Love Libraries and Despise Fools

Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy 2.2.4:

“King James, 1605, when he came to see our University of Oxford, and amongst other edifices now went to view that famous library, renewed by Sir Thomas Bodley, in imitation of Alexander, at his departure brake out into that noble speech, If I were not a king, I would be a university man: and if it were so that I must be a prisoner, if I might have my wish, I would desire to have no other prison than that library, and to be chained together with so many good authors et mortuis magistris. So sweet is the delight of study, the more learning they have (as he that hath a dropsy, the more he drinks the thirstier he is) the more they covet to learn, and the last day is prioris discipulus [the student of the one before]; harsh at first learning is, radices amarae [bitter roots], but fructus dulces [sweet fruits], according to that of Isocrates, pleasant at last; the longer they live, the more they are enamoured with the Muses.

Heinsius, the keeper of the library at Leyden in Holland, was mewed up in it all the year long: and that which to thy thinking should have bred a loathing, caused in him a greater liking. I no sooner (saith he) come into the library, but I bolt the door to me, excluding lust, ambition, avarice, and all such vices, whose nurse is idleness, the mother of ignorance, and melancholy herself, and in the very lap of eternity, amongst so many divine souls, I take my seat, with so lofty a spirit and sweet content, that I pity all our great ones, and rich men that know not this happiness.

I am not ignorant in the meantime (notwithstanding this which I have said) how barbarously and basely, for the most part, our ruder gentry esteem of libraries and books, how they neglect and contemn so great a treasure, so inestimable a benefit, as Aesop’s cock did the jewel he found in the dunghill; and all through error, ignorance, and want of education. And ’tis a wonder, withal, to observe how much they will vainly cast away in unnecessary expenses, quot modis pereant (saith Erasmus) magnatibus pecuniae, quantum absumant alea, scorta, compotationes, profectiones non necessariae, pompae, bella quaesita, ambitio, colax, morio, ludio, &c., what in hawks, hounds, lawsuits, vain building, gormandising, drinking, sports, plays, pastimes, &c. If a well-minded man to the Muses, would sue to some of them for an exhibition, to the farther maintenance or enlargement of such a work, be it college, lecture, library, or whatsoever else may tend to the advancement of learning, they are so unwilling, so averse, that they had rather see these which are already, with such cost and care erected, utterly ruined, demolished or otherwise employed; for they repine many and grudge at such gifts and revenues so bestowed: and therefore it were in vain, as Erasmus well notes, vel ab his, vel a negotiatoribus qui se Mammonae dediderunt, improbum fortasse tale officium exigere, to solicit or ask anything of such men that are likely damned to riches; to this purpose. For my part I pity these men, stultos jubeo esse libenter, let them go as they are, in the catalogue of Ignoramus.”

Dialogus creaturarum moralisatus. [Geneva]: Jean Belot, 1500. Illustration at beginning of book (a1v). Sp Coll S. M. 1986.

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