THINKING FOR ONESELF.
The largest library in disorder is not so useful as a smaller but
orderly one; in the same way the greatest amount of knowledge, if it has
not been worked out in one’s own mind, is of less value than a much
smaller amount that has been fully considered. For it is only when a man
combines what he knows from all sides, and compares one truth with
another, that he completely realizes his own knowledge and gets it into
his power. A man can only think over what he knows, therefore he should
learn something; but a man only knows what he has pondered.
A man can apply himself of his own free will to reading and learning,
while he cannot to thinking. Thinking must be kindled like a fire by a
draught and sustained by some kind of interest in the subject. This
interest may be either of a purely objective nature or it may be merely
subjective. The latter exists in matters concerning us personally, but
objective interest is only to be found in heads that think by nature,
and to whom thinking is as natural as breathing; but they are very rare.
This is why there is so little of it in most men of learning.
The difference between the effect that thinking for oneself and that
reading has on the mind is incredibly great; hence it is continually
developing that original difference in minds which induces one man to
think and another to read. Reading forces thoughts upon the mind which
are as foreign and heterogeneous to the bent and mood in which it may be
for the moment, as the seal is to the wax on which it stamps its
imprint. The mind thus suffers total compulsion from without; it has
first this and first that to think about, for which it has at the time
neither instinct nor liking.
On the other hand, when a man thinks for himself he follows his own
impulse, which either his external surroundings or some kind of
recollection has determined at the moment. His visible surroundings do
not leave upon his mind _one_ single definite thought as reading does,
but merely supply him with material and occasion to think over what is
in keeping with his nature and present mood. This is why _much_ reading
robs the mind of all elasticity; it is like keeping a spring under a
continuous, heavy weight. If a man does not want to think, the safest
plan is to take up a book directly he has a spare moment.
This practice accounts for the fact that learning makes most men more
stupid and foolish than they are by nature, and prevents their writings
from being a success; they remain, as Pope has said,
“For ever reading, never to be read.”
Reading is merely a substitute for one’s own thoughts. A man allows his
thoughts to be put into leading-strings.
Further, many books serve only to show how many wrong paths there are,
and how widely a man may stray if he allows himself to be led by them.
But he who is guided by his genius, that is to say, he who thinks for
himself, who thinks voluntarily and rightly, possesses the compass
wherewith to find the right course. A man, therefore, should only read
when the source of his own thoughts stagnates; which is often the case
with the best of minds.
It is sin against the Holy Spirit to frighten away one’s own original
thoughts by taking up a book. It is the same as a man flying from Nature
to look at a museum of dried plants, or to study a beautiful landscape
in copperplate. A man at times arrives at a truth or an idea after
spending much time in thinking it out for himself, linking together his
various thoughts, when he might have found the same thing in a book; it
is a hundred times more valuable if he has acquired it by thinking it
out for himself. For it is only by his thinking it out for himself that
it enters as an integral part, as a living member into the whole system
of his thought, and stands in complete and firm relation with it; that
it is fundamentally understood with all its consequences, and carries
the colour, the shade, the impress of his own way of thinking; and comes
at the very moment, just as the necessity for it is felt, and stands
fast and cannot be forgotten. This is the perfect application, nay,
interpretation of Goethe’s
“Was du ererbt von deinen Vaetern hast
Erwirb es um es zu besitzen.”
…More to come in Piece II