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There are only two kinds of society, indeed, which in my present state of health and spirits can afford me any enjoyment-intercourse with my friends, and intercourse with nature. Any other sort of company or conversation can have but little interest for me, and I would rather avoid it if possible.
You must be much changed, Philo, said Cleanthes, if there is not another kind of society still, which will hold its influence over you as long as any. I should have thought your books were never-failing companions. Oh, for that society, said Philo, I really am not in the habit of distinguishing it as of a separate class from those which I mentioned. In conversing with the best books, I feel as if I were in the company of their illustrious authors, and there is something, certainly, very gratifying and soothing to the imagination, to think that we thus can be surrounded by the wise and the virtuous of all ages, and hear them all speaking, "every man in his own tongue wherein he was born," and almost transporting us into the very scenes in which they lived and acted. This feast of fancy is enjoyed most, when we read the works of the most ancient authors- the miracle which brings us into contact with them, seems more wonderful and mysterious when they rise to meet us from the bosom of a remote antiquity, and address us in the very language in which they conversed with their contemporaries. I dislike translations, chiefly because they dispell this fine illusion, and so take away, in a great degree, the living and social character of books, which is to me their most agreeable aspect. There is one description of writings, too, in which we not only converse with man, but with nature-I mean those of the poets, who either chime in with the sentiments which the beauties of natural scenery awaken in our own bosoms, or give an expression to others, of a more delicate and refined tone than we should have reached for ourselves. The pleasures arising from these different sources of intercourse-society, books, and nature-differ, no doubt, in degree and character, but fundamentally they are the same. They all are the intercourse of mind with mind. No one will think otherwise of the intercourse between human beings, whether by word or by writing, but it does not appear at once so evident, that the pleasure which we take in conversing with nature, is really no other, but the same, in a different and higher aspect.
I am aware, Philo, said I, that this is one of your favourite notions, and, I doubt not, before we part from you, that you will place it before us in many various and interesting points of view; but in the meantime, let me ask if you put your converse with nature on a higher
form than any other, why, when it is always within your reach, you should ever have recourse to that of books, or even long for that of your friends? I do not see how the arrival of Cleanthes and myself should not be felt as an interruption to "that celestial colloquy sublime,” in which we found you engaged in the delightful solitude of these woods.
I have said, Pamphilus, replied Philo, that there is a difference in the kinds of mental intercourse, though the foundation of the pleasure which we take in all is the same, and, to a being who is fond of variety, and cannot, indeed, from the infirmity of his powers, keep them constantly on the same stretch, or in the same track, the mere change from one of these to the other, may be often very desirable, without making any comparisons or stating preferences. A long course of solitary confinement is thought the greatest of all possible punishments, but I doubt whether it would not be equally irksome to be never for one moment alone, I do not mean merely in the racket of uninteresting society, but in the company of your best friend or even your mistress. Our great poet has accordingly touched a natural cord when he represents his Eve in Paradise itself, longing for a short intermission from the society of her beloved partner, while she so sweetly expresses herself—
That, solitude sometimes is best society,
The experiment, no doubt, as it proved, was a very unfortunate one, but her wish for a little variety was not inconsistent, it would seem, even with the state of innocence in which human nature is then represented to have existed. Since the Fall, we have, probably, become still more capricious and changeable; but there is great kindness in the accommodation made by Providence, for this condition of our infirmity, in the supplies which it affords to our real or even imaginary Even the curse pronounced upon us has proved to be a blessing. Labour of body or mind, to which all are doomed, comes in the place of society when felt to be tedious or unprofitable, or relieves us from the burden of our wandering and irregular thoughts; while labour, in its turn, is relieved by social intercourse, by books, by quiet thinking, by rest, and by sleep.
You do not mention, Philo, said I, how much of the life of man, too, is spent in seeking for the means of food and in feeding. It is, indeed, replied he, a singularly varied scene, but it is in the intercourse of
mind with mind that the human powers come out in their finest features, or administer their highest enjoyments.
Is there not, said Cleanthes, much intellectual exertion, and, perhaps, of the highest and most original kind, which is worked out in solitary thought? The mathematician over his diagrams, or the poet amid his reveries, rises to nobler heights of meditation than either could attain from the intermixture of the thoughts of other men.-You will observe, Cleanthes, replied Philo, that I do not limit the intercourse of mind to the actual converse of man with his fellows. I believe solitary thought is commonly carried on in a species of imaginary dialogue—and this, I suppose explains the meaning of Scipio in his celebrated observation, that he was never less alone than when alone. All men of genius, too, in their reveries, seem to themselves to be conversing with beings of a superior order to men- the poets, you know, do not conceal their impression, but speak of the muses as their guides and companions - and even the man who is employed in abstract speculation, feels as if his highest views and discoveries fell upon him by a kind of inspiration. In short, all exercise of mind is of a social character-whether it is solitary, among books, with nature, or with men—the only difference is, that, in the latter case, the intercourse is real and not imaginary. Therefore, besides the mere necessity for change or variety of occupation, which makes the intercourse of friends so agreeable, after study or solitary musing, it is here only that we find mind with mind brought into the actual collision of thought and of sentiment.
Perhaps, strictly speaking, for there is no need of running into paradoxes and unusual modes of expression, this intercourse with our fellow-creatures, which commonly is all that is called society-I mean that of living men with men,-ought to have that name confined to it, and then it will very easily be understood in what respects it is more complete and perfect than any other kind of converse or association. There are a great many feelings and sympathies that are awakened and enlivened by the actual presence of a fellow-creature, especially if he is a friend, and there is the ready answer of thought to thought, and of sentiments rising warm from the heart, which cannot be supplied in an equal degree by any other style of communication.
The thing which comes nearest conversation, and the actual meeting of friends, is their correspondence by letter, but, delightful as that is, and charming and agreeable as the specimens of letter-writing are which have been preserved to the world, from Cicero down to Cowper -admirable as they are, as exhibitions of character, and near as they
approach to the real intercourse of life with the remarkable men who have left them,—yet, we cannot but feel a wish, "Veras audire et reddere voces,"―which we may believe was still more felt by the writers themselves and the friends who were addressed by them. You will find, indeed, that most correspondences, after a time, begin to flag. How often does a letter commence with an apology for procrastination! The writer may have the utmost friendship for the person to whom he is thus obliged to find excuses for his remissness, and would consider it as the greatest enjoyment to engage in an hour's conversation with him, but he will probably much rather pass that hour in conversing with any one that falls in his way, than set to the task of a communication by letter, which he cannot but feel has so little of the spirit of life in comparison. Imagination always requires to be, in some degree, excited before any mode of communication between mind and mind, except that of real presence, can be felt as coming under the notion of society.
Yet, it is singular, said Cleanthes, that we every now and then meet with men who seem to have greater enjoyment from books or from their own thoughts, than even from the society of their friends, and to whom the conversation of men in general is rather an oppression than a solace. These men, said Philo, only carry to an extreme what is, in moderation, the temperament of genius. There is no doubt,—a poet in the moments of his inspiration, would feel as a disagreeable interruption the society even of his most chosen companion, and be very averse to have a third party interfering with his intercourse with the muse. This may be the feeling, at the bottom, of the unsociable dispositions observable in some men, though they are increased by many moral infirmities. Men of imagination and sensibility are often timid, and do not like to bring their thoughts into the collision of society. Their internal visions may often be such as are too fugitive and loose to enter into union with the topics commonly occupying the minds of men in the world, and awakening these interests. There they are often indolent, and cannot take the trouble to make themselves well-informed on the subjects, not merely of common life, but of many of the finest departments of knowledge. There, too, they may be proud, and may not like to converse on topics in which they feel their deficiency. From these causes, the retiring and shy disposition which you speak of as frequently observable, may be nursed to such an extent that it becomes a disease, and is a burden to the person who has given way to it, and destroys his powers both of usefulness and entertainment.
It must be some combination of causes such as these, which renders
men, who have, it may be, qualities of a higher order than the generality, actually unfit to hold their place in society; but while our station among our fellows requires us to enter with interest into all that interests them, and men naturally are prompted by their social qualities to do so-yet it may be a mark of the highest minds, that they form the idea of a more exalted society than they can possibly meet with in this world, and they may therefore, very legitimately, in solitude frame to themselves conceptions, at least, of a nobler intercourse than they ever can realize. When the indulgence of such reveries renders a man unfit for the business of the world, and for the actual intercourse of society, it is a proof that he does not possess the highest order of mind, which is always alive to the attainment of knowledge, and to its right application and free communication, and is full of energy, and social interest. The men of the greatest genius, even among poets, who are supposed to live most in a world of their own creation, have been men who have lived much in the world also of their fellow-men, and have entered deeply into the passions and interests around them. Can we doubt that Homer was a poet of this character of mind and intellect and to come down to more modern names, taking too those of poets who have gone farthest beyond the “flammantia maenia mundi,” and have given the widest excursions to their spiritual reveries - Dante and Milton were there ever keener political partizans than these, or men who had their thoughts more implicated in the busy turmoil of society? Shakespeare does not seem to have been a politician· so far, at least, as to have acted any part in political life, (Chaucer did,) but what a divinely social nature was his, and how intimately acquainted and delighted with the living world and its concerns! In our own day, Sir Walter Scott was no less constantly buoyant on the tide of real existence.
At the same time, there is none of the names which I have mentioned that did not belong to men, who felt their highest and noblest faculties only breathing freely in a society of a more exalted kind. I say in a society-for none of their reveries were unsocial;-if they were encouraging and feeding the representations of their own wonderful fancies-if they were hanging with rapture over the inventions of the masters who had gone before them, or if they were musing upon the splendour and magnificence, or drawing in the beauties of creation, with every ray that kindles, and every breeze that blows they felt themselves for ever surrounded with the genii of their own, or of other minds, or in the presence of the great Genius of Nature. Then, Philo, said Cleanthes, do you see nothing incompatible