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posterity, a century and a half hence, will in many things be just as much in advance of us. And in most subjects, the utmost knowledge that any man can attain to, is but' a little learning' in comparison of what he remains ignorant of. The view resembles that of an American forest, in which the more trees a man cuts down, the greater is the expanse of wood he sees around him.
But, supposing you define the 'much' and the 'little' with reference to the existing state of knowledge in the present age and country, would any one seriously advise that those who are not proficients in astronomy should remain ignorant whether the earth moves, or the sun ?—that unless you are complete master of agriculture, as far as it is at present understood, there is no good in your knowing wheat from barley ?—that unless you are such a Grecian as Porson, you had better not learn to construe the Greek Testament?
The other recommendation of the poet, 'taste not'—that is to say, have no learning,—is equally impossible. The truth is, everybody has, and everybody ought to have, a slight and superficial knowledge—a 'smattering,' if you will—of more subjects than it is possible for the most diligent student to acquire thoroughly. It is very possible, and also very useful, to have that slight smattering of chemistry which will enable one to distinguish from the salts used in medicine, the oxalic acid, with which, through mistake, several persons have been poisoned. Again, without being an eminent botanist, a person may know— what it is most important to know—the difference between cherries and the berries of the deadly nightshade; the want of which knowledge has cost many lives.
Again, there is no one, even of those who are not profound politicians, who is not aware that we have Rulers; and is it not proper that he should understand that government is necessary to preserve our lives and property? Is he likely to be a worse subject for knowing that? That depends very much on the kind of government you wish to establish. If you wish to establish an unjust and despotic government—or, if you wish to set up a false religion—then it would be advisable to avoid the danger of enlightening the people. But if you wish to maintain a good government, the more the people understand the advantages of such a government, the more they will respect it; and the more they know of true religion, the more they will value it.
There is nothing more general among uneducated people than a disposition to socialism; and yet nothing is more injurious to their own welfare. An equalization of wages would be most injurious to themselves; for it would, at once, destroy all emulation. All motives for the acquisition of skill, and for superior industry, would be removed. Now, it is but a little knowledge of political economy that is needed for the removal of this error; but that little is highly useful.
Again, every one knows, no matter how ignorant of medicine, that there is such a thing as disease. But as an instance of the impossibility of the 'taste not' recommendation of the poet, a fact may be mentioned, which is known to most. When the cholera broke out in Poland, the peasantry of that country took it into their heads that the nobles were poisoning them, in order to clear the country of them; they believed the rich to be the authors of that terrible disease; and the consequence was that the peasantry rose in masses, broke into the houses of the nobility, and finding some chloride of lime, which had been used for the purpose of disinfecting, they took it for the poison which had caused the disease; and they murdered them. Now, that was the sort of ' little learning' which was very dangerous.
Again, we cannot prevent people from believing that there is some superhuman Being who has regard to human affairs. Some clowns in the Weald of Kent, who had been kept as much as possible on the 'taste not' system,—left in a state of gross ignorance,—yet believed that the Deity did impart special powers to certain men: and that belief, coupled with excessive stupidity, led them to take an insane fanatic for a prophet . In this case, this 'little learning' actually caused an insurrection in his favour, in order to make him king, priest, and prophet of the British empire; and many lives were sacrificed before this insane insurrection was put down. If a 'little learning * is a 'dangerous thing,' you will have to keep people in a perfect state of idiotcy in order to avoid that danger. I would, therefore, say that both the recommendations of the poet are impracticable.
The question arises, what are we to do? Simply to impress upon ourselves and upon all people the importance of labouring in that much neglected branch of human knowledge—the knowledge of our own ignorance;—and of remembering that it is by a confession of real ignorance that real knowledge must be gained. But even when that further knowledge is not attained, still even the knowledge of the ignorance is a great thing in itself; so great, it seems, as to constitute Socrates the wisest of his time.
Some of the chief sources of unknown ignorance may be worth noticing here. They are to be found in our not being fully aware,
1. How inadequate a medium language is for conveying thought.
2. How inadequate our very minds are for the comprehension of many things. 3. How little we sometimes understand a word which may yet be familiar to us, and which we may use in reasoning. This piece of ignorance is closely connected with the two foregoing. (Hence, frequently, men will accept as an explanation of a phenomenon, a mere statemout of the difficulty in other words.) 4. How utterly ignorant we are of efficient causes; and how the philosopher who refers to the 'law of gravitation ' the falling of a stone to the earth, no further explains the phenomenon than the peasant, who would say it is the nature of it. The philosopher knows that the stone obeys the same law to which all other bodies are subject, and to which, for convenience, he gives the name of gravitation. His knowledge is only more general than the peasant's; which, however, is a vast advantage. 5. How many words there are that express, not the nature of the thing they are applied to, but the manner in which they affect us: and which, therefore, give about as correct a notion of those things, as the word 'crooked' would if applied to a stick half immersed in water. (Such is the word Chance, with all its family.) 6. How many causes may and usually do, conduce to the same effect. 7. How liable the faculties, even of the ablest, are, to occasional failure; so that they shall overlook mistakes (and those often the most at variance with their own established notions) which, when once exposed, seem quite gross even to inferior men. 8. How much all are biassed, in all their moral reasonings, by self-love, or perhaps, rather, partiality to human nature, and other passions. 9. Dugald Stewart would add very justly, How little we know of matter; no more indeed than of mind; though all are prone to attempt explaining the phenomena of mind by those of matter: for, what is familiar, men generally consider as well understood; though the fact is oftener otherwise.
The errors arising from these causes, and from not calculating on them,—that is, in short, from ignorance of our own ignorance, have probably impeded philosophy more than all other obstacles put together.
Certain it is, that only by this ignorance of our ignorance can 'a little learning' become 'a dangerous thing.' The dangers of knowledge are not to be compared with the dangers of ignorance. A man is more likely to miss his way in darkness than in twilight: in twilight than in full sun. And those contemners of studies who say (with Mandeville, in his Treatise against Charity-schools), 'If a horse knew as much as a man, I should not like to be his rider,' ought to add, 'If a man knew as little as a horse, I should not like to trust him to ride.' It is indeed possible to educate the children of the poor so as to disqualify them for an humble and laborious station in life; but this mistake does not so much consist in the amount of the knowledge imparted, as in the kind and the manner of education. Habits early engrafted on children, of regular attention,—of steady application to what they are about,—of prompt obedience to the directions they receive,—of cleanliness, order, and decent and modest behaviour, cannot but be of advantage to them in after life, whatever their station may be. And certainly, their familiar acquaintance with the precepts and example of Him who, when all stations of life were at his command, chose to be the reputed son of a poor mechanic, and to live with peasants and fishermen; or, again, of his apostle Paul, whose own bands 'ministered to his necessities,' and to those of his companions:— such studies, I say, can surely never tend to unfit any one for a liie of humble and contented industry.
What, then, is the 'smattering'—the imperfect and superficial knowledge—that really does deserve contempt? A slight and superficial knowledge is justly contemned, when it is put in the place of more full and exact knowledge. Such an acquaintance with chemistry and anatomy, e.g., as would be creditable, and not useless, to a lawyer, would be contemptible for a physician; and such an acquaintance with law as would be desirable for him, would be a most discreditable smattering for a lawyer.
It is to be observed that the word 'smattering' is applied to
two different kinds of scanty knowledge—the rudimentary and the superficial; though it seems the more strictly to belong to the latter. Now, as it is evident that no one can learn all things perfectly, it seems best for a man to make some pursuit his main object, according to, first, his calling; secondly, his natural bent; or thirdly, his opportunities: then, let him get a slight knowledge of what else is worth it, regulated in his choice by the same three circumstances; which should also determine, in great measure, where an elementary, and where a superficial knowledge is the more desirable. Such as are of the most dignified and philosophical nature are most proper for elementary study; and such as we are the most likely to be called upon to practise for ourselves, the most proper for superficial. E.g., it would be to most men of no practical use, and, consequently, not worth while, to learn by heart the meaning of some of the Chinese characters; but it might be very well worth while to study the principles on which that most singular language is constructed: on the other hand, there is nothing very curious or interesting in the structure of the Portuguese language; but if one were going to travel in Portugal, it would be worth while to pick up some words and phrases. If both circumstances conspire, then, both kinds of information are to be sought for; and such things should be learned a little at both ends; that is, to understand the elementary and fundamental principles, and also to know some of the most remarkable results—a little of the rudiments, and a little of what is most called for in practice. E.g., a man who has not made any of the physical or mathematical sciences his favourite pursuit, ought yet to know the principles of geometrical reasoning, and the elements of mechanics; and also know, by rote, something of the magnitude, distances, and motions of the heavenly bodies, though without having gone over the intermediate course of scientific demonstration.
Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric, and Metaphysics, (or the philosophy of Mind,) are manifestly studies of an elementary nature, being concerned about the instruments which we employ in effecting our purposes; and Ethics, which is, in fact, a branch of metaphysics, may be called the elements of conduct. Such knowledge is far from showy. Elements do not much come into sight; they are like that part of a bridge which is under water, and is therefore least admired, though it is not the work of least