The Love of Knowledge

An Excerpt from You Can Be a Great American! 39 Steps to True and Lasting Greatness (a Growing Up Great Guide for American Boys and for the Parents and Teachers Who Love Them), by W. F. Markwick and W. A. Smith

Entry #8 in the Raising Great Americans Project! Click Here to learn More!







Knowledge is the eye of the soul.

–T. Watson

Common sense is knowledge of common things.

–M. C. Peters

It is noble to seek truth, and it is beautiful to find it.

–Sydney Smith

The desire of knowledge, like the thirst of riches,
increases ever with the acquisition of it.



It has been well said that “Nothing is so costly as ignorance. You sow the wrong seed, you plant the wrong field, you build with the wrong timber, you buy the wrong ticket, you take the wrong train, you settle in the wrong locality, or you take the wrong medicine–and no money can make good your mistake.”

The knowledge attained by any man appears to be a poor thing to boast of, since there is no condition or situation in which he may be placed without feeling or perceiving that there is something or other which he knows little or nothing about. A man can scarcely open his eyes or turn his head without being able to convince himself of this truth. And yet, without a fair working knowledge of the ordinary affairs of life, every man is, in some respects, as helpless as a child. Indeed there is no kind of knowledge which, in the hands of the diligent and skillful, may not be turned to good account. Honey exudes from all flowers, the bitter not excepted, but the bee knows how to extract it, and, by this knowledge, succeeds in providing for all its needs.

Learning is like a river. At its first rising the river is small and easily viewed, but as it flows onward it increases in breadth and depth, being fed by a thousand smaller streams flowing into it on either side, until at length it pours its mighty torrent into the ocean. So learning, which seems so small to us at the beginning, is ever increasing in its range and scope, until even the greatest minds are unable to comprehend it as a whole.

Sir Isaac Newton felt this when, after his sublime discoveries in science had been accomplished, he said, “I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem only like a boy playing upon the seashore, and diverting myself by now and then finding a choice pebble, or a prettier shell than ordinary; while the great ocean of truth lies all undiscovered before me.”

Strabo was entitled to be called a profound geographer eighteen hundred years ago, but a geographer who had never heard of America would now be laughed at by boys and girls of ten years of age. What would now be thought of the greatest chemist or geologist of 1776? The truth is that, in every science, mankind is constantly advancing. Every generation has its front and its rear rank; but the rear rank of the later generation stands upon the ground which was occupied by the front rank of its predecessor.

It is important that our knowledge should be as full and complete as we can make it. Partial knowledge nearly always leads us into error. A traveler, as he passed through a large and thick wood, saw a part of a huge oak which appeared misshapen, and almost seemed to spoil the scenery. “If,” said he, “I was the owner of this forest, I would cut down that tree.” But when he had ascended the hill, and taken a full view of the forest, this same tree appeared the most beautiful part of the landscape. “How erroneously,” said he, “I have judged while I saw only a part!” The full view, the harmony and proportion of things, are all necessary to clear up our judgment.

Walter A. Wood, whose keen business ability made him a wealthy man, and sent him to congress as a representative from the great state of New York, is reported to have said, “I would give fifty thousand dollars for a college education.” When he came to measure his ability with that of men who had had greater opportunities in an educational line, he realized his loss. Chauncey M. Depew is also reported as having said, “I never saw a self-made man in my life who did not firmly believe that he had been handicapped, no matter how great his success, by deficiency in education, and who was not determined to give his children the advantages of which he felt, not only in business, but in interaction with his fellow-men, so great a need.”

There is a difference between knowledge and wisdom and understanding; but without the first the rest cannot be gained, any more than you can have a harvest of wheat without seed and skill of cultivation. Understanding is the right use of facts; facts make knowledge; knowledge is the root of wisdom. Many men know a great deal, but are not wise or capable; many others know less, but are able to use what they have learned. Wisdom is the ripe fruit of knowledge; knowledge is the beginning of character.

The love of knowledge has been characteristic of most great men. They not only loved knowledge but they were willing to work hard to attain it. As examples of this: Gibbon was in his study every morning, winter and summer, at six o’clock. Milton is said to have stuck to the study of his books with the regularity of a paid bookkeeper. Raphael, the great artist, lived only to the age of thirty-seven, yet so diligent was his pursuit of knowledge, that he carried his art to such a degree of perfection that it became the model for his successors. When a man like one of these wins success, people say “he is a genius.” But the real reason for success, was, as you may see, that the love of knowledge led to the effort to obtain it.

Useful knowledge is the knowledge of what is of benefit to ourselves and to others; and that is the most important which is the most useful. It is the belief of those who have spent their lives in the search for it, that knowledge is better than riches, and that its possession brings more comfort to the owner. To be acquainted with the great deeds enacted in past ages; to find out how some nations have grown powerful while others have fallen; or to learn something about the great mysteries of nature, brings with it to the diligent searcher many hours of pleasure. Also the experience of man teaches that the exercise of the mind brings great satisfaction.

Even in seemingly little things the same holds true. There is a fountain in London that is opened by a concealed spring. One day the Bishop of London wanted to drink, but no one could tell him how to open it. At last a little dirty bootblack stepped up and touched the spring and the water gushed out. He knew more than the bishop about that one thing, and so was able to render the great man a real service.

The power of intellectual knowledge, without the power of moral principle, can only tend to evil. It has been said that education would empty our jails; but the greatest criminals, whether of scientific poisoning, or of fraud and forgery, are well educated. It has been asserted lately that “there is a race between scientific detection and prevention, on the one hand, and scientific roguery on the other.”

Character is the criterion of knowledge. Not what a man has, but what he is, is the question, after all. The quality of soul is more than the quantity of information. Personal, spiritual substance is the final result. Have that, and your intellectual furnishings and attainments will turn naturally to the loftiest uses. Add obedience to knowledge, and your education will be worth all that it has cost.




We may further illustrate this topic by a brief glance at the life of Alexander Von Humboldt. His brother, Wilhelm, acquired a distinguished name; but the greater renown fell to the younger, who was born at Berlin, Germany, September 14, 1769,–his full name being Friedrich Heinrich Alexander Von Humboldt. In circumstances of life, his lot was easy; his father had the means to educate him well. No very striking outward event occurred in his youth. Tutors prepared him for college; his own aim was not at once seized. “Until I reached the age of sixteen,” he says, “I showed little inclination for scientific pursuits. I was of a restless disposition, and wished to be a soldier.”

But another current was flowing in his mind. “From my earliest youth I had an intense desire to travel in those distant lands which have been but rarely visited by Europeans.” And again he says: “The study of maps and the perusal of books of travel exercised a secret fascination over me.” These early tastes blended at last with a serious purpose, and became “the incentive to scientific labor, or to undertakings of vast import.”

To show that Humboldt was not a mere fact-gatherer, we select one incident out of many in his early life. When about twenty-one years of age, he made an extended journey with George Forster over the continent. Forster wrote the following after they had visited the cathedral at Cologne. After describing the glories of the structure he adds: “My attention was arrested by a yet more engrossing object: before me stood a man of lively imagination and refined taste, riveted with admiration to the spot. Oh, it was glorious to see, in his rapt contemplation, the grandeur of the temple repeated as it were by reflection!” In this scene we behold the actual process of knowledge being changed into true learning and ideas; it was always so with Humboldt in his long and varied career.

Humboldt studied hard, held official positions, and matured. His mother died in 1796. To her this son owed much, for the father had died when Alexander was only ten years old, and she watched his education with fidelity. She saw the bent of the “little apothecary,”–as Alexander was called because of his passion for collecting and labeling shells, plants, and insects,–and guided it. Her death set Humboldt free to go afar in travels. In June, 1799, he started on a five years’ absence, in which time he climbed Teneriffe and the Cordilleras, explored the Orinoco, visited the United States, and gathered a mass of knowledge which afterward won him lasting fame. Often he was in peril, often baffled, often put to dreary discomforts by savage tribes; but through all ran his unconquerable purpose.

In his scientific work he often took great risks in order to ascertain facts, as all earnest investigators do. In testing a new lamp for miners, he crept into a “crosscut” of the mine, lamp in hand, and continued there so long and persistently that two men rushed in and drew him out by the feet, the gases having overcome him.

We have not space to give details of his splendid career. Humboldt shone with greater light from year to year. Honors were lavished upon him. His works aided science; his life was a constant inspiration. He lived to be ninety years old, dying in 1859,–possessing to the last, a strong memory, and a tireless love of research.


This Article is an Excerpt from You Can Be a Great American! 39 Steps to True and Lasting Greatness (a Growing Up Great Guide for American Boys and for the Parents and Teachers Who Love Them), by W. F. Markwick and W. A. Smith, which is available from Better Days Books in quality hardbound, sturdy trade paperback and convenient .PDF e-book editions starting at just $4.95.

Industry, Ambition, Self Control, Self-Respect, Courtesy, Faithfulness, Courage, Duty, Honesty, Enthusiasm, Humility, Patriotism… In every era of our Nation’s history, the true alchemy by which ordinary boys have been transformed into Great American Men has always and only occurred where these indispensible moral principles have been successfully applied. In an age like our own, where such manly ideals are openly mocked and derided by our popular culture, it’s time to turn to the past to recapture a clear vision of what it takes to be a Great American, and the true moral and ethical ladder that leads reliably to its attainment.

You Can Be a Great American: 39 Steps to True and Lasting Greatness was first published in 1900, under the title The True Citizen, How to Become One, and contains 39 essential lessons in manhood tailored to each age and transition in a boy’s life, from infancy to adulthood. It is the clearest roadmap to American Greatness ever compiled for the youth of our Nation, and remains as life-changing today as it was when first published, over 100 years ago.

Whether you are an adult raising boys in a Traditional family setting, the single parent of a son, or a boy abandoned to no or poor parenting, left to grab your own bootstraps and lift yourself up to a life of achievement, success and All-American Greatness (or an adult who knows a boy in such sad straits), You Can Be a Great American!: 39 Steps to True and Lasting Greatness is the only guidebook you’ll ever need.

Also available through in quality trade paperback and Kindle e-book download editions.


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