Page images
PDF
EPUB

same rank with Livy; and unquestionably the speeches of Cicero sufficiently pro re, that some small portion of his works which has come persons considered the shocking and atrocious down lo us, is calculated to give a high opi- parts of the plot as mere inventions of the gonion of his talents. But his style is not very vernment, designed to excuse its unconstitupleasant; and his most powerful work, the actional measures. We must confess ourselves count of the Conspiracy of Caliline, has ra- to be of that opinion. There was, undoubtedly, ther the air of a clever party pamphlet than a strong party desirous to change the adminis. that of a history. It abounds with strange in- tration. While Pompey held the command of consistencies, which, unexplained as they are, an army, they could not effect their purpose necessarily excite doubts as to the fairness of without preparing means for repelling force, the narrative. It is true, that many circum- if necessary, by force. In all this there is nostances now forgotten may have been familiar thing different from the ordinary practice of to his contemporaries, and may have rendered Roman factions. The other charges brought passages clear to them which to us appear du against the conspirators are so inconsistent bions and perplexing. But a great historian and improbable, that we give no credit whatshould remember that he writes for distant ever to them. If our readers think this skep. generations, for men who will perceive the ap- ticism unreasonable, let them turn to the conparent contradictions, and will possess no temporary account of the Popish plot. Let mcans of reconciling them. We can only vin- them look over the votes of Parliameni, and dicate the fidelity of Sallust at the expense of the speeches of the king; the charges of his skill. But in fact all the information Scroggs, and the harangues of the managers which we have from contemporaries respect employed against Strafford. A person, who ing this famous plot is liable to the same ob- should form his judgment from these pieces jection, and is read by discerning men with alone, would believe that London was set on the same incredulity. It is all on one side. fire by the Papists, and that Sir Edmondbury No answer has reached our times. Yet, on the Godfrey was murdered for his religion. Yet showing of the accusers, the accused seem en these stories are now altogether exploded. (itled to acquittal. Catiline, we are told, in. They have been abandoned by statesmen to trigued with a Vestal virgin, and murdered his aldermen, by aldermen to clergymen, by clerown son. His house was a den of gamblers gymen to old women, and by old women to and debauchees. No young man could cross Sir Harcourt Lees. his threshold without danger to his fortune and Of the Latin historians, Tacitus was cerreputation. Yet this is the man with whom tainly the greatest. His style indeed is not Cicero was

to coalesce in a contest only faulty in itself, but is, in some respects, for the first magistracy of the republic; and peculiariy unfit for historical composition. He whom he described, long after the fatal termi- carries his love of effect far beyond the limits nation of the conspiracy, as an accomplished of moderation. He tells a fine story finely: hypocrite, by whom he had himself been de but he cannot tell a plain story plainly. He ceived, and who had acted with consummate stimulates till all stimulants lose their power. skill the character of a good citizen and a good Thucydides, as we have already observed, refriend. We are told that the plot was the most lates ordinary transactions with the unprewicked and desperate ever known, and almost tending clearness and succinctness of the in the same breath, that the great body of the gazette. His great powers of painting he people, and many of the nobles favoured it: reserves for events, of which the slightest that the richest citizens of Rome were eager details are interesting. The simplicity of the for the spoliation of all property, and its high- setting gives additional lustre to the brilliants. est functionaries for the destruction of all or- There are passages in the narrative of Tacitus der; that Crassus, Cæsar, the prætor Lentulus, superior to the best which can be quoted from one of the consuls of the year, one of the con- Thucydides. But they are not enchased and suls elect, were proved or suspected to be en- relieved with the same skill. They are far gaged in a schere for subverting institutions more striking when extracted from the body to which they owed the highest honours, and of the work to which they belong, than when introducing universal anarchy. We are told, they occur in their place, and are read in conthat a government which knew all this suffered nection with what precedes and follows. the conspirator, whose rank, talents, and cou In the delineation of character, Tacitus is rage rendered him most dangerous, to quit Rome unrivalled among historians, and has very few without molestation. We are told, that bond- superiors among dramatists and novelists. By men and gladiators were to be armed against the delineation of character, we do not mean the citizens. Yet we find that Catiline rejected the practice of drawing up epigrammatic cata. the slaves who crowded to enlist in his army, logues of good and bad qualities, and append est, as Sallust himself expresses it, “ he should ing them to the names of eminent men. No seem to identify their cause with that of the writer, indeed, has done this more skilfully citizens.” Finally, we are told that the magis- than Tacitus ; but this is not his peculiar trate, who was universally allowed to have glory. All the persons who occupy a large saved all classes of his countrymen from con- space in his works have an individuality of flagration and massacre, rendered himself so character which seems to pervade alı ineir unpopular by his conduct, that a marked in- words and actions. We know them as if we sult was offered to him at the expiration of his had lived with them. Claudius, Nero, Otho, office, and a severe punishment inflicted on both the Agrippinas, are masterpieces. But him shortly after.

Tiberius is a still higher miracle of art. The Sallust tells us, what, indeed, the letters and historian undertook to make us intimately ac

quainted with a man singularly dark and library, to be tired with taking down books one inscrutable—with a man whose real disposi- after another for separate judgment, and feel tion long remained swathed up in intricate inclined to pass sentence on them in masses. folds of factitious virtues; and over whose We shall, therefore, instead of pointing out the actions the hypocrisy of his youth and the se. defects and merits of the different modern hisclusion of his old age threw a singular mys- torians, state generally in what particulars they lery. He was to exhibit the specious qualities have surpassed their predecessors, and in what of the tyrant in a light which might render we conceive them to have failed. them transpareni, and enable us at once to They have certainly been, in one sense, far perceive the covering and the vices which it more strict in their adherence to truth than concealed. He was to trace the gradations by most of the Greek and Roman writers. They which the first magistrate of à republic, a do not think themselves entitled to render their senator mingling freely in debate, a noble as. narrative interesting by introducing descripsociating with his brother nobles, was trans- tions, conversations, and harangues, which forned into an Asiatic sultan; he was to have no existence but in their own imaginaexhibit a character distinguished by courage, tion. This improvement was gradually introself-command, and profound policy, yet defiled duced. History commenced among the modern by all

nations of Europe, as it had commenced among

the Greeks, in romance. Froissart was our “th' extravagancy And crazy ribaldry of fancy."

Herodotus. Italy was to Europe what Athens

was to Greece. In Italy, therefore, a more acHe was to mark the gradual effect of advanc. curate and manly mode of narration was early ing age and approaching death on this strange introduced. Machiavelli and Guicciardini, in compound of strength and weakness; to exhi- imitation of Livy and Thucydides, composed bit the old sovereign of the world sinking into speeches for their historical personages. But a dotage which, though it rendered his appe- as the classical enthusiasm which distinguishtites eccentric and his temper savage, nevered the age of Lorenzo and Leo gradually subimpaired the powers of his stern and penetrat- sided, this absurd practice was abandoned. In ing mind, conscious of failing strength, raging France, we fear, it still, in some degree, keeps with capricious sensuality, yet to the last the its ground. In our own country, a writer who keenest of observers, the most artful of dis-should venture on it would be laughed to semblers, and the most terrible of masters. scorn. Whether the historians of the last two The task was one of extreme difficulty. The centuries tell more truth than those of anti execution is almost perfect.

quity, may perh be doubted. But it is quite The talent which is required to write history certain that they tell fewer falsehoods. thus, bears a considerable affinity to the talent. In the philosophy of history, the moderns of a great dramatist. There is one obvious have very far surpassed the ancients. It is distinction. The dramatist creates, the histo- not, indeed, strange that the Greeks and Rorian only disposes. The difference is not in mans should not have carried the science of the mode of execution, but in the mode of con-government, or any other experimental science, ception. Shakspeare is guided by a model so far as it has been carried in our time; for which exists in his imagination; Tacitus, by a the experimental sciences are generally in a model furnished from without. Hamlet is to state of progression. They were better underTiberius what the Laocoon is to the Newton stood in the seventeenth century than in the of Roubilliac.

sixteenth, and in the eighteenth century than In this part of his art Tacitus certainly had in the seventeenth. But this constant improve neither equal nor second among the ancientment, this natural growth of knowledge, will historians. Herodotus, though he wrote in a not altogether account for the immense superidramatic form, had little of dramatic genius. ority of the modern writers. The difference is The frequent dialogues which he introduces a difference, not in degree, but of kind. It is give vivacity and movement to the narrative; pot merely that new principles have been disa but are not strikingly characteristic. Xenophon covered, but that new faculties seem to be exis fond of telling his readers, at considerable erted. It is not that at one time the human inlength, what he thought of the persons whose ad- tellect should have made but small progress, ventures he relates. But he does not show and at another time have advanced far; but them the men, and enable them to judge for that at one time it should have been stationthemselves. The heroes of Livy are the most ary, and at another time constantly proceeding, insipid of all beings, real or imaginary, the In taste and imagination, in the graces of style, heroes of Plutarch always excepted. Indeed, in the arts of persuasion, in the magnificence the manner of Plutarch in this respect reminds of public works, the ancients were at least our us of the cookery of those continental inns, the equals. They reasoned as justly as ourselves horror of English travellers, in which a certain on subjects which required pure demonstranondescript broth is kept constantly boiling, tion. But in the moral sciences they made and copiously poured, without distinction, over scarcely any advance. During the long period every dish as it comes up to table. Thucy- which elapsed between the fifth century before dides, though at a wide interval, comes next to the Christian era and the fifth century after it, 'Tacitus. His Pericles, his Nicias, his Cleon, little perceptible progress was made. All the his Brasidas, are happily discriminated. The metaphysical discoveries of all the philosolines are few, the colouring faint; but the ge- phers, from the time of Socrates to the northern nerai air and expression is caught.

invasion, are not to be compared in importance We begin, like the priest in Don Quixote's with those which have been marle in England

every fifty years since the time of Elizabeth. those which Boileau may have formed about There is not the least reason to believe that the Shakspeare. Dionysius lived in the most principles of government, legislation, and po- splendid age of Latin poetry and eloquence. sitical economy, were better understood in the He was a critic, and, after the manner of his time of Augustus Cæsar than in the time of age, an able critic. He studied the language Pericles. In our own country, the sound doc. of Rome, associated with its learned men, and trines of trade and jurisprudence have been, compiled its history. Yet he seems to have within the lifetime of a single generation, dimly thought its literature valuable only for the pur. hinted, boldly propounded, defended, systema-pose of illustrating its antiquities. His read. tize dopted by all reflecting men of all ing appears to have been confined to its public parties, quoted in legislative assemblies, incor- records, and to a few old annalists. Once, and porated into laws and treaties.

but once, if we remember rightly, he quotes To what is this change to be attributed ? Ennius, to solve a question of etymology. He Partly, no doubt, to the discovery of printing, has written much on the art of oratory; yet he

-a discovery which has not only diffused has not mentioned the name of Cicero. knowledge widely, but, as we have already ob The Romans submitted to the pretensions of served, has also introduced into reasoning a a race which they despised. Their epic poet, precision unknown in those ancient communi- while he claimed for them pre-eminence in the ties, in which information was, for the most arts of government and war, acknowledged part, conveyed orally. There was, we suspect, their inferiority in taste, eloquence, and science. another cause less obvious, but still more pow. Men of letters affected to understand the Greek erful.

language better than their own. Pomponius The spirit of the two most famous nations preferred the honour of becoming an Athenian, of antiquity was remarkably exclusive. In the by intellectual naturalization, to all the distinctime of Homer, the Greeks had not begun to tions which were to be acquired in the politie consider themselves as a distinct race. They cal contests of Rome. His great friend comstill looked with something of childish wonder posed Greek poems and memoirs. It is well and awe on the riches and wisdom of Sidon known that Petrarch considered that beautiful and Egypt. From what causes, and by what language in which his sonnets are written, as gradations, their feelings underwent a change, a barbarous jargon, and intrusted his fame to it is not easy to determine. Their history, from those wretched Latin hexameters, which, lurthe Trojan to the Persian war, is covered with ing the last four centuries, have scarcely found en obscurity broken only by dim and scattered four readers. Many eminent Romans appear gleams of truth. But it is certain that a great to have felt the same contempt for their native alteration took place. They regarded them- tongue as compared with the Greek. The preselves as a separate people. They had com-judice continued to a very late period. Julian mon religious rites, and common principles of was as partial to the Greek language as Frepublic law, in which foreigners had no part. derick the Great to the French; and it scems İn all their political systems, monarchical, aris- that he could not express himself with ele. tocratical, and democratical, there was a strong gance in the dialect of the state which he ruled. family likeness. After the retreat of Xerxes Even those Latin writers, who did not carry and the fall of Mardonius, national pride ren- this affectation so far, looked on Greece as the dered the separation between the Greeks and only fount of knowledge. From Greece they the Barbarians complete. The conquerors con- derive the measures of their poetry, and indeed, sidered themselves men of a superior breed, all of poetry that can be imported. From men who, in their intercourse with neighbour Greece they borrowed the principles and the ing nations, were to teach, and not to learn. vocabulary of their philosophy. To the litera. They looked for nothing out of themselves. ture of other nations they do not seem to have They borrowed nothing. They translated no- paid the slightest attention. The sacred books thing. We cannot call to mind a single ex- of the Hebrews, for example, books which, con. pression of any Greek writer earlier than the sidered merely as human compositions, are in. age of Augustus, indicating an opinion that valuable to the critic, the antiquary, and the any thing worth reading could be written in philosopher, seem to have been utterly unnoany language except his own. The feelings iiced by them. The peculiarities of Judaism, which sprung from national glory were not and the rapid growth of Christianity, attracted altogether extinguished by national degrada- their notice. They made war against the Jews. tion. They were fondly cherished through They made laws against the Christians. But ages of slavery and shame. The literature of they never opened the books of Moses. JuveRome herself was regarded with contempt by nal quotes the Pentateuch with censure. The those who had fled before her arms, and who author of the treatise on the “Sublime” quotes bowed beneath her fasces. Voltaire says, in it with praise: but both of them quote it erroone of his six thousand pamphlets, that he was neously. When we consider what sublime the first person who told the French that Eng- poetry, what curious history, what striking and land had produced eminent men besides the peculiar views of the divine nature, and of the Duke of Marlborough. Down to a very late social duties of men, are to be found in the period, the Greeks seem to have stood in need Jewish Scriptures; when we consider the two of similar information with respect to their sects on which the attention of the government masters. With Paulus Æmilius, Sylla, and was constantly fixed, appealed to those ScripCæsar, they were well acquainted. But the tures as the rule of their faith and practice, notions which they entertained respecting Ci- this indifference is astonishing. The faci cero and Virgil 'were, probably, not unlike I seems to be, that the Greeks admired only then

selves, and that the Romans admired only them- a storniy democracy in the quiet and listless selves and the Greeks. Literary men turned population of an overgrown empire. The fear away with disgust from modes of thought and of heresy did what the sense of oppression expression so widely different from all that could not do; it changed men, accustomed to they had been accustomed to admire. The ef- be turned over like sheep from tyrant to tyrant, feci was narrowness and sameness of thought into devoted partisans and obstinate rebels Their minds, if we may so express ourselves, The tones of an eloquence which had been bred in and in, and were accordingly cursed silent for ages resounded from the pulpit of with barrerness, and degeneracy. No extra- Gregory. A spirit which had been extinguished neous beauty or vigour was engrafted on the on the plains of Philippi revived in Athanasius decaying stock. By an exclusive attention to and Ambrose. one class of phenomena, by an exclusive taste Yet even this remedy was not sufficiently for one species of excellence, the human intel. violent for the disease. It did not prevent the lect was stunted. Occasional coincidences empire of Constantinople from relapsing, after were turned into general rules. Prejudices a short paroxysin of excitement, into a state of were confounded with instincts. On man, as stupefaction to which history furnishes scarcehe was found in a particular state of society, ly any parallel. We there find that a polished on government, as.it had existed in a particu- society, a society in which a inost intricate lar corner of the world, many just observations and elaborate system of jurisprudence was eswere made; but of man as man, or government tablished, in which the arts of luxury were as government, little was known. Philosophy well understood, in which the works of the great remained stationary. Slight changes, some- ancient writers were preserved and studied, times for the worse and sometimes for the bet- existed for nearly a thousand years without ter, were made in the superstructure. But no- making one great discovery in science, or probody thought of examining the foundations. ducing one book which is read by any but

The vast despotism of the Cæsars, gradually curious inquirers. There were tumults, too, effacing all national peculiarities, and assimu- and controversies, and wars in abundance, lating the remotest provinces of the Empire to and these things, bad as they are in th.'m each other, augmented the evil. At the close selves, have generally been favourable to he of the third century after Christ, the prospects progress of the intellect. But here they tor of mankind were fearfully dreary. A system mented without stimulating. The waters were of etiquette, as pompously frivolous as that of troubled, but no healing influence descended. the Escurial, had been established. A sove. The agitations resembled the grinnings and reign almost invisible; a crowd of dignitaries writhings of a galvanized corpse, not the minutely distinguished by badges and titles; struggles of an athletic man. rhetoricians who said nothing but what had From this miserable state the Western Ein been said ten thousand times; schools in which pire was saved by the fiercest and most de. nothing was taught but what had been known stroying visitation with which God has ever for ages—such was the machinery provided chastened his creatures—the invasion of the for ihe government and instruction of the most northern nations. Such a cure was required enfightened part of the human race. That great for such a distemper. The Fire of London, it community was then in danger of experience has been observed, was a blessing. It burned ing a calamity far more terrible than any of down the city, but it burned out the plague. the quick, inflammatory, destroying maladies, to The same may be said of the tremendous de. which nations are liable-a tottering, drivelling, vastation of the Roman dominions. It anniparalytic longevity, the immortalityof the Struld- hilated the noisome recesses in which lurked brugs, a Chinese civilization. It would be the seeds of great moral maladies; it cleared easy to indicate many points of resemblance an atmosphere fatal to the health and vigour between the subjects of Diocletian and the of the human mind. It cost Europe a thoupeople of that Celestial Empire, where, during sand years of barbarism to escape the fate of many centuries, nothing has been learned or China. unlearned; where government, where educa At length the terrible purification was ac. tion, where the whole system of life is a cere complished; and the second civilization of mony; where knowledge forgets to increase mankind commenced, under circumstances and multiply, and, like the talent buried in the which afforded a strong security that it would earth, or the pound wrapped up in the napkin, never retrograde and never pause. Europe experiences neither waste nor augmentation. was now a great federal community. Her

The torpor was broken by two great revolu- numerous states were united by the easy ties tions, the one moral, the other political; the of international law and a common religion. une from within, the other from without. The Their institutions, their languages, their manvictory of Christianity over Paganism, consi- ners, their tastes in literature, their modes of dered with relation to this subject only, was education, were widely different. Their conof great importance. It overthrew the old nection was close enough to allow of mutual system of morals, and with it much of the old observation and improvement, yet not so close system of metaphysics. It furnished the ora- as to destroy the idioms of natural opinion and tor with new topics of declamation, and the lo- feeling. gician with new points of controversy. Above The balance of moral and intellectual influall, it introduced a new principle, of which the ence, thus established between the nations of operation was constantly felt in every part of Europe, is far more important than the balance Rociety. It stirred the stagnant mass from the of political power. Indeed, we are inclined to inmost depths. It excited all the passions of think that the latter is valuable principally be.

cause it tends to maintain the former. The saint of Laud, or a tyrant of Henry the civilized world has thus been preserved from Fourth. a uniformity of character fatal to all improve This species of misrepresentation abounds ment. Every part of it has been illuminated in the most valuable works of modern histowith light reflected from every other. Compe- rians. Herodotus tells his story like a slovenly tition has prodneed activity where monopoly witness, who, heated by partialities and prejuwould have produced sluggishness. The num- dices, unacquainted with the established rules ber of experiments in moral science which the of evidence, and uninstructed as to the obliga. speculator has an opportunity of witnessing tions of his oath, confounds what he imagines has been increased beyond all calculation. with what he has seen and heard, and brings Society and human nature, instead of being out facts, reports, conjectures, and fancies, in seen in a single point of view, are presented one mass. Hume is an accomplished advoto him under ten thousand different aspects.cate. Without positively asserting much more By observing the manners of surrounding na- than he can prove, he gives prominence to all tions, by studying their literature, by compar- the circumstances which support his case; he ing it with that of his own country and of the glides lightly over those which are unfavourancient republics, he is enabled to correct able to it; his own witnesses are applauded those errors into which the most acute men must and encouraged; the statements which seem fall when they reason from a single species to to throw discredit on them are controverted; a genus. He learns to distinguish what is the contradictions into which they fall are ex. local from what is universal; what is transi- plained away; a clear and connected abstract tory from what is eternal; to discriminate be- of their evidence is given. Every thing that tween exceptions and rules; to trace the ope- is offered on the other side is scrutinized with ration of disturbing causes; to separate those the utmost severity; every suspicious circumgeneral principles which are always true and stance is a ground for comment and invective; everywhere applicable, from the accidental what cannot be denied is extenuated or passed circumstances with which in every community by without notice; concessions even are somethey are blended, and with which, in an iso- times made; but this insidious candour only in. lated community, they are confounded by the creases the effect of the vast mass of sophistry. most philosophical mind.

We have mentioned Hume as the ablest and Hence it is that, in generalization, the writ- most popular writer of his class; but the charge ers of modern times have far surpassed those which we have brought against him is one to of antiquity. The historians of our own coun. which all our most distinguished historians are try are unequalled in depth and precision of in some degree obnoxious. Gibbon, in particureason; and even in the works of our mere lar, deserves very severe censure. Of all the nu. Compilers we often meet with speculations be- merous culprits, however, none is more deeply yond the reach of Thucydides or Tacitus. guilty than Mr. Mitford. We willingly acknow

But it must at the same time be admitted ledge the obligations which are due to his tathat they have characteristic faults, so closely lents and industry. The modern historians of connected with their characteristic merits and Greece had been in the habit of writing as if of such magnitude that it may well be doubted the world had learned nothing new during the. whether, on the whole, this department of lite- last sixteen hundred years. Instead of illusrature has gained or lost during the last two-trating the events which they narrated by the and-twenty centuries.

philosophy of a more enlightened age, they The best nistorians of later times have been judged of antiquity by itself alone. They seduced froin truth, not by their imagination, seemed to think thai notions, long driven from but by their reason. They far excel their pre- every other corner of literature, had a predecessors in the art of deducing general prin- scriptive right to occupy this last fastness. ciples from facts. But unhappily they have They considered all the ancient historians as failen into the error of distorting facts to suit equally authentic. They scarcely made any general principles. They arrive at a theory distinction between him who related events al from looking at some of the phenomena, and which he had himself been present, and him the remaining phenomena they strain or cur- who five hundred years after composed a phi tail to suit the theory. For this purpose it is losophical romance, for a society which hac not necessary that they should assert what is in the interval undergone a complete change absolutely false, for all questions in morals It was all Greek, and all true! The centuries and politics are questions of comparison and which separated Plutarch from Thucydides degree. Any proposition which does not in- seemed as nothing to men who lived in an age voire a contradiction in terms may, by possi- so remote. The distance of time produced an bility, be true; and if all the circumstances error similar to that which is sometimes prowhich raise a probability in its favour be stated duced by distance of place. There are many and enforced, and those which lead to an op- good ladies who think that all the people in posite conclusion be omitted or lightly passed India live together, and who charge a friend üver, it may appear to be demonstrated. In setting out for Calcutta with kind messages to every human character and transaction there Bombay. To Rollin and Barthelemi, in the is a mixture of good and evil;-a little exagge- same manner, all the classics were contemration, a little suppression, a judicious use of poraries. epithets, a watchful and searching skepticism Mr. Mitford een tainly introduced great im. with respect to the evidence on one side, a con- provements; he showed us that men who venient credulity with respect to every report wrote in Greek and Latin sometimes toll lies: or tradition on the other, may easily make a he showed us that ancient history might be

« PreviousContinue »