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Only Temper

What is temper? Its primary meaning, the proportion and mode in which
qualities are mingled, is much neglected in popular speech, yet even
here the word often carries a reference to an habitual state or general
tendency of the organism in distinction from what are held to be
specific virtues and vices. As people confess to bad memory without
expecting to sink in mental reputation, so we hear a man declared to
have a bad temper and yet glorified as the possessor of every high
quality. When he errs or in any way commits himself, his temper is
accused, not his character, and it is understood that but for a brutal
bearish mood he is kindness itself. If he kicks small animals, swears
violently at a servant who mistakes orders, or is grossly rude to his
wife, it is remarked apologetically that these things mean nothing--they
are all temper.

Certainly there is a limit to this form of apology, and the forgery of a
bill, or the ordering of goods without any prospect of paying for them,
has never been set down to an unfortunate habit of sulkiness or of
irascibility. But on the whole there is a peculiar exercise of
indulgence towards the manifestations of bad temper which tends to
encourage them, so that we are in danger of having among us a number of
virtuous persons who conduct themselves detestably, just as we have
hysterical patients who, with sound organs, are apparently labouring
under many sorts of organic disease. Let it be admitted, however, that a
man may be "a good fellow" and yet have a bad temper, so bad that we
recognise his merits with reluctance, and are inclined to resent his
occasionally amiable behaviour as an unfair demand on our admiration.

Touchwood is that kind of good fellow. He is by turns insolent,
quarrelsome, repulsively haughty to innocent people who approach him
with respect, neglectful of his friends, angry in face of legitimate
demands, procrastinating in the fulfilment of such demands, prompted to
rude words and harsh looks by a moody disgust with his fellow-men in
general--and yet, as everybody will assure you, the soul of honour, a
steadfast friend, a defender of the oppressed, an affectionate-hearted
creature. Pity that, after a certain experience of his moods, his
intimacy becomes insupportable! A man who uses his balmorals to tread on
your toes with much frequency and an unmistakeable emphasis may prove a
fast friend in adversity, but meanwhile your adversity has not arrived
and your toes are tender. The daily sneer or growl at your remarks is
not to be made amends for by a possible eulogy or defence of your
understanding against depredators who may not present themselves, and on
an occasion which may never arise. I cannot submit to a chronic state of
blue and green bruise as a form of insurance against an accident.

Touchwood's bad temper is of the contradicting pugnacious sort. He is
the honourable gentleman in opposition, whatever proposal or proposition
may be broached, and when others join him he secretly damns their
superfluous agreement, quickly discovering that his way of stating the
case is not exactly theirs. An invitation or any sign of expectation
throws him into an attitude of refusal. Ask his concurrence in a
benevolent measure: he will not decline to give it, because he has a
real sympathy with good aims; but he complies resentfully, though where
he is let alone he will do much more than any one would have thought of
asking for. No man would shrink with greater sensitiveness from the
imputation of not paying his debts, yet when a bill is sent in with any
promptitude he is inclined to make the tradesman wait for the money he
is in such a hurry to get. One sees that this antagonistic temper must
be much relieved by finding a particular object, and that its worst
moments must be those where the mood is that of vague resistance, there
being nothing specific to oppose. Touchwood is never so little engaging
as when he comes down to breakfast with a cloud on his brow, after
parting from you the night before with an affectionate effusiveness at
the end of a confidential conversation which has assured you of mutual
understanding. Impossible that you can have committed any offence. If
mice have disturbed him, that is not your fault; but, nevertheless, your
cheerful greeting had better not convey any reference to the weather,
else it will be met by a sneer which, taking you unawares, may give you
a crushing sense that you make a poor figure with your cheerfulness,
which was not asked for. Some daring person perhaps introduces another
topic, and uses the delicate flattery of appealing to Touchwood for his
opinion, the topic being included in his favourite studies. An
indistinct muttering, with a look at the carving-knife in reply, teaches
that daring person how ill he has chosen a market for his deference. If
Touchwood's behaviour affects you very closely you had better break your
leg in the course of the day: his bad temper will then vanish at once;
he will take a painful journey on your behalf; he will sit up with you
night after night; he will do all the work of your department so as to
save you from any loss in consequence of your accident; he will be even
uniformly tender to you till you are well on your legs again, when he
will some fine morning insult you without provocation, and make you wish
that his generous goodness to you had not closed your lips against
retort.

It is not always necessary that a friend should break his leg for
Touchwood to feel compunction and endeavour to make amends for his
bearishness or insolence. He becomes spontaneously conscious that he has
misbehaved, and he is not only ashamed of himself, but has the better
prompting to try and heal any wound he has inflicted. Unhappily the
habit of being offensive "without meaning it" leads usually to a way of
making amends which the injured person cannot but regard as a being
amiable without meaning it. The kindnesses, the complimentary
indications or assurances, are apt to appear in the light of a penance
adjusted to the foregoing lapses, and by the very contrast they offer
call up a keener memory of the wrong they atone for. They are not a
spontaneous prompting of goodwill, but an elaborate compensation. And,
in fact, Dion's atoning friendliness has a ring of artificiality.
Because he formerly disguised his good feeling towards you he now
expresses more than he quite feels. It is in vain. Having made you
extremely uncomfortable last week he has absolutely diminished his
power of making you happy to-day: he struggles against this result by
excessive effort, but he has taught you to observe his fitfulness rather
than to be warmed by his episodic show of regard.

I suspect that many persons who have an uncertain, incalculable temper
flatter themselves that it enhances their fascination; but perhaps they
are under the prior mistake of exaggerating the charm which they suppose
to be thus strengthened; in any case they will do well not to trust in
the attractions of caprice and moodiness for a long continuance or for
close intercourse. A pretty woman may fan the flame of distant adorers
by harassing them, but if she lets one of them make her his wife, the
point of view from which he will look at her poutings and tossings and
mysterious inability to be pleased will be seriously altered. And if
slavery to a pretty woman, which seems among the least conditional forms
of abject service, will not bear too great a strain from her bad temper
even though her beauty remain the same, it is clear that a man whose
claims lie in his high character or high performances had need impress
us very constantly with his peculiar value and indispensableness, if he
is to test our patience by an uncertainty of temper which leaves us
absolutely without grounds for guessing how he will receive our persons
or humbly advanced opinions, or what line he will take on any but the
most momentous occasions.

For it is among the repulsive effects of this bad temper, which is
supposed to be compatible with shining virtues, that it is apt to
determine a man's sudden adhesion to an opinion, whether on a personal
or impersonal matter, without leaving him time to consider his grounds.
The adhesion is sudden and momentary, but it either forms a precedent
for his line of thought and action, or it is presently seen to have been
inconsistent with his true mind. This determination of partisanship by
temper has its worst effects in the career of the public man, who is
always in danger of getting so enthralled by his own words that he looks
into facts and questions not to get rectifying knowledge, but to get
evidence that will justify his actual attitude which was assumed under
an impulse dependent on something else than knowledge. There has been
plenty of insistance on the evil of swearing by the words of a master,
and having the judgment uniformly controlled by a "He said it;" but a
much worse woe to befall a man is to have every judgment controlled by
an "I said it"--to make a divinity of his own short-sightedness or
passion-led aberration and explain the world in its honour. There is
hardly a more pitiable degradation than this for a man of high gifts.
Hence I cannot join with those who wish that Touchwood, being young
enough to enter on public life, should get elected for Parliament and
use his excellent abilities to serve his country in that conspicuous
manner. For hitherto, in the less momentous incidents of private life,
his capricious temper has only produced the minor evil of inconsistency,
and he is even greatly at ease in contradicting himself, provided he can
contradict you, and disappoint any smiling expectation you may have
shown that the impressions you are uttering are likely to meet with his
sympathy, considering that the day before he himself gave you the
example which your mind is following. He is at least free from those
fetters of self-justification which are the curse of parliamentary
speaking, and what I rather desire for him is that he should produce the
great book which he is generally pronounced capable of writing, and put
his best self imperturbably on record for the advantage of society;
because I should then have steady ground for bearing with his diurnal
incalculableness, and could fix my gratitude as by a strong staple to
that unvarying monumental service. Unhappily, Touchwood's great powers
have been only so far manifested as to be believed in, not demonstrated.
Everybody rates them highly, and thinks that whatever he chose to do
would be done in a first-rate manner. Is it his love of disappointing
complacent expectancy which has gone so far as to keep up this
lamentable negation, and made him resolve not to write the comprehensive
work which he would have written if nobody had expected it of him?

One can see that if Touchwood were to become a public man and take to
frequent speaking on platforms or from his seat in the House, it would
hardly be possible for him to maintain much integrity of opinion, or to
avoid courses of partisanship which a healthy public sentiment would
stamp with discredit. Say that he were endowed with the purest honesty,
it would inevitably be dragged captive by this mysterious, Protean bad
temper. There would be the fatal public necessity of justifying
oratorical Temper which had got on its legs in its bitter mood and made
insulting imputations, or of keeping up some decent show of consistency
with opinions vented out of Temper's contradictoriness. And words would
have to be followed up by acts of adhesion.

Certainly if a bad-tempered man can be admirably virtuous, he must be so
under extreme difficulties. I doubt the possibility that a high order of
character can coexist with a temper like Touchwood's. For it is of the
nature of such temper to interrupt the formation of healthy mental
habits, which depend on a growing harmony between perception,
conviction, and impulse. There may be good feelings, good deeds--for a
human nature may pack endless varieties and blessed inconsistencies in
its windings--but it is essential to what is worthy to be called high
character, that it may be safely calculated on, and that its qualities
shall have taken the form of principles or laws habitually, if not
perfectly, obeyed.

If a man frequently passes unjust judgments, takes up false attitudes,
intermits his acts of kindness with rude behaviour or cruel words, and
falls into the consequent vulgar error of supposing that he can make
amends by laboured agreeableness, I cannot consider such courses any the
less ugly because they are ascribed to "temper." Especially I object to
the assumption that his having a fundamentally good disposition is
either an apology or a compensation for his bad behaviour. If his temper
yesterday made him lash the horses, upset the curricle and cause a
breakage in my rib, I feel it no compensation that to-day he vows he
will drive me anywhere in the gentlest manner any day as long as he
lives. Yesterday was what it was, my rib is paining me, it is not a main
object of my life to be driven by Touchwood--and I have no confidence in
his lifelong gentleness. The utmost form of placability I am capable of
is to try and remember his better deeds already performed, and, mindful
of my own offences, to bear him no malice. But I cannot accept his
amends.

If the bad-tempered man wants to apologise he had need to do it on a
large public scale, make some beneficent discovery, produce some
stimulating work of genius, invent some powerful process--prove himself
such a good to contemporary multitudes and future generations, as to
make the discomfort he causes his friends and acquaintances a vanishing
quality, a trifle even in their own estimate.

George Eliot