Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Gleams of Light
By Lord Beaconsfield (18041881)
THERE are some books, when we close them,one or two in the course of our life,difficult as it may be to analyse or ascertain the cause, our minds seem to have made a great leap. A thousand obscure things receive light; a multitude of indefinite feelings are determined. Our intellect grasps and grapples with all subjects with a capacity, a flexibility, and a vigour, before unknown to us. It masters questions hitherto perplexing, which are not even touched or referred to in the volume just closed. What is the magic? Is it the spirit of the supreme author, by a magnetic influence blending with our sympathising intelligence that directs and inspires it. By that mysterious sensibility we extend to questions which he has not treated, the same intellectual force which he has exercised over those which he has expounded. His genius for a time remains in us. Tis the same with human beings as with books. All of us encounter, at least once in our life, some individual who utters words that make us think for ever. There are men whose phrases are oracles; who condense in a sentence the secrets of life; who blurt out an aphorism that forms a character or illustrates an existence. A great thing is a great book; but greater than all is the talk of a great man.
And what is a great man? Is it a minister of state? Is it a victorious general? A gentleman in the Windsor uniform? A field marshal covered with stars? Is it a prelate or a prince? A king, even an emperor? It may be all these; yet these, as we must all daily feel, are not necessarily great men. A great man is one who affects the mind of his generation, whether he be a monk in his cloister agitating Christendom, or a monarch crossing the Granicus, and giving a new character to the Pagan world.