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flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth.”
The foundation of this sentiment is obvious. Men do not live for ever. The longest duration of human existence has an end : and whatever it is of which that may be affirmed, may in some sense be pronounced to be short. The estimation of our existence depends upon the point of view from which we behold it. Hope is one of our greatest enjoyments. Possession is something. But the past is as nothing. Remorse may give it a certain solidity; the recollection of a life spent in acts of virtue may be refreshing. But fruition, and honours, and fame, and even pain, and privations, and torment, when they are departed, are but like a feather; we regard them as of no account. Taken in this sense, Dryden's celebrated verses are but a maniac's rant :
To-morrow, do thy worst, for I have lived to-day :
Be fair, or foul, or rain, or shine,
But this way of removing the picture of human life to a certain distance from us, and considering those things which were once in a high degree interesting as frivolous and unworthy of regard, is not the way by which we shall arrive at a true and just estimation of life. Whatever is now past, and is of little value, was once present: and he who would form a sound judgment, must look upon every part of our lives as present in its turn, and not suffer his opinion to be warped by the consideration of the nearness or remoteness of the object he contemplates.
One sentence, which has grown into a maxim for ever repeated, is remarkable for the grossest fallacy : Ars longa, vita brevis). I would fain know, what art, compared with the natural duration of human life from puberty to old age, is long.
If it is intended to say, that no one man can be expected to master all possible arts, or all arts that have at one time or another been the subject of human industry, this indeed is true. But the cause of this does not lie in the limited duration of human life, but in the nature of the faculties of the mind. Human understanding and human industry cannot embrace every thing. When we take hold of one thing, we must let go another. Science and art, if we would pursue them to the furthest extent of which we are capable, must be pursued without interruption. It would therefore be more to the purpose to say, Man cannot be for ever young. In the stream of human existence, different things have their appropriate period. The knowledge of languages can perhaps be most effectually acquired in the season of nonage. At riper years one man devotes himself to one science or art, and another man to another. This man is a mathematician; a
Art is long; life is short.
second studies music; a third painting. This man is a logician; and that man an orator. The same person cannot be expected to excel in the abstruseness of metaphysical science, and in the ravishing effusions of poetical genius. When a man, who has arrived at great excellence in one department of art or science, would engage himself in another, he will be apt to find the freshness of his mind gone, and his faculties no longer distinguished by the same degree of tenacity and vigour that they formerly displayed. It is with the organs of the brain, as it is with the organs of speech, in the latter of which we find the tender fibres of the child easily accommodating themselves to the minuter inflections and variations of sound, which the more rigid muscles of the adult will for the most part attempt in vain.
If again, by the maxim, Ars longa, vita brevis, it is intended to signify, that we cannot in any art arrive at perfection ; that in reality all the progress we can make is insignificant; and that, as St. Paul says, we must “not count ourselves to have already attained; but that, forgetting the things that are behind, it becomes us to press forward to the prize of our calling,"—this also is true. But this is only ascribable to the limitation of our faculties, and that even the shadow of perfection which man is capable to reach, can only be attained by the labour of successive generations. The cause does not lie in the shortness of human life, unless we would in
clude in its protracted duration the privilege of being for ever young; to which we ought perhaps to add, that our activity should never be exhausted, the freshness of our minds never abate, and our faculties for ever retain the same degree of tenacity and vigour, as they had in the morning of life, when every thing was new, when all that allured or delighted us was seen accompanied with charms inexpressible, and, as Dryden expresses it', “the first sprightly running” of the wine of life afforded a zest never after to be hoped for.
I return then to the consideration of the alleged shortness of life. I mentioned in the beginning of this Essay, that “human life consists of
years, months and days; each day containing twenty-four hours.” But, when I said this, I by no means carried on the division so far as it might be carried. It has been calculated that the human mind is capable of being impressed with three hundred and twenty sensations in a second of timed.
“ How infinitely rapid is the succession of thought! While I am speaking, perhaps no two ideas are in my mind at the same time, and yet with what facility do I slide from one to another! If
my discourse be argumentative, how often do I pass in review the topics of which it consists, before I utter them; and, even while I am speaking, continue the review at intervals, without producing any pause in my discourse! How many other sensa• Aurengzebe.
See Watson on Time, Chapter II.
tions are experienced by me during this period, without so much as interrupting, that is, without materially diverting, the train of my ideas ! My eye successively remarks a thousand objects that present themselves. My mind wanders to the different parts of my body, and receives a sensation from the chair on which I sit, or the table on which I lean. It reverts to a variety of things that occurred in the course of the morning, in the course of yesterday, the most remote from, the most unconnected with, the subject that might seem wholly to engross me. I see the window, the opening of a door, the snuffing of a candle. When these most perceptibly occur, my mind passes from one to the other, without feeling the minutest obstacle, or being in any degree distracted by their multiplicitye.”
If this statement should appear to some persons too subtle, it may however prepare us to form a due estimate of the following remarks.
“ Art is long." No, certainly, no art is long, compared with the natural duration of human life from puberty to old age. There is perhaps no art that may not with reasonable diligence be acquired in three years, that is, as to its essential members and its skilful exercise. We may improve afterwards, but it will be only in minute particulars, and only by fits.
Our subsequent advancement less depends upon the continuance of our application, than upon the improvement of the mind generally,
• Political Justice, Book IV, Chapter ix.