Preface, and Notice to Young People

by Isaac Mathieu Crommelin


The desire to teach myself, and to relieve my memory, I resolved for a long-time to do all my reading with a pen in my hand. While reviewing my notebooks, I found that it was possible to put some order to them, and then to link them together to produce an elementary work that would be useful for young people. Several enlightened people have felt, like me, the need for such a book, and have contributed their talents to make it possible.

I am pleased to have seen a few books in this genre that are well done, but since the Arts and Sciences have numerous aspects, I found that my collection contained articles that were somewhat different from what the other publications contained. Therefore I humbly offer to the public my contribution on the advice of several academics who consider it useful. My aim is to inspire a taste for different talents; to make study pleasant; to lead young people by the hand in the sanctuary of Science and the Arts; to foster in them a desire to analyze things up close, the beauties of which they may never have taken the time to stop and see with their own eyes; and finally, to give them the opportunity to enjoy with pleasure the conversations of scholars so that they might benefit from them.

I have carefully avoided things that require a lot of application, and I included only those which can be understood in the first reading. I have even explained the technical terms in order to avoid having to resort to dictionaries. I hope that I won't be thought of badly for having repeated some words so often. It only means that they're important!

The world is filled with people who complain bitterly that their education has been neglected, and who admit that this deficiency has left them below their potential. Still, nothing is more common than people who, for lack of resources to do the same, criticize those who do manage to cultivate their talents, and who are then envied with all their heart.The haunts of these wearisome idle people (to use the expression of Seneca) is a tomb or grave because their pastime is a kind of slow death. The desire for study and developing one's skills chases away idleness. They make solitude attractive, and teach us how to make productive use of each day. They instil levity and vibrancy in the spirit of lively people. They put you in a position to soberly assess the works of sages, and link you with the company of Artists, Authors and Scholars thereby fostering a spirit of correctness, strength, precision, and even grace which connoisseurs appreciate.

Nothing gives more spring to one's imagination than an acquaintance, however small, of the Arts and Sciences because each link can bind itself to a thousand different objects, and thereby give rise to a great multiplicity of combinations. One doesn't have to be particularly clever, but to persevere; to have an unusual ability; to view things analytically, and to have a calculating spirit - these qualities run a close second to genius in their effectiveness. However, they too are gifts that nature is stingy in disseminating. Therefore, since ignorance carries with it such a disagreeable stigma in this century, in order to play an interesting role in society one must at least become what is called an 'educated man'.

The benefits to a young man who has general knowledge, are infinite. He has the ability to express himself with a certain ease and isn't forced to listen in a way that pleases only the one who speaks. He isn't misled; he is able to judge; he has in his spirit embers that grow constantly, either by reading or the commerce that he conducts with other men. He takes advantage of everything; nothing is boring or tedious. He weighs the ideas of the crudest peasant, without laughing at his poor grammar, while at the same time acquainting himself with the Artisan. He welcomes everyone, and if he is modest - usually with love. So this is the kind of man I would like to train up, and why I place here this reflection by Horace: 'Fungar vice cotis acutum Reddere quoe ferrum valet, exsors ipsa secandi.'

Far be it for me to take the credit that may be forthcoming for this book. I only had to read lines, to extract, to reduce, to translate, to link together, and often to copy. Any labourer could have done the same. If I didn't always mention the authors whom I drew upon for help, it's only because the citations would have stifled a certain freedom necessary for my plan. And if I haven't always made known the source of my extracts, it's only because the text would be constantly interrupted, thus producing a bad effect that my readers would likely find distracting or tedious.

I owe an apology to my masters for having dared occasionally to alter their productions. I tried to capture their ideas, but I wrote them in my own way. In doing so I often felt that I was turning an overweight body into a skeleton by constantly reducing, omitting details, and generally making my plan less broad. Besides, I candidly admit that I'm more of an amateur in the fine arts than an expert. In other words, I haven't acquired the right to repeat, with one of the greatest geniuses of this century (M. de Montesquieu), this lively expression by Correggio, 'anche io sono pittore.'

Notice to Young People

I offer you with pleasure this small portable Encyclopedia in the hope that you will find it useful. I may be reproached, perhaps, by experts for the multitude of topics that they, instead of broadening familiarity with them, tend to shrink into tight little circles. I admit that the outlines which I have given you in Science and the Arts are rather brief but, I repeat, my goal is much less to educate than to inspire a hunger for further study. I set out to provide an overview of Science and to mark its boundaries so that everybody can find the place which suits them best. The details of each science are very broad; the apprenticeship is long; and the time that we can devote to study is short, so it is very difficult to acquire depth to any degree. Besides, nothing is more common than to hear about a 'universal man' which increasingly means the man who is praised for having a broad, general knowledge about many things. But this universal genius, of the kind that we see all around us, looks small when he is confronted by a man who is of profound stature. His limitations are then exposed; admiration for him fades, his chatter subsides, and soon he is reduced to silence.

There are two ways to study the Sciences. The first (which is the proper way) builds upon principles and consequences. It provides the right approach needed for overcoming difficulties and for developing the patience necessary to carry on. It cultivates the ability to ponder and meditate, to plan a course of action, and more importantly, it does not allow one to leave a subject until one knows it thoroughly, or perhaps even exhausts it. This is the approach in which a military officer, doctor, lawyer, or even an artist might want to distinguish himself.

The other way is to touch lightly on the Arts and Sciences so as to learn the most essential rules and terminology with reference to a few specific applications, and thus to gain enough knowledge in order to speak meaningfully about it amongst educated people - and thereby to enjoy their approval! This second approach is good enough for ordinary life. We are not obliged to know everything in great detail; it doesn't become tedious, and it can even serve as a recreation.

Every person has a knack, and his peculiar interests foreshadow his field of study. For example, an engineer will be more interested in poetry than the average citizen; a clergyman charged with governing one's conscience will study music or the art of painting, and may even ignore morality. I say that these men are gifted, and that while they have real talent, they may at first appear simple. I submit that one's tastes sometimes foreshadow something quite the opposite, but can any man say, "I am perfectly free!" I don't think so. Everyone, more or less, is dependent on the circumstances in which he is placed by nature and fortune. Therefore, for the most part, it is upon learning basic principles that one comes a little nearer to what he wants to be. One must apply them consistently and often, because without that, one's comprehension remains elusive. I can even assure you that in order to succeed, perseverance is far more useful than inspiration. [This notion was later echoed by Thomas A. Edison when he said, "Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration."]

Experience proves that a young man who plods along, remaining focussed in his area of study, will be more successful in reaching his goal than the one who has a carefree attitude and who works erratically according to the dictates of a broken baton. It is simply the application of the ingenious fable, 'The Tortoise and the Hare'!

It is quite interesting to know the general concepts. I have felt the benefits, but the one who knows only the basics and has done nothing but browse over the vast field of Science without ever stopping to examine anything in detail, can be compared to a spectator who gazes down from a high place in a public square. He sees many people, but never gets to know anyone.

It must not be imagined that much reading is the way to become educated. Education is like a journey. One has to stop occasionally; review; ponder; and even look at an infinite number of unrelated things in which, at first glance, one sees no connection. The important point is to choose one's books with care and to read them well. Good books are gold mines in which everyone has a right to investigate. To neglect them, or to quickly skim through them is like trying to find gems in a raging torrent of water. What follows is the plan for a library in which you will find something to suit every taste. You will even see in it, I dare say, the major sources of human knowledge. I would like to add an infinite number of excellent works, but the limits which I have constrained myself to prevent me from doing that. We can at least count on the merit of the books which constitute this collection.

[What follows is a list of recommended books under various headings including Theology, Jursiprudence, Human Rights, Politics, Philosophy, Logic, Morality, Metaphysics, Physics, Natural History, Metallurgy, Mathematics, Astronomy, Military Arts, Chronology, Navigaton, Agriculture, Geography, Medicine, Botany, Chemistry, Mechanics, Music, Poetry, Painting and Sculpture, Comedy and Dance, Eloquence, Oratory, Architecture, Mythology, Antiquities and Archaeology, Grammar, Literary Criticism, Philology [the study of classic languages and literature], Great Dialogues, Great Epistles, Greek Poets, Latin Poets, French Poets, Italian Poets, English Poets, German Poets, Portuguese Poets, Persian Poets, French & English Theatre, Great Novels, History, Kings of France, Great Voyages, Heraldry, Commerce.]

Isaac's notice to young people, in his own neat handwriting, written around 1775.