Books and people


It is the vice of scholars to suppose that there is no knowledge in the world but that of books. – Hazlitt, On the Conduct of Life

…there is a society continually open to us, of people who will talk to us as long as we like, whatever our rank or occupation; – talk to us in the best words they can choose, and of the things nearest their hearts. And this society, because it is so numerous and so gentle, can be kept waiting round us all day long, – kings and statesmen lingering patiently, not to grant audience, but to gain it! – in those plainly furnished and narrow anterooms, our bookcase shelves, – we make no account of that company, – perhaps never listen to a word they would say, all day long! – Ruskin, Sesame: Of Kings’ Treasuries

In the end, nobody hears more out of things, including books, than he knows already. For that to which one lacks access from experience, one has no ears. Let us then imagine an extreme case: that a books speaks of all sorts of experiences which lie utterly beyond any possibility of frequent, or even rare, experiences – that is represents the first language for a new sequence of experiences. In that case, simply nothing is heard; and people have the acoustic illusion that where nothing is heard there is nothing.
+++++This has been my usual experience…Whoever thought that he had understood something of me had merely construed something out of me, after his own image. – Nietzsche, Ecce Homo

Of those who have survived themselves most completely, left a sort of personal seduction behind them in the world, and retained, after death, the art of making friends, Montaigne and Samuel Johnson certainly stand first. – RL Stevenson

In old days books were written by men of letters and read by the public. Nowadays books are written by the public and read by nobody. – Wilde, A Few Maxims For The Instruction Of The Over-Educated (1894)

The office of literature in a civilization is not to break the dream, but perpetually to recall it, to recreate it in each generation, and even to make more articulate the dream-powers of a people. We, whose participation in the dream is imperfect and largely passive, are, in a sense, its slaves. But the comparative freedom of the artist springs not from any faculty of wakefulness (not from any opposition to the dream), but from his power to dream more profoundly; his genius is to dream that he is dreaming. And it is this that distinguishes him from the scientist, whose perverse genius is to dream that he is awake. The project of science, as I understand it, is to solve the mystery, to wake us from our dream, to destroy the myth; and were this project fully achieved, not only should we find ourselves awake in a profound darkness, but a dreadful insomnia would settle upon mankind, not less intolerable for being only a nightmare.
+++++The gift of the greatest literature – of poetry – is a gift of imagination. Its effect is an expansion of our faculty of dreaming. Under its inspiration the familiar outlines of the common dream fade, new perceptions, and emotions hitherto unfelt, are excited within us, the till-now settled fact dissolves once more into infinite possibility, and we become aware that the myth (which is the substance of the dream) has acquired a new quality, without our needing to detect the precise character of the change. But from a book of philosophy, when it reaches the level of literature (as it sometimes does), a more direct, a less subtle consequence may be expected to spring. Its gift is not an access of imaginative power, but an increase of knowledge; it will prompt and it will instruct. In it we shall be reminded of the common dream that binds the generations together, and the myth will be made more intelligible to us. And consequently, we must seek the meaning of such a book in its vision of the myth. – Oakeshott, Leviathan: A Myth

Those who write clearly have readers; those who write obscurely have commentators. – Camus

I think nothing is of any value in books, excepting the transcendental and extraordinary. – Emerson, The Poet

Almost all our writers share the defect of cultivating themselves through other writings and then merely putting them together…They read about a thing before they have thought about it, so that in the end their whole knowledge consists of knowing that which others have known. – Lichtenberg

One of the greatest Reasons why so few People understand themselves, is, that most Writers are always teaching Men what they should be, and hardly ever trouble their heads with telling them what they really are. – Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees, Intro.

How little effect is made on us in our best days by the books we have read, the scenes we have witnessed, the sensations we have gone through! Think only of the feelings we experience in reading a fine romance (one of Sir Walter’s, for instance); what beauty, what sublimity, what interest, what heart-rending emotions! You would suppose the feelings you then experienced would last for ever, or subdue the mind to their own harmony and tone: while we are reading it seems as if nothing could ever put us out of our way, or trouble us: the first splash of mud that we get on entering the street, the first twopence we are cheated out of, the feeling vanishes clean out of our minds, and we become the prey of petty and annoying circumstance. The mind soars to the lofty: it is at home in the grovelling, the disagreeable, and the little. And yet we wonder that age should be feeble and querulous, that the freshness of youth should fade away. Both worlds would hardly satisfy the extravagance of our desires and of our presumption. – Hazlitt, On the Feeling of Immortality in Youth

How insipid is fiction to a mind touched with immortal views! – Mary Moody Emerson

…there are many virtues in books, but the essential value is the adding of knowledge to our stock, by the record of new facts, and, better, by the record of intuitions, which distribute facts, and are the formulas which supersede all histories. – Emerson, Persian Poetry

…no man can suffice…to write aphorisms but he that is sound and grounded. – Bacon, Advancement of Learning, p152

Every thought is also a prison; every heaven is also a prison. Therefore we love the poet, the inventor, who in any form, whether in an ode, or in an action, or in looks and behaviour, has yielded us a new thought. He unlocks our chains, and admits us to a new scene. – Emerson, The Poet

…the greatest moments of life are those in which his own house, his own body, the tritest and nearest ways and words and things have been illuminated into prophets and teachers. What else is it to be a poet? – Emerson

I have had more pleasure in reading the adventures of a novel than I ever had in my own. – Hazlitt, On Novelty and Familiarity

To live with men of an earlier age is like travelling in foreign lands. – Descartes, Discourse on Method, I

It produced the effect good books usually produce: it made the simple simpler, the clever cleverer, and all the other thousands remain unaffected. – Lichtenberg

Fools read a book and do not understand it; second-rate minds think they understand it perfectly; great minds do not always understand the whole of it: they find obscure that which is obscure, and clear which is clear; subtle wits find obscurity in what is not obscure, and refuse to understand what is perfectly plain. – La Bruyere, Characters, Of Books, 35

…good novels are the most authentic as well as most accessible repositories of the natural history and philosophy of the species. – Hazlitt, On Personal Character

Books, and Dishes have this Common Fate; there was never any One, of Either of them, that pleas’d All Palates. And, in Truth, it is a Thing as little to be Wish’d for, as Expected; For, an Universal Applause is at least Two Thirds of a Scandal. – Sir Roger L’Estrange, Seneca’s Morals by Way of Abstract, preface, 1673

I forgive those whom I have praised in my books if they should forget me: what have I done for them? they deserved praise. I should less readily forgive all those whose vices I have attacked without indicting them as individuals, if they owed me so great a benefit as to have reformed; but as there is no evidence of this event, it follows that neither sort have any obligation towards me. – La Bruyere, Characters, Opinions, 68

Men over forty are no judges of a book written in a new spirit. – Emerson, The Man of Letters

When evening comes, I return home…and go to my study. On the threshold I strip naked, taking off my muddy, sweaty workday clothes, and put on the robes of court and palace, and in this graver dress I enter the courts of the ancients and am welcomed by them, and there I taste the food that alone is mine, and for which I was born. And there I make bold to speak to them and ask the motives of their actions, and they, in their humanity reply to me. And for the space of four hours I forget the world, remember no vexation, fear poverty no more, tremble no more at death; I pass indeed into their world. – Machiavelli, letter to Vettori

On blue, hyperacid days the suspicion often seizes me that most of my favorite notions are nonsensical – worse, that some of them are probably downright insane. It is a sad pleasure to examine them thus at leisure, and pick out the flaws in them. What is left is little save a pile of platitudes – the apple-cores of meditation. Well, who is better off? I know of no one, though neither do I know of anyone who admits it. A few propositions, perhaps, are immutably true, e.g., that no man can hold his head under water half an hour and live, that the average Congressman is a moron, that Jonah swallowed the whale. The rest is mere illusion, folly, egomania.
+++++Nevertheless, it comforts me to think that, in one respect at least, I am superior to my chief opponents. That is in the respect that, in the main, my ideas are unpopular, and hence not profitable. No one can reasonably allege that I emit them in order to gain political office, or to get an honorary degree from the Ohio Wesleyan University, or to acquire the Legion d’honneur. This may seem a small thing, but it is at least something, especially in an American. Practically all the other men that I know try to capitalize their doctrines in some way or other. Who ever heard of an uplifter who was not looking for a job? Or, at all events, some one to finance his crusade? No one finances mine, such as it is. No one ever will. – Mencken, Note for an Honest Autobiography, Baltimore Evening Sun, 12/6/1922

Paine’s genius was that of every great public intellectual. He provided language for their shared knowledge; language which did not exist within their own formulations. …Paine had literally changed the perceived reality of America by providing a language in which it could express itself. – J.R. Saul, On Equilibrium, p34

Thou shalt read Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Plato, Proclus, Plotinus, Iamblicus, Porphyry, Aristotle, Virgil, Plutarch, Apuleius, Chaucer, Dante, Rabelais, Montaigne, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Jonson, Ford, Chapman, Beaumont and Fletcher, Bacon, Herbert, Marvell, More, Milton, Moliere, Swedenborg, Goethe. – Emerson, journal, 26 Nov 1842

It has been discovered through repeated experiments that pictures that require thought for appreciation have invariably been box-office failures. The general public does not wish to think. This fact, more than any other, accounts for the success of my stories…I have…endeavoured to make all of my descriptions so clear that each situation could be visualized readily by any reader precisely as I saw it. My reason for doing this was…based…upon the realization that in improbable situations, such as abound in my work, the greatest pains must be taken to make them appear plausible. I have evolved, therefore, a type of fiction that may be read with the minimum of mental effort. – Edgar Rice Burroughs (creator of Tarzan)

Many a man torments himself his whole life long, studies himself frigid and impotent, at unravelling a writer’s meaning. I admit that it needs a lifetime to unravel the writer’s system and to cleanse it of the dirt and grease of those who have sought to patch and improve it; all this is true, yet it would require only fifteen minutes of wide-awake common sense to see that the whole thing isn’t worth three-halfpence. – Lichtenberg

Learn of Samuel Johnson or David Hume, that it is a primary duty of the man of letters to secure his independence. – Emerson


Yesterday I went to the Atheneum and looked through journals and books – for wit, for excitement, to wake in me the muse. In vain, and in vain. And am I yet to learn that the God dwells within? That books are but crutches, the resorts of the feeble and the lame, which, if used by the strong, weaken the muscular power, and become necessary aids. I return home. Nature still solicits me. Overhead the sanctities of the stars shine forevermore, and to me also, pouring satire on the pompous business of the day which they close, and making the generations of men show slight and evanescent. A man is but a bug, the earth but a boat, a cockle, drifting under the old light. – Emerson, journals, IV 258

A minimum-test of the intrinsic merit of anything written is this, that some non-historical reason can be given why it should be read: a reason, I mean, absolutely independent of the fact that other people have read it… who can supply a reason, of this kind, why anyone should read Kant, or Green, or Bradley? To ask this question is to answer it. – David Stove, Against the Idols of the Age, p200

…all books are divisible into two classes, the books of the hour, and the books of all time. Mark this distinction – it is not one of quality only. … It is a distinction of species. There are good books for the hour, and good ones for all time; bad books for the hour, and bad ones for all time. …
+++++The good book of the hour, then, – I do not speak of the bad ones – is simply the useful or pleasant talk of some person whom you cannot otherwise converse with, printed for you. Very useful often, telling you what you need to know; very pleasant often, as a sensible friend’s present talk would be. …we ought to be entirely thankful for them, and entirely ashamed of ourselves if we make no good use of them. But we make the worst possible use, if we allow them to usurp the place of true books: for, strictly speaking, they are not books at all, but merely letters or newspapers in good print. Our friend’s letter may be delightful, or necessary, to-day: whether worth keeping or not, is to be considered. The newspaper may be entirely proper at breakfast time, but assuredly it is not reading for all day. …A book is essentially not a talked thing, but a written thing; and written, not with a view of mere communication, but of permanence. The book of talk is printed only because its author cannot speak to thousands of people at once; if he could, he would… But a book is written, not to multiply the voice merely, not to carry it merely, but to preserve it. The author has something to say which he perceives to be true and useful, or helpfully beautiful. So far as he knows, no one has yet said it; so far as he knows, no one else can say it. He is bound to say it, clearly and melodiously if he may; clearly, at all events. In the sum of his life he finds this to be the thing, or group of things, manifest to him; – this is the piece of true knowledge, or sight which his share of sunshine and earth has permitted him to seize. He would fain set it down for ever; engrave it on rock, if he could: saying, “This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, and loved, and hated, like another: my life was as the vapour, and is not; but this I saw and knew; this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory.” That is his “writing”; it is, in his small human way, and with whatever degree of true inspiration is in him, his inscription, or scripture. That is a “Book”. – Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies, Sesame, p19-22


The sacredness which attaches to the act of creation, the act of thought, is transferred to the record. The poet chanting was felt to be a divine man: henceforth the chant is divine, also. The writer was a just and wise spirit: hence-forward it is settled the book is perfect; as love of the hero corrupts into worship of his statue. Instantly the book becomes noxious: the guide is a tyrant… Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? What is the one end which all means go to effect? They are for nothing but to inspire… The one thing in the world, of value, is the active soul. This every man is entitled to; this every man contains within him, although in almost all men obstructed, and as yet unborn. The soul active sees absolute truth and utters truth, or creates. In this action it is genius; not the privilege of here and there a favorite, but the sound estate of every man… Genius is always sufficiently the enemy of genius by over-influence. The literature of every nation bears me witness. The English dramatic poets have Shakspearized now for two hundred years… These being his functions, it becomes him to feel all confidence in himself, and to defer never to the popular cry. He, and he only, knows the world. The world of any moment is the merest appearance. Some great decorum, some fetish of a government, some ephemeral trade, or war, or man, is cried up by half mankind and cried down by the other half, as if all depended on this particular up or down. The odds are that the whole question is not worth the poorest thought which the scholar has lost in listening to the controversy. Let him not quit his belief that a popgun is a popgun, though the ancient and honorable of the earth affirm it to be the crack of doom. – Emerson, The American Scholar


It is certainly better not to have studied a subject at all than to have studied it superficially. For when unaided healthy common sense seeks to form an opinion of something it does not go so far wrong as semi-erudition does. – Lichtenberg


It would perhaps be unkind to inquire whether the level of the modern man of letters, as compared with Scott, is due to the absence of valleys or the absence of mountains. But in any case, we have learnt in our day to arrange our literary effects carefully, and the only point in which we fall short of Scott is in the incidental misfortune that we have nothing particular to arrange. – Chesterton, Varied Types, The Position of Sir Walter Scott

The most fortunate author is one who is able to say as an old man that all he had of life-giving, invigorating, uplifting, enlightening thoughts and feelings still lives on in his writings, and that he himself is only the gray ash, while the fire has been rescued and carried forth everywhere. – Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, 208

The true function of the writer in relation to mankind is continually to say what most men think or feel without realizing it. Mediocre writers say only what everyone would have said… – Lichtenberg

The literati of Europe threaten at present to become the Monks of letters, and from having taken up learning as a profession, to live on the reputation of it. As gentlemen have turned authors, authors seem inclined to turn gentlemen; and enjoying the otium cum dignitate, to be much too refined and abstracted to condescend to the subordinate or mechanical parts of knowledge. They are too wise in general to be acquainted with anything in particular; and remain in a proud and listless ignorance of all that is within the reach of the vulgar. They are not, as of old, walking libraries or Encyclopaedias, but rather certain faculties of the mind personified. They scorn the material and instrumental branches of inquiry, the husk and bran, and affect only the fine flour of literature they are only to be called in to give the last polish to style, the last refinement to thought. They leave it to their drudges, the leading Public, to accumulate the facts, to arrange the evidence, to make out the data, and like great painters whose pupils have got in the ground-work and the established proportions of a picture, come forward to go over the last thin glazing of the colours, or throw in the finer touches of expression. On my excusing myself to Northcote for some blunder in history, by saying, “I really had not time to read,” he said, “No, but you have time to write!” And once a celebrated critic taking me to task as to the subject of my pursuits, and receiving regularly the same answer to his queries, that I knew nothing of chemistry, nothing of astronomy, of botany, of law, of politics, etc., at last exclaimed, somewhat impatiently, “What the devil is it, then, you do know?” I laughed, and was not very much disconcerted at the reproof, as it was just.
+++++Modern men of letters may be divided into three classes; the mere scholar or book-worm, all whose knowledge is taken from books, and who may be passed by as an obsolete character, little inquired after; the literary hack or coffee-house politician, who gets his information mostly from hearsay, and who makes some noise indeed, but the echo of it does not reach beyond his own club or circle, and the man of real or of pretended genius, who aims to draw upon his own resources of thought or feeling, and to throw a new light upon nature and books. This last personage (if he acts up to his supposed character) has too much to do to lend himself to a variety of pursuits, or to lay himself out to please in all companies. He has a task in hand, a vow to perform; and he cannot be diverted from it by incidental or collateral objects. All the time that he does not devote to this paramount duty, he should have to himself, to repose, to lie fallow, to gather strength and recruit himself. A boxer is led into the lists that he may not waste a particle of vigour needlessly; and a leader in Parliament, on the day that he is expected to get up a grand attack or defence, is not to be pestered with the ordinary news of the day. So an author (who is, or would be thought original) has no time for spare accomplishments or ornamental studies. All that he intermeddles with must be marshalled to bear upon his purpose. He must be acquainted with books and the thoughts of others, but only so far as to assist him on his way, and “to take progression from them.” He starts from the point where they left off. All that does not aid him in his new career goes for nothing, is thrown out of the account, or is a useless and splendid incumbrance. Most of his time he passes in brooding over some wayward hint or suggestion of a thought, nor is he bound to give any explanation of what he does with the rest. He tries to melt down truth into essences to express some fine train of feeling, to solve some difficult problem, to start what is new, or to perfect what is old; in a word, not to do what others can do (which in the division of mental labour he holds to be unnecessary), but to do what they all with their joint efforts cannot do. For this he is in no hurry, and must have the disposal of his leisure and the choice of his subject. The public can wait. – Hazlitt, On The Conversation of Lords

It is curious that, in an age when the most universally-admitted claim to public distinction is literary merit, the attaining this distinction is almost a sure title to public contempt and obloquy. They cry you up, because you are unknown, and do not excite their jealousy; and run you down, when they have thus distinguished you, out of envy and spleen at the very idol they have set up. – Hazlitt, On Reading New Books

Whoever has once begun to write and felt the passion of writing…learns from almost everything he does or experiences only what is communicable for a writer. – Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, 200.

It is necessary for a writer to go out into the world, not so much to observe many situations as to get into many situations himself. – Lichtenberg

One considerable writer gets a sort of start because what he writes is somewhat more – only a little more very often, as I believe – congenial to the minds around him than any other sort. This writer is very often not the one whom posterity remembers – not the one who carries the style of the age farthest towards its ideal type, and gives it its charm and its perfection. It was not Addison who began the essay-writing of Queen Anne’s time, but Steele; it was the vigorous forward man who struck out the rough notion, though it was the wise and meditative man who improved upon it and elaborated it, and whom posterity reads. Some strong writer, or group of writers, thus seize on the public mind, and a curious process soon assimilates other writers in appearance to them. To some extent, no doubt, this assimilation is effected by a process most intelligible, and not at all curious – the process of conscious imitation; A sees that B’s style of writing answers, and he imitates it. But definitely aimed mimicry like this is always rare; original men who like their own thoughts do not willingly clothe them in words they feel they borrow. No man, indeed, can think to much purpose when he is studying to write a style not his own. After all, very few men are at all equal to the steady labour, the stupid and mistaken labour mostly, of making a style. Most men catch the words that are in the air, and the rhythm which comes to them they do not know from whence; an unconscious imitation determines their words, and makes them say what of themselves they would never have thought of saying. Every one who has written in more than one newspaper knows how invariably his style catches the tone of each paper while he is writing for it, and changes to the tone of another when in turn he begins to write for that. He probably would rather write the traditional style to which the readers of the journal are used, but he does not set himself to copy it; he would have to force himself in order not to write it if that was what he wanted. Exactly in this way, just as a writer for a journal without a distinctly framed purpose gives the readers of the journal the sort of words and the sort of thoughts they are used to – so, on a larger scale, the writers of an age, without thinking of it, give to the readers of the age the sort of words and the sort of thoughts – the special literature, in fact – which those readers like and prize. And not only does the writer, without thinking, choose the sort of style and meaning which are most in vogue, but the writer is himself chosen. A writer does not begin to write in the traditional rhythm of an age unless he feels, or fancies he feels, a sort of aptitude for writing it, any more than a writer tries to write in a journal in which the style is uncongenial or impossible to him. Indeed, if he mistakes he is soon weeded out; the editor rejects, the age will not read his compositions. How painfully this traditional style cramps great writers whom it happens not to suit, is curiously seen in Wordsworth, who was bold enough to break through it, and, at the risk of contemporary neglect, to frame a style of his own. But he did so knowingly, and he did so with an effort. “It is supposed,” he says, “that by the act of writing in verse an author makes a formal engagement that he will gratify certain known habits of association; that he not only then apprizes the reader that certain classes of ideas and expressions will be found in his book, but that others will be carefully eschewed. The exponent or symbol held forth by metrical language must, in different ages of literature, have excited very different expectations; for example, in the age of Catullus, Terence, or Lucretius, and that of Statius or Claudian; and in our own country, in the age of Shakespeare and Beaumont and Fletcher, and that of Donne and Cowley, or Pope.” And then, in a kind of vexed way, Wordsworth goes on to explain that he himself can’t and won’t do what is expected from him, but that he will write his own words, and only his own words. A strict, I was going to say a Puritan, genius will act thus, but most men of genius are susceptible and versatile, and fall into the style of their age. …
+++++What writers are expected to write, they write; or else they do not write at all; but, like the writer of these lines, stop discouraged, live disheartened, and die leaving fragments which their friends treasure, but which a rushing world never heeds. The Nonconformist writers are neglected, the Conformist writers are encouraged, until perhaps on a sudden the fashion shifts. And as with the writers, so in a less degree with readers. Many men – most men – get to like or think they like that which is ever before them, and which those around them like, and which received opinion says they ought to like; or if their minds are too marked and oddly made to get into the mould, they give up reading altogether, or read old books and foreign books, formed under another code and appealing to a different taste. The principle of “elimination,” the “use and disuse” of organs which naturalists speak of, works here. What is used strengthens; what is disused weakens: “to those who have, more is given”; and so a sort of style settles upon an age, and imprinting itself more than anything else in men’s memories becomes all that is thought of about it.
+++++I believe that what we call national character arose in very much the same way. – Bagehot, Physics and Politics, 1872

…’t is so much better for a man of letters to nurse himself in seclusion than to be filed
down to the common level by the compliances and imitations of city society. – Emerson

…if Mr. Wordsworth had been a more liberal and candid critic, he would have been a more sterling writer. If a greater number of sources of pleasure had been open to him, he would have communicated pleasure to the world more frequently. Had he been less fastidious in pronouncing sentence on the works of others, his own would have been received more favourably, and treated more leniently. The current of his feelings is deep, but narrow; the range of his understanding is lofty and aspiring rather than discursive. The force, the originality, the absolute truth and identity, with which he feels some things, makes him indifferent to so many others. The simplicity and enthusiasm of his feelings, with respect to nature, render him bigoted and intolerant in his judgments of men and things. But it happens to him, as to others, that his strength lies in his weakness; and perhaps we have no right to complain. We might get rid of the cynic and the egotist, and find in his stead a common-place man. We should ‘take the good the Gods provide us’: a fine and original vein of poetry is not one of their most contemptible gifts; and the rest is scarcely worth thinking of, except as it may be a mortification to those who expect perfection from human nature, or who have been idle enough at some period of their lives to deify men of genius as possessing claims above it. But this is a chord that jars, and we shall not dwell upon it.
+++++Lord Byron we have called, according to the old proverb, ‘the spoiled child of fortune’: Mr. Wordsworth might plead, in mitigation of some peculiarities, that he is ‘the spoiled child of disappointment.’ We are convinced, if he had been early a popular poet, he would have borne his honours meekly, and would have been a person of great bonhomie and frankness of disposition. But the sense of injustice and of undeserved ridicule sours the temper and narrows the views. To have produced works of genius, and to find them neglected or treated with scorn, is one of the heaviest trials of human patience. We exaggerate our own merits when they are denied by others, and are apt to grudge and cavil at every particle of praise bestowed on those to whom we feel a conscious superiority. In mere self-defence we turn against the world when it turns against us, brood over the undeserved slights we receive; and thus the genial current of the soul is stopped, or vents itself in effusions of petulance and self-conceit. Mr. Wordsworth has thought too much of contemporary critics and criticism, and less than he ought of the award of posterity and of the opinion, we do not say of private friends, but of those who were made so by their admiration of his genius.
+++++He did not court popularity by a conformity to established models, and he ought not to have been surprised that his originality was not understood as a matter of course. He has gnawed too much on the bridle, and has often thrown out crusts to the critics, in mere defiance or as a point of honour when he was challenged, which otherwise his own good sense would have withheld. We suspect that Mr. Wordsworth’s feelings are a little morbid in this respect, or that he resents censure more than he is gratified by praise. Otherwise, the tide has turned much in his favour of late years. He has a large body of determined partisans, and is at present sufficiently in request with the public to save or relieve him from the last necessity to which a man of genius can be reduced – that of becoming the God of his own idolatry! – Hazlitt, The Spirit of the Age, Wordsworth


In the writings of celebrated authors but mediocre brains we find at most only what they want to show us, whereas in the writings of the systematic thinker who mentally embraces everything we see the whole and how everything hangs together. The former seek and find their needle by the light of a sulphur-match which casts a light, and that dimly, only on the place where it happens to be, whereas the latter ignite a candle that floods everything with light. – Lichtenberg

They complain at the frightful quantity of bad writing that appears at every Easter fair. I cannot see why they should. Why do the critics say we ought to imitate nature? These writers imitate nature, they follow their instincts just as the great writers do. And I would like to know what more can be asked of any organic being than that it follows its instincts. – Lichtenberg


The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think. — Edwin Schlossberg

Set ten men to write their journal for one day, and nine of them will leave out their thought, or proper result, that is, their net experience, and lose themselves in misreporting the supposed experience of other people. Indeed, I think it an essential caution to young writers, that they shall not in their discourse leave out the one thing which the discourse was written to say. Let that belief which you hold alone have free course. – Emerson, Greatness

…the most important part of Rhetoric is that which cannot be taught, which every one must learn by himself, and which cannot part from his consciousness. Certain moods of mind arise in me which lead me at once to my pen and paper, but which are quite indescribable: and these attend me through every sentence of my writing, and determine the form of every clause, yet are these muses quite too subtle and evanescent to sit for their portraits. – Emerson, journals, 1832?

To express truly what one has truly felt – that is to say with those little expressive traits that testify one is speaking of one’s own experience – is what really makes the great writer: ordinary writers always avail themselves of phrases and expressions that are nothing but clothes from the second-hand market. – Lichtenberg

Writing is an excellent means of awakening in every man the system slumbering within him; and everyone who has ever written will have discovered that writing always awakens something which, though it lay within us, we failed clearly to recognise before. – Lichtenberg

Your reading you may use in conversation, but your writing should stop with your own thought. – Emerson, journals, VI 41

Henceforth I design not to utter any speech, poem, or book that is not entirely and peculiarly my work. I will say at Public Lectures and the like, those things which I have meditated for their own sake, and not for the first time with a view to that occasion. If otherwise you select a new subject and labor to make a good appearance on the appointed day, it is so much lost time to you and lost time to your hearer. It is a parenthesis in your genuine life. You are your own dupe, and for the sake of conciliating your audience you have failed to edify them and winning their ear you have really lost their love and gratitude. – Emerson, journals, Nov 15, 1834

Oct 7, 1840. …I have been writing with some pains Essays on various matters as a sort of apology to my country for my apparent idleness. – Emerson, journal, aged 37

I have not much pleasure in writing these Essays, or in reading them afterwards; though I own I now and then meet with a phrase that I like, or a thought that strikes me as a true one. But after I begin them, I am only anxious to get to the end of them, which I am not sure I shall do, for I seldom see my way a page or even a sentence beforehand; and when I have as by a miracle escaped, I trouble myself little more about them. I sometimes have to write them twice over: then it is necessary to read the proof, to prevent mistakes by the printer; so that by the time they appear in a tangible shape, and one can con them over with aconscious, sidelong glance to the public approbation, they have lost their gloss and relish, and become ‘more tedious than a twice-told tale.’ For a person to read his own works over with any great delight, he ought first to forget that he ever wrote them. Familiarity naturally breeds contempt. It is, in fact, like poring fondly over a piece of blank paper; from repetition, the words convey no distinct meaning to the mind – are mere idle sounds, except that our vanity claims an interest and property in them. – Hazlitt, Table Talk, On the Pleasure of Painting

I found when I had finished my new lecture that it was a very good house, only the architect had unfortunately omitted the stairs. – Emerson, journal, Jan 1851

There is no surer way of making a name for oneself than by writing about things which appear to be important but which a sensible man would rarely take the time to investigate. – Lichtenberg

Waste-book method highly recommended. A note made of every phrase, every expression. Wealth can also be acquired through saving up truths in pennyworths. – Lichtenberg

After having set down many observations regarding human nature, and having done so with a flattering sense of my own superiority, and then gone on to refine and improve the wording, I have often discovered in the end that the best I had to say I could simply have written down without any of these sensations just as anyone else might have. (Very, very true.) – Lichtenberg


If the cardinal virtue of poetry is love, the cardinal virtue of prose is justice. – Arthur Clutton-Brock, The Defects of English Prose

Prose is marked by a distinction between matter and form: what we say and how we say it. The formal elements are those which we call literary quality, style, writing, and so forth; the material elements are what we generally call the ‘contents’ of the work. Each part has its own scale of values. On its formal side, prose should be clear, expressive, and in the most general sense of that word beautiful; on its material side, it should be well thought out, intelligent, and in a general sense true. To satisfy the first claim the prose writer must be an artist; to satisfy the second, he must be a thinker.
+++++2. These parts are distinct, but they cannot be separated. As elements in prose, neither can exist without the other. If it were possible for a book to be well thought out but ill written, it would not be literature at all; if it could be well written but ill thought out, it would at any rate not be prose. But the two do not exist in equilibrium. The formal part is the servant of the material. We speak well, in prose, only in order to say what we mean: the matter is prior to the form. This priority, no doubt, is rather logical than temporal. The matter does not exist as a naked but fully formed thought in our minds before we fit it with a garment of words. It is only in some dark and half-conscious way that we know our thoughts before we come to express them. Yet in that obscure fashion they are already within us; and, rising into full consciousness as we find the words to utter them, it is they that determine the words, not vice versa.
+++++3. In poetry, this distinction between matter and form does not exist. Instead of two linked problems, finding out what he wants to say and finding out how to say it, the poet has only one problem. Instead of having to satisfy two standards of value, beauty and truth, the poet recognizes only one. The sole business of a poem is to be beautiful; its sole merits are formal or literary merits. In the sense in which the prose writer is trying to say something, there is nothing that the poet is trying to say; he is trying simply to speak.
+++++4. Prose and poetry are philosophically distinct species of a genus; consequently they overlap. Literary excellence, which is the means to an end in prose and the sole end or essence of poetry, is the same thing in both cases. Judged by a purely literary or artistic standard, the merits of even the best prose are inferior to those of even commonplace poetry; for these qualities are of necessity degraded in becoming means instead of ends; yet the prose writer does inhabit the mountain of poetry, though he lives only on its lower slopes, and drinks of its waters not fresh from their spring but muddy with the silt of their stream-beds.
+++++5. This distinction must not be confused with the distinction between prose and verse, which is an empirical division between two ways of writing, either of which may be poetical or prosaic in character. There is no doubt a tendency for poetry to take the outward shape of verse; that is because verse, in its patterns of rhythm and rhyme, expresses a native tendency on the part of language to organize itself according to intrinsic formal characters whenever it is liberated from the task of expressing thought. Similar formal patterns are always emerging in the structure of prose, only to be lost again; they emerge because without them language would be wholly non-poetical and would therefore cease to be language; they are lost again because form is here subordinate to matter, and the poetry inherent in language is therefore shattered into an infinity of inchoate poems. – Collingwood, Essay on Philosophical Method, p199-201


And the truth which the Brontes came to tell us is the truth that many waters cannot quench love, and that suburban respectability cannot touch or damp a secret enthusiasm. Clapham, like every other earthly city, is built upon a volcano. Thousands of people go to and fro in the wilderness of bricks and mortar, earning mean wages, professing a mean religion, wearing a mean attire, thousands of women who have never found any expression for their exaltation or their tragedy but to go on working harder and yet harder at dull and automatic employments, at scolding children or stitching shirts. But out of all these silent ones one suddenly became articulate, and spoke a resonant testimony, and her name was Charlotte Bronte. Spreading around us upon every side to-day like a huge and radiating geometrical figure are the endless branches of the great city. There are times when we are almost stricken crazy, as well we may be, by the multiplicity of those appalling perspectives, the frantic arithmetic of that unthinkable population. But this thought of ours is in truth nothing but a fancy. There are no chains of houses; there are no crowds of men. The colossal diagram of streets and houses is an illusion, the opium dream of a speculative builder. Each of these men is supremely solitary and supremely important to himself. Each of these houses stands in the centre of the world. There is no single house of all those millions which has not seemed to someone at some time the heart of all things and the end of travel. – Chesterton, Varied Types, ch.1

In one sense, at any rate, it is more valuable to read bad literature than good literature. Good literature may tell us the mind of one man; but bad literature may tell us the mind of many men. A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author. It does much more than that, it tells us the truth about its readers; and, oddly enough, it tells us this all the more the more cynical and immoral be the motive of its manufacture. The more dishonest a book is as a book the more honest it is as a public document. A sincere novel exhibits the simplicity of one particular man; an insincere novel exhibits the simplicity of mankind. The pedantic decisions and definable readjustments of man may be found in scrolls and statute books and scriptures; but men’s basic assumptions and everlasting energies are to be found in penny dreadfuls and halfpenny novelettes. Thus a man, like many men of real culture in our day, might learn from good literature nothing except the power to appreciate good literature. But from bad literature he might learn to govern empires and look over the map of mankind. – Chesterton, Heretics, ch.15, On Smart Novelists and the Smart Set

The men who write [slum fiction], and the men who read it, are men of the middle classes or the upper classes; at least, of those who are loosely termed the educated classes. Hence, the fact that it is the life as the refined man sees it proves that it cannot be the life as the unrefined man lives it. Rich men write stories about poor men, and describe them as speaking with a coarse, or heavy, or husky enunciation. But if poor men wrote novels about you or me they would describe us as speaking with some absurd shrill and affected voice, such as we only hear from a duchess in a three-act farce. The slum novelist gains his whole effect by the fact that some detail is strange to the reader; but that detail by the nature of the case cannot be strange in itself. It cannot be strange to the soul which he is professing to study. The slum novelist gains his effects by describing the same grey mist as draping the dingy factory and the dingy tavern. But to the man he is supposed to be studying there must be exactly the same difference between the factory and the tavern that there is to a middle-class man between a late night at the office and a supper at Pagani’s. The slum novelist is content with pointing out that to the eye of his particular class a pickaxe looks dirty and a pewter pot looks dirty. But the man he is supposed to be studying sees the difference between them exactly as a clerk sees the difference between a ledger and an edition de luxe. The chiaroscuro of the life is inevitably lost; for to us the high lights and the shadows are a light grey. But the high lights and the shadows are not a light grey in that life any more than in any other. The kind of man who could really express the pleasures of the poor would be also the kind of man who could share them. In short, these books are not a record of the psychology of poverty. They are a record of the psychology of wealth and culture when brought in contact with poverty. They are not a description of the state of the slums. They are only a very dark and dreadful description of the state of the slummers. One might give innumerable examples of the essentially unsympathetic and unpopular quality of these realistic writers. But perhaps the simplest and most obvious example with which we could conclude is the mere fact that these writers are realistic. The poor have many other vices, but, at least, they are never realistic. The poor are melodramatic and romantic in grain; the poor all believe in high moral platitudes and copy-book maxims; probably this is the ultimate meaning of the great saying, “Blessed are the poor.” Blessed are the poor, for they are always making life, or trying to make life like an Adelphi play. Some innocent educationalists and philanthropists (for even philanthropists can be innocent) have expressed a grave astonishment that the masses prefer shilling shockers to scientific treatises and melodramas to problem plays. The reason is very simple. The realistic story is certainly more artistic than the melodramatic story. If what you desire is deft handling, delicate proportions, a unit of artistic atmosphere, the realistic story has a full advantage over the melodrama. In everything that is light and bright and ornamental the realistic story has a full advantage over the melodrama. But, at least, the melodrama has one indisputable advantage over the realistic story. The melodrama is much more like life. It is much more like man, and especially the poor man. It is very banal and very inartistic when a poor woman at the Adelphi says, “Do you think I will sell my own child?” But poor women in the Battersea High Road do say, “Do you think I will sell my own child?” They say it on every available occasion; you can hear a sort of murmur or babble of it all the way down the street. It is very stale and weak dramatic art (if that is all) when the workman confronts his master and says, “I’m a man.” But a workman does say “I’m a man” two or three times every day. In fact, it is tedious, possibly, to hear poor men being melodramatic behind the footlights; but that is because one can always hear them being melodramatic in the street outside. In short, melodrama, if it is dull, is dull because it is too accurate. Somewhat the same problem exists in the case of stories about schoolboys. Mr. Kipling’s “Stalky and Co.” is much more amusing (if you are talking about amusement) than the late Dean Farrar’s “Eric; or, Little by Little.” But “Eric” is immeasurably more like real school-life. For real school-life, real boyhood, is full of the things of which Eric is full – priggishness, a crude piety, a silly sin, a weak but continual attempt at the heroic, in a word, melodrama. And if we wish to lay a firm basis for any efforts to help the poor, we must not become realistic and see them from the outside. We must become melodramatic, and see them from the inside. The novelist must not take out his notebook and say, “I am an expert.” No; he must imitate the workman in the Adelphi play. He must slap himself on the chest and say, “I am a man.” – Chesterton, Heretics, ch.19

Because fictions do not refer in a ‘reproductive way’ to reality as already given, they may refer in a ‘productive’ way to reality as intimated by the fiction. … Because it has no previous referent, [fiction] may refer in a productive way to reality, and even increase reality… – P. Ricoeur, Critical Discussions: Ways of Worldmaking, in Philosophy and Literature, 4/1 1980


It is not easy to write Essays like Montaigne, nor maxims in the manner of the Duke de la Rochefoucault. – Hazlitt, Characteristics, 378.


Few know how to read. Women read to find a hero whom they can love; men, for amusement; editors, for something to crib; authors, for something that supports their view: and hardly one reads comprehensively and wisely. – Emerson, journals, VIII 277

When a book and a head collide and a hollow sound is heard, must it always have come from the book? – Lichtenberg

A book is a mirror: if an ape looks into it an apostle is hardly likely to look out. We have no words for speaking of wisdom to the stupid. He who understands the wise is wise already. – Lichtenberg

There are very many people who read simply to prevent themselves from thinking. – Lichtenberg

The three practical rules, then, which I have to offer, are, – 1. Never read any book that is not a year old. 2. Never read any but famed books. 3. Never read any but what you like… – Emerson, (VII 196)

You must keep two objectives constantly in mind when you are reading if you are to read wisely and judiciously: firstly to retain the matter you are reading and to unite it with your own system of thought, then above all to appropriate for your own the way in which other people have viewed the matter. That is why everyone should be warned against reading books written by bunglers, especially when they include their reasonings and arguments: you can learn of various matters from their compilations but – what is to a philosopher just as important, if not more important – you cannot learn from them how to bestow upon your mode of thinking an appropriate form. – Lichtenberg

[Leaves of Grass] is…only a book for those who have a gift of reading. I will be very frank – I believe it is so with all good books, except, perhaps, fiction. The average man lives, and must live, so wholly in convention, that gunpowder charges of the truth are more apt to discompose than to invigorate his creed. Either he cries out upon blasphemy and indecency, and crouches the closer round that little idol of part-truths and part-conveniences which is the contemporary deity, or he is convinced by what is new, forgets about the old, and becomes truly blasphemous and indecent himself. New truth is only useful to supplement the old; rough truth is only wanted to expand, not to destroy, our civil and often elegant conventions. He who cannot judge had better stick to fiction and the daily papers. There he will get little harm, &, in the first at least, some good. – RL Stevenson, Books Which Have Influenced Me

Much reading has brought upon us a learned barbarism. – Lichtenberg


Objection is often raised against realistic biography because it reveals so much that is important and even sacred about a man’s life. The real objection to it will rather be found in the fact that it reveals about a man the precise points which are unimportant. It reveals and asserts and insists on exactly those things in a man’s life of which the man himself is wholly unconscious; his exact class in society, the circumstances of his ancestry, the place of his present location. These are things which do not, properly speaking, ever arise before the human vision. They do not occur to a man’s mind; it may be said, with almost equal truth, that they do not occur in a man’s life. A man no more thinks about himself as the inhabitant of the third house in a row of Brixton villas than he thinks about himself as a strange animal with two legs. What a man’s name was, what his income was, whom he married, where he lived, these are not sanctities; they are irrelevancies. – Chesterton, Varied Types, ch.1


…an autobiography should be a book of answers from one individual to the main questions of the time. Shall he be a scholar? the infirmities and ridiculousness of the scholar being clearly seen. Shall he fight? Shall he seek to be rich? Shall he go for the ascetic or the conventional life?… Shall he value mathematics? Read Dante? or not? What of Astronomy? What of religion? Then let us hear his conclusions respecting government and politics. Does he pay taxes and record his title deeds? Does Goethe’s Autobiography answer these questions? – Emerson

We have never found a single [autobiography] where past-tense verbs constituted more than 70 percent of the verbs used. Autobiographies are, to be sure, about the past; but what of the 30 percent or more of their sentences that are not in the past tense? …autobiography is not only about the past, but is busily about the present as well. … Most of the “present-tense” aspect of autobiography has to do with what students of narrative structure call “evaluation” – the task of placing those sequential events in terms of a meaningful context. …a narrative must also answer the question “Why,” “Why is this worth telling, what is interesting about it?” Not everything that happened is worth telling about, and it is not always clear why what one tells merits telling. We are bored and offended by such accounts as “I got up in the morning, got out of bed, dressed and tied my shoes, shaved, had breakfast, went off to the office and saw a graduate student who had an idea for a thesis…”
+++++The “why tell” function imposes something of great (and hidden) significance on narrative. Not only must a narrative be about a sequence of events over time, structured comprehensibly in terms of cultural canonicality, it must also contain something that endows it with exceptionality. …
+++++An autobiography serves a dual function. On the one hand, it is an act of “entrenchment,” to use Nelson Goodman’s term. That is to say, we wish to present ourselves to others (and to ourselves) as typical or characteristic or “culture confirming” in some way. That is to say, our intentional states and actions are comprehensible in the light of the “folk psychology” that is intrinsic in our culture. In the main, we laugh at what is canonically funny, sorrow for what is canonically sad. This is the set of “givens” in a life. But if it is all “givens,” then there is no individuality, no modern Self. We are simply mirrors of our culture. To assure individuality (and I am speaking of Western culture only), we focus upon what, in the light of some folk psychology, is exceptional (and, therefore, worthy of “telling”) in our lives.
+++++Now, the only requirement imposed by having to tell a life story (even when only invited to do so by a psychologist) is that one tell something “interesting” – which is to say a story that is at once recognizably canonical and recognizably noncanonical. What makes for something “interesting” is invariably a “theory” or “story” that runs counter to expectancy or produces an outcome counter to expectancy. But expectancy, of course, is controlled by the implicit folk psychology that prevails in a culture. It is the case, then, that a story (to meet the criterion of tellability) must violate canonical expectancy, but do so in a way that is culturally comprehensible. That is to say, it must be a violation of the folk-psychologically canonical that is itself canonical – that is, the breach of convention must itself be conventional, like the cuckolded husband, the betrayed fair maiden, and so forth.
+++++… I want to offer the hypothesis that literary genres represent stylized forms of violations of the folk-psychological canon. …
+++++The object of narrative, then, is to demystify deviations. Narrative solves no problems. It simply locates them in such a way as to make them comprehensible. It does so by invoking the play of psychological states and of actions that transpire when human beings interact with each other and relates these to what can usually be expected to happen. – Jerome Bruner, Self-Making and World-Making, Journal of Aesthetic Education, 25/1, 1991

Good autobiographies are scarce – so scarce that it may be said that we have none. The formal autobiography is a farce in the sense of being what it asserts to be. The “Praeterita” is a delightful book, but Ruskin is seen through it only as a ghost dimly. Newman’s “Apologia” is one of the best of its kind, but is simply the explanation of a segment of Newman’s life. The man is not there, only the working of the mental machinery as it changes its theories of belief. “Wilhelm Meister” is the classical work of the kind, but it requires several good biographies of Goethe to get the artificial coloring washed out of the picture and to turn the sun’s slant full on the raw features. A man may think and then write down his thoughts, but a man can not live and grow and explain the processes of change. Confessional literature like Amiel’s “Journal,” is deeply interesting, and is good autobiography. But Amiel was not trying to write autobiography, and this makes all the difference. A man is caught and limned accurately in his unaware moments, when he is not posing for a picture, but is caught in his negligee moods. Self-consciousness is the bar sinister of good literature. Literature, to be good, must be free; and we are still waiting for the man with the introspective psychologic mind who can take himself as the subject of his own book and carefully keep the paint-brush from making decorations, or of unduly putting on a dun color through mock humility. The portrait painter has a hard task when he tries to portray his own features. He desires, it may be, to paint the merry expression, but it needs an earnest spirit to paint a face of levity, and if he poses before the mirror to report his own sitting, he has lost his subject before he has begun. A good autobiography can be found only by the biographer. – WT Scott, Chesterton and Other Essays, Ruskin, p157-8


Socrates…stands so close to me that I am almost always fighting with him. – Nietzsche, notes for an unpublished essay, 1875

Socrates. If all goes well, the time will come when, to develop oneself morally-rationally, one will take up the memorabilia of Socrates rather than the Bible, and when Montaigne and Horace will be employed as precursors and guides to the understandings of the simplest and most imperishable mediator-sage, Socrates. The roads of the most divergent philosophic ways of life lead back to him; at bottom they are the ways of life of the different temperaments, determined by reason and habit, and in all cases pointing with their peaks to joy in life and in one’s own self – from which one might well infer that the most characteristic feature of Socrates was that he shared in all temperaments. Above the founder of Christianity, Socrates is distinguished by the joyous kind of seriousness and that wisdom full of pranks which constitute the best state of the soul of man. Moreover, he had the greater intelligence. – Nietzsche, The Wanderer and His Shadow, 86.

[Socrates] did not dispute about the nature of things as most other philosophers disputed, speculating how that which is called by sophists the world was produced, and by what necessary laws everything in the heavens is effected, but endeavoured to show that those who chose such objects of contemplation were foolish; and used in the first place to inquire of them whether they thought that they already knew sufficient of human affairs, and therefore proceeded to such subjects of meditation, or whether, when they neglected human affairs entirely, and speculated on celestial matters, they thought that they were doing what became them. – Xenophon, Memorabilia of Socrates, I.1

Socrates’s positive doctrines amounted to little: he clung to a paradoxical belief that Virtue is Knowledge; a view refuted before him by Euripides, and after him by Aristotle – in its ordinary sense, at least: to him, of course, it meant something not ordinary. …He was working incessantly at a problem which he never really could frame to himself, which mankind never has been able to frame. He felt that the great truth he wanted must be visible everywhere, if we knew how to look for it. It is not more knowledge that we want: only the conscious realising of what is in us. – Gilbert Murray, The Literature of Ancient Greece

Socrates was never understood; it seems as if, for all his insistence on the need of self-consciousness, he never understood himself. The most divergent schools of thought claimed to be his followers. His friends Euclides at Megara, and Phaedo at Elis, seem to have found in him chiefly dialectic – abstract logic and metaphysics… Two others, Aeschines and Apollodorus, found the essence of the man in his external way of life. Antisthenes, the founder of the Cynic school, believed that he followed Socrates in proclaiming the equal nullity of riches, fame, friendship, and everything in the world except Virtue. Virtue was the knowledge of right living; all other knowledge was worthless, nay, impossible. …another Socratic, Aristippus of Cyrene, identified Right Living with the pursuit of every momentary pleasure; which, again, he held to be the only way of life psychologically possible. …[the] side of Socrates…developed by Plato…was perhaps in part his negative criticism, leading to the scepticism of the later Academics; and in part his mystical side, the side that was eventually carried to such excess by the Neo-Platonists of the fourth century A.D. – Gilbert Murray, The Literature of Ancient Greece

What was the source of Socrates’s immense influence over all later philosophy, since in actual philosophic achievement he is not so great as Protagoras, not comparable with Democritus? It was largely the daemonic, semi-inspired character of the man. Externally, it was the fact of his detachment from all external bodies and institutions, so that in their wreck, when Protagoras, Pericles, Gorgias fell, he was left standing alone and undiscredited. And, secondly, it was the great fact that he sealed his mission with his blood. He had enough of the prophet in him to feel that it was well for him to die; that it was impossible to unsay a word of what he believed, or to make any promise he did not personally approve. …He died in a calm, deliberate conviction, that Truth is really more precious than Life, and not only Truth but even the unsuccessful search for it. – Gilbert Murray, The Literature of Ancient Greece


I shall conclude with the Character given of Erasmus by Mr. Thomas Brown, who comparing him with Lucian, says, That whereas Erasmus had translated Part of his Dialogues into Latin, he had made Lucian the Pattern of his Colloquies, and had copied his Graces with that Success, that it is difficult to say which of the two was the Original.
+++++That both of them had an equal Aversion to austere, sullen, designing Knaves, of what Complexion, Magnitude, or Party soever. That both of them were Men of Wit and Satyr, but that Erasmus, according to the Genius of his Country, had more of the Humourist in him than Lucian, and in all Parts of Learning was infinitely his Superior. That Lucian liv’d in an Age, when Fiction and Fable had usurp’d the Name of Religion, and Morality was debauch’d by a Set of sowr Scoundrels, Men of Beard and Grimace, but scandalously lewd and ignorant, who yet had the Impudence to preach up Virtue, and stile themselves Philosophers, perpetually clashing with one another about the Precedence of their several Founders, the Merits of their different Sects, and if it is possible, about Trifles of less Importance; yet all agreeing in a different Way, to dupe and amuse the poor People by the fantastick Singularity of their Habits, the unintelligible Jargon of their Schools, and their Pretentions to a severe and mortified Life. This motly Herd of Jugglers Lucian in a great Measure help’d to chase out of the World, by exposing them in their proper Colours.
+++++But in a few Generations after him, a new Generation sprung up in the World, well known by the Name of Monks and Friars, differing from the former in Religion, Garb, and a few other Circumstances, but in the main, the same individual Imposters; the same everlasting Cobweb-Spinners as to their nonsensical Controversies, the same abandon’d Rakehells as to their Morals; but as for the mysterious Arts of heaping up Wealth, and picking the Peoples Pockets, as much superior to their Predecessors the Pagan Philosophers, as an overgrown Favourite that cheats a whole Kingdom, is to a common Malefactor.
+++++These were the sanctified Cheats, whose Follies and Vices Erasmus has so effectually lash’d, that some Countries have entirely turn’d these Drones out of their Cells, and in other Places where they are still kept, they are grown contemptible to the highest Degree, and oblig’d to be always upon their Guard. – N. Bailey, introduction to his translation of Erasmus’ Colloquies (?)


If it did not seem crazy to talk to oneself, there is not a day when I would not be heard growling at myself: “Confounded fool!” – Montaigne

A book which has been very influential upon me fell early into my hands,…though I think its influence was only sensible later on, and perhaps still keeps growing, for it is a book not easily outlived: the Essais of Montaigne. That temperate and genial picture of life is a great gift to place in the hands of persons of to-day; they will find in these smiling pages a magazine of heroism and wisdom, all of an antique strain; they will have their “linen decencies” and excited orthodoxy fluttered, and will (if they have any gift of reading) perceive that these have not been fluttered without some excuse and ground of reason; and (again if they have any gift of reading) they will end by seeing that this old gentleman was in a dozen ways a finer fellow, and held in a dozen ways a nobler view of life, than they or their contemporaries. – RL Stevenson, Books Which Have Influenced Me


Shakespeare’s fault that the world appears so empty. He has educated you with his painted world, and this real one seems a huckster’s shop. – Emerson, journals, VII 140

Positivism may be a virtue in a philosopher, but it is a vice in a dramatist, who has to render those human passions to which the religious imagination has always given a larger meaning and a greater depth.
+++++Those poets by whose side we are accustomed to put Shakespeare did not forgo this advantage. They gave us man with his piety and the world with its gods. Homer is the chief repository of the Greek religion, and Dante the faithful interpreter of the Catholic. Nature would have been inconceivable to them without the supernatural, or man without the influence and companionship of the gods. These poets live in a cosmos. In their minds, as in the mind of their age, the fragments of experience have fallen together into a perfect picture, like the bits of glass in a kaleidoscope. Their universe is a total. Reason and imagination have mastered it completely and peopled it. No chaos remains beyond, or, if it does, it is thought of with an involuntary shudder that soon passes into a healthy indifference. They have a theory of human life; they see man in his relations, surrounded by a kindred universe in which he fills his allotted place. He knows the meaning and issue of his life, and does not voyage without a chart.
+++++Shakespeare’s world, on the contrary, is only the world of human society. The cosmos eludes him; he does not seem to feel the need of framing that idea. He depicts human life in all its richness and variety, but leaves that life without a setting, and consequently without a meaning. If we asked him to tell us what is the significance of the passion and beauty he had so vividly displayed, and what is the outcome of it all, he could hardly answer in any other words than those he puts into the mouth of Macbeth : –
+++++“To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
+++++Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
+++++To the last syllable of recorded time;
+++++And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
+++++The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
+++++Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
+++++That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
+++++And then is heard no more : it is a tale
+++++Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
+++++Signifying nothing.”
How differently would Homer or Dante have answered that question! Their tragedy would have been illumined by a sense of the divinity of life and beauty, or by a sense of the sanctity of suffering and death. Their faith had enveloped the world of experience in a world of imagination, in which the ideals of the reason, of the fancy, and of the heart had a natural expression. They had caught in the reality the hint of a lovelier fable, – a fable in which that reality was completed and idealized, and made at once vaster in its extent and more intelligible in its principle. They had, as it were, dramatized the universe, and endowed it with the tragic unities. In contrast with such a luminous philosophy and so well-digested an experience, the silence of Shakespeare and his philosophical incoherence have something in them that is still heathen; something that makes us wonder whether the northern mind, even in him, did not remain morose and barbarous at its inmost core. – Santayana, Interpretations of Poetry and Religion, p153-6


Hume told me that he had from Rousseau himself the secrets of his principles of composition. That acute though eccentric observer had perceived, that to strike and interest the public, the marvellous must be produced; that the marvellous of the heathen mythology had long since lost its effects; that giants, magicians, fairies, and heroes of romance which succeeded, had exhausted the portion of credulity which belonged to their age; that now nothing was left to the writer but that species of the marvellous which might still be produced, and with as great an effect as ever, though in another way; that is, the marvellous in life, in manners, in characters, and in extraordinary situations, giving rise to new and unlooked-for strokes in politics and morals. I believe, that were Rousseau alive, and in one of his lucid intervals, he would be shocked at the practical phrensy of his scholars, who in their paradoxes are servile imitators, and even in their incredulity discover an implicit faith. – Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, p167

Nothing ought to be more weighed than the nature of books recommended by public authority. So recommended, they soon form the character of the age. Uncertain indeed is the efficacy, limited indeed is the extent, of a virtuous institution. But if education takes in vice as any part of its system, there is no doubt but that it will operate with abundant energy, and to an extent indefinite. The magistrate, who in favour of freedom thinks himself obliged to suffer all sorts of publications, is under a stricter duty than any other well to consider what sort of writers he shall authorize, and shall recommend by the strongest of all sanctions, that is, by public honours and rewards. He ought to be cautioned how he recommends authors of mixed or ambiguous morality. He ought to be fearful of putting into the hands of youth writers indulgent to the peculiarities of their own complexion, lest they should teach the humours of the professor, rather than the principles of the science. He ought, above all, to be cautious in recommending any writer who has carried marks of a deranged understanding; for where there is no sound reason there can be no real virtue; and madness is ever vicious and malignant.
+++++The assembly proceeds on maxims the very reverse of these. The assembly recommends to its youth a study of the bold experimenters in morality. Everybody knows that there is a great dispute amongst their leaders, which of them is the best resemblance of Rousseau. In truth, they all resemble him. His blood they transfuse into their minds and into their manners. Him they study; him they meditate; him they turn over in all the time they can spare from the laborious mischief of the day, or the debauches of the night. Rousseau is their canon of holy writ; in his life he is their canon of Polycletus; he is their standard figure of perfection. To this man and this writer, as a pattern to authors and to Frenchmen, the foundries of Paris are now running for statues, with the kettles of their poor and the bells of their churches. If an author had written like a great genius on geometry, though his practical and speculative morals were vicious in the extreme, it might appear, that in voting the statue, they honoured only the geometrician. But Rousseau is a moralist, or he is nothing. It is impossible, therefore, putting the circumstances together, to mistake their design in choosing the author with whom they have begun to recommend a course of studies.
+++++Their great problem is to find a substitute for all the principles which hitherto have been employed to regulate the human will and action. They find dispositions in the mind of such force and quality as may fit men, far better than the old morality, for the purposes of such a state as theirs, and may go much further in supporting their power, and destroying their enemies. They have therefore chosen a selfish, flattering, seductive, ostentatious vice, in the place of plain duty. True the basis of the Christian system, humility, is the low, but deep and firm foundation of all real virtue. But this, as very painful in the practice, and little imposing In the appearance, they have totally discarded. Their object is to merge all natural and all social sentiment in inordinate vanity. In a small degree, and conversant in little things, vanity is of little moment! When full grown, it is the worst of vices, and the occasional mimic of them all. It makes the whole man false. It leaves nothing sincere or trustworthy about him. His best qualities are poisoned and perverted by it, and operate exactly as the worst. When your lords had many writers as immoral as the object of their statue (such as Voltaire and others) they chose Rousseau; because in him that peculiar vice, which they wished to erect into ruling virtue, was by far the most conspicuous.
+++++We have had the great professor and founder of the philosophy of vanity in England. As I had good opportunities of knowing his proceedings almost from day to day, he left no doubt on my mind that he entertained no principle either to influence his heart, or to guide his understanding but vanity. With this vice he was possessed to a degree little short of madness. It is from the same deranged, eccentric vanity, that this, the insane Socrates of the National Assembly, was impelled to publish a mad confession of his mad faults, and to attempt a new sort of glory from bringing hardily to light the obscure and vulgar vices, which we know may sometimes be blended with eminent talents. He has not observed on the nature of vanity who does not know that it is omnivorous; that it has no choice in its food; that it is fond to talk even of its own faults and vices, as what will excite surprise and draw attention, and what will pass at worst for openness and candour.
+++++It was this abuse and perversion, which vanity makes even of hypocrisy, that has driven Rousseau to record a life not so much as chequered, or spotted here and there, with virtues, or even distinguished by a single good action. It is such a life he chooses to offer to the attention of mankind. It is such a life that, with a wild defiance, he flings in the face of his Creator, whom he acknowledges only to brave. Your assembly, knowing how much more powerful example is found than precept, has chosen this man (by his own account without a single virtue) for a model. To him they erect their first statue. From him they commence their series of honours and distinctions.
+++++It is that new invented virtue, which your masters canonize, that led their moral hero constantly to exhaust the stores of his powerful rhetoric in the expression of universal benevolence; whilst his heart was incapable of harbouring one spark of common parental affection. Benevolence to the whole species, and want of feeling for every individual with whom the professors come in contact, form the character of the new philosophy. Setting up for an unsocial independence, this their hero of vanity refuses the just price of common labour, as well as the tribute which opulence owes to genius, and which, when paid, honours the giver and the receiver; and then he pleads his beggary as an excuse for his crimes. He melts with tenderness for those only who touch him by the remotest relation, and then, without one natural pang, casts away, as a sort of offal and excrement, the spawn of his disgustful amours, and sends his children to the hospital of foundlings. The bear loves, licks, and forms her young; but bears are not philosophers. Vanity, however, finds its account in reversing the train of our natural feelings. Thousands admire the sentimental writer; the affectionate father is hardly known in his parish.
+++++Under this philosophic instructor in the ethics of vanity, they have attempted in France a regeneration of the moral constitution of man. Statesmen, like your present rulers, exist by everything which is spurious, fictitious, and false; by everything which takes the man from his house, and sets him on a stage; which makes him up an artificial creature, with gainted, theatric sentiments, fit to be seen by the glare of candlelight, and formed to be contemplated at a due distance. Vanity is too apt to prevail in all of us, and in all countries. To the improvement of Frenchmen it seems not absolutely necessary that it should be taught upon system. But it is plain that the present rebellion was its legitimate offspring, and it is piously fed by that rebellion with a daily dole.
+++++If the system of instruction recommended by the assembly be false and theatric, it is because their system of government is of the same character. To that, and to that alone, it is strictly conformable. To understand either, we must connect the morals with the politics of the legislators. Your practical philosophers, systematic in everything, have wisely begun at the source. As the relation between parents and children is the first amongst the elements of vulgar, natural morality; they erect statues to a wild, ferocious, low-minded, hard-hearted father, of fine general feelings : a lover of his kind, but a hater of his kindred. Your masters reject the duties of his vulgar relation, as contrary to liberty; as not founded in the social compact; and not binding according to the rights of men; because the relation is not, of course, the result of free election; never so on the side of the children, not always on the part of the parents.
+++++The next relation which they regenerate by their statues to Rousseau is that which is next in sanctity to that of a father. They differ from those old-fashioned thinkers, who considered pedagogues as sober and venerable characters, and allied to the parental. The moralists of the dark times, preceptorem sancti voluere parentis esse loco. In this age of light, they teach the people that preceptors ought to be in the place of gallants. They systematically corrupt a very corruptible race (for some time a growing nuisance amongst you), a set of pert, petulant literators, to whom instead of their proper, but severe unostentatious duties, they assign the brilliant part of men of wit and pleasure, of gay, young, military sparks, and danglers at toilets. They call on the rising generation in France to take a sympathy in the adventures and fortunes, and they endeavour to engage their sensibility on the side of pedagogues who betray the most awful family trusts, and vitiate their female pupils. They teach the people that the debauchers of virgins, almost in the arms of their parents, may be safe inmates in their houses, and even fit guardians of the honour of those husbands who succeed legally to the office which the young literators had pro-occupied, without asking leave of law or conscience.
+++++Thus they dispose of all the family relations of parents and children, husbands and wives. Through this same instructor, by whom they corrupt the morals, they corrupt the taste. Taste and elegance, though they are reckoned only among the smaller and secondary morals, yet are of no mean importance in the regulation of life. A moral taste is not of force to turn vice into virtue; but it recommends virtue with something like the blandishments of pleasure; and it infinitely abates the evils of vice. Rousseau, a writer of great force and vivacity, is totally destitute of taste in any sense of the word. Your masters, who are his scholars, conceive that all refinement has an aristocratic character. The last age had exhausted all its powers in giving a grace and nobleness to our mutual appetites, and in raising them into a higher class and order than seemed justly to belong to them. Through Rousseau, your masters are resolved to destroy these aristocratic prejudices. The passion called love has so general and powerful an influence; it makes so much of the entertainment, and indeed so much of the occupation of that part of life which decides the character for ever, that the mode and the principles on which it engages the sympathy, and strikes the imagination, become of the utmost importance to the morals and manners of every society. Your rulers are well aware of this; and in their system of changing your manners to accommodate them to their politics, they found nothing so convenient as Rousseau. Through him they teach men to love after the fashion of philosophers; that is, they teach to men, to Frenchmen, a love without gallantry; a love without anything of that fine flower of youthfulness and gentility, which places it, if not among the virtues, among the ornaments of life. Instead of this passion, naturally allied to grace and manners, they infuse into their youth an unfashioned, indelicate, sour, gloomy, ferocious medley of pedantry and lewdness; of metaphysical speculations blended with the coarsest sensuality. Such is the general morality of the passions to be found in their famous philosopher, in his famous work of philosophic gallantry the Nouvelle Eloise.
+++++When the fence from the gallantry of preceptors is broken down, and your families are no longer protected by decent pride, and salutary domestic prejudice, there is but one step to a frightful corruption. The rulers in the National Assembly are in good hopes that the females of the first families in France may become an easy prey to dancing-masters, fiddlers, pattern-drawers, friseurs, and valets de chambre, and other active citizens of that description, who having the entry into your houses, and being half domesticated by their situation, may be blended with you by regular and irregular relations. By a law they have made these people their equals. By adopting the sentiments of Rousseau they have made them your rivals. In this manner these great legislators complete their plan of levelling, and establish their rights of men on a sure foundation.
+++++I am certain that the writings of Rousseau lead directly to this kind of shameful evil. I have often wondered how he comes to be so much more admired and followed on the Continent than he is here. Perhaps a secret charm in the language may have its share in this extraordinary difference. We certainly perceive, and to a degree we feel, in this writer, a style glowing, animated, enthusiastic; at the same time that we find it lax, diffuse, and not in the best taste of composition; all the members of the piece being pretty equally laboured and expanded, without any due selection or subordination of parts. He is generally too much on the stretch, and his manner has little variety. We cannot rest upon any of his works, though they contain observations which occasionally discover a considerable insight into human nature. But his doctrines, on the whole, are so inapplicable to real life and manners, that we never dream of drawing from them any rule for laws or conduct, or for fortifying or illustrating anything by a reference to his opinions. They have with us the fate of older paradoxes,
+++++Cum ventum ad verum est sensus moresque repugnant,
+++++Atque ipsa utilitas justi prope mater et sequi.
Perhaps bold speculations are more acceptable because more new to you than to us, who have been long since satiated with them. We continue, as in the two last ages, to read, more generally than I believe is now done on the Continent, the authors of sound antiquity. These occupy our minds. They give us another taste and turn; and will not suffer us to be more than transiently amused with paradoxical morality. It is not that I consider this writer as wholly destitute of just notions. Amongst his irregularities, it must be reckoned that he is sometimes moral, and moral in a very sublime strain. But the general spirit and tendency of his works is mischievous; and the more mischievous for this mixture : for perfect depravity of sentiment is not reconcilable with eloquence; and the mind (though corruptible, not complexionally vicious) would reject, and throw off with disgust, a lesson of pure and unmixed evil. These writers make even virtue a pander to vice.
+++++However, I less consider the author than the system of the assembly in perverting morality through his means. This I confess makes me nearly despair of any attempt upon the minds of their followers, through reason, honour, or conscience. The great object of your tyrants is to destroy the gentlemen of France; and for that purpose they destroy, to the best of their power, all the effect of those relations which may render considerable men powerful or even safe. To destroy that order, they vitiate the whole community. That no means may exist of confederating against their tyranny, by the false sympathies of the Nouvelle Eloise they endeavour to subvert those principles of domestic trust and fidelity, which form the discipline of social life. They propagate principles by which every servant may think it, if not his duty, at least his privilege to betray his master. By these principles every considerable father of a family loses the sanctuary of his house. Debet sua cuique domus esse perfugium tutissimum, says the law, which your legislators have taken so much pains first to decry, then to repeal. They destroy all the tranquillity and security of domestic life; turning the asylum of the house into a gloomy prison, where the father of the family must drag out a miserable existence, endangered in proportion to the apparent means of his safety; where he is worse than solitary in a crowd of domestics and more apprehensive from his servants and inmates, than from the hired, bloodthirsty mob without doors, who are ready to pull him to the lanterne. – Burke, Letter to a Member of the National Assembly, RRF p261-8

What is at stake here is not my play, but myself… If ever they should perceive that I am beginning to covet popular approval, or that I am vain about writing pretty songs, or that I blush at having written bad plays, or that I try to damage the fame of my rivals, or that I affect to speak ill of the great men of the age in order to raise myself to their level by degrading them to mine, or that I aspire to a place in the academies, or that I pay court to the women who set the tone, or that I flatter the stupidity of the great…I promise that I will immediately throw my writings and books into the fire. – Rousseau, Narcissus, preface

I would rather be a man of paradoxes than a man of prejudices. – Rousseau

The state of reflection is a state contrary to nature, and the man who meditates is a depraved animal. – Rousseau, 2nd Discourse

All my works have been successful, but this one was still more favorable to me; it taught the public to distrust the insinuations of the d’Holbach coterie. – Rousseau, Confessions, on his Letter to d’Alembert

Let us begin by laying aside facts; for they do not affect the question. The researches, in which we may engage on this occasion, are not to be taken for historical truths, but merely as hypothetical and conditional reasonings, fitter to illustrate the nature of things than to show their true origin; like those systems which our naturalists daily make of the formation of the world. – Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality

In these words Rousseau attempts to introduce that hypothetical method which Galileo had employed for the study of natural phenomena into the field of the moral sciences; and he is convinced that only by way of such “hypothetical and conditional reasoning” can we arrive at a true understanding of the nature of man. Rousseau’s description of the state was not intended as a historical narrative of the past. It was a symbolic construct designed to portray and to bring into being a new future for mankind. In the history of civilization the Utopia has always fulfilled this task. – Cassirer, Essay on Man, p61-2

[Rousseau was] like a man who was stripped not only of his clothes but of his skin, and turned out in that situation to combat with the rude and boisterous elements. – Hume

I think of him as one of the worst of men, a rascal who ought to be hunted out of society, as he has been. Three of four nations have expelled him, and it is a shame that he is protected in this country. – Samuel Johnson

Rousseau appealed to the already existing cult of sensibility, and gave it a breadth and scope that it might not otherwise have possessed. He was a democrat, not only in his theories, but in his tastes. For long periods of his life, he was a poor vagabond, receiving kindness from people only slightly less destitute than himself. He repaid this kindness, in action, often with the blackest ingratitude, but in emotion his response was all that the most ardent devotee of sensibility could have wished. From him the romantics learnt a contempt for the trammels of convention – first in dress and manners, in the minuet and the heroic couplet, then in art and love, and at last over the whole sphere of traditional morals. – Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy, p652

Even in the field of aesthetics…Rousseau marks a decisive turning point in the general history of ideas. Rousseau rejected the whole classical and neoclassical trend of the theory of art. To him art is not a description or reproduction of the empirical world but an overflow of emotions and passions. Rousseau’s Nouvelle Heloise proved to be a new revolutionary power. – Cassirer, Essay on Man, p140

One must admit that disinterestedness could not be pushed further than he has done, which is a long way toward virtue, if not virtue itself. – Frederick the Great, letter to George Keith

In the dominant psychology of the 18th century, imagination was deeply distrusted as escapism. Samuel Johnson wrote…”All power of fancy over reason is a degree of insanity… Fictions begin to operate as realities, false opinions fasten upon the mind, and life passes in dreams of rapture or anguish.” But that was exactly what Rousseau wanted (the rapture if not the anguish), and he sought it deliberately, just as in childhood he had escaped into courtly romance and ancient Rome. – Leo Damrosch, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius, p266

The Enlightenment was other-directed and placed its highest value on social interaction; Rousseau was inner-directed and valued freedom from society’s influence. The Enlightenment promoted competitive individualism as the foundation of the good life; Rousseau sought a collective spirit that would respect the individual but help each one to feel part of a communal whole. The Enlightenment specialized in information gathering and theoretical speculation; Rousseau, like the philosophers of old, sought wisdom. The Enlightenment championed technology as the basis of progress; Rousseau chose the simple life and declined the dubious gifts of progress. The Enlightenment was skeptical and even atheistic; Rousseau held firmly to belief in God and the soul. – Leo Damrosch, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius, p294-5

It is no accident that it was Jean-Jacques Rousseau who taught that all knowledge which men need in order to live virtuously is supplied by the conscience, the preserve of the simple souls rather than of other men: man is sufficiently equipped by nature for the good life; man is by nature good. But the same Rousseau was compelled to develop a scheme of education which very few people could financially afford. – Leo Strauss, What is Political Philosophy?


…his commanding eminence is due to the fact that he was the first to rebut the conception made dominant by Locke, that every man’s thought was a sufficient authority for himself, that the individual reason is a competent and sufficient guide to truth. Burke argued on the contrary that society is an organic whole in which each mind is a particular growth, conditioned by the rest, and incapable of fully living if it detaches itself from the rest. Hence the great value which he set upon custom and traditional opinion, the consensus of thought as opposed to individual judgment. All through his career he attacked unsparingly the assertion of individual, or, as he called it, critical opinion, as against the permanent convictions of society. – AJ Grieve, Intro. to Everyman ed. of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France


If Heaven should find it useful and necessary to produce a new edition of me and my life I would like to make a few not superfluous suggestions for this new edition chiefly concerning the design of the frontispiece and the way the work is laid out. – Lichtenberg

Even if my philosophy does not extend to discovering anything new, it does nevertheless possess the courage to regard as questionable what has long been thought true. – Lichtenberg


Hazlitt is more eloquent than scrupulous; he never seems to be alone with you as you read him; but rather speaking to catch votes, even though it be for the best writers or speakers. – Arthur Clutton-Brock, The Defects of English Prose


Walter Scott is a great, and, therefore, mysterious man. He will never be understood until Romance is understood, and that will be only when Time, Man, and Eternity are understood. To say that Scott had more than any other man that ever lived a sense of the romantic seems, in these days, a slight and superficial tribute. The whole modern theory arises from one fundamental mistake – the idea that romance is in some way a plaything with life, a figment, a conventionality, a thing upon the outside. No genuine criticism of romance will ever arise until we have grasped the fact that romance lies not upon the outside of life, but absolutely in the centre of it. The centre of every man’s existence is a dream. Death, disease, insanity, are merely material accidents, like toothache or a twisted ankle. That these brutal forces always besiege and often capture the citadel does not prove that they are the citadel. The boast of the realist (applying what the reviewers call his scalpel) is that he cuts into the heart of life; but he makes a very shallow incision, if he only reaches as deep as habits and calamities and sins. Deeper than all these lies a man’s vision of himself, as swaggering and sentimental as a penny novelette. The literature of candour unearths innumerable weaknesses and elements of lawlessness which is called romance. It perceives superficial habits like murder and dipsomania, but it does not perceive the deepest of sins – the sin of vanity – vanity which is the mother of all day-dreams and adventures, the one sin that is not shared with any boon companion, or whispered to any priest.
+++++In estimating, therefore, the ground of Scott’s pre-eminence in romance we must absolutely rid ourselves of the notion that romance or adventure are merely materialistic things involved in the tangle of a plot or the multiplicity of drawn swords. We must remember that it is, like tragedy or farce, a state of the soul, and that, for some dark and elemental reason which we can never understand, this state of the soul is evoked in us by the sight of certain places or the contemplation of certain human crises, by a stream rushing under a heavy and covered wooden bridge, or by a man plunging a knife or sword into tough timber. In the selection of these situations which catch the spirit of romance as in a net, Scott has never been equalled or even approached. His finest scenes affect us like fragments of a hilarious dream. They have the same quality which is often possessed by those nocturnal comedies – that of seeming more human than our waking life – even while they are less possible. – Chesterton, Varied Types, The Position of Sir Walter Scott

With a certain fiery impartiality which stirs the blood, Scott distributes his noble orations equally among saints and villains. He may deny a villain every virtue or triumph, but he cannot endure to deny him a telling word; he will ruin a man, but he will not silence him. In truth, one of Scott’s most splendid traits is his difficulty, or rather incapacity, for despising any of his characters. He did not scorn the most revolting miscreant as the realist of to-day commonly scorns his own hero. Though his soul may be in rags, every man of Scott can speak like a king.
+++++This quality, as I have said, is sadly to seek in the fiction of the passing hour. The realist would, of course, repudiate the bare idea of putting a bold and brilliant tongue in every man’s head, but even where the moment of the story naturally demands eloquence the eloquence seems frozen in the tap. Take any contemporary work of fiction and turn to the scene where the young Socialist denounces the millionaire, and then compare the stilted sociological lecture given by that self-sacrificing bore with the surging joy of words in Rob Roy’s declaration of himself, or Athelstane’s defiance of De Bracy. That ancient sea of human passion upon which high words and great phrases are the resplendent foam is just now at a low ebb. We have even gone the length of congratulating ourselves because we can see the mud and the monsters at the bottom. – Chesterton, Varied Types, The Position of Sir Walter Scott

With all his faults and all his triumphs, he stands for the great mass of natural manliness which must be absorbed into art unless art is to be a mere luxury and freak. An appreciation of Scott might be made almost a test of decadence. If ever we lose touch with this one most reckless and defective writer, it will be a proof to us that we have erected round ourselves a false cosmos, a world of lying and horrible perfection, leaving outside of it Walter Scott and that strange old world which is as confused and as indefensible and as inspiring and as healthy as he. – Chesterton, Varied Types, The Position of Sir Walter Scott

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