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The Silent Isle - Chapter 19 Post by :eggibiz Category :Essays Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :May 2012 Read :1519

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The Silent Isle - Chapter 19


It is generally taken for granted nowadays by fervent educationalists that the important thing to encourage in boys is keenness in every department of school life. As a matter of fact, the keenness which is as a rule most developed in the public school product is keenness about athletic exercises. In the intellectual region, a boy is encouraged to do his duty, but there is no question that a boy who manifested an intense enthusiasm for his school work, who talked, thought, dreamed of nothing but success in examinations, would be considered rather abnormal and eccentric both by his instructors and his schoolfellows, though he would not be thought singular by any one if he did the same about his athletic prospects. What one cannot help wondering is whether this kind of enthusiasm is valuable to the character under its influence, whatever the subject of that enthusiasm may be. The normal boy, who is enthusiastic about athletics, tends to be cynical about intellectual success; and indeed even eminent men are not ashamed to encourage this by uttering, as a Lord Chancellor lately did, good-humoured gibes about the futility of dons and schoolmasters, and the uselessness of lectures. The other day a young friend of mine indulged in a glowing description, in my presence, of the methods and form of a certain short-distance runner. It was a generous panegyric, full of ingenuous admiration. He spoke of the runner's devices--I fear I cannot reproduce the technical terms--with the same thrilled and awestruck emotion which Shelley might have used, as an undergraduate, in speaking of Homer or Shakespeare. I suppose it is a desirable thing, on the whole, to be able to run faster than other people, though the practical utility of being able to do a hundred yards in a fraction of a second less than other runners is not easily demonstrable. But for all that I cannot help wondering whether such enthusiasm is not thrown away or misapplied. Perhaps the same indictment might be made against all warmly expressed admiration for human performances. The greatest philosopher or poet in the world is, after all, a very limited being. The knowledge possessed by the wisest man of science is a very minute affair when compared with what there remains in the universe to know; the finest picture ever painted compares very unfavourably with the beauty that surrounds us every minute of every day. The question, to my mind, is whether we do not do ourselves harm in the long-run by losing ourselves in frantic admiration for any human performance. The Psalmist expressed this feeling very cogently and humorously when he said that the Creator did not delight in any man's legs. The question is not whether it is not a natural temptation to limit our dreams of ultimate possibilities by the standard of human effort, but whether we ought to try and resist that temptation. When I was at a private school, I heard a boy express the most fervent and unfeigned admiration for our head-master, because he caned culprits so hard, and I suppose that one of the germs of religious feeling is the admiration of the Creator because the forces of nature make such havoc of human precautions. Perhaps it is a necessary stage through which we all must pass, the stage of admiring something that is just a little stronger and more effective than ourselves. Our admiration is based upon the fact that such strength and effectiveness is not wholly outside our own powers of attainment, but that we can hope that under favourable circumstances we may acquire equal or similar energies. But even if it is a necessary stage of progress, I am quite sure that it ought not to be an ultimate stage, and that a man ought not to spend the whole of his life admiring limited human performances, however august they may be. That is the great and essential force of religion in human lives, that it tends to set a higher standard, and to concentrate admiration upon Divine rather than upon human forces. Even when we are dealing with emotions, the same holds good. The writer of romances who lavishes the whole force of his enthusiasm upon the possibilities of human love, its depth, its loyalty, its faithfulness, is apt to lose the sense of proportion. One ought to employ one's sense of admiration for the august achievements of humanity as a species of symbolism. Our admiration for athletic prowess, for art, for literature, ought not to limit itself to these, but ought to regard them as symbols of vaster, larger, more beautiful truths.

The difficulty is to know at what point to draw the line. These limited enthusiasms may have an educative effect upon the persons who indulge them, but they may also have a stunting effect if they are pursued too long. A boy passes my window whistling shrill a stave of a popular song. He is obviously delighted with and intent upon his performance, and he is experiencing, no doubt, the artistic joy of creation; but if that boy goes on in life, as many artists do, limiting his musical aspirations to the best whistle that he can himself emit, his ideal will be a low one, however faithfully pursued. The ugly part of thus limiting our aspirations is that such petty enthusiasm is generally accompanied by an intense craving for the admiration of other people, and it is this which vitiates and poisons our own admirations. We do not merely think how fine a performance it is; we think how much we should like to impress and astonish other people, to arouse their envy and jealousy by a similar performance. The point is rather that we should enjoy effort, and that our aim should be rather to improve our own performances than to surpass the performances of others. The right spirit is that which Matthew Arnold displays in one of his letters. He was writing at a time when his own literary fame was securely established, yet he said that the longer he lived the more grateful he was for his own success. He added that the more people he came to know, the more strongly he felt the comparative equality of human endowments, and the more clearly he perceived that the successful writer _found rather than _invented the telling phrase, the stimulating thought. That is a very rare attitude of mind, and it is as noble as it is rare. The successful writer, as a rule, instead of being grateful for his good fortune in perceiving what others have not perceived, takes the credit to himself for having originated it, whereas he ought rather to conceive of himself as one of a company of miners, and be thankful for having lighted upon a richer pocket of auriferous soil than the rest.

Of course it sounds what is commonly called priggish when a man, in the style of Mr. Barlow, is always imploring the boy who wins a race or gets a prize to turn his thoughts higher and to take no credit to himself for what is only a piece of good fortune, and is not so great a performance after all. It is easy to say that this is but a pietistic quenching of natural and youthful delight; but much depends upon the way in which it is done, and it is probably the right line to take, though it is supposed to be merely the old-fashioned parental attitude of little goody books. The really modest and ingenuous boy does it for himself, and the boy who "puts on side" because of his triumphs is universally disapproved of. Moreover, as a rule, in the larger world, the greatest men are really apt to be among the most modest; and it is generally only the second-rate people who try to extort deference and admiration.

False enthusiasm is probably only one degree better than cynicism. Cynicism is generally the refuge of the disappointed and indolent, but there is, after all, a nobler kind of cynicism, which even religion must strive to develop, the cynicism which realises the essential worthlessness and pettiness of human endeavour. The cynicism that stops short at this point is the evil kind of cynicism, and becomes purely contemptuous and derisive. But there is a fruitful kind of cynicism, which faithfully contrasts the aspirations and possibilities of humanity with its actual performances and its failures, which makes the poet and the philosopher humble in the presence of infinite beauty and infinite knowledge.

It is the quality, the spirit, of a performance that matters. If a performance is the best of which a man is capable, and better than what he has hitherto done, he has achieved all that is possible. If he begins to reflect that it is better than what others have done, then his satisfaction is purely poisonous. But to estimate human possibilities high and human performances low, and to class one's own performances with the latter rather than the former, this is temperate and manly and strong.

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