634: Character, Too, Has Its History.

In modern history, as we have seen, personality has played, on the whole, a rôle of minor importance as compared with the times of classical antiquity. In fact, there is practically only one personality in modern history who, in many respects, is a true rival of the great personalities of antiquity, and in whom character of the mightiest force has had ample play. We mean Napoleon. He has, more especially by H. Taine, been likened to the men of the Renaissance. It is more correct to place him beside the men of classical antiquity. His intellect was indeed a most finely and evenly balanced instrument of thought, memory, and imagination. Yet his intellect alone could not have raised him to the height of his unparalleled position. It was the indomitable power of his character that turned circumstances, chances, and ideas into a mighty army of conquest and organisation. We are still too near to this colossal figure to be able to judge of him adequately. It is, however, certain that there was in Napoleon, in addition to the genius of the intellect, a genius of character, if one may use this expression. His very faults, nay, blunders, are manifestly the faults and blunders of character. He, together with the other character-Titans of history, help us to see more clearly how character, when given sufficient elbow-room by the impersonal causes of history, may influence the trend of events to an incredible extent. The very progressiveness innate in human intellect is hostile to the individual intelligence; whereas character, less elastic, less progressive, ranges itself with all the conservative and staying forces of history. The error, then, of the casual student of history consists either in a total neglect of the influence of character on human events, or in an exaggerated estimation of the effect of character on all the periods of history. Character, too, has its history; and it is part of the most important tasks of the historian to allot to character its due place in the array of the causes that have produced the great drama of man.

(Emil Reich, “History and Character,” The Nineteenth Century and After, Vol. LXIII, 1908, p. 271).

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634: Character, Too, Has Its History.

598: Pasteboard Giants.

There was in the Terror an element more disgraceful to France than the carnival of murder in which the members of the Mountain, maddened, let us hope, by their long draughts of what we have called intellectual absinthe, permitted themselves to indulge, and that was the astounding cowardice of those who were not mad. If there is one thing certain about the Terror it is that it was approved by a small minority, that the troops loathed it, that the respectables feared it, that even the populace, who three times moved the guillotine, at heart condemned it as ruthless and unjust. The moment a minute group in the Convention, in fear for their own necks, defied it, it was over, and could not by the most desperate efforts be re-established. Not only were the silent majority of the Convention, who were constantly voting proscription lists, opposed to them, but physical force was wholly on that side, and once appealed to, drove the true Terrorists into hiding as mere human vermin. Not a shot was fired when the Jacobin Club was closed, and the “furies of the guillotine” whipped with canes. For months, in fact, France, which was all the while rushing to battle on the frontiers, lay paralysed with nervous terror, afraid of pasteboard giants, who on the first symptom of real resistance exploded with a smell, leaving behind them a recollection which has been more fatal to true liberty than all the Kings and all the reactionary leaders who have succeeded them.

(“On the Edge of the Abyss,” The Spectator, Vol. LXXXII, February 11, 1899, p. 190).

598: Pasteboard Giants.

587: To Rid Themselves of the Day.

When we observe the lives of those whom an ample inheritance has let loose to their own direction, what do we discover that can excite our envy? Their time seems not to pass with much applause from others, or satisfaction to themselves: many squander their exuberance of fortune in luxury and debauchery, and have no other use of money than to inflame their passions, and riot in a wide range of licentiousness; others, less criminal indeed, but surely not much to be praised, lie down to sleep, and rise up to trifle, are employed every morning in finding expedients to rid themselves of the day, chase pleasure through all the places of publick resort, fly from London to Bath, and from Bath to London, without any other reason for changing place, but that they go in quest of company as idle and as vagrant as themselves, always endeavouring to raise some new desire, that they may have something to pursue, to rekindle some hope which they know will be disappointed, changing one amusement for another which a few months will make equally insipid, or sinking into languor and disease for want of something to actuate their bodies or exhilarate their minds.

(Samuel Johnson, Essays. London: Walter Scott, 1888, p. 248).

587: To Rid Themselves of the Day.

584: A Gap.

In education, the instinct of ownership is fundamental, and can be appealed to in many ways. In the house, training in order and neatness begins with the arrangement of the child’s own personal possessions. In the school, ownership is particularly important in connection with one of its special forms of activity, the collecting impulse. An object possibly not very interesting in itself, like a shell, a postage stamp, or a single map or drawing, will acquire an interest if it fills a gap in a collection or helps to complete a series. Much of the scholarly work of the world, so far as it is mere bibliography, memory, and erudition (and this lies at the basis of all our human scholarship), would seem to owe its interest rather to the way in which it gratifies the accumulating and collecting instinct than to any special appeal which it makes to our cravings after rationality. A man wishes a complete collection of information, wishes to know more about a subject than anybody else, much as another may wish to own more dollars or more early editions or more engravings before the letter than anybody else.

(William James, Talks to Teachers on Psychology. New York: Richard Holt & Company, 1916, pp. 56–57).

584: A Gap.

572: A Bizarre Story.

John Stuart Mill had the worst personal life of any libertarian philosopher, a competitive category for bad personal lives. Marriage in particular has a record of making libertarian philosophers behave discreditably — that is, in a way that brings discredit not just on their character but on their ideas.

Bertrand Russell famously divorced the first of his four wives after a bicycle trip: “suddenly, as I was riding along a country road, realized that I no longer loved Alys.” Thus reasoned the most rational man in England. Ayn Rand forced her husband to endure loud and lofty protestations that forgoing an affair with Nathaniel Branden would be a sin against objectivism. William Godwin, England’s first anarcho-libertarian, wrecked two marriages on his individualism: first to Mary Wollstonecraft, whom he set up in a separate apartment and communicated with by letter, and then to a harridan of no redeeming qualities apart from her ability to keep house whom he, in his solipsism, permitted to torment Mary’s children.

Even in this company, John Stuart Mill is on another plane. Under the influence of his wife, Harriet Taylor, he drove his youngest brother George to suicide. His doting sisters were banished from his life over the flimsiest imagined slights to his wife’s honor. He gave up his former friends and became a recluse, retiring to a cottage in Blackheath Park where he entertained virtually no one while Mrs. Mill lived. After her death, he made himself a national laughingstock by declaring in his Autobiography that his wife had been more poetic than Shelley and a greater thinker than himself, and that he had “acquired more from her teaching than from all other sources taken together” — phrases written not when Mill was a grieving widower but during Harriet’s lifetime, in drafts which she read and approved for publication evidently without embarrassment.

And that’s only what she did to him after they wed. Their marriage was preceded by twenty years of brazen and self-righteous infidelity. When Mill met Harriet she was married to a good-natured pharmacist of enlightened political opinions, if no great intelligence, named John Taylor. After three years of growing mutual obsession, they bullied him into giving Harriet her own household, where she lived with their three children and entertained Mill on weekends. No one, not even his family, was permitted to mention Harriet’s name in Mill’s presence, much less to allude to the scandal their conduct had raised. His oldest friend, John Arthur Roebuck, was the only one who ever dared; Mill never spoke to him again. The couple withdrew into their private ménage, reassuring each other that it was only society’s “baby morality” (her phrase) that cast shame on their exalted passion. A bizarre story — and until the 1950s, an unknown one.

(Helen Andrews, “Romance and Socialism in J.S. Mill,” American Affairs, Vol. I, No. 2, Summer 2017).

572: A Bizarre Story.