The Atlantic Monthly

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The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 14,
No. 83,
by Various

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No. 83,
September, 1864, by Various This eBook is for the use of anyone
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Title: The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 14, No. 83, September, 1864
Author: Various
Release Date: January 13, 2007 [EBook #20350]
Language: English
Character set encoding: ISO-8859-1

Produced by Joshua Hutchinson, Josephine Paolucci and the Online
Distributed Proofreading Team at (This file was
produced from images generously made available by Cornell
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Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1864, by TICKNOR
AND FIELDS, in the Clerk's Office of the District Court of the District
of Massachusetts.
Transcriber's Note: Minor typos have been corrected and footnotes
moved to the end of the article.

An old English divine fancied that all the world might go mad and
nobody know it. The conception suggests a query whether the standard
of sanity, as of fashions and prices, be not a purely artificial one, an
accident of convention, a law of society, an arbitrary institute, and
therefore a possible mistake. A sage and a maniac each thinks the other
mad. The decision is a matter of majorities. Should a whole community
become insane, it would nevertheless vote itself wise; if the craze of
Bedlam were uniform, its inmates could not distinguish it from a
Pantheon; and though all human history seemed to the gods only as a
continuous series of mediæval processions des sots et des ânes, yet the
topsy-turvy intellect of the world would ever worship folly in the name
of wisdom. Arts and sciences, ideas and institutions, laws and learning
would still abound, transmogrified to suit the reigning madness. And as
statistics reveal the late gradual and general increase of insanity, it
becomes a provident people to consider what may be the ultimate
results, if this increase should happen never to be checked. And if
sanity be, indeed, a glory which we might all lose unawares, we may
well betake ourselves to very solemn reflection as to whether we are, at

the present moment, in our wits and senses, or not.
The peculiar proficiencies of great epochs are as astonishing as the
exploits of individual frenzy. The era of the Greek rhapsodists, when a
body of matchless epical literature was handed down by memory from
generation to generation, and a recitation of the whole "Odyssey" was
not too much for a dinner-party,--the era of Periclean culture, when the
Athenian populace was wont to pass whole days in the theatre,
attending with unfaltering intellectual keenness and æsthetic delight to
three or four long dramas, either of which would exhaust a modern
audience,--the wild and vast systems of imaginary abstractions, which
the Neo-Platonists, as also the German transcendentalists, so strangely
devised and became enamored of,--the grotesque views of men and
things, the funny universe altogether, which made up both the popular
and the learned thought of the Middle Ages,--the Buddhistic Orient,
with its subtile metaphysical illusions, its unreal astronomical heavens,
its habits of repose and its tornadoes of passion,--such are instances of
great diversities of character, which would be hardly accountable to
each other on the supposition of mutual sanity. They suggest a
difference of ideas, moods, habits, and capacities, which in
contemporaries and associates would amply justify either party that
happened to be the majority in turning all the rest into insane asylums.
It is the demoniac element, the raving of some particular demon, that
creates greatness either in men or nations. Power is maniacal. A
mysterious fury, a heavenly inspiration, an incomprehensible and
irresistible impulse, goads humanity on to achievements. Every age,
every person, and every art obeys the wand of the enchanter. History
moves by indirections. The first historic tendency is likely to be slightly
askew; there follows then an historic triumph, then an historic
eccentricity, then an historic folly, then an explosion; and then the
series begins again. In the grade of folly, hard upon an explosion, lies
modern literature.
The characteristic mania of the last two centuries is reading and writing.
Solomon discovered that much study is a weariness of the flesh;
Aristophanes complained of the multitude and indignity of authors in
his time; and the famed preacher, Geyler von Kaisersberg, in the age of

prevalent monkery and Benedictine plodding, mentioned erudition and
madness, on equal footing, as the twin results of books: "Libri quosdam
ad scientiam, quosdam ad insaniam
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