Page images
PDF
EPUB

that they have reason to fear; then it is that be possible to change. Have you not heard

the earth sinks and the sea swells; then cities are swatiowed up, and their place knoweth them no more. So it is in politics: where the people are most closely restrained, there it gives the greatest shocks to peace and order; therefore would I say to all kings, let your demagogties lead crowds, lest they lead armies; let them bluster, lest they massacre; a little turbulence is, as it were, the rainbow of the state; it shows indeed that there is a passing shower, but it is a pledge that there shall be no deluge.” “This is true,” said Mr. Cowley: “yet these admonitions are not less needful to subjects than to sovereigns.” “Surely,” said Mr. Milton, “and, that I may end this long debate with a few words in which we shall both agree, I hold that as freedom is the only safeguard of governments, so are order and moderation generally necessary to preserve freedom. Even the vainest opinions of men are not to be outraged by those who propose to themselves the mappiness of men for their end, and who must work with the passions of men for their means. The blind reverence for things ancient is indeed so foolish that it might make a wise man laugh, if it were not also sometimes so mischievous that it would rather make a good man weep. Yet, since it may not be wholly cured, it must be discreetly indu'ged, and therefore those who would amend svol laws should consider rather how much it

may be safe to spare, than how much it may

that men who have been shut up for many years in dungeons shrink if they see the light, and fall down if their irons be struck off. And, so, when nations have long been in the house of bondage, the chains which have crippled them are necessary to support them, the darkness which hath weakened their sight is necessary to preserve it. Therefore release them not too rashly, lest they curse their freedom and pine for their prison. “I think, indeed, that the renowned Parliament of which we have talked so much did show, until it became subject to the soldiers, a singular and admirable moderation, in such times scarcely to be hoped, and most worthy to be an example to all that shall come after. But on this argument I have said enough; and I will therefore only pray to Almighty God that those who shall, in future times, stand forth in defence of our liberties, as well civil as religious, may adorn the good cause by mercy, prudence, and soberness, to the glory of his name and the happiness and honour of the English people.” And so ended that discourse; and not long after we were set on shore again at the Temple Gardens, and there parted company: and the sane evening I took notes of what had been said, which I have here more fully set down, from regard both to the fame of the men, and the importance of the subject-matter.

ON MITFORD’s HISTORY OF GREECE.

Thrs is a book which enjoys a great and inereasing popularity; but, while it has attracted a considerable share of the public attention, it has been little noticed by the critics. Mr. Mitford has almost succeeded in mounting, unperceived by those whose office it is to watch such aspirants, to a high place among historians. He has taken a seat on the dais without being challenged by a single seneschal. To oppose the progress of his fame is now almost a hopeless enterprise. Had he been reviewed with candid severity, when he had published only his first volume, his work would either have deserved its reputation, or would never have obtained it. “Then,” as Indra says of Kehama, “then was the time to strike.” The time was neglected; and the consequence is, that Mr. Mitford, like-Kehama, has laid his victorious hand on the literary Amreeta, and seems about to taste the precious elixir of immortality. I shall venture to emulate the courage of the honest Glendoveer—

o

* When now Ile saw the Amreeta in Kehanna's hand, An impulse that defied all self-command, In that extremity, Rtung him, and he resolved to seize the cup And dare the Rajah's force in Seeva's sight. Forward he sprung to tempt the unequal fray.”

I” plain words, I shall offer a few considerations, which may tend to reduce an overpraised writer to his proper level.

The principal characteristic of this historian, the origin of his excellencies and his desects, is a love of singularity. He has no notion of going with a multitude to do either good or evil. An exploded opinion, or an unpopular person, has an irresistible charm for him. The same perverseness may be traced in his diction. His style would never have been elegant, but it might at least have been manly and perspicuous; and nothing but the most elaborate care could possibly have made it so bad as it is. It is distinguished by harsh phrases, strange collocations, occasional solecisms, frequent obscurity, and, above all, by a peculiar oddity, which can no more be described than it can be overlooked. Nor is this all. Mr. Mitford piques himself on spelling better than any of his neighbours; and this not only in ancient names, which he mangles in defiance both of custom and of reason, but in the most ordinary word, of the English language. It is, in itsels, a matter perfectly indis. ferent whether we call a foreigner by the name which he bears in his own language, or by that which corresponds to it in ours: whether we sa, lorenzo, de Medici, or Lawrence de Medici, Jean Chauvin, or John Calvin. In such cases,

‘established usage is considered as law by all

writers except Mr. Mitford. If he were always consistent with himself, he might be excused kor sometimes disagreeing with his neighbours; but he proceeds on no principle but that of

being unlike the rest of the world. Every

child has heard of Linnaeus, therefore Mr. Mitford calls him Linné; Rousseau is known all over Europe as Jean Jacques, therefore Mr. Mitford bestows on him the strange appellation of John James. Had Mr. Mitford undertaken a history of any other country than Greece, this propensity would have rendered his work useless and absurd. His occasional remarks on the affairs of ancient Rome and modern Europe are full of errors; but he writes of times, with respect to which almost every other writer has been in the wrong, and, therefore, by resolutely deviating from his predecessors, he is often in the right. Almost all the modern historians of Greece have shown the grossest ignorance of the most obvious phenomena of human nature. In their representations the generals and statesmen of antiquity are absolutely divested of all individuality. They are personifications; they are passions, talents, opinions, virtues, vices, but not men. Inconsistency is a thing of which these writers have no notion. That a man may have been liberal in his youth and avaoricious wh his age, cruel to one enemy and merciful to another, is to them utterly inconceivable. If the facts be undeniable, they suppose some strange and deep design, in order to explain what, as every one who has observed his own mind knows, needs no explanation at all. This is a mode of writing very accept-" able to the multitude, who have always been accustomed to make gods and demons out of men very little better or worse than themselves; but it appears contemptible to all who have watched the changes of human character—to all who have observed the influence of time, of circumstances, and of associates, on mankind—to all who have seen a hero in the gout, a democrat in the church, a pedant in love, or a philosopher in liquor. This practice of painting in nothing but black and white is unpardonable even in the drama. It is the great fault of Alfieri; and " how much it injures the effect of his compositions will be obvious to every one who will compare his Rosmunda with the Lady Macbeth

| of Shakspeare. The one is a wicked woman;

the other is a fiend. Her only feeling is hatred; all her words are curses. We are at once shocked and fatigued by the spectacle of such raving cruelty, excited by no provocation, repeatedly changing its object, and constant in nothing but in its inextinguishable thirst for blood. In history this error is far more disgraceful Indeed, there is no fault which so completely ruins a narrative in the opinion of a judicious reader. We know that the line of demarcation between good and bad men is so faintly marked as often to elude the most careful investigation

of those who have the best opportunities for

judging. Public men, above all, are surrounded with so many temptations and difficulties, that some doubt must almost always hang over their real dispositions and intentions. The ;ives of Pym, Cromwell, Monk, Clarendon, Marlborough, Burnet, Walpole, are well known to us. We are acquainted with their actions, their speeches, their writings; we have abundance of letters and well-authenticated anecdotes relating to them: yet what candid man will venture very positively to say which of them were honest and which of them were dishonest men. It appears easier to pronounce decidedly upon the great characters of antiquity, not because we have greater means of discovering truth, but simply because we have less means of detecting error. The modern historians of Greece have forgotten this. Their heroes and villains are as consistent in all their sayings and doings as the cardinal virtues and the deadly sins in an allegory. We should as soon expect a good action from Giant Slay-good in Bunyan as from Dionysius; and a crime of Spaminondas would seem as incongruous as a faux-pas of the grave and comely damsel, called Discretion, who answered the bell at the door cf the house Beautiful.

This error was partly the cause and partly the effect of the high estimation, in which the later ancient writers have been held by modern scholars. Those French and English authors who have treated of the affairs of Greece have generally turned with contempt from the simple and natural narrations of Thucydides and Xenophon to the extravagant representations of Plutarch, Diodorus, Curtius, and other romancers of the same class, men who described military operations without ever having handled a sword, and applied to the seditions of little republics speculations formed by observation on an empire which covered half the known world. Of liberty they knew nothing. It was to them a great mystery, a superhuman enjoyment. hey ranted about liberty and patriotism, from the same cause which leads monks to talk more ardently than other men about love and women. A wise man values political liberty, because it secures the persons and the possessions of citizens; because it tends to prevent the extravagance of rulers and the corruption of judges; because it gives birth to useful sciences and elegant arts; because it excites the industry and increases the comforts of all classes of society. These theorists imagined that it possessed something eternally and intrinsically good, distinct from the blessings which it generally produced. They considered it, not as a means, but as an end; an end to be attained at any cost. Their favourite heroes are those who have sacrificed, for the mere name of freedom, the prosperity—the security —the justice—from which freedom derives its value.

There is another remarkable characteristic to these writers, in which their modern worslippers have carefully imitated them,--a great fondness for good stories. The most established facts, dates, and characters are never suffered to come into competition with a splendid saying or a romantic exploit. The early historians have left us natural and simple de"Vol. III.--54

scriptions of the great events which they wit. nessed, and the great men with whom they as. sociated. When we read the account which Plutarch and Rollin have given of the same period, we scarcely know our old acquaintance again; we are utterly confounded by the melodramatic effect of the narration and the sublime coxcombry of the characters. These are the principal errors into which the predecessors of Mr. Mitford have fallen: and from most of these he is free. His faults are of a completely different description. It is to be hoped that the students of history may now be saved, like Dorax in Dryden's play, by swallowing two conflicting poisons, each of which may serve as an antidote to the other. The first and most important difference between Mr. Mitford and those who have preceded him, is in his narration. Here the advantage lies, for the most part, on his side. His principle is to follow the contemporary historians, to look with doubt on all statements which are not in some degree confirmed by them, and absolutely to reject all which are contradicted by them. While he retains the guidance of some writer in whom he can place confidence, he goes on excellently. When he loses it, he falls to the level, or perhaps below the level of the writers whom he so much despises: he is as absurd as they, and very much duller. It is really amusing to observe how he proceeds with his narration, when he has no better authority than poor Diodorus. He is compelled to relate something; yet he believes nothing. He accompanies every fact with a long statement of objections. His account of the administration of Dionysius is in no sense a history. It ought to be entitled— “Historic doubts as to certain events alleged to have taken place in Sicily.” This skepticism, however, like that of some great legal characters almost as skeptical as himself, vanishes whenever his political partialities interfere. He is a vehement admirer of tyranny and oligarchy, and considers no evidence as feeble which can be brought forward in favour of those forms of government. Democracy he hates with a perfect hatred, a hatred which, in the first volume of his history, appears only in his epistles and reflections, but which, in those parts where he has less reverence for his guides, and can venture to take his own way, completely distorts even his narration. In taking up these opinions, I have no doubt that Mr. Mitford was influenced by the same love of singularity which led him to spell island without an s, and to place two dots over the last letter of idea. In truth, preceding historians have erred so monstrously on the other side, that even the worst parts of Mr. Mitford's book may be useful as a corrective. For a young gentleman who talks much about his country, tyrannicide, and Epaminondas, this work, diluted in a sufficient quantity of Rollin and Barthelemi, may be a very useful remedy. The errors of both parties" arise from an ignorance or a neglect of the fundamental principles of political science. The writers on one side imagine popular government to b - -$8 & -

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

portunity of assuring us that it is always a curse. The fact is, that a good government,

like a good coat, is that which fits the body for which it is designed. A man who, upon ab

always a blessing; Mr. Mitford omits no op- it would be as absurd to establish popular go

vernments, as to abolish all restraints in a

school, or to untie all the strait-waistcoats in a

mad-house. Hence it may be concluded, that the happiest

stract principles, pronounces a constitution to state of society is that in which supreme power

be good, without an exact knowledge of the

resides in the whole body of a well-informed

people who are to be governed by it, judges as people. This is an imaginary, perhaps an un

absurdly as a tailor who should measure the

"Belvidere Apollo for the clothes of all his cusJomers. The demagogues who wished to see Portugal a republic, and the wise critics who revile the Virginians for not having instituted a peerage, appear equally ridiculous to all men of sense and candour. That is the best government which desires "to make the people happy, and knows how to make them happy. Neither the inclination nor the knowledge will suffice alone, and it is difficult to find them together. Pure democracy, and pure democracy alone, satisfies the former condition of this great problem. That the governors may be solicitous only for the interests of the governed, it is necessary that the interests of the governors and the governed should be the same. This cannot be often the case where power is intrusted to one or to a few. The privileged part of the community will doubtless derive a certain degree of advantage from the general prosperity of the state; but they will derive a greater from oppression and exaction. The king will desire a useless war for his glory, or a parc-aux-cerfs for his pleasure. The nobles will demand monopolies and lettres-de-cáchet. In proportion as the number of governors is increased the evil is diminished. There are fewer to contribute, and more to receive. The dividend which each can obtain of the public plunder becomes less and less tempting. But the interests of the subjects and the rulers never absolutely coincide till the subjects themselves become the rulers; that is, till the government be either immediately or mediately democratical. But this is not enough. “Will without power,” said the sagacious Casimir to Milor Beefington, “is like children playing at soldiers.” The people will always be desirous to promote their own interests; but it may be doubted, whether, in any community, they were ever sufficiently educated to understand them. Even in this island, where the multiude have long been better informed than in any other part of Europe, the rights of the many have generally been asserted against themselves by the patriotism of the few. Free trade, one of the greatest blessings which a government can confer on a people, is in almost every country unpopular. It may be well doubted, whether a liberal policy with regard to our commercial relations, would find any support from a Parliament elected by universal suffrage. The republicans on the other side of the Atlantic have recently adopted regulations, of which the consequences will, before long, show us, “Ilow nations sink, by darling schemes oppressed, When vengeance listens to the fool's reqiest.” The people are to be governed for their own good; and, that they may be governed for their own good, they must not be governed by their own ignorance. There are countries in which *

attainable state of things. Yet, in some measure, we may approximate to it; and he alone deserves the name of a great statesman, whose principle it is to extend the power of the people in proportion to the extent of their" knowledge, and to give them every facility for obtaining such a degree of knowledge as may render it safe to trust them with absolute power.In the mean time, it is dangerous to praise or condemn constitutions in the abstract; since, from the despotism of St. Petersburgh to the democracy of Washington, there is scarcely a form of government which might not, at least in some hypothetical case, be the best possible. If, however, there be any form of government which in all ages and nations has always been, and must always be pernicious, it is certainly that which Mr. Mitford, on his usual principle of being wiser than all the rest of the world, has taken under his especial patronage—pure oligarchy. This is closely and indeed inseparably connected with another of his eccentric tastes, a marked partiality for Lacedæmon, and a dislike of Athens. Mr. Mitford's book has, I suspect, rendered these sentiment, in some degree popular; and I shall, therefore, examine them at some length. The shades in the Athenian character strike the eye more rapidly than those in the Lacedaemonian ; not because they are darker, but because they are on a brighter ground. The law of ostracism is an instance of this. Nothing can be conceived more odious than the practice of punishing a citizen, simply and professedly, for his eminence;—and nothing in the insiitutions of Athens is more frequently or more justly censured. Lacedaemon was free from this. And why? Lacedaemon did not need it. Oligarchy is an ostracism of itself—an ostracism not occasional, but permanent, not dubious, but certain. Her laws prevented the development of merit, instead of attacking its maturity. They did not cut down the plant in its high and palmy state, but cursed the soil with eternal sterility. In spite of the law of" ostracism, Athens produced, within a hundred and fifty years, the greatest public men tha: ever existed. Whom had Sparta to ostracize 1 She produced, at most, four eminent men, Brasidas, Gylippus, Lysander, and Agesilaus. Of these, not one rose to distinction within her jurisdiction. It was only when they escaped from the region within which the influence of aristocracy withered every thing good and noble; it was only when they ceased to be Lacedaemonians that they became great men. Brasidas, among the cities of Thrace, was strictly a democratical leader, the favourite minister and general of the people. The same may be said of Gylippus, at Syracuse. Lysan der, in the Hellespont, and Agesilaus, in Asia, were liberated for a time from the hateful re.

[merged small][ocr errors][merged small]

o

gus. Both acquired fame abroad, and both returned to be watched and depressed at home. This is not peculiar to Sparta. Oligarchy, wherever it has existed. has always stunted the growth of genius. Thus it was at Rome, till about a century before the Christian era; we read of abundance of consuls and dictators who won battles and enjoyed triumphs, but we look in vain for a single man of the first order of intellect, for a Pericles, a Demosthenes, or a Hannibal. The Gracchi formed a strong democratical party; Marius revived it; the foun"dations of the old aristocracy were shaken; and two generations fertile in really great men

appeared. Venice is a still more remarkable instance: in her history we see nothing but the state; aristocracy had destroyed every seed of genius and virtue. Her dominion was like herself, lofty and magnificent, but founded on filth and weeds. God forbid that there should ever again exist a powerful and civilized state, which,

after existing through thirteen hundred eventful years, shall not bequeath to mankind the memory of one greatname or one generous action.

Many writers, and Mr. Mitford among the number, have admired the stability of the Spartan institutions; in fact, there is little to adtnire, and less to approve. Oligarchy is the weakest and most stable of governments, and it is stable because it is weak. It has a sort of valetudinarian longevity; it lives in the balance of Sanctorius; it takes no exercise, it exposes itself to no accident, it is seized with a hypochondriac alarm at every new sensation, it trembles at every breath, it lets blood for every inflammation, and thus, without ever enjoying a day of health or pleasure, drags on its existence to a doting and debilitated old

The Spartans purchased for their government a prolongation of its existence, by the sacrifice of happiness at home and dignity abroad. They cringed to the powerful; they trampled on the weak; they massacred their Helots; they betrayed their allies; they contrived to be a day too late for the battle of Marathon; they attempted to avoid the battle of Salamis; they suffered the Athenians, to whom they owed their lives and liberties, to be a second time driven from their country by the Persians, that they might finish their own fortifications on the Isthmus; they attempted to. take advantage of the distress to which exertions in their cause had reduced their preservers, in order to make them their slaves; they strove to prevent those who had abandoned their walls to defend them, from rebuilding them to defend themselves; they commenced the Peloponnesian war in violation of their engagements with Athens; they abandoned it in violation of their engagements with their allies; they gave up to the sword whole cities, which had placed themselves under their protection; they bartered for advantages confined to themselves, the interest, the freedom, and the lives of those who had served them most faithfully; they took with equal complacency, and equal infamy, the stripes of Elis and the bribes of Persia; they never showed either resentment or gratitude... they abstained from no injury,

and they revenged none. Above all, they looked on a citizen who served them well as their deadliest enemy. These are the arts which protract the existence of governments. Nor were the domestic institutions of Lace. daimon less hateful or less contemptible than her foreign policy. A perpetual interference with every part of the system of human life, a constant struggle against-nature and reason, characterized all her laws. To violate even prejudices which have taken deep root in the minds of a people is scarcely expedient; to think of extirpating natural appetites and passions is frantic: the external symptoms may be occasionally repressed, but the feeling still exists, and, debarred from its natural objects, preys on the disordered mind and body of its victim. Thus it is in convents—thus it is among ascetic sects—thus it was among the Lacedaemonians. Hence arose that madness, or violence approaching to madness, which, in spite of every external restraint, often appeared among the most distinguished citizens of Sparta. Cleomenes terminated his career of raving cruelty, by cutting himself to pieces. Pausanias seems to have been absolutely insane: he formed a hopeless and prosligate scheme; he betrayed it by the ostentation of his behaviour and the imprudence of his measures; and he alienated, by his insolence, all who might have served or protected him. Xenophon, a warm admirer of Lacedæmon, furnishes us with the strongest evidence to this effect. It is impossible not to observe the brutal and senseless fury which characterizes almost every Spartan with whom he was connected. Clearchus nearly lost his life by his cruelty. Chirisophus deprived his army of the services of a faithful guide by his unreasonable and ferocious severity. But it is needless to multiply instances, Lycurgus, Mr. Mitford's favourite legislator, founded his whole system on a mistaken principle. He never considered that governments were made for men, and not men for govern. ments. Instead of adapting the constitution to the people, he distorted the minds of the people to suit the constitution, a scheme worthy of the Laputan Academy of Projectors. And this appears to Mr. Mitford to constitute his peculiar title to admiration. Hear himself: “What to modern eyes most strikingly sets that extraordinary man above all other legislators is, that in so many circumstances, apparently out of the reach of law, he controlled and formed to his own mind the wills and habits of his people.” I should suppose that this gentleman had the advantage receiving his education under the ferula of Dr. Pangloss; for his metaphysics are clearly those of the castle of Thunder-tentronckh, “Remarquez bien que les nez ort été faits pour porter des lunettes, aussiavons tous des lunettes. Les jambes sont visiblement in stitutées pour étre chaussées, et nous avons des chausses. Les cochons étant faits pour étre mangés, nous mangeons du porc tout” l'année.” At Athens the laws did not constantly interfere with the tastes of the people. The children were not taken from their parents by that universal step-mother, the state. They were not starved into thieves, or ‘ortured onto

« PreviousContinue »