Of Human Vegetation: Godwin’s Thoughts on Man
“The mind is in a state of turbulence and tempest in one instant, and in another subsides into the deepest imbecility.”
Expanding upon his broad discussion of time and its place in individuals’ daily lived experience of the world, Godwin’s next essay recalls earlier themes. Through most of the following essay, Godwin makes a compelling case that the amount of time in the day one’s mind is actively engaged in thought or decision-making is actually very small. Through fully one-third of the day, the mind is turned off—relegated to the dream world, if active at all. In the remaining sixteen hours, purposively passive leisure occupies much time and essentially vegetative moments of mindlessness perhaps even more. Yet, our author carefully notes, mindfulness is far from the exclusive preserve of intellectuals. Even the farmer or the common soldier and sailor can be a reflecting, cognizant, active participant with his or her world. And though flashes of brilliance may sometimes come about when one vegetates (like Newton under his tree), individuals who turn off their minds more than is necessary to sanity do themselves a positive disservice. Once again, Godwin argues that humans are of a dual nature: we are acting entities at our sharpest, best, and most experientially aware when actively engaged in shaping or understanding our world; and we yearn ceaselessly to cast off this burden on our attentions, allowing ourselves to slip into restful, peaceful vegetation. To his great sorrow, Godwin concludes that the bulk of the species is forced by either circumstance or lack of contrary will to eschew action through the great majority of their waking hours, and thus to passively allow history to happen around them. The solution to this great human tragedy, therefore, was to encourage the rebellious willfulness of youth, a set of habits and state of mind which may by itself revolutionize the way individuals live their lives and experience the world.
THOUGHTS ON MAN: HIS NATURE, PRODUCTIONS AND DISCOVERIES INTERSPERSED WITH SOME PARTICULARS RESPECTING THE AUTHOR (Excerpts)
By William Godwin
ESSAY VIII. OF HUMAN VEGETATION.
…Man has two states of existence in a striking degree distinguished from each other: the state in which he is found during his waking hours; and the state in which he is during sleep.
The question has been agitated by Locke and other philosophers, “whether the soul always thinks,” in other words, whether the mind, during those hours in which our limbs lie for the most part in a state of inactivity, is or is not engaged by a perpetual succession of images and impressions. This is a point that can perhaps never be settled. When the empire of sleep ceases, or when we are roused from sleep, we are often conscious that we have been to that moment busily employed with that sort of conceptions and scenes which we call dreams…
So much for man in the state of sleep.
But during our waking hours, our minds are very differently occupied at different periods of the day. I would particularly distinguish the two dissimilar states of the waking man, when the mind is indolent, and when it is on the alert.
While I am writing this Essay, my mind may be said to be on the alert. It is on the alert, so long as I am attentively reading a book of philosophy, of argumentation, of eloquence, or of poetry.
It is on the alert, so long as I am addressing a smaller or a greater audience, and endeavouring either to amuse or instruct them. It is on the alert, while in silence and solitude I endeavour to follow a train of reasoning, to marshal and arrange a connected set of ideas, or in any other way to improve my mind, to purify my conceptions, and to advance myself in any of the thousand kinds of intellectual process. It is on the alert, when I am engaged in animated conversation, whether my cue be to take a part in the reciprocation of alternate facts and remarks in society, or merely to sit an attentive listener to the facts and remarks of others.
This state of the human mind may emphatically be called the state of activity and attention.
So long as I am engaged in any of the ways here enumerated, or in any other equally stirring mental occupations which are not here set down, my mind is in a frame of activity.
But there is another state in which men pass their minutes and hours, that is strongly contrasted with this. It depends in some men upon constitution, and in others upon accident, how their time shall be divided, how much shall be given to the state of activity, and how much to the state of indolence…
But there lurks in this statement a considerable error.
It has appeared in the second Essay of this volume, that there is not that broad and strong line of distinction between the wise man and the dull that has often been supposed. We are all of us by turns both the one and the other. Or, at least, the wisest man that ever existed spends a portion of his time in vacancy and dulness; and the man, whose faculties are seemingly the most obtuse, might, under proper management from the hour of his birth, barring those rare exceptions from the ordinary standard of mind which do not deserve to be taken into the account, have proved apt, adroit, intelligent and acute, in the walk for which his organisation especially fitted him…
The lives of all men, the wise, and those whom by way of contrast we are accustomed to call the dull, are divided between animation and comparative vacancy; and many a man, who by the bursts of his genius has astonished the world, and commanded the veneration of successive ages, has spent a period of time equal to that occupied by a walk from Temple-Bar to Hyde-Park-Corner, in a state of mind as idle, and as little affording materials for recollection, as the dullest man that ever breathed the vital air.
The two states of man which are here attempted to be distinguished, are, first, that in which reason is said to fill her throne, in which will prevails, and directs the powers of mind or of bodily action in one channel or another; and, secondly, that in which these faculties, tired of for ever exercising their prerogatives, or, being awakened as it were from sleep, and having not yet assumed them, abandon the helm, even as a mariner might be supposed to do, in a wide sea, and in a time when no disaster could be apprehended, and leave the vessel of the mind to drift, exactly as chance might direct.
To describe this last state of mind I know not a better term that can be chosen, than that of reverie. It is of the nature of what I have seen denominated BROWN STUDY a species of dozing and drowsiness, in which all men spend a portion of the waking part of every day of their lives. Every man must be conscious of passing minutes, perhaps hours of the day, particularly when engaged in exercise in the open air, in this species of neutrality and eviration. It is often not unpleasant at the time, and leaves no sinking of the spirits behind. It is probably of a salutary nature, and may be among the means, in a certain degree beneficial like sleep, by which the machine is restored, and the man comes forth from its discipline reinvigorated, and afresh capable of his active duties.
This condition of our nature has considerably less vitality in it, than we experience in a complete and perfect dream. In dreaming we are often conscious of lively impressions, of a busy scene, and of objects and feelings succeeding each other with rapidity. We sometimes imagine ourselves earnestly speaking: and the topics we treat, and the words we employ, are supplied to us with extraordinary fluency. But the sort of vacancy and inoccupation of which I here treat, has a greater resemblance to the state of mind, without distinct and clearly unfolded ideas, which we experience before we sink into sleep. The mind is in reality in a condition, more properly accessible to feeling and capable of thought, than actually in the exercise of either the one or the other. We are conscious of existence and of little more. We move our legs, and continue in a peripatetic state; for the man who has gone out of his house with a purpose to walk, exercises the power of volition when he sets out, but proceeds in his motion by a semi-voluntary act, by a sort of vis inertiae, which will not cease to operate without an express reason for doing so, and advances a thousand steps without distinctly willing any but the first. When it is necessary to turn to the right or the left, or to choose between any two directions on which he is called upon to decide, his mind is so far brought into action as the case may expressly require, and no further.
I have here instanced in the case of the peripatetic: but of how many classes and occupations of human life may not the same thing be affirmed? It happens to the equestrian, as well as to him that walks on foot. It occurs to him who cultivates the fruits of the earth, and to him who is occupied in any of the thousand manufactures which are the result of human ingenuity. It happens to the soldier in his march, and to the mariner on board his vessel. It attends the individuals of the female sex through all their diversified modes of industry, the laundress, the housemaid, the sempstress, the netter of purses, the knotter of fringe, and the worker in tambour, tapestry and embroidery. In all, the limbs or the fingers are employed mechanically; the attention of the mind is only required at intervals; and the thoughts remain for the most part in a state of non-excitation and repose.
It is a curious question, but extremely difficult of solution, what portion of the day of every human creature must necessarily be spent in this sort of intellectual indolence. In the lower classes of society its empire is certainly very great; its influence is extensive over a large portion of the opulent and luxurious; it is least among those who are intrusted in the more serious affairs of mankind, and among the literary and the learned, those who waste their lives, and consume the midnight-oil, in the search after knowledge.
It appeared with sufficient clearness in the immediately preceding Essay, that the intellect cannot be always on the stretch, nor the bow of the mind for ever bent. In the act of composition, unless where the province is of a very inferior kind, it is likely that not more than two or three hours at a time can be advantageously occupied. But in literary labour it will often occur, that, in addition to the hours expressly engaged in composition, much time may be required for the collecting materials, the collating of authorities, and the bringing together a variety of particulars, so as to sift from the mass those circumstances which may best conduce to the purpose of the writer. In all these preliminary and inferior enquiries it is less necessary that the mind should be perpetually awake and on the alert, than in the direct office of composition…
There is a distinction, sufficiently familiar to all persons who occupy a portion of their time in reading, that is made between books of instruction, and books of amusement. From the student of mathematics or any of the higher departments of science, from the reader of books of investigation and argument, an active attention is demanded. Even in the perusal of the history of kingdoms and nations, or of certain memorable periods of public affairs, we can scarcely proceed with any satisfaction, unless in so far as we collect our thoughts, compare one part of the narrative with another, and hold the mind in a state of activity.
We are obliged to reason while we read, and in some degree to construct a discourse of our own, at the same time that we follow the statements of the author before us. Unless we do this, the sense and spirit of what we read will be apt to slip from under our observation, and we shall by and by discover that we are putting together words and sounds only, when we purposed to store our minds with facts and reflections. We apprehended not the sense of the writer even when his pages were under our eye, and of consequence have nothing laid up in the memory after the hour of reading is completed.
In works of amusement it is otherwise, and most especially in writings of fiction. These are sought after with avidity by the idle, because for the most part they are found to have the virtue of communicating impressions to the reader, even while his mind remains in a state of passiveness. He finds himself agreeably affected with fits of mirth or of sorrow, and carries away the facts of the tale, at the same time that he is not called upon for the act of attention. This is therefore one of the modes of luxury especially cultivated in a highly civilized state of society.
The same considerations will also explain to us the principal part of the pleasure that is experienced by mankind in all states of society from public shews and exhibitions. The spectator is not called upon to exert himself; the amusement and pleasure come to him, while he remains voluptuously at his ease; and it is certain that the exertion we make when we are compelled to contribute to, and become in part the cause of our own entertainment, is more than the human mind is willing to sustain, except at seasons in which we are specially on the alert and awake.
This is further one of the causes why men in general feel prompted to seek the society of their fellows. We are in part no doubt called upon in select society to bring our own information along with us, and a certain vein of wit, humour or narrative, that we may contribute our proportion to the general stock. We read the newspapers, the newest publications, and repair to places of fashionable amusement and resort; partly that we may at least be upon a par with the majority of the persons we are likely to meet. But many do not thus prepare themselves, nor does perhaps any one upon all occasions.
There is another state of human existence in which we expressly dismiss from our hands the reins of the mind, and suffer our minutes and our hours to glide by us undisciplined and at random…
It is thus that we are sick; and it is thus that we die. The man that guides the operations of his own mind, is either to a certain degree in bodily health, or in that health of mind which shall for a longer or shorter time stand forward as the substitute of the health of the body. When we die, we give up the game, and are not disposed to contend any further. It is a very usual thing to talk of the struggles of a man in articulo mortis. But this is probably, like so many other things that occur to us in this sublunary stage, a delusion. The bystander mistakes for a spontaneous contention and unwillingness to die, what is in reality nothing more than an involuntary contraction and convulsion of the nerves, to which the mind is no party, and is even very probably unconscious.—But enough of this, the final and most humiliating state through which mortal men may be called on to pass…
The distinction then between these two sorts of indolence is, that in the latter our ideas are perfectly distinct, are attended with consciousness, and can, as we please, be called up to recollection. This therefore is not what we understand by reverie. In these waking hours which are spent by us in bed, the mind is no less busy, than it is in sleep during a dream. The other and more perfect sort of mental indolence, is that which we often experience during our exercise in the open air. This is of the same nature as the condition of thought which seems to be the necessary precursor of sleep, and is attended with no precise consciousness.
By the whole of the above statement we are led to a new and a modified estimate of the duration of human life.
If by life we understand mere susceptibility, a state of existence in which we are accessible at any moment to the onset of sensation, for example, of pain—in this sense our life is commensurate, or nearly commensurate, to the entire period, from the quickening of the child in the womb, to the minute at which sense deserts the dying man, and his body becomes an inanimate mass.
But life, in the emphatical sense, and par excellence, is reduced to much narrower limits. From this species of life it is unavoidable that we should strike off the whole of the interval that is spent in sleep; and thus, as a general rule, the natural day of twenty-four hours is immediately reduced to sixteen.
Of these sixteen hours again, there is a portion that falls under the direction of will and attention, and a portion that is passed by us in a state of mental indolence. By the ordinary and least cultivated class of mankind, the husbandman, the manufacturer, the soldier, the sailor, and the main body of the female sex, much the greater part of every day is resigned to a state of mental indolence. The will does not actively interfere, and the attention is not roused. Even the most intellectual beings of our species pass no inconsiderable portion of every day in a similar condition. Such is our state for the most part during the time that is given to bodily exercise, and during the time in which we read books of amusement merely, or are employed in witnessing public shews and exhibitions.
That portion of every day of our existence which is occupied by us with a mind attentive and on the alert, I would call life in a transcendant sense. The rest is scarcely better than a state of vegetation.
And yet not so either. The happiest and most valuable thoughts of the human mind will sometimes come when they are least sought for, and we least anticipated any such thing. In reading a romance, in witnessing a performance at a theatre, in our idlest and most sportive moods, a vein in the soil of intellect will sometimes unexpectedly be broken up, “richer than all the tribe” of contemporaneous thoughts, that shall raise him to whom it occurs, to a rank among his species altogether different from any thing he had looked for. Newton was led to the doctrine of gravitation by the fall of an apple, as he indolently reclined under the tree on which it grew…—But these instances are comparatively of rare occurrence, and do not require to be taken into the account.
It is still true therefore for the most part, that not more than eight hours in the day are passed by the wisest and most energetic, with a mind attentive and on the alert. The remainder is a period of vegetation only. In the mean time we have all of us undoubtedly to a certain degree the power of enlarging the extent of the period of transcendant life in each day of our healthful existence, and causing it to encroach upon the period either of mental indolence or of sleep.—With the greater part of the human species the whole of their lives while awake, with the exception of a few brief and insulated intervals, is spent in a passive state of the intellectual powers. Thoughts come and go, as chance, or some undefined power in nature may direct, uninterfered with by the sovereign will, the steersman of the mind. And often the understanding appears to be a blank, upon which if any impressions are then made, they are like figures drawn in the sand which the next tide obliterates, or are even lighter and more evanescent than this.
Let me add, that the existence of the child for two or three years from the period of his birth, is almost entirely a state of vegetation. The impressions that are made upon his sensorium come and go, without either their advent or departure being anticipated, and without the interference of the will. It is only under some express excitement, that the faculty of will mounts its throne, and exercises its empire. When the child smiles, that act is involuntary; but, when he cries, will presently comes to mix itself with the phenomenon. Wilfulness, impatience and rebellion are infallible symptoms of a mind on the alert. And, as the child in the first stages of its existence puts forth the faculty of will only at intervals, so for a similar reason this period is but rarely accompanied with memory, or leaves any traces of recollection for our after-life…
The mind is in a state of turbulence and tempest in one instant, and in another subsides into the deepest imbecility; and, even when the will is occasionally roused, the link which preserved its union with good sense and sobriety is dissolved, and the views by which it has the appearance of being regulated, are all based in misconstruction and delusion…