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would be playing the great game with loaded dice. His insight, not his daring, would deserve our wonder. But he who risks life and fame upon an uncertainty deserves equal credit, for his intrinsic merit is the same, whether the cards turn up for him or against him. Our life is little but a wandering in a trackless desert. We throw out exploring parties in every direction. Ten die of starvation and misery; one hits upon the right path. Too often we praise the man already rewarded by fortune, and attribute his good luck to some mysterious power of intuitive judgment. But, if we were just, we should bestow equal praise and more sympathy upon the luckless ones whose steps led them to the barren places, and whose failures, it may be, served as warning beacons to their more favoured successors.
Why not apply this rule to the pioneers of intellectual or artistic progress? Hundreds of men have wasted lives of energetic endeavour in following delusive paths in that great labyrinth of human knowledge, where the clue is so hard to find, and where at every stage so many paths hold out equal promise. We, enlightened by slow experience, or by wider knowledge, can see that these wanderings were predestined to failure. But why not honour equally the high faith which scorned meaner aims, and was unchilled by the indifference of the vulgar? Is devotion to knowledge so common a quality that we can afford to despise it unless it bears fruit in appreciable results? We often laugh at the poor would-be philosophers who waste years in trying to discover perpetual motion, or to square the circle. They are, we may be sure, grossly ignorant, and, in all likelihood, intolerably arrogant. They must be ignorant of other men's work, or blind to the vast improbability that they should be right, and all the great intellects of the world hopelessly wrong. Yet, even in this case, pity as much as scorn may be due to the ignorance; and the arrogance itself is but the ugly side or the exaggerated development of the quality which, more than any other, is necessary for intellectual progress. We have never a sufficient supply of originality and intellectual daring. We always need more men able to cast aside the traditional spectacles, to see for themselves and once more test the dogmas which our indolence tempts us to accept with too easy a faith. Such courage is good, even when misguided. Find men who will dare, and all is possible. Let obedience to authority be installed as the first intellectual virtue, and knowledge will be petrified into Chinese finality. And, if even such eccentricity deserves that contempt should be tempered with mercy, may we not rightfully honour many others who have thrown away their lives, like poor Casaubon in Middlemarch, in labours fruitless because accidentally misdirected? It is a great misfortune, but it is not a vice, to be an anachronism.
But what are we to say to that great army of martyrs, amongst whom poor Haydon is to be reckoned-the epic poets, the rivals of Shakspeare, the would-be eclipsers of Raphael or Phidias-the men whose efforts to sing or to paint have supplied the world with mountains of waste-paper,
and spoilt acres of good canvas? One of the most pathetic of Balzac's minor stories describes the fate of a poor painter, who had laboured for years at a picture destined to create a new era in art. All his hopes in life, his love and his ambition, were involved in its success. No one had been admitted to the room in which he laboured with unremitted devotion. At last, the day came when the favoured person stood before the curtain which concealed the masterpiece. The painter drew it aside, slowly and solemnly, and revealed a meaningless confusion of chaotic colouring. The artist's mind was of course unhinged; but his melancholy story is a symbol of the fate of many men still outside Bedlam. Any one who has seen the darker side of the literary and artistic worlds can match Balzac's hero with numerous instances of similar self-delusion. The pictures are not often mere random blotches of colour; the poems frequently obey the laws of grammar, and even of metre; but, for all good purposes, the artist might as well have thrown his brush at the canvas, or the author taken his words at random from the dictionary. And what should be our feeling? Contempt or pity or admiration for the devotion, combined with compassion for the error? Should we honour, say, a Chatterton who is a martyr to his ambition, because the poems unrecognised during his life-time turned out really to have something in them (though, after all, not very much!) and despise the numerous Chattertons who have hopelessly failed, because there was nothing in them at all? The moral quality was the same. The difference was that one man judged his powers rightly, whilst the hundreds judge of their powers wrongly. But this is an error to which almost every man is liable. Our squarers of the circle are silly, because they can appeal to a court which is practically infallible. A hundred professors of mathematics are ready not only to tell them that they are wrong, but to explain to them how and why they are wrong. But the poet can appeal to no such court. If he is not appreciated, it may be that he is in advance, not in rear, of his time. A century hence, his work may be winning recognition, and his descendants be ridiculing the blindness of their ancestors. Why, then, should he not persevere, and trust his work to time? Do we not, in any case, owe to him the tribute of admiration for a devotion, of which it is premature to pronounce that it was directed to a mistaken object?
The easiest answer is that a false estimate of our own merits is in fact immoral. Vanity is weakness which we can all condemn unreservedly, because we all feel that we are free from it ourselves, and recognise its existence throughout the rest of the species. The appointed chastisement of vanity is ridicule. Therefore we are right in laughing at the man who thinks himself to be a Milton when he is merely a Satan Montgomery. The victim may reply that we are begging the question, and that what we call his vanity will hereafter be called consciousness of genius. And, in truth, the dilemma is in one sense insoluble. Critics are fallible; cliques are fallible. The outside public is so fallible as to be generally
wrong; no literary court is infallible except that to which the best minds of all ages are admitted as judges, and in which many of our most dogmatic utterances would look foolish enough. Yet we must take our chance. Judges must sentence prisoners, though now and then they may condemn an innocent person. Critics must laugh at charlatans, though they may now and then mistake a man of genius for a fool. But there is a more fundamental difficulty. Granting that a man's confidence in his own powers really implies vanity, are we therefore justified in condemning him? Is vanity a vice at all? Is it not in any case a vice so universal that none of us have a right to cast the first stone? Nay, if we lay aside the conventional attitude of mind, in which our little cutand-dried maxims pass for legitimate currency, ought we not rather to call vanity a virtue, or at lowest a desirable quality? Listen to the ordinary moralising of the pulpit and the moral essayist, and we, of course, must condemn vanity, as on the same showing we condemn many of the most essential qualities by which the world is carried on. There is a sense-nobody denies it-in which these commonplaces have a sound, if a rather obvious, meaning. But all maxims that have been much used by preachers-lay or clerical—become so strained and perverted in the process that, like worn-out muskets, they are apt to produce very random shooting. Who that has looked at the world for himself can deny that vanity may be reckoned amongst the most enviable of possessions? It deserves, even more than the original object of the panegyric, the praise which Sancho bestowed upon sleep. Vanity does indeed wrap a man up like a cloak. It bestows its blessings freely upon the poet striving against general misappreciation; it enables the poor loser in the great battle of life to make himself happy with some trifling success; it softens the bitter pangs of disappointment and gives fresh strength for new struggles; it prevents resentment and facilitates the intercourse of society; it can make any man contented with his lot and lets the poor drudge in the kitchen think without envy of the statesman in the parlour. Who would not be tempted to frequent irritation if he could enjoy that gift for which the poet so foolishly prayed, the gift of seeing himself as others saw him, and recognise his infinitesimal importance in the eyes of his fellows? It is because of the tender illusions of vanity that a man can accept the petty sphere of his own activity for the wider circle of the world, and shut out the annihilating image of the vast forces beyond. It is the safeguard against a depressing fatalism. Vanity has as many virtues as the vaunted panaceas of medical quackery; and were it not for that softening oil, the wheels of life would grate harsh music too discordant for mortal ears.
Yet in singing the praises of vanity we become aware of a certain vagueness of outline about this Protean goddess. She can take many shapes; and changes so rapidly and completely that we are unable to fix any definite portrait upon our canvas. Sometimes there is a scowl upon her features, and sometimes a complacent smile. She can pass her
self off in the likeness of her conventional opposite, humility, or ape the gestures of pride, or be undistinguishable from mere sullen egotism. All our definitions of the passions have this provoking vagueness, because, in truth, we do not know what are the ultimate elements of character. We cannot find chemical formulæ for human nature, or say how many atoms of spiritual oxygen or hydrogen must be combined to form a definite product. Our efforts at analysis break down at every instant. Every new light thrown by new circumstances brings out previously unsuspected aspects of bewildering complexity. Every new character seems to require a new category for its description. There seem to be as many species of men as there are individuals. Our complacent little formulæ may guide our conduct with tolerable accuracy; but, when we confront theory with the infinite variety of facts, we recognise the futility of any claim to scientific accuracy. We class men as good or bad, humble or vain; and when looking at exceptional cases, or dealing only with large classes and average results, our words have a kind of meaning. The saint and the sinner, St. John and Judas Iscariot, may be distinguished easily enough. But between the extremes we may interpose any number of terms, varying so strangely, in so many directions, and combining so many apparent contradictions, that our lines of demarcation become hopelessly blurred and confused. Our compartments may be most logically subdivided, but no real being will quite fit into any one of them. The inferior classes multiply on our lands; they cross, blend, overlap and confuse each other till we admit them to be useless. We can seldom apply a rule to a dozen cases without finding twelve exceptions. The qualifications to our statements become so numerous that the statements are practically worthless. The poet can create characters; the man of science cannot define them or assign their composition.
Thus the condemnation of vanity collapses when we try to answer the plain question, what is vanity? Try to define accurately the various cognate terms, vanity, conceit, pride, egotism, and their numerous allies, to mark out accurately their points of resemblance and contrast, and then test your conclusions by appropriate examples. Take a few cases at random. Here is Miss Martineau, for example, who says in her autobiography that all the distinguished men of her time were vain—and she does not add that the limits of time or sex are a necessary part of the assertion. But was she not vain herself? No, for she formed a singularly modest and sound estimate of her own abilities. But again, yes, for she certainly seems to have considered that to one person at least Miss Martineau was incomparably the most interesting person in the universe, that coming generations would be profoundly interested in the analysis of her character and the genesis of her works; and also that the merits of her contemporaries might be accurately gauged by the extent to which they did or did not sympathise with Harriet Martineau. Is not egotism of this kind mere vanity disguised by a superficial air of impartiality? Take the vanity, again, which is revealed so curiously in the recently published
letters of Balzac. Here it becomes a force which leads a man to reckon himself amongst the four greatest heroes of his age and goes far to make him what he supposes himself to be. It develops a kind of monomania leading to utter absorption in his own affairs, in his literary ambition, and, above all, in calculations as to the number of francs into which his genius can be coined. Was it a strength or a weakness? Contrast it with the vanity-for many people will call it vanity-of his contemporary Doudan. Doudan's letters reveal to us a man of that admirable fineness of intellect so conspicuous in the best French writers, which may be defined as the sublimated essence of common sense. But his exquisite sensibility was pushed to such a point as to destroy his fertility, and but for his letters his name would have been known to his fellows only through a passing allusion of Ste.-Beuve. Shall we say that Balzac's vanity led him to produce the Comédie Humaine, and Doudan's humility made him produce-nothing? Then vanity is so far a'good and humility a bad thing. Or shall we say that this excessive sensibility is but vanity disguised—that a man who trembles before criticism thinks too much of his own importance? The theory is a common one and enables us verbally to condemn vanity in all forms; but it implicitly admits, too, that vanity may produce diametrically opposite results and at times cooperate hand-in-hand with humility.
Infuse vanity into such a man as Goldsmith, and it adds a child-like charm to his character; it gives a tinge of delightful humour to his writing, and enables his friends to love him the more heartily because they have a right also to pay themselves by a little kindly contempt. Make a Byron vain, and half his magnificent force of mind will be wasted by silly efforts to attract the notice of his contemporaries by attacking their best feelings and affecting (a superfluous task!) vices which he does not possess. The vanity of a Wordsworth enables him to treat with profound disdain the sneers of Edinburgh reviewers, and the dull indifference of the mass of readers; but it encourages him also to become a literary sloven, to spoil noble thought by grovelling language, and to subside into supine obstructiveness. Conversely, the vanity of a Pope makes him suffer unspeakable tortures from the stings of critics compared to whom Jeffrey was a giant, condescend to the meanest artifices to catch the applause of his contemporaries, and hunger and thirst for the food which Wordsworth rejected with contempt. But it also enables him to become within his own limits the most exquisite of artists in words; to increase in skill as he increased in years; and to coin phrases for a distant posterity even out of the most trifling ebullition of passing spite. The vanity of a Milton excites something approaching to awe. The vanity of a Congreve excites our rightful contempt. Vanity seems to be at once the source of the greatest weaknesses, and of the greatest achievements. To write a history of vanity would be to write the history of the greatest men of our race; for soldiers and statesmen have been as vain as poets and artists. Chatham was vain; Wolfe was vain; Nelson