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INDEPENDENT LITERARY JUDGMENTS.
WITHIN the sphere of general intellectual life, thought or thinking may be said to be conditioned in its freedom by certain well-understood limitations.
What we term, unwritten precedent or tradition, is one of these conditions, gathering volume and authority as the generations pass, until, at length it may be said to have all the force of definitely expressed and carefully recorded truth. With the great body of the people, as distinct from the specially educated classes, such antecedent oral testimony is practically final in its sanctions, while, with the enlightened classes themselves, it enters as an important factor in the reaching of conclusions. Conspicuously influential in many branches of the church as bearing on questions of faith and order, its influence is more or less apparent in every province of intellectual life and among all classes of minds. With not a few, indeed, traditional teachings may be said to be the only form of authority on which they rely.
In addition to such a limitation, there is what is included in the history of opinion, the consensus gentium, the gathered testimony of all peoples and all ages, in so far as it bears on those particular phases of mental inquiry that from time to time engage us as thinkers. As far as it goes, we possess in this a valid and helpful limitation of individual belief, far in advance of any form of mere traditional authority. It is the written and matured view of all those who have done the most and the best thinking. Such a consensus has the great advantage of representing a vast variety of judgment, and covers in its area of observation all countries and centuries. It is public opinion expanded in its range to the extent of universality. Presumably, therefore, it is a wise and well-digested body of opinion, the carefully generalized result of ages of reflection. If this be so, our general mental judgments will be controlled by such an aggregate of testimony, just in proportion to its age, its compass and the opportunity afforded for its true expression.
Other conditions, still, are seen to enter as affecting our common intellectual life, such aspersonal prejudice, personal pride and selfish interest. The very environment in the midst of which our life has been placed and the particular type of training, in the home and the school, to which we have been subjected, give coloring and character to our beliefs. The wish is, often, the father of the thought. We, often, think in this or that direction through the sheer force of inherited habit, or by a kind of unconscious imitation of the methods of others more independent than we are. In fact, we think so much along the lines of precedent and accumulated opinion and personal bias and surroundings, that it is difficult, if not impossible, for us to draw the boundary between our thinking, as thus circumscribed, and as indeed our own, the veritable expression of our own mental insight and outlook. All such conditions have their
appropriate place in the province of thought, and are so essential as checks and barriers to unlimited speculation, that, without their restrictive influence, liberty of opinion might degenerate into the wildest license.
All this conceded, however, there is such a thing as independent intellectual judgment, quite apart from all precedent, historical beliefs, prejudice and environment, an order of judgment binding, to some good degree, on every man who is entitled to the name of thinker, and absolutely essential to any such thing as personal mental progress. Be the limitations of thought what they may, unless scholars and students rise above them and pass beyond them, out into the open area of free inquiry and discussion, what Bacon calls, the advancement of learning, will be rendered impossible.
Precisely so is it in the narrower sphere of literature and style. Here, also, individual judgment is, in a sense, dependent, and rightly so. It is affected by literary precedent, unwritten and in
tangible though it be; affected, still more perceptibly, by that great volume of concurrent testimony known as literary history; affected, still further, and, most especially, by the expressed conclusions of literary ctiticism, and, still again, by environment, education, personal preferences and personal interests. All these restrictions are, in a measure, legitimate in the realm of letters, and, whether we desire it or not, will assert their presence and shape our deductions. In their proper place and function, they are to be accepted by us as being what Coleridge would call, aids to reflection, making it easier for us to think, and making it less difficult for us to break over the barriers established by historic usage.
Here, again, however, as in the wider mental area, there must be a limit to limitation itself. With the open volume of the past before us, we must be allowed to attempt, at least, to reach some literary conclusions of our own. With all proper deference to those who have preceded us, we are not bound to swear in the words of any master. We are, rather, bound, in behalf of literary interests, to do our own thinking in our own way, and having secured conclusions of our own sanctioned by our best reason and study, to hold thereto with tenacity and courage.
A more definite inquiry as to the Condition and the Need of such independence of view in matters of literature is now in place.
I. Private judgment in Style and Letters is based, first of all, on Literary Study and Scholarship. The mere tyro or amateur in this department has no more right to pronounce his opinion as a final one, than has any superfical observer in any branch of learning a right to insist that his half-digested conclusions shall be accepted by others. Here, as everywhere else, liberty of view involves a measure of responsibility. In fact, the wider the freedom, the greater is the duty of painstaking procedure, lest what is meant to conserve, in the end, the highest literary interests, shall be seen to impair and possibly nullify them. The free-thinker, in the best sense, is he who looks upon his liberty in the light of a high privilege and trust, for which he is to be held accountable, and not at all as a warrant to ignore all rational procedure.
By literary study as a basis of judgment we mean, a thorough examination of the special subject or class of subjects before the student at the time. This involves something more than a hasty glance, such as would seem to have sufficed many so-called literary critics. It involves an inspection of the subject in all its connections, bearings and possible applications. In literature, as elsewhere, one truth involves the notice of all related truths, that comparative order of research which, in its compass and minuteness, loses sight of no fact or principle that may contribute light to the main discussion.
Such a study will necessarily include a careful