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LECTURE XIX. ON THE CONDUCT OF THE UNDERSTANDING. — PART II.
I concLUDED my last course with a Lecture upon the Conduct of the Understanding", (which I intended, as I do this, merely for the instruction of young people ;) but as such a subject could not, of course, be exhausted in any single discussion, I reserved the conclusion of it for the present period. As it does not appear to me very material to observe any order with respect to this subject, I shall merely state the observations it suggests, as they occur to my mind, without attempting to arrange them. It would be a very curious question to agitate, how far understanding is transmitted from parent to child; and within what limits it can be improved by culture: whether all men are born equal, with respect to their understanding; or, whether there is an original diversity antecedent to all imitation and instruction. The analogy of animals is in favour of the transmissibility of mind. . Some ill-tempered horses constantly breed ill-tempered colts; and the foal never has seen the sire, — therefore, in this, there can be no imitation. If the eggs of a wild duck are hatched under a tame duck, the young brood will be much wilder than any common brood of poultry: if they are kept all their lives in a farm-yard, and treated kindly, and fed well, their eggs hatched under another bird produce a much tamer race. What is the difference of suspicion and fear observable in the two broods, but a direct transmission of mind, without the possible intervention of any imitation or teaching However, whether mind be transmitted, or whether it be affected afterwards by the earliest circumstances of our lives, certainly the fact is, that at the very earliest periods of our existence, the strongest differences are observable between one individual and another; which difference, no subsequent art and attention can ever after destroy. One of the rarest sort of understandings we meet with in the world, among the numerous diversities which are produced, is an understanding fairly and impartially open to the reception of truth, coming in any shape, and from any quarter; and it will be of considerable use, in a discussion on the conduct of the understanding, to consider what those causes are, which render this sort of understanding so very rare. One of these causes, and the first I shall mention, is indolence. Repose is agreeable to the human mind; and decision is repose. A man has made up his opinions; he does not choose to be disturbed; and he is much more thankful to the man who confirms him in his errors, and leaves him alone, than he is to the man who refutes him, or who instructs him at the expense of his tranquillity. Again: our vanity is compromised by our opinions; we have expressed them, and they must be maintained: the object is, not to know the truth, but to avoid the shame of appearing to have been ignorant of it. Words are an amazing barrier to the reception of truth. It is a most inestimable habit in the conduct of the understanding, before men put their solemn sanction to any opinion, — before war, before peace, before expatriation, and all the great events of life, – that
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which their conduct has been influenced, have really any meaning; and if so, whether they have the meaning, in such instances, intended to be affixt to them. Definition of words has been commonly called a mere exercise of grammarians; but when we come to consider the innumerable murders, proscriptions, massacres, and tortures, which men have inflicted on each other from mistaking the meaning of words, the exercise of definition certainly begins to assume rather a more dignified aspect. Then comes association as another disturber. A man has heard such opinions very often ; or, “I have heard them when I was young; and therefore, they must be right;" – “I hate all Dissenters,” or “all Roman Catholics; ”—or, “I cannot endure Americans; ”—and such other shocking opinions, upon which men act all their lives, – and act very badly, and furiously, and very ignorantly, merely because such opinions have been instilled into their earliest infancy, and because they have never had the power of separating two ideas which mere accident first associated together. The cure for this confined and narrow species of understanding, is to see many things and many men; to taste of the sweetness of truth in science, and to cultivate a love of it; to have the words liberality, candour, knowledge, often in your mouth, and at length they will get into your heart; to ask the reason of things, and find the meaning of words; to hear patiently any one who confirms what you thought before, or who refutes it; to propose to yourself in life the same object, as the law proposes in the examination of evidence, — to get at the truth, and nothing but the truth. Without study, no man can ever do anything with his understanding. But in spite of all that has been said about the sweets of study, it is a sort of luxury, like the taste for olives and coffee —not natural, very hard to be acquired, and very easily lost. Very few persons begin to study from the love of knowledge, or the desire of doing good; though these are the motives with which they ought to begin : but they begin from the shame of inferiority, and better motives come afterwards. One of the best methods of rendering study agreeable is, to live with able men, and to suffer all those pangs of inferiority, which the want of knowledge always inflicts. Nothing short of some such powerful motive, can drive a young person, in the full possession of health and bodily activity, to such an unnatural and such an unobvious mode of passing his life, as study. But this is the way that intellectual greatness often begins. The trophies of Miltiades drive away sleep. A young man sees the honour in which knowledge is held by his fellow-creatures; and he surrenders every present gratification, that he may gain them. The honour in which living genius is held, the trophies by which it is adorned after life, it receives and enjoys from the feelings of men, – not from their sense of duty: but men never obey this feeling, without discharging the first of all duties; without securing the rise and growth of genius, and increasing the dignity of our nature, by enlarging the dominion of mind. No eminent man was ever yet rewarded in vain; no breath of praise was ever idly lavished upon him; it has never yet been idle and foolish to rear up splendid monuments to his name: the rumour of these things impels young minds to the noblest exertions, creates in them an empire over present passions, inures them to the severest toils, determines them to live only for the use of others, and to leave a great and lasting memorial behind them. Besides the shame of inferiority, and the love of reputation, curiosity is a passion very favourable to the love of study; and a passion very susceptible of increase by cultivation. Sound travels so many feet in a second; and light travels so many feet in a second. Nothing
more probable: but you do not care how light and sound travel. Very likely: but make yourself care; get up, shake yourself well, pretend to care, make believe to care, and very soon you will care, and care so much, that you will sit for hours thinking about light and sound, and be extremely angry with any one who interrupts you in your pursuits; and tolerate no other conversation but about light and sound; and catch yourself plaguing every body to death who approaches you, with the discussion of these subjects. I am sure that a man ought to read as he would grasp a nettle:– do it lightly, and you get molested; grasp it with all your strength, and you feel none of its asperities. There is nothing so horrible as languid study; when you sit looking at the clock, wishing the time was over, or that somebody would call on you and put you out of your misery. The only way to read with any efficacy, is to read so heartily, that dinner-time comes two hours before you expected it. To sit with your Livy before you, and hear the geese cackling that saved the capitol; and to see with your own eyes the Carthaginian suttlers gathering up the rings of the Roman knights after the battle of Cannae, and heaping them into bushels; and to be so intimately present at the actions you are reading of, that when anybody knocks at the door, it will take you two or three seconds to determine whether you are in your own study, or in the plains of Lombardy, looking at Hannibal's weather-beaten face, and admiring the splendour of his single eye;— this is the only kind of study which is not tiresome; and almost the only kind which is not useless: this is the knowledge which gets into the system, and which a man carries about and uses like his limbs, without perceiving that it is extraneous, weighty, or inconvenient. To study successfully, the body must be healthy, the mind at ease, and time managed with great economy. Persons who study many hours in the day, should, perhaps, have two separate pursuits going on at the same