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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Early Education: Words and Things
By Barthold Georg Niebuhr (1776–1831)
From a Letter to Jacobi, November 21st, 1811, in the ‘Life and Letters’ by Chevalier Bunsen

I WAS born with an inward discord, the existence of which I can trace back to my earliest childhood; though it was afterward much aggravated by an education ill adapted to my nature, or rather by a mixture of such an education with no education at all. I did not conceal this from you in former days. Had I to choose my own endowments for another life on earth, I would not wish to possess greater facility in taking up impressions from the external world, in retaining and combining them into new forms within an inward world of imagination, full of the most various and animated movement, nor a memory more accurate or more at command (a faculty inseparable from the former), than nature has granted me. Much advantage might have been derived from these gifts in childhood; perhaps in some pursuits they might have insured me every success; nay, this result would have arisen spontaneously, had I not been subjected to a kind of education which could only have been useful to a mind of precisely the opposite description.  1
  Our great seclusion from the world, in a quiet little provincial town, the prohibition from our earliest years to pass beyond the house and garden, accustomed me to gather the materials for the insatiable requirements of my childish fancy, not from life and nature, but from books, engravings, and conversation. Thus, my imagination laid no hold on the realities around me, but absorbed into her dominions all that I read,—and I read without limit and without aim,—while the actual world was impenetrable to my gaze; so that I became almost incapable of apprehending anything which had not already been apprehended by another—of forming a mental picture of anything which had not before been shaped into a distinct conception by another. It is true that in this second-hand world I was very learned, and could even, at a very early age, pronounce opinions like a grown-up person; but the truth in me and around me was veiled from my eyes—the genuine truth of objective reason. Even when I grew older, and studied antiquity with intense interest, the chief use I made of my knowledge for a long time was to give fresh variety and brilliancy to my world of dreams. From the delicacy of my health, and my mother’s anxiety about it, I was so much confined to the house that I was like a caged bird, and lost all natural spirit and liveliness, and the true life of childhood, the observations and ideas of which must form the basis of those peculiar to a more developed age, just as the early use of the body is the basis of its after training. No one ever thought of asking what I was doing, and how I did it; and it was not until my thirteenth year that I received any regular instruction. My friends were satisfied with seeing that I was diligently employed, and that though I had at first no teaching, I was equal to boys of my age in things for which they had had regular masters, and soon surpassed them when I had the same advantages; while moreover I was as well acquainted with a thousand matters to be learned from books as a grown-up man. Yet after a time I began to grow uneasy. I became aware that notwithstanding my empire in the air, my life in the actual world was poor and powerless; that the perception of realities alone possesses truth and worth; that on it are founded all imaginative productions which have any value at all; and that there is nothing truly worthy of respect but that depth of mind which makes a man master of truth in its first principle. As soon as I had to enter on the sciences, properly so called, I found myself in a difficulty; and unfortunately I took once more the easiest path, and left on one side whatever cost me some trouble to acquire. I was often on the verge of a mental revolution, but it never actually took place; now and then, indeed, I planted my foot on the firm ground, and when that happened I made some progress.  2
  When I first became acquainted with you, I was happy, and I was perhaps on the way to do what is more difficult than to gain knowledge without help from others,—to restore what was distorted in me to its right place. But at a later period, when I left my quiet and healthful position for a superficial world, which held me with a strong grasp and confused and deadened my mind, where I was dragged along a path which I had no wish to tread, and which led me further and further from that for which I hopelessly longed; where I was forced to endure applause and praise, at a time when my want of knowledge on essential points, and the superfluous matter with which I had loaded my memory on others, my unsettled, disconnected ideas without true basis, my undisciplined powers without adequately firm habits of work, particularly of self-improvement, rendered me a horror to myself,—I was as unhappy as you saw me to be.  3
  However, my eyes were opened to much that had hitherto escaped me, and I was to some degree forced into the actual external world, by my travels beyond the sea and my residence among a nation distinguished by sober thought and resolute activity; where I was obliged to occupy myself with the objects of practical life, and saw this life ennobled by the perfection to which it was carried, and the invariable adaptation of the means to the end. I then starved out the imaginative side of my nature, and placed myself, as it were, under a course of mental diet, according to which I lived for a long time in absolute dependence on the actual world around me. But this did not bring me into the right path of my true inward activity and development. I felt that I was now, on the other hand, poorer than ever as regarded what had always possessed the strongest attraction for me, though I seemed to be excluded from it by an insurmountable barrier. For years I was immersed, as far as my occupations were concerned, in the most prosaic workaday life, with the pain and torment of feeling that I grew more used to it every day; of feeling that I was shut out of Paradise, but that the bread I gained by tilling the earth in the sweat of my brow was not at all distasteful to me,—nay, that perhaps if Paradise were reopened to me, I should feel some longing for the spade.  4

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