Oldalképek
PDF
ePub

an error.

can I compete successfully with the gentleman of ample means and with plenty of leisure time at his disposal, who has so many favourable opportunities for improving himself, so many aids and appliances in the shape of expensive books, and costly apparatus, and experienced tutors provided him ?" Now, this is

The ways of Providence are not so unequal, after all. The young oak that is nurtured in the green-house will never become the monarch of the woods on the exposed hillside. There are parasitical plants that stunt and choke the tree they seemed to shelter. Men so brought up are too often deficient in elasticity of intellect, their minds have no spring, and they frequently want that one moral quality which breathes life and vigour into all the intellectual faculties, the absence of which no others can compensate, even by their presence in excess; I mean that unflinching determination not to be borne down by difficulties—that enduring perseverance not to be overmastered by defeat. He among you who can put forth into action energy of will such as this, does not much require external aid. He need not care whether the schoolmaster be abroad or not, for he has got him at home.

This is no mere theoretical reasoning. The views I place before you are amply confirmed by experience. Read the biographies of those men whose names shed lustre on humanity, whose lives are our best instructors, teaching us by their example, and encouraging us by their success. I have little doubt that in the minds of other men, perhaps of great sagacity and far reach of thought, before Columbus's day, the existence of a great western continent may have been a dim conception, a mere geographical possibility. That the earth may be sailed round, or at all events travelled round, is a truth which follows at once from the admission of its globular form, but the germ of this truth fell on ungenial soil ; it never fructified in their minds. Columbus was not the last by many who showed how the impossible may be reduced to the practical. It was the indomitable resolution of Columbus, his unyielding energy, that enabled him to verify his conceptions, and to realize his theory. Look at the perseverance of Kepler, who for years and years groped his way through dry perplexed and endless arithmetical calculations, till he saw that first faint ray of light, which burst out as the sun in the mind

of Newton, and revealed those laws, concealed since the creation, by which the Almighty constituted the mechanism of the universe. Turn where you will, you find indomitable perseverance the indispensable condition of success. Who is there so cold as to read without emotion the heroic struggles of that brave old Huguenot, Bernard Palissy, the potter, who, despite of failure after failure, the ridicule of enemies, the sneers of friends, the remonstrances of his family, still held on, till a success unhoped for at last crowned his efforts. Or, if we wish to take a more fortunate example in our own country, we may name Sir Richard Arkwright, the great inventor of the cotton-spinning machine, who, till he was thirty years of age, continued to practise as a barber in his native town. The characteristic quality of his mind was not deep thinking, but unyielding tenacity of purpose. If any one who hears me is disheartened by his daily toil, or discouraged by the want of books, let him read the autobiography of the late William Gifford, for many years the learned and talented editor of the Quarterly Review. Of his early life he thus writes, “ I possessed at this time but one book in the world, it was a treatise on algebra, given to me by a young woman who found it in a lodging-house. I considered it as a treasure. I sat up for the greatest part of several nights successively; this carried me some way into the science; I had not a farthing on earth, nor a friend to give me one. Pen, ink, and paper were, therefore, for the most part, as completely out of my reach as a crown and sceptre. There was, indeed, a resource. I beat out pieces of leather as smooth as possible, and wrought my problems on them with an old blunted awl.” Now, here was a man, almost without books, and entirely without instruction or apparatus of any kind, who contrived to master the elements of a sound education, which eventually led him to power, eminence, and wealth. Not less true than trite is the proverb, that necessity is the mother of invention. Difficulties overcome habituate the mind to overcome difficulties. Do not for a moment imagine that if you pore in solitude for hours, say over a mathematical problem, or any other difficulty, and fail even at last to obtain the result you are in quest of, that, therefore, your labour is but lost, and your time thrown away. Do not suppose anything of the sort. Your understanding has been at work the whole time. Other things which

were before clouded have become clear; principles have been sinking deeper into the mind, and cutting a groove in which your ideas will run with greater ease another time. Had the difficulty been explained immediately it had arisen, the chances are that you might never have known exactly what it was. There is a resemblance or analogy which pervades the entire moral and physical creation. In tropical regions, such is the productiveness of the soil, that a few hours' light labour provides an ample supply of food for the entire year. And what is the consequence ? Man in those luxuriant countries, in the midst of boundless plenty and exhaustless vegetation, is hopelessly sunk in the depths of ignorance and barbarism. No; man's nature is improved as his wants are multiplied. We may apply to the Georgics of the mind those noble lines which the Roman poet addressed to the tillers of the soil :

Pater ipse colendi,
Haud facilem esse viam voluit, primusque per artem
Movit agros curis acuens mortalia corda,

Nec torpere gravi passus sua regna veterno. It is a very remarkable and curious fact, that there is no acquirement of real value, whether it be a science you want to know, or an art you require to practise, or a language you wish to learn, that does not demand a large expenditure of labour for its acquisition. So true is this, that the amount of labour and pains bestowed is the measure of the intrinsic value of the acquirement. One never opens a diamond mine while turning up the soil for knowledge. Chance has very little to do with the development of truth. Thousands had seen apples fall to the ground before the time of Newton. But it was to him only that the simple fact was suggestive. It fell upon a mind prepared for its reception. Everybody knew that oxygen is a supporter of combustion, that it is largely present in the atmosphere, but it was only the other day that the simple obvious facts were applied to compel the air we breathe to supply fuel to our iron furnaces, a process which bids fair to revolutionise the whole iron manufacture. Great discoveries are everywhere cropping out beneath our feet, if we would only look before us. See what vast discoveries in chemistry and natural science were due to Sir Humphrey Davy, and I mention him the more willingly, as he is another and a signal example of a man who, born in a

humble station, by the brilliancy of his talents, his unrelaxing perseverance and intensity of will, raised himself to high social position, and took his place as the very first of European philosophers. When a surgeon's errand-boy in Penzance, he attempted to make experiments on the properties of air. What, you will be curious to know, was his laboratory. Why the phials and bottles of his master's shop. His biographer, , with great justice, observes, “ had Sir Humphrey Davy been furnished, in the commencement of his career, with all those appliances he enjoyed at a more recent period, it is very probable that he might never have acquired that wonderful tact of manipulation, that ability of suggesting experiments, and of contriving apparatus so as to meet and surmount the difficulties which must constantly arise during the progress of the philosopher through the unbeaten tracks and unexplored regions of science.” The self-taught mechanician and astronomer, Ferguson, when watching his master's sheep by night, used to lie on his back and note the relative distances of the stars by means of beads strung upon a string. The profound mathematician, Pascal, drew his geometrical diagrams with a bit of coal. A celebrated painter (I forget of whom the story is told) first became known by his drawings made with a piece of chalk. But why further pursue these illustrations of genius, seconded by the energies of a determined will, overmastering difficulties. I should tire you out long before I had exhausted a tithe of the instances one might lay before you of men, some of them with only a very moderate amount of intellectual capacity, but all strongly marked by great pertinacity of purpose, power of concentration, and development of will, who without social position, steeped to the lips in poverty, yet conscious of the gifts with which God had endowed them, have encountered difficulties, battled with adversity, defeated it may be often, but still renewing the conflict, until at last they came forth, the guides, the ornaments, and the benefactors of their kind. To witness the struggles of a good man contending with adversity, it has been said, is a noble sight. To behold the struggles of a youth fighting manfully the battle of life, is a spectacle which excites, or ought to excite, our deepest sympathies. Surely, if it be true that Nature, or rather Nature's God, never acts in vain, it must have been designed that the rare gifts with which Providence has en

B

dowed some individual men, taken here and there out of the great mass of mankind, without any reference whatever to rank or station—the peasant boy is as richly endowed as the peer's son-surely, I say, it must have been intended that those priceless, because unpurchasable, gifts should be cultivated and developed for the general benefit of all. Hence it is that, by a figure of speech, the word which in a certain connection familiar to all of you, signified money placed out in trust to be augmented and improved, has actually come specially to stand for mental endowments, and the word“ talents” no longer signifies pieces of ancient coins, but that mental treasure which God has committed to the charge of some of us for the general advancement of mankind. Consider the many advantages which even the very poorest of you have, as compared with what fell to the lot of those illustrious men, some of whose names I have placed before you. If they could accomplish so much in poverty, in solitude, without sympathy, without books, without apparatus, notwithstanding the neglect of their neighbours, and the contempt of their acquaintance, how much more ought to be expected from you, who live in happier times, when all those things, of which they felt the want, are in a great measure supplied to you. You have all the facilities which books, lectures, and teachers can afford.

But, you will say, we cannot all hope to become like Arkwright, or Davy, or Stephenson, or Herschel. You do not tell us of those “ mute inglorious Miltons," who have gone to their rest, “ to fortune and to fame alike unknown.” This is but too true. Who shall say how many men of transcendent genius have perished in the depths of their obscurity, kept down by want, misfortune, and despair ? Hoping against hope, long and wistfully did they wait for that opportunity which never came. Moreover, who shall say how many great discoveries, how many useful inventions, may have been lost to the world, never to be again brought to light, or if so, ages hence perhaps, because they perished with their inventors. Who shall say of how many others may the germs have been blighted in the bud by the chill shade of obscurity and neglect. It is, indeed, saddening to reflect how many of the choicest gifts of God to man have thus perished unused, unknown, uncared for, and forgotten. Such waste of intellectual wealth has been an untold loss to

« ElőzőTovább »