Walking Stewart (a sketch of an eccentric pedestrian)
by H. S. Salt
IN the first twenty years of the present century no figure was more familiar to dwellers in London than that of “Walking Stewart,” one of those eccentric personages who sometimes puzzle their own and succeeding generations by the strange mixture in their character of madness and philosophy. He might be seen, as we learn from contemporary records, in all sorts of places at all sort of time; now shuffling leisurely along the Strand, or some other thoroughfare; now sitting in a recess on Westminster Bridge; no reclining on a seat in St. James’s Park; but always a noticeable object on account of his strongly-marked features and singular costume. His “spencer,” which he wore well muffled up round his throat, had a dusty and travel-stained appearance; his boots showed unmistakable signs of his pedestrian habit; while his large white hat, battered and dinted by many years of service, and weather-beaten by continual exposure, was a sight which, once seen, was not readily forgotten. Yet there was a dignity about him which redeemed his appearance from the extravagance of mere grotesqueness. He was six feet in height, strongly-made and well-built, while his features, though somewhat rough and stern in aspect, were kindly, honest, and at times even handsome. He derived his nickname from his having travelled on foot over all the countries of the globe; partly, too, from the mysterious ubiquity which seemed to be one of his characteristics. When you knew you had just left him plunged in a profound reverie in the Park or on the Bridge, you would be amazed to meet him a few minutes later in a different quarter of London, perhaps travelling steadily towards the very point where you believed him to be comfortably ensconced; so that the wits of his day declared him to be, like Mrs. Malaprop’s Cerberus, “three gentlemen at once,” and vowed that his death, which occurred in 1822, was deserving of a triple lamentation.
The little that is know of Walking Stewart’s life must be put together from the short autobiographical notice which he prefixed to b his ‘Opus Maximum,’ or “great essay”; a small pamphlet entitled ‘Life and Adventures of the Celebrated Walking Stewart, by a Relative,’ published in 1822; and two short articles which appeared soon after his death in the ‘London Magazine,’ one of them written by De Quincey, and published in the collected edition of his works. He was born in 1749, and seems from his earliest years to have shown himself to be possessed of a wayward and eccentric disposition, the history of his infancy, as he himself tells us, being “replete with tricks of art, fraud, dissimulation, and enterprise, to contend for freedom with the austere discipline of his parents.” He was sent to Harrow, and afterwards to Charterhouse, at both of which schools he excelled in hardihood and athletic exercise, but stubbornly declined to devote his attention to the ordinary routine of public-school education, for which at this time and throughout his life he entertained a supreme contempt. Having left school with the reputation of a dunce, though in reality he was far from being so, he then became a writer in the service of the East India Company; but here too his career was cut short by his own wilfulness, for at the age of eighteen he resigned his post on account of some real or supposed affront from the Court of Directors, to whom he addressed an indignant letter in which he “severely reprobated” their conduct. Being now thrown on his own resources, he entered the service of Hyder Ali, the ruler of Mysore, and made himself so useful to that prince that it was only with great difficulty and at imminent risk of his life that he eventually escaped from his master’s territory. He had already formed a plan for saving sufficient money to buy himself an annuity, so that he might be free to carry out a cherished design of travelling over the whole world. At the Court of the Nabob of Arcot he succeeded in earning the sum required, and though the money was not paid in full till a later period, he now set out on those pedestrian wanderings which gained him his sobriquet of “Walking Stewart,” or, according to the more dignified entry in the Catalogue of the British Museum “Stewart, John, the Traveller.”
It is unfortunate that little or nothing is known of the details of these journeyings, which in all probability would have been highly interesting; but it so happened that Stewart had a strange objection to relating any of the incidents that befell him, on the grounds that his travels were “travels of the mind,” and that the goal he sought was “the polarity of moral truth.” The “Relative” who wrote his biography states his opinion that Stewart’s adventures had not been wholly of a peaceful nature, since his body bore traces of sword-cuts and bullet-wounds, while the crown of his head was indented “to nearly an inch in depth” by some warlike instrument. This statement, however, does not tally with Stewart’s own assertion, that his “invariable maxim of avoiding moral contagion by behaving polite to the vulgar, complacent to the angry, humble to the proud, and wise to the foolish, had conducted him all over the world without a single quarrel;” and it seems more probable that he received these scars during his military service with the armies of Hyder Ali, than in his subsequent wanderings in the character of sage and philosopher. For it is to his travels that he directly ascribes his acquisition of that benevolent intelligence, of which, as we shall presently see, he held a very exalted opinion. The leading motive of his life is expressed by him in a Persian proverb—“Human energy increases in the ratio of travels”; and he claimed that by the vast extent of his experience, and by his unequalled knowledge of the various nations of the globe, he had become nothing less than “the paragon of his species and the acme of intellectual energy.” “The observation,” he says, “of this infinite variety of doctrines and opinions as to right and wrong, truth and falsehood, generated in my mind such a serene temperament of doubt and examination, that I learnt to approach moral propositions with all the calmness an indifference of mathematical problems, and to pursue truth without any hopes or fears, or any regard to its consequences.” Solvitur ambulando was the secret of Walking Stewart’s speculations.
Armed with this philosophical self-confidence, he appeared in London as a sort of peripatetic teacher early in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. He was to be seen in all the fashionable promenades, dressed in the Armenian costume, and dispensing his wisdom after the manner of Socrates, to any one whom he could “button-hole” and engage in conversation. But his début as a teacher was far from being satisfactory, since he was not unnaturally regarded as a harmless lunatic, and his doctrines were received with general merriment instead of the respect to which he considered they were entitled. Taking offence at this treatment, he left England and travelled for some time in America and on the continent, finally settling for some years in Paris, where he is said to have made the acquaintance of Wordsworth. This was shortly before the outbreak of the French Revolution, from which Stewart only just succeeded in escaping, with the loss of some of his property which was invested in French stock; but soon afterwards this was more than compensated by the timely liquidation of the debts of the Nabob of Arcot, which put Stewart in possession of a comfortable income. Henceforth London was his headquarters, and he gradually became a well-known character in London society, giving a series of conversations and musical entertainments in what he called his “Epicurean apartment,” a chamber brilliantly decorated with a large number of mirrors and Chinese pictures. De Quincey says that he knew him between 1807 and 1812, at which time Stewart lived in Sherrard Street, and seems to have been in less prosperous circumstances than those I have described—probably owing to the indulgence of his Epicurean tastes.
Walking Stewart’s books—for he was a writer as well as an oral teacher—were mostly published in London during the early years of this century, and are perhaps as strange a mass of wisdom and folly intermingled as has ever been composed. The chief of them are the ‘Opus Maximum,’ the “stupendous essay,” as he calls it, which he regarded as his masterpiece; the ‘Apocalypse of Human Perfectibility’; the ‘Moral and Intellectual Last Will and Testament’; the ‘Book of Intellectual Life’; and the ‘Sophiometer,’ the last-named being described as “a regulator of mental power, forming the nucleus of the moral world, by John Stewart, the only Man of Nature that ever appeared in the world.” The ‘Harp of Apollo,’ mentioned by De Quincey as one of the books presented to him by Stewart, does not figure in tile British Museum Catalogue. The doctrines which Stewart inculcated in these works, with much tedious repetition and circumlocution, are described by De Quincey as a sort of “rude and unscientific Spinosism,” and by Stewart himself as the “philosophy of Materialism.” The immortality of matter and the sympathy that exists between all forms of nature are repeatedly insisted on; he further declares sympathy to be “the primitive law of the moral world,” whence he derived those humane tendencies which form one of the best points of his teaching. Above all, he prides himself on being par excellence the “Man of Nature,” by which he seems to indicate his reliance on the innate good sense of the human judgment rather than on any artificial methods of instruction. He declares that if he were about to die, these should be his last words: “The only measure to save mankind and all sensitive life is to educate the judgment of man and not the memory, that he may be able through reflection to calculate the golden mean of good and evil.” He repeatedly argues that too much book-learning deprives the mind of its powers of self-inspection and observation, and informs his readers that the most important action of his life was to “uneducate himself and wipe away all the evil propensities and erudite nonsense of school instruction.” He expresses much contempt for all the literature and science of the age in which he lived, speaking often of the “dolts of science,” “learned idiots,” “lettered bookworms,” and “apes of wit, talent, and literature,” whose ridicule he welcomed as the only proper applause that could be conferred upon a man of nature such as himself. But it must not be supposed from this that Stewart was possessed of no education or accomplishments; on the contrary, his books show signs of considerable width of reading as well as profundity of thought; while, in addition to a knowledge of the classics, he is said to have completely mastered eight modern languages and to have had a smattering of a great many more. De Quincey pronounces him to have been a man of genius but not of talents, his genius “wanting an organ, as it were, for manifesting itself, so that his most original thoughts were delivered in a crude state, imperfect, obscure, half-developed and not producible to a popular audience.” In spite of the boldness of some of his speculations, and the oddities which lend certain interest to his volumes, the bulk of Walking Stewart’s writing’s is eminently unreadable. There are many points in his character and in his books worthy of commendation; such as his determined hostility to every kind of superstition and his advocacy of independent thought; the benevolence and humanity of his disposition; his love of fresh air and bodily hardihood; and his temperance in drink and diet. He was also a passionate lover of music, and it is related of him that if his mind was momentarily disturbed by any passing anxiety he used to correct it by turning the screw of a full-toned organ which he kept in his room. All his wisdom was thus dashed by a touch of extravagance and folly, and so it happened that one who might have been a philosopher only succeeded in making himself known by the eccentricities of his conduct and the singular dulness of his books.
Perhaps the most curious phenomenon in the history of Walking Stewart is the extraordinary estimation in which he held his own character and writings. As he had not the slightest doubt whatever that he, John Stewart, the Man of Nature, was the “paragon” of the human race, he thought it necessary to inaugurate a new system of chronology, which he reckoned, with admirable candour and naïveté, from himself. The ‘Book of Intellectual Life’ is thus dated as published in the “first year of Sense, this Essay forming the Era”; while in a similar manner the ‘Revelation of Nature’ made its appearance in the “fifth year of intellectual existence.” One cannot turn over half-a-dozen pages of any of his books without finding references to the “unparalleled excellence, importance and interest” of these works to the whole human species, the reason given being their superior originality. Bacon’s ‘Novum Organum’ and Newton’s ‘Principia’ are shown to have merely improved the sciences that already existed, whereas the ‘Opus Maximum’ of Stewart “created various sciences de novo and in totality,” and the writer therefore conceives himself to have “a long perpetuity of interest in the mundane system after his dissolution.” There is evidence that Stewart felt keenly the ridicule or neglect to which he was subjected by contemporary reviewers; for in one passage he mentions his poverty as retarding the publication of his books, and as destined to make his detractors an object of infamy in all future ages; but he solaced himself by the reflection that time would do justice to his merits, since “literary works, like vegetables, have a period of growth in proportion to their worth, the mushroom springing up in twenty-four hours, while the oak demands a century.” He seems to have been haunted by a constant dread of some great and world-wide revolution, some “universal empire of revolutionary police terror,” which would “bestialize the human species and desolate the earth.” The particular form of danger which he dreaded most was an Asiastic conquest of Europe, which would involve a destruction of all the Western Libraries, and possibly the total loss of his own works. It was a cause, he thought, “for the most awful and excruciating regret,” that his discoveries were only made known to the world “on the verge of its dissolution by revolutionary power.” One method still suggested itself for averting this supreme catastrophe. He specially commended his ‘Opus Maximum,’ that “paragon of authorship,” to all emigrants and travellers, begging them to carry copies with them to any islands or colonies to which they might be voyaging, and there to bury them with all secrecy and precaution, the place of sepulture being preserved only in ora tradition. “If this were madness,” says De Quincey, “it seemed to me a somewhat sublime madness”; and he accordingly promised Stewart, who had personally requested his co-operation in this matter, that he would bury copies of his books in his own orchard at Grasmere and in other retired spots in the Lake district, where, for all we know, they may be hidden to this day. Whether the disinterment of these works in some future ago is likely to exercise a potent influence on the course of the world’s history is a question on which I do not now propose to enter; it is sufficient to remark, in conclusion that the character and writings of Walking Stewart afford a very curious and interesting study for the psychologist if not for the philosopher. It is a strange fact that, insane as he undoubtedly was on some points, he always claimed the mens sana in corpore sano as the basis of all his teaching, and that amidst the chaotic medley of his metaphysical essays there lie scattered not a few ideas which men of sounder intellect and shrewder judgment might profitably lay to heart.
Published: Temple Bar, December, 1891, Vol. 93