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AN ESSAY, &c.
The true dignity of man consists in mental excellence; and difference of mind is the only real difference between men.
MORAL science may be divided into three branches:-the theory of evidence, the theory of morality, and the scale of ability.
The first includes all disquisitions, such as those of Berkeley concerning the origin of our ideas, and Hume's reasoning on experience; the second, all ethical writings, such as Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments, sermons, and all essays similar to those of the Spectator and Rambler. The last is the object of the present Treatise, but the two former are considered as the more important. The latter has, indeed, been treated more as a subject of fancy than of science; and hence the many errors which prevail upon it.
Among the chief of these, are those poetical, rather than philosophical, ideas, by which the mind is divided into a number of faculties, each inhabiting its own cell, and having no connection with another. The faculties of the mind are, in general, said to be judgment, memory, imagination, &c.; but their number seems capable of no other limitation than the will of the person who makes the division.
The usual consequence of philosophical inquiry is to unite a multitude of phenomena or facts under one denomination. It may, therefore, be presumed that this multiplication of faculties arises from limited views, and that a more extensive inquiry would trace them to a common origin.
The following Treatise is intended to prove the unity of the intellectual powers. We hope to be able to produce satisfactory proof that the seeming diversity of faculties arises from the various objects and circumstances to which the mind
is directed; and that these, however different, induce no change on the intellect itself.
In treating of Genius, or the various degrees of human ability, we ought, however, in the first place, to endeavour to ascertain whether there exists any original difference between the intellect of one man and that of another, arising from the peculiar nature of the mind itself; or whether all difference of mental talent does not proceed from the influence of external circumstances, including among these the effects of constitution. But here research will, in one respect, prove fruitless. Mental and physical operations are so intimately blended, that we can never discover the exact degree of influence to be ascribed to the mind or to the body. Taking it for granted that the mind is different from the body;* although whether or not is immaterial to this inquiry; yet, as the former never acts separately from the latter, it is impossible to discover if it possesses any peculiarities arising from its own nature, or not. But, while all mental capacity may be referred to the nature of the constitution as well as to a native strength of mind, it is remarkable that intellectual deficiency may be ascribed to the former of these causes. While sedateness of temper fixes us to ideas, it may also obstruct their conception; and while vivacity enables us to receive impressions, it may prevent us from attending to them.t
A multitude of causes concur, however, to prove the important fact of the existence of some original difference of ability, arising either from the nature of the mind or the body, but most probably from that of the former. We find one man
We have equal evidence for the existence of that assemblage of qualities called the mind, as for the existence of that called matter. The most distinguishing property of the mind is the susceptibility of pleasure and pain; of matter, extension. These qualities appear so different that not even a comparison can be drawn between them. The most judicious, therefore, have held them to belong to distinct substances, if such a thing as substance exists.
+ Both reasons are given for the intellectual deficiency of brutes. An ox is said to be too dull to receive impressions; a dog, too vivacious to attend to them.
more susceptible of education, naturally more penetrating and distinct, and capable of carrying his ideas farther than another. We may, therefore, safely admit two species of ability, the natural, and the acquired.
This original difference of talent does not, however, seem great. In nature, there are no prodigies. The various species are connected by gradual links, and the varieties of any particular species confined to narrow limits. The difference of intellectual ability is not, in all probability, naturally greater than that of stature. Yet this difference is important; and, if the influence of external circumstances be added, is sufficient to account for the most extraordinary instances of genius that have appeared in the world. The effect of cultivation on the mind is great-the power of industry immense. The most splendid talents are, therefore, perhaps nothing more than those lucky habits which correspond with excellence.
Connected with the subject of genius, there is one point left in the most vague and unsatisfactory state, and which it may not be improper to attempt to settle here; that is personal dignity, or that greatness which has been so much talked of, and so little understood. Personal greatness may be of two kinds. It may arise either from the possession of great talents, or from some other circumstance which has an important influence on the happiness of mankind. The latter species, again, may suffer division into great actions, and great possessions. The first of these may be considered as better evidence of superior talents than the second, although neither can be considered as good.
But if the mind be held as different from the body, intellectual ability can be viewed as constituting the only real personal dignity. All other is to be looked upon as fictitious; and the term great as applied to it an instance of the abuse of words.
Mankind are, indeed, sensible of the charms of intellectual importance. Every person prefers the reputation of ability to that of virtue, and would suffer the imputation of vice rather than of folly ;– every person is sensible that to improve his mind is to raise him in the scale of existence, and that to
increase intellectual acquisition is the only means of exalting a reasonable being.
Adventitious and extrinsic qualities, however, are often confounded with personal, and the things possessed identified with the possessor. Thus, a king is called great, because he has the direction of every thing important to a considerable portion of mankind, and the means of rendering many happy or miserable; although, at the sametime, in intellectual qualities, he may be inferior to the majority of his subjects.
There is certainly a greatness of things, as well as of minds, because there are differences among them; but we can never acquire a title to their importance. External objects can, by no mode of possession, be assimilated to the intellect; nor can they, to any great extent, even fall within our power, or minister to our enjoyment. In whatever manner a person may apply wealth, or exercise authority, it can produce merely refinement of those pleasures which are common to all mankind; for nature always constrains him to remain within those precincts which she has assigned to individuals, and he can be great to others only as an inanimate object can be, by forwarding or obstructing their happiness.
Those who hold elevated situations attract our attention more by the splendour of their rank than by their ability, and it is rather their station and circumstances which we admire than themselves. Even heroes and conquerors, and the majority of those characters which appear in the roll of fame, must be considered only as marking those revolutions which are continually happening from the motion of things, and as indicating great events rather than great minds. For it is obvious to the slightest reflection, that, in this case, opportunity holds the first rank, ability only the second, and that Darius might have been Alexander had he commanded an army of Grecians.
To judge of any person's mental powers by those actions in which he has been engaged, is certainly, a very remote manner of estimating their value. Events form but an imperfect index to the mind; and we often take good fortune for capacity. A general may be victorious by the advice, care, or ability,
of his officers; by the superior number, or spirit, of his men ; by the neglect of his antagonist; by the advantages of his situation; or by a thousand other circumstances, neither dependant on him nor discoverable by others. A statesman, again, may be successful from the temperature of the times, or the concurrence of causes unconnected with his determinations, and over which he has no control.
We are, in general, so much dazzled by the lustre of great events, that the conduct of every person, when fortunate, seems wise; while, on the contrary, it is difficult to save the reputation of the unfortunate, even among the most impartial. Yet," conduct is not necessarily connected with great talents;" but depends less upon strength of mind than upon moderation of passion; for it is one thing to understand, and another to perform.† Or if the actions of men be at all related to their capacity, so strangely is it, that there is one character, at least, who has not long ceased to agitate the world, that must be pronounced, at once, a man of great ability, and of no ability. How then are we to judge?
Some, indeed, are not satisfied with regard to the abili ties of the powerful and successful from the evidence of power and success alone. They still wish to have an opportunity of judging of them by their conversation, or literary attempts, which are the best means of obtaining a perfect knowledge of the mind. Literature is, of all things, the fairest test of mental ability, and real greatness, because fortuitous causes can little assist the labours of the mind, or whatever assistance is derived, by an author, from circumstances, will readily be perceived and appreciated. Literature and written science will, therefore, throughout the following Treatise, be held as furnishing the only direct, and certain evidence, of intellectual talent.
The difference between a mad attempt and a glorious action, depends upon success. The style of history is-whereever there is success, there is talent; and wherever there is failure, there is imbecility.
The maxim- "judge of a person by his actions, and not by his words", must apply to morals rather than to intellect.