Society and Solitude (1870)
YET Saadi loved the race of men, –
No churl, immured in cave or den;
In bower and hall
He wants them all;
But he has no companion;
Come ten, or come a million,
Good Saadi dwells alone.
Too long shut in strait and few,
Thinly dieted on dew,
I will use the world, and sift it,
To a thousand humors shift it.
WE are delicate machines, and require nice treatment to get from us the maximum of power and pleasure. We need tonics, but must have those that cost little or no reaction. The flame of life burns too fast in pure oxygen, and Nature has tempered the air with nitrogen. So thought is the native air of the mind, yet pure it is a poison to our mixed constitution, and soon burns up the bone-house of man, unless tempered with affection and coarse practice in the material world. Varied foods, climates, beautiful objects, – and especially the alternation of a large variety of objects, – are the necessity of this exigent system of ours. But our tonics, our luxuries, are force-pumps which exhaust the strength they pretend to supply ; and of all the cordials known to us, the best, safest and most exhilarating, with the least harm, is society ; and every healthy and efficient mind passes a large part of life in the company most easy to him.’
We seek society with very different aims, and the staple of conversation is widely unlike in its circles. Sometimes it is facts, – running from those of daily necessity, to the last results of science, – and has all degrees of importance ; sometimes it is love, and makes the balm of our early and of our latest days ; ‘ sometimes it is thought, as from a person who is a mind only ; sometimes a singing, as if the heart poured out all like a bird ; sometimes experience. With some men it is a debate ; at the approach of a dispute they neigh like horses. Unless there be an argument, they think nothing is doing. Some talkers excel in the precision with which they formulate their thoughts, so that you get from them somewhat to remember ; others lay criticism asleep by a charm. Especially women use words that are not words, – as steps in a dance are not steps, – but reproduce the genius of that they speak of; as the sound of some bells makes us think of the bell merely, whilst the church-chimes in the distance bring the church and its serious memories before us. Opinions are accidental in people, -have a poverty-stricken air. A man valuing himself as the organ of this or that dogma is a dull companion enough ; but opinion native to the speaker is sweet and refreshing, and inseparable from his image. Neither do we by any means always go to people for conversation. How often to say nothing,- and yet must go ; as a child will long for his companions, but among them plays by himself. ‘T is only presence which we want. But one thing is certain, – at some rate, intercourse we must have. The experience of retired men is positive, – that we lose our days and are barren of thought for want of some person to talk with. The understanding can no more empty itself by its own action than can a deal box.
The clergyman walks from house to house all day all the year to give people the comfort of good talk. The physician helps them mainly in the same way, by healthy talk giving a right tone to the patient’s mind. The dinner, the walk, the fireside, all have that for their main end.’
See how Nature has secured the communication of knowledge. ‘T is certain that money does not more burn in a boy’s pocket than a piece of news burns in our memory until we can tell it. And in higher activity of mind, every new perception is attended with a thrill of plea-sure, and the imparting of it to others is also attended with pleasure. Thought is the child of the intellect, and this child is conceived with joy and born with joy.’
Conversation is the laboratory and workshop of the student. The affection or sympathy helps. The wish to speak to the want of another mind assists to clear your own. A certain truth possesses us which we in all ways strive to utter. Every time we say a thing in conversation, we get a mechanical advantage in detaching it well and deliverly. I prize the mechanics of conversation. ‘T is pulley and lever and screw. To fairly disengage the mass, and send it jingling down, a good boulder, – a block of quartz and gold, to be worked up at leisure in the useful arts of life, – is a wonderful relief.’
What are the best days in memory ? Those in which we met a companion who was truly such. How sweet those hours when the day was not long enough to communicate and compare our intellectual jewels, – the favorite passages of each book, the proud anecdotes of our heroes, the delicious verses we had hoarded ! What a motive had then our solitary days ! How the countenance of our friend still left some light after he had gone!’ We remember the time when the best gift we could ask of fortune was to fall in with a valuable companion in a ship’s cabin, or on a long journey in the old stage-coach, where, each passenger being forced to know every other, and other employments being out of question, conversation naturally flowed, people became rapidly acquainted, and, if well adapted, more intimate in a day than if they had been neighbors for years.
In youth, in the fury of curiosity and acquisition, the day is too short for books and’ the crowd of thoughts, and we are impatient of interruption. Later, when books tire, thought has a more languid flow ; and the days come when we are alarmed, and say there are no thoughts.
What a barren-witted pate is mine ! ‘ the student says ; ‘ I will go and learn whether I have lost my reason.’ He seeks intelligent persons, whether more wise or less wise than he, who give him provocation, and at once and easily the old motion begins in his brain : thoughts, fancies, humors flow ; the cloud lifts ; the horizon broadens ; and the infinite opulence of things is again shown him. But the right conditions must be observed. Mainly he must have leave to be himself. Sancho Panza blessed the man who invented sleep. So I prize the good invention whereby everybody is provided with somebody who is glad to see him.
If men are less when together than they are alone, they are also in some respects enlarged. They kindle each other ; and such is the power of suggestion that each sprightly story calls out more ; and sometimes a fact that had long slept in the recesses of memory hears the voice, is welcomed to daylight, and proves of rare value. Every metaphysician must have observed, not only that no thought is alone, but that thoughts commonly go in pairs ; though the related thoughts first appeared in his mind at long distances of time. Things are in pairs : a natural fact has only half its value until a fact in moral nature, its counterpart, is stated.’ Then they confirm and adorn each other; a story is matched by another story. And that may be the reason why, when a gentleman has told a good thing, he immediately tells it again.
Nothing seems so cheap as the benefit of conversation ; nothing is more rare. ‘T is wonderful how you are balked and baffled. There is plenty of intelligence, reading, curiosity; but serious, happy discourse, avoiding personalities, dealing with results, is rare : and I seldom meet with a reading and thoughtful person but he tells me, as if it were his exceptional mishap, that he has no companion.
Suppose such a one to go out exploring different circles in search of this wise and genial counterpart,- he might inquire far and wide. Conversation in society is found to be on a plat-form so low as to exclude science, the saint and the poet. Amidst all the gay banter, sentiment cannot profane itself and venture out. The re-ply of old Isocrates comes so often to mind, – The things which are now seasonable I cannot say ; and for the things which I can say it is not now the time.” Besides, who can resist the charm of talent ? The lover of letters loves power too. Among the men of wit and learning, he could not withhold his homage from the gayety, grasp of memory, luck, splendor and speed ; such exploits of discourse, such feats of society ! What new powers, what mines of wealth ! But when he came home, his brave sequins were dry leaves. He found either that the fact they had thus dizened and adorned was of no value, or that he already knew all and more than all they had told him. He could not find that he was helped by so much as one thought or principle, one solid fact, one commanding impulse : great was the dazzle, but the gain was small. He uses his occasions ; he seeks the company of those who have convivial talent. But the moment they meet, to be sure they be-gin to be something else than they were ; they play pranks, dance jigs, run on each other, pun, tell stories, try many fantastic tricks, under some superstition that there must be excitement and elevation ;- and they kill conversation at once. I know well the rusticity of the shy hermit. No doubt he does not make allowance enough for men of more active blood and habit. But it is only on natural ground that conversation can be rich. It must not begin with uproar and violence. Let it keep the ground, let it feel the connection with the battery. Men must not be off their centres.
Some men love only to talk where they are masters. They like to go to school-girls, or to boys, or into the shops where the sauntering people gladly lend an ear to any one. On these terms they give information and please them-selves by sallies and chat which are admired by the idlers ; and the talker is at his ease and jolly, for he can walk out without ceremony when he pleases. They go rarely to their equals, and then as for their own convenience simply, making too much haste to introduce and impart their new whim or discovery ; listen badly or do not listen to the comment or to the thought by which the company strive to repay them ; rather, as soon as their own speech is done, they take their hats.’ Then there are the gladiators, to whom it is always a battle; ‘t is no matter on which side, they fight for victory; then the heady men, the egotists, the monotones, the steriles and the impracticables.
It does not help that you find as good or a better man than yourself, if he is not timed and fitted to you. The greatest sufferers are often those who have the most to say, – men of a delicate sympathy, who are dumb in mixed company.1 Able people, if they do not know how to make allowance for them, paralyze them. One of those conceited prigs who value Nature only as it feeds and exhibits them is equally a pest with the roysterers. There must be large reception as well as giving. How delightful after these disturbers is the radiant, playful wit of – one whom I need not name, – for in every society there is his representative. Good nature is stronger than tomahawks. His conversation is all pictures : he can reproduce whatever he has seen ; he tells the best story in the county, and is of such genial temper that he disposes all others irresistibly to good humor and discourse. Diderot said of the Abbe Galiani: ” He was a treasure in rainy days ; and if the cabinet-makers made such things, everybody would have one in the country.”‘
One lesson we learn early, – that in spite of seeming difference, men are all of one pattern. We readily assume this with our mates, and are disappointed and angry if we find that we are premature, and that their watches are slower than ours. In fact the only sin which we never forgive in each other is difference of opinion. We know beforehand that yonder man must think as we do. Has he not two hands, – two feet, – hair and nails ? Does he not eat, – bleed, – laugh, – cry ? His dissent from me is the veriest affectation. This conclusion is at once the logic of persecution and of love. And the ground of our indignation is our conviction that his dissent is some wilfulness he practises on himself. He checks the flow of his opinion, as the cross cow holds up her milk. Yes, and we look into his eye, and see that he knows it and hides his eye from ours.
But to come a little nearer to my mark, I am to say that there may easily be obstacles in the way of finding the pure article we are in search of, but when we find it it is worth the pursuit, for beside its comfort as medicine and cordial, once in the right company, new and vast values do not fail to appear. All that man can do for man is to be found in that market. There are great prizes in this game. Our fortunes in the world are as our mental equipment for this competition is. Yonder is a man who can answer the questions which I cannot. Is it so? Hence comes to me boundless curiosity to know his experiences and his wit. Hence competition for the stakes dearest to man. What is a match at whist, or draughts, or billiards, or chess, to a match of mother-wit, of knowledge and of re-sources? However courteously we conceal it, it is social rank and spiritual power that are compared ; whether in the parlor, the courts, the caucus, the senate, or the chamber of science, – which are only less or larger theatres for this competition.’
He that can define, he that can answer a question so as to admit of no further answer, is the best man. This was the meaning of the story of the Sphinx. In the old time conundrums were sent from king to king by ambassadors. The seven wise masters at Periander’s banquet spent their time in answering them.2 The life of Socrates is a propounding and a solution of these. So, in the hagiology of each nation, the lawgiver was in each case some man of eloquent tongue, whose sympathy brought him face to face with the extremes of society. Jesus, Menu, the first Buddhist, Mahomet, Zertusht,1 Pythagoras, are examples.
Jesus spent his life in discoursing with humble people on life and duty, in giving wise answers, showing that he saw at a larger angle of vision, and at least silencing those who were not generous enough to accept his thoughts. Luther spent his life so ; and it is not his theologic works, – his Commentary on the Galatians, and the rest, but his Table-Talk, which is still read by men. Dr. Johnson was a man of no profound mind, – full of English limitations, English politics, English Church, Oxford philosophy ; yet, having a large heart, mother-wit and good sense which impatiently overleaped his customary bounds, his conversation as re-ported by Boswell has a lasting charm. Conversation is the vent of character as well as of thought ; and Dr. Johnson impresses his company, not only by the point of the remark, but also, when the point fails, because he makes it. His obvious religion or superstition, his deep wish that they should think so or so, weighs with them, so rare is depth of feeling, or a constitutional value for a thought or opinion, among the light-minded men and women who make up society ; and though they know that there is in the speaker a degree of shortcoming, of insincerity and of talking for victory, yet the existence of character, and habitual reverence for principles over talent or learning, is felt by the frivolous.
One of the best records of the great German master who towered over all his contemporaries in the first thirty years of this century, is his conversations as recorded by Eckermann ; and the Table-Talk of Coleridge is one of the best remains of his genius.
In the Norse legends, the gods of Valhalla, when they meet the Jotuns, converse on the perilous terms that he who cannot answer the other’s questions forfeits his own life. Odin comes to the threshold of the Jotun Wafthrudnir in disguise, calling himself Gangrader; is invited into the hall, and told that he cannot go out thence unless he can answer every question Wafthrudnir shall put. Wafthrudnir asks him the name of the god of the sun, and of the god who brings the night ; what river separates the dwellings of the sons of the giants from those of the gods ; what plain lies between the gods and Surtur, their adversary, etc. ; all which the disguised Odin answers satisfactorily. Then it is his turn to interrogate, and he is answered well for a time by the Jotun. At last he puts a question which none but himself could answer:
What did Odin whisper in the ear of his son Balder, when Balder mounted the funeral pile ?” The startled giant replies: ” None of the gods knows what in the old time THOU saidst in the ear of thy son : with death on my mouth have I spoken the fate-words of the generation of the Aesir; with Odin contended I in wise words. Thou must ever the wisest be.”
And still the gods and giants are so known, and still they play the same game in all the million mansions of heaven and of earth ; at all tables, clubs and tete-a-tetes, the lawyers in the court-house, the senators in the capitol, the doctors in the academy, the wits in the hotel. Best is he who gives an answer that cannot be answered again. Omnis definitio periculosa est, and only wit has the secret. The same thing took place when Leibnitz came to visit Newton; when Schiller came to Goethe ; when France, in the person of Madame de Stael, visited Goethe and Schiller; when Hegel was the guest of Victor Cousin in Paris ; when Linnaeus was the guest of Jussieu. It happened many years ago that an American chemist carried a letter of introduction to Dr. Dalton of Manchester, England, the author of the theory of atomic proportions, and was coolly enough received by the doctor in the laboratory where he was engaged. Only Dr. Dalton scratched a formula on a scrap of paper and pushed it towards the guest,-” Had he seen that ? ” The visitor scratched on another paper a formula describing some results of his own with sulphuric acid, and pushed it across the table, -” Had he seen that ? ” The attention of the English chemist was instantly arrested, and they became rapidly acquainted.
To answer a question so as to admit of no reply, is the test of a man, – to touch bottom every time. Hyde, Earl of Rochester, asked Lord-Keeper Guilford, ” Do you not think I could understand any business in England in a month ? ” ” Yes, my lord,” replied the other, ” but I think you would understand it better in two months.” When Edward I. claimed to be acknowledged by the Scotch (1292) as lord paramount, the nobles of Scotland replied, ” No answer can be made while the throne is vacant.” When Henry III. (1217) plead duress against his people demanding confirmation and execution of the Charter, the reply was : ” If this were admitted, civil wars could never close but by the extirpation of one of the contending parties.”
What can you do with one of these sharp respondents ? What can you do with an eloquent man ? No rules of debate, no contempt of court, no exclusions, no gag-laws can be contrived that his first syllable will not set aside or overstep and annul. You can shut out the light, it may be, but can you shut out gravitation ? You may condemn his book, but can you fight against his thought? That is always too nimble for you, anticipates you, and breaks out victorious in some other quarter. Can you stop the motions of good sense ? What can you do with Beaumarchais, who converts the censor whom the court has appointed to stifle his play into an ardent advocate ? The court appoints another censor, who shall crush it this time. Beaumarchais persuades him to defend it. The court successively appoints three more severe inquisitors; Beaumarchais converts them all into triumphant vindicators of the play which is to bring in the Revolution.’ Who can stop the mouth of Luther, – of Newton, – of Franklin, – of Mirabeau, – of Talleyrand ?
These masters can make good their own place, and need no patron. Every variety of gift – science, religion, politics, letters, art, prudence, war or love – has its vent and exchange in conversation. Conversation is the Olympic games whither every superior gift resorts to assert and approve itself, – and, of course, the inspirations of powerful and public men, with the rest. But it is not this class, whom the splendor of their accomplishment almost inevitably guides into the vortex of ambition, makes them chancellors and commanders of council and of action, and makes them at last fatalists, – not these whom we now consider. We consider those who are interested in thoughts, their own and other men’s, and who delight in comparing them ; who think it the highest compliment they can pay a man to deal with him as an intellect, to expose to him the grand and cheerful secrets perhaps never opened to their daily companions, to share with him the sphere of freedom and the simplicity of truth.’
But the best conversation is rare. Society seems to have agreed to treat fictions as realities, and realities as fictions ; and the simple lover of truth, especially if on very high grounds, as a religious or intellectual seeker, finds himself a stranger and alien.
It is possible that the best conversation is between two persons who can talk only to each other. Even Montesquieu confessed that in conversation, if he perceived he was listened to by a third person, it seemed to him from that moment the whole question vanished from his mind. I have known persons of rare ability who were heavy company to good social men who knew well enough how to draw out others of retiring habit ; and, moreover, were heavy to intellectual men who ought to have known them. And does it never occur that we perhaps live with people too superior to be seen, – as there are musical notes too high for the scale of most ears ? There are men who are great only to one or two companions of more opportunity, or more adapted.
It was to meet these wants that in all civil nations attempts have been made to organize conversation by bringing together cultivated people under the most favorable conditions. ‘T is certain there was liberal and refined conversation in the Greek, in the Roman and in the Middle Age. There was a time when in France a revolution occurred in domestic architecture; when the houses of the nobility, which, up to that time, had been constructed on feudal necessities, in a hollow square,- the ground-floor being resigned to offices and stables, and the floors above to rooms of state and to lodging-rooms,- were rebuilt with new purpose. It was the Marchioness of Rambouillet who first got the horses out of and the scholars into the palaces, having constructed her hotel with a view to society, with superb suites of drawing-rooms on the same floor, and broke through the morgue of etiquette by inviting to her house men of wit and learning as well as men of rank, and piqued the emulation of Cardinal Richelieu to rival assemblies, and so to the founding of the French Academy. The history of the Hotel Rambouillet and its brilliant circles makes an important date in French civilization. And a history of clubs from early antiquity, tracing the efforts to secure liberal and refined conversation, through the Greek and Roman to the Middle Age, and thence down through French, English and German memoirs, tracing the clubs and coteries in each country, would be an important chapter in history. We know well the Mermaid Club, in London, of Shakspeare, Ben Jonson, Chapman, Herrick, Selden, Beaumont and Fletcher ; its Rules are preserved, and many allusions to their suppers are found in Jonson, Herrick and in Aubrey. Anthony Wood has many details of Harrington’s Club. Dr. Bentley’s Club held Newton, Wren, Evelyn and Locke ; and we owe to Boswell our knowledge of the club of Dr. Johnson, Goldsmith, Burke, Gibbon, Reynolds, Garrick, Beauclerk and Percy. And we have records of the brilliant society that Edinburgh boasted in the first decade of this century. Such societies are possible only in great cities, and are the compensation which these can make to their dwellers for depriving them of the free intercourse with Nature. Every scholar is surrounded by wiser men than he – if they cannot write as well.’ Cannot they meet and exchange results to their mutual benefit and delight ? It was a pathetic experience when a genial and accomplished person said to me, looking from his country home to the capital of New England, ” There is a town of two hundred thousand people, and not a chair in it for me.” If he were sure to find at No. 2000 Tremont Street what scholars were abroad after the morning studies were ended, Boston would shine as the New Jerusalem to his eyes.
Now this want of adapted society is mutual. The man of thought, the man of letters, the man of science, the administrator skilful in affairs, the man of manners and culture, whom you so much wish to find, – each of these is wishing to be found. Each wishes to open his thought, his knowledge, his social skill to the daylight in your company and affection, and to exchange his gifts for yours ; and the first hint of a select and intelligent company is welcome.
But the club must be self-protecting, and obstacles arise at the outset. There are people who cannot well be cultivated; whom you must keep down and quiet if you can. There are those who have the instinct of a bat to fly against any lighted candle and put it out, – marplots and contradictors. There are those who go only to talk, and those who go only to hear : both are bad. A right rule for a club would be, – Admit no man whose presence excludes any one topic. It requires people who are not surprised and shocked, who do and let do and let be, who sink trifles and know solid values, and who take a great deal for granted.
It is always a practical difficulty with clubs to regulate the laws of election so as to exclude peremptorily every social nuisance. Nobody wishes bad manners. We must have loyalty and character. The poet Marvell was wont to say that he ” would not drink wine with any one with whom he could not trust his life.” But neither can we afford to be superfine. A man of irreproachable behavior and excellent sense preferred on his travels taking his chance at a hotel for company, to the charging himself with too many select letters of introduction.1 He confessed he liked low company. He said the fact was incontestable that the society of gypsies was more attractive than that of bishops. The girl deserts the parlor for the kitchen ; the boy, for the wharf. Tutors and parents cannot interest him like the uproarious conversation he finds in the market or the dock. I knew a scholar, of some experience in camps, who said that he liked, in a barroom, to tell a few coon stories and put himself on a good footing with the company ; then he could be as silent as he chose. A scholar does not wish to be always pumping his brains ; he wants gossips. The black-coats are good company only for black-coats ; but when the manufacturers, merchants and shipmasters meet, see how much they have to say, and how long the conversation lasts ! They have come from many zones ; they have traversed wide countries ; they know each his own arts, and the cunning artisans of his craft ; they have seen the best and the worst of men. Their knowledge contradicts the popular opinion and your own on many points. Things which you fancy wrong they know to be right and profitable ; things which you reckon superstitious they know to be true. They have found virtue in the strangest homes ; and in the rich store of their adventures are instances and examples which you have been seeking in vain for years, and which they suddenly and unwittingly offer you.
I remember a social experiment in this direction, wherein it appeared that each of the members fancied he was in need of society, but himself unpresentable. On trial they all found that they could be tolerated by, and could tolerate, each other. Nay, the tendency to extreme self-respect which hesitated to join in a club was running rapidly down to abject admiration of each other, when the club was broken up by new combinations.
The use of the hospitality of the club hardly needs explanation. Men are unbent and social at table ; and I remember it was explained to me, in a Southern city, that it was impossible to set any public charity on foot unless through a tavern dinner. I do not think our metropolitan charities would plead the same necessity ; but to a club met for conversation a supper is a good basis, as it disarms all parties and puts pedantry and business to the door. All are in good humor and at leisure, which are the first conditions of discourse ; the ordinary reserves are thrown off, experienced men meet with the freedom of boys, and, sooner or later, impart all that is singular in their experience.
The hospitalities of clubs are easily exaggerated. No doubt the suppers of wits and philosophers acquire much lustre by time and renown. Plutarch, Xenophon and Plato, who have celebrated each a banquet of their set, have given us next to no data of the viands ; and it is to be believed that an indifferent tavern dinner in such society was more relished by the convives than a much better one in worse company. Herrick’s verses to Ben Jonson no doubt paint the fact : –
” When we such clusters had
As made us nobly wild, not mad;
And yet, each verse of thine
Outdid the meat, outdid the frolic wine.” ‘
Such friends make the feast satisfying; and I notice that it was when things went prosperously, and the company was full of honor, at the banquet of the Cid, that ” the guests all were joyful, and agreed in one thing, – that they had not eaten better for three years.”
I need only hint the value of the club for bringing masters in their several arts to compare and expand their views, to come to an under-standing on these points, and so that their united opinion shall have its just influence on public questions of education and politics. It is agreed that in the sections of the British Association more information is mutually and effectually communicated, in a few hours, than in many months of ordinary correspondence and the printing and transmission of ponderous reports. We know that 1′ homme de lettres is a little wary, and not fond of giving away his seed-corn ; but there is an infallible way to draw him out, namely, by having as good as he. If you have Tuscaroora and he Canada, he may exchange kernel for kernel. If his discretion is incurable, and he dare not speak of fairy gold, he will yet tell what new books he has found, what old ones recovered, what men write and read abroad. A principal purpose also is the hospitality of the club, as a means of receiving a worthy foreigner with mutual advantage.
Every man brings into society some partial thought and local culture. We need range and alternation of topics and variety of minds. One likes in a companion a phlegm which it is a triumph to disturb, and, not less, to make in an old acquaintance unexpected discoveries of scope and power through the advantage of an inspiring subject. Wisdom is like electricity. There is no permanently wise man, but men capable of wisdom, who, being put into certain company, or other favorable conditions, become wise for a short time, as glasses rubbed acquire electric power for a while.1 But while we look complacently at these obvious pleasures and values of good companions, I do not forget that Nature is always very much in earnest, and that her great gifts have something serious and stern. When we look for the highest benefits of conversation, the Spartan rule of one to one is usually enforced. Discourse, when it rises high-est and searches deepest, when it lifts us into that mood out of which thoughts come that remain as stars in our firmament, is between two.’