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1831

“The Distribution of Talents:” Godwin’s Thoughts on Man

“I am inclined to believe, that…every human creature is endowed with talents which…shew him to be apt, adroit, intelligent and acute.”

Editor’s Note

William Godwin’s second essay in Thoughts on Man consisted of four sections, each detailing a separate main element in his contention that individuals were indeed born with the capacity for greatness.  The first section examines the prevailing opinion that most people are natural idiots.  Organizations of all sorts, from private clubs to public schools, were said to abound with talentless fools.  Godwin, however, maintained that these very institutions were largely responsible for any dumbing down in the population at large.  Schooling in particular battered the energetic spirit of youth, cowed it into submission, and aborted the growth of any passions for learning. As young men gain age, experience, wisdom, and power over their lives, however, individualism forces itself upon them and challenges them to reconfigure their lives toward the pursuit of happiness.  The second section argues that a frank and full knowledge of one’s existence as an individual entails respect for “the infinite variety of human beings,” and their vast array of values, preferences, and abilities.  The third section admits that individualism requires a tremendous amount of individual responsibility for one’s life and actions—much of which will constitute a string of abject failures.  But the triumphs and victories will only be made all the more sweet with each adventurous and constructive defeat along the way.  The essay concludes with a declaration for the Pythagorean motto that man “Reverence himself,” and reject an educational and vocational system that proclaimed the majority of people dunces and hopeless cases.

Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

THOUGHTS ON MAN:  HIS NATURE, PRODUCTIONS AND DISCOVERIES INTERSPERSED WITH SOME PARTICULARS RESPECTING THE AUTHOR (Excerpts)

By William Godwin

ESSAY II. OF THE DISTRIBUTION OF TALENTS.

SECTION I.

Go into a miscellaneous society; sit down at table with ten or twelve men; repair to a club where as many are assembled in an evening to relax from the toils of the day—it is almost proverbial, that one or two of these persons will perhaps be brilliant, and the rest “weary, stale, flat and unprofitable.”

Go into a numerous school—the case will be still more striking. I have been present where two men of superior endowments endeavoured to enter into a calculation on the subject; and they agreed that there was not above one boy in a hundred, who would be found to possess a penetrating understanding, and to be able to strike into a path of intellect that was truly his own…

The society above referred to, the dinner-party, or the club, was to a considerable degree select, brought together by a certain supposed congeniality between the individuals thus assembled. Were they taken indiscriminately, as boys are when consigned to the care of a schoolmaster, the proportion of the brilliant would not be a whit greater than in the latter case…

A main cause of the disadvantageous appearance exhibited by the ordinary schoolboy, lies in what we denominate sheepishness. He is at a loss, and in the first place stares at you, instead of giving an answer. He does not make by many degrees so poor a figure among his equals, as when he is addressed by his seniors.

One of the reasons of the latter phenomenon consists in the torpedo effect of what we may call, under the circumstances, the difference of ranks. The schoolmaster is a despot to his scholar; for every man is a despot, who delivers his judgment from the single impulse of his own will.   The boy…fears he knows not what,—a reprimand, a look of lofty contempt, a gesture of summary disdain. He does not think it worth his while under these circumstances, to “gird up the loins of his mind.” He cannot return a free and intrepid answer but to the person whom he regards as his equal…

Nor is it simple terror that restrains the boy from answering his senior with the same freedom and spirit, as he would answer his equal. He does not think it worth his while to enter the lists…It is the most difficult thing in the world, for the schoolmaster to inspire into his pupil the desire to do his best.

Among full-grown men the case is different…The severities practised upon [the child] are not so great as those resorted to by the proprietor of slaves in Algiers; but they are equally arbitrary and without appeal. He is free to a certain extent…but his freedom is upon sufferance, and is brought to an end at any time at the pleasure of his seniors…His more usual refuge therefore is, to do nothing, and to wrap himself up in that neutrality towards his seniors, that may best protect him from their reprimand and their despotism.

The condition of the full-grown man is different from that of the child, and he conducts himself accordingly. He is always to a certain degree under the control of the political society of which he is a member. He is also exposed to the chance of personal insult and injury from those who are stronger than he, or who may render their strength more considerable by combination and numbers. The political institutions which control him in certain respects, protect him also to a given degree from the robber and assassin, or from the man who, were it not for penalties and statutes, would perpetrate against him all the mischiefs which malignity might suggest. Civil policy however subjects him to a variety of evils, which wealth or corruption are accustomed to inflict under the forms of justice; at the same time that it can never wholly defend him from those violences to which he would be every moment exposed in what is called the state of nature…

At first, in the newness of his freedom, he breaks out into idle sallies and escapes, and is like the full-fed steed that manifests his wantonness in a thousand antics and ruades. But this is a temporary extravagance. He presently becomes as wise and calculating, as the schoolboy was before him.

The human being then, that has attained a certain stature, watches and poises his situation, and considers what he may do with impunity. He ventures at first with no small diffidence, and pretends to be twice as assured as he really is. He accumulates experiment after experiment, till they amount to a considerable volume. It is not till he has passed successive lustres, that he attains that firm step, and temperate and settled accent, which characterise the man complete. He then no longer doubts, but is ranged on the full level of the ripened members of the community…

It is not however, that the full-grown man is not liable to be checked, reprimanded and rebuked, even as the schoolboy is. He has his wife to read him lectures, and rap his knuckles; he has his master, his landlord, or the mayor of his village, to tell him of his duty in an imperious style, and in measured sentences; if he is a member of a legislature, even there he receives his lessons, and is told, either in phrases of well-conceived irony, or by the exhibition of facts and reasonings which take him by surprise, that he is not altogether the person he deemed himself to be…

But it unfortunately happens, that, before he has arrived at that degree of independence, the fate of the individual is too often decided for ever. How are the majority of men trampled in the mire, made “hewers of wood, and drawers of water,” long, very long, before there was an opportunity of ascertaining what it was of which they were capable! Thus almost every one is put in the place which by nature he was least fit for: and, while perhaps a sufficient quantity of talent is extant in each successive generation, yet, for want of each man’s being duly estimated, and assigned his appropriate duty, the very reverse may appear to be the case. By the time that they have attained to that sober self-confidence that might enable them to assert themselves, they are already chained to a fate, or thrust down to a condition, from which no internal energies they possess can ever empower them to escape.

SECTION II.

All organised bodies of the animal or vegetable kingdom are cast in a mould of given dimension and feature belonging to a certain number of individuals, though distinguished by inexhaustible varieties. It is by means of those features that the class of each individual is determined…

All men…have a certain form, a certain complement of limbs, a certain internal structure, and organs of sense—may we not add further, certain powers of intellect?

Hence it seems to follow, that man is more like and more equal to man…than the disdainful and fastidious censors of our common nature are willing to admit.

I am inclined to believe, that…every human creature is endowed with talents, which, if rightly directed, would shew him to be apt, adroit, intelligent and acute, in the walk for which his organisation especially fitted him…

The most palpable deficiency that is to be found in relation to the education of children, is a sound judgment to be formed as to the vocation or employment in which each is most fitted to excel…

Human creatures are born into the world with various dispositions. According to the memorable saying of Themistocles, One man can play upon a psaltery or harp, and another can by political skill and ingenuity convert a town of small account, weak and insignificant, into a city noble, magnificent and great…

Music seems to be one of the faculties most clearly defined in early youth. The child who has received that destination from the hands of nature, will even in infancy manifest a singular delight in musical sounds, and will in no long time imitate snatches of a tune…This is called having an ear.

Instances nearly as precocious are related of persons, who afterwards distinguished themselves in the art of painting.

These two kinds of original destination appear to be placed beyond the reach of controversy.

Horace says, The poet is born a poet, and cannot be made so by the ingenuity of art: and this seems to be true…

The subtle network of the brain, or whatever else it is, that makes a man more fit for, and more qualified to succeed in, one occupation than another, can scarcely be followed up and detected either in the living subject or the dead one. But, as in the infinite variety of human beings…it may reasonably be presumed, that there are varieties in the senses, the organs, and the internal structure of the human species, however delicate…which may give to each individual a predisposition to rise to a supreme degree of excellence in some certain art or attainment, over a million of competitors.

It has been said that all these distinctions and anticipations are idle, because man is born without innate ideas. Whatever is the incomprehensible and inexplicable power, which we call nature, to which he is indebted for his formation, it is groundless to suppose, that that power is cognisant of, and guides itself in its operations by, the infinite divisibleness of human pursuits in civilised society. A child is not designed by his original formation to be a manufacturer of shoes, for he may be born among a people by whom shoes are not worn, and still less is he destined by his structure to be a metaphysician, an astronomer, or a lawyer, a rope-dancer, a fortune-teller, or a juggler…

The true test of the capacity of the individual, is where the desire to succeed, and accomplish something effective, is already awakened in the youthful mind. Whoever has found out what it is in which he is qualified to excel, from that moment becomes a new creature. The general torpor and sleep of the soul, which is incident to the vast multitude of the human species, is departed from him…Before, he was wrapped in an opake cloud, saw nothing distinctly, and struck this way and that at hazard like a blind man. But now the sun of understanding has risen upon him; and every step that he takes, he advances with an assured and undoubting confidence…

SECTION III.

What a beautiful and encouraging view is thus afforded us of our common nature! It is not true…that a thousand seeds are sown in the wide field of humanity, for no other purpose than that half-a-dozen may grow up into something magnificent and splendid, and that the rest…are merely suffered to live that they may furnish manure and nourishment to their betters. On the contrary, each man, according to this hypothesis, has a sphere in which he may shine, and may contemplate the exercise of his own powers with a well-grounded satisfaction. He produces something as perfect in its kind, as that which is effected under another form by the more brilliant and illustrious of his species. He stands forward with a serene confidence in the ranks of his fellow-creatures, and says, “I also have my place in society, that I fill in a manner with which I have a right to be satisfied…”

Those persons who favour the opinion of the incessant improveableness of the human species, have felt strongly prompted to embrace the creed of Helvetius, who affirms that the minds of men, as they are born into the world, are in a state of equality, alike prepared for any kind of discipline and instruction that may be afforded them, and that it depends upon education only, in the largest sense of that word, including every impression that may be made upon the mind, intentional or accidental, from the hour of our birth…

But this is not true…

According to that philosopher, every human creature that is born into the world, is capable of becoming, or being made, the equal of Homer, Bacon or Newton, and as easily and surely of the one as the other. This creed, if sincerely embraced, no doubt affords a strong stimulus to both preceptor and pupil, since, if true, it teaches us that any thing can be made of any thing, and that, wherever there is mind, it is within the compass of possibility, not only that that mind can be raised to a high pitch of excellence, but even to a high pitch of that excellence, whatever it is, that we shall prefer to all others, and most earnestly desire…

But, upon the principles laid down in this Essay, the case is widely different. We are here presented in every individual human creature with a subject better fitted for one sort of cultivation than another. We are excited to an earnest study of the individual, that we may the more unerringly discover what pursuit it is for which his nature and qualifications especially prepare him. We may be long in choosing. We may be even on the brink of committing a considerable mistake. Our subsequent observations may enable us to correct the inference we were disposed to make from those which went before. Our sagacity is flattered by the result of the laborious scrutiny which this view of our common nature imposes upon us.

In addition to this we reap two important advantages.

In the first place, we feel assured that every child that is born has his suitable sphere, to which if he is devoted, he will not fail to make an honourable figure, or, in other words, will be seen to be endowed with faculties, apt, adroit, intelligent and acute…

And, secondly, having arrived at this point…He may succeed, and present to a wondering world a consummate musician, painter, poet, or philosopher; for even blind chance may sometimes hit the mark, as truly as the most perfect skill. But he will probably fail….And the latter will happen ten thousand times, for once that the undertaking shall be blessed with a prosperous event.

But, when the destination that is given to a child has been founded upon a careful investigation of the faculties, tokens, and accidental aspirations which characterise his early years, it is then that every step that is made with him, becomes a new and surer source of satisfaction…The master cannot teach him so fast, as he is prompted to acquire.

What a contrast does this species of instruction exhibit, to the ordinary course of scholastic education! There, every lesson that is prescribed, is a source of indirect warfare between the instructor and the pupil, the one professing to aim at the advancement of him that is taught, in the career of knowledge, and the other…longing to be engaged in any thing else…In this sense a numerous school is, to a degree that can scarcely be adequately described, the slaughter-house of mind…

Hence it is that we are taught, by a judgment everlastingly repeated, that the majority of our kind are predestinated blockheads…

SECTION IV.

…One of the wisest of all the precepts comprised in what are called the Golden Verses of Pythagoras, is that, in which he enjoins his pupil to “reverence himself.” Ambition is the noblest root that can be planted in the garden of the human soul: not the ambition to be applauded and admired, to be famous and looked up to…but the ambition to fill a respectable place in the theatre of society, to be useful and to be esteemed, to feel that we have not lived in vain…

Self-respect to be nourished in the mind of the pupil, is one of the most valuable results of a well conducted education. To accomplish this, it is most necessary that it should never be inculcated into him, that he is dull…

The principles here laid down have the strongest tendency to prove to us how little progress has yet been made in the art of turning human creatures to the best account. Every man has his place, in which if he can be fixed, the most fastidious judge cannot look upon him with disdain. But, to effect this arrangement, an exact attention is required to ascertain the pursuit in which he will best succeed…

Nature never made a dunce…Much yet remains to be done, before our common nature can be vindicated from the basest of all libels, the most murderous of all proscriptions…

 

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