On Illusions

The Times (October 1890)
Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley vol. 2

[280] The article on "Illusions" in the Times of to-day induces me to notice the remarkable exemplification of them to which you have drawn public attention. The Rev. Dr. Abbott has pointed the moral of his discourse by a reference to a living man, the delicacy of which will be widely and justly appreciated. I have reason to believe that I am acquainted with this person, somewhat intimately, though I can by no means call myself his best friend–far from it.

If I am right, I can affirm that this poor fellow did not escape from the "narrow school in which he was brought up" at nineteen, but more than two years later; and, as he pursued his studies in London, perhaps he had as much opportunities for "fruitful converse with friends and equals," to say nothing of superiors, as he would have enjoyed elsewhere.

Moreover, whether the naval officers with whom he consorted were book-learned or not, they were emphatically men, trained to face realities and to have a wholesome contempt for mere talkers. Any one of them was worth a wilderness of phrase-crammed undergraduates. Indeed, I have heard my misguided acquaintance declare that he regards his four years' training under the hard conditions and the sharp discipline of his cruise as an education of inestimable value.

As to being a "keen-witted pessimist out and out," the Rev. Dr. Abbott's "horrid example" has shown me the following sentence:–"Pessimism is as little consonant with the facts of sentient existence as optimism." He says he published it in 1888, in an article on "Industrial Development," to be seen in the Nineteenth Century. But no doubt this is another illusion. No superior person, brought up "in the Universities," to boot, could possibly have invented a myth so circumstantial.

The Times (October 1890)

[281] I am much obliged to Dr. Abbott for his courteous explanation. I myself have suffered so many things at the hands of so many reporters–of whom it may too often be said that their "faith, unfaithful, makes them falsely true"–that I can fully enter into what his feelings must have been when he contemplated the picture of his discourse, in which the lights on "raw midshipmen," "pessimist out and out," "devil take the hindmost," and " Heine's dragoon," were so high, while the "good things" he was kind enough to say about me lay in the deep shadow of the invisible. And I can assure Dr. Abbott that I should not have dreamed of noticing the report of his interesting lecture, which I read when it appeared, had it not been made the subject of the leading article which drew the attention of all the world to it on the following day.

I was well aware that Dr. Abbott must have founded his remarks on the brief notice of my life which (without my knowledge) has been thrust into its present ridiculous position among biographies of eminent musicians; and most undoubtedly anything I have said there is public property. But erroneous suppositions imaginatively connected with what I have said appear to me to stand upon a different footing, especially when they are interspersed with remarks injurious to my early friends. Some of the "raw midshipmen and unlearned naval officers" of whom Dr. Abbott speaks, in terms which he certainly did not find in my "autobiography," are, I am glad to say, still alive, and are performing, or have performed, valuable services to their country. I wonder what Dr. Abbott would think, and perhaps say, [282] if his youthful University friends were spoken of as "raw curates and unlearned country squires."

When David Hume's housemaid was wroth because somebody chalked up "St. David's" on his house, the philosopher is said to have remarked,–"Never mind, lassie, better men than I have been made saints of before now." And, perhaps, if I had recollected that "better men than I have been made texts of before now," a slight flavour of wrath which may be perceptible would have vanished from my first letter. If Dr. Abbott has found any phrase of mine too strong, I beg him to set it against "out and out pessimists" and "Heine's dragoon," and let us cry quits. He is the last person with whom I should wish to quarrel.


C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University