Amazing articles on just about every subject...

Speculative And Practical Ability

( Originally Published 1884 )

Napoleon and Men of Science.—Hobbies.—Literary Statesmen.—Sir G. C. Lewis.—Consolations of Literature.—Work and Over-work.

"Let every man be occupied, and occupied in the highest employment of which his nature is capable, and die in the consciousness that he has done his best."-SYDNEY SMITH.

MONTAIGNE has said of true philosophers that " if they were great in science, they were yet much greater in action; . . . and whenever they have been put upon the proof; they have been seen to fly to so high a pitch, s made it very well appear their souls were strangely elevated and enriched with the knowledge of things."

At the same time, it must be acknowledged that too exclusive a devotion to imaginative and philosophical literature, especially if prolonged in life until the habits become formed, does to a great extent incapacitate a man for the business of practical life. Speculative ability is one thing, and practical ability another; and the man who, in his study, or with his pen in hand, shows himself capable of forming large views of life and policy, may, in the outer world, be found altogether unfitted for carrying them into practical effect.

Speculative ability depends on vigorous thinking practical ability on vigorous acting; and the two qualities are usually found combined in very unequal proportions. The speculative man is prone to indecision; he sees all the sides of a question, and his action becomes suspended in nicely weighing the pros and cons, which are often found pretty nearly to balance each other; whereas the practical man overleaps logical preliminaries, arrives at certain definite convictions, and proceeds forthwith to carry his policy into action.

Yet there have been many great men of science who have proved efficient men of business. We do not learn that Sir Isaac Newton made a worse Master of the Mint because he was the greatest of philosophers. Nor were there any complaints as to the efficiency of Sir John Hershel who held the same office. The brothers Humboldt were alike capable men in all that they undertook whether it was literature, philosophy, mining, philology, diplomacy, or statesmanship.

Niebuhr, the historian, was distinguished for his energy and success as a man of business. He proved so efficient as secretary and accountant to the African consulate, to which he had been appointed by the Danish Government, that he was afterwards selected as one of the commissioners to manage the national finances; and he quitted that office to undertake the joint directorship of a bank at Berlin. It was in the midst of his business occupations that he found time to study Roman history, to master the Arabic, Russian, and other Sclayonic languages, and to build up the great reputation as an author by which he is now chiefly remembered.

Having regard to the views professed by the First Napoleon as to men of science, it was to have been expected that he would endeavor to strengthen his administration by calling them to his aid. Some of his appointments proved failures, while others were completely successful. Thus Laplace was made minister of the interior; but he had no sooner been appointed than it was seen that a mistake had been made. Napoleon afterwards said of him, that " Laplace looked at no question in its true point of view. He was always searching after subtleties; all his ideas were problems, and he carried the spirit of the infinitesimal calculus into the management of business.", But Laplace's habits had been formed in the study, and he was too old to adapt them to the purposes of practical life.

With Daru it was different. But Daru had the advantage of some practical training in business, having served as an intendant of the army in Switzerland under Massena, during which he also distinguished him-self as an author. When Napoleon proposed to appoint him a councillor of state and intendant of the imperial household, Daru hesitated to accept the office. " I have passed the greater part of my life," he said, " among books, and have not had time to learn the functions of a courtier." " Of courtiers," replied Napoleon, " I have plenty about me; they will never fail. But I want a minister at once enlightened, firm, and vigilant; and it is for these qualities that I have selected you." Daru complied with the emperor's wishes and eventually became his prime minister, ,proving thoroughly efficient in that capacity, and remaining the same modest, honorable, and disinterested man that he had ever been through life.

Men of trained working faculty so contract the habit of labor that idleness becomes intolerable to them; and when driven by circumstances from their own special line of occupation, they find refuge in other pursuits. The diligent man is quick to find employment for his leisure; and he is able to make leisure when the idle man finds none. " He hath no leisure," says George Herbert, " who useth it not." " The most active or busy man that hath been or can be," says Bacon, " hath, no question, many vacant times of leisure, while he expecteth the tides and returns of business, except he be either tedious and of no dispatch, or lightly and unworthily ambitious to meddle with things that may be better done by others." Thus many great things have been done during such " vacant times of leisure," by men to whom industry had become a second nature, and who found it easier to work than to be idle.

Even hobbies are useful as educators of the working faculty. Hobbies evoke industry of a certain kind, and at least provide agreeable occupation. Not such hobbies as that of Domitian, who occupied himself in catching flies. The hobbies of the King of Macedon, who made lanterns, and of the King of France, who made locks, were of a more respectable order. Even a routine mechanical employment is felt to be a relief by minds acting under high pressure; it is an intermission of labor a rest a relaxation, the pleasure consisting in the work itself rather than in the result.

But the best of hobbies are intellectual ones. Thus men of active mind retire from their daily business to find recreation in other pursuits some in science, some in art, and the greater number in literature. Such recreations are among the best preservatives against selfishness and vulgar worldliness. We believe it was Lord Brougham who said, " Blessed is the man that hath a hobby!" and, in the abundant versatility of his nature, he himself had many, ranging from literature to optics, from history and biography to social science. Lord Brougham is even said to have written a novel; and the remarkable story of the " Man in the Bell," which appeared many years ago in " Blackwood," is reputed to have been from his pen. Intellectual hobbies, however, must not be ridden too hard; else, instead of recreating, refreshing, and invigorating a man's nature, they may only have the effect of sending him back to his business exhausted, enervated, and depressed.

Many laborious 'statesmen besides Lord Brougham have occupied their leisure, or consoled themselves in retirement from office, by the composition of works which have become part of the standard literature of the world. Thus " Caesar's Commentaries " still survive as a classic; the perspicuous and forcible style in which they are written placing him in the same rank with Xenophon, who also successfully combined the pursuit of letters with the business of active life.

When the great . Sully was disgraced as a minister, and driven into retirement, he occupied his leisure in writing out his " Memoirs," in anticipation of the judgment of posterity upon his career as a statesman. Besides these, he also composed part of a romance after the manner of the Scuderi school, the manuscript of which was found among his papers at his death.

Turgot found, a solace for the loss of office, from which he had been driven by the intrigues of his enemies, in the study of physical science. He also reverted to his early taste for classical literature. During his long journeys, and at nights when tortured by the gout, he amused himself by making Latin verses; though the only line of his that has been preserved was that intended to designate the portrait of Benjamin Franklin.

Among more recent French statesmen with whom, however, literature has been their profession as much as politics may be mentioned De Tocqueville, Thiers, Guizot, and Lamartine; while Napoleon III. challenged a place in the Academy by his " Life of Csar."

Literature has also been the chief solace of our greatest English statesmen. When Pitt retired from office, like his great contemporary, Fox, he reverted with delight to the study of the Greek and Roman classics. Indeed, Grenville considered Pitt the best Greek scholar he had ever known. Canning and Wellesley, when in retirement, occupied themselves in translating the odes and satires of Horace.. Canning's passion for literature entered into all his pursuits, and gave a color to his whole life. His biographer says of him, that after a dinner at Pitt's while the rest of the company were dispersed in conversation, he and Pitt would be observed poring over some old Grecian in a corner of the drawing-room. Fox also was a diligent student of the Greek authors, and, like Pitt, read Lycophron. He was also the author of a History of James IT., though the book is only a fragment, and, it must be confessed, is rather a disappointing work.

One of the most able and laborious of our recent statesmen with whom literature was a hobby as well as a pursuit was the late Sir George Cornewall Lewis. He was an excellent man of business diligent, exact, and painstaking. He filled by turns the offices of president of the poor-law board the machinery of which he created chancellor of the exchequer, home secretary, and secretary at war; and in each he achieved the reputation of a thoroughly successful administrator. In the intervals of his official labors he occupied himself with inquiries into a wide range of subjects history, politics, philology, anthropology, and antiquarianism. His works on " The Astronomy of the Ancients,"and "Essays on the Formation of the Romanic Languages," might have been written by the profoundest of German savants. He took especial delight in pursuing the abstruser branches of learning, and found in them his chief pleasure and recreation. Lord Palmerston sometimes remonstrated with him, telling him he was " taking too much out of himself " by laying aside official papers after office hours in order to study books; Palmerston himself declaring that he had no time to read books —that the reading of manuscript was quite enough for him.

Doubtless Sir George Lewis rode his hobby too hard, and, but for his devotion to study, his useful life would probably have been prolonged. Whether in or out of office, he read, wrote, and studied. He relinquished the editorship of the " Edinburgh Review" to become chancellor of the exchequer; and when no longer occupied in preparing budgets, he proceeded to copy out a mass of Greek manuscripts at the British Museum. He took particular delight in pursuing any difficult inquiry in classical antiquity. One of the odd subjects with which he occupied himself was an examination into the truth of reported cases of longevity, which, according to his custom, he doubted or disbelieved. This subject was uppermost in his mind while pursuing his canvass of Herefordshire in 1852. On applying to a voter one day for his support, he was met by a decided refusal. " I am sorry," was the candidate's reply, " that you can't give me your vote; but perhaps you can tell me whether any body in your parish has died at an extraordinary age!"

The contemporaries of Sir George Lewis also furnish many striking instances of the consolations afforded by literature to statesmen wearied with the toils of public life. Though the door of office may be closed, that of literature stands always open, and men who are at daggers-drawn in politics, join hands over the poetry of Homer and Horace. The late Earl of Derby, on retiring from power, produced his noble version of " The Iliad," which will probably continue to be read when his speech-es have been forgotten. Mr. Gladstone similarly occupied his leisure in preparing for the press his "" Studies on Homer," and in editing a translation of " Farini's Roman State " while Mr. Disraeli signalized his retirement from office by the production of his " Lothair." Among statesmen who have figured as novelists, besides Mr. Disraeli, are Lord Russell, who has also contributed largely to history and biography : the Marquis of Normandy, and the veteran novelist, Lord Lytton, with whom, indeed, politics may be said to have been his recreation, and literature the chief employment of his life.

To conclude : a fair measure of work is good for mind as well as body. Man is an intelligence sustained and preserved by bodily organs, and their active exercise is necessary to the enjoyment of health. It is not work, but over-work, that is hurtful; and it is not hard work that is injurious so much as monotonous work, fagging work, hopeless work. All hopeful work is healthful; and to be usefully and hopefully employed is one of the great secrets of happiness. Brain-work, in moderation, is no more wearing than any other kind of work. Duly regulated, it is as promotive of health as bodily exercise; and, where due attention is paid to the physical system, it seems difficult to put more upon a man than he can bear. Merely to eat and drink and sleep one's way idly through life is vastly more injurious. The wear-and-tear of rust is even faster than the tear-andwear of work.

But over-work is always bad economy. It is, in fact, great waste, especially if conjoined with worry. Indeed, worry kills far more than work does. It frets, it excites, it consumes the body as sand and grit, which occasion excessive friction, wear out the wheels of a machine. Overwork and worry have both to be guarded against. For over-brain-work is strain-work; and it is exhausting and destructive according as it is in excess of nature. And the brain-worker may exhaust and overbalance his mind by excess, just as the athlete may overstrain his muscles and break his back by attempting feats beyond the strength of his physical system.

Home | More Articles | Email: