Miscellaneous Writings and Speeches— Volume 4

Author: Thomas Babington Macaulay

The Literature of Britain (November 4, 1846)


I thank you, Gentlemen, for this cordial reception. I have thought it right to steal a short time from duties not unimportant for the purpose of lending my aid to a an undertaking calculated, as I think, to raise the credit and to promote the best interests of the city which has so many claims on my gratitude.

The Directors of our Institution have requested me to propose to you as a toast the Literature of Britain. They could not have assigned to me a more agreeable duty. They chief object of this Institution is, I conceive, to impart knowledge through the medium of our own language. Edinburgh is already rich in libraries worthy of her fame as a seat of literature and a seat of jurisprudence. A man of letters can here without difficulty obtain access to repositories filled with the wisdom of many ages and of many nations. But something was still wanting. We still wanted a library open to that large, that important, that respectable class which, though by no means destitute of liberal curiosity or of sensibility to literary pleasures, is yet forced to be content with what is written in our own tongue. For that class especially, I do not say exclusively, this library is intended. Our directors, I hope, will not be satisfied, I, as a member, shall certainly not be satisfied, till we possess a noble and complete collection of English books, till it is impossible to seek in vain on our shelves for a single English book which is valuable either on account of matter or on account of manner, which throws any light on our civil, ecclesiastical, intellectual, or social history, which, in short, can afford either useful instruction or harmless amusement.

From such a collection, placed within the reach of that large and valuable class which I have mentioned, I am disposed to expect great good. And when I say this, I do not take into the account those rare cases to which my valued friend, the Lord Provost (Mr Adam Black.), so happily alluded. It is indeed not impossible that some man of genius who may enrich our literature with imperishable eloquence or song, or who may extend the empire of our race over matter, may feel in our reading room, for the first time the consciousness of powers yet undeveloped. It is not impossible that our volumes may suggest the first thought of something great to some future Burns, or Watt, or Arkwright. But I do not speak of these extraordinary cases. What I confidently anticipate is that, through the whole of that class whose benefit we have peculiarly in view, there will be a moral and an intellectual improvement; that many hours, which might otherwise be wasted in folly or in vice, will be employed in pursuits which, while they afford the highest and most lasting pleasure, are not only harmless, but purifying and elevating. My own experience, my own observation, justifies me in entertaining this hope. I have had opportunities, both in this and in other countries, of forming some estimate of the effect which is likely to be produced by a good collection of books on a society of young men. There is, I will venture to say, no judicious commanding officer of a regiment who will not tell you that the vicinity of a valuable library will improve perceptibly the whole character of a mess. I well knew one eminent military servant of the East India Company, a man of great and various accomplishments, a man honourably distinguished both in war and in diplomacy, a man who enjoyed the confidence of some of the greatest generals and statesmen of our time. When I asked him how, having left his country while still a boy, and having passed his youth at military stations in India, he had been able to educate himself, his answer was, that he had been stationed in the neighbourhood of an excellent library, that he had been allowed free access to the books, and that they had, at the most critical time of his life, decided his character, and saved him from being a mere smoking, card-playing, punch-drinking lounger.

Some of the objections which have been made to such institutions as ours have been so happily and completely refuted by my friend the Lord Provost, and by the Most Reverend Prelate who has honoured us with his presence this evening (Archbishop Whateley.), that it would be idle to say again what has been so well said. There is, however, one objection which, with your permission, I will notice. Some men, of whom I wish to speak with great respect, are haunted, as it seems to me, with an unreasonable fear of what they call superficial knowledge. Knowledge, they say, which really deserves the name, is a great blessing to mankind, the ally of virtue, the harbinger of freedom. But such knowledge must be profound. A crowd of people who have a smattering of mathematics, a smattering of astronomy, a smattering of chemistry, who have read a little poetry and a little history, is dangerous to the commonwealth. Such halfknowledge is worse than ignorance. And then the authority of Pope is vouched. Drink deep or taste not; shallow draughts intoxicate: drink largely; and that will sober you. I must confess that the danger which alarms these gentlemen never seemed to me very serious: and my reason is this; that I never could prevail on any person who pronounced superficial knowledge a curse, and profound knowledge a blessing, to tell me what was his standard of profundity. The argument proceeds on the supposition that there is some line between profound and superficial knowledge similar to that which separates truth from falsehood. I know of no such line. When we talk of men of deep science, do we mean that they have got to the bottom or near the bottom of science? Do we mean that they know all that is capable of being known? Do we mean even that they know, in their own especial department, all that the smatterers of the next generation will know? Why, if we compare the little truth that we know with the infinite mass of truth which we do not know, we are all shallow together; and the greatest philosophers that ever lived would be the first to confess their shallowness. If we could call up the first of human beings, if we could call up Newton, and ask him whether, even in those sciences in which he had no rival, he considered himself as profoundly knowing, he would have told us that he was but a smatterer like ourselves, and that the difference between his knowledge and ours vanished, when compared with the quantity of truth still undiscovered, just as the distance between a person at the foot of Ben Lomond and at the top of Ben Lomond vanishes when compared with the distance of the fixed stars.

It is evident then that those who are afraid of superficial knowledge do not mean by superficial knowledge knowledge which is superficial when compared with the whole quantity of truth capable of being known. For, in that sense, all human knowledge is, and always has been, and always must be, superficial. What then is the standard? Is it the same two years together in any country? Is it the same, at the same moment, in any two countries? Is it not notorious that the profundity of one age is the shallowness of the next; that the profundity of one nation is the shallowness of a neighbouring nation? Ramohun Roy passed, among Hindoos, for a man of profound Western learning; but he would have been but a very superficial member of this Institute. Strabo was justly entitled to be called a profound geographer eighteen hundred years ago. But a teacher of geography, who had never heard of America, would now be laughed at by the girls of a boarding-school. What would now be thought of the greatest chemist of 1746, or of the greatest geologist of 1746? The truth is that, in all experimental science, mankind is, of necessity, constantly advancing. Every generation, of course, has its front rank and its rear rank; but the rear rank of a later generation occupies the ground which was occupied by the front rank of a former generation.

You remember Gulliver’s adventures. First he is shipwrecked in a country of little men; and he is a Colossus among them. He strides over the walls of their capital: he stands higher than the cupola of their great temple: he tugs after him a royal fleet: he stretches his legs; and a royal army, with drums beating and colours flying, marches through the gigantic arch: he devours a whole granary for breakfast, eats a herd of cattle for dinner, and washes down his meal with all the hogsheads of a cellar. In his next voyage he is among men sixty feet high. He who, in Lilliput, used to take people up in his hand in order that he might be able to hear them, is himself taken up in the hands and held to the ears of his masters. It is all that he can do to defend himself with his hanger against the rats and mice. The court ladies amuse themselves with seeing him fight wasps and frogs: the monkey runs off with him to the chimney top: the dwarf drops him into the cream jug and leaves him to swim for his life. Now, was Gulliver a tall or a short man? Why, in his own house at Rotherhithe, he was thought a man of the ordinary stature. Take him to Lilliput; and he is Quinbus Flestrin, the Man Mountain. Take him to Brobdingnag, and he is Grildrig, the little Manikin. It is the same in science. The pygmies of one society would have passed for giants in another.

It might be amusing to institute a comparison between one of the profoundly learned men of the thirteenth century and one of the superficial students who will frequent our library. Take the great philosopher of the time of Henry the Third of England, or Alexander the Third of Scotland, the man renowned all over the island, and even as far as Italy and Spain, as the first of astronomers and chemists. What is his astronomy? He is a firm believer in the Ptolemaic system. He never heard of the law of gravitation. Tell him that the succession of day and night is caused by the turning of the earth on its axis. Tell him that, in consequence of this motion, the polar diameter of the earth is shorter than the equatorial diameter. Tell him that the succession of summer and winter is caused by the revolution of the earth round the sun. If he does not set you down for an idiot, he lays an information against you before the Bishop, and has you burned for a heretic. To do him justice, however, if he is ill informed on these points, there are other points on which Newton and Laplace were mere children when compared with him. He can cast your nativity. He knows what will happen when Saturn is in the House of Life, and what will happen when Mars is in conjunction with the Dragon’s Tail. He can read in the stars whether an expedition will be successful, whether the next harvest will be plentiful, which of your children will be fortunate in marriage, and which will be lost at sea. Happy the State, happy the family, which is guided by the counsels of so profound a man! And what but mischief, public and private, can we expect from the temerity and conceit of scolists who know no more about the heavenly bodies than what they have learned from Sir John Herschel’s beautiful little volume. But, to speak seriously, is not a little truth better than a great deal of falsehood? Is not the man who, in the evenings of a fortnight, has acquired a correct notion of the solar system, a more profound astronomer than a man who has passed thirty years in reading lectures about the primum mobile, and in drawing schemes of horoscopes?

Or take chemistry. Our philosopher of the thirteenth century shall be, if you please, an universal genius, chemist as well as astronomer. He has perhaps got so far as to know, that if he mixes charcoal and saltpetre in certain proportions and then applies fire, there will be an explosion which will shatter all his retorts and aludels; and he is proud of knowing what will in a later age be familiar to all the idle boys in the kingdom. But there are departments of science in which he need not fear the rivalry of Black, or Lavoisier, or Cavendish, or Davy. He is in hot pursuit of the philosopher’s stone, of the stone that is to bestow wealth, and health, and longevity. He has a long array of strangely shaped vessels, filled with red oil and white oil, constantly boiling. The moment of projection is at hand; and soon all his kettles and gridirons will be turned into pure gold. Poor Professor Faraday can do nothing of the sort. I should deceive you if I held out to you the smallest hope that he will ever turn your halfpence into sovereigns. But if you can induce him to give at our Institute a course of lectures such as I once heard him give at the Royal Institution to children in the Christmas holidays, I can promise you that you will know more about the effects produced on bodies by heat and moisture than was known to some alchemists who, in the middle ages, were thought worthy of the patronage of kings.

As it has been in science so it has been in literature. Compare the literary acquirements of the great men of the thirteenth century with those which will be within the reach of many who will frequent our reading room. As to Greek learning, the profound man of the thirteenth century was absolutely on a par with the superficial man of the nineteenth. In the modern languages, there was not, six hundred years ago, a single volume which is now read. The library of our profound scholar must have consisted entirely of Latin books. We will suppose him to have had both a large and a choice collection. We will allow him thirty, nay forty manuscripts, and among them a Virgil, a Terence, a Lucan, an Ovid, a Statius, a great deal of Livy, a great deal of Cicero. In allowing him all this, we are dealing most liberally with him; for it is much more likely that his shelves were filled with treaties on school divinity and canon law, composed by writers whose names the world has very wisely forgotten. But, even if we suppose him to have possessed all that is most valuable in the literature of Rome, I say with perfect confidence that, both in respect of intellectual improvement, and in respect of intellectual pleasures, he was far less favourably situated than a man who now, knowing only the English language, has a bookcase filled with the best English works. Our great man of the Middle Ages could not form any conception of any tragedy approaching Macbeth or Lear, or of any comedy equal to Henry the Fourth or Twelfth Night. The best epic poem that he had read was far inferior to the Paradise Lost; and all the tomes of his philosophers were not worth a page of the Novum Organum.

The Novum Organum, it is true, persons who know only English must read in a translation: and this reminds me of one great advantage which such persons will derive from our Institution. They will, in our library, be able to form some acquaintance with the master minds of remote ages and foreign countries. A large part of what is best worth knowing in ancient literature, and in the literature of France, Italy, Germany, and Spain, has been translated into our own tongue. It is scarcely possible that the translation of any book of the highest class can be equal to the original. But, though the finer touches may be lost in the copy, the great outlines will remain. An Englishman who never saw the frescoes in the Vatican may yet, from engravings, form some notion of the exquisite grace of Raphael, and of the sublimity and energy of Michael Angelo. And so the genius of Homer is seen in the poorest version of the Iliad; the genius of Cervantes is seen in the poorest version of Don Quixote. Let it not be supposed that I wish to dissuade any person from studying either the ancient languages or the languages of modern Europe. Far from it. I prize most highly those keys of knowledge; and I think that no man who has leisure for study ought to be content until he possesses several of them. I always much admired a saying of the Emperor Charles the Fifth. "When I learn a new language," he said, "I feel as if I had got a new soul." But I would console those who have not time to make themselves linguists by assuring them that, by means of their own mother tongue, they may obtain ready access to vast intellectual treasures, to treasures such as might have been envied by the greatest linguists of the age of Charles the Fifth, to treasures surpassing those which were possessed by Aldus, by Erasmus, and by Melancthon.

And thus I am brought back to the point from which I started. I have been requested to invite you to fill your glasses to the Literature of Britain; to that literature, the brightest, the purest, the most durable of all the glories of our country; to that literature, so rich in precious truth and precious fiction; to that literature which boasts of the prince of all poets and of the prince of all philosophers; to that literature which has exercised an influence wider than that of our commerce, and mightier than that of our arms; to that literature which has taught France the principles of liberty, and has furnished Germany with models of art; to that literature which forms a tie closer than the tie of consanguinity between us and the commonwealths of the valley of the Mississippi; to that literature before the light of which impious and cruel superstitions are fast taking flight on the banks of the Ganges; to that literature which will, in future ages, instruct and delight the unborn millions who will have turned the Australasian and Caffrarian deserts into cities and gardens. To the Literature of Britain, then! And, wherever British literature spreads, may it be attended by British virtue and by British freedom!



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Chicago: Thomas Babington Macaulay, "The Literature of Britain (November 4, 1846)," Miscellaneous Writings and Speeches— Volume 4, ed. Macaulay, G. C. (George Campbell), 1852-1915 and trans. Evans, Sebastian in Miscellaneous Writings and Speeches—Volume 4 Original Sources, accessed August 9, 2022, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=3URMK33SCNKGW5P.

MLA: Macaulay, Thomas Babington. "The Literature of Britain (November 4, 1846)." Miscellaneous Writings and Speeches— Volume 4, edited by Macaulay, G. C. (George Campbell), 1852-1915, and translated by Evans, Sebastian, in Miscellaneous Writings and Speeches—Volume 4, Original Sources. 9 Aug. 2022. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=3URMK33SCNKGW5P.

Harvard: Macaulay, TB, 'The Literature of Britain (November 4, 1846)' in Miscellaneous Writings and Speeches— Volume 4, ed. and trans. . cited in , Miscellaneous Writings and Speeches—Volume 4. Original Sources, retrieved 9 August 2022, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=3URMK33SCNKGW5P.