On Personal Identity

by William Hazlitt

'Ha! here's three of us are sophisticated.'

'If I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes!' said the Macedonian hero; and the cynic might have retorted the compliment upon the prince by saying, that, 'were he not Diogenes, he would be Alexander!' This is the universal exception, the invariable reservation that our self-love makes, the utmost point at which our admiration or envy ever arrives—to wish, if we were not ourselves, to be some other individual. No one ever wishes to be another, instead of himself. We may feel a desire to change places with others—to have one man's fortune—another's health or strength—his wit or learning, or accomplishments of various kinds—

'Wishing to be like one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope';

but we would still be ourselves, to possess and enjoy all these, or we would not give a doit for them. But, on this supposition, what in truth should we be the better for them? It is not we, but another, that would reap the benefit; and what do we care about that other? In that case, the present owner might as well continue to enjoy them. We should not be gainers by the change. If the meanest beggar who crouches at a palace gate, and looks up with awe and suppliant fear to the proud inmate as he passes, could be put in possession of all the finery, the pomp, the luxury, and wealth that he sees and envies, on the sole condition of getting rid, together with his rags and misery, of all recollection that there ever was such a wretch as himself, he would reject the proffered boon with scorn. He might be glad to change situations; but he would insist on keeping his own thoughts, to compare notes, and point the transition by the force of contrast. He would not, on any account, forego his self-congratulation on the unexpected accession of good fortune, and his escape from past suffering. All that excites his cupidity, his envy, his repining or despair, is the alternative of some great good to himself; and if, in order to attain that object, he is to part with his own existence to take that of another, he can feel no farther interest in it. This is the language both of passion and reason.

Here lies 'the rub that makes calamity of so long life': for it is not barely the apprehension of the ills that 'in that sleep of death may come,' but also our ignorance and indifference to the promised good, that produces our repugnance and backwardness to quit the present scene. No man, if he had his choice, would be the angel Gabriel to-morrow! What is the angel Gabriel to him but a splendid vision? He might as well have an ambition to be turned into a bright cloud, or a particular star. The interpretation of which is, he can have no sympathy with the angel Gabriel. Before he can be transformed into so bright and ethereal an essence, he must necessarily 'put off this mortal coil'—be divested of all his old habits, passions, thoughts, and feelings—to be endowed with other attributes, lofty and beatific, of which he has no notion; and, therefore, he would rather remain a little longer in this mansion of clay, which, with all its flaws, inconveniences, and perplexities, contains all that he has any real knowledge of, or any affection for. When, indeed, he is about to quit it in spite of himself and has no other chance left to escape the darkness of the tomb he may then have no objection (making a virtue of necessity) to put on angel's wings, to have radiant locks, to wear a wreath of amaranth, and thus to masquerade it in the skies.

It is an instance of the truthful beauty of the ancient mythology, that the various transmutations it recounts are never voluntary, or of favourable omen, but are interposed as a timely release to those who, driven on by fate, and urged to the last extremity of fear or anguish, are turned into a flower, a plant, an animal, a star, a precious stone, or into some object that may inspire pity or mitigate our regret for their misfortunes. Narcissus was transformed into a flower; Daphne into a laurel; Arethusa into a fountain (by the favour of the gods)—but not till no other remedy was left for their despair. It is a sort of smiling cheat upon death, and graceful compromise with annihilation. It is better to exist by proxy, in some softened type and soothing allegory, than not at all—to breathe in a flower or shine in a constellation, than to be utterly forgot; but no one would change his natural condition (if he could help it) for that of a bird, an insect, a beast, or a fish, however delightful their mode of existence, or however enviable he might deem their lot compared to his own. Their thoughts are not our thoughts—their happiness is not our happiness; nor can we enter into it, except with a passing smile of approbation, or as a refinement of fancy. As the poet sings:

'What more felicity can fall to creature
Than to enjoy delight with liberty,
And to be lord of all the works of nature?
To reign in the air from earth to highest sky;
To feed on flowers and weeds of glorious feature;
To taste whatever thing doth please the eye?—
Who rests not pleased with such happiness,
Well worthy he to taste of wretchedness!'

This is gorgeous description and fine declamation: yet who would be found to act upon it, even in the forming of a wish; or would not rather be the thrall of wretchedness, than launch out (by the aid of some magic spell) into all the delights of such a butterfly state of existence? The French (if any people can) may be said to enjoy this airy, heedless gaiety and unalloyed exuberance of satisfaction: yet what Englishman would deliberately change with them? We would sooner be miserable after our own fashion than happy after theirs. It is not happiness, then, in the abstract, which we seek, that can be addressed as

'That something still that prompts th' eternal sigh,
For which we wish to live or dare to die,'

but a happiness suited to our tastes and faculties—that has become a part of ourselves, by habit and enjoyment—that is endeared to us by a thousand recollections, privations, and sufferings. No one, then, would willingly change his country or his kind for the most plausible pretences held out to him. The most humiliating punishment inflicted in ancient fable is the change of sex: not that it was any degradation in itself—but that it must occasion a total derangement of the moral economy and confusion of the sense of personal propriety. The thing is said to have happened au sens contraire, in our time. The story is to be met with in 'very choice Italian'; and Lord D—— tells it in very plain English!

We may often find ourselves envying the possessions of others, and sometimes inadvertently indulging a wish to change places with them altogether; but our self-love soon discovers some excuse to be off the bargain we were ready to strike, and retracts 'vows made in haste, as violent and void.' We might make up our minds to the alteration in every other particular; but, when it comes to the point, there is sure to be some trait or feature of character in the object of our admiration to which we cannot reconcile ourselves—some favourite quality or darling foible of our own, with which we can by no means resolve to part. The more enviable the situation of another, the more entirely to our taste, the more reluctant we are to leave any part of ourselves behind that would be so fully capable of appreciating all the exquisiteness of its new situation, or not to enter into the possession of such an imaginary reversion of good fortune with all our previous inclinations and sentiments. The outward circumstances were fine: they only wanted a soul to enjoy them, and that soul is ours (as the costly ring wants the peerless jewel to perfect and set it off). The humble prayer and petition to sneak into visionary felicity by personal adoption, or the surrender of our own personal pretentions, always ends in a daring project of usurpation, and a determination to expel the actual proprietor, and supply his place so much more worthily with our own identity—not bating a single jot of it. Thus, in passing through a fine collection of pictures, who has not envied the privilege of visiting it every day, and wished to be the owner? But the rising sigh is soon checked, and 'the native hue of emulation is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,' when we come to ask ourselves, not merely whether the owner has any taste at all for these splendid works, and does not look upon them as so much expensive furniture, like his chairs and tables—but whether he has the same precise (and only true) taste that we have—whether he has the very same favourites that we have—whether he may not be so blind as to prefer a Vandyke to a Titian, a Ruysdael to a Claude; nay, whether he may not have other pursuits and avocations that draw off his attention from the sole objects of our idolatry, and which seem to us mere impertinences and waste of time? In that case, we at once lose all patience, and exclaim indignantly, 'Give us back our taste, and keep your pictures!' It is not we who should envy them the possession of the treasure, but they who should envy us the true and exclusive enjoyment of it. A similar train of feeling seems to have dictated Warton's spirited Sonnet on visiting Wilton House:

'From Pembroke's princely dome, where mimic art
Decks with a magic hand the dazzling bowers,
Its living hues where the warm pencil pours,
And breathing forms from the rude marble start,
How to life's humbler scene can I depart?
My breast all glowing from those gorgeous towers,
In my low cell how cheat the sullen hours?
Vain the complaint! For fancy can impart
(To fate superior and to fortune's power)
Whate'er adorns the stately storied-hall:
She, 'mid the dungeon's solitary gloom,
Can dress the Graces in their attic-pall;
Did the green landscape's vernal beauty bloom;
And in bright trophies clothe the twilight wall.'

One sometimes passes by a gentleman's park, an old family-seat, with its moss-grown, ruinous paling, its 'glades mild-opening to the genial day,' or embrowned with forest-trees. Here one would be glad to spend one's life, 'shut up in measureless content,' and to grow old beneath ancestral oaks, instead of gaining a precarious, irksome, and despised livelihood, by indulging romantic sentiments, and writing disjointed descriptions of them. The thought has scarcely risen to the lips, when we learn that the owner of so blissful a seclusion is a thoroughbred fox-hunter, a preserver of the game, a brawling electioneerer, a Tory member of parliament, a 'No-Popery' man!—'I'd sooner be a dog, and bay the moon!' Who would be Sir Thomas Lethbridge for his title and estate? asks one man. But would not almost any one wish to be Sir Francis Burdett, the man of the people, the idol of the electors of Westminster? says another. I can only answer for myself. Respectable and honest as he is, there is something in his white boots, and white breeches, and white coat, and white hair, and white hat, and red face, that I cannot, by any effort of candour, confound my personal identity with! If Mr. —— can prevail on Sir Francis to exchange, let him do so by all means. Perhaps they might contrive to club a soul between them! Could I have had my will, I should have been born a lord: but one would not be a booby lord neither. I am haunted by an odd fancy of driving down the Great North Road in a chaise and four, about fifty years ago, and coming to the inn at Ferry-bridge with outriders, white favours, and a coronet on the panels; and then, too, I choose my companion in the coach. Really there is a witchcraft in all this that makes it necessary to turn away from it, lest, in the conflict between imagination and impossibility, I should grow feverish and light-headed! But, on the other hand, if one was a born lord, should one have the same idea (that every one else has) of a peeress in her own right? Is not distance, giddy elevation, mysterious awe, an impassable gulf, necessary to form this idea in the mind, that fine ligament of 'ethereal braid, sky-woven,' that lets down heaven upon earth, fair as enchantment, soft as Berenice's hair, bright and garlanded like Ariadne's crown; and is it not better to have had this idea all through life—to have caught but glimpses of it, to have known it but in a dream—than to have been born a lord ten times over, with twenty pampered menials at one's beck, and twenty descents to boast of? It is the envy of certain privileges, the sharp privations we have undergone, the cutting neglect we have met with from the want of birth or title that gives its zest to the distinction: the thing itself may be indifferent or contemptible enough. It is the becoming a lord that is to be desired; but he who becomes a lord in reality may be an upstart—a mere pretender, without the sterling essence; so that all that is of any worth in this supposed transition is purely imaginary and impossible. Kings are so accustomed to look down on all the rest of the world, that they consider the condition of mortality as vile and intolerable, if stripped of royal state, and cry out in the bitterness of their despair, 'Give me a crown, or a tomb!' It should seem from this as if all mankind would change with the first crowned head that could propose the alternative, or that it would be only the presumption of the supposition, or a sense of their own unworthiness, that would deter them. Perhaps there is not a single throne that, if it was to be filled by this sort of voluntary metempsychosis, would not remain empty. Many would, no doubt, be glad to 'monarchise, be feared, and kill with looks' in their own persons and after their own fashion: but who would be the double of those shadows of a shade—those 'tenth transmitters of a foolish face'—Charles X. and Ferdinand VII.? If monarchs have little sympathy with mankind, mankind have even less with monarchs. They are merely to us a sort of state-puppets, or royal wax-work, which we may gaze at with superstitious wonder, but have no wish to become; and he who should meditate such a change must not only feel by anticipation an utter contempt for the slough of humanity which he is prepared to cast, but must feel an absolute void and want of attraction in those lofty and incomprehensible sentiments which are to supply its place. With respect to actual royalty, the spell is in a great measure broken. But, among ancient monarchs, there is no one, I think, who envies Darius or Xerxes. One has a different feeling with respect to Alexander or Pyrrhus; but this is because they were great men as well as great kings, and the soul is up in arms at the mention of their names as at the sound of a trumpet. But as to all the rest—those 'in the catalogue who go for kings'—the praying, eating, drinking, dressing monarchs of the earth, in time past or present—one would as soon think of wishing to personate the Golden Calf, or to turn out with Nebuchadnezzar to graze, as to be transformed into one of that 'swinish multitude.' There is no point of affinity. The extrinsic circumstances are imposing; but, within, there is nothing but morbid humours and proud flesh! Some persons might vote for Charlemagne; and there are others who would have no objection to be the modern Charlemagne, with all he inflicted and suffered, even after the necromantic field of Waterloo, and the bloody wreath on the vacant brow of the conqueror, and that fell jailer, set over him by a craven foe, that 'glared round his soul, and mocked his closing eyelids!'

It has been remarked, that could we at pleasure change our situation in life, more persons would be found anxious to descend than to ascend in the scale of society. One reason may be, that we have it more in our power to do so; and this encourages the thought, and makes it familiar to us. A second is, that we naturally wish to throw off the cares of state, of fortune or business, that oppress us, and to seek repose before we find it in the grave. A third reason is, that, as we descend to common life, the pleasures are simple, natural, such as all can enter into, and therefore excite a general interest, and combine all suffrages. Of the different occupations of life, none is beheld with a more pleasing emotion, or less aversion to a change for our own, than that of a shepherd tending his flock: the pastoral ages have been the envy and the theme of all succeeding ones; and a beggar with his crutch is more closely allied than the monarch and his crown to the associations of mirth and heart's-ease. On the other hand, it must be admitted that our pride is too apt to prefer grandeur to happiness; and that our passions make us envy great vices oftener than great virtues.

The world show their sense in nothing more than in a distrust and aversion to those changes of situation which only tend to make the successful candidates ridiculous, and which do not carry along with them a mind adequate to the circumstances. The common people, in this respect, are more shrewd and judicious than their superiors, from feeling their own awkwardness and incapacity, and often decline, with an instinctive modesty, the troublesome honours intended for them. They do not overlook their original defects so readily as others overlook their acquired advantages. It is not wonderful, therefore, that opera-singers and dancers refuse or only condescend as it were, to accept lords, though the latter are too often fascinated by them. The fair performer knows (better than her unsuspecting admirer) how little connection there is between the dazzling figure she makes on the stage and that which she may make in private life, and is in no hurry to convert 'the drawing-room into a Green-room.' The nobleman (supposing him not to be very wise) is astonished at the miraculous powers of art in

'The fair, the chaste, the inexpressive she';

and thinks such a paragon must easily conform to the routine of manners and society which every trifling woman of quality of his acquaintance, from sixteen to sixty, goes through without effort. This is a hasty or a wilful conclusion. Things of habit only come by habit, and inspiration here avails nothing. A man of fortune who marries an actress for her fine performance of tragedy, has been well compared to the person who bought Punch. The lady is not unfrequently aware of the inconsequentiality, and unwilling to be put on the shelf, and hid in the nursery of some musty country mansion. Servant girls, of any sense and spirit, treat their masters (who make serious love to them) with suitable contempt. What is it but a proposal to drag an unmeaning trollop at his heels through life, to her own annoyance and the ridicule of all his friends? No woman, I suspect, ever forgave a man who raised her from a low condition in life (it is a perpetual obligation and reproach); though I believe, men often feel the most disinterested regard for women under such circumstances. Sancho Panza discovered no less folly in his eagerness to enter upon his new government, than wisdom in quitting it as fast as possible. Why will Mr. Cobbett persist in getting into Parliament? He would find himself no longer the same man. What member of Parliament, I should like to know, could write his Register? As a popular partisan, he may (for aught I can say) be a match for the whole Honourable House; but, by obtaining a seat in St. Stephen's Chapel, he would only be equal to a 576th part of it. It was surely a puerile ambition in Mr. Addington to succeed Mr. Pitt as prime minister. The situation was only a foil to his imbecility. Gipsies have a fine faculty of evasion; catch them who can in the same place or story twice! Take them; teach them the comforts of civilisation; confine them in warm rooms, with thick carpets and down beds; and they will fly out of the window—like the bird, described by Chaucer, out of its golden cage. I maintain that there is no common language or medium of understanding between people of education and without it—between those who judge of things from books or from their senses. Ignorance has so far the advantage over learning; for it can make an appeal to you from what you know; but you cannot react upon it through that which it is a perfect stranger to. Ignorance is, therefore, power. This is what foiled Buonaparte in Spain and Russia. The people can only be gained over by informing them, though they may be enslaved by fraud or force. 'What is it, then, he does like?'—'Good victuals and drink!' As if you had these not too; but because he has them not, he thinks of nothing else, and laughs at you and your refinements, supposing you live upon air. To those who are deprived of every other advantage, even nature is a book sealed. I have made this capital mistake all my life, in imagining that those objects which lay open to all, and excited an interest merely from the idea of them, spoke a common language to all; and that nature was a kind of universal home, where ages, sexes, classes meet. Not so. The vital air, the sky, the woods, the streams—all these go for nothing, except with a favoured few. The poor are taken up with their bodily wants—the rich, with external acquisitions: the one, with the sense of property—the other, of its privation. Both have the same distaste forsentiment. The genteel are the slaves of appearances—the vulgar, of necessity; and neither has the smallest regard to worth, refinement, generosity. All savages are irreclaimable. I can understand the Irish character better than the Scotch. I hate the formal crust of circumstances and the mechanism of society. I have been recommended, indeed, to settle down into some respectable profession for life:

'Ah! why so soon the blossom tear?'

I am 'in no haste to be venerable!'

In thinking of those one might wish to have been, many people will exclaim, 'Surely, you would like to have been Shakspeare?' Would Garrick have consented to the change? No, nor should he; for the applause which he received, and on which he lived, was more adapted to his genius and taste. If Garrick had agreed to be Shakspeare, he would have made it a previous condition that he was to be a better player. He would have insisted on taking some higher part than Polonius or the Gravedigger. Ben Jonson and his companions at the Mermaid would not have known their old friend Will in his new disguise. The modern Roscius would have scouted the halting player. He would have shrunk from the parts of the inspired poet. If others are unlike us, we feel it as a presumption and an impertinence to usurp their place; if they are like us, it seems a work of supererogation. We are not to be cozened out of our existence for nothing. It has been ingeniously urged, as an objection to having been Milton, that 'then we should not have had the pleasure of reading Paradise Lost.' Perhaps I should incline to draw lots with Pope, but that he was deformed, and did not sufficiently relish Milton and Shakspeare. As it is, we can enjoy his verses and theirs too. Why, having these, need we ever be dissatisfied with ourselves? Goldsmith is a person whom I considerably affect notwithstanding his blunders and his misfortunes. The author of theVicar of Wakefield, and of Retaliation, is one whose temper must have had something eminently amiable, delightful, gay, and happy in it.

'A certain tender bloom his fame o'erspreads.'

But then I could never make up my mind to his preferring Rowe and Dryden to the worthies of the Elizabethan age; nor could I, in like manner, forgive Sir Joshua—whom I number among those whose existence was marked with a white stone, and on whose tomb might be inscribed 'Thrice Fortunate!'—his treating Nicholas Poussin with contempt. Differences in matters of taste and opinion are points of honour—'stuff o' the conscience'—stumbling-blocks not to be got over. Others, we easily grant, may have more wit, learning, imagination, riches, strength, beauty, which we should be glad to borrow of them; but that they have sounder or better views of things, or that we should act wisely in changing in this respect, is what we can by no means persuade ourselves. We may not be the lucky possessors of what is best or most desirable; but our notion of what is best and most desirable we will give up to no man by choice or compulsion; and unless others (the greatest wits or brightest geniuses) can come into our way of thinking, we must humbly beg leave to remain as we are. A Calvinistic preacher would not relinquish a single point of faith to be the Pope of Rome; nor would a strict Unitarian acknowledge the mystery of the Holy Trinity to have painted Raphael's Assembly of the Just. In the range of ideal excellence, we are distracted by variety and repelled by differences: the imagination is fickle and fastidious, and requires a combination of all possible qualifications, which never met. Habit alone is blind and tenacious of the most homely advantages; and after running the tempting round of nature, fame and fortune, we wrap ourselves up in our familiar recollections and humble pretensions—as the lark, after long fluttering on sunny wing, sinks into its lowly bed!

We can have no very importunate craving, nor very great confidence, in wishing to change characters, except with those with whom we are intimately acquainted by their works; and having these by us (which is all we know or covet in them), what would we have more? We can have no more of a cat than her skin; nor of an author than his brains. By becoming Shakspeare in reality we cut ourselves out of reading Milton, Pope, Dryden, and a thousand more—all of whom we have in our possession, enjoy, andare, by turns, in the best part of them, their thoughts, without any metamorphosis or miracle at all. What a microcosm is ours! What a Proteus is the human mind! All that we know, think of, or can admire, in a manner becomes ourselves. We are not (the meanest of us) a volume, but a whole library! In this calculation of problematical contingencies, the lapse of time makes no difference. One would as soon have been Raphael as any modern artist. Twenty, thirty, or forty years of elegant enjoyment and lofty feeling were as great a luxury in the fifteenth as in the nineteenth century. But Raphael did not live to see Claude, nor Titian Rembrandt. Those who found arts and sciences are not witnesses of their accumulated results and benefits; nor, in general, do they reap the meed of praise which is their due. We who come after in some 'laggard age' have more enjoyment of their fame than they had. Who would have missed the sight of the Louvre in all its glory to have been one of those whose works enriched it? Would it not have been giving a certain good for an uncertain advantage? No: I am as sure (if it is not presumption to say so) of what passed through Raphael's mind as of what passes through my own; and I know the difference between seeing (though even that is a rare privilege) and producing such perfection. At one time I was so devoted to Rembrandt, that I think if the Prince of Darkness had made me the offer in some rash mood, I should have been tempted to close with it, and should have become (in happy hour, and in downright earnest) the great master of light and shade!

I have run myself out of my materials for this Essay, and want a well-turned sentence or two to conclude with; like Benvenuto Cellini, who complains that, with all the brass, tin, iron, and lead he could muster in the house, his statue of Perseus was left imperfect, with a dent in the heel of it. Once more, then—I believe there is one character that all the world would like to change with—which is that of a favoured rival. Even hatred gives way to envy. We would be anything—a toad in a dungeon—to live upon her smile, which is our all of earthly hope and happiness; nor can we, in our infatuation, conceive that there is any difference of feeling on the subject, or that the pressure of her hand is not in itself divine, making those to whom such bliss is deigned like the Immortal Gods!

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