J. K. Ingalls, Books—Their Sphere and Influence

Here’s another nice piece by J. K. Ingalls. It originally appeared in the Spirit of the Age, probably in 1850, and was reprinted in the Liberator, April 16, 1852.

Joshua King Ingalls

In the history of human development, books maintain an important position. We are indebted to them, in a material sense, for all our acquaintance with the past, and for that wide diffusion of knowledge which distinguishes our age. And yet, in a higher sense, there is no single thing which has stood so much in the way of man’s advancement as his idol worship of them; for books, as well as other things, which God has created or man has made, may stand for idols, to a nature perverted from its legitimate sphere of exercise.

To be able to comprehend our subject, it is necessary to bring our minds up to a sphere of thought measurably above it. We must take our stand independent of the books, ere we can judge truly of their quality, design or influence. This preliminary cannot be too strongly insisted on; for there are books which are deemed above criticism—the very idolatry suggested having clothed them with an odor of sanctity it is treason and impiety to invade. Let us stop here, then, on the very threshold of our investigation, and determine one thing—whether we are able to judge the qualities of any book which challenges our reverence and submission. If it is admitted that we do possess such ability, then we may proceed. If any contend that we are not competent to decide on so momentous a question, then it is insisted that they shall be consistent with their decision. Of course, they must never say that the book they reverence is true; for that presupposes their capability of knowing truth from error, and that they would have known, had this book contained error. They must no say that it is a good book; for how can they know that it is good, if they would not have known if it had been evil? They must not pretend that the book is from God; this presupposes that they are competent to judge what is worthy of Him, and that, too, by sources independent of the book itself. The very claim set up for the sacredness of any book is self-contradictory, assuming that the same qualities of mind have been exercised, in making up the estimation which we are forbidden no to employ. The fear of being accused of presumptuously sitting in judgment on ‘God’s Word’ has silenced many a sincere, though timorous inquirer after truth. Ye you will find none so reckless as to insist that every book is the word of God which puts forth such a claim. A standard of judgment must be supposed, by which all books are tried; and this is all that the rationalist asks—the same liberty which they assume to decide what is the Word of God. The fact that those who condemn this position as impious, occupy precisely the same themselves, should be sufficient defense against their charge of impiety, on however low a plane. In a truer light, those will be clearly proved guilty of idolatry who allow a book to dwarf their intellect, check their soul’s aspiration for light and freedom, or in any way abstract the communion between the human spirit and the great Father.

But it is necessary to comprehend what is below books, as well as to rise above them, in order to realize fully their influence on human advancement. Perhaps a figure will enable us to comprehend what the world was without them. Let them be represented as mental storehouses, of capacity proportioned to the treasures they preserve. The condition of man in the savage state, without shelter, dependent on the spontansous productions of nature for a precarious supply of his want, is easily imagined. In this state, he could make little advancement in the useful arts, or in his social arrangements; and yet it might be comparatively favorable to the development of the muscular system, and to general strength and physical beauty. In the next step, we shall discover that he has reared a cabin, and preserves the more valuable meats and vegetables which his arm has captured, or his industry procured. From this point, he gradually accumulates wealth, and invents structures of a higher and higher perfection, to preserve his goods, and gratify his domestic and artistic affections. A fact here must no be forgotten—that no accumulation of past wealth can compensate for present neglect of the duty of labor. The daily employment of the race, if not of the individual, has been constantly required. It is the great law of God, that he that will not work, neither shall he eat. And if society so perverts this rule, as to allow one class to live idle, they it must condemn another to starve. It is the most grievous sin of this mammon-worshipping age, that the storehouse is reverenced as the only source of life and happiness, before which ministers the merchant miser as great high priest. Yet, despite all this blindness, the great fact of nature stands out in bold relief, that all sustenance, comfort and luxury, not the common bounty of Heaven, must be constantly elaborated from the elements of human toil.

These transitions in civilization are to be regarded as regular steps in the march of humanity to its destined perfection. Nothing can be predicated on the existence or non-existence of their particular monuments, except as they reveal the point of progress attained. They have no power in themselves to civilize or refine mankind. These accumulations, edifices and civil and religious institutions, have been made, by man, what they are, have not made man what he is. The application is readily seen. Books, no more than these possessions, have made the civilization, the enlightenment, or the degree of christianization which the world has attained. If these do not obtain where there are no books, so there are no books where these have not first appeared. It is not uncommon for mankind to confound cause and effect, and put one for the other. As there were not edifices in which social and mental refinement could be cultivated, until sufficient had been attained to their need and use, and qualify men to design, construct and appropriate them; so books did not serve to instruct mankind, until the human mind had fist conceived and embodied in them its own apprehensions of wisdom and refinement.

The idea of sanctity and efficiency which most nations attach to their sacred books, is wholly inconsistent with the reception of the first principles of all knowledge. These are nowhere derived from books. Books are made up on the attainments of their authors; cannot be any thing more, nor even a full expression of that, since the best thought and the highest truth of each mind is inexpressible. We could not well do without these convenient conservators; but thee is not one among the innumerable volumes which exist, that was not written by human hands, and dictated directly by human minds. We would not have the truth they contain revered the less, but the more, and with all the reverence now attached to the letter would we have men look upon the divinely communicative spirit, which through these mediums breathed its purifying transmission, and effected its divine creations. And be it remembered, that if the race could not survive a cessation of labor, to live on past accumulations, neither could it long thrive in spirituality on the mental and spiritual food bound up in books. The mind, as well as the body, is only sustained by the fruits of its own activity. It may scan the elder revelation inscribed in every rock and rill and flowering shrub; it may delve for the buried treasures of antiquity; it may strike out new trains of thought or follow the old; but, in some way, it must work. It would be madness to scorn the materials furnished by past experience; but it would be more than madness to fall down and worship them, because they had proved serviceable to our fathers for food or shelter. So that which is valuable in books cannot be thrown away without injury to the race: but neither can they be clothed with an air of sanctity, which forbids all approach of thought, or worshipped as divine, without manifest detriment to moral and mental development.

It is easy to conceive that a greater diversity of talent and wider degrees of development once existed in human society, than are now seen in similar circles; but not so that peculiar sensation of mind which must have been created in the breast of the ignorant and superstitious, when they saw the evidence that thought could be communicated by signs. The Indian has been known to regard the man as supernaturally endowed, who could converse with a book. In early times, the mind itself was a subject of conjecture, and all its diseases, as well as inordinary attainments, were referred to superhuman influences. Until the invention of printing, and the consequent multiplication of books, this feeling must have been quite general. This undue reverence for what was written has been handed down, pandered to, and in a measure induced, by the initiated or interested. As books on more common-place subjects became diffused and subjected to the scrutiny of common sense, the claims of the supernaturalist were transferred from general literature to medicine, law and divinity. This trinity of imposition has held on together, and bid fair to yield altogether. How a man of worth and sense, even now, is often seen to stand abashed, and humbly inquire why he should assume the authority to teach, merely because the professional man can quote some old book, or phrase, as destitute of life and thought as implied by its preservation in a dead language.

Individuals who are affected by books are of two classes, those who use them and those who worship them. As the idolater appropriates his object of devotion to no practical purpose, but to incite his blind fanaticism, so he who regards a book with superstitious reverence, seldom employs it for an legitimate use. In its very presence, the man is debased. He reads not with natural eyes. Its lessons of good or evil are measurably unheeded, in his fervor to show it becoming homage. The most sublime and mist ridiculous things are drawled out in the same sanctimonious monotony. Interested promulgators, whose position and influences depend on their skill in interpretation, labor to perpetuate these erroneous impressions, and to have them inculcated on the tender minds of youth; so that the real truths contained are prevented any useful and practical application by the lack of all discrimination in the reception of the mere letter.

The other class read books for the thought or moral they may contain; and the right of individual judgment is indispensable to any salutary result from their reception. The very attempt to put in practice their simplest teachings, is only consistent with the assumption of the right and ability to judge what is fit to be done. If a principle is involved in action, it will produce results, and those results must determine the legitimate character of the principle; for all principles must be judged by their fruits. Here is the difference: The practical man brings to practical tests every important precept or declaration he finds in books. Those given to idolatry mere hoard up, coo over, and worship, do not use them. Swayed by superstitious fear, they elevate a number to a sacred position, and decide that they contain all that ever has been, is, or can be known. And this is well nigh the truth in regard to them. Indeed, to minds thus enthralled, what is contained cannot be known, in any practical sense. They should be measured, valued and reverenced, according to the degree of mental and moral nutriment derived, and which must be elaborated into growth and life by our own mental forces.

It is only in a low degree that we are benefited by books, greatly as we are indebted to them in that degree. After all, they can put in possession of nothing, which was not first communicated to the human mind without them. Our great dependence on them for a system of history, science, or religion, is strictly material. They can only tell us the accidents of history, cannot show us that inner life of the race, which has flown down through the ages. It is only by our own reflections, prompted by the thinkers of these last days, that we are enabled to see through the circumstantial array of uninstructive facts which compose the literal histories, and discover the living reality. The true history of the race might be compiled to-day, without reference to books, by taking note of human society as it exists in its different stages of progress; for all tribes may furnish, from the highest to the lowest, a near approximation to the whole series of advancement from stage to stage. In religion, books can only acquaint us with the outward manifestation of the spirit, the religious incidents and experience of the past,—cannot show us that law of life within, which has quickened innumerable souls through long centuries, has been working beneath this whole outward, formal, incoherent mass of things which we term Ecclesiastical History.

It has long been a disputed question, whether books had not an interior signification, especially the books of the Bible. As received by a small, though very learned and spiritual set withal, the proposition is an entire fallacy. At most, a book is but a written picture. Do pictures possess the life of the thing which they represent, or merely copy the external form? Whether pictures may not convey an idea of life is another question, dependent of the degree of refinement in the beholder, and the truthfulness of the copy. As in nature, the spirit of all things becomes more and more revealed, as the mind expands and grows in spiritual powers, so the signs employed to express our ideas will be more or less significant to one who sees much, than to one who sees little in things. A book that has truly ‘held the mirror up to nature,’ becomes suggestive of the great facts of being and the interior life every where shadowed forth. But we must never forget that in nature, not in the book, the reality resides. Here the doctrine of correspondences, so clearly unfolded by Swedenborg, exists, and only here. The mind, elevated to a high place of thought, comprehends this, and is enabled to explain many difficult sayings and figures which occur in our accredited Revelation. But it will be found equally beneficial in explaining any book which presents important truth under natural figures. The most sublime and elevating passages in Isaiah, or David, or even in the teachings of Jesus and his apostles, are their truthful appeals to the testimonies of nature, not to men or books. The great men, in every age, have been book-makers, not book-worshippers, or even readers, as the best artists have sculptured and painted statues and pictures, and have not been image or picture worshippers.

All empirical systems of science or religious have had their books. The True has none—or, rather, has all, embracing the truth and good in all, yet worshipping none. Much is said about the Christian scriptures; but there are none, in the sense in which there are Mohammedan, or Jewish, or Hindoo scriptures. Unlike Moses and Mohammed, Jesus left no books. The system he labored to unfold has not, nor ever can be, embodied in material form. It leave book-worship, as well as other forms of idolatry, and elevates the soul to a higher position, where it can read, in the cheering light and heat, and in the genial moisture which comes from heaven, a lesson of deeper and holier trust than can be gathered from numberless tomes. It takes the eye of man from the copy to the original, from a vain attempt to comprehend the skill displayed in the picture, to an intimate communion with the reality of all things, the actual, living scene.

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