Path of Vision; pocket essays of East and West/Part First, 4

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WHEN learning was monopolized by the monks in the Middle Ages, people specialized only in warfare and statecraft. And even these were not altogether free from the scholastic influence. Gradually, however, as the monopoly was broken, the guilds came into existence. And the crafts, aided by the printing press, developed and flourished. Even then, the educated man, whether he was a tailor or a monk, a statesman or a cobbler, did not confine himself, in his pursuit of knowledge, to any one particular subject. Vocationalism was a centre that lighted and included many avocations.

This is still true of the Orient, where a tent-maker, for instance, might be a poet; a distiller of perfumes would be an authority on astronomy perhaps or jurisprudence; a professional singer, though he be of the slave cast, as in the Abbaside dynasty, often composes his own lyrics and masters one or more of the crafts as weaving or dying; and that multi-minded personage, the Father of the Community, who cures the diseases of the body and the soul and administers justice,—who is a good priest, a competent physician and an upright judge, as the occasion requires,—is by no means extinct.

In Europe, though instances of men of genius practicing one or more of the crafts or the sciences, do not abound as in the Orient, Michael Angelo and Benvenuto Cellini were the archtypes of many lesser luminaries who combined two or more of the arts and could discourse entertainingly, if not intellectually, on theology or alchemy orMachiavellism. The sculptor, in other words, was not merely a worker in stone or marble, a master only of lines and curves; the poet often became a statesman; the painter could detach himself from his canvas to study mathematics. And there are instances of musicians as authors and masters, moreover, of a literary style.

People were avid of knowledge in those days; more, indeed, for the pleasure it gave than the material benefits it afforded. Specialization was not known,—was not, at least, the dominating purpose of life. The tendency, the aim of all education was to produce well-rounded intellects, pleasing personalities, cultured individuals that could be at ease in any drawing room, at court, in the studios, the ateliers and the shops. An educated man was, indeed, a man of accomplishments—of circumambient intelligence. He had a general pass at least to the treasure house of knowledge; and he continued, unlike the university graduate of to-day, to make use of it, to enjoy its many priveleges, even though his calling were of the humblest and most prosaic. An excursion into the world of knowledge, under the exclusive management of men of genius, independent of the schools and universities, was, indeed, an uncommon joy.

For those whose business it was to reach the hidden springs of knowledge, no subject, natural or supernatural, human or divine, was ever too great or too small, too distant or too near. They were at home in the universe. Theirs was indeed a circumambient intellect. But this quality of the mind, in its colossal form, is a phenomenon in modern history. It appeared in England in the sixteenth century and on the continent in the seventeenth and eighteenth. It found its greatest exponents in Shakespeare, in Carlyle, in Voltaire and Goethe, in Hugo and Balzac.

With the average man of talent, however, a circumambient intellect too soon evaporates or crystallizes, resolving itself into its initial form, or its actual size,—thinning, in other words, into nothing, or settling down to a point. I have mentiond the exceptions. But even in Voltaire and Goethe, how many breaks and how many rusty links do we find in the golden circle of each. And how often, when they can not run or walk erect, do they seem to us as shuffling, limping, chicaning levites in their eagerness to maintain their reputation as the master builders of the Circumambient System of human knowledge? The buckramed manners of the German—Carlyle's fanfaronades of idolatry to the contrary—and the astute Jesuitism of the Frenchman, while betraying the human frailty in genius, have often saved their intellects from spreading into nothingness or settling down to a point. That they refused to specialize, however, was their supreme virtue.

But with the development of the sciences, intellectual circumambulating became a thing of the past. Hugo wrote its epitaph. Now specializing is the vogue, the dominating purpose of life, the supreme virtue. It is indeed the chief characteristic of our civilization. It has its conveniences, to be sure, and its rewards. A specialist gets somwhere, though it be no further than his kitchen or his cellar. And we do not have to tarry and toil to understand the one-sided man. We waste no time in trying to get a side or a back view, much less an inner view of our master Monomind. About face! for our benefit, and we either go our way or stay.

No, we no longer have time for excursions; nor have we patience with the idea of even thinking out for ourselves a pleasure-giving jaunt. To accomplish things in a material way, to succeed, is the dominating passion of the age. And there is no success, the specialists say, outside of a bee line to your goal. And a bee line, we say, does not too often require a superfluity of mind—a bee-mind is sufficient.

But is there no truth in pragmatism? Is the practical philosopher to be wholly ignored, even when his cynicism, undisguised, is held in check? Often his forthrightness has a seductive air. If we want to be decisive, positive, aggressive in our views, we must not ever look, we are told, at both sides of a question. If you want to be an organizer, a master of men, you must be a one-sided, single-minded fanatic. For once you are accessible to evidence, once you are open to reason, you are lost. The fanatics, the monominds, are the great successes of the world. And be sure to have spunk enough to rise and keep going, when, in your blinkers, you stumble or digress. And whatever you do, avoid the futilities of knowledge, the superfluities of culture.

This is good advice, no doubt, to a plumber, a grocer, or a politician. But is there any truth in it to a man of intellectual and spiritual aspirations? A negation, to echo, Carlyle, never established a government; indifference never founded a religion. Only a well-rounded intellect, a spirit nourished in the eternal sources of intelligence and culture, of justice and wisdom, is a safeguard against both indifference and skepticism.

But have we to-day such well-rounded intellects, such finished personalities, where the mind and the soul are equally developed, where a sheer joy in knowledge is sought and held out as the highest and noblest of all attainments? We have nowadays what might be called, either a hothouse intellect endowed with an adamant will, or a naturally powerful intellect debased by a vulgar soul. There are strong minds wrapt in a limited, dried-up consciousness, or a clear, healthy consciousness harnessed in inherited prejudices or acquired preconceptions. And everywhere is a dislike, a contempt for change. The ruts of life are congested: the highways are almost vacant. And seldom do we, even in a life-time, yield to the impulse that calls us out of the ruts. Safety first, is a false slogan. It should be, Success first, Otherwise, we would cease anon to be strap-hangers and commuters, mere five-cent coupons for the Corporation of Pragmatism. Indeed, we would straightaway change our habit of mind. We would begin to have a mind.

But there is a training of the will against such a change, to say nothing of the interests involved. And that is why, I think, the human will nowadays is more developed than it was in the past. That is why, too, it is often mistaken for power. Why, a man who can burrow a rut in the curb between his home and his office, between his faith and his interest, must surely be endowed with the will to conquer. Presumably so. But an intractable will is not even the sign or proof of better intellectual metal; gold is more ductile than iron.