from Improvement of the mind, by Isaac Watts (previously):
IV. Conversation is the next method of improvement, and it is attended with the following advantages:
1. When we converse familiarly with a learned friend, we have his own help at hand to explain to us every word and sentiment that seems obscure in his discourse, and to inform us of his whole meaning; so that we are in much less danger of mistaking his sense: whereas in books, whatsoever is really obscure may also abide always obscure without remedy, since the author is not at hand, that we may inquire his sense.
If we mistake the meaning of our friend in conversation, we are quickly set right again; but in reading, we many times go on in the same mistake, and are not capable of recovering ourselves from it. Thence it comes to pass that we have so many contests in all ages about the meaning of ancient authors, and especially the sacred writers. Happy should we be could we but converse with Moses, Isaiah, and St. Paul, and consult the prophets and apostles, when we meet with a difficult text: but that glorious conversation is reserved for the ages of future blessedness.
2. When we are discoursing upon any theme with a friend, we may propose our doubts and objections against his sentiments, and have them solved and answered at once. — The difficulties that arise in our minds may be removed by one enlightening word of our correspondent: whereas in reading, if a difficulty or question arise in our thoughts, which the author has not happened to mention, we must be content without a present answer or solution of it. Books cannot speak.
3. Not only the doubts which arise in the mind upon any subject or discourse are easily proposed and solved in conversation, but the very difficulties we meet with in books, and in our private studies, may find a relief by friendly conferences. We may pore upon a knotty point in solitary meditation many months without a solution, because perhaps we have gotten into a wrong tract of thought; and our labour (while we are pursuing a false scent) is not only useless and unsuccessful, but it leads us perhaps into a long train of error for want of being corrected in the first step. But if we note down this difficulty when we read it, we may propose it to an ingenious correspondent when we see him; we may be relieved in a moment, and find the difficulty vanish: he beholds the object perhaps in a different view, sets it be fore us in quite another light, leads us at once into evidence and truth, and that with a delightful surprise.
4. Conversation calls out into light what has been lodged in all the recesses and secret chambers of the soul: by occasional hints and incidents it brings old useful notions into remembrance; it unfolds and displays the hidden treasures of knowledge with which reading, observation, and study, had before furnished the mind. By mutual discourse the soul is awakened and allured to bring forth its hoards of knowledge, and it learns how to render them most useful to mankind. A man of vast reading without conversation is like a miser, who lives only to himself.
5. In free and friendly conversation, our intellectual powers are more animated, and our spirits act with a superior vigour in the quest and pursuit of unknown truths. There is a sharpness and sagacity of thought that attends conversation beyond what we find whilst we are shut up reading and musing in our retirements. Our souls may be serene in solitude, but not sparkling, though perhaps we are employed in reading the works of the brightest writers. Often has it happened in free discourse, that new thoughts are strangely struck out, and the seeds of truth sparkle and blaze through the company, which in calm and silent reading would never have been excited. By conversation you will both give and receive this benefit; as flints, when put into motion, and striking against each other, produce living fire on both sides, which would never have arisen from the same hard materials in a state of rest.
6. In generous conversation, amongst ingenious and learned men, we have a great advantage of proposing our private opinions, and of bringing our own sentiments to the test, and learning in a more compendious and safer way what the world will judge of them, how mankind will receive them, what objections may be raised against them, what defects there are in our scheme, and how to correct our own mistakes; which advantages are not so easy to be obtained by our own private meditations: for the pleasure we take in our own notions, and the passion of self-love, as well as the narrowness of our views, tempt us to pass too favourable an opinion on our own schemes; whereas the variety of genius in our several associates will give happy notices how our opinions will stand in the view of mankind.
7. It is also another considerable advantage of conversation, that it furnishes the student with the knowledge of men and the affairs of life, as reading furnishes him with book learning. A man who dwells all his days among books may have amassed together a vast heap of notions; but he may be a mere scholar, which is a contemptible sort of character in the world. A hermit, who has been shut up in his cell in a college, has contracted a sort of mould and rust upon his soul, and all his airs of behaviour have a certain awkwardness in them; but these awkward airs are worn away by degrees in company: the rust and the mould are filed and brushed off” by polite conversation. The scholar now becomes a citizen or a gentleman, a neighbour, and a friend; he learns how to dress his sentiments in the fairest colours, as well as to set them in the strongest light. Thus he brings out his notions with honour; he makes some use of them in the world, and improves the theory by the practice.
But before we proceed too far in finishing a bright character by conversation, we should consider that some thing else is necessary besides an acquaintance with men and books: and therefore I add….