Page images
PDF
EPUB
[merged small][ocr errors]

far from undervaluing the importance of this service; but still we must be permitted to say, that we feel doubtful whether the science be proportionably indebted to him for many of those more substantial improvements which, after all, are what, in its present stage, it most requires. In fact, although Mr. Stewart is endowed in a remarkable degree with some of the qualities which are essential to the character of a fine writer, yet compared with any of the great names in philosophy, we cannot bring ourselves to look upon him as a powerful reasoner. Independently of the errors which we conceive to be mixed up with the very conception which he has formed of the proper aim of metaphysical philosophy, -a subject briefly touched upon on a former occasion, and respecting which we may hereafter take an opportunity of saying something more,-he does not appear to us to manage

bis

argument, such as it is, with any extraordinary dexterity. His conclusions do not always follow with exactness from his premises ; and when it is otherwise, we think they seldom possess so much importance as he commonly supposes. To speak more explicitly, he is generally too fond of skirmishing with his adversaries; instead of grappling with the strength of his subject, he always seems to be desirous of bringing the matter to issue by affairs of posts; even when he is successful in this or that particular opinion, if indeed we may speak from our own experience, we rise from his writings without any settled knowledge of his views or any material changes being effected in the original position of our general principles.

But then, on the other hand, there is a warmth and animation in his manner, which, even in the bleakest and most barren parts of his subject, seems never to desert him ; and combined as this fine quality is, with a rich imagination and a very great command of words, it imparts to his productions a character of eloquence, such as mere didactic works are not generally found to possess.-It is, however, a sort of eloquence which, as it seenis to us, belongs more properly to oratory than to philosophy; emanating apparently from his own feelings rather than from the nature of the subject, and having commonly more dependence upon the qualities of his diction than upon the greatness or real importance of his ideas.

This, unquestionably, is a considerable merit; it is one, however, which, of itself, cannot be supposed to carry a man far in subjects that are only valuable on account of the useful truths to which they may be expected to lead; and accordingly, we do not find that the publications of Mr. Stewart have met with that extensive circulation, which the popular nature of his talents would appear, in other respects, so well calculated to have ensured them. In truth, we cannot help thinking that our excellent author has, in some degree,

misunderstood the real character of his genius, in devoting himself to so abstruse a branch of the science of the human mind, as logic. In the investigation of the theory of taste, or of morals, in short, in any of the graver departments of polite literature, we feel persuaded that his success, flattering as it has been upon the whole, would have been much more marked and extensive.—As it is, we think we have had occasion to observe, that the number of his readers is not quite so great as that of his admirers; and even the · former seem, as far as we can judge, to take up his writings quite as much from an opinion as to the extraordinary merit of his style, as with a view to any profit which they expect to derive from his philosophical speculations.

It may, perhaps, partly be in consequence of our particular views upon the subject of metaphysical philosophy, that we confess this last to be our own case. Nevertheless the pleasure which we receive from Mr. Stewart's style is by no means so unmixed, as that we could venture to recommend it to our readers as a model for their imitation; because, as it is absolutely without simplicity, it is not of the highest class of excellence; nor does it furnish the purest or most faultless specimen even of the class to which it beJongs. Mr. Stewart's language is rich and copious, but it is, generally speaking, singularly deficient in exactness and precision. And although his phrases are, with a few exceptions, pure and such as are used by good writers, yet his general manner of expressing himself seems to be founded rather upon the general principles of grammar, than upon the nice idiom of a spoken language. We shall perhaps be thought fastidious in what we are going to add; but we feel something that we desire and miss, even in that diguified elegance and urbanity of manner, by which his writings are distinguished. The fact is, it is too dignified; too reserved and sustained. Moreover, our author's periods, though judiciously constructed for the most part, are far too slow and measured, and not unfrequently far too rhythmical; this last we njust take an opportunity of saying is among the greatest faults which any style can possess, though not unusually mistaken for a beauty, particularly among the Scottish writers of English ; who from want of practice in the colloquial prosody of the language, or from what other cause we know not, (except indeed it be that which Cicero gives,) seem to be possessed with an idea, that a way of speaking which would not be tolerated in conversation even upon gravest subjects, nor be approved by persons of taste even in the pulpit or at the bar, forms nevertheless the very perfection of what is commonly called fine writing. Itaque Caria et Phrygia et Mysia, quod minime polite minimeque elegantes sunt, adsciverunt suis

auribus

the

auribus opimum quoddam et tanquam adipata dictionis genus, quad Rhodi nunquam probaverunt, Græci autem multo minus, Athenienses vero funditus repudiaverunt.

Having said thus much respecting the merits of Mr. Stewart's writings in general, we now come to the consideration of the work itself. Our author styles it • A Dissertation exhibiting a general View of the Progress of Metaphysical, Ethical, and Political Philosophy, since the Revival of Letters in Europe.'-It is, in general, exceedingly light reading, and we have derived from it some profit and more amusement; we confess, however, that had it not been for the information which he gives us in the title-page, we should have been rather puzzled had we been questioned as to the precise object for which we supposed it to be intended. It appears to us a sort of perambulation of learning' from which we come away, if we may be allowed to continue the metaphor, without renjembering much more than that we have had a very pleasant walk, in company with a very sensible companion, during which we met with many agreeable persons whom we had no expectation of seeing so much of, and others again, whom we might more reasonably have hoped to see a good deal more. The remarks which our author makes upon each as they successively appear before him, are often just and entertaining; yet we own that in general they seem to be merely insulated criticisms upon the literary merits of individuals, for which a proper place might have been found in the body of the work, but which might, in a great variety of instances, have been omitted without inconvenience, in a work professing to give merely a synoptical view of the progress of human opinion in general.

In the plan which Mr. Stewart has adopted, if he has not consulted his strength he has at least consulted his ease: for supposing a person to have the requisite talent and information, the task which our author has performed is one which, with the assistance of the historical abstracts of Buhle or Tenneman, cannot be supposed to have required any very laborious meditation. Had our author tried his strength with D'Alembert, indeed, it would have been another matter. The object which he attempted in his preface to the French Encyclopædia was one of exceeding difficulty; and on that account quite beyond his powers; which, except in mathematics, were only moderate. But a philosophical account of the objects and limits of speculative science; of the relation in which the various branches of it stand towards each other; of the progress which each has made; of the causes by which their further advancement has been respectively retarded; of their present state; and of the problems which still remain undiscussed or undetermined; is a desideratum in philosophy which it would have given

US

us pleasure to find the eloquent pen of Mr. Stewart employed in supplying, but which we willingly admit he is not to be blamed for not having attempted on the present occasion. The Encyclopædia Britannica is assuredly a very useful work, and we make no doubt that the supplementary volumes with which it is now proposed to complete it, will be respectably prepared; but we think that Mr. Stewart, in contributing, by way of a preface to it, the popular and, in many parts, able essay, which we are now examining, has performed quite as much, or even more than either the public or his employers had any right to expect.

We are informed in the Advertisement prefixed to the first volume of the Supplement already published, that the Dissertation,' before us, forms the first of a series of similar discourses, with one of which each volume in the work will commence; and whose object is to exhibit a rapid view of the progress made since the revival of letters, first in those branches of knowledge which relate to Mind, and next in those which relate to Matter. In so far as regards the philosophy of mind and its kindred branches, this historical sketch is brought down in the present dissertation to the beginning of the last century; and the inquiry will be concluded in another dissertation to be prefixed to the third volume. The second volume will commence with a similar view of the progress of the mathematical and physical sciences during the same period, by Professor Playfair; who will in like manner conclude the history of these sciences in another discourse to be given with the fourth volume. This series will be concluded by a dissertation on the history of chemical discovery and chemical theory, by Mr. William Thomas Brande, to be prefixed to the last volume.'

We have made this extract merely for the purpose of acquainting our readers with the matter of fact which it contains; but we cannot resist a temptation to observe, that both the division which is here made of human knowledge and the order in which the various dissertations are to be given to the world seem to be exceedingly arbitrary. We shall not however stop to examine the grounds of these arrangements but proceed to the consideration of our author's Dissertation.

He informs us at the conclusion of his Preface, that the sciences to which he means to confine his observations are metaphysics, ethics and political philosophy; and he commences his labours by reviewing, in a rapid way, the effect produced on all these branches of human knowledge by the discovery of the Pandects, the revival of letters, the Reformation, and other subsidiary causes. thor's remarks upon these subjects are all of them sensible, and expressed with liveliness; which upon a subject that has been so much and so often trodden is all that it was possible to perform. A large portion however of his first chapter is taken up with an

Our au

exposition of the mischievous effects which he supposes the writings of Machiavel to have produced upon the political morals of Europe in the age immediately subsequent to that in which he lived. We have not leisure for entering upon an examination of the particular grounds on which our author builds the opinions he entertains upon this subject, but we cannot help thinking that he refines not a little in attributing so much of the political character of the time in which Machiavel wrote to the causes which he assigns. It would, we believe, be much more safe to explain the depraved morality of Machiavel's writings by the peculiar circumstances of the age and country in which he lived. The political maxims which prevailed among the petty states of Italy during the fifteenth century will be found recorded and reduced into a sort of theory of government in the Prince ;' but to suppose that this work was materially instrumental in introducing them to practice is, we conceive, mistaking the effect for the cause. A much better explanation of the wicked principles of politics which spread from Italy over a great part of Europe during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries will be found by comparing the history of those times with the remarks which Thucydides makes in his third book upon the Machiavelism which wars and continued dissensions had created in Greece at the period in which he wrote.

Before we quit this chapter, we cannot avoid noticing the silence of our author respecting the influence which the revival of Greek literature in Europe exercised upon the metaphysical taste of the times immediately following. It is indeed true, as he remarks, that no substantial improvement took place in the science itself in consequence of that event; nevertheless, the changes which it produced were sufficiently remarkable, in a literary point of view, fully to deserve notice in any historical sketch of the subject. To commence the history of metaphysics, as our author may be said to do, with the writings of Bacon, is not without inconvenience. So many of his opinions, and so many particular passages in his works, can only be fully explained by reference to the metaphysical notions that prevailed at the time in which he lived, that a person altogether unacquainted with these will necessarily be liable to misunderstand sometimes the scope of his philosophy. The metaphysical science which at present exists is not among the number of modern inventions; it has been handed down, in regular descent, from the times of Grecian philosophy; question has begotten question, and opinion has begotten opinion, in such a way, that in order to understand the metaphysics of one age it will commonly be found necessary to know something of the metaphysics of the age immediately preceding. However, as we have no room for supplying the omission of Mr. Stewart respecting the state of the metaphysical

sciences

« PreviousContinue »