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‘Make Thy Option which of two’

who does not look back with some slight envy to the period when Professor Popkin could dwell with longing on that coming day when he could retire from his Harvard Professorship of Greek and ‘read the authors’? He actually resigned in 1833, and had for nearly twenty years the felicity for which he longed. What he meant by reading the authors was well enough exhibited in that contemporary English clergyman, described in Hogg's ‘Life of Shelley,’ who devoted all his waking hours for thirty years to a regular course of Greek writers. He arranged them in a three years course, and when they were ended he began again. The only exception was in case of Homer, whose works he read every year for a month at the seashore—‘the proper place to read Homer,’ he said; and, as he also pointed out, there were twenty-four week-days in a [171] month, and by taking a book of the ‘Iliad’ before dinner, and a book of the ‘Odyssey’ after dinner, he just finished his pleasant task. On rainy days, when he could not walk, he threw in the Homeric hymns; he moreover read a newspaper once a week, and occasionally ran through a few pages of Virgil and Cicero, just to satisfy himself that it was a waste of time for any one who could read Greek to look at anything else. Simple and perennial felicity! no vacillation, no variableness or shadow of turning; no doubting between literature or science, still less between this or that department of literature. Since all advisers bid us read only the best books, why not follow their counsel, and keep to Aeschylus and Homer?

Who could have foreseen, in Dr. Popkin's day, the vast expansion of modern literatures, which, after exhausting all the Latin races, keeps opening upon us new treasure-houses elsewhere; so that Mr. Howells would bid us all learn Russian and Mr. Boyesen the Scandinavian tongues. Who could have foreseen the relentless Max Miller, marshalling before us by dozens the Oriental religions; and Mr. Fitzgerald concentrating [172] the wonders of them all into ‘Omar Khayyam,’ who offers no religion whatever, and makes denial more eloquent than faith? Who had then dreamed of the Shakespearian literature, the Dantean literature, the Goethean literature; even the literature of Petrarch, as catalogued by Prof. Willard Fiske, to the extent of nearly a thousand entries? Who had looked forward to vast American historical works like Hubert Bancroft's fifty ample volumes on the Pacific Coast, or Winsor's ‘Narrative and Critical History of America’? Who had imagined the vast spread of magazine literature and of newspaper literature, threatening, as Mr. Holt the publisher predicts, to swamp all study of books beneath a vast deluge of serials and periodicals, to be traversed hereafter only with the aid of literary rafts, charts, and compasses? And then, when all this is enumerated, there is science, claiming itself to monopolize the intellectual world and sometimes intimating doubts whether the function of literature itself be not at an end.

In the very college where the peaceful Popkin once taught, there are now twenty-one distinct [173] elective courses in Greek alone; and in all undergraduate branches not less than two hundred and thirty—each course offering occupation enough for a whole term's study, and some of them for that of a whole life. The ‘option which of two’ described by Emerson as the painful necessity of later years, is here initiated in the earliest; and it is even proposed to carry it yet further into the preparatory schools by the alternative standards of admission. Even in Greek a single mood or tense of the verb is held to furnish material for a treatise; and so of every division and sub-division of all knowledge. Baron Osten Sacken, the entomologist, who during his stay in this country was our highest authority on the Diptera, or two-winged insects, always maintained that he had erred in marking out a range of study too vast for any single intellect; and that he should have done better to confine himself to some one family, as for instance, the Culicidoe, or gnats. There was nothing extreme in this confession; it might be paralleled in every department of study. But meanwhile what becomes of, ‘the authors’?

I am not now speaking with any special [174] reference to the Greeks. The fate of the ancient classics among us was long since settled. When the successor of Dr. Popkin was made President of Harvard College, in 1860, he virtually surrendered his traditions by translating the Greek quotations in his Inaugural Address; and what President Felton did for the elder language, President Eliot did for the Latin when he at the 250th anniversary of that institution, bestowed the honorary degrees in most sonorous English. Grant that the ‘authors’ now share with all other writers, in all languages and departments, the limitations of the life of man, it is plain that those limitations bring the greatest change to those two languages which were once thought to hold all knowledge in their grasp. But the same stern restriction makes itself felt in all directions; the age has outgrown its few simple and convenient playthings, and must choose amid a myriad of edgetools.

There will never be another universal scholar. The time when Aristotle or Plutarch went the rounds of the universe, and tried to label each phenomenon, looks now like the childhood of [175] the world, no matter how precocious the children. The period when Bacon sought to imitate them is scarcely nearer; and when that great intellect found itself so over-weighted with the visible facts, it seems unkind for Mr. Donnelly to burden him retrospectively with even one cipher more. The omnivorous student, who would gladly keep the touch of all branches of knowledge, finds them steadily slipping away from him, and may be glad if he can watch with fidelity the newest developments in some single minute field, such as fossil cockroaches or the genitive case. It is useless for Mr. Cabot to tell us that Emerson was not a great scholar; we knew it already, he could not in this age have been a great scholar and a great writer. Thoreau resolutely limited himself to the observation of external nature in one small township in Massachusetts; and he assigned himself a task so far beyond his grasp that we find him in his diaries puzzling over the common brown cocoon of the Attacus moth as if it was some wholly new phenomenon; indeed, he seems scarcely to have noticed the insect world at all. The best-trained observation, in [176] presence of the vast advance of knowledge, is very limited; and the human memory, instead of being, as people think, an india-rubber bag of indefinite expansion, is much more like those pop-guns made by boys, which are loaded with a bit of potato at one end, and another bit at the other, but never by any chance hold more than two bits of potato at the same time.

The acquisition of knowledge is, after all, a process of selection rather than of collection. We forget as fast as we learn, and it is doubtful if the most learned man really knows more at fifty than at twenty; he has merely driven out a multitude of insignificant details by those of greater value. The travelling salesman and the horse-car conductor are probably possessed of as many items of detached knowledge as Von Humboldt or Darwin; the difference is in their quality and their use. It was one of Margaret Fuller's acutest sayings that a man who expects to accomplish much in the world must learn after five and twenty to read with his fingers. Dr. Johnson, who said to the man who thanked God for his ignorance, ‘Then, sir, you have a great deal to be thankful for,’ was in a similar [177] position to the person at whom he sneered, but was less frank in his ascriptions of gratitude. The elder Agassiz once said to me that so vast was becoming the multiplicity of publications in every branch of science, the time was approaching when no man would be able to write on any subject with the slightest sense of security. The hope is that by new intellectual facilities in the way of labor-saving methods, the human mind may become enabled to keep pace in some degree with this multiplying mass of studious materials, just as it keeps pace with vaster and vaster executive enterprises. It is pleasant to think, also, that the wider the range of fascinating knowledge, the stronger becomes the argument for continued personal identity. Next to the yearnings of human affection, the most irresistible suggestion of immortality comes from looking up at the unattainable mystery of the stars.

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