S. Austin Allibone, comp. Prose Quotations from Socrates to Macaulay. 1880.
I must confess that there is nothing that more pleases me, in all that I read in books, or see among mankind, than such passages as represent human nature in its proper dignity. As man is a creature made up of different extremes, he has something in him very great and very mean. A skilful artist may draw an excellent picture of him in either of these views. The finest authors of antiquity have taken him on the more advantageous side. They cultivate the natural grandeur of the soul, raise in her a generous ambition, feed her with hopes of immortality and perfection, and do all they can to widen the partition between the virtuous and the vicious, by making the difference betwixt them as great as between gods and brutes. In short, it is impossible to read a page in Plato, Tully, and a thousand other ancient moralists, without being a greater and a better man for it. On the contrary, I could never read any of our modish French authors, or those of our own country who are the imitators and admirers of that trifling nation, without being for some time out of humour with myself and at everything about me. Their business is, to depreciate human nature, and consider it under its worst appearances. They give mean interpretations and base motives to the worthiest actions; they resolve virtue and vice into constitution. In short, they endeavour to make no distinction between man and man, or between the species of men and that of brutes. As an instance of this kind of authors, among many others, let any one examine the celebrated Rochefoucault, who is the great philosopher for administering of consolation to the idle, the envious and worthless part of mankind.
I think it is one of Pythagorass golden sayings, That a man should take care above all things to have a due respect for himself. And it is certain, that this licentious sort of authors, who are for depreciating mankind, endeavour to disappoint and undo what the most refined spirits have been labouring to advance since the beginning of the world. The very design of dress, good breeding, outward ornaments, and ceremony, were to lift up human nature, and set it off to an advantage. Architecture, painting, and statuary were invented with the same design; as indeed every art and science contributes to the embellishment of life, and to the wearing off and throwing into shades the mean and low parts of our nature. Poetry carries on this great end more than all the rest, as may be seen in the following passage taken out of Sir Francis Bacons Advancement of Learning, which gives a truer and better account of this art than all the volumes that were ever written upon it.
There are no authors I am more pleased with than those who show human nature in a variety of views, and describe the several ages of the world in their different manners. A reader cannot be more rationally entertained than by comparing the virtues and vices of his own times with those which prevailed in the times of his forefathers; and drawing a parallel in his mind between his own private character and that of other persons, whether of his own age or of the ages that went before him. The contemplation of mankind under these changeable colours is apt to shame us out of any particular vice, or animate us to any particular virtue, to make us pleased or displeased with ourselves in the most proper points, to clear our minds of prejudice and prepossession, and to rectify that narrowness of temper which inclines us to think amiss of those who differ from us.
Nature is often hidden, sometimes overcome, seldom extinguished. Force maketh nature more violent in the return; doctrine and discourse maketh nature less importune; but custom only doth alter and subdue nature.
The practice of men holds not an equal pace; yea, and often runs counter to their theory: we naturally know what is good, but naturally pursue what is evil: the rhetoric wherewith I persuade another cannot persuade myself: there is a depraved appetite in us that will with patience hear the learned instructions of reason, but yet perform no farther than agrees to its own irregular humour. In brief, we all are monsters, that is, a composition of man and beast, wherein we must endeavour to be as the poets fancy that wise man Chiron, that is, to have the region of man above that of beast, and sense to sit but at the feet of reason. Lastly, I do desire with God, that all, but yet affirm with men, that few, shall know salvation: that the bridge is narrow, the passage straight unto life: yet those who do confine the Church of God either to particular nations, churches, or families, have made it far narrower than our Saviour ever meant it.
With our sciences and our cyclopædias we are apt to forget the divineness in those laboratories of ours. We ought not to forget it! That once well forgotten, I know not what else were worth remembering! Most sciences, I think, were then a very dead thingwithered, contentious, emptya thistle in late autumn. The best science, without this, is but as the dead timber; it is not the growing tree and forestwhich gives ever new timber among other things! Man cannot know either unless he can worship in some way. His knowledge is a pedantry and dead thistle, otherwise.
There are chords in the human heartstrange varying stringswhich are only struck by accident; which will remain mute and senseless to appeals the most passionate and earnest, and respond at last to the slightest casual touch. In the most insensible or childish minds there is some train of reflection which art can seldom lead, or skill assist, but which will reveal itself, as great truths have done, by chance, and when the discoverer has the plainest and simplest end in view.
Mankind have ever been prone to expatiate on the praise of human nature. The dignity of man is a subject that has always been the favourite theme of humanity: they have declaimed with that ostentation which usually accompanies such as are sure of having a partial audience; they have obtained victories because there were none to oppose. Yet, from all I have ever read or seen, men appear more apt to err from having too high than by having too despicable an opinion of their nature; and by attempting to exalt their original place in the creation depress their real value in society.
The most ignorant nations have always been found to think most highly of themselves. The Deity has ever been thought peculiarly concerned in their glory and preservation; to have fought their battles, and inspired their teachers: their wizards are said to be familiar with heaven; and every hero has a guard of angels as well as men to attend him.
No doubt hard work is a great police-agent. If everybody were worked from morning till night, and then carefully locked up, the register of crimes might be greatly diminished. But what would become of human nature? Where would be the room for growth in such a system of things? It is through sorrow and mirth, plenty and need, a variety of passions, circumstances, and temptations, even through sin and misery, that mens natures are developed.
Human nature appears a very deformed, or a very beautiful, object, according to the different lights in which it is viewed. When we see men of inflamed passions, or of wicked designs, tearing one another to pieces by open violence, or undermining each other by secret treachery; when we observe base and narrow ends pursued by ignominious and dishonest means; when we observe men mixed in society as if it were for the destruction of it; we are even ashamed of our species, and out of humour with our own being. But in another light, when we behold them mild, good, and benevolent, full of a generous regard for the public prosperity, compassionating each others distresses, and relieving each others wants, we can hardly believe they are creatures of the same kind. In this view they appear gods to each other, in the exercise of the noblest power, that of doing good; and the greatest compliment we have ever been able to make to our own being has been by calling this disposition of mind humanity. We cannot but observe a pleasure arising in our own breast upon the seeing or hearing of a generous action, even when we are wholly disinterested in it.
What proposition is there respecting human nature which is absolutely and universally true? We know of only one: and that is not only true, but identical; that men always act from self-interest. This truism the Utilitarians proclaim with as much pride as if it were new, and as much zeal as if it were important. But in fact, when explained, it means only that men if they can will do as they choose. When we see the actions of a man we know with certainty what he thinks his interests to be. But it is impossible to reason with certainty from what we take to be his interest to his actions. One man goes without a dinner that he may add a shilling to a hundred thousand pounds: another runs in debt to give balls and masquerades. One man cuts his fathers throat to get possession of his old clothes: another hazards his own life to save that of an enemy. One man volunteers on a forlorn hope: another is drummed out of a regiment for cowardice. Each of these men has, no doubt, acted from self-interest. But we gain nothing by knowing this, except the pleasure, if it be one, of multiplying useless words. In fact, this principle is just as recondite and just as important as the great truth that whatever is, is. If a philosopher were always to state facts in the following form: There is a shower: but whatever is, is; therefore there is a shower,his reasoning would be perfectly sound; but we do not apprehend that it would materially enlarge the circle of human knowledge. And it is equally idle to attach any importance to a proposition which when interpreted means only that a man had rather do what he had rather do.
If the doctrine that men always act from self-interest be laid down in any other sense than thisif the meaning of the word self-interest be narrowed so as to exclude any one of the motives which may by possibility act on any human being, the proposition ceases to be identical: but at the same time it ceases to be true.
What we have said of the word self-interest applies to all the synonyms and circumlocutions which are applied to convey the same meaning: pain and pleasure, happiness and misery, objects of desire, and so forth.
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: Mills Essay on Government, March, 1829.
Is the love of approbation a stronger motive than the love of wealth? It is impossible to answer this question generally even in the case of an individual with whom we are very intimate. We often say, indeed, that a man loves fame more than money, or money more than fame. But this is said in a loose and popular sense; for there is scarcely a man who would not endure a few sneers for a great sum of money, if he were in pecuniary distress; and scarcely a man, on the other hand, who if he were in flourishing circumstances would expose himself to the hatred and contempt of the public for a trifle. In order, therefore, to return a precise answer even about a single human being, we must know what is the amount of the sacrifice of reputation demanded and of the pecuniary advantage offered, and in what situation the person to whom the temptation is proposed stands at the time. But when the question is propounded generally about the whole species, the impossibility of answering is still more evident. Man differs from man; generation from generation; nation from nation. Education, station, sex, age, accidental associations, produce infinite shades of variety.
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: Mills Essay on Government.
Now, the only mode in which we can conceive it possible to deduce a theory of government from the principles of human nature is this: we must find out what are the motives which, in a particular form of government, impel rulers to bad measures, and what are those which impel them to good measures: we must then compare the effect of the two classes of motives; and according as we find the one or the other to prevail, we must pronounce the form of government in question good or bad.
Now let it be supposed that in aristocratical and monarchical states the desire of wealth and other desires of the same class always tend to produce misgovernment, and that the love of approbation and other kindred feelings always tend to produce good government. Then, if it be impossible, as we have shown that it is, to pronounce generally which of the two classes of motives is the more influential, it is impossible to find out, a priori, whether a monarchical or aristocratical form of government be good or bad.
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: Mills Essay on Government.
There is nothing which I contemplate with greater pleasure than the dignity of human nature, which often shows itself in all conditions of life. For, notwithstanding the degeneracy and meanness that is crept into it, there are a thousand occasions in which it breaks through its original corruption, and shows what it once was, and what it will be hereafter. I consider the soul of man as the ruin of a glorious pile of buildings; where, amidst great heaps of rubbish, you meet with noble fragments of sculpture, broken pillars and obelisks, and a magnificence in confusion. Virtue and wisdom are continually employed in clearing the ruins, removing these disorderly heaps, recovering the noble pieces that lie buried under them, and adjusting them as well as possible according to their ancient symmetry and beauty. A happy education, conversation with the finest spirits, looking abroad into the works of nature, and observations upon mankind, are the great assistances to this necessary and glorious work. But even among those who never have had the happiness of any of these advantages, there are sometimes such exertions of the greatness that is natural to the mind of man, as show capacities and abilities, which only want these accidental helps to fetch them out, and show them in a proper light.
Human nature is not so much depraved as to hinder us from respecting goodness in others, though we ourselves want it. This is the reason why we are so much charmed with the pretty prattle of children, and even the expressions of pleasure or uneasiness in some parts of the brute creation. They are without artifice or malice; and we love truth too well to resist the charms of sincerity.
Human nature (as I have observed in a former work) is always and everywhere, in the must important points, substantially the same; circumstantially and externally, mens manners and conduct are infinitely various in various times and regions. If the former were not true,if it were not for this fundamental agreement,history could furnish no instruction; if the latter were not true,if there were not these apparent and circumstantial differences,hardly any one could fail to profit by that instruction. For few are so dull as not to learn something from the records of past experience in cases precisely similar to their own.
Richard Whately: Annot. on Bacons Essay, Of Nature in Men.