Popular Science Monthly/Volume 37/August 1890/Mental Strain

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A BOOK on mental over-pressure has been written by Madame Manacéine for the protection of the men who are to follow us. A continuance of the kind of life that is now led in the great centers of civilization will involve the risk of compromising the lot of future generations. We are going blindly, groping, toward a new humanity, to issue from us, of which we can not predict the character. This humanity is in danger of being a poor affair indeed, from whatever point of view we may regard the case, unless we conduct ourselves better. Madame Manacéine has undertaken to analyze the present conditions of existence, physiological and psychological; to exhibit us to ourselves as we are; to draw a balance-sheet of our mistakes in habits and education, for the avoidance of a threatened decay. We owe her thanks for her generous and patient attempt.

We have no right to be unconcerned about the future of mankind. We have an account to settle with the men of coming ages. We must be careful for them. They are worthy of our interest and forethought, and we should be very culpable if we did not have some care for the fate of our great-great-grandchildren.

The prominent characteristic of living beings, of whatever kind, is the tendency to resemble their parents. It is fatal, irresistible, and dominant in all biological laws. By heredity we acquire this or that trait of our fathers, whether it be natural or acquired in them. The consequence of this fact is momentous, and has been admirably set forth by M. Marion in his book on Moral Solidarity. It is, that our children will be the same as we have been. They are our image and the faithful portrait of ourselves. A vice acquired by us will become natural with them. An accidental physical or moral blemish, brought on by our faults, or errors, or carelessness, will become in them a natural blemish, and they will transmit it to their descendants.

Unless we are now able to preserve our mental and bodily forces intact, our grandchildren will be victims to our faults. They would even have the right to a certain extent to call us to account for our careless conduct. "What did you do with that vigorous body and healthy and sturdy mind that were given you by your parents? for it is by your fault that we are miserable and sickly." The importance of the question is thus well established. Since the future depends on the present, it is no less than a question of the future of men. This being fixed, the query arises, Is there mental overstrain? A careful examination of the facts gives us occasion to answer affirmatively. In consequence of the prodigiously artificial conditions of existence which our advanced civilization has imposed upon us, we have greatly modified the habitual and physiological life of our organism. A close study of the habits of contemporary men, such as the author of this book has made, will show that nothing is less in agreement with a healthy vitality than the mode of living of to-day.

From very early years children are shut up in work-rooms for many hours with tiresome books. They have no sufficient distraction from these books, no better prospect of good to be derived from them than the hope of some time passing an examination, complicated, hard, and encyclopedic, of a compass surpassing that of the knowledge of the wisest man that can be imagined. Then, in youth there are still examinations, still hours of study, still books, with only the scantiest provisions for diversion and recreation, except by resorting to fatiguing dissipations. Too much civilization, too much mental culture, with too little care for the physical part. Do we forget that the material structure is the organ of the mind, and that the mind can not maintain itself in an enfeebled body? We ought to realize that sooner or later the body will avenge itself. We can not break away with impunity from the laws of sound psychological hygiene. The muscle that is not exercised becomes atrophied; the muscle that works too much becomes diseased. The mind that is not exercised decays; the mind that labors too much is distorted, and we reach the sad result of weakening the understanding by the excess of labor to which we subject it, of destroying the instrument we use.

The philosophers of the eighteenth century extolled what they vaguely called a return to the state of nature. They imagined that man was primarily a perfect being, and that, as his intellectual and social growth have gone on, he has correspondingly degenerated and become vicious. Nature did well, they said, but civilization made him wicked. The reverse of this, however, is nearer the truth; and if we had to look for types of moral perfection, we should not go among savage peoples. Neither do savages excel the civilized races in vigor and health of body. But while we recognize that savages are not men whose bodies and minds are in a supreme condition of excellence, we have to acknowledge that civilized man has singularly neglected his body, that vesture to which it is necessary to attach some importance; for, without that vesture, there is no man.

It is indeed hard to maintain the equilibrium of body and mind. If we should try to lead an exclusively animal life, devoted to eating, walking, sleeping, and making love, we should find such existence insipid enough. We could not maintain it if we would, for there are a thousand features of our present life that we could not eliminate. But we can and should recommend and require that a considerable place be given to physical exercise. English youth, who practice passionately at cricket, cycling, and canoeing, are at the same time good Hellenists, and often excellent mathematicians. It is all the better for the mind to work, on condition that the body is also exercised. A sound mind in a sound body was the ancient maxim of the school of Salerno, and no better formula has yet been found. Let us, then, have some regard for the well-being of the body. Let us learn to keep our muscles in full energy, to breathe the fresh and bracing air of the mountains and the sea; or, if these are too far away, the air of the fields around our towns. By brief distractions of this kind we will benefit the mind.

The sad thing about the matter is, that it is not so much intellectual labor, of which the mind is capable of doing a great deal, as irregularities in that labor, that do the harm. We are satisfied that the great workers, who have performed grand achievements by genius or patience, owe their triumph less to a temporary excess of labor, than to continuous, regular, persevering work,[1] interrupted by regular and systematic recreations. Above all—and it is the most important point—it is necessary to abstain from excess. Moderation, the just mean, which, has been so frequently and so foolishly ridiculed, is in this master, as in many others, true and practical wisdom. Not to force children to excessive work in school, to be able to take rest, to limit our ambition and desires as much as possible, to live for a few hours a day a purely animal existence, are what we ought all to try to do; and we should be recompensed for it very quickly by better moral and physical health. The value of that boon can not be overestimated. If we represent the coefficient of happiness by 100, 95 of the marks should go to health, while fortune and fame would only deserve the other 5. The affair is one of habits rather than of regulation, and legislation can have little effect upon it. Our duty is clear. The first thing is to reform the education of children and youth. Everybody should be made to understand that mental labor can be good only as it is moderate and accompanied by bodily exercise. Bodily activity should be encouraged, class-hours diminished, and play-hours increased. All this appears simple enough, and easy, for everybody is at bottom agreed upon it. They all preach moderation, and it has a fine sound. But is it ever easy to be moderate—that is, wise?

Civilization has certainly enormously extended our knowledge of every kind. A well-informed man to-day must know some three times as much as he would have had to know two hundred years ago; and in another hundred years he will have to know as much more. But there is a limit to our mental capacity. We must learn to restrain ourselves. Instead of being encyclopedists, we shall have to be specialists; and, even in our specialty, will have to moderate our studies. We must never let physical needs—the open air, exercise, and sleep—be sacrificed to the demands of school examinations or the life of society.

We will end with a trite quotation. But trite quotations are the best, because they recall uncontested and incontestable truths. "Man," says Pascal, "is neither an angel nor beast." We shall have to submit to being, partly at least, animals, and consequently to take care of the animal which is half and perhaps a little more than half of ourselves. If the animal suffers, the angel will be ill. The future is for the races that do not sacrifice their bodies.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from the Revue Scientifique.

  1. Littré, one of the greatest workers that ever were, passed his whole day out of doors, and never began to work till evening, at half-past seven, after dinner, and then stayed in his library, bent over his books, without any relief, till about four o'clock in the morning. As he lived in the same house with M. Barthélemy-Saint-Hilaire, he sometimes, when about to retire, met his friend going to work; for M. Barthélemy-Saint-Hilaire was accustomed to begin at daylight. M. Littré led this laborious life, with inexorable regularity, for more than fifty years.