This is no less true of the mind than of the body. I do not know that a well-informed man, as such, is more worthy of regard than a well-fed one. The brain, indeed, is a nobler organ than the stomach, but on that very account is the less to be excused for indulging in repletion. The temptation, I confess, is greater, because for the brain the banquet stands ever spread before our eyes, and is, unhappily, as indestructible as the widow’s meal and oil.
Only think what would become of us if the physical food, by which our bodies subsist, instead of being consumed by the eater, was passed on intact by every generation to the next, with the superadded hoards of all the ages, the earth’s productive power meanwhile increasing year by year beneath the unflagging hand of Science, till, as Comus says, she
would be quite surcharged
with her own weight
And strangled with her waste fertility.
Should we rather not pull down our barns, and build smaller, and make bonfires of what they would not hold? And yet, with regard to Knowledge, the very opposite of this is what we do. We store the whole religiously, and that though not twice alone, as with the bees in Virgil, but scores of times in every year, is the teeming produce gathered in. And then we put a fearful pressure on ourselves and others to gorge of it as much as ever we can hold.
Facit indignatio versus. My author, gathering heat, puts it somewhat dithyrambically: but there you have it, Gentlemen.
If you crave for Knowledge, the banquet of Knowledge grows and groans on the board until the finer appetite sickens. If, still putting all your trust in Knowledge, you try to dodge the difficulty by specialising, you produce a brain bulging out inordinately on one side, on the other cut flat down and mostly paralytic at that: and in short so long as I hold that the Creator has an idea, of a man, so long shall I be sure that no uneven specialist realises it. The real tragedy of the Library at Alexandria was not that the incendiaries burned immensely, but that they had neither the leisure nor the taste to discriminate.
The old schoolmaster whom I quoted just now goes on:
I believe, if the truth were known, men would be astonished at the small amount of learning with which a high degree of culture is compatible. In a moment of enthusiasm I ventured once to tell my ‘English set’ that if they could really master the ninth book of “Paradise Lost”, so as to rise to the height of its great argument and incorporate all its beauties in themselves, they would at one blow, by virtue of that alone, become highly cultivated men.... More and more various learning might raise them to the same height by different paths, but could hardly raise them higher.
Here let me interpose and quote the last three lines of that Book—three lines only; simple, unornamented, but for every man and every woman who have dwelt together since our first parents, in mere statement how wise!