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HE subject upon which I have undertaken to offer some
remarks this evening, seems at first to promise nothing but a commonplace repetition of the advantages that follow upon the acquisition or possession of knowledge nothing beyond a wearisome and uncalled-for defence of what has long ceased to have any assailants. We have all heard again and again of the great truth that knowledge is power; we have all listened again and again to the enumeration of the external benefits, and still more of the internal tranquillity and self-approbation which attend the perse vering lover of books; we are all disposed to respect and envy the life and career of the studious; and we are all aware how cramped and confined must be the views, and how petty the purposes, of the man who has never learned to enlarge the one and exalt the other by the examples of wise and virtuous men as presented in the annals of literature. It is now admitted in all quarters, and by all persons to whose opinions we should be ready to bow, that education that is, the education of the child by others, and the continuance of the education of the man by him. self—is the only means of making enlightened citizens and happy men. Men of all shades of political opinion, while diftering as to the means, are yet agreed as fully as they can be as to the end, and as to the fact that virtue and industry, and a general sense of justice and duty, will be
most surely and permanently promoted throughout the community, by the diffusion of books and the encouragement of literary tastes. Tory and Radical alike may concur in the propriety of affording every available facility for the increase of education. “None are so illiberal, none so bigoted in their hostility to improvement, none so superstitiously attached to the stupidest and worst of old forms and usages, as the uneducated. None are so unscrupulous, none so eager to clutch at whatever they have not and others have, as the uneducated.”* But, I repeat, the value of knowledge has become a commonplace. All of us here have probably experienced that value in his or her own
I do not inean that we have discovered its value in the market, its worth as a means of money-getting, though this, too, is probable enough. Knowledge and literature have a higher value-a nobler significance than this; they may put money into the purse, but they do more and better when they bestow tranquillity and gratification upon the mind; they do more and better when they stimulate our curiosity, and arouse the latent depths of our thinking intelligence.
But you do not want anybody to come from London to expatiate before you upon the power and grandeur of literature; to show to you how it awakens every faculty, refines every sentiment, and elevates every emotion ; to remind you how, while wealth is hard to acquire, and when acquired is difficult to keep, and, when both gained and retained, is apt to fret away the soul of the possessor in sordid care, while honours and worldly fame are quite attainable without conferring any substantial satisfaction upon those who have grasped them,—while even domestic felicity may by force of circumstances become a source of poignant grief, and leave us environed by the blackness of inconsolable sorrow; how, while all these are fleeting and unsubstantial, the sober pleasures of knowledge abide with us so long as intellect itself remains, and give us employment and consolation even when evil days come, and years draw nigh when we say, There is no pleasure in them. All this is fully understood in this place—nowhere better; and we see the results here at this moment, when evil days have come; for to what else but to the number and effi
* J. S. Mill.
ciency of institutions throughout Lancashire, such as that which I have now the honour of addressing-to what else but the wise instruction which they have been the means of diffusing-can we, I ask, attribute the sober and reasonable conduct which characterises the history of this calamitous time?
My intention this evening is, to offer a few considerations upon
in which we ought to read--some suggestions how to turn the time and labour devoted to study to the best possible account.
I. The first practical precept is, not to attempt too much.
Every one who possesses any taste for the acquisition of knowledge, has in the course of his life experienced, firsty * powerful desire to become familiar with every branch of human learning, and, subsequently, a feeling of strong disappointment upon recognising how small a portion of thig vast field he can ever hope even to survey. When the panorama of literature first unfolds itself before the newlyppened eyes of his intelligence, and displays the manifold lepartinents wherein the mind of man hus wrought, the large variety of subjects, all calculated to attract rational interest and attention, and the many famous names upon which he looks with an almost instinctive veneration,-an indescribable longing seizes him to plunge with ardent zeal into the profundities of all these subjects, to master the intricacies of all these departments, and peradventure even to leave his own associated with those other illustrious names. As each new volume is placed in his hands, this "ardour increases; and if he be thrown in the way of a large and well-filled library, it is not long before it assumes the form of a determinate purpose, and he resolves to become an omnivorous student. Metaphysics, moral and mental philosophy, theology, history in all its aspects and branches, physical science, and even fiction—in each and all of these he will be thoroughly versed, and no literary storehouse shall rest unransacked, from the bright, new work, fresh from the press, up to the most ancient
" That weight of wood, with leathern coat o'erlaid,
Those ample clasps of solid metal made,
No matter that he has other avocations in the world--ayocations which leave him little time for study, and which are, perhaps, of their very nature hostile to literary tastes. The shortness of life and the urgency of practical business, seem trifling obstacles to the fulfilment of this doininant purpose.
But this, which may be called the “encyclopædic stage,” is seldom of very long duration. A year is commonly long enough to demonstrate the hopelessness of the encyclopædic. design, and the disappointed student is reluctantly forced to recognise the narrow limits within which the power of acquiring knowledge is confined, and the comparatively trifling sum that a man can learn even when he has done his best. Now and again, perhaps, until the very end, with gradually lengthening intervals, the old thirst revives with new force; but the delusion becomes more and more apparent, and therefore more and more short-lived, as experience increases and confirms the prime disappointment. And at the close, when a man surveys his history, he prebably finds that the scheme of his youth for acquiring universal knowledge, has resulted in a collection of weary thrums and patches; and he mournfully admits that though he "gave his heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven,” it has been a sore and unprofitable travail.
This is a true account of the experience of most men who have been thinkers or readers. And such an experience is only in accordance with the general tenor of human life in affairs seemingly more momentous than mere literary acquirement. At one-and-twenty a lad has got an exhaustive moral theory of the universe, and has in most cases formed a creed for himself which is to be his ready guide in every emergency that may arise ; his plan of life is perfect. We all know how soon and how rudely the world shatters our neatly-constructed fabric, and what rough breaches a few months suffice to make in it. And the result is in many instances utterly disastrous; for the first rudder being broken or destroyed and carried away, we lose heart, and neglect either to repair it, or secure a laew one better adapted to resist the buffetings of the widaves. Hence it comes that we encounter such multitudes of li helmless beings, driven hither and thither at the me
of circumstances. And precisely the same shipwreck is frequently made at the very outset of life in the matter of knowledge and learning. The student commences his career with some such scheme as that which we have described above. He discovers that it is impracticable; and then, instead of setting to work to modify it
, and bring it into working order, he cuts the entire project away, and proceeds on his voyage without either that or any worthy substitute. Finding that he cannot make himself as learned as. Gibbon or Hallam, as profound a philosopher as Mill or Hamilton, as erudite a theologian as Barrow, as acute a mathematician as Laplace, and, generally, as encyclopædic as Diderot, he refuses to dedicate his labours to the pursuit of any one of these departments, and turns away from the learning which it is really in his power to achieve, because he cannot achieve more. Rather than alter or modify his. system, he prefers to be without systein altogether; and firmly adhering to the mischievous principle of being aut Cæsar aut nullus, be unhappily degenerates into the latter.
This frequent failure seems to be occasioned more commonly by a misconception of the ends of literature, than by mere weakness of purpose. It would require a volume to enumerate and set forth the nature of those ends, so many and complicated are they; for literature, affecting in diverse ways all sorts and conditions of men, and concerning them all, though to varying degrees, an exhaustive investigation of its functions and aims would be co-extensive with human occupations and duties. But we may do something towards abating such a misconception, even in our own
My remarks are designed for those who spend the greater portion of their lives in pursuits strictly professional or commercial ; who devote their chief energy to those pursuits ; and who have, therefore, no more to spare for the cultivation of general intellectual excellence than a fragment of time and a residue of vigour. There are crowds of young and ripe-aged men passing their days in warehouses and offices, or in the modified routine of visiting patients, who, notwithstanding the neighbouring Mechanics Institute or Athenæum, appear to be without very distinct notions of either the worth of general knowledge, or of the means by which it may be systematically acquired and judiciously turned to practical account. This indifference is not very difficult to explain : it arises chiefly from the