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Notes from The Art of Thinking, 1930

by Ernest Dimnet

Genius has never been supposed to be a particularly good teacher of any art.

Sir Walter Scott, when he had found the nucleus of a new novel, would, however, read volume after volume that had no reference to his subject, merely because reading intensified the working of his brain.

Most people are more conscious of their dislikes than of their sympathies. The latter are weak while hatreds are strong.

Yet, from time to time, we see a thinker’s ideas progress independently of him, either because his ideas were difficult to grasp, or because the man himself remained nebulous to his flash through a human brain, and, in spite of a total lack of worldly influence, in spite of the recondite character of the doctrines, in spite of the absence of literary talent, the whole intellectual trend of mankind will be changed for several generations...thought can indeed be called divine, for it is creative.

The most ordinary of us know moments during which we glimpse the very states of mind which brilliant conversation mirrors. Everybody too is conscious of spells during which his mind is at its best, works swiftly and infallibly.

What happened to Balzac? Here was a man who, between his twentieth and his twenty-ninth year, consistently wrote trash and, after that, produced nothing but masterpieces. Is it not evident...that the healthy working of his mind was hampered at first by the imitation of English novelists who had little in common with him, and only began to act freely when dealing with the data of his own experience?

How can the historian of art or literature account for the marvellous growth of such epochs as the age of Pericles or the thirteenth century without exceptionally favourable circumstances preventing the waste of talent? Such periods testify to the existence, not of superhuman capacities in a few hundred individuals, but to that of a happy atmosphere helping the growth of the many...the question is, how to produce those conditions.

It seems at first sight illogical to brush aside self-love, prejudice, instinctive dislikes, etc. which prevent us from seeing facts flat on and inferring from them their natural conclusions. But the subject of this book is the production, not the guidance of thought, and its every chapter takes it for granted that we are honest in our wish to produce unadulterated thought.

Politicians frequently act historical characters and their natural insincerity becomes tenfold in consequence. One cannot exaggerate the influence of the English-American language in the Americanization of aliens.

(Beware of anything which) strengthens the soul-destroying habit of saying something when one has nothing to say.

Nobody knows so well as the writer that he should not think of two things at the same time, but nobody is more inclined than he to do so.

The man who informs himself in order to retail his information to others is a prey, while so doing, to an inferiority complex.

Nothing is as exciting as the hunt after thoughts or facts intended to elucidate a question we think vital to us, and the enjoyment of writing when the hunt has been successful is an unparalleled reward for intellectual honesty.

The more a man thinks the better adapted he becomes to thinking, and education is nothing if it is not the methodical creation of the habit of thinking.

Utilitarianism in education is as disastrous to culture as so-called easy methods are to scholarship. The preference for scientific branches which can be turned to immediate account is of course a manifestation of the utilitarian spirit.

..the terrible French craving for summing up complex realities in one French schools intellectual superiority is unchallenged...the passion of the French for ideas makes them imagine that when an idea as been expressed, its own virtue will be sufficient to get it realised..

People are wont to praise life as the great educator. In fact, nobody can deny that life is a succession of lessons enforced by immediate reward, or, oftener, by immediate chastisement, which cannot pass unnoticed. Our successes and our failures create in us an instinct for safety which we decorate with the names of experience or wisdom...Plato says: `Experience takes away more than it adds; young people are nearer ideas than old men.’

When you see the traces of untimely weariness on a man’s face, in nine cases out of ten, you may be sure that overwork is not to be blamed; what is to be blamed is the anxiety of not having any work to do; that has sunk the eye and pinched the mouth. Literary or artistic people with a vocation and no means are the classical instance and well deserve to be.

The real purpose hidden under the gregarious act of reading is NOT TO THINK.

The Art of Thinking is the art of being one’s self and this art can only be learned if one is by one’s self.

Many people are professionally trained to concentration. Napoleon could pass from one subject to a completely different one, from strategy, for instance, to the Charter of the Comedie-Francaise, as if he had been another man.

Interest of any kind produces concentration naturally.

Real interest is essential for concentration and creates it in an instant.

Another infallible method of concentrating is to take pen in hand and prepare to write down what our mind will dictate. There is in the very gesture something imperative which the most wandering mind seldom resists.

Most men and women die vague about life and death, religion or morals, politics or art. Even about purely practical issues they are far from being clear...they imagine they are thinking of some important subject when they are merely thinking of thinking about it. When this fallacy has been nursed for some time in our subconsciousness we decide that the question admits of no compelling answer and we act according to the pressure of circumstances, or perfunctory advice, or the slogans of the moment.

Everything has its inconveniences and I will point out more fully further down some drawbacks of fixing one’s thought by writing. But making up our mind is a necessity and better be an unsuspected crank than too visible a weathercock.

On the whole, concentration is a natural state which can easily be reproduced by simple methods.

If a young scholar asks me for a subject about which plenty can be said that has never as yet been said, I reply unhesitatingly: Homer, Plato, Virgil, Milton, Racine or Alexander, Caesar, Napoleon, or the Apostolic Age, or the Revolution, or Death, or Love. The test should be: what is likely to interest an intelligent child? For children do not care for trivial details till they have been spoiled by imitation.

It is impossible to live without noticing how barren our intellect becomes when it is apparently given unbounded chances.

Love, whether it be the attraction of Truth, or pure, simple, elemental love, always opens up the intellect and gives it the freedom of genius. Maternity also acts in that way and even animals show it. So does any great altruistic impulse filling the whole soul. I remember a well-known American woman...felt that she would have welcomed information about anything that might have given her soul-energies a chance. The war gave her the chance which her yearning was praying for...I met her again in California in 1919. She had undergone a transformation similar to that which a happy marriage is often known to produce. The suppressed impassioned something which made her at the same time distinguished and pitiful had disappeared, but in its place there was a superb fullness in the working of the mind and a mastery of persuasive language. Fulfilment was implied in every nuance.

Our nature is neither noble nor generous. We remember slights more easily than kindnesses...a studied appearance of frankness which we acquire in the course of years veils realities which we would not care to exhibit for inspection...thought worth the name can never arise from a nasty growth.

A book, like a landscape, is a state of consciousness varying with a Shakespeare calendar at the rate of four lines a day, if Shakespeare quotations have on you the magic influence they have on some people; read algebra, read the lives of great inventors or of great business men, read that kind of books which you and nobody else know to be thought-productive for you. ONLY READ WHAT GIVES YOU THE GREATEST PLEASURE.

Sometimes you may have enjoyed following the argument or the music with more than usual clarity; oftener the speech or the motif have given a chance to some lurking activity deep in you and, during an hour, you have been at your most personal. The Art of Thinking is merely the art of being that, as easily and as frequently as possible.

Nobody can accuse you of indifference to the present time if you leave out books which you find are forgotten three months, that is to say, twelve short weeks, after their publication. Do not read those. You will be surprised to see how few there will be left to read. People do not realize that the feverish excitement often produced on the publication of many books, and which the innocent public can hardly resist, is entirely commercial and artificially created by the publishers. They imagine that the book itself does it all. But the book does not do it, and the publisher cannot do it longer than a week or two.

Parents anxious to give their children the best of everything should as resolutely pack away trash of all kinds from their reach as if it were poison.

NEVER READ, ALWAYS STUDY. A harsh saying? Not if we realize that we should study nothing that does not interest us, and that studying only applies to the most enjoyable way of extracting from that which interests us the most. We can never repeat often enough that nothing intellectual can be achieved against the will of Minerva, that is, in a field that does not attract us. Working in our vein, without a sense of effort, and, on the contrary, with a sense of ease and freedom, is the fundamental condition of a healthy mental operation.

Comprehension is criticism, and criticism or judgment is a mere synonym for THOUGHT.

Nothing is so fascinating as to make up one’s mind about something worth while.

If we could add up the minutes we have devoted to a critical examination of what we hold, say about a future life, we should be shocked at the ridiculously small sum.

Some people have extraordinarily retentive memories and can do with a minimum of notes, but phenomenal exceptions do not count. Most men who have made a name in literature, politics or business have found it necessary to have a paper memory and those who have thought it possible to dispense with the drudgery of forming one have inevitably some day rued it. Striking facts or vivid impressions which we imagine can never be effaced from our consciousness do not survive in it more than a few weeks, sometimes a few days, unless something is done to give them permanence.

Facts are only the material for thought. Thoughts themselves, that is to say, the illumination produced in our mind by the presence of facts, should be preserved even more carefully.

You will say: knowledge, information are not the same thing as thought, and the art of educating one’s self cannot be the Art of Thinking. Certainly not in the case of genius. But no amount of genius will replace facts where facts, and not genius, are necessary. On the other hand, complete mastery of the data pertaining to an issue will give a person, beside thoroughness, that rapidity of argument which we cannot help calling brilliant thinking though, in reality, it is only information.

Intelligence is as contagious as gracefulness and wit used to be in the eighteenth century. This is not all. Taine use to say that thought is a collective, not an individual process...doctrines are tested and developed, methods are improved, views are completed, the work of the whole world becomes the property of each individual seeker who cares to annex its results. In one word the volume of thought is growing.

The existence of genius is also a unique tonic. But it is futile to hope for an explanation of their gift: They are superior because they are superior, that is all. If you ask them how they are that, the answer will only be the laughter of Rabelais, and you will feel smaller than ever.

Too often we forget that genius, too, depends upon the data within its reach, that even Archimedes could not have devised Edison’s inventions. We also forget that genius is not genius all the time. Poets know inspiration, but they also know periods of aridity during which they live on hope, or faith, and memory.

The partiality of the eighteenth century for purely intellectual superiority has had baneful effects, especially in France. Voltaire and Diderot had no respect for genius when incarnated in founders of religions and there are still too many people who prefer brilliance to goodness. Political or social reformers, diffusers of knowledge, great organizers in any domain; captains of industry, great generals, etc. are treated rather contemptuously by critics and pedants, though their mental gift is often as rare, and the intensity of their physiognomy is as striking as the gifts and the commanding foreheads of their rivals.

Is there a single community in the whole world in which there does not exist the tangible proof that a keen wish for securing a noble result, kept up through a life-time of perseverance, must inevitably attain its goal? Why should such efforts be regarded as inferior to intellectual efforts, especially when, as is too often the case, egotism is glaringly visible in these? Who would dare to say that Florence Nightingale has not the same right to be regarded as a creator as George Eliot?

Philosophers worthy of the name all entertain the ambition of giving an explanation of the world. Most of them realize how much that is purely tentative there is in those attempts. In consequence, most of them are emphatic in their recommendation of some mental process through which we can attain Truth. This word is getting hackneyed and modern scepticism is on its guard against it. But nobody objects if it is understood to denote the illumination accompanying the contact of our mind with what we call realities.

Effort of any kind is enough to create a beginning of personality.

Be yourself. The imitation of exterior qualities is detrimental to real creativeness, and ultimately becomes injurious to character. Acted, spoken, or written insincerity is per se destructive. of personality and comes to negative results. The more we try to seem what we are not, the smaller our chance becomes of fully being what we really can grow to be.

Whatever method we resort to we shall find that any powerful ideal or idea in us cures diffidence and creates not only forcefulness but a magnetism. The moment we are conscious of any such forces filling our minds and our lives, we shall also be conscious of their irresistibility. So, the problem of how to be one’s self is ultimately a moral problem, that is, how to make the best use of one’s faculties.

Find you own vein. Our vein means the stratum of our consciousness that is the richest, and which will yield the most. In other words, it means the objects, whatever they may be, about which we think our best. What are those? Not the objects on which you expend the greatest amount of study. Rather the material for thought which you handle with the greatest ease and with the greatest enjoyment.

It is impossible to reflect about the principles on an Art of Thinking without admitting to one’s self that what one is endeavouring to do is to devise a method bringing us all nearer to genius. Now genius is primarily power resulting in ease. Genius never plods. When Buffon defines it as `a long patience’ he means not the patience of doggedness, but the perseverance of enjoyment.

Education, the unfortunate notion that an effort must be associated with everything great a curious perverseness in many intellects is responsible for ridiculous delusions.

Speak or write in your vein. People in love or in anger, or possessed of some strong conviction or desire, are always eloquent. Few of us have not had some occasion to hear speeches, more stirring than those even of great orators, poured out by highly-wrought people who did not care a straw for eloquence.

Writing is one of the methods of relieving the mind, but a desire satisfied is not a desire any more, and it is a pity. Most French writers cannot put pen to paper without having done what they call thinking out their idea. There lies the once living thing, dissected into paragraphs. The vaunted French lucidity is due to that, but what people sometimes call French unpoeticalness is also due to it. English writers, and even more Russian writers, either feel the presence of their inspiration more deeply, or they are in no such hurry to fix their thoughts, or when they do so their thinking is not over.

The doctrine underlying this volume is that thought is essential to the process of becoming ourselves. Nothing could be farther removed from its purpose than a tendency to regard the thinker as a specialist instead of as merely a human being worthy of the name. It cannot produce the wish to think where it does not exist, but, given this indispensable germ, it ought to provide the necessary conditions to bring it to maturity.

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