More Important Than The Cosmos Itself

why literature matters
Why study literature? This question is often asked by indignant parents, who want to know why their children, destined for business, learn fancy subjects instead of things serviceable to them in life.

An open and alert mind—which understands human nature and its possibilities, which can judge and sympathise, which, because of its wide survey and outlook on the world, creates new opportunities and developments, prospers in commerce or in any work—is the child of a varied education, not of narrow technical training. Your student will get his commercial and professional knowledge, but the first task is to give him a general training, to open windows on the world, and thus give him a glimpse of its possibilities, and a sense of proportion. Commerce will not flourish the better if I send into it men of narrow outlook and untrained minds. And in the end, my method will pay you, even in mere coin of the realm.

The great gap in science is that it tells us hardly anything about man. The man who is our friend, enemy, kinsman, partner, colleague, with whom we live and do business, who governs or is governed by us, has never once come within our view.

That is why it is impossible to base our education on physical science. It omits a branch of knowledge which everyone needs. It is possible for the ordinary man to dispense with a knowledge of physical science: He can go to specialists who will do his business for him better than he can do it for himself. Considering that the world reposes on physical science, it is wonderful how well most of us can get along without any knowledge of it, provided our occupation does not demand actual scientific knowledge.

The layman, in spite of his ignorance of physiology, enjoys no worse health than a doctor.

But no one can dispense with a knowledge of man. Everyone needs it, and is using it each minute he is in relation with human beings, whether he is speaking to them, or reading what they have written, or engaged in work which at any point touches them. We need this knowledge as private individuals. And still more, we need it as citizens and voters. Our need of science may be great, but our need of political and moral wisdom is greater, not less obvious, more difficult to remedy, and more dangerous to the state.

The storms that loom above us and threaten to break in most disastrous ruin are political. They are the dangers of a self-willed, impetuous, and ignorant democracy. This democracy is called to vote on problems of government at home and abroad, to decide between the policies presented to it, to discern whether truth resides in the glib tongues of its leaders and the facile pens of its daily papers. Without some knowledge of itself, and its neighbours in the world, of the ideals that sway or have swayed its own and other countries, of the judgments that history records on the experiments, crimes, and blunders of past ages, the steps of humanity will be more blind and blundering than ever.

Metallurgical or chemical analysis needs highly trained skill and knowledge; but the analysis of political and moral problems is at least as complicated and urgent, and it is work which cannot be handed over entirely to experts. If we do not all take some share in it, we are all, as voters, called to pronounce a decision upon it.

Justifying the Humanities

How do we justify the prominence of the humanities in education?

As science reveals to us the physical constitution of ourselves and of the world round us, so the humanities reveal to us man. There is no science of man. Anatomy and biology, while they have much to say about his body, throw little light upon his behaviour, nor explain why he makes a French Revolution or a European war, why he is a miser or a spendthrift, a Machiavelli or a Frederick the Great. Physical science does not deal with this kind of thing. Yet the “science” which everyone needs, and statesmen above all, is such a knowledge of man.

Now there is, if not a science, yet a record and account of man. We call it by the various names of literature, history, philosophy. Generally speaking, the subject of that education is man—man viewed in himself and his proper nature, viewed as literature views him, as a being with feelings and prejudices, virtues and vices, ruled by intellect, or perverted by passion, inspired by ideals, torn by desires, acting on plan and calculation, or carried away by unreflecting emotion, sacrificing his life, now for gold, now for an ideal—an adulterer, a patriot, a glutton, a dreamer; Aegisthus, Oedipus, Hamlet, Macbeth, Faust.

Or man, viewed as a being governed by the laws of a universe outside him, viewed as philosophy views him, subject to limitations of time and space, of his own origin, nature and destiny, related to beings and forces outside him, adapting himself to those relations and modifying his action according to his conception of them.

Or man, viewed as a political and social being, as history views him, creating states and overthrowing them, making laws and refusing to be bound by them, opposing religion to politics, and freedom to law, binding art and politics, empire and freedom, public and private life into a harmonious whole, or crowning one to the exclusion of the rest, fighting, colonizing, making money and spending it, treating his neighbor as a fellow-being, or using him as a tool for the production of wealth—monarchist, parliamentarian, socialist, anarchist; Pericles or Augustus, Cromwell or Robespierre.

Before the student of literature, philosophy, and history are displayed all the forces and ideas that have governed man, personal, religious, or political— to see why he has rejected this and espoused that, why this failed and that was successful, what are liberty and religion, family affection and personal greed, and in a word, to study Man. As he reviews them, and compares them with the present, he can forecast in some degree the future, and by virtue of his knowledge guide the streaming forces, and shape the molten mass, serve his country, and use to the best advantage his own powers.

Literature Teaches Thinking Skills

One of the chief objects of education is to train flexibility of mind, to make a man quick to comprehend other points of view than his own. Obviously, no power is more necessary in dealing with men. We spend half of our time in misunderstanding our neighbour, and in most controversies misunderstanding is the dividing line between the parties concerned. Now the power of sympathetic insight is trained by a literary education. A man learns above all from the study of literature and history to put himself in the place of other men, races, and times, to identify himself with them, to see what they mean and how they felt. And so, by continual practice, he becomes quick at seizing the views of other people than himself, seeing what is in their mind, and accommodating himself to it.

Here physical science gives no help. In literature the mind must continually be moving from one place to another; in twenty-five pages the reader must successively become Polonius, Hamlet, Horatio, Laertes, Gertrude—to mention no other characters of the play. In fact, he must do what the merchant does who wishes to sell goods in half a dozen different markets, or the statesman who has to consider the interests and temper of half a dozen different classes and nationalities. But science keeps on one plane. It is not puzzled by the subtle and profound variations of outlook which separate a Russian from an Englishman, a Herefordshire farmer from a Tyneside artisan. Minerals and nerves, alkalis and engines have no point of view, no outlook on life, into which it is necessary to enter; understanding them is very different from understanding Shakespeare or Euripides. You deal with them and all the while remain your own insulated self. Science does not train sympathy, because nothing in its subject matter has feelings with which we can sympathize.

So instead of handing our youth over wholly to mathematics, to live with the abstract skeleton of the world, or to science, to study the causes of the phenomena of the physical universe, we hand him over to literature, to the prophets of humanity, in the hope that he may learn to see the world as they saw it, and catch something of their joy, nobility, and inspiration. This is not to surrender him to idleness or daydreams. Shakespeare and Milton, Bacon and Burke were not worse men of business because they had genius. Indeed imagination is necessary to the highest success in any way of life. Its possession raised Rhodes above a mere money-maker, and made Gladstone and Disraeli more than mere politicians. Without it, a man may be a “flourishing earthworm.” He will never be great, he will hardly be a man.

While supporting any attempt to improve the teaching of science where it is deficient, and to bring more science where it is needed in national life, we shall remember that an education based solely on physical science would not only leave the mind unflexible, unsympathetic, unimaginative, undeveloped, but would ignore what is more important than the Cosmos itself. Our motto was written 2,500 years ago on the walls of the temple of Apollo at Delphi, “Know thyself.”


1 Today we might think of psychology as such a science, but even ould not encompass all the aspects of man that, for Livingstone, would constitute a complete accounting of him.

This essay is excerpted from R. W. Livingstone’s A Defense of Classical Education.

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