Review of “On the Choice of Books” by Thomas Carlyle

You can find the book here. The essay is originally a speech given by Carlyle to the students of Edinburgh University. It's relatively easy to read for Carlyle and it is done in his inimitable style. What can I do besides excerpt?

On work:

For work is the grand cure of all the maladies and miseries that ever beset mankind.

On choosing books:

A man ought to inquire and find out what he really and truly has an appetite for-what suits his constitution; and that, doctors tell him, is the very thing he ought to have in general. And so with books. As applicable to almost all of you, I will say that it is highly expedient to go into history-to inquire into what has passed before you in the families of men. The history of the Romans and Greeks will first of all concern you; and you will find that all the knowledge you have got will be extremely applicable to elucidate that. There you have the most remarkable race of men in the world set before you, to say nothing of the languages, which your professors can better explain, and which, I believe, are admitted to be the most perfect orders of speech we have yet found to exist among men. And you will find, if you read well, a pair of extremely remarkable nations shining in the records left by themselves as a kind of pillar to light up life in the darkness of the past ages; and it will be well worth your while if you can get into the understanding of what these people were and what they did.

. . .

I believe you will find in all histories that that has been at the head and foundation of them all, and that no nation that did not contemplate this wonderful universe with an awe-stricken and reverential feeling that there was a great unknown, omnipotent, and all-wise, and all-virtuous Being, superintending all men in it, and all interests in it–no nation ever came to very much, nor did any man either, who forgot that. If a man did forget that, he forgot the most important part of his mission in this world.

On democracy:

Machiavelli has remarked, in speaking about the Romans, that democracy cannot exist anywhere in the world; as a Government it is an impossibility that it should be continued, and he goes on proving that in his own way. I do not ask you all to follow him in his conviction (hear); but it is to him a clear truth that it is a solecism and impossibility that the universal mass of men should govern themselves. He says of the Romans that they continued a long time, but it was purely in virtue of this item in their constitution-namely, that they had all the conviction in their minds that it was solemnly necessary at times to appoint a Dictator-a man who had the power of life and death over everything-who degraded men out of their places, ordered them to execution, and did whatever seemed to him good in the name of God above him. He was commanded to take care that the Republic suffered no detriment, and Machiavelli calculates that that was the thing that purified the social system from time to time, and enabled it to hang on as it did-an extremely likely thing if it was composed of nothing but bad and tumultuous men triumphing in general over the better, and all going the bad road, in fact.

And let's end with more on books:

In short, as I have written it down somewhere else, I conceive that books are like men’s souls-divided into sheep and goats. (Laughter and applause.) Some of them are calculated to be of very great advantage in teaching-in forwarding the teaching of all generations. Others are going down, down, doing more and more, wilder and wilder mischief. And for the rest, in regard to all your studies here, and whatever you may learn, you are to remember that the object is not particular knowledge-that you are going to get higher in technical perfections, and all that sort of thing. There is a higher aim lies at the rear of all that, especially among those who are intended for literary, for speaking pursuits–the sacred profession. You are ever to bear in mind that there lies behind that the acquisition of what may be called wisdom–namely, sound appreciation and just decision as to all the objects that come round about you, and the habit of behaving with justice and wisdom. In short, great is wisdom–great is the value of wisdom.

One Response to Review of “On the Choice of Books” by Thomas Carlyle

  1. Kriste says:

    I have a copy of this book but it is a bit different. It is cloth covered. Is 42 pages with a number of blank pages before and after. It indicates published by NewYork Thomas Y Crowell & Company. It was an address delivered to the students of the University of Edinburgh, April 2, 1886.

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