The Ethics of Study
Lucifer, September, 1894
“Read not to contradict and confute, nor to believe and take for granted, nor to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and consider.” (BACON, Of Studies.)
If one were asked to find names for the two sides of the power that builds the worlds, one might very well call them the goodness of Providence, and the fancy of Providence. And one is driven to confess that the fancy of Providence is far more indisputable and manifest than the goodness of Providence. A tireless and beautiful activity in weaving innumerable leaves and flowers, clouds and faces, with never two of them alike—no one else could ever have thought out the infinite variety of ferns—this is the fancy of Providence; and, as we have said, it is indisputable.
But the goodness of Providence? It is only in rare moments of high and disinterested insight that we can see any certain good at all. And it is only in moments of inspiration that we realize the greatest truth of all—the truth that the substance of the universe is this very thing, goodness; that life is formed of bliss, of delight moulded in myriad forms; and that sorrow is only impediment to this bliss of life; that pain is only an obstruction to inborn, inherent delight.
If the fancy of Providence be far more indisputable than the goodness of Providence—so that we can never escape from the one, while we can hardly ever perceive the other—then it is only in keeping that, along every road, our facilities for going wrong seem out of all proportion too great; too great for us ever to take advantage of them all. And, in the disposal of our studies, the facilities for going wrong seem even greater than anywhere else. We can quite easily find a hundred wrong ways of study for one way that is sound, useful and beneficial.
And unless we find some true principle of study, some faithful touchstone to try it by, it is quite certain that the fancy of Providence, the inherent glamour of things, will lead us along one of the hundred wrong ways, instead of allowing us to follow the one right one.
We must, from the beginning, beware of this glamour of things, this fancifulness of Providence. We must, from the beginning, throw in our lot on the other side; on the side of the goodness of Providence, with its well-hidden secret that life is bliss, that bliss is life. We must see, from the beginning, that life itself, the substance of life, is the reality; while the fancifulness of life, the glamour of things, is the shadow. We must see that the reality is life; that the only sane end proposed to us is a rounded, harmonious and gracious life.
If we realize that the end proposed to us is a rounded, harmonious and gracious life, we shall find in this end a principle and a touchstone to test our studies by. Studies will be valuable in so far as they help us to a rounded, harmonious and gracious life. They will be harmful in so far as they lead us away from it, or make us believe that any other end is proposed to us to follow. We must study to live, not live to study,
If, then, life be the only sane end of living, if the true aim is that life shall be rounded, harmonious and gracious, then our holding this truth firmly and clearly before us will help us to keep clear of the hundred wrong ways which the glamour of things so lavishly opens before us.
We shall see, to begin with, that we must not test life by studies, but that we must test studies by life. We must be at home with ourselves, at home in ourselves, before we can profitably study. One has often noticed the light-headedness of the ants, and their preoccupied and undignified way of hurrying forward, whichever way you turn their heads. Their only object seems to be to get on as fast as possible, to lose no time, not caring particularly whither, so long only as they are getting on. Let us consider the ways of the ant to avoid them. The ant never thinks of trying to see exactly where it is; of trying to see exactly where it wishes to go to; it hastens off, on the contrary, with absolute light-headedness, in any direction you choose to put it.
We should do exactly the reverse. We should, before all things, try to look steadily round us; try to see what we can make out of this very mysterious life of ours; try to see where we are, before hurrying into this or that course of study, with the light-headedness of the ant.
If the end and aim be life—a rounded, harmonious and gracious life—then the first means to this end is an understanding, a grasp of life; and the first step is a considerate, thoughtful view of things, a quiet looking round to see where we are, to take our bearings in this fluid, moving world. And, as we can know incomparably more about our own life than about anything else around us, it would seem the part of wisdom to begin with it; to try to be more at home with ourselves and in ourselves. Studies will be useful if they help us to do this; harmful if they hinder it. Studies will be helpful if they make us more at home with ourselves and in ourselves; if they help us to see where we are. But they will be positively injurious if they lead us away; if they lead us to overlook our own life, in following one of the hundred paths of fancy, in the light-headed spirit of the ant. For the ant has always its homing instinct to bring it back again, while we, having lost our instinct, may wander endlessly.
When we learn to be more at home with ourselves, and in ourselves, we shall make a great discovery. We shall get to see that our life is a far more interesting and mysterious thing than we had ever dreamed of; that the common happenings we never looked at before, are yawning abysses of mystery. We shall see that the more common a thing is the more mysterious it is; and so some of the charm and infinity will be won back to our life, some savour of that aboriginal bliss that life is wrought of. That old problem of me and thee will begin to come home to us, to dwell with us. And life will become a far more interesting and charming thing than we ever dreamed it could be.
Then, after we have learnt to be more at home with ourselves and in ourselves, after we are more at home with our mysteries, we shall be deeply curious to find out what others have thought of them; what Plato and Buddha have to say of these wonderful things we have found in our own houses, these common mysteries which, like the pearl necklace on the preoccupied beauty’s neck, were so long unnoticed, though all the time there. The most wonderful mystery of life is, that there is life at all; that you are living; that life is yourself. When, becoming more at home with yourself, you find this mystery, a new and sudden charm is given to the works of the teachers who have taught that the Self is. Then you may study them honestly, and to some purpose.
But there is no honesty and no purpose in study before the first step is taken, before we are at home with ourselves and in ourselves. We have no business with other people’s solutions of the mysteries, before we have found the mysteries in and for ourselves. The measure of the depth of wisdom is the sense of the mystery of life. If I have not realized the mysteriousness of life, it is little to my purpose to know that Plato found life mysterious. And if, with no true sense of my own, I quote Plato’s declaration, my dishonesty will be transparent and unavailing. Indeed most our quotation is only a confession that we have never made the thought we quote our own, that we have never been at home with the thought, and taken possession of it. For in that case we should infallibly have found a new way of putting it—not so excellent a way, perhaps, but yet our own . When we decorate our pages with purple patches of other people’s thoughts, we are simply signalizing the poverty of our own. If the thought is really our own, let us try to give it a form of our own; if it be not our own, then let us be honest, and leave it out till we ourselves possess it.
If we are more at home in ourselves, more honest with ourselves, what ever we think and say of the great mystery, life, will have a far greater value; a value transcending any skill in collating and arranging other people’s thoughts. The result may not be so brilliant, but it will be honest and sterling throughout. And as we really learn to be more at home in ourselves, as we learn not to overlook the fruitful mysteries within our own houses, life gains, as we said, a new and indefinable charm—an all-consuming interest and delight that we could never have thought of, even in dream.
This coming home to ourselves is the first step in the way. And as we come home to life, life changes before our eyes, changes and expands its limits. And we soon begin to divine that a rounded, harmonious and gracious life is far more than we had first conceived it to be. For it is to be rounded in a circle of infinity, tuned to eternal harmony, and made gracious with the essence of that bliss which is the substance of life, that delight which is very life itself.