"On Personal Character" 1
I shall not borrow assistance or illustration form the organic system of Doctors Gall and Spurzheim, which reduces this question to a small compass and very distinct limits, because I do not understand or believe in it: but I think those who put faith in physiognomy at all, or imagine that the mind is stamped upon the countenance, must believe that there is such a thing as an essential difference of character in different individuals. We do not change our features with our situations; neither do we change the capacities or inclinations which lurk beneath them. A flat face does not become an oval one, nor a pug nose a Roman one, with the acquisition of an office, or the addition of a title. So neither is the pert, hard, unfeeling outline of character turned from selfishness and cunning to openness and generosity by any softening of circumstances. If the face puts on an habitual smile in the sunshine of fortune, or if it suddenly lowers in the storms of adversity, do not trust too implicitly to appearances; the man is the same at bottom. The designing knave may sometimes wear a vizor, or, "to beguile the time, look like the time"; but watch him narrowly, and you will detect him behind his mask! We recognize, after a length of years, the same well-known face that we were formerly acquainted with, changed by time, but the same in itself; and can trace the features of the boy in the full-grown man. Can we doubt that the character and thoughts have remained as much the same all that time; have borne the same image and superscription; have grown with the growth, and strengthened with the strength? In this sense, as in Mr Wordsworth's phrase, "the child's the father of the man" surely enough. The same tendencies may not always be equally visible, but they are still in existence, and break out, whenever they dare and can, the more for being checked. Again, we often distinctly notice the same features, the same bodily peculiarities, the same look and gestures, in different persons of the same family; and find this resemblance extending to collateral branches and through several generations, showing how strongly nature must have been warped and biassed in that particular direction at first. This pre-determination in the blood has its caprices too, and wayward as well as obstinate fits. The family-likeness sometimes skips over the next of kin or the nearest branch, and reappears in all its singularity in a second or third cousin, or passes over the son to the grandchild. Where the pictures of the heirs and successors to a title or estate have been preserved for any length of time in Gothic halls and old-fashioned mansions, the prevailing outline and character does not wear out, but may be traced through its numerous inflections and descents, like the winding of a river through an expanse of country, for centuries. The ancestor of many a noble house has sat for the portraits of his youthful descendants; and still the soul of "Fairfax and the starry Vere," consecrated in Marvel's verse, may be seen mantling in the suffused features of some young court-beauty of the present day. The portrait of Judge Jeffries, which was exhibited lately in the Gallery in Pall Mall-- young, handsome, spirited, good-humoured, and totally unlike, at first view, what you would expect from the character-- was an exact likeness of two young men whom I know some years ago, the living representatives of that family. It is curious that, consistently enough with the delineation in his portrait, Old Evelyn should have recorded in his Memoirs, that "he saw the Chief-Justice Jeffries in a large company the night before, and that he thought he laughed, drank and danced too much for a man who had that day condemned Algernon Sidney to the block." It is not always possible to foresee the tiger's spring, till we are in his grasp; the fawning, cruel eye dooms its prey, while it glitters! Features alone do not run in the blood; vices and virtues, genius and folly are transmitted through the same sure but unseen channel. There is an involuntary, unaccountable family character, as well as family face; and we see it manifesting itself in the same way, with unbroken continuity, or by fits an starts. There shall be a regular breed of misers or incorrigible old hunkses in a family, time out of mind; or the shame of the thing, and the hardships and restraint imposed upon him while young shall urge some desperate spendthrift to wipe out the reproach upon his name by a course of extravagance and debauchery; and his immediate successors shall make his example an excuse for relapsing into the old job-trot incurable infirmity, the grasping and pinching disease of the family again.2 A person may be indebted for a nose or an eye, for a graceful carriage or a voluble discourse, to a great-aunt or uncle, whose existence he has scarcely heard of; and distant relations are surprised, on some casual introduction, to find each other an alter idem. Country cousins, who meet after they are grown up for the first time in London, often start at the likeness, -- it is like looking at themselves in the glass-- nay, they shall see, almost before they exchange a word, their own thoughts (as it were) staring them in the face, the same ideas, feelings, opinions, passions, prejudices, likes and antipathies; the same turn of mind and sentiment, the same foibles, peculiarities, faults, follies, misfortunes, consolations the same self, the same everything! And further, this coincidence shall take place and be most remarkable, where not only no intercourse has previously been kept up, not even by letter or by common friends, but where the different branches of a family have been estranged for long years, and where the younger part in each have been brought up in totally different situations with different studies, pursuits, expectations and opportunities. To assure me that this is owning to circumstances, is to assure me of a gratuitous absurdity, which you cannot know, and which I shall not believe. It is owing, not to circumstances, but to the force of kind, to the stuff of which our blood and humours are compounded being the same. Why should I and an old hair-brained uncle of mine fasten upon the same picture in a collection, and talk of it for years after, though one of no particular "mark or likelihood" in itself, but for something congenial in the look to our own humour and the way of seeing nature? Why should my cousin L----and I fix upon the same book Tristram Shandy--without comparing notes, have it "doubled down and dog-eared" in the same places, and live upon it as a sort of food that assimilated with our natural dispositions?-- "Instinct, Hal, instinct!" They are fools who say otherwise, and have never studied nature or mankind, but in books and systems of philosophy. But, indeed, the colour of our lives is woven into the fatal thread at our births: our original sins, and our redeeming graces are infused into us; nor is the bond, that confirms our destiny, ever cancelled.
Critics and authors, who congregate in large cities, and see nothing of the world but a sort of phantasmagoria, to whom the numberless characters they meet in the course of a few hours are fugitive "as the flies of a summer," evanescent as the figures in a camera obscura, may talk very learnedly, and attribute the motions of the puppets to circumstances of which they are confessedly in total ignorance. They see character only in the bust, and have not room (for the crowd) to study it as a whole length, that is, as it exists in reality. But those who trace things to their source, and proceed from individuals to generals, know better. School-boys, for example, who are early let into the secret, and see the seeds growing, are not only sound judges, but true prophets of character; so that the nick-names they give their playfellows usually stick by them ever after. The gossips in country-towns, also, who study human nature, not merely in the history of the individual, but in the genealogy of the race, know the comparative anatomy of the minds of a whole neighbourhood to a tittle, where to look for marks and defects-- explain a vulgarity by a cross in the breed, or a foppish air in a young tradesman by his grandmother's marriage with a dancing-master, and are the only practical conjurors and expert decypherers of the determinate lines of true or supposititious character.
The character of women (I should think it will at this time of day be granted) differs essentially from that of men, not less so than their shape or the texture of their skin. It has been said indeed, "Most woman have no character at all,"-- and on the other hand, the fair and eloquent Authoress of the Rights of Woman was for establishing the masculine pretension and privileges of her sex on a perfect equality with ours. I shall leave Pope and Mary Wolstonecraft to settle that point between them. I should laugh at any one who told me that the European, the Asiatic, and the African character were the same. I no more believe it than I do that black is the same colour as white, or that a straight line is a crooked one. We see in whole nations and large classes the physiognomies, and I should suppose ("not to speak it profanely") the general characters of different animals with which we are acquainted, as of the fox, the wolf, the hog, the goat, the dog, the monkey; and I suspect this analogy, whether perceived or not, has as prevailing an influence on their habits and actions as any theory of moral sentiments taught in the schools. Rules and precautions may, no doubt, be applied to counteract the excesses and overt demonstrations of any such characteristic infirmity; but still the disease will be in the mind, an impediment, not a help to virtue. An exception is usually taken to all national or general reflections, as unjust and illiberal., because they cannot be true of every individual. It is not meant that they are; and besides, the same captious objections is not made to the handsome things that are said of whole bodies and classes of men. A lofty panegyric, a boasted virtue will fit the inhabitants of an entire district to a hair; the want of strict universality, of philosophical and abstract truth, is no difficulty here; but if you hint at an obvious vice or defect, this is instantly construed into a most unfair and partial view of the case, and each defaulter throws the imputation from himself and his country with scorn. Thus you may praise the generosity of the English, the prudence of the Scotch, the hospitality of the Irish, as long as you please, and not a syllable is whispered against these sweeping expressions of admiration; but reverse the picture, hold up to censure, or only glance at the unfavourable side of each character (and they themselves admit that they have a distinguishing and generic character as a people), and you are assailed by the most violent clamours and a confused Babel of noises, as a disseminator of unfounded prejudices, or a libeller of human nature. I am sure there is nothing reasonable in this.-- Harsh and disagreeable qualities wear out in nations, as individuals, from time and intercourse with the world; but it is at the expense of their intrinsic excellences. The vices of softness and effeminacy sink deeper with age, like thorns in the flesh. Single acts or events often determine the fate of mortals, yet may have nothing to do with their general deserts or failings. He who is said to be cured of many glaring infirmity may be suspected of never having had it; and lastly, it may be laid down as a general rule, that mankind improves, by means of luxury and civilization, in social manners, and become more depraved in what relates to personal habits and character. There are few nations, as well as few men (with the exception of tyrants) that are cruel and voluptuous, immersed in pleasure, and bent on inflicting pain on others, at the same time. Ferociousness is the characteristic of barbarous ages, licentiousness of more refined periods.3
I shall not undertake to decide exactly how far the original character may be modified by the general progress of society, or by particular circumstances happening to the individual; but I think the alteration (be it what it may) is more apparent than real, more in conduct than in feeling. I will not deny, that an extreme and violent difference of circumstances (as that between the savage and civilized state) will supersede the common distinctions of character, and prevent certain dispositions and sentiments from ever developing themselves. Yet with reference to this, I would observe, in the first place, that in the most opposite ranks and conditions of life, we find qualities showing themselves, which we should have least expected-- grace in a cottage, humanity in a bandit, sincerity in courts; and secondly, in ordinary cases, and in the mixed mass of human affairs, the mind contrives to lay hold of those circumstances and motives which suit its own bias and confirm its natural disposition, whatever it may be, gentle or rough, vulgar or refined, spirited or cowardly, open-hearted or cunning. The will is not blindly impelled by outward accidents, but selects the impressions by which in chooses to be governed, with great dexterity and perseverance. Or the machine may be at the disposal of fortune: the man is still his own master. The soul, under the pressure of circumstances, does not lose its original spring, but, as soon as the pressure is removed, recoils with double violence to its first position. That which any one has been long learning unwillingly, he unlearns with proportionable eagerness and haste. Kings have been said to be incorrigible to experience. The maxim might be extended, without injury, to the benefit of their subjects; for every man is a king (with all the pride and obstinacy of one) in his own little world. It is only lucky that the rest of the species are not answerable for his caprices! We laugh at the warnings and advice of others; we resent the lessons of adversity, and lose no time in letting it appear that we have escaped from its importunate hold. I do not think, with every assistance from reason and circumstances, that the slothful ever becomes active, the coward brave, the headstrong prudent, the fickle steady, the mean generous, the coarse delicate, the ill-tempered amiable, or the knave honest; but that the restraint of necessity and appearances once taken away, they would relapse into their form and real character again: Cucullus non facit monchom. Manners, situation, example, fashion, have a prodigious influence on exterior deportment. But do they penetrate much deeper? The thief will not steal by day; but his having this command over himself does not do away his character or calling. The priest cannot indulge in certain irregularities; but unless his pulse beats temperately from the first, he will only be playing a part through life. Again, the soldier cannot shrink form his duty in a dastardly manner; but if he has not naturally steady nerves and strong resolution-- except in the field of battle, he may be fearful as a woman, though covered with scars and honour. The judge must be disinterested and above suspicion; yet should he have from nature an itching palm, an eye servile and greedy of office, he will somehow contrive to indemnify his private conscience out of his public principle, and husband a reputation for legal integrity, as a stake to play the game of political profligacy with more advantage! There is often a contradiction in character, which is composed of various and unequal parts; and hence there will arise an appearance of fickleness and inconsistency. A man may be sluggish by his father's side, and of a restless and uneasy temper by the mother's; and he may favour either of these inherent dispositions according to circumstances. But he will not have changed his character, any more than a man who sometimes lives in one apartment of a house and then takes possession of another, according to whim or convenience, changes his habitation. The simply phelgmatic never turns to the truly "fiery quality." So, the really gay or trifling never become thoughtful and serious. The light-hearted wretch takes nothing to heart. He, on whom (from natural carelessness of disposition) "the shot of accident and dart of change" fall like drops of oil on water, so that he brushes them aside with heedless hand and smiling face, will never be roused from his volatile indifference to meet inevitable calamities. He may try to laugh them off, but will not put himself to any inconvenience to prevent them. I know a man, that, if a tiger were to jump into his room, would only play of some joke, some "quip, or crank, or wanton wile" upon him. Mortifications and disappointments may break such a person's heart; but they will be the death of him ere they will make him provident of the future, or willing to forego one idle gratification of the passing moment for any consideration whatever. The dilatory man never becomes punctual. Resolution is of no avail; for the very essence of the character consists in this, that the present impression is of more efficacy than any previous resolution. I have heard it said of a celebrated writer, that if he had to get a reprieve from the gallows for himself or a friend (with leave be it spoken), and was to be at a certain place at a given time for this purpose, he would be a quarter of an hour behind-hand. What is to be done in this case? Can you talk or argue a man out of his humour? You might as well attempt to talk or argue him out of a lethargy, or a fever. The disease is in the blood: you may see it (if you are a curious observer) meandering in his veins, and reposing on his eyelids! Some of our foibles are laid in the constitution of our bodies; others in the structure of our minds, and both are irremediable. The vain man, who is full of himself, is never cured of his vanity, but looks for admiration to the last, with a restless, suppliant eye, in the midst of contumely and contempt; the modest man never grows vain from flattery, or unexpected applause, for he sees himself in the diminished scale of other things. He will not "have his nothings monstered." He knows how much he himself wants, how much others have; and till you can alter this convition in him, to make him drunk by infusing some new poison, some celestial ichor into his veins, you cannot make a coxcomb of him. He is too well aware of the truth of what has been said, that "the wisest amongst us is a fool in some things, as the lowest amongst men has some just notions, and therein is as wise as Socrates; so that every man resembles a statue made to stand against a wall, or in a niche; on one side it is Plato, an Apollo, a Demosthenes; on the other, it is rough, unformed piece of stone."4 Some person of my acquaintance, who think themselves teres et rotundus, and armed at all points with perfections, would not be much inclined to give in to this sentiment, the modesty of which is only equaled by its sense and ingenuity. The man of sanguine temperament is seldom weaned from his castles in the air; nor can you, by virtue of any theory, convert the cold careful calculator into a wild enthusiast. A self-tormentor is never satisfied, came what will. He always apprehends the worst, and is indefatigable in conjuring up the apparition of danger. He is uneasy at his own good fortune, as it takes from him his favourite topic of repining and complaint. Let him succeed to his heart's content in all that is reasonable or important, yet if there is any one thing (and that he is sure to find out) in which he does not get on, this embitters all the rest. I know an instance. Perhaps it is myself. Again, a surly man, in spite of warning, neglects his own interest, and will do so, because he has more pleasure in disobliging you than it serving himself. "A friendly man will show himself friendly" to the last; for those who are said to have been spoiled by prosperity were never really good for anything. A good-natured man never loses his native happiness of disposition: good temper is an estate for life; and a man born with common sense rarely turns out a very egregious fool. It is more common to see a fool become wise, that is, set up for wisdom, and be taken at his word by fools. We frequently judge of a man's intellectual pretensions by the number of books he writes; of his eloquence, by the number of speeches he makes; of his capacity for business, by the number of offices he holds. These are not true tests. Many a celebrated author is a known blockhead (between friends); and many a minister of state, whose gravity and self-importance pass with the world for depth for thought and weight of public care, is a laughing-stock to his very servants and dependents.5 The talents of some men, indeed, which might not otherwise have had a field to display themselves, are called out by extraordinary situations, and rise with the occasion; but for all the routine and mechanical preparation, the pomp and parade and big looks of great statesmen, or what is called merely filling office, a very shallow capacity, with a certain immovableness of countenance, is, I should suppose, sufficient, from what I have seen. Such political machines are not so good as the Mock-Duke in the Honeymoon. As to genius and capacity for the works of art and science, all that a man really excels in is his own and incommunicable; what he borrows form others he has in an inferior degree, and it is never what his fame rests on. Sir Joshua observes, that Raphael, in his latter pictures, showed that he had learnt in some measure the colouring of Titian. If he had learnt it quite, the merit would still have been Titian's; but he did not learn it and never would. But his expression (his glory and is excellence) was what he had within himself, first and last; and this it was that seated him on the pinnacle of fame, a pre-eminence that no artist without an equal warrant from nature and genius, will ever deprive him of. With respect to indications of early genius for particular things, I will just mention, that I myself know an instance of a little boy, who could catch the hardest tune, when between two and three years old, without any assistance but hearing them played on a hand-organ in the street; and who followed the exquisite pieces of Mozart, played to him for the first time, as to fall in like an echo at the close. Was this accident, or education, or natural aptitude? I think the last. All the presumptions are for it, and there are none against it.
In fine, do we not see how hard certain early impressions, or prejudices acquired later, are to overcome? Do we not say habit is a second nature? And shall we not allow the force of nature itself? If the real disposition is concealed for a time and tampered with, how readily it breaks out with the first excuse or opportunity! How soon does the drunkard forget his resolution and constrained sobriety, at sight of the foaming tankard and blazing hearth! Does not the passion for gaming, in which there has been an involuntary pause return like a madness all at once? It would be needless to offer instances of so obvious a truth. But if this superinduced nature is not to be got the better of by reason or prudence, who shall pretend to set aside the original one by prescription and management? Thus, if we turn to the characters of women, we find that the shrew, the jilt, the coquette, the wanton, the intriguer, the liar, continue all their lives the same. Meet them after the lapse of a quarter or half a century, and they are still infallibly at their old work. No rebuke for experience, no lessons of misfortune, make the least impression on them. On they go; and, in fact, they can go on in no other way. They try other things, but it will not do. They are like fish out of water, except in the element of their favourite vices. They might as well not be, as cease to be what they are by nature and custom. "Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?" Neither do these wretched persons find any satisfaction or consciousness of their power but in being a plague and torment to themselves and every one else as long as they can. A good sort of woman is a character more rare than any of these, but it is equally durable. Look at the head of Hogarth's Idle Apprentice in the boat, holding up his fingers as horns at Cuckold's Point, and ask what penitentiary, what prison-discipline would change the form of his forehead "villainous low," or the conceptions lurking within it? Nothing:--no mother's fearful warnings, -- nor the formidable precautions of that wiser and more loving mother, his country! That fellow is still to be met with somewhere in our time. Is he a spy, a jack-ketch, or an underling of office? In truth, almost all the characters on Hogarth are of the class of incorrigibles; so that I often wonder what has become of some of them. Have the worst of them been cleared out, like the breed of noxious animals? Or have they been swept away, like locusts, in the whirlwind of the French Revolution? Or has Mr Bentham put them into his Panopticon; from which they have come out, so that nobody knows them, like the chimney-sweeper boy at Sadler's Wells, that was thrown into a cauldron and came out a little dapper volunteer? I will not deny that some of them may, like Chaucer's characters, have been modernized a little; but I think I could re-translate a few of them into the other tongue, the original honest black-letter. We may refine, we may disguise, we may equivocate, we may compound for our vices, without getting rid of them; as we change our liquors, but do not leave off drinking. We may, in this respect, look forward to a decent and moderate, rather than a thorough and radical reform. Or (without going deep into the political question) I conceive we may improve the mechanism, if not the texture of society; that is, we may improve the physical circumstances of individuals and there general relations to the State, through the internal character, like the grain in wood, or the sap in trees that still rises, bend them how you will, may remain nearly the same. The clay that the potter uses may be the same quality, coarse or fine in itself, though he may mould it into vessels of very different shape or beauty. Who shall alter the stamina of national character by any systematic process? Who shall made the French respectable, or the English amiable? Yet the Author6 of The Year 2500 has done it! Suppose public spirit to become the general principle of action in the community-- how would it show itself? Would it not be then become the fashion, like loyalty, and have its apes and parrots, like loyalty? The man of principle would no longer be distinguished from the crowd, the servum pecus imitatorum. There is a cant of democracy as well as of aristocracy; and we have seen both triumphant in our day. The Jacobin of 1794, was the Anti-Jacobin of 1814. The loudest chaunters of the Paens of liberty were the loudest applauders of the restored doctrine of Divine Right. They drifted with the stream, they sailed before the breeze in either case. The politician was changed; the man was the same, the very same! -- But enough of this.
I do not know any moral to be deduced from this view of the subject, but one, namely, that we should mind our own business, cultivate our good qualities, if we have any, and irritate ourselves less about the absurdities of other people, which neither we nor they can help. I grant there is something in which I have said which I might be made to glance towards the doctrine of original sin, grace, election, reprobation, or the Gnostic Principle that acts did not determine the virtue or vice of the character; and in those doctrines, so far as they are deducible from what I have said, I agree -- but always with a salvo.
1 Hazlitt's "On Personal Character" was first published in the London Magazine March, 1821 and can be found reproduced in: The Plain Speaker; (1826) and in Selected Essays as edited by Geoffrey Keynes (London: Nonsuch Press, 1930).
2 ("I know at this time a person of vast estate, who is the immediate descendant of a fine gentleman, but the great-grandson of a broker, in whom his ancestor is now revived. He is a very honest gentleman in his principles, but cannot for his blood talk fairly: he is heartily sorry for it; but he cheats by constitution, and overreaches by instinct."-- See this subject delightfully treated in the 75th Number of the The Plain Speaker, in an account of Mr Bickerstaff's pedigree, on occasion of his sister's marriage.) The original footnote found in Keynes' colllection; I have, in turn, placed them in parentheses.
3 Fideliter didicisse ingenuas artes, Emollit mores, nec sinit esse feros. The same maxim does not establish the purity of morals that infers their mildness.
4 (Richardson's Works, On the Science of a Connoisseur, p. 212.)
5 (The reputation is not the man. Yet all true reputation begins and ends in the opinion of a man' s intimate friends. He is what they think him, and in the last result will be thought so by others. Where there is no solid merit to bear the pressure of personal contact, fame is but a vapour raised by accident or prejudice, and will soon vanish like a vapour or a noisome stench. But he who appears to those about him what he would have the world think him, from whom every one that approaches him in whatever circumstances brings something away to confirm the loud rumour of the popular voice, is alone great in spite of fortune. The malice of friendship, the littleness of curiosity, is as severe a test as the impartiality and enlarged views of history.)