Liberation from One's Place

[Note: This is taken from Hamilton Wright Mabie's Books and Culture.]


The instinct which drives men to travel is at bottom identical with that which fills men with passionate desire to know what is in life. Time and strength are often wasted in restless change from place to place; but real wandering, however aimless in mood, is always education. To know one's neighbours and to be on good terms with the community in which one lives are the beginning of sound relations to the world at large; but one never knows his village in any real sense until he knows the world. The distant hills which seem to be always calling the imaginative boy away from the familiar fields and hearth do not conspire against his peace, however much they may conspire against his comfort; they help him to the fulfilment of his destiny by suggesting to his imagination the deeper experience, the richer growth, the higher tasks which await him in the world beyond the horizon. Man is a wanderer by the law of his life; and if he never leaves his home in which he is born, he never builds a home of his own.

It is the law of life that a child should leave his father and separate himself from his inherited surroundings, in order that by self-unfolding and self-realisation he may substitute a conscious for an unconscious, a moral for an instinctive relation. The instinct of the myth-makers was sound when it led them to attach such importance to the wandering and the return; the separation effected in order that individuality and character might be realised through isolation and experience, the return voluntarily made through clear recognition of the soundness of the primitive relations, the beauty of the service of the older and wiser to the younger and the more ignorant. We are born into relations which we accept as normal and inevitable; we break away from them in order that by detachment we may see them objectively and from a distance, and that we may come to self-consciousness; we resume these relations of deliberate purpose and with clear perception of their moral significance. So the boy, grown to manhood, returns to his home from the world in which he has tested himself and seen for the first time, with clear eyes, the depth and beauty of its service in the spiritual order; so the man who has revolted from the barren and shallow dogmatic statement of a spiritual truth returns, in riper years and with a deeper insight, to the truth which is no longer matter of inherited belief but of vital need and perception.

The ripe, mature, full mind not only escapes the limitation of the time in which it finds itself; it also escapes from the limitations of the place in which it happens to be. A man of deep culture cannot be a provincial; he must be a citizen of the world. The man of provincial tastes and ideas owns the acres; the man of culture commands the landscape. He knows the world beyond the hills; he sees the great movement of life from which the village seems almost shut out; he shares those inclusive experiences which come to each age and give each age a character of its own. He is in fellowship and sympathy with the smaller community at his doors, but he belongs also to that greater community which is coterminous with humanity itself. He is not disloyal to his immediate surroundings when he leaves them for exploration, travel, and discovery; he is fulfilling that law of life which conditions true valuation of that into which one is born upon clear perception of that which one must acquire for himself.

The wanderings of individuals and races, which form so large a part of the substance of history, are witnesses of that craving for deeper experience and wider knowledge which is one of the springs of human progress. The American cares for Europe not for its more skilful and elaborate ministration to his comfort; he is drawn towards it through the appeal of its rich historic life to his imagination and through the diversity and variety of its social and racial phenomena. And in like manner the European seeks the East, not simply as a matter of idle curiosity, but because he finds in the East conditions which are set in such sharp contrast with those with which he is familiar. The instinct for expansion which gives human history its meaning and interest is constantly urging the man of sensitive mind to secure by observation that which he cannot get by experience.

To secure the most complete development one must live in one's time and yet live above it, and one must also live in one's home and yet live, at the same time, in the world. The life which is bounded in knowledge, interest, and activity by the invisible but real and limiting walls of a small community is often definite in aim, effective in action, and upright in intention; but it cannot be rich, varied, generous, and stimulating. The life, on the other hand, which is entirely detached from local associations and tasks is often interesting, liberalising, and catholic in spirit; but it cannot be original or productive. A sound life—balanced, poised, and intelligently directed—must stand strongly in both local and universal relations; it must have the vitality and warmth of the first, and the breadth and range of the second.

This liberation from provincialism is not only one of the signs of culture, but it is also one of its finest results; it registers a high degree of advancement. For the man who has passed beyond the prejudices, misconceptions, and narrowness of provincialism has gone far on the road to self-education. He has made as marked an advance on the position of the great mass of his contemporaries as that position is an advance on the earlier stages of barbarism. The barbarian lives only in his tribe; the civilised man, in the exact degree in which he is civilised, lives with humanity. Books are among the richest resources against narrowing local influences; they are the ripest expositions of the world-spirit. To know the typical books of the race is to be in touch with those elements of thought and experience which are shared by men of all countries. Without a knowledge of these books a man never really gets at the life of localities which are foreign to him; never really sees those historic places about which the traditions of civilisation have gathered. Travel is robbed of half its educational value unless one carries with him a knowledge of that which he looks at for the first time with his own eyes. No American sees England unless he carries England in his memory and imagination. Westminster Abbey is devoid of spiritual significance to the man who is ignorant of the life out of which it grew, and of the history which is written in its architecture and its memorials. The emancipation from the limitations of locality is greatly aided by travel, but it is accomplished only by intimate knowledge of the greater books.



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