of life indeed serves to prove that the impediments thrown in the way of human advancement may for the most part be overcome by steady good conduct, honest zeal, activity, perseverance, and above all by a determined resolution to surmount difficulties, and stand up manfully against misfortune.


The school of Difficulty is the best school of moral discipline, for nations as for individuals. Indeed, the history of difficulty would be but a history of all the great and good things that have yet been accomplished by men. It is hard to say how much northern nations owe to their encounter with a comparatively rude and changeable climate and an originally sterile soil, which is one of the necessities of their condition,—involving a perennial struggle with difficulties such as the natives of sunnier climes know nothing of. And thus it may be, that though our finest products are exotic, the skill and industry which have been necessary to rear them, have issued in the production of a native growth of men not surpassed on the globe.


Wherever there is difficulty, the individual man must come out for better for worse. Encounter with it will train his strength, and discipline his skill; heartening him for future effort, as the racer, by being trained to run against the hill, at length courses with facility. The road to success may be steep to climb, but it puts to the proof the energies of him who would reach the summit. By experience a man soon learns how obstacles are to be overcome by grappling with them,—how soft as silk the nettle becomes when it is boldly grasped,—and how powerful a principle of realizing the object proposed, is the moral conviction that we can and will accomplish it. Thus difficulties often fall away of themselves, before the determination to overcome them. In nine cases out of ten, if marched boldly up to they will flee away. Like thieves, they often disappear at a glance. What looked like insuperable obstacles, like some great mountain chain in our way, frowning danger and trial, are found to become practicable when approached, and paths formerly unseen, though they may be narrow and difficult, open a way for us through the hills.


Much will be done if we do but try. Nobody knows what he can do till he has tried; and few try their best till they have been forced to do it. "If I could do such and such a thing," sighs the desponding youth. But he will never do, if he only wishes. The desire must ripen into purpose and effort; and one energetic attempt is worth a thousand aspirations. Purposes, like eggs, unless they be hatched into action, will run into rottenness. It is these thorny "ifs,"—the mutterings of impotence and despair,—which so often hedge round the field of possibility, and prevent anything being done or even attempted. "A difficulty," said Lord Lyndhurst, "is a thing to be overcome;" grapple with it at once; facility will come with practice, and strength and fortitude with repeated effort. Thus the mind and character may be trained to an almost perfect discipline, enabling it to move with a grace, spirit, and liberty, almost incomprehensible to those who have not passed through a similar experience.


Everything that we learn is the mastery of a difficulty; and the mastery of one helps us to the mastery of others. Things which may at first sight appear comparatively valueless in education,—such as the study of the dead languages, and the relations of lines and surfaces which we call mathematics,—are really of the greatest practical value, not so much because of the information which they yield, as because of the development which they compel. The mastery of these studies evokes effort, and cultivates powers of application, which otherwise might have lain dormant. Thus one thing leads to another, and so the work goes on through life,—encounter with difficulty ending only where life or progress ends. But indulging in the feeling of discouragement never helped any one over a difficulty, and never will. D'Alembert's advice to the student who complained to him about his want of success in mastering the first elements of mathematics was the right one—"Go on, sir, and faith and strength will come to you."


Nothing is easy, but was difficult at first,—not even so simple an act as walking. The danseuse, who turns a pirouette, the violinist who plays a sonata, have acquired their dexterity by patient repetition and after many failures. Carissimi, when praised for the ease and grace of his melodies, exclaimed, "Ah! you little know with what difficulty this case has been acquired." Sir Joshua Reynolds, when once asked how long it had taken him to paint a certain picture, replied, "All my life." The orator, who pours his flashing thoughts with such apparent ease upon the minds of his hearers, achieves his wonderful power only by means of patient and persevering labor, after much repetition, and, like Disraeli, often after bitter disappointments. Henry Clay, the American orator, when giving advice to young men, thus described to them the secret of his success in the cultivation of his art: "I owe my success in life," said he, "chiefly to one circumstance,—that at the age of twenty-seven I commenced, and continued for years, the process of daily reading and speaking upon the contents of some historical or scientific book. These off-hand efforts were made, sometimes in a cornfield, at others in the forest, and not unfrequently in some distant barn, with the horse and the ox for my auditors. It is to this early practice of the art of all arts that I am indebted for the primary and leading impulses that stimulated me onward, and have shaped and moulded my whole subsequent destiny."


Curran, the Irish orator, when a youth, had a strong defect in his articulation, and at school he was known as "stuttering Jack Curran." While he was engaged in the study of the law, and still struggling to overcome his defect, he was stung into eloquence by the sarcasms of a member of a debating club, who characterized him as "Orator Mum;" for, like Cowper, when he stood up to speak, Curran had not on a previous occasion been able to utter a word. But the taunt raised his pluck; and he replied with a triumphant speech. This accidental discovery in himself of the gift of eloquence, encouraged him to proceed in his studies with additional energy and vigor. He corrected his enunciation by reading aloud, emphatically and distinctly, the best passages in our literature, for several hours every day, studying his features before a mirror, and adopting a method of gesticulation suited to his rather awkward and ungraceful figure. He also proposed cases to himself, which he detailed with as much care as if he had been addressing a jury. Curran commenced business with the qualification which Lord Eldon stated to be the first requisite for distinction as a barrister, that is, "to be not worth a shilling." We need not say how Curran's perseverance, energy, and genius, eventually succeeded. When working his way laboriously and painfully at the bar, still oppressed by the diffidence which had overcome him in his debating club, he was on one occasion stung by the Judge (Robinson) into the following masterly retort. In a case under discussion, Mr. Curran observed "that he had never met the law as laid down by his lordship in any book in his library." "That may be, sir," said the judge, in a contemptuous tone, "but I suspect that your library is very small." His lordship was notoriously a furious political partisan, the author of several anonymous pamphlets characterized by unusual violence and dogmatism. Curran, roused by this allusion to his straitened circumstances, replied thus: "It is very true, my lord, that I am poor, and the circumstance has certainly curtailed my library; my books are not numerous, but they are select, and I hope they have been perused with proper dispositions. I have prepared myself for this high profession by the study of a few good works, rather than by the composition of a great many bad ones. I am not ashamed of my poverty; but I should be ashamed of my wealth, could I have stooped to acquire it by servility and corruption. If I rise not to rank, I shall at least be honest; and should I ever cease to be so, many an example shows me that an ill-gained elevation, by making me the more conspicuous, would only make me the more universally and the more notoriously contemptible."


The most highly educated men are those who have been the most resolute in their encounter with difficulties. The extremest poverty has been no obstacle in the way of men devoted to the duty of self-culture. Professor Alexander Murray, the linguist, learned to write by scribbling his letters on an old wool-card with the end of a burnt heather stem. The only book which his father, who was a poor shepherd, possessed, was a penny Shorter Catechism; but that, being thought too valuable for common use, was carefully preserved in a cupboard for the Sunday catechisings. Professor Moor, when a young man, being too poor to purchase Newton's "Principia," borrowed the book, and copied the whole of it with his own hand. Many poor students, while laboring daily for their living, have only been able to snatch an atom of knowledge here and there at intervals, as birds do their food in winter time when the fields are covered with snow. They have struggled on, and faith and hope have come to them. A well-known author and publisher, William Chambers, of Edinburgh, speaking before an assemblage of young men in that city, thus briefly described to them his humble beginnings, for their encouragement: "I stand before you," he said, "a self-educated man. My education was that which is supplied at the humble parish schools of Scotland; and it was only when I went to Edinburgh, a poor boy, that I devoted my evenings, after the labors of the day, to the cultivation of that intellect which the Almighty has given me. From seven or eight in the morning till nine or ten at night, was I at my business as a book-seller's apprentice, and it was only during hours after these, stolen from sleep, that I could devote myself to study. I assure you that I did not read novels; my attention was devoted to physical science, and other useful matters. During that period, I taught myself French. I look back to those times with great pleasure, and am almost sorry I have not to go through the same troubles again. I reaped more pleasure when I had not a sixpence in my pocket, studying in a garret in Edinburgh, than I now find when sitting amidst all the elegances and comforts of a parlor."


William Cobbett has himself told the interesting story of how he learned English Grammar, and, as a curious illustration of that brave man's pluck in grappling with a difficulty, we cannot do better than quote it here. "I learned grammar," he said, "when I was a private soldier on the pay of sixpence a day. The edge of my berth, or that of my guard-bed, was my seat to study in; my knapsack was my bookcase; a bit of board lying on my lap was my writing-table; and the task did not demand anything like a year of my life. I had no money to purchase candle or oil; in winter time it was rarely that I could get any evening light but that of the fire, and only my turn even of that. And if I, under such circumstances, and without parent or friend to advise or encourage me, accomplished this undertaking, what excuse can there be for any youth, however poor, however pressed with business, or however circumstanced as to room or other conveniences? To buy a pen or a sheet of paper I was compelled to forego some portion of food, though in a state of half-starvation; I had no moment of time that I could call my own; and I had to read and to write amidst the talking, laughing, singing, whistling, and brawling of at least half a score of the most thoughtless of men, and that, too, in the hours of their freedom from all control. Think not lightly of the farthing that I had to give, now and then, for ink, pen, or paper! That farthing was, alas! a great sum to me! I was as tall as I am now; I had great health and great exercise. The whole of the money, not expended for us at market, was twopence a week for each man. I remember, and well I may! that on one occasion I, after all necessary expenses, had, on a Friday, made shifts to have a half-penny in reserve, which I had destined for the purchase of a red-herring in the morning; but, when I pulled off my clothes at night, so hungry then as to be hardly able to endure life, I found that I had lost my half-penny! I buried my head under the miserable sheet and rug, and cried like a child! And again I say, if I, under circumstances like these, could encounter and overcome this task, is there, can there be, in the whole world, a youth to find an excuse for the non-performance?"


A very different man was Sir Samuel Romilly, but not less indefatigable as a diligent self-cultivator. He was the son of a jeweller, descended from a French refugee; he received little education in his early years, but overcame all his disadvantages by unwearied application, and by efforts constantly directed towards the same end. "I determined," he says, in his autobiography, "when I was between fifteen and sixteen years of age, to apply myself seriously to learning Latin, of which I, at that time, knew little more than some of the most familiar rules of grammar. In the course of three or four years, during which I thus applied myself, I had read almost every prose writer of the age of pure Latinity, except those who have treated merely of technical subjects, such as Varro, Columella, and Celsus. I had gone three times through the whole of Livy, Sallust, and Tacitus. I had studied the most celebrated orations of Cicero, and translated a great deal of Homer. Terence, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, and Juvenal, I had read over and over again." He also studied geography, natural history, and natural philosophy, and obtained a considerable acquaintance with general knowledge. At sixteen, he was articled to a clerk in Chancery; worked hard; was admitted to the bar; and his industry and perseverance insured success. He became Solicitor-General under the Fox administration, in 1806, and steadily worked his way to the highest celebrity in his profession. Yet he was always haunted by a painful and almost oppressive sense of his own disqualifications, and never ceased laboring to remedy them. His autobiography is a lesson of instructive facts, worth volumes of sentiment, and is well deserving of a careful perusal.


Sir Walter Scott was accustomed to cite the case of his young friend John Leyden as one of the most remarkable illustrations of the power of perseverance which he had ever known. The son of a shepherd in one of the wildest valleys of Roxburghshire, he was almost entirely self-educated. Like many Scotch shepherds' sons—like Hogg, who taught himself to write by copying the letters of a printed book as he lay watching his flock on the hill-side—like Cairns, who from tending sheep on the Lammermoors, raised himself by dint of application and industry to the professor's chair which he now so worthily holds—like Murray, Ferguson, and many more, Leyden was early inspired by a thirst for knowledge. When a poor barefooted boy, he walked six or eight miles across the moors daily to learn reading at the little village school-house of Kirkton; and this was all the education he received; the rest he acquired for himself. He found his way to Edinburgh to attend the college there, setting the extremest penury at utter defiance. He was first discovered as a frequenter of a small bookseller's shop kept by Archibald Constable, afterwards so well known as a publisher. He would pass hour after hour perched on a ladder in mid-air, with some great folio in his hand, forgetful of the scanty meal of bread and water which awaited him at his miserable lodging. Access to books and lectures comprised all within the bounds of his wishes. Thus he toiled and battled at the gates of science until his unconquerable perseverance carried everything before it. Before he had attained his nineteenth year he had astonished all the professors in Edinburgh by his profound knowledge of Greek and Latin, and the general mass of information he had acquired. Having turned his views to India, he sought employment in the civil service, but failed. He was however informed that a surgeon's assistant's commission was open to him. But he was no surgeon, and knew no more of the profession than a child. He could however learn. Then he was told that he must be ready to pass in six months! Nothing daunted, he set to work, to acquire in six months what usually requires three years. At the end of six months he took his degree with honor. Scott and a few friends helped to fit him out; and he sailed for India, after publishing his beautiful poem "The Scenes of Infancy." In India he promised to become one of the greatest of oriental scholars, but unhappily he was cut off by fever caught by exposure, and died at an early age.


But perhaps the life of the late Dr. Lee, Professor of Hebrew, at Cambridge, furnishes one of the most remarkable instances in modern times of the power of perseverance and resolute purpose in working out an honorable career in literature. He received his education at a charity-school at Lognor, near Shrewsbury, but so little distinguished himself there, that his master pronounced him to be one of the dullest boys that ever passed through his hands. He was put apprentice to a carpenter, and worked at that trade until he arrived at manhood. To occupy his leisure hours he took to reading; and, some of the books containing Latin quotations, he became desirous of ascertaining what they meant. He bought a Latin Grammar, and proceeded to learn Latin. As Stone, the Duke of Argyle's gardener, said, long before, "Does one need to know anything more than the twenty-four letters, in order to learn everything else that one wishes?" Lee rose early and sat up late, and he succeeded in mastering the Latin before his apprenticeship was out. Whilst working one day in some place of worship, a copy of a Greek Testament fell in his way, and he was immediately filled with the desire to learn this language too. He accordingly sold some of his Latin books, and purchased a Greek Grammar and Lexicon. He took pleasure in learning, and he soon learned the language. Then he sold his Greek books, and bought Hebrew ones, and learned that language, unassisted by any instructor, without any hope of fame or reward, but simply following the bent of his genius. He next proceeded to master the Chaldee, Syriac, and Samaritan dialects. But his studies began to tell upon his health, and brought on disease in his eyes through his long night watchings with his books. Having laid them aside for a time and recovered his health, he went on with his daily work. His character as a tradesman being excellent, his business improved, and his means enabled him to marry, which he did when twenty-eight years old. He determined now to devote himself to the maintenance of his family, and to renounce his luxury of book-learning; accordingly he sold all his books. He might have continued a working carpenter all his life, had not the chest of tools upon which he depended for subsistence been consumed by fire, and destitution stared him in the face. He was too poor to buy new tools, so he bethought him of teaching children their letters; a profession requiring the least possible capital. But though he had mastered many languages, he was so defective in the common branches of knowledge, that at first he could not teach them. Resolute of purpose, however, he assiduously set to work, and taught himself arithmetic and writing to such an extent as to be able to impart the knowledge of these branches to little children. His unaffected, simple, and beautiful character gradually attracted friends, and the acquirements of the "learned carpenter" became bruited abroad. Dr. Scott, a neighboring clergyman, obtained for him the appointment of master of a charity-school in Shrewsbury, and introduced him to a distinguished Oriental scholar. These friends supplied him with books, and Lee successively mastered the Arabic, Persic, and Hindostanee languages. He continued to pursue his studies while on permanent duty in the local militia of the county; gradually acquiring greater proficiency in languages. At length his kind patron, Dr. Scott, enabled him to enter Queen's College Cambridge; and after a course of study, in which he distinguished himself by his mathematical acquirements, a vacancy occurring in the professorship of Arabic and Hebrew, he was worthily elected to fill the honorable office. Besides ably performing his duties as a professor he voluntarily gave much of his time to the instruction of missionaries going forth to preach the Gospel to eastern tribes in their own tongue. He also made translations of the Bible in several Asiatic dialects; and having mastered the New Zealand tongue, he arranged a Grammar and Vocabulary for two New Zealand Chiefs who were then in England, which books are now in daily use in the New Zealand schools. Such, in brief, is the remarkable history of Dr. Samuel Lee; and it is but the counterpart of many similarly instructive examples of the power of perseverance in self-culture, as displayed in the lives of many of the most distinguished of our literary and scientific men.*19


There are many more illustrious names which might be cited to prove the truth of the common saying that "it is never too late to learn." Even at advanced years men can do much, if they will determine on making a beginning. Sir Henry Spelman did not begin the study of science until he was between fifty and sixty years of age. Franklin was fifty before he fully entered upon the study of Natural Philosophy. Dryden and Scott were not known as authors until each was in his fortieth year. Boccaccio was thirty-five when he entered upon his literary career, and Alfieri was forty-six when he commenced the study of Greek. Dr. Arnold learnt German at an advanced age, for the purpose of reading Niebuhr in the original; and in like manner James Watt, when about forty, while working at his trade of an instrument-maker in Glasgow, learnt French, German, and Italian, to enable himself to peruse the valuable works on mechanical philosophy in these languages. Robert Hall was once found lying upon the floor, racked by pain, learning Italian in his old age, to enable him to judge of the parallel drawn by Macaulay between Milton and Dante. Handel was forty-eight before he published any of his great works. Indeed hundreds of instances might be given of men who struck out an entirely new path, and successfully entered on new studies, at a comparatively advanced time of life. None but the frivolous or the indolent will say, "I am too old to learn."


And here we would repeat what we have said before, that it is not men of genius who move the world, and take the lead in it, but men of steadfastness, purpose, and indefatigable industry. Notwithstanding the many curious stories which have been told about the infancy of men of genius, it is nevertheless true that early cleverness is no test whatever of the height to which the grown man will reach. Precocity is quite as often a symptom of disease as an indication of intellectual vigor in youth. What becomes of all the "remarkably clever children?" Where are all the duxes and prize boys? Trace them through life, and it will often be found that the dull boys, who were invariably beaten at school, have shot ahead of them. The clever boys are rewarded, but the prizes which they gain by their greater quickness and facility, rarely prove of service to them. What ought rather to be rewarded is, the endeavor, the struggle, and the obedience; for it is the youth who does his best though endowed with an inferiority of natural powers, that ought above all others to be encouraged.


An interesting chapter might be written on the subject of illustrious dunces,—dull boys, but brilliant men. We have room, however, for only a few instances. Pietro di Cortona, the painter, was thought so stupid that he was nicknamed "Ass's Head" when a boy; and Tomaso Guidi was generally known as "heavy Tom" (Massaccio Tomasaccio), though by diligence he afterwards raised himself to the highest eminence. Newton, when at school, stood at the bottom of the lowermost form but one. The boy above Newton having kicked him, the dunce showed his pluck by challenging him to a fight, and beat him. Then he set to work with a will, and determined also to vanquish his antagonist as a scholar, which he did, rising to the top of his class. Many of our greatest divines have been anything but precocious. Isaac Barrow, when a boy at the Charterhouse School, was notorious chiefly for his strong temper, pugnacious habits, and proverbial idleness as a scholar; and he caused such grief to his parents, that his father used to say that if it pleased God to take from him any of his children, he hoped it might be Isaac, the least promising of them all. Adam Clarke, when a boy, was proclaimed by his father to be "a grievous dunce;" though he could roll large stones about. Dean Swift, one of the greatest writers of pure English, was "plucked" at Dublin University, and only obtained-his recommendation to Oxford "speciali gratia." The wellknown Dr. Chalmers and Dr. Cook*20 were boys together at the parish school of St. Andrew's; and they were found so stupid and mischievous, that the master, irritated beyond measure, dismissed them both as incorrigible dunces.


The brilliant Sheridan showed so little capacity as a boy, that he was presented to a tutor by his mother with the complimentary accompaniment, that he was an incorrigible dunce. Walter Scott was all but a dunce when a boy, always much readier for a "bicker," than apt at his lessons. At the Edinburgh University, Professor Dalzell pronounced upon him the sentence that "Dunce he was, and dunce he would remain." Chatterton was returned on his mother's hands as "a fool, of whom nothing could be made." Burns was a dull boy, good only at athletic exercises. Goldsmith spoke of himself as a plant that flowered late. Alfieri left college no wiser than he entered it, and did not begin the studies by which he distinguished himself, until he had run half over Europe. Robert Clive was a dunce, if not a reprobate, when a youth; but always full of energy, even in badness. His family, glad to get rid of him, shipped him off to Madras; and he lived to lay the foundations of the British power in India. Napoleon and Wellington were both dull boys, not distinguishing themselves in any way at school.*21 Of the former the Duchess d'Abrantes says, "he had good health, but was in other respects like other boys." John Howard, the Philanthropist, was another illustrious dunce, learning next to nothing during the seven years that he was at school. Stephenson, as a youth, was distinguished chiefly for his skill at putting and wrestling, and attention to his work. The brilliant Sir Humphry Davy was no cleverer than other boys; his teacher, Mr. Davies Gilbert, said of him, "while he was with me, I could not discern the faculties by which he was so much distinguished." Indeed, he himself in after-life considered it fortunate that he had been left to "enjoy so much idleness" at school. Watt was a dull scholar, notwithstanding the pretty stories told about his precocity; but he was, what was better, patient and perseverant, and it was by that means, and by his carefully cultivated inventiveness, that he was enabled to perfect his steam-engine.


What Dr. Arnold said of boys is equally true of men,—that the difference between one boy and another consists not so much in talent as in energy. Given perseverance, and energy soon becomes habitual. Provided the dunce has persistency and application, he will inevitably head the cleverer fellow without these qualities. Slow but sure, wins the race. It is perseverance that explains how the position of boys at school is so often reversed in real life; and it is curious to note how some who were then so clever have since become so commonplace; whilst others, dull boys, of whom nothing was expected, slow in their faculties but sure in their pace, have assumed the position of leaders of men. The author of this book, when a boy, stood in the same class with one of the greatest of dunces. One teacher after another bad tried his skill upon him and failed. Corporal punishment, the fool's cap, coaxing, and earnest entreaty, proved alike fruitless. Sometimes the experiment was tried of putting him at the top of his class, and it was curious to note the rapidity with which he gravitated to the inevitable bottom, like a lump of lead passing through quicksilver. The youth was given up by many teachers as an incorrigible dunce,—one of them pronouncing him to be "a stupendous booby." Yet, slow though he was, this dunce had a sort of dull energy of purpose in him, which grew with his muscles and his manhood; and, strange to say, when he at length came to take part in the practical business of life, he was found heading most of his school companions, and eventually left the greater number of them far behind. The last time the author heard of him, he was chief magistrate of his native town. The tortoise in the right road, will beat a racer in the wrong. It matters not though a youth be slow, if he be but diligent. Quickness of parts may even prove a defect, inasmuch as the boy who learns readily will often forget quite as readily; and also because he finds no need of cultivating that quality of application and perseverance which the slower youth is compelled to exercise, and which proves so valuable an element in the formation of every character. Davy said, "What I am I have made myself;" and the same holds true universally. The highest culture is not obtained from teachers when at school or college, so much as by our own diligent self-education when we have become men. Hence parents need not be in too great haste to see their children's talents forced into bloom. Let them watch and wait patiently, letting good example and quiet training do their work, and leave the rest to Providence. Let them see to it that the youth is provided, by free exercise of his bodily powers, with a full stock of physical health; set him fairly on the road of self-culture; carefully train his habits of application and perseverance; and as he grows older, if the right stuff be in him, he will be enabled vigorously and effectively to cultivate himself.

Notes for this chapter

See the admirable and well-known book, "The Pursuit of Knowledge under Difficulties."
Late Professor of Moral Philosophy at St. Andrew's.
A writer in the "Edinburgh Review," (July, 1859,) observes that "the Duke's talents seem never to have developed themselves, until some active and practical field for their display was placed immediately before him. He was long described by his Spartan mother, who thought him a dunce, as only 'food for powder.' He gained no sort of distinction, either at Eton or at the French Military College of Angers." It is not improbable that a competitive examination, at his day, might have excluded him from the army.

End of Notes

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