We also frequently hear it said, that the general diffusion of popular knowledge is unfavorable to great acquisitions in any one individual. This is a favorite dogma with those persons whose views are all retrospective, who are ever magnifying past ages at the expense of the present, and who will insist upon riding through life with their faces turned toward the horse’s tail instead of his head. “We have smatterers and sciolists in abundance,” say they, “but where are the giant scholars of other days?” Dr. Johnson once said, in reply to a remark upon the general intelligence of the people of Scotland, that learning in Scotland was like bread in a besieged city, where every man gets a mouthful, but none a full meal. He also observed in a conversation held with Lord Monboddo, that learning had much decreased in England, since his remembrance; to which his lordship remarked, “you have lived to see its decrease in England; I, its extinction in Scotland.” The fallacy of views like these consists in taking it for granted that there is always just about the same aggregate amount of knowledge in the world, and that only the ratio of distribution is changed. But there is no such analogy between learning and material substances. The wealth of the mind is not like gold, which must be beaten out the finer, as the surface to be covered by it is more extensive. As to the alleged superiority of past ages, in anything essential, I am more than skeptical. I hold rather that of all good things, learning included, there is as much in the world now as there ever was—not to say more. The great scholars of Europe in our time are not inferior to the greatest of their predecessors. Even in classical literature and antiquities, the searching, analyzing and investigating spirit of our age has poured new light upon the remote past, and rendered the labors of former generations useless. By elevating the general standard, it is true that there is less distance between the common mind and the deeply learned. The scholars of the middle ages seem the higher, from the low level of ignorance from which they rise. They are like mountains shooting abruptly from the plain. Our scholars seem to have reached an inferior point of elevation, because the level of the general mind has come nearer to them, as mountain peaks lose somewhat of their apparent height when they spring from a raised table land.
ON RECEIVING A
PRIVATELY PRINTED VOLUME OF POEMS
FROM A FRIEND.
BY THOMAS BUCHANAN READ.
A modest bud matured mid secret
May yield its bloom beside some hidden path,
Full of sweet perfumes and of rarest hues
While few may note the beauty which it hath—
And yet perchance some maiden,
May bend beside it with a loving look,
Or by the streamlet place it in her hair;
And smile above her image in the brook.