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Literary Remains of J. H. Shorthouse
edited by His Wife

London: Macmillan, 1905


Who sees through tears the masquer's leap.

THERE is an old word, now fallen entirely into neglect, and perhaps forgotten, which, it seems to me, would supply a want in our modern dictionaries. Some months ago a very admirable essay upon Wit and Humour was read to our Society, in which the subject of the former of those two faculties was treated of in a manner which left, perhaps, nothing to be wished. If the treatment of the latter subject--that of humour--seemed, as it did to me, inadequate, this was neither \to be blamed nor to be wondered at, seeing that no writer has yet treated the subject as its importance requires. This chiefly arises from the fact that the faculty, or the art, which at present, for want of a better word, we call humour is growing with the changing condition of human society, and has reached an extension which entitles it to be called a new art, or faculty of the mind, and to have its nature and its limits defined, and a new name given it among men. It is, of course, needless to say that nothing beyond an attempt to direct attention to the subject is intended here.

The word "humour" was not, so far as I am aware, applied by the Romans to the dispositions of the mind, but was confined entirely to certain phenomena of the body; afterwards, the old physicians taught that there were four "humours" in a man: blood, choler, phlegm, and melancholy. Walking, in this respect, in the same steps as modern science, they taught that, as one or other of these "humours" unduly preponderated, the mind and conduct of the man was affected, and in this way a humorist was understood to mean "a man full of humours or conceits"; or, in other words, a man in whom certain habits of thought and conduct had gained such strength as to overshadow the entire man and render him noticeable and singular among his fellows. This sense of the word gradually gave way to another, by which it was understood to mean a man whose bias or habit, itself a humour, took the form of studying the humours of others, and this meaning is probably the one which would seem to most people at the present time to describe what they understand by the word most correctly.

In the increased intellectual activity of modern life, when the field of human action was so much narrowed, and that of human thought so much enlarged, it became evident that the study of human life was nothing but the study of the humours of individual men; and with that increased toleration which follows upon enlarged culture, men began to see that no one man had any reason to assume his superiority to another because his humour differed from his, or because his fellow's humour appeared uncouth or ridiculous either to himself or to the majority of his neighbours. It also became touchingly apparent that, well considered, nothing in a fellow human being is so truly pathetic as the ludicrous. [This word is used throughout in its restricted modern meaning for whatever excites the passion or affection of pity.] That which, in a child's puppet, merely raises a thoughtless laugh, assumes altogether a different aspect when seen in one who, whether immortal or a partaker of the Divine Nature or not, is just as much so as the spectator himself, with all his boundless aspirations and reaches of thought. While it does not lose its ludicrous effect, there is superadded to this sense of the ridiculous another of immortality and of pathos; a conjunction producing mental sensation of which the man has hitherto been utterly unconscious, but which, when once he has yielded to its influence, he seldom forgets. Taught, therefore, by the full extent of this insight, it becomes evident that the study of humour is as wide as that of human life itself; for the shadow of death and immortality, which gives to human life its pathos, throws at the same time--by a cross reflection as it were of lights upon a stage--a sense of the ridiculous upon the most solemn pageant--as earthly dignities appear grotesque, and the grimaces of a harlequin-clown pathetic, seen by the ghastly footlights of the tomb.

The word, therefore, which seems to me to be most appropriate to the follower of this study, at such an advanced stage, is that which was formerly applied to one skilled in all human learning, viz. "Humanist." That "Enthusiasm of Humanity" applied, by Professor Seeley, to the love of man apart from his circumstances, is at least as applicable to the passion for man in his circumstances, and because of the detailed and trivial surroundings of his daily life. The motto, " The proper study of mankind is man," is limited in its force when it means, as it has invariably done, the study of his moral nature, and of what he ought to be rather than what he is. While this life is considered merely as a prison-house, or a stepping-stone, to be escaped from, or to be left, this world may be contemned, but the doctrine of another is also in danger of becoming unreal. It is not till the scene of this life is fully developed that the pageant of a higher can enter upon the stage. If divines had studied this life as earnestly as they have disputed about another, and had shown mankind their own nature in colours they could not fail to recognise (for nothing is so certain of response from the most careless of mankind), they would have been able to present more clearly to their hearers that Divine Excellence which was unknown till it was manifested in humanity. Life as it is, in the dingy streets of our great cities, not as it might be in Utopias and Islands of the Blest,--life in all its forms, with the sorrows and weariness which beset all ranks alike,--is full of magic power to interest and attract. The innumerable fictions which crowd the magazines witness to its force. Among the unpretending walks of religious literature this power is recognised--doubtless in many instances with good results; but it is singular that, as we advance in the higher intellectual ranks, this ceases to be the case; and religious teaching and actual life become more and more estranged; and this master-chord, to which, touched by the least skilful hand, all other notes respond in tune, remains unstirred.

It is reported of the golden-tongued Chrysostom, that he slept with Aristophanes under his pillow; and of a Puritan divine, "that he had read many witty authors in the Italian, French, and Spanish tongues, whereof, by the excellency of his wit, he made admirable use even in divinity, he being able, by an holy alchemy, to make everything serve to his powerful persuasions, wherein he excelled." And the Divine Founder of Christianity Himself not only drew His instructions from every form of the human life around Him, but actually omitted the higher application altogether, reserving it for those few whom He considered able to receive it. It is the more important to bear this in mind, because one of the greatest obstacles which Christianity has to encounter from those advanced stages of Indo-European culture which Athens enjoyed, and modern Europe has again reached, is the antagonism between the mental lore of the Semitic and Caucasian races. That higher seriousness, as we consider it, which clothes itself in irony and humour was unknown to the Jews, while the simple grandeur of their literature seems unreal and grandiloquent to the European. The sharply-wrought reasoning faculty of the Caucasian race, which was first developed in the Greeks, and latterly in most of the different branches of the same great family, finds no encouragement in the Bible. In consequence of this diversity Hebrew is unknown, except to theologians, while the study of Greek becomes a passion to every man of culture who nee enters upon it.

It seems, therefore, not unimportant that every influence which serves to graft Christianity more strongly into our intellectual life should be taken advantage of; nor need any timid followers of their Lord shrink from such inquiry; for surely it is a convincing proof of the superiority of Christianity, that, when the exquisite Greek word-science, the brilliant dialectic, the dramatic colouring, the alluring life, the exalted death, the perfect self-sacrifice of the Platonic Socrates had failed altogether to influence the masses of mankind, the religion of Christ, springing from a despised, unlettered people,--from an alien literature, and dressed in nothing that made it attractive to the cultured intellect,--triumphed over the world. The reasons are of absorbing interest, and are not far to seek. They are too long to be considered here, but one of the plainest, perhaps, is that Christ Himself was, in the highest sense to which we have attached the word, a more perfect "Humanist" than any who have hitherto spoken in His most Holy Name.

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