The Improvement of the Mind/Preface, Part I

The Improvement of the Mind. by Isaac Watts
Preface, Part I

THE present Treatise, if it may assume the honour of that name, is made up of a variety of remarks and directions for the improvement of the mind in useful knowledge. It was collected from the observations which I had made on my own studies, and on the temper and sentiments, the humour and conduct of other men in their pursuit of learning, or in the affairs of life; and it has been considerably assisted by occasional collections, in the course of my reading, from many authors on different subjects. I confess, in far the greatest part, I stand bound to answer for the weaknesses or defects that will be found in these papers, not being able to point to other writers whence the twentieth part of them are derived.

The work was composed at different times, and by slow degrees. Now and then, indeed, it spread itself into branches and leaves, like a plant in April, and advanced seven or eight pages in a week : and sometimes it lay by without growth, like a vegetable in the winter, and did not increase half so much in the revolution of a year.

As these thoughts occurred to me in reading or meditation, or in my notices of the various appearances of things among mankind, they were thrown under those heads which make the present titles of the chapters, and were by degrees reduced to something like a method, such as the subject would admit.

On these accounts, it is not to be expected that the same accurate order should be observed, either in the whole book or in the particular chapters thereof, which is necessary in the system of any science whose scheme is projected at once. A book which has been twenty years a-writing may be indulged in some variety of style and manner, though I hope there will not be found any great difference of sentiment; for wherein I had improved in latter years, beyond what I had first written, a few dashes and alterations have corrected the mistakes : and if the candour of the Reader will but allow what is defective i n one place to be supplied by additions from another, I hope there will be found a sufficient reconciliation of what might seem, at first, to be scarce consistent,

The language and dress of these sentiments is such as the present temper of mind dictated, whether it were grave or pleasant, severe or smiling. If there has been any thing expressed with too much severity, I suspect it will be found to fall upon those sneering or daring writers of the age against religion, and against the Christian scheme, who seem to have left reason, or decency, or both, behind them, in some of their writings.

The same apology of the length of years in composing this book may serve also to excuse a repetition of the same sentiments which may happen to be found in different places without the author's design; but in other pages it was intended, so that thoae rules, for the conduct of the understanding, which are most necessary should be set in several lights, that they might, with more frequency, and more force, impress the soul. I shall be sufficiently satisfied with the good humour and lenity of my Readers, if they will please to regard these papers as parcels of imperfect sketches, which were designed by a sudden pencil, and in a thousand leisure moments, to be, one day, collected into landscapes of some little prospects in the regions of learning, and in the world of common life, pointing oat the fairest and most fruitful spots, as well as the rocks, and wildernesses, and faithless morasses of the country. But I feel age advancing upon me; and my health is insufficient to perfect what I had designed, to increase and amplify these remarks, to confirm and improve these roles, and to illuminate the several pages with a richer and more beautiful variety of examples. The subject is almost endless ; and new writers, in the present, and in the following ages, may still find sufficient follies, weaknesses, and dangers, among mankind, to be represented in such a manner as to guard youth against them.

These hints, such as they are, I hope, may be rendered some way useful to persons in younger years, who will favour them with a perusal, and who would seek the cultivation of their own understandings in the early days of life. Perhaps they may find something here which may wake a latent genius and direct the studies of a willing mind. Perhaps it may point out to a student, now and then, what may em. ploy the most useful labours of his thoughts, and accelerate his diligence in the most momentous enquiries. Perhaps a sprightly youth might here meet with something to guard or warn him against mistakes, and withhold him, at other times, from those pursuits which are like to be fruitless and disappointing.

Let it be observed also, that, in our age, several of the ladies pursue science with success; and others of them are desirous of improving their reason, even in the common affairs of life, as well as the men: yet the characters which are here drawn occasionally are almost universally applied to one sex; but if any of the other shall find a character which suits them, they may, by a small change of the termination, apply and assume it to themselves, and accept the instruction, the admonition, or the applause which is designed in it.

"THE author's name, which is prefixed to this book, renders it altogether needless for us to say any thing in order to recommend it; and we need not assure any judicious reader, who has been conversant with Dr. Watts'* writings, that this is the genuine work of that excellent author; for he cannot fail of discerning the Doctor's easy style and beautiful manner of expression in every page. We esteem it an honour done us by that truly great man, that he was pleased, by his last will, to entrust us with his manuscripts which he designed for the press: however, he lived to publish several of those himself, after his will was made; so that not many remain to be published by us. Some indeed there are remaining, which he did originally intend for the press, but his broken state of health did not permit him to finish them, and they are left too imperfect to be ever published. Of this sort, among others, is the larger Discourse on Psalmody, which he gave notice of his intention to publish, in the preface to the second edition of his Hymns, when he withdrew the shorter essay on that subject, which was annexed to the first edition. There are also among his manuscripts, some tracts relating to a doctrinal controversy which the Doctor had been engaged in, but which the world seems to be tired of: so that, most probably, this Second Part of the Improvement of the Mind, with the Discourse on Education, and some Additions to the Reliquary Juveniles, are all the posthumous works of Dr. Watts that will ever be printed.

As to this work in particular, a considerable part of it was corrected for the press by the Doctor's own hand; and as to the rest of it, he did not leave it so far unfinished as should, in his own judgement, discourage the publishing it; for he has left this note in a paper along with it:

Though this book, or the second volume of the Improvement of the Mind, is not so far finished as I could wish, yet I leave it among the number of books corrected for the press, for it is very easy for any person of genius and science to finish it, and publish it in a form sufficiently useful to the world.

The corrections we have presumed to make are comparatively but few and trivial; and when now and then it wag thought necessary to add a line or two for the illustration of any passage, it is generally put in the form of a note at the foot of the page.

It may perhaps be expected we should make some apology for delaying the publishing of this book so long after the author's death; a book that has been so much expected aud so earnestly desired, as appears by several letters found in the Doctor's study, from eminent persons and from learned societies. There are various causes that bare contributed to the delay, which the world need not be informed of but the remote distance of our habitations, and the multiplicity of business is which each of us is statedly engaged, are circumstances pretty generally known, and which we hope will be admitted in excuse for some part of the delay, and some part the booksellers must answer for. However, we are the less solicitous to apologize for not publishing this book sooner, as we are satisfied it will be welcome now it comes ; and that those who, upon reading the first volume, have so earnestly desired the second, will not be disappointed when they read it.

We bare only to add our most sincere wishes and prayers, that a book so admirably suited to improre the minds of men, especially of the rising generation, and to promote universal goodness, as this appears to be, may be attended with a blessing from on high.


June 26, 1751