Popular Science Monthly/Volume 15/May 1879/The Autobiography of George Combe
|THE "AUTOBIOGRAPHY" OF GEORGE COMBE.|
GEORGE COMBE has been dead twenty years, and his name is almost forgotten. Many of his teachings, which were bitterly opposed when he uttered them, are now quietly accepted. His theories of religion, of education, of the treatment of the insane and criminal classes, are more or less approved, and even the doctrine that mind is a function of the brain, which he, was among the first to assert, and for which he was denounced as an infidel, has taken its place among the data of science. But the system of phrenology to which he gave himself with such intense devotion is discredited by science, and, like Mr. Combe himself, is now seldom heard of. There is much, however, in his biography to. interest those who remember him, and who sympathized with his career as a reformer. But it is not to the biography at large that we now call attention, but to a fragment of autobiography which occupies the opening pages of the book, and embraces the period of his childhood and early youth. For, although he was born in another country (Scotland), and a former century (1788), yet the essential experiences of the home, the play-ground, and the school, were the same there that they are here, and the same then as now. Combe understood the conditions of well-being for both mind and body, and the far reaching consequences of conduct. He had made his "bringing up" a matter of serious study, and he wrote this sketch, as he spent his life, for the good of others. We have found it by far the most interesting-portion of a very ably-written biography. But, since we can not print the whole of it, we give that portion which treats of his education, with such explanations as are needed to make it intelligible.
For the benefit of our youthful readers, it may be well to state that from 1817 to 1836, while still practicing the legal profession, Mr. Combe kept up a fierce warfare in defense of phrenology and certain principles of right living, which he published in a work entitled "The Constitution of Man." This book had an immense circulation, and was translated into the leading languages of Europe. In 1837 he retired from his profession and gave the rest of his life to the dissemination of his principles. He traveled in England, America, and Germany, and lectured on phrenology, education, physiology, the laws of health, and the sources of the well-being of nations. He was a leader in the struggle for what he called secular education—that is, a training in such knowledge as applies to the duties of life—he advocated prison reform, and in 1857, the year before his death, he published a work "On Religion and Science," the product of much anxious labor and the "outcome of his life's thought."
Dr. Andrew Combe, brother of George Combe, and nine years his junior, was also a man of remarkable ability and force of character, and both the brothers had feeble constitutions, suffering all their lives from ill health. They agreed in the belief that their infirmities were brought upon them by the circumstances of their childhood. Andrew died in 1847, and his "Life" was written by his brother George, who made a point of exposing the unhealthful conditions to which his brother had been subjected in early life. But some of the relatives were unwilling that these family details should be published to the world, and so they were omitted from the biography. But, when George Combe afterward wrote a full account of the first sixteen years of his own life, the suppressed portion of his brother's biography was embodied in it, and this is the autobiography with which we are now concerned. It was natural, perhaps, that relatives should object to its publication; but certainly in no other part of the work before us are Combe's tenderness, sense of justice, and ability, better shown than here; for, while he tells everything frankly, he all the while impresses the reader with the upright, affectionate, and intelligent character of his parents.
We condense from Combe's account the following significant details: At the time of his birth his father was forty-two and his mother thirty years old. She was short, well-formed, quiet, energetic, decided, and sensible. She was accomplished in every practical art of housekeeping. She could milk, churn, make butter, wash, cook, spin, shape and sew clothes for both sexes; was active and methodic, and generally had her work done before dinner, and was ready to pay and receive social visits. She could read and could write her name, which was a fair literary education in those times. The father was six feet two inches in height, strong in trunk and limbs, with a large head, and perfect health. He wrotesense and good composition, but was imperfect in grammar and spelling. He was painfully aware of these defects, and used to say he would rather hold the plow for a day than write a letter of a page in length. His over-consciousness in this matter "led him to educate his sons to the best of his ability and his lights." They had seventeen children. George was a well-formed, healthy child, and so far as character depends upon inheritance he had nothing to complain of.
The house where they lived stood close under the southwest bank and rock of the Castle of Edinburgh. The locality was low, and, while the windows looked upon gardens and corn-fields, the ground behind was a filthy swamp in winter, and covered with dunghills in summer; tan-works and magnesia-works poured their refuse into open ditches of small declivity all around the place. The public drain from two humble localities of Edinburgh ran uncovered past the dwelling, and the house itself was connected with his father's brewery. A more unhealthy residence could hardly be conceived. The two-story house contained two rooms, a kitchen and bedroom on the lower, and three rooms and a very small bedroom on the upper floor. When Combe was about ten years old an additional room and bedroom were built. At about this time (1798) the family consisted of the parents, thirteen children, and the servants, all crowded into these small rooms. Combe says, "The conditions of health and disease were wholly unknown, the mind being regarded as independent of the body, and the constant sickness and many deaths in the family were never thought of in connection with these material surroundings."
Combe thought that if people only knew better they would do better; but after a lapse of eighty years, and with our abundant knowledge of sanitary science, it seems that in the public schools of New York to-day the conditions of health and disease are frequently no more thought of than they were in Edinburgh when Combe was a child.
It will be observed that, in telling us about his education, Combe all the while distinguishes sharply between his real education and his nominal education. His knowledge of mental science, such as it was, helped him to interpret his own experiences. The things he remembers are to him indexes to his natural gifts, as the strongest impressions would be made on his predominant faculties. By this means he discovers the emotional bias that shaped his life, in the incidents of a summer spent on his uncle's farm when he was three or four years old. His first remembered lesson was given him here by one James Reid, a young farmer who came often to visit his aunt and cousins. Combe says of him:
Another incident of this summer must be noted. He fell into a small rivulet, wet his clothes, and remained out while they dried. He caught a severe cold, and was sent home to die of consumption.
His school education began when he was five or six years old. The schoolroom was small, low in ceiling, and crowded with children. In the course of the summer his strength gave out. He says:
He had a pleasant summer by the sea; the ships sailing up and down theof Forth, and the fishing-boats which studded the water for miles were objects of vivid wonderment and interest to him.
His next schooling is thus described:
As to his religious education at this period he says:
When he was six or seven years old he was again sent to the seaside, and left with a family of old people who had no sympathy with children. The months he spent there were full of wretchedness. He thus refers to them:
He was taken home in September, but such was the effect of the unwholesome position of his father's house, of its overcrowding, and of mistakes in his diet, that he had glandular swellings ending in suppuration. His brain was strong and active, and at school would blaze away for a few days until he was completely exhausted, when he would stay at home and lie on the sofa three or four days till the nervous energy was recruited. (These alternating periods of vivacity and exhaustion continued throughout his life.) He thus records an incident of his childhood, as an example of the influence which a passing observation of a sensible servant may exercise on the mind of an earnest, thoughtful child:
The train of thought which, late in life, Combe gave to the world in his essay upon "Religion and Science" was started by an incident of his early childhood. When six or seven years old he was given a lump of candy. The nurse-girl asked him to share it with his brothers and sisters, which he did. The girl then assured him that God would reward him for it. When he asked her "How?" she told him God would send him everything that was good. Should he get more candy? he inquired. Yes the girl told him, if he was a good boy. Would the piece he had left grow bigger? "Yes," was the reply, "God always rewards the kind-hearted." So the remaining piece was carefully wrapped in paper and put in a drawer and left all night. The next morning he examined it with eager curiosity, but no change could be discovered in it, and he had the bitterness to find that he had been benevolent at his own expense. His faith in the reward of virtue received a shock, and it was a long time before he learned the true nature of Divine rewards for good deeds.
While still a child, he saw a man and woman walking near the verge of the highest part of Salisbury Crags. Soon an alarm was given that the man had pushed the woman over the precipice and she was killed. The man fled down the northeast slope of the hill and never was discovered. Combe says his imagination was haunted by the recollection of this scene; and he was terrified to go to sleep lest he should see the murdered woman's ghost. The belief in ghosts was universal in his juvenile circle, and a sore superstition it was, for he held "every belief to be as true as the most indubitable facts." Another striking event of his early boyhood awakened in him a sense of the mistakes of Government. Two sons of a poor widow, whom his father had helped, poured forth their gratitude in every form of kindness to his father's children. One of them had been to Greenland in a whale-ship and he delighted young George with accounts of the perils and excitements of whale-fishing. Paid spies of the press-gang gave information of his liability and his residence, and he was torn from home and friends and forced aboard a man-of-war. Combe says:
One day as he was walking along the road with one of his father's workmen they met a tall man, in Highland costume, with a huge cap and plumes, and a fearful-looking iron-hilted sword, who asked the workman, "Is this your son?" "No," said the man. "Is he a good boy?" "Yes, he behaves very well," said the man. "I am glad of it," said the soldier, laying his hand on his sword, "for it is my duty to cut off the heads of all naughty children." Combe says, "I believed every word of this assurance and for months dared not venture into the street without keeping an anxious watch for this sergeant who had filled me with unutterable horror."
These incidents may seem trivial, but they formed the staple of his practical education. He says that "great drifts of suffering were driven through the tenor of my life by the absence of consistent principle in the actions and teaching of all by whom I was surrounded." And it was the vivid recollection of this unhappiness which determined his career as a reformer.
At the age of nine he entered the High School of Edinburgh, where he staid four years. There were about one hundred boys in his class, and the learning was mere memorizing. The teacher, Mr. Fraser, every afternoon gave out lessons (Latin) to be learned for the next day. In the morning he began at the head of the class and heard each scholar repeat the portion of grammar he had learned by heart. Next came translation. The sons of rich parents had tutors, of evenings, who taught them, but Mr. Fraser taught nothing. These boys were at the head of the class, and with them the lessons went on smoothly; but, when the incapables were reached, "beating took the place of teaching." By standing from twenty-five to forty-five from the head of the class young Combe learned his lesson by hearing those above him read it, and in this way escaped beating, except when the teacher was disturbed by a noise; then, says Combe—
He held us all bound for each other's transgressions, and let loose upon us a perfect storm of lashes, and never ceased till he was fairly out of breath.
The discipline waxed severer as time passed on, and in the third year it reached its acme. In the spring of that year Mr. Fraser "stripped and whipped," to use his own expression, the boys at a great rate. I recollect one day seeing fifteen boys standing at a time in the middle of the floor with their breeches stripped down, and be taking hold now of one and now of another, threatening to commence the "whipping." These inflictions were uniformly accompanied by a phraseology in to hold out his hand to receive a shower of palmies, it was—"Here, if you please, my dear." Whack, whack, whack; scream, scream, scream. "It is all for the good of your soul and your body, my dear." In the third year all this discipline appeared to him insufficient; and, after announcing, "I must try a severer rod of correction, my dears," he walked to a small closet in the school, opened it amid portentous silence, and brought out a short riding-whip, such as game-keepers are armed with, and with which in those days they lashed the hounds. It had a lash of knotted cord, and a short, thick handle, with an ivory whistle at the end; and with this "rod of correction" he commenced operations. The lash twisted around the hand, leaving red scores on the skin, and, where the knots struck, in some instances drawing blood.contrast to their real . When he called on a boy
All this torture was a substitute for teaching. There was not a map or illustrative object of any kind in the schoolroom; and only on two occasions during the four years did he ever, to my recollection, address a word to us beyond translation and grammar of the baldest description. The first of these exceptions took place when we read the description of the bridge erected by Julius Caesar over the Rhine, given in his "Commentaries." Our teacher had, according to tradition, constructed a model of the bridge with his own hands, and was proud of it. The fame of its great interest had been transmitted from class to class for many years; and we counted the days which should bring us to "the brig." At last the closet was opened in profound silence, and the model brought out.
It was placed on a chair in the middle of the floor, and we began to read the description. As there were many technical terms, he helped us by explaining them, and with conscious pride pointed out each stake and beam as we proceeded, and showed us its connections and uses. The reading and expounding lasted for several days, during which all the lessons were better learned than usual, complete silence reigned, and not a blow was struck. We thought ourselves in paradise. But the model was removed, monotony recommenced, and the arm and "the tawse" were again employed to do the work of the teacher's brain.
The noise and inattention which provoked the teacher and led to much of this severity were the natural consequences of our condition. Fully half of the seats stood apart from the wall, and had no backs. In summer we sat on them from 7 to 9 a. m., from 10 to 12, noon, and from 1 to 3 p. m.; and in winter, from 9 to 11 a. m., and 12 to 2 p. m., without any intellectual occupation, except hearing the lessons repeated over and over again as they descended from the top to the bottom of the class. There was suffering from an uneasy position of the body, and nearly absolute vacuity of mind; and this at an age when every fiber of the brain and muscles was glowing with nervous activity. If physiology and the laws of mental action had been known in those days, everything might have been different. The silence, pleasing excitement, and general good behavior which reigned when we had an intelligible object presented to us, clearly indicated what was wanted to render us all happy; but the hint was not taken. In point of fact, there was no other rational knowledge adapted to the young mind in our teacher's brain: ex nihilo nihil fit was exemplified in his whole teaching; for the other instance of attention alluded to was due to the occurrence of a thunderstorm, which frightened us by its darkness and proximity. This led him to describe a previous storm of the same kind, which had ended by a thunderbolt striking the front of the Royal Infirmary, quite near to the High School of those days, and breaking the windows on that side. He gave us some account of the nature of a thunderstorm, and how after a terrible crash the danger is past; and thus sustained our courage till the clouds cleared away. No other items of general information, except these two, dwell in my memory as having been communicated during the four years of my attendance.
In 1798 or 1799 I was sent to Mr. Swanston's school, to learn writing and arithmetic. In winter I was in his school, and Mr. Fraser's from eight in the morning till 2 p. m., without any interval of repose; and in summer from 7 a. m. till 4 and often till 6 p. m., with only one hour, from 9 to 10 a. m., for breakfast. Add to this labor lessons to prepare in the evenings, a constant feeling of inanition, especially during winter, cold feet and thin clothing, with no object in the world in my lessons to interest me, and it may well be conceived how the state of sin and misery brought on man by the fall was to me a palpable, undeniable, experienced reality. A few explanations will throw light on the causes of these sufferings. Too much cerebral action, and a close, ill-aired bedroom, with three besides myself in it, made me in the morning low, listless, irritable, and without appetite. My mother had been taught that oatmeal-porridge and buttermilk were the best food for children for breakfast. The buttermilk was bought in large quantities from dairymen's carts in the street. Frequently it was not fresh when bought, and it daily became more acid when kept. To my delicate stomach it often tasted like vinegar, and I revolted at the porridge. In my mother's eyes this was fastidious delicacy of taste, and she ordered the porridge to be kept for my dinner. I received a penny to buy a roll for my mid-day sustenance. At that time the quartern loaf ranged from a shilling to twenty pence in price, and the penny roll was a small morsel for a young, hungry, growing boy. On going out, however, I bought the roll at the first shop—there was one close by my father's gate. I ate it dry, and had no more food till half-past two, when I came home to dinner. My mother was not so severe as she had threatened to be, for she gave me a dinner that I could eat; but she never failed to have the porridge served in the morning. In all this she was actuated by a sense of duty alone, for she was ever aiming at our welfare. Ignorance was the rock on which her kindest endeavors were wrecked, and she was not to be blamed for not knowing what nobody else in her rank, or, so far as I have yet discovered, in any other rank of life, then knew. The cold feet and thin clothing were the consequence of my own self-willed ignorance. She pressed flannel underclothing on me, but because it irritated my excessively sensitive skin I rejected it, and pleaded that it was good for me to learn to be hardy in my youth, to prepare for the trials and exposures of manhood: this was listened to, and the flannel was not forced on me. In the school, and in the West Church especially, in which in those days there were no stoves, I often sat chilled like an icicle, and my only surprise is how I survived so much irrational treatment and stupid conduct.
My constitution, which must have been originally strong, suffered permanent deterioration from all these injurious influences. The bones were imperfectly developed; and bent clavicles and a slight distortion of the spine, with chronic irritability of the mucous membrane of the lungs, were the consequences. The benches of the High School had no backs, but some of them stood close to the walls. I suffered greatly from inability to sit upright, during the long hours of confinement, on the seats away from the wall; and have no doubt that then and there the distortion of the spine was produced. I often abstained from getting up to the third "form" because the fourth stood next the wall and supported my back!
But his out-of-school education all this time went on apace. The narrative continues:
In the other instance, my compassion was moved by the supposed sufferings of my pets from intensely cold weather; and I obtained leave from my father to transfer them from the house I had built for them, with the earth for their floor, to a loft having a deal floor and thoroughly inclosed and roofed. It had only a glimmer of light through panes of thick glass inserted here and there among the tiles. To my great distress the rabbits grew sick, lost their hair; their eyes became impaired; they lost their appetite, and the buck became so miserable that I took him out to the garden, tied him to a stake, and tried my skill in marking by standing at a distance of fifteen or twenty paces and shooting him with my pistol loaded with a single ball. The ball broke his spine, and he uttered a piercing scream. The cry struck so deep into my moral nature that it overwhelmed me with pain, shame, and remorse at the time, and has never lost its character in my memory since.Long afterward I discovered that these sufferings of my beloved rabbits were the consequences of my having, through mistaken kindness, placed them in circumstances at variance with their nature. The ground was their native floor; their fur protected them from the cold; and abundance of air and light, which they enjoyed in their habitation which I had made for them, were indispensable to their well-being: and these were all wanting in the lofts. The instruction I drew from these occurrences was that, without knowledge of the structure and functions of a living organism, and its relations to the natural objects to which it is adapted and which influence its conditions, the best intentions may inflict only suffering when pleasure is meant to be given; and that this holds as true in the case of human beings as in that of rabbits.
His father took a high Tory newspaper, and its chronicles were both intelligible and interesting. It was full of wars and rumors of wars, hangings, floggings, burnings, and slayings, and these were illustrated from time to time by doings in the town. He saw panoramas of battles, celebrations of victories, public floggings and hangings, and heard the running accompaniment of discussion among the workmen in his father's brewery. But the war was the great educator. He and his brothers had cannons of all sizes and sorts, and, as they grew up, pistols. Cartridges were given them, and they spent their spare pence for powder, lead, a bullet-mould, and a ladle. He says:
Then, again, in the neighborhood of the brewery were tan-works, currying-shops, an iron-foundry, a pump-maker's yard and a blacksmith's shop which he frequented, observing what was done in them and mastering the theory of their operations. He understood the business of the brewery, and all sorts of incidents constantly occurring afforded practical illustrations of the principles he had learned. In this way he added to his general intelligence and kept active his understanding, which was sent to sleep at school.
He had an intense love of nature, and of whatever displayed power and contrivance. He says of a dam-head where the water fell twenty feet:
His four years of suffering under Mr. Fraser came to an end in 1801, and, when he left the class-room for the last time, he says:
So much for the education that had been ordered and paid for. His estimate of his schooling for the next two years is equally interesting. From the High School he went to the University of Edinburgh. With his first teacher he studied geography and mathematics, but, as his capacity for learning words was slender, he forgot yesterday's lesson in learning to day's, while in mathematics the demonstrations he repeated evaporated as fast as they were learned. But for several months his sole fellow student in geography was a young sailor from the middle ranks, who was very profligate, though bold and generous, and he related to Combe the histories of his corrupt experiences. Happily, however, they had no allurements for the lad, and increased his knowledge without subverting his morals. Of his experiences in Dr. Hill's Latin class, he says:
He and they went on harmoniously and successfully; Combe listened, and learned what he could. But he says:
We have no room for details of his Sunday training. Like all the rest of his so-called education it was unintelligible, burdensome, discouraging. He envied the cattle that had no souls, and he envied his brother Abram, whose light disposition enabled him to throw Calvinism to the winds, and make witty sarcasms and jokes out of the materials it afforded. In 1802 he lost a brother, ten months old, of small-pox, and in 1807 a sister just younger than himself, who had been ill for many years. These events excited and bewildered him, but the example of his parents taught him not to complain of sufferings "sent by the hand of God."
He says that about the year 1802-’3 he first became conscious of the desire for fame, and used to shed tears of sorrow at the thought that this wish could never be gratified, as he had no special talent for any pursuit and his social position was also against him. He attributes this feeling partly to his natural temperament, and partly to his Latin studies, such as they were. During these years he taught his younger brothers and sisters for one hour each evening, except Saturdays and Sundays, for which his father paid him a small fee quarterly. As he had himself been taught almost nothing, he had a poor idea of his performances as a teacher, although his parents and pupils were satisfied with his efforts. At the age of sixteen he had to face the question of a calling. He was feeble, delicate, shabby in appearance, with no conscious bias, but only the wish to live by honest industry. He was offered as an apprentice to a dealer in woolen cloth, flannel, and small wares, but the proprietor, he says, "took me to the door to obtain light to view me better, and turned me round and round: he then politely told my father that I would not suit." On the way to the shop of another cloth-merchant they met one of his uncles, who was told where they were going, and what had happened at the former application. This uncle now suggested to the father that they try the law, "For," said he, "you have given George a good education: we have a numerous connection in town, and there is no writer among us." The father was afraid they could not succeed with this idea, but it ended in his going as an apprentice for five years to a "writer to the Signet," one Alexander Dallas. He had to bring a certificate from Professor Hill, of his attendance at the college for two years. He was terribly alarmed lest Professor Hill should decline to do this because of the utter neglect of his studies during those two years, but was astonished at the close of the session to get the following document:
Edinburgh, April 18, 1804.
(Signed)Jo. Hill, Lit. Hum. P.
Although this certificate gained him the place, the autobiography closes by explaining how completely his schooling had unfitted him for it. His first experiences in the study of law were extremely painful and mortifying. Some degree of independent judgment in the use of words was now required, and of this he was wholly destitute. He had to begin anew his literary education, but by unwearied industry and perseverance he at length aroused his dormant faculties and learned how to use them. Combe thought his helplessness was due to the fact that at school he was taught nothing; but children nowadays are rendered equally helpless by over-teaching. They get abundant instruction and but little education. Our youths leave school as incapable of independent thinking as was Combe himself. With all our boasted progress empty-headed teachers still abound, and the failure of children in repulsive tasks is still punished, less grossly than but often quite as cruelly as ever. In Combe's time "children," he says, "were ordered to learn, and scolded and punished if they did not get their lessons." Does not this pretty fairly describe the present state of things? Most parents still think, with the elder Combe, that to educate is to send to school, and the experience of George Combe should do something toward dispelling this prevalent error.
- The Life of George Combe, author of "The Constitution of Man." By Charles Gibbon. In two vols. London: Macmillan & Co., 1878. Price, $8.00.
- From nothing, nothing comes.