Imágenes de página
PDF
ePub

and mollified the ferocious tendencies of our nature. The temporary disappearance therefore of literature and politeness, upon the first shock of this mighty collision, was but the subsidence of the sacred flame under the heaps of fuel which were thus profusely provided for its increase; and the seeming waste and sterility that ensued, was but the first aspect of the fertilizing flood and accumulated manure under which vegetation was buried for a while, that it might break out at last with a richer and more indestructible luxuriance. The human intellect was neither dead nor inactive, she contends, during that It would be very agreeable to believe all long slumber, in which it was collecting vig- this-in spite of the grudging which would our for unprecedented exertions; and the necessarily arise, from the reflection that we occupations to which it was devoted, though ourselves were born so much too soon for virnot of the most brilliant or attractive descrip- tue and enjoyment in this world. But it is tion, were perhaps the best fitted for its ul- really impossible to overlook the manifold timate and substantial improvement. The imperfections of the reasoning on which this subtle distinctions, the refined casuistry, and splendid anticipation is founded;-though it ingenious logic of the school divines, were may be worth while to ascertain, if possible, all favourable to habits of careful and accu-in what degree it is founded in truth. rate thinking; and led insensibly to a far The first thing that occurs to a sober-mindmore thorough and profound knowledge of ed listener to this dream of perfectibility, is human nature-the limits of its faculties and the extreme narrowness of the induction from the grounds of its duties-than had been which these sweeping conclusions are so conattained by the more careless inquirers of fidently deduced. A progress that is in its antiquity. When men, therefore, began again own nature infinite and irresistible, must to reason upon human affairs, they were found necessarily have been both universal and to have made an immense progress during the unremitting; and yet the evidence of its experiod when all appeared to be either retro-istence is founded, if we do not deceive ourgrade or stationary; and Shakspeare, Bacon, selves, upon the history of a very small porMachiavel, Montaigne, and Galileo, who ap- tion of the human race, for a very small numpeared almost at the same time, in the most ber of generations. The proposition is, that distant countries of Europe, each displayed a the human species is advancing, and has alreach of thought and a power of reasoning ways been advancing, to a state of perfection, which we should look for in vain in the elo-by a law of their nature, of the existence of quent dissertaions of the classical ages. To which their past history and present state them succeeded such men as Jeremy Taylor, leave no room to doubt. But when we cast Molière, Pascal, Locke, and La Bruyère-all a glance upon this high destined species, of them observers of a character, to which we find this necessary and eternal progress there is nothing at all parallel in antiquity; scarcely begun, even now, in the old inhabiand yet only preparing the way, in the suc- ted continent of Africa-stationary, as far ceeding age, for Montesquieu, Hume, Voltaire, back as our information reaches, in ChinaSmith, Burke, Bentham, Malthus, and so many and retrograde, for a period of at least twelve others; who have made the world familiar centuries, and up to this day, in Egypt, India, with truths, which, however important and Persia, and Greece. Even in our own Europe, demonstrable at all times, certainly never which contains probably less than one tenth entered into the conception of the earlier in- part of our kind, it is admitted, that, for uphabitants of the world. Those truths, and wards of a thousand years, this great work of others still more important, of which they moral nature not only stood still, but went are destined to be the parents, have already, visibly backwards, over its fairest regions; according to Madame de Staël, produced a and though there has been a prodigious proprodigious alteration, and an incalculable im- gress in England and France and Germany provement on the condition of human nature. during the last two hundred years, it may be Through their influence, assisted no doubt by doubted whether any thing of this sort can that of the Gospel, slavery has been abolished, be said of Spain or Italy; or various other trade and industry set free from restriction, portions, even of this favoured quarter of the and war disarmed of half its horrors; while, world. It may be very natural for Madame in private life, women have been restored to de Staël, or for us, looking only to what has their just rank in society; sentiments of jus- happened in our own world, and in our own tice and humanity have been universally cul- times, to indulge in those dazzling views of tivated, and public opinion been armed with the unbounded and universal improvement a power which renders every other both safe of the whole human race; but such specuand salutary. lations would appear rather wild, we suspect, to those whose lot it is to philosophize among the unchanging nations of Asia; and would probably carry even something of ridicule with them, if propounded upon the ruins of

Many of these truths, which were once the doubtful or derided discoveries of men of original genius, are now admitted as elementary principles in the reasonings of ordinary

people; and are every day extending their empire, and multiplying their progeny. Ma. dame de Staël sees no reason to doubt, there fore, that they will one day inherit the whole earth; and, under their reign, she takes it to be clear, that war, and poverty, and all the misery that arises from vice and ignorance, will disappear from the face of society; and that men, universally convinced that justice and benevolence are the true sources of enjoyment, will seek their own happiness in a constant endeavour to promote that of their neighbours.

Thebes or Babylon, or even among the pro- | expedient for one individual, might be just faned relics of Athens or Rome.

the reverse for another. Ease and obscurity are the summum bonum of one description of men; while others have an irresistible vocation to strenuous enterprise, and a positive delight in contention and danger. Nor is the magnitude of our virtues and vices referable to a more invariable standard. Intemperance is less a vice in the robust, and dishonesty less foolish in those who care but little for the scorn of society. Some men find their chief happiness in relieving sorrow-some in sympathizing with mirth. Some, again, derive most of their enjoyment from the exercise of their reasoning faculties-others from that of their imagination;-while a third sort attend to little but the gratification of their

We are not inclined, however, to push this very far. The world is certainly something the wiser for its past experience; and there is an accumulation of useful knowledge, which we think likely to increase. The invention of printing and fire-arms, and the perfect communication that is established over all Europe, insures us, we think, against any considerable falling back in respect of the sciences; or the arts and attainments that minister to the conveniences of ordinary life. We have no idea that any of the important discoveries of modern times will ever again be lost or forgotten; or that any future generation will be put to the trouble of inventing, for a second time, the art of making gunpow-senses, and a fourth to that of their vanity. der or telescopes-the astronomy of Newton, One delights in crowds, and another in solior the mechanics of Watt. All knowledge tude;-one thinks of nothing but glory, and which admits of demonstration will advance, another of comfort;-and so on, through all we have no doubt, and extend itself; and all the infinite variety, and infinite combinations, processes will be improved, that do not inter- of human tastes, temperaments, and habits. fere with the passions of human nature, or Now, it is plain, that each of those persons the apparent interests of its ruling classes. not only will, but plainly ought to pursue a But with regard to every thing depending on different road to the common object of hap probable reasoning, or susceptible of debate, piness; and that they must clash and conseand especially with regard to every thing quently often jostle with each other, even if touching morality and enjoyment, we really each were fully aware of the peculiarity of are not sanguine enough to reckon on any his own notions, and of the consequences of considerable improvement; and suspect that all that he did in obedience to their impulses. men will go on blundering in speculation, It is altogether impossible, therefore, we and transgressing in practice, pretty nearly as humbly conceive, that men should ever setthey do at present, to the latest period of their tle the point as to what is, on the whole, the history. wisest course of conduct, or the best disposition of mind; or consequently take even the first step towards that perfection of moral science, or that cordial concert and co-operation in their common pursuit of happiness, which is the only alternative to their fataĺ opposition.

In the nature of things, indeed, there can be no end to disputes upon probable, or what is called moral evidence; nor to the contradictory conduct and consequent hostility and oppression, which must result from the opposite views that are taken of such subjects;and this, partly, because the elements that This impossibility will become more appaenter into the calculation are so vast and nu- rent when it is considered, that the only inmerous, that many of the most material must strument by which it is pretended that this always be overlooked by persons of ordinary moral perfection is to be attained, is such a talent and information; and partly because general illumination of the intellect as to make there not only is no standard by which the all men fully aware of the consequences of value of those elements can be ascertained their actions; while the fact is, that it is not, and made manifest, but that they actually in general, through ignorance of their consehave a different value for almost every dif- quences, that actions producing misery are ferent individual. With regard to all nice, actually performed. When the misery is inand indeed all debateable questions of happi- flicted upon others, the actors most frequently ness or morals, therefore, there never can be disregard it, upon a fair enough comparison any agreement among men; because, in re- of its amount with the pain they should inality, there is no truth in which they can flict on themselves by forbearance; and even agree. All questions, of this kind turn upon when it falls on their own heads, they will a comparison of the opposite advantages and generally be found rather to have been undisadvantages of any particuliar course of con- lucky in the game, than to have been truly duct or habit of mind: but these are really unacquainted with its hazards; and to have of very different magnitude and importance to ventured with as full a knowledge of the different persons; and their decision, there- risks, as the fortunes of others can ever imfore, even if they all saw the whole con- press on the enterprizing. There are many sequences, or even the same set of conse- men, it should always be recollected, to whom quences, must be irreconcileably diverse. If the happiness of others gives very little satisthe matter in deliberation, for example, be, faction, and their sufferings very little pain, whether it is better to live without toil or ex--and who would rather eat a luxurious meal ertion, but, at the same time, without wealth by themselves, than scatter plenty and gratior glory, or to venture for both upon a scene tude over twenty famishing cottages. No of labour and hazard-it is easy to see, that enlightening of the understanding will make the determination which would be wise and such men the instruments of general happi

ness and wherever there is a competition- | powerful interest, those feelings of ennui wherever the question is stirred as to whose which steal upon every condition from which claims shall be renounced or asserted, we are hazard and anxiety are excluded, and drive all such men, we fear, in a greater or a less us into danger and suffering as a relief. While degree. There are others, again, who pre- human nature continues to be distinguished by sume upon their own good fortune, with a de- those attributes, we do not see any chance of gree of confidence that no exposition of the war being superseded by the increase of wischances of failure can ever repress; and in dom and morality. all cases where failure is possible, there must be a risk of suffering from its occurrence, however prudent the venture might have appeared. These, however, are the chief sources of all the unhappiness which results from the conduct of man;-and they are sources which we do not see that the improved intellect, or added experience of the species, is likely to close or diminish.

We should be pretty well advanced in the career of perfectibility, if all the inhabitants of Europe were as intelligent, and upright, and considerate, as Sir John Moore, or Lord Nelson, or Lord Collingwood, or Lord Wellington-but we should not have the less war, we take it, with all its attendant miseries. The more wealth and intelligence, and liberty, there is in a country indeed, the greater love we fear there will always be for war;-for a gentleman is uniformly a more pugnacious animal than a plebeian, and a free man than a slave. The case is the same, with the minor contentions that agitate civil life, and shed abroad the bitter waters of political animosity, and grow up into the rancours and atrocities of faction and cabal. The leading actors in those scenes are not the lowest or most debased characters in the country-but, almost without exception, of the very opposite description. It would be too romantic to suppose, that the whole population of any country should ever be raised to

Take the case, for example, of War-by far the most prolific and extensive pest of the human race, whether we consider the sufferings it inflicts, or the happiness it prevents and see whether it is likely to be arrested by the progress of intelligence and civilization. In the first place, it is manifest, that instead of becoming less frequent or destructive, in proportion to the rapidity of that progress, our European wars have, in point of fact, been incomparably more constant, and more sanguinary, since Europe became signally enlightened and humanized-and that they have uniformly been most obstinate and most popular, in its most polished countries. The the level of our Fox and Pitt, Burke, Windbrutish Laplanders, and bigoted and profli- ham, or Grattan; and yet if that miraculous gate Italians, have had long intervals of re-improvement were to take place, we know pose; but France and England are now pretty that they would be at least as far from agree regularly at war, for about fourscore years out ing, as they are at present; and may fairly of every century. In the second place, the conclude, that they would contend with far lovers and conductors of war are by no means greater warmth and animosity. the most ferocious or stupid of their species -but for the most part the very contrary; and their delight in it, notwithstanding their compassion for human suffering, and their complete knowledge of its tendency to produce suffering, seems to us sufficient almost of itself to discredit the confident prediction of those who assure us, that when men have attained to a certain degree of intelligence, war must necessarily cease among all the nations of the earth. There can be no better illustration indeed, than this, of the utter futility of all those dreams of perfectibility; which are founded on a radical ignorance of what it is that constitutes the real enjoyment of human nature, and upon the play of how many principles and opposite stimuli that happiness depends, which, it is absurdly imagined, would be found in the mere negation of suffering, or in a state of Quakerish placidity, dulness, and uniformity. Men delight in war, in spite of the pains and miseries which they know it entails upon them and their fellows, because it exercises all the talents, and calls out all the energies of their nature-because it holds them out conspicuously as objects of public sentiment and general sympathy-because it gratifies their pride of art, and gives them a lofty sentiment of their own power, worth and courage-but principally because it sets the game of existence upon a higher stake, and dispels, by its

For that great class of evils, therefore, which arise from contention, emulation, and diversity of opinion upon points which admit of no demonstrative solution, it is evident that the general increase of intelligence would afford no remedy; and there even seems to be reason for thinking that it would increase their amount. If we turn to the other great source of human suffering, the abuse of power and wealth, and the other means of enjoyment, we suspect we shall not find any ground for indulging in more sanguine expectations. Take the common case of youthful excess and imprudence, for example, in which the evil commonly rests on the head of the transgressor- the injury done to fortune, by thoughtless expense-to health and character, by sensual indulgence, and to the whole felicity of after life, by rash and unsorted marriages. The whole mischief and hazard of such practices, we are persuaded, is just as thoroughly known and understood at present, as it will be when the world is five thousand years older; and as much pains are now taken to impress the ardent spirits of youth with the belief of those hazards, as can well be taken by the monitors who may discharge that office in the most remote futurity. But the truth is, that the offenders do not offend so much in ignorance, as in presumption. They know very well, that men are oftener ruined than enriched at the gaming table;

and that love marriages, clapt up under age,
are frequently followed by divorces: But
they know too, that this is not always the
case; and they flatter themselves that their
good luck, and good judgment, will class them
among the exceptions, and not among the
ordinary examples of the rule. They are told
well enough, for the most part, of the excess-
ive folly of acting upon such a presumption,
in matters of such importance :-But it is the
nature of youth, to despise much of the wis-
dom that is thus pressed upon them; and to
think well of their fortune and sagacity, till
they have actually had experience of their
slipperiness. We really have no idea that
their future teachers will be able to change
this nature or to destroy the eternal distinc-
tion between the character of early and mature
life; and therefore it is, that we despair of
the cure of the manifold evils that spring from
this source;
and remain persuaded, that young
men will be nearly as foolish, and as incapa-
ble of profiting by the experience of their
seniors, ten thousand years hence, as they are
at this moment.

within the reach, nor suited to the taste, of any very great proportion of the sufferers; and that the cultivation of waste lands, and the superintendence of tippling-houses and charity schools, have not always been found such effectual and delightful remedies as the inditers of godly romances have sometimes represented. So that those whom fortune has cruelly exempted from the necessity of doing any thing, have been led very generally to do evil of their own accord; and have fancied that they rather diminished than added to the sum of human misery, by engaging in intrigues and gaming-clubs, and establishing coteries for detraction or sensuality.

The real and radical difficulty is to find some laudable pursuit that will permanently interest-some worthy object that will continue to captivate and engross the faculties: and this, instead of becoming easier in proportion as our intelligence increases, obviously becomes more difficult. It is knowledge that destroys enthusiasm, and dispels all those prejudices of admiration which people simpler minds with so many idols of enchantment. It is knowledge that distracts by its variety, and satiates by its abundance, and generates, by its communication, that dark and cold spirit of fastidiousness and derision which revenges on those whom it possesses, the pangs which it inflicts on those on whom it is exerted. Yet it is to the increase of knowledge and talents alone, that the prophets of perfectibility look forward for the cure of all our vices and all our unhappiness!

Even as to intellect, and the pleasures that are to be derived from the exercise of a vigorous understanding, we doubt greatly whether we ought to look forward to posterity with any very lively feelings of envy or humiliation. More knowledge they probably will have-as we have undoubtedly more know

With regard to the other glittering curses of life-the heartless dissipations-the cruel seductions-the selfish extravagance-the rejection of all interesting occupation or serious affection, which blast the splendid summit of human fortune with perpetual barrenness and discomfort we can only say, that as they are miseries which now exist almost exclusively among the most polished and intelligent of the species, we do not think it very probable, at least, that they will be eradicated by rendering the species in general more polished and intelligent. They are not occasioned, we think, by ignorance or improper edtication; but by that eagerness for strong emotion and engrossing occupation, which still proclaim it to be the irreversible destiny of man to earn his bread by the sweat of his brows. It is a fact indeed rather per-ledge than our ancestors had two hundred plexing and humiliating to the advocates of years ago; but for vigour of understanding, perfectibility, that as soon as a man is de- or pleasure in the exercise of it, we must beg livered from the necessity of subsisting him- leave to demur. The more there is already self, and providing for his family, he gene- known, the less there remains to be discoverrally falls into a state of considerable unhap-ed; and the more time a man is obliged to piness; and if some fortunate anxiety, or spend in ascertaining what his predecessors necessity for exertion, does not come to his have already established, the less he will relief, is commonly obliged to seek for a have to bestow in adding to its amount.-slight and precarious distraction in vicious The time, however, is of less consequence; and unsatisfactory pursuits. It is not for but the habits of mind that are formed by want of knowing that they are unsatisfactory walking patiently, humbly, and passively in that he persists in them, nor for want of the paths that have been traced by others, being told of their folly and criminality;-for are the very habits that disqualify us for moralists and divines have been occupied vigorous and independent excursions of our with little else for the best part of a century; own. There is a certain degree of knowledge and writers of all descriptions, indeed, have to be sure, that is but wholesome aliment to charitably expended a good part of their own the understanding-materials for it to work ennui in copious directions for the innocent upon-or instruments to facilitate its labours: and effectual reduction of that common ene--but a larger quantity is apt to oppress and my. In spite of all this, however, the malady encumber it; and as industry, which is exhas increased with our wealth and refine- cited by the importation of the raw material, ment; and has brought along with it the may be superseded and extinguished by the increase of all those vices and follies in which introduction of the finished manufacture, so its victims still find themselves constrained the minds which are stimulated to activity to seek a temporary relief. The truth is, by a certain measure of instruction may, that military and senatorial glory is neither unquestionably, be reduced to a state of pas

sive and languid acquiescence, by a more profuse and redundant supply.

But while the general diffusion of knowledge tends thus powerfully to repress all original and independent speculation in individuals, it operates still more powerfully in rendering the public indifferent and unjust to their exertions. The treasures they have inherited from their predecessors are so ample, as not only to take away all disposition to labour for their farther increase, but to lead them to undervalue and overlook any little addition that may be made to them by the voluntary offerings of individuals. The works of the best models are perpetually before their eyes, and their accumulated glory in their re

cannot fail to be struck with the prodigious waste of time, and of labour, that is necesMadame de Staël, and the other advocates sary for the attainment of a very inconsiderof her system, talk a great deal of the pro-able portion of original knowledge. His prodigious advantage of having the results of the gress is as slow as that of a man who is laborious discoveries of one generation made making a road, compared with that of those matters of familiar and elementary know- who afterwards travel over it; and he feels, ledge in another; and for practical utility, it that in order to make a very small advance may be so: but nothing, we conceive, can in one department of study, he must consent be so completely destructive of all intellec- to sacrifice very great attainments in others. tual enterprise, and all force and originality He is disheartened, too, by the extreme inof thinking, as this very process, of the re-significance of any thing that he can expect duction of knowledge to its results, or the to contribute, when compared with the great multiplication of those summary and accessi-store that is already in possession of the pubble pieces of information in which the stu- lic; and is extremely apt to conclude, that it dent is saved the whole trouble of investiga- is not only safer, but more profitable to foltion, and put in possession of the prize, with-low, than to lead; and that it is fortunate for out either the toils or the excitement of the the lovers of wisdom, that our ancestors have contest. This, in the first place, necessarily accumulated enough of it for our use, as well makes the prize much less a subject of ex- as for their own. ultation or delight to him; for the chief pleasure is in the chase itself, and not in the object which it pursues; and he who sits at home, and has the dead game brought to the side of his chair, will be very apt, we believe, to regard it as nothing better than an unfragrant vermin. But, in the next place, it does him no good; for he misses altogether the invigorating exercise, and the invaluable training to habits of emulation and sagacity and courage, for the sake of which alone the pursuit is deserving of applause. And, in the last place, he not only fails in this way to acquire the qualities that may enable him to run down knowledge for himself, but nec-membrance; the very variety of the sorts of essarily finds himself without taste or induce- excellence which are constantly obtruded on ment for such exertions. He thinks, and in their notice, renders excellence itself cheap one sense he thinks justly, that if the proper and vulgar in their estimation. As the mere object of study be to acquire knowledge, he possessors or judges of such things, they are can employ his time much more profitably apt to ascribe to themselves a character of in implicitly listening to the discoveries of superiority, which renders any moderate perothers, than in a laborious attempt to discover formance unworthy of their regard; and their something for himself. It is infinitely more cold and languid familiarity with what is best, fatiguing to think, than to remember; and ultimately produces no other effect than to incomparably shorter to be led to an object, render them insensible to its beauties, and at than to explore our own way to it. It is in the same time intolerant of all that appears to conceivable what an obstruction this fur- fall short of it. nishes to the original exercise of the understanding in a certain state of information; and how effectually the general diffusion of easily accessible knowledge operates as a bounty apon indolence and mental imbecility.viously disqualified them; and we appeal to Where the quantity of approved and collected our readers, whether there are not, at this day, knowledge is already very great in any coun- apparent symptoms of such a condition of sotry, it is naturally required of all well edu- ciety. A childish love of novelty may indeed cated persons to possess a considerable share give a transient popularity to works of mere of it; and where it has also been made very amusement; but the age of original genius, accessible, by being reduced to its summary and of comprehensive and independent reaand ultimate results, an astonishing variety soning, seems to be over. Instead of such of those abstracts may be stowed away in works as those of Bacon, and Shakspeare, and the memory, with scarcely any fatigue or Taylor, and Hooker, we have Encyclopædias, exercise to the other faculties. The whole and geographical compilations, and county mass of attainable intelligence, however, must histories, and new editions of black letter austill be beyond the reach of any individual; thors-and trashy biographies and posthumous and he may go on, therefore, to the end of a letters and disputations upon prosody-and long and industrious life, constantly acquir ravings about orthodoxy and methodism. Men ing knowledge in this cheap and expeditious of general information and curiosity seldom manner. But if, in the course of these pas- think of adding to the knowledge that is sive and humble researches, he should be already in the world; and the inferior persons tempted to inquire a little for himself, he upon whom that task is consequently devolved,

In such a condition of society, it is obvious that men must be peculiarly disinclined from indulging in those bold and original speculations, for which their whole training had pre

« AnteriorContinuar »