« PreviousContinue »
of life to escape from the pains of a lingering disease. Turn now to Cicero, the only great man at whom Caesar always trembled, the only great man whom falling Rome did not fear. Do you tell me, that his hand once offered incense to the dictator? Remember, it was the gift of gratitude only and not of servility; for the same hand launched its indignation against the infamous Anthony, whose power was more to be dreaded, and whose revenge pursued him till this father of his country gave his head to the executioner without a struggle, for he knew that Rome was no longer to be saved! If, my friends, you would feel what learning and genius and virtue should aspire to in a day of peril and depravity, when you are tired of the factions of the city, the battles of Caesar, the crimes of the triumvirate, and the splendid court of Augustus, do not go and repose in the easy chair of Atticus, but refresh your virtues and your spirits with the contemplation of Cicero.*
A little observation of the state of knowledge in this country brings to mind the remark of Johnson on the learning of Scotland : “that it is like bread of a besieged town, where every one gets a little, but no man a full meal." So it is among us. There is a diffusion of information widely and thinly spread, which serves to content us, rather than to make us ambitious of more. Our scholars are often employ
* The character of Cicero has seldom been contemplated, as it ought to be, in the whole ; and therefore of late years, especially since the translations of Melmoth, it has become fashionable to talk of his weakness, and even to impeach his integrity. But the true difference between him and Atticus in their political conduct was, that Cicero was mistaken in always attempting to reconcile the contending parties in the state, when he would have done better to maintain by vigorous measures the cause which he approved; while Atticus was so deliberately or selfishly inactive, that he would not even take the pains to conciliate. They who form their opinions of Atticus only from the panegyric of Cornelius Nepos, may perhaps be correct; but even they will esteem him with more or less reserve according to their previous notions of virtue and their habits of life. But there are some reasons for thinking, not only that Cicero understood his character better than we do, but, notwithstanding their long familiarity, esteemed it less. See Oeuvres de St. Real. vol. 1. and his translation of the letters to Atticus, in notis,
ed in loose and undirected studies. They read, it is true, but without an object; and lose their time in superficial and unconnected inquiries. Such is the want of leisure in some of our professions, and the necessity of turning our knowledge to immediate account; so defective in many places are our rudiments of education, and so inadequate the provision made for instructers; so insulated are our men of study in this vast territory, and such is, after all, the genius of our government, that we find few who are willing to pass through the long and severe discipline of early application, and still fewer of whom we can say, γηράσκουσι διδασκομενοι. We have yet to form systems of more effectual instruction, and to assign the departments of literary labour, where exertion shall be encouraged by suitable rewards. In the mean while, in this unsettled state of our studies, let us not weaken our powers by feebly grasping at every thing. We have been long enough flying from novelty to novelty, and regaling upon the flowers of literature, till we begin to know where learning may be found; it is time now to think of making it our own. The most powerful minds, which the world ever knew, have sometimes dissipated their powers in the multiplicity of their pursuits. Gibbon,* in his masterly portrait of Leibnitz, concludes with comparing him to those heroes, “whose empire has been lost in the ambition of universal conquest.” If then a mind like his, formed for intellectual supremacy, may suffer by designing more than it can accomplish, or by neglecting to concentrate its powers and pursuits, let us not spend our lives in hastily traversing regions of knowledge, which we certainly shall never conquer,
and which we may never inhabit, but turn to the patient cultivation of some of the provinces of literature.
The moral defects and faults of temper, to which scholars are exposed, are not peculiar to any country. It is every where the natural tendency of a life of retirement and contemplation, to generate the notion of innocence and moral security ; but men of letters should remember, that, in the eye of reason and of christianity, simple unprotitalleness is always a crime. They should know too, that there are solitary diseases of the imagination not less fatal to the mind, than the vices of society. He who pollutes his fancy with his books, may in fact be more culpable, than he who is seduced into the haunts of debauchery by the force of passion or example. He who by his sober studies only feeds his selfishness or his pride of knowledge may be more to blame, than the pedant or the coxcomb in literature, though not so ridiculous. That learning, whatever it may be, which lives and dies with the possessor, is more worthless than his wealth, which descends to his posterity; and where the heart remains uncultivated and the affections sluggish, the mere man of curious erudition may stand, indeed, as an object of popular admiration, but he stands like the occasional palaces of ice in the regions of the north, the work of vanity, lighted up with artificial lustre, yet cold, useless, and uninhabited, and soon to pass away without leaving a trace of their existence. You, then, who feel yourselves sinking under the gentle pressure of sloth, or who seek in learned seclusion that moral security, which is the reward only of virtuous resolution, remember, you do not escape from temptations, much less from responsibility, by retiring to the repose and silence of your libraries.
* Antiquities of the house of Brunsw. Ch. 1. Sect. 1. Misc. worke, vol. iii. 8vo.
I pass over many of the faults of scholars, and what Bacon calls the “peccant humours of learning,” such as the love of singularity, contempt for practical wisdom, the weakness of literary vanity, and the disease of pedantry, to warn you against two principal evils, of which one is that alienation of affection, so frequent among men of letters. Their history is too often that of factions and intrigues, of envy and recrimination. The odium theologicum has long
since become a proverb; and perhaps there are few writers, whose libraries have not at some time been a repository of poisoned darts, and implements of literary warfare. In modern tirdes the licentiousness of criticism has aggravated this evil. The shafts of Apollo, the god of criticism, are as numerous, and often as envenomed as those, which the same god, under a different character, launched among the Greeks at the prayer of Chryses his offended priest. It is fortunate, however, that in the arrows of criticism the smart of the wound is greater than the danger. Authors, jealous of reputation, or conscious of merit, have lost all the influence of their philosophy and all the meekness of their religion under anonymous attack, or in their ardour for repelling it.
It is painful to dwell on the animosities of the learned, however just they may sometimes appear; but it is well for us to know, that the last lesson, which great minds learn, is to bear a superiour, or be just to a rival. Even Newton and Leibnitz (and I can go no higher) were alienated and debased by their mutual jealousy. They separated, they accused, they recriminated ; and the cool mathematicians of Europe were heated by their quarrels. When we read the works of these two sublime men, we should as soon have expected a collision in the celestial spheres, which they were in the habit of contemplating ; and, if they have met in the calm regions of intellectual purity and light, no doubt they are content to leave with posterity their angry dispute about the invention of fluxions, and wonder at the imperfection of terrestrial greatness.*
The other dangerous infirmity of scholars, against which we should be always on our guard, is the indiscriminate im
* This dispute is related with the greatest minuteness in the life of Leibnitz, by M. le Chevalier de Jaucort, prefixed to the edition of the Essais de Theodicée, printed at Amsterdam, 1747, 2 vols. 12mo. a most interesting piece of biography. The writer is very much disposed to give to Leibnitz not only this honour of the invention of the differential calculus, but the credit of behaving the most honourably in the dispute; but this, I believe, is not the general opinion; at least among the English mathematicians.
itation of the eminent. There are many, who seek to show their relation to men of genius by exhibiting some kindred deformity. If they know any thing of the history of authors, we find them quoting their authority, and seeking shelter behind their defects ; if not, they content themselves with copying the irregularities of some living and contemporary genius. It is so old a fiction that contempt of rules and order is a constituent of genius, that one would think it should have lost its authority. We have had deep philosophers, who would not have been suspected of thinking, except for their occasional absences of mind; and fine spirits, who were thought to resemble Horace, because they could roar a catch, or empty a cask of Falernian. We have had satirists with nothing of Dryden but his vulgarity; and of Churchill but his malice ; wits, who got drunk, because Addison was not always sober; liquorish writers in imitation of Sterne ; and others foul from the pages of Swift. We have had paradoxes and confessions in the style of Rousseau, without any of his genius, and freethinkers innumerable of the school of Voltaire, who could not afford to be at once wits and christians. In a more harmless way, we have had sterile writers, whose veins would flow only at particular seasons; puny moralists, talking big like Johnson; orators, with nothing, as one may say, of Tully but his wart, and of Demosthenes but his stammer; in short, my friends, we have had enough of “the contortions of the Sybil, without her inspiration.'
The infirmities of noble minds are often so consecrated by their greatness, that an unconscious imitation of their peculiarities, which are real defects, may sometimes be pardoned in their admirers. But to copy their vices, or to hunt in their works for those very lines, which, when dying, they would most wish to blot, is a different offence. I know of nothing in literature so unpardonable as this. He who poaches among the labours of the learned only to find