Popular Science Monthly/Volume 18/February 1881/The Value of Accomplishments

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SEVERAL years ago, Dr. Bellows delivered an able address at an annual meeting of the Mercantile Library Association of New York, in which he claimed that literary culture had increased the business capacity of the clerks who used the library. This will be readily admitted. But the question of improvement has moral significance aside from the advantage of a certain quickness or readiness of thought due to mental discipline. It is a law of the mind as well as of the physical structure that repetition of original or skillful action results in increased strength and efficiency, or in a stronger tendency to follow higher forms of thought and amusement. It is true that the proportion of moral action—that which is sane and proper to the mind—can not be represented arithmetically. Nevertheless, the higher kinds of thought may occupy in a general way an increasingly large proportion of the available time. But, as we can not set a definite limit, it is evident that at the present stage of development we are not justified in concluding that any system for displacing immorality can result in anything like perfection; all we can claim is that—taking a vast general average—higher tastes lessen the action of lower. The question of proportion is not so important, however, as the supremacy of a tendency, which in nature sometimes results in immense accumulations of power.

Men are at present in a state of imperfect self-control, and it is necessary that recreation should involve improvement, not only by keeping them out of mischief, but by establishing higher tastes. It is a gratifying fact that there is pleasure in any exercise of skill in art, in its subdivisions of sculpture, music, literature, or in the wonderful manifestations of natural phenomena inadequately grasped by the sciences. The enthusiasm with which art and science are usually followed is like that seen in children who carry out an original idea during play. The higher forms of action are thus spontaneous, and involve originality and force. This applies to small accomplishments as well as great—from the construction of ingenious devices for exhibition at a country fair to the work of Shakespeare, Beethoven, and Michael Angelo.

The great names of the world must not induce us to lose sight of the seemingly trifling manifestations of this force seen in original work followed according to liking, and known as accomplishments. It is to be regretted that this spontaneous action so rarely finds that full expression observed in men of genius in whom it overflows all bounds or obstacles. Some conditions can not be modified, so that this originality must appear as recreation after the necessary mechanical work of the day is done. The obstacles tending to check independent action are innumerable, and sometimes absolutely insurmountable. A person may be deficient mentally owing to qualities inherited from a long line of stupid ancestors who manifested what Dickens calls "faint gleams of intelligence." In fact, objective events or objects that sweep into personal relation with us from out of vast extents of time and space are more modifiable by us than the almost unalterable conditions arising from hereditary qualities. The lack of power in a given direction may be practically beyond remedy, because very often there is not time in the life of one person for a form of force to reach anything more than primary stages of development. In special classes such limitation can recede greatly only in the course of generations in descendants who finally realize the ideal of Jean Paul Richter—the happy condition of liberty when sport is of service to the race.

Accomplishments are usually considered sources of amusement, although they must be paid for with a varying proportion of exertion not particularly pleasurable. In those forms of recreation in which we are mere passive spectators—often necessary as a relief from toil—there is an inevitable payment of either money, time, or labor. But, where the labor and sport are one, there is obviously a double reward.

It may be noticed, as a further extension of this truth, that the active or positive amusements are superior to the passive, for the reason that the passive do not stimulate the mind to conscious activity. There may be a high form of amusement as well as valuable mental discipline in the production of ingenious designs—such as articles for decoration, various products of carpentry-work, mechanical devices, chemical experiments, and so on. It is important to remember that some who have thus followed a liking for scientific or other knowledge have been stimulated to undertake tremendous feats of perseverance, whereby their names have lived for centuries.

The language learned and the skill acquired in painting or music seem trivial, but they establish an original habit of thought which incites others by force of example. Accomplishments indicate energy of character, for their pleasurable effect is largely due to a sense of power from having triumphed over obstacles.

In a world in which we are environed by dangers and mischances, every form of perseverance is honorable because it is either directly or indirectly helpful. The advances in enlightenment have come, not from those who are mechanical and passive, but from those of original force, who had ingenuity and other allied qualities by which practical effects are produced.