Amazing articles on just about every subject...

Exercise Of Mind

( Originally Published 1891 )

O heavens ! how awful is the might of souls
And what they do within themselves while yet
The yoke of earth is new to them, the world
Nothing but a wild field where they were sown.


LEARNING is acquaintance with what others have felt, thought, and done; knowledge is the result of what we ourselves have felt, thought, and done. Hence a man knows best what he has taught himself; what personal con-tact with God, with man, and with Nature has made his own. The important thing, then, is not so much to know the thoughts and loves of others, as to be able ourselves to think truly, and to love nobly. The aim should be to rouse, strengthen, and illumine the mind rather than to store it with learning; and the great educational problem has been, and is, how to give to the soul purity of intention, to the conscience steadfastness, and to the mind force, pliability, and openness to light; or in other words, how to bring philosophy and religion to the aid of the will so that the better self shall prevail and each generation introduce its successor to a higher plane of life.

To this end the efforts of all teachers have, with more or less consciousness, tended; and in this direction too, along winding ways and with periods of arrest or partial return, the race of man has for ages been moving; and he who aspires to gain a place in the van of the mighty army on its heavenward march, —

"And draw new furrows 'neath the healthy morn
And plant the great Hereafter in this Now," —

may be rash, but his spirit is not ignoble. To him it may not be given " to fan and winnow from the coming step of Time the chaff of custom; " but if he persevere he may confidently hope that his thought and love shall at length rise to fairer and more enduring worlds: He weds himself to things of light, seeks aids to true life within, learns to live with the noble dead, and with the great souls of the present who have uttered the truth whereby they live, in a way more intimate and higher than that granted to those who are with them day by day; for minds are not separated by time and space, but by quality of thought. But to be able to love this life, and with all one's heart to seek this close communion with God, with noble souls, and with Nature is not easy, and it may be that it is impossible for those who are not drawn to it by irresistible instincts. For the intellect, at least, attractions are proportional to destiny; and the art of intellectual life is not most surely learned by those whom circumstances favor, but by those whom will impels onward to exercise of mind; whom neither daily wants, nor animal appetites, nor hope of gain, nor low ambition, nor sneers of worldlings, nor prayers of friends, nor aught else can turn from the pursuit of wisdom ; who, with ceaseless labor and with patient thought, eat their way in silence, like caterpillars, to the light, become their own companions, walk uplifted by their own thoughts, and by slow and imperceptible processes are transformed and grow to be the embodiment of the truth and beauty which they see and love.

The overmastering love of mental exercise, of the good of the intellect, is probably never found in formal and prosaic minds; or if so, its first awakening is in the early years when to think is to feel, when the soul, fresh from God, comes trailing clouds of glory, and the sun and moon and stars, and the hills and flowing waters seem but made to crown with joy hearts that love. It is in these dewy dawns that the image of beauty is imprinted on the soul and the sense of mystery awakens. We move about and become a part of all we see, grow akin to stones and leaves and birds, and to all young and happy things. We lose ourselves in life which is poured round us like an unending sea; are natural, healthful, alive to all we see and touch; have no misgivings, but walk as though the eternal God held us by the hand. These are the fair spring days when we suck honey that shall nourish us in the winters of which we do not dream; when sunsets interfuse them-selves with all our being until we are dyed in the many-tinted glory; when the miracle of the changing year is the soul's fair seed-time; when lying in the grass, the head resting in clasped hands, while soft white clouds float lazily through azure skies, and the birds warble, and the waters murmur, and the flowers breathe fragrance, we feel a kind of unconscious consciousness of a universal life in Nature. The very rocks seem to be listening to what the leaves whisper; and through the silent eternities we almost see the dead becoming the living, the living the dead, until both grow to be one, and whatever is, is life.

He who has never had these visions; has never heard these airy voices ; has never seemed about to catch a glimpse of the inner heart of being, pulsing beneath the veil of visible things ; has never felt that he himself is a spirit looking blindly on a universe, which if his eyes could but see and his ears hear, would be revealed as the very heaven of the infinite God, — must for-ever lack something of the freshness, of the eager delight, with which a poetic mind contemplates the world and follows whither the divine intimations point. This early intercourse with Nature nourishes the soul, deepens the intellect, exalts the imagination, and fills the memory with fair and noble forms and images which abide with us, and as years pass on, gain in softness and purity what they may lose in distinctness of outline and color. This is the source of intellectual wealth, of tranquil moods, of patience in the midst of opposition, of confidence in the fruitfulness of labor and the transforming power of time. Here is given the material which must be moulded into form ; the rude blocks which must be cut and dressed and fitted together until they become a spiritual temple wherein the soul may rest at one with God and Nature, and with its own thought and love. To run, to jump, to ride, to swim, to skate, to sit in the shade of trees by flowing water, to watch reapers at their work, to look on orchards blossoming, to dream in the silence that lies amid the hills, to feel the solemn loneliness of deep woods, to follow cattle as they crop the sweet-scented clover, — to learn to know, as one knows a mother's face, every change that comes over the heavens from the dewy freshness of early dawn to the restful calm of evening, from the over-powering mystery of the starlit sky to the tender human look with which the moon smiles upon the earth, — all this is education of a higher and altogether more real kind than it is possible to receive within the walls of a school; and lacking this, nothing shall have power to develop the faculties of the soul in symmetry and completeness. Hence a philosopher has said there are ten thousand chances to one that genius, talent, and virtue shall issue from a farm-house rather than from a palace. The daily intercourse with Nature in childhood and youth intertwines with noble and enduring objects the passions which form the mind and heart of man, whereas those who are shut out from such communion are necessarily thrown into contact with what is mean and vulgar; and since our early years, whatever our surroundings may have been, seem to us sweet and fair because life it-self is then a clear-flowing fountain, they cannot help blending the memory of that innocent and happy time with thoughts of base and mechanical objects, or, it may be, of low and ignoble associates.

He is fortunate who, during the first ten years of his life, escapes the confinement and repression of school, and lives at home in the country amid the fields and the woods, day by day growing familiar with the look on Nature's face, with all her moods, with every common object, with living things in the air and the water and on the earth; who sees the corn sprout, and watches it grow week after week until the yellow harvest waves in the sunlight; who looks with unawed eye on rising thunder-clouds and shouts with glee amid the lightning's play; who learns to know that whatever he looks upon is thereby humanized, and to feel that he is part of all he sees and loves. He will carry with him to the study of the intellectual and spiritual world of men's thoughts shut up in books, a strength of mind, a depth and freshness of heart which only those can own who have drunk at Nature's deep flowing fountain, and come up to life's training-course wet with her dews and with the fragrance of her flowers on their breath. In the eyes of the old Greeks, who first made education a science, the scholar. was an idler, — one who had leisure to look about him, to stroll amid the olive groves, to let his eye rest upon the purple hills or the blue sea studded with green isles, to listen to the brooks and the nightingales, to read the lesson the fair earth teaches more than that imprinted on parchment; and the school must still preserve something of this freedom from constraint, must encourage the play of body and of mind, the delight natural to the young in the exercise of strength of whatever kind, and thus as far as possible lighten the labor and drudgery of elementary studies with thoughts of liberty, of beauty, and of excellence. Let the boy feel how good it is to be alive though life meant only the narrow world and the mere surfaces of things with which alone it is possible for him to be acquainted; and then when we ask him to believe that in high thinking and in noble acting he will find a life infinitely more worthy, his eager soul will be inflamed with a desire for knowledge and virtue, and bearing in his heart the strength and wealth of imagination gained from his early experience, his thoughts will turn to great and good men. Dim visions of mighty conquerors, of poets at whose song the woods and waves grow calm, of orators whose words with stormlike force, whatever way they take, sweep with them the wills of men, — will rise before his mind. His young fancy will endow them with preternatural qualities; and he will yearn to draw near, to mingle with them and to catch the secret of their divine power. The germ of the godlike within his bosom bursts and springs. What they were, why may not he also become? What bars are thrown athwart his path, what obstacles hem his way, which, whoever in any age has excelled, has not had to break down and surmount? Here the wise teacher comes to cheer him, to tell him his faith is not wrong, his hope not without promise of attainment if he but trust himself, and bend his whole mind to the task; that whatever goal within the scope of human power, the will sets to itself, it may reach.

In order to develop, strengthen, and confirm this high mood, this noble temper, let him by all means be made acquainted with the language and genius of Greece. Here he will be introduced to a world of thought and sentiment almost as fresh, as fair and many-sided as Nature herself, — the fragrant blossoming in myriad hues and forms of the life and mind of the most richly endowed portion of the human race. Not only are the Greeks the most highly-gifted of all people, but in this classical age they have also this special charm and power, —that the keenest intellectual faculties are in them united with the feelings, hopes, and fancies of a noble and great-hearted youth. Even Socrates and Plato talk like high-souled boys who can see the world only in the light of ideals, for whom what the mind beholds and the heart loves is alone real. How healthfully they look on life, with what delight they breathe the air! What fine contempt have they not of death, thinking no fortune so good as that which comes to the hero who dies in a worthy cause! There is Athens, already the world's university; but no books, no libraries, no lecture-halls, only great teachers who walk about followed by a crowd of youths eager to drink in their words. Here is the Acropolis, with its snow-white temples and propylaeum, fair and chaste as though they had been built in heaven and gently lowered to this Attic mound by the hands of angels. There in the Parthenon are the sculptures of Phidias, and yonder in the temple of the Dioscuri, the paintings of Polygnotus, ideal beauty bodied forth to lure the souls of men to unseen and eternal worlds. If they turn to the east, the isles of the . Egean look up to them like virgins who welcome happy lovers; to the west, Mount Pentelicus, from whose heart the architectural glory of the city has been carved, bids them think what patience will enable man's genius to accomplish; and to the north, Hymettus, fragrant with the breath of a thousand herbs and musical with the hum of bees, stoops with gentle undulations to their feet. They live in the air; their temples are open to the sunlight; their theatres are uncovered to the heavens; and whithersoever they move, they are surrounded by what is fair, noble, and inspiring. This free and happy life in the company of great teachers becomes the stimulus to the keenest exercise of mind. They are as eager to see things in a true light as they are quick to sympathize with whatever is heroic or beautiful; and all their talk is of truth and justice, the good, the, fair, the excellent, of philosophy, religion, poetry, and art, and of whatever else seems favorable to human life and to the development of ideal manhood. Of the merely useful they have the scorn of young and inexperienced minds ; and Hippocrates pro-claims himself ready to give Protagoras, not only whatever he himself possesses, but also the property of his friends, if he will but teach him wisdom. Superior knowledge was to them of all things the most admirable and the most to be desired. What noble thoughts have they not concerning education? " An intelligent man," says Plato, " will prize those studies which result in his soul getting soberness, righteousness, and wisdom, and will less value the others." The culture of the mind is made a kind of religion, in the spreading of which the personal influence of the teacher is not less active than the truths he sets forth. Bonds of affection bind the disciple to the master whose words have for him the sacredness of wisdom and the charm of genius, power to confirm the will, and warmth and color whereby the imagination is raised.

This secret of making knowledge attractive, of clothing truth in chaste and beautiful language, of associating it with whatever is fair and noble in Nature, and of relating it to life and conduct, which is part of the genius of Greece, still lives in her literature; and to read the words of her poets, orators, and philosophers is to feel the presence of a high and active spirit, is to breathe in an intellectual atmosphere of light and liberty, is of itself enlargement and cultivation of mind. Hence, in the realms of thought, the Greeks are the civilizers and emancipators of the world ; and whoever thinks, is to some extent their debtor. The music of their eloquence and poetry can never grow silent; the forms of beauty their genius has created can never perish, and never cease to win the admiration and love of noble minds and gentle hearts, or to be the inspiration, generation after generation, to high thoughts and heroic moods. So long as glory, beauty, freedom, light, and gladness shall seem good and fair, so long will the finer spirits of the world feel the attraction and the charm of Greece, and know the sweet surprise which thrilled the heart of Keats when first he read Homer: —

"Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken,
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific, and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise,
Silent, upon a peak in Darien."

In a less degree, Roman literature, which is the offspring of Greek culture, has value as an intellectual stimulus and discipline. Here also the youthful mind is brought into the presence of a great and noble people, who, if they have less genius and a duller sense of beauty than the Greeks, excel them in steadiness of purpose, in dignity of character, in reverence for law and religion, and above all in the art of governing.

The educational value of the classics does not lie so much in the Greek and Latin languages as in the type of mind, the sense of proportion and beauty, the heroic temper, the philosophic mood, the keen relish for high enterprise, and the joyful love of life which they make known to us. The world to which they introduce us is so remote that the pre-occupations and vulgarities of the present, by which we all are hemmed and warped, fall away from us ; and it is at the same time so real and of such absorbing interest that we are caught up in spirit and carried to the Attic Plain and the hills of Latium. They are useful, not because they teach us anything that may not be learned and learned more accurately from modern books, but because they move the mind, fire the heart, ennoble and refine the imagination in a way which nothing else has power to do. They are sources of inspiration; they first roused the modern mind to activity; and the potency of their influence can never cease to be felt by those whose aptitudes lead them to the love of intellectual perfection, who delight in the free play of the mind, who are attracted by what is symmetrical, who have the instinct for beauty, who swim in a current of ideas as naturally as birds fly in the air. They appeal to the mind as a whole, stimulate all its faculties, awaken a many-sided sympathy both with Nature and with the world of men. They widen our view of life, bring forth in us the consciousness of our kinship with the human race, and of the application to ourselves, however common and uninspiring our surroundings may be, of the best thoughts and noblest deeds which have ever sprung from the brain and heart of man. They help to make one, again to quote Plato, " A lover, not of a part of wisdom, but of the whole; who has a taste for every sort of knowledge, and is curious to learn and is never satisfied; who has magnificence of mind, and is a spectator of all time and all existence; who is harmoniously constituted, of a well-proportioned and gracious mind, whose own nature will move spontaneously toward the true being of everything; who has a good memory, and is quick to learn, noble, gracious, the friend of truth, justice, courage, temperance." The ideal presented is that of complete harmonious culture, the aim of which is not to make an artisan, a physician, a merchant, a lawyer, but a man alive in all his faculties, touching the world at many points, for whom all knowledge is desirable, all beauty lovable, and for whom fine bearing and noble acting are indispensable.

It is needless to point out in what, or why, the Greeks failed, since here there is question only of intellectual life, and in this they did not fail. Nor is there any thought, in what has here been said, of depreciating the worth of the study of science, without a certain knowledge of which no one, in this age, can in any true sense, be called educated. Whoever, indeed, learns a language properly, acquires scientific knowledge; and the Greeks are not only the masters in poetry and eloquence, they are also the guides to the right use of reason and to scientific method, and the teachers of mathematics, logic, and physics. He who pursues culture, in the Greek spirit, who desires to see things as they are, to know the best that has been thought and done by men, will fear nothing so much as the exclusion of any truth, and he will be anxious to acquaint himself not only with the method, but as far as possible with the facts, of physical science. Still he perceives that how-ever great the value of natural knowledge may be, it is, as an instrument of culture, inferior to literature. We are educated by what calls forth in us love and admiration, by what creates the exalted mood and the steadfast purpose. In bowing with reverence to what is above us, we are uplifted. When we are moved, we are more alive; we are stronger, tenderer, nobler. Now to look upon Nature with the detective eye of the man of science is to be cold and unsympathetic; to learn by methodic experiment is to gain knowledge, which, since it is only remotely or indirectly related to life, is but little interesting. Such knowledge is a fragment, and a fragment extremely difficult to fit into the temple built by thought and love, by hope and imagination ; and hence when we have learned a great deal about chemical elements, geologic epochs, correlation of forces, and sidereal spaces, we are rather astonished than enlightened. We are brought into the presence of a world which is not that of the senses, nor yet that which faith, hope, and love forebode ; and the bearing it may have upon human life is of more interest to us than the facts made known. We are, in-deed, curious to know whatever may, with any certainty, be told us of atoms and biogenesis; but our real concern is to learn what significance such truth may have in its relation to questions of God and the soul.

There is doubtless a disciplinary value in the study of physical science. It trains the mind to habits of patient attention, of careful observation, teaches the danger of hasty generalization, and diminishes intellectual conceit; but these results may also be obtained by other means. The aim of education is not simply to develop this or the other faculty, however indispensable, nor yet to make one thoroughly conversant with a particular order of facts, but the aim is to bring about a conscious participation in the life of the race, to evoke all the powers of man, so that his whole being shall be quickened and made responsive to the touch of things seen and unseen; and the study of science is less adapted to the attainment of this end than the study of human letters. The scientific temper draws to specialties ; and specialists are narrow, are incomplete. They, each in his own line, do good work, and are the chief agents for the increase of natural knowledge, and are, we may grant, leaders in every kind of improvement; but like the operatives who provide our comforts and luxuries, they are themselves warped and crippled by what they do. The habit of looking at a single order of facts, coldly and always from the same point of view, takes from the mind flexibility, weakens the imagination, and puts fetters on the soul; and hence though it is important that there be specialists, the kind of education by which they are formed, while it is suited to make a geologist, a chemist, a mathematician, or a botanist, is not suited to call forth the free and harmonious play of all man's powers. We do not live on facts alone, much less on facts of a single kind. Religion and poetry, love, hope, and imagination are as essential to our well-being as science. Human life is knowledge, is faith, is conduct, is beauty, is manners ; it unfolds itself in many directions and shoots its roots into infinitude ; and for the general purposes of education, science is learned to best advantage when it is embodied in literature, and its methods and results, rather than the details of its work, are presented to us. What-ever it is able to do, to improve the mind, to widen the range of thought, to give true notions of the workings of Nature, — it will do for who-ever learns accurately its general conceptions and results ; and these cannot remain unknown to him whose aim is culture, for such an one is, as Plato says, " A lover not of a part of wisdom, but of the whole, and has a taste for every sort of knowledge, and is curious to learn, and is never satisfied; and though he will not know medicine like a physician, or the heavens like an astronomer, or the vegetable kingdom like a botanist, his mind will play over all these realms with freedom, and he will know how to relate the principles and facts of all the sciences to our sense for beauty, for conduct, for life and religion in a way which a mere specialist can never find." And his view will not only be wider and less impeded, it will also be deeper than that of the man of science; for he who sees but one order of things sees only their surfaces, just as he who sees but one thing sees nothing at all.

It would be a mistake to imagine that the ideal here commended, means superficial accomplishments, an excessive love of style and the ornaments of poetry and eloquence, or pre-occupation in favor of aught external or frivolous. It is the very opposite of dilettanteism, and if it mean anything, means thoroughness, and a thoroughness which can come only of untiring labor carried on through many years; for time and intercourse with men and varied experience are indispensable elements. It is like the ideal of religion which makes the saint think himself a sinner; it is as exacting as the miser's thought which makes millions seem to be beggary; like the artist's vision, like the poet's dream, it allures and yet forbids hope of attainment. The seeker after wisdom must have a high purpose, a strong soul, and the purest love of truth. He cannot live in the senses alone, nor in the mind, nor in the heart alone, but the spiritual being, which is himself, yearns for whatever is good, whatever is true, whatever is fair, and so he finds himself akin to the infinite God and to all that he has made. When his thought is carried out to atoms weaving the garment which is our body, and moulding the world we see and touch; when he beholds motion lighting, warming, thrilling the universe, — he is filled with intellectual joy, but at the same time he perceives that all this is but a phase of truth; that God and the bound-less facts are infinitely more than drilled atomics marshalled rank on rank until they form the countless hosts of the heavens. When the men of science have labelled the elements, and put tickets upon all natural compounds, and with complacency declare that this is the whole truth, he looks on the flowers around him and the blooming children, on the stars above his head, on the sun slow wheeling down the western horizon, on the moon climbing some eastern hill, and his inmost soul is glad because he feels the thrill of the infinite, living Spirit, and fore-bodes to what fair countries we are bound. And when they proclaim the wonders science has wrought, — increase of physical enjoyment and social comfort; the yoking of lightning and steam to make them work for man; the providing of more abundant food ; the building of more wholesome dwellings; the lengthening of life ; temporal benefits of every kind, — he joins with those who utter praise, but knows that infinitely more than all this goes to the making of man's life. So he turns his mind in many directions, and while he looks on the truth in science, does not grow blind to the truth in religion; while he knows the value of what is practically useful, understands also the priceless worth of what is noble and beautiful, and his acquaintance with many kinds of thought, with many shades of opinion confirms him, as Joubert says, in the acceptance of the best.

Home | More Articles | Email: