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indeed to be approaching its meridian, those who were inspired with the desire of improvement, were utterly destitute of contemporary objects of study. Whatever science they wished to acquire, whatever branch of literature they were desirous to cultivate, they were under the necessity of appealing almost exclusively to the ancient writers. Hence it happened that at that time it was justly considered as the grand object of every man of letters to devote himself wholly to the study of those Latin and Greek writers, whose works had escaped the general wreck of the middle ages; and no man was regarded as a greater benefactor to literature than he who was so fortunate as to bring to light some addition to these invaluable remains of antiquity. The multitude of classical authors who were recovered to the world by the persevering activity which was exerted in this research, particularly during the course of the fifteenth century, contributed to keep up that exclusive admiration which in those times was deservedly bestowed on the only models then existing of true science, taste, and elegance. More recent ages had afforded absolutely nothing which could for a moment be set in competition with them. In process of time, however, the state of things was materially altered. As the minds of men became more cultivated by the study of the ancient models, many ingenious writers appeared, many excellent works were produced, and many valuable discoveries were made. But though, by the gradual accumulation of modern improvements, the cause was thus at least in a progress towards removal, the effect remained undiminished. Mankind had so strongly associated every idea of literary merit with the productions of the poets, historians, and philosophers of Greece and Rome, that it was difficult to persuade them that any thing to which their own time had given birth was entitled to bear a monient's comparison. To such an extent did they carry
their veneration for antiquity, that to write in any language spoken in modern days was considered as a degradation to a man of letters.
There is another circumstance which must also be taken into the account, before we can estimate precisely the degree of positive merit to be ascribed to the ancient writers, through the operation of which a necessity has arisen of devoting considerable attention to the study of their works, entirely independent of their real and intrinsic excellence-I mean the very powerful additional motive which leads the Christian divine to study the learned languages, in consequence of their being the depositories of the sacred records of our religion.
This I allow to be an inducement of great and decisive weight; but it is one which has no connection whatever with
admiration we may for the heathen writers of Greece or Rome. That an undue attention is paid to these pursuits by those who are desirous of becoming Scripture-critics, am far from insinuating ; all I maintain is, that the motive which influences them in this cause is altogether unconnected with the intrinsic merit of these writers themselves.
The necessary deductions which the consideration of these circumstances demands, being made, we may now be entitled to put the question, whether, after all, the pre-eminence of the ancients above the moderns in these respects be so indisputable as it is generally represented ? In what department of literature is it that this pre-eminence is so conspicuously displayed? Their poets,
it will be said, are superior to ours. This is a point the determination of which depends so much on individual taste and feeling, that it is not easy to reduce it to any general principles ; but if it be considered merely as a question of fact with respect to poetical reputation, when Homer and perhaps Virgil have been withdrawn from the lists, the countries which have produced Dante, Tasso, Corneille, Shakspeare, Milton, may safely challenge a compari, son with the brightest remaining ornaments of antiquity. The ancient orators, it is asserted, have never been equalled in modern times. So far as deliberatiye eloquence is concerned, I very much question the truth of this assertion. I can see no criterion by which the harangues of Cicero and Demosthenes can be pronounced superior to the splendid display of senatorial talents in a Fox, a Burke, or a Chatham. The eloquence of the pulpit is a new creation; and as for that of the bar, the impassioned harangue which can make the worse appear the better cause, which can hurry away the understanding when it ought to be calmly and patiently engaged in the investigation of plain facts, appears to me, to say the least of it, very much misplaced. And after all, I know not why we are entitled to suppose that the forensic exertions of Cicero are a fair specimen of the general style of the Roman pleaders; this may have been as inferior as the ordinary exhibitions of modern barristers are to those of a Curran or an Erskine.
If we confine the comparison to the style of composition, the ancient historians will probably bear away the palm from those of modern times; though the practice so common among them, of introducing in the midst of a real nare rative, fictitious speeches, calculated only to show off the eloquence of the writer, cannot easily be defended upon any rational principles either of propriety or good taste. In point of acute penetration, sound judgment, and patient examination of evidence, few of them will stand a comparison with Robertson, Rapin, or many other names which are the boast of modern literature. The credulity of Herodotus is proverbial.
In every branch of scientific research I think all rational and candid enquirers will now admit that the ancients were far inferior. Their philosophers seem indeed, for the most part, to have been content with theorizing in their clossets, and to have thought either experiment or observation utterly beneath their dignity: Accordingly their views of natural science seem to have been puerile and frequently absurd. In the mathematical sciences they had made considerable progress; but in their hands they were mere matters of curious speculation, and were rarely studied with a view to any useful or practical application: and even these have been carried by the moderns to an extent of which their predecessors had not the slightest conception. Astronomy, in consequence of the application of mathematical principles, is become an entirely new science; mechanics, optics, all those branches of natural philosophy which have received the general denomination of mixed mathematics, were either utterly unknown or very imperfectly understood. - In the philosophy of mind, who that knows any thing of the subject will presume to compare the mystical reveries of Plato and Epictetus with the profound investigations of Hartley and Locke? In this, if the most endless diversity of sentiment upon points apparently the most clear and obvious, the most intricate subtleties and the utmost possible division and subdivision into sects and parties on the slightest and most trivial questions, may give any set of
philosophers a title to pre-eminence, those of antiquity may surely put in their claim. In short, it is difficult to name a single subject in the whole circle of the sciences, which the moderns have not either greatly improved from the state in which it was left by the ancients, or entirely created it themselves.
Hitherto we have considered this part of our subject in the point of view which is most favourable to the advocates of the superior merits of antiquity : it is now necessary to look a little further. Before we can be warranted in forming a general opinion of the literary or intellectual character of any people, it is necessary not merely to examine what progress had been made in the different branches of human knowledge by a few philosophers, who most probably possessed superior advantages and opportunities not within the reach of the people in general, but what degree of instruction was universally disseminated among the lower orders, and what opportunities were afforded them for improving their minds and for acquiring some acquaintance with literature and science. Now although the constant silence which is observed by writers in almost every period respecting the condition and situation of the lower classes, renders įt of course extremely difficult for us to determine this question with any exactness, it cannot but be admitted that there were circumstances which must have prevented literary pursuits from becoming at all general in the ancient world. The servile condition of that portion of the population which corresponded to the labouring classes of modern times, as it could not fail to produce a marked degradation both of moral and intellectual character, so it would at once indispose and disable them from any exertions in the pursuit after knowledge or the improvement of their minds. Again, among the poorer classes of free citizens, an almost insuperable obstacle would arise from the difficulty of procuring books.
The want of any process for multiplying copies more expeditiously than the tedious method of manual transcription, must have rendered the means of cultivating or gratifying a taste for letters so expensive as to place it beyond the reach of any but the wealthy. The obvious consequence of this would be, that that kind of education which tended to inspire a hankering after a species of entertainment which could not possibly be procured without a ruinous expense, would not be very eagerly adopted, but would rather be carefully avoided by the poor, who would be much more solicitous to teach their children how to gain their livelihood than to spend it in so unprofitable à manner.
What. ever, therefore, may be thought of the literary proficiency of those writers whose works are come down to us, and who were in general in circumstances of sufficient affluence to bear the enormous expense to which a man of letters must in those days have been necessarily exposed, this single circumstance may prove to us that this kind of instruction could not possibly have been so extensively diffused among the lower classes of people, as, by means of the great multiplication and consequent cheapness of books, it is at present.
On the whole, then, if the result of the comparison between ancient and modern times, is so far favourable to the latter, we may be entitled to conclude that the notion of a deterioration of the human character in
im portant respect is a groundless prejudice; and that as mankind have nothi
therto ceased to advance, there is no reason from experience to suppose that in useful knowledge, in intellectual endowments, in moral excellence and politicał prosperity, they may not be still capable of indefinite improved ment.
V. F. F.
CONVERSATIONS: Containing Opinions on passing Occurrences, Biographical and Descriptive
Sketches, Critical Remarks on popular Works, the Arts, &c.
BY MRS. HOFLAND,
Mrs. Mortimer.--I am very glad to see you, my dear Eliza; there never was a time when the society of a friend was more welcome, for the newspapers afford only disagreeables: murders, fires, hurricanes, meet your eye in every column, except you turn to the debates, and those I always disa like, unless I have made up my mind very positively on a point, and then I read what is said on my own side of the question with great avidity.
Miss Willis.—Your own side, but surely, my dear madam, that is not the way to gain knowledge on the subject in question ?
Mrs. M.—I don't seek knowledge, child; in such a case I only want to confirm my opinions and to preserve my temper, which it is ten to one I should lose were I to read the arguments of the other party.
Miss W-But since truth is the great object of attention to us all, surely we ought to pursue every means of elucidating it, by a candid examination of whatever is presented to our minds in all its varied lights and bearings, otherwise we must be the slaves of prejudice or versatility, either moving, as St. Jude
says, " with every wind of doctrine,” or pertinaciously adhering to sentiments adopted, perhaps without reason, and defended in despite of it.
Mrs. M.—My dear, I do not hastily adopt any opinion, and therefore I feel that I have a right to hold it so long as I do it in a quiet way; depend upon it, my practice is a very common one at my time of life. Enquiry is very proper as well as natural at your age, for you are scarcely twenty; but I am turned of forty, and at that time the mind is very apt to draw its conclusions from the observations that have been registered in the course of its journey through life, to place out its little capital to advantage rather than engage in new speculations. With me experience furnishes food for medita tion, which you must seek for in various knowledge. Like the bee, you fly from flower to flower, to collect sweets, whilst I sit at home like the spider, to weave webs from my own stores, and
Miss W.-Hush! I will never hear you compare yourself to such a hateful creature, but I will most willingly grant that whilst it becomes me diligently to explore all that is new in life, you have a right to repose on your acquisitions, or defend your opinions, without taking the trouble to go over the wearisome but salutary paths where you attained them. I will read new books, you shall speak of old ones; I will prattle of modern artists, and you shall extol old pictures; you shall praise old fashions, I
Mrs M.--Nay, I must interrupt you now, for in a very short time you will make it appear that I am such an admirer of old things, the world will conclude me an old woman, and that is what no woman ever allows on this side eighty; then indeed, as the late Mrs. Fell said of herself, “she begins to grow into years.
Miss W.-That was the lady that built New-Hall, which is a very sweet place, though somewhat low; she was a very charitable woman, I believe, and the first subscriber to the Sheffield Infirmary, which is a noble building and in a very fine situation. By the way, what is your opinion of the neighbourhood, scenery, and general face of the country about Sheffield ?
Mrs. M. I consider it (taken altogether) as unequalled in general beauty, and am confirmed in my opinion by the observation of a celebrated landscapepainter, who observed, “ that he had not met with any country upon the whole island, where there were so many places in which a man would choose to fix his abode as in the vicinity of Sheffield.”
Miss W.-Yet there are no rocks or mountains, no lakes or ruins-no forest-scenery, no magnificent architecture—none of the great works either of God or man?
Mrs. M.—'True, but there is such a happy combination of the beautiful and picturesque, that the
eye and the heart are satisfied, and there is sufficient of the bolder features of nature to set the imagination at work, and thereby fill up
all that the mind even of the most romantic can desire. What can be more beautiful than the road towards Owlerton ? There is a boldness of outline which gives you mountain-forms, and a completeness of beauty in the rich woods of the Old Park which feather the precipitous hill down to the very brink of the river: the bridge at Hill-Foot and the houses are all in unison, and I have heard many officers declare, that in the course of very extensive travels they had never visited more beautiful valleys than that where the barracks is built.
Miss W.-Yet surely this is not so beautiful, or grand, as the view on the Chesterfield road, a little way above Heely, where an amphitheatre is open to the eye, comprehending an expanse of rustic and sylvan scenery of that description which delights not only the senses, but the heart; wide farms backed by distant moors, springing coppice, green lawns, neat cottages, comfortable houses, ancient mansions, the simple church of Ecclesal Bierlow, and the shining reservoirs of water in the valley below you, altogether give a scene so gay, various, and interesting, that I cannot help preferring it to every other around us.
Nirs. M.-Perhaps I do upon the whole ; yet there are situations on the Pitsmoor side of the town of a still higher character, and which rise to classic beauty. If you walk from the Brush-House to the Grove Coffee-house, you will find a succession of pictures which might charm the eye of Claude himself; the waving line of hill, the growth of wood, and the distant horizon to the left, with the distant and obscurely veiled town, give it even a higher interest than the more smiling beauties of the hedge and its surrounding scenery.
Mrs. M.--Our associations give the strongest charm to every scene, but exclusive of them I should not prefer that side"; yet it is singularly beautiful and so extensive, that we appear to gaze on a domain rather than a distriet.