The Temple of Karnak


You complain of want of time - you, with your boundless leisure! It is true that the most absolute master of his own hours still needs thrift if he would turn them to account, and that too many never learn this thrift, whilst others learn it late. Will you permit me to offer briefly a few observations on time thrIft which have been suggested to me by my own experience and by the experience of intellectual friends?

It may be accepted for certain, to begin with, that men who like yourself seriously care for culture, and make it, next to moral duty, the principal object of their lives, are but little exposed to waste time in downright frivolity of any kind. You may be perfectly idle at your own times, and perfectly frivolous even, whenever you have a mind to be frivolous, but then you will be clearly aware how the time is passing, and you will throw it away knowingly, as the most careful of money economists will throwaway a few sovereigns in a confessedly foolish amusement, merely for the relief of a break in the habit of his life. To a man of your tastes and temper there is no danger of wasting too much time so long as the waste is intentional; but you are exposed to time losses of a much more insidious character.

It is in our pursuits themselves that we throwaway our most valuable time. Few intellectual men have the art of economizing the hours of study. The very necessity, which everyone acknowledges, of giving vast portions of life to attain proficiency in anything makes us prodigal where we ought to be parsimonious, and careless where we have need of unceasing vigilance. The best time savers are the love of soundness in all we learn or do, and a cheerful acceptance of inevitable limitations. There is a certain point of proficiency at which an acquisition begins to be of use, and unless we have the time and resolution necessary to reach that point, our labor is as completely thrown away as that of a mechanic who began to make an engine but never finished it. Each of us has acquisitions which remain permanently unavailable from their unsoundness, a language or two that we can neither speak nor write, a science of which the elements have not been mastered, an art which we cannot practice with satisfaction either to others or to ourselves. Now the time spent on these unsound accomplishments has been in great measure wasted, not quite absolutely wasted, since the mere labor of trying to learn has been a discipline for the mind, but wasted so far as the accomplishments themselves are concerned. And even this mental discipline, on which so much stress is laid by those whose interest it is to encourage unsound accomplishment, might be obtained more perfectly if the subjects of study were less numerous and more thoroughly understood. Let us not therefore in the studies of our maturity repeat the error of our youth. Let us determine to have soundness, that is, accurately organized knowledge in the studies we continue to pursue, and let us resign ourselves to the necessity for abandoning those pursuits in which soundness is not to be hoped for.

The old-fashioned idea about scholarship in Latin and Greek, that it ought to be based upon thorough grammatical knowledge, is a good example, so far as it goes, of what soundness really is. That ideal of scholarship failed only because it fell short of soundness in other directions, and was not conscious of its failure. But there existed, in the minds of the old scholars, a fine resolution to be accurate, and a determination to give however much labor might be necessary for the attainment of accuracy, in which there was much grandeur. Like Mr. Browning's Grammarian, they said--

" Let me know all! Prate not of most or least
Painful or easy: "

and so at least they came to know the ancient tongues grammatically, which few of us do in these days.

I should define each kind of knowledge as an organic whole and soundness as the complete possession of all the essentlal parts. For example, soundness in violin playing consIsts in being able to play the notes in all the positions, in tune, and with a pure intonation, whatever may be the degree of rapidity indicated by the musical composer. Soundness in painting consists in being able to lay a patch of color having exactly the right shape and tint. Soundness in the use of language consists in being able to put the right word in the right place. In each of the sciences, there are certain elementary notions without which sound knowledge is not possible, but these elementary notions are more easily and rapidly acquired than the elaborate knowledge or confirmed skill necessary to the artist or the linguist. A man may be a sound botanist without knowing a very great number of plants, and the elements of sound botanical knowledge may be printed in a portable volume. And so it is with all the physical sciences; the elementary notions which are necessary to soundness of knowledge may be acquired rapidly and at any age. Hence it follows that all whose leisure for culture is limited, and who value soundness of knowledge, do wisely to pursue some branch of natural history rather than languages or the fine arts.

It is well for everyone who desires to attain a perfect economy of time, to make a list of the different pursuits to which he has devoted himself, and to put a note opposite to each of them indicating the degree of its unsoundness with as little self-delusion as may be. After having done this, he may easily ascertain in how many of these pursuits a sufficient degree of soundness is attainable for him, and when this has been decided he may at once effect a great saving by the total renunciation of the rest. With regard to those which remain, and which are to be carried farther, the next thing to be settled is the exact limit of their cultivation. Nothing is so favorable to sound culture as the definite fixing of limits. Suppose, for example, that the student said to himself, "I desire to know the flora of the valley I live in," and then set to work systematically to make a herbarium illustrating that flora, it is probable that his labor would be more thorough, his temper more watchful and hopeful, than if he set himself to the boundless task of the illimitable flora of the world. Or in the pursuit of fine art, an amateur discouraged by the glaring unsoundness of the kind of art taught by ordinary drawing masters, would find the basis of a more substantial superstructure on a narrower but firmer ground. Suppose that instead of the usual messes of bad color and bad form, the student produced work having some definite and not unattainable purpose, would there not be, here also, an assured economy of time? Accurate drawing is the basis of soundness in the fine arts, and an amateur, by perseverance, may reach accuracy in drawing; this, at least, has been proved by some examples -- not by many, certainly, but by some. In languages we may have a limited purpose, also. That charming and most intelligent traveler, Louis Enault, tells us that he regularly gave a week to the study of each new language that he needed, and found that week sufficient. The assertion is not so presumptuous as it appears. For the practical necessities of traveling M. Enault found that he required about four hundred words, and that, having a good memory, he was able to learn about seventy words a day. The secret of his success was the invaluable art of selection, and the strict limitation of effort in accordance with a preconceived design. A traveler not so well skilled in selection might have learned a thousand words with less advantage to his travels, and a traveler less decided in purpose might have wasted several months on the frontier of every new country in hopeless efforts to master the intricacies of grammatical form. It is evident that in the strictest sense M. Enault's knowledge of Norwegian cannot have been sound, since he did not master the grammar, but it was sound in its own strictly limited way, since he got possession of the four hundred words which were to serve him as current coin. On the same principle it is a good plan for students of Latin and Greek who have not time to reach true scholarship (half a lifetime is necessary for that), to propose to themselves simply the reading of the original authors with the help of a literal translation. In this way they may attain a closer acquaintance with ancient literature than would be possible by translation alone, whilst on the other hand their reading will be much more extensive on account of its greater rapidity. It is, for most of us, a waste of time to read Latin and Greek without a translation, on account of the comparative slowness of the process; but it is always an advantage to know what was really said in the original, and to test the exactness of the translator by continual reference to the ipsissima verba of the author. When the knowledge of the ancient language is not sufficient even for this, it may still be of use for occasional comparison, even though the passage has to be fought through a coupes de dictionnaire. What most of us need in reference to the ancient languages is a frank resignation to a restriction of some kind. It is simply impossible for men occupied as most of us are in other pursuits to reach perfect scholarship in those languages, and if we reached it we should not have time to maintain it.

In modern languages it is not so easy to fix limits satisfactorily. You may resolve to read French or German without either writing or speaking them, and that would be an effectual limit, certainly. But in practice it is found difficult to keep within that boundary if ever you travel or have intercourse with foreigners. And when once you begin to speak, It is so humiliating to speak badly, that a lover of soundness in accomplishment will never rest perfectly satisfied until he speaks like a cultivated native, which nobody ever dld except under peculiar family conditions.

In music the limits are found more easily. The amateur musician is frequently not inferior in feeling and taste to the more accomplished professional, and by selecting those composltions which require much feeling and taste for their interpretation, but not so much manual skill, he may reach a sufficient success. The art is to choose the very simplest music (provided of course that it is beautiful, which it frequently is), and to avoid all technical difficulties which are not really necessary to the expression of feeling. The amateur ought also to select the easiest instrument, an instrument in which the notes are made for him already, rather than one which compels him to fix the notes as he is playing. The violin tempts amateurs who have a deep feeling for music because it renders feeling as no other instrument can render it, but the difficulty of just intonation is almost insuperable unless the whole time is given to that one instrument. It is a fatal error to perform on several different instruments, and an amateur who has done so may find a desirable limitation in restricting himself to one.

Much time is saved by following pursuits which help each other. It is a great help to a landscape painter to know the botany of the country he works in, for botany gives the greatest possible distinctness to his memory of all kinds of vegetation. Therefore, if a landscape painter takes to the study of science at all, he would do well to study botany, which would be of use in his painting, rather than chemistry or mathematics, which would be entirely disconnected from it. The memory easily retains the studies which are auxiliary to the chief pursuit. Entomologists remember plants well, the reason being that they find insects in them, just as Leslie the painter had an excellent memory for houses where there were any good pictures to be found.

The secret of order and proportion in our studies is the true secret of economy in time. To have one main pursuit and several auxiliaries, but none that are not auxiliary, is the true principle of arrangement. Many hard workers have followed pursuits as widely disconnected as possible, but this was for the refreshment of absolute change, not for the economy of time.

Lastly, it is a deplorable waste of time to leave fortresses untaken in our rear. Whatever has to be mastered ought to be mastered so thoroughly that we shall not have to come back to it when we ought to be carrying the war far into the enemy's country. But to study on this sound principle, we require not to be hurried. And this is why, to a sincere student, all external pressure, whether of examiners, or poverty, or business engagements, which causes him to leave work behind him which was not done as it ought to have been done, is so grievously, so intolerably vexatious.


Have you ever observed that we pay much more attention to a wise passage when it is quoted, than when we read it in the original author? On the same principle, people will give a higher price to a picture dealer than they would have given to the painter himself. The picture that has been once bought has a recommendation, and the quoted passage is both recommended and isolated from the context.

Trusting to this well-known principle, although I am aware that you have read everything that Sir Arthur Helps has published, I proceed to make the following quotation from one of his wisest books.

"Time and occasion are the two important circumstances in human life, as regards which the most mistaken estimates are made. And the error is universal. It besets even the most studious and philosophic men. This may notably be seen in the present day, when many most distinguished men have laid down projects for literature and philosophy, to be accomplished by them in their own lifetime, which would require several men and many lifetimes to complete; and, generally speaking, if any person who has passed the meridian of life looks back upon his career, he will probably own that his greatest errors have arisen from his not having made sufficient allowance for the length of time which his various schemes required for their fulfillment."

There are many traditional maxims about time which insist upon its brevity, upon the necessity of using It whilst it is there, upon the impossibility of recovering what is lost; but the practical effect of these maxims upon conduct can scarcely be said to answer to their undeniable importance. The truth is, that although they tell us to economize our time, they can not in the nature of things, instruct us as to the methods by which it is to be economized. Human life is so extremely various and complicated, whilst it tends every day to still greater variety and complication, that all maxlms of a general nature require a far higher degree of intellIgence in theIr application to individual cases than it ever cost originally to invent them. Any person gifted with ordinary common sense can perceive that life is short, that time flies, that we ought to make good use of the present; but it needs the union of much experience, with the most consummate wisdom, to know exactly what ought to be done and what ought to be left undone -- the latter being frequently by far the more important of the two.

Amongst the favorable influences of my early life was the kindness of a venerable country gentleman, who had seen a great deal of the world and passed many years, before he inherited his estates, in the practice of a laborious profession. I remember a theory of his, that experience was much less valuable than is generally supposed, because, except in matters of simple routine, the problems that present themselves to us for solution are nearly always dangerous from the presence of some unknown element. The unknown element he regarded as a hidden pitfall, and he warned me that in my progress through life I might always expect to tumble into it. This saying of his has been so often confirmed since then, that I now count upon the pitfall quite as a matter of certainty. Very frequently I have escaped it, but more by good luck than good management. Sometimes I have tumbled into it, and when this misfortune occurred it has not unfrequently been in consequence of having acted upon the advice of some very knowing and experienced person indeed. We have all read, when we were boys, Captain Marryat's "Midshipman Easy." There is a passage in that story which may seen as an illustration of what is constantly happening in actual life. The boats of the " Harpy" were ordered to board one of the enemy's vessels; young Easy was in command of one of these boats, and as they had to wait he began to fish. After they had received the order to advance, he delayed a little to catch his fish, and this delay not only saved him from being sunk by the enemy's broadside, but enabled him to board the Frenchman. Here the pitfall was avoided by idling away a minute of time on an occasion when minutes were like hours; yet it was mere luck, not wisdom, which led to the good result. There was a sad railway accident on one of the continental lines last autumn; a notable personage would have been in the train if he had arrived in time for it, but his miscalculation saved him. In matters where there is no risk of the loss of life, but only of the waste of a portion of it in unprofitable employment, it frequently happens that procrastination, which is reputed to be the thief of time, becomes its best preserver. Suppose that you undertake an enterprise, but defer the execution of it from day to day: it is quite possible that in the interval some fact may accidentally come to your knowledge which would cause a great modification of your plan, or even its complete abandonment. Every thinking person is well aware that the enormous loss of time caused by the friction of our legislative machinery has preserved the country from a great deal of crude and ill digested legislation. Even Napoleon the Great, who had a rapidity of conception and of action so far surpassing that of other kings and commanders that it seems to us almost supernatural, said that when you did not quite know what ought to be done it was best to do nothing at all. One of the most distinguished of living painters said exactly the same thing with reference to the practice of his art, and added that very little time would be needed for the actual execution of a picture if only the artist knew beforehand how and where to lay the color. It so often happens that mere activity is a waste of time, that people who have a morbid habit of being busy are often terrible time wasters, whilst, on the contrary, those who are judiciously deliberate, and allow themselves intervals of leisure, see the way before them in those intervals, and save time by the accuracy of their calculations.

A largely intelligent thrift of time is necessary to all great works -- and many works are very great indeed relatively to the energies of a single individual, which pass unperceived in the tumult of the world. The advantages of calculating time are artistic as well as economical. I think that, in this respect, magnificent as are the cathedrals which the Gothic builders have left us, they committed an artistic error in the very immensity of their plans. They do not appear to have reflected that from the continual changes of fashion in archItecture, incongruous work would be sure to intrude itself before their gigantic projects could be realized by the generations that were to succeed them. For a work of that kind to possess artistic unity, it ought to be completely realized within the space of forty years. How great is the charm of those perfect edIfices which like the Sainte Chapelle, are the realization of one sublime idea? And those changes in national thought which have made the old cathedrals a jumble of incongruous styles, have their parallel in the life of every individual workman. We change from year to year, and any work which occupies us for very long will be wanting in unity of manner.

Men are apt enough of themselves to fall into the most astonishing delusions about the opportunities which time affords, but they are even more deluded by the talk of the people about them. When children hear that a new carriage has been ordered of the builder, they expect to see it driven up to the door in a fortnight, with the paint quite dry on the panels. All people are children in this respect, except the workman, who knows the endless details of production; and the workman himself, notwithstanding the lessons of experience, makes light of the future task. What gigantic plans we scheme, and how little we advance in the labor of a day! Three pages of the book (to be half erased to-morrow), a bit of drapery in the picture that will probably have to be done over again, the imperceptible removal of an ounce of marble dust from the statue that seems as if it never would be finished; so much from dawn to twilight has been the accomplishment of the golden hours. If there is one lesson which experience teaches, surely it is this, to make plans that are strictly limited, and to arrange our work in a practicable way within the limits that we must accept. Others expect so much from us that it seems as if we had accomplished nothing. " What! have you done only that?" they say, or we know by their looks that they are thinking it.

The most illusory of all the work that we propose to ourselves is reading. It seems so easy to read, that we intend, in the indefinite future, to master the vastest literatures. We cannot bring ourselves to admit that the library we have collected is in great part closed to us simply by want of time. A dear friend of mine, who was a solicitor with a large practice, indulged in wonderful illusions about reading, and collected several thousand volumes, all fine editions, but he died without having cut their leaves. I like the university habit of making reading a business, and estimating the mastery of a few authors as a just title to consideration for scholarship. I should like very well to be shut up in a garden for a whole summer with no literature but the "Faery Queene," and one year I very nearly realized that project, but publishers and the postman interfered with it. After all, this business of reading ought to be less illusory than most others, for printers divide books into pages, which they number, so that, with a moderate skill in arithmetic, one ought to be able to foresee the limits of his possibilities. There is another observation which may be suggested, and that is to take note of the time required for reading different languages. We read very slowly when the language is imperfectly mastered, and we need the dictionary, whereas in the native tongue we see the whole page almost at a glance, as if it were a picture. People whose time for reading is limited ought not to waste it in grammars and dictionaries, but to confine themselves resolutely to a couple of languages, or three at the very utmost, notwithstanding the contempt of polyglots, who estimate your learnIng by the varietyof your tongues. It is a fearful throwing away of time, from the literary point of view, to begin more languages than you can master or retain, and to be always puzzling yourself about irregular verbs.

All plans for sparing time in intellectual matters ought, however, to proceed upon the principle of thrift, and not upon the principle of avarice. The object of the thrifty man in money matters is so to lay out his money as to get the best possible result from his expenditure; the object of the avaricious man is to spend no more money than he can help. An artist who taught me painting often repeated a piece of advice which is valuable in other things than art, and which I try to remember whenever patience fails. He used to say to me, "Give it time." The mere length of time that we bestow upon our work is in itself a most important element of success, and if I object to the use of languages that we only half know, it is not because it takes us a long time to get through a chapter, but because we are compelled to think about syntax and conjugations which did not in the least occupy the mind of the author, when we ought rather to be thinking about those things which did occupy his mind, about the events which he narrated, or the characters that he imagined or described. There are, in truth, only two ways of impressing anything on the memory, -- either intensIty or duration. If you saw a man struck down by an assassin, you would remember the occurrence all your life; but to remember wIth equal vIvIdness a picture of the assassination, you would probably be obliged to spend a month or two in copying it. The subjects of your studies rarely produce an intensity of emotion sufficient to insure perfect recollection without the expenditure of time. And when your object is not to learn, but to produce, it is well to bear in mind that every thing requires a certain definite time outlay, which cannot be reduced without an inevitable injury to quality. A most experienced artist, a man of the very rarest executive ability, wrote to me the other day about a set of designs I had suggested, "If I could but get the TIME," -- the large capitals are his own, --"for, somehow or other, let a design be never so studiously simple in the masses, it will fill itself as it goes on, like the weasel in the fable who got into the meal tub; and when the pleasure begins in attempting tone and mystery and intricacy, away go the hours at a gallop." A well-known and very successful English dramatist wrote to me: "When I am hurried, and have undertaken more work than I can execute in the time at my disposal, I am always perfectly paralyzed."

There is another side to this subject which deserves attention. Some men work best under the sense of pressure. Simple compression evolves heat from iron, so that there is a flash of fire when a ball hits the side of an ironclad. The same law seems to hold good in the intellectual life of man, whenever he needs the stimulus of extraordinary excitement. Rossini positively advised a young composer never to write his overture until the evening before the first performance. " Nothing," he said, "excites inspiration like necessity, -- the presence of a copyist waiting for your work, and the view of a manager in despair tearing out his hair by handfuls. In Italy in my time all the managers were bald at thirty. I composed the overture to 'Othello' in a small room in the Barbaja Palace, where the baldest and most ferocious of managers had shut me up by force with nothing but a dish of maccaroni, and the threat that I should not leave the place alive until I had written the last note. I wrote the overture to the 'Gazza Ladra' on the day of the first performance, in the upper loft of the La Scala, where I had been confined by the manager, under the guard of four sceneshifters, who had orders to throw my text out of the window bit by bit to copyists, who were waiting below to transcribe it. In default of music, I was to be thrown out myself."

I have quoted the best instance known to me of this voluntary seeking after pressure, but striking as it is, even this instance does not weaken what I said before. For observe, that although Rossini deferred the composition of his overture till the evening before the first performance, he knew very well that he could do it thoroughly in the time. He was like a clever schoolboy who knows that he can learn his lesson in the quarter of an hour before the class begins; or he was like an orator who knows that he can deliver a passage and compose at the same time the one which is to follow, so that he prefers to arrange his speech in the presence of his audience. Since Rossini always allowed himself all the time that was necessary for what he had to do, it is clear that he did not sin against the great time necessity. The express which can travel from London to Edinburgh in a night may leave the English metropolis on Saturday evening although it is due in Scotland on Sunday, and still act with the strictest consideration about time. The blamable error lies in miscalculation, and not in rapidity of performance.

Nothing wastes time like miscalculation. It negatives all results. It is the parent of incompleteness, the great author of the Unfinished and the Unserviceable. Almost every intellectual man has laid out great masses of time on five or six different branches of knowledge which are not of the least use to him, simply because he has not carried them far enough, and could not carry them far enough in the time he had to give. Yet this might have been ascertained at the beginning by the simplest arithmetical calculation. The experience of students in all departments of knowledge has quite definitely ascertained the amount of time that is necessary for success in them, and the successful student can at once inform the aspirant how far he is likely to travel along the road. What is the use, to anybody, of having just enough skill to feel vexed with himself that he has no more, and yet angry at other people for not admiring the little that he possesses?

I wish to direct your attention to a cause which more than any other produces disappointment in ordinary intellectual pursuits. It is this. People can often calculate with the utmost accuracy what they can accomplish in ten minutes or even in ten hours, and yet the very same persons will make the most absurd miscalculations about what they can accomplIsh in ten years. There is of course a reason for this: if there were not, so many sensible people would not suffer rom the delusion. The reason is, that owing to the habits of human life there is a certain elasticity in large spaces of tIme that include nights, and mealtimes, and holidays. We fancy that we shall be able, by working harder than we have been accustomed to work, and by stealing hours from all the different kinds of rest and amusement, to accomplish far more in the ten years that are to come than we have ever actually accomplished in the same space. And to a certain extent this may be very true. No doubt a man whose mind has become seriously aware of the vast importance of economizing his time will economize it better than he did in the days before the new conviction came to him. No doubt, after skill in our work has been confirmed, we shall perform it with increased speed. But the elasticity of time is rather that of leather than that of india rubber. There is certainly a degree of elasticity, but the degree is strictly limited. The true master of time thrift would be no more liable to illusion about years than about hours, and would act as prudently when working for remote results as for near ones.

Not that we ought to work as if we were always under severe pressure. Little books are occasionally published in which we are told that it is a sin to lose a minute. From the intellectual point of view this doctrine is simply stupid. What the Philistines call wasted time is often rich in the most varied experience to the intelligent. If all that we have learned in idle moments could be suddenly expelled from our minds by some chemical process, it is probable that they would be worth very little afterwards. What, after such a process, would have remained to Shakespeare, Scott, Cervantes, Thackeray, Dickens, Hogarth, Goldsmith, Moliere? When these great students of human nature were learning most, the sort of people who write the foolish little books just alluded to would have wanted to send them home to the dictionary or the desk. Topffer and Claude Tillier, both men of delicate and observant genius, attached the greatest importance to hours of idleness. Topffer said that a year of downright loitering was a desirable element in a liberal education; whilst Claude Tillier went even farther, and boldly affirmed that "the time best employed is that which one loses."

Let us not think too contemptuously of the miscalculators of time, since not one of us is exempt from their folly. We have all made miscalculations, or more frequently have simply omitted calculation altogether, preferring childish illusion to a manly examination of realities; and afterwards as life advances another illusion steals over us not less vain than the early one, but bitter as that was sweet. We now begin to reproach ourselves with all the opportunities that have been neglected, and now our folly is to imagine that we might have done impossible wonders if we had only exercised a little resolution. We might have been thorough classical scholars, and spoken all the great modern languages, and written immortal books, and made a colossal fortune. Miscalculations again, and these the most imbecile of all; for the youth who forgets to reason in the glow of happiness and hope, is wiser than the man who overestimates what was once possible that he may embitter the days which remain to him. I


In the charming and precious letters of Victor Jacquemont, a man whose life was dedicated to culture, and who not only lived for it, but died for it, there is a passage about the intellectual labors of Germans, which takes due account of the expenditure of time.

"Being astonished at the prodigious variety and at the extent of knowledge possessed by the Germans, I begged one of my friends, Saxon by birth, and one of the foremost geologists in Europe, to tell me how his countrymen managed to know so many things. Here is his answer, nearly in his own words: A German (except myself, who am the idlest of men) gets up early, summer and winter, at about five o'clock. He works four hours before breakfast, sometimes smoking all the time, which does not interfere with his application. His breakfast lasts half an hour, and he remains, afterwards, another half hour talking with his wife and playing with his children. He returns to his work for six hours, dines without hurrying him self, smokes an hour after dinner, playing again with his children, and before he goes to bed he works four hours more. He begins again every day, and never goes out. This is how it comes to pass that Oersted, the greatest natural philosopher in Germany, is at the same time the greatest physician; this is how Kant the metaphysician was one of the most learned astronomers in Europe, and how Goethe, who is at present the first and most fertile author in Germany in almost all kinds of literature, is an excellent botanist, mineralogist, and natural philosopher.' "

Here is something to encourage, and something to discourage you at the same time. The number of hours which these men have given in order to become what they were, is so great as to be past all possibility of imitation by a man occupied in business. It is clear that, with your counting house to occupy you during the best hours of every day, you can never labor for your intellectual culture with that unremitting application which these men have given for theirs. But, on the other hand, you will perceive that these extraordinary workers have hardly ever been wholly dedicated to one pursuit, and the reason for this in most cases is clear. Men who go through a prodigious amount of work feel the necessity for varying it. The greatest intellectual workers I have known personally have varied their studies as Kant and Goethe did, often taking up subjects of the most opposite kinds, as for instance imaginative literature and the higher mathematics, the critical and practical study of fine art and the natural sciences, music, and political economy. The class of intellects which arrogate to themselves the epithet "practical," but which we call Philistine, always oppose this love of variety, and have an unaffected contempt for it, but these are matters beyond their power of judgment. They cannot know the needs of the intellectual life, because they have never lived it. The practice of all the greatest intellects has been to cultivate themselves variously, and if they have always done so, it must be because they have felt the need of it.

The encouraging inference which you may draw from this in reference to your own case is that, since all intellectual men have had more than one pursuit, you may set off your business against the most absorbing of their pursuits, and for the rest be still almost as rich in time as they have been. You may study literature as some painters have studied it, or science as some literary men have studied it.

The first step is to establish a regulated economy of your time, so that, without interfering with a due attention to business and to health, you may get two clear hours every day for reading of the best kind. It is not much, some men would tell you that it is not enough, but I purposely fix the expenditure of time at a low figure because I want it to be always practicable consistently with all the duties and necessary pleasures of your life. If I told you to read four hours every day, I know beforehand what would be the consequence. You would keep the rule for three days, by an effort, then some engagement would occur to break it, and you would have no rule at all. And please observe that the two hours are to be given quite regularly, because, when the time given is not much, regularity is quite essential. Two hours a day, regularly, make more than seven hundred hours in a year, and in seven hundred hours, wisely and uninterruptedly occupied, much may be done in anything.

Permit me to insist upon that word uninterruptedly. Few people realize the full evil of an interruption, few people know all that is implied by it. After warning nurses against the evils of interruption, Florence Nightingale says: --

. "These things are not fancy. If we consider that, with sick as with well, every thought decomposes some nervous matter--that decomposition as well as recomposition of nervous matter is always going on, and more quickly with the sick than with the well, -- that to obtrude another thought upon the brain whilst it is in the act of destroying nervous matter by thinking, is calling upon it to make a new exertion--if we consider these things, which are facts, not fancies, we shall remember that we are doing positive injury by interrupting, by startling a 'fanciful' person, as it is called. Alas, it is no fancy.

" If the invalid is forced by his avocations to continue occupations requiring much thinking, the injury is doubly great. In feeding a patient suffering under delirium or stupor you may suffocate him by giving him his food suddenly, but if you rub his lips gently with a spoon and thus attract his attention, he will swallow the food unconsciously, but with perfect safety. Thus it is with the brain. If you offer it a thought, especially one requiring a decision, abruptly, you do it a real, not fanciful, injury. Never speak to a sick person suddenly; but, at the same time, do not keep his expectation on the tiptoe."

To this you will already have answered, mentally, that you are not a patient suffering under either delirium or stupor, and that nobody needs to rub your lips gently with a spoon. But Miss Nightingale does not consider interruption baneful to sick persons only.

"This rule indeed," she continues, "applies to the well quite as much as to the sick. I have never known persons who exposed themselves for years to constant interruption who did not muddle away their intellects by it at last. The process, wIth them, may be accomplished without pain. With the sick, pain gives warning of the injury."

Interruption is an evil to the reader which must be estimated very differently from ordinary business interruptions. The great question about interruption is not whether it compels you to divert your attention to other facts, but whether it compels you to tune your whole mind to another diapason. Shopkeepers are incessantly compelled to change the subject; a stationer is asked for note paper one minute, for sealing wax the next, and immediately afterwards for a particular sort of steel pen. The subjects of his thoughts are changed very rapidly, but the general state of his mind is not changed; he is always strictly in his shop, as much mentally as physically. When an attorney is interrupted in the study of a case by the arrival of a client who asks him questions about another case, the change is more difficult to bear; yet even here the general state of mind, the legal state of mind, is not interfered with. But now suppose a reader perfectly absorbed in his author, an author belonging very likely to another age and another civilization entirely different from ours. Suppose that you are reading the Defense of Socrates in Plato, and have the whole scene before you as in a picture: the tribunal of the Five Hundred, the pure Greek architecture, the interested Athenian public, the odious Melitus, the envious enemies, the beloved and grieving friends whose names are dear to us, and immortal; and in the center you see one figure draped like a poor man, in cheap and common cloth, that he wears winter and summer, with a face plain to downright ugliness, but an air of such genuine courage and self-possession that no acting could imitate it; and you hear the firm voice saying: "The man, then, judges me worthy of death. Be it so." You are just beginning the splendid paragraph where Socrates condemns himself to maintenance in the Prytaneum, and if you can only be safe from interruption till it is finished, you will have one of those minutes of noble pleasure which are the rewards of intellectual toil. But if you are reading in the daytime in a house where there are women and children, or where people can fasten upon you for pottering details of business, you may be sure that you will not be able to get to the end of the passage without in some way or other being rudely awakened from your dream, and suddenly brought back into the common world. The loss intellectually is greater than anyone who had not suffered from it could imagine. People think that an interruption is merely the unhooking of an electric chain, and that the current will flow, when the chain is hooked on again, just as it did before. To the intellectual and imaginative student an interruption is not that; it is the destruction of a picture.


So you have got yourself into that pleasant condition which is about as agreeable, and as favorable to fruitful study and observation, as the condition of an overdriven cab horse!

Very indolent men, who will not work at all unless under the pressure of immediate urgency, sometimes tell us that they actually like to be hurried; but although certain kinds of practical work which have become perfectly easy from habit may be got through at a great pace when the workman feels that there is an immediate necessity for effort, it is certainly not true that hurry is favorable to sound study of any kind. Work which merely runs in a fixed groove may be urged on occasionally at express speed without any perceptible injury to the quality of it. A clever violinist can play a passage prestissimo as correctly as if he played it adagio; a banker's clerk can count money very rapidly with positively less risk of error than if he counted it as you and I do. A person of sluggish temperament really gains in vivacity when he is pressed for time, and becomes during those moments of excited energy a clearer-headed and more able person than he is under ordinary circumstances. It is therefore not surprising that he should find himself able to accomplish more under the great stimulus of an immediate necessity than he is able to do in the dullness of his everyday existence. Great prodigiss of labor have been performed in this way to avert impending calamity, especially by military officers in critical times like those of the Sepoy rebellion; and in the obscurer lives of tradesmen, immense exertions are often made to avert the danger of bankruptcy, when without the excitement of a serious anxiety of that kind the tradesman would not feel capable of more than a moderate and reasonable degree of attention to his affairs. But notwlthstandmg the many instances of this kind which might be cited, and the many more which might easily be collected, the truth remains that the highest kinds of intellectual labor can hardly ever be properly performed when the degree of pressure is in the least excessIve. You may, for example, if you have the kind of ability which makes a good journalist, write an effective leader with your watch lying on the table, and finish it exactly when the time is up; but if you had the kind of ability which makes a good poet, you could not write anything like highly finished poetry against time. It is equally clear that scientific discovery, which, though it may flash suddenly upon the mind of the discoverer, is always the result of long brooding over the most patient observations, must come at its own moments, and cannot be commanded. The activity of poets and discoverers would be paralyzed by exigencies which stimulate the activity of soldiers and men of business. The truth is, that intelligence and energy are beneficially stimulated by pressure from without, whereas the working of the higher intellect is impeded by it, and that to such a degree that in times of the greatest pressure the high intellectual life is altogether suspended, to leave free play to the lower but more immediately serviceable intelligence.

This being so, it becomes a necessary part of the art of intellectual living so to order our work as to shield ourselves if possible, at least during a certain portion of our time, from the evil consequences of hurry. The whole secret lies in a single word --Selection.

An excellent landscape painter told me that whatever he had to do, he always took the greatest pains to arrange his work so as never to have his tranquillity disturbed by haste. His system, which is quite applicable to many other things than landscape painting, was based on the principle of selection. He always took care to determine beforehand how much time he could devote to each sketch or study, and then, from the mass of natural facts before him, selected the most valuable facts which could be recorded in the time at his disposal. But however short that time might be, he was always perfectly cool and deliberate in the employment of it. Indeed, this coolness and his skill in selection helped each other mutually, for he chose wisely because he was cool, and he had time to be cool by reason of the wisdom of his selection. In his little memoranda, done in five minutes, the lines were laid just as deliberately as the tints on an elaborate picture; the difference being in choice only, not in speed.

Now if we apply this art of selection to all our labors it will give us much of that landscape painter's enviable coolness, and enable us to work more satisfactorily. Suppose that instead of painting and sketching we have to do a great deal of reading and writing: the art is to select the reading which will be most useful to our purpose, and, in writing, to select the words which will express our meaning with the greatest clearness in a little space. The art of reading is to skip judiciously. Whole libraries may be skipped in these days, when we have the results of them in our modern culture without going over the ground again. And even of the books we decide to read, there are almost always large portions which do not concern us, and which we are sure to forget the day after we have read them. The art is to skip all that does not concern us, whilst missing nothing that we really need. No external guidance can teach us this; for nobody but ourselves can guess what the needs of our intellect may be. But let us select with decisive firmness, independently of other people's advice, independently of the authority of custom. In every newspaper that comes to hand there is a little bit that we ought to read; the art is to find that little bit, and waste no time over the rest.

Some studies permit the exercise of selection better than others do. A language, once undertaken, permits very little selection indeed, since you must know the whole vocabulary, or nearly so, to be able to read and speak. On the other hand, the natural sciences permit the most prudent exercise of selection. For example, in botany you may study as few plants as you choose.

In writing, the art of selection consists in giving the utmost effect to expression in the fewest words; but of this art I say little, for who can contend against an inevitable trade necessity? Almost every author of ordinary skill could, when pressed for time, find a briefer expression for his thoughts, but the real difficulty in fulfilling literary engagements does not lie in the expression of the thought, it lies in the sufficiently rapid production of a certain quantity of copy. For this purpose I fear that selection would be of very little use -- of no more use, in fact than in any other branch of manufacture where (if a certain standard is kept up to) quantity in sale is more important than quality of material.


It has always seemed to me that the great and beautiful principle of compensation is more clearly seen in the distribution and effects of time than in anything else within the scope of our experience. The good use of one opportunity very frequently compensates us for the absence of another, and it does so because opportunity is itself so dependent upon time that, although the best opportunities may apparently be presented to us, we can make no use of them unless we are able to give them the time that they require. You, who have the best possible opportunities for culture, find a certain sadness and disappointment because you cannot avail yourself of all of them; but the truth is, that opportunity only exists for us just so far as we are able to make use of it, and our power to do so is often nothing but a question of time. If our days are well employed we are sure to have done some good thing which we should have been compelled to neglect if we had been occupied about anything else. Hence every genuine worker has rich compensations which ought to console him amply for his shortcomings, and to enable him to meet comparisons without fear.

Those who aspire to the intellectual life, but have no experience of its difficulties, very frequently envy men so favorably situated as you are. It seems to them that all the world's knowledge is accessible to you, and that you have simply to cull its fruits as we gather grapes in a vineyard. They forget the power of Time, and the restrictions which Time imposes. "This or that, not this and that," is the rule to which all of us have to submit, and it strangely equalizes the destinies of men. The time given to the study of one thing is withdrawn from the study of another, and the hours of the day are limited alike for all of us. How difficult it is to reconcile the interests of our different pursuits! Indeed, it seems like a sort of polygamy to have different pursuits. It is natural to think of them as jealous wives tormenting some Mormon prophet.

There is great danger in apparently unlimited opportunities, and a splendid compensation for those who are confined by circumstances to a narrow but fruitful field. The Englishman gets more civilization out of a farm and a garden than the Red Indian out of the space encircled by his horizon. Our culture gains in thoroughness what it loses in extent.

This consideration goes far to explain the fact that although our ancestors were so much less favorably situated than we are, they often got as good an intellectual training from the literature that was accessible to them, as we from our vaster stores. We live in an age of essayists, and yet what modern essayist writes better than old Montaigne? All that a thoughtful and witty writer needs for the sharpening of his intellect, Montaigne found in the ancient literature that was accessible to him, and in the life of the age he lived in. Born in our own century, he would have learned many other things, no doubt, and read many other books, but these would have absorbed the hours that he employed not less fruitfully with the authors that he loved in the little library up in the third story of his tower, as he tells us, where he could see all his books at once, set upon five rows of shelves round about him. In earlier life he bought "this sort of furniture" for "ornament and outward show," but afterwards quite abandoned that, and procured such volumes only "as supplied his own need."

To supply our own need, within the narrow limits of the few and transient hours that we can call our own, is enough for the wise everywhere, as it was for Montaigne in his tower. Let us resolve to do as much as that, not more and then rely upon the golden compensations.

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