16 NOVEMBER 1907, Page 26


iF I had read as much as other learned men, I should be as ignorant as they are," said Hobbes the philosopher, who had perhaps read more than any man of his time, and knew what he was joking about. Without doubt there is truth in the saying. To be always reading is not the same thing as to be always learning. A mass of ignorance lies at the door of letters. Suppose that we ourselves have acquired by fate or industry a special knowledge of a special subject. Constantly we hear mistaken statements made about it ; and is it not true that whenever we hear a statement which is more than usually wide of the mark, which exhibits a complete and incorrigible misconception of the whole matter at issue, it is introduced with the words, "I was reading somewhere the other day," &c., &c. P The speaker does not, as a rule, get his blunder out of his inner con- sciousness, nor out of the mouth of some one else. It is not the result of a partial experience, nor of bard thinking from insufficient data. It comes ready made from the printed page. The truth is that nowadays the cultivated read too much and think too little, looking too exclusively to books for intellectual light and not sufficiently to intercourse with other minds. Immense intellectual profit arises from the exchange of ideas. Unfortunately, the present fashion in talk is trivial. Men talk less seriously and less ably than they think. Consequently they learn little from each other. They do not offer nor ask instruction. The very word calls forth a contemptuous smile. They confide in paper, and pass round their knowledge in print. Too often the record is sterile and worthless for want of the criticism and contributory thought of other minds, and an experience which might have been fruitful in ideas serves only to increase the congestion of our bookshelves. We hear a great deal about the rubbish that is read to-day. It is the natural result of the rubbish that is talked. A vast number of people know better how to learn from the spoken word than from books. It is only persons of considerable literary attain- ment—and they do not comprise a hundredth part of the reading public—who can form a correct judgment of tte character of a book. They read what it says ; they do not know on what authority it says it. The truth is that reading is, comparatively speaking, a new art. We have been accustomed to receiving information orally since the days of Adam. Long experience has taught us to discriminate in regard to what we hear. More or less we have all learned to pick out the truth and docket our gleanings under various heads. So far as oral instruction is con- cerned, we all know something about the correlation of facts. This is true even among the uneducated, who are very credulous where print is concerned. For instance, when John Smith returns to the fireside of his native inn, and pro- ceeds to detail his experiences in South Africa, it is probable that, though he may not be a very accurate person, he will mislead his audience far less than would an equally inaccurate book. They will discover by questions the weakness of his evidence ; and though they know little of politics, and less of travel, their experience of life has taught them something about men ; and what John Smith in his talk unconsciously reveals about himself they almost as unconsciously accept as a light upon his information.

Great readiness to believe anything is certainly not the fault of educated people to-day, yet even they seem sometimes to read in a manner to increase their ignorance, and where a disputed question is concerned a live opponent is far more likely than a printed book to break through the narrow bonds of partisanship. For one thing, we cannot throw our interlocutor across the room, or into the fire, or even put him back upon the shelf the moment that he disagrees with us. A book which expresses opinions diametrically opposed to our own must be able indeed if it arouses our sympathy, but as we hear the same sentiment enunciated by the human voice we feel differently. " So-and-so is such a strong man," we say to ourselves; "if he takes the sentimental side, there must surely be something in it besides sentimentality " ; or—" He has such a very kind heart, he can hardly be advocating a harsh policy from predilection." " He is so cautious," we say; "if he inclines to take a risk, he must think it the only way out " ; or—" He is so adventurous ; if he holds back, there must indeed be some great danger." Again, we hear as we talk our own opinions expressed by persons whom we utterly despise, and we see how they have been made to stink in the nostrils of our opponents.

There is a class of people, larger to-day than ever before, who are quite incapable of coming to an abstract conclusion upon any subject. They really do succeed in reading both sides with a perfectly open mind, and they read perpetually from a kind of nervous habit, following up the conclusions of other men that they may not meander aimlessly among their own doubts. It is the fashion to laugh at such people, especially among those who cultivate large crops of certainties upon a highly nutritious soil of ignorance. As a matter of fact, such men are very useful if they can but be kept from an intemperate devotion to books. Right and truth are never in any large question all on one side, and these men may keep the world in mind of a truism—which is a great service—if they will but live among men and actualities. From the maze of uncertainty created by the immense increase in knowledge we can only be delivered in this generation. by a resolute study of persons and the practical side of life.

Without doubt there is a place in the counsels of the world for the man who owes nothing to literature, whether he belongs to the upper or the lower stratum of society. He is often an admirable judge of the present situation, though he is, of course, ignorant of the past, which is too long a subject to be learned except from books. If he belongs to the upper classes, he adores the darkness behind him out of which stand certain glorified symbols ; if to the lower, he has a contempt for what he knows nothing about, and when he turns his eyes upon the mist in hone he sees thereon depicted a mirage 'which he takes for reality. But either way it is a good thing to have some men—not too many—who reason without the record, whether they profess to be Radicals or Tories.

" The best counsel, in those things that concern not other nations, but only the ease and benefit the subjects may enjoy, by laws that look only inward, is to be taken from the general informations, and complaints of the people of each province, who are best acquainted with their own wants," writes Hobbes, who, Royalist and legalist and worshipper of order at all costs though he was, knew better than to suppose that the learned theorist can ever dispense with the common-sense counsels of those who look to life and not to literature for their information. The man with a good bead and no book- learning is often exceedingly teachable and eminently law- abiding. He can, according to Hobbes, be easily made to see that "the prosperity of a people ruled by an aristocratical, or democratical assembly, cometh not from aristocracy, nor from democracy, but from the obedience, and concord of the subjects : nor do the people flourish in a monarchy, because one man has the right to rule them, but because they obey him." Obstructions in the way of sound doctrine "proceed not so mpch from the difficulty of the matter, as from the interest of them that are to learn. Potent men, digest hardly any thing that setteth up a power to bridle their affections ; and learned men, any thing that discovereth their errors, and thereby lesseneth their authority : whereas the common people's minds, unless they be tainted with dependance on the potent, or scribbled over with the opinions of their doctors, are like clean paper, fit to receive whatsoever by public authority shall be imprinted in them." Good counsel, he goes on, "comes not by lot, nor by inheritance; and therefore there is no more reason to expect good advice from the rich or noble, in matter of state, than in delineating the dimensions of a fortress ; unless we shall think there needs no method in the study of the politics, as there does in the study of geometry, but only to be lookers on ; which is not so." The man who gets all his knowledge from books, or all his distinc- tion from birth, tends to become a mere looker-on. He is in a good position to criticise the game, but he does not carry off the stakes like the winner, nor learn the delicious lesson of triumph. Not even the guerdon of the loser falls to his share,—the bitter, but often more lasting, gain of a hard personal experience.