Literature as Environment

WE hear a great deal about heredity and environment in these days, and there seems to be no reason to doubt that what a man becomes is the result of his inheritance acted upon the by environment in which he develops. Formerly the greater emphasis was placed on heredity, but there is now a growing tendency to [emphasize?] the power of environment in shaping human beings. With a certain school of psychologists, this tendency has gone so far as to make the mind of man seem no more than the result of muscular reaction to stimuli. No doubt this tendency will lead thinkers far on the other side of the truth, as generally happens when there is a new persuasion to be defended; but it is not wholly a bad tendency, since it makes society responsible for the welfare of its [?].

Whatever the truth may be as to the exact relative importance of heredity and environment, this much may be taken as true: that, granting the inherited potentialities of an individual, [envorinment?] is everything thereafter.

But what do we mean by environment?

Environment is that which surrounds a man. From his view-point, he may be regarded as the center of his environment; but what is the circumference of it? How far does it extend?

It is probably that most people think of environment only in the physical sense. A child born in dire poverty is discussed as having a certain environment characteristic of want; but the literature of biography disproves this over and over. A thousand children of all sorts are born in a county where no one seriously considers anything but the prices of land and agricultural commodities; but among the thousand children, two or three may show very early in their lives that they are being acted upon by some environment greater than that of which the rest of the population is conscious. One of these youngsters, for instance, may by accident acquire a cheap copy of some great book, and such may be his hereditary traits that the book may become dear to him; so dear that he will manage somehow to get more and more joy of the same sort. And since the passion to understand develops by geometrical progression, the fixed and duller passions of the community will have little power to check the development of the youngster. He will not be the product of his [county?]. And yet it will remain true that a man develops by virtue of his potentialities acted upon by his environment.

Then what, in reality, is that boy’s environment?

There is environment in space and there is environment in time, and the latter is beyond computation the more important. It is possible to spend a lifetime in traveling all over the globe, as many illiterates have done, and never get out of the smaller environment. It is possible to dwell a lifetime in one place, yet live almost wholly in the larger environment. There is no escape from the self by changing one’s geographical position. The only escape is through development of self; and the larger development of the self is the result of contact with that environment which is in time and which consists of the best that men have “thought and felt and done.” The enduring literature of the world is the medium through which contact with this larger environment is made possible.

And so we come to a very thrilling fact, that great numbers of people in our time are right now able to connect with the largest environment if they care to do so. It surrounds them like an atmosphere that all but a relative few have never breathed. Wealth is by no means an essential, and not very much leisure is demanded. A little well-guided reading every day will accomplish wonders in a few years, as no doubt many of our readers could testify from experience; but relatively the number of those must be small.

It is an obsession with us nowadays to be what we call “practical.” By that term we mean, as a rule, little more than hustling after money. This is not strange, for need drives where greed does not, and the economic pressure is very great in a civilization that is so largely devoted to the artificial stimulation of consumption that production of commodities may be profitable.

Also the astonishing exploits of science tend to encourage us in focusing our attention on the purely physical, the immediate thing. This, too, has its justification; for, as we have learned, there is a great deal we need to know about the purely physical, the immediate thing.

But we should not forget that we are human, and not mere brutes, only because we are able to store up human experience for the use of our posterity. We now are both ancestors and posterity. And, as posterity, is it practical for us to overlook our great inheritance — the stored-up experience of those who were before us, as recorded in the literature that has survived so many changes in the moods of men?

Three thousand years is not long. It only seems so. In fact, all the great ones, whose lives and works have been saved for us, are not so much as a minute away from us right now. They are “nearer to us than breathing, closer than hands and feet.” In the realm of the greatest there is only now: and most of us may be citizens of that richest realm if we only wish to be.