THE END OF LEARNING
I WAS much pleased the other day, in reading the Saturday Review, by some sentences in a paper on the Life of Channing, the famous Unitarian minister at Boston in America, where the writer, after speaking of the unpractical character of Channing's experience, goes on to say:
A spectator remonstrating and speculating on the affairs of the world, with no occupation which produces any very definite or ascertainable result, is cut off from one of the greatest sources of knowledge and of sympathy with human nature. It is an immense advantage to any man to form part of an organised system, and to have duties to discharge which are not entirely selected by himself. The knowledge which he thus obtains of his own relations to life, and the participation in operations in which he plays a subordinate and not very agreeable part, give invaluable lessons about the constitution and conditions of society.
It is good for a man, especially for a sensitive man, to be placed occasionally in vulgar and in invidious positions.
We cannot think too highly of the truth of these sentences. It is intensely interesting to mark the effect of what we sometimes think would be so desirable in our own case--an entire exemption from an uninteresting, plodding round of daily uncongenial duties. No complaint is more common, amongst us who are engaged in any trade, and who have any tastes and desires other than those of a mere commercial man, than that of want of leisure to follow our favourite pursuits, and of the imperious and absolute demand which business makes upon our attention, and there is no doubt a great deal of truth in this complaint. Not only is nearly the whole of the day occupied in these often uncongenial duties, but the necessity of entire application to these duties is so absolute, and the exertion consequent on the application so great, that the tired mind and body are often equally unfit at the termination of the day's labour to start again in fresh pursuit.
These things are so generally known and felt that it seems commonplace even to mention them, but I think that there are some considerations which, if properly valued, would bring consolation even to those who now feel their deep privation the most.
I think it will be granted that there are few situations which allow of no leisure whatever. We are often surprised at the amount of literary work done by those who, we know, are most occupied in other pursuits, proving that even these must be able to find time for reading in the midst of their work. It is to such as these, who think that they have most to complain of, that I would speak.
It is well for all of us to consider what things are most to be desired in this life, what thing we should most strive to attain to, what thing it was the Creator's intention to advance us in when He placed us here. I have no hesitation--I can have no hesitation in saying that we are placed here for our advancement in learning. By learning I do not mean only the learning of the bookman, or the learning of the man of science, or the learning of the divine; but I mean the universal learning to which all men equally are called--that learning which should go on through our whole life, which we should draw from all the objects, animate and inanimate, around us--from the works of man as well as from the works of God; from the history of mankind, as well of the bad as of the good, as well of the present as of the past, as well from the busy workshop as from the quiet study, as well--either for warning or emulation--from the meanest as from the noblest things in life.
It is by our proper learning from all these things, through the guidance and assistance of the eternal Spirit of God, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world, that we may reach the highest walk of the holy life--a life not holy through an ignorance of or an absence from the world, but holy through a God-implanted knowledge of it and a God-assisted labour and work in it--and so lay up for ourselves a treasure and a sustenance for eternity.
If we believe in the perfectly wise plan of the Creator, we must believe that we are not placed in this world merely to escape and fly from it, but that we are here not only to work for the good and improvement of others, but also to learn from that work and from the world in which that work is done. We are not only spirits, but at present we are bodies too. With the affairs of the spirit-world we have not at present much to do. What we have to do is to enter with all our strength into, and assist in, that plan of redemption and advancement of ourselves and of the whole world conceived by an all-wise God before the world was; and we can best do this by learning (by the light of as much revelation from the spirit-world as God has seen fit to show us) the lesson of this world in which we are placed and this life in which we breathe.
And where is this best learnt? Not assuredly in some secluded cloister, in the study of a learning of our own and not of God's appointing, is this wide, all-containing lesson understood. In the midst of the world's toil and bustle and sorrow, and in the full hearing of its great solemn-beating heart, are the deepest, gravest, noblest truths apprehended and realised. No part, however mean, of this life's experiences is useless towards the attainment of this end.
There has been too much difference made in the shallow philosophy which passes current between the world and the study, the college and the workshop. Really, as I have said, they are all one. Life should be regarded as one great university where there are many schools and many professions, but where one end is always kept in view, or rather, where some pursuits, higher and nobler than the others, sanctify, purify, and exalt into one perfect whole, where no one portion is useless or dishonourable. How well this was known by the great master of thought, he proved when he wrote: "So that the exercise" (in the university) "fitteth not the practice" (in the world), "nor the image, the life: and it is ever a true rule in exercises, that they be framed as near as may be to the life of practice, for otherwise they do pervert the notions and faculties of the mind, and not prepare them."
Therefore it seems to me, in considering these things, that we ought rather to rejoice than grumble at our situation, placed as it is, not in any Arcadia of pleasure of our own choosing or creating, nor amidst academic groves of human planting, but where, if we will but learn them, every day brings lessons of self-denial, forbearance, industry; where innumerable opportunities occur of practising kindness, love, charity, and of becoming acquainted with the great miseries, the great joys, the great hopes, and, by the blessing of God, of the great future of the world; and where our leisure, if well employed, is generally sufficient to enable us so to elevate our thoughts and understandings (by the help of the great treasures of reading) as to catch the meaning and profit by the lessons of our daily life.
And as I began by saying that learning is the end of all things, so I may now go back to my title and say that this is the end of all learning--to
Grow, perforce, acquainted with the woe,
The strife, the discord of the actual world,
And all the ignoble work beneath the sun.
And by growing acquainted with these things, to learn our own station in and relation to the general life of man, and so, however ignoble and un-spiritual our work may seem here, play by no means an ignoble part in the eyes of Him whose wisdom, providence, and perfect rule we are daily learning more and more to understand.
Let us then, in all our pleasures or business or book-learning--the three occupations of our mortal life--pray continually that we may keep stedfastly in view Him who is the Founder and Example of the holy life, and that His Spirit may enlighten us to the perfect learning of that for which we are placed in this world; and, if we do so, let us be very certain that, thousands of years hence, we shall not regret that we had not been trained entirely as we should have trained ourselves, nor learnt just that lesson which we should have liked the most, but that He who taught as never man taught had Himself trained us in the stern but infinitely noble lesson of His earth, to enable us to participate in and to understand the infinite glories of His heaven.