Alexander Smith

On the importance of a man to himself

The present writer remembers to have been visited once by a strange feeling of puzzlement; and the puzzled feeling arose out of the following circumstance:—He was seated in a railway-carriage, five minutes or so before starting, and had time to contemplate certain waggons or trucks filled with cattle, drawn up on a parallel line, and quite close to the window at which he sat. The cattle wore a much-enduring aspect; and, as he looked into their large, patient, melancholy eyes,—for, as before mentioned, there was no space to speak of intervening,—the feeling of puzzlement alluded to arose in his mind. And it consisted in an attempt to solve the existence before him, to enter into it, to understand it, and his inability to accomplish it, or indeed to make any way toward the accomplishment of it. The much-enduring animals in the trucks opposite had unquestionably some rude twilight of a notion of a world; of objects they had some unknown cognisance; but he could get behind the melancholy eye within a yard of him, and look through it. How, from that window, the world shaped itself, he could not discover, could not even fancy; and yet, staring on the animals, he was conscious of a certain fascination in which there lurked an element of terror. These wild, unkempt brutes, with slavering muzzles, penned together, lived, could choose between this thing and the other, could be frightened, could be enraged, could even love or hate; and gazing into a placid, heavy countenance, and the depths of a patient eye, not a yard away, he was conscious of an obscure and shuddering recognition, of a life akin so far with his own. But to enter into that life imaginatively, and to conceive it, he found impossible. Eye looked upon eye, but the one could not flash recognition on the other; and, thinking of this, he remembers, with what a sense of ludicrous horror, the idea came,—what, if looking on one another thus, some spark of recognition could be elicited; if some rudiment of thought could be detected; if there were indeed a point at which man and ox could not compare notes? Suppose some gleam or scintillation of humour had lighted up the unwinking, amber eye? Heavens, the bellow of the weaning calf would be pathetic, shoe-leather would be forsworn, the eating of roast meat, hot or cold, would be cannibalism, the terrified world would make a sudden dash into vegetarianism! Happily before fancy had time to play another vagary, with a snort and pull the train moved on, and my truckful of horned friends were left gazing into empty space, with the same wistful, patient, and melancholy expression with which, for the space of five minutes or so, they had surveyed and bewildered me.

A similar feeling of puzzlement to that which I have indicated, besets one not unfrequently in the contemplation of men and women. You are brought in contact with a person, you attempt to comprehend him, to enter into him, in a word to be him, and, if you are utterly foiled in the attempt, you cannot flatter yourself that you have been successful to the measure of your desire. A person interests, or piques, or tantalises you, you do your best to make him out; yet strive as you will, you cannot read the riddle of his personality. From the invulnerable fortress of his own nature he smiles contemptuously on the beleaguering armies of your curiosity and analysis. And it is not only the stranger that thus defeats you; it may be the brother brought up by the same fireside with you, the best friend whom you have known from early school and college days, the very child, perhaps, that bears your name, and with whose moral and mental apparatus you think you are as familiar as with your own. In the midst of the most amicable relationships and the best understandings, human beings are, at times, conscious of a cold feeling of strangeness—the friend is actuated by a feeling which never could actuate you, some hitherto unknown part of his character becomes visible, and while at one moment you stood in such close neighbourhood, that you could feel his arm touch your own, in the next there is a feeling of removal, of distance, of empty space betwixt him and you in which the wind is blowing. You and he become separate entities. He is related to you as Border peel is related to Border peel on Tweedside, or as ship is related to ship on the sea. It is not meant that any quarrel or direct misunderstanding should have taken place, simply that feeling of foreignness is meant to be indicated which occurs now and then in the intercourse of the most affectionate; which comes as a harsh reminder to friends and lovers that with whatsoever flowery bands they may be linked, they are separated persons, who understand, and can only understand, each other partially. It is annoying to be put out in our notions of men and women thus, and to be forced to rearrange them. It is a misfortune to have to manoeuvre one’s heart as a general has to manoeuvre his army. The globe has been circumnavigated, but no man ever yet has; you may survey a kingdom and note the result in maps, but all the servants in the world could not produce a reliable map of the poorest human personality. And the worst of all this is, that love and friendship may be the outcome of a certain condition of knowledge; increase the knowledge, and love and friendship beat their wings and go. Every man’s road in life is marked by the graves of his personal likings. Intimacy is frequently the road to indifference, and marriage a parricide. From these accidents to the affections, and from the efforts to repair them, life has in many a patched and tinkered look.

Love and friendship are the discoveries of ourselves in others, and our delight in the recognition; and in men, as in books, we only know that, the parallel of which we have in ourselves. We know only that portion of the world which we have travelled over; and we are never a whit wiser than our own experiences. Imagination, the falcon, sits on the wrist of Experience, the falconer; she can never soar beyond the reach of his whistle, and when tired she must return to her perch. Our knowledge is limited by ourselves, and so also are our imaginations. And so it comes about, that a man measures everything by his own foot-rule; that if he is ignoble, all the ignobleness that is in the world looks out upon him, and claims kindred with him; if noble, all the nobleness in the world does the like. Shakspeare is always the same height with his reader; and when a thousand Christians subscribe to one Confession of Faith, hardly to two of them does it mean the same thing. The world is a great warehouse of raiment, to which every one has access and is allowed free use; and the remarkable thing is, what coarse stuffs are often chosen, and how scantily some people are attired.

We never get quit of ourselves. While I am writing, the spring is outside, and this season of the year touches my spirit always with a sense of newness, of strangeness, of resurrection. It shoots boyhood again into the blood of middle age. That tender greening of the black bough and the red field,—that coming again of the new-old flowers,—that re-birth of love in all the family of birds, with cooings, and caressings, and building of nests in wood and brake,—that strange glory of sunshine in the air,—that stirring of life in the green mould, making even churchyards beautiful,—seems like the creation of a new world. And yet—and yet, even with the lamb in the sunny field, the lark mile-high in the blue, Spring has her melancholy side, and bears a sadder burden to the heart than Autumn, preaching of decay with all his painted woods. For the flowers that make sweet the moist places in the forest are not the same that bloomed the year before. Another lark sings above the furrowed field. Nature rolls on in her eternal course, repeating her tale of spring, summer, autumn, winter; but life in man and beast is transitory, and other living creatures take their places. It is quite certain that one or other of the next twenty springs will come unseen by me, will awake no throb of transport in my veins. But will it be less bright on that account? Will the lamb be saddened in the field? Will the lark be less happy in the air? The sunshine will draw the daisy from the mound under which I sleep, as carelessly as she draws the cowslip from the meadow by the riverside. The seasons have no ruth, no compunction. They care not for our petty lives. The light falls sweetly on graveyards, and on brown labourers among the hay-swaths. Were the world depopulated to-morrow, next spring would break pitilessly bright, flowers would bloom, fruit-tree boughs wear pink and white; and although there would be no eye to witness, Summer would not adorn herself with one blossom the less. It is curious to think how important a creature a man is to himself. We cannot help thinking that all things exist for our particular selves. The sun, in whose light a system lives, warms me; makes the trees grow for me; paints the evening sky in gorgeous colours for me. The mould I till, produced from the beds of extinct oceans and the grating of rock and mountain during countless centuries, exists that I may have muffins to breakfast. Animal life, with its strange instincts and affections, is to be recognised and cherished,—for does it not draw my burdens for me, and carry me from place to place, and yield me comfortable broadcloth, and succulent joints to dinner? I think it matter of complaint that Nature, like a personal friend to whom I have done kind services, will not wear crape at my funeral. I think it cruel that the sun should shine, and birds sing, and I lying in my grave. People talk of the age of the world! So far as I am concerned, it began with my consciousness, and will end with my decease.

And yet, this self-consciousness, which so continually besets us, is in itself a misery and a galling chain. We are never happy till by imagination we are taken out of the pales and limits of self. We receive happiness at second hand: the spring of it may be in ourselves, but we do not know it to be happiness, till, like the sun’s light from the moon, it is reflected on us from an object outside. The admixture of a foreign element sweetens and unfamiliarises it. Sheridan prepared his good things in solitude, but he tasted for the first time his jest’s prosperity when it came back to him in illumined faces and a roar of applause. Your oldest story becomes new when you have a new auditor. A young man is truth-loving and amiable, but it is only when these fair qualities shine upon him from a girl’s face that he is smitten by transport—only then is he truly happy. In that junction of hearts, in that ecstasy of mutual admiration and delight, the finest epithalamium ever writ by poet is hardly worthy of the occasion. The countryman purchases oranges at a fair for his little ones; and when he brings them home in the evening, and watches his chubby urchins, sitting up among the bed-clothes, peel and devour the fruit, he is for the time-being richer than if he drew the rental of the orange-groves of Seville. To eat an orange himself is nothing; to see them eat it is a pleasure worth the price of the fruit a thousand times over. There is no happiness in the world in which love does not enter; and love is but the discovery of ourselves in others, and the delight in the recognition. Apart from others no man can make his happiness; just as, apart from a mirror of one kind or another, no man can become acquainted with his own lineaments.

The accomplishment of a man is the light by which we are enabled to discover the limits of his personality. Every man brings into the world with him a certain amount of pith and force, and to that pith or force his amount of accomplishment is exactly proportioned. It is in this way that every spoken word, every action of a man, becomes biographical. Everything a man says or does is in consistency with himself; and it is by looking back on his sayings and doings that we arrive at the truth concerning him. A man is one; and every outcome of him has a family resemblance. Goldsmith did not “write like an angel and talk like poor Poll,” as we may in part discern from Boswell’s “Johnson.” Strange, indeed, if a man talked continually the sheerest nonsense, and wrote continually the gracefulest humours; if a man was lame on the street, and the finest dancer in the ball-room. To describe a character by antithesis is like painting a portrait in black and white—all the curious intermixtures and gradations of colour are lost. The accomplishment of a human being is measured by his strength, or by his nice tact in using his strength. The distance to which your gun, whether rifled or smooth-bored, will carry its shot, depends upon the force of its charge. A runner’s speed and endurance depends upon his depth of chest and elasticity of limb. If a poet’s lines lack harmony, it instructs us that there is a certain lack of harmony in himself. We see why Haydon failed as an artist when we read his life. No one can dip into the “Excursion” without discovering that Wordsworth was devoid of humour, and that he cared more for the narrow Cumberland vale than he did for the big world. The flavour of opium can be detected in the “Ancient Mariner” and “Christabel.” A man’s word or deed takes us back to himself, as the sunbeam takes us back to the sun. It is the sternest philosophy, but on the whole the truest, that, in the wide arena of the world, failure and success are not accidents as we so frequently suppose, but the strictest justice. If you do your fair day’s work, you are certain to get your fair day’s wage—in praise or pudding, whichever happens to suit your taste. You may have seen at country fairs a machine by which the rustics test their strength of arm. A country fellow strikes vigorously a buffer, which recoils, and the amount of the recoil—dependent, of course, on the force with which it is struck—is represented by a series of notches or marks. The world is such a buffer. A man strikes it with all his might; his mark may be 40,000 pounds, a peerage, and Westminster Abbey, a name in literature or art; but in every case his mark is nicely determined by the force or the art with which the buffer is struck. Into the world a man brings his personality, and his biography is simply a catalogue of its results.

There are some men who have no individuality, just as there are some men who have no face. These are to be described by generals, not by particulars. They are thin, vapid, inconclusive. They are important solely on account of their numbers. For them the census enumerator labours; they form majorities; they crowd voting booths; they make the money; they do the ordinary work of the world. They are valuable when well officered. They are plastic matter to be shaped by a workman’s hand; and are built with as bricks are built with. In the aggregate, they form public opinion; but then, in every age, public opinion is the disseminated thoughts of some half a dozen men, who are in all probability sleeping quietly in their graves. They retain dead men’s ideas, just as the atmosphere retains the light and heat of the set sun. They are not light—they are twilight. To know how to deal with such men—to know how to use them—is the problem which ambitious force is called upon to solve. Personality, individuality, force of character, or by whatever name we choose to designate original and vigourous manhood, is the best thing which nature has in her gift. The forceful man is a prophecy of the future. The wind blows here, but long after it is spent the big wave which is its creature, breaks on a shore a thousand miles away. It is curious how swiftly influences travel from centre to circumference. A certain empress invents a gracefully pendulous crinoline, and immediately, from Paris to the pole, the female world is behooped; and neither objurgation of brother, lover, or husband, deaths by burning or machinery, nor all the wit of the satirists, are likely to affect its vitality. Never did an idea go round civilisation so rapidly. Crinoline has already a heavier martyrology than many a creed. The world is used easily, if one can only hit on the proper method; and force of character, originality, of whatever kind, is always certain to make its mark. It is a diamond, and the world is its pane of glass. In a world so commonplace as this, the peculiar man even should be considered a blessing. Humorousness, eccentricity, the habit of looking at men and things from an odd angle, are valuable, because they break the dead level of society and take away its sameness. It is well that a man should be known by something else than his name; there are few of us who can be known by anything else, and Brown, Jones, and Robinson are the names of the majority.

In literature and art, this personal outcome is of the highest value; in fact, it is the only thing truly valuable. The greatness of an artist or a writer does not depend on what he has in common with other artists and writers, but on what he has peculiar to himself. The great man is the man who does a thing for the first time. It was a difficult thing to discover America; since it has been discovered, it has been found an easy enough task to sail thither. It is this peculiar something resident in a poem or a painting which is its final test,—at all events, possessing it, it has the elements of endurance. Apart from its other values, it has, in virtue of that, a biographical one; it becomes a study of character; it is a window through which you can look into a human interior. There is a cleverness in the world which seems to have neither father nor mother. It exists, but it is impossible to tell from whence it comes,—just as it is impossible to lift the shed apple-blossom of an orchard, and to discover, from its bloom and odour, to what branch it belonged. Such cleverness illustrates nothing: it is an anonymous letter. Look at it ever so long, and you cannot tell its lineage. It lives in the catalogue of waifs and strays. On the other hand, there are men whose every expression is characteristic, whose every idea seems to come out of a mould. In the short sentence, or curt, careless saying of such when laid bare, you can read their histories so far, as in the smallest segment of a tree you can trace the markings of its rings. The first dies, because it is shallow-rooted, and has no vitality beyond its own; the second lives, because it is related to and fed by something higher than itself. The famous axiom of Mrs. Glass, that in order to make hare-soup you “must first catch your hare,” has a wide significance. In art, literature, social life, morals even, you must first catch your man: that done, everything else follows as a matter of course. A man may learn much; but for the most important thing of all he can find neither teachers nor schools.

Each man is the most important thing in the world to himself; but why is he to himself so important? Simply because he is a personality with capacities of pleasure, of pain, who can be hurt, who can be pleased, who can be disappointed, who labours and expects his hire, in whose consciousness, in fact, for the time being, the whole universe lives. He is, and everything else is relative. Confined to his own personality, making it his tower of outlook, from which only he can survey the outer world, he naturally enough forms a rather high estimate of its value, of its dignity, of its intrinsic worth. This high estimate is useful in so far as it makes his condition pleasant, and it—or rather our proneness to form it—we are accustomed to call vanity. Vanity—which really helps to keep the race alive—has been treated harshly by the moralists and satirists. It does not quite deserve the hard names it has been called. It interpenetrates everything a man says or does, but it inter-penetrates for a useful purpose. If it is always an alloy in the pure gold of virtue, it at least does the service of an alloy—making the precious metal workable. Nature gave man his powers, appetites, aspirations, and along with these a pan of incense, which fumes from the birth of consciousness to its decease, making the best part of life rapture, and the worst part endurable. But for vanity the race would have died out long ago. There are some men whose lives seem to us as undesirable as the lives of toads or serpents; yet these men breathe in tolerable content and satisfaction. If a man could hear all that his fellows say of him—that he is stupid, that he is henpecked, that he will be in the Gazette in a week, that his brain is softening, that he has said all his best things—and if he could believe that these pleasant things are true, he would be in his grave before the month was out. Happily no man does hear these things; and if he did, they would only provoke inextinguishable wrath or inextinguishable laughter. A man receives the shocks of life on the buffer of his vanity. Vanity acts as his second and bottleholder in the world’s prize-ring, and it fights him well, bringing him smilingly up to time after the fiercest knock-down blows. Vanity is to a man what the oily secretion is to a bird, with which it sleeks and adjusts the plumage ruffled by whatever causes. Vanity is not only instrumental in keeping a man alive and in heart, but, in its lighter manifestations, it is the great sweetener of social existence. It is the creator of dress and fashion; it is the inventor of forms and ceremonies, to it we are indebted for all our traditions of civility. For vanity in its idler moments is benevolent, is as willing to give pleasure as to take it, and accepts as sufficient reward for its services a kind word or an approving smile. It delights to bask in the sunshine of approbation. Out of man vanity makes gentleman. The proud man is cold, the selfish man hard and griping—the vain man desires to shine, to please, to make himself agreeable; and this amiable feeling works to the outside of suavity and charm of manner. The French are the vainest people in Europe, and the most polite.

As each man is to himself the most important thing in the world, each man is an egotist in his thinkings, in his desires, in his fears. It does not, however, follow that each man must be an egotist—as the word is popularly understood—in his speech. But even although this were the case, the world would be divided into egotists, likable and unlikable. There are two kinds of egotism, a trifling vainglorious kind, a mere burning of personal incense, in which the man is at once altar, priest, censer, and divinity; a kind which deals with the accidents and wrappages of the speaker, his equipage, his riches, his family, his servants, his furniture and array. The other kind has no taint of self-aggrandisement, but is rooted in the faculties of love and humour, and this latter kind is never offensive, because it includes others, and knows no scorn or exclusiveness. The one is the offspring of a narrow and unimaginative personality; the other of a large and genial one. There are persons who are the terrors of society. Perfectly innocent of evil intention, they are yet, with a certain brutal unconsciousness, continually trampling on other people’s corns. They touch you every now and again like a red-hot iron. You wince, acquit them of any desire to wound, but find forgiveness a hard task. These persons remember everything about themselves, and forget everything about you. They have the instinct of a flesh-fly for a raw. Should your great-grandfather have had the misfortune to be hanged, such a person is certain, on some public occasion, to make allusion to your pedigree. He will probably insist on your furnishing him with a sketch of your family tree. If your daughter has made a runaway marriage—on which subject yourself and friends maintain a judicious silence—he is certain to stumble upon it, and make the old sore smart again. In all this there is no malice, no desire to wound; it arises simply from want of imagination, from profound immersion in self. An imaginative man recognises at once a portion of himself in his fellow, and speaks to that. To hurt you is to hurt himself. Much of the rudeness we encounter in life cannot be properly set down to cruelty or badness of heart. The unimaginative man is callous, and although he hurts easily, he cannot be easily hurt in return. The imaginative man is sensitive, and merciful to others, out of the merest mercy to himself.

In literature, as in social life, the attractiveness of egotism depends entirely upon the egotist. If he be a conceited man, full of self-admirations and vainglories, his egotism will disgust and repel. When he sings his own praises, his reader feels that reflections are being thrown on himself, and in a natural revenge he calls the writer a coxcomb. If, on the other hand, he be loving, genial, humourous, with a sympathy for others, his garrulousness and his personal allusions are forgiven, because while revealing himself, he is revealing his reader as well. A man may write about himself during his whole life without once tiring or offending; but to accomplish this, he must be interesting in himself—be a man of curious and vagrant moods, gifted with the cunningest tact and humour; and the experience which he relates must at a thousand points touch the experiences of his readers, so that they, as it were, become partners in his game. When X. tells me, with an evident swell of pride, that he dines constantly with half-a-dozen men-servants in attendance, or that he never drives abroad save in a coach-and-six, I am not conscious of any special gratitude to X. for the information. Possibly, if my establishments boast only of Cinderella, and if a cab is the only vehicle in which I can afford to ride, and all the more if I can indulge in that only on occasions of solemnity, I fly into a rage, pitch the book to the other end of the room, and may never afterwards be brought to admit that X. is possessor of a solitary ounce of brains. If, on the other hand, Z. informs me that every February he goes out to the leafless woods to hunt early snowdrops, and brings home bunches of them in his hat; or that he prefers in woman a brown eye to a blue, and explains by early love passages his reasons for the preference, I do not get angry; on the contrary, I feel quite pleased; perhaps, if the matter is related with unusual grace and tenderness, it is read with a certain moisture and dimness of eye. And the reason is obvious. The egotistical X. is barren, and suggests nothing beyond himself, save that he is a good deal better off than I am—a reflection much pleasanter to him than it is to me; whereas the equally egotistical Z., with a single sentence about his snowdrops, or his liking for brown eyes rather than for blue, sends my thoughts wandering away back among my dead spring-times, or wafts me the odours of the roses of those summers when the colour of an eye was of more importance than it now is. X.'s men-servants and coach-and-six do not fit into the life of his reader, because in all probability his reader knows as much about these things as he knows about Pharaoh; Z.'s snowdrops and preferences of colour do, because every one knows what the spring thirst is, and every one in his time has been enslaved by eyes whose colour he could not tell for his life, but which he knew were the tenderest that ever looked love, the brightest that ever flashed sunlight. Montaigne and Charles Lamb are egotists of the Z. class, and the world never wearies reading them: nor are egotists of the X. school absolutely without entertainment. Several of these the world reads assiduously too, although for another reason. The avid vanity of Mr. Pepys would be gratified if made aware of the success of his diary; but curiously to inquire into the reason of that success, why his diary has been found so amusing, would not conduce to his comfort.

After all, the only thing a man knows is himself. The world outside he can know only by hearsay. His shred of personality is all he has; than that, he is nothing richer nothing poorer. Everything else is mere accident and appendage. Alexander must not be measured by the shoutings of his armies, nor Lazarus at Dives’ gates by his sores. And a man knows himself only in part. In every nature, as in Australia, there is an unexplored territory—green, well-watered regions or mere sandy deserts; and into that territory experience is making progress day by day. We can remember when we knew only the outer childish rim—and from the crescent guessed the sphere; whether, as we advanced, these have been realised, each knows for himself.


MLA Citation

Smith, Alexander. “On the importance of a man to himself.” 1863. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 10 Sep 2007. 04 Dec 2023 <>.

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