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Of the Duration of Human Life: Godwin’s Thoughts on Man

“What an empire does the man of leisure possess in each single day of his life! He disposes of his hours much…as the commander [does his soldiers].”

Editor’s Note

In his seventh essay, William Godwin turns from ethics and psychology to a series of ruminations about lived experience and the temporal extent of human existence. How we all experience the passage of time and the amount of time we spend engaged in conscious action, our author assures us, “will form no unimportant chapter in the science of the human mind.” The essay begins by stipulating that the species is essentially divided between those who spend their working hours performing manual labor and mental labor. Everyone must find sufficient time in a day to accomplish work, leisure, and rest. The balance between these three necessary elements is essential to a healthy, pleasant life, and the individual must constantly account for these drives. No doubt, we are all familiar with the soul-crushing slowness with which time often advances, and yet rather than embrace this natural stillness, humans are often in constant, restless motion. Godwin suggests that the finest of artists, writers, and philosophers command the attentions of an audience so greatly, that the consumer finally slows down his or her day to savor the import in every word or brushstroke. Rather than continuing to rush headlong through the course of events and passage of time, truly valuable contributions to humanity encourage us to prolong our conscious existence through active and engaged, yet decidedly slow and steady contemplation. The great effect of culture and wisdom on the human experience, then, is to encourage the individual to live deliberately, exacting every bit of pleasure and value from days, hours, minutes, and seconds he or she is lucky enough to have. For those born into the far more numerous class of manual laborers, however, Godwin remains well aware that such chances to actively live in every moment are greatly reduced or complicated beyond the intellectual’s understanding. Our author concludes with a rather stern rebuke to the tired, time-worn scholar who complains there are too few hours in the day. Our days are sharply limited, but the sincerest livers of life find productive use in every second.

Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History


By William Godwin


The active and industrious portion of the human species in civilised countries, is composed of those who are occupied in the labour of the hand, and in the labour of the head.

The following remarks expressly apply only to the latter of these classes, principally to such as are occupied in productive literature. They may however have their use to all persons a considerable portion of whose time is employed in study and contemplation, as, if well founded, they will form no unimportant chapter in the science of the human mind.

In relation to all the members of the second class then, I should say, that human life is made up of term and vacation, in other words, of hours that may be intellectually employed, and of hours that cannot be so employed.

Human life consists of years, months and days: each day contains twenty-four hours. Of these hours how many belong to the province of intellect?…

Now, of the hours that remain when all the necessary demands of human life have been supplied, it is but a portion, perhaps a small portion, that can be beneficially, judiciously, employed in productive literature, or literary composition.

It is true, that there are many men who will occupy eight, ten, or twelve hours in a day, in the labour of composition. But it may be doubted whether they are wisely so occupied.

It is the duty of an author, inasmuch as he is an author, to consider, that he is to employ his pen in putting down that which shall be fit for other men to read…If he is an author of spirit and ambition, he wishes his productions to be read, not only by the idle, but by the busy, by those who cannot spare time to peruse them but at the expence of some occupations which ought not to be suspended without an adequate occasion. He wishes to be read not only by the frivolous and the lounger, but by the wise, the elegant, and the fair, by those who are qualified to appreciate the merit of a work, who are endowed with a quick sensibility and a discriminating taste, and are able to pass a sound judgment on its beauties and defects. He advances his claim to permanent honours, and desires that his lucubrations should be considered by generations yet unborn.

A person, so occupied, and with such aims, must not attempt to pass his crudities upon the public…in other words, we should carefully examine what it is that we propose to deliver in a permanent form to the taste and understanding of our species. An author ought only to commit to the press the first fruits of his field, his best and choicest thoughts. He ought not to take up the pen, till he has brought his mind into a fitting tone, and ought to lay it down, the instant his intellect becomes in any degree clouded, and his vital spirits abate of their elasticity.

There are extraordinary cases. A man may have so thoroughly prepared himself by long meditation and study, he may have his mind so charged with an abundance of thought, that it may employ him for ten or twelve hours consecutively, merely to put down or to unravel the conceptions already matured in his soul…

He might go on perhaps for some time longer with a reasonable degree of clearness. But the fertility which ought to be his boast, is exhausted. He no longer sports in the meadows of thought, or revels in the exuberance of imagination, but becomes barren and unsatisfactory. Repose is necessary, and that the soil should be refreshed with the dews of another evening, the sleep of a night, and the freshness and revivifying influence of another morning.

These observations lead, by a natural transition, to the question of the true estimate and value of human life, considered as the means of the operations of intellect.

A primary enquiry under this head is as to the duration of life: Is it long, or short?…

Men do not live for ever. The longest duration of human existence has an end: and whatever it is of which that may be affirmed, may in some sense be pronounced to be short. The estimation of our existence depends upon the point of view from which we behold it. Hope is one of our greatest enjoyments. Possession is something. But the past is as nothing. Remorse may give it a certain solidity; the recollection of a life spent in acts of virtue may be refreshing. But fruition, and honours, and fame, and even pain, and privations, and torment, when they ere departed, are but like a feather; we regard them as of no account…

But this way of removing the picture of human life to a certain distance from us, and considering those things which were once in a high degree interesting as frivolous and unworthy of regard, is not the way by which we shall arrive at a true and just estimation of life. Whatever is now past, and is of little value, was once present: and he who would form a sound judgment, must look upon every part of our lives as present in its turn, and not suffer his opinion to be warped by the consideration of the nearness or remoteness of the object he contemplates…

Human understanding and human industry cannot embrace every thing. When we take hold of one thing, we must let go another. Science and art, if we would pursue them to the furthest extent of which we are capable, must be pursued without interruption. It would therefore be more to the purpose to say, Man cannot be for ever young. In the stream of human existence, different things have their appropriate period. The knowledge of languages can perhaps be most effectually acquired in the season of nonage.

At riper years one man devotes himself to one science or art, and another man to another. This man is a mathematician; a second studies music; a third painting. This man is a logician; and that man an orator. The same person cannot be expected to excel in the abstruseness of metaphysical science, and in the ravishing effusions of poetical genius. When a man, who has arrived at great excellence in one department of art or science, would engage himself in another, he will be apt to find the freshness of his mind gone, and his faculties no longer distinguished by the same degree of tenacity and vigour that they formerly displayed. It is with the organs of the brain, as it is with the organs of speech, in the latter of which we find the tender fibres of the child easily accommodating themselves to the minuter inflections and variations of sound, which the more rigid muscles of the adult will for the most part attempt in vain…

But this is only ascribable to the limitation of our faculties, and that even the shadow of perfection which man is capable to reach, can only be attained by the labour of successive generations. The cause does not lie in the shortness of human life, unless we would include in its protracted duration the privilege of being for ever young; to which we ought perhaps to add, that our activity should never be exhausted, the freshness of our minds never abate, and our faculties for ever retain the same degree of tenacity and vigour, as they had in the morning of life, when every thing was new, when all that allured or delighted us was seen accompanied with charms inexpressible…

I return then to the consideration of the alleged shortness of life. I mentioned in the beginning of this Essay, that “human life consists of years, months and days; each day containing twenty-four hours.” But, when I said this, I by no means carried on the division so far as it might be carried. It has been calculated that the human mind is capable of being impressed with three hundred and twenty sensations in a second of time…

There is perhaps no art that may not with reasonable diligence be acquired in three years, that is, as to its essential members and its skilful exercise. We may improve afterwards, but it will be only in minute particulars, and only by fits. Our subsequent advancement less depends upon the continuance of our application, than upon the improvement of the mind generally, the refining of our taste, the strengthening our judgment, and the accumulation of our experience.

The idea which prevails among the vulgar of mankind is, that we must make haste to be wise. The erroneousness of this notion however has from time to time been detected by moralists and philosophers; and it has been felt that he who proceeds in a hurry towards the goal, exposes himself to the imminent risk of never reaching it…

It would however be a more correct advice to the aspirant, to say, Be earnest in your application, but let your march be vigilant and slow…

The book does not deserve even to be read, which does not impose on us the duty of frequent pauses, much reflecting and inward debate, or require that we should often go back, compare one observation and statement with another, and does not call upon us to combine and knit together the disjecta membra.

It is an observation which has often been repeated, that, when we come to read an excellent author a second and a third time, we find in him a multitude of things, that we did not in the slightest degree perceive in a first reading. A careful first reading would have a tendency in a considerable degree to anticipate this following crop.

Nothing is more certain than that a schoolboy gathers much of his most valuable instruction when his lesson is not absolutely before him. In the same sense the more mature student will receive most important benefit, when he shuts his book, and goes forth in the field, and ruminates on what he has read. It is with the intellectual, as with the corporeal eye: we must retire to a certain distance from the object we would examine, before we can truly take in the whole…

But the thing it was principally in my purpose to say is, that it is one of the great desiderata of human life, not to accomplish our purposes in the briefest time, to consider “life as short, and art as long,” and therefore to master our ends in the smallest number of days or of years, but rather to consider it as an ample field that is spread before us, and to examine how it is to be filled with pleasure, with advantage, and with usefulness. Life is like a lordly garden, which it calls forth all the skill of the artist to adorn with exhaustless variety and beauty; or like a spacious park or pleasure-ground, all of whose inequalities are to be embellished, and whose various capacities of fertilisation, sublimity or grace, are to be turned to account, so that we may wander in it for ever, and never be wearied.

We shall perhaps understand this best, if we take up the subject on a limited scale, and, before we consider life in its assigned period of seventy years, first confine our attention to the space of a single day. And we will consider that day, not as it relates to the man who earns his subsistence by the labour of his hands, or to him who is immersed in the endless details of commerce. But we will take the case of the man, the whole of whose day is to be disposed of at his own discretion.

The attention of the curious observer has often been called to the tediousness of existence, how our time hangs upon our hands, and in how high estimation the art is held, of giving wings to our hours, and making them pass rapidly and cheerfully away. And moralists of a cynical disposition have poured forth many a sorrowful ditty upon the inconsistency of man, who complains of the shortness of life, at the same time that he is put to the greatest straits how to give an agreeable and pleasant occupation to its separate portions. “Let us hear no more,” say these moralists, “of the transitoriness of human existence, from men to whom life is a burthen, and who are willing to assign a reward to him that shall suggest to them an occupation or an amusement untried before.”

But this inconsistency, if it merits the name, is not an affair of artificial and supersubtle refinement, but is based in the fundamental principles of our nature. It is unavoidable that, when we have reached the close of any great epoch of our existence, and still more when we have arrived at its final term, we should regret its transitory nature, and lament that we have made no more effectual use of it. And yet the periods and portions of the stream of time, as they pass by us, will often be felt by us as insufferably slow in their progress, and we would give no inconsiderable sum to procure that the present section of our lives might come to an end, and that we might turn over a new leaf in the volume of existence.

I have heard various men profess that they never knew the minutes that hung upon their hands, and were totally unacquainted with what, borrowing a term from the French language, we call ennui. I own I have listened to these persons with a certain degree of incredulity, always excepting such as earn their subsistence by constant labour, or as, being placed in a situation of active engagement, have not the leisure to feel apathy and disgust.

But we are talking here of that numerous class of human beings, who are their own masters, and spend every hour of the day at the choice of their discretion. To these we may add the persons who are partially so, and who, having occupied three or four hours of every day in discharge of some function necessarily imposed on them, at the striking of a given hour go out of school, and employ themselves in a certain industry or sport purely of their own election.

To go back then to the consideration of the single day of a man, all of whose hours are at his disposal to spend them well or ill, at the bidding of his own judgment, or the impulse of his own caprice.

We will suppose that, when he rises from his bed, he has sixteen hours before him, to be employed in whatever mode his will shall decide. I bar the case of travelling, or any of those schemes for passing the day, which by their very nature take the election out of his hands, and fill up his time with a perpetual motion, the nature of which is ascertained from the beginning.

With such a man then it is in the first place indispensibly necessary, that he should have various successive occupations. There is no one study or intellectual enquiry to which a man can apply sixteen hours consecutively, unless in some extraordinary instances which can occur but seldom in the course of a life. And even then the attention will from time to time relax, and the freshness of mental zeal and activity give way, though perhaps, after the lapse of a few minutes they may be revived and brought into action again.

In the ordinary series of human existence it is desirable that, in the course of the same day, a man should have various successive occupations. I myself for the most part read in one language at one part of the day, and in another at another. I am then in the best health and tone of spirits, when I employ two or three hours, and no more, in the act of writing and composition. There must also in the sixteen hours be a time for meals. There should be a time for fresh air and bodily exercise. It is in the nature of man, that we should spend a part of every day in the society of our fellows, either at public spectacles and places of concourse, or in the familiar interchange of conversation with one, two, or more persons with whom we can give ourselves up to unrestrained communication. All human life, as I have said, every day of our existence, consists of term and vacation; and the perfection of practical wisdom is to interpose these one with another, so as to produce a perpetual change, a well-chosen relief, and a freshness and elastic tone which may bid defiance to weariness.

Taken then in this point of view, what an empire does the man of leisure possess in each single day of his life! He disposes of his hours much in the same manner, as the commander of a company of men whom it is his business to train in the discipline of war…

How infinitely various may be the occupations of the life of man from puberty to old age! We may acquire languages; we may devote ourselves to arts; we may give ourselves up to the profoundness of science. Nor is any one of these objects incompatible with the others, nor is there any reason why the same man should not embrace many. We may devote one portion of the year to travelling, and another to all the abstractions of study. I remember when I was a boy, looking forward with terror to the ample field of human life, and saying, When I have read through all the books that have been written, what shall I do afterwards? And there is infinitely more sense in this, than in the ludicrous exclamations of men who complain of the want of time, and say that life affords them no space in which to act their imaginings.

On the contrary, when a man has got to the end of one art or course of study, he is compelled to consider what he shall do next. And, when we have gone through a cycle of as many acquisitions, as, from the limitation of human faculties, are not destructive of each other, we shall find ourselves frequently reduced to the beginning some of them over again. Nor is this the least agreeable occupation of human leisure. The book that I read when I was a boy, presents quite a new face to me as I advance in the vale of years. The same words and phrases suggest to me a new train of ideas. And it is no mean pleasure that I derive from the singular sensation of finding the same author and the same book, old and yet not old, presenting to me cherished and inestimable recollections, and at the same time communicating mines of wealth, the shaft of which was till now unexplored.

The result then of these various observations is to persuade the candid and ingenuous man, to consider life as an important and ample possession, to resolve that it shall be administered with as much judgment and deliberation as a person of true philanthropy and wisdom would administer a splendid income, and upon no occasion so much to think upon the point of in how short a time an interesting pursuit is to be accomplished, as by what means it shall be accomplished in a consummate and masterly style. Let us hear no more, from those who have to a considerable degree the command of their hours, the querulous and pitiful complaint that they have no time to do what they ought to do and would wish to do; but let them feel that they have a gigantic store of minutes and hours and days and months, abundantly sufficient to enable them to effect what it is especially worthy of a noble mind to perform!

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