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ARTHUR HELPS.-1817-1875. Sir ARTHUR HELPS was educated at Cambridge (B.A. 1835). After a very short official experience, he retired to his patrimonial estate in Hampshire, and devoted himself industriously to literary pursuits. From 1860 till his death, he was clerk of the Privy Council.
The most noteworthy of his very numerous and thoughtful essays are entitled Friends in Council, a series of Readings and Discourse thereon (1847, -49, and -59). Many of his writings are devoted to the discussion of social questions. The Spanish Conquest in America (1855–61), an expansion of an earlier work, is his great contribution to historical literature; and allied to it are the biographies of Las Casas, 'the Apostle of the Indies' (1868), Columbus and Pizarro (1869), and Hernando Cortes (1871). Helps was less successful with novels and the drama.
CONFORMITY. (A 'Reading' from Friends in Council : 1847.) The conformity of men is often a far poorer thing than that which resembles it amongst the lower animals. The monkey imitates from imitative skill and gamesomeness : the sheep is gregarious, having no sufficient will to form an independent project of its own. But man often loathes what he imitates, and conforms to what he knows
to be wrong.
It will ever be one of the nicest problems for a man to solve, how far he shall profit by the thoughts of other men, and not be enslaved by them. He comes into the world, and finds swaddling-clothes ready for his mind as well as his body. There is a vast scheme of social machinery set up about him ; and he has to discern how he can make it work with him and for him, without becoming part of the machinery himself. In this lie the anguish and the struggle of the greatest minds. Most sad are they, having mostly the deepest sympathies, when they find themselves breaking off from communion with other minds. They would go on, if they could, with the
opinions around them. But, happily, there is something to which a man owes a larger allegiance than to any human affection. He would be content to go away
from a false thing, or quietly to protest against it; but in spite of him the strife in his heart breaks into burning utterance by word or deed.
Few, however, are those who venture, even for the shortest time, into that hazy world of independent thought, where a man is not upheld by a crowd of other men's opinions, but where he must find a footing of his
Among the mass of men, there is little or no resistance to conformity. Could the history of opinions be fully written, it would be seen how large a part in human proceedings the love of conformity, or rather the fear of nonconformity, has occasioned. It has triumphed over all other fears ; over love, hate, pity, sloth, anger, truth, pride, comfort, self-interest, vanity, and maternal love. It has torn down the sense of beauty in the human soul, and set up in its place little ugly idols which it compels us to worship with more than Japanese devotion. It has contradicted nature in the most obvious things, and been listened to with abject submission. Its empire has been no less extensive than deep-seated. The serf to custom points his finger at the slave to fashionas if it signified whether it is an old, or a new, thing which is irrationally conformed to. The man of letters despises both the slaves of fashion and of custom, but often runs his narrow career of thought, shut up, though he sees it not, within close walls, which he does not venture even to peep over.
It is hard to say in what department of human thought and endeavour conformity has triumphed most. Religion comes to one's mind first; and well it may, when one thinks what men have conformed to in all ages in that matter. If we pass to art, or science, we shall see there too the wondrous slavery which men have endured_from puny fetters moreover, which one stirring thought would, as we think, have burst asunder. The above, however, are matters not within every one's cognisance; some of them are shut in by learning or the show of it; and plain 'practical' men would say they follow where they have no business but to follow. But the way in which the human body shall be covered is not a thing for the scientific and the learned only; and is allowed on all hands to concern, in no small degree, one half at least of the creation. It is in such a simple thing as dress that each of us may form some estimate of the extent of conformity in the world. A wise nation, unsubdued by superstition, with the collected experience of peaceful ages, concludes that female feet are to be clothed by crushing them. The still wiser nations of the west have adopted a swifter mode of destroying health, and creating angularity, by crushing the upper part of the female body. In such matters nearly all people conform. Our brother man is seldom so bitter against us, as when we refuse to adopt at once his notions of the infinite. But even religious dissent, were less dangerous and more respectable than dissent in dress. If you want to see what men will do in the way of conformity, take an European hat for your subject of meditation. I dare say there are twenty-two millions of people at this minute, each wearing one of these hats in order to please the rest. As in the fine arts, and in architecture especially, so in dress, something is often retained that was useful when something else was beside it. To go to architecture for an instance, a pinnacle is retained, not that it is of any use where it is, but in another kind of building it would have been. That style of building, as a whole, has gone out of fashion, but the pinnacle has somehow or other kept its ground and must be there, no one insolently
going back to first principles and asking what is the use and object of building pinnacles. Similar instances in dress will occur to my readers. Some of us
are not skilled in such affairs; but looking at old pictures we may sometimes see how modern clothes have attained their present pitch of frightfulness and inconvenience. This matter of dress is one in which, perhaps, you might expect the wise to conform to the foolish : and they have.
When we have once come to a right estimate of the strength of conformity, we shall, I think, be more kindly disposed to eccentricity than we usually are. Even a wilful or an absurd eccentricity is some support against the weighty commonplace conformity of the world. If it were not for some singular people who persist in thinking for themselves, in seeing for themselves, and in being comfortable, we should all collapse into a hideous uniformity.
It is worth while to analyse that influence of the world which is the right arm of conformity. Some persons bend to the world in all things, from an innocent belief that what so many people think must be right. Others have a vague fear of the world as of some wild beast which
may spring out upon them at any time. Tell them they are safe in their houses from this myriad-eyed creature; they still are sure that they shall meet with it some day, and would propitiate its favour at any sacrifice. Many men contract their idea of the world to their own circle, and what they imagine to be said in that circle of friends and acquaintances is their idea of public opinion
- as if,' to use a saying of Southey's, "a number of worldlings made a world.' With some unfortunate people, the much-dreaded 'world' shrinks into one person of more mental power than their own, or perhaps merely of coarser nature : and the fancy as to what this person will say about anything they do, sits upon them like a nightmare. Happy the man who can embark his small adventure of deeds and thoughts upon the shallow waters round his home, or send them afloat on the wide sea of humanity, with no great anxiety in either case as to what reception they may meet with! He would have them steer by the stars, and take what wind may come to them.
A reasonable watchfulness against conformity will not · lead a man to spurn the aid of other men, still less to reject the accumulated mental capital of ages. It does not compel us to dote upon the advantages of savage life. We would not forego the hard-earned gains of civil society because there is something in most of them which tends to contract the natural powers, although it vastly aids them. We would not, for instance, return to the monosyllabic utterance of barbarous men, because in any formed language there are a thousand snares for the understanding. Yet we must be most watchful of them. And in all things, a man must beware of so conforming himself as to crush his nature and forego the purpose of his being. We must look to other standards than what men may say or think. We must not abjectly bow down before rules and usages; but must refer to principles and purposes. In few words, we must think, not whom we are following, but what we are doing. If not, why are we gifted with individual life at all ? Uniformity does not consist with the higher forms of vitality. Even the leaves of the same tree are said to differ, each one from all the rest. And can it be good for the soul of a man with a biography of its own like to no one else's,' to subject itself without thought to the opinions and ways of others : not to grow into symmetry, but to be moulded down into conformity?