An Essay on the Evils of Popular Ignorance Part 8

An Essay on the Evils of Popular Ignorance -

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It was not possible to pursue the long course of these observations so nearly to the conclusion, without being reminded still again of what we have adverted to before, that there will be persons ready to impute sanguine extravagance to our expectations of the result of such an order of means and exertions, for the improvement of the education and mental condition of the people, as we see already beginning to work. When the means are of so little splendid a quality, it will be said, by what inflation of fancy is their power admeasured to such effects?

And what _is_ it, then, and how much, that is expected as the result, by the zealous advocates of schools, and the whole order of expedients, for the instruction of that part of the rising generation till lately so neglected? Are they heard maintaining that the communication of knowledge, or true notions of things, to youthful minds, will _infallibly_ ensure their virtue and happiness? They are not quite so new to the world, to experimental labor in the business of tuition, or to self-observation.

Their vigilance would hardly overlook such a circ.u.mstance as the very different degree of a.s.surance with which the effects may be predicted, of ignorance on the one hand, and of knowledge on the other. There is very nearly an absolute certainty of success in the method for making clowns, sots, vagabonds, and ruffians. You may safely leave it to themselves to carry on the process for becoming complete. Let human creatures grow up without discipline, dest.i.tute therefore of salutary information, sound judgment, or any conscience but what will shape itself to whatever they like, serving in the manner of some vile friar pander in the old plays,--and no one takes any credit for foresight in saying they will be a noxious burden on the earth; except indeed in those tracts of it where they seem to have their appropriate place and business, in being matched against the wolves and bears of the wilderness. When they infest what should be a civilized and Christianized part of the world, the philanthropist is sometimes put in doubt whether to repress, or indulge, the sentiment which tempts him to complacency in the operation of an epidemic which is thinning their numbers.

The consequences of ignorance are certain, unless almost a miracle interpose; but unhappily those of knowledge are of diffident and restricted calculation; unless we could make a trifle of the testimony of all ages, and suppress the evidence of present experience, that men may see and approve the better, and yet follow the worse. It is the hapless predicament of our nature, that the n.o.blest of its powers, the understanding, has but most imperfectly and precariously that commanding hold on the others, which is essential to the good order of the soul. Our const.i.tution is like a machine in which there is a constant liability of the secondary wheels to be thrown out of the catch and grapple of the master one. And worse than so, these powers which ought to be subordinate and obedient to the understanding, are not left to stand still when detached from its control. They have a strong activity of their own, from the impulse of other principles: indeed, it is this impulse that _causes_ the detachment. It is frightful to look at the evidence from facts, that these active powers _may_ grow strong in the perversity which will set the judgment at defiance, during the very time that it is successfully training to a competence for dictating to them what is right. The a.s.sertions of those who are determined to find the chief or only cause of the wrong direction of the pa.s.sions and will in misapprehension of the understanding, are a gross a.s.sumption, in a question of fact, against an infinite crowd of facts pressing round with their evidence. This evidence is offered by men without number distinctly and deliberately acknowledging their conviction of the evil quality and fatal consequences, of courses which they are soon afterwards seen pursuing, and without the smallest pretence of a change of opinion; by the same men in more advanced stages still owning the same conviction, and sometimes in strong terms of self-reproach, in the checks and pauses of their career; and by men in the near prospect of death and judgment expressing, in bitter regret, the acknowledgment that they had persisted in acting wrong when they knew better. And this a.s.sumption, made against such evidence, is to be maintained for no better reason, that appears, than a wilful determination that human nature cannot, must not, shall not, be so absurd and depraved as to be capable of such madness: as if human nature were taking the smallest trouble to put on any disguise before them, to beguile them into a good opinion; as if it could be cajoled by their flattery to a.s.sume even a semblance of deserving it; as if it had the complaisance to check one bad propensity, to save them from standing contradicted and exposed to ridicule for speaking of it with indulgence or respect; as if it stayed or cared to thank them for their pains in attempting to make out a plausible extenuation. It has, and keeps, and shows its character, in perfect indifference to the puzzled efforts of its apologists to reduce its moral turpitude to just so much error of the understanding. But, as for understanding--it should be time to look to their own, when they find themselves a.s.serting, in other words, that there is actually as much virtue in the world as there is knowledge of its principles and laws. We should rather have surmised that, deplorably deficient as that knowledge is, the reduction of a fifth or tenth part of it to practice would make a glorious change in England and Europe.

The persons, therefore, whose zeal is combined with knowledge in the prosecution of plans for the extension of education, proceed on a calculation of an effect more limited, in apparent proportion to the means, and with less certainty of even that more limited measure in any single instance, than they would have been justified in antic.i.p.ating in many other departments of operation. They would, for example, predict more positively the results of an undertaking to cultivate any tract of waste land, to reclaim a bog, or to render mechanical forces available in an untried mode of application; or, in many cases, the decided success of the healing art as applied to a diseased body. They must needs be moderate in their confidence of calculation for good, on a moral nature whose corruption would yield an enemy of mankind a gratifying probability in calculating for evil. In comparing these opposite calculations, they would be glad if they might make an exchange of the respective probabilities.

That is to say, let a man, if such there be, who could be pleased with the depravity and misery of the race, a sagacious judge too, of their moral const.i.tution, and a veteran observer of their conduct,--let him survey with the look of an evil spirit a hundred children in one of the benevolent schools, and indulge himself in prognosticating, on the strength of what he knows of human nature, the proportion, in numbers and degree, in which these children will, in subsequent life, exemplify the _failure_ of what is done for their wisdom and welfare;--let him make his calculation, and, we say, there may be times when the friends of these inst.i.tutions would be glad to transfer the quant.i.ty of probability from his side to theirs; would feel they should be happy if the proportion in which they fear he may be right in calculating on evil from the nature of the beings under discipline, were, instead, the proportion in which it is rational to reckon on good from the efficacy of that discipline. "Evil, be thou my good," might be their involuntary apostrophe, in the sense of wis.h.i.+ng to possess the stronger power, trans.m.u.ted to the better quality.

But we shall know where to stop in the course of observations of this darkening color: and shall take off the point of the derider's taunt, just forthcoming, that we are here unsaying, in effect, all that we have been so laboriously urging about the vast benefit of knowledge to the people.

It was proper to show, that the prosecutors of these designs are not suffering themselves to be duped out of a perception of what there is, in the nature of the youthful subjects, to counteract the intention of the discipline, and with too certain a power to limit its efficacy to a very partial measure of the effect desired. These projectors might fairly be required to prove they are not unknowing enthusiasts; but then, in keeping clear of the vain extravagances of expectation, they are not to surrender their confidence that something great and important can be done; it should be possible for a man to be sober, short of being dead. They are not to gravitate into a state of feeling as if they thought the understanding and the moral powers are but casually a.s.sociated in the mind; as if an important communication to the one, might, so to speak, never be heard of by the others; as if these subordinates had just one sole principle of action--that of disobeying their chief, so that it could be of no use to appeal to the master of the house respecting the conduct of his inmates; as if, therefore, _all_ presumption of a relation between means and ends, as a ground of confidence in the efficacy of popular instruction, must be illusory. It might not indeed be amiss for them to be _told_ that the case is so, by those who would desire, from whatever motive, to repress their efforts and defeat their designs. For so downright a blow at the vital principle of their favorite object would but serve to provoke them to ascertain more definitely what there really is for them to found their schemes and hopes upon, and therefore to verify to themselves the reasons they have for persisting, in a.s.surance that the labor will be far from wholly lost. And for this a.s.surance it is, at the very lowest, self-evident, that there is at any rate such an efficacy in cultivation, as to give a certainty that a well-cultivated people _cannot_ remain on the same degraded moral level as a neglected ignorant one--or anywhere near it. None of those even that value such designs the least, ever pretend to foresee, in the event of their being carried into effect, an undiminished prevalence of rudeness and brutality of manners, of delight in spectacles and amus.e.m.e.nts of cruelty, of noisy revelry, of sottish intemperance, or of disregard of character. It is not pretended to be foreseen, that the poorer will then continue to display so much of that almost desperate improvidence respecting their temporal means and prospects, which has aggravated the calamities of the present times. It is not predicted that a universal school-discipline will bring up several millions to the neglect, and many of them in an impudent contempt, of attendance on the ministrations of religion. The result will at all hazards, by every one's acknowledgment, be _the contrary of this_.

But more specifically:--The promoters of the plans of popular education see a most important advantage gained in the very outset, in the obvious fact, that in their schools a very large portion of time is employed well, that otherwise would infallibly be employed ill. Let any one introduce himself into one of these places of concourse, where there has been time to mature the arrangements. He should not enter as an important personage, in patronizing and judicial state, as if to demand the respectful looks of the whole tribe from their attention to their printed rudiments and their slates; but glide in as a quiet observer, just to survey at his leisure the character and operations of the scene. Undoubtedly he may descry here and there the signs of inattention, weariness or vacancy, not to say of perverseness. Even these individuals, however, are out of the way of practical harm; and at the same time he will see a mult.i.tude of youthful spirits acknowledging the duty of directing their best attention to something altogether foreign to their wild amus.e.m.e.nts; of making a rather protracted effort in one mode or another of the strange business of _thinking_. He will perceive in many the unequivocal indications of a serious and earnest effort made to acquire, with the aid visible signs and implements, a command of what is invisible and immaterial. They are thus rising from the mere animal state to tread in the precincts of an intellectual economy; the economy of thought and truth, in which they are to live forever; and never, in all futurity, will they have to regret, for itself, [Footnote: _For itself_--a phrase of qualification inserted to meed the captious remark, that there have been instances of bad men, under the reproach of conscience of the dread of consequences, expressing a regret that they had ever been well instructed, since this was an aggravation of their guilt, and perhaps had subserved their evil propensities with the more effectual means and ability.] _this_ period and part of their employments. He will be delighted to think how many regulated actions of the mind, how many just ideas distinctly admitted, that were unknown or unimpressed at the beginning of the day's exercise, (and among these ideas, some to remind them of G.o.d and their highest interest,) there will have been by the time the busy and well-ordered company breaks up in the evening, and leaves silence within these walls.

He will not indeed grow romantic in hope; he knows the nature of which these beings partake; knows therefore that the desired results of this process will but partially follow; but still rejoices to think those partial results which will most certainly follow, will be worth incomparably more than all they will have cost to the learners, or the teachers, or the patrons.

Now let him, when he has contemplated this scene, consider how the greatest part of this numerous company would have been employed during the same hours, whether of the Sabbath or other days, but for such a provision of means for their instruction. And, for the contrast, he has only to leave the school, and walk a mile round the neighborhood, in which it will be very wonderful, (we may say this of most parts of England,) if he shall not, in a populous district, especially near a great town, and on a fine day, meet with a great number of wretched, disgusting imps, straggling or in knots, in the activity of mischief and nuisance, or at least the full cry of vile and profane language; with here and there, as a lord among them, an elder larger one growing fast into an insolent adult blackguard.

He may make the comparison, quite sure that such as they are, and so employed, would many now under the salutary discipline of yonder school have been, but for its inst.i.tution. But the two so beheld in contrast, might they not seem to belong to two different nations? Do they not seem growing into two extremely different orders of character? Do they not even seem preparing for different worlds in the final distribution?

The friends of these designs for a general and highly improved education, may proceed further in this course of verifying to themselves the grounds of their a.s.surance of happy consequences. A number of ideas, the most important that were ever formed in human thought, or imparted to men from the Supreme Mind, will be so communicated and impressed in these inst.i.tutions, that it is absolutely certain they will be fixed irrevocably in the minds of the pupils. And in the case of many, if not the majority of these destined adventurers into the temptations of life, these important ideas, thus inserted deep in their souls, will distinctly present themselves to judgment and conscience an incalculable number of times. What a number, if the sum of all these reminiscences, in all the minds now a.s.sembled in a numerous school, could be conjectured! But if one in a hundred of these recollections, if one in a thousand, shall be efficacious, who can compute the amount of the good resulting from the instruction which shall have so enforced and fixed these ideas that they shall inevitably be thus recollected? And is it altogether out of reason to hope that the desired efficacy will, far oftener than once in a thousand times, attend the luminous rising again of a solemn idea to the view of the mind! Is still less than _this_ to be predicted for our unhappy nature, while, however fallen, it is not abandoned by the care of its Creator!

The inst.i.tutions themselves will gradually improve, in both the method and the compa.s.s of their discipline. They will acquire a more vigorous mechanism, and a more decidedly intellectual character. In this latter respect, it is but comparatively of late years that schools for the inferior have ventured anything beyond the humblest pretensions.

Mental cultivation--enlarged knowledge--elements of science--habit of thinking--exercise of judgment--free and enlightened opinion--higher grade in society--were terms which they were to be reverently cautious of taking in vain. There would have been an offensive sound in such phrases, as seeming to betray somewhat of the impertinence of a _disposition_, (for the idea of the _practicability_ of any such invasion would have been scorned,) to encroach on a ground exclusively appropriate to the superior orders. Schools for the poor were to be as little as possible scholastic.

They were to be kept down to the lowest level of the workshop, excepting perhaps in one particular--that of working hard: for the scholars were to throw time away rather than be occupied with anything beyond the merest rudiments. The advocates and the pet.i.tioners for aid of such schools, were to avow and plead how little it was that they pretended or presumed to teach. The argument in their behalf was either to begin or end with saying, that they taught _only_ reading and writing; or if it could not be denied that there was to be some meddling with arithmetic and grammar,--we may safely appeal to some of the veterans of these pleaders, whether they did not, thirty or forty years since, bring out this addition with the management and hesitation of a confession and apology. It is a prominent characteristic of that happy revolution we have spoken of as in commencement, that this aristocratic notion of education is breaking up.

The theory of the subject is loosening into enlargement, and will cease by degrees to impose a n.i.g.g.ardly restriction on the extent of the cultivation, proper to be attempted in schools for the inferiors of the community.

As these inst.i.tutions go on, augmenting in number and improving in organization, their pupils will bring their quality and efficacy to the proof, as they grow to maturity, and go forth to act their part in society. And there can be no doubt, that while too many of them may be mournful exemplifications of the power with which the evil genius of the corrupt nature, combined with the infection of a bad world, resists the better influences of instruction, and may, after the advantage of such an introductory stage, be carried down towards the old debas.e.m.e.nt, a very considerable proportion will take and permanently maintain a far higher ground. They will have become imbued with an element, which must put them in strong repulsion to that coa.r.s.e vulgar that will be sure to continue in existence, in this country, long enough to be a trial of the moral taste of this better cultivated race. It will be seen that they cannot a.s.sociate with it by choice, and in the spirit of companions.h.i.+p. And while they are thus withheld on their part, from approximating, it may be hoped that in certain better disposed parts of that vulgar, there may be a conversion of the repelling principle into an impulse to approach and join them on their own ground. There will be numbers among it who cannot be so entirely insensate or perverse, as to look with carelessness at the advantages obtained through the sole medium of personal improvement, by those who had otherwise been exactly on the same level of low resources and estimation as themselves. The effect of this view on pride, in some, and on better propensities, it may be hoped, in others, will be to excite them to make their way upward to a community which, they will clearly see, could commit no greater folly than to come downward to them. And we will presume a friendly disposition in most of those who shall have been raised to this higher standing, to meet such aspirers and help them to ascend.

And while they will thus draw upward the less immovable and hopeless part of the ma.s.s below them, they will themselves, on the other hand, be placed, by the respectability of their understanding and manners, within the influence of the higher cultivation of the above them; a great advantage, as we have taken a former occasion to notice:--a great advantage, that is to say, if the cultivation among those _be_ generally of such a quality and measure, that the people could not be brought a few degrees nearer to them without becoming, through the effect of their example, more in love with sense, knowledge, and propriety of conduct. For it were somewhat too much of simplicity, perhaps, to take it for quite a thing of course that the people would always perceive such intellectual accomplishments as would keep them modest or humble in their estimate of their own, and such liberal spirit and manners as would at once command their respect and conduce to their refinement, when they made any approach to a communication with the superior in possessions and station. If this _might_ have been a.s.sumed as a thing of course, and if therefore it might have been confidently reckoned on, that the more improving of the people would receive from the ranks above them a salutary influence, similar to that which we have been supposing they will themselves exert on a part of the vulgar ma.s.s below them, there had been a happy omen for the community; and if it may not be so a.s.sumed, are we to have the disgraceful deficiencies of the upper pleaded as an argument against raising the lower from their degradation? Must the mult.i.tude flounder along the mud at the bottom of the upward slope, because their betters will not be at the cost of making for themselves a higher terraced road across it than that they are now walking on?

But it would be an admirable turn to make the lower orders act beneficially on the higher. And it is an important advantage likely to accrue from the better education of the common people, that their rising attainments would compel not a few of their superiors to look to the state of their own mental pretensions, on perceiving that _this_, at last, was becoming a ground on which, in no small part, their precedence was to be measured. Surely it would be a most excellent thing, that they should find themselves thus incommodiously pressed upon by the only circ.u.mstance, perhaps, that could make them sensible there are more kinds of poverty than that single one to which alone they had hitherto attached ideas of disgrace; and should be forced to preserve that ascendency for which wealth and station would formerly suffice, at the cost, now, of a good deal more reading, thinking, and general self-discipline. And would it be a worthy sacrifice, that to spare some substantial agriculturalists, idle gentlemen, and sporting or promenading ecclesiastics, such an afflictive necessity, the actual tillers of the ground, and the workers in manufacture and mechanics, should continue to be kept in stupid ignorance?

It is very possible this may excite a smile, as the threatening of a necessity or a danger to these privileged persons, which it is thought they may be comfortably a.s.sured is very remote. This danger (namely, that a good many of them, or rather of those who are coming in the course of nature to succeed them in the same rank, will find that its relative consequence cannot be sustained but at a very considerably higher pitch of mental qualification) is threatened upon no stronger presages than the following:--Allow us first to take it for granted, that it is not a very protracted length of time that is to pa.s.s away before the case comes to be, that a large proportion of the children of the lower are trained, through a course of a.s.siduous instruction and exercise in the most valuable knowledge, during a series of years, in schools which everything possible is done to render efficient. Then, if we include in one computation all the time they will have spent in real mental effort and acquirement there, and all those pieces and intervals of time which we may reasonably hope that many of them will improve to the same purpose in the subsequent years, a very great number of them will have employed, by the time they reach middle age, many thousands of hours more than people in their condition have heretofore done, in a way the most directly tending to place them greatly further on in whatever of importance for repute and authority intelligence is to bear in society. And how must we be estimating the natural capacities of these inferior, or the perceptions of the higher, not to foresee as a consequence, that these latter will find their relative situation greatly altered, with respect to the measure of knowledge and mental power requisite as one most essential const.i.tuent of their superiority, in order to command the unfeigned deference of their inferiors?

Our strenuous promoters of the schemes for cultivating the minds of all the people, are not afraid of professing to foresee, that when schools, of that completely disciplinarian organization which they are, we hope, gradually to attain, shall have become general, and shall be vigorously seconded by all those auxiliary expedients for popular instruction which are also in progress, a very pleasing modification will become apparent in the character, the moral color, if we might so express it, of the people's ordinary employment. The young persons so instructed, being appointed, for the most part, to the same occupations to which they would have been destined had they grown up in utter ignorance and vulgarity, are expected to give evidence that the meanness, the debas.e.m.e.nt almost, which had characterized many of those occupations in the view of the more refined, was in truth the debas.e.m.e.nt of the men more than of the callings; which will come to be in more honorable estimation as a.s.sociated with the sense, decorum, and self-respect of the performers, than they were while blended and polluted with all the low habits, manners, and language, of ignorance and vulgar grossness. And besides, there is the consideration of the different degrees of merit in the performance itself; and who will be the persons most likely to excel, in the many branches of workmans.h.i.+p and business which admit of being better done in proportion to the degree of intelligence directed upon them? And again, who will be most in requisition for those offices of management and superintendence, where something must be confided to judgment and discretion, and where the value is felt, (often vexatiously felt from the want,) of some capacity of combination and foresight?

Such as these are among the subordinate benefits reasonably, we might say infallibly, calculated upon. Our philanthropists are confident in foreseeing also, that very many of these better educated young persons will be valuable co-operators with all who may be more formally employed in instruction, against that ignorance from which themselves have been so happily saved; will exert an influence, by their example and the steady avowal of their principles, against vice and folly in their vicinity; and will be useful advisers of their neighbors in their perplexities, and sometimes moderators in their discords. It is predicted, with a confidence so much resting on general grounds of probability, as hardly to need the instances already afforded in various parts of the country to confirm it, that here and there one of the well-instructed humbler cla.s.s will become a competent and useful public teacher of the most important truth. It is, in short, antic.i.p.ated with delightful a.s.surance, that great numbers of those who shall go forth from under the friendly guardians.h.i.+p which will take the charge of their youthful minds, will be examples through life and at its conclusion, of the power and felicity of religion.

Here we can suppose it not improbable that some one may, in pointed terms, put the question,--Do you then, at last, mean to affirm that you can, by the proposed course, by any course, of discipline, absolutely secure that effectual operation and ascendency of religion in the mind, which shall place it in the right condition toward G.o.d, and in a state of fitness for pa.s.sing, without fear or danger, into the scenes of its future endless existence?

We think the cautious limitation of language, hitherto observed in setting forth our expectations, might preclude such a question. But let it be asked, since there can be no difficulty to reply. We do _not_ affirm that any form of discipline, the wisest and best in the power of the wisest and best men to apply, is competent of itself thus to subject the mind decidedly and permanently to the power of religion. On the contrary, we believe that grand effect can be accomplished only by a special influence of the Divine Being, operating by the means applied in a well-judged system of instruction, or, if he pleases, independently of them. But next, it is perfectly certain, notwithstanding, that the application of these human means will, in a mult.i.tude of instances, be efficacious to that most happy end.

This certainty arises from a few very plain general considerations. The first is, that the whole system of means appointed by the Almighty to be employed as a human process for presenting religion solemnly in view before men's minds, and enforcing it on them, is an appointment _expressly intended_ for working that great effect which secures their final felicity; though to what extent in point of number is altogether unknown to the subordinate agents. They are perfectly certain, in employing the appointed expedients in prosecution of the work, that they must be proceeding on the strength of a positive relation subsisting between those means and the results to be realized, in what instances, in what measure, at what time, it shall please the sovereign Power. The appointment cannot be one of mere exercise for the faculties and submissive obedience of those who are summoned to be active in its execution.

Accordingly, there are in the divine revelation very many explicit and animating a.s.surances, that their exertions shall certainly be in a measure effectual to the proposed end. And if these a.s.surances are made in favor of the exertions for inculcating religion generally, that is, on men of all conditions and ages, they may be a.s.sumed as giving special encouragement to those for impressing it on young minds, before they can be preoccupied and hardened by the depravities of the world. There is plainly the more hope for the efficacy of those exertions the less there is to frustrate them. But besides, the authority itself, which has a.s.sured a measure of success to religious instruction as administered generally, has marked with peculiar strength the promise of its success as applied to the young; thus affording rays of hope which have in ten thousand instances animated the diligence of pious parents, and the other benevolent instructors of children.

There is also palpable matter of fact to the point, that an education which combines the discipline of the conscience and the intellectual faculty will be rendered, in many instances, efficacious to the formation of a religious character. This obvious fact is, that a much greater proportion of the persons so educated do actually become the subjects of religion, than of a similar number of those brought up in ignorance and profligacy. Take collectively any number of families in which such an education prevails, and the same number in which it does not, and follow the young persons respectively into subsequent life. But any one who hears the suggestion, feels there is no need to wait the lapse of time and follow their actual course. As instructed by what he has already seen in society, he can go forward with them prophetically, with perfect certainty that many more of the one tribe than that of the other, will become persons not only of moral respectability but decided piety. Any one that should a.s.sert respecting them that the probabilities are equal and indifferent, would be considered as sporting a wilful absurdity, or betraying that he is one of those who did not come into the world for anything they can learn in it. And the experience which thus authorizes a perfect confidence of prediction, is evidence that, though discipline must wholly disclaim an absolute power to effect the great object in question, there is, nevertheless, such a const.i.tution of things that it most certainly will, as an instrumental cause, in many instances effect it.

The state of the matter, then, is very simple. The Supreme Cause of men's being "made wise to salvation," in appointing a system of means, to be put by human activity in operation toward this effect, has also appointed that in this operation they shall infallibly be attended with a measure of success in accomplis.h.i.+ng that highest good,--a measure which was not to be accomplished otherwise than by such means. So much he has signified to men as an absolute certainty: but then, he has connected this certainty in an arbitrary, and as to our knowledge, indefinite manner with the system. It is a certainty connected with the system _as taken generally and comprehensively_; and which it is not given to us to affix to the particular instances in which the success will take place. It is a Divine Volition suspended over the whole scene of cultivation; like a cloud from which we cannot tell where precisely the shower to fertilize it will fall, certain, however, that there are spots whose verdure and flowers will tell after awhile. The agents under the Sovereign Dispenser are to proceed on this positive a.s.surance that the success _shall be somewhere_, though they cannot know that it will be in this one instance, or in the other: "In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thy hand; for thou knowest not whether shall prosper, this, or that." If they rate the value of their agency so high, as to hold it derogatory to their dignity that any part of their labors should be performed under the condition of possibly being unsuccessful, they may be a.s.sured that such is not exactly the estimate of Him to whom they look for the acceptance of their services, and for the reward.

But it may be added, that the great majority of those who are intent on the schemes for enlightening and reforming mankind, are entertaining a confident hope of the approach of a period, when the success will be far greater in proportion to the measure of exertion in every department of the system of instrumentality for that grand object. We cherish this confidence, not on the strength of any pretension to be able to resolve prophetic emblems and numbers, into precise dates and events of the present and approaching times. It rests on a more general mode of apprehending a relation between the extraordinary indications of the period we live in, and the substantial purport of the divine predictions.

There unquestionably gleams forth, through the plainer lines, and through the mystical imagery of prophecy, the vision of a better age, in which the application of the truths of religion to men's minds will be irresistible.

And what should more naturally be interpreted as one of the dawning signs of its approach, than a new spirit come into action with insuppressible impulse, at once to dispel the fog from their intellects and bring the heavenly light to s.h.i.+ne close upon them; accompanied by a prodigious convulsion in the old system of the world, which hardly recognized in the inferior millions the very existence of souls to need or be worth such an illumination? It is true that an eruptive activity of evil, beyond what was witnessed by our forefathers, has attended and followed that convulsion; as mephitic exhalations are emitted through the rents of an earthquake. Viewed in itself, this outbreak of the bad principles and pa.s.sions might seem to portend anything rather than a grand improvement in the state of a nation or of mankind. It appears like an actual augmentation of the evil previously existing. But it should rather be regarded as the setting loose of the noxious elements acc.u.mulated and rankling under the old system; a phenomenon inevitably attendant on its breaking up, by a catastrophe absolutely necessary to open and clear the field for operations on the great scale against those evils themselves, and to give scope and means for the advancement toward a better condition of humanity.

The laborers in the inst.i.tutions for instructing the young descendants of an ill-fated generation, may often regret to perceive how little the process is as yet informed with the energy which is ultimately to pervade the world. But let them regard as one great undivided economy and train of operation, these initiatory efforts and all that is to follow, till that time "when all shall know the Lord;" and take by antic.i.p.ation, as in fraternity with the happier future laborers, their just share of that ultimate triumph. Those active spirits, in the happier periods, will look back with this sentiment of kindred and complacency to those who sustained the earlier toils of the good cause, and did not suffer their zeal to languish under the comparative smallness of their success.

We shall conclude with a few sentences in the way of reply to another question, which we can surmise there may be persons ready to ask, after this long iteration of the a.s.sertion of the necessity of knowledge to the common people. The question would be to this effect: What do you, all this while, mean to a.s.sign as the _measure_ of knowledge proper for the people to be put in possession of?--for you do not specify the kinds, or limit the extent: you talk in vague general terms of mental improvement; you leave the whole matter indefinite; and for all that appears, the people are never to know when they know enough.

It is answered, that we _do_ leave the extent undefined, and should request to be informed where, and why, the line of circ.u.mscription and exclusion should be drawn.

Is it, we could really wish to know, a point at all yet decided, wherein consist the value and importance of the human nature? Any liberal scheme for its universal cultivation is met by such a jealous parsimony toward the common people, such a ready imputation of wild theory, such protesting declamations against the mischief of practically applying abstract principles, such an undisguised or betrayed precedence given to mere interests of state, and those perhaps very sordid ones, before all others, and such whimsical prescriptions for making a salutary compound of a little knowledge and much ignorance,--that it might seem to be doubtful, after all, whether the human nature, in the ma.s.s of mankind at least, be of any such consistence, or for any such purpose, as is affirmed in our common-places on the subject. It is uniformly a.s.sumed in the language of divines, and of the philosophers in most repute, that the worth, the dignity, the importance of man, are in his rational, immortal nature; and that therefore the best condition of _that_ is his true felicity and glory, and the object chiefly to be aimed at in all that is done by him, and for him, on earth. But whether this should be regarded as anything more than the elated faith of ascetics, a fine dogma of academics, or a theme for show in the pomp of moral rhetoric? For we often see, and it is very striking to see, how principles which are suffered to pa.s.s for infallible truth while content to stay within the province of speculation, and to be p.r.o.nounced as mere doctrine, may be disowned and repelled when they come demanding to have their appropriate place and influence in the practical sphere. Even many pretended advocates of Christianity, who in naming certain principles would seem to make them of the very essence of the moral part of that religion, and, in discoursing merely as _religionists_, will insist on their vital importance, will yet shuffle and equivocate about these principles, and in effect set them aside, when they are attempted to be applied to some of their most legitimate uses.

If, for example, these religionists are among the servile adherents of corrupted inst.i.tutions and iniquity invested with power, they will easily find accommodating interpretations, or pleas of exemption from the direct authority, of some of the most sacred maxims of their professed religion.

Serve the true G.o.d when we happen to be in the right place; but at all events we must attend our master to pay homage in the temple of Eimmon, or, should he please to require it, that of Moloch,--with this signal difference from the ancient instance of peccant servility, that whereas in that case pardon for it was implored, in the present case a merit is made of the sycophancy and the idolatry. Unless the principles of Christianity will acknowledge the supremacy of _something else_ than Christianity, in the mode of their application to estimate the importance of the popular mind, they may take their repose in bodies of divinity, sermons, catechisms, systems of ethics, or wherever they can find a place.

But _is_ it really admitted, as a great principle for practical application, that the mind, the intelligent, imperishable existence, is the supremely valuable thing in man? It is then admitted, inevitably, that the discipline, the correction, the improvement, the maturation of this spiritual being to the highest attainable degree, is the great object to be desired by men, for themselves and one another. That is to say, that knowledge, cultivation, salutary exercise, wisdom, all that can conduce to the perfection of the mind, form the state in which it is due to man's nature that he should be endeavored to be placed. But then, this is due to his nature by an absolutely _general_ law. He cannot be so circ.u.mstanced in the order of society that this shall _not_ be due to it. No situation in which the arrangements of the world, or say of Providence, may place him, can const.i.tute him a specific kind of creature, to which is no longer fit and necessary that which is necessary to the well-being of man considered generally, as a spiritual, immortal nature. The essential law of this nature cannot be abrogated by men's being placed in humble and narrow circ.u.mstances, in which a very large portion of their time and exertions are required for mere subsistence. This accident of a confined situation is no more a reason why their minds should not require the best attainable cultivation, than would be the circ.u.mstance that the body in which a man's mind is lodged happens to be of smaller dimensions than those of other men.

That under the disadvantages of this humble situation they _cannot_ acquire all the mental improvement, desirable for the perfection of their intelligent nature, that the situation renders it impracticable, is quite another matter. So far as this inhibition is real and absolute, that is, so far as it must remain after the best exertion of human wisdom and means in their favor, it must be submitted to as one of the infelicities of their allotment by Providence. What we are insisting on is, that since by the law of their nature there is to them the same general necessity as to any other human beings, of that which is essential to the well-being of the mind, they should be advanced in this improvement _as far as they can_; that is, as far as a wise and benevolent disposition of the community can make it practicable for them to be advanced.

It is an odious hypocrisy to talk of the narrow limits to this advancement as an ordination of Providence, when a well-ordered const.i.tution and management of the community might enlarge those limits. At least it is so in the _justifiers_ of that social system: those who deplore and condemn it _may_ properly speak of the appointment of Providence, but in another sense; as they would speak of the dispensations of Providence in consolation to a man iniquitously imprisoned or impoverished.

Let the people then be advanced in the improvement of their rational nature as far as they can. A greater degree of this progress will be more for their welfare than a less. This might be shown in forms of ill.u.s.tration easily conceived, and as easily vindicated from the imputation of extravagance, by instances which every observer may have met with in real life. A poor man, cultivated in a small degree, has acquired a few just ideas of an important subject, which lies out of the scope of his daily employments for subsistence. Be that subject what it may, if those ideas are of any use to him, by what principle would one idea more, or two, or twenty, be of _no_ use to him? Of no use!--when all the thinking world knows, that every additional clear idea of a subject is valuable by a ratio of progress greater than that of the mere numerical increase, and that by a large addition of ideas a man triples the value of those with which he began. He has read a small meagre tract on the subject, or perhaps only an article in a magazine, or an essay in the literary column of a provincial newspaper. Where would be the harm, on supposition he can fairly afford the time, in consequence of husbanding it for this very purpose, of his reading a well-written concise book, which would give him a clear, comprehensive view of the subject?

But perhaps another branch of the tree of knowledge bends its fruit temptingly to his hand. And if he should indulge, and gain a tolerably clear notion of one more interesting subject, (still punctually regardful of the duties of his ordinary vocation,) where, we say again, is the harm?

Converse with him; observe his conduct; compare him with the wretched clown in a neighboring dwelling; and say that he is the worse for having thus much of the provision for a mental subsistence. But if thus much has contributed greatly to his advantage, why should he be interdicted still further attainments? Are you alarmed for him, if he will needs go the length of acquiring some knowledge of geography, the solar system, and the history of his own country and of the ancient world? [Footnote: These denominations of knowledge, so strange as they will to some person?

appear, in such a connection, we have ventured to write from, observing that they stand in the schemes of elementary instruction in the Missionary schools for the children of the natives of Bengal. But of course we are to acknowledge, that the vigorous, high-toned spirits of those Asiatic idolaters are adapted to receive a much superior style of cultivation to any of which the feeble progeny of England can be supposed to be capable.]

Let him proceed; supply him gratuitously with some of the best books on these subjects; and if you shall converse with him again, after another year or two of his progress, and compare him once more with the ignorant, stunted, cankered beings in his vicinity, you will see whether there be anything essentially at variance between his narrow circ.u.mstances in life and his mental enlargement.

You are willing, perhaps, that he _should_ know a few facts of ancient times, and can, though with hesitation, trust him with some such slight stories as Goldsmith's Histories of Greece and Rome. But if he should then by some means find his way into such a work as that of Rollin, (of moral and instructive tendency, however defective otherwise,) or betray that he covets an acquaintance with those of Gillies, or even Thirlwall,--it is all over with him for being a useful member of society in his humble situation. You would consent (may we suppose?) to his reading a slender abridgment of voyages and travels; but what _is_ to become of him if nothing less will content him than the whole-length story of Captain Cook?

He will direct, it is to be hoped, some of his best attention to the supreme subject of religion. And you would quite approve of his perusing some useful tracts, some manuals of piety, some commentary on a catechism, some volume of serious, plain discourses; but he is absolutely undone if his ambition should rise at length to Barrow, or Howe, or Jeremy Taylor.

[Footnote: It should be unnecessary to observe, that the object in citing _any_ names in this paragraph was, to give a somewhat definite cast to the description of the supposed progress of the plebeian self-instructor. The of them are mentioned simply as being of such note in their departments, that he would be likely to hear of them among the first of the authors to be sought, if he were aspiring to something beyond his previously humble and abridged reading. The reader may subst.i.tute for these names any others, of the superior order, that he may think more proper to stand in their place. It would therefore be animadversion or ridicule misspent, to make the charge of extravagance on this imagined course of a plain man's reading, with a specific reference to the authors here named, as if it had been meant that precisely these, by a peculiar selection, were to be the authors he may be supposed to peruse, and in perusing, to waste his time and destroy his sense of duty.] He is by all means, you say, to be kept out of all such pernicious company, in which it is impossible he can learn any lesson but one,--an aversion to good morals, just laws, virtuous kings, a polished and benevolent gentry, and learned and pious teachers. Well; _let_ him be kept as far as possible from the mischief of all such books and knowledge; let him hardly know that there _was_ an ancient world, or that there _are_ on the globe such regions and wonders as travellers have described; or that a reason and eloquence above the pitch of some plain homily ever ill.u.s.trated and enforced religion. _Let_ him keep clear of all such evil communications; and then, (since we were expressly making it a condition, that he can fairly spare the time for such reading from his common employment,) and then,--he will have just so much the more time for needless sleep, for discussing the trifles and characters of the neighborhood, or, (supposing him still of a religious habit,) for tiring his friends and family with the well-meant but very unattractive iteration of a few serious phrases and remarks, of which they will have long since learnt to antic.i.p.ate the last word from hearing the first. Advantages like these he certainly may enjoy in consequence of his preclusion from the higher and wider field of ideas. But however valuable these may be in themselves, they will not ensure his being better qualified for the common business and proprieties of his station, than another man in the same sphere of life whose mind has acquired that larger reach which we are describing. It is no more than what we have repeatedly seen exemplified, when we represent this transgressor into the prohibited field as probably acquitting himself with exemplary regularity and industry in his allotted labors, and even in this very capacity preferred by the men of business to the illiterate tools in his neighborhood; nay, most likely preferred, in the more technical sense of the word, to the honorable, but often sufficiently vexatious office of directing and superintending the operations of those tools.

And where, now, is the evil he is incurring or causing, during this progress of violating, step after step, the circ.u.mscription by which the aristocratic were again and again, with small reluctant extensions to successive greater distances, defining the scope of the knowledge proper for a man of his condition? It is a bad thing, is it, that he has a multiplicity of ideas to relieve the tedium incident to the sameness of his course of life; that, with many things which had else been but mere insignificant facts, or plain dry notions and principles, he has a variety of interesting a.s.sociations; like woodbines and roses wreathing round the otherwise bare, ungraceful forms of erect stones or withered trees; that the world is an interpreted and intelligible volume before his eyes; that he has a power of applying himself to _think_ of what it becomes at any time necessary for him to understand? Is it a judgment upon him for his temerity, in "seeking and intermeddling with wisdom" with which he had no business, that he has so much to impart to his children as they are growing up, and that if some of them are already come to maturity, they know not where to find a man to respect more than their father? Or if he takes a part in the converse and devotional exercises of religious society, is no one there the better for the clearness and the plenitude of his thoughts and the propriety of his expression?--But there would be no end of the preposterous suppositions fairly attachable to the notion, that the mental improvement of the common people has some proper limit of arbitrary prescription, on the ground simply of their _being_ the common people, and quite distinct from the restriction which their circ.u.mstances may invincibly impose on their ability.

Taken in this latter view, we acknowledge that their condition would be a subject for most melancholy contemplation,--if we did not hope for better times. The benevolent reflector, when sometimes led to survey in thought the endless myriads of beings with minds within the circuit of a country like this, will have a momentary vision of them as they would be if all improved to the highest mental condition to which it is _naturally possible_ for them to be exalted a magnificent spectacle; but it instantly fades and vanishes. And the sense is so powerfully upon him of the unchangeable economy of the world, which, even if the fairest visions of the millennium itself were realized, would still render such a thing _actually_ impossible, that he hardly regrets the bright scene was but a beautiful _mirage_, and melts away. His imagination then descends to view this immense tribe of rational beings in another, and comparatively moderate state of the cultivation of their faculties, a state not one-third part so lofty as that in which he had beheld all the individuals improved to the utmost of their natural capacity; and he thinks, that the condition of man's abode on earth _might_ admit of their being raised to _this_ elevation. But he soon sees that, till a mighty change shall come on the management of the affairs of nations, this too is impossible; and with regret he sees even this inferior ideal spectacle pa.s.s away, to rest on an age in distant prospect. At last he takes his imaginary stand on what he feels to be a very low level of the supposed improvement of the general popular mind; and he says, Thus much, at the least, should be a possibility allowed by the circ.u.mstances of the people under _any_ tolerable disposition of national interests;--and then he turns to look down on an actual condition in which care, and toil, and distress, render it impossible for a great proportion of the people to reach, or even approach, this his last and lowest conception of what the state of their minds ought to be.

In spite of all the optimists, it _is_ a grievous reflection, after the race has had on earth so many thousands of years for attaining its most advantageous condition there, that all the experience, the philosophy, the science, the art, the power acquired by mind over matter,--that all the contributions of all departed and all present spirits and bodies, yes, and all religion too, should have come but to this;--to this, that in what is self-adulated as the most favored and improved nation of all terrestrial s.p.a.ce and time, a vast proportion of the people are found in a condition which confines them, with all the rigor of necessity, to a mere childhood of intelligent existence, without its innocence.

But at the very same time, and while the compa.s.sion rises, at such a view, there comes in on the other hand the reflection, that even in the actual state of things, there are a considerable number of the people who _might_ acquire a valuable share of improvement which they do not. Great numbers of them, grown up, waste by choice, and mult.i.tudes of children waste through utter neglect, a large quant.i.ty of precious time which their narrow circ.u.mstances still leave free from the iron dominion of necessity.

And they will waste it, it is certain that they will, till education shall have become general, and much more vigorous in discipline. If through a miracle there were to come down on this country, with a sudden, delightful affluence of temporal melioration, resembling the vernal transformation from the dreariness of winter, a universal prosperity, so that all should be placed in comparative ease and plenty, it would require another miracle to prevent this benignity of heaven from turning to a dreadful mischief.

What would the great tribe of the uneducated people do with the half of their time, which we will suppose that such a state would give to their voluntary disposal? Every one can answer infallibly, that the far greater number of them would consume it in idleness, vanity or every sort of intemperance. Educate them, then, bring them under a grand process of intellectual and moral reformation;--or, in all circ.u.mstances and events, calamitous or prosperous, they are still a race made in vain!

In taking leave of the subject, we wish to express, in strong terms, the applause and felicitations due to those excellent individuals, found here and there, who In very humble circ.u.mstances, and perhaps with very little advantage of education in their youth, have been excited to a strenuous, continued exertion for the improvement of their minds; and thus have made (the unfavorable situation considered,) admirable attainments, which are verifying to them that "knowledge is power," over rich resources for their own enjoyment, and are in many instances pa.s.sing with inestimable worth into the instruction of their families, and a variety of usefulness within their sphere. They have n.o.bly struggled with their threatened destiny, and have overcome it. When they think, with regret, how confined, after all, is their portion of knowledge, as compared with the possessions of those who have had from their infancy all facilities and the amplest time for its acquirement, let them be consoled by reflecting, that the value of mental progress is not to be measured solely by the quant.i.ty of knowledge possessed, but partly, and indeed still more, in the corrective, invigorating effect produced on the mental powers by the resolute exertions made in attaining it. And therefore, since, under their great disadvantages, it has required a much greater degree of this resolute exertion in them to force their way victoriously out of ignorance, than it has required in those who have had everything in their favor to make a long, free career over the field of knowledge, they may be a.s.sured they possess one greater benefit in _proportion_ to the measure of their acquirements. This persistence of a determined will to do what has been so difficult to be done, has infused a peculiar energy into the exercise of their powers; a valuable compensation, in part, for their more limited share of the advantage that one part of knowledge becomes more valuable in itself by the accession of many others. Let them persevere in this worthy self-discipline, appropriate to the introductory period of an endless mental life. Let them go on to complete the proof how much a mind incited to a high purpose may triumph over a depression of its external condition;--but solemnly taking care, that all their improvements may tend to such a result, that at length the rigor of their lot and the confinement of mortality itself bursting at once from around them, may give them to those intellectual revelations, that everlasting sunlight of the soul, in which the truly wise will expand all their faculties in a happier economy.

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An Essay on the Evils of Popular Ignorance Part 8 summary

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