MONSTERS. Nv E suppose everybody has been calling, and rightly calling,
the Rainhill murderer a monster, and won- dering how such a human being could exist at all. That a man should take a special satisfaction in murder, should murder his own wife and children when he might, not only more easily, but more safely for himself, have deserted them (as apparently, indeed, he had done previously) ; that his favourite method of disencumbering himself of a companion or a child should apparently have been the method of murder, —is something so astounding and so unintelligible to almost all human beings as such, that " monstrous " is really the only adjective that we can properly apply. It is something entirely out of the order of Nature, something that does not look in the least like a result due to the exaggeration of ordinary passions, but rather like one due to the total absence of universally distributed feelings and sympathies. If a man could grow up with his head under his arm, or with his eyebrows under his eyes instead of above them, there would be nothing half as truly " monstrous " in the misplacement, as there is in the growth of a character without affections or sympathies, without even the tendency to shrink from inflicting death on those with whom the owner of the character had been accustomed to live, and to interchange all the usual signs of good feeling.
But we question whether many people realise that, when they call any one a "monster," they are not necessarily, probably not even presumably, imputing to him the highest kind of guilt. As it is not a man's fault that he is born with any physical malformation, so, if it could be proved,—which, however, it never can be,—that a murderer was born without even the germs of the natural affections and emotions, that his whole inner constitution was different from that of ordinary human beings, so far from being more culpable than ordinary murderers who yield to natural passions like covetous- ness, or jealousy, or revenge, he would, we suppose, be much less culpable than they. A monster, properly speaking, is a thing that shows us what is contrary to Nature, what Nature usually guards herself carefully against, and what is only per- mitted, where it is permitted, in order to mark what is, properly speaking, preternatural, what excites horror in all ordinary human beings who understand the significance of what they see. A monster is literally a "show," but it is a show of what the constitution of Nature dreads and repels, not of what it aspires to. Perhaps the greatest of all mysteries is the existence of anything monstrous; but where it is permitted, it should at least suggest to us that the man who, being born with the usual tendencies to what is good and right-minded, allows himself to become at all like these monsters of selfish indifference to the feelings and fate of those with whom they
are united in the closest ties, is infinitely more guilty, more culpable, than the true monster who really is in any considerable degree an exception to the ordinary laws of human nature. Just in proportion as any nature is really and truly de- formed from its birth, it is less guilty instead of more guilty than those which grow deformed only by yielding to their own most deforming impulses. We are quite right in regarding monsters with the utmost horror; but we are not quite right in thinking that those of us who yield to the ordinary temptations which disfigure our nature, are less guilty than the monster born. On the contrary, such men are much more guilty, for they had in them the strong protesting voice which should have guarded them against such defacing and deforming of their own hearts, and yet they ignored it. The true monster,—if indeed he really exists, and so far at least as he does exist,—has no such protest within him. He is, for some purpose that we can hardly fathom, allowed to become a warning to other men, of what is beside and beneath Nature,—he is a beacon marking what we ought to avoid and dread ; but for that very reason he is not half as guilty as those who, having all the natural aids and warnings against such evil in them, still allow themselves to become what the true monster already is without the consent of his own will.
It is, however, obvious enough that inborn unnaturalness, that is, radical defect and disfigurement of original character, is but a relative term. As there are no bodily monsters whose heads are carried under their arms, or whose eyebrows are below instead of above the eyes, so there are no moral monsters whose original deficiency of kindly feeling and human sympathy is complete and absolute. There is probably no greater original divergence from the average human mind and character, even in the most cold-blooded murderer, than there is from the average human body in the most painful cases of defective physical constitutions. So far as the original mind and character as given at birth were distorted, so far, and so far only, is there any claim to a relatively milder judgment than would otherwise be justified on the sins and crimes of which such a being may be guilty. But such original distortions can hardly exclude a great deal of common human feeling. It is quite as great an impossibility for any otherwise sane human being to survive such a radical deficiency as a deficiency in the very germs of kindly feeling, as it is for any human body to survive its de- ficiency in the germs of the ordinary capacity for bodily growth and movement. Conceive a man without any wish at all to serve or please his fellow-creatures, and you con- ceive a being who could not live in society, who would be suppressed by the instincts of the body politic, just as a body without a heart or without lungs would be sup- pressed by the physiological conditions of the human body. There may be, probably there are, moral monsters amongst us,—the Rainhill case and the various murders in East London which excited so much horror a year or more ago, at all events show a strong probability that it is so,—but the word " monster " is a purely relative one, and means no more than that those who deserve that epithet show the extreme limit of original malformation in mind and character; not that they themselves have no responsi- bility for what they have become, nor even that they could have been wholly destitute of the germs of those social feelings which alone render mutual service and mutual confidence in any sense possible. Even the monster of whom De Quincey wrote in his essay on "Murder as a Fine Art," the Williams of the early part of the century, who murdered a baby in its cradle as well as the elder members of the family, not because the baby threatened him with any danger, but because his cruel instincts would not have been satiated without completing the work of destruction,—even he could not have lived to the age at which he committed the crime without a single strand of natural human feeling in him. How can a man even guess what to hope and fear from others, without some rudimentary share of sympathy with others P How can he interpret the signs of other people's desires and dreads, without the clue of that self-knowledge which is the chief factor in knowledge of the world, since self-knowledge would really lead a man far astray in judging of the world, if his own nature were absolutely and wholly different from that of his fellow-creatures ? It is impossible, then, that any man's nature should come to maturity in so monstrous a condition as to give him no clue at all to what other people are feeling and thinking. Moral monstrosity is a purely relative term. We must admit that there are natures which, being originally hard, cold, and selfish, become by indulgence something that we should all call monsters ; but even so they are largely re- sponsible for their own demoralisation. It is only in part that we may concede them a certain attenuation of their guilt, on account of the deep taint and strong bias to evil with which they were born. The Rainhill murderer knew as well as any man by the voice of his own nature what he himself would have said of his deed, if it had been done by any one else except himself, and a great part of his audacity must have been used up in the cool indifference of demeanour by which he staved off suspicion. A monster, like a poet, is partly born and partly made. He could not be a monster, though he might become morally much more guilty than a monster, if he were born with the usual capacities for genuine love and sympathy. But it is equally true that he could not become a monster, if in spite of the original flaws in his nature, he had striven steadily to remove them, instead of to indulge all the evil dispositions with which his nature was furnished.
Again, how purely relative to the standard of the individual the meaning of the word is, is shown by the vehemence with which the highest and most spiritual men have denounced their own sins and shortcomings as monstrous; and to them no doubt they were really monstrous. Compared with the standard at which they had learned to aim, and which they had sometimes attained, their lapses into selfishness or passion seemed to them really more shocking, more unnatural, than the ordinary crimes of those who had been brought up in an atmosphere of crime. And so it happens that, paradoxical as it may appear, the higher and purer a nature becomes, the more sincerely and honestly does it regard its own lapses from the highest standard as monstrous, so that those who to the external world seem almost unnaturally good, seem often to themselves quite unnaturally evil. "I am become as it were a monster unto many," says the Psalmist, meaning that his efforts to keep himself from all that was worldly and base, seemed to those amongst whom he lived shocking in their unnaturalness. Yet to himself, no doubt, that which was monstrous was not that which shocked the world in which he lived, but that which shocked the conscience he strove to serve. That which is monstrous to the saint because it falls so far short of perfection, is often monstrous to the world because it approaches so near to it.