The subdivision of labor, which, as we used to be told, required fourteen different workmen to make a single pin, has reached all branches of knowledge.
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We find new terms in all the Professions, implying that special provinces have been marked off, each having its own school of students. In theology we have many curious subdivisions; among the rest eschatology, that is to say, the geography, geology, etc. On the other hand, we have had or have the encyclopaedic intelligences like Cuvier, Buckle, and more emphatically Herbert Spencer, who take all knowledge, or large fields of it, to be their province.
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The author of "Thoughts on the Universe" has something in common with these, but he appears also to have a good deal about him of what we call the humorist; that is, an individual with a somewhat heterogeneous personality, in which various distinctly human elements are mixed together, so as to form a kind of coherent and sometimes pleasing whole, which is to a symmetrical character as a breccia is to a mosaic.
As for the Young Astronomer, his rhythmical discourse may be taken as expressing the reaction of what some would call "the natural man" against the unnatural beliefs which he found in that lower world to which he descended by day from his midnight home in the firmament. I have endeavored to give fair play to the protest of gentle and reverential conservatism in the letter of the Lady, which was not copied from, but suggested by, one which I received long ago from a lady bearing an honored name, and which I read thoughtfully and with profound respect.
It is now nearly twenty years since this book was published. Being the third of the Breakfast-Table series, it could hardly be expected to attract so much attention as the earlier volumes. Still, I had no reason to be disappointed with its reception.
The Poet at the Breakfast-Table by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.
It took its place with the others, and was in some points a clearer exposition of my views and feelings than either of the other books, its predecessors. The poems "Homesick in Heaven" and the longer group of passages coming from the midnight reveries of the Young Astronomer have thoughts in them not so fully expressed elsewhere in my writings. The first of these two poems is at war with our common modes of thought.
In looking forward to rejoining in a future state those whom we have loved on earth,—as most of us hope and many of us believe we shall,—we are apt to forget that the same individuality is remembered by one relative as a babe, by another as an adult in the strength of maturity, and by a third as a wreck with little left except its infirmities and its affections. The main thought of this poem is a painful one to some persons. They have so closely associated life with its accidents that they expect to see their departed friends in the costume of the time in which they best remember them, and feel as if they should meet the spirit of their grandfather with his wig and cane, as they habitually recall him to memory.
The process of scientific specialization referred to and illustrated in this record has been going on more actively than ever during these last twenty years. We have only to look over the lists of the Faculties and teachers of our Universities to see the subdivision of labor carried out as never before. The movement is irresistible; it brings with it exactness, exhaustive knowledge, a narrow but complete self-satisfaction, with such accompanying faults as pedantry, triviality, and the kind of partial blindness which belong to intellectual myopia.
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The Poet At the Breakfast-Table
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