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Great Britain: II. (1780–1861). 1906.

Thomas Carlyle

Address as Lord Rector of Edinburgh University

YOUR enthusiasm toward me, I must admit, is in itself very beautiful, however undeserved it may be in regard to the object of it. It is a feeling honorable to all men, and one well known to myself when I was of an age like yours, nor is it yet quite gone. I can only hope that with you, too, it may endure to the end—this noble desire to honor those whom you think worthy of honor; and that you will come to be more and more select and discriminate in the choice of the object of it—for I can well understand that you will modify your opinions of me and of many things else, as you go on. It is now fifty-six years, gone last November, since I first entered your city, a boy of not quite fourteen, to attend the classes here, and gain knowledge of all kinds, I could little guess what, my poor mind full of wonder and awe-struck expectation; and now, after a long course, this is what we have come to.

Advices, I believe, to young men, as to all men, are very seldom much valued. There is a great deal of advising, and very little faithful performing; and talk that does not end in any kind of action is better suppressed altogether. I would not, therefore, go much into advising; but there is one advice I must give you. In fact, it is the summary of all advices, and doubtless you have heard it a thousand times; but I must nevertheless let you hear it the thousand-and-first time, for it is most intensely true, whether you will believe it at present or not: namely, that above all things the interest of your whole life depends on your being diligent, now while it is called to-day, in this place where you have come to get education! Diligent: that includes in it all virtues that a student can have; I mean it to include all those qualities of conduct that lead on to the acquirement of real instruction and improvement in such a place.

If you will believe me, you who are young, yours is the golden season of life. As you have heard it called, so it verily is, the seed-time of life; in which, if you do not sow, or if you do sow tares instead of wheat, you can not expect to reap well afterward, and you will arrive at little. And in the course of years, when you come to look back, if you have not done what you have heard from your advisers—and among many counselors there is wisdom—you will bitterly repent when it is too late. The habits of study acquired at universities are of the highest importance in after-life. At the season when you are young in years, the whole mind is, as it were, fluid, and is capable of forming itself into any shape that the owner of the mind pleases to allow it, or constrain it, to form itself into. The mind is then in a plastic or fluid state; but it hardens gradually, to the consistency of rock or of iron, and you can not alter the habits of an old man: he, as he has begun, so he will proceed and go on to the last.

By diligence I mean, among other things, and very chiefly, too—honesty, in all your inquiries, and in all you are about. Pursue your studies in the way your conscience can name honest. More and more endeavor to do that. Keep, I should say for one thing, an accurate separation between what you have really come to know in your minds and what is still unknown. Leave all that latter on the hypothetical side of the barrier, as things afterward to be acquired, if acquired at all; and be careful not to admit a thing as known when you do not yet know it. Count a thing known only when it is imprinted clearly on your mind, and has become transparent to you, so that you may survey it on all sides with intelligence. There is such a thing as a man endeavoring to persuade himself, and endeavoring to persuade others, that he knows things, when he does not know more than the outside skin of them; and yet he goes flourishing about with them.

I dare say you know, very many of you, that it is now some seven hundred years since universities were first set up in this world of ours. Abelard and other thinkers had arisen with doctrines in them which people wished to hear of, and students flocked toward them from all parts of the world. There was no getting the thing recorded in books as you now may. You had to hear the man speaking to you vocally, or else you could not learn at all what it was that he wanted to say. And so they gathered together, these speaking ones—the various people who had anything to teach—and formed themselves gradually, under the patronage of kings and other potentates who were anxious about the culture of their populations, and nobly studious of their best benefit, and became a body corporate, with high privileges, high dignities, and really high aims, under the title of a university.

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 toward the effect of their predilections. 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 can not 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.

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 rumor 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 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, valor—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 effulgencies 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 awestricken and reverential belief that there was a great unknown, omnipotent, and all-wise and all-just Being, superintending all men in it, and all interests 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. I do not know, in any history of Greece or Rome, where you will get so fine a man as Oliver Cromwell, for example. 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. That is an authentic fact, and is not prompted by national vanity on my part, but will stand examining.

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 do not know to what it would have come. It would have got corrupted probably in other hands, and could not have gone on; but it was pure and true, to the last fiber, in his mind; there was perfect truth in it while he ruled over it.

Machiavelli has remarked, in speaking of the Romans, that democracy can not 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—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 Machiavelli 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.

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 a 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. 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. But an ingenious 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. 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, candor, clear insight, and loyal adherence to fact. Great is wisdom; infinite is the value of wisdom. It can not 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.

I do not want to discourage any of you from your Demosthenes, and your studies of the niceties of language, and all that. Believe me, I value that as much as any one of you. I consider it a very graceful thing, and a most proper, for every human creature to know what the implement which he uses in communicating his thoughts is, and how to make the very utmost of it. I want you to study Demosthenes, and to know all his excellences. At the same time, I must say that speech, in the case even of Demosthenes, does not seem, on the whole, to have turned to almost any good account. He advised next to nothing that proved practicable; much of the reverse. Why tell me that a man is a fine speaker, if it is not the truth that he is speaking? Phocion, who mostly did not speak at all, was a great deal nearer hitting the mark than Demosthenes. He used to tell the Athenians, “You can’t fight Philip. Better if you don’t provoke him, as Demosthenes is always urging you to do. You have not the slightest chance with Philip. He is a man who holds his tongue; he has great disciplined armies, a full treasury; he can bribe anybody you like in your cities here; he is going on steadily with an unvarying aim toward his object; while you, with your idle clamorings, with your Cleon the Tanner spouting to you what you take for wisdom! Philip will infallibly beat any set of men such as you, going on raging from shore to shore with all that rampant nonsense.” Demosthenes said to him once, “Phocion, you will drive the Athenians mad some day, and they will kill you.” “Yes,” Phocion answered, “me, when they go mad; and as soon as they get sane again, you!”

The highest outcome and most precious of all the fruits that are to spring from this ideal mode of educating is what Goethe calls art; of which I could at present give no definition that would make it clear to you, unless it were clearer already than is likely. Goethe calls it music, painting, poetry; but it is in quite a higher sense than the common one, and a sense in which, I am afraid, most of our painters, poets and music men would not pass muster. He considers this as the highest pitch to which human culture can go—infinitely valuable and ennobling—and he watches with great industry how it is to be brought about in the men who have a turn for it. Very wise and beautiful his notion of the matter is. It gives one an idea that something far better and higher, something as high as ever, and indubitably true, too, is still possible for man in this world. And that is all I can say to you of Goethe’s fine theorem of mute education.

Alas, it is painful to think how very far away it all is,—any real fulfilment of such things! For I need not hide from you, young gentlemen,—and it is one of the last things I am going to tell you—that you have got into a very troublous epoch of the world; and I do not think you will find your path in it to be smoother than ours has been, tho you have many advantages which we had not. You have careers open to you, by public examinations and so on, which is a thing much to be approved of and which we hope to see perfected more and more. All that was entirely unknown in my time, and you have many things to recognize as advantages. But you will find the ways of the world, I think, more anarchical than ever. Look where one will, revolution has come upon us. We have got into the age of revolutions. All kinds of things are coming to be subjected to fire, as it were—hotter and hotter blows the element round everything. Curious to see how, in Oxford and other places that used to seem as lying at anchor in the stream of time, regardless of all changes, they are getting into the highest humor of mutation, and all sorts of new ideas are afloat. It is evident that whatever is not inconsumable, made of asbestos, will have to be burnt in this world. Nothing other will stand the heat it is getting exposed to.

And in saying that, I am but saying in other words that we are in an epoch of anarchy. Anarchy plus a constable! There is nobody that picks one’s pocket without some policeman being ready to take him up. But in every other point man is becoming more and more the son, not of cosmos, but of chaos. He is a disobedient, discontented, reckless, and altogether waste kind of object (the commonplace man is, in these epochs); and the wiser kind of man—the select few, of whom I hope you will be a part—has more and more to see to this, to look vigilantly forward, and will require to move with double wisdom; will find, in short, that the crooked things he has got to pull straight in his own life all round him, wherever he may go, are manifold and will task all his strength, however great it be.

But why should I complain of that either? For that is the thing a man is born to in all epochs. He is born to expend every particle of strength that God Almighty has given him, in doing the work he finds he is fit for; to stand up to it to the last breath of life and do his best. We are called upon to do that; and the reward we all get—which we are perfectly sure of, if we have merited it—is that we have got the work done, or at least that we have tried to do the work. For that is a great blessing in itself; and I should say there is not very much more reward than that going in this world. If the man gets meat and clothes, what matter it whether he buy those necessaries with seven thousand a year, or with seven million, could that be, or with seventy pounds a year? He can get meat and clothes for that; and he will find intrinsically, if he is a wise man, wonderfully little real difference.

On the whole, avoid what is called ambition; that is not a fine principle to go upon—and it has in it all degrees of vulgarity, if that is a consideration. “Seekest thou great things, seek them not”; I warmly second that advice of the wisest of men. Do not be ambitious; do not too much need success; be loyal and modest. Cut down the proud towering thoughts that get into you, or see that they be pure as well as high. There is a nobler ambition than the gaining of all California would be, or the getting of all the suffrages that are on the planet just now.

On the whole, I would bid you stand up to your work, whatever it may be, and not be afraid of it; not in sorrows or contradictions to yield, but to push on toward the goal. And do not suppose that people are hostile to you or have you at ill will, in the world. In general, you will rarely find anybody designedly doing you ill. You may feel often as if the whole world were obstructing you, setting itself against you; but you will find that to mean only that the world is traveling in a different way from you, and, rushing on in its own path, heedlessly treads on you. That is mostly all: to you no specific ill will; only each has an extremely good will to himself, which he has a right to have, and is rushing on toward his object. Keep out of literature, I should say also, as a general rule—tho that is by the by. If you find many people who are hard and indifferent to you, in a world which you consider to be inhospitable and cruel—as often indeed happens to a tenderhearted, striving young creature—you will also find there are noble hearts who will look kindly on you; and their help will be precious to you beyond price. You will get good and evil as you go on, and have the success that has been appointed you.