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REMARKS ON MY CHARACTER AT TWENTY-ONE
IN April, 1843, my father died at Hoddesdon, at the age of seventy-two, and was buried in the family vault in St. Andrew's churchyard, Hertford. As my sister's school was not paying very well, and it was necessary to economize as much as possible, the house was given up early the following year, my mother took an engagement as housekeeper in a gentleman's family at Isleworth, and my sister obtained a post as teacher at an episcopal college, then just founded by the Bishop of Georgia (Dr. Elliott), at Montpelier Springs, seventeen miles from Macon, and left England in August, 1844. In the following year, at the invitation of the parents of some of the pupils, she removed to Robinson, near Montgomery, Alabama, as mistress of a private school much needed in the district; and she remained there till she returned to England in 1846. Shortly before I came of age in January, 1844, my brother told me that as he had no work in prospect it was necessary that I should leave him and look out for myself; so I determined to go up to London and endeavour to obtain some employment. As the period of my home and school life and subsequent tutelage under my brother now came to an end, and I had for the future to make my own way in the world, this affords a suitable occasion for a brief review of the chief points in my character, which may now be considered to have been fairly determined, although some portions of it had not yet had opportunity for full development. I do not think that at this time I could be said to have shown special superiority in any of the higher mental faculties, but I possessed a strong desire to know the causes of things, a great love of beauty in form and colour, and a considerable but not excessive desire for order and arrangement in whatever I had to do. If I had one distinct mental faculty more prominent than another, it was the power of correct reasoning from a review of the known facts in any case to the causes or laws which produced them, and also in detecting fallacies in the reasoning of other persons. This power has greatly helped me in all my writings, especially those on natural history and sociology. The determination of the direction in which I should use these powers was due to my possession in a high degree of the two mental qualities usually termed emotional or moral, an intense appreciation of the beauty, harmony and variety in nature and in all natural phenomena, and an equally strong passion for justice as between man and man—an abhorrence of all tyranny, all compulsion, all unnecessary interference with the liberty of others. These characteristics, combined with certain favourable conditions, some of which have already been referred to, have determined the direction of the pursuits and inquiries in which I have spent a large portion of my life. It will be well to state here certain marked deficiencies in my mental equipment which have also had a share in determining the direction of my special activities. My greatest, though not perhaps most important, defect is my inability to perceive the niceties of melody and harmony in music; in common language, I have no ear for music. But as I have a fair appreciation of time, expression, and general effect, I am deeply affected by grand, pathetic, or religious music, and can at once tell when the heart and soul of the musician is in his performance, though any number of technical errors, false notes, or disharmonies would pass unnoticed. Another and more serious defect is in verbal memory, which, combined with the inability to reproduce vocal sounds, has rendered the acquirement of all foreign languages very difficult and distasteful. This, with my very imperfect school training, added to my shyness and want of confidence, must have caused me to appear a very dull, ignorant, and uneducated person to numbers of chance acquaintances. This deficiency has also put me at a great disadvantage as a public speaker. I can rarely find the right word or expression to enforce or illustrate my argument, and constantly feel the same difficulty in private conversation. In writing it is not so injurious, for when I have time for deliberate thought I can generally express myself with tolerable clearness and accuracy. I think, too, that the absence of the flow of words which so many writers possess has caused me to avoid that extreme diffuseness and verbosity which is so great a fault in many scientific and philosophical works. Another important defect is in the power of rapidly seeing analogies or hidden resemblances and incongruities, a deficiency which, in combination with that of language, has produced the total absence of wit or humour, paradox or brilliancy, in my writings, although no one can enjoy and admire these qualities more than I do. The rhythm and pathos, as well as the inimitable puns of Hood, were the delight of my youth, as are the more recondite and fantastic humour of Mark Twain and Lewis Carroll in my old age. The faculty which gives to its possessor wit or humour is also essential to the high mathematician, who is almost always witty or poetical as well; and I was therefore debarred from any hope of success in this direction; while my very limited power of drawing or perception of the intricacies of form were equally antagonistic to much progress as an artist or a geometrician. Other deficiencies of great influence in my life have been my want of assertiveness and of physical courage, which, combined with delicacy of the nervous system and of bodily constitution, and a general disinclination to much exertion, physical or mental, have caused that shyness, reticence, and love of solitude which, though often misunderstood and leading to unpleasant results, have, perhaps, on the whole, been beneficial to me. They have helped to give me those long periods, both at home and abroad, when, alone and surrounded only by wild nature and uncultured man, I could ponder at WOL. I. Q
leisure on the various matters that interested me. Thus was induced a receptiveness of mind which enabled me at different times to utilize what appeared to me as sudden intuitions— flashes of light leading to a solution of some problem which was then before me; and these flashes would often come to me when, pen in hand, I was engaged in writing on a subject on which I had no intention or expectation of saying anything new. There is one other point in which most of my scientific friends and readers will hold that I am deficient, but which in a popular writer on science may be considered to be an advantage. It is, that though fond of order and systematic arrangement of all the parts of a subject, and especially of an argument, I am yet, through my want of the languagefaculty, very much disinclined to use technical terms wherever they can be avoided. This is especially the case when a subject is elaborately divided up under various subordinate groups and sub-groups, each with a quite new technical name. This often seems to me more confusing than enlightening, and when other writers introduce different terms of their own, or use them in a somewhat different sense, or still further sub
divide the groups, the complication becomes too great for the non-specialist to follow.
Before leaving the sketch of my mental nature at the threshold of my uncontrolled life, I may properly say a few words on the position I had arrived at in regard to the great question of religious belief. I have already shown that my early home training was in a thoroughly religious but by no means rigid family, where, however, no religious doubts were ever expressed, and where the word “atheist” was used with bated breath as pertaining to a being too debased almost for human society. The only regular teaching I received was to say or hear a formal prayer before going to bed, hearing grace before and after dinner, and learning a collect every Sunday morning, the latter certainly one of the most stupid ways of inculcating religion ever conceived. On Sunday evenings, if we did not go to church or chapel, my father would read some old sermon, and when we did go we were asked on our return what was the text. The only books allowed to be read on Sundays were the “Pilgrim's Progress” or “Paradise Lost,” or some religious tracts or moral tales, or the more interesting parts of the Bible were read by my mother, or we read ourselves about Esther and Mordecai or Bel and the Dragon, which were as good as any story book. But all this made little impression upon me, as it never dealt sufficiently with the mystery, the greatness, the ideal and emotional aspects of religion, which only appealed to me occasionally in some of the grander psalms and hymns, or through the words of some preacher more impassioned than usual. As might have been expected, therefore, what little religious belief I had very quickly vanished under the influence of philosophical or scientific scepticism. This came first upon me when I spent a month or two in London with my brother John, as already related in my sixth chapter; and during the seven years I lived with my brother William, though the subject of religion was not often mentioned, there was a pervading spirit of scepticism, or free-thought as it was then called, which strengthened and confirmed my doubts as to the truth or value of all ordinary religious teaching. He occasionally borrowed interesting books which I usually read. One of these was an old edition of Rabelais' works, which both interested and greatly amused me ; but that which bears most upon the present subject was a reprint of lectures on Strauss’ “Life of Jesus,” which had not then been translated into English. These lectures were, I think, delivered by some Unitarian minister or writer, and they gave an admirable and most interesting summary of the whole work. The now well-known argument, that all the miracles related in the Gospels were mere myths, which in periods of ignorance and credulity always grow up around all great men, and especially around all great moral teachers when the actual witnesses of his career are gone and his disciples begin to write about him, was set forth with great skill. This argument appeared conclusive to my brother and