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Our only proper
where we had deemed ourselves strong. course is to leave the task on which we are presently en
gaged, and to employ our energies in repairing the breach Ewhich time has made in our knowledge, or which is to be
explained by want of care in our first construction of that particular portion of the fabric. Again and again does an earnest student sally back on this unpleasing enterprise ; again and again he returns to perfect his previous labour. To the wildly enthusiastic this is a sorry drudgery; but the man of sober and fixed purpose will waste no moments in repining over what is inevitable. If the reader is really in earnest, he will no sooner discover that he has forgotten somewhat of moment of what he once knew, than he will in all haste recur to it, until the rent be thoroughly repaired. As Milton has put it—"It is so supposed they must proceed by the steady pace of learning onward, as at convenient times for memory's sake to retire back into the middle-ward, and sometimes into the rear of what they have been taught, until they have confirmed and solidly united the whole body of their perfected knowledge, like the last embattling of a Roman legion.”
We may rest assured that no man of any note in the te world of letters or politics, has been able to attain his posi
tion without much sustained labour. In many cases this labour has been stupendous, and not even in those instances where success wonld appear to be principally owing to innate brilliance, has it been light or very intermittent. The same law holds good, in a slightly diminished degree, with those who do not propose fame as the goal of their labours, but only aim after a moderate measure of culture. Patience, soberness, and sedulous industry—these are the three essentials for all who aspire after a culture which, though it may lead to no brilliant external position, is in accordauce with the law of their nature.
III. All books should be read in a critical spirit. The author will be inore likely to write well and thoughtfully if he has this fact before his eyes; while, as I think, the reader will derive little benefit, and will read neither well nor thoughtfully, unless he obeys this rule. I am far from designing to encourage either a presumptuous or a cavilling frame of mind. Such would indeed be a strangely-mistaken purpose in connection with culture, whose end is to reveal to the mind the harmonies by which we are environed,
rather than fill it with discord, and that self-complacent acrimony which is more discordant than anything else besides. Baxter said of Sir Matthew Hale“ His very questions and objections did help me to more light than other men's solutions." The candid and fair-minded man who reads in what I have called a critical spirit, will find himself asking such questions and raising such objections as shall help him to at least as much light as the solutions of his author. Everybody who reads with his mind, in ever so small a degree, on the alert, and with ever so small a vivacity, must assimilate the thoughts of the writer with whom he is engaged to those which circumstances are sug gesting to him. If my reader has ever had occasion to write an essay, the composition of which has been spread over a considerable length of time, he will know what I mean by this, and will remember how everything that fell in his way during the intervals of such composition, seemed to have a bearing upon it. So in ordinary instances, a man will read with his eye unconsciously glancing at events in which he is interested, and between which and the volume before him he will not fail to detect some tolerably close relation. Such a relation may be fanciful, but it will import a reality and an interest into the matter which will enable him to put questions that may serve to illuminate what he is reading with a clear light, such as the author would have found it beyond his power to produce. As Barrow said, all reading ought to be of the nature of consultation ; and in consulting any authority, we put our own case more clearly than if we had kept it unsifted; while by raising such reasonable objections, and asking such pertinent questions as present themselves, we at once gain a more lucid apprehension of our own position, and a more decided recognition of the decision which has been given upon it. If reading be truly a consulting, it is obvious that we ought to criticise, unless the author chooses to be consulted on the terms of the Delphic oracle. Happily, Delphic oracles are not few in number, and can boast but few votaries. The intelligent man in search of an oracle is stayed by the oracular response, “Know thyself,” which makes a man in the main his own teacher and adviser. Nobodey but a fool supposes that he is the best or wisest person 'Living; and it may be said that in this case we ought alwa Nis to be on the look-out for some wiser or better than of Turselves,
whether in the flesh or in the pages of books. To which I would reply, that as much harm comes from following good advice without having previously criticised it, as from acting on one's own folly. Mr. Carlyle, who has probably given in his books more good counsels than any living man, talks in his last work of perfect advice having become so plentiful in this our epoch, with little but pavement to a certain locality as the consequence."* The reason why good advice falls so powerless, and has its end in good reso lutions, is, that it is given and accepted on a wrong footing
on the theory, namely, that it is neither to be questioned nor criticised. Men are too apt to take their views as Tristram Shandy's father did : “He would pick up an opinion, sir, as a man in a state of nature picks up an apple; it becomes his own, and if he is a man of spirit, he would lose his life rather than give it up."
The critical spirit involves two elements. In the first place, the reader must place the author's views in the best possible light, and must regard hinı as inspired by the best motives. The position must be, first of all, considered in. its most favourable aspect, and we must throw ourselves, as entirely as our education and breadth of mind will permit, into the author's philosophy. Having assured ourselves not only that we distinctly apprehend his meaning, but that to a certain extent we can realise how he came by such a doctrine, we ought then to change our position, and having, as advocate, placed the author's cause in its best light, to assume the function of the judge, and pronounce whether he have spoken well or ill.+
Professor Max Muller, in considering the diametrically opposed doctrines of Adam Smith and Leibnitz, as to whether the first names were general or particular, makes the following admirable observations: “There are two ways of judging former philosophers. One is to put aside their opinions as simply erroneous when they differ from our
way is to try to enter fully into
*“Frederick the Great," iii. 748.
+"A doctrine is not judged at all until it is judged in its best form."-J. S. MILL.
“No character, we may affirm, was ever rightly understood till it had first been regarded with a certain feeling not of tolerance only, but of sympathy.”—CARLYLE, “Essay on Voltaire.”
the opinions of those from whom we differ--to make them, for a time at least, our own, till at last we discover the point of view from which each philosopher looked at the facts before him, and catch the light in which he regarded them. We shall then find that there is much less of downright error in the history of philosophy, than is commonly supposed ; nay, we shall find nothing so conducive to a right appreciation of truth, as a right appreciation of the error by which it is surrounded.”
The object of all reading being to impart a maturity and vigour to the understanding, and ultimately to fit the student for the wise discharge of the various duties of life, it is evident that the standard of his criticism will be practical truth and applicability. So far as a doctrine can endure this test, it will gain his approbation, endorsement, and adherence. So far as a character, as disclosed to him in biography, illustrates and enforces some doctrine of this kind, it will secure his respect or admiration. And so far as any literary production operates as a stimulus to the growth of those sentiments and emotions which exercise a salutary influence upon practice, it will engage his sympathy.
No one who values truth at its right worth, will accuse me of demanding a preterhuman impartiality, or an unnatural candour. Most men are entirely responsible for their own mental tone. Bigotry, stupid self-confidence, and a wholesale disrespect for adversaries, are vices from which a man may as certainly preserve himself as from drunkenness or indolence; and yet it is very rarely that we encounter a man of judicial candour. Those who are able to tolerate a difference of opinion in most points, will generally be discovered to retain some one subject on which a difference of opinion is synonymous with ignorance, obstinacy, and wickedness. How many persons does any one of us know who could be safely trusted with absolute and despotic power over his neighbours for a week? Very few, I fear. But all this, while it shows that the vice of onesided unfairness is widely prevalent, is no argument that the strength and dominance of such a vice are irresistible. It only proves the necessity for stronger and more persevering effort.
Candour in literature is as important as charity in the scheme of Christianity. It is the keystone of that symmetrical arch which it is the office of culture to construct, and whence we are enabled to look with security
upon the turbulent waters of a life that knows no culture, and only diffuses itself in unregulated waste.
This section may be conveniently summed up in the following precepts, which, though not novel, are yet sufficiently remote from being universally adopted to bear reproducing. Concern yourself only with the attainment of truth, without respect to the ultimate conclusions which may be derived from it. Be not misled from this by the traditional respect or disrespect paid to writers, but form your own judgment. Adopt no principle, endorse no doctrine, without careful examination on your own part. Finally, respect all opinions which are supported by argument, however untenable they may seem. And above all, bear in mind Sir Thomas Browne's old saying—“I could never divide myself from any man upon the difference of an opinion, nor be angry with his judgment for not agreeing with me in that from which, within a few days, I should dissent niyself.”*
IV. Reading the most general should still be in some measure systematic.
It is a common error to suppose that general reading means reading which is carried on without an eye to the acquisition of any branch of knowledge, and simply implies the taking up of one book after another just as they come to our hand. By “general reader," we commonly mean a person who subscribes to a library and a literary periodical, and who gets out of the former all the books recommended by the latter, skims their contents without criticism, and without instruction ; whose reading is so general, that this week he is busy with Darwin on the “Origin of Species ;" next he will be buried in “The Woman in White;" and perhaps the week after that, will divide his attention between the “Life of Edward Irving," and the current number of the “Cornhill Magazine.'
This is indeed general reading, and may possibly be the only kind of pabulum which many stomachs can retain ; but whether any substantial or permanent benefit is obtained from so miscellaneous a diet, may well be doubted. Ill-educated young ladies may find a reputable pastime in this promiscuous literary disporting, and may derive from it material enough to enable them to talk with more than ordinary
* “Religio Medici,” p. 13.