2 October 2014

Two witty Johns

In “Of The Conduct Of The Understanding”, John Locke (1632-1704) writes not only about the importance of reading but about the importance of meditating after reading. He wrote: ”Those who have read of everything are thought to understand everything too; but it is not always so. Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking makes what we read ours. We are of the ruminating kind, and it is not enough to cram ourselves with a great load of collections; unless we chew them over again, they will not give us strength and nourishment. There are indeed in some writers visible instances of deep thoughts, close and acute reasoning, and ideas well pursued. The light these would give would be of great use if their readers would observe and imitate them; all the rest at best are but particulars fit to be turned into knowledge, but that can be done only by our own meditation, and examining the reach, force, and coherence of what is said; and then, as far as we apprehend and see the connection of ideas, so far it is ours; without that, it is but so much loose matter floating in our brain. The memory may be stored, but the judgment is little better, and the stock of knowledge not increased, by being able to repeat what others have said or produce the arguments we have found in them.” (italics mine).

In a word, reading is not enough for Locke. Reading good books from which we can learn is very important. However, dedicating some time to meditate on what we’ve read is even more important. Like some animals that ruminate their food, a good reader should be able to chew the reading over in an attempt to “observe and imitate” all the positive ideas learnt from their readings. Moreover, Locke highlights the importance of “see[ing] the connection of ideas” that we keep in our brain. 

In this respect, Locke’s ideas on reading remind me of what John Milton wrote about books in his Areopagitica (1644). He mentioned that “A good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.”

There is nothing like a good book full of good ideas from which we can learn. 
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