An address, delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard University, Essay

Excerpt:

MR. PRESIDENT AND GENTLEMEN :

Every speaker, who addresses any assembly for whatever purpose in the present crisis of affairs, is strongly tempted to find his theme in that all absorbing subject, national politics. But the occasion of a literary festival (may I not say the chief literary festival of New England 7) held in this seat of learn ing, by an association of lettered men, demands that something should be done or attempted for the cause of letters.

Conscious of my poor ability to do justice to this cause in any of its wide-spread relations, I approach the subject with great diffidence ; and should gladly have avoided altogether this honorable responsibility, had I any more acceptable excuse than that pressure of other affairs, which, being common to all of us, should be lightly pleaded by none. Strange as it may seem to many, it is a fact which some at least who hear me will feel to be true, that a profession justly ranked among the learned and the liberal, and which involves the exercise of public speaking of a certain kind, almost disqualifies those who are actively engaged in its practice from speaking before critics and I men of letters on the great questions of literature and philosophy. In the more elevated walks of the legal profession, how engrossing and exclusive are its pursuits And as it is actually practised among us, with no division of its manifold labors, it were difficult for any but a lawyer to conceive how much of this liberal and glorious art is merely mechanical; — how much of life is wasted in the drudgery of forms, and how much in the hard study of trivial facts, a species of learning not deserving the name of knowledge, and which, when once used, we are studious only to forget. Years so spent may sharpen the faculties; but they neither fill nor elevate the mind. Men thus occupied can not, or at least ordinarily do not, keep pace with the literary progress of the world. They turn their thoughts habitually into no such channels. Nor is this the worst. The more elegant acquisitions of youth are, alas ! too often neglected and too soon forgot ten. All the bright trains of ideas, rich as a Roman triumph, which were wont to rise spontaneously in the mind freshly filled with classical associations, exhilarated by the noble sentiments, warmed by the poetic imagery, and inspired by the godlike eloquence of antiquity, will be found to have fled, like a dream, with the habits which produced them, and the very memory of the materials out of which they were formed. Whenever, therefore, a practical lawyer shall have been induced by your call to quit the forum for this place, more appropriate to scholars and men of literary renown, it would be wise in him, not to depart more widely from the usual forensic track than the occasion may absolutely require.

MR PRESIDENT AND GENTLEMEN:

Every speaker, who addresses any assembly for whatever purpose in the present crisis of affairs, is strongly tempted to find his theme in that all absorbing subject, national politics. But the occasion of a literary festival (may I not say the chief literary festival of New England?) held in this seat of learning, by an association of lettered men, demands that something should be done or attempted for the cause of letters.

Conscious of my poor ability to do justice to this cause in any of its wide-spread relations, I approach the subject with great diffidence; and should gladly have avoided altogether this honorable responsibility, had I any more acceptable excuse than that pressure of other affairs, which, being common to all of us, should be lightly pleaded by none. Strange as it may seem to many, it is a fact which some at least who hear me will feel to be true, that a profession justly ranked among the learned and the liberal, and which involves the exercise of public speaking of a certain kind, almost disqualifies those who are actively engaged in its practice from speaking before critics and men of letters on the great questions of literature and philosophy. In the more elevated walks of the legal profession, how engrossing and exclusive are its pursuits And as it is actually practised among us, with no division of its manifold labors, it were difficult for any but a lawyer to conceive how much of this liberal and glorious art is merely mechanical; — how much of life is wasted in the drudgery of forms, and how much in the hard study of trivial facts, a species of learning not deserving the name of knowledge, and which, when once used, we are studious only to forget. Years so spent may sharpen the faculties; but they neither fill nor elevate the mind. Men thus occupied can not, or at least ordinarily do not, keep pace with the literary progress of the world. They turn their thoughts habitually into no such channels. Nor is this the worst. The more elegant acquisitions of youth are, alas! too often neglected and too soon forgot ten. All the bright trains of ideas, rich as a Roman triumph, which were wont to rise spontaneously in the mind freshly filled with classical associations, exhilarated by the noble sentiments, warmed by the poetic imagery, and inspired by the godlike eloquence of antiquity, will be found to have fled, like a dream, with the habits which produced them, and the very memory of the materials out of which they were formed. Whenever, therefore, a practical lawyer shall have been induced by your call to quit the forum for this place, more appropriate to scholars and men of literary renown, it would be wise in him, not to depart more widely from the usual forensic track than the occasion may absolutely require.

Impressed with such sentiments, I propose to submit for your indulgent consideration a plain argument upon a practical subject, which I have much at heart, and which seems to me of great common concern.

I complain;– I complain, that the spirit of the age, and, I fear, the spirit of our government, and, I am sure, the present habits and impulses of society among us, notwithstanding the fine things which have been said of it (partly by ourselves), are adverse to the growth and cultivation of the more delicate and finer species of literature. I complain especially, that classical literature is little cultivated; less cultivated than it was ; not absolutely, perhaps, but compared with the advancement of other things ; —it is not loved, it is not followed, as it used to be; — nay, I fear that at this moment it is barely in repute among us. I complain that education is not what it should be in this respect, even here in the midst of the flourishing schools of New England (in general our just boast), and in this enlightened age, which so vaunteth itself beyond its predecessors. And I charge you who have any lingering love of classical literature, all who regard the great common cause of letters, all who have at heart the real welfare and substantial reputation of our country, I charge you all, as you love that country and her institutions and those children whom you hope shall inherit them, that you look carefully and candidly at the actual condition and prospects of our literary affairs. Grave questions are involved. Let them be well weighed.

We live in an age of great mental activity and excitement. Long intermission of general wars has turned the industry of the whole human family to the cultivation of the arts of peace in a degree never before known. The waste places of the earth are made productive, —her farthest regions explored. The most valueless substances of nature are turned, as by the wand of a magician, into the finest fabrics and the most glorious structures. The products of every soil, the manufactures of every nation, are on the wings of all the winds, traversing the remotest seas to administer to the luxuries of civilized life. New wants grow out of abundance; and these are daily developing new resources for inexhaustible supplies. New means of motion and transportation are rapidly changing the relations of things. Space is contracted, time is multiplied, by the astonishing results of mechanical contrivance; and invention is still on the rack to facilitate yet farther, and accelerate yet faster, the intercourse of man and man. The press, too, is at work with acelerity and productiveness hitherto unparalleled. By this freedom of intercourse and communion among men, wealth and knowledge are everywhere accumulated and rapidly diffused. These are power; —and they are now everywhere in the hands of the people. They bring with them aspirations after liberty. There is a general craving of unsatisfied desires, – an universal uneasiness under the control of ancient dynasties and established systems. Each succeeding change and modification in the forms of European government is narrowing the prerogative of hereditary rulers, and throwing more power into the hands of the people;— and the people, intoxicated with these first delicious draughts of liberty, like Homer’s giant draining the bowls of Ulysses, still cries, in a voice which shakes the monarchs of Europe on their thrones, “More! give me more l’” The same craving of the people for power demands that knowledge should be dealt out to them in the cheapest and most accessible forms. Popular associations for the diffusion of knowledge, aided by mechanical improvements in the press and in the production of its materials, are everywhere contributing to this great end. The price of a venerable folio a few years since, now furnishes a moderate library of mod ern duodecimos; and penny magazines, pamphlets, and newspapers are almost gratuitously distributing light and intelligence into the veriest outskirts and corners of society. The learned are no longer a class separated from the rest of the world. In the most enlightened countries of Europe, and more emphatically in America, it may be said that all men are lettered. Degrees of learning only distinguish them,- and in respect of literary wealth, as with the wealth of commerce, the ranks of society now rise by insensible gradation, from the yeoman who gleans his scanty and occasional re past out of some weekly newspaper, to those prodigies of learning quaintly termed walking libraries, whose lives have been spent in accumulating untold treasures. But the mass of mankind, in their present state of intellectual development, are like children first let into the rudiments of knowledge; incapable of abstract reasoning, unable to relish refinements of literature, yet eager for novelty and curious of facts, – plain, downright, palpable, substantial knowledge, adapted to their capacities, and not greatly elevated above their standard of taste. As the tendencies of the age are all popular, the energies of human intellect have been mainly directed to the conquest of the material world, where every trophy tells ; and physical science has put in requisition all her infinite resources to effect those wonderful discoveries and amazing mechanical inventions, which are the striking phenomena of the times. In all the subdivisions of natural philosophy vast ac cessions have been made, and are yet making, to the immense stores accumulated in the hands of successive generations from the moment that letters were invented to record the knowledge and transmit the experience of man. To say nothing of others, the geographer has extended the limit of his knowledge almost as far as seems practicable to man, and is yet laboring, through regions of thick-ribbed ice and burning sand, to accomplish the perfect exhibition and description of the whole terraqueous globe; and astronomy has not only unravelled the intricate motions of the nearer lights of heaven, demonstrating the immutable perfection of the laws which govern and hold together the whole planetary system, but has penetrated far into regions of undiscovered space, and brought new and unknown systems of luminaries to the eye of man, seeming to extend by her far gaze the unfathomable depths of infinity, and to multiply the already countless multitudes of visible worlds. There is observable, too, a growing disposition, under the influence perhaps of sound philosophy, to reduce everything in nature to the operation of mechanical causes. The chemist, for example, begins to suspect that the laws of his science, heretofore held to be peculiar, depend merely on the mechanical action of particles infinitely minute, yet various in size and shape, composing the substances which he analyzes and compounds. Even the intellectual philosophy of the day partakes of this tendency. Not only has the metaphysician begun to pause upon ultimate facts, but a new school has arisen, now neither small nor contemptible; their master, at least, who sleeps in yonder cemetery, “by strangers honored and by strangers mourned,” was j by those who knew and loved him, no unphilosophical observer of mankind; — yet these men teach, that the very operations of the soul are in some measure effects of mechanical causes. They tell us, that the human brain is a species of thinking machine, or rather a combination of machines; and, pointing out minute portions of its organized substance, some

“In shape no bigger than aagate-stone

On the forefinger of analderman,”

confidently declare, that this little structure contains all the delicate watch work which tunes the poet’s numbers, and that the complicated apparatus which enables the astronomer to span the heavens and the earth.

The same influences characterize the literature of the day, which is therefore chiefly concerned in the narration of facts. History, travels, biography, descriptions of the earth, its various regions and productions, the materials of which it is composed, the creatures which dwell on its surface and in its depths, these, with treatises more or less developing the principles of natural and mechanical science, and accounts of its discoveries and inventions, form the great bulk of modern literary productions. Add to these, treatises on government, laws, political economy, education, means of diffusing knowledge and improving the condition of the people, and you have almost the whole of the greater literature of the time. If you look for modern belles letters, you must go to the reviews, the magazines, and the literary newspapers. The fine arts, even those partaking somewhat of mechanism, as painting and sculpture, may be said to exist rather than to flourish. Poetry, where is it? The drama, how is it degraded ! Oratory, what a garrulous narrator of solid facts is it become! The only imaginative class of composition, which seems really called for by the taste of the times, is the historical romance, the great literary invention of our day; and this, perhaps, owes its popularity in part to the slight admixture of fact which seasons a volume of fable, as well as to the extraordinary enchantment breathed into its texture by the genius of its wonderful inventor.

The great characteristic of our literature, then, is its plain, direct, practical utility. What? is this your subject of complaint’ ſ Not exactly. The complaint is not, that most of our literature is plainly, directly, and practically useful, but that there is something too much of this for the entire body of a literature; and that, as a whole, it wants the proportion, grace, beauty, grandeur, and expression, which belong to the literature of other periods. Not that it is too useful, but that it takes too narrow a view of utility; and that it would in truth be far more useful to man, as amoral and intellectual being, if it consulted refinement of taste and elevation of sentiment, as much as it informs the understanding and enlarges the circle of knowledge. It is a healthy and substantial literature in the main, answering most, but by no means all the purposes of life. Wholly to discard the ornamental and the imaginative from our intellectual being is much like reducing animal nature from the luxuries of civilization to the bare necessaries of life. Man may subsist on acorns, like the brutes that perish. He may clothe himself in their skins, instead of the costly fabrics of modern luxury. Their dens would afford him shelter; —why should he build piles of masonry? Because, living like a brute, he becomes brutal. And on the other hand he is so civilized and humanized, we may say, by luxury, that the highest degree of refinement in the arts of life which is consistent with the moral energy of man, and leaves him a free agent, is that which conducts him to his acme of physical perfection. Does not the analogy hold in respect to the food and raiment of the mind? Imagine, if you can, the literature of our language all cut down to the literal narration of facts and statement of truths in plain, intelligible parts of speech. Perhaps we should not be justified in saying that what remained was utterly useless; but surely this poor, mangled, mutilated trunk would bear no better comparison, for usefulness as well as for beauty, with the luxuriant and varied growth of the whole eloquent literature of England, than the life of the savage does to that of civilized man in all its comfort and elegancy of refinement. It is, –but I forbear; —to press this argument would but insult the audience I address.

To this hyper-practical character of the literature of this century may be added its revolutionary spirit, analogous to that which pervades the political world. In the universal freedom of inquiry and ardor of reform, nothing is so respectable as to command veneration; nothing so sacred as to escape rude handling. Men seem to fear legitimacy in letters almost as much as in civil and religious government. All authority is questionable. All restraint intolerable. Criticism has no principles ; art no rules. Those classical idols which were once superstitiously worshipped, and afterwards, with juster appreciation, esteemed worthy of all admiration and respect, are now, by the many, disdainfully trodden to the earth. Chaos broods over the ruins. Every man of moderate genius strikes out for himself a new system, and enacts his own laws. Take the leading poets, for example, who have flourished within the present century. Shakspeare and Pope were not more dissimilar in the structure of their poetry than any two of these cotemporaries. What have they in common, besides the novelty of their systems, and consentaneous departure from the elder schools’ They have each their respective adherents and admirers. But which of them has with him the voice of the whole literary public For inventive prose, Scott stands unique in his excellence, with the extraordinary merit of having given birth to a new species of fiction which com mends itself to universal approbation. He has in truth founded a school ; which, besides the models of the master, has already sent into the world many agreeable productions of secondary genius, as well as a vast heap of intolerable trash. There is good writing, it must be acknowledged, in much of the plain business composition of the day, the narrative and the argumentative. But, quitting this for the more ambitious kinds of com position, we find the great mass of modern fine writing, from Bulwer’s novels down to Blackwood’s Magazine, worthy of all-condemnation for its vile and vitiated taste both in sentiment and diction; —a false, glaring, exaggerated, startling style, adapted, it may be, for popular effect, but making the judicious grieve. And this may be set down for the first fruits of the revolutionary spirit in literature. The tendencies of the age naturally develop themselves strongly in this republican soil. The great ancient philosopher of England observed, that “in the youth of a state arms do flourish; in the middle age of a state, learning; and then both of them together for a time. In the declining age of a state, the mechanical arts and merchandise.” But what would Bacon have said to the prospects of a nation, which stepped into being an armed adult; born with the wisdom of age; a formed language already on her tongue; the whole literature and science of an ancient state delivered into her hands to use as her own; and instantly pushing, with the vigor of youth, to a degree of perfection in the mechanical arts and commerce, which rivals that of the oldest and wealthiest kingdoms of the earth? The destinies of such a nation are a new problem in the history of man. It may be, that she will abuse her great gifts. It may be, that she is des tined to terminate a short and brilliant career by some suicidal dismemberment of her great territory; by internal dissensions and civil wars; by sudden and blind abandonment of the great principles on which her existence was founded; by some Agrarian sweep of democracy, desolating and subverting the whole fabric of Society ; or by passive acquiescence in the gradual encroachments of arbitrary power and official corruption.

Source Citation:

Gardiner, William Howard. 1834. An address, delivered before the Phi beta kappa society of Harvard university, 28 August, 1834, on classical earning and eloquence. Cambridge: J. Munroe and Company. https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/001449993

Cite this page:

Gardiner, William Howard. 1834. "An address, delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard University, Essay." History of Higher Education. https://higheredhistory.gmu.edu/primary-sources/address-to-the-phi-beta-kappa-society-harvard/