Right Living as a Fine Art


When the sage counsels us “to listen to stars and birds, to babes and sages,” he opens to us the secrets of the soul’s increase in wisdom and happiness. All culture begins with listening. Growth is not through shrewd thinking or eloquent speaking, but through accurate seeing and hearing. Our world is one vast whispering gallery, yet only those who listen hear “the still, small voice” of truth. Putting his ear down to the rocks, the listening geologist hears the story of the rocks. Standing under the stars, the listening astronomer hears the music of the spheres. Leaving behind the din and dirt of the city, Agassiz plunged into the forests of the Amazon, and listening to boughs and buds and birds he found out all their secrets.

One of our wisest teachers has said, “The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world, is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk, for one who can think. But thousands can think for one who can see; to see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion all in one. Therefore finding the world of literature more or less divided into thinkers and seers, I believe we shall find also, that the seers are wholly the greater race of the two.” For greatness is vision. Opening his eyes, Newton sees the planets revolve and finds his fame. Opening his ears, Watt hears the movement of steam and finds his fortune. Millet explained his fame by saying he copied the colors of the sunset at the moment when reapers bow the head in silent prayer. The great bard, too, tells us he went apart and listened to find “sermons in stones, and books in the running brooks.”


It is a proverb that pilgrims to foreign lands find only what they take with them. Riding over the New England hills near Boston, Lowell spake not to his companion, for now he was looking out upon the pageantry of a glorious October day, and now he remembered that this was the road forever associated with Paul Revere’s ride. Reaching the outskirts of Cambridge, he roused from his reverie to discover that his silent companion had been brooding over bales and barrels, not knowing that this had been one of those rare days when October holds an art exhibit, and also oblivious to the fact that he had been passing through scenes historic through the valor of the brave boy.

Of the four artists copying the same landscape near Chamouni, all saw a different scene. To an idler a river means a fish pole, to a heated schoolboy a bath; to the man of affairs the stream suggests a turbine wheel; while the same stream leads the philosopher to reflect upon the influence of great rivers upon cities and civilizations. Coleridge thought the bank of his favorite stream was made to lie down upon, but Bunyan, beholding the stream through the iron bars of a prison cell, felt the breezes of the “Delectable Mountains” cool his fevered cheek, and stooping down he wet his parched lips with the river of the waters of life. Nature has no message for heedless, inattentive hearers. It is possible for a youth to go through life deaf to the sweetest sounds that ever fell over Heaven’s battlements, and blind to the beauty of landscape and mountain and sea and sky. There is no music in the autumn wind until the listener comes. There is no order and beauty in the rolling spheres until some Herschel stands beneath the stars. There is no fragrance in the violet until the lover of flowers bends down above the blossoms.

Listening to stars, Laplace heard the story how fire mists are changed to habitable earths, and so became wise toward iron and wood, steel and stone. Listening to birds, Cuvier heard the song within the shell and found out the life history of all things that creep or swim or fly. Listening to babes that have, as Froebel thought, been so recently playmates with angels, the philosopher discovered in the teachableness, trust and purity of childhood, the secret of individual happiness and progress. Listening to sages, the youth of to-day garners into the storehouse of his mind all the intellectual treasures of the good and great of past ages. That youth may have culture without college who gives heed to Channing’s injunction “to listen to stars and birds, to babes and sages.”


When all the caravans of knowledge have gone trooping through the eye-gate and the ear-gate into the soul city, Channing reminds us that these knowledges must be assorted and assimilated by “studying hard and thinking quietly.”

If some rich men fill their shelves with books that are never read, some poor men fill their memory with facts upon which they never think. The mere accumulation of truths about earth and air, about plants and animals and men, does not mean culture. Education does not mean stuffing the mind with Greek roots, as the husbandman stuffs his granary with vegetables. It is a proverb, that no fool is a perfect fool until he can talk Latin. Looking out upon land and sea and sky, the educated soul sees all, and appreciates all. Culture lends the note of distinction and acquaints the youth with all the best that has been said and done. Trying to steal the secret of the honey bee, a scientist extracted the sweets of half an acre of blossoms. Unfortunately, the vat of liquor proved to be only sweetened water. By its secret processes, the bee distills the same liquor into honey. It is possible for the youth to sweep into the memory a thousand great facts without having distilled one of these honeyed drops named wisdom and culture.

In studying the French Revolution Carlyle read five hundred volumes, including reports of officers, generals, statesmen, spies, heroes, villains. Then, closing all the books, he journeyed into Scotland. In solitude he “thought quietly.” Having brooded alone for weeks and months, one morning he rose to dip his pen in his heart’s blood and write his French Revolution. In that hour the knowledge that had been in five hundred books became the culture distilled into one.

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