Curiosity and Interest as Guides to Reading

December 31, 2014

Thomas Carlyle

Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881). Inaugural Address at Edinburgh.
Vol. 25, pp. 364-374 of The Harvard Classics

The most unhappy man, Carlyle says, is the man who has no real work - no interest in life. To avoid this miserable state, he advises faithful and diligent reading along the lines dictated by curiosity and interest.


  It remains, however, practically a most important truth, what I alluded to above, that the main use of Universities in the present age is that, after you have done with all your classes, the next thing is a collection of books, a great library of good books, which you proceed to study and to read. What the Universities can mainly do for you,—what I have found the University did for me, is, That it taught me to read, in various languages, in various sciences; so that I could go into the books which treated of these things, and gradually penetrate into any department I wanted to make myself master of, as I found it suit me.

  Well, Gentlemen, whatever you may think of these historical points, the clearest and most imperative duty lies on every one of you to be assiduous in your reading. Learn to be good readers,—which is perhaps a more difficult thing than you imagine. Learn to be discriminative in your reading; to read faithfully, and with your best attention, all kinds of things which you have a real interest in, a real not an imaginary, and which you find to be really fit for what you are engaged in. Of course, at the present time, in a great deal of the reading incumbent on you, you must be guided by the books recommended by your Professors for assistance towards the effect of their prelections. And then, when you leave the University, and go into studies of your own, you will find it very important that you have chosen a field, some province specially suited to you, in which you can study and work. The most unhappy of all men is the man who cannot tell what he is going to do, who has got no work cut-out for him in the world, and does not go into it. For work is the grand cure of all the maladies and miseries that ever beset mankind,—honest work, which you intend getting done.

  If, in any vacant vague time, you are in a strait as to choice of reading,—a very good indication for you, perhaps the best you could get, is toward some book you have a great curiosity about. You are then in the readiest and best of all possible conditions to improve by that book. It is analogous to what doctors tell us about the physical health and appetites of the patient. You must learn, however, to distinguish between false appetite and true. There is such a thing as a false appetite, which will lead a man into vagaries with regard to diet; will tempt him to eat spicy things, which he should not eat at all, nor would, but that the things are toothsome, and that he is under a momentary baseness of mind. A man ought to examine and find out what he really and truly has an appetite for, what suits his constitution and condition; and that, doctors tell him, is in general the very thing he ought to have. And so with books.

  As applicable to all of you, I will say that it is highly expedient to go into History; to inquire into what has passed before you on this Earth, and in the Family of Man.

  The history of the Romans and Greeks will first of all concern you; and you will find that the classical knowledge you have got will be extremely applicable to elucidate that. There you have two of the most remarkable races of men in the world set before you, calculated to open innumerable reflections and considerations; a mighty advantage, if you can achieve it;—to say nothing of what their two languages will yield you, which your Professors can better explain; model languages, which are universally admitted to be the most perfect forms of speech we have yet found to exist among men. And you will find, if you read well, a pair of extremely remarkable nations, shining in the records left by themselves, as a kind of beacon, or solitary mass of illumination, to light-up some noble forms of human life for us, in the otherwise utter darkness of the past ages; and it will be well worth your while if you can get into the understanding of what these people were, and what they did. You will find a great deal of hearsay, of empty rumour and tradition, which does not touch on the matter; but perhaps some of you will get to see the old Roman and the old Greek face to face; you will know in some measure how they contrived to exist, and to perform their feats in the world.

  I believe, also, you will find one important thing not much noted, That there was a very great deal of deep religion in both nations. This is pointed out by the wiser kind of historians, and particularly by Ferguson, who is very well worth reading on Roman History,—and who, I believe, was an alumnus of our own University. His book is a very creditable work. He points out the profoundly religious nature of the Roman people, notwithstanding their ruggedly positive, defiant and fierce ways. They believed that Jupiter Optimus Maximus was lord of the universe, and that he had appointed the Romans to become the chief of nations, provided they followed his commands,—to brave all danger, all difficulty, and stand up with an invincible front, and be ready to do and die; and also to have the same sacred regard to truth of promise, to thorough veracity, thorough integrity, and all the virtues that accompany that noblest quality of man, valour,—to which latter the Romans gave the name of ‘virtue’ proper (virtus, manhood), as the crown and summary of all that is ennobling for a man. In the literary ages of Rome this religious feeling had very much decayed away; but it still retained its place among the lower classes of the Roman people. Of the deeply religious nature of the Greeks, along with their beautiful and sunny effulgences of art, you have striking proof, if you look for it. In the tragedies of Sophocles there is a most deep-toned recognition of the eternal justice of Heaven, and the unfailing punishment of crime against the laws of God. I believe you will find in all histories of nations, that this has been at the origin and foundation of them all; and that no nation which did not contemplate this wonderful universe with an awe-stricken and reverential belief that there was a great unknown, omnipotent, and all-wise and all-just Being, superintending all men in it, and all interest in it,—no nation ever came to very much, nor did any man either, who forgot that. If a man did forget that, he forgot the most important part of his mission in this world.

  Our own history of England, which you will naturally take a great deal of pains to make yourselves acquainted with, you will find beyond all others worthy of your study. For indeed I believe that the British nation,—including in that the Scottish nation,—produced a finer set of men than any you will find it possible to get anywhere else in the world [Applause]. I don’t know, in any history of Greece or Rome, where you will get so fine a man as Oliver Cromwell, for example [Applause]. And we too have had men worthy of memory, in our little corner of the Island here, as well as others; and our history has had its heroic features all along; and did become great at last in being connected with world-history:—for if you examine well, you will find that John Knox was the author, as it were, of Oliver Cromwell; that the Puritan revolution never would have taken place in England at all, had it not been for that Scotchman [Applause]. That is an authentic fact, and is not prompted by national vanity on my part, but will stand examining [Laughter and applause].

  In fact, if you look at the struggle that was then going on in England, as I have had to do in my time, you will see that people were overawed by the immense impediments lying in the way. A small minority of God-fearing men in that country were flying away, with any ship they could get, to New England, rather than take the lion by the beard. They durst not confront the powers with their most just complaints, and demands to be delivered from idolatry. They wanted to make the nation altogether conformable to the Hebrew Bible, which they, and all men, understood to be the exact transcript of the Will of God;—and could there be, for man, a more legitimate aim? Nevertheless, it would have been impossible in their circumstances, and not to be attempted at all, had not Knox succeeded in it here, some fifty years before, by the firmness and nobleness of his mind. For he also is of the select of the earth to me,—John Knox [Applause]. What he has suffered from the ungrateful generations that have followed him should really make us humble ourselves to the dust, to think that the most excellent man our country has produced, to whom we owe everything that distinguishes us among the nations, should have been so sneered at, misknown, and abused [Applause]. Knox was heard by Scotland; the people heard him, believed him to the marrow of their bones: they took up his doctrine, and they defied principalities and powers to move them from it. “We must have it,” they said; “we will and must!” It was in this state of things that the Puritan struggle arose in England; and you know well how the Scottish earls and nobility, with their tenantry, marched away to Dunse Hill in 1639, and sat down there: just at the crisis of that struggle, when it was either to be suppressed or brought into greater vitality, they encamped on Dunse-Hill,—thirty-thousand armed men, drawn out for that occasion, each regiment round its landlord, its earl, or whatever he might be called, and zealous all of them ‘For Christ’s Crown and Covenant.’ That was the signal for all England’s rising up into unappeasable determination to have the Gospel there also; and you know it went on, and came to be a contest whether the Parliament or the King should rule; whether it should be old formalities and use-and-wont, or something that had been of new conceived in the souls of men, namely, a divine determination to walk according to the laws of God here, as the sum of all prosperity; which of these should have the mastery: and after a long, long agony of struggle, it was decided—the way we know.

  I should say also of that Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell’s, notwithstanding the censures it has encountered, and the denial of everybody that it could continue in the world, and so on, it appears to me to have been, on the whole, the most salutary thing in the modern history of England. If Oliver Cromwell had continued it out, I don’t know what it would have come to. It would have got corrupted probably in other hands, and could not have gone on; but it was pure and true, to the last fibre, in his mind; there was perfect truth in it while he ruled over it.

  Macchiavelli has remarked, in speaking of the Romans, that Democracy cannot long exist anywhere in the world; that as a mode of government, of national management or administration, it involves an impossibility, and after a little while must end in wreck. And he goes on proving that, in his own way. I do not ask you all to follow him in that conviction [Hear],—but it is to him a clear truth; he considers it a solecism and impossibility that the universal mass of men should ever govern themselves. He has to admit of the Romans, that they continued a long time; but believes it was purely in virtue of this item in their constitution, namely, of their all having the conviction in their minds that it was solemnly necessary, at times, to appoint a Dictator; a man who had the power of life and death over everything, who degraded men out of their places, ordered them to execution, and did whatever seemed to him good in the name of God above him. He was commanded to take care that the republic suffer no detriment. And Macchiavelli calculates that this was the thing which purified the social system from time to time, and enabled it to continue as it did. Probable enough, if you consider it. And an extremely proper function surely, this of a Dictator, if the republic was composed of little other than bad and tumultuous men, triumphing in general over the better, and all going the bad road, in fact. Well, Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate, or Dictatorate if you will let me name it so, lasted for about ten years, and you will find that nothing which was contrary to the laws of Heaven was allowed to live by Oliver [Applause].

  For example, it was found by his Parliament of Notables, what they call the ‘Barebones Parliament,’—the most zealous of all Parliaments probably [Laughter],—that the Court of Chancery in England was in a state which was really capable of no apology; no man could get up and say that that was a right court. There were, I think, fifteen-thousand, or fifteen-hundred [Laughter],—I really don’t remember which, but we will call it by the latter number, to be safe [Renewed laughter];—there were fifteen-hundred cases lying in it undecided; and one of them, I remember, for a large amount of money, was eighty-three years old, and it was going on still; wigs were wagging over it, and lawyers were taking their fees, and there was no end of it. Upon view of all which, the Barebones people, after deliberation about it, thought it was expedient, and commanded by the Author of Man and Fountain of Justice, and in the name of what was true and right, to abolish said court. Really, I don’t know who could have dissented from that opinion. At the same time, it was thought by those who were wiser in their generation, and had more experience of the world, that this was a very dangerous thing, and wouldn’t suit at all. The lawyers began to make an immense noise about it [Laughter]. All the public, the great mass of solid and well-disposed people who had got no deep insight into such matters, were very adverse to it: and the Speaker of the Parliament, old Sir Francis Rous,—who translated the Psalms for us, those that we sing here every Sunday in the Church yet; a very good man, and a wise and learned, Provost of Eton College afterwards,—he got a great number of the Parliament to go to Oliver the Dictator, and lay down their functions altogether, and declare officially, with their signature, on Monday morning, that the Parliament was dissolved. The act of abolition had been passed on Saturday night; and on Monday morning Rous came and said, “We cannot carry-on the affair any longer, and we remit it into the hands of your Highness.” Oliver in that way became Protector, virtually in some sort a Dictator, for the first time.

  And I give you this as an instance that Oliver did faithfully set to doing a Dictator’s function, and of his prudence in it as well. Oliver felt that the Parliament, now dismissed, had been perfectly right with regard to Chancery, and that there was no doubt of the propriety of abolishing Chancery, or else reforming it in some kind of way. He considered the matter, and this is what he did. He assembled fifty or sixty of the wisest lawyers to be found in England. Happily, there were men great in the law; men who valued the laws of England as much as anybody ever did; and who knew withal that there was something still more sacred than any of these [A laugh]. Oliver said to them, “Go and examine this thing, and in the name of God inform me what is necessary to be done with it. You will see how we may clean-out the foul things in that Chancery Court, which render it poison to everybody.” Well, they sat down accordingly, and in the course of six weeks,—(there was no public speaking then, no reporting of speeches, and no babble of any kind, there was just the business in hand)-they got some sixty propositions fixed in their minds as the summary of the things that required to be done. And upon these sixty propositions, Chancery was reconstituted and remodelled; and so it got a new lease of life, and has lasted to our time. It had become a nuisance, and could not have continued much longer. That is an instance of the manner of things that were done when a Dictatorship prevailed in the country, and that was how the Dictator did them. I reckon, all England, Parliamentary England, got a new lease of life from that Dictatorship of Oliver’s; and, on the whole, that the good fruits of it will never die while England exists as a nation.

  In general, I hardly think that out of common history-books you will ever get into the real history of this country, or ascertain anything which can specially illuminate it for you, and which it would most of all behoove you to know. You may read very ingenious and very clever books, by men whom it would be the height of insolence in me to do other than express my respect for. But their position is essentially sceptical. God and the Godlike, as our fathers would have said, has fallen asleep for them; and plays no part in their histories. A most sad and fatal condition of matters; who shall say how fatal to us all! A man unhappily in that condition will make but a temporary explanation of anything:—in short, you will not be able, I believe, by aid of these men, to understand how this Island came to be what it is. You will not find it recorded in books. You will find recorded in books a jumble of tumults, disastrous ineptitudes, and all that kind of thing. But to get what you want, you will have to look into side sources, and inquire in all directions.

  I remember getting Collins’s Peerage to read,—a very poor performance as a work of genius, but an excellent book for diligence and fidelity. I was writing on Oliver Cromwell at the time [Applause]. I could get no biographical dictionary available; and I thought the Peerage Book, since most of my men were peers or sons of peers, would help me, at least would tell me whether people were old or young, where they lived, and the like particulars, better than absolute nescience and darkness. And accordingly I found amply all I had expected in poor Collins, and got a great deal of help out of him. He was a diligent dull London bookseller, of about a hundred years ago, who compiled out of all kinds of parchments, charter-chests, archives, books that were authentic, and gathered far and wide, wherever he could get it, the information wanted. He was a very meritorious man.

  I not only found the solution of everything I had expected there, but I began gradually to perceive this immense fact, which I really advise every one of you who read history to look out for, if you have not already found it. It was that the Kings of England, all the way from the Norman Conquest down to the times of Charles I., had actually, in a good degree, so far as they knew, been in the habit of appointing as Peers those who deserved to be appointed. In general, I perceived, those Peers of theirs were all royal men of a sort, with minds full of justice, valour and humanity, and all kinds of qualities that men ought to have who rule over others. And then their genealogy, the kind of sons and descendants they had, this also was remarkable:—for there is a great deal more in genealogy than is generally believed at present. I never heard tell of any clever man that came of entirely stupid people [Laughter]. If you look around, among the families of your acquaintance, you will see such cases in all directions:—I know that my own experience is steadily that way; I can trace the father, and the son, and the grandson, and the family stamp is quite distinctly legible upon each of them. So that it goes for a great deal, the hereditary principle,—in Government as in other things; and it must be again recognised as soon as there is any fixity in things. You will remark, too, in your Collins, that, if at any time the genealogy of a peerage goes awry, if the man that actually holds the peerage is a fool,—in those earnest practical times, the man soon gets into mischief, gets into treason probably,—soon gets himself and his peerage extinguished altogether, in short. [Laughter].

  From those old documents of Collins, you learn and ascertain that a peer conducts himself in a pious, high-minded, grave, dignified and manly kind of way, in his course through life, and when he takes leave of life:—his last will is often a remarkable piece, which one lingers over. And then you perceive that there was kindness in him as well as rigour, pity for the poor; that he has fine hospitalities, generosities,—in fine, that he is throughout much of a noble, good and valiant man. And that in general the King, with a beautiful approximation to accuracy, had nominated this kind of man; saying, “Come you to me, sir. Come out of the common level of the people, where you are liable to be trampled upon, jostled about, and can do in a manner nothing with your fine gift; come here and take a district of country, and make it into your own image more or less; be a king under me, and understand that that is your function.” I say this is the most divine thing that a human being can do to other human beings, and no kind of thing whatever has so much of the character of God Almighty’s Divine Government as that thing, which, we see, went on all over England for about six hundred years. That is the grand soul of England’s history [Cheers]. It is historically true that, down to the time of James, or even Charles I., it was not understood that any man was made a Peer without having merit in him to constitute him a proper subject for a peerage. In Charles I.’s time it grew to be known or said that, if a man was born a gentleman, and cared to lay out 10,000 l. judiciously up and down among courtiers, he could be made a Peer. Under Charles II. it went on still faster, and has been going-on with ever-increasing velocity, until we see the perfectly breakneck pace at which they are going now [A laugh], so that now a peerage is a paltry kind of thing to what it was in those old times. I could go into a great many more details about things of that sort, but I must turn to another branch of the subject.

  First, however, one remark more about your reading. I do not know whether it has been sufficiently brought home to you that there are two kinds of books. When a man is reading on any kind of subject, in most departments of books,—in all books, if you take it in a wide sense,—he will find that there is a division into good books and bad books. Everywhere a good kind of book and a bad kind of book I am not to assume that you are unacquainted, or ill acquainted, with this plain fact; but I may remind you that it is becoming a very important consideration in our day. And we have to cast aside altogether the idea people have, that if they are reading any book, that if an ignorant man is reading any book, he is doing rather better than nothing at all. I must entirely call that in question; I even venture to deny that [Laughter and cheers]. It would be much safer and better for many a reader, that he had no concern with books at all. There is a number, a frightfully increasing number, of books that are decidedly, to the readers of them, not useful [Hear]. But an ingenuous reader will learn, also, that a certain number of books were written by a supremely noble kind of people,—not a very great number of books, but still a number fit to occupy all your reading industry, do adhere more or less to that side of things. In short, as I have written it down somewhere else, I conceive that books are like men’s souls; divided into sheep and goats [Laughter and cheers]. Some few are going up, and carrying us up, heavenward; calculated, I mean, to be of priceless advantage in teaching,—in forwarding the teaching of all generations. Others, a frightful multitude, are going down, down; doing ever the more and the wider and the wilder mischief. Keep a strict eye on that latter class of books, my young friends!

  And for the rest, in regard to all your studies and readings here, and to whatever you may learn, you are to remember that the object is not particular knowledges,—not that of getting higher, and higher in technical perfections and all that sort of thing. There is a higher aim lying at the rear of all that, especially among those who are intended for literary or speaking pursuits, or the sacred profession. You are ever to bear in mind that there lies behind that the acquisition of what may be called wisdom;—namely, sound appreciation and just decision as to all the objects that come round you, and the habit of behaving with justice, candour, clear insight, and loyal adherence to fact. Great is wisdom; infinite is the value of wisdom. It cannot be exaggerated; it is the highest achievement of man: ‘Blessed is he that getteth understanding.’ And that, I believe, on occasion, may be missed very easily; never more easily than now, I sometimes think. If that is a failure, all is failure!—However, I will not touch further upon that matter.

  But I should have said, in regard to book-reading, if it be so very important, how very useful would an excellent library be in every University! I hope that will not be neglected by the gentlemen who have charge of you; and, indeed, I am happy to hear that your library is very much improved since the time I knew it, and I hope it will go on improving more and more. Nay, I have sometimes thought, why should not there be a library in every county town, for benefit of those that could read well and might if permitted? True, you require money to accomplish that;—and withal, what perhaps is still less attainable at present, you require judgment in the selectors of books; real insight into what is for the advantage of human souls, the exclusion of all kinds of claptrap books which merely excite the astonishment of foolish people [Laughter], and the choice of wise books, as much as possible of good books. Let us hope the future will be kind to us in this respect.

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