« PreviousContinue »
NORTH AMERICAN REVIEW.
Art. I. - The Miscellaneous Works of the Right HONOR
ABLE SIR JAMES MACKINTOSH. Philadelphia : Carey & Hart. 1846. 8vo. pp. 596.
PHENOMENA and results in the intellectual world are governed by laws no less determinate and unbending than those which regulate and modify the annual products of agricultural skill and labor ; and, in the finely reticulated system of correspondences between the outward and the spiritual universe, we may trace the application of the same principles to the harvest of wheat and barley, and to that of enduring and effective thought and sentiment. It has become an axiom with farmers, that no soil is rich enough to dispense with diligent cultivation. The land spontaneously fertile, is due vigilance be intermitted, will bristle with a ranker growth of weeds than of grain. The husbandman, who forces two or three precocious harvests from his undressed farm, has it left on his. hands effete and sterile. Equally little can genius avail without early and diligent culture. Genius is not wisdom or knowledge, but mere susceptibility and capacity. In order to make effort successful, it must work on preëxisting materials extrinsic to itself, and with instruments conventional in their very origin and nature. A brilliant, but undisciplined mind may indeed excite transient admiration by the jaunty air with which it parades its penury ; but it contributes nothing to the permanent wealth of the race. Nor has precocious genius often called forth any deeper emotion than wonder, or achieved more than the promise of subsequent eminence. Sometimes,
No. 139, 23
" could not ope
as in the cases of Chatterton and Kirke White, early death has attached a factitious consecration to works of secondary merit, which, had their authors lived, would have passed quickly out of memory, or have been valued simply as marking certain epochs in the development of minds that soon outgrew them. We can hardly regard the poem of Festus as an exception to the general law. It utterly lacks coherent thought and appreciable sentiment. All that it has worthy of admiration is a per-centage of perfect or almost perfect metaphors, certainly no larger than the doctrine of chances would render probable in a poem worthy to have been written by that valorous knight who
His mouth, but out there flew a trope." Almost all the master-works of genius have been the fruit of fully matured years and protracted self-discipline. Nor have any great men been idle. Where they have seemed so, it has been because they marked out their own independent systems of culture, adapted to their respective tastes or aims. If they have held less communion with the dead, it has been that they might enter into closer sympathy with the living ; or if they have secluded themselves equally from men and books, still there has been law in their reverie, system in their musing, filaments of order and progress among their wildest fancies.
Homogeneous culture is also essential to high intellectual eminence. " Thou shalt not sow thy field with mingled seed,” is the oldest agricultural precept extant; and, even in the rude age in which it was promulgated, common sense would have made it needless, had not superstition given rise to the absurdity forbidden. A like superstition or infatuation drives
many who are capable of greatness to seek it in more ways than one, or to seek it in connection with mercenary and sordid pursuits and aims. For the attainment of distinguished success in any department of effort, there must be an early choice of the one prime end, and that end must be held so steadily in view as to assimilate to itself, and to incorporate with its appropriate means, every possible diversity of knowledge, speculation, and endeavour. Then, the more extended and various the modes of culture, the richer will be the fruit.
Again, the same fruits of the earth cannot be consumed and garnered. The field which has fed its owner's guests through the summer will give bim but scanty gleanings in the autumn. In like manner, equal mental endowments and industry will make a widely different impression upon posterity, according as they are employed on the current occasions of the passing day, or husbanded with reference to some definite and permanent end. Men who have acquired great posthumous fame have seldom kept themselves much before the eyes of their own coevals, have been deaf to the transient calls upon their energy, and have thus accumulated strength for achievements of imperishable interest and magnitude. On the other hand, there are many, who 6ll the largest place in the estimation of their contemporaries, and enjoy to the full the applauding suffrages of those whose praise is a token of high merit, who yet, on dying, leave nothing to sustain with the next generation the honored name which they transmit, and pass rapidly to the lists of undistinguished mediocrity. In point of fact, many of this last class are no less highly endowed by nature and by cultivation than those whose death is an apotheosis ; but their readiness to impart, their genial, generous self-sacrifice, their disinterested contributions to the usefulness or fame of more selsh or ambitious men, drain their resources as rapidly as they are accumulated, and leave them always destitute of the durable materials requisite to construct a monument worthy of their own genius.
Perhaps there could not be a more apposite illustration of these remarks, than the case of our lamented fellow-countryman and friend, the late John Pickering. In versatility of genius, in the opportunity of liberal culture, in the power and habit of concentrated industry, he can have had few equals, perhaps not a superior, among the scholars of his day ; and the unimpassioned sketch of his literary life by Judge White presents an amount of thoroughly finished work in the departments of philology and criticism sufficient to have rivalled the fame of Bentley or Heyne. Yet when those who loved him shall have passed away, there will be but a faint penumbra of his merited reputation lingering about his name. And why ? Because he always met, with the utmost prodigality of his own resources and efforts, every temporary draft made upon them by friends, strangers, or the public. More ready to correct, complete, or enrich another's work than his own, stowing away, in prefaces or fugitive essays, speculations and researches which claimed the most respectful regard of the whole literary world, lavishing upon his casual acquaintance pregnant suggestions, germs of theories, plans of investigation, that helped them to the fame which he never coveted, he was the most self-forgetting man we ever knew, and, we believe, enjoyed the tacit consciousness of having ministered to the rising scholarship and reputation of others far beyond his capacity of appreciating honors exclusively his own.
It is happy for the world, that, among the intellectually great, there are those men who live more for the present than for posterity. There is much of the daily work of life, that needs to be well done, and demands strong men to do it. Were newspapers, reviews, school-books, and such literature as is in its very form and purport ephemeral, all left to mediocrity or dulness, and did men of genius and talent cater only for their own immortality, the means of general and individual culture would soon become too meagre and paltry to enable rising generations to appreciate and enjoy the earlier monuments of literature and taste. It is a kindly arrangement of Providence, which has made some great minds, by the very necessity of their nature, generous in detail, and disposed to let no occasion for the expenditure of their mental wealth go by unused; while others, by a like necessity, refrain from giving till they can bestow gifts worthy of the gratitude of nations
In these remarks, we have, as we think, given some hints towards the solution of Sir James Mackintosh's case. Hardly a man of his generation bore so great a name while living ; yet, in the lapse of less than twenty years since his death, his reputation in every department has been more than rivalled, nor is there any one of his numerous works which promises to retain a permanently cherished place in English literature. Either his fame was in a great measure factitious and baseless, or else there was in the man, in his living spirit, in the impulses and influences of which he was the centre, much that has left no adequate memorial of itself. The latter we suppose to have been the case. We believe him to have been a great man, even if we attach a closely circumscribed meaning to that often indefinite title. But we derive our impressions of his greatness much more from the memoirs of his life, and from indubitable facts connected with his position and relations, both social and political, than from his own writings.
We suppose that he was, in early life, very careless and negligent, — nay, absolutely “ lazy," as he terms himself, in laying the foundation of a thorough education. In the University of Aberdeen, of which he was an alumnus, there seems to have been a great deal of noble impulse, but no thorough system. Mackintosh read and studied much that was beyond his years, and derived the utmost benefit from familiar literary intercourse with Robert Hall and other fellowstudents of kindred spirit, and with the distinguished men who occupied the various chairs of instruction ; but he seems to have been left mainly to the bent of his own genius, instead of being guided in the homogeneous cultivation of all his powers and of all the various branches of a truly liberal education. The consequence was, that his mind always lacked breadth and comprehensiveness of vision. The filaments of association, that connect the different departments of knowledge and literature together, must be laid in the mind early or never ; and it is mainly in laying them that the value of what is worthily called a university education consists. Where all the cardinal divisions of human knowledge are crowded into a few juvenile years, though only the merest rudiments of each can be acquired, the mind learns to contemplate them in their mutual bearings and relations, and has ever afterwards an intuitive perception of the resources of each for the elucidation and adornment of every other. The same knowledge, subsequently acquired, is apt to remain in the mind in detached and insulated masses, incapable of mutual service. Mackintosh became a man of almost unprecedented erudition ; yet he makes this felt rather by the wide range of subjects which successively tasked his industry, than by full and varied affluence of mind in any one department.
We trace in him, also, a fickleness and vagueness of aim, a lack of concentrated purpose and effort, nay, an almost constant discrepancy between his pursuits and his tastes, which leaves us in surprise that he accomplished so much, rather than that he achieved no more. He seems to have wanted the energy of will requisite to the early selection and resolute pursuit of some one department of intellectual labor before all others. His tastes would have led him to devote himself to ethical and political science; and he seems to have been waiting, with some degree of expectancy, till the last year of his life, for a golden period to be given wholly to pursuits of