1677, March 6th. The end of study is knowledge, and the end of knowledge practice or communication. This true delight is commonly joined with all improvements of knowledge; but when we study only for that end, it is to be considered rather as diversion than business, and so is to be reckoned among our recreations.
The extent of knowledge or things knowable is so vast, our duration here so short, and the entrance by which the knowledge of things gets into our understanding so narrow, that the time of our whole life would be found too short without the necessary allowances for childhood and old age (which are not capable of much improvement), for the refreshment of our bodies and unavoidable avocations, and in most conditions for the ordinary employment of their callings, which if they neglect, they cannot eat nor live.
I say that the whole time of our life, without these necessary defalcations, is not enough to acquaint us with all those things, I will not say which we are capable of knowing, but which it would not be only convenient but very advantageous to know. He that will consider how many doubts and difficulties have remained in the minds of the most knowing men after long and studious inquiry; how much,
in those several provinces of knowledge they have surveyed, they have left undiscovered; how many other provinces of the "mundus intelligibilis," as I may call it, they never once travelled on, will easily consent to the disproportionateness of our time and strength to this greatness of business, of knowledge taken in its full latitude,
and which if it be not our main business here, yet it is so necessary to it, and so interwoven with it, that we can make little further progress in doing than we do in knowing-at least to little purpose; acting without understanding being usually at best but lost labour.
It therefore much behoves us to improve the best we can our time and talent in this respect, and since we have a long journey to go, and the days are but short, to take the straightest and most direct road we can.
To this purpose, it may not perhaps be amiss to decline some things that are likely to bewilder us, or at least lie our of our way.-First, as all that maze of words and phrases which have been invented and employed only to instruct and amuse people in the art of disputing, and will be found perhaps, when looked into, to have little or no meaning; and with this kind of stuff the logics, physics,
ethics, metaphysics, and divinity of the schools are thought by some to be too much filled. This I am sure, that where we leave distinctions without finding a difference in things; where we make variety of phrases, or think we furnish ourselves with arguments without a progress in the real knowledge of things, we only fill our heads with empty sounds, which, however thought to belong to learning and knowledge, will no more improve our understandings and strengthen our reason,
than the noise of a jack will fill our bellies or strengthen our bodies: and the art to fence with those which are called subtleties, is of no more use than it would be to be dexterous in tying and untying knots in cobwebs. Words are of no value nor use, but as they are the signs of things; when they stand for nothing, they are less than cyphers, for, instead of augmenting the value of those they are joined with, they lessen it, and make it nothing; and where they have not a clear distinct signification, they are like unusual or ill-made figures that confound our meaning.
2nd. An aim and desire to know what hath been other men's opinions. Truth needs no recommendation, and error is not mended by it; and in our inquiry after knowledge, it as little concerns us what other men have thought, as it does one who is to go from Oxford to London, to know what scholars walk quietly on foot, inquiring the way and surveying the country as the went, who rode post after their guide without minding the way he went, who were carried along muffled up in a coach with their company, or where one doctor lost or went out of his way, or where another stuck in the mire. If a traveller gets a knowledge of the right way,
it is no matter whether he knows the infinite windings, by-ways, and turnings where others have been misled; the knowledge of the right secures him from the wrong, and that is his great business: and so methinks it is in our pilgrimage through this world; men's fancies have been infinite even of the learned, and the history of them endless: and some not knowing whither they would go, have kept going, though they have only moved; others have followed only their own imaginations, though they meant right, which is an errant which with the wisest leads us through strange mazes. Interest has blinded some and prejudiced others,
who have yet marched confidently on; and however out of the way, they have thought themselves most in the right. I do not say this to undervalue the light we receive from others, or to think there are not those who assist us mightily in our endeavours after knowledge; perhaps without books we should be as ignorant as the Indians, whose minds are as ill clad as their bodies;
but I think it is an idle and useless thing to make it one's business to study what have been other men's sentiments in things where reason is only to be judge, on purpose to be furnished with them, and to be able to cite them on all occasions. However it be esteemed a great part of learning, yet to a man that considers how little time he has, and how much work to do, how many things he is to learn, how many doubts to clear in religion, how many rules to establish to himself in morality, how much pains to be taken with himself to master his unruly desires and passions,
how to provide himself against a thousand cases and accidents that will happen, and an infinite deal more both in his general and particular calling; I say to a man that considers this well, it will not seem much his business to acquaint himself designedly with the various conceits of men that are to be found in books even upon ;subjects of moment. I deny not but the knowing of these opinions in all their variety, contradiction,
and extravagancy, may serve to instruct us in the vanity and ignorance of mankind, and both to humble and caution us upon that consideration; but this seems not reason enough to me to engage purposely in this study, and in our inquiries after more material points, we shall meet with enough of this medley to acquaint us with the weakness of man's understanding.
3rd. Purity of language, a polished style, or exact criticism in foreign languages-thus I think Greek and Latin may be called, as well as French and Italian,-and to spend much time in these may perhaps serve to set one off in the world, and give one the reputation of a scholar; but if that be all, methinks it is labouring for an outside; it is at best but a handsome dress of truth or falsehood that one busies on's self about, and makes most of those who lay out their time this way rather as fashionable gentlemen than as wise or useful men.
There are so many advantages of speaking one's own language well, and being a master in it, that let a man's calling be what it will, it cannot but be worth our taking some pains in it, but it is by no means to have the first place in our studies; but he that makes good language subservient to a good life and an instrument of virtue, is doubly enabled to good to others.
When I speak against the laying out our time and study on criticisms, I mean such as may serve to make us great masters in Pindar and Persius, Herodotus and Tacitus; and I must always be understood to except all study of languages and critical learning, that may aid us in understanding the Scriptures; for they being an eternal foundation of truth as immediately coming from the fountain of truth, whatever doth help us to understand their true sense, doth well deserve our pains and study.
4th. antiquity and history, as far as they are designed only to furnish us with story and talk. For the stories of Alexander and C?sar, no further than they instruct us in the art of living well, and furnish us with observations of wisdom and prudence, are not one jot to be preferred to the history of Robin Hood, or the Seven Wise Masters. I do not deny but history is very useful,
and very instructive of human life; but if it be studied only for the reputation of being an historian, it is a very empty thing; and he that can tell all the particulars of Herodotus and Plutarch, Curtius and Livy, without making any other use of them, may be an ignorant man with a good memory, and with all his pains hath only filled his head with Christmas tales. And which is worse, the greatest part of history being made up of wars and conquests, and their style, especially the Romans,
speaking of valour as the chief, if not the only virtue, we are in danger to be misled by the general current and business of history, and, looking on Alexander and C?sar, and such like heroes, as the highest instances of human greatness, because they each of them caused the death of several 100,000 men, and the ruin of a much greater number, overrun a great part of the earth, and killed the inhabitants to possess themselves of their countries-we are apt to make butchery and rapine the chief marks and very essence of human greatness.
And if civil history be a great dealer of it, and to many readers thus useless, curious and difficult inquirings in antiquity are much more so; and the exact dimensions of the Colossus, or figure of the Capitol, the ceremonies of the Greek and Roman marriages, or who it was that first coined money; these, I confess, set a man well off in the world, especially amongst the learned, but set him very little on in his way.
5th. Nice questions and remote useless speculations, as where the earthly Paradise was-or what fruit it was that was forbidden-where Lazarus's soul was whilst his body lay dead-and what kind of bodies we shall have at the Resurrection? &c. &c. These things well regulated, will cut off at once a great deal of business from one who is setting out into a course of study; not that all these are to be counted utterly useless, and lost time cast away on them.
The four last may be each of them the full and laudable employment of several persons who may with great advantage make languages, history, or antiquity, their study.
For as for words without meaning, which is the first head I mentioned, I can not imagine them any way worth hearing or reading, much less studying; but there is such a harmony in all sorts of truth and knowledge, they do all support and give light so to one another, that one cannot deny but languages and criticisms, history and antiquity, strange opinions and odd speculations, serve often to clear and confirm very material and useful doctrines. My meaning therefore is, not that they are not to be looked into by a studious man at any time; all that I contend is,
that they are not to be made our chief aim, nor first business, and that they are always to be handled with some caution: for since having but a little time, we have need of much care in the husbanding of it. These parts of knowledge ought not to have either the first or greatest part of our studies, and we have the more need of this caution, because they are much in vogue amongst men of letters, and carry with them a great exterior of learning, and so are a glittering temptation in a studious man's way, and such as is very likely to mislead him.
But if it were fit for me to marshal the parts of knowledge, and allot to any one its place and precedency thereby to direct one's studies, I should think it were natural to set them in this order.
Heaven being our great business and interest, the knowledge which may direct us thither is certainly so too, so that this is without peradventure the study that ought to take the first and chiefest place in our thoughts; but wherein it consists, its parts, method, and application, will deserve a chapter by itself.
The next thing to happiness in the other world, is a quiet prosperous passage through this, which requires a discreet conduct and management of ourselves in the several occurrences of our lives. The study of prudence then seems to me to deserve the second place in our thoughts and studies. A man may be, perhaps, a good man (which lives in truth and sincerity of heart towards God), with a small portion of prudence, but he will never be very happy in himself, no useful to others without; these two are every man's business.
If those who are left by their predecessors with a plentiful fortune are excused from having a particular calling, in order to their subsistence in this life, it is yet certain that, by the law of God, they are under an obligation of doing something; which, having been judiciously treated by an able pen, I shall not meddle with, but pass to those who have made letters their business; and in these I think it is incumbent to make the proper business of their calling the third place in their study.
This order being laid, it will be easy for every one to determine with himself what tongues and histories are to be studied by him, and how far in subserviency to his general or particular calling.
Our happiness being thus parcelled out, and being in every part of it very large, it is certain we should set ourselves on work without ceasing, did not both the parts we are made up of bid us hold. Our bodies and our minds are neither of them capable of continual study, and if we take not a just measure of our strength in endeavouring to do a great deal, we shall do nothing at all.