The Collected Letters, Volume 1


TC TO ROBERT MITCHELL; 19 November 1817; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18171119-TC-RM-01; CL 1:111-115.


Kirkcaldy19th Novr 1817—

It is a great while, My dear Mitchell, since I wrote you a letter that did not require an apology for its lateness. You too are chargeable with similar practices—and could I with any conscience—I would rate you very severely.1 It is certainly a deplorable way of proceeding. If it be true, in your case, as it is in mine, that the letters which pass between us, occassion some of the happiest feelings that diversify this languid scene—it is pity that they are, on both sides, so sparingly supplied— I am no stranger to the dreary sense of vacuity that occupies the soul of him who sits down to fill a fair unblotted sheet of paper—when fit materials are wanting. But we are too fastidious in our choice of subjects; and, above all, we ought to exert ourselves. It cannot be expected, that leading this unvaried life, which Providence has allotted us, we should have any wonderful tidings to communicate. We have nothing to say about the musical glasses or bon ton2—nor can we pretend to speak of moving accidents by flood & field, of Cannibals that each other eat—the Anthropophagi3—or aught of that nature. Yet are we not destitute of topics. The feelings and adventures of each of us (tho' of no moment to nearly all the world beside) may be interesting to the other—& by mutually communicating the progress of our studies, and the ideas (if any) that at times penetrate these benighted minds of ours—we may be encouraged to proceed on our way; rejoicing together—without flattery or jealousy or any such thing — I desire you to ponder upon this subject with due attention— Let us both write oftener—No matter how dull the letters be. When men cannot be social, they are content to be gregarious—and, tho' it be in a state of silence and torpor, experience some gratification from mere juxtaposition: so with regard to letters, it may safely be affirmed, that the shortest and meagrest is preferable to none at all— I am writing to you at present, from a conviction of the truth & utility of this proposition— Since my departure from your country, nothing at all worth relating has happened to me. I have gone the round of my duties with all the regularity and sang-froid of a mill-horse. My mind has on the whole been placid—sometimes almost stagnant. And if it be true, as Flaccus hath it, that,

Nil admirari prope res est una
Solaque quae possit facere et servare beatum,4

I am in a fair way of obtaining & preserving a considerable share of felicity. But I am much inclined to doubt Flaccus— The history of my studies exhibits the same stupid pictur[e] of impotent resolutions and unavailing regrets as heretofore. I may lay aside my French project, when I please. What, as you say, should take me to Paris?5 If they could pluck from my brain this rooted indolence, it might be worth thinking of. Soon after my arrival here, I fell to Wallace's fluxions, with might and main. I would study, I thought, with great vehemence, every night—and the two hours at noon, which I have to dispose of, I would devote to the reading of history and other lighter matters— But alas! two hours I found to be insufficien[t]—by degrees poor Wallace was encroached upon—and is now all but finally discarded. His introduction, it must be confessed, is ponderous & repulsive. His horrour of the binomial theorem leads him into strange bye-paths. But he demonstartes [sic] with great rigour. The worst of it is, we are led to his conclusion, as it were thro a narrow lane—often, by its windings shutting from our view the object of our search—and never affording us a glimpse of the surrounding country— I wish I had it in my head— But, unless I quit my historical pursuits, it may be doubted whether this will ever happen. I have read thro' that clear & candid but coldhearted narration of David Hume6—and now seven of Toby Smollet[t]'s eight chaotic volumes7 are before me. To say nothing of Gibbon8 (of whom I have only read a volume)—nor of the Watsons the Russel[l]s the Voltaires &c &c known to me only by name. Alas! thou seest how I am beset.— It would be of little avail to criticise Bacons Essays:9 it is enough to say, that Stewarts opinion of them is higher than I can attain. For style, they are rich & venerable—for thinking, incorrect & fanciful. Some time ago, I bought me a copy of La Rochefoucault.10 It has been said that the basis of his system is the supposition of selflove being the motive of all our actions. It rather seems, as if he had laid down no system at all. Regarding man as a wretched, mischievous thing, little better than a kind of vermin, he represents him as the sport of his passions, above all of vanity, and exposes the secret springs of his conduct always with some wit, and (’bating the usual sacrifices of accuracy to smartness), in general, with great truth & sagacity—

I perused your theorems with some attention. They are well worthy of a place in the Courier—though not for the purpose you mention. Mr Johnston, if I mistake not, is a small Gentleman, whom it would be no honour to demolish. I have scarce[l]y done a problem since I saw you. There is one—‘to find the locus of the vertex of a triangle, whose base is given, the one angle at the base being double of the other’—which I was trying some time ago— You will easily see that the locus is a hyperbola. The solution of problems, I begin to think, depends very much upon a certain slight of hand, that can be acquired, without great difficulty, by frequent practice— I am not so sure as I used to be that it is the best way of employing one's self— Without doubt it concentrates our Mathematical ideas11—and exercises the head; but little knowledge is gained by the process— If I am wrong, put me right when you send me a letter—

It is long since I was at Edinr and when I was there nothing of importance was a doing. I heard Alison12 preach. His elocution is clear—his style elegant—his ideas distinct rather than profound— Some person contrasting him and Chalmers, observed that the Prebendary of Sarum is like a glass of spruce beer—pure, refreshing & unsubstantial—the Minister of the Tron Kirk, like a draught of Johnnie Dowie's13 ale— muddy, thick & spirit-stirring— Ivory the celebrated Analyst has quitted his situation at the College14 of (I forget its name)— Wallace has succeeded him—and has left his own place to his brother— They were saying that Ivory had it in his mind to come to Edinr & become a Teacher of Mathematics— Leslie15 has published an Arithmetic—similar I suppose to that treatise contained in the supplement of the Encyclopaedia— He is to have a third class this winter— Playfair I believe is returned—and is to teach his class himself— Some time since, all the world was astonished at the 2nd number of Blackwoods16 (formerly the Edinr) magazine— The greater part of it is full of gall: but the most venomous article is the ‘translation of a Chaldee manuscript’ said to be found in the library of Paris— It is written in the phrase of the Scriptures—[and gives] an allegorical account of the origin & end of the late Edinr magazine—greatly to the [dis]paragement of Constable & the Editors— Most of the Authors of Edinr are characterised with great acrimony—under the likeness of birds & beasts & creeping things— Blackwood is like to be beleaguered with prosecutions for it—two are already raised against him. Replies in the shape of ‘explanations,’ ‘letters to Drs M'Crie and Thomson’17 have been put forth—more are promised—and doubtless, rejoinders are in a state of preparation. Whatever may become of Blackwood or his antagonists—the ‘reading’ or rather the talking ‘public’ is greatly beholden to the Author. He has kept its jaws moving these four weeks—and the sport is not finished yet—

—As I have nothing more to say, I believe it will be as well to conclude here—by desiring thee to commend me to all my friends in thy neighbourhood—and to write immediately if thou hast any love for,— Thine old & trusty friend

Thomas Carlyle