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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Scholar’s Mission

By Charles Dudley Warner (1829–1900)

[From an Address delivered before the Alumni of Hamilton College.—The Century Magazine. 1872.]

THE SCHOLAR who is cultured by books, reflection, travel, by a refined society, consorts with his kind, and more and more removes himself from the sympathies of common life. I know how almost inevitable this is, how almost impossible it is to resist the segregation of classes according to the affinities of taste. But by what mediation shall the culture that is now the possession of the few be made to leaven the world and to elevate and sweeten ordinary life? By books? Yes. By the newspaper? Yes. By the diffusion of works of art? Yes. But when all is done that can be done by such letters missive from one class to another, there remains the need of more personal contact, of a human sympathy, diffused and living. The world has had enough of charities. It wants respect and consideration. We desire no longer to be legislated for, it says, we want to be legislated with. Why do you never come to see me but you bring me something? asks the sensitive and poor seamstress. Do you always give some charity to your friends? I want companionship, and not cold pieces; I want to be treated like a human being who has nerves and feelings, and tears too, and as much interest in the sunset, and in the birth of Christ, perhaps, as you. And the mass of uncared-for ignorance and brutality, finding a voice at length, bitterly repels the condescensions of charity; you have your culture, your libraries, your fine houses, your church, your religion, and your God, too; let us alone, we want none of them. In the bear-pit at Berne, the occupants, who are the wards of the city, have had meat thrown to them daily for I know not how long, but they are not tamed by this charity, and would probably eat up any careless person who fell into their clutches, without apology.

Do not impute to me Quixotic notions with regard to the duties of men and women of culture, or think that I undervalue the difficulties in the way, the fastidiousness on the one side, or the jealousies on the other. It is by no means easy to an active participant to define the drift of his own age; but I seem to see plainly that unless the culture of the age finds means to diffuse itself, working downward and reconciling antagonisms by a commonness of thought and feeling and aim in life, society must more and more separate itself into jarring classes, with mutual misunderstandings and hatred and war. To suggest remedies is much more difficult than to see evils; but the comprehension of dangers is the first step towards mastering them. The problem of our own time—the reconciliation of the interests of classes—is as yet very illy defined. This great movement of labor, for instance, does not know definitely what it wants, and those who are spectators do not know what their relations are to it. The first thing to be done is for them to try to understand each other. One class sees that the other has lighter or at least different labor, opportunities of travel, a more liberal supply of the luxuries of life, a higher enjoyment and a keener relish of the beautiful, the immaterial. Looking only at external conditions, it concludes that all it needs to come into this better place is wealth, and so it organizes war upon the rich, and it makes demands of freedom from toil and of compensation which is in no man’s power to give it, and which would not, if granted over and over again, lift it into that condition it desires. It is a tale in the Gulistan, that a king placed his son with a preceptor, and said: “This is your son; educate him in the same manner as your own.” The preceptor took pains with him for a year, but without success, whilst his own sons were completed in learning and accomplishments. The king reproved the preceptor, and said: “You have broken your promise, and not acted faithfully.” He replied: “O king, the education was the same, but the capacities are different. Although silver and gold are produced from a stone, yet these metals are not to be found in every stone. The star Canopus shines all over the world, but the scented leather comes only from Yemen.” “’Tis an absolute, and, as it were, a divine perfection,” says Montaigne, “for a man to know how loyally to enjoy his being. We seek other conditions, by reason we do not understand the use of our own; and go out of ourselves, because we know not how there to reside.”

But nevertheless it becomes a necessity for us to understand the wishes of those who demand a change of condition, and it is necessary that they should understand the compensations as well as the limitations of every condition. The dervish congratulated himself that although the only monument of his grave would be a brick, he should at the last day arrive at and enter the gate of Paradise, before the king had got from under the heavy stones of his costly tomb. Nothing will bring us into this desirable mutual understanding except sympathy and personal contact. Laws will not do it; institutions of charity and relief will not do it.