The Spirit Of The Mountains
( Originally Published 1914 )
THE Swiss as a people often suffer in the judgment of the tourist by failure to live up to their reputation as a " mountain people "— to a glorious " Alpine " character.
The dweller by the shores of the sea or by the riverine plains, setting his feet along a mountain path towards the peaks which go up to meet the sky, ordinarily feels a sense of joy and freedom as he climbs to the higher air. He seems to shake off shackles from his mind and to enter into an enjoyment of life which is less earthly and nearer to the spiritual. His imagination is impressed with the thought that truly he is mounting towards the stars. There is, to aid imagination, a definite corporal effect due to a slight change in the nature of the air. A quickening pulse seems to tell of the heart becoming more generous in response to the spirit of the mountains.
From this feeling of exhilaration of the mind and the body, which comes when ascending, after a long stay on the plains, to a mountain height, arises an almost universal belief in human thought that there is some special spiritual and ennobling influence in the mountains of the earth. Poets have sung of it again and again : philosophers have admitted to it with a more discreet but with a no less certain rapture. Many scientists have explained it with as ingenious explanations as were offered by those learned men who were set by a waggish French king to explain to him why it was that : given two dishes, each full to the brim of water, and two fish of equal size, but one dead and the other alive : and allowed that the live fish is put in the one full dish and the dead fish in the other full dish with equal care : then, whilst the water of the dish in which the dead fish is placed will overflow at once, the water of the dish in which the live fish is placed will not overflow.
That king's merry jest on his men of learning who set out to find a reason for a " fact " before finding out whether it was a fact, was neatly countered, if my memory of the story be correct, by one courtier-scientist who ingeniously pleaded that what His Majesty said on any matter must, by all loyal subjects, be accepted as a fact, and in truth did, to the loyal mind, become a fact, no unworthy suspicions being harboured that a king of France could not make, change, or annul a natural law just as well as any other law.
In truth, though, the idea that dwelling on a mountain-top has a strengthening effect on the human frame and an ennobling influence on the human character is mostly fallacious. It may be " explained " but not proved. Those who hold it, if questioned in the Socratic manner to give proofs in the first place of the existence of the ennobling influence they believe in, could well plead a general human consent on the point—a universal belief. But they would, I think, be hard put to it, to offer any more real proof than the statements of some poet, or of some philosopher, or the explanation of some scientist who had explained a circumstance without first proving it.
Let there be imagined a cross-examination on the point by some modern follower of Socrates' methods :
S. You say that the Swiss people are a noble race because they are a mountain race. Will you, if you have time, explain to me why that is so ? I am very anxious to know the true reason why the fact of living on a mountain should have this fine effect on the human character.
T. On that point, surely, there is no difference of opinion at all ? Every one knows that the mountain races are the most brave, the most eager for liberty, the most virtuous of the earth.
S. But it happens that I am not so wise as those people. I do not know, and I am very anxious to learn. Can you show me that it is a fact that mountain races are as you say ? And afterwards, since you evidently have know-ledge on this point and I am anxious to be your pupil, perhaps you will tell me why it is so.
T. You ask a rather difficult question. It is like, almost, raising the question as to whether the earth is round. Are you not satisfied to know that nearly all the poets and philosophers who have written about the mountains seem to be agreed on this point when they refer to it at all ; and that few have written about mountains without making some reference to the noble nature of mountain peoples ?
S. To tell you the truth, I am not quite satisfied. It is even possible that the poets have been mistaken. Probably you have heard of a German wise man named Schopenhauer and have read his writings.
T. (Interrupting.) Yes. But if he writes against mountain people I would not accept him as an authority on this point about which we are talking, since there are many men on the other side of so much greater authority.
S. No. I do not wish you to accept him as an authority on the character of mountain peoples. Indeed I do not know whether he has ever written at all on that subject. But he has written on the subject of female and male beauty. He does not think that women are more beautiful than men, but less beautiful. And when they would argue against him the words of the great poets, who are all quite agreed that women are more beautiful than men, he retorts that all these poets have been men, and that they have been blinded by their passions for women, and have not been able therefore to come to a sound and cool judgment. He argues that if the greatest poets had been women the beauty of men and not of women would have been sung. Does that not seem to you a rational argument ?
T. Yes. Certainly it is not absurd. There may be some truth in what he says.
S. So the words of the poets may not always be accepted as proof of the truth, especially if it can be shown that they may be prejudiced regarding the matters of which they speak.
T. I agree with you there. But I do not see that there is any necessary application to the point about which we were arguing—the noble character of mountain peoples.
S. I wish to come to that now. I accept what you say that very many poets and wise men have exalted the character of mountain peoples. But now, can you tell me were those poets and wise men themselves generally of mountain peoples ?
T. No, certainly not. You cannot argue that they were prejudiced in that way. Indeed in my recollection I can recall no very great poet or philosopher who was of a mountain people and was brought up and educated in his own country.
S. Now that seems to me to be a very pertinent fact. It is the case, then, that though mountain peoples are superior to other peoples, they do not produce and rear poets and philosophers to any extent ; that these praises of the better qualities of mountain peoples come from the great men whom the peoples of the plains produce ? Yet surely the peoples who produce most plentifully great men, poets and philosophers, are the greatest peoples ?
The dialogue need not be pursued further until T., like Euthyphron, finds that he is in a hurry and it is time to be off. Its purpose is to suggest that it is not at all necessary to endorse without question the very generally accepted idea that there. is some specially beneficent effect on the human character in mountain life. The exhilaration that one feels in going on a journey from the plains to the mountains is real, and on it apparently has been built all the fabric of mountain worship. That exhilaration is in all probability far more the effect of a change of living conditions than of a passing to better conditions. Human life primitively flowed fluid, here and there, in nomadic movements. When it began to congeal in cities and communities it departed from natural conditions, and Nature often exacts as a penalty some atrophy of the life impulse. But a change of environment and of air—any change—brings usually a stimulus. Nature thinks we are off to be nomad children playing at her skirts again, and gives back to us as a reward a hint of the old savage energy. I have felt a keen renewal of energy going up from the plains to the mountains and after a year on the tableland a far keener renewal on going back to the plains. It is in like case with most people, I think, if they would take the trouble to examine into the matter. But most of us live on the plains and go for our holidays to the hills (or the sea) and associate the exhilaration arising from change of air or surroundings to some special quality of mountain conditions. Those who live on the mountains and might in turn proclaim the exhilaration of going down on to the plains are few and not markedly vocal for securing a public hearing.
There is an early poem of Tennyson, which expresses no more than the orthodox view of the influence of mountains on our human nature :
Of old sat Freedom on the heights,
There in her place she did rejoice,
Then stept she down thro' town and field
Our Swiss friends are expected by the traveller to carry themselves in all things with the pride and dignity of people who are born in the original home of European liberty. But Tennyson's idea, whilst pretty, is exactly false. Civilisations and traditions of human freedom have always begun on the plains—by sea - shore and river - bank. There have been born the ideas of Freedom and Human Right, and these ideas have at a later stage made their way to the mountain ranges by various paths. In one set of cases the course of race history has run that the people of the plain have become softened by civilisation and luxury, and hairy savages from the hills have learned to steal first their cattle and then the riches of their cities, and finally their ideas. Sometimes in these cases the people of the plain have been aroused to an old vigour by the robbers of the hills, have beaten them back after having imposed upon them some ideas of law and order, and have thus set the foundations for civilised mountain communities. Sometimes, again, the people of the hills have succeeded in establishing themselves on the plain, mingling with the civilised people whom they conquered, and in time learning their culture. In another set of cases a nation as it perfected its civilisation on a plain has found it necessary to shed off some of its rougher elements, and these have taken to robber nests in the hills and carried with them some better ideas than those of the hill-tribes. Or yet again, one nation of the plain has been invaded and conquered by another nation of the plain, and its remnants have sought refuge in the hills, so forming the best historical type of mountain communities (thus the Celts did in the Highlands of Scotland and Wales when the Saxon invasion drove them from the plains of Britain).
But never has any notable civilisation sat first upon the heights and marched from there down to the plains. Always, on the contrary, human progress has progressed from the plain to the mountain ; and found the path sometimes very difficult, and very treacherously defended. Where a mountain range has affected favourably the progress of human thought it has been because it gave a rampart and a refuge to the remnants of some civilisation of the plains threatened with submergence by calamity.
To get a fair impression of Switzerland and the Swiss at the outset, then, it seems to be advisable to clear away this common misconception of mountain ranges as being the nurses inevitably of heroic human natures. The Swiss have been absurdly over-praised by some, largely because of this root fallacy that a mountain people must have all the virtues. They have been unfairly over-blamed by others, who seem to have started with a preconceived idea of an impossibly heroic people and to have been soured when they found unreasonable illusions shattered. " The Swiss are stubborn, devoid of all generous sentiment, not generous nor humane," said Ruskin. There spoke the disappointed sentimentalist. Obviously he approached the Swiss from the fallacious " Alpine character " point of view, and vainly expected them to live up to the super-heroic idea he had formed of the sort of people who ought to inhabit the slopes of such magnificent mountains. Voltaire, de Stael, Hugo, Dumas, all abuse the Swiss. They demanded of them—carried away by that idea of the mountains enduing people with virtues —an impossible standard, and kicked at them for not living up to it, as a Chinaman kicks his joss when it does not bring rain under impossible wind conditions.
To inhabit a mountain country is, if all the facts are taken into account, a handicap rather than an advantage to a race. In the earlier stages of civilisation the mountains have imposed upon them the duty of sheltering alike fleeing patriots and fleeing criminals : and the criminals are usually the more numerous. In later stages mountains interfere greatly with the development of the machinery of civilisation. Always, too, mountain air sharpens the appetite rather than the wits, and there are some diseases attacking particularly the brain which are almost peculiar to mountain districts.
The Swiss, then, have to be considered justly rather in the light of a handicapped than of a favoured people. Their one favouring national circumstance is that their central position in regard to the great plains of Europe has put them in the track of all the chief currents of civilisation. What they have managed to effect in spite of the handicap of their mountains is one of the marvellous stories of the human race ; and to the mountains they owe in the main their sense of national unity. They served as the bond of a common misfortune.