« PreviousContinue »
far more solicitous to trace his death to political causes, and to deduce I'rom it consequences unfavourable to Athens and to popular government, than to throw light on the character and doctrines of the wonderful man,
"From whose mouth is«ned forth
He does not seem to be aware that Demosthenes was a great orator; he represents him sometimes as an aspiring demagogue, sometimes as an adroit negotiator, and always as a great rogue. Bui that in which the Athenian excelled all men of all ages, that irresistible eloquence, which, at the distance of more than two thousand years, stirs our blood and brings tears into onr eyes, he passed by with a few phrases of commonplace commendation. The origin of the drama, the doctrines of the sophists, the course of Athenian education, the state of the arts and sciences, the whole domestic system of the Greeks, he has almost completely neglected. Yet these things will appear, to a reflecting man, scarcely less worthy of attention than the taking of Sphacteria, or the discipline of the targeteers of Iphtcrates.
This, indeed, is a deficiency by no means peculiar to Mr. Mitford. Most people seem to imagine that a detail of public occurences— the operation of sieges—the changes of administrations—the treaties—the conspiracies—the rebellions—is a complete history. Differences of definition, are logically unimportant, but practically they sometimes produce the most momentous effects: thus it has been in the present case; historians have, almost without exception, confined themselves to the public transactions of states, and have left to the negligent administration of writers of fiction a province at least equally extensive and valuable.
All wise statesmen have agreed<-to consider the prosperity or adversity of nations as made up of the happiness or misery of individuals, and to reject as chimerical all notions of a public interest of the community, distinct from the interest of the component pans. It is therefore strange that those whose oflicn it is to supply statesmen with examples and warnings, should omit, as too mean for the dignity of history, circumstances which exert the most extensive influence on the state of society. In general, the under current of hitman life flows steadily on, unruffled by the storms which agitate the surface. The happiness of the many commonly depends on causes independent of victories or defeats, of revolutions or restorations,—causes which can be regulated by no laws, and which are recorded in no archives. These causes are the things which it is of main importance to us to know, not how the I.ncedonnonian phalanx was broken at l.euctra—tint whether Alexander died of poison or by disease. History, without these, is a shell without a kernel; and such is almost all the history which is extant in the world. Paltry skirmishes and plots are reported with absurd
and useless minutcnes— hut improvements the most essential to the comforts of human life extend themselves over the world, and introduce themselves into every cottage, before any annalist can condescend from the dignity of writing about generals and ambassadors," to take the least notice of them. Thus the pro gress of the most salutary inventions and dis coveries is buried in impenetrable mystery, mankind arc deprived of a most useful species of knowledge, and their benefactors of their honest fame. In the mean time every child knows by heart the dates and adventures of a long line of barbarian kings. The history of nations, in the sense in which I use the word, is often best studied in works not professedly historical. Thucydides, as far as he goes, is an excellent writer, yet he affords us far less knowledge of the most important particulars relating to Athens, than Plato or Aristophanes. The little treatise of Xenophon in Domestic Economy contains more historical information than all the seven books of his Hellanics. The same may be said of the Satires of Horace, of the Letters Of Cicero, of the novels of Le Sage, of the memoirs of Marmontel. Manyothers might be mentioned, but these suffi ciently illustrate my meaning.
I would hope that there may yet appear a writer who may despise the present narrow limits, and assert the rights of history ove* every part of her natural domain. Shoule such a writer engage in that enterprise, in which I cannot but consider Mr. Mitford as having failed, he will record, indeed, all that is interesting and important in military and political transactions; but he will not think any thing too trivial for the gravity of history, which is not too trivial to promote or-diminish the happiness of man. He will portray in vivid colours the domestic society, the manners, the amusements, the conversation of the Greeks. He will not disdain to discuss the state of agriculture, of the mechanical arts, and of the conveniences of life. The progress of painting, of sculpture, and of architecture, will form an important part of his plan. But above all, his attention will be given to the history of that splendid literature from which has sprung all the strength, the wisdom, the freedom, and the glory of the western world.
Of the indifference which Mr. Mitford shows on this subject, I will not speak, for I cannot speak with fairness. It is a subject in which I love to forget the accuracy of a judge, in the veneration of a worshipper and the gratitude of a child. If we consider merely the subtlety of disquisition, the force of imagination, the perfect energy and elegance of expression, which characterize the great works of Athenian genius, we must pronounce them intrin sically most valuable; but what shall we say when we reflect that from hence have sprung, directly or indirectly, all the noblest creations of the human intellect; that from hence were the vast accomplishments and die brilliant fancy of Cicero, the withering fire of Juvenal; Jhe plastic imagination of Dante; the humour . of Cervantes; the comprehension of.Bacotl; the wit of Butler; the supreme and universsx.
ricellence of Shakspearet All the triumphs 01 truth and genius over prejudice and power, in every country and in every age, have been tlie triumphs of Athens. Wherever a few ^reat minds have made a stand against violi-nce and fraud, in the cause of liberty and i sason, there has been her spirit in the midst »f them; inspiring, encouraging, consoling;— '/ the lonely lamp of Erasmus; by the restless lid of Pascal; in the tribune of Mirabeau; in vie cell of Galileo; or. the scaffold of Sidney. l<ut who shall estimate her influence on private happiness? Who shall say how many • 'ion sands have been made wiser, happier, and i etter, by those pursuits in which she lips taught mankind to engage; to how many the studies which took their rise from her have been wealth in poverty,—liberty in bondage,— health in sickness,—society in solitude. Her power is indeed manifested at the bar; in the senate; in the field of battle; in the schools of ■ hilosophy. But these are not her glory. Wherever literature conso'es sorrow, or assuages pain,—wherever it brings gladness to eyes which fail with wakefulness and tears, a nd ache for the dark house and the long sleep, —there is exhibited, in its noblest form, the immortal influence of Athens.
The dervise, in the Arabian tale, did not hesitate t<> abandon to his comrade the camels with their load of jewels and gold, while he re tained the casket of that mysterious juice, which enabled him to behold at one gbuice all
the hidden riches of the universe. 8urely it to no exaggeration to say, that no external advantage is to be compared with that purification of the intellectual eye, which gives us to contemplate the infinite wealth of the menial world; all the hoarded treasures of the primeval dynasties, all the shapeless ore of its yet unexplored mines. This is the gift of Athens to man. Her freedom and her power have for more than twenty centuries been annihilated; her people have degenerated into timid slaves; her language into a barbarous jargon; her temples have been given up to the successive depredations of Komans,Turks, and Scotchmen; but her intellectual empire is imperishable. And, when those who have rivalled her greatness shall have shared her fate: when civilization and knowledge shall have fixed their abode in distant continents; when the sceptre shall have passed away from England; when, perhaps, travellers from distant regions shall in vain labour to decipher on some mouldering pedestal the name of our proudest chief; shall hear savage hymns chanted to some misshapen idol over the ruined dome of our proudest temple: and shall see a single naked fisherman wash his nets in the river of the ten thousand masts,—her influence anil her glory will still survive,—fresh in eternal youth, exempt from mutability and decay, immortal as the intellectual principle from which they derived their origin, and over which they exercise their control
ON THE ATHENIAN ORATORS.
To the fammii orator* repair, •
Thoie ancient, whose reeletleaa eloquence
The celebrity of the great classical writers is confined within no limits, except those which separate civilized from savage man. Their works are the common property of every polished nation. They have furnished sub
i'erts for the painter, and models for the poet. n the minds of the educated classes throughout Europe, their names are indissolubly associated with the endearing recollections of Childhood,—the old school-room,—the dogeared grammar,—the first prize,—the tears so often shed and so quickly dried. So great is the veneration with which they are regarded, that even the editors and commentators, who perform the lowest menial offices to their memory, are considered, like the equerries and chamberlains of sovereign princes, as entiiled to a high rank in the table of literary precedence. It is, therefore, somewhat singular that their productions should so rarely have been examined on just and philosophical principles of criticism.
The ancient writers themselves afford us but little assistance. When they particularize, they are commonly trivial: when they would generalize, they become indistinct. An exception must, indeed, be made in favour of ArisMle.. Doih in analysis and in combination, that great man was without a rival. No philosopher has ever possessed, in an equal degree, the talent either of separating established systems into their primary elements, or of connecting detached phenomena in harmonious systems. He was the great fashioner of the intellectual chaos: he changed its darkness into light, and its discord into order. He brought to literary researches the same vigour and amplitude of mind, to which both physical and metaphysical science are so greatly^n* debted. His fundamental principles of criticism are excellent. To cite only a single instance;—the doctrine which he established, that poetry is an imitative art, when justly understood is to the critic what the compass is to the navigator. With it he may venture upon the most extensive excursions. Without it he must creep cautiously along the coast, or lose himself in a trackless expanse, and trust, at best, to the guidance of an occasional star. It is a discovery which changes a caprice into a science.
The general propositions of Aristotle are valuable. But the merit of the superstructure bears no proportion to lhal of the foundation. This is partly to be ascribed to the character. of the philosopher, who, though qualified to do
all that could be done by the resolving and combining powers of the understanding, seems not to have possessed much of sensibility or imagination. Partly, also, it may be attributed to the deficiency of materials. The great works of genius which then existed were not either sufficiently numerous or sufficiently varied to enable any man to form a perfect code of literature. To require that a critic should conceive classes of composition which had never existed, and then investigate their principles, would be as unreasonable as the demand of Nebuchadnezzar, who expected his magicians fir.>t to tell him his dream, and then to interpret it.
With all his deficiencies Aristotle was the most enlightened and profound critic of antiquity. Dionysius was far from possessing the same exquisite subtlety, or the same vast comprehension. But he had access to a much greater number of specimens, and he had devoted himself, as it appears, more exclusively to the study of elegant Mterature. His particular judgments are of more value than his general principles. He is only the historian of literature. Aristotle is its philosopher.
Quintilian applied to general literature the same principles by which he had been accustomed to judge of the declamations of his pupils. He looks for nothing but rhetoric, and rhetoric not of the highest order. He speaks coldly of the incomparable works of ^Eschylus. He admires, beyond expression, those inexhaustible mines of commonplaces, the plays of Euripides. He bestows a few vague words on the poetical character of Homer. He then proceeds to consider him merely as an orator. An orator Homer doubtless was, and a great orator. But surely nothing is more remarkable, in his admirable works, than an art wiih which his oratorical powers are made subservient to the purposes of poetry. Nor can I think Quintilian a great critic in his own province. Just as are many of his remarks, beautiful as are many of his illustrations, wo can perpetually delect in his thoughts that flavour which the soil of despotism generally communicates to all the fruits of genius. Eloquence was, in his time, little more than a condiment which served to stimulate in a de» pot the jaded appetite for panegyric, an amuso ment for the travelled nobles and the blue * , stocking malrons of Rome. It is, therefore, with him, rather a sport than a war: it is*** contest of foils, not of swords. He appears to think more of the grace of ihe ai'irud'- 'ban of « O
the direction and vigour of the thrust. It must be acknowledged, in justice to Quinlilian, thai this is an error to ■which Cicero has too often given the Sanction, both of his precept and his example.
Longinus seems to have had great sensibility but little discrimination. He gives us eloquent sentences, but no principles. It was happily said that Montesquieu ought to have changed the name of his book from L'esprit des Lois to L'esprit tur let Lnis. In the same manner the philosopher of Palmyra ought to have entitled his famous work, not "Longinus on the Sublime," but "The Sublimities of Longinus." The origin of the sublime is one of the most curious and interesting subjects of inquiry that can occupy the attention of a critic. In our own country it has been discussed with great ability, and, I think, with very little success, by Burke and Dugald Stewart. Longinus dispenses himself from all investigations of this nature, by telling his friend Terentianus that he already knows every thing that can be said upon the question. It is to be regretted that Terentianus did not impart some of his knowledge to his instructor, for from Longinus we learn only that sublimity means height —or elevation.* This name, so commodiously vague, is applied indifferently to the noble prayer of Ajax in the Iliad, and to a passage of Plato about the human body, as full of conceits as an ode of Cowley. Having no fixed standard, Longinus is right only by accident. .He is rather a fancier than a critic.
Modern writers have been prevented by many causes from supplying the deficiencies of their classical predecessor^. At the time of the revival of literature no man could, without great and painful labour, acquire an accurate and elegant knowledge of the ancient languages. And, unfortunately, those grammatical and philological studies, without which it was impossible to understand the great works of Athenian and Roman genius, have a tendency to contract the views and deaden the sensibility of those who follow them with extreme assiduity. A powerful mind which has been Ions employed in such studies, may be compared to the gigantic spirit in the Arabian talc, who was persuaded to contract himself to small dimensions in order to enter within the enchanted vessel, and, when his prison had been closed upon him, found himself unable to escape from the narrow boundaries to ihe measure of which he had reduced his stature. When the means have long been the objects of application, they arc naturally substituted for the end. It was said by Eugene of Savoy, that the greatest generals have commonly been those who have been at once raised to command, and introduced to the great operations of war without being employed in the petty calculations and manoeuvres which employ the time of an inferior officer. In literature the principle is equally sound. The great tactics of criticism will, in general, be best understood -* tar those who have not had much practice in drilling syllables and particles. ".I remember to have observed among the
• 'A»(K>r« «(ti t(oxv Tic \ty*>r nrri m *t£n.
French Anas a ludicrous instance of this. A scholar, doubtless of great learning, recommends the study of some long Latin treati;>e, of which I now f' rget the name, on the reli giofi, manners, government, and language of the early Greeks. "For there," says be, "you, will learn every thing of importance that is contained in the Iliad and Odyssey, without the troubte of reading two such tedious books." Alas! it had not occurred to the poor gentleinan^that all the knowledge to which he had attached so much value was useful only as it illustrated the great poems which he despise*!, and would be as worthless for any other purpose as the mythology of Caffraria or the vocabulary of O'.aheitc.
Of those scholars who have disdained tc confine themselves to verbal criticism, few have been successful. The ancient languages have, generally, a magical influence on theii faculties. They were "fools called into a circle by Greek invocations." The Iliad and JEneid were to them not books, but curiosities, or rather relics. They no more admired those works for their merits, than a good Catholic venerates the house of the Virgin at Loretto for its architecture. Whatever was classical was good. Homer was a great poet, and so was Callimachus. The epistles of Cicero were fine, and so were those of Phalaris. "Even with respect to questions of evidence, they fell into the same error. The authority of all narrations, written in Greek or Latin, was the same with them. It never crossed their minds that the lapse of five hundred years, or the distance of five hundred leagues, could affect the accuracy of a narration,—that Livy could be a less veracious historian than Polybius,—or that Plutarch could know less about the friends of Xenophon than Xenophon himself. Deceived by the distance of time, they seem to consider all the classics as contemporaries; just as I have known people in England, deceived by the distance of place, take it for granted that all persons who live in India are neighbours, and ask an inhabitant of Bombay about the health of an acquaintance at Calcutta. It is to be hoped that no barbarian deluge will ever again pass over Europe. But should such a calamity happen, it seems not improbable that some future Rollin or Gillies will compile a history of England from Miss Porter's Scottish Chiefs, Miss Lejj's Recess, and Sir Nathaniel Wraxall's Memoirs.'
It is surely time that ancient literature should be examined in a different manner, without pedantical prepossessions, but with a just allowance, at Ihe same time, for the difference of circumstances and manners. I am far from pretending to the knowledge or ability which such a task would require. All that I mean to offer is a collection of desultory remarks upon a most interesting portion of Greek literature.
It may be doubted whether any compositions which have ever been produced in the world are equally perfect in their kind with the great Athenian orations. Genius is subject to the same laws which regulate the production"of cotton and molasses. The supply adjusts itself to the demand. The Quantity mav be dimi nished by restrictions and multiplied by bounties. The singular excellence, to which eloquence attained at Athens is to be mainly attributed to the influence which it exerted there. In turbulent times, under a constitution purely democratic, among a people educated exactly to that point at which men are most susceptible of strong and sudden impressions, acute, but not sound reasoners, warm in their feelings, unfixed in their principles, and passionate admirers of fine composition, oratory received such encouragement a« it has never sinft obtained.
The taste and knowledge of the Athenian people was a favourite object of the contemptuous derision of Samuel Johnson; a man who knew nothing of Greek literature beyond the common school-books, and who seems to have brought to what he had read scarcely more than the discernment of a common schoolboy. He used to assert, with that arrogant absurdity which, in spite of his great abilities and virtues, renders him perhaps the most ridiculous character in literary history, that Demosthenes spoke to a people of brutes,—to a barbarous people,—that there could have been no civilization before the invention of printing. Johnson was a keen but a very narrow-minded ob server of mankind. He perpetually confounded their general nature with their particular circumstances. He knew London intimately. The sagacity of his remarks on its' society is perfectly astonishing. But Fleet Street was the world to him. He saw that Londoners who did not read were profoundly ignorant, and he inferred that a Greek who had few or no books must have been as uninformed as one of Mr. Thrale's draymen.
There seems to be, on the contrary, every reason to believe that in general intelligence the Athenian populace far surpassed the lower orders of any commnnity that lias ever existed. It mnst be considered that to be a citizen was to be a legislator—a soldier—a judge—one upon whose voice might depend the fate of the wealthiest tributary state, of the most eminent public man. The lowest offices, both of agriculture and of trade, were in common performed by slaves. The commonwealth supplied its meanest members with the support of life, the opportunity of leisure, and the means of amusement. Books were, indeed, few, but they were excellent, and they were accurately known. It is not by turning over libraries, but by repeatedly perusing and intently contemplating a few great models, that the mind is best disciplined. A man of letters must now read much that he soon forgets, and much trom which he learns nothing worthy to be remembered. The best works employ, in general, but a small portion of his lime. Demosthenes is said to have transcribed, six times, the History of Thucydides. If he had been a young politician of the present age, he might in the same space of timehave skimmed innumerable newspapers and pamphlets. I do not condemn that desultory mode of study which the state of things in our day renders a matter of necessity. But 1 may be allowed to doubt whether the chnnges on which the admirers of modern institutions delight to dwell
have improved ourcondition as much in reality as in appearance. Rumford, it is said, proposed to the Elector of Bavaria a scheme for feeding his soldiers at a much cheaper rate than formerly. His plan was simply to compel them to masticate their food thoroughly. A small quantity thus eaten would, according to that famous projector, afford more sustenance than a large meal hastily devoured. I do not know how Rumford's proposition was received; but to the mind, I believe, it will be found more nutritious to digest a page than to devour a volume.
Books, however, were the least, part of the education of an Athenian citizen. Let us, for a moment, transport ourselves, in thought, to that glorious city. Let us imagine that we are entering its gates, in the time of its power and glory. A crowd is assembled round-a portico. All are gazing with delight at the entablature, for Phidias is putting up the frieze. We turn into another street; a rhapsodist is reciting there; men, women, children, are thronging round him; the tears are running down their cheeks; their eyes are fixed; their very breath is still; for he is telling how Priam fell at the feet of Achilles, apd kissed those hands,—the terrible,—the murderous,—which had slain so many of his sons.* We enter the public place; there is a ring of youths, all leaning forward, with sparkling eyes, and gestures of expectation. Socrates is pitted against the famous Atheist, from Ionia, and has just brought him to a contradiction in terms. But we arc interrupted. The herald is crying—" Room for the Prytanes." The general assembly is to meet. The people areswarming in on every side. Proclamation is made—"Who wishes to speak." There is a shout, and a clapping of hands: Pericles is mounting the stand. Then for a play of Sophocles; and away to sup with Aspasia. I know of no modern university which has so excellent a system of education.
Knowledge thus acquired, and opinions thus formed, were, indeed, likely to be, in some respects, defective. Propositions, which are advanced in discourse, generally result from a partial view of the question, and cannot be kept under examination long enough to be corrected. Men of great conversational powers almost universally practise a sort of lively sophistry and exaggeration, which deceives, for the moment, both themselves and their auditors. Thus we see doctrines, which cannot bear a close inspection, triumph perpetually in drawing-rooms, in debating societies, and even in legislative or judicial assemblies. To the conversational education of the Athenians, I am inclined tp attribute the great looseness of reasoning, which is remarkable in most of their scientific writings. .Even the most illogical of modern writers would stand perfectly aghast at the puerile fallacies which seem to have deluded some of the greatest men of antiquity. 8ir Thomas Lethbridge would | stare at the political economy of Xenophon 'and the author of Soiria dt Petrrtbourg would be ashamed of some of the metaphysical argu
• Kill ivfrt XftPai'