essays

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1831

“We are Sheep:” Godwin’s Thoughts on Man

Godwin believed that most human beings are brute and imitative, making those precious few liberated individual minds all the more important.

Editor’s Note

Humans beings have a remarkably, stubbornly, almost painfully strong penchant for imitation. To illustrate this point, Godwin suggests that “a wise man” looking at humanity much as one might observe the activities of an ant-hill could hardly distinguish individuals from one another. In the modern period, we may wonder what an alien species visiting and surveying Earth for the first time might observe during its travels. They would no doubt notice that Earth’s dominant species was its most intelligent, though the units of that intelligence may appear muddled at best. Do human beings operate as a collective whole, or as independent individual sub-units? Given that practically everyone within a given territory speaks the same language, worships the same god(s), possesses the same ideas, operates according to the same standard procedures and within the same institutions, the alien observer may legitimately think human beings are more similar to ants than we might like to think. Most of us are not beautiful and unique snowflakes—we are brute and imitative. We care relatively little for exploring the new and the uncharted. Rather, we spend our days in mere imitation of one another or by doing what we have been instructed to do. We are eminently suggestible and malleable, rarely likely to cause much of a fuss. Yet even within this gigantic human sea of countless imitations, each more indistinguishable than the last, some brave few manage to break with the Great Pattern of everyday life and social expectations. When fortune and boldness align aright, genius and creativity burst forth to push humanity in new, more progressive directions.

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 X. OF IMITATION AND INVENTION.

Of the sayings of the wise men of former times none has been oftener repeated than that of Solomon, “The thing that hath been, is that which is; and that which is done, is that which shall be done; and there is no new thing under the sun…”

A wise man would look at the labours of his own species, in much the same spirit as he would view an ant-hill through a microscope. He would see them tugging a grain of corn up a declivity; he would see the tracks that are made by those who go, and who return; their incessant activity; and would find one day the copy of that which went before; and their labours ending in nothing: I mean, in nothing that shall carry forward the improvement of the head and the heart, either in the individual or society, or that shall add to the conveniences of life, or the better providing for the welfare of communities of men. He would smile at their earnestness and zeal, all spent in supplying the necessaries of the day, or, at most, providing for the revolution of the seasons, or for that ephemeral thing we call the life of man.

Few things can appear more singular, when duly analysed, than that articulated air, which we denominate speech…

Yet what is human speech for the most part but mere imitation? In the most obvious sense this stands out on the surface. We learn the same words, we speak the same language, as our elders. Not only our words, but our phrases are the same. We are like players, who come out as if they were real persons, but only utter what is set down for them. We represent the same drama every day; and, however stale is the eternal repetition, pass it off upon others, and even upon ourselves, as if it were the suggestion of the moment. In reality, in rural or vulgar life, the invention of a new phrase ought to be marked down among the memorable things in the calendar. We afford too much honour to ordinary conversation, when we compare it to the exhibition of the recognised theatres, since men ought for the most part to be considered as no more than puppets. They perform the gesticulations; but the words come from some one else, who is hid from the sight of the general observer. And not only the words, but the cadence: they have not even so much honour as players have, to choose the manner they may deem fittest by which to convey the sense and the passion of what they speak. The pronunciations, the dialect, all are supplied to them, and are but a servile repetition. Our tempers are merely the work of the transcriber. We are angry, where we saw that others were angry; and we are pleased, because it is the tone to be pleased. We pretend to have each of us a judgment of our own: but in truth we wait with the most patient docility, till he whom we regard as the leader of the chorus gives us the signal, Here you are to applaud, and Here you are to condemn.

What is it that constitutes the manners of nations, by which the people of one country are so eminently distinguished from the people of another, so that you cannot cross the channel from Dover to Calais, twenty-one miles, without finding yourself in a new world?…Not only nations, but classes of men, are contrasted with each other. What can be more different than the gentry of the west end of this metropolis, and the money-making dwellers in the east?…What more unlike than a soldier and a sailor? the children of fashion that stroll in St. James’s and Hyde Park, and the care-worn hirelings, that recreate themselves, with their wives and their brats, with a little fresh air on a Sunday near Islington? The houses of lords and commons have each their characteristic manners. Each profession has its own, the lawyer, the divine, and the man of medicine. We are all apes, fixing our eyes upon a model, and copying him, gesture by gesture. We are sheep, rushing headlong through the gap, when the bell-wether shews us the way. We are choristers, mechanically singing in a certain key, and giving breath to a certain tone.

Our religion, our civil practices, our political creed, are all imitation. How many men are there, that have examined the evidences of their religious belief, and can give a sound “reason of the faith that is in them?” When I was a child, I was taught that there were four religions in the world, the Popish, the Protestant, the Mahometan, the Pagan. It is a phenomenon to find the man, who has held the balance steadily, and rendered full and exact justice to the pretensions of each of these. No: tell me the longitude and latitude in which a man is born, and I will tell you his religion…

The most calamitous, and the most stupendous scenes are nothing but an eternal and wearisome repetition: executions, murders, plagues, famine and battle. Military execution, the demolition of cities, the conquest of nations, have been acted a hundred times before. The mighty conqueror, who “smote the people in wrath with a continual stroke,” who “sat in the seat of God, shewing himself that he was God,” and assuredly persuaded himself that he was doing something to be had in everlasting remembrance, only did that which a hundred other vulgar conquerors had done in successive ages of the world, whose very names have long since perished from the records of mankind.

Thus it is that the human species is for ever engaged in laborious idleness. We put our shoulder to the wheel, and raise the vehicle out of the mire in which it was swallowed, and we say, I have done something; but the same feat under the same circumstances has been performed a thousand times before. We make what strikes us as a profound observation; and, when fairly analysed, it turns out to be about as sagacious, as if we told what’s o’clock, or whether it is rain or sunshine. Nothing can be more delightfully ludicrous, than the important and emphatical air with which the herd of mankind enunciate the most trifling observations. With much labour we are delivered of what is to us a new thought; and, after a time, we find the same in a musty volume, thrown by in a corner, and covered with cobwebs and dust…

The greater part of the life of the mightiest genius that ever existed is spent in doing nothing, and saying nothing…

It is from this beaten, turnpike road, that the favoured few of mankind are for ever exerting themselves to escape. The multitude grow up, and are carried away, as grass is carried away by the mower. The parish-register tells when they were born, and when they died: “known by the ends of being to have been.” We pass away, and leave nothing behind. Kings, at whose very glance thousands have trembled, for the most part serve for nothing when their breath has ceased, but as a sort of distance-posts in the race of chronology. “The dull swain treads on” their relics “with his clouted shoon.” Our monuments are as perishable as ourselves; and it is the most hopeless of all problems for the most part, to tell where the mighty ones of the earth repose.

All men are aware of the frailty of life, and how short is the span assigned us. Hence every one, who feels, or thinks he feels the power to do so, is desirous to embalm his memory, and to be thought of by a late posterity, to whom his personal presence shall be unknown. Mighty are the struggles; everlasting the efforts. The greater part of these we well know are in vain…

This brings us back to the question: “Is there indeed nothing new under the sun?”

Most certainly there is something that is new. If, as the beast dies, so died man, then indeed we should be without hope. But it is his distinguishing faculty, that he can leave something behind, to testify that he has lived. And this is not only true of the pyramids of Egypt, and certain other works of human industry, that time seems to have no force to destroy…

It is the characteristic of the mind and the heart of man, that they are progressive…

This is the true glory of man, that “one generation doth not pass away, and another come,” velut unda supervenit undam [as a wave overtakes a wave]; but that we leave our improvements behind us. What infinite ages of refinement on refinement, and ingenuity on ingenuity, seem each to have contributed its quota, to make up the accommodations of every day of civilised man; his table, his chair, the bed he lies on, the food he eats, the garments that cover him! It has often been said, that the four quarters of the world are put under contribution, to provide the most moderate table. To this what mills, what looms, what machinery of a thousand denominations, what ship-building, what navigation, what fleets are required! Man seems to have been sent into the world a naked, forked, helpless animal, on purpose to call forth his ingenuity to supply the accommodations that may conduce to his well-being. The saying, that “there is nothing new under the sun,” could never have been struck out, but in one of the two extreme states of man, by the naked savage, or by the highly civilised beings among whom the perfection of refinement has produced an artificial feeling of uniformity.

The thing most obviously calculated to impress us with a sense of the power, and the comparative sublimity of man, is, if we could make a voyage of some duration in a balloon, over a considerable tract of the cultivated and the desert parts of the earth. A brute can scarcely move a stone out of his way, if it has fallen upon the couch where he would repose. But man cultivates fields, and plants gardens; he constructs parks and canals; he turns the course of rivers, and stretches vast artificial moles into the sea; he levels mountains, and builds a bridge, joining in giddy height one segment of the Alps to another; lastly, he founds castles, and churches, and towers, and distributes mighty cities at his pleasure over the face of the globe…

It is true, that the basest treacheries, the most atrocious cruelties, butcheries, massacres, violations of all the restraints of decency, and all the ties of nature, fields covered with dead bodies, and flooded with human gore, are all of them vulgar repetitions of what had been acted countless times already. If Nero or Caligula thought to perpetrate that which should stand unparalleled, they fell into the grossest error. The conqueror, who should lay waste vast portions of the globe, and destroy mighty cities, so that “thorns should come up in the palaces, and nettles in the fortresses thereof, and they should be a habitation of serpents, and a court for owls, and the wild beasts of the desert should meet there,” would only do what Tamerlane, and Aurengzebe, and Zingis, and a hundred other conquerors, in every age and quarter of the world, had done before. The splendour of triumphs, and the magnificence of courts, are so essentially vulgar, that history almost disdains to record them.

And yet there is something that is new, and that by the reader of discernment is immediately felt to be so.

We read of Moses, that he was a child of ordinary birth…This man…by the mere energy of his character prevailed upon his whole race to make common cause with him, and to migrate to a region, in which they should become sovereign and independent. He had no soldiers, but what were made so by the ascendancy of his spirit no counsellors but such as he taught to be wise, no friends but those who were moved by the sentiment they caught from him. The Jews he commanded were sordid and low of disposition, perpetually murmuring against his rule, and at every unfavourable accident calling to remembrance “the land of Egypt, where they had sat by the fleshpots, and were full.” Yet over this race he retained a constant mastery, and finally made of them a nation whose customs and habits and ways of thinking no time has availed to destroy. This was a man then, that possessed the true secret to make other men his creatures, and lead them with an irresistible power wherever he pleased. This history, taken entire, has probably no parallel in the annals of the world.

The invasion of Greece by the Persians, and its result, seem to constitute an event that stands alone among men. Xerxes led against this little territory an army of 5,280,000 men. They drank up rivers, and cut their way through giant-mountains. They were first stopped at Thermopylae by Leonidas and his three hundred Spartans. They fought for a country too narrow to contain the army by which the question was to be tried. The contest was here to be decided between despotism and liberty, whether there is a principle in man, by which a handful of individuals, pervaded with lofty sentiments, and a conviction of what is of most worth in our nature, can defy the brute force, and put to flight the attack, of bones, joints and sinews, though congregated in multitudes, numberless as the waves of the sea, or the sands on its shore. The flood finally rolled back: and in process of time Alexander, with these Greeks whom the ignorance of the East affected to despise, founded another universal monarchy on the ruins of Persia. This is certainly no vulgar history.

Christianity is another of those memorable chapters in the annals of mankind, to which there is probably no second. The son of a carpenter in a little, rocky country, among a nation despised and enslaved, undertook to reform the manners of the people of whom he was a citizen. The reformation he preached was unpalatable to the leaders of the state; he was persecuted; and finally suffered the death reserved for the lowest malefactors, being nailed to a cross. He was cut off in the very beginning of his career, before he had time to form a sect. His immediate representatives and successors were tax-gatherers and fishermen. What could be more incredible, till proved by the event, than that a religion thus begun, should have embraced in a manner the whole civilised world, and that of its kingdom there should be no visible end?…

Rome, “the eternal city,” is likewise a subject that stands out from the vulgar history of the human race. Three times, in three successive forms, has she been the mistress of the world…

The great principle of originality is in the soul of man. And here again we may recur to Greece, the parent of all that is excellent in art. Painting, statuary, architecture, poetry, in their most exquisite and ravishing forms, originated in this little province. Is not the Iliad a thing new, and that will for ever remain new? Whether it was written by one man, as I believe, or, as the levellers of human glory would have us think, by many, there it stands: all the ages of the world present us nothing that can come in competition with it.

Shakespear is another example of unrivalled originality. His fame is like the giant-rivers of the world: the further it flows, the wider it spreads out its stream, and the more marvellous is the power with which it sweeps along.

But, in reality, all poetry and all art, that have a genuine claim to originality, are new, the smallest, as well as the greatest.

It is the mistake of dull minds only, to suppose that every thing has been said, that human wit is exhausted, and that we, who have unfortunately fallen upon the dregs of time, have no alternative left, but either to be silent, or to say over and over again, what has been well said already.

There remain yet immense tracts of invention, the mines of which have been untouched. We perceive nothing of the strata of earth, and the hidden fountains of water, that we travel over, unconscious of the treasures that are immediately within our reach, till some person, endowed with the gift of a superior sagacity, comes into the country, who appears to see through the opake and solid mass, as we see through the translucent air, and tells us of things yet undiscovered, and enriches us with treasures, of which we had been hitherto entirely ignorant. The nature of the human mind, and the capabilities of our species are in like manner a magazine of undiscovered things, till some mighty genius comes to break the surface, and shew us the wonderful treasures that lay beneath uncalled for and idle.

Human character is like the contents of an ample cabinet, brought together by the untired zeal of some curious collector, who tickets his rarities with numbers, and has a catalogue in many volumes, in which are recorded the description and qualities of the things presented to our view…

As to a great degree we may subscribe to the saying of the wise man, that “there is nothing new under the sun,” so in a certain sense it may also be affirmed that nothing is old. Both of these maxims may be equally true. The prima materia, the atoms of which the universe is composed, is of a date beyond all record; and the figures which have yet been introduced into the most fantastic chronology, may perhaps be incompetent to represent the period of its birth. But the ways in which they may be compounded are exhaustless. It is like what the writers on the Doctrine of Chances tell us of the throwing of dice. How many men now exist on the face of the earth? Yet, if all these were brought together, and if, in addition to this, we could call up all the men that ever lived, it may be doubted, whether any two would be found so much alike, that a clear-sighted and acute observer might not surely distinguish the one from the other. Leibnitz informs us, that no two leaves of a tree exist in the most spacious garden, that, upon examination, could be pronounced perfectly similar…

But, if art and the invention of the human mind are exhaustless, science is even more notoriously so. We stand but on the threshold of the knowledge of nature, and of the various ways in which physical power may be brought to operate for the accommodation of man. This is a business that seems to be perpetually in progress; and, like the fall of bodies by the power of gravitation, appears to gain in momentum, in proportion as it advances to a greater distance from the point at which the impulse was given. The discoveries which at no remote period have been made, would, if prophesied of, have been laughed to scorn by the ignorant sluggishness of former generations; and we are equally ready to regard with incredulity the discoveries yet unmade, which will be familiar to our posterity. Indeed every man of a capacious and liberal mind is willing to admit, that the progress of human understanding in science, which is now going on, is altogether without any limits that by the most penetrating genius can be assigned. It is like a mighty river, that flows on for ever and for ever, as far as the words, “for ever,” can have a meaning to the comprehension of mortals. The question that remains is, our practicable improvement in literature and morals, and here those persons who entertain a mean opinion of human nature, are constantly ready to tell us that it will be found to amount to nothing. However we may be continually improving in mechanical knowledge and ingenuity, we are assured by this party, that we shall never surpass what has already been done in poetry and literature, and, which is still worse, that, however marvellous may be our future acquisitions in science and the application of science, we shall be, as much as ever, the creatures of that vanity, ostentation, opulence and the spirit of exclusive accumulation, which has hitherto, in most countries (not in all countries), generated the glaring inequality of property, and the oppression of the many for the sake of pampering the folly of the few…

The natural and experimental philosopher has nothing sacred and indestructible in the language and form in which he delivers truths. New discoveries and experiments come, and his individual terms and phrases and theories perish. One race of natural philosophers does but prepare the way for another race, which is to succeed. They “blow the trumpet, and give out the play.” And they must be contented to perish before the brighter knowledge, of which their efforts were but the harbingers…The philosophy of Newton already begins to grow old, and is found to have weak and decaying parts mixed with those which are immortal and divine. In the science of mind Aristotle and Plato are set aside…Kant and Fichte will at last fare no better than those that went before them…

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