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In truth, it is not so great a marvel as it is considered, that our ancestors did not set great store by learning,[1] and that now it is found only by accident in the chief councils of our kings; and if this purpose of enriching ourselves, — which alone is set before us to-day,[2] — by means of jurisprudence, of medicine, of pedagogy, and even of divinity, did not keep it in credit, you would find it doubtless in as wretched plight as it ever was. Why not? if it teaches us neither to think well nor to do well? (c) Postquam docti prodierunt, boni desunt.[3]

All other knowledge is harmful to him who has not the knowledge of goodness. But the reason I was seeking just now,[4] would it not also come from this, that, since our studies in France have no other aim than profit, — few whom Nature has destined from birth for functions more noble than lucrative devote themselves to letters, or for but a short time (being withdrawn, before they have taken a liking for them, to a vocation which has nothing in common with books), — there are ordinarily left to apply themselves to study only persons of small means who are therein seeking a livelihood? And the minds of those persons being, both by nature and by home training and example, of the poorest quality, make a false application of the fruit of knowledge; for it is not hers to give light to that mind which has none, or to make a blind man see; it is not her business to supply him with vision, but to train his vision, to direct its steps, provided that it has well-made and strong feet and legs of its own. An excellent drug is learning, but no drug is powerful enough to keep itself from change and corruption if there are baneful qualities in the vessel that contains it. A man may have clearness of sight and not see straight;[5] and consequently he sees the good and does not follow it, sees know-

  1. Des lettres; that is “literary learning,” so to speak. The pronouns that follow are awkward and confusing, if used in the plural.
  2. Nous est aujourd’hui proposée. The earlier editions read en bute for proposée; the change seems scarcely an improvement.
  3. Since learned men have appeared, good men are lacking. — Seneca, Epistle 95.
  4. That is, the reason for the low esteem in which men of learning were held. See the beginning of the Essay.
  5. Tel a la veue clere, qui ne l’a pas droite.