MEMOIRS OF A RECLUSE
To the Editor of the European Magazine.
I am the last new Member admitted by the associated Hermits whose poetic Legends have obtained your notice; but as my pretentions are only to “Commonsense,” I address you in plain prose. The romantic founders of the Hermitage have long since passed away, and their successors are men of the modern world. We only retain the septagon table and seven-branched candelabra which denote perfect equality established among - - - - - but I will not designate my companions;—let them speak for themselves.
“Friends and Brothers,” said I, when first admitted to their synod, “the character of this community requires that its seven seats should be filled by professors of the seven liberal sciences: but in me you will find only a student in the art of happiness. Another stature requires, that every member on his admission should contribute to the amusement or advantage of the association. As neither my past life nor my subdued fancy afford any supplies, I hope to fulfill this requisition by leading you to consider what happiness is. To know where it exists is half the business of life; and we possess it in some degree while we consider it.”
A young man at the lowest corner of the table, with a neglected coat and meagre countenance, replied eagerly, “Can any one doubt what happiness is? It is a quick and constant sense of whatever is graceful, beautiful, and just;—Imagination gives us all that is lovely in nature and sublime in morals without alloy;—therefore I ascribe our largest share of happiness to imagination.”
“Do you know (interrupted our third Brother, raising his eyes from an immense folio) that you speak tautologically?—Whatever is graceful must be beautiful, and whatever is beautiful, is just; for grace is only the result of proportion, which is the true name of beauty: and this proportion or fitness of things is what we call justice in morals—ergo—”
“Stop, Counsellor!” interposed a lean personage at his left hand—“This is a confusion of axioms. What you call beauty is only an association of ideas. A large mouth or a small grey eye would be useful, perhaps more so, than those it is fashionable to admire. There is no such thing as Beauty, abstractedly considered. We do not call a thing beautiful because it is useful, but because we attach some idea of ease, delicacy, or cheerfulness with it.”
“We shall lose ourselves in this labyrinth,” said his next neighbour, smiling contempuously, “let us return to the first point. If by happiness our poet means a succession of keen and ardent sensations, I cannot conceive an existence entirely composed of them. It is as impossible as an army of generals or a nation without subjects. I know no pleasure which does not result from some deprivation or necessity, and which has not its consequent and inevitable balance of evil, as the strongest lights in a picture are produced by contrasted shades. And therefore I deem that man happiest whose life affords the most equal balance of pain and pleasure.”
“Your estimate would be just,” replied the poet, “if there were not some pleasures exempt from penalty. Of this class are all that spring from kind and generous affections, and from an imagination employed only on the riches of nature. Whatever exercises our faculties to a benevolent purpose, excites those pleasing sensations which leave no languour or regret: those sensations, in short, which, without intoxicating the mind, afford it that food and support called happiness.”
The only well-dressed man in our circle shook his snuff-box superciliously, and answered, “It remains to be proved whether all useful employments are pleasant; and we cannot always agree what is useful. As for the beauty and grace our poet talks of, the notions of Hottentot, Chinese, and Indian connoisseurs, would make it as hard to discover what Beauty is, as to decide upon grace in a committee of ancient and modern belles. For my part, I have tried all kinds of happiness, and I know none that lasts above seven days. But I call myself happy when I am in fashion, and can find something new.”
“Different opinions in various times and countries avail nothing.” resumed our lawyer: “the Hottentot admires his large-eared and round-nosed consort by the force of custom; and we attach an idea of grace to certain manners and dresses when they are in general use, because only the capricious and the arrogant are supposed to resist general custom, which (saith Bracton) is a law not written. But, I repeat, the abstract idea of beauty and grace is still the same, and always will be in all times and nations. We shall give the name of beauty in general to the form which excites agreeable sensations, and call that manner graceful which expresses them.”
We looked for the casting vote to our seventh Brother, on whom, in deference to his age and clerical functions, we bestow the title of Abbot. He smiled, and said, “Our poet places happiness in a contemplation of beautiful objects; but our philosopher tells us, that beauty is mere matter of opinion; our logician confines it to whatever is useful, and our physician considers the beauty of nature only the balance of some defect. Let us try to reconcile their systems by one which may amend them. Since whatever is beautiful in outward things is thus liable to the waverings of all opinion, we must build our happiness on moral beauty, in which there is no change or dependence on human caprice. Our religious system of moral justice combines whatever is beautiful in imagination or useful in philosophy: and if real beauty exists in that which is best fitted to our noble purpose, a man acting on this system is himself the most beautiful object in creation.”
Short pause followed this decision, which enabled me to say, “since we have all different ideas of happiness we have proved at least that it is of a various and general kind. Instead of detecting the deficiencies in its growth, let us take the paths allotted to our several professions, and glean whatever we may find in them which tends to cherish and enrich it. Our pupils of fashion and philosophy shall shew us the progress of science and social refinement: our poet may endeavour to represent the happiest attitude of things, and the rules by which poetry excites agreeable sensations;—while our physician, lawyer, and divine, collect those facts and evidences which ‘vindicate the ways of God to man.’”
My proposal was received with applause; but the spirit of disputation had gained force, especially as the twelfth bottle began to traverse the table. “I maintain (cried the philosopher, filling his seventeenth glass) that there is no evil in existence! What we call corruption in nature is only regeneration. Political or moral corruption may be useful in the system of society as the storms which attend the equinox, or the attraction which balances the universe. Gentlemen, there is nothing without its use, therefore there is no evil—the pains of the mind are all of our own creation, and may be all avoided; those of the body, as they conduce to its pleasures, are not evils.”
“What say you (said Dr. Beauclerc) to a fit of the gout, a shrewish wife, or an empty purse?”
Counsellor Lumiere laughed aloud, while our Professor declaimed against evil with a countenance strongly expressive of its effects.—“I say,” added he, piqued by the comment made by our risible muscles—“I am so well assured what we term misfortune is only a remote and disguised benefit, that no change or deprivation gives me concern. No!—not even a divorce from the greatest possible good—a friend who in pain and death—(I mean if pain and death were evils)—would have been my comfort and support.”
His voice now absolutely failed, notwithstanding a severe struggle to regain it. Our physician smiled at the frail covering of the stoic seer, and archly slid a bottle of champagne towards him—“If there is no positive evil, we know, at least, this is a positive good! The world cannot be like an Arabian manuscript, all flowers and gold; our friendships and our projects may fall into ruins, but the ruins of a noble structure are still beautiful. Life alone is a mriacle and a blessing;—and the most unfortunate man has faculties and enjoyments far, very far, superior to the noblest animal. A stupid pedant once said, he saw 15,000 proofs of Providence in one cabalistic word, but I see as many in every part of existence!”
Counsellor Lumiere cast a shrewd glance at the rueful philosopher, and added, “It is very difficult to agree about happiness, of which we may say as St. Austin said of time, ‘I know what it is till I am asked to explain it;’ but it will be easy to decide which is the greatest evil!”
“Ah!” said our poet, “that is easily answered—the greatest evil is to love nothing, or to have nothing to love.”
St. Alme, our Abbot, replied gravely, “Can that ever occur to a rational man? Can he ever dare to say nothing concerns him, while the world is his home and his family?”
Our youngest Brother, who had fallen asleep at the beginning of this debate, and was roused by the last speaker’s exalted voice, now suddenly spoke—“You may call evil by what name you please, but I can tell you there is one!”—We urged him to give us the fruits of his experience; and after much hesitation and arch grimace, he answered, “It is a subject not to be named in this community, else I should say—a learned woman!”
Our Abbot looked grave, and the philosopher closed his book. “Come,” said I, “the fruits of experience exceed those of debate. Let us compare the portion of evil we have each suffered, and determine which is the heaviest kind. We shall at least enjoy the benefit of complaint, and the pleasure of consoling each other.”
Not a dissenting voice was heard. As a signal of adjournment, our Abbot folded up a silver chain (his badge of office), and deposited it, according to his favourite custom, in a basket of flowers. On the following evening our youngest Brother began his narrative.