Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION VII. - Harriet Martineau's Autobiography, vol. 2 and Memorials of Harriet Martineau
Return to Title Page for Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography, vol. 2 and Memorials of Harriet Martineau
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
SECTION VII. - Harriet Martineau, Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography, vol. 2 and Memorials of Harriet Martineau 
Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography and Memorials of Harriet Martineau, ed. Maria Weston Chapman (Boston: James R. Osgood & Co., 1877). 2 vols. Vol. 2.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
It appears, from two or three notices above, that Comte’s philosophy was at this time a matter of interest to me. For many months after, his great work was indeed a means of singular enjoyment to me. After hearing Comte’s name for many years, and having a vague notion of the relation of his philosophy to the intellectual and social needs of the time, I obtained something like a clear preparatory view, at second-hand, from a friend, at whose house in Yorkshire I was staying, before going to Bolton, in 1850. What I learned then and there impelled me to study the great book for myself; and in the spring of 1851, when the “Atkinson Letters” were out, and the History was finished, and I intended to make holiday from the pen for awhile, I got the book, and set to work. I had meantime looked at Lewes’s chapter on Comte in Mr. Knight’s Weekly Volume, and at Littré’s epitome; and I could thus, in a manner, see the end from the beginning of the complete and extended work. This must be my excuse for the early date at which I conceived the scheme of translating the Philosophie Positive.
My course of lectures on English History finished on the first of April: and on the eighth, I sent off the last proof-sheet of my history. On the fourteenth, my nieces left me; and there was an interval before my spring visits which I employed in a close study of the first volume of Comte’s work. On the twenty-fourth, the book arrived from London; and I am amazed, and somewhat ashamed to see by my Diary, that on the twenty-sixth, I began to “dream” of translating it; and on the next night (Sunday the twenty-seventh) sat up late, — not dreaming, but planning it. On the second of May, I was in such enthusiasm that I wrote to one of the best-informed men on this matter in the kingdom, (an old friend) to ask his opinion on my scheme. He emphatically approved my design, — of introducing the work to the notice of a wide portion of the English public who could never read it in the original; but he proposed a different method of doing it. He said that no results could compensate to me for the toil of translating six volumes in a style like Comte’s, and in the form of lectures, whereby much recapitulation was inevitable. He proposed that I should give an abstract of Comte’s philosophy, with illustrations of my own devising, in one volume; or, at most, in two of a moderate size. I was fully disposed to do this; and I immediately began an analysis, which would, I thought, be useful in whatever form I might decide to put forth the substance. I know no greater luxury, after months of writing, than reading, and making an analysis as one goes. This work I pursued while making my spring visits. On the eighth of May, I went for a fortnight to stay with some friends, between whom and myself there was cordial affection, though they were Swedenborgians, of no ordinary degree of possession (for I will not call it fanaticism in people so gentle and kind.) Their curiosity about Comte rather distressed me; and certainly it is not in the power of the most elastic mind to entertain at once Swedenborg and Comte. They soon settled the matter, however. My host kept aloof, — going out to his fishing every morning, while I was at work, and having very different matters to talk about in the evenings. It was his lady who took up the matter; and I was amused to see how. She came to my writing-table, to beg the loan of the first volume, when I was going out for a walk. When her daughter and I returned from our walk, we met her in the wood; and the whole affair was settled. She knew “all about it,” and had decided that Comte knew nothing. I inquired in amazement the grounds of this decision. She had glanced over the first chapter, and could venture to say she now “knew all about it.” There was mere human science, (which, for that matter, Swedenborg had also;) and such science bears no relation to the realities which concern men most. This was all very well: and I was rejoiced that the thing had passed over so easily, though marvelling at the presumption of the judgment in one whom I consider nearly the humblest of women where her own qualities are concerned. A year later, however, she sent me a letter of rebuke about my work, which had less of the modesty, and more of the presumption, than I should have expected. I reminded her of what we had often agreed upon, with remarkable satisfaction, — the superiority of the Swedenborgians to all other religious sects in liberality. Not only does their doctrine in a manner necessitate this liberality, but the temper of its professors responds to the doctrine more faithfully than that of religious professors in general. I was sorry, as I told my friend, to see this liberality fail, on a mere change of the ground, — from that of religious controversy to that of the opposition between science and theology. I claimed my liberty to do the work which I thought best for the truth, for the same reason that I rejoiced in seeing her and her excellent family doing what they thought best for what they regarded as truth. I have had no more censure or remonstrance from any of the family, and much kindness, — the eldest daughter even desiring to come and nurse me, when she heard of my present illness: but I have no doubt that all the heresy I have ever spoken and written is tolerable in their eyes, in comparison with the furtherance given to science by the rendering of Comte’s work into a tongue which the multitude can read; and which they will read, while the young men should be seeing visions and the old men dreaming dreams.
During other visits, and a great press of business about cottage-building, and of writing for “Household Words” and elsewhere, I persevered in my study and analysis, — spending the evenings in collateral reading, — the lives and the history of the works of eminent mathematicians, and other scientific men. This went on till the twenty-sixth of June, when tourists began to fill the place and every body’s time, and I must be off to London and into Norfolk, and leave my house to my tenant for three months. My first visit was to some beloved American friends in London, by whom I was introduced to the Great Exhibition. I attended the last of Mr. Thackeray’s lectures of that season, and paid evening visits, and saw many old friends. But I was now convinced that I had lost my former keen relish for London pleasures. The quiet talks late at night with my hostesses were charming; and there was great pleasure in meeting old acquaintances: but the heat, and the glare, and the noise, and the superficial bustle, so unlike my quiet life of grave pursuit and prevailing solitude at home showed me that my Knoll had in truth spoiled me for every other abode.
The mention of Mr. Thackeray’s name here reminds me that it does not occur in my notes of literary London twenty years ago. At that time I saw him, if I remember right, only once. It was at Mr. Buller’s, at dinner; — at a dinner which was partly ludicrous and partly painful. Mrs. Buller did not excel in tact; and her party was singularly arranged at the dinner table. I was placed at the bottom of the table, at its square end, with an empty chair on the one hand, and Mr. Buller on the other, — he being so excessively deaf that no trumpet was of much use to him. There we sat with our trumpets, — an empty chair on the one hand, and on the other, Mr. J. S. Mill, whose singularly feeble voice cut us off from conversation in that direction. As if to make another pair, Mrs. Buller placed on either side of her a gentleman with a flattened nose, — Mr. Thackeray on her right, and her son Charles on the left. — It was on this day only that I met either Mr. Dickens or Mr. Thackeray during my London life. About Mr. Thackeray I had no clear notion in any way, except that he seemed cynical; and my first real interest in him arose from reading M. A. Titmarsh in Ireland, during my Tynemouth illness. I confess to being unable to read “Vanity Fair,” from the moral disgust it occasions; and this was my immediate association with the writer’s name when I next met him, during the visit to London in 1851. I could not follow his lead into the subject of the Bullers, (then all dead) so strong was my doubt of his real feeling. I was, I fear, rather rough and hard when we talked of “Vanity Fair;” but a sudden and most genuine change of tone, — of voice, face and feeling, — that occurred on my alluding to Dobbin’s admirable turning of the tables on Amelia, won my trust and regard more than any thing he had said yet. “Pendennis” much increased my respect and admiration; and “Esmond” appears to me the book of the century, in its department. I have read it three times; and each time with new wonder at its rich ripe wisdom, and at the singular charm of Esmond’s own character. The power that astonishes me the most in Thackeray is his fertility, shown in the way in which he opens glimpses into a multitudinous world as he proceeds. The chief moral charm is in the paternal vigilance and sympathy which constitute the spirit of his narration. The first drawback in his books, as in his manners, is the impression conveyed by both that he never can have known a good and sensible woman. I do not believe he has any idea whatever of such women as abound among the matronage of England, — women of excellent capacity and cultivation applied to the natural business of life. It is perhaps not changing the subject to say next what the other drawback is. Mr. Thackeray has said more, and more effectually, about snobs and snobbism than any other man; and yet his frittered life, and his obedience to the call of the great are the observed of all observers. As it is so, so it must be; but “O! the pity of it! the pity of it!” Great and unusual allowance is to be made in his case, I am aware; but this does not lessen the concern occasioned by the spectacle of one after another of the aristocracy of nature making the ko-tow to the aristocracy of accident. If society does not owe all it would be thankful to owe to Mr. Thackeray, yet it is under deep and large obligations to him; and if he should even yet be seen to be as wise and happy in his life and temper as he might be any day, he may do much that would far transcend all his great and rising achievements thus far; and I who shall not see it would fain persuade myself that I foresee it. He who stands before the world as a sage de jure must surely have impulses to be a sage de facto.
Of Mr. Dickens I have seen but little in face-to-face intercourse; but I am glad to have enjoyed that little. There may be, and I believe there are, many who go beyond me in admiration of his works, — high and strong as is my delight in some of them. Many can more keenly enjoy his peculiar humour, — delightful as it is to me; and few seem to miss as I do the pure plain daylight in the atmosphere of his scenery. So many fine painters have been mannerists as to atmosphere and colour that it may be unreasonable to object to one more: but the very excellence and diversity of Mr. Dickens’s powers makes one long that they should exercise their full force under the broad open sky of nature, instead of in the most brilliant palace of art. While he tells us a world of things that are natural and even true, his personages are generally, as I suppose is undeniable, profoundly unreal. It is a curious speculation what effect his universally read works will have on the foreign conception of English character. Washington Irving came here expecting to find the English life of Queen Anne’s days, as his “Sketch-book” shows: and very unlike his preconception was the England he found. And thus it must be with Germans, Americans and French who take Mr. Dickens’s books to be pictures of our real life. — Another vexation is his vigorous erroneousness about matters of science, as shown in “Oliver Twist” about the new poor-law (which he confounds with the abrogated old one) and in “Hard Times,” about the controversies of employers. Nobody wants to make Mr. Dickens a Political Economist; but there are many who wish that he would abstain from a set of difficult subjects, on which all true sentiment must be underlain by a sort of knowledge which he has not. The more fervent and inexhaustible his kindliness, (and it is fervent and inexhaustible,) the more important it is that it should be well-informed and well-directed, that no errors of his may mislead his readers on the one hand, nor lessen his own genial influence on the other.
The finest thing in Mr. Dickens’s case is that he, from time to time, proves himself capable of progress, — however vast his preceding achievements had been. In humour, he will hardly surpass “Pickwick,” simply because “Pickwick” is scarcely surpassable in humour: but in several crises, as it were, of his fame, when every body was disappointed, and his faults seemed running his graces down, there has appeared something so prodigiously fine as to make us all joyfully exclaim that Dickens can never permanently fail. It was so with “Copperfield:” and I hope it may be so again with the new work which my survivors will soon have in their hands. — Meantime, every indication seems to show that the man himself is rising. He is a virtuous and happy family man, in the first place. His glowing and generous heart is kept steady by the best domestic influences: and we may fairly hope now that he will fulfil the natural purpose of his life, and stand by literature to the last; and again, that he will be an honour to the high vocation by prudence as well as by power: so that the graces of genius and generosity may rest on the finest basis of probity and prudence; and that his old age may be honoured as heartily as his youth and manhood have been admired. — Nothing could exceed the frank kindness and consideration shown by him in the correspondence and personal intercourse we have had; and my cordial regard has grown with my knowledge of him.
When I left London, it was for the singular contrast of spending the next night in a workhouse. Two of my servants (brother and sister) had been sent to me from Norfolk, — the maid by my own family, and the man by the excellent master of the Union Workhouse near Harling. The girl (now married to the master of the Ragged School at Bristol) had a strong inclination to school-keeping, and had pursued it in this workhouse and elsewhere with such assiduity as to lose her health. During the five years that she lived with me (beloved like a daughter by me, and honoured by all who knew her) she in a great measure recovered her health; and when she married from my house, at Christmas 1852, she went to resume her vocation, in which she is now leading the most useful life conceivable. We went to Harling, she and I, in this July 1851, to see her old friends, and the old school, and her old parents, and the success of the agricultural part of the management of this Guiltcross Union. Thus it was that I went from London to sleep in a workhouse. Very comfortable and agreeable I found it.
The next weeks were spent in the neighbourhood of Norwich, and at Cromer, where I was joined by my younger sister and her children. It was at Cromer that a strange impulse on my part, — an impulse of yielding chiefly, — caused me to go into an enterprise which had no result. It put me, for a time, in the difficulty of having too many irons in the fire; but that was not my fault; for I could have no conception of the news which was awaiting me in London, on my return. While at Cromer, I was justified in feeling that I might take as much time as I pleased about Comte. It depended wholly on myself: but before I got home, the case was changed, as I shall presently have to tell. The intervening anecdote has been hitherto a profound secret, by my own desire; — perhaps the only secret of my own that I ever had: and this was part of the amusement. One reason why I tell it now is because it affords a confirmation out of my own experience of what many of my friends have wondered to hear me say; — that one cannot write fiction, after having written (con amore, at least) history and philosophy.
Ever since the “Deerbrook” days, my friends had urged me to write more novels. When “Currer Bell” was staying with me, the winter before the time I have arrived at, she had spoken earnestly to me about it, and, as it appeared to us both, wholly in vain. While at Cromer, however, I read “Pendennis” with such intense enjoyment, and it seemed so much the richer from its contrast with “the Ogilvies,” and some other metaphysical, sentimental novels that had fallen in my way, that the notion of trying my hand once more at a novel seized upon me; and I wrote to Charlotte Brontë, to consult her as to the possibility of doing it secretly, and getting it out anonymously, and quite unsuspected, — as a curious experiment. She wrote joyously about it, and at once engaged her publisher’s* interest in the scheme. She showed the most earnest friendliness throughout. She sent me a packet of envelopes directed by herself to her publisher; and she allowed his letters to me to come through her hands. When I reached home, on the first of October, I was somewhat scared at what I had undertaken, — the case of Comte having so changed, as I will tell; and the matter was not made easier by my inability to tell Mr. Chapman, who was to publish Comte, or Mr. Atkinson, who was in almost daily correspondence with me, what was delaying the progress of the philosophical half of my work. The difficulty was at an end before Christmas by the scheme of the novel being at an end. It was on an odd plan. It was no oddness in the plan, however, which discouraged me; but I doubted from the first whether I could ever again succeed in fiction, after having completely passed out of the state of mind in which I used to write it. In old days, I had caught myself quoting the sayings of my own personages, so strong was the impression of reality on myself; and I let my pen go as it would when the general plan of the story, and the principal scenes, were once laid down. Now I read and pondered, and arranged, and sifted, and satisfied myself, before I entered upon any chapter, or while doing it: — carrying, in fact, the methods and habits of historical composition into tale-telling. I had many misgivings about this; but, on the whole, I thought that the original principle of the work, and some particular scenes, would carry it through. At Christmas, I sent the first volume to Charlotte Brontë, who read it before forwarding it to the publisher. She wrote gloriously about it: and three days after came a pathetic letter from the publisher. He dared not publish it, on account of some favourable representations and auguries on behalf of the Catholics. That was a matter on which C. Brontë and I had perpetual controversy, — her opinion being one in which I could by no means agree; and thus expressed, after I had claimed credit for the Catholics, as for every body else, as far as their good works extended: — “Their good deeds I don’t dispute; but I regard them as the hectic bloom on the cheek of disease. I believe the Catholics, in short, to be always doing evil that good may come, or doing good that evil may come.” Yet did my representation of the Catholics in no way shake her faith in the success of my novel; and her opinion, reaching the publisher the day after he had written his apprehensions to me, aggravated, as he said, his embarrassment and distress. He implored me to lay aside this scheme, and send him a novel “like Deerbrook.” That was no more in my power now than to go back to thirty years of age. C. Brontë entreated me merely to lay aside my novel, if I would not finish it on speculation, saying that some things in it were equal to, or beyond, any thing I had ever written. I did intend at first to finish it: but other works pressed; the stimulus, and even the conception, passed away; and I burned the M.S. and memoranda, a few months since, not wishing to leave to my survivors the trouble of an unfinished M.S. which they could make no use of, and might scruple to burn. I told Mr. Atkinson and my Executor the facts when the scheme was at an end; and I hereby record the only failure of the sort I had experienced since the misleading I underwent about the Life of Howard, at the outset of my career. I may add that the publisher behaved as well as possible, under the circumstances. He showed me civility in various ways, was at all times ready to negotiate for another novel “like Deerbrook,” and purchased the copy-right of “Deerbrook” itself, in order to bring it out in a cheap series, with the novels of Mr. Thackeray and “Currer Bell.”
While I write, I recal, with some wonder, the fact that I had another literary engagement on my hands, at that very time. On recurring to my Diary, I find it was even so; and I wonder how I could justify it to myself. It was at Cromer, as I have said, that this scheme of the novel was framed, after I had consulted Mr. Chapman in London about publishing Comte’s “Positive Philosophy.” We had a clear understanding that it was to be done; but I was then wholly free in regard to time. On my return, I spent a week in London (then “empty,” according to the London use of the word) with a cousin, in a lodging, for the sole object of seeing the Exhibition in our own way, and in peace and quiet. On the last day, Mr. Chapman, who had been trying to track me, overtook me with a wonderful piece of news. Mr. Lombe, a Norfolk country gentleman, and late High Sheriff of the county, had for many years been a disciple of Comte, and had earnestly wished to translate the “Positive Philosophy,” but had been prevented by ill health. He was a perfect stranger to me, and residing in Florence; but, hearing from Mr. Chapman what I was doing, he sent me, by him, a draft on his bankers for £500. His obvious intention was to give me the money, in recompense for the work; but I preferred paying the expenses of paper, print and publication out of it, taking £200 for my own remuneration. To finish now about the money part of the affair, — I took advice how to act, in regard to so important a trust; and, in accordance with that advice, I immediately invested the whole amount in the Three per Cents., and, on the death of Mr. Lombe, in the next winter, I added a codicil to my will, appointing two trustees to the charge and application of the money, in case of my dying before the work was completed and published. Just when Mr. Lombe died, I was proposing to send him a portion of my M.S., to see whether my method and execution satisfied him. When the whole sum was distributed, and the work out, I submitted the accounts and vouchers to two intimate friends of Mr. Lombe, both men of business, and obtained their written assurance of their entire approbation of what I had done, — with the one exception that they thought I ought to have taken more of the money myself. As to the profits of the sale, — it seemed to me fair that M. Comte should have a portion; and also Mr. Chapman, through whom Mr. Lombe had become interested in the scheme. The profits have therefore been, up to this time, and will be henceforward, divided among the three, — M. Comte, Mr. Chapman and myself or my legatees. — My engagement to Mr. Chapman was to deliver the M.S. entire within two years of my return home; that is, in October, 1853; and this was precisely the date at which I delivered the last sheets. The printing had been proceeding during the summer; so that the work appeared at the beginning of November, 1853.
The additional work to which I have referred, as upon my hands at the same time, was this. I returned home, in the autumn of 1851, by Birmingham, where I spent a month at my brother Robert’s house, at Edgbaston. The proprietors of “Household Words” had all this time been urgent with me to write stories for them. I found myself really unable to do this with any satisfaction, — not only because of the absurdity of sending fiction to Mr. Dickens, but because I felt more and more that I had passed out of that stage of mind in which I could write stories well. It struck me that a full, but picturesque account of manufactures and other productive processes might be valuable, both for instruction and entertainment: and I proposed to try my hand on two or three of the Birmingham manufacture, under the advantage of my brother’s introduction, in the first place, and, in the next, of his correction, if I should fall into any technical mistakes. The proposal was eagerly accepted; and I then wrote the papers on Electro-plating, Papier-mâché and the Nail and Screw manufacture, — which stand in “Household Words” under the titles of “Magic Troughs at Birmingham,” “Flower-shows in a Birmingham Hot-house,” and “Wonders of Nails and Screws.” These succeeded so well that I went on at home with such materials as the neighbourhood afforded, — the next papers which appeared being “Kendal Weavers,” and “The Bobbin-mill at Ambleside.” Moreover, it was presently settled that I should spend a month at Birmingham after Christmas, to do another batch. Thereby hangs a pretty little tale: — at least, so it appears to me. My brother and sister having taken for granted that I should go to their house, I begged them not to take it amiss if I preferred going to a lodging, with my maid. My reasons were that I was going for business purposes, which would occupy all the daylight hours at that time of year; that I must therefore dine late; that I should be going about among the manufactories, with my maid to hear for me; and that I really thought my family and I should enjoy most of one another’s society by my lodging near enough to go to tea with them every evening, and spend the Sundays at their house. They appeared to acquiesce at once, — saying, however, that I ought to be very near, on account of the highway robberies, with violence, which were at that time taking place at Edgbaston almost every evening. My sister wrote me an account of the rooms she had secured. I was rather struck by her recommendations about leaving terms and arrangements to my landlady, and by an odd bit of deprecation about not expecting the charms of my beautiful home. The next letter from one of my nephews at first dispersed a nascent doubt whether they were not intending to take me in, — in both senses. He wrote, “your rooms are in one of those houses near Mrs. F—’s, in the Highfield Road; so that you will not have so far to go to our tea-table but that you will be very safe from thieves. Your landlady is a very trustworthy person. She lived with us when we lived in the Bristol road; and she left that place, not for any fault, but for a better situation.” On a second reading, it struck me that this was all true of his mother, and of their house; and I was not therefore wholly surprised when the nephew who met us at the station directed the car to my brother’s house. I was surprised, however, when I saw what preparation they had made for me and my work. They had taken down a bed in one of the prettiest rooms in the house, and had put in a writing-table, a sofa, a lamp, and all possible conveniences. As one of my nephews had to dine late, there was no difficulty about that; and my sister and nieces went every where with me, one at a time, to listen with and for me, make notes, and render all easy. It really was charming. I then wrote ten more papers, as follows:
“The Miller and his Men,” — The Birmingham Flour-mills.
“Account of some treatment of Gold and Gems,” Gold refining, Gold Chains and Jewellery.
“Rainbow-Making,” — Coventry Ribbons.
“Needles,” — the Redditch Manufacture.
“Time and the Hour,” — Coventry Watches.
“Guns and Pistols,” — Birmingham Gun-manufacture.
“Birmingham Glass-works,” — Messrs. Chances and Messrs. Oslers.
“What there is in a Button,” — Birmingham buttons.
“Tubal Cain,” — Brass-founding.
“New School for Wives,” — Evening School for Women.
Invitations were sent me, when the authorship of these papers got abroad, from various seats of manufacture; but the editors and I agreed that our chief textile manufactures were already familiar to every body’s knowledge; and I therefore omitted all of that kind except Kendal carpets, Coventry ribbons, and Paisley shawls. This last was done the next summer, when I was in Scotland, at the same time with Paper-hangings (“Household Scenery”) and “News of an old Place,” — the Lead works at “Leadhills.” From Scotland, my niece and I passed into Ireland, as I shall have to tell; and there I wrote, at the Giant’s Causeway, “the Life of a Salmon;” and afterwards “Peatal aggression,” — the Peat Works near Athy: the “English Passport system,” — Railway ticket manufacture; “Triumphant Carriages,” — Messrs. Hutton’s Coach factory at Dublin: “Hope with a Slate Anchor,” — the slate quarries in Valentia: “Butter,” “the Irish Union,” a workhouse picture; and “Famine-time,” a true picture of one of the worst districts, at the worst time of the visitation. I have done only two more of the same character, — of the productive processes; — Cheshire Cheese,” and “How to get Paper,” — both last year, (1854.) — It will be seen that I need have entertained no apprehension of enforced idleness in consequence of the publication of the “Atkinson Letters.” It appears that, at the close of the same year, I was over-burdened with work; and I will add, for truth’s sake, that I was uneasy, and dissatisfied with myself for having undertaken so much. The last entry in my Diary (a mere note-book) for 1851 is on the thirtieth of December. “As I shall be travelling to Birmingham tomorrow, I here close my journal of this remarkable year; — an improving and happy one, little as the large world would believe it. I have found it full of blessings.”
All this time, my study of Comte was going on; and I continued the analysis for some weeks; but at length I found that I had attained sufficient insight and familiarity to render that work unnecessary. The first day on which I actually embodied my study of it in writing, — the first day on which I wrote what was to stand, — was June 1st, 1852: and a month before that, the greatest literary engagement of my life had been entered upon, of which I shall have to speak presently. After my return from Birmingham, I had had to give my annual course of lectures to the Mechanics; and my subject, the History of the United States, from Columbus to Washington, required some study. Before I left home for the tourist season, I had got into the thick of the mathematical portion of Comte; and there I had to stop till my return in the middle of October. I had then to write an article on Ireland for the “Westminster Review,” and other matters; so that it was the first of December before I opened Comte again, and Christmas day when I finished the first of the six volumes. After that, the work went on swimmingly. All the rest was easy. I finished Astronomy in the middle of January, and Biology on the twenty-third of April; so that I had five months for the three last volumes, which were by far the easiest to do, though half as long again as the first three. I had a perpetual succession of guests, from April till the end of September; but I did not stop work for them; nor did I choose to leave home till I had fulfilled my engagement. It was on the eighth of October that I put the finishing stroke to the version: on the ninth I wrote the Preface; and on the tenth, I had the pleasure of carrying the last packet of M.S. to the post. Some cousins who were staying with me at the time went on an excursion for the day; and when they returned, they sympathised with me on the close of so long and so arduous a task. I was much exhausted, — after a summer of abundant authorship in other ways, as well as of social engagement from the number and variety of guests, and the absence of my usual autumn retirement to the sea, or some other quiet place: but the gain was well worth the toil. I find in my diary some very strong expressions of rapture about my task; and I often said, to myself and others, in the course of it, that I should never enjoy anything so much again. And I believe that if I were now to live and work for twenty years, I could never enjoy any thing more. The vast range of knowledge, through which one is carried so easily, is a prodigious treat; and yet more, the clear enunciation, and incessant application of principles. The weak part of the book, — the sacrifices made to system and order, — happens just to fall in with my weak tendency in that direction; so that it required some warning from others, and more from within, to prevent my being carried away altogether by my author. After all deductions made, on the score of his faults as a teacher, and my weakness as a learner, the relation was a blessed one. I became “strengthened, stablished, settled” on many a great point; I learned much that I should never otherwise have known, and revived a great deal of early knowledge which I might never otherwise have recalled: and the subdued enthusiasm of my author, his philosophical sensibility, and honest earnestness, and evident enjoyment of his own wide range of views and deep human sympathy, kept the mind of his pupil in a perpetual and delightful glow. Many a passage of my version did I write with tears falling into my lap; and many a time did I feel almost stifled for want of the presence of some genial disciple of my instructor, to whom I might speak of his achievement, with some chance of being understood.
As for my method of working at my version, about which I have often been questioned, — it was simple enough. — I studied as I went along, (in the evenings, for the most part) the subjects of my author, reviving all I had ever known about them, and learning much more. Being thus secure of what I was about, I simply set up the volume on a little desk before me, glanced over a page or a paragraph, and set down its meaning in the briefest and simplest way I could. Thus, my work was not mere translation: it involved quite a different kind of intellectual exercise; and, much as I enjoy translating, — pleasant as is the finding of equivalent terms, and arranging them harmoniously, — it is pleasanter still to combine with this the work of condensation. To me, in truth, nothing was ever pleasanter: and I had no sympathy with the friends who hoped, as I proceeded, that I should not again occupy myself with translation. I told them that it was like going to school again while doing the useful work of mature age; and that I should relish nothing better than to go on with it as long as I lived. As for the average amount of my daily work, (four or five days in the week) I was discontented if it was under twenty pages of my author, and satisfied if it was any where from twenty-five to thirty. The largest day’s work, in the whole course of the business, was forty-eight pages: but that was when I had breakfasted before seven, to dismiss a guest; and on a Saturday, when there was no post to London, and I had set my mind on finishing a volume. I worked nearly all day, and finished after midnight. I find fifty pages set down on another occasion; but in that case there was an omission of a recapitulatory portion. In saying what was the daily amount done, I ought to observe that it was really done. I finished as I went along; and I looked at my work no more till it came in the shape of proof-sheets. — I have stated in my Preface to the work that, on my expressing my intention to obtain a revision of the three first Books, (Mathematics, Astronomy and Physics) by a scientific man, Professor Nichol kindly offered his services. His revision of that portion (in which he found, he said, no mistakes) and the few notes and observations which he inserted, made me easy about the correctness of what I was putting forth; and I did not run the risk of spoiling the freshness of what I had done so enjoyably by any retouching. It came out precisely as I wrote it, day by day.
One part of my enjoyment was from the hope that the appearance of a readable English version would put a stop to the mischievous, though ludicrous mistakes about Comte’s doctrine and work put forth by men who assumed, and might be expected, to know better. The mistakes were repeated, it is true; but they were more harmless, after my version had appeared. When I was studying the work, I was really astonished to see a very able review article open with a false statement about Comte, not only altogether gratuitous, but so ignorant that it is a curious thing that it could have passed the press. It alleged that a man called Auguste Comte, who assumed in 1822 to be a social prophet, had declared the belief and interest in theology to be at an end; whereas, here was the whole kingdom, thirty years later, convulsed with theological passion, about Papal aggression and the Gorham controversy. Now, this was a treble blunder. In the first place, Comte has never said that theology and the popular interest in it are over. In the next, he has written largely on the social turmoil which this generation is in, and generations to come will be in, from the collision between the theological passion of one social period, and the metaphysical rage of another, with the advance of the positive philosophy which is to supersede them both. If there is one thing rather than another reiterated to weariness in Comte’s work, it is the state of turmoil, and its causes, of which the Gorham controversy was an admirable exemplification. In the third place, Comte’s doctrine is that theology can be extinguished only by a true Science of Human Nature; that this science is as yet barely initiated; and that therefore theology is very far from being yet popularly superseded.
At a later time, in October, 1851, when an eminent philosopher from Scotland was my guest for a few days, I invited to meet him at dinner a friend of his, who was in the neighbourhood, and that friend’s lady, and another guest or two. I was before alightly acquainted with this couple, and knew that the gentleman was highly thought of, by himself and others (by the late Dr. Arnold, among the rest) as a scholar and writer. When he was taking me in to dinner, he asked me whether I had heard that M. Comte was insane. I replied that it was not true, — M. Comte being perfectly well the week before; and I told him that I was engaged on his work. My guest replied that he had heard the whole story, — about Mr. Lombe’s gift and all, — from another gentleman, then present. He asked me an insulting question or two about the work, and made objections to my handling it, which I answered shortly, (the servants being present) and put down my trumpet, to help the fish. While I was so engaged, he asked questions which I could not hear, across me, of my philosopher guest; and then, with triumph and glee, reported to me my friend’s replies, as if they were spontaneous remarks, and with gross exaggeration. During the whole of dinner, and in the presence of my servants, he continued his aspersions of Comte, and his insults to me as his translator; so that, as it came to my knowledge long afterwards, my other guest wondered that I put up with it, and did not request him to leave the house. I saw, however, that he knew nothing of what he was talking about; and I then merely asked him if he had read the portion of the work that he was abusing. Being pressed, he reluctantly answered — No; but he knew all about it. When the dessert was on the table, and the servants were gone, he still continuing his criticisms, I looked him full in the face, and again inquired if he had read that portion of the Philosophie Positive: — “N—n—o;” but he knew all about it. I said I doubted it; and asked if he had read the book at all. “N—n—o:” but he knew all about it. “Come,” said I: “tell me, — have you ever seen the book?” — “No; I can’t say I have;” he replied; “but I know all about it.” “Now,” said I, “look at the book-shelves behind you. You see those six volumes in green paper? Now you can say that you have seen the book.” I need not say that this was the last invitation that this gentleman would ever have from me.
Again, — a lady, younger than myself, who shrinks from the uncomfortable notion that there is any subject which she is not qualified to lay down the law upon, folded her hands on her knees, and began in an orderly way to reprehend me for translating a book which had such shocking things in it as Comte’s work. I made the usual inquiry, — whether she had read it. She could not say she had; but she too “knew all about it,” from a very clever man; a very clever man, who was a great admirer of Comte, and on my “side.” She was sorry I could introduce into England the work of a man who said in it that he could have made a better solar system than the real one; — who declared that he would have made it always moonshine at night. I laughed, and told her she was the victim of her clever friend’s moonshine. She ended, however, with a firm faith in her clever friend, in preference to reading the book for herself. She will go on to the end of her days, no doubt, regarding the “Positive Philosophy” as a recipe for making permanent moonshine, in opposition to the nineteenth Psalm.
Once more, (and only once, though I might fill many pages with anecdotes of the blunders about Comte made by critics who assume to understand their subject:) — a professor of Mental Philosophy has, even since the publication of my version, asserted, both in print, and repeatedly in his lectures in London, that Positive philosophers declare that “we can know nothing but phenomena:” and the lecturer fancies that he has confuted the doctrine by saying that the knowledge of phenomena would occupy Man’s observing faculties only, and leave the reasoning and other faculties without exercise. In this case, the lecturer has taken half Comte’s assertion, and dropped the other half, — “and their laws.” This restoration, of course, overthrows the lecturer’s argument, even if it were not otherwise assailable. It is true that Mr. Atkinson and I, and many others, have made the assertion as the lecturer gives it; — that “we can know nothing but phenomena,” — the laws being themselves phenomena: but in that view, as in the case of the restoration of Comte’s text, the lecturer’s argument about the partial use of the human faculties is stultified. Some of his pupils should have asked him what we can know but phenomena. The onus of showing that certainly rests with him. Such are, at present, the opponents of Comte among us, while his work is heartily and profitably studied by wiser men, who choose to read and think and understand before they scoff and upbraid.
A letter of Mr. Atkinson’s in my possession seems to me to give so distinct an account of what Man “can know,” and of the true way of obtaining the knowledge, that I am tempted to insert a part of it here as settling the question with our incompetent critics, as to what we declare that we can and cannot know.
“Man cannot know more than has been observed of the order of Nature, — he himself being a part of that nature, and, like all other bodies in nature, exhibiting clear individual effects according to particular laws. The infinite character and subtlety of Nature are beyond his power of comprehension; for the mind of Man is no more than (as it were) a conscious mirror, possessing a certain extent of interreflexion. In a rude state, as before it has become reduced to a proper focus, and cleansed and purified by knowledge, it is subject to all manner of spectral illusions, presumptuous and vain conceits, which may be well termed a kind of normal or infantine madness; a kind of disease like the small-pox or the measles; conditions to which all children are subject: and it is well if the child can be helped through these strange malignant conditions in early youth, and be then and there cleansed from them for ever.
“If we study the formation of the globe, and the history of nations or of individuals, or glance at the progress of knowledge in the human mind, we shall perceive that difficulties have been overcome, and advances achieved in the early stages through violent means; that that which we call evil has always in effect been working for the general good; and that, in the very nature of things, that good could not have come about by any other means: and thus, whatever is is good, in its place and season. Concluding thus, I think we may henceforth dispense with that very popular gentleman in black, the Devil. Indeed, once for all, we may sign ourselves Naturalists, as having no knowledge, or having no means of knowing any thing, beyond Nature. To advance by the acquiring of knowledge and by reason is the high privilege and prerogative of Man: for, as glorious as it is to possess a just, candid, and truth-loving nature, essential as it is that we know what is true, — yet must we be content that in the first instance, and for some short space, the progress should be slow and devious; for the errors and imperfections of the mind itself prevent men from attaining that knowledge which is almost essential to the cure of those very errors, imperfections, and impediments. Thus, mankind have had to rely upon a genius springing up here and there, — great men who have had the strength to overleap the difficulties, and the sense to see what was before them; and the honesty to declare what they have seen.
“The power of knowledge is in the knowledge of causes; that is, of the material conditions and circumstances under which any given effect takes place. These conditions we have termed Second Causes: but of the primitive matter which is sui generis we know nothing: for knowledge is limited by the senses. The knowledge of a thing includes a sense of its material cause or conditions, — its relative or distinguishing qualities, — the laws of form and quantity implicated in the case, and the laws of action in sequence and duration. — The higher laws are discovered in the analogy of knowledge: but of the primitive or fundamental cause or matter, — that “cause of causes itself without a cause,” — we know and can know absolutely nothing. We judge it to be something positive: to so much the nature of the mind compels assent: but we do not know what this positive something is in itself, in its absolute and real being and presence. We must rest content to take it as we find it, and suppose it inherently capable of performing or flowing into all those effects exhibited throughout nature. We only recognise a primitive matter as a required cause and necessary existence implied in the sensational phenomena which appear to include it in their embraces. But the existence of matter cannot be proved; nor can we form any conception of its real nature, because we can only divine by similitudes; and our similitudes cannot press beyond sensational phenomena and the simple inference. ‘So that all the specious meditations, speculations, and theories of mankind (in regard to the nature of nature) are but a kind of insanity.’ ‘But those who resolve not to conjecture and divine, but to discover and know; not to invent buffooneries and fables about worlds, but to inspect, and, as it were, dissect the nature of this real world, must derive all from things themselves: nor can any substitution or compensation of wit, meditation or argument (were the whole wit of all combined in one) supply the place of this labour, investigation, and personal examination of the world: our method then must necessarily be pursued, or the whole for ever abandoned.’
“The intellect, in a general sense, is simply an observing faculty. The highest efforts of reason and of imagination are but an extension of observation. A law is but the observed form of a fact; and in truth, the entire conscious mind may be termed a faculty of observation. To deny this is only to make a quibble about distinctions not really essential. The most important fact which the experienced mind observes is the fixed order in nature: and the trained philosopher instinctively concludes, and I may say perceives, the necessity of this order, just as he acknowledges the existence of objects in their objective or material appearance: (and this in spite of all that Bishop Berkeley and others have said.) The human mind by the constitution of its nature recognises the necessity of a determinate order in nature, — dependence in causes, and form or law in effects: and on this faith we build all our confidence that similar results will always flow, as a necessary consequence, from similar causes. In this fact we have the reason of reason, and the power of knowledge over nature, applying the principles of nature by art to the wants of Man. The instinct or sense of Man acknowledges a fundamental cause in the primitive matter, and the necessity of a particular form and order in objects and their effects: and that it is absolutely impossible that things should be different from what they are found to be. Now, until a man clears his mind, and abstracts it from all fanciful causes, to rest upon the true and fundamental cause in the primitive matter, perceiving at the same time that this cause must be positive, and capable of producing all the effects and variety of nature, and in a form and order absolutely fixed in ‘an adamantine chain of necessity;’ — until, I say, a man is fully and deeply impressed with this law of laws, this form of forms, evolved from the inherent nature of the ultimate fact and cause (this primitive matter and cause being fundamental, neither depending upon nor requiring any other cause) he is not a philosopher, but a dreamer of dreams, a poor wanderer on a false scent, seeking for a cause out of nature, and in a magnified shadow of himself. ‘If,’ says Bacon,* ‘any man shall think, by view and inquiry into these sensible and material things, to attain to any light for the revealing of the nature or will of God, he shall dangerously abuse himself.’ — ‘And this appeareth sufficiently in that there is no proceeding in invention of knowledge but by similitude; and God is only self-like, having nothing in common with any creature, otherwise than as in shadow and trope.’† These remarks of Bacon in regard to the ‘invention’ of a cause out of nature apply equally to the ‘invention’ of the nature of the cause in nature: for all the knowledge we can have of the primitive matter is by way of negatives and exclusions.
“I hold then with Democritus, Heraclitus, Empedocles, Anaxagoras, Anaximenes and others that matter is eternal, possessing an active principle, and being the source of all objects and their effects: for you may as well suppose time and space to have a beginning, and to have been created, as that matter should have been brought out of nothing, and have had a beginning. The active principle and the properties of matter are essential to our very conception of matter: and the necessary form of the effects we term Laws: — laws, not to be considered in a political sense, as rules laid down by a ruler, and capable of alteration and change; but the rule of rules; — the essential and necessary form and life and mind, so to speak, of what is in fact not a ruling power at all, but simply the principle or form of the result, — just as grammar exhibits the form of language.
“The belief in the freedom of the will, or that any thing is free in any other way than as being unimpeded and at liberty to move according as it is impelled by that which determines its motion or choice, is absolutely nonsense: and the doctrine of chance is as absurd as would be the belief that Nature arose from a rude mob of lawless atoms, arranging themselves by chance; a notion which is clearly nonsense, — a weak and unmitigated atheism, to escape from which men impose upon themselves a despotism in the shape of a King Log or a King Stork, as the case may be. That which they suppose to be divine and most holy is but a presumptuous, shallow, and ridiculous assumption. It is a folly built upon a shifting sand-bank, which the tide will presently carry away, exhibiting the true stronghold of the understanding built upon the solid granite rock of Nature; — that Nature which is no despotism, but a pure and free republic, and a law unto itself, — an eternal, unalterable law unto itself: for two and two will never become five; nor will the three angles of a triangle ever be less than two right angles; nor will the great law of gravity be changed nor the Atomic rule in chemical effects; nor the material conditions essential to thought and feeling be reversed. The world may come to an end, — become worn out, and dissolve away, or explode; but the nature of the particles of matter cannot change: the principles of truth will hold the same, and a new world will rise out of the dust.
“With regard to the origin of the mind itself, — it is clearly a consequence or result of the body evolved under particular laws: — as much so as a flower is a consequence of the growth of a tree, — instinct of the lower animal body, — light of a tallow candle. The light and heat of a candle may set light to other candles, or react upon its own body, as mental conditions may, when they cause the heart to beat, and the face to flush, and tears to flow, and the whole frame to be convulsed by laughter. So may the bile, or any other secretion, react on the body: but not the less is the mind the effect and consequent of the body, dependent on the condition of the body, and the proper supply of air and food. To suppose otherwise is to give up all hope and all philosophy, and to desert common sense and universal experience. The mind proper is simply the conscious phenomenon which is not a power at all, but the representative or expression of an unconscious power and condition to which it is a concomitant. Strictly speaking, there are but two conditions in nature; matter the physique, and the conscious mind, or the metaphysique, — the positive and the negative. The conscious mind is purely phenomenal: it is not therefore the mind proper which acts upon the body, but that force which underlies the mind, of which the mind is simply the result, expression or exponent. The mind’s unconscious working power or sphere is evident in almost every act of the body, as well as in almost every fact of the mind. It may be studied in the higher phenomena of clairvoyance and prophecy, — higher, only as an extending of experience by another and a clearer sense. We spring up from the earth like a flower. We live, love, and look abroad on the wide expanse of heaven, wondering at the night which lies behind, and at the dim shadows and flickering lights which coming events cast before them: and then we expire, and give place, as others have given place to us. We have but a glance at existence; yet the laws we discover are eternal truths. Knowledge is not infinite. A few simple principles or elements are fundamental to the whole; as a few simple primitive sounds form into glorious music, and all the languages which exist: and therefore knowledge is not infinite, and progress has its limit. ... ... ... ... Still, ‘the mighty ocean of truth lies before us,’ and its advance is irresistible; and it will be well to remember King Canute, and take the hint in time; — to look abroad upon the expanse, and up to the multitude of stars; and to listen to the deep-speaking truths which are now making themselves heard in society; and not to seek to resist what is inevitable. That the new day will be bright and glorious when Man will know his own power and nature, and rise into his new dignity as a rational human being, is enough for us now to prophecy.”
[* ]Mr. G. Smith, of the firm of Smith, Elder & Co.
[* ]Interpretation of Nature. Chapter I.