Page images
PDF
EPUB

HOW TO OBSERVE.

MORALS AND MANNERS

PART I.

REQUISITES FOR OBSERVATION.

INTRODUCTION.

“ Inest sua gratia parvis." “ Les petites choses n'ont de valeur que de la part de ceux qui peuvent s'élever aux grandes."--DE JOUY.

THERE is no department of inquiry in which it is not full as easy to miss truth as to find it, even when the materials from which truth is to be drawn are actually present to our senses. A child does not catch a goldfish in water at the first trial, however good his eyes may be, and however clear the water ; knowledge and method are necessary to enable him to take what is actually before his eyes and under his hand. So it is with all who fish in a strange element for the truth which is living and moving there : the powers of observation must be trained, and habits of method in arranging the materials presented to the eye must be acquired, before the student possesses the requisites for understanding what he contemplates.

The observer of men and manners stands as much in need of intellectual preparation as any other student. This is not, indeed, generally supposed, and a multitude of travellers act as if it were not true. Of the large number of tourists who annually sail from our ports, there is probably not one who would dream of pretending to make observations on any subject of

B

to say,

physical inquiry, of which he did not understand even the principles. If, on his return from the Mediterranean, the unprepared traveller was questioned about the geology of Corsica or the public buildings of Palermo, he would reply, "Oh, I can tell you nothing about that; I never studied geology ; I know nothing about architecture.” But few or none make the same avowal about the morals and manners of a nation. Every man seems to imagine that he can understand men at a glance ; he supposes that it is enough to be among them to know what they are doing ; he thinks that eyes, ears, and memory are enough for morals, though they would not qualify him for botanical or statistical observation; he pronounces confidently upon the merits and social condition of the nations among whom he has travelled; no misgiving ever prompts him

“I can give you little general information about the people I have been seeing ; I have not studied the principles of morals; I am no judge of national manners."

There would be nothing to be ashamed of in such an avowal. No wise man blushes at being ignorant of any science which it has not suited his purposes to study, or which it has not been in his power to attain. No linguist wrings his hands when astronomical discoveries are talked of in his presence ; no political economist covers his face when shown a shell or plant which he cannot class; still less should the artist, the natural philosopher, the commercial traveller, or the classical scholar, be ashamed to own himself unacquainted with the science which, of all the sciences which have yet opened upon men, is, perhaps, the least cultivated, the least definite, the least ascertained in itself, and the most difficult in its application.

In this last characteristic of the science of morals lies the excuse of as many travellers as may decline pronouncing on the social condition of any people. Even if the generality of travellers were as enlightened as they are at present ignorant about the principles of morals, the difficulty of putting those principles to interpre

[graphic]

tative uses would det e from

making the hasty decisions and utteri nege judgments in which travellers have hithen.ween wont to indulge. In proportion as men become sensible how infinite are the diversities in man, how incalculable the varieties and influences of circumstances, rashness of pretension and decision will abate, and the great work of classifying the moral manifestations of society will be confided to the philosophers, who bear the same relation to the science of society as Herschel does to astronomy and Beaufort to hydrography.

of all the tourists who utter their decisions upon foreigners, how many have begun their researches at home? Which of ihem would venture upon giving an account of the morals and manners of London, though he

may

have lived in it all his life? Would any of them escape errors as gross as those of the Frenchman who published it as a general fact that people in London always have at dinner-parties soup on each side and fish at four corners? Which of us would undertake to classify the morals and manners of any hamlet in England after spending the summer in it? What sensible man seriously generalizes upon the manners of a street, even though it be Houndsditch or Cranbourn Alley? Who pretends to explain all the proceedings of his next-door neighbour ? Who is able to account for all that is said and done by the dweller in the same house; by parent, child, brother, or domestic? If such judgments were attempted, would they not be as various as those who make them? And would they not, after all, if closely looked into, reveal more of the mind of the observer than of the observed ?

If it be thus with us at home, amid all the general resemblances, the prevalent influences which furnish an interpretation to a large number of facts, what hope of a trustworthy judgment remains for the foreign tourist, however good may be his method of travelling and however long his absence from home? He looks at all the people along his line of road, and converses with a few individuals from among them. If he diverges,

[graphic]

from time to time, from

the n road; if he winds about among villages à c es mountains to dip into the hamlets of the valley, he still pursues only a line, and does not command the expanse ; he is furnished, at best, with no more than a sample of the people ; and whether they be indeed a sample must remain a conjecture which he has no means of verifying. He converses, more or less, with, perhaps, one man in ten thousand of those he sees; and of the few with whom he converses, no two are alike in powers and in training, or perfectly agree in their views on any one of the great subjects which the traveller professes to observe; the information afforded by one is contradicted by another; the fact of one day is proved error by the next;

the wearied mind soon finds itself overwhelmed by the multitude of unconnected or contradictory particulars, and lies passive to be run over by the crowd. The tourist is no more likely to learn, in this way, the social state of a nation, than his valet would be qualified to speak of the meteorology of the country from the number of times the umbrellas were wanted in the course of two months. His children might as well undertake to exhibit the geological formation of the country from the pebbles they picked up in a day's ride.

remember some striking words addressed to me, before I set out on my travels, by a wise man, since dead. “You are going to spend two years in the United States,” said he. “Now just tell me, do you expect to understand the Americans by the time you come back? You do not: that is well. I lived fiveand-twenty years in Scotland, and I fancied I understood the Scotch; then I came to England, and supposed I should soon understand the English. I have now lived five-and-twenty years here, and I begin to think I understand neither the Scotch nor the English."

What is to be done? Let us first settle what is not to be done.

The traveller must deny himself all indulgence of peremptory decision, not only in public on his return, but in his journal, arnost superficial thoughts. The experienced a conscientious traveller would word the conditionerently. Finding peremptory decision more trying to his conscience than agreeable to his laziness, he would call it not indulgence, but anxiety; he enjoys the employment of collecting materials, but would shrink from the responsibility of judging a community.

[graphic]

The traveller must not generalize on the spot, however true may be his apprehension, however firm his grasp, of one or more facts.' A raw English traveller in China was entertained by a host who was intoxicated and a hostess who was red-haired; he immediately made a note of the fact that all the men in China were drunkards and all the women red-haired. A raw Chinese traveller in England was landed by a Thames waterman who had a wooden leg. The stranger saw that the wooden leg was used to stand in the water with, while the other was high and dry. The apparent economy of the fact struck the Chinese ; he saw in it strong evidence of design, and wrote home that in England one-legged men are kept for watermen, to the saving of all injury to health, shoe, and stocking, from standing in the river. These anecdotes exhibit but a slight exaggeration of the generalizing tendencies of many modern travellers. They are not so much worse than some recent tourists' tales, as they are better than the old narratives of " men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders.

Natural philosophers do not dream of generalizing with any such speed as that used by the observers of men; yet they might do it with more safety, at the risk of an incalculably smaller mischief. The geologist and the chymist make a large collection of particular appearances before they commit themselves to propound a principle drawn from them, though their subject matter is far less diversified than the human subject, and nothing of so much importance as human emotions-love and dislike, reverence and contempt depends upon their judgment. If a student in natural

« ՆախորդըՇարունակել »