"Are Mental Talents Productive of Happiness" (1797)

"Are Mental Talents Productive of Happiness."  Monthly Magazine 3 (May 1797) 358-60.1


          Whether talents, or superior powers and cultivation of mind, have a tendency to produce the happiness of the individual, appears to e questionable, and affords an enquiry both curious and important. I do not feel in myself a capacity for the proper investigation of this subject; but you will perhaps, sir, allow me, through the medium of your valuable Miscellany, to offer a few observations which have occurred to me respecting it; and to invite, from a correspondent more able and ingenious, a farther examination of this interesting question.

         A variety of arguments, on the first view, forcibly strike the mind in support of the affirmative of the position, that talents, or intellectual endowments, have a direct tendency towards increasing the sum of human (or rather of individual) happiness. Virtue, it has been affirmed, is but a calculation of consequences, or a choice of the best means to attain a certain end, the ultimate benefit, or greater sum of enjoyment, suited to the perceptions and faculties of a rational and sensitive being. Virtue, therefore, is said, by moralists, to be our true interest: and, from this proposition, it seems to follow, as a corollary, that knowledge, or enlargement of mind, has an uniform and necessary connection with virtue, and if with virtue, with happiness; or, that the most wise, the most virtuous, the most happy, would be almost synonymous terms. We know nothing of causes, but from their effects; is, therefore, this conclusion warranted byfact and experience? Strong mental powers appear to be connected with acute and lively sensation, or the capacity of receiving forcible impressions. (I will not, at present, enquire whether exquisite organs are the cause, or the result of moral susceptibility.) Hence it is to be suspected, that strong minds are frequently enslaved by their passions, the distinction between sense and reason is perhaps merely verbal, everything seems to resolve itself into the former. Why is adversity thought to be the school of improvement? Why is it said, “Enquire after the sufferings of great men, and you will know why they are great*:” “The rock must be convulsed ere it will produce the diamond;” because talents are invariably called forth equal to the spur of the occasion. Misfortune and difficulty put the mind upon collecting its powers; the disappointment or the calamity which does not overwhelm and stupefy, stimulates, awakens the stronger passions, sets the mind in motion, rouses those energies which, in the lap of indolence, had never existed. Happiness, which implies a certain degree of tranquility, and talents, upon this hypothesis, appear tobe whollyincompatible; yet, admitting this statement, the truly great mind, it may be alleged, is that which, through the struggle of the passions, has, at length, acquired stable principles, and like the traveller, on the summit of the highest Andes, views, under a serene sky, the clouds of storms from which he has escaped, break harmlessly beneath his feet. Supposing that habits of inquietude and effervescence may be wholly and effectually subdued; and that the necessity for watchfulness, which implies arduous conflict, inconsistent with tranquil enjoyment, is superceded; that the mind, accustomed to vivid emotion, is neither exhausted by this stimulus, nor incapacitated from returning to a peaceful and temperate state – at what period of life is this desirable situation likely to be acquired? May not the victory cost us too dear? May not our race be nearly finished, ere it be achieved? Is a wise and tranquil old age worth the purchase of a youth of suffering, and a manhood of warfare? If this be the only method of generating talents, who would wish to purchase them, at a rate so expensive? But may not the mind be roused by means less violent and obnoxious? May not curiosity be awakened, emulation produced, the love of distinction fostered, by gentler methods? If talents are called forth equal to the spur of the occasion (and this appears to be an incontrovertible truth, founded upon the history and experience of all nations and ages) I own, I can conceive of none equally efficacious. In proportion to the force of the impression (which neither overwhelms nor stupefies) will be the vigour of the motive and the consequent exertion; an exact mechanical ratio must be preserved between them. Our attention is never so effectually secured as by a lively interest, and that interest will be the most lively, will suggest expedients the most acute and various, that concerns and touches us most nearly. Upon this view, we may say of the man of talents, [359] 

“Heav’n does with him as we with torches do,

“Not light them for themselves, but others.”


The page of history, the eloquent complaints of sages, philosophers, and poets, seem to confirm this notion. “The innate melancholy of genius,” is almost proverbial.

         Yet plausible as this reasoning may appear, it is still inconclusive. The pleasures of intellect, which constitute a vast sum, should be balanced against its pains. Cultivation of mind tends to give dignity and independence of character. Talents are connected with power, which all human beings pant after; they flatter the noblest ambition, and govern the world with uncontrollable sway. The mere pleasures of sense(to use the term in an appropriate signification) are necessarily transient, and liable to degenerate into satiety and disgust; unless taken moderately, and at distant intervals, they quickly exhaust by their intensity, and pall by their repetition. Their intemperate indulgence has a tendency to cloud the faculties, to blunt the sensibility, and to brutalize the being. The enjoyments of intellect are incalculably more varied, more constant, more in the power of the individual, and less dependent upon local circumstances and external events. How short is the existence of the man of sense, if measured by consciousness, compared with that of the intellectual man! The former stupidly dozes between, or languidly endures, the intervals of his gratifications; he either dissipates himself with an absent and vacant mind, or drudges through the day, in a dull mechanical round of spiritless occupation. The latter finds materials for reflection and comparison in every object, in every incident; nothing, to him, is barren of improvement or entertainment, nothing absolutely indifferent. If he mixes in society, he perceives in every character, he draws from every conversation, subjects for future meditation: in solitude, he converses, in his library, with the heroes, the legislators, the wits, and the sages, of all countries, and of all periods: he expatiates in a boundless field of knowledge, or he resigns himself to he grand and enchanting reveries of the imagination. His life is protracted by a consciousness to every moment, he lives in a thousand ideal scenes and transactions, he conjures up by his fancy, or with his pen, as by the power of magic, new worlds, new beings, new combinations, as it were a new creation, which, a moment before, seemed to have no existence. Even his sorrows and disappointments have in them I know not what of dignity ad amelioration; he is conscious of his own powers, he feels his own worth, and he contemns the injustice of mankind; he becomes stubborn under oppression, he grows haughty in distress, he wraps himself in the mantle of integrity, or consoles himself with the consciousness of merit. If his heart is pierced with anguish for friends estranged, or affections unrequited, a mournful magic mixes with his grief, he values himself on his capacity for emotions, which, while they rend, soften and humanize his spirit. Even the conviction of error, while it humbles, exalts him; he chooses to be wise by his own experience, he feels that his reason is unfolded by the struggle of his passions, and he is satisfied to taste the fruit of knowledge, though by overleaping the boundaries of content.

          But should the preceding picture, imperfectly sketched, be acknowledged ideal; should it be granted, that the pains of intellect have hitherto, in many, or in most, instances, overbalanced the pleasures; may not this have arisen from the peculiar and disordered states of society, rather than from the natural tendency of cultivation and refinement? A commercial country, the sole moving spring of which is pecuniary interest, must necessarily be unfavourable to those who, intent on mental improvement, require for their pursuit abstraction and leisure, by involving them in external difficulties. Honour, fame, and the pleasure which is found in the pursuit, rather than pecuniary gain, are supposed to constitute the recompence of literary eminence. Aristocratical and feudal institutions, also, by factitious privileges and artificial distinctions, deprive merit of its encouragement and talents of their just and natural reward. Talents, therefore, to adopt the commercial style, are not free to find their level. Monarchical and despotic governments, by their splendor, their allurements, and their terrors, have a tendency to debauch the taste, corrupt the heart, and fetter the mind, and afford a temptation to the prostitution of talents. These appear to be among the difficulties, the nature of which is to suppress, pervert, or impede, rather than to awaken and stimulate, the intellectual powers. Whether republics may be less inimical to the production, the encouragement, and the reward of mental excellence, has not [360] yet, perhaps, been sufficiently ascertained by experiment.

          To conclude, talents however generated, appear to be simply the power, which proves beneficial or mischievous, as it is applied or directed. Like other strong powers of nature, external constraintseems to have upon them the most dangerous and fatal operation; when pent up and oppressed, the whirlwind and the torrent are not more wild and destructive; they struggle to burst their bounds, and 

               “Sweep all before them, with impetuous sway.”

          The preceding desultory remarks are merely intended as an invitation to the ingenious and the candid to consider the subject more accurately; every attempt, however impotent, to investigate or elucidate the nature and history of mind, is laudable, and has a claim to indulgence; the desire of simplifying its operations, tracing their principles, and reducing them to general laws, it has been justly observed by an eloquent philosophic writer, in one of the grandest efforts of human reason.

April 29, 1797.                                                         M. H.



*Lavater’s Aphorisms.


1 Hays's first antagonist of sorts in the Monthly Magazine (J. T.) had responded one final time to her opinions on Helvetius in the previous issue (April 1797, 265), but this letter appears to begin a new thread of discussion, though the topic was still tied to her comments on Helvetius.