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Literary diligence recommended : a baccalaureate discourse delivered to the candidates for degrees in the College of New Jersey, on the sabbath immediately preceding the annual commencement, in 1820 online

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Late President of Princeton College, New Jersey.


My Dear Brother Breckinridge,

You solicit me for an essay or a sermon, for your
forthcoming periodical. I have neither time nor
strength to write any thing, de novo. But I send you
my Baccalaureate Discourse to the candidates for de-
grees in the College of New Jersey, on the Sabbath im-
mediately preceding the annual commencement, in
1820. - This Discourse has never yet been published :
and, although not exactly appropriate to Theological
Students, yet I think it contains a good deal, which, if
duly regarded, may be profitable to them, as well as to
all other studious youth.

Yours affectionately,


Philadelphia, August I5th, 1832.


"(Seesr thou a man diligent in his business? he shall
stand before kings, he shall not stand beford mean
men.'''' — Prov. xxii. 29.

" In the sweat of thy face ehalt thou eat bread,"
was a part of the malediction pronounced on many at
his first apostacy from God. From that time to the
present, almost every human attainment cr possession,
of much value, has been the fruit of industry and vigor-
ous exertion. The law of our present condition, how-
ever, which usually renders laborious, diligence essential
to the acquisition of whatever is valuable, though origi-
nally a penal enactment, furnishes a striking example of
that divine benignity, which is seen in very numerous
instances, mingled with the divine chastisements.
Take man as he is in his fallen state, with all his disor-
dered propensities, appetites and passions, and he is al-
ways unhappy when found without employment; with-
out something that gives excitement to his mind, acti-
vity to his body, and occupation to his time. A man of
much leisure is commonly dissatisfied ; an idle man is
always wretched. On the other hand, he who is con-
stantly and laboriously employed in lawful business,
has usually the best enjoyment of life ; Ihe best health


of body, and the greatest serenity of mind. Ho is ani-
mated by hope arid expectation, conscious that he is pur-
suing the coui-se which leads directly to all those attain-
ments and distinctions, which are the objects of human
desire ; which aspiring minds covet for the gratifica-
tion of their ambition ; which virtuous minds seek and
value, that their ability to do good may be increased.
These remarks^are plainly sanctioned by our text — de-
livered, let it be remembered, under the guidance of in-
spiration, by the wisest of men; by a prosperous prince,
mbst deeply skilled in the knowledge of human nature,
and- most thoroughly acquainted with the course and
tendency of human affairs. " Seest thou a man diligent
in his bjjsiness ? he shall stand before kings, he shall
not stafid before mean men."

I have chosen this sacred maxim as the foundation
of the present address, because, though I am aware that
it is applicable to business of every kind, yet I think it
peculiarly applicable to the occupation and pursuits of
a Scholar. In discoursing upon it, my object will be
to recommend literary diligence, by showing its nature^
necessity, and happy consequence^. The subject, in all
ita extent, is too copious to be treated with the requi-
site fulness, in a single discourse ; and as the first of the
points I have mentioned, namely, the nature of literary
diligence, may be considered as n whole by, itself, I
shall confine myself to this on the present occasion.*

In entering on this discussion, I earnestly intreat you

* The necessity, and hnppij consequences of literary ditigence,
were considered in a subsequent discourse.


to keep in mind tliat it is to be considered throughout,
both by the speaker and hearers, as the discussion qf an
interesting part otreligious truth and duty. This is im-
portant, not only that wo may mutually regard what is
incumbent on us, on this^ sacred day, iiut in order to do
justice to the subject, itself; for t am persuaded that
it can neither be fully understood nor felt, with its
proper force, unless it be examined and contemplated
in the light of religion. I do not, indeed, deny that
men may sometimes be found who, upon mere worldly
considerations, are regular. in their lives and indus-
trious in their habits. But I do affirm,' that as no-
thing but. a regard to the authority of God will en-
sure his approbation, either in this life op in that
which is to com6, so there is nothing as effectual as
this, to lead us to a cleap and extensile .view of what
is really incumbent on us ; nothing that mil make us
feel the obligations of duty so sensibly ; and nothing,
consequently, that will furnish so powerful an -excite-
ment to a life of persevering and laborious activity in
our proper callings. Beyond all question, he who re-,
gards exertion and industry as a part of the duty and
service^whicli Jie owes to his Maker, is influenced by a
consideration which must operate with the greatest
force and steadiness ; which' will be most likely to pre-
serve him from all improper jneans or endeavours to
promote his own interest ; and which must also pow-
erfully invigorate and ' support his mind, and even fill
it v.'ith pleasure and satisfaction, from the hope of re-
ceiving the approbq,tion of the greatest and best of Be-


ings, whose commands he obeys and whose eernce he

It is to be understood, however, that although, in ilhis-
trating.and enforcing the text, I shall make it my care to
exhibit and inculcate the truth which it contain s^ as a doc-
trine of religion, and as deriving its weightiest sanction
ftoia the divine authority ; yet this will not prevent my
showing that it is a doctrine which may be sustained, il-
lustfated, and enforced, like many other religious trutlis,
by reason, experience, and the principles of huma nnature.

In considering the nature of literary diligence, that
I may render the subject as practical as possible, I \Vill
begin with stating some things which are adverse or
hostile to it — some difficulties with whidh every indus-
trious student will haVe to Contend, aftd some errors
which he must endeavour to avoid. - '

Indolence, you knotv,'.rs the exact opposite of in-
dustry or diligence. Whoever, therefore, intends to be
industrious, must guard against the indulgence of indo-
lent feelings and habits, with all, the resolution and vigi-
lance 6f which he is capable. He should think much 'of
the sin of being idle, and of losing an^ part 6f that pre-
cious time, Tor the whole of which he must render a
strict account te God. Man was not permitted to ba un-
occupied even in Paradise ; and we have had occasion to
remark, that since his fall, it is, in a pecuHo-r manner,
the law of his nature and statp, that he must labour.
No affluence of fortune, no distinction of rank or birth,
can justify any one in leading an idle life. The indis-
pensable law of the Gospel is, that " no man liveth to


himself." He is bound to servo God and his genera-
tion unceasingly — with his best exertions, and with all
his influence, talents and property.

The man who would cherish the spirit and habits of
industry, should think often on the loss which every
idle hour will occasion ; a loss absolutely irreparable,
since every subsequent hour will demand its full share
of duty. He should consider, that although it may re-
quire an effort, sometimes a painful one, to throw off
lazy feelings, yet that a man always feels better when
this is done, than when he gives way to indolence and
inaction; and that he provides not only for present, but
for future enjoyment ; because he does that which will,
on rejiection, afford him pleasure, instead of pain. Slug-
gishness and sloth are so truly degrading, that it is
scarcely possible to fear them, hate them, and despise
them too much. To guard against them effectually, it
may be useful for young men, at least till habits of in-
dustry are well established, to prescribe to themselves
a daily task, and to resolve, in ordinary circumstances,
not to sleep till it be accomplished.

Again : he who would be diligent in business, must
carefully avoid spending too much time in company.
Retirement, you know, is essential to study and literary
improvement. Nothing, indeed, can be farther from my
views, than to recommend an unsocial disposition, or re-
cluse habits. Advantages of the most important kind,
and obtainable by no other means, are to be derived from
social intercourse, and mixing suitably and discreetly
with the world. It is, moreover, by such intercourse,



that the man of true benevolence finds many opportuni-
ties and occasions, which he would otherwise miss, of
doing good to others. But an excess in this particular,
is certainly one of the greatest dangers, against which
a studious youth, especially if he be fond of society, will
find need to guard. Of the company of idlers and
loungers he must resolve to rid himself effectually — with-
out offending them, if it be practicable; but by offending
them, if he cannot otherwise accomplish his purpose.
But we must go farther. In order to be industrious, es-
pecially in literary pursuits, we must be careful of spend-
ing too much time, even in the best company. From not
duly considering this, young men of great promise have
sometimes marred their prospects, and disappointed the
expectations they had raised. By an inordinate love of
company, from which they suspected no injury, because it
was reputable and honourable, it has come to pass that they
have remained superficial, when, otherwise, they might
have been profound ; they have become gentlemen, but
not scholars ; in a word, though they have adorned so-
ciety, they have never been capable of managing its
most serious and weiglity concerns. It is, therefore, of
much importance to learn and practice the self-denial
requisite to forego the pleasures of society, whenever
they would interfere with regular study, or professional
engagements. Nay, an industrious student must en-
deavour, as far as the obligations of religion, benevo-
lence and courtesy will permit, to prevent unseasonable
and useless visits to himself: and with suitable address,
this may usually be done, without giving lasting or serious


offence. To a diligent man, time is invaluably precious.
It will always grieve him when any portion of it passes
unprofitably; and in every lawful way he will be careful
to save it, or to turn it to some good account.

Farther. One who intends to be really and effectively
diligent in studious business, must not indulge a desul-
tory, fluctuating, or unsteady state of mind. Scarcely
any thing is more hostile than this, to the necessary ac-
quisition of science, nor, indeed, to a thorough know-
ledge of any subject. Such knowledge can rarely be ac-
quired but by gradual, and sometimes by slow advances;
and he who is impatient of such advances, he who will
not steadily and perseveringly pursue a subject till he
understands it clearly, and comprehends it fully, will
seldom be more than a smatterer. Sir Isaac Newton is
reported to have said, that he thought he possessed no
uncommon talent, beyond an aptitude for patient think-
ing and laborious investigation. We sometimes see
men, not otherwise incapable of improvement, nor, so
far as we can judge, disqualified for rising to eminence,
who seem as if they could keep to no one study or pursuit
long enough to bring it to a successful termination. They
oflen enter on anenterprizc Avith eagerness, but before it
is half accomplished they are out of conceit with it, and
must try something else. In active life, this unhappy
temperament manifests itself by driving its subject from
one profession to another, or from one place or project
to another, without end, and with certain loss both of
property and character. To counteract this unpropiti-
ous disposition of mind, a portion of which is no un-


common misfortune, studious youth should make a
point of resisting it resolutely, from the very first. Let
them deliberate well before they enter on any undertak-
ing ; but when entered on, let them resolve never to give
it up through weariness or disgust, till it be accomplish-
ed. Let them fix it as a maxim, to complete whatever
they begin. Have they selected a subject for composi-
tion ? Let them never change it for another, whatever
inclination may suggest, but pursue it closely, till they
have discussed it in the best manner which their talents
will permit. Have they set out to make a literary at-
tainment? Let them not alter their purpose, nor flag,
nor waver in it, till the acquisition be achieved. Have
they chosen a profession ? Let them think only of emi-
nence and usefulness in that profession, and never suffer
their minds to be discouraged, enfeebled or depressed, by
dwelling on the advantages, the pleasures, or the hon-
ours of another. Have they commenced business in a
particular place ? There let them pursue it, with a de-
termination not to remove, but on the most weighty
considerations. All general maxims admit of some ex-
ceptions, but to those now suggested the exceptions
ought certainly to be few.

Another enemy to effective literary industry, nearly
allied to that which has last been characterized, is the
love of miscellaneous reading, or of the pleasantcr
parts of general literature, or of attempting light compo-
sitions, indulged to the neglect of those severer studies
in which eminence, both in science and in professional
business, must always rest, as on its proper basis. This


is a mischief which often begins early, and continues
through life. It frequently commences in a grammar
school, or during a college course, where the youth dis-
regards or neglects the regular studies of his class, or
contents himself with a very superficial knowledge of
them, and consumes his time in reading entertaining
books, of every description and variety. Such a youth
is no very promising candidate for distinction in after
life, as a scholar, a divine, a lawyer, or a physician.
He is in danger of retaining his early habits, so that
though he read much, his reading shall profit him but lit-
tle. He may accumulate a heterogeneous mass of infor-
mation ; but still without possessing a thorough acquain-
tance with any one branch of useful knowledge. Of his
professional business, if he is ever found in a profession,
it is likely he will know less, than of many other sub-
jects. Such a man may become the author of a tale, or
an ode ; but will, probably, produce nothing valuable on
any important concern of life.

Let me not, however, be misunderstood. I would be
so far from condemning all light, or general reading,
that I would remind you distinctly, that no scholar
ought wholly to neglect it. There is, as Cicero has long
since remarked, a kind of common bond of union among
all the liberal arts ; so that they are mutually auxiliary
to each other. General knowledge always enriches and
liberalizes the mind; and it will ever be advantageous,
in various ways, to a professional man, to possess a con-
siderable portion of such knowledge.

I frequently refer to professional qualifications, because
T 2


in this country, at present, there are not many men of
education who are not professional men. It may be re-
gretted that such should be the fact, and we have been re-
proached on account of it; but, from the state of society,
it could not be otherwise. Few among us have, hither-
to, possessed the means of obtaining a liberal education
as a matter of ornament, or as a source of refined plea-
sure, or with the expectation of writing for the public
on subjects of taste or science. It will readily be
granted, that those who entertain any of these views
may properly indulge their inclination for general read-
ing, more freely than others. But even these will err
egregiously, if they do not pursue improvement on some
definite plan or system ; and if they do not also devote a
principal part of their earlier studies to the attainment
of that substantial literature, on which alone they can,
advantageously, superinduce the more elegant and or-
namental parts.

" Not even in trifles, triflers can excel,
' Tis solid bodies only polish well."

But to those who have professional employments
distinctly in view, general reading ouglit, through
the earlier part of life, to be an amusement rather than
a business. At most, it should be no more than a by-
business. Both duty and interest dictate, that the
strength of their minds be laid out on genuine science,
and professional studies.

Form your habits, therefore, on this plan, and retain
them unbroken, till you are satisfied that you may


change them without injury. In a word, be of the
character which the text contemplates — let your dili-
gence be in your business. Let other things be your
recreation, or the subjects only of occasional attention.
It should indeed be a part of the plan of every busy
Scholar, to render even his relaxation improving to him-
self, and if possible, useful to others.

Once more — Diligence in business, if we would secure
its full benefit, must be so conducted as not to injure
health. This is a most important consideration, which
few studious youth estimate as they ought, till they are
taught by experience — by an experience, alas! which
often comes too late to be useful. Let it by no means
bo supposed, that it has been my intention, in any thing
you have heard in this address, to recommend that your
application to study should be unceasing — Far from it.
Such an application, I well know, is not even calculated
to effect the greatest progress in study itself An inces-
sant poring on a subject renders the faculties obtuse,
and stupefies and bewilders the mind. To study ad-
vantageously, the mind must be clear and vigiorous.
In that state, more will be done in a few minutes than
in hours, or days, of lassitude and exhaustion. It
should never be forgotten that the mind, as well as the
body, may act feebly ; and that, in regard to both, it is
by vigorous efforts only that obstacles are removed, and
difficulties overcome. Now, in order to act with energy
and perspicacity, the mind must have suitable rest ; and
he who does not rest enough to qualify the mind to put
forth all its energies, will certainly not study to the


most advantage. To loiter and doze over a subject or
a book, is one of the worst practices in which a student
can indulge. Better it is by far, to apply vigorously,
while vigour can be sustained, and then to relax alto-
gether. Different individuals can, no doubt, bear dif-
ferent degrees of close study; but there are few who
can, with safety or benefit, employ in this way, more
than six, or, at the utmost, eight hours, in the day ; and
these ought generally to be divided into two or three
portions, with an interval of complete relaxation be-
tween them. It is also to be recollected, that not only
must the mind have rest, but that tlie body must have
exercise. For the want of this, we have seen numer-
ous and melancholy instances of youth, of the best hopes,
whose literary career has been interrupted almost as
soon as begun ; and themselves, indeed, frequently con-
signed to an early grave. Whether there be any thing
in the American climate, constitution, or habits, which
is peculiarly unfriendly to a sedentary and studious life,
I am not prepared to say; but it seems to me, that it is
far more common in this country than in Europe, for
studious men to ruin their constitutions, so as cither to
die young, or to render life a long disease. To prevent
this as far as possible, I am of the opinion that a student
ought to make it, not merely a point of prudence, but a
part of his religion, to take daily and sufficient exercise.
Besides what he owes to himself, is he not bound to ren-
der to God and to his fellow men, the greatest amount
of service of which he is capable? And do we not
know that this service is greatly diminished, nay, often


entirely prevented, by the want of that health which
due exercise is essentially necessary to preserve ? Let
no one say that he is too youn;^, and firm, and athletic,
to be always guarding against disease. I am not recom-
mending an effeminate anxiety about health and life.
This often defeats its own purpose; and is, in fact a dis-
ease in itself. No truly — But I do earnestly inculcate
the importance of constantly recollecting, that health is
more easily kept, when it is possessed, than regained
when it is lost ; that as both our comfort and usefulness
depend on it, it is a sacred duty, which we owe both to
ourselves and to others, to endeavour to preserve it ;
that, under the divine blessing, it is chiefly to be pre-
served by a proper regimen ; by forming and maintain-
ing good habits, of which the taking of daily exercise
is one of the very first importance. As, therefore,
every thing we shall do, is best done by system, let every
student prescribe to himself what he deliberately judges
necessary, in regard to the point before us, and then re-
ligiously adhere to the rule which he adopts.

Having thus noticed, at some length, what is most
adverse to literary industry ; the errors in regard to it
which must be avoided, and the difficulties which must
be surmounted ; a very short and summary statement
will now suffice, to show in what it directly and dis-
tinctly consists. It consists, then, in a steady, labori-
ous, unwearied, but discreet attention, to the most im-
portant subjects of study, while one is in training for
active life ; and in the same attention to professional
studies and duties, after he has entered on such a life.


In his preparatory course, the youth who is dihgent in
business, in the spirit of our text, will bend his mind
most assiduously to the acquisition of language and
science, as the essential prerequisites and preparatives
for every liberal profession or pursuit. He will not
slight any study in a system of academical education,
under a vain conceit that it would, if pursued, be useless
to him, or do him little good. He will, in this, yield
himself entirely to the opinion and direction of his teach-
ers; having already learned that the utility of elementary
knowledge cannot be judged of by him who is acquiring
it. He will, therefore, apply himself to the acquisition
of classical learning, of mathematical and physical
science, of the knowledge of composition and elo-
quence, of logic, and the philosophy of the human mind,
of historical information, and of the principles of morals
and religion. On these he will diligently employ his time
and his best efforts. When he has selected his profes-
sion, his great aim will be to understand it thoroughly.
No general and superficial knowledge of it will content
him. He will endeavour to go deep into every part of
it — to become acquainted with its radical principles,
with all its details, connexions, bearings, results and ap-
plications — in a word, to be a master of it. With this
view, he will make a considerable part of his general
reading auxiliary to his professional pursuits.

When he enters on the practical duties of his pro-
fession, he will consider himself as devoted to those du-
ties. All his arrangements will be made to favour and
forward their full and perpetual performance. To this


the order of his family will be made subservient. For
this he will aive up every interfering pleasure and en-
joyment. For this he will refuse no necessary sacrifice,
nor grudge any requisite labour or exertion. Thoso


Online LibraryAshbel GreenLiterary diligence recommended : a baccalaureate discourse delivered to the candidates for degrees in the College of New Jersey, on the sabbath immediately preceding the annual commencement, in 1820 → online text (page 1 of 2)