Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB

the intention of nature, that in infancy and youth it should occupy the mind almost exclusively, and that we should acquire all our necessary information before engaging in speculations which are less essential: and accordingly this is the history of the intellectual progress, in by far the greater number of individuals. In consequence of this, the difficulty of metaphysical researches is undoubtedly much increased; for the mind being constantly occupied in the earlier part of life about the properties and laws of matter, acquires habits of inattention to the subjects of consciousness, which are not to be surmounted, without a degree of patience and perseverance of which few men are capable: but the inconvenience would evidently have been greatly increased, if the order of nature had, in this respect, been reversed, and if the curiosity had been excited at as early a period, by the phenomena of the intellectual world, as by those of the material. Of what would have happened on this supposition, we may form a judgment from those men who, in consequence of an excessive indulgence in metaphysical pursuits, have weakened to an unnatural degree, their capacity of attending to external objects and occurrences. Few metaphysicians, perhaps, are to be found, who are not deficient in the power of observation; for, although a taste for such abstract speculations is far from being common, it is more apt, perhaps, than any other, when it has once been formed, to take an exclusive hold of the mind, and to shut up the other sources of intellectual improvement. As the metaphysician carries within himself the materials of his reasoning, he is not under a necessity of looking abroad for subjects of speculation or amusement; and unless he be very careful to guard against the effects of his favorite pursuits, he is in more danger than literary men of any other denomination, to lose all interest about the common and proper objects of human curiosity.

To prevent any danger from this quarter, I apprehend that the study of the mind should form the last branch of the education of youth; an order which nature herself seems to point out, by what I have already remarked, with respect to the development of our faculties. After the understanding is well stored with particular facts, and has been conversant with particular scientific pursuits, it will be enabled to speculate concerning its own powers with additional advantage, and will run no hazard of indulging too far in such inquiries. Nothing can be more absurd, on this as well as on many other accounts, than the common practice which is followed in our universities, of beginning a course of philosophical education with the study of logic. If this order were completely reversed ; and if the study of logic were delayed till after the mind of the student was well stored with particular facts in physics, in chemistry, in natural and civil history; his attention might be led with the most important advantage, and without any danger to his power of observation, to an examination of his own faculties; which besides opening to him a new and pleasing field of speculation, would enable him to form an estimate of his own powers, of the acquisitions he has made, of the habits he has formed, and of the farther improvements of which his mind is susceptible.*

In general, wherever babits of inattention, and an incapacity of observation, are very remarkable, they will be found to have arisen from some defect in early education. I already remarked, that, when nature is allowed free scope, the curiosity, during early youth, is alive to every external object, and to every external occurrence, while the powers of imagination and reflection do not display themselves till a much later period; the former till about the age of puberty, and the latter till we approach to manhood. It soinetimes, however, happens that, in consequence of a peculiar disposition of mind, or of an infirm bodily constitution, a child is led to seek amusement from books, and to lose a relish for those recreations which are suited to his age. In such instances, the ordinary progress of the intellectual powers is prematurely quickened; but ihat best of all educations is lost, which nature has prepared both for the philosopher and the man of the world, amidst the active sports and the hazardous adventures of childhood. It is from these alone, that we can acquire, not only that force of character which is suited to the more arduous situations of life, but that complete and prompt command of attention to things external, without which the highest endowments of the understanding, however they may fit a man for the solitary speculations of the closet, are but of little use in the practice of affairs, or for enabling him to profit by his personal experience.

* " When Plato enjoined his scholars to begin with geometry, he designed, without question, that they should first handle material things, and grow familiar to visible objects, before they entered on the retired speculations of other more abstracted sciences.

“ According to this counsel of the father of philosophers, it would not be amiss, if, before young scholars be far engaged in the beaten tracks of the schools, the mysteries of manual arts, the names of their instruments, the secrets of their operations, and the effect of natural causes, the several kinds of beasts, of birds, of fishes, of plants, of stones, of minerals, of earths, of waters, and all their common virtues and qualities, were proposed to be the subjects of the first thoughts and observa. tions It may be here suggested, that the vast nuinber of such particulars will soon overwhelm their tender minds before they are well established by time and use. But, on the contrary, it is evident, that the memories of youth are fitter to relain such sensible images than those of a fuller age. It is memory that has most vigor in children, and judgment in men; which, if rightly considered, will confirm what I said, that perhaps we take a preposterous course in education by teaching general rules before practical things; and that therein we have not a sufficient regard to the different advantages of youth and manhood. We load the minds of children with doctrines and precepts, to apprehend which they are most unfit, by reason of the weakness of their understandings; whereas they might with more profit be exercised in the consideration of visible and sensible things; of whose impressions they are most capable, because of the strength of their memories, and the perfection of their senses.”-Sprat's History of the Royal Society, p. 330.

Halier mentions, in his Elements of Physiology, that he was forced to enter on the study of logic in the tenth year of his age. " Memini me annum natum decimum, quo avidus historiam et poesin devorůssem, ad logicam, et ad CLAUBERGianam logicam ediscendam coactum fuisse, quâ nihil poterat esse, pro hujusmodi homuncione, sterilius.'-Tomus VIII. Pars i.

P. 24.

Where, however, such habits of inattention have unfortunately been contracted, we ought not to despair of them as perfectly incurable. The attention, indeed, as 1 formerly remarked, can seldom be forced in particular instances; but we may gradually learn to place the objects we wish to attend to, in lights more interesting than those in which we have been accustomed to view them. Much may be expected from a change of scene, and a change of pursuits; but above all, much may be expected from foreign travel. The objects which we meet with excite our surprise by their novelty; and in this manner we not only gradually acquire the power of observing and examining them with attention, but, from the effects of contrast, the curiosity comes to be roused with respect to the corresponding objects in our own country, which, from our early familiarity with them, we had formerly been accustomed to overlook. In this respect the effects of foreign travel, in directing the attention to familiar objects and occurrences, is somewhat analogous to that which the study of a dead or of a foreign language produces, in leading the curiosity to examine the grammatical structure of our own.

Considerable advantage may also be derived, in overcoming the habits of inattention, which we may have contracted to particular subjects, from studying the systems, true or false, which philosophers have proposed for explaining or for arranging the facts connected with them. By means of these systems, not only is the curiosity circumscribed and directed, instead of being allowed to wander at random, but, in consequence of our being enabled to connect facts with general principles, it becomes interested in the examination of those particulars which would otherwise have escaped our notice.

SECTION VIII.

Of the Connexion between Memory and philosophical Genius.

It is commonly supposed, that genius is seldom united with a very tenacious memory. So far, however, as my own observation has reached, I can scarcely recollect one person who possesses the former of these qualities, without a more than ordinary share of the latter.

On a superficial view of the subject, indeed, the common opinion has some appearance of truth ; for, we are naturally led, in consequence of the topics about which conversation is usually employed, to estimate the extent of memory, by the impression which trivial occurrences make upon it: and these in general escape the recollection of a man of ability, not because he is unable to retain them, but because he does not attend to them. It is probable, likewise, that accidental associations, founded on contiguity in time and place, may make but a slight impression on his mind. But it does not therefore follow, that his stock of facts is small. They are connected together in his memory by principles of association, different from those which prevail in ordinary minds; and they are on that very account the more useful: for as the associations are founded upon real connexions among the ideas, (although they may be less conducive to the fluency, and perhaps to the wit of conversation,) they are of incomparably greater use in suggesting facts which are to serve as a foundation for reasoning or for invention.

It frequently happens too, that a man of genius, in consequence of a peculiarly strong attachment to a particular subject, may first feel a want of inclination, and may afterwards acquire a want of capacity of attending to common occurrences. But it is probable that the whole stock of ideas in his mind, is not inferior to that of other men; and that however unprofitably he may have directed his curiosity, the ignorance which he discovers on ordinary subjects does not arise from a want of memory, but from a peculiarity in the selection which he has made of the objects of his study.

Montaigne* frequently complains in his writings of his want of memory; and he indeed gives many very extraordinary instances of his ignorance on some of the most ordinary topics of information. But it is obvious to any person who reads his works with attention, that this ignorance did not proceed from an original defect of memory, but from the singular and whimsical direction which his curiosity had taken at an early period of life. “I can do nothing," says he, “ without my memorandum book : and so great is my difficulty in remembering proper names, that I am forced to call my domestic servants by their offices. I am ignorant of the greater part of our coins in use; of the difference of one grain from another, both in the earth and in the granary; what use leaven is of in making bread, and why wine must stand some time in the vat before it ferments." Yet the same author appears evidently, from his writings, to have had his memory stored with an infinite variety of apophthegms, and of historical passages, which had struck his imagination; and to have been familiarly acquainted, not only with the names, but with the absurd and exploded opinions of the ancient philosophers; with the ideas of Plato, the atoms of Epicurus, the plenum and vacuum of Leucippus and Democritus, the water of Thales, the numbers of Pythagoras, the infinite of Parmenides, and the unity of Museus. In complaining too of his want of presence of mind, he indirectly acknowledges a degree of memory, which, if it had been judiciously employed, would have been more than sufficient for the acquisition of all those common branches of knowledge in which he appears to have been deficient. “ When I have an oration to speak," says he,“ of any considerable length, I am reduced to the miserable necessity of getting it, word for word, by heart.”

* " Il n'est homme à qui il siese si mal de se mesler de parler de mémoire. Car je n'en recognoy quasi trace en moy; et ne pense qui'il y en ait au monde une autre si marveilleuse en defaillance.”—Essais de Montaigne, liv. i. ch. 9.

The strange and apparently inconsistent combination of knowledge and ignorance which the writings of Montaigne exhibit, led Malebranche (who seems to have formed too low an opinion both of his genius and character) to tax him with affectation; and even to call in question the credibility of some of his assertions. But no one who is well acquainted with this most amusing author, can reasonably suspect his veracity; and, in the present instance, I can give him complete credit, not only from my general opinion of his sincerity, but from having observed, in the course of my own experience, more than one example of the same sort of combination ; not indeed carried to such a length as Montaigne describes, but bearing a striking resemblance to it.

The observations which have already been made, account in part, for the origin of the common opinion, that genius and memory are seldom united in great degrees in the same person; and at the same time show, that some of the facts on which that opinion is founded, do not justify such a conclusion. Besides these, however, there are other circumstances, which at first view seem rather to indicate an inconsistency between extensive memory and original genius.

The species of memory which excites the greatest degree of admiration in the ordinary intercourse of society, is a memory for detached and insulated facts; and it is certain that those men who are possessed of it, are very seldoin distinguished by the higher gifts of the mind. Such a species of memory is unfavorable to philosophical arrangement; because it in part supplies the place of arrangement. One great use of philosophy, as I already showed, is to give us an extensive command of particular truths, by furnishing us with general principles, under which a number of such truths is comprehended. A person in whose mind casual association of time and place make a lasting impression, has not the same inducements to philosophize, with others who connect facts together, chiefly by the relations of cause and effect, or of premises and conclusion. I have heard it observed, that those men who have risen to the greatest eminence in the profession of law, have been in general such as had at first an aversion to the study.* The reason probably is, that to a mind fond of general principles, every

* The same remark occurs in a letter from Mr. Gray to his friend Mr. West. “In the study of law the labor is long, and the elements dry and uninteresting; nor was ever any body (especially those that afterwards made a figure in it) amused, or even not disgusted at the beginning.”

“ The famous antiquary, Spelman,” says Mr. Burke, “though no man was better formed for the most laborious pursuits, in the beginning deserted the study of the laws in despair, though he returned to it again, when a more confirmed age,

« AnteriorContinuar »