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

Divine Comedy 

"It is undeniable," says Matthew Arnold, "that the exercise of a creative power, that a free creative activity is the highest function of man; it is proved to be so by man's finding in it his true happiness." If this be true, and the heart of man apart from all testimony affirms it, then the great books not only embody and express the genius and vital knowledge of the race which created them, but they are the products of the highest activity of man in the finest moments of his life. They represent a high felicity no less than a noble gift; they are the memorials of a happiness which may have been brief, but which, while it lasted, had a touch of the divine in it; for men are never nearer divinity than in their creative impulses and moments. Homer may have been blind; but if he composed the epics which bear his name he must have known moments of purer happiness than his most fortunate contemporary; Dante missed the lesser comforts of life, but there were hours of transcendent joy in his lonely career. For the highest joy of which men taste is the full, free, and noble putting forth of the power that is in them; no moments in human experience are so thrilling as those in which a man's soul goes out from him into some adequate and beautiful form of expression. In the act of creation a man incorporates his own personality into the visible world about him, and in a true and noble sense gives himself to his fellows. When an artist looks at his work he sees himself; he has performed the highest task of which he is capable, and fulfilled the highest purpose for which he was planned by an artist greater than himself.

The rapture of the creative mood and moment is the reward of the little group whose touch on any kind of material is imperishable. It comes when the spell of inspired work is on them, or in the moment which follows immediately on completion and before the reaction of depression—which is the heavy penalty of the artistic temperament—has set in. Balzac knew it in that frenzy of work which seized him for days together; and Thackeray knew it, as he confesses, when he had put the finishing touches on that striking scene in which Rawdon Crawley thrashes Lord Steyne within an inch of his wicked life. The great novelist, who happened also to be a great writer, knew that the whole scene, in conception and execution, was a stroke of genius. But while this supreme rapture belongs to a chosen few, it may be shared by all those who are ready to open the imagination to its approach. It is one of the great rewards of the artist that while other kinds of joy are often pathetically short-lived, his joy, having brought forth enduring works, is, in a sense, imperishable. And it not only endures; it renews itself in kindred moments and experiences which it bestows upon those who approach it sympathetically. There are lines in the "Divine Comedy" which thrill us to-day as they must have thrilled Dante; there are passages in the Shakespearian plays and sonnets which make a riot in the blood to-day as they doubtless set the poet's pulses beating three centuries ago. The student of literature, therefore, finds in its noblest works not only the ultimate results of race experience and the characteristic quality of race genius, but the highest activity of the greatest minds in their happiest and most expansive moments. In this commingling of the best that is in the race and the best that is in the individual lies the mystery of that double revelation which makes every work of art a disclosure not only of the nature of the man behind it, but of all men behind him. In this commingling, too, is preserved the most precious deposit of what the race has been and done, and of what the man has seen, felt, and known. In the nature of things no educational material can be richer; none so fundamentally expansive and illuminative.

This contact with the richest personalities the world has produced is one of the deepest sources of culture; for nothing is more truly educative than association with persons of the highest intelligence and power. When a man recalls his educational experience, he finds that many of his richest opportunities were not identified with subjects or systems or apparatus, but with teachers. There is fundamental truth in Emerson's declaration that it makes very little difference what you study, but that it is in the highest degree important with whom you study. There flows from the living teacher a power which no text-book can compass or contain,—the power of liberating the imagination and setting the student free to become an original investigator. Text-books supply methods, information, and discipline; teachers impart the breath of life by giving us inspiration and impulse. Now, the great books are different from all other books in their possession of this mysterious vital force; they are not only text-books by reason of the knowledge they contain, but they are also books of life by reason of the disclosure of personality which they make. The student of "Faust" receives from that drama not only the poet's interpretation of man's life in the world, but he is also brought under the spell of Goethe's personality, and, in a real sense, gets from his book that which his friends got from the man. This is not true of secondary books; it is true only of first-hand books. Secondary books are often products of skill, pieces of well-wrought but entirely self-conscious craftsmanship; first-hand books are always the expression of what is deepest, most original and distinctive in the nature which produces them. In such books, therefore, we get not only the skill, the art, the knowledge; we get, above all, the man. There is added to what he has to give us of thought or form the inestimable boon of his companionship.

The reality of this element of personality and the force for culture which resides in it are clearly illustrated by a comparison of the works of Plato with those of Aristotle. Aristotle was for many centuries the first name in philosophy, and is still one of the greatest; but Aristotle, although a student of the principles of the art of literature and a critic of deep philosophical insight, was primarily a thinker, not an artist. One goes to him for discipline, for thought, for training in a very high sense; one does not go to him for form, beauty, or personality. It is a clear, distinct, logical order of ideas, a definite system which he gives us; not a view of life, a disclosure of the nature of man, a synthesis of ideas touched with beauty, dramatically arranged and set in the atmosphere of Athenian life. For these things one goes to Plato, who is not only a thinker, but an artist of wonderful gifts,—one who so closely and beautifully relates Greek thought to Greek life that we seem not to be studying a system of philosophy, but mingling with the society of Athens in its most fascinating groups and at its most significant moments. To the student of Aristotle the personality of the writer counts for nothing; to the student of the "Dialogues," on the other hand, the personality of Plato counts for everything. If we approach him as a thinker, it is true, we discard everything except his ideas; but if we approach him as a great writer, ideas are but part of the rich and illuminating whole which he offers us. One can imagine a man fully acquainting himself with the work of Aristotle and yet remaining almost devoid of culture; but one cannot imagine a man coming into intimate companionship with Plato and remaining untouched by his rich, representative personality.

From such a companionship something must flow besides an enlargement of ideas or a development of the power of clear thinking; there must flow also the stimulating and illuminating impulse of a fresh contact with a great nature; there must result a certain liberation of the imagination, a certain widening of experience, a certain ripening of the mind of the student. The beauty of form, the varied and vital aspects of religious, social, and individual character, the splendor and charm of a nobly ordered art in temples, speech, manners, and dress, the constant suggestion of the deep humanism behind that art and of the freshness and reality of all its forms of expression,—these things are as much and as great a part of the "Dialogues" as the thought; and they are full of that quality which enriches and ripens the mind that comes under their influence. In these qualities of his style, quite as much as in his ideas, is to be found the real Plato, the great artist, who refused to consider philosophy as an abstract creation of the mind, existing, so far as man is concerned, apart from the mind which formulates it, but who saw life in its totality and made thought luminous and real by disclosing it at all points against the background of the life, the nature, and the habits of the thinker. This is the method of culture as distinguished from that of scholarship; and this is also the disclosure of the personality of Plato as distinguished from his philosophical genius. Whoever studies the "Dialogues" with his heart as well as with his mind comes into personal relations with the richest mind of antiquity.



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