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Edmund Burke on learning’s purpose and reward

This is a short and interesting early piece on “philosophy and learning,” and the benefits of reading widely.

It turns out Burke and Marx agreed about the purpose of philosophy.*

The appearance from real learning is like a complexion had from sound health; it looks lively and natural, and is only the sign of something better.

It signifies much less what we read than how we read, and with a view to what end. To study only for its own sake is a fruitless labour; to learn only to be learned is moving in a strange Circle. The End of learning is not knowledge but virtue; as the End of all speculation should be practice of one sort or another. It is owing to inattention to this that we so often see men of great Erudition immersed as deeply as any in the passions, prejudices, and vain opinions of the vulgar; nay we often see them more servile, more proud, more opinionative, fonder of money, more governed by vanity, more afraid of Death, and captivated more by little appearances and trifling distinctions. In these two last particulars I have often observed it, and always with wonder.

It is worth observing that when anything not a principal itself, and cultivated only as an accessory to something else, is diverted from its proper end, it not only does not promote that end, but it goes a great way to destroy it. The Gymnastic exercises among the Greeks were undoubtedly designed to form their people to war; and they seem well calculated for that purpose. But when they forgot that purpose, when they made that art acquiesce in itself, when they sought a reputation from the exercise alone, it lost its use; and the professed Wrestlers always made the worst Soldiers. Those who make a trade of Tumbling are never very remarkable for their agility in any other way; and in the little Course of my own experience, I have always observed of your prodigious and ostentatious memories that they served for little else than prodigy and ostentation. It has happened in a manner not unlike this to learning. Knowledge is the Culture [cultivation] of the mind; and he who rested there, would be just as wise as he who should plough his field without any intention of sowing or reaping.

As learning in some measure answers to the experience of Old age, it seems to produce something of its querulous disposition too. I do not know any discourse worse received than complaints of the times; and I think with some reason; as they usually begin with our own misfortunes and end with them. But such complaints least of all become men of Learning, who by some fatality are always stunning us with the reproaches of the age they live in, and the little encouragement they receive. And it will ever be so whilst men propose to themselves any other views in Learning than the regulation of their minds and their own inward content and repose.

If we consider the matter rightly, what reward should I expect for doing myself the greatest service imaginable? If I complain of want of encouragement in this way, it is a sure sign I deserve none.

If my Studies are not of such a nature as to enable me to make a figure in the world, or to acquire some better possession instead of it, what have I been doing? And in what a light do I present myself?

Edmund Burke – Several Scattered Hints Concerning Philosophy and Learning Collected Here from My Papers

*See Thesis 11

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