Sunday, May 27, 2018

John Evelyn's Reading Recommendations

In 1704 the 17th-century man of letters, John Evelyn, wrote out a short book of advice for his twenty-two year old grandson, Evelyn's only surviving male descendant and heir to his estate. Memoires for my Grand-Son was preserved in the family library at Wotton until 1926 when it was transcribed and published. (Tragically, the library itself "was sold and dispersed" in the 1970's. I imagine it looked something like the library in Hatfield house, pictured on the right.)

The contents of the Memoires range from detailed lists of tools that need to be oiled and cleaned once a year to an inventory of "Mathematical Instruments" kept in the room next to the library. According to the editor,
"The chief value and interest of the manuscript lies ... in the admirable fussiness which impelled [Evelyn] to give such details of how a country gentleman should conduct his life and affairs. Many of these details throw light into obscure corners of the domestic economy of the late seventeenth century" (xi).

As you might expect, I was especially interested in the section on "Books & Studys for the Improvement of your knowledge." Evelyn begins the section by insisting on life-long learning:
"I thought I had say'd all that was necessary to be don as to your care within dores excepting that of the Library Appartments, which require your especial and constant Inspection, nothing more becoming a person whose Education has been something above that of most ordinary Country Gents who commonly unlearne and abolish all they had learn'd at schole, university, &c., when they come to their Estates, thro' a slothfullnesse and unacountable neglect of Cultivating their knowledge and the noblest facultys of their Intellectual Man, that is, by advancing toward something usefull as well as for merely entertainement of time. In order to this a constant and setl'd method should be resolv'd upon with an unvariable assiduity, and so order'd that none of these opportunitys be lost which do not necessarily require attendance or any publique Employment, there being none either of greate or buisy but leave such vaccuitys and Interstices as may aford a studious person time of improving his knowledge, which otherwise be cast away & utterly lost. My L. Chancellor Bacon has beside his owne example confirm'd what I have said, tho' he was a person in continual employment as a Lawyer, Judge, Privy-Conseller, & in perpetual buisinesse. The like were Raileigh, Selden, Hales, Vaughan, &c., besides forainers <in> aboundance ... Philologers, Noblemen, Souldiers, Advocats, Divines, Physitians, States-men, &c., (I name them promiscuously), to whom the knowing-world is oblidged for the Improvements of the present Age beyond a Thousand which are past." (pp. 38-40)

In today's jargon, Evelyn might say those who aspire to be leaders need a solid grounding in the liberal arts.

Next, Evelyn lists the kind of subjects a country gentleman should make the object of his study:
"Among these studys & Facultys most necessary for you, I think, would be more than a superficial Tincture of the Laws, Civile, Municipal; History, both in generall and particular by a judiciously chosen Method, Antient, Modern, Greeke, Roman, and from the decline of those Empires to our owne times, accompanyd with Chronologies, Geography, &c. And for the most usefull diversions assistant to innumerable subjects both speculative, but above all practicall, Mathematicks, which ... sharpens and settles the Judgement. ... But to be accomplisht, above all, Algebra. These well studied will furnish also innumerable other knowledges, accompanyd with such Treatises as every day occurr, relating to modern History and Arts, Travelles, discoverys, Transactions Philosoph:, &c., beside the most select pieces of all kinds which your library will afford you, poetical, political, Military, All the Classics, &c., and other noble entertaiments both pleasant and profitable, whilst your maine study should be such as we have recommended to us by the most grave and wisest Ancestors. ... One would not be notoriously Ignorant of anything belonging humanity, or laudably Entertaining at home in private and abroade or in Company, without ostentation." (41-43)
Evelyn commends the practice of keeping a commonplace book, both as an aid to memory and as  preparation for writing:
"In order to all this and all your other studys either by booke or conversation, A well digested Adversaria as to common places should by no meanes be neglected, in which to write down and note what you find most important & usefull in your Readings & not trust altogether to your owne Memory, so in a little time you will find your papers furnish <you> with materialls of all subjects; short notes and Referrences are sufficient for this unlesse wher you meete with some Remarkable passages which may require a larger transcription. From such a Magazine one is inabled to speake or write upon any occasion, & it would not be amisse to pitch upon some usefull subject to exercise your style in & to publish some Fruits of your studys, which cannot be don without Collections, no man being able to build anything whatever without the help <of> others which may stand or last longer <than> the Cobwebs spun out of the bowels of an Insect. But with this Advice, that, when once one has written what is of such intrinsical value as to gaine universal applause, To adventure out againe without extraordinary caution." (43-45)

Last, but not least, Evelyn states that Sundays and Holy days should be devoted to the study of Theology: 
"If now I have reserved that of Theology to the last place, it is not out of forgetfullnesse or that it ought not to have been the very first of all Recommended, but because all the studys hitherto mention'd are to be subservient to This, which, being of all others the most necessary and sublime, ought never to be omitted, That you may be able to give an Account of your Faith & choise of your Religion upon principles solid & rational, and not because it is your Country's profession onely. For this end, therefore, have your first & chiefe recourse to the Divine Revelation, The Holy Scriptures, handed downe to the world by those Holy and Inspired men, the prophets, Apostles and Successors. ... This to be the Employment of Sundays & Holy-days (as they call them) especially, & of every weekday, morning or Evening, after your privat prayers, in which, however short your leasure may be, consistent with other necessary buisinesse you may by degrees arive to a greate deale of the most Excellent knowledge of that unum necessarium in comparison of which all other is unprofitable. Let your choise (after competent acquaintance with the Scriptures, that sourse & perennial fountaine) be the most genuine and antient of those who immediatly writ after the Apostolic age and so downe to the present; nor let the Volumes of the Fathers, Councils, and Controvertists, afright you, these being so very few after the first foure Centurys (and they no way insuperable) which you have not sufficiently supplyd by many excellent Epitomisers of all that is considerable in them." (45-48)
Evelyn was evidently describing his own practice. Toward the conclusion of the Memoires, Evelyn explains that "Most of the devotional papers, books and sermons, were the tiresome [i.e., tiring] exercise of Sundays & Holydays, which in time swell'd into such bulk." (65)

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