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Chapter XI -
Self-Culture --- Facilities and Difficulties.
“Every person has two educations, one which he receives from others, and one, more important, which he gives to himself.” --- Gibbon.
“Is there one whom difficulties dishearten --- who bends to the storm? He will do little. Is there one who will conquer? That kind of man never fails.” --- John Hunter.
“The wise and active conquer difficulties,
By daring to attempt them: sloth and folly
Shiver and shrink at sight of toil and danger,
And make the impossibility they fear.” --- Rowe.
“The best part of every man’s education,” said Sir Walter Scott, “is that which he gives to himself.” The late Sir Benjamin Brodie delighted to remember this saying, and he used to congratulate himself on the fact that professionally he was self-taught. But this is necessarily the case with all men who have acquired distinction in letters, science, or art. The education received at school or college is but a beginning, and is valuable mainly inasmuch as it trains the mind and habituates it to continuous application and study. That which is put into us by others is always far less ours than that which we acquire by our own diligent and persevering effort. Knowledge conquered by labour becomes a possession --- a property entirely our own. A greater vividness and permanency of impression is secured; and facts thus acquired become registered in the mind in a way that mere imparted information can never effect. This kind of self-culture also calls forth power and cultivates strength. The solution of one problem helps the mastery of another; and thus knowledge is carried into faculty. Our own active effort is the essential thing; and no facilities, no books, no teachers, no amount of lessons learnt by rote will enable us to dispense with it.
The best teachers have been the readiest to recognize the importance of self-culture, and of stimulating the student to acquire knowledge by the active exercise of his own faculties. They have relied more upon training than upon telling, and sought to make their pupils themselves active parties to the work in which they were engaged; thus making teaching something far higher than the mere passive reception of the scraps and details of knowledge. This was the spirit in which the great Dr. Arnold worked; he strove to teach his pupils to rely upon themselves, and develop their powers by their own active efforts, himself merely guiding, directing, stimulating, and encouraging them. “I would far rather,” he said, “send a boy to Van Diemen’s Land, where he must work for his bread, than send him to Oxford to live in luxury, without any desire in his mind to avail himself of his advantages.” “If there be one thing on earth,” he observed on another occasion, “which is truly admirable, it is to see God’s wisdom blessing an inferiority of natural powers, when they have been honestly, truly, and zealously cultivated.” Speaking of a pupil of this character, he said, “I would stand to that man hat in hand.” Once at Laleham, when teaching a rather dull boy, Arnold spoke somewhat sharply to him, on which the pupil looked up in his face and said, “Why do you speak angrily, sir? indeed, I am doing the best I can.” Years afterwards, Arnold used to tell the story to his children, and added, “I never felt so much in my life --- that look and that speech I have never forgotten.”
From the numerous instances already cited of men of humble station who have risen to distinction in science and literature, it will be obvious that labour is by no means incompatible with the highest intellectual culture. Work in moderation is healthy, as well as agreeable to the human constitution. Work educates the body, as study educates the mind; and that is the best state of society in which there is some work for every man’s leisure, and some leisure for every man’s work. Even the leisure classes are in a measure compelled to work, sometimes as a relief from ennui, but in most cases to gratify an instinct which they cannot resist. Some go foxhunting in the English counties, others grouse-shooting on the Scotch hills, while many wander away every summer to climb mountains in Switzerland. Hence the boating, running, cricketing, and athletic sports of the public schools, in which our young men at the same time so healthfully cultivate their strength both of mind and body. It is said that the Duke of Wellington, when once looking on at the boys engaged in their sports in the play-ground at Eton, where he had spent many of his own younger days, made the remark, “It was there that the battle of Waterloo was won!”
Daniel Malthus urged his son when at college to be most diligent in the cultivation of knowledge, but he also enjoined him to pursue manly sports as the best means of keeping up the full working power of his mind, as well as of enjoying the pleasures of intellect. “Every kind of knowledge,” said he, “every acquaintance with nature and art, will amuse and strengthen your mind, and I am perfectly pleased that cricket should do the same by your arms and legs; I love to see you excel in exercises of the body, and I think myself that the better half, and much the most agreeable part, of the pleasures of the mind is best enjoyed while one is upon one’s legs.” But a still more important use of active employment is that referred to by the great divine, Jeremy Taylor. “Avoid idleness,” he says, “and fill up all the spaces of thy time with severe and useful employment; for lust easily creeps in at those emptinesses where the soul is unemployed and the body is at ease; for no easy, healthful, idle person was ever chaste if he could be tempted; but of all employments bodily labour is the most useful, and of the greatest benefit for driving away the devil.”
Practical success in life depends more upon physical health than is generally imagined. Hodson, of Hodson’s Horse, writing home to a friend in England, said, “I believe, if I get on well in India, it will be owing, physically speaking, to a sound digestion.” The capacity for continuous working in any calling must necessarily depend in a great measure upon this; and hence the necessity for attending to health, even as a means of intellectual labour. It is perhaps to the neglect of physical exercise that we find amongst students so frequent a tendency towards discontent, unhappiness, inaction, and reverie, --- displaying itself in contempt for real life and disgust at the beaten tracks of men, --- a tendency which in England has been called Byronism, and in Germany Wertherism. Dr. Channing noted the same growth in America, which led him to make the remark, that “too many of our young men grow up in a school of despair.” The only remedy for this green-sickness in youth is physical exercise --- action, work, and bodily occupation.
The use of early labour in self-imposed mechanical employments may be illustrated by the boyhood of Sir Isaac Newton. Though a comparatively dull scholar, he was very assiduous in the use of his saw, hammer, and hatchet --- “knocking and hammering in his lodging room” --- making models of windmills, carriages, and machines of all sorts; and as he grew older, he took delight in making little tables and cupboards for his friends. Smeaton, Watt, and Stephenson, were equally handy with tools when mere boys; and but for such kind of self-culture in their youth, it is doubtful whether they would have accomplished so much in their manhood. Such was also the early training of the great inventors and mechanics described in the preceding pages, whose contrivance and intelligence were practically trained by the constant use of their hands in early life. Even where men belonging to the manual labour class have risen above it, and become more purely intellectual labourers, they have found the advantages of their early training in their later pursuits. Elihu Burritt says he found hard labour necessary to enable him to study with effect; and more than once he gave up school-teaching and study, and, taking to his leather-apron again, went back to his blacksmith’s forge and anvil for his health of body and mind’s sake.
The training of young men in the use of tools would, at the same time that it educated them in “common things,” teach them the use of their hands and arms, familiarize them with healthy work, exercise their faculties upon things tangible and actual, give them some practical acquaintance with mechanics, impart to them the ability of being useful, and implant in them the habit of persevering physical effort. This is an advantage which the working classes, strictly so called, certainly possess over the leisure classes, --- that they are in early life under the necessity of applying themselves laboriously to some mechanical pursuit or other, --- thus acquiring manual dexterity and the use of their physical powers. The chief disadvantage attached to the calling of the laborious classes is, not that they are employed in physical work, but that they are too exclusively so employed, often to the neglect of their moral and intellectual faculties. While the youths of the leisure classes, having been taught to associate labour with servility, have shunned it, and been allowed to grow up practically ignorant, the poorer classes, confining themselves within the circle of their laborious callings, have been allowed to grow up in a large proportion of cases absolutely illiterate. It seems possible, however, to avoid both these evils by combining physical training or physical work with intellectual culture: and there are various signs abroad which seem to mark the gradual adoption of this healthier system of education.
The success of even professional men depends in no slight degree on their physical health; and a public writer has gone so far as to say that “the greatness of our great men is quite as much a bodily affair as a mental one.”  A healthy breathing apparatus is as indispensable to the successful lawyer or politician as a well-cultured intellect. The thorough aëration of the blood by free exposure to a large breathing surface in the lungs, is necessary to maintain that full vital power on which the vigorous working of the brain in so large a measure depends. The lawyer has to climb the heights of his profession through close and heated courts, and the political leader has to bear the fatigue and excitement of long and anxious debates in a crowded House. Hence the lawyer in full practice and the parliamentary leader in full work are called upon to display powers of physical endurance and activity even more extraordinary than those of the intellect, --- such powers as have been exhibited in so remarkable a degree by Brougham, Lyndhurst, and Campbell; by Peel, Graham, and Palmerston --- all full-chested men.
Though Sir Walter Scott, when at Edinburgh College, went by the name of “The Greek Blockhead,” he was, notwithstanding his lameness, a remarkably healthy youth: he could spear a salmon with the best fisher on the Tweed, and ride a wild horse with any hunter in Yarrow. When devoting himself in after life to literary pursuits, Sir Walter never lost his taste for field sports; but while writing ‘Waverley’ in the morning, he would in the afternoon course hares. Professor Wilson was a very athlete, as great at throwing the hammer as in his flights of eloquence and poetry; and Burns, when a youth, was remarkable chiefly for his leaping, putting, and wrestling. Some of our greatest divines were distinguished in their youth for their physical energies. Isaac Barrow, when at the Charterhouse School, was notorious for his pugilistic encounters, in which he got many a bloody nose; Andrew Fuller, when working as a farmer’s lad at Soham, was chiefly famous for his skill in boxing; and Adam Clarke, when a boy, was only remarkable for the strength displayed by him in “rolling large stones about,” --- the secret, possibly, of some of the power which he subsequently displayed in rolling forth large thoughts in his manhood.
While it is necessary, then, in the first place to secure this solid foundation of physical health, it must also be observed that the cultivation of the habit of mental application is quite indispensable for the education of the student. The maxim that “Labour conquers all things” holds especially true in the case of the conquest of knowledge. The road into learning is alike free to all who will give the labour and the study requisite to gather it; nor are there any difficulties so great that the student of resolute purpose may not surmount and overcome them. It was one of the characteristic expressions of Chatterton, that God had sent his creatures into the world with arms long enough to reach anything if they chose to be at the trouble. In study, as in business, energy is the great thing. There must be the “fervet opus”: we must not only strike the iron while it is hot, but strike it till it is made hot. It is astonishing how much may be accomplished in self-culture by the energetic and the persevering, who are careful to avail themselves of opportunities, and use up the fragments of spare time which the idle permit to run to waste. Thus Ferguson learnt astronomy from the heavens, while wrapt in a sheep-skin on the highland hills. Thus Stone learnt mathematics while working as a journeyman gardener; thus Drew studied the highest philosophy in the intervals of cobbling shoes; and thus Miller taught himself geology while working as a day labourer in a quarry.
Sir Joshua Reynolds, as we have already observed, was so earnest a believer in the force of industry that he held that all men might achieve excellence if they would but exercise the power of assiduous and patient working. He held that drudgery lay on the road to genius, and that there was no limit to the proficiency of an artist except the limit of his own painstaking. He would not believe in what is called inspiration, but only in study and labour. “Excellence,” he said, “is never granted to man but as the reward of labour.” “If you have great talents, industry will improve them; if you have but moderate abilities, industry will supply their deficiency. Nothing is denied to well-directed labour; nothing is to be obtained without it.” Sir Fowell Buxton was an equal believer in the power of study; and he entertained the modest idea that he could do as well as other men if he devoted to the pursuit double the time and labour that they did. He placed his great confidence in ordinary means and extraordinary application.
“I have known several men in my life,” says Dr. Ross, “who may be recognized in days to come as men of genius, and they were all plodders, hard-working, intent men. Genius is known by its works; genius without works is a blind faith, a dumb oracle. But meritorious works are the result of time and labour, and cannot be accomplished by intention or by a wish. . . . Every great work is the result of vast preparatory training. Facility comes by labour. Nothing seems easy, not even walking, that was not difficult at first. The orator whose eye flashes instantaneous fire, and whose lips pour out a flood of noble thoughts, startling by their unexpectedness, and elevating by their wisdom and truth, has learned his secret by patient repetition, and after many bitter disappointments.” 
Thoroughness and accuracy are two principal points to be aimed at in study. Francis Horner, in laying down rules for the cultivation of his mind, placed great stress upon the habit of continuous application to one subject for the sake of mastering it thoroughly; he confined himself, with this object, to only a few books, and resisted with the greatest firmness “every approach to a habit of desultory reading.” The value of knowledge to any man consists not in its quantity, but mainly in the good uses to which he can apply it. Hence a little knowledge, of an exact and perfect character, is always found more valuable for practical purposes than any extent of superficial learning.
One of Ignatius Loyola’s maxims was, “He who does well one work at a time, does more than all.” By spreading our efforts over too large a surface we inevitably weaken our force, hinder our progress, and acquire a habit of fitfulness and ineffective working. Lord St. Leonards once communicated to Sir Fowell Buxton the mode in which he had conducted his studies, and thus explained the secret of his success. “I resolved,” said he, “when beginning to read law, to make everything I acquired perfectly my own, and never to go to a second thing till I had entirely accomplished the first. Many of my competitors read as much in a day as I read in a week; but, at the end of twelve months, my knowledge was as fresh as the day it was acquired, while theirs had glided away from recollection.”
It is not the quantity of study that one gets through, or the amount of reading, that makes a wise man; but the appositeness of the study to the purpose for which it is pursued; the concentration of the mind for the time being on the subject under consideration; and the habitual discipline by which the whole system of mental application is regulated. Abernethy was even of opinion that there was a point of saturation in his own mind, and that if he took into it something more than it could hold, it only had the effect of pushing something else out. Speaking of the study of medicine, he said, “If a man has a clear idea of what he desires to do, he will seldom fail in selecting the proper means of accomplishing it.”
The most profitable study is that which is conducted with a definite aim and object. By thoroughly mastering any given branch of knowledge we render it more available for use at any moment. Hence it is not enough merely to have books, or to know where to read for information as we want it. Practical wisdom, for the purposes of life, must be carried about with us, and be ready for use at call. It is not sufficient that we have a fund laid up at home, but not a farthing in the pocket: we must carry about with us a store of the current coin of knowledge ready for exchange on all occasions, else we are comparatively helpless when the opportunity for using it occurs.
Decision and promptitude are as requisite in self-culture as in business. The growth of these qualities may be encouraged by accustoming young people to rely upon their own resources, leaving them to enjoy as much freedom of action in early life as is practicable. Too much guidance and restraint hinder the formation of habits of self-help. They are like bladders tied under the arms of one who has not taught himself to swim. Want of confidence is perhaps a greater obstacle to improvement than is generally imagined. It has been said that half the failures in life arise from pulling in one’s horse while he is leaping. Dr. Johnson was accustomed to attribute his success to confidence in his own powers. True modesty is quite compatible with a due estimate of one’s own merits, and does not demand the abnegation of all merit. Though there are those who deceive themselves by putting a false figure before their ciphers, the want of confidence, the want of faith in one’s self, and consequently the want of promptitude in action, is a defect of character which is found to stand very much in the way of individual progress; and the reason why so little is done, is generally because so little is attempted.
There is usually no want of desire on the part of most persons to arrive at the results of self-culture, but there is a great aversion to pay the inevitable price for it, of hard work. Dr. Johnson held that “impatience of study was the mental disease of the present generation;” and the remark is still applicable. We may not believe that there is a royal road to learning, but we seem to believe very firmly in a “popular” one. In education, we invent labour-saving processes, seek short cuts to science, learn French and Latin “in twelve lessons,” or “without a master.” We resemble the lady of fashion, who engaged a master to teach her on condition that he did not plague her with verbs and participles. We get our smattering of science in the same way; we learn chemistry by listening to a short course of lectures enlivened by experiments, and when we have inhaled laughing gas, seen green water turned to red, and phosphorus burnt in oxygen, we have got our smattering, of which the most that can be said is, that though it may be better than nothing, it is yet good for nothing. Thus we often imagine we are being educated while we are only being amused.
The facility with which young people are thus induced to acquire knowledge, without study and labour, is not education. It occupies but does not enrich the mind. It imparts a stimulus for the time, and produces a sort of intellectual keenness and cleverness; but, without an implanted purpose and a higher object than mere pleasure, it will bring with it no solid advantage. In such cases knowledge produces but a passing impression; a sensation, but no more; it is, in fact, the merest epicurism of intelligence --- sensuous, but certainly not intellectual. Thus the best qualities of many minds, those which are evoked by vigorous effort and independent action, sleep a deep sleep, and are often never called to life, except by the rough awakening of sudden calamity or suffering, which, in such cases, comes as a blessing, if it serves to rouse up a courageous spirit that, but for it, would have slept on.
Accustomed to acquire information under the guise of amusement, young people will soon reject that which is presented to them under the aspect of study and labour. Learning their knowledge and science in sport, they will be too apt to make sport of both; while the habit of intellectual dissipation, thus engendered, cannot fail, in course of time, to produce a thoroughly emasculating effect both upon their mind and character. “Multifarious reading,” said Robertson of Brighton, “weakens the mind like smoking, and is an excuse for its lying dormant. It is the idlest of all idlenesses, and leaves more of impotency than any other.”
The evil is a growing one, and operates in various ways. Its least mischief is shallowness; its greatest, the aversion to steady labour which it induces, and the low and feeble tone of mind which it encourages. If we would be really wise, we must diligently apply ourselves, and confront the same continuous application which our forefathers did; for labour is still, and ever will be, the inevitable price set upon everything which is valuable. We must be satisfied to work with a purpose, and wait the results with patience. All progress, of the best kind, is slow; but to him who works faithfully and zealously the reward will, doubtless, be vouchsafed in good time. The spirit of industry, embodied in a man’s daily life, will gradually lead him to exercise his powers on objects outside himself, of greater dignity and more extended usefulness. And still we must labour on; for the work of self-culture is never finished. “To be employed,” said the poet Gray, “is to be happy.” “It is better to wear out than rust out,” said Bishop Cumberland. “Have we not all eternity to rest in?” exclaimed Arnauld. “Repos ailleurs” was the motto of Marnix de St. Aldegonde, the energetic and ever-working friend of William the Silent.
It is the use we make of the powers entrusted to us, which constitutes our only just claim to respect. He who employs his one talent aright is as much to be honoured as he to whom ten talents have been given. There is really no more personal merit attaching to the possession of superior intellectual powers than there is in the succession to a large estate. How are those powers used --- how is that estate employed? The mind may accumulate large stores of knowledge without any useful purpose; but the knowledge must be allied to goodness and wisdom, and embodied in upright character, else it is naught. Pestalozzi even held intellectual training by itself to be pernicious; insisting that the roots of all knowledge must strike and feed in the soil of the rightly-governed will. The acquisition of knowledge may, it is true, protect a man against the meaner felonies of life; but not in any degree against its selfish vices, unless fortified by sound principles and habits. Hence do we find in daily life so many instances of men who are well-informed in intellect, but utterly deformed in character; filled with the learning of the schools, yet possessing little practical wisdom, and offering examples for warning rather than imitation. An often quoted expression at this day is that “Knowledge is power;” but so also are fanaticism, despotism, and ambition. Knowledge of itself, unless wisely directed, might merely make bad men more dangerous, and the society in which it was regarded as the highest good, little better than a pandemonium.
It is possible that at this day we may even exaggerate the importance of literary culture. We are apt to imagine that because we possess many libraries, institutes, and museums, we are making great progress. But such facilities may as often be a hindrance as a help to individual self-culture of the highest kind. The possession of a library, or the free use of it, no more constitutes learning, than the possession of wealth constitutes generosity. Though we undoubtedly possess great facilities it is nevertheless true, as of old, that wisdom and understanding can only become the possession of individual men by travelling the old road of observation, attention, perseverance, and industry. The possession of the mere materials of knowledge is something very different from wisdom and understanding, which are reached through a higher kind of discipline than that of reading, --- which is often but a mere passive reception of other men’s thoughts; there being little or no active effort of mind in the transaction. Then how much of our reading is but the indulgence of a sort of intellectual dram-drinking, imparting a grateful excitement for the moment, without the slightest effect in improving and enriching the mind or building up the character. Thus many indulge themselves in the conceit that they are cultivating their minds, when they are only employed in the humbler occupation of killing time, of which perhaps the best that can be said is that it keeps them from doing worse things.
It is also to be borne in mind that the experience gathered from books, though often valuable, is but of the nature of learning; whereas the experience gained from actual life is of the nature of wisdom; and a small store of the latter is worth vastly more than any stock of the former. Lord Bolingbroke truly said that “Whatever study tends neither directly nor indirectly to make us better men and citizens, is at best but a specious and ingenious sort of idleness, and the knowledge we acquire by it, only a creditable kind of ignorance --- nothing more.”
Useful and instructive though good reading may be, it is yet only one mode of cultivating the mind; and is much less influential than practical experience and good example in the formation of character. There were wise, valiant, and true-hearted men bred in England, long before the existence of a reading public. Magna Charta was secured by men who signed the deed with their marks. Though altogether unskilled in the art of deciphering the literary signs by which principles were denominated upon paper, they yet understood and appreciated, and boldly contended for, the things themselves. Thus the foundations of English liberty were laid by men, who, though illiterate, were nevertheless of the very highest stamp of character. And it must be admitted that the chief object of culture is, not merely to fill the mind with other men’s thoughts, and to be the passive recipient of their impressions of things, but to enlarge our individual intelligence, and render us more useful and efficient workers in the sphere of life to which we may be called. Many of our most energetic and useful workers have been but sparing readers. Brindley and Stephenson did not learn to read and write until they reached manhood, and yet they did great works and lived manly lives; John Hunter could barely read or write when he was twenty years old, though he could make tables and chairs with any carpenter in the trade. “I never read,” said the great physiologist when lecturing before his class; “this” --- pointing to some part of the subject before him --- “this is the work that you must study if you wish to become eminent in your profession.” When told that one of his contemporaries had charged him with being ignorant of the dead languages, he said, “I would undertake to teach him that on the dead body which he never knew in any language, dead or living.”
It is not then how much a man may know, that is of importance, but the end and purpose for which he knows it. The object of knowledge should be to mature wisdom and improve character, to render us better, happier, and more useful; more benevolent, more energetic, and more efficient in the pursuit of every high purpose in life. “When people once fall into the habit of admiring and encouraging ability as such, without reference to moral character --- and religious and political opinions are the concrete form of moral character --- they are on the highway to all sorts of degradation.”  We must ourselves be and do, and not rest satisfied merely with reading and meditating over what other men have been and done. Our best light must be made life, and our best thought action. At least we ought to be able to say, as Richter did, “I have made as much out of myself as could be made of the stuff, and no man should require more;” for it is every man’s duty to discipline and guide himself, with God’s help, according to his responsibilities and the faculties with which he has been endowed.
Self-discipline and self-control are the beginnings of practical wisdom; and these must have their root in self-respect. Hope springs from it --- hope, which is the companion of power, and the mother of success; for whoso hopes strongly has within him the gift of miracles. The humblest may say, “To respect myself, to develop myself --- this is my true duty in life. An integral and responsible part of the great system of society, I owe it to society and to its Author not to degrade or destroy either my body, mind, or instincts. On the contrary, I am bound to the best of my power to give to those parts of my constitution the highest degree of perfection possible. I am not only to suppress the evil, but to evoke the good elements in my nature. And as I respect myself, so am I equally bound to respect others, as they on their part are bound to respect me.” Hence mutual respect, justice, and order, of which law becomes the written record and guarantee.
Self-respect is the noblest garment with which a man may clothe himself --- the most elevating feeling with which the mind can be inspired. One of Pythagoras’s wisest maxims, in his ‘Golden Verses,’ is that with which he enjoins the pupil to “reverence himself.” Borne up by this high idea, he will not defile his body by sensuality, nor his mind by servile thoughts. This sentiment, carried into daily life, will be found at the root of all the virtues --- cleanliness, sobriety, chastity, morality, and religion. “The pious and just honouring of ourselves,” said Milton, “may be thought the radical moisture and fountain-head from whence every laudable and worthy enterprise issues forth.” To think meanly of one’s self, is to sink in one’s own estimation as well as in the estimation of others. And as the thoughts are, so will the acts be. Man cannot aspire if he look down; if he will rise, he must look up. The very humblest may be sustained by the proper indulgence of this feeling. Poverty itself may be lifted and lighted up by self-respect; and it is truly a noble sight to see a poor man hold himself upright amidst his temptations, and refuse to demean himself by low actions.
One way in which self-culture may be degraded is by regarding it too exclusively as a means of “getting on.” Viewed in this light, it is unquestionable that education is one of the best investments of time and labour. In any line of life, intelligence will enable a man to adapt himself more readily to circumstances, suggest improved methods of working, and render him more apt, skilled and effective in all respects. He who works with his head as well as his hands, will come to look at his business with a clearer eye; and he will become conscious of increasing power --- perhaps the most cheering consciousness the human mind can cherish. The power of self-help will gradually grow; and in proportion to a man’s self-respect, will he be armed against the temptation of low indulgences. Society and its action will be regarded with quite a new interest, his sympathies will widen and enlarge, and he will thus be attracted to work for others as well as for himself.
Self-culture may not, however, end in eminence, as in the numerous instances above cited. The great majority of men, in all times, however enlightened, must necessarily be engaged in the ordinary avocations of industry; and no degree of culture which can be conferred upon the community at large will ever enable them --- even were it desirable, which it is not --- to get rid of the daily work of society, which must be done. But this, we think, may also be accomplished. We can elevate the condition of labour by allying it to noble thoughts, which confer a grace upon the lowliest as well as the highest rank. For no matter how poor or humble a man may be, the great thinker of this and other days may come in and sit down with him, and be his companion for the time, though his dwelling be the meanest hut. It is thus that the habit of well-directed reading may become a source of the greatest pleasure and self-improvement, and exercise a gentle coercion, with the most beneficial results, over the whole tenour of a man’s character and conduct. And even though self-culture may not bring wealth, it will at all events give one the companionship of elevated thoughts. A nobleman once contemptuously asked of a sage, “What have you got by all your philosophy?” “At least I have got society in myself,” was the wise man’s reply.
But many are apt to feel despondent, and become discouraged in the work of self-culture, because they do not “get on” in the world so fast as they think they deserve to do. Having planted their acorn, they expect to see it grow into an oak at once. They have perhaps looked upon knowledge in the light of a marketable commodity, and are consequently mortified because it does not sell as they expected it would do. Mr. Tremenheere, in one of his ‘Education Reports’ (for 1840–1), states that a schoolmaster in Norfolk, finding his school rapidly falling off, made inquiry into the cause, and ascertained that the reason given by the majority of the parents for withdrawing their children was, that they had expected “education was to make them better off than they were before,” but that having found it had “done them no good,” they had taken their children from school, and would give themselves no further trouble about education!
The same low idea of self-culture is but too prevalent in other classes, and is encouraged by the false views of life which are always more or less current in society. But to regard self-culture either as a means of getting past others in the world, or of intellectual dissipation and amusement, rather than as a power to elevate the character and expand the spiritual nature, is to place it on a very low level. To use the words of Bacon, “Knowledge is not a shop for profit or sale, but a rich storehouse for the glory of the Creator and the relief of man’s estate.” It is doubtless most honourable for a man to labour to elevate himself, and to better his condition in society, but this is not to be done at the sacrifice of himself. To make the mind the mere drudge of the body, is putting it to a very servile use; and to go about whining and bemoaning our pitiful lot because we fail in achieving that success in life which, after all, depends rather upon habits of industry and attention to business details than upon knowledge, is the mark of a small, and often of a sour mind. Such a temper cannot better be reproved than in the words of Robert Southey, who thus wrote to a friend who sought his counsel: “I would give you advice if it could be of use; but there is no curing those who choose to be diseased. A good man and a wise man may at times be angry with the world, at times grieved for it; but be sure no man was ever discontented with the world if he did his duty in it. If a man of education, who has health, eyes, hands, and leisure, wants an object, it is only because God Almighty has bestowed all those blessings upon a man who does not deserve them.”
Another way in which education may be prostituted is by employing it as a mere means of intellectual dissipation and amusement. Many are the ministers to this taste in our time. There is almost a mania for frivolity and excitement, which exhibits itself in many forms in our popular literature. To meet the public taste, our books and periodicals must now be highly spiced, amusing, and comic, not disdaining slang, and illustrative of breaches of all laws, human and divine. Douglas Jerrold once observed of this tendency, “I am convinced the world will get tired (at least I hope so) of this eternal guffaw about all things. After all, life has something serious in it. It cannot be all a comic history of humanity. Some men would, I believe, write a Comic Sermon on the Mount. Think of a Comic History of England, the drollery of Alfred, the fun of Sir Thomas More, the farce of his daughter begging the dead head and clasping it in her coffin on her bosom. Surely the world will be sick of this blasphemy.” John Sterling, in a like spirit, said: --- “Periodicals and novels are to all in this generation, but more especially to those whose minds are still unformed and in the process of formation, a new and more effectual substitute for the plagues of Egypt, vermin that corrupt the wholesome waters and infest our chambers.”
As a rest from toil and a relaxation from graver pursuits, the perusal of a well-written story, by a writer of genius, is a high intellectual pleasure; and it is a description of literature to which all classes of readers, old and young, are attracted as by a powerful instinct; nor would we have any of them debarred from its enjoyment in a reasonable degree. But to make it the exclusive literary diet, as some do, --- to devour the garbage with which the shelves of circulating libraries are filled, --- and to occupy the greater portion of the leisure hours in studying the preposterous pictures of human life which so many of them present, is worse than waste of time: it is positively pernicious. The habitual novel-reader indulges in fictitious feelings so much, that there is great risk of sound and healthy feeling becoming perverted or benumbed. “I never go to hear a tragedy,” said a gay man once to the Archbishop of York, “it wears my heart out.” The literary pity evoked by fiction leads to no corresponding action; the susceptibilities which it excites involve neither inconvenience nor self-sacrifice; so that the heart that is touched too often by the fiction may at length become insensible to the reality. The steel is gradually rubbed out of the character, and it insensibly loses its vital spring. “Drawing fine pictures of virtue in one’s mind,” said Bishop Butler, “is so far from necessarily or certainly conducive to form a habit of it in him who thus employs himself, that it may even harden the mind in a contrary course, and render it gradually more insensible.”
Amusement in moderation is wholesome, and to be commended; but amusement in excess vitiates the whole nature, and is a thing to be carefully guarded against. The maxim is often quoted of “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy;” but all play and no work makes him something greatly worse. Nothing can be more hurtful to a youth than to have his soul sodden with pleasure. The best qualities of his mind are impaired; common enjoyments become tasteless; his appetite for the higher kind of pleasures is vitiated; and when he comes to face the work and the duties of life, the result is usually aversion and disgust. “Fast” men waste and exhaust the powers of life, and dry up the sources of true happiness. Having forestalled their spring, they can produce no healthy growth of either character or intellect. A child without simplicity, a maiden without innocence, a boy without truthfulness, are not more piteous sights than the man who has wasted and thrown away his youth in self-indulgence. Mirabeau said of himself, “My early years have already in a great measure disinherited the succeeding ones, and dissipated a great part of my vital powers.” As the wrong done to another to-day returns upon ourselves to-morrow, so the sins of our youth rise up in our age to scourge us. When Lord Bacon says that “strength of nature in youth passeth over many excesses which are owing a man until he is old,” he exposes a physical as well as a moral fact which cannot be too well weighed in the conduct of life. “I assure you,” wrote Giusti the Italian to a friend, “I pay a heavy price for existence. It is true that our lives are not at our own disposal. Nature pretends to give them gratis at the beginning, and then sends in her account.” The worst of youthful indiscretions is, not that they destroy health, so much as that they sully manhood. The dissipated youth becomes a tainted man; and often he cannot be pure, even if he would. If cure there be, it is only to be found in inoculating the mind with a fervent spirit of duty, and in energetic application to useful work.
One of the most gifted of Frenchmen, in point of great intellectual endowments, was Benjamin Constant; but, blasé at twenty, his life was only a prolonged wail, instead of a harvest of the great deeds which he was capable of accomplishing with ordinary diligence and self-control. He resolved upon doing so many things, which he never did, that people came to speak of him as Constant the Inconstant. He was a fluent and brilliant writer, and cherished the ambition of writing works, “which the world would not willingly let die.” But whilst Constant affected the highest thinking, unhappily he practised the lowest living; nor did the transcendentalism of his books atone for the meanness of his life. He frequented the gaming-tables while engaged in preparing his work upon religion, and carried on a disreputable intrigue while writing his ‘Adolphe.’ With all his powers of intellect, he was powerless, because he had no faith in virtue. “Bah!” said he, “what are honour and dignity? The longer I live, the more clearly I see there is nothing in them.” It was the howl of a miserable man. He described himself as but “ashes and dust.” “I pass,” said he, “like a shadow over the earth, accompanied by misery and ennui.” He wished for Voltaire’s energy, which he would rather have possessed than his genius. But he had no strength of purpose --- nothing but wishes: his life, prematurely exhausted, had become but a heap of broken links. He spoke of himself as a person with one foot in the air. He admitted that he had no principles, and no moral consistency. Hence, with his splendid talents, he contrived to do nothing; and, after living many years miserable, he died worn out and wretched.
The career of Augustin Thierry, the author of the ‘History of the Norman Conquest,’ affords an admirable contrast to that of Constant. His entire life presented a striking example of perseverance, diligence, self culture, and untiring devotion to knowledge. In the pursuit he lost his eyesight, lost his health, but never lost his love of truth. When so feeble that he was carried from room to room, like a helpless infant, in the arms of a nurse, his brave spirit never failed him; and blind and helpless though he was, he concluded his literary career in the following noble words: --- “If, as I think, the interest of science is counted in the number of great national interests, I have given my country all that the soldier, mutilated on the field of battle, gives her. Whatever may be the fate of my labours, this example, I hope, will not be lost. I would wish it to serve to combat the species of moral weakness which is the disease of our present generation; to bring back into the straight road of life some of those enervated souls that complain of wanting faith, that know not what to do, and seek everywhere, without finding it, an object of worship and admiration. Why say, with so much bitterness, that in the world, constituted as it is, there is no air for all lungs --- no employment for all minds? Is not calm and serious study there? and is not that a refuge, a hope, a field within the reach of all of us? With it, evil days are passed over without their weight being felt. Every one can make his own destiny --- every one employ his life nobly. This is what I have done, and would do again if I had to recommence my career; I would choose that which has brought me where I am. Blind, and suffering without hope, and almost without intermission, I may give this testimony, which from me will not appear suspicious. There is something in the world better than sensual enjoyments, better than fortune, better than health itself --- it is devotion to knowledge.”
Coleridge, in many respects, resembled Constant. He possessed equally brilliant powers, but was similarly infirm of purpose. With all his great intellectual gifts, he wanted the gift of industry, and was averse to continuous labour. He wanted also the sense of independence, and thought it no degradation to leave his wife and children to be maintained by the brain-work of the noble Southey, while he himself retired to Highgate Grove to discourse transcendentalism to his disciples, looking down contemptuously upon the honest work going forward beneath him amidst the din and smoke of London. With remunerative employment at his command he stooped to accept the charity of friends; and, notwithstanding his lofty ideas of philosophy, he condescended to humiliations from which many a day-labourer would have shrunk. How different in spirit was Southey! labouring not merely at work of his own choice, and at taskwork often tedious and distasteful, but also unremittingly and with the utmost eagerness seeking and storing knowledge purely for the love of it. Every day, every hour had its allotted employment: engagements to publishers requiring punctual fulfilment; the current expenses of a large household duty to provide: for Southey had no crop growing while his pen was idle. “My ways,” he used to say, “are as broad as the king’s high-road, and my means lie in an inkstand.”
Robert Nicoll wrote to a friend, after reading the ‘Recollections of Coleridge,’ “What a mighty intellect was lost in that man for want of a little energy --- a little determination!” Nicoll himself was a true and brave spirit, who died young, but not before he had encountered and overcome great difficulties in life. At his outset, while carrying on a small business as a bookseller, he found himself weighed down with a debt of only twenty pounds, which he said he felt “weighing like a millstone round his neck,” and that, “if he had it paid he never would borrow again from mortal man.” Writing to his mother at the time he said, “Fear not for me, dear mother, for I feel myself daily growing firmer and more hopeful in spirit. The more I think and reflect --- and thinking, not reading, is now my occupation --- I feel that, whether I be growing richer or not, I am growing a wiser man, which is far better. Pain, poverty, and all the other wild beasts of life which so affrighten others, I am so bold as to think I could look in the face without shrinking, without losing respect for myself, faith in man’s high destinies, or trust in God. There is a point which it costs much mental toil and struggling to gain, but which, when once gained, a man can look down from, as a traveller from a lofty mountain, on storms raging below, while he is walking in sunshine. That I have yet gained this point in life I will not say, but I feel myself daily nearer to it.”
It is not ease, but effort --- not facility, but difficulty, that makes men. There is, perhaps, no station in life, in which difficulties have not to be encountered and overcome before any decided measure of success can be achieved. Those difficulties are, however, our best instructors, as our mistakes often form our best experience. Charles James Fox was accustomed to say that he hoped more from a man who failed, and yet went on in spite of his failure, than from the buoyant career of the successful. “It is all very well,” said he, “to tell me that a young man has distinguished himself by a brilliant first speech. He may go on, or he may be satisfied with his first triumph; but show me a young man who has not succeeded at first, and nevertheless has gone on, and I will back that young man to do better than most of those who have succeeded at the first trial.”
We learn wisdom from failure much more than from success. We often discover what will do, by finding out what will not do; and probably he who never made a mistake never made a discovery. It was the failure in the attempt to make a sucking-pump act, when the working bucket was more than thirty-three feet above the surface of the water to be raised, that led observant men to study the law of atmospheric pressure, and opened a new field of research to the genius of Galileo, Torrecelli, and Boyle. John Hunter used to remark that the art of surgery would not advance until professional men had the courage to publish their failures as well as their successes. Watt the engineer said, of all things most wanted in mechanical engineering was a history of failures: “We want,” he said, “a book of blots.” When Sir Humphry Davy was once shown a dexterously manipulated experiment, he said --- “I thank God I was not made a dexterous manipulator, for the most important of my discoveries have been suggested to me by failures.” Another distinguished investigator in physical science has left it on record that, whenever in the course of his researches he encountered an apparently insuperable obstacle, he generally found himself on the brink of some discovery. The very greatest things --- great thoughts, discoveries, inventions --- have usually been nurtured in hardship, often pondered over in sorrow, and at length established with difficulty.
Beethoven said of Rossini, that he had in him the stuff to have made a good musician if he had only, when a boy, been well flogged; but that he had been spoilt by the facility with which he produced. Men who feel their strength within them need not fear to encounter adverse opinions; they have far greater reason to fear undue praise and too friendly criticism. When Mendelssohn was about to enter the orchestra at Birmingham, on the first performance of his ‘Elijah,’ he said laughingly to one of his friends and critics, “Stick your claws into me! Don’t tell me what you like, but what you don’t like!”
It has been said, and truly, that it is the defeat that tries the general more than the victory. Washington lost more battles than he gained; but he succeeded in the end. The Romans, in their most victorious campaigns, almost invariably began with defeats. Moreau used to be compared by his companions to a drum, which nobody hears of except it be beaten. Wellington’s military genius was perfected by encounter with difficulties of apparently the most overwhelming character, but which only served to nerve his resolution, and bring out more prominently his great qualities as a man and a general. So the skilful mariner obtains his best experience amidst storms and tempests, which train him to self-reliance, courage, and the highest discipline; and we probably own to rough seas and wintry nights the best training of our race of British seamen, who are, certainly, not surpassed by any in the world.
Necessity may be a hard schoolmistress, but she is generally found the best. Though the ordeal of adversity is one from which we naturally shrink, yet, when it comes, we must bravely and manfully encounter it. Burns says truly,
“Though losses and crosses
Be lessons right severe,
There’s wit there, you’ll get there,
You’ll find no other where.”
“Sweet indeed are the uses of adversity.” They reveal to us our powers, and call forth our energies. If there be real worth in the character, like sweet herbs, it will give forth its finest fragrance when pressed. “Crosses,” says the old proverb, “are the ladders that lead to heaven.” “What is even poverty itself,” asks Richter, “that a man should murmur under it? It is but as the pain of piercing a maiden’s ear, and you hang precious jewels in the wound.” In the experience of life it is found that the wholesome discipline of adversity in strong natures usually carries with it a self-preserving influence. Many are found capable of bravely bearing up under privations, and cheerfully encountering obstructions, who are afterwards found unable to withstand the more dangerous influences of prosperity. It is only a weak man whom the wind deprives of his cloak: a man of average strength is more in danger of losing it when assailed by the beams of a too genial sun. Thus it often needs a higher discipline and a stronger character to bear up under good fortune than under adverse. Some generous natures kindle and warm with prosperity, but there are many on whom wealth has no such influence. Base hearts it only hardens, making those who were mean and servile, mean and proud. But while prosperity is apt to harden the heart to pride, adversity in a man of resolution will serve to ripen it into fortitude. To use the words of Burke, “Difficulty is a severe instructor, set over us by the supreme ordinance of a parental guardian and instructor, who knows us better than we know ourselves, as He loves us better too. He that wrestles with us strengthens our nerves, and sharpens our skill: our antagonist is thus our helper.” Without the necessity of encountering difficulty, life might be easier, but men would be worth less. For trials, wisely improved, train the character, and teach self-help; thus hardship itself may often prove the wholesomest discipline for us, though we recognise it not. When the gallant young Hodson, unjustly removed from his Indian command, felt himself sore pressed down by unmerited calumny and reproach, he yet preserved the courage to say to a friend, “I strive to look the worst boldly in the face, as I would an enemy in the field, and to do my appointed work resolutely and to the best of my ability, satisfied that there is a reason for all; and that even irksome duties well done bring their own reward, and that, if not, still they are duties.”
The battle of life is, in most cases, fought up-hill; and to win it without a struggle were perhaps to win it without honour. If there were no difficulties there would be no success; if there were nothing to struggle for, there would be nothing to be achieved. Difficulties may intimidate the weak, but they act only as a wholesome stimulus to men of resolution and valour. All experience of life indeed serves to prove that the impediments thrown in the way of human advancement may for the most part be overcome by steady good conduct, honest zeal, activity, perseverance, and above all by a determined resolution to surmount difficulties, and stand up manfully against misfortune.
The school of Difficulty is the best school of moral discipline, for nations as for individuals. Indeed, the history of difficulty would be but a history of all the great and good things that have yet been accomplished by men. It is hard to say how much northern nations owe to their encounter with a comparatively rude and changeable climate and an originally sterile soil, which is one of the necessities of their condition, --- involving a perennial struggle with difficulties such as the natives of sunnier climes know nothing of. And thus it may be, that though our finest products are exotic, the skill and industry which have been necessary to rear them, have issued in the production of a native growth of men not surpassed on the globe.
Wherever there is difficulty, the individual man must come out for better for worse. Encounter with it will train his strength, and discipline his skill; heartening him for future effort, as the racer, by being trained to run against the hill, at length courses with facility. The road to success may be steep to climb, and it puts to the proof the energies of him who would reach the summit. But by experience a man soon learns that obstacles are to be overcome by grappling with them, --- that the nettle feels as soft as silk when it is boldly grasped, --- and that the most effective help towards realizing the object proposed is the moral conviction that we can and will accomplish it. Thus difficulties often fall away of themselves before the determination to overcome them.
Much will be done if we do but try. Nobody knows what he can do till he has tried; and few try their best till they have been forced to do it. “If I could do such and such a thing,” sighs the desponding youth. But nothing will be done if he only wishes. The desire must ripen into purpose and effort; and one energetic attempt is worth a thousand aspirations. It is these thorny “ifs” --- the mutterings of impotence and despair --- which so often hedge round the field of possibility, and prevent anything being done or even attempted. “A difficulty,” said Lord Lyndhurst, “is a thing to be overcome;” grapple with it at once; facility will come with practice, and strength and fortitude with repeated effort. Thus the mind and character may be trained to an almost perfect discipline, and enabled to act with a grace, spirit, and liberty, almost incomprehensible to those who have not passed through a similar experience.
Everything that we learn is the mastery of a difficulty; and the mastery of one helps to the mastery of others. Things which may at first sight appear comparatively valueless in education --- such as the study of the dead languages, and the relations of lines and surfaces which we call mathematics --- are really of the greatest practical value, not so much because of the information which they yield, as because of the development which they compel. The mastery of these studies evokes effort, and cultivates powers of application, which otherwise might have lain dormant, Thus one thing leads to another, and so the work goes on through life --- encounter with difficulty ending only when life and culture end. But indulging in the feeling of discouragement never helped any one over a difficulty, and never will. D’Alembert’s advice to the student who complained to him about his want of success in mastering the first elements of mathematics was the right one --- “Go on, sir, and faith and strength will come to you.”
The danseuse who turns a pirouette, the violinist who plays a sonata, have acquired their dexterity by patient repetition and after many failures. Carissimi, when praised for the ease and grace of his melodies, exclaimed, “Ah! you little know with what difficulty this ease has been acquired.” Sir Joshua Reynolds, when once asked how long it had taken him to paint a certain picture, replied, “All my life.” Henry Clay, the American orator, when giving advice to young men, thus described to them the secret of his success in the cultivation of his art: “I owe my success in life,” said he, “chiefly to one circumstance --- that at the age of twenty-seven I commenced, and continued for years, the process of daily reading and speaking upon the contents of some historical or scientific book. These off-hand efforts were made, sometimes in a cornfield, at others in the forest, and not unfrequently in some distant barn, with the horse and the ox for my auditors. It is to this early practice of the art of all arts that I am indebted for the primary and leading impulses that stimulated me onward and have shaped and moulded my whole subsequent destiny.”
Curran, the Irish orator, when a youth, had a strong defect in his articulation, and at school he was known as “stuttering Jack Curran.” While he was engaged in the study of the law, and still struggling to overcome his defect, he was stung into eloquence by the sarcasms of a member of a debating club, who characterised him as “Orator Mum;” for, like Cowper, when he stood up to speak on a previous occasion, Curran had not been able to utter a word. The taunt stung him and he replied in a triumphant speech. This accidental discovery in himself of the gift of eloquence encouraged him to proceed in his studies with renewed energy. He corrected his enunciation by reading aloud, emphatically and distinctly, the best passages in literature, for several hours every day, studying his features before a mirror, and adopting a method of gesticulation suited to his rather awkward and ungraceful figure. He also proposed cases to himself, which he argued with as much care as if he had been addressing a jury. Curran began business with the qualification which Lord Eldon stated to be the first requisite for distinction, that is, “to be not worth a shilling.” While working his way laboriously at the bar, still oppressed by the diffidence which had overcome him in his debating club, he was on one occasion provoked by the Judge (Robinson) into making a very severe retort. In the case under discussion, Curran observed “that he had never met the law as laid down by his lordship in any book in his library.” “That may be, sir,” said the judge, in a contemptuous tone, “but I suspect that your library is very small.” His lordship was notoriously a furious political partisan, the author of several anonymous pamphlets characterised by unusual violence and dogmatism. Curran, roused by the allusion to his straitened circumstances, replied thus; “It is very true, my lord, that I am poor, and the circumstance has certainly curtailed my library; my books are not numerous, but they are select, and I hope they have been perused with proper dispositions. I have prepared myself for this high profession by the study of a few good works, rather than by the composition of a great many bad ones. I am not ashamed of my poverty; but I should be ashamed of my wealth, could I have stooped to acquire it by servility and corruption. If I rise not to rank, I shall at least be honest; and should I ever cease to be so, many an example shows me that an ill-gained elevation, by making me the more conspicuous, would only make me the more universally and the more notoriously contemptible.”
The extremest poverty has been no obstacle in the way of men devoted to the duty of self-culture. Professor Alexander Murray, the linguist, learnt to write by scribbling his letters on an old wool-card with the end of a burnt heather stem. The only book which his father, who was a poor shepherd, possessed, was a penny Shorter Catechism; but that, being thought too valuable for common use, was carefully preserved in a cupboard for the Sunday catechisings. Professor Moor, when a young man, being too poor to purchase Newton’s ‘Principia,’ borrowed the book, and copied the whole of it with his own hand. Many poor students, while labouring daily for their living, have only been able to snatch an atom of knowledge here and there at intervals, as birds do their food in winter time when the fields are covered with snow. They have struggled on, and faith and hope have come to them. A well-known author and publisher, William Chambers, of Edinburgh, speaking before an assemblage of young men in that city, thus briefly described to them his humble beginnings, for their encouragement: “I stand before you,” he said, “a self-educated man. My education was that which is supplied at the humble parish schools of Scotland; and it was only when I went to Edinburgh, a poor boy, that I devoted my evenings, after the labours of the day, to the cultivation of that intellect which the Almighty has given me. From seven or eight in the morning till nine or ten at night was I at my business as a bookseller’s apprentice, and it was only during hours after these, stolen from sleep, that I could devote myself to study. I did not read novels: my attention was devoted to physical science, and other useful matters. I also taught myself French. I look back to those times with great pleasure, and am almost sorry I have not to go through the same experience again; for I reaped more pleasure when I had not a sixpence in my pocket, studying in a garret in Edinburgh, then I now find when sitting amidst all the elegancies and comforts of a parlour.”
William Cobbett’s account of how he learnt English Grammar is full of interest and instruction for all students labouring under difficulties. “I learned grammar,” said he, “when I was a private soldier on the pay of sixpence a day. The edge of my berth, or that of my guard-bed, was my seat to study in; my knapsack was my book-case; a bit of board lying on my lap was my writing-table; and the task did not demand anything like a year of my life. I had no money to purchase candle or oil; in winter time it was rarely that I could get any evening light but that of the fire, and only my turn even of that. And if I, under such circumstances, and without parent or friend to advise or encourage me, accomplished this undertaking, what excuse can there be for any youth, however poor, however pressed with business, or however circumstanced as to room or other conveniences? To buy a pen or a sheet of paper I was compelled to forego some portion of food, though in a state of half-starvation: I had no moment of time that I could call my own; and I had to read and to write amidst the talking, laughing, singing, whistling, and brawling of at least half a score of the most thoughtless of men, and that, too, in the hours of their freedom from all control. Think not lightly of the farthing that I had to give, now and then, for ink, pen, or paper! That farthing was, alas! a great sum to me! I was as tall as I am now; I had great health and great exercise. The whole of the money, not expended for us at market, was two-pence a week for each man. I remember, and well I may! that on one occasion I, after all necessary expenses, had, on a Friday, made shifts to have a halfpenny in reserve, which I had destined for the purchase of a redherring in the morning; but, when I pulled off my clothes at night, so hungry then as to be hardly able to endure life, I found that I had lost my halfpenny! I buried my head under the miserable sheet and rug, and cried like a child! And again I say, if, I, under circumstances like these, could encounter and overcome this task, is there, can there be, in the whole world, a youth to find an excuse for the non-performance?”
We have been informed of an equally striking instance of perseverance and application in learning on the part of a French political exile in London. His original occupation was that of a stonemason, at which he found employment for some time; but work becoming slack, he lost his place, and poverty stared him in the face. In his dilemma he called upon a fellow exile profitably engaged in teaching French, and consulted him what he ought to do to earn a living. The answer was, “Become a professor!” “A professor?” answered the mason --- “I, who am only a workman, speaking but a patois! Surely you are jesting?” “On the contrary, I am quite serious,” said the other, “and again I advise you --- become a professor; place yourself under me, and I will undertake to teach you how to teach others.” “No, no!” replied the mason, “it is impossible; I am too old to learn; I am too little of a scholar; I cannot be a professor.” He went away, and again he tried to obtain employment at his trade. From London he went into the provinces, and travelled several hundred miles in vain; he could not find a master. Returning to London, he went direct to his former adviser, and said, “I have tried everywhere for work, and failed; I will now try to be a professor!” He immediately placed himself under instruction; and being a man of close application, of quick apprehension, and vigorous intelligence, he speedily mastered the elements of grammar, the rules of construction and composition, and (what he had still in a great measure to learn) the correct pronunciation of classical French. When his friend and instructor thought him sufficiently competent to undertake the teaching of others, an appointment, advertised as vacant, was applied for and obtained; and behold our artisan at length become professor! It so happened, that the seminary to which he was appointed was situated in a suburb of London where he had formerly worked as a stonemason; and every morning the first thing which met his eyes on looking out of his dressing-room window was a stack of cottage chimneys which he had himself built! He feared for a time lest he should be recognised in the village as the quondam workman, and thus bring discredit on his seminary, which was of high standing. But he need have been under no such apprehension, as he proved a most efficient teacher, and his pupils were on more than one occasion publicly complimented for their knowledge of French. Meanwhile, he secured the respect and friendship of all who knew him --- fellow-professors as well as pupils; and when the story of his struggles, his difficulties, and his past history, became known to them, they admired him more than ever.
Sir Samuel Romilly was not less indefatigable as a self-cultivator. The son of a jeweller, descended from a French refugee, he received little education in his early years, but overcame all his disadvantages by unwearied application, and by efforts constantly directed towards the same end. “I determined,” he says, in his autobiography, “when I was between fifteen and sixteen years of age, to apply myself seriously to learning Latin, of which I, at that time, knew little more than some of the most familiar rules of grammar. In the course of three or four years, during which I thus applied myself, I had read almost every prose writer of the age of pure Latinity, except those who have treated merely of technical subjects, such as Varro, Columella, and Celsus. I had gone three times through the whole of Livy, Sallust, and Tacitus. I had studied the most celebrated orations of Cicero, and translated a great deal of Homer. Terence, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, and Juvenal, I had read over and over again.” He also studied geography, natural history, and natural philosophy, and obtained a considerable acquaintance with general knowledge. At sixteen he was articled to a clerk in Chancery; worked hard; was admitted to the bar; and his industry and perseverance ensured success. He became Solicitor-General under the Fox administration in 1806, and steadily worked his way to the highest celebrity in his profession. Yet he was always haunted by a painful and almost oppressive sense of his own disqualifications, and never ceased labouring to remedy them. His autobiography is a lesson of instructive facts, worth volumes of sentiment, and well deserves a careful perusal.
Sir Walter Scott was accustomed to cite the case of his young friend John Leyden as one of the most remarkable illustrations of the power of perseverance which he had ever known. The son of a shepherd in one of the wildest valleys of Roxburghshire, he was almost entirely self educated. Like many Scotch shepherds’ sons --- like Hogg, who taught himself to write by copying the letters of a printed book as he lay watching his flock on the hill-side --- like Cairns, who from tending sheep on the Lammermoors, raised himself by dint of application and industry to the professor’s chair which he now so worthily holds --- like Murray, Ferguson, and many more, Leyden was early inspired by a thirst for knowledge. When a poor barefooted boy, he walked six or eight miles across the moors daily to learn reading at the little village schoolhouse of Kirkton; and this was all the education he received; the rest he acquired for himself. He found his way to Edinburgh to attend the college there, setting the extremest penury at defiance. He was first discovered as a frequenter of a small bookseller’s shop kept by Archibald Constable, afterwards so well known as a publisher. He would pass hour after hour perched on a ladder in mid-air, with some great folio in his hand, forgetful of the scanty meal of bread and water which awaited him at his miserable lodging. Access to books and lectures comprised all within the bounds of his wishes. Thus he toiled and battled at the gates of science until his unconquerable perseverance carried everything before it. Before he had attained his nineteenth year he had astonished all the professors in Edinburgh by his profound knowledge of Greek and Latin, and the general mass of information he had acquired. Having turned his views to India, he sought employment in the civil service, but failed. He was however informed that a surgeon’s assistant’s commission was open to him. But he was no surgeon, and knew no more of the profession than a child. He could however learn. Then he was told that he must be ready to pass in six months! Nothing daunted, he set to work, to acquire in six months what usually required three years. At the end of six months he took his degree with honour. Scott and a few friends helped to fit him out; and he sailed for India, after publishing his beautiful poem ‘The Scenes of Infancy.’ In India he promised to become one of the greatest of oriental scholars, but was unhappily cut off by fever caught by exposure, and died at an early age.
The life of the late Dr. Lee, Professor of Hebrew at Cambridge, furnishes one of the most remarkable instances in modern times of the power of patient perseverance and resolute purpose in working out an honourable career in literature. He received his education at a charity school at Lognor, near Shrewsbury, but so little distinguished himself there, that his master pronounced him one of the dullest boys that ever passed through his hands. He was put apprentice to a carpenter, and worked at that trade until he arrived at manhood. To occupy his leisure hours he took to reading; and, some of the books containing Latin quotations, he became desirous of ascertaining what they meant. He bought a Latin grammar, and proceeded to learn Latin. As Stone, the Duke of Argyle’s gardener, said, long before, “Does one need to know anything more than the twenty-four letters in order to learn everything else that one wishes?” Lee rose early and sat up late, and he succeeded in mastering the Latin before his apprenticeship was out. Whilst working one day in some place of worship, a copy of a Greek Testament fell in his way, and he was immediately filled with the desire to learn that language. He accordingly sold some of his Latin books, and purchased a Greek Grammar and Lexicon. Taking pleasure in learning, he soon mastered the language. Then he sold his Greek books, and bought Hebrew ones, and learnt that language, unassisted by any instructor, without any hope of fame or reward, but simply following the bent of his genius. He next proceeded to learn the Chaldee, Syriac, and Samaritan dialects. But his studies began to tell upon his health, and brought on disease in his eyes through his long night watchings with his books. Having laid them aside for a time and recovered his health, he went on with his daily work. His character as a tradesman being excellent, his business improved, and his means enabled him to marry, which he did when twenty-eight years old. He determined now to devote himself to the maintenance of his family, and to renounce the luxury of literature; accordingly he sold all his books. He might have continued a working carpenter all his life, had not the chest of tools upon which he depended for subsistence been destroyed by fire, and destitution stared him in the face. He was too poor to buy new tools, so he bethought him of teaching children their letters, --- a profession requiring the least possible capital. But though he had mastered many languages, he was so defective in the common branches of knowledge, that at first he could not teach them. Resolute of purpose, however, he assiduously set to work, and taught himself arithmetic and writing to such a degree as to be able to impart the knowledge of these branches to little children. His unaffected, simple, and beautiful character gradually attracted friends, and the acquirements of the “learned carpenter” became bruited abroad. Dr. Scott, a neighbouring clergyman, obtained for him the appointment of master of a charity school in Shrewsbury, and introduced him to a distinguished Oriental scholar. These friends supplied him with books, and Lee successively mastered Arabic, Persic, and Hindostanee. He continued to pursue his studies while on duty as a private in the local militia of the county; gradually acquiring greater proficiency in languages. At length his kind patron, Dr. Scott, enabled Lee to enter Queen’s College, Cambridge; and after a course of study, in which he distinguished himself by his mathematical acquirements, a vacancy occurring in the professorship of Arabic and Hebrew, he was worthily elected to fill the honourable office. Besides ably performing his duties as a professor, he voluntarily gave much of his time to the instruction of missionaries going forth to preach the Gospel to eastern tribes in their own tongue. He also made translations of the Bible into several Asiatic dialects; and having mastered the New Zealand language, he arranged a grammar and vocabulary for two New Zealand chiefs who were then in England, which books are now in daily use in the New Zealand schools. Such, in brief, is the remarkable history of Dr. Samuel Lee; and it is but the counterpart of numerous similarly instructive examples of the power of perseverance in self-culture, as displayed in the lives of many of the most distinguished of our literary and scientific men.
There are many other illustrious names which might be cited to prove the truth of the common saying that “it is never too late to learn.” Even at advanced years men can do much, if they will determine on making a beginning. Sir Henry Spelman did not begin the study of science until he was between fifty and sixty years of age. Franklin was fifty before he fully entered upon the study of Natural Philosophy. Dryden and Scott were not known as authors until each was in his fortieth year. Boccaccio was thirty-five when he commenced his literary career, and Alfieri was forty-six when he began the study of Greek. Dr. Arnold learnt German at an advanced age, for the purpose of reading Niebuhr in the original; and in like manner James Watt, when about forty, while working at his trade of an instrument maker in Glasgow, learnt French, German, and Italian, to enable himself to peruse the valuable works on mechanical philosophy which existed in those languages. Thomas Scott was fifty-six before he began to learn Hebrew. Robert Hall was once found lying upon the floor, racked by pain, learning Italian in his old age, to enable him to judge of the parallel drawn by Macaulay between Milton and Dante. Handel was forty-eight before he published any of his great works. Indeed hundreds of instances might be given of men who struck out an entirely new path, and successfully entered on new studies, at a comparatively advanced time of life. None but the frivolous or the indolent will say, “I am too old to learn.” 
And here we would repeat what we have said before, that it is not men of genius who move the world and take the lead in it, so much as men of steadfastness, purpose, and indefatigable industry. Notwithstanding the many undeniable instances of the precocity of men of genius, it is nevertheless true that early cleverness gives no indication of the height to which the grown man will reach. Precocity is sometimes a symptom of disease rather than of intellectual vigour. What becomes of all the “remarkably clever children?” Where are the duxes and prize boys? Trace them through life, and it will frequently be found that the dull boys, who were beaten at school, have shot ahead of them. The clever boys are rewarded, but the prizes which they gain by their greater quickness and facility do not always prove of use to them. What ought rather to be rewarded is the endeavour, the struggle, and the obedience; for it is the youth who does his best, though endowed with an inferiority of natural powers, that ought above all others to be encouraged.
An interesting chapter might be written on the subject of illustrious dunces --- dull boys, but brilliant men. We have room, however, for only a few instances. Pietro di Cortona, the painter, was thought so stupid that he was nicknamed “Ass’s Head” when a boy; and Tomaso Guidi was generally known as “Heavy Tom” (Massaccio Tomasaccio), though by diligence he afterwards raised himself to the highest eminence. Newton, when at school, stood at the bottom of the lowest form but one. The boy above Newton having kicked him, the dunce showed his pluck by challenging him to a fight, and beat him. Then he set to work with a will, and determined also to vanquish his antagonist as a scholar, which he did, rising to the top of his class. Many of our greatest divines have been anything but precocious. Isaac Barrow, when a boy at the Charterhouse School, was notorious chiefly for his strong temper, pugnacious habits, and proverbial idleness as a scholar; and he caused such grief to his parents that his father used to say that, if it pleased God to take from him any of his children, he hoped it might be Isaac, the least promising of them all. Adam Clarke, when a boy, was proclaimed by his father to be “a grievous dunce;” though he could roll large stones about. Dean Swift was “plucked” at Dublin University, and only obtained his recommendation to Oxford “speciali gratia.” The well-known Dr. Chalmers and Dr. Cook [356a] were boys together at the parish school of St. Andrew’s; and they were found so stupid and mischievous, that the master, irritated beyond measure, dismissed them both as incorrigible dunces.
The brilliant Sheridan showed so little capacity as a boy, that he was presented to a tutor by his mother with the complimentary accompaniment that he was an incorrigible dunce. Walter Scott was all but a dunce when a boy, always much readier for a “bicker,” than apt at his lessons. At the Edinburgh University, Professor Dalzell pronounced upon him the sentence that “Dunce he was, and dunce he would remain.” Chatterton was returned on his mother’s hands as “a fool, of whom nothing could be made.” Burns was a dull boy, good only at athletic exercises. Goldsmith spoke of himself, as a plant that flowered late. Alfieri left college no wiser than he entered it, and did not begin the studies by which he distinguished himself, until he had run half over Europe. Robert Clive was a dunce, if not a reprobate, when a youth; but always full of energy, even in badness. His family, glad to get rid of him, shipped him off to Madras; and he lived to lay the foundations of the British power in India. Napoleon and Wellington were both dull boys, not distinguishing themselves in any way at school. [356b] Of the former the Duchess d’Abrantes says, “he had good health, but was in other respects like other boys.”
Ulysses Grant, the Commander-in-Chief of the United States, was called “Useless Grant” by his mother --- he was so dull and unhandy when a boy; and Stonewall Jackson, Lee’s greatest lieutenant, was, in his youth, chiefly noted for his slowness. While a pupil at West Point Military Academy he was, however, equally remarkable for his indefatigable application and perseverance. When a task was set him, he never left it until he had mastered it; nor did he ever feign to possess knowledge which he had not entirely acquired. “Again and again,” wrote one who knew him, “when called upon to answer questions in the recitation of the day, he would reply, ‘I have not yet looked at it; I have been engaged in mastering the recitation of yesterday or the day before.’ The result was that he graduated seventeenth in a class of seventy. There was probably in the whole class not a boy to whom Jackson at the outset was not inferior in knowledge and attainments; but at the end of the race he had only sixteen before him, and had outstripped no fewer than fifty-three. It used to be said of him by his contemporaries, that if the course had been for ten years instead of four, Jackson would have graduated at the head of his class.” 
John Howard, the philanthropist, was another illustrious dunce, learning next to nothing during the seven years that he was at school. Stephenson, as a youth, was distinguished chiefly for his skill at putting and wrestling, and attention to his work. The brilliant Sir Humphry Davy was no cleverer than other boys: his teacher, Dr. Cardew, once said of him, “While he was with me I could not discern the faculties by which he was so much distinguished.” Indeed, Davy himself in after life considered it fortunate that he had been left to “enjoy so much idleness” at school. Watt was a dull scholar, notwithstanding the stories told about his precocity; but he was, what was better, patient and perseverant, and it was by such qualities, and by his carefully cultivated inventiveness, that he was enabled to perfect his steam-engine.
What Dr. Arnold said of boys is equally true of men --- that the difference between one boy and another consists not so much in talent as in energy. Given perseverance and energy soon becomes habitual. Provided the dunce has persistency and application he will inevitably head the cleverer fellow without those qualities. Slow but sure wins the race. It is perseverance that explains how the position of boys at school is so often reversed in real life; and it is curious to note how some who were then so clever have since become so commonplace; whilst others, dull boys, of whom nothing was expected, slow in their faculties but sure in their pace, have assumed the position of leaders of men. The author of this book, when a boy, stood in the same class with one of the greatest of dunces. One teacher after another had tried his skill upon him and failed. Corporal punishment, the fool’s cap, coaxing, and earnest entreaty, proved alike fruitless. Sometimes the experiment was tried of putting him at the top of his class, and it was curious to note the rapidity with which he gravitated to the inevitable bottom. The youth was given up by his teachers as an incorrigible dunce --- one of them pronouncing him to be a “stupendous booby.” Yet, slow though he was, this dunce had a sort of dull energy of purpose in him, which grew with his muscles and his manhood; and, strange to say, when he at length came to take part in the practical business of life, he was found heading most of his school companions, and eventually left the greater number of them far behind. The last time the author heard of him, he was chief magistrate of his native town.
The tortoise in the right road will beat a racer in the wrong. It matters not though a youth be slow, if he be but diligent. Quickness of parts may even prove a defect, inasmuch as the boy who learns readily will often forget as readily; and also because he finds no need of cultivating that quality of application and perseverance which the slower youth is compelled to exercise, and which proves so valuable an element in the formation of every character. Davy said “What I am I have made myself;” and the same holds true universally.
To conclude: the best culture is not obtained from teachers when at school or college, so much as by our own diligent self-education when we have become men. Hence parents need not be in too great haste to see their children’s talents forced into bloom. Let them watch and wait patiently, letting good example and quiet training do their work, and leave the rest to Providence. Let them see to it that the youth is provided, by free exercise of his bodily powers, with a full stock of physical health; set him fairly on the road of self-culture; carefully train his habits of application and perseverance; and as he grows older, if the right stuff be in him, he will be enabled vigorously and effectively to cultivate himself.
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