Distribution Automatique

Friday, July 25

From "The Notebooks of Samuel Butler" (1835-1902)


"The greatest poets never write poetry. The Homers and Shakespeare are not the greatest- they are only the greatest that we can know. And so with Handel among musicians. For the highest poetry, whether in music or literature, is ineffable -it must be felt from one person to another. It cannot be articulated."


"Man is a substance, he knows not what, feeling, he knows not how, a rest and unrest that he can only in part distinguish. He is a substance feeling equilibrium or want of equilibrium; that is to say, he is a substance in a statical or dynamical condition and feeling the passage from one state to another.

Feeling is an art and, like any other art, can be acquired by taking pains. The analogy between feelings and words is very close. Both have their foundation in volition and deal largely in convention; as we should not be word-ridden so neither should we be feeling-ridden; feelings can deceive us; they can lie; they can be used in a non-natural, artificial sense; they can be forced; they can carry us away; they can be restrained.

When the surroundings are familiar, we know the right feeling and feel it accordingly, or if "we" (that is the central government of our personality) do not feel it, the subordinate departmental personality, whose business it is, feels it in the usual way and then goes on to something else. When the surroundings are less familiar and the departmental personality cannot deal with them, the position is reported through the central nervous systemt to the central government which is frequently at a loss to know what feeling to apply. Sometimes it happens to discern the right feeling and apply it, sometimes it hits on an inappripriate one and is thus reduced to solicism till the consequences lead to a crisis from which we recover and which, then becoming a leading case, forms one of the decisions on which our future action is based. Sometimes it applies to a feeling that is too inappropriate, as when the position is too horribly novel for us to have had any experience that can guide the central government in knowing how to feel about it, and this results in a cessation of the effort involved in trying to feel. Hence we may hope that the most horrible apparent suffering is not felt beyond a certain point, but is passed though unconsciously under a natural, automatic anaesthetic - the unconsciousness, in extreme cases, leading to death.

It is generally held that animals feel; it will soon be generally held that plants feel; and after that it will be held that stones also can feel. For, as no matter is so organic that there is not some of the organic in it, so, also, no matter is so inorganic that there is not some of the organic in it. We know that we have nerves and that we feel, it does not follow that other things do not feel because they have no nerves -it only follows that they do not feel as we do. The difference between the organic and the inorganic kingdoms will someday be seen to lie in the greater power of discriminating its feelings which is possessed by the former. Both are made of the same universal substance, but in the case of the organic world, this substance is able to feel more fully and discreetly and to show us that it feels.

Animals and plants, as they advance in the scale of life, differentiate their feelings more and more highly; they record them better and recognize them more readily. They get to know what they are doing and feeling, not step by step only, nor sentence by sentence, but in long flights, forming chapters and whole books of action and sensation. The difference as regard feeling between man and the lower animals is one of degree and not of kind. The inorganic is less expert in differentiating its feelings, therefore its memory of them must be less enduring; it cannot re-cognize what it can scarcely cognize. One might as well for some purposes, perhaps, say at once, as indeed people generally do for most purposes, that the inorganic does not feel; nevertheless the somewhat periphrastic way of putting it, saying that the inorganic feels but does not know, or knows only very slightly, how to differentiate its feelings, has the advantage of expressing the fact that feeling depends upon differentiation and sense of relation- inter se- of the things differentiated- a fact which, if never expressed, is apt tø be lost sight of.

As, therefore, human discrimination is to that of the lower animals, so the discrimination of the lower animals and plants is to that of inorganic things. In each case it is greater discriminating power (and this is mental power) that underlies the differentiation, but in no case can there be a denial of mental power altogther.