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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 40

The Advantages of Literary Societies: An Address by The Rev. J. Hill, to the Lyttelton Mutual Improvement Association

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The Advantages of Literary Societies: An Address by The Rev. J. Hill, to the Lyttelton Mutual Improvement Association.

As President of the Lyttelton Mutual Improvement Association, I commence the proceedings of the coming Session by giving an address specially suited to young men. I feel strongly the solemnity of the position I occupy, and the importance of the duty 1 have to discharge. If there is a class in the community over which any one should be deeply anxious to secure an influence, it is young men. The power for good or for evil, which they possess, is immense. The interests of society, in all its aspects, will soon be in their hands. If we have them against us, what shall be done; if we have them with us, what shall not be done? To turn their minds into a proper channel, to awaken in their breasts a right sense of their position, dangers, duties, and responsibilities; to bring them under the sway of pure and honourable motives, is an object worthy of the highest energies of statesmen, patriots, and philanthropists. Carefully now would I weigh my words; forcibly now would I put my arguments; from reason, observation, and experience, would I draw my illustrations, that the opportunity of doing some good, which I have to-night, may not pass away altogether unimproved.

It is highly necessary that you should have a clear idea of what you ought to seek in life. For want of a well-defined purpose the precious time of multitudes is wasted, their best energies are undeveloped, and their lives productive of no great and lasting results. The objects, which may and ought to be sought, are many. It is yours to keep steadily before your minds the maintenance of health. This is demanded by the duties you owe to God, to yourselves, and to the world. A sound constitution page 2 is the foundation on which the structure you have to rear in life must rest. Without this there can be no great happiness, and no great usefulness. Equally steadily before your minds must you keep the attainment of a good position in the business or occupation you have chosen, whatever that may be. Anything like indolence, or indifference in this matter will be most unworthy of you. By energy, industry, and perseverance it becomes you to seek an acquaintance with your calling, in all its branches; and to reach a position of influence among those who follow it. On such purposes as these, however, I do not dwell. There are two objects on which I wish to speak, because of the greatness of their importance, and the possibility of their attainment in Literary Societies.

The first is mental culture. On the greatness of the powers of mind with which man has been endowed, it is not necessary to dwell. Of all the works of God in creation, that of framing a mind capable of thought was, without doubt, the greatest and most marvellous. In comparison with this, what was bringing matter out of nothing, or kindling the light of suns, or fixing the planets in their spheres? Immense and brilliant though these worlds are, they are but dead, unconscious matter. One spirit gifted with thought was a higher kind of creation—a nobler, sublimer effort of Omnipotence. Think of the power over matter that mind has gained! Has it not brought matter in every form under control, and made it subservient to its schemes? Into use it has turned objects on the face of the earth, treasures in the bowels of the earth, the resources of the deep; yea, even the lightning's flash, subtle and swift though it is! Think of the discoveries that mind has made! Into what mystery in nature has it not looked; what cause and effect has it not traced; what combination has it not severed and formed anew; what hidden law has it not brought to light? The very stars of heaven it has dared to measure and weigh! Almost no difficulty has been too great for it, no work too laborious, no flight too lofty! And think, too, of the processes of reasoning it has followed out, of the systems in philosophy it has framed, and the sublimities in poetry it has created!

Now I would have you specially to mark this fact—the powers of the mind must be cultivated. In this, as in other respects, these powers differ widely from the instinct possessed by the lower animals. Instinct is given by nature in a perfect form. Exercise has no improving influence on it. It does not increase or expand. One of these animals is the same at the end of a life of five, or of twenty years as it was at the commencement; and, moreover, the same as a similar animal that lived a thousand years ago. On the other hand, man is a progressive being. The race advances, so does the individual—the one is secured by the other. Hence the cultivation of the mind is an object which must be deliberately sought by everyone. And we have no hesitation in affirming that the diversities amongst men mentally are chiefly owing to the amount of energy and perseverance given to the attainment of this culture. There are, it is true, some men who, by a profusion of gifts from nature, stand far apart from their fellow-men; some who are giants in intellect; some in whose breasts the fire of genius burns. But the number of such is small. One or two serve to enlighten and adorn an age. These exceptions granted, it stands a fact that men originally are very similar in mental calibre. It is in the struggle, or the race that follows that the great differences generally are page 3 created. Is it to be wondered at that one man should far excel another in the strength of his mental powers, when with eagerness and determination he cultivates them for years, while the other makes no effort whatever towards that end?

"The fault is not in our stars,

"But in ourselves, that we are underlings."

Never let it be imagined that men will drift into mental excellence without an effort. The exercise of the mind in the mere routine of daily business, or intercourse with society in which men cannot help engaging, will do but little good in this respect. Deliberately must the work be chosen and entered on, and persistently must it be followed. There are many minds which would have a width of grasp and brilliancy of conception that would make them an honour to themselves, and a blessing to the community, were they duly cultivated. They are lost because of a want of desire to go forward; or of spirit to adopt the requisite means, and battle with the difficulties that are to be met.

What, then, are the means for the attainment of mental culture? First in the list we place reading. By the art of printing the results of the mental toil of the men of the present, and of byegone times, are brought within our reach. These form a treasury of knowledge as valuable as it is wonderful. Generation after generation has given its contribution; stone after stone has been added, till now a structure, towering in its proportions, and beautiful in its symmetry stands before us. With any part of this accumulated truth it is impossible for the mind to become acquainted without being greatly benefited thereby. The acquirement of knowledge is in itself an exercise of the most healthful kind; whilst the facts that become known, ranging as they do over such wide fields, give an expansion to the powers of the mind which nothing else can secure. Equally to be pitied and condemned is the man who can spend his life without diligently searching into some of the secrets of truth. How blind is his vision; how contracted are his ideas; in what a little world he lives? How different is it with the man who is a reader? Whatever be his station in society he keeps company with the gifted and the good, and learns wisdom from their lips. With the astronomer he searches the heavens for knowledge; goes from star to star; compares, reasons, and wonders. With the geologist he searches down in the earth for knowledge; traces in the formation of rocks, and their deposits, evidences of the fact that, long before the days of Adam, the world existed, rivers ran, plants grew, and animals lived. The chemist analyzes, and the anatomist dissects before him. To him the poet sings; the historian describes the rise and the fall of nations, and the principles which were at work in both; and the traveller repeats his stories of strange adventures and hairbreadth escapes in distant lands and seas. Could any one be in such society without reaping real profit, and enjoying great pleasure? Companions like these at once create the thirst for knowledge, and open up the streams at which it may be quenched.

This, then, is the first step in mental culture. To some the step is easy; to others, difficult. In some a taste for reading is natural; in others it is to be acquired. But whatever he the case, an intimate acquaintance with truth in its various branches must thus be sought.

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That, however, is only part of the means to be employed for the cultivation of the mind. The next is thinking. There are many who read much but think little. Beyond the exercise of the mind required in reading, they seldom or never go. They do not deliberately make the facts and principles of which they read a subject of study. Such persons have not the clear perception, nor firm hold of the themes which books present to their minds that they ought to have. It is, after all, only by reflection that knowledge can be made the mind's own. One book read and thought over imparts more real, well-defined knowledge, than a hundred books read and not thought over. Besides, such persons have not the strength of mind which the extent of their reading might lead us to suppose they have. They neglect the strengthening process—the process of reflection. Like the muscles of the body the faculties of the mind are developed by exercise. This they must have. One hour spent in calm reflection is better than a whole week spent in reading; and one truth evolved by the reasoning of one's own mind, is better than a score of truths learned from the productions of others. That truth may be in importance far inferior to these, yet it is better to you; for in originating the thought your mind has got more substantial benefit, because more exercise, than in simply gleaning thoughts from others. Thinking, then, is a higher step than rending; and, as it is higher, so is it more difficult. No inconsiderable effort it sometimes takes to lay the volume aside, and begin to reflect. But the difficulty must be surmounted. The mind must fake independent action. It must use knowledge, not as an end, but as a means. Into its own chamber it must retire and think. Nothing can possibly make up for the want of this.

There is yet however another part in the means to be employed—viz., giving shape and expression to the results of thinking. This I put higher than mere thinking itself. It is still thinking, but it is a stage advanced. There may be thinking without this; thinking which does not go this length. This exercise is not only thinking, but the gathering up of the results of thinking It is the arresting of the thoughts, the arranging of them in their proper order, and clothing them in appropriate language. This we take to be the highest intellectual exercise. It gives the mind complete mastery over a subject; in fact, it .alone does so. It is only when we try to present a theme in its consecutive form, with its various parts dovetailed into each other, so that not only we but o hers may see it clearly, that we really discover the difficulties with which it is surrounded In the attempt to set in order, we learn the strength or the weakness of arguments, and the relative importance of facts and principles. And not only does this exercise give a complete mastery over a subject, but also a strength to the mind which nothing else can impart. To arrange the thoughts the mind must hold them before it; examine them; dismiss, or retain them; menial acts which require such concentration and abstraction that they cannot but impart intellectual power. It is the highest exercise; but while it is so, it is the most difficult. This is soon found out when a trial is made. Often the mind is sluggish and confused, and to seek in it at such a time suitable and consecutive thoughts is like seeking water in a well that is dry, or flowers in an arid desert To escape an intellectual effort a man would be often willing to lay down the pen, and engage in bodily labour of the severest kind. This, page 5 however, like the other difficulties, must not be yielded to, but overcome. The benefit to be gained, and the pleasure to be enjoyed when the task is done, far more than compensates for all the toil.

These, then, are the means to be employed for mental culture—reading, thinking, and giving expression to the results of thinking. Now I know no field on which young men may make use of these means better than in a Literary Association. Such a society affords the finest opportunity for their employment. To prepare for the exercises engaged in, there must be reading, thinking, and writing, It may, perhaps, be said that all that can be done without such an institution being joined—done by a young man in his own room. I admit it could; but I ask would it? In nine cases out of ten it would not. We need a sufficient motive or inducement; yea, more; an absolute necessity must be laid upon us, to bring us to engage in earnest intellectual work. That is a fact; and a fact which makes the importance of such associations very great. In the exercises a young man has to take his share. The occasion is fixed; the appearance must be made; the essay read; and fellow-members will not only form their opinions of the production, but give expression to them. It is only a portentous prospect such as this that will bring nineteen young men out of twenty to gird themselves for the work—"To seize the pen and shed some ink."

Then there is one most important way of giving shape and expression to thoughts which only such societies can afford the opportunity of cultivating. I refer to extempore speaking. Not only should a man be able to sit down in the quietness of his own chamber, and with pen in hand slowly commit his ideas to paper; but also in an emergency to throw them hastily together, and give utterance to them in suitable and correct language. Debate calls this power into exercise, and developes it. Than this intellectual gladiatorship, I know nothing better for sharpening the faculties of the mind, and no better training for the high and arduous duties of life. To detect, to seize, and expose the weak points in an opponent's arguments, and exhibit the strong points in one's own, and that with only a few minutes to prepare; to do this well requires an amount of coolness, a clearness of perception, a power of reasoning, and a facility of speech which cannot but excite the admiration and the envy of all who witness it.

Thus it is that a Literary Association affords the very best opportunity of attaining mental culture. The three means towards it—reading, thinking, and giving expression to the results of thinking—are admirably secured by essays and debates.

I ask your thoughts now to the second part of the object which young men should seek to attain; namely, moral principle. It is quite possible to have mental culture without moral principle. In the history of literature, alas, there have been not a few with strong intellect, bright genius, and fine accomplishments, who were yet characterised by vice in some of its lowest and most debasing forms. Par away on the wings of imagination they soared, yet they degraded themselves by evil habits; their minds in the solution of difficult questions they could control, but not their hearts in the regulation of their desires and passions. Giants they were, yet children; freemen, yet slaves. Temptation conquered them; vice bound them. And among our own acquaintances we may be able to page 6 recall to memory some who, though highly educated, were destitute of moral principle, and who suffered the bitter consequences. Without doubt, mental culture ought to lead to, and secure moral principle; for the man of cultivated mind can trace the results of actions, appreciate the strength of motives, and feel the cuttings of self-reproach when wrong has been done, better than a man of uncultivated mind. But what ought to be is not always what is. Now this fact suggests the important thought that the maintenance, the cultivation of a high-toned morality must be an object deliberately sought. Moral, like intellectual, excellence cannot be reached without an effort. The natural tendencies of the heart must be resisted, the downward forces of our nature checked; and this is a work which only self-denial, self-sacrifice, and watching can accomplish. And I would have you here specially to mark that this effort to maintain moral principle must be made at once; not after some ground has been lost; not after a step or two in the wrong direction has been taken; not after the moral sense has in some degree been blunted. No. It must be made while the perception of the good and the true is undimmed. The very appearance of evil must be avoided; and every step, whose propriety may be questioned, shunned. For Oh, evil comes to us at first not in its deformity and loathsomeness. Would that it did. Then would the inexperienced recoil from it, and flee. It conies with promises and flatteries; it comes with sweet voices falling on the ear; with flowers scattered on the path. There is the danger; and there must the struggle to maintain a high moral principle be made. Those voices must not be listened to; those flowers must not be suffered to entice and attract. If I speak on this subject with some degree of feeling I may well be excused; the thought of past years gives good cause. While in the commercial world, which I was for several years before going to college, I saw not a few young men led on, step by step, in the wrong career; some whom I regarded with the esteem and love of a brother, were thus torn from me. They had good heads and warm hearts, but they were without that moral principle whose value I am now trying to show. And we all know that there are in the colony many young men with good and cultivated minds—young men in whose welfare fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters in the old country, or in this one, are greatly interested; and for whom the morning and the evening prayer ascends to heaven—who are forming habits which, in the end, shall certainly ruin both body and mind. Oh, that moral whirlpool! How should a young man shrink from its brink! You have stood by the side of a harbour and have seen a gallant ship spread her sails to the breeze, and plough her way out into the main. She rides proudly on the wave, and seems able to bid defiance to every storm. Her timber is strong, her cargo valuable, and the breasts of her crew beat high with hope. Yet that noble ship may be engulphed in the ocean; her masts stripped; her bows may yield to the power of the tempest, and her crew perish. You are grieved at the thought. Yet than that there is a sadder shipwreck—a shipwreck which may well move with anguish our inmost soul. A youth sets out in life, and bids fair for a prosperous voyage; his heart beats with warm affection, and the hopes of loving friends cling fondly around him. But see him in ten or twenty years, with vile habits clinging to him, with prospects blasted—a wreck of humanity—a moral wreck. Your heart sickens at the thought. Be- page 7 ware, O youth, that thou art not the one! It is the fate of thousands. Go not thou in the way of the destroyer!

Now this moral as well as mental culture may, to a large extent, be attained through means of a Literary Association. I have often thought how much depends on a young man getting into a right channel. Indeed, my observation warrants me in saying, that the course he follows, the results he achieves in life, almost entirely depend on that. It is said that a man may be known by the company he keeps. It may be added, with equal truth, that a man is made by the company he keeps. With the good he cannot go without being led to virtue and truth; nor with the bad, without being led to the sinful and the false. Were I sending a youth, in whose prosperity I was deeply interested, to a large city, one of the first things I would seek to secure for him would be a right channel in which his spare energies might be engaged—his spare hours employed. And this for young men, such Literary Societies afford. Most probable it is, that those who are connected with these associations will be influenced by moral principle, and will benefit those who mix in their company; while the exercises to be prepared for will fully and profitably occupy the hours that can be spared from ordinary avocations. For this lofty purpose also, therefore, I say to you, connect yourselves with such a society; and while in it, have a high standard of moral as well as mental excellence before you. Shrink from everything that would lessen your estimate of the beautiful and the good. Only thus shall you be able to fill an honourable and useful position in society. It is hard work, but it is noble work.

Thus, then, the advantages of Literary Societies are of the most precious kind to all who become connected with them, and who earnestly and perseveringly take full part in the work. Very different will be the attainments of any young man, after attendance at such a class for a few years, from what they would have been had he wasted his time and energies, or spent them in other channels. I say to each of you—Be somebody in the world. However great the sacrifice, or hard the work, be somebody in the world. This is not pride, vanity, conceit. No. It is a realisation of the fact that you have existence for great purposes, and are furnished with adequate powers for their accomplishment. There are many who never feel this; many whose object is to get through the world as easily as they can. Let a nobler spirit characterise you.

There is, is there not, a fascination in intellectual culture which only those who have experienced it can ever know. What a treasury to be unlocked before the mind—the facts of history, the wonders of science, the discoveries of travel, the beauties of poetry; what a work to perform—to examine, to compare, to separate, to group together; and what a power to gain—to reflect, to reason, to infer, to call up thoughts worthy of such themes, and employ words suitable to such thoughts! Who that has entered on such a path can ever seek to retrace his steps, or feel that the road is tedious and uninteresting? True, it is up-hill; but are not the men that have gone before an honourable company—are not the streams which run by the way refreshing—are not the flowers that bloom on the path beautiful and fragrant, and is not the table land that is to be reached commanding and surpassingly grand in prospect? What a view from the summit to which knowledge can raise—a view over both the page 8 world of matter and of mind! How different the thoughts and feelings up on these heights from those which reign in the breasts of men down in the valley of ignorance and sloth; and the substantial joy experienced there, from the false and fleeting enjoyments with which myriads are satisfied! That is the eminence that is before you; it is worth a climb. Some of you have begun to climb; climb on; and let others come to climb with you. Men speak of money power, and the power of rank and station—and these are great; but the power that moves and controls the world is, after all, as it should be, the power of mind. Mind has asserted and proved its right, and its might, over all material things. You possess that power. Not yours may it be to receive the homage of your fellow-men, because of wealth or station; but yours it is, if you choose, to be respected, because of the force of mind. Shame upon the youth who can remain in intellectual darkness, when there is such a flood of light ready to burst in on his soul; who can engage his powers with trifles when the vast temple of truth, with its open door, is standing before him! Realize the might of the power of mind, and the responsibility it brings with it. Make it what it may be, what it ought to be; give it the force of exercise, of development, of enlightenment; and, above all, ever use it for the good of man, and the glory of God.

"In the world's broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of life.
Be not like dumb, driven cattle;
Be a hero in the strife.

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime;
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints in the sands of time.

Footprints that, perhaps, another,
Sailing on life's solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us then be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labour and to wait."


Christchurch: Printed by J T. Smith Co., Lithographers, &c., Hereford-street.