Culture rests on ideas rather than on knowledge; its distinctive use of knowledge is to gain material for ideas. For this reason the “Iliad” and “Odyssey” are of more importance than Thucydides and Curtius. For Homer was not only in a very important sense the historian of his race; he was, above all, the expositor of its ideas. There is involved in the very structure of the Greek epics the fundamental conception of life as the Greeks looked at it; their view of reverence, worship, law, obligation, subordination, personality. No one can be said to have read these poems in any real sense until he has made these ideas clear to himself; and these ideas carry with them a definite enlargement of thought. When a man has gotten a clear view of the ideas about life held by a great race, he has gone a long way towards self-education,—so rich and illuminative are these central conceptions around which the life of each race has been organised. To multiply these ideas by broad contact with the books of life is to expand one’s thought so as to compass the essential thought of the entire race. And this is precisely what the man of broad culture accomplishes; he emancipates himself from whatever is local, provincial, and temporal, by gaining the power of taking the race point of view. He is liberated by ideas, not only from his own ignorance and the limitations of his own nature, but from the partial knowledge and the prejudices of his time; and liberation by ideas, and expansion through ideas, constitute one of the great services of the books of life to those who read them with an open mind.
The Logic of Free Life.
The ideas which form the substance or substratum of the greatest books are not primarily the products of pure thought; they have a far deeper origin, and their immense power of enlightenment and enrichment lies in the depth of their rootage in the unconscious life of the race. If it be true that the fundamental process of the physical universe and of the life of man, so far as we can understand them, is not intellectual, but vital, then it is also true that the formative ideas by which we live, and in the clear comprehension of which the greatness of intellectual and spiritual life for us lies, have been borne in upon the race by living rather than by thinking. They are felt and experienced first, and formulated later. It is clear that a definite purpose is being wrought out through physical processes in the world of matter; it is equally clear to most men that moral and spiritual purposes are being worked out through the processes which constitute the conditions of our being and acting in this world. It has been the engrossing and fruitful study of science to discover the processes and comprehend the ends of the physical order; it is the highest office of art to discover and illustrate, for the most part unconsciously, the processes and results of the spiritual order by setting forth in concrete form the underlying and formative ideas of races and periods.