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John Locke tells a “gentleman” how important reading and thinking is to a man of his station whose “proper calling” should be the service of his country (late 1600s)

Locke begins his advice to a Gentleman on the importance of reading with the following thoughts:

Reading is for the improvement of the understanding. The improvement of the understanding is for two ends; first, for our own increase of knowledge; secondly, to enable us to deliver and make out that knowledge to others. The latter of these, if it be not the chief end of study in a gentleman; yet it is at least equal to the other, since the greatest part of his business and usefulness in the world is by the influence of what he says, or writes to others.

Reading is for the improvement of the understanding.

The improvement of the understanding is for two ends; first, for our own increase of knowledge; secondly, to enable us to deliver and make out that knowledge to others.

The latter of these, if it be not the chief end of study in a gentleman; yet it is at least equal to the other, since the greatest part of his business and usefulness in the world is by the influence of what he says, or writes to others.


The extent of our knowledge cannot exceed the extent of our ideas. Therefore he, who would be universally knowing, must acquaint himself with the objects of all sciences. But this is not necessary to a gentleman, whose proper calling is the service of his country; and so is most properly concerned in moral and political knowledge; and thus the studies, which more immediately belong to his calling, are those which treat of virtues and vices, of civil society, and the arts of government; and will take in also law and history.

It is enough for a gentleman to be furnished with the ideas belonging to his calling, which he will find in the books that treat of the matters above-mentioned.

But the next step towards the improvement of his understanding, must be, to observe the connexion of these ideas in the propositions, which those books hold forth, and pretend to teach as truths; which till a man can judge, whether they be truths or no, his understanding is but little improved; and he doth but think and talk after the books that he hath read, without having any knowledge thereby. And thus men of much reading are greatly learned, but may be little knowing.

The third and last step therefore, in improving the understanding, is to find out upon what foundation any proposition advanced bottoms; and to observe the connexion of the intermediate ideas, by which it is joined to that foundation, upon which it is erected, or that principle, from which it is derived. This, in short, is right reasoning; and by this way alone true knowledge is to be got by reading and studying.

When a man, by use, hath got this faculty of observing and judging of the reasoning and coherence of what he reads, and how it proves what it pretends to teach; he is then, and not till then, in the right way of improving his understanding, and enlarging his knowledge by reading.

About this Quotation:

Just as Vicesimus Knox tried to persuade a young nobleman under his care to abandon the aristocratic notion that he had a right to rule over others, John Locke tells his “gentleman” friend that if he wished to be of true service to his country it might be more profitable to read good books than to pursue other more “gentlemanly” activities.

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