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No man can rise from ignorance to anything deserving to be called a complete grasp of any considerable branch of science, without receiving and discarding in succession many crude and incomplete notions, which, so far from injuring the truth in its ultimate reception, act as positive aids to its attainment by acquainting him with the symptoms of an insecure footing in his progress. To reach from the plain the loftiest summits of an Alpine country, many inferior eminences have to be scaled and relinquished; but the labor is not lost. The region is unfolded in its closer recesses, and the grand panorama, which opens from aloft, is all the better understood and the more enjoyed for the very misconception in detail which it rectifies and explains.
Altruism, from the Latin alter, "another," formed on the same basis as egotism from ego, to indicate unselfishness, benevolence,—in short, the very opposite of egotism. The altruist rejoices in his neighbor's welfare, and finds his highest joy in advancing it; the egotist strives only for himself. The word was first employed by Comte, and has been welcomed by modern agnostics as offering the basis for a new code of morality, a new impetus to right action. Mr. Frederic Harrison, the leader of the English Positivists, even looks upon it as an admirable substitute for the Christian hope of personal immortality. Man will be immortal not in himself but in his actions, and the consciousness of this posthumous activity, this living incorporation with the glorious future of his race, can give a patience and happiness equal to that of any martyr of theology." Once make this idea the basis of philosophy, the standard of right and wrong, and the centre of religion, and the conversion of the masses "will prove, perhaps, an easier task than that of teaching Greeks and Romans, Syrians and Moors, to look forward to a life of careless psalmody in an immaterial heaven." George Eliot's finest poem-indeed, her only bit of verse that is truly poetry, and not merely fine thought thrown into metrical form, her lines beginning, "Oh, may I join the choir invisible"—gives magnificent voice to this feeling. Here are the concluding lines:
Of course the idea readily lends itself to satire and caricature. In a review of this very poem (Atlantic, xxxiv. 102), Mr. Howells neatly enough characterizes it as "the idea that we are to realize our inborn longing for immortality in the blessed perpetuity of man on earth; the supreme effort of that craze which, having abolished God, asks a man to console himself when he shall be extinct with the reflection that somebody else is living on towards the annihilation which he has reached." The whole of W. H. Mallock's "New Paul and Virginia, or Positivism on an Island," is an admirable bit of fooling, with this doctrine of altruism as one of its chief targets. Here is an illustrative example, where the castaways-Virginia, the curate, and the agnostic professor-are sitting at lunch on the island:
"Yes, my dear curate," said the professor, "what I am enjoying is the champagne that you drink, and what you are enjoying is the champagne that I drink. This is altruism; this is benevolence; this is the sublime outcome of enlightened modern thought. The pleasures of the table in themselves are low and beastly ones; but if we each of us are only glad because the others are enjoying them, they become holy and glorious beyond description." They do," cried the curate, rapturously, "indeed they do. I will drink another bottle for your sake. It is sublime!" he said, as he tossed off three glasses. "It is significant !" he said, as he finished three more. "Tell me, my dear, do I look significant?" he added, as he turned to Virginia, and suddenly tried to crown the general bliss by kissing her.
A familiar jest unconsciously embodies the same element of parody," So
glad," "So glad you're glad," "So glad you're glad I'm glad," and so on ad infinitum. But, indeed, no verbal burlesque can exceed the burlesque in action which is afforded by the sad fate of the Altruist Society of St. Louis, thus recorded by the New York Nation, April 10, 1890:
Those to whom experiments for a remodelling of society appeal must be saddened by the last phase in the history of the Altruist Community of St. Louis. "We find it necessary,' says Mr. Alcander Longley, its late president, in the columns of its organ, the Altruist, "to announce to our readers that the Altruist Community is dissolved by mutual consent of all the members. The reasons for the dissolution are some of them as follows. Since Mr. Smith withdrew, late last fall, there have been but two male members of the community, George E. Ward and myself, and our natures and our methods of doing things are so different that there has been more or less discord at different times since, and not at any time real harmony.' One of the causes of disagreement was Mr. Ward's ambition to be "appointed or elected as one of the editors and managers of the Altruist," which Mr. Longley had decided views about controlling himself," saying that he would not own and manage a paper with Mr. Ward or any one else.' This led to the calling of a special meeting to elect a president in Mr. Longley's place, and the success of Mr. George E. Ward and two Mrs. Wards, who formed a majority of the community. Meanwhile, Mr. Longley admits, "I have, during our dissensions, said some very uncomplimentary and disrespectful things to Mr. Ward, for which I have told him I am sorry. Among them was, I charged him with being an anarchist and with bullying his wife to get her to vote as he desired in the community, and with having acted fraudulently in keeping the record of the community as secretary, and in the election of himself as president, all of which I hereby retract and apologize for.' Mr. Longley and the remaining members of the pentagonal community, except Miss Travis, withdrew when Mr. Ward's journalistic aspirations were about to be gratified.
Ambiguities. Words are slippery things. They frequently refuse to do their master's bidding, to express the meaning that was in his mind. Oceans of blood have been spilled over the interpretation of disputed passages in the Bible. Oceans of ink have been spilled over similar attempts to get at the inner truth of some of Shakespeare's mystic phrases. There is no more piquant subject of conjecture than to think what would happen if Shakespeare were recalled from his grave and set to reading that excellent Variorum Edition of his works which contains all the glosses of all the commentators. Perhaps he would forget his own meaning. That has often happened to authors. We all remember the story of how certain reverent pupils came to Jacob Boehme on his death-bed, begging that before he died he would explain to them a certain difficult passage in his work. "My dear children," said the mystic, after puzzling his head to no purpose, “when I wrote this I understood its meaning, and no doubt the omniscient God did. He may still remember it, but I have forgotten." And he died with the secret unrevealed. Klopstock's student admirers were more worldly wise, yet they too were equally doomed to disappointment. They appealed to him, not on his death-bed, but in his hale and vigorous maturity. At Göttingen they had found one of his stanzas unintelligible, and they begged for more light. Klopstock read the stanza, then slowly reread it, while all stared agape. Finally the oracle spoke: "I cannot recollect what I meant when I wrote it, but I do remember it was one of the finest things I ever wrote, and you cannot do better than to devote your lives to the discovery of its meaning." Cardinal Newman, in his old age, frankly acknowledged that he could not remember what he meant when he penned those famous lines in his hymn "Lead, Kindly Light,"
And with the morn those angel faces smile
At a large reception in London a Mrs. Malaprop in pantaloons edged his way up to Robert Browning and incontinently asked him to explain then and there a difficult passage in one of his poems. Upon my word, I don't know what it means," said the poet, laughing, as he closed the volume thrust into his hands. "I advise you to ask the Browning Society: they'll tell you all about it."
Hawthorne wrote to Fields on April 13, 1854, apropos of a new edition of his "Mosses from an Old Manse," When I wrote those dreamy sketches, I little thought that I should preface an edition for the press amidst the bustling life of a Liverpool consulate. Upon my honor, I am not quite sure that I entirely comprehend my own meaning in some of these blasted allegories; but I remember that I always had a meaning, or at least thought I had." When Chamier asked Goldsmith if he meant tardiness of locomotion by the word "slow" in the first line of the "Traveller,"
Remote, unfriended, melancholy, slow,
Goldsmith inconsiderately replied, "Yes." Johnson immediately cried out, "No, sir, you do not mean tardiness of locomotion: you mean that sluggishness of mind which comes upon a man in solitude."
If such be the experience of the great masters of language and literature, why should we wonder that the smaller men, who have command of a smaller vocabulary, and only an imperfect appreciation of the laws of rhetoric or even of grammar, should often find difficulty in rendering themselves intelligible? That blunder known as neglect of the antecedent may lead to the absurdest misapprehension. Here is a choice example, selected from the proceedings of the New York Common Council, May 12, 1869: "Resolved, That the Comptroller be and is hereby directed to draw a warrant in favor of David Sherrad for the sum of $350, to be in full compensation for loss sustained by reason of his horse stepping into a hole in the pavement in South Street, at the foot of Pine Street, on the 17th of February, 1869, from the effects of which he died." Here are many astonishing statements. That David should have died from the effects of his horse stepping into a hole is a notable fact in itself. That he could be compensated for his own death by the paltry sum of three hundred and fifty dollars passes belief. Indeed, the very absurdity of the passage is its own safeguard. We know what the writer meant, because what he said is so evidently nonsense. Advertisers are frequent sinners in this respect. Here is a sample which appeared in the London Times in February, 1862: "Pianoforte, Cottage, 7 Octaves-the property of a Lady leaving England in remarkably elegant walnut case on carved supports. The tone is superb and eminently adapted for any one requiring a first-class instrument." The Saturday Review pounced upon this gem of English and commented upon it as follows: "We have heard of Arion riding on a dolphin, and of the Wise Men of Gotham who went to sea in a bowl; we have heard of Helle on her ram, and of Europa on her bull; but we never before heard of a lady designing to cross the English Channel in a remarkably elegant walnut case with carved supports. Indeed, we might go so far as to ask whether the carved supports are those of the walnut case or of the lady herself. In either case, they would seem equally ill adapted to struggle with the winds and the billows."
This excellent lady finds a fit parallel in the advertiser who wanted young man to look after a horse of the Methodist persuasion," the Texan who applied for "a boss hand over 5000 sheep that can speak Spanish fluently," the boarding-house-keeper who announced that she had "a cottage containing eight rooms and an acre of land," the maiden or widow lady, matrimonially inclined, who advertised for a husband "with a Roman nose having strong religious tendencies" (did she wish those tendencies to be Roman also?), or the horse-owner who signified his willingness to sell cheap "a splendid gray horse, calculated for a charger or would carry a lady with a switch tail.' A lady so favored by nature should certainly make the acquaintance of the owner of a certain mail phaeton announced for sale as "the property of a gentleman with a movable head as good as new." The latter may have been some relation to the boy who produced a fiddle of which his proud
father asserted that "he had made it out of his own head and had wood enough left for another," or of the London match-peddler who used to cry, Buy a penny-worth of matches from a poor old man made of foreign wood."
There was something gruesome in the furrier's announcement that he was prepared to "make up capes, circulars, etc., for ladies out of their own skins." But he was more than equalled by the proprietor of a bone-mill who assured the public that "parties sending their own bones to be ground will be attended to with fidelity and despatch." And what shall we say to the druggist's printed request that "the gentleman who left his stomach for analysis will please call and get it together with the result"?
A horrid suspicion of cannibalism hangs about the advertisement of a St. Louis man: "Wanted a good girl to cook, one who will make a good roast or broil and will stew well." Almost as barbarous is a farmer near Fulton, New York, who posted this notice in his field: "If any man's or woman's cows or oxen gits in these oats, his or her head will be cut off, as the case may be."
We are moved to gentle and kindly mirth when under the head of Wanted we read that "a respectable young woman wants washing." But we have grown quite used to such journalistic English as "octagonal men's cassimere pantaloons," or "woollen children's mitts," or "terra-cotta ladies' gloves," so much so that we scarcely pause to smile at the odd images they ought to raise in the mind that is grammatically constituted. So also with advertisements for such articles as "a keyless ladies' watch," "a green lady's parasol,” or “ a brown silk gentleman's umbrella." And in hastily running your eye over the papers you rarely pause to give its due meed of surprise to the appetite of a lady who wants to take a gentleman for breakfast and dinner," the benevolence of a boarding-house-keeper who advertises that "single gentlemen are furnished with pleasant rooms, also one or two gentlemen with wives," or the audacity of a merchant who, in a free country, openly gives notice, "Wanted, a woman to sell on commission." But, indeed, anything is possible in an age where the sign "Families supplied by the quart or gallon" meets you at every turn.
A quaint story is told of a member of the Savage Club in London. Standing on the steps of the club-house, he was accosted by a stranger: gentleman belong to your club with one eye named Walker ?" "I don't know," was the reply. "What is the name of the other eye?"
The St. James Gazette chronicles the fact that a blind man who perambulates the streets of Windsor playing sacred music on an accordion bears upon his breast a placard reading, "Blind from inflammation. Assisted by Her Majesty the Queen." He had once attracted the compassionate attention of the queen, who had given him a small donation. It is said that the public baths in Paris originally bore the sign, "Bains à fond de bois pour dames à quatre sous. This was objected to because, strictly construed, it would mean "wooden-bottomed baths for fourpenny ladies." So the sign was changed to "Bains à quatre sous pour dames à fond de bois." But the hypercritics hilariously contended that this was even worse. And this reminds us of the advertisement of a school, which appeared in the London Times in March, 1838, and which promised that boys would, for twenty-five guineas, receive various benefits, and be "fundamentally instructed." This was in the days of Dotheboys Hall. There was an ominous sound about the adverb, and it is not to be wondered at that about this time several advertisements appeared in the Agony column for "youths" and "young gentlemen" who had run away from home.
A shoemaker hung out a sign, and then wondered why people found it so amusing. This is how it read: "Don't go elsewhere to be cheated. Walk in
here." He was equalled by the London firm which warned everybody against unscrupulous persons "who infringe our title to deceive the public," and by the Chatham Street establishment which requested the public "not to confound this shop with that of another swindler who has established himself on the other side of the way." The Irish advertiser was more alarmingly frank when he inserted a "want" for "a gentleman to undertake the sale of a Patent Medicine. The advertiser guarantees it will be profitable to the undertaker."
A curious instance of the difficulty of making a few words convey an explicit and definite meaning is furnished by the repeated failures of postal authorities who wished to inform the public that they might write anything they chose on one side of a postal card, but on the other side must confine themselves to the mere address of the person. Uncle Sam tried six times, in as many different issues, before he was satisfied with the result:
Nothing but the address can be placed on this side.
Nothing but the address to be on this side.
Write only the address on this side.
Write the address only on this side, the message on the other.
This side for address only.
The first two were evidently rejected for their clumsiness. The third, fourth, and fifth seem to limit the public to writing, and indirectly forbid printing or lithographing. The fourth, moreover, is hopelessly ambiguous. Accurately construed, it means that the address may be written on one side only. Any. thing else may be written on that side. But the address must not be repeated on the other.
The address to be written on this side.
The address only to be written on this side.
Here the same difficulty appears in regard to printing or lithographing the address. They manage these things better in France:
Ce côté est exclusivement réservé à l'adresse.
Yet Belgium is not satisfied. Apparently it thinks there is tautology in "exclusively reserved," and drops the adverb:
Ce côté est réservé à l'adresse.
Zijde voo het adres voorbehouden.
Luxemburg, in a still more critical mood, holds that the French ought to write more correct French than they do, and places "exclusivement" after the verb:
Ce côté est réservé exclusivement à l'adresse.
Russia is of the same mind:
Côté réservé exclusivement à l'adresse.
Italy uses no ambiguous word:
Su questo lato non deve scriversi che il solo indirizzo.
Chili's wish is stated with equal clearness :
En este lado debe escriverse unicamente la direccion.
Amende Honorable. In modern usage, especially newspaper usage, this phrase signifies a manly apology and acknowledgment of a fault, accom. panied by such reparation as may be needed. But historically the amende honorable was a very different affair. It was in fact in ancient French law a disgraceful punishment, inflicted for the most part on offenders against public decency. The offender was stripped to his shirt, when the hangman put a