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February 1831

“Of Intellectual Abortion:” Godwin’s Thoughts on Man

No class holds a monopoly on talent.  Rather, “Every human creature…is endowed with talents, which…shew him to be apt, adroit, intelligent and acute.”

Editor’s Note

In his third Thoughts on Man essay, William Godwin continued his reflections on human nature through the individual’s birth, education, and life cycle.  He begins by noting to his reader that 19th-century England in particular abounded with disrespect and even frank disgust for the majority of “common” people.  Godwin distinguished himself from mainstream English society by maintaining that each and every individual possessed unique talents and attributes enabling them to make significant original contributions to civilization.  Despite this universal (though certainly not equal) distribution of talents, societies virtually everywhere battered youths into complacency, ignorance, and conformity with the weapons of formal education.  Through a process “of intellectual abortion,” education and socialization dissolved youthful individualism, preparing the majority of the species for lives of simple (and hopefully humble) servitude.  Should some particularly enterprising, daring young people escape primary school and apprenticeship with their curiosity and dignity intact, their genius will not be respected by adult peers.  “The splendid march of genius is beset with a thousand difficulties,” Godwin opined, but if the entrepreneur, the inventor, the philosopher, the reformer, the artist, and other dreamers refuse to yield the fight, progress inevitably wins.  Society may offer no help, bound as it always is by the chains of history and retrograde thinking, but individualism and the universal distribution of talents were facts of nature.  Intelligent, motivated, creative and bold individuals all have the ability to transform the material world and quite literally make manifest new and better ideas.  A thousand difficulties and failures await the individual in her quest to live her own life as she will in a world of her own choosing, but even Shakespeare wrote a few terrible plays.  

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 III. OF INTELLECTUAL ABORTION.

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.

There is however a sort of phenomenon, by no means of rare occurrence, which tends to place the human species under a less favourable point of view. Many men, as has already appeared, are forced into situations and pursuits ill assorted to their talents, and by that means are exhibited to their contemporaries in a light both despicable and ludicrous.

But this is not all. Men are not only placed, by the absurd choice of their parents, or an imperious concurrence of circumstances, in destinations and employments in which they can never appear to advantage: they frequently, without any external compulsion, select for themselves objects of their industry, glaringly unadapted to their powers, and in which all their efforts must necessarily terminate in miscarriage…

The cause however of this painful mistake does not lie in the circumstance, that each man has not from the hand of nature an appropriate destination, a sphere assigned him, in which, if life should be prolonged to him, he might be secure of the respect of his neighbours, and might write upon his tomb, “I have filled an honourable career; I have finished my course.”

One of the most glaring infirmities of our nature is discontent. One of the most unquestionable characteristics of the human mind is the love of novelty…

But the progress of a man of reflection will be, to a considerable degree, in the path he has already entered. If he strikes into a new career, it will not be without deep premeditation. He will attempt nothing wantonly. He will carefully examine his powers, and see for what they are adapted…The man of reflection will not begin, till he feels his mind swelling with his purposed theme, till his blood flows fitfully and with full pulses through his veins, till his eyes sparkle with the intenseness of his conceptions, and his “bosom labours with the God.”

But the fool dashes in at once. He does not calculate the dangers of his enterprise. He does not study the map of the country he has to traverse. He does not measure the bias of the ground, the rising knolls and the descending slopes that are before him. He obeys a blind and unreflecting impulse…

The splendour of the thing presented to our observation, awakens the spirit within us. The applause and admiration excited by certain achievements and accomplishments infects us with desire…But the applause bestowed on others will often generate uneasiness and a sigh, in men least of all qualified by nature to acquire similar applause. We are not contented to proceed in the path of obscure usefulness and worth. We are eager to be admired, and thus often engage in pursuits for which perhaps we are of all men least adapted. Each one would be the man above him.

And this is the cause why we see so many individuals, who might have passed their lives with honour, devote themselves to incredible efforts, only that they may be made supremely ridiculous.

To this let it be added, that the wisest man that ever existed, never yet knew himself, especially in the morning of life. The person, who ultimately stamped his history with the most heroic achievements, was far perhaps even from suspecting, in the dawn of his existence, that he should realise the miracles that mark its maturity…What wonder then, that, awaking from the insensibility and torpor which precede the activity of the soul, some men should believe in a fortune that shall never be theirs, and anticipate a glory they are fated never to sustain! And for the same reason, when unanticipated failure becomes their lot, they are unwilling at first to be discouraged, and find a certain gallantry in persevering, and “against hope believing in hope…”

In reality the splendid march of genius is beset with a thousand difficulties. “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong.” A multitude of unthought-of qualifications are required; and it depends at least as much upon the nicely maintained balance of these, as upon the copiousness and brilliancy of each, whether the result shall be auspicious. The progress of genius is like the flight of an arrow; a breath may turn it out of its course, and cause that course to terminate many a degree wide of its purposed mark. It is therefore scarcely possible that any sharpness of foresight can pronounce of the noblest beginnings whether they shall reach to an adequate conclusion…

There are conceptions of the mind, that come forth like the coruscations of lightning. If you could fix that flash, it would seem as if it would give new brightness to the sons of men, and almost extinguish the luminary of day. But, ere you can say it is here, it is gone. It appears to reveal to us the secrets of the world unknown; but the clouds congregate again, and shut in upon us, before we had time to apprehend its full radiance and splendour.

To give solidity and permanence to the inspirations of genius two things are especially necessary. First, that the idea to be communicated should be powerfully apprehended by the speaker or writer; and next, that he should employ words and phrases which might convey it in all its truth to the mind of another. The man who entertains such conceptions, will not unfrequently want the steadiness of nerve which is required for their adequate transmission. Suitable words will not always wait upon his thoughts…

The sentences of this man, when he speaks, or when he writes, will be full of perplexity and confusion. They will be endless, and never arrive at their proper termination. They will include parenthesis on parenthesis. We perceive the person who delivers them, to be perpetually labouring after a meaning, but never reaching it. He is like one flung over into the sea, unprovided with the skill that should enable him to contend with the tumultuous element. He flounders about in pitiable helplessness, without the chance of extricating himself by all his efforts. He is lost in unintelligible embarrassment. It is a delightful and a ravishing sight, to observe another man come after him, and tell, without complexity, and in the simplicity of self-possession, unconscious that there was any difficulty, all that his predecessor had fruitlessly exerted himself to unfold.

There are a multitude of causes that will produce a miscarriage of this sort, where the richest soil, impregnated with the choicest seeds of learning and observation, shall entirely fail to present us with such a crop as might rationally have been anticipated. Many such men waste their lives in indolence and irresolution. They attempt many things, sketch out plans, which, if properly filled up, might illustrate the literature of a nation, and extend the empire of the human mind, but which yet they desert as soon as begun, affording us the promise of a beautiful day, that, ere it is noon, is enveloped in darkest tempests and the clouds of midnight. They skim away from one flower in the parterre of literature to another, like the bee, without, like the bee, gathering sweetness from each, to increase the public stock, and enrich the magazine of thought. The cause of this phenomenon is an unsteadiness, ever seduced by the newness of appearances, and never settling with firmness and determination upon what had been chosen.

Others there are that are turned aside from the career they might have accomplished, by a visionary and impracticable fastidiousness. They can find nothing that possesses all the requisites that should fix their choice, nothing so good that should authorise them to present it to public observation, and enable them to offer it to their contemporaries as something that we should “not willingly let die.” They begin often; but nothing they produce appears to them such as that they should say of it, “Let this stand.” Or they never begin, none of their thoughts being judged by them to be altogether such as to merit the being preserved. They have a microscopic eye, and discern faults unworthy to be tolerated, in that in which the critic himself might perceive nothing but beauty…

The man who merely wanders through the fields of knowledge in search of its gayest flowers and of whatever will afford him the most enviable amusement, will necessarily return home at night with a very slender collection. He that shall apply himself with self-denial and an unshrinking resolution to the improvement of his mind, will unquestionably be found more fortunate in the end.

He is not deterred by the gulphs that yawn beneath his feet, or the mountains that may oppose themselves to his progress. He knows that the adventurer of timid mind, and that is infirm of purpose, will never make himself master of those points which it would be most honourable to him to subdue. But he who undertakes to commit to writing the result of his researches, and to communicate his discoveries to mankind, is the genuine hero. Till he enters on this task, every thing is laid up in his memory in a certain confusion. He thinks he possesses a thing whole; but, when he brings it to the test, he is surprised to find how much he was deceived. He that would digest his thoughts and his principles into a regular system, is compelled in the first place to regard them in all their clearness and perspicuity, and in the next place to select the fittest words by which they may be communicated to others. It is through the instrumentality of words that we are taught to think accurately and severely for ourselves; they are part and parcel of all our propositions and theories. It is therefore in this way that a preceptor, by undertaking to enlighten the mind of his pupil, enlightens his own. He becomes twice the man in the sequel, that he was when he entered on his task. We admire the amateur student in his public essays, as we admire a jackdaw or a parrot: he does considerably more than could have been expected from him…

The examples of which the history of our species consists, not only abound in cases, where, from mistakes in the choice of life, or radical and irremediable imperfection in the adventurer, the most glaring miscarriages are found to result,—but it is also true, that all men, even the most illustrious, have some fatal weakness, obliging both them and their rational admirers to confess, that they partake of human frailty, and belong to a race of beings which has small occasion to be proud. Each man has his assailable part. He is vulnerable, though it be only like the fabled Achilles in his heel…

It is a gross misapprehension in such men as, smitten with admiration of a certain cluster of excellencies, or series of heroic acts, are willing to predicate of the individual to whom they belong, “This man is consummate, and without alloy.” Take the person in his retirement, in his hours of relaxation, when he has no longer a part to play, and one or more spectators before whom he is desirous to appear to advantage, and you shall find him a very ordinary man. He has “passions, dimensions, senses, affections, like the rest of his fellow-creatures, is fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, warmed and cooled by the same summer and winter.” He will therefore, when narrowly observed, be unquestionably found betraying human weaknesses, and falling into fits of ill humour, spleen, peevishness and folly. No man is always a sage; no bosom at all times beats with sentiments lofty, self-denying and heroic. It is enough if he does so, “when the matter fits his mighty mind.”

The literary genius, who undertakes to produce some consummate work, will find himself pitiably in error, if he expects to turn it out of his hands, entire in all its parts, and without a flaw.

There are some of the essentials of which it is constituted, that he has mastered, and is sufficiently familiar with them; but there are others, especially if his work is miscellaneous and comprehensive, to which he is glaringly incompetent. He must deny his nature, and become another man, if he would execute these parts, in a manner equal to that which their intrinsic value demands, or to the perfection he is able to give to his work in those places which are best suited to his powers. There are points in which the wisest man that ever existed is no stronger than a child…

Shakespear we are accustomed to call the most universal genius that ever existed. He has a truly wonderful variety. It is almost impossible to pronounce in which he has done best, his Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear, or Othello. He is equally excellent in his comic vein as his tragic. Falstaff is in his degree to the full as admirable and astonishing, as what he achieved that is noblest under the auspices of the graver muse. His poetry and the fruits of his imagination are unrivalled. His language, in all that comes from him when his genius is most alive, has a richness, an unction, and all those signs of a character which admits not of mortality and decay, for ever fresh as when it was first uttered…

Yet there were things that Shakespear could not do. He could not make a hero…He could conceive such sentiments, for there are such in his personage of Brutus; but he could not fill out and perfect what he has thus sketched…Caesar is spiritless, and Cicero is ridiculous, in his hands…

So neither could he construct a perfect plot, in which the interest should be perpetually increasing, and the curiosity of the spectator kept alive and in suspense to the last moment…

Shakespear is also liable to the charge of obscurity. The most sagacious critics dispute to this very hour, whether Hamlet is or is not mad, and whether Falstaff is a brave man or a coward…

What is best in him is eternal, of all ages and times; but what is worst, is crusted with an integument, almost more cumbrous than that of any other writer, his contemporary, the merits of whose works continue to invite us to their perusal.

After Shakespear, it is scarcely worth while to bring forward any other example, of a writer who, notwithstanding his undoubted claims to excellencies of the highest order, yet in his productions fully displays the inequality and non-universality of his genius…

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