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JAMES A. HILLHOUSE.
PROFESSION OF LETTERS PAST AND PRESENT.
WHILE comparing the opinions prevalent at different periods, the question sometimes rises in the mind, whether the profession of Letters be not fallen from the rank it once held in the estimation of mankind. If the spectacle presented by the Ancient world of Philosophers, Orators, and Poets, worshiped in their own day, as well as canonized by after times ;-of Lyceums, Academies, and Philosophic gardens, so illustrious as to decide the nomenclature of their age ;-of literary contests before ten thousand auditors ;of histories and tragedies, pronounced before assembled Greece ;of the greatest conqueror of antiquity, avowedly manifesting his conception of the liad by his life and actions ;—if these be deemed allusions to times too remote, turn to the Middle Ages. Behold all Europe, arrayed under the banners of Plato and Aristotle, combating for subtilties, which neither party understood, with the animosity of Guelfs and Ghibellines : consider the universities of Paris and Oxford, with their twenty-five and thirty thousand students : enumerate in the halls of Cambridge, Salamanca, Bologna, Orleans, Bourges, Montpellier, and Salerno, the eager and enthusiastic multitudes. Follow those, who first caught the irradiation of reviving letters, in their painful and dangerous pilgrimages through Italy, France, and Spain ;-- ransacking the dusty receptacles of monastic lore for classic treasures. Mark their exultation; and hear the answering acclaim on the discovery of a manuscript. See sovereign Princes defending the Faith with peaceful weapons, and disputing the prize with their own poets, and prowest Knights defying Trouvères and Troubadours to literary strife.
From an Address by James A. Hillhouse (son of James Hillhouse, New Haven, Conn., eminent for his practical ability in public affairs as member of the State and National Legislature, and a Commissioner of the School Fund), author of Hadad, Discourse on Lafayette, and other publications (from 1812 to 1839) which were issued in a collected form in two volumes in 1839. He was born in 1789 and died in 1841-exhibiting, in his quiet literary studies and activity, a beautiful example of the professional man of letters.
These, and similar indices of the times, are too familiar to need enumerating: but the world at large lay in the shadow of ignorance. Knowledge was the purchase of prodigious toil, and they who achieved its honors were regarded with envy and admiration. The famished intellect once roused, however, to a sense of its necessities, grew clamorous for supplies. A book became a treasure, feasted on,-ruminated,—kept in contact with the feelings,—and thus into the fused and heated mind could transmit its coloring and vitality. No multiplicity of entertainment paralyzed curiosity,no skimming of magazines, themselves the skimmings of things as worthless,-no trumpery annuals, no frothy monthlies, troubled mankind :-no light reading then filled with fumes and
the receptacle of knowledge.
But though fewer books, more lovingly mastered, may have formed more vigorous and thinking intellects; and though the wreath of genius darted intenser splendor through the surrounding gloom; it is far from following, that the profession of letters enjoyed a greater amount of honor. More idolatry may have been lavished on its chief ornaments; but its aggregate respect and consideration must be in some degree proportioned to the numbers who can appreciate its claims. Measuring in this way, a comparison can not stand. Instead of a few long-lost volumes, rescued from the ruins of ancient learning, and transferred to the cabinets of Kings, or the collections of the wealthy, we see books multiplied into household articles. Knowledge no longer glimmers like the streaks of the far-off dawn; but, like the risen luminary, penetrates the casement of the cottage as well as cloistered windows. Instead of tens and hundreds, thousands and millions now gather the fruit of learning, and feel the electric stroke of genius.
RELATIVE RANK OF LITERATURE AND SCIENCE.
Were we to weigh systems of intellectual philosophy, histories, and poems, against the scientific applications of steam, and the necromancy of chemistry,—a chapter of Locke against a party pamphlet,—the richest portion of the Faerie Queene, against the maps, sections, submarine, and subterranean, wonders of the Geologists, and accept the decision of the multitude, such anticipations might not seem fantastic. Were there no transient tastes,—no exhausting of all things that relate to mere matter,—could science proceed in affecting changes for centuries to come with the same success as during the last fifty years ;-could we hope indeed to pry into the planets, and regale ourselves like Bergerac or Astolpho amidst the wonders of the Moon,-it would be excusable to fear the utter absorption of studious minds in scientific researches, and of the world's curiosity in watching their astonishing results. But for gifted men, who see as through an optic tube the instructive past, and are able to reach an independent estimate of the value and dignity of human pursuits; to despair of those which relate to the mind itself,—which feed its essence, preserve its purity, and impart its radiance, is a pusillanimous desertion of their own convictions, and a denial of the lessons of experience.
Is it not glaringly unphilosophical, to rank secondary to its mere instruments what is coëssential to the moving agent ?—to sink to the level of the laws of matter, the interests of the very power by whose restless searchings they were brought to light !-Shall we indeed admit the classifications of the mineral and vegetable kingdoms;-theories respecting the structure of the globe ;disputed dogmas for the accumulation of wealth ;-or mooted points of politics,-to bind, as to its noblest task, that principle which can expound its own interior mysteries ;—which can disclose the secrets and draw the moral of departed ages ;—which can climb up into heaven, and go down into hell, and can take the wings of the morning!
That, on which individual refinement and social happiness depend, -which humanizes the heart, embellishes the imagination, acquaints reason with its objects, and conscience with its duties, is a higher pursuit than naked science. The great Masters of Literature need not shrink from the comparison. They administer in things invisible, and not made with hands; but they belong to a mightier dispensation, and the relations they establish can not terminate with material worlds.-Let not these remarks be misunderstood. Science is the pivot, and axis, of the machine of life ;-many of its lessons are wonderful and sublime; and we have all had the good fortune to see united in its professors the graces of letters with the utmost intellectual exactness. Nothing more is intended than to place the cause of Literature on its true elevation, and to answer the reproaches so often cast upon it by men of one idea, or of unreflective habits, as unprofitable to its followers, and useless to society,—not seeming to be aware that society itself, in their acceptation of the term, could not subsist, if its treasures and spirit were swept away.
LITERATURE AS A TITLE TO RESPECT.
Wealth, talents, and high birth, with its usual concomitants, have heretofore divided the homage of mankind. One of these titles to respect, namely, ancestral distinction, we have deemed inconsistent with weightier interests. But, among our British progenitors, it was recognized in its fullest extent, and guarded by privileges that erected the Anglo-Norman Aristocracy into the most powerful and high-spirited class in feudal Europe. Participators with the Conqueror in the hazards and glory of his enterprise, they were rewarded with ample territories. Drawing around them their battlements, and discharging amidst their own feudatories the functions of independent princes, their spirits grew too haughty to brook the arbitrary sway of their acknowledged sovereigns. Singly or combined, they remonstrated, resisted, imposed restrictions, extorted charters, -till the Nimrods who griped the English scepter were tamed, and paled in by ordinances. Though turbulent and quarrelsome when without weightier occupation, under a popular, that is, a warlike monarch, and against a foreign foe, the Aristocracy were foremost in danger and prodigal of their blood. But the People were made of the same thews and sinews as their nobles. They, too, felt the Teutonic stream bounding in their veins: they bethought them of rights, and began to parley with their hands upon their bilts. By degrees, they framed an organ, and through it have persisted in making themselves heard, till the whisper of the Commons has become formidable to their once lawless masters.
This old and haughty nation' is our progenitor; and under the influences above described, were born and educated the Patriarchs of the American States. These remarkable men have received their meed too often to leave a trait to be disclosed. You know their primitive and martyr-like faith, their abhorrence of tyranny, and their resolution to encounter every hazard, for a greater share of political and religious freedom. Parting, in dissatisfaction, with their native land, suffering every physical extremity, and the rupture of bonds that wound deeper than the flesh; they naturally resolved,—if human courage, and human will, under the favor of Heaven, could do it, -to secure their objects. When, therefore, in process of time, principles which they deemed subversive of these objects, were pressed upon them, the spirit in which they had ever acted sprang into distincter action. The father found it necessary to abandon his natal soil; the descendant found it necessary to abandon the parent government. As domestic quarrels are bitter, and we are the sons of men who participated in that with Britain, it would not be strange if we had grown up with an exaggerated and rather unphilosophical dislike of some of her outward forms, and with a blind admiration of the faultless excellence of our own. That we, abstractly as men, are suderior to our English forefathers, would be hard to prove. If, as members of a political community, we excel them in virtue, or juster notions of human rights, we owe that superiority to circumstances. The Anglo-Norman Government has endured nearly eight centuries: under it have appeared exmples of genius, virtue, and valor, not surpassed in the annals of our species; and, with an handsbreath of territory, it is still great and glorious among the nations.
Our history begins with the abandonment of time-honored things, and the disruption of old attachments. We have no antiquity, no ancestral prejudices, to honor. We have, as it were, built an empire in a day, and one of our dangers is indicated by symptoms of too slightly reverencing the work of our own hands. Reformers by trade, -despisers of things cumbrous, or antiquated, -to alter,—to build anew-are our amusement and delight; and we flatter ourselves, that in these matters, we excel all ancient and modern architects. Having no bias toward a state of rest,—no anchoring feelings,-is there not risk of some day drifting before wild opinions, or steering by some less faithful instrument than that which we have heretofore trusted ?
-We present the spectacle of a people risen suddenly to the dignity of a primary Power, without an individual among the millions who can call himself, in a political sense, better than his neighbor. There is before our eyes no order of men whose birth places them, at once and for ever, on the summits of life, whence they can calmly view the complex scene of human action. Among us, all are breathless and pursuing; all mixed in the dust and conflict of the course. None stands, like our national emblem on the cliff,
"and rolls his eye, Clear, constant, unobservant, unabased,
In the cold light above the dews of morn.' Hence, no examples of character can be formed among us wholly exempt from popular influences. The vantage of instructed leisure, --the power and dignity of immense wealth as a natural birthright, -a noble theatre of action insured by the laws, where patriotism can act, and eloquence persuade, without asking leave of the multitude,—the impulse to high, perhaps to proud sentiments, which a name transmitted through a long and glorious line tends to inspire, -all these are influential causes ; and have shot downwards through the gentry and people of England a tone of sentiment salutary in that commercial nation.
We are far from regretting, that some of these influences are not found here; for there is a reverse to the picture; and we have