Wednesday, June 19, 2019


Through Error, Ignorance, and Want of Education

Robert Burton (1577-1640), Anatomy of Melancholy, Part. II, Sect. II, Mem. 4, in A.R. Shilleto's edition, vol. II (London: George Bell & Sons, 1893), pp. 105-106 (some paragraph breaks added by me):
1King James, 1605, when he came to see our University of Oxford, and amongst other edifices now went to view that famous Library, renewed by Sr. Thomas Bodley, in imitation of Alexander, at his departure brake out into that noble speech, If I were not a king, I would be a university man: 2and if it were so that I must be a prisoner, if I might have my wish, I would desire to have no other prison than that library, and to be chained together with so many good authors et mortuis magistris.

So sweet is the delight of study, the more learning they have (as he that hath a Dropsy, the more he drinks the thirstier he is) the more they covet to learn, and the last day is [the pupil of the former;] prioris discipulus;3 harsh at first learning is, radices amarae, but fructus dulces, according to that of Isocrates,4 pleasant at last; the longer they live, the more they are enamoured with the Muses.

Heinsius, the keeper of the Library at Leyden in Holland, was mewed up in it all the year long; and that which to thy thinking should have bred a loathing, caused in him a greater liking. 5I no sooner (saith he) come into the library, but I bolt the door to me, excluding lust, ambition, avarice, and all such vices, whose nurse is idleness, the mother of ignorance, and Melancholy herself, and in the very lap of eternity, amongst so many divine souls, I take my seat, with so lofty a spirit and sweet content, that I pity all our great ones, and rich men that know not this happiness.

I am not ignorant in the meantime (notwithstanding this which I have said) how barbarously and basely,

[p. 106]

for the most part, our ruder Gentry esteem of Libraries & Books, how they neglect & contemn so great a treasure, so inestimable a benefit, as Aesop's cock did the jewel he found in the dunghill;1 and all through error, ignorance, and want of education.

And 'tis a wonder, withal, to observe how much they will vainly cast away in unnecessary expenses, quot modis pereant (saith 2Erasmus) magnatibus pecuniae, quantum absumant alea, scorta, compotationes, profectiones non necessariae, pompae, bella quaesita, ambitio, colax, morio, ludio, &c., what in hawks, hounds, lawsuits, vain building, gormandizing, drinking, sports, plays, pastimes, &c.

If a well-minded man to the Muses would sue to some of them for an Exhibition, to the farther maintenance or enlargement of such a work, be it College, Lecture, Library, or whatsoever else may tend to the Advancement of Learning, they are so unwilling, so averse, that they had rather see these which are already, with such cost and care erected, utterly ruined, demolished or otherwise employed; for they repine many and grudge at such gifts and revenues so bestowed: and therefore it were in vain, as Erasmus well notes, vel ab his, vel a negotiatoribus qui se Mammonae dediderunt, improbum fortasse tale officium exigere, to solicit or ask any thing of such men that are likely damn'd to riches; to this purpose. For my part I pity these men, stultos jubeo esse libenter, [I] let them go as they are, in the catalogue of Ignoramus.

How much, on the other side, are all we bound that are Scholars, to those munificent Ptolemies, bountiful Maecenases, heroical Patrons, divine spirits
3qui nobis haec otia fecerunt, Namque erit ille mihi semper Deus—

[Who gave me all this comfort, in my eyes
Will ever be a God.]
that have provided for us so many well-furnished Libraries, as well as in our publick Academies in most Cities, as in our private Colleges!

1 Isaac Wake, Musae Regnantes.

2 Si unquam mihi in fatis sit ut captivus ducar, si mihi daretur optio, hoc cuperem carcere concludi, his catenis illigari, cum hisce captivis concatenatus aetatem agere.

[3 Publius Syrus, Discipulus est prioris posterior dies.]

[4 Ad Demonicum, §§ 18, 33.]

5 Epist. Primerio. Plerumque in qua simul ac pedem posui, foribus pessulum obdo; ambitionem autem, amorem, libidinem, etc. excludo, quorum parens est ignavia, imperitia nutrix; et in ipso aeternitatis gremio, inter tot illustres animas sedem mihi sumo, cum ingenti quidem animo, ut subinde magnatum me misereat, qui felicitatem hanc ignorant.

[p. 106]

[1 Phaedr. Fab. iii.12.]

2 Chil. 2. Cent. 1. Adag. 1.

3 Virg. Eclog. i.[6, 7.]
Hat tip: Eric Thomson, in an email drawing my attention to the closing of the James J. Hill Library in St. Paul, Minnesota. Eric adds:
James J. Hill must be numbered among the "munificent Ptolemies, bountiful Maecenases, heroical Patrons". What a shame to see their legacy squandered. Closing libraries has long been the chief pastime of City Councillors in the UK. These villains are the "ruder gentry" de nos jours.
He also points out that "stultos jubeo esse libenter" is an echo of Horace, Satires 1.1.63-64 (iubeas miserum esse, libenter / quatenus id facit).

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