THINKING FOR ONESELF
Narrated by Michael Prichard
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The largest library in disorder is not so useful as a smaller but
orderly one; in the same way the greatest amount of knowledge, if it has
not been worked out in one's own mind, is of less value than a much
smaller amount that has been fully considered. For it is only when a man
combines what he knows from all sides, and compares one truth with
another, that he completely realises his own knowledge and gets it into
his power. A man can only think over what he knows, therefore he should
learn something; but a man only knows what he has pondered.
A man can apply himself of his own free will to reading and learning,
while he cannot to thinking. Thinking must be kindled like a fire by a
draught and sustained by some kind of interest in the subject. This
interest may be either of a purely objective nature or it may be merely
subjective. The latter exists in matters concerning us personally, but
objective interest is only to be found in heads that think by nature,
and to whom thinking is as natural as breathing; but they are very rare.
This is why there is so little of it in most men of learning.
Reading is thinking with some one else's head instead of one's own.
But to think for oneself is to endeavour to develop a coherent whole, a
system, even if it is not a strictly complete one. Nothing is more
harmful than, by dint of continual reading, to strengthen the current of
other people's thoughts. These thoughts, springing from different minds,
belonging to different systems, bearing different colours, never flow
together of themselves into a unity of thought, knowledge, insight, or
conviction, but rather cram the head with a Babylonian confusion of
tongues; consequently the mind becomes overcharged with them and is
deprived of all clear insight and almost disorganised. This condition of
things may often be discerned in many men of learning, and it makes them
inferior in sound understanding, correct judgment, and practical tact to
many illiterate men, who, by the aid of experience, conversation, and a
little reading, have acquired a little knowledge from without, and made
it always subordinate to and incorporated it with their own thoughts.
The scientific thinker also does this to a much greater extent.
Although he requires much knowledge and must read a great deal, his mind
is nevertheless strong enough to overcome it all, to assimilate it, to
incorporate it with the system of his thoughts, and to subordinate it to
the organic relative unity of his insight, which is vast and
ever-growing. By this means his own thought, like the bass in an organ,
always takes the lead in everything, and is never deadened by other
sounds, as is the case with purely antiquarian minds; where all sorts of
musical passages, as it were, run into each other, and the fundamental
tone is entirely lost.
The works of all really capable minds are distinguished from all other
works by a character of decision and definiteness, and, in consequence,
of lucidity and clearness. This is because minds like these know
definitely and clearly what they wish to express—whether it be in
prose, in verse, or in music. Other minds are wanting in this decision
and clearness, and therefore may be instantly recognised.
The characteristic sign of a mind of the highest standard is the
directness of its judgment. Everything it utters is the result of
thinking for itself; this is shown everywhere in the way it gives
expression to its thoughts. Therefore it is, like a prince, an imperial
director in the realm of intellect. All other minds are mere delegates,
as may be seen by their style, which has no stamp of its own.
Hence every true thinker for himself is so far like a monarch; he is
absolute, and recognises nobody above him. His judgments, like the
decrees of a monarch, spring from his own sovereign power and proceed
directly from himself. He takes as little notice of authority as a
monarch does of a command; nothing is valid unless he has himself
authorised it. On the other hand, those of vulgar minds, who are swayed
by all kinds of current opinions, authorities, and prejudices, are like
the people which in silence obey the law and commands.
The presence of a thought is like the presence of our beloved. We
imagine we shall never forget this thought, and that this loved one
could never be indifferent to us. But out of sight out of mind! The
finest thought runs the risk of being irrevocably forgotten if it is not
written down, and the dear one of being forsaken if we do not marry her.
There are many thoughts which are valuable to the man who thinks them;
but out of them only a few which possess strength to produce either
repercussion or reflex action, that is, to win the reader's sympathy
after they have been written down. It is what a man has thought out
directly for himself that alone has true value. Thinkers may be
classed as follows: those who, in the first place, think for themselves,
and those who think directly for others. The former thinkers are the
genuine, _they think for themselves_ in both senses of the word; they
are the true _philosophers_; they alone are in earnest. Moreover, the
enjoyment and happiness of their existence consist in thinking. The
others are the sophists; they wish to seem, and seek their happiness
in what they hope to get from other people; their earnestness consists
in this. To which of these two classes a man belongs is soon seen by his
whole method and manner.
When one considers how great and how close to us the problem of
existence is,—this equivocal, tormented, fleeting, dream-like
existence—so great and so close that as soon as one perceives it, it
overshadows and conceals all other problems and aims;—and when one sees
how all men—with a few and rare exceptions—are not clearly conscious
of the problem, nay, do not even seem to see it, but trouble themselves
about everything else rather than this, and live on taking thought only
for the present day and the scarcely longer span of their own personal
future, while they either expressly give the problem up or are ready to
agree with it, by the aid of some system of popular metaphysics, and are
satisfied with this;—when one, I say, reflects upon this, so may one be
of the opinion that man is a thinking being only in a very remote
sense, and not feel any special surprise at any trait of thoughtlessness
or folly; but know, rather, that the intellectual outlook of the normal
man indeed surpasses that of the brute,—whose whole existence resembles
a continual present without any consciousness of the future or the
past—but, however, not to such an extent as one is wont to suppose.
And corresponding to this, we find in the conversation of most men that
their thoughts are cut up as small as chaff, making it impossible for
them to spin out the thread of their discourse to any length. If this
world were peopled by really thinking beings, noise of every kind would
not be so universally tolerated, as indeed the most horrible and aimless
form of it is. If Nature had intended man to think she would not
have given him ears, or, at any rate, she would have furnished them with
air-tight flaps like the bat, which for this reason is to be envied.
But, in truth, man is like the rest, a poor animal, whose powers are
calculated only to maintain him during his existence; therefore he
requires to have his ears always open to announce of themselves, by
night as by day, the approach of the pursuer.
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