Page images
PDF
EPUB

since he applauds the success of his own labours; his name was popular; his friends were active; the open or secret opposition of envy and prejudice was surmounted by the dexterity of patient merit. In the thirty-sixth year of his age, he was solicited to accept the object of his wishes; and on the same day, in the solitude of Vaucluse, he received a similar and solemn invitation from the senate of Rome and the university of Paris. The learning of a theological school, and the ignorance of a lawless city, were alike unqualified to bestow the ideal though immortal wreath which genius may obtain from the free applause of the public and of posterity; but the candidate dismissed this troublesome reflection; and after some moments of complacency and suspense, preferred the summons of the metropolis of the world. '.

The ceremony of his coronation was performed in the Capitol by his friend and patron, the supreme magistrate of the republic. Twelve patrician youths were arrayed in scarlet; six representatives of the most illustrious families, in green robes, with garlands of flowers, accompanied the procession: in the midst of the princes and nobles, the senator, count of Anguillera, a kinsman of the Colonna, assumed his throne, and, at the voice of a herald, Petrarch arose. After discoursing on a text of Virgil, and thrice repeating his vows for the prosperity of Rome, he knelt before the throne, and received from the senator a laurel crown, with a more precious declaration—" This is the reward of merit." The people shouted, "Long life to the Capitol and

the poet!" A sonnet in praise of Rome was accepted as the effusion of genius and gratitude; and after the whole procession had visited the Vatican, the profane wreath was suspended before the shrine of St. Peter. In the act or diploma, which was presented to Petrarch, the title and prerogatives of poet laureat are revived on the capitol, after the lapse of thirteen hundred years; and he receives the perpetual privilege of wearing, at his choice, a crown of laurel, ivy, or myrtle, of assuming the poetic habit, and of teaching, disputing, interpreting, and composing, in all places whatsoever, and on all subjects of literature. The grant was ratified by the authority of the senate and people; and the character of citizen was the recompense of his affection for the Roman name. They did him honour, but they did him justice. In the familiar society of Cicero and Livy, he had imbibed the ideas of an ancient patriot; and his ardent fancy kindled every idea to a sentiment, and every sentiment to a passion. The aspect of the seven hills and their majestic ruins confirmed these lively :impressions; and he loved a country by whose liberal spirit he had been crowned and adopted. The poverty and debasement of Rome excited the indignation and pity of her faithful son: he dissembled the faults of his fellow citizens; applauded with partial fondness the last of their heroes and matrons; and in the remembrance of the past, in the hope of the future, was pleased to forget the miseries of the present time.

GIBBON.

ERASMUS.

If we consider the character of Erasmus we shall be immediately struck with his extensive erudition, and that heightened by two circumstances: 1. That he was scarcely ever fixed six months in a place (excepting at Basil); that to this wandering life, which deprived him both of books and leisure, must be added, a continued bad state of health, and the constant avocation of a vast correspondence. 2. That his learning was all real, and founded on the accurate perusal of the ancient authors. The numerous editions he published sufficiently evince it; and besides, those convenient compilations of all sorts, where a modern author can learn to be a profound scholar at a very small expense, did not then exist; every thing was to be sought for in the originals themselves. But besides this learning, which was common to many, Erasmus possessed a genius without which no writer will ever descend to posterity; a genius which could see through the vain subtleties of the schools, revive the laws of criticism, treat every subject with eloquence and delicacy; sometimes emulate the ancients, often imitate them, and never copy them. As to his morals, they had the poor merit of being regular. In the nobler part of his character I find him very deficient. Delicacy of sentiment he had none. A parasite of all the great men of his time, he was neither ashamed to magnify their characters by the lowest adulation, nor to debase his own by the most impudent solicitations to obtain presents which very often he did not want. The adventure of Eppendorf is another proof how much dearer his money was to him than his character. Notwithstanding these faults, never man enjoyed a greater personal consideration. All the scholars, and all the princes of Europe, looked upon him as an oracle. Even Charles V. and Francis I. agreed in this. If we inquire why this happened to him rather than to some other great men, of a merit equal, and perhaps superior to Erasmus, we must say that it was owing to the time when he lived; when the world awaking from a sleep of a thousand years, all orders of men applied themselves to letters with an enthusiasm which produced in them the highest esteem and veneration for one of their principal restorers. Besides, as the general attention from piety, from curiosity, from vanity, and from interest, was directed towards the religious disputes, a great divine was the fashionable character; and all parties endeavoured to attract or preserve him. But to which of those parties did Erasmus adhere? His writings, and even his conduct, were often equivocal. The Catholics claim him, though they acknowledge that he was often indiscreet. Le Clerc challenges him for the Protestants, though he blames him for not professing what he knew to be the truth; and attributes his reserve solely to timidity and selfinterest. Erasmus had certainly exposed all the grosser superstitions of the Romish worship to the ridicule of the public; and had his free opinion been taken, I believe that he was a Protestant upon most of the contested points. But many other motives might restrain him from a declaration. He was always persuaded that any speculative truths were dearly purchased at the expense of practical virtue and public peace. Besides, many considerations might often make him balance as to those truths; prejudices of education, the authority of the fathers, and a natural inclination to scepticism. Add to all this, that really disapproving many things in the Protestant communion, though more in the Romish, by remaining in the loose situation of a man who was unwilling to quit the religion of his ancestors, he could blame many things in it with freedom; whereas, had he deserted it, he must either have set up a standard himself, or else have enlisted blindly under that of Luther or YEco Campudius. It is surprising that Erasmus, who could see through much more plausible fables, believed firmly in witchcraft.

GIBBON.

LEIBNITZ.

The genius and studies of Leibnitz have ranked his name with the first philosophic names of his age and country; but his reputation, perhaps, would be more pure and permanent, if he had not ambitiously grasped the whole circle of human science. As a theologian, he successively contended with the sceptics, who believe too little, and with the papists, who believe too much, and with the heretics, who believe otherwise than is inculcated by the Lutheran confession of Augsburgh. Yet the philosopher betrayed his love of union and toleration: his faith in revelation was accused, while he proved the Trinity by the prin

« PreviousContinue »