Philobiblion, by Richard de Bury

Chapter XV

Of the Advantages of the Love of Books

It transcends the power of human intellect, however deeply it may have drunk of the Pegasean fount, to develop fully the title of the present chapter. Though one should speak with the tongue of men and angels, though he should become a Mercury or Tully, though he should grow sweet with the milky eloquence of Livy, yet he will plead the stammering of Moses, or with Jeremiah will confess that he is but a boy and cannot speak, or will imitate Echo rebounding from the mountains. For we know that the love of books is the same thing as the love of wisdom, as was proved in the second chapter. Now this love is called by the Greek word philosophy, the whole virtue of which no created intelligence can comprehend; for she is believed to be the mother of all good things: Wisdom vii. She as a heavenly dew extinguishes the heats of fleshly vices, the intense activity of the mental forces relaxing the vigour of the animal forces, and slothfulness being wholly put to flight, which being gone all the bows of Cupid are unstrung.

Hence Plato says in the Phaedo: The philosopher is manifest in this, that he dissevers the soul from communion with the body. Love, says Jerome, the knowledge of the scriptures, and thou wilt not love the vices of the flesh. The godlike Xenocrates showed this by the firmness of his reason, who was declared by the famous hetaera Phryne to be a statue and not a man, when all her blandishments could not shake his resolve, as Valerius Maximus relates at length. Our own Origen showed this also, who chose rather to be unsexed by the mutilation of himself, than to be made effeminate by the omnipotence of woman — though it was a hasty remedy, repugnant alike to nature and to virtue, whose place it is not to make men insensible to passion, but to slay with the dagger of reason the passions that spring from instinct.

Again, all who are smitten with the love of books think cheaply of the world and wealth; as Jerome says to Vigilantius: The same man cannot love both gold and books. And thus it has been said in verse:

No iron-stained hand is fit to handle books,
Nor he whose heart on gold so gladly looks:
The same men love not books and money both,
And books thy herd, O Epicurus, loathe;
Misers and bookmen make poor company,
Nor dwell in peace beneath the same roof-tree.
No man, therefore, can serve both books and Mammon.

The hideousness of vice is greatly reprobated in books, so that he who loves to commune with books is led to detest all manner of vice. The demon, who derives his name from knowledge, is most effectually defeated by the knowledge of books, and through books his multitudinous deceits and the endless labyrinths of his guile are laid bare to those who read, lest he be transformed into an angel of light and circumvent the innocent by his wiles. The reverence of God is revealed to us by books, the virtues by which He is worshipped are more expressly manifested, and the rewards are described that are promised by the truth, which deceives not, neither is deceived. The truest likeness of the beatitude to come is the contemplation of the sacred writings, in which we behold in turn the Creator and the creature, and draw from streams of perpetual gladness. Faith is established by the power of books; hope is strengthened by their solace, insomuch that by patience and the consolation of scripture we are in good hope. Charity is not puffed up, but is edified by the knowledge of true learning, and, indeed, it is clearer than light that the Church is established upon the sacred writings.

Books delight us, when prosperity smiles upon us; they comfort us inseparably when stormy fortune frowns on us. They lend validity to human compacts, and no serious judgments are propounded without their help. Arts and sciences, all the advantages of which no mind can enumerate, consist in books. How highly must we estimate the wondrous power of books, since through them we survey the utmost bounds of the world and time, and contemplate the things that are as well as those that are not, as it were in the mirror of eternity. In books we climb mountains and scan the deepest gulfs of the abyss; in books we behold the finny tribes that may not exist outside their native waters, distinguish the properties of streams and springs and of various lands; from books we dig out gems and metals and the materials of every kind of mineral, and learn the virtues of herbs and trees and plants, and survey at will the whole progeny of Neptune, Ceres, and Pluto.

But if we please to visit the heavenly inhabitants, Taurus, Caucasus, and Olympus are at hand, from which we pass beyond the realms of Juno and mark out the territories of the seven planets by lines and circles. And finally we traverse the loftiest firmament of all, adorned with signs, degrees, and figures in the utmost variety. There we inspect the antarctic pole, which eye hath not seen, nor ear heard; we admire the luminous Milky Way and the Zodiac, marvellously and delightfully pictured with celestial animals. Thence by books we pass on to separate substances, that the intellect may greet kindred intelligences, and with the mind’s eye may discern the First Cause of all things and the Unmoved Mover of infinite virtue, and may immerse itself in love without end. See how with the aid of books we attain the reward of our beatitude, while we are yet sojourners below.

Why need we say more? Certes, just as we have learnt on the authority of Seneca, leisure without letters is death and the sepulture of the living, so contrariwise we conclude that occupation with letters or books is the life of man.

Again, by means of books we communicate to friends as well as foes what we cannot safely entrust to messengers; since the book is generally allowed access to the chambers of princes, from which the voice of its author would be rigidly excluded, as Tertullian observes at the beginning of his Apologeticus. When shut up in prison and in bonds, and utterly deprived of bodily liberty, we use books as ambassadors to our friends, and entrust them with the conduct of our cause, and send them where to go ourselves would incur the penalty of death. By the aid of books we remember things that are past, and even prophesy as to the future; and things present, which shift and flow, we perpetuate by committing them to writing.

The felicitous studiousness and the studious felicity of the all-powerful eunuch, of whom we are told in the Acts, who had been so mightily kindled by the love of the prophetic writings that he ceased not from his reading by reason of his journey, had banished all thought of the populous palace of Queen Candace, and had forgotten even the treasures of which he was the keeper, and had neglected alike his journey and the chariot in which he rode. Love of his book alone had wholly engrossed this domicile of chastity, under whose guidance he soon deserved to enter the gate of faith. O gracious love of books, which by the grace of baptism transformed the child of Gehenna and nursling of Tartarus into a Son of the Kingdom!

Let the feeble pen now cease from the tenor of an infinite task, lest it seem foolishly to undertake what in the beginning it confessed to be impossible to any.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31