( Originally Published 1879 )
THINKERS rise upon us like new stars--a few in a century. The multitude run after them, and, like Lazarus, eat the crumbs that fall from their table. They follow them by instinct; they adopt their theories and accept their thoughts at sight. Calvin rose and thought. What a multitude swallowed his hard, rocky thoughts, as though they were digestible mental food ! Wesley rose, and another multitude followed him, much as Mohammedans followed their prophet. Swedenborg rose in the North, and straightway a cloud of witnesses appeared about him to testify to all he wrote., Davis came above the horizan, and lo! an army follows in his train. So it is; men swallow whole what they eat, wheat or chaff, meat or bone, nut or shell. They do not masticate their mental food ; they do not examine the facts they learn; they do not digest their knowledge. If they did we should not have schools of men, sects, parties, but one grand lyceum of individual thinkers; every one making his own use of his knowledge, forming his own conclusions, and working out his own kind and degree of culture. We read enough to have a generation of philosophers.
Dull thinkers are always led by sharp ones. The keen intellect cuts its way smoothly, gracefully, rap-idly; the dull one wears its life out against the simplest problems. To perceive accurately and to think correctly, is the aim of all mental training. Heart and conscience are more than the mere intellect. Yet we cannot tell how much the clear, clean-cut thought, the intellectual vision, sharp and true, may aid even these. Some say that a man never feels till he sees, and when the object disappears, the feeling ceases. So we can-not exaggerate the importance of clear, correct thinking. We should eat, drink, sleep, walk, exercise body and mind, to this end. Just so far as we fail, we make dolts and idiots of ourselves. We cast away our natural armor and defense. The designing make us dupes; we are overreached by the crafty, and trodden under foot by the strong.
Undigested learning is as oppressive as undigested food; and as in the dyspeptic patient, the appetite for food often grows with the inability to digest it, so in the unthinking patient, an overweening desire to know often accompanies the inability to know to any purpose. Thought is to the brain what gastric juice is to the stomach-a solvent to reduce whatever is received to a condition in which all that is wholesome and nutritive may be appropriated, and that alone. To learn merely for the sake of learning, is like eating merely for the taste of the food. The mind will wax fat and unwieldy, like the body of the gormand. The stomach is to the frame what memory is to the mind; and it is as unwise to cultivate the memory at the expense of the mind as it would be to enlarge the capacity of the stomach by eating more food than the wants of the frame require, or food that it could not appropriate. To learn in order to become wise makes the mind active and powerful, like the body of one who is temperate and judicious in meat and drink. Learning is healthfully digested by the mind when it reflects upon what is learned, classifies and arranges facts and circumstances, considers the relations of one to another, and places what is taken into the mind at different times in relation to the same subjects under their appropriate heads; so that the various stores are not heterogeneously piled up, but laid away in order, and may be referred to with ease when wanted. If a person's daily employments are such as demand a constant exercise of the thoughts, all the leisure should not be devoted to reading, but a part reserved for reflecting upon and arranging in the mind what is read. The manner of reading is much more important than the quantity. To hurry through many books, retaining only a confused knowledge of their contents, is but a poor exercise of the brain ; it is far better to read with care a few well selected volumes.
Some of the great advantages of thinking are the following : First, it transfers and conveys the sentiments of others to ourselves, so as to make them properly our own. Secondly, it enables us toi distinguish truth from error, and to reject what is wrong after we have seen, read, or heard anything.. Thirdly, by this we fix in our memory only what we best approve of, without loading it with all that we read. Lastly, by properly meditating on what comes within the view of our minds, we may improve upon the sentiments or inventions of others, and thereby acquire great reputation, and perhaps emolument, from their labors.
All mental superiority originates in habits of thinking. A child, indeed, like a machine, may be made to perform certain functions by external means; but it is only when he begins to think that he rises to the dignity of a rational being. It is not reading, but thinking, that gives you the possession of knowledge. A person may see, hear, read and learn whatever he pleases and as much as he pleases; but he will know very little, if anything, of it, beyond that which he has thought over and made the property of his mind. Take away thought from the life of man and what remains? You may glean knowledge by reading, but you must separate the chaff from the wheat by thinking.
At every action and enterprise, ask yourself this question: What will the consequence of this be to me?
Am I not likely to repent of it? I shall be dead in a little time, and then all is over with me. Whatever thou takest in hand, remember the end, and thou shalt never do amiss. Think before you speak, and consider before you promise. Take time to deliberate and advise; but lose no time in executing your resolutions. Do nothing to-day that you will repent of tomorrow. In the morning think of what you have to do, and at night ask yourself what you have done. Seek not out the thoughts that are too hard for thee. Strive not in a matter that concerneth thee not. Evil thoughts are dangerous enemies, and , should be repulsed at the threshold of our minds. Fill the head and heart with good thoughts, that there be no room for bad ones.
Some persons complain that they cannot find words for their thoughts, when the real trouble is they cannot find thoughts. for their words. The man who thinks laboriously will express himself concisely. It is only by labor that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labor can be made happy. It is not depth of thought which makes obscure to others the work of a thinker; real and offensive obscurity comes merely of inadequate thought embodied in inadequate language. What is clearly comprehended or conceived, what is duly wrought and thought out, must find for itself and seize upon the clearest and fullest expression. Thoughts are but dreams till their effects be tried. The best thoughts are ever swiftest winged, the duller lag behind. A thought must have its own way of expression, or it will have no way at all. The thought that lives is only the deeds struggling into birth. It is with our thoughts as with our flowers those that are simple. in expression carry their seed with them; those that are double charm the mind, but produce nothing.
There is much need of independent thought in our day. Too many yield to the opinions of others without asking or meditating upon their bearing. Often-times the masses are enslaved to opinion, especially in political matters. This may be necessary in some countries, where a few rule, but not in our country, where, through a liberal education, all may be taught to think. Books are so cheap now that the poorest can have access to the channels of thought. Books, how-ever, should only be used as an impetus to set the mind in motion and set it to prying deeper and farther into nature's hidden recesses and boundless realms of truth, or, as a stone that is cast into the calm bosom of the lake causes waves to roll and roll, on against the remotest outlines of the shore. It behooves us to cast off the shackles of opinion and walk resolutely before the world, guided by a well-grounded opinion of our own. Every man and woman ought to favor his age with new thoughts, new ideas, as an 'addition to the great store-house of ideas, with thoughts that will live though empires fall and language dies. Such men and women raise the world from one degree to another higher in the scale of civilization and intelligence. Such are the lives that receive the plaudit, "Well done;" such are lives virtuous, noble and godlike.
No man need fear that he will exhaust his substance of thought, if he will only draw his inspiration from actual human life. There the inexhaustible God pours depths and endless variety of truth, and the true thinker is but a shorthand writer endeavoring to report the of God. Shall a child on the banks of the Amazon fear lest he should drink up the stream?