The Life of Sir James Mackintosh.

From: Papers on Literature and Art (1846)
Author: S. Margaret Fuller
Published: Wiley and Putnam 1846 New York


  “Biography is by nature the most universally profitable, universally pleasant of all things; especially biography of distinguished individuals.” [Opinion of the sagacious Hofrath Henshrecke, as quoted in Sator Resartus.]

  IF the biography of a distinguished individual be thus especially pleasant a matter, how most of all pleasant is it when a child is found worthy to erect the monument with which the world esteems his father worthy to be honoured! We see that it is no part of the plan of the universe to make nature or talent hereditary. The education of circumstances supersedes that of system, unlooked for influences disturb the natural action of the parent’s character on that of the child; and all who have made even a few observations of this sort, must feel that, here as elsewhere, planting and watering had best be done for duty or love’s sake, without any sanguine hopes as to the increase. From mistaken notions of freedom, or an ill-directed fondness for experimentalizing, the son is often seen to disregard the precepts or example of his father; and it is a matter of surprise if the scion is found to bear fruit of a similar, not to say equal flavor, with the parent tree.

  How opposed all this is to our natural wishes and expectations, (i.e., to our ideal of a state of perfection,) is evident from the pleasure we feel when family relations preserve their harmony, and the father becomes to the son a master and a model-a reverend teacher and a favourite study. Such a happy state of things makes the biography before us very attractive. It is in itself good, though, probably not as interesting or impressive as one who could have painted the subject from somewhat a greater distance might have made it. The affections of the writer are nowhere obtruded upon us. The feeling shown towards his amiable and accomplished father is every where reverential and tender, nowhere blind or exaggerated. Sir James is always, when possible, permitted to speak for himself; and we are not teased by attempts to heighten or alter the natural effect of his thoughts and opinions. The impressions he produced on different minds are given us unmutilated and unqualified. The youthful errors, and the one great defect which had power to prevent so rich a piece of creation from blooming into all that love or admiration could have wished, are neither dissembled nor excused. Perhaps here Mr. Mackintosh kept in mind his father’s admirable remark upon Mrs. Opie’s Memoir of her husband. “One passage I object to; where she makes an excuse for not exposing his faults. She ought either to have been absolutely silent, or, with an intrepid confidence in the character of her husband, to have stated faults, which she was sure would not have been dust in the balance, placed in the scale opposite to his merits.”

  Indeed, the defect here was not to be hidden, since it sapped the noblest undertakings and baffled the highest aspirations of the gentle and generous critic; but we might have been annoyed by awkward attempts to gloss it over, which would have prevented our enjoying in full confidence the record of so many virtues and remarkable attainments. To these discerning and calm justice is done; more, as the son and friend felt, was not needed. And, upon the whole, if filial delicacy has prevented the Life of Sir J. M. from making so brilliant and entertaining a book as it might be in the hands of one who felt at liberty to analyze more deeply and eulogize more eloquently, our knowledge of it as history is probably more correct, and of greater permanent value.

  The recollections of childhood are scanty. We see, indeed, an extraordinary boy, but get little light as to what helped to make him what he was. Generally we know, that if there be anything of talent in a boy, a Scotch mist has wonderful power to draw it out. Add to this, that he lived much in solitude, and on the banks of a beautiful lake. To such means of intellectual developement many a Swiss and many a Highlander has done no visible, or at least so far as this world knoweth, no immortal honour; but there be hardy striplings, who expand their energies in chasing the deer and the chamois, and act out the impulse, poetic or otherwise, as it rises; while the little Jamie was fed on books, and taught how thought and feeling may be boarded and put out at interest while he had plenty of time and means for hoarding. Yet is the precocity natural to a boy of genius when his attention is so little dissipated, and the sphere of exercising his childish energies so limited, very undesirable. For precocity some great price is always demanded sooner or later in life. Nature intended the years of childhood to be spent in perceiving and playing, not in reflecting and acting; and when her processes arc hurried or disturbed, she is sure to exact a penalty. Bacon paid by moral perversion for his premature intellectual developement. Mozart gave half a life for a first half all science and soul. Mackintosh brought out so wonderfully his powers of acquisition at the expense of those of creation, to say nothing of the usual fine of delicate health. How much he lived out of books we know not, but he tells us of little else. The details of his best plaything—the boy-club at which he exercised himself, as the every-day boy rides the great horse, or the young Indian tries his father’s bow, are interesting. At an early age he went to Aberdeen, where he came under the instruction of a Dr. Dunbar, who, if he did not impart much positive knowledge, seems to have been successful in breathing into his pupil that strong desire of’ knowing and doing, which is of more value than any thing one can receive from another. Here too, was he happy in that friendship with Robert Hall, which probably did more for his mind, than all the teachings of all his youthful years. They were eighteen and nineteen years of age, an age when the mind is hoping every thing—fearing nothing; a time when perfect freedom of intercourse is possible; for then no community of interests is exacted between two noble natures, except that of aims which may be carried forward into infinity. How beautiful, how purely intellectual, this friendship was, may be best felt from reading the two letters Sir James wrote many years after to Robert Ball upon his recovery from derangement. In these exquisite letters, a subject which would seem almost too delicate for an angel’s touch, is in nowise profaned; and the most elevated, as well as the most consoling view is taken with the confidence of one who had seen into the very depths of Hall’s nature. There is no pity, no flattery-no ill-advised application of the wise counsels of calm hours and untried spirits, but that noble and sincere faith, which might have created beneath the ribs of death what it expected to find there. The trust of one who had tried the kernel, and knew that the tree was an oak; and, though shattered by lightning, could not lose its royalty of nature.

  From the scene of metaphysical and religious discussions, which gave such a bias to his mind and character, Sir James went to lead a life of great animal and mental excitement in Edinburgh. Here he first tourneyed with the world, and came off from the lists, not inglorious if not altogether victorious. Already he had loved once; but this seems, like his after-attachments, not to have been very deep; and as he ingenuously confesses, declined on his side, without any particular reason, except, indeed, that his character was, at that time growing; which is reason enough. A man so intellectual, so versatile, and so easily moved as he, was formed to enjoy and need society, both in and out of the domestic oirole1 but not to be the slave of the Passions, nor yet their master. Perhaps it may be doubted whether any man can become the master of the passions of others without having some time gone through the apprenticeship, i.e. the slavery to his own. Sir James never had power to electrify at will a large body of men—he had not stored up within the dangerous materials for the “lightning of the mind”—and every way there was more of the Apollo than the Jupiter about him.

  At Edinburgh he made many friends, acquired and evaporated many prejudices, learned much, and talked more. Here was confirmed that love, which, degenerating into a need, of society, took from him the power of bearing the seclusion and solitary effort, which would have enabled him to win permanent glory and confer permanent benefits.

  Then came his London life, rather a bright page, but of not more happy portent. Compare it with the London experiment of the poet Crabbe, made known to us not long since by the pen of his son. Do we not see here a comment on the hackneyed text, “Sweet are the uses of adversity,” and find reason to admire the impartiality always in the long run to be observed in the distribution of human lots? To view the thing superficially, Crabbe, ill-educated, seemingly fit for no sphere, certainly unable to find any for which he thought himself fit, labouring on poetry, which the most thinking public (of booksellers) would not buy, reduced to his last fourpence, and apparently for ever separated from his Myra, was a less prosperous person than Mackintosh, on whose wit and learning so many brilliant circles daily feasted, whose budding’ genius mature statesmen delighted to honour, the husband of that excellent woman he has so beautifully described, and the not unsuccessful antagonist of that Burke on whom Crabbe had been a dependant. Yet look more deeply into the matter, and you see Crabbe ripening energy of purpose, and power of patient endurance, into an even heroic strength; nor is there anywhere a finer monument of the dignity to which the human soul can rise independent of circumstances, than the letter which he wrote to Burke from that fit of depression which could never become object; a letter alike honourable to the writer and him to whom it was addressed. In that trial, Crabbe, not found wanting, tested his powers to bear and to act—he ascertained what he would do, and it was done—Mackintosh, squandering at every step the treasures which he had never been forced to count, divided in his wishes, imperfect in his efforts, wanting to himself, though so far above the herd, might well have been glad to leave his flowery paths for those through which Crabbe was led over a stony soil, and beneath a parching sun, but still—upwards. Had it been so, what a noble work might we have had instead of the Vindicæ Gallicæ! A bright star was that, but we might have had a sun.

  Yet had the publication of the Vindicæ been followed by Sir James’s getting into parliament, and becoming the English great man, the mover of the day, the minister to the hour, it had been much; and we should not have been forward to express regret, even though we might deem his natural vocation to be for literature and philosophy. Freedom has so often been obliged to retreat into garrison in England, that the honor of being one of her sentinels there is sufficient for a life. But here again a broken thread—a beginning not followed up. He goes to India, and after that he was always to act with divided soul, and his life could be nothing better than a fragment; a splendid fragment indeed, but one on which it is impossible to look without sorrowful thoughts of the whole that might have been erected from materials such as centuries may not again bring together.

  The mind of man acknowledges two classes of benefactors—those who suggest thoughts and plans, and those who develop and fit for use those already suggested. We are more ready to be grateful to the latter, whose labours are more easily appreciated by their contemporaries; while the other, smaller class, really comprises intellects of the higher order, gifted with a rapidity and fertility of conception too great to be wholly brought out in the compass of a short human life. As their heirs and pupils bring into use more and more of the wealth they bequeathed to the world in unwrought ore, they are elevated by posterity from the rank which their own day assigned them of visionaries and obscure thinkers, to be revered almost as the Demigods of literature and science. Notwithstanding the hours of gloom and bitter tears by which such lives are defaced, they are happy to a degree, which those who are born to minister to the moment can never comprehend. For theirs are hours of “deep and uncommunicable joy,” hours when the oracle within boldly predicts the time when that which is divine in them, and which they now to all appearance are breathing out in vain, shall become needful as vital air to myriads of immortal spirit.

  But Sir James Mackintosh belonged strictly to neither of these classes. Much he learned—thought much—collected much treasure; but the greater part of it was buried with him. Many a prize, hung on high in the intellectual firmament, he could discern with eyes carefully purged from the films of ignorance and grossness; he could discern the steps even by which he might have mounted to the possession of any one which he had resolutely chosen and perseveringly sought—but this he did not. And though many a pillar and many a stone remain to tell where be dwelt and how he strove, we seek in vain for the temple of perfect workmanship with which Nature meant so skillful an architect should have adorned her Earth.

  Sir James was an excellent man; a man of many thoughts—of varied knowledge—of liberal views—almost a great man; but he did NOT become a great man, when he might by more earnestness of purpose; he knew this, and could not be happy. This want of earnestness of purpose, which prevented the goodly tree from bearing goodly fruit in due season, may be attributed in a great measure to these two causes.

  First, the want of systematic training in early life. Much has been well-written and much ill-spoken to prove that minds of great native energy will help themselves, that the best attainment are made from inward impulse, and that outward discipline is likely to impair both grace and strength. Here is some truth—more error. Native energy will effect wonders, unaided by school or college. The best attainments are made from inward impulse, but it does not follow that outward discipline of any liberality will impair grace or strength; and it is impossible for any mind fully and harmoniously to ascertain its own wants, without being made to resound from some strong outward pressure. Crabbe helped himself, and formed his peculiar faculties to great perfection; but Coleridge was well tasked—and not without much hard work could Southey become as “erudite as natural.” The flower of Byron’s genius expanded with little care of the gardener; but the greatest observer, the deepest thinker, and as the greatest artist, necessarily the warmest admirer of Nature of our time (we refer to Goethe), grew into grace and strength beneath the rules and systems of a disciplinarian father. Genius will live and thrive without training, but it does not the less reward the watering-pot and pruning-knife. Let the mind take its own course, and it is apt to fix too exclusively on a pursuit of set of pursuits to which it will devote itself till there is not strength for others, till the mind stands in the relation to a well-balanced mind, that the body of the blacksmith does to that of the gladiator. We are not in favor of stiff, artificial balance of character, of learning by the hour, and dividing the attention by rule and line; but the young should be so variously called out end disciplined, that they may be sure that it is a genuine vocation, and not an accidental bias, which decides the course on reaching maturity.

  Sir James Mackintosh read and talked through his early youth; had he been induced to reproduce in writing and bear more severe mental drudgery, great deeds would have been easy to him in after-days. He acquired such a habit of receiving from books and reproducing only a small part of what he received, and this, too, in slight and daily efforts, that the stimulus of others’ thoughts became necessary for his comfort to an enervating degree. Books cease to be food, and become no better than cigars, or gin and water, when indulged in to excess after a certain period. It is distressing to see half the hours of such a man as Sir James Mackintosh for so many years consumed in reading of a desultory, though always interesting nature. We remember no diary that could in this respect vie with his, unless it be Lady M. W. Montague’s after she retired from the world. For her it was very suitable, but we cannot excuse it in him, even beneath the burning Indian sky. We cannot help wishing be had been provided, as Mirabeau always was, with a literary taster and crammer; or that, at least, he might have felt that a man who means to think and write a great deal, must, after six and twenty, learn to read with his fingers. But nothing can be more luxuriously indolent than his style of reading. Reading aloud too, every evening, was not the thing for a man whom Nature had provided with so many tasks. That his apprenticeship had not been sufficiently severe, he himself felt and sometimes laments. However, the copious journals of his reading are most entertaining, full of penetrating remarks and delicate critical touches. What his friend Lord Jeffrey mentions, “firmness of mind,” is remarkable here. Here, carelessly dashed off in a diary, are the best criticisms on Madame de Stael that we have ever seen. She had that stimulating kind of talent which it is hardly possible for any one to criticise calmly who has felt its influence. And, as her pictures of life are such aa to excite our hidden sympathies a very detailed criticism upon her resembles a personal confession while she is that sort of writer whom it is very easy to praise or blame in general terms. Sir James ha, seized the effect produced upon her works by the difference between her ideal and real character. This is one great secret of her eloquence; to this mournful tone, which vibrates through all her brilliancy, most hearts respond without liking lo own it. Here Sir James drew near to her; his feminine refinement of thought enabled him to appreciate hers, while a less impassioned temperament enabled him coolly to criticise her dazzling intuitions.

  How much is comprehended in these few words upon Priestley.

  “I have just read Priestley’s Life of himself. It is an honest, plain, and somewhat dry account of a well-spent life. But I never read such a narrative, however written, without feeling, my mind softened and bettered, at least for a time. Priestley was a good man, though his life was too busy to leave him leisure for that refinement and ardor of moral sentiment, which have been felt by men of less blameless life. Frankness and disinterestedness in the avowal of his opinion were his point of honor. In other respects his morality was more useful than brilliant. But the virtue of the sentimental morality is so over-precarious and ostentatious, that he can seldom be entitled to look down with contempt on steady, though homely morals of the household.”

  And those upon Mirabeau, to whom it is so very difficult for a good man to do justice. There is something of even Socratic beauty in the following:

  “The letters of this extraordinary man are all full of the highest flights of virtuous sentiment, amidst the grossest obscenities and the constant violation of the most sacred duties. Yet these declarations of sentiment are not insincere. They were only useless, and perhaps pernicious, as they concealed from him that depravity which he could scarcely otherwise have endured.

  “A fair recital of his conduct must always have the air of invective. Yet hill mind had originally grand capabilities. It had many irregular sketches of high virtue, and he must have had many moments of the noblest moral enthusiasm.”

  We say Socratic beauty, for we know no one since the Greek, who seems to have so great a love for the beautiful in human nature with such a pity—(a pity how unlike the blindness of weak charity or hypocritical tenderness)—for the odious traits which are sometimes so closely allied with it. Sir James allowing for all that was perverting in Mirabeau’s position noting upon elements so fraught with good and ill, saw him as he was, no demon, but a miserable man become savage and diseased from circumstances.

  We should like to enrich this article with the highly finished miniature pictures of Fox, Windham, and Francis Xavier; but here is little room, and we will content ourselves with these striking remarks upon the Hindoo character.

  “The Rajpoots are the representatives of Hinduism. In them are seen all the qualities of the Hindu race, unmitigated by foreign mixture, exerted with their original energy, and displayed in the strongest light. They exhibit the genuine form of a Hindu community, formed of the most discordant materials, and combining the most extraordinary contrasts of moral nature, unconquerable adherence to native opinions and usages, with servile submission to any foreign yoke or unbelieving priesthood, ready to suffer martyrdom for the most petty observances of their professed faith; a superstition which inspires the resolution to inflict or to suffer the most atrocious barbarities, without cultivating any natural sentiment at enforcing my social duty; all the stages in the progress of society brought together in one nation, from some abject castes more brutal than the savages of New Zealand, to the polish of manners and refinement of character conspicuous in the upper ranks; attachment to kindred and to home, with no friendship, and no love of country; good temper and gentle disposition; little active cruelty, except when stimulated by superstition; but little sensibility, little compassion, scarcely any disposition to relieve suffering or relieve wrong done to themselves or others. Timidity, with its natural attendants, falsehood and meanness, in the ordinary relations of human life, joined with a capability of becoming excited to courage in the field, to military enthusiasm, to heroic self-devotion. Abstemiousness in some respects more rigorous than that of a western hermit, in a life of intoxication; austerities and self-tortures almost incredible, practiced by those who otherwise wallow in gross sensuality, childish levity, barefaced falsehood, no faith, no constancy, no shame, no belief in the existence of justice.”

  But to return. Sir James’s uncommon talents for conversation proved no less detrimental to his glory as an author or as a statesman, than the want of early discipline. Evanescent as are the triumphs, unsatisfactory as are the results of this sort of power, they are too intoxicating to be despised by any but minds of the greatest strength. Madame de Stael remarks: “Say what you will, men of genius must naturally be good talkers; the full mind delights to vent itself in every way.” Undoubtedly the great author, whether of plans or books, will not be likely to say uninteresting things; and unless early habits of seclusion have deprived him of readiness, and made it difficult for him to come near other minds in the usual ways, he will probably talk well. But the most eloquent talkers cannot always converse even pleasingly; of this Madame de Stael herself was a striking instance. To take up a subject and harangue upon it, as was her wont, requires the same habits of mind with writing; to converse, as could Sir J. Mackintosh, supposes habits quite dissimilar. The ready tact to apprehend the mood of your companions and their capacity for receiving what you can bestow, the skill to touch upon a variety of subjects with that lightness, grace, and rapidity, which constantly excite and never exhaust the attention, the love for sparkling sallies, the playfulness and variety, which make a man brilliant and attractive in conversation, are the reverse of the love of method, the earnestness of concentration, and the onward march of thought, which are required by the higher kinds of writing. The butterfly is no less active than the eagle; his wings of gauze move not less swiftly than those stronger pinions, he loses no moment, but visits every flower in the garden, and exults in the sunlight which he enriches: meanwhile the noble, but not more beautiful, winged one is soaring steadily upward to contemplate the source of light from the highest field, of ether. Add to this, that writing seems dry work. and but a languid way of transmitting thought to one accustomed to the electric excitement of personal intercourse; as on t~ other hand, conversation is generally too aimless and superficial to suit one, whose mental training has been severe and independent of immediate action from other intellects.

  Every kind of power is admirable, and indefinitely useful; if a man be born to talk, and can be satisfied to bring out his thoughts in conversation only or chiefly, let him. Sir James did so much in this way, stimulated so many young, enchanted and refined so many mature minds, blessed daily so many warm hearts; as a husband and a father, he appears so amiable, probably so much more so than he would if his ambition had glowed with greater intensity; what he did write, was so excellent, and so calculated to promote the best kind of culture, that if he could have been satisfied, we might; but he could not; we find himself in his journals perpetually lamenting that his life was one of “projects and inactivity.” For even achievements like his will seem mere idleness to one who has the capacity of achieving and doing so much more. Man can never come up to his ideal standard; it is the nature of the immortal spirit to raise that standard higher and higher as it goes from strength to strength, still upward and onward. Accordingly the wisest and greatest men are ever the most modest. Yet he who feels that if he is not what he would, he “has done what he could,” is not without a serene self-complacency, (how remote from self-sufficiency!) the want of which embittered Sir James’s latter years. Four great tasks presented themselves to him in the course of his life, which, perhaps, no man was better able to have performed. Nature seems to have intended him for a philosopher; since, to singular delicacy and precision of observation, he added such a tendency to generalization. In metaphysics he would have explored far, and his reports would have claimed our confidence; since his candour and love of truth would have made it impossible for him to become the slave of system. He himself, and those who knew him best, believed this to be his forte. Rad he left this aside, end devoted himself exclusively to politics, he would have been, if not of the first class of statesmen, one of the first in the second class.

  He went to India, and that large piece taken out of the beet part of his life made this also impossible. Had he then devoted his leisure hours to researches on Indian antiquities, how much might he have done in that vast field, where so small a portion of the harvest is yet gathered in. Nobody was better qualified to disregard the common prejudices with respect to the representations of the Hindoos, to find a clue which should guide him through the mighty maze of Indian theology, and remove the world of rubbish, beneath which forms radiant in truth and beauty lie concealed. His fondness for the history of opinion would here have had full scope, and he might have cast a blaze of light upon a most interesting portion of the annals of mankind. This “fair occasion,” too, he let slip, and returned to Europe, broken in health and spirits, and weakened, as any man must be, who has passed so many years in occupations which called for only so small a portion of his powers.

  Did he then fix his attention on that other noble aim which rose before him, and labour to become for ever illustrious as the historian of his country? No! Man may escape from every foe and every difficulty, except what are within—himself. Sir James, as formerly, worked with a divided heart and will; and Fame substituted a meaner coronal for the amaranthine wreath she had destined for his brow. Greatness was not thrust upon him and he wanted earnestness of purpose to achieve it for himself.

  Let us now turn from the sorrowful contemplation of his one fault, to the many endearing or splendid qualities intimately connected with, or possibly fostered by this very fault. For so it is, “what makes our virtues thrive openly, will also, if we be not watchful, make our faults thrive in secret;” and vice versa. Let us admire his varied knowledge, his refinement of thought, which was such that only his truly philosophic turn could have prevented it from degenerating into sophistry; his devotion, even more tender than enthusiastic, to the highest interests of humanity; that beautiful fairness of mind, in which he was unequalled, a fairness which evidenced equal modesty, generosity, and pure attachment to truth; a fairness which made him more sensible to every one’s merits, and more ready to perceive the excuses for every one’s defects than his own; a fairness not to be disturbed by party prejudice or personal injury; a fairness in which nobody, except Sir W. Scott, who was never deeply tried as he was, can compare with him. In what other journal shall we find an entry like the following, the sincerity of which no one can doubt:—

  “—has, I think, a distaste for me, which I believe to be natural to the family. I think the worse of nobody for such a feeling; indeed, I often feel a distaste for myself; I am sure I should not esteem my own character in another person. It is more likely that I should have disrespectable or disagreeable qualities than that—should have an unreasonable antipathy.”

  The letter to Mr. Sharpe on the changes in his own opinions, exhibits this trait to a remarkable degree.

  It has been said that had he been less ready to confess his own mistakes of judgment, and less careful to respect the intentions of others, more arrogant in his pretensions and less gentle towards his opponents, he would have enjoyed greater influence, and been saved from many slights and disappointments. Here, at least, is no room for regret.

  We have not, of course, attempted any thing like a comprehensive criticism upon the Life. The range of Sir James’s connexions and pursuits being so wide, and the history of his mind being identical with that of the great political movement of his day, a volume would not give more than verge enough for all the thoughts it naturally suggests. If these few reflections excite the attention of some readers and are acceptable to others, as sympathy, they will attain their legitimate object.

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