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most successful; for there is not in nature a more imitative animal than a dunce.
Hence ancient learning may be distinguished into three periods. Its commencement, or the age of poets; its maturity, or the age of philosophers; and its decline, or the age of critics.
In the poetical age commentators were very few, but might have in some respects been useful. In its philosophical, their assistance must necessarily become obnoxious, yet, as if the nearer we approached perfection the more we stood in need of their directions, in this period they began to grow numerous. But when polite learning was no more, then it was those literary lawgivers made the most formidable appearance. "Corruptissima republica, plurimæ leges." (1)
But let us take a more distinct view of those ages of ignorance in which false refinement had involved mankind, and see how far they resemble our own.
A VIEW OF THE OBSCURE AGES.
Whatever the skill of any country may be in the sciences, it is from its excellence in polite learning alone that it must expect a character from posterity. The poet and the historian are they who diffuse a lustre upon the age; and the philosopher scarcely acquires any applause, unless his character be introduced to the vulgar by their mediation.
The obscure ages which succeeded the decline of the Roman empire, are a striking instance of the truth of this assertion. Whatever period of those ill-fated times we
(1) ["When the state is most corrupt, then the laws are most multiplied."-Tacit.]
happen to turn to, we shall perceive more skill in the sciences among the professors of them, more abstruse and deeper inquiry into every philosophical subject, and a greater show of subtlety and close reasoning, than in the most enlightened ages of all antiquity. But their writings were mere speculative amusements, and all their researches exhausted upon trifles. Unskilled in the arts of adorning their knowledge, or adapting it to common sense, their voluminous productions rest peacefully in our libraries, or at best are enquired after from motives of curiosity, not by the scholar, but the virtuoso.
I am not insensible that several late French historians have exhibited the obscure ages in a very different light. They have represented them as utterly ignorant both of arts and sciences, buried in the profoundest darkness, or only illuminated with a feeble gleam, which like an expiring taper, rose and sunk by intervals. Such assertions, however, though they serve to help out the declaimer, should be cautiously admitted by the historian. For instance, the tenth century is particularly distinguished by posterity with the appellation of obscure. Yet even in this, the reader's memory may possibly suggest the names of some whose works, still preserved, discover a most extensive erudition, though rendered almost useless by affectation and obscurity. A few of their names and writings may be mentioned, which will serve at once to confirm what I assert, and give the reader an idea of what kind of learning an age declining into obscurity chiefly chooses to cultivate.
About the tenth century flourished Leo the philosopher. We have seven volumes folio of his collections of laws, published at Paris, 1647. He wrote upon the art military, and understood also astronomy and judicial astrology. He was seven times more voluminous than Plato.
Solomon, the German, wrote a most elegant dictionary of
the Latin tongue, still preserved in the university of Louvain; Pantaleon, in the lives of his illustrious countrymen, speaks of it in the warmest strains of rapture. Dictionary writing was at that time much in fashion.
Constantine Porphyrogeneta was a man universally skilled in the sciences. His tracts on the administration of an empire, on tactics, and on laws, were published some years since at Leyden. His court, for he was emperor of the east, was resorted to by the learned from all parts of the world.
Luitprandus was a most voluminous historian, and particularly famous for the history of his own times.(1) The compliments paid him as a writer are said to exceed even his own voluminous productions. I cannot pass over one of a latter date made him by a German: "Luitprandus nunquam Luitprando dissimilis."(2)
Alfric composed several grammars and dictionaries, still preserved among the curious.
Pope Sylvester the second wrote a treatise on the sphere, on arithmetic and geometry, published some years since at Paris. Michael Psellus lived in this age, whose books in the sciences, I will not scruple to assert, contain more learning than those of any one of the earlier ages; his erudition was indeed amazing, and he was as voluminous as he was learned. The character given him by Allatius has, perhaps, more truth in it than will be granted by those who have seen none of his productions. "There was," says he, "no science with which he was unacquainted, none which he did not write something upon, and none which he did not leave better than he found it."(3) To mention his works
(1) ["In this he shews himself a perfect matter of fact man; but, like some moderns, who only value themselves on the same qualification, he was a most notorious fabulist."-First edit.]
(2) [“In English, 'None but himself can be his parallel.' ”—First edit.] (3) [This will remind the reader of Goldsmith's own epitaph by Dr. Johnson-" Nullum ferè scribendi genus non tetigit, nullum quod tetigit non ornavit."]
would be endless. His commentaries on Aristotle alone amount to three folios.
Bertholdus Teutonicus, a very voluminous historian, was a politician, and wrote against the government under which he lived but most of his writings, though not all, are lost.
Constantius Afer was a philosopher and physician. We have remaining but two volumes folio of his philological performances. However, the historian who prefixes the life of the author to his works, says, that he wrote many more, as he kept on writing during the course of a long life."")
Lambertus published an universal history about this time, which has been printed at Frankfort, in folio. An universal history in one folio! If he had consulted with his bookseller, he would have spun it out to ten at least ; but Lambertus might have had too much modesty.
By this time the reader perceives the spirit of learning which at that time prevailed. The ignorance of the age was not owing to a dislike of knowledge; but a false standard of taste was erected, and a wrong direction given to philosophical enquiry. It was the fashion of the day to write dictionaries, commentaries, and compilations, and to evaporate in a folio the spirit that could scarcely have sufficed for an epigram. The most barbarous times had men of learning, if commentators, compilers, polemic divines, and intricate metaphysicians deserved the title.
I have mentioned but a very inconsiderable number of the writers in this age of obscurity. The multiplicity of their publications will at least equal those of any similar period of the most polite antiquity. As, therefore, the writers of those times are almost entirely forgotten, we may infer, that the number of publications alone will never secure any age whatsoever from oblivion. Nor can printing, con
(1) ["And when he had thus compiled more than any man that ever went before him, he fell asleep In domino obdormivit."-First Edit.]
trary to what M. Beaumelle (1) has remarked, prevent literary decline for the future, since it only increases the number of books, without advancing their intrinsic merit.(2)
(1) [A French writer of some note, born in Languedoc 1727, died at Paris in 1773. See his "Mes Pensées, ou Le Qu'en dira-t-on." His principal work was "Mémoires de Madame Maintenon," 4 vols. 12mo. 1756.] (2) [Here followed, in the first edition
"A PARALLEL BETWEEN THE RISE AND DECLINE OF ANCIENT AND
"Few subjects have been more frequently and warmly debated, than the comparative superiority of the ancients and moderns. It is unaccountable how a dispute so trifling, could be contested with so much virulence. A dispute of this nature could have no other consequences, if decided, but to teach young writers to despise the one side or the other. A dispute, therefore, which, if determined, might tend rather to prejudice our taste than improve it, should have been argued with good-nature, as it could not with success. For mere critics to be guilty of such scholastic rage, is not uncommon, but for men of the first rank of fame to be delinquent also, is, I own, surprising.
"The reflecting reader need scarcely be informed, that this contested excellence can be decided in favour of neither. They have both copied from different originals, described the manners of different ages; have exhibited nature as they found her, and both are excellent in separate imitations. Homer describes his gods as his countrymen believed them. Virgil, in a more enlightened age, describes his with a greater degree of respect; and Milton still rises infinitely above either. The machinery of Homer is best adapted to an unenlightened idolator; that of the Roman poet, to a more refined heathen; and that of Milton, to a reader illuminated by revelation. Had Homer wrote like Milton, his countrymen would have despised him ; had Milton adopted the theology of the ancient bard, he had been truly ridiculous. Again, should I depreciate Plautus for not enlivening his pieces with the characters of a coquet, or a marquis, so humorous in modern comedy? or Molière, for not introducing a legal bawd, or a parasitical boaster, so highly finished in the Roman poet? My censure, in either case, would be as absurd as his, who should dislike a geographer for not introducing more rivers or promontories into a country, than nature had given it; or the natural historian for not enlivening his description of a dead landscape with a torrent, a cataract, or a volcano.
"The parallel between antiquity and ourselves can therefore be managed to advantage only by comparing the rise and progress of ancient and modern learning together, so that being apprized of the causes of corruption in one, we may be upon our guard against any similar depravations in the other."]