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READING AND THINKING.
Having accustomed yourself to express, in plain words, and in clear, precise and straightforward sentences, the ideas of others, you should proceed to express your own thoughts in the same fashion. You will now see more distinctly the advantage of having first studied composition by the process recommended in my last letter, for you are in a condition to discover the deficiences in the flow of your own ideas. You will be surprised to find, when you come to put them into words, how many
of your thoughts were shapeless, hazy and dreamy, slipping from your grasp when you try to seize them, resolving themselves, like the witches in Macbeth,
Into the air : and what seemed corporal melted
As breath into the wind. Arguments that seemed conclusive in contemplation, when translated into language, are seen to be absurdly illogical; and brilliant flashes of poetry, that had streamed through your imagination in the delightful promise of “the all hail hereafter,” positively refuse to be embodied in words and disappear the moment you attempt to make prisoners of them.
Thus, after you have learned how to write, you will need a long and laborious education before you will learn what to write. cannot much assist you in this
part of the business. Two words convey the whole lessonRead and think. What should you read ? Everything. What think about ? All subjects that present themselves. An orator must be a man of
varied knowledge. Indeed, for all the purposes of practical life, you cannot know too much. No learning is quite useless. I can say, for my own part, that everything I took the trouble to acquire in youth I have found to come to use at some season in after life. But a speaker, especially if an Advocate, cannot anticipate the subjects on which he
be required to talk. Law is the least part of his discourse. For once that he is called upon to argue a point of law, he is compelled to treat matters of fact twenty times. And the range of topics is encyclopædic; it embraces science and art, history and philosophy ; above all, the knowledge of human nature that teaches how the mind he addresses is to be convinced and persuaded, and how a willing ear is to be won to his discourse. No limited range of reading will suffice for so large a requirement. The elements of the sciences must be mastered; the foundations of philosophy must be learned ; the principles of art must be acquired; the broad facts of history must be stamped upon the memory; poetry and fiction must not be neglected. You must cultivate frequent and intimate intercourse with the genius of all ages and of all countries -not merely as standards by which to measure your own progress, or as fountains from which you may draw unlimited ideas for your own use, but because they are peculiarly suggestive. This is the characteristic of genius, that, conveying one thought to the reader's mind, it kindles in him many other thoughts. The value of this to the speaker and writer will be obvious to you. Never, therefore, permit a day to pass without reading more or less—if it be but a single page—from some one of our great writers. Besides the service I have described in the multiplication of your ideas, it will render you the scarcely lesser service of preserving purity of style and language and preventing you from falling into the conventional affectations and slang of social dialogue. For the same reason, without reference to any higher motive, but simply to fill your mind with the purest English, read daily some portion of the Bible ; for which exercise there is another reason also, that its phraseology is more familiar to all kinds of audiences than any other, is more readily understood, and therefore is more efficient in securing their attention.
Your reading will thus consist of three kinds : reading for knowledge, by which I mean the storing of your memory with facts; reading for thoughts, by which I mean the ideas and reflections that set your own mind thinking ; and reading for words, by which I mean the best language in which the best authors have clothed their thoughts. And these three classes of reading should be pursued together daily, more or less as you can, for they are needful each to the others and neither can be neglected without injury to the rest.
So also you must make it a business to think. You will probably say that you are always thinking when you are not doing anything, and often when you are busiest. True, the mind is active, but wandering vaguely from topic to topic. You are not really thinking out anything ; indeed, you cannot be sure that your thoughts have a shape until you try to express them in words. Nevertheless you must think before you can write or speak, and you should cultivate a habit of thinking at all appropriate seasons. But do not misunderstand this suggestion. I do not design advising you to set yourself a-thinking as you would take up a book to read at the intervals of business, or as part of a course of self-training, for such attempts would probably begin with wandering fancies, and end in a comfortable nap. It is a fact worth noting, that few persons can think continuously while the body is at perfect rest. The time for thinking is that when you are kept awake by some slight and almost mechanical muscular exercise, and the mind is not busily attracted by external subjects of attention. Thus walking, angling, gardening, and other rural pursuits, are pre-eminently the seasons for thought, and you should cultivate a habit of thinking during those exercises, so needful for health of body and for fruitfulness of mind. Then it is that you should submit whatever subject you desire to treat about to careful review, turning it on all sides, and inside out, marshalling the facts connected with it, trying what may be said for or against every view of it, recalling what you may have read about it, and finally thinking what you could say upon it that had not been said before, or how you could put old views of it into new shapes. Perhaps the best way to accomplish this will be to imagine yourself writing upon it, or making a speech upon it, and to think what in such case you would say; I do not mean in what words you would express yourself, but what you would discourse about; what ideas you would put forth ; to what thoughts you would give utterance. At the beginning of this exercise, you will find your reflections extremely vague and disconnected, you will range from theme to theme, and mere flights of fancy will be substituted for steady, continuous thought. But persevere day by day, and that which was in the beginning an effort will soon grow into a habit, and you will pass few moments of your working life in which, when not occupied from without your mind will not be usefully employed within itself.
Having attained this habit of thinking, let it be a rule with you, before you write or speak on any subject, to employ your thoughts upon it in the manner I have described. Go a-fishing. Take a walk. Weed your garden. While so occupied, think. It will be hard if your own intelligence cannot suggest to you how the subject should be treated, in what order of argument, with what illustrations, and with what new aspects of it, the original product of your own genius. At all events this is certain, that without preliminary reflection you cannot hope to deal with any subject to your own satisfaction, or to the profit or pleasure of others. If you neglect these precautions, you can never be more than a windbag, uttering words that, however grandly they may roll, convey no thoughts. There is hope for ignorance; there is none for emptiness.
To sum up the exhortations of this letter. To become a writer, or an orator, you must fill your mind with knowledge by reading and observation, and educate it to the creation of thoughts by cultivating a habit of reflection. There is no limit to the knowledge that will be desirable and useful; it should include something of natural science, much of history, and still more of human nature. The quicquid agunt homines must be your study, for it is with these that the speaker has to