THE LIFE OF GEORGE COMBE.*
Moss: who are old enough to have been acquainted with the current topics of forty or fifty years ago will remember the sensa- tion caused by the phrenological doctrines of Gall and Spurzbeim, and of their leading disciple and exponent in this country, George Combe, of Edinburgh. They will recollect the heat of the con- troversy, the earnestness and perseverance of the advocates of the new theory, and the bitter ridicule of its opponents. Younger persons, if they chance to have mingled with the society of the Scotch capital at a considerably later period, can recall the serious face, the thin, bending figure, and the deliberate speech of Combe, and the popular success which attended the publication of his Constitution of Man, and other works of cognate tendency. What has now become of Phrenology? That it has still some adherents in the country and on the Continent, and probably still more in America, we know, but they have ceased to be aggressive or to provoke aggression. Is it destined to perish utterly, leaving, it may be, some slight residuum, in the shape of con- venient terms in which to describe our neighbours' characters, or is it suffering a temporary obscuration, with the prospect of a revival under important modifications ? The latter may possibly be its future, for there are few beliefs which have taken a strong hold of the human mind without a substratum of truth, but it must be confessed that the tendency of the most recent researches into cerebral physiolegy, though they can hardly be said directly to negative the pretensions of phrenology, do not appear to favour them. It is not our business, however, at the present moment, to investigate these matters, but rather to draw attention to the personal characteristics of a somewhat remarkable man, whose memoir has now been published, twenty years after his • The Life of George Conthe, Author of The constitution of Man." By Charles Gibbon. London: Macmillan and Co. 1878.
death, and to endeavour to trace the source of the very con- siderable influence which he exerted, and those peculiarities of his character and mind, as well as of the circumstances by which he was surrounded, which account for the extraordinary fascination which the phrenological theory had for him, becoming to him and to others similarly constituted the embodiment of all personal and social ethics, and almost of religion itself.
George Combo was born in 1788 in a comparatively obscure, and rather unsavoury part of Edinburgh, under the south-west face of the Castle Rock, where his father had a small brewery. He was one of a numerous family, characterised by great industry and probity, and deep, but very undemonstrative mutual affection. His education was in his earlier years defective, the res angusta dond, and probably the want of enlightened ideas on the part of his father, having led to his being sent to very inferior schools, and even his experience when at last he attended the High School, and for a short time, the University of Edinburgh, does not seem to have been very fortunate. His own account of learning to read at one of his earlier schools in the short autobiography with which these volumes begin, is curious enough :— ‘, I spelled and pronounced the words with a broad Scotch accent, with no regard to stops or intonation, and without once dreaming that the words had a meaning. The discovery that English words in a printed book were signs of feeling and ideas did not dawn upon me till several years afterwards. One reason of this was that the only significant speech which I know was broad Edinburgh Scotch ; and it never occurred to any one to explain the meaning of English words to us in this dialect. An English book was as unintelligible to me aftor I could pronounce and spell the words in it as was a Latin book before I had learned the rudiments of the language."
The popular religion of Scotland was in those days a cold and hard form of Calvinism, without the fervour and earnestness of
sentiment which attended its later developments. Combe was taken regularly to church, where he neither understood nor tried to understand what he heard. The whole of the Sunday evening was spent in the committing to memory, without attempt at ex- planation, of the longer and shorter catechisms of the Kirk. When about fourteen years of age, he began to have glimmerings of the only theology which be had been taught, and his moral ideas, for be had a strong natural sense of right and wrong, were strangely upset :— "In everything I was earnest and sincere and tried to believe it all ; but the more I believed, the more unhappy ibecame. I saw no ground for doubt, for, as already mentioned, the whole world appeared to me to reflect the Fall and the sinfulness of man from every feature. But, then, the consequences were appalling! Some persons were elected to everlasting enjoyment in heaven ; many more passed over, by God's decree, before they were born, to everlasting torments in hell. I in- cluded myself at once in this category, for the doctrine of Christ's having suffered for my sins and purchased my redemption appeared in- consistent, first, with a pre-existing irreversible decree, and secondly, with benevolence and justice. When I read of the cruel persecution and crucifixion of Jesus, far from drawing consolation from them, my sentiments of benevolence and justice were pained by the notion that, perhaps, my sins had added pangs to his agonies; and no argument that He bore them all voluntarily could enable me to respect God, who accepted them."
He was delicate in health, in consequence, as he often said after- wards, of the neglect of the most obvious sanitary laws in his up- bringing ; and his feelings were chilled by the unsympathetic manners of his really good and worthy parents :—
"With a nature highly affectionate, I never received a caress; with an ardent desire to be approved of, and to be distinguished for being good and clever, I never received an encomium, nor knew what it was to be praised for any action, exertion, or sacrifice, however great ; and humble as was the figure I made at school, I did my best, and often dragged my weary bones there when, with a feebler sense of duty, I should have gone to bed."
He could see no relation between what he was taught, whether secular or religious, with daily duties and daily life. Religion seemed a matter for Sundays only, and he never heard it alluded to as a practical rule of conduct.
He got over all this, in virtue of his bon naturel, and the actual example of conscientious work on the part of his father and friends, and was sent to the office of a firm of Writers to the Signet, a species of lawyer peculiar to Scotland, and indeed to Edinburgh, who practically perform the functions of solicitors, but are possessed of certain peculiar privileges. Here he studied diligently, and began to practise on his own account in 1812. He attained a respectable amount of business, which he conducted with char- acteristic prudence and fidelity, and to the great approval of his clients, and must have possessed no small administrative ability, for along with his professional work be also for several years con- ducted the business of the brewery which had been his father's. In 1837 he retired from the legal profession, having accumulated a small competence, and having married Miss Siddons, a daughter
of the great actress, who possessed some fortune ; and his life was from this time directed to the study and propagation of his favourite psychological and ethical doctrines, and his views on social, educational, and financial questions, with frequent journeys to the Continent and to America, where he formed many close intimacies with persons whose friendship was well worthy of being sought after.
Combe's first introduction to phrenology was on the occasion of the visit of Dr. Spurzheim to Edinburgh, in 1818. An article against phrenology, vigorously written, but in a tone of personal satire and invective in those days only too common, had induced Spurzheim to come to meet his antagonist, face to face. Combe had previously studied the anatomy of the brain, under Dr. Barclay, a well-known lecturer, and had scoffed at the theories of the phrenologists. He had, like most Scotchmen at that period, read the metaphysical writings of the Scotch school of philosophy,— Reid, Dugald Stewart, and Brown. They did not satisfy him. He says, indeed, that he could not understand them, and he therefore sought refuge in the study of what he conceived to be the material organ of mind. After three years' close study of Spurzheim's views, and the practical examination of innumerable heads, skulls, and casts, he became a complete convert. His vehement and rather too personal contest with Sir W. Hamilton created much interest at the time, and afterwards, when he had published his well-known Constitution of Man, and other ethical writings, all on a phrenological foundation, he alienated many of his orthodox friends who had at first concurred with his phreno- logical belief.
It is not difficult to see why phrenology had so great a charm for Combe, so that he was from the first strongly predisposed to its adoption. There is nothing very new in the view of human nature which it presents,—that man is naturally endowed with various propensities, moral sentiments, and intellectual proclivi- ties and powers, the lower of which he shares with the brutes, while the more noble are peculiar to himself ; that on a sub- structure of animal passions, amatory, combative, cautious, &c., there has been erected within him a higher structure of benevolence, religious aspiration, love of the good, the true, and the beautiful, with a power of observing, comparing, and reasoning on things and their causes, and that virtue and a wholesome character, and true happiness, depend on the proper balance of all these functions, the supremacy being always given, when they conflict, to the higher or more human. But this was not enough for Combe ; his naturally strong sense of justice and right had been perplexed by being taught that man was an utter and hopeless ruin, having in him no good thing, and his mind, which yearned for something tangible and material, and had an intense love for what seemed to him completeness, found infinite relief in the idea that these propensities and sentiments had each an appropriate physical organ. This gave him what he felt to be a solid starting-point. Man had all the elements of good and happiness in his very brain, and his successful development de- pended on these elements attaining their due relative power. True, they were in most men far from being well balanced, but man, a progressive being, was being educated, through natural causes, gradually up, if not to perfection, at least in that direction. He looked on himself as a mighty apostle of this progress, de- stined to be an instrument for carrying on the work, and teaching his fellows that real good and bliss consisted in the harmonious working of the human faculties, and in what he called obeying the laws of Nature, or rather the laws of God impressed on Nature, for he was intensely religious in his own way, and as far removed from that atheism of which he has often been accused as it was possible to be. This conviction of his own mission penetrates all his writings and all his thoughts with the most curious naiveté of expression, and though this, and his constant habit of analysing human character, including his own, leads to constant egotism, the reader is not disagreeably impressed, strange to say, with a sense of the writer's inordinate self-esteem. He had not much metaphysical acumen, and was blind to many difficulties which would have staggered other minds. He was not, apparently, a believer in the freedom of the human will, and yet he had as intense a love for moral goodness as it was possible to possess. The difficulties in respect of ethics on the one hand, and of the existence of a personal God on the other, which embarrass the necessitarian doctrine, at least in that sense which holds free-will to be an unthinkable absurdity meaning no- thing but chance, do not seem to have occurred to him. His mind was of the type which tends to Materialism, but he professed neither materialist nor spiritualistic opinions. If God had chosen to impress such wonderful qualities as feeling
and thought on a mass of cerebral matter, what of it?—we only found them in connection with that structure ; but if there were another more subtle entity connected with it, and capable of surviving it, so much the better. There was no course of con- duct which was good and prudent on the hypothesis of a future life, which was not also good and prudent on that of extinction with the death of the body. It was sufficient for him that man had certain qualities, in obedience to which in due pro- portion lay the right path. In the same way, external nature had certain laws, admirably adapted to those of the human soul and body ; and in obedience to these laws also lay the duty and in- terests of man in regard to health, and every kind of outward
happiness. There is throughout his thoughts a strange confusion between law as a rule of righteous sentiment and action, and law as the rule by which phenomena act and react, or at least in- variably follow each other. In this lies the key to much that is unsatisfactory in his philosophy. The secret of the influence
which he and his writings had, and even now have, in many quarters arose from the adaptation of his tone of thought to those numerous minds which are constituted somewhat like his own, and not a little from the wonderful honesty, simplicity, and kindliness of his nature, and the contagious effect of his intensity of conviction.
One more extract we must give, it is so amusingly illustra- tive of the man. Writing to a friend some months before his marriage to Miss Siddons, he says :—
" It is quite true that I am about to change my condition, and I can scarcely tell how it came about. The lady's head and mine boar a close resemblance in many of the most important organs, and there was a natural sympathy established between us from the filet, which insensibly ripenod into a more serious attachment She is six years younger than myself, and her interests are of a moral and intellectual character, so that she is fitted to be a companion to me, and will go along with me in my pursuits. The projected union will not take place until Septem- ber. It was sent abroad by a blunder, and thus we had no alternative but to announce it, although it is too long to have such a matter hang- ing in the wind, and the subject of discussion. I have obeyed the natural laws, so far as my skill and knowledge went, and if evil happen, I shall learn a new chapter, for the instruction of others. In 1828 I took Dr. Spurzheim's opinion on my own constitution, after telling him my previous history ; and he said that I might marry with propriety, but not to select a young wife, but one whose faculties would act with my own. I examined the lady's head, and took my brother's advice whether her constitution was good in itself and suitable to mine, and received a favourable opinion. My niece, Miss Cox, who is a pretty good judge of women, told me that if I did not make love to Miss Siddons, I need never expect to find another so well suited to me ; so that I did not yield blindly to inclination, or act without calling in the best guides to my own judgment I could. This is confidential, and is mentioned just to let you know that I do not preach ono doctrine and practise another."
The marriage seems to have justified this cool and business-like view of the matter, for it proved an unusually happy one ; but the author of the letter was a better man than his love of his own theories allowed him to confess. All who knew George Combe must have seen that, intensely prosaic as he was, he had within him no small fund of true and natural sentiment.
These volumes are simply and clearly written, without any special graces or defects of style, and succeed in giving a suffi- ciently graphic picture of a man who, though often described, and not altogether without truth, as one whose thoughts were the quintessence of the very commonest of common-sense, undoubt- edly left a decided mark on his generation. The place which his doctrines hold in relation to more modern thought, and the position he would have taken had he belonged to the present generation, it would be easy to enlarge upon, but our limits will not permit this somewhat tempting discussion. It is rather dis- appointing to find, in the life of a man who lived in Edinburgh in the palmiest days of its literary and philosophical society, whose earlier years were those of Dugald Stewart and Walter Scott, and whose prime was also that of Jeffery, Cockburn, and Sir W. Hamilton, so little allusion to those remarkable men ; but the truth is, that Combe's peculiar views had the effect of isolating him, and barring his entrance into circles in which he might otherwise perhaps have to some extent lived. His chief intel- lectual sympathies and friendship were with some of the German and American converts to his own views. His best-known inti- mate in Scotland was the late somewhat eccentric Sir George Mackenzie of Coull, and the late Charles Maclaren, so long editor of the Scotsman ; and his excellent brother, Dr. Andrew Combe, was united with him throughout life by the strongest ties of affection and unity of thought. Sir James Clarke, the London physician, Mr. Cobden, and Archbishop 1Vhately were also in frequent and friendly communication with him. Indeed, he had more honour in every place than in his native city, and it is a curious fact that he bad many meetings and much correspondence with the Prince Consort and Baron Stockmar on the education of the Prince of Wales, as well as with the tutors of some of the other Royal children, whose heads he had examined. His char- acteristic caution led him carefully to conceal all this at the time. His bad repute with the orthodox, both in theology and science, would have caused wonderful excitement in many quarters had he been less prudent.
Combe died at the age of seventy, very much as might be expected from his temperament and opinions,—looking back with placid satisfaction to his own career, predicting the ultimate triumph of his doctrines, and watching his own symptoms, which he caused to be carefully recorded from day to day.