An Essay on the Evils of Popular Ignorance
John Foster

Part 5 out of 5

and such whimsical prescriptions for making a salutary compound of a
little knowledge and much ignorance,--that it might seem to be doubtful,
after all, whether the human nature, in the mass of mankind at least, be
of any such consistence, or for any such purpose, as is affirmed in our
common-places on the subject. It is uniformly assumed in the language of
divines, and of the philosophers in most repute, that the worth, the
dignity, the importance of man, are in his rational, immortal nature; and
that therefore the best condition of _that_ is his true felicity and
glory, and the object chiefly to be aimed at in all that is done by him,
and for him, on earth. But whether this should be regarded as anything
more than the elated faith of ascetics, a fine dogma of academics, or a
theme for show in the pomp of moral rhetoric? For we often see, and it is
very striking to see, how principles which are suffered to pass for
infallible truth while content to stay within the province of speculation,
and to be pronounced as mere doctrine, may be disowned and repelled when
they come demanding to have their appropriate place and influence in the
practical sphere. Even many pretended advocates of Christianity, who in
naming certain principles would seem to make them of the very essence of
the moral part of that religion, and, in discoursing merely as
_religionists_, will insist on their vital importance, will yet shuffle
and equivocate about these principles, and in effect set them aside, when
they are attempted to be applied to some of their most legitimate uses.
If, for example, these religionists are among the servile adherents of
corrupted institutions and iniquity invested with power, they will easily
find accommodating interpretations, or pleas of exemption from the direct
authority, of some of the most sacred maxims of their professed religion.
Serve the true God when we happen to be in the right place; but at all
events we must attend our master to pay homage in the temple of Eimmon,
or, should he please to require it, that of Moloch,--with this signal
difference from the ancient instance of peccant servility, that whereas in
that case pardon for it was implored, in the present case a merit is made
of the sycophancy and the idolatry. Unless the principles of Christianity
will acknowledge the supremacy of _something else_ than Christianity, in
the mode of their application to estimate the importance of the popular
mind, they may take their repose in bodies of divinity, sermons,
catechisms, systems of ethics, or wherever they can find a place.

But _is_ it really admitted, as a great principle for practical
application, that the mind, the intelligent, imperishable existence, is
the supremely valuable thing in man? It is then admitted, inevitably, that
the discipline, the correction, the improvement, the maturation of this
spiritual being to the highest attainable degree, is the great object to
be desired by men, for themselves and one another. That is to say, that
knowledge, cultivation, salutary exercise, wisdom, all that can conduce to
the perfection of the mind, form the state in which it is due to man's
nature that he should be endeavored to be placed. But then, this is due to
his nature by an absolutely _general_ law. He cannot be so circumstanced
in the order of society that this shall _not_ be due to it. No situation
in which the arrangements of the world, or say of Providence, may place
him, can constitute him a specific kind of creature, to which is no longer
fit and necessary that which is necessary to the well-being of man
considered generally, as a spiritual, immortal nature. The essential law
of this nature cannot be abrogated by men's being placed in humble and
narrow circumstances, in which a very large portion of their time and
exertions are required for mere subsistence. This accident of a confined
situation is no more a reason why their minds should not require the best
attainable cultivation, than would be the circumstance that the body in
which a man's mind is lodged happens to be of smaller dimensions than
those of other men.

That under the disadvantages of this humble situation they _cannot_
acquire all the mental improvement, desirable for the perfection of their
intelligent nature, that the situation renders it impracticable, is quite
another matter. So far as this inhibition is real and absolute, that is,
so far as it must remain after the best exertion of human wisdom and means
in their favor, it must be submitted to as one of the infelicities of
their allotment by Providence. What we are insisting on is, that since by
the law of their nature there is to them the same general necessity as to
any other human beings, of that which is essential to the well-being of
the mind, they should be advanced in this improvement _as far as they
can_; that is, as far as a wise and benevolent disposition of the
community can make it practicable for them to be advanced.

It is an odious hypocrisy to talk of the narrow limits to this advancement
as an ordination of Providence, when a well-ordered constitution and
management of the community might enlarge those limits. At least it is so
in the _justifiers_ of that social system: those who deplore and condemn
it _may_ properly speak of the appointment of Providence, but in another
sense; as they would speak of the dispensations of Providence in
consolation to a man iniquitously imprisoned or impoverished.

Let the people then be advanced in the improvement of their rational
nature as far as they can. A greater degree of this progress will be more
for their welfare than a less. This might be shown in forms of
illustration easily conceived, and as easily vindicated from the
imputation of extravagance, by instances which every observer may have met
with in real life. A poor man, cultivated in a small degree, has acquired
a few just ideas of an important subject, which lies out of the scope of
his daily employments for subsistence. Be that subject what it may, if
those ideas are of any use to him, by what principle would one idea more,
or two, or twenty, be of _no_ use to him? Of no use!--when all the
thinking world knows, that every additional clear idea of a subject is
valuable by a ratio of progress greater than that of the mere numerical
increase, and that by a large addition of ideas a man triples the value of
those with which he began. He has read a small meagre tract on the
subject, or perhaps only an article in a magazine, or an essay in the
literary column of a provincial newspaper. Where would be the harm, on
supposition he can fairly afford the time, in consequence of husbanding it
for this very purpose, of his reading a well-written concise book, which
would give him a clear, comprehensive view of the subject?

But perhaps another branch of the tree of knowledge bends its fruit
temptingly to his hand. And if he should indulge, and gain a tolerably
clear notion of one more interesting subject, (still punctually regardful
of the duties of his ordinary vocation,) where, we say again, is the harm?
Converse with him; observe his conduct; compare him with the wretched
clown in a neighboring dwelling; and say that he is the worse for having
thus much of the provision for a mental subsistence. But if thus much has
contributed greatly to his advantage, why should he be interdicted still
further attainments? Are you alarmed for him, if he will needs go the
length of acquiring some knowledge of geography, the solar system, and the
history of his own country and of the ancient world? [Footnote: These
denominations of knowledge, so strange as they will to some person?
appear, in such a connection, we have ventured to write from, observing
that they stand in the schemes of elementary instruction in the Missionary
schools for the children of the natives of Bengal. But of course we are to
acknowledge, that the vigorous, high-toned spirits of those Asiatic
idolaters are adapted to receive a much superior style of cultivation to
any of which the feeble progeny of England can be supposed to be capable.]
Let him proceed; supply him gratuitously with some of the best books on
these subjects; and if you shall converse with him again, after another
year or two of his progress, and compare him once more with the ignorant,
stunted, cankered beings in his vicinity, you will see whether there be
anything essentially at variance between his narrow circumstances in life
and his mental enlargement.

You are willing, perhaps, that he _should_ know a few facts of ancient
times, and can, though with hesitation, trust him with some such slight
stories as Goldsmith's Histories of Greece and Rome. But if he should then
by some means find his way into such a work as that of Rollin, (of moral
and instructive tendency, however defective otherwise,) or betray that he
covets an acquaintance with those of Gillies, or even Thirlwall,--it is
all over with him for being a useful member of society in his humble
situation. You would consent (may we suppose?) to his reading a slender
abridgment of voyages and travels; but what _is_ to become of him if
nothing less will content him than the whole-length story of Captain Cook?
He will direct, it is to be hoped, some of his best attention to the
supreme subject of religion. And you would quite approve of his perusing
some useful tracts, some manuals of piety, some commentary on a catechism,
some volume of serious, plain discourses; but he is absolutely undone if
his ambition should rise at length to Barrow, or Howe, or Jeremy Taylor.
[Footnote: It should be unnecessary to observe, that the object in citing
_any_ names in this paragraph was, to give a somewhat definite cast to the
description of the supposed progress of the plebeian self-instructor. The
principal of them are mentioned simply as being of such note in their
departments, that he would be likely to hear of them among the first of
the authors to be sought, if he were aspiring to something beyond his
previously humble and abridged reading. The reader may substitute for
these names any others, of the superior order, that he may think more
proper to stand in their place. It would therefore be animadversion or
ridicule misspent, to make the charge of extravagance on this imagined
course of a plain man's reading, with a specific reference to the authors
here named, as if it had been meant that precisely these, by a peculiar
selection, were to be the authors he may be supposed to peruse, and in
perusing, to waste his time and destroy his sense of duty.] He is by all
means, you say, to be kept out of all such pernicious company, in which it
is impossible he can learn any lesson but one,--an aversion to good
morals, just laws, virtuous kings, a polished and benevolent gentry, and
learned and pious teachers. Well; _let_ him be kept as far as possible
from the mischief of all such books and knowledge; let him hardly know
that there _was_ an ancient world, or that there _are_ on the globe such
regions and wonders as travellers have described; or that a reason and
eloquence above the pitch of some plain homily ever illustrated and
enforced religion. _Let_ him keep clear of all such evil communications;
and then, (since we were expressly making it a condition, that he can
fairly spare the time for such reading from his common employment,) and
then,--he will have just so much the more time for needless sleep, for
discussing the trifles and characters of the neighborhood, or, (supposing
him still of a religious habit,) for tiring his friends and family with
the well-meant but very unattractive iteration of a few serious phrases
and remarks, of which they will have long since learnt to anticipate the
last word from hearing the first. Advantages like these he certainly may
enjoy in consequence of his preclusion from the higher and wider field of
ideas. But however valuable these may be in themselves, they will not
ensure his being better qualified for the common business and proprieties
of his station, than another man in the same sphere of life whose mind has
acquired that larger reach which we are describing. It is no more than
what we have repeatedly seen exemplified, when we represent this
transgressor into the prohibited field as probably acquitting himself with
exemplary regularity and industry in his allotted labors, and even in this
very capacity preferred by the men of business to the illiterate tools in
his neighborhood; nay, most likely preferred, in the more technical sense
of the word, to the honorable, but often sufficiently vexatious office of
directing and superintending the operations of those tools.

And where, now, is the evil he is incurring or causing, during this
progress of violating, step after step, the circumscription by which the
aristocratic compasses were again and again, with small reluctant
extensions to successive greater distances, defining the scope of the
knowledge proper for a man of his condition? It is a bad thing, is it,
that he has a multiplicity of ideas to relieve the tedium incident to the
sameness of his course of life; that, with many things which had else been
but mere insignificant facts, or plain dry notions and principles, he has
a variety of interesting associations; like woodbines and roses wreathing
round the otherwise bare, ungraceful forms of erect stones or withered
trees; that the world is an interpreted and intelligible volume before his
eyes; that he has a power of applying himself to _think_ of what it
becomes at any time necessary for him to understand? Is it a judgment upon
him for his temerity, in "seeking and intermeddling with wisdom" with
which he had no business, that he has so much to impart to his children as
they are growing up, and that if some of them are already come to
maturity, they know not where to find a man to respect more than their
father? Or if he takes a part in the converse and devotional exercises of
religious society, is no one there the better for the clearness and the
plenitude of his thoughts and the propriety of his expression?--But there
would be no end of the preposterous suppositions fairly attachable to the
notion, that the mental improvement of the common people has some proper
limit of arbitrary prescription, on the ground simply of their _being_ the
common people, and quite distinct from the restriction which their
circumstances may invincibly impose on their ability.

Taken in this latter view, we acknowledge that their condition would be a
subject for most melancholy contemplation,--if we did not hope for better
times. The benevolent reflector, when sometimes led to survey in thought
the endless myriads of beings with minds within the circuit of a country
like this, will have a momentary vision of them as they would be if all
improved to the highest mental condition to which it is _naturally
possible_ for them to be exalted a magnificent spectacle; but it instantly
fades and vanishes. And the sense is so powerfully upon him of the
unchangeable economy of the world, which, even if the fairest visions of
the millennium itself were realized, would still render such a thing
_actually_ impossible, that he hardly regrets the bright scene was but a
beautiful _mirage_, and melts away. His imagination then descends to view
this immense tribe of rational beings in another, and comparatively
moderate state of the cultivation of their faculties, a state not
one-third part so lofty as that in which he had beheld all the individuals
improved to the utmost of their natural capacity; and he thinks, that the
condition of man's abode on earth _might_ admit of their being raised to
_this_ elevation. But he soon sees that, till a mighty change shall come
on the management of the affairs of nations, this too is impossible; and
with regret he sees even this inferior ideal spectacle pass away, to rest
on an age in distant prospect. At last he takes his imaginary stand on
what he feels to be a very low level of the supposed improvement of the
general popular mind; and he says, Thus much, at the least, should be a
possibility allowed by the circumstances of the people under _any_
tolerable disposition of national interests;--and then he turns to look
down on an actual condition in which care, and toil, and distress, render
it impossible for a great proportion of the people to reach, or even
approach, this his last and lowest conception of what the state of their
minds ought to be.

In spite of all the optimists, it _is_ a grievous reflection, after the
race has had on earth so many thousands of years for attaining its most
advantageous condition there, that all the experience, the philosophy, the
science, the art, the power acquired by mind over matter,--that all the
contributions of all departed and all present spirits and bodies, yes, and
all religion too, should have come but to this;--to this, that in what is
self-adulated as the most favored and improved nation of all terrestrial
space and time, a vast proportion of the people are found in a condition
which confines them, with all the rigor of necessity, to a mere childhood
of intelligent existence, without its innocence.

But at the very same time, and while the compassion rises, at such a view,
there comes in on the other hand the reflection, that even in the actual
state of things, there are a considerable number of the people who _might_
acquire a valuable share of improvement which they do not. Great numbers
of them, grown up, waste by choice, and multitudes of children waste
through utter neglect, a large quantity of precious time which their
narrow circumstances still leave free from the iron dominion of necessity.
And they will waste it, it is certain that they will, till education shall
have become general, and much more vigorous in discipline. If through a
miracle there were to come down on this country, with a sudden, delightful
affluence of temporal melioration, resembling the vernal transformation
from the dreariness of winter, a universal prosperity, so that all should
be placed in comparative ease and plenty, it would require another miracle
to prevent this benignity of heaven from turning to a dreadful mischief.
What would the great tribe of the uneducated people do with the half of
their time, which we will suppose that such a state would give to their
voluntary disposal? Every one can answer infallibly, that the far greater
number of them would consume it in idleness, vanity or every sort of
intemperance. Educate them, then, bring them under a grand process of
intellectual and moral reformation;--or, in all circumstances and events,
calamitous or prosperous, they are still a race made in vain!

In taking leave of the subject, we wish to express, in strong terms, the
applause and felicitations due to those excellent individuals, found here
and there, who In very humble circumstances, and perhaps with very little
advantage of education in their youth, have been excited to a strenuous,
continued exertion for the improvement of their minds; and thus have made
(the unfavorable situation considered,) admirable attainments, which are
verifying to them that "knowledge is power," over rich resources for their
own enjoyment, and are in many instances passing with inestimable worth
into the instruction of their families, and a variety of usefulness within
their sphere. They have nobly struggled with their threatened destiny, and
have overcome it. When they think, with regret, how confined, after all,
is their portion of knowledge, as compared with the possessions of those
who have had from their infancy all facilities and the amplest time for
its acquirement, let them be consoled by reflecting, that the value of
mental progress is not to be measured solely by the quantity of knowledge
possessed, but partly, and indeed still more, in the corrective,
invigorating effect produced on the mental powers by the resolute
exertions made in attaining it. And therefore, since, under their great
disadvantages, it has required a much greater degree of this resolute
exertion in them to force their way victoriously out of ignorance, than it
has required in those who have had everything in their favor to make a
long, free career over the field of knowledge, they may be assured they
possess one greater benefit in _proportion_ to the measure of their
acquirements. This persistence of a determined will to do what has been so
difficult to be done, has infused a peculiar energy into the exercise of
their powers; a valuable compensation, in part, for their more limited
share of the advantage that one part of knowledge becomes more valuable in
itself by the accession of many others. Let them persevere in this worthy
self-discipline, appropriate to the introductory period of an endless
mental life. Let them go on to complete the proof how much a mind incited
to a high purpose may triumph over a depression of its external
condition;--but solemnly taking care, that all their improvements may tend
to such a result, that at length the rigor of their lot and the
confinement of mortality itself bursting at once from around them, may
give them to those intellectual revelations, that everlasting sunlight of
the soul, in which the truly wise will expand all their faculties in a
happier economy.

The End.


Back to Full Books