Learning and Other Essays


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An expert on Greek Art chanced to describe in my hearing one of the engraved gems in the Metropolitan Museum. He spoke of it as ‘certainly one of the great gems of the world,’ and there was something in his tone that was even more thrilling than his words. He might have been describing the Parthenon or Beethoven’s Mass,—such was the passion of reverence that flowed out of him as he spoke. I went to see the gem afterwards. It was badly placed, and for all artistic purposes was invisible. I suppose that even if I had had a good look at it, I should not have been able to appreciate its full merit. Who could?—save the handful of adepts in the world, the little group of gem-readers, by whom the mighty music of this tiny score could be read at sight. Nevertheless it was a satisfaction to me to have seen the stone. I knew that through its surface there poured the power of the Greek world; that not without Phidias and Aristotle, and not without the Parthenon, could it have come into existence. It carried in its bosom a digest of the visual laws of spiritual force, and was as wonderful and as sacred as any stone could well be. Its value to mankind was not to be measured by my comprehension of it, but was inestimable. As Petrarch felt toward the Greek manuscript of Homer which he owned but could not read, so did I feel toward the gem. What is Education? What are Art and Religion and all those higher interests in civilization which are always vaguely held up to us as being the most important things in life? These things elude definition. They cannot be put into words except through the interposition of what the Germans call ‘a metaphysic.’ Before you can introduce them into discourse, you must step aside for a moment and create a theory of the universe; and by the time you have done this, you have perhaps befogged yourself and exhausted your readers. Let us be content with a more modest ambition. It is possible to take a general view of the externals of these subjects without losing reverence for their realities. It is possible to consider the forms under which art and religion appear,—the algebra and notation by which they have expressed themselves in the past,—and to draw some general conclusion as to the nature of the subject, without becoming entangled in the subject itself.

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