« AnteriorContinuar »
appear, that in any age or nation men in general were larger than they are now. We are very sure, they were not for many centuries past, by the tombs and coffins that have been discovered, which are exactly of the same size, with those that are now in use. And in the Catacombs at Rome, the niches for the dead bodies which were hewn in the rock sixteen hundred years ago, are none of them six feet in length, and some a little under. Above all, the Pyramids of Egypt, (that of King Cheops in particular,) have beyond all reasonable doubt, remained at least three thousand years. Yet none of the Mummies (embalmed bodies) brought therefrom, are above five feet ten inches long.
5. But how then came this supposition to prevail so long and so generally in the world? I know not but it may be accounted for from hence. Great and little are relative terms, and all men judge of greatness and littleness, by comparing things with themselves. Therefore it is not strange, if we think men are smaller now, than they were when we were children. I remember a remarkable instance of this, in my own case. After having left it seven years, I had a great desire to see the school where I was brought up. When I was there, I wondered that the boys were so much smaller than they used to be when I was at school. "Many of my school-fellows, ten years ago, were taller by the head than I. And few of them that are at school now, reach up to my shoulders." Very true; but what was the reason of this? Indeed a very plain one : it was not because they were smaller, but because I was bigger than I was ten years before. I verily believe this is the cause, why men in general suppose the human race do decrease in stature. They remember the time when most of those round about them were both taller and bigger than themselves. Yea, and all men have done the same in their successive generations. Is it any wonder then, that all should have run into the same mistake, when it has been transmitted unawares from father to son, and probably will be to the end of time.
6. But there is likewise a general supposition, that the
understanding of man, and all his mental abilities, were of a larger size in the ancient days than they are now: and that the ancient inhabitants of the earth had far greater talents than the present. Men of eminent learning have been of this mind, and have contended for it with the utmost vehemence, It is granted that many of the ancient Writers, both Philosophers, Poets, and Historians, will not easily be excelled, if equalled, by those of later ages. We may instance in Homer and Virgil, as Poets; Thucydides and Livy, as Historians. But this, mean time, is to be remarked, concerning most of these Writers, that each of them spent his whole life in composing and polishing one book. What wonder then if they were exquisitely finished, when so much labour was bestowed upon them? I doubt whether any man in Europe or in the world, has taken so much pains in finishing any treatise. Otherwise it might possibly have equalled, if not excelled, any that went before.
7. But that the generality of men were not one jot wiser in ancient times, than they are at the present time, we may easily gather from the most authentic records. One of the most ancient nations, we have any certain account of, is the Egyptian. And what conception can we have of their understanding and learning, when we reflect upon the objects of their worship? These were not only the vilest of animals, as dogs and cats, but the leeks and onions that grew in their own gardens. Indeed we lately had a great man, (whose manner was to treat with the foulest abuse, all that dared to differ from him: I do not mean Dr. Johnson: he was a mere Courtier, compared to Mr. Hutchinson,) who scurrilously abused all those who are so void of common sense as to believe any such thing concerning them. He peremptorily affirms, (but without condescending to give us any proof,) That the ancient inhabitants of Egypt had a deep hidden meaning in all this. Let him believe it who can. I cannot believe it on any man's bare assertion. I believe they had no deeper meaning in worshipping cats, than our school-boys have in baiting them. And I apprehend, the
common Egyptians were just as wise three thousand years ago, as the common ploughmen in England and Wales are at this day. I suppose their natural understanding, like their stature, was on a level with ours, and their learning, their acquired knowledge, many degrees inferior, to that of persons of the same rank, either in France, Holland, or Germany.
8. However, did not the people of former times, greatly excel us in virtue? This is the point of greatest importance: the rest are but trifles in comparison of it. Now is it not universally allowed, that every age grows worse and Was it not observed by the old Heathen Poet, almost two thousand years ago,
Ætas parentum, pejor avis tulit
That is, in plain prose, "The age of our parents was more vicious than that of our grandfathers. Our age is more vicious than that of our fathers. We are worse than our fathers were, and our children will be worse than we are."
9. It is certain this has been the common cry from generation to generation. And if it is not true, whence should it arise? How can we account for it? Perhaps another remark of the same Poet may help us to an answer. May it not be extracted from the general character which he gives of old men ?
Difficilis, querulus, laudator temporis acti
Is it not the common practice of the old men, to praise the past and condemn the present time? And this may probably operate much further, than one would at first imagine. When those that have more experience than we, and therefore we are apt to think more wisdom, are almost continually harping upon this, the degeneracy of the world; is it any wonder if, being accustomed from our infancy to hear how much better the world was formerly than it is now, (and so it really seemed to them, when they were
young, and just come into the world, and when the cheerfulness of youth gave a pleasing air, to all that was round about them,) the idea of the world's being worse and worse, should naturally grow up with us? And so it will, till we, in our turn, grow peevish, fretful, discontented, and full of melancholy complaints, "How wicked the world is grown!" How much better it was, when we were young, in the golden days that we can remember!
10. But let us endeavour, without prejudice or prepossession, to take a view of the whole affair. And, upon cool and impartial consideration, it will appear that the former days were not better than these yea, on the contrary, that these are in many respects, beyond comparison better than they. It will clearly appear, that as the stature of men was nearly the same from the beginning of the world, so the understanding of men, in similar circumstances, has been much the same, from the time of God's bringing a flood upon the earth unto the present hour. We have no reason to believe that the uncivilized nations of Africa, America, or the South-Sea Islands, had ever a better understanding, or were in a less barbarous state than they are now. Neither on the other hand, have we any sufficient proof, that the natural understandings of men in the most civilized countries, Babylon, Persia, Greece, or Italy, were stronger, or more improved, than those of the Germans, French, or English now alive. Nay, have we not reason to believe, that by means of better instruments we have attained that knowledge of nature, which few, if any of the ancients ever attained. So that in this respect, the advantage, (and not a little one,) is clearly on our side: and we ought to acknowledge with deep thankfulness to the Giver of every good gift, That the former days were not to be compared with these wherein we live.
11. But the principal inquiry still remains. Were not "the former days better than these," with regard to virtue ? or to speak more properly, religion? This deserves a full consideration.
By religion I mean, The love of God and man, filling
the heart and governing the life. The sure effect of this is, the uniform practice of justice, mercy, and truth. This is the very essence of it, the height and depth of religion, de tached from this or that opinion, and from all particular modes of worship. And I would calmly enquire, Which of the former times were better than these, with regard to this? to the religion experienced and practised by Archbishop Fenelon, in France, Bishop Kenn, in England, and Bishop Bedell, in Ireland?
12. We need not extend our enquiry beyond the period when life and immortality were brought to light by the Gospel. And it is allowed, that the days immediately succeeding the pouring out of the Holy Ghost on the day of Pentecost, were better even in this respect, even with regard to religion, than any which have succeeded them.
But setting aside this short age of golden days, I must repeat the question, Which of the former days were better than the present, in every known part of the habitable world?
13. Was the former part of this century better either in these islands or any part of the continent? I know no reason at all to affirm this. I believe every part of Europe was fully as void of religion in the reign of Queen Anne, as it is at this day. It is true, luxury increases to a high degree, in every part of Europe. And so does the scandal of England, profaneness, in every part of the kingdom. But it is also true, that the most infernal of all vices, cruelty, does as swiftly decrease. And such instances of it as in times past continually occurred, are now very seldom heard of. Even in war, that savage barbarity which was every where practised, has been discontinued for many years.
14. Was the last century more religious than this? :: In the former part of it, there was much of the form of religion. And some undoubtedly experienced the power thereof. But how soon did the fine gold become dim! How soon was it so mingled with worldly design, and with