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A Defense of Enthusiasm Henry Theodore Tuckerman

A Defense of Enthusiasm

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Constant supplies of knowledge to the intellect, and the exclusive culture of reason may, indeed, make a pedant and logician; but the probability is, these benefits, if such they are, will be gained at the expense of the soul. Sentiment, in its broadest acceptation, is as essential to the true enjoyment and grace of life as mind. Technical information, and that quickness of apprehension which New Englanders call smartness, are not so valuable to a human being as sensibility to the beautiful, and a spontaneous appreciation of the divine influences which fill the realms of vision and of sound, and the world of action and feeling. The tastes, affections, and sentiments, are more absolutely the man than his talent or acquirements. And yet it is by and through the latter that we are apt to estimate character, of which they are at best but fragmentary evidences. It is remarkable that in the New Testament allusions to the intellect are so rare, while the "heart" and the "spirit we are of" are ever appealed to. Sympathy is the "golden key" which unlocks the treasures of wisdom; and this depends upon vividness and warmth of feeling. It is therefore that Tranio advises--"In brief, sir, study what you most affect." A code of etiquette may refine the manners, but the "heart of courtesy," which, through the world, stamps the natural gentleman, can never be attained but through instinct; and in the same manner, those enriching and noble sentiments which are the most beautiful and endearing of human qualities, no process of mental training will create. To what end is society, popular education, churches, and all the machinery of culture, if no living truth is elicited which fertilizes as well as enlightens? Shakespeare undoubtedly owed his marvelous insight into the human soul to his profound sympathy with man. He might have conned whole libraries on the philosophy of the passions; he might have coldly observed facts for years, and never have conceived of jealousy like Othello's, the remorse of Macbeth, or love like that of Juliet. When the native sentiments are once interested, new facts spring to light. It was under the excitement of wonder and love, that Byron, tossed on the lake of Geneva, thought that "Jura answered from her misty shroud," responsive to the thunder of the Alps. With no eye of mere curiosity did Bryant follow the lonely flight of the waterfowl. Veneration prompted the inquiry:--

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    "Wither 'midst falling dew,     When glow the heavens with the last steps of day,     Far through their rosy depths dost thou pursue     Thy solitary way?"

Sometimes, in musing upon genius in its simpler manifestations, it seems as if the great art of human culture consisted chiefly in preserving the glow and freshness of the heart. It is certain that in proportion as its merely mental strength and attainment takes the place of natural sentiment, in proportion as we acquire the habit of receiving all impressions through the reason, the teachings of nature grow indistinct and cold, however it may be with those of books. That this tendency of the New England philosophy of life and education, I think can scarcely be disputed I have remarked that some of our most intelligent men speak of mastering a subject, of comprehending a book, of settling a question, as if these processes involved the whole idea of human cultivation. The reverse of all this is chiefly desirable. It is when we are overcome, and the pride of intellect vanished before the truth of nature, when, instead of coming to a logical decision, we are led to bow in profound reverence before the mysteries of life, when we are led back to childhood, or up to God, by some powerful revelation of the sage or minstrel, it is then our natures grow. To this end is all art. Exquisite vocalism, beautiful statuary and painting, and all true literature, have not for their great object to employ the ingenuity of prying critics, or furnish the world with a set of new ideas, but to move the whole nature by the perfection and truthfulness of their appeal. There is a certain atmosphere exhaled from the inspired page of genius, which gives vitality to the sentiments, and through these quickens the mental powers. And this is the chief good of books. Were it otherwise, those of us who have bad memories might despair of advancement. I have heard educated New Englanders boast of the quantity of poetry they have read in a given time, as if rich fancies and elevated thoughts are to be dispatched as are beefsteaks on board our steamboats. Newspapers are estimated by the number of square feet, as if this had anything to do with the quality of their contents. Journeys of pleasure are frequently deemed delightful in proportion to their rapidity, without reference to the new scenery or society they bring into view. Social gatherings are not seldom accounted brilliant in the same degree that they are crowded. Such would not be the case if what the phrenologists call the affective powers were enough considered; if the whole soul, instead of the "meddling intellect" alone, were freely developed; if we realized the truth thus expressed by a powerful writer--"within the entire circle of our intellectual constitution, we value nothing but emotion; it is not the powers, but the fruit of those powers, in so much feeling of a lofty kind as they will yield."

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A Defense of Enthusiasm
Henry Theodore Tuckerman

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