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imposes upon us, or permit the sordid calculations of Despots to prevail over the generous maxims of British Liberty.*
THE LITERATURE OF THE MIDDLE AGES.+
Among the various revolutions which literature has experienced, none are more remarkable than those which it underwent in the period included in the work before us. The high and dazzling prosperity of the Augustan age; the rapid and deep decline of the succeeding times ; the long period of ignorance and barbarily which ensued; and the commencement of a new state of things, destined to no retrogression, present a spectacle interesting to every imagination, and a series of phenomena of which the causes and effects may justly be ranked among the most interesting subjects of philosophical inyesigation.
The causes by which literature is promoted, are so nearly the same with those by which human happiness is advanced, that one cannot be surprised at the deep interest which mankind have taken in tracing its progress through the different stages of society. It is in fact regarded, and with justice, as the most infallible criterion of the point of civilization at which any people have arrived.
It is not however so much, perhaps, to its intimate connexion with the general happiness of society, as to its connexion with the happiness of individuals, that literature is principally indebted for the favour which it has enjoyed. As the manners of men are refined, and the taste for the coarse or boisterous enjoyments of the barbarian declines, no amusement is found lo occupy so delightfully the vacant hours of life, even to those whose principal pursuit is amusement. No pleasure is so little subject to wear itself out, by exhausting either the materials or the faculty of enjoyment. It is one of those tastes which grow by indulgence; of which the objects become more numerous, and the emotions more exquisite, the greater the cultivation which it receives. It is more independent of the will of other men; more independent, in point of all external circumstances, than almost any other source of enjoyment. The objects about which it is conversant, too, fill the mind with a consciousness of its own elevation; while it traces the innumerable events which are passed, or pierces through the veil that covers the future; ranges over the globe upon which it is placed, or flies from planet to planet, and world to world, through the regions of infinite space. The indulgence of a literary taste is naturally attended with a perception of increasing power-of a more enlarged dominion over the objects of nature, animate and inanimate, rational and irrational. It is attended with the delightful conviction of giving a higher claim upon the love and esteem of mankind, and of acquiring a greater command over those feelings and passions which render men odious to their fellow-creatures. How naturally it combines with the best feelings incident to every condition of life with what advantages it engages and employs the thoughts of the wretched, tem
* See a mas'erly article On the Comparative Skill and Industry of France and England, contributed to the E. Review by the distinguished
author of this
Essay, Vol. xxxii. page 340; and ose on the Comparative State of Science in the two Countries, Vol. xxxiv. page 383. † Berioglou's Literature of the Middle Ages. ---Vol. xxiii. page 229. April, 1814.
pers and moderates the elevation of the prosperous, directs the enthusiasm of the young, and relieves the ennui of the old, has been so long felt, and so often expressed with all the powers of language and of genius, that it may well be regarded as one of the laws to which universal assent is attached. “If the riches of both Indies," said the elegant and amiable Fénélon, “it the crowns of all the kingdoms of Europe were laid at my feet, in exchange for my love of reading, I would spurn them all.”
In surveying the extended field which Mr. Berington presents to our view, it is of importance to set out with an accurate estimate of the original standard by which all that follows is to be measured. Literature, to whatever persection it was carried in the Augustan age, in the branches on which culture was bestowed, must be allowed to have possessed but a narrow, and by no means a very elevated range. The departments of Roman literature were in number hardly more than three; poetry, history, and rhetoric. In regard to philosophy, at least, their pretensions, we think, cannot be ranked very high. Of physical science they were altogether destitute. And of their most celebrated writings, or what they dignified with the name of Moral Philosophy—those, for example, of Cicero—besides that they were only transfusions from the Greek, we should hardly, in the present day, allow that they were of the nature of science or philosophy at all. Though moral precepts are enforced with persuasive elegance, and practical questions of morals discussed in our Spectators and Ramblers, we are not accustomed to rank these popular productions among our works of philosophy. But, unless where he enters upon the trite and puerile questions, - whether the summum bonum consists in pleasure, or in the absence of pain, whether it consists in virtue along with riches and pleasure, or in virtue alone ;-or where he undertakes to prove that all opinions are doubtful, and that, with regard to the human mind, there is no such thing as truth or falsehood, frivolities which still less deserve the name of philosophy, and are of kin to those with which the human mind is uniformly caught in the infancy of civilization,-the writings of Cicero certainly ought not to be considered as of a higher cast than the serious papers in the Spectator, or the moral sermons of Blair.
If we carry our criticism even higher, to the masters of the Romans in literature—the Greeks, we shall find that their legitimate pretensions lie within a very limited compass. In Geometry, one of the branches of mathematical science, they had, indeed, made a noble and astonishing progress; but, into the properties of physical bodies, or the order of physical events, they had hardly pushed their inquiries beyond the obvious results of vulgar observation. In regard to the Philosophy of Mind, the writings of Xenophon, and even those of Plato, exquisite models as they are of the arts of disputation, and instructive beyond example in all the resources of attack and defence—are by no means entitled to rank higher than the works of Cicero. Among all the philosophers of antiquity, Aristotle alone appears to have made any considerable attempts in what we now should think worthy to be called the philosophy of mind. But even he appears not to have conceived the scheme of collecting and arranging the phenomena of thought, and ascertaining the order of their succession. His Logic is undoubtedly an altempt-astonishing for the powers which it displays, and instructive by the lights which it communicated—lo analyze the process of general reasoning, one of the complicated operations of the mind; the nature of which, after all, he entirely mislook. It is indeed a remark,
which is worthy of mention, that not one of the ancient philosophers had any conception of the real nature of general terms, or of the operation of mind, which is called Abstraction ;-and that it is chiefly by this radical defect that they are perpetually perplexed, and led into all their trifling and absurdity. The Metaphysics of Aristotle, are either an effort to explain the various uses which were made of the most general terms of the language, without an attempt to explain their real nature, or to penetrate into what is placed beyond the reach of human faculties, the essence and causes
His Ethics are a sort of manual of practical morality, to explain and enforce the four cardinal virtues. His Politics are an attempt, and an attempt which exhibits the vigour of his genius, to explain some of the most striking phenomena of government, which had been exhibited among the states of Greece, or the neighbouring countries. But to penetrate to the general principles of government, -lo show the powers which it implies, -the mode in which they are formed, and in which they operate, the ends at which they aim,-ihe causes of their aberration, and what is necessary to keep them true lo those ends ;—these are inquiries, to which it is evident that his mind had never expanded itself. The feebleness of his general speculations is indeed so remarkable, that the most wretched pamphleteer of the present day would be ashamed of the trifling and absurd remarks of which the greater part of his treatise is composed. It is however melancholy to relale, that this treatise, destitute as it must be of any instruction to men of the present age,—is the only work on the science of politics, which the most opulent and powerful of our seminaries of education thinks proper to teach.
Ii thus sufficiently appears, that in the most useful branches of literature, the Romans had made no progress at all, and the Greeks very little. That the chief object of poetry is to delight and amuse, we suppose will be allowed; and we know, that some of its most exquisite specimens have been produced when intelligence and civilization were at a very low ebb. When Horace therefore pronounces Homer a more instructive teacher of moral and political wisdom than Chrysippus and Crantor, the condemnation of the philosophers, we dare say, is just enough; but for the instruction to be derived from the poet, we must be permitted to think that it is infinitely inferior to that which may be gained from the fables of Esop.
With regard even to historical composition, it is worthy of remark, that notwithstanding the exquisite perfection to which, in one of its branches, the ancients carried this art, a perfection to which the moderns, perhaps, have never altained, it is yet the meanest of its branches, if useful knowledge be the measure of esteem. In the hands of the ancients, history is only the art of weaving an exquisite narrative out of the common and vulgar recollections of events. From the profound research of materials, they were no doubt debarred, because events in those days left, in writing at least, but few traces of themselves behind. But the ancient historians appear to have had little or no conception of the dependance of the events which they related upon the most remarkable of their causes, upon the state of government, and the state of society, among the people to whom the events related. To learn that one people made war upon another, and that a number of incidents of such and such a description ensued, is a tale, how frequently soever repeated, of which the instruction is soon exhausted. To make appear, in relating the transactions of nations, in what they were guided towards their real interest, and in what they were led astray from it; what were the chie! circumstances by which they were deceived in regard to their true interest, and suffered from their mistakes; what the circumstances which most contributed to give them a perception of their real interests, and to protect them from those delusions which would have have plunged them in misery, is the only means of rendering history a school of experience; is the only register of the past, which is pregnant with instruction for the future.
As for oratory, the only remaining branch of Roman literature, it was rather an instrument for the performance of certain kinds of public business, than either calculated or designed for the promotion of knowledge. It cannot, therefore, be set down as a branch of literature to which the human mind is much indebted. That it is an instrument of which the tendency is to do good, rather than evil, we should upon the whole allow.
It is not, however, by diffusing knowledge, nor by strengthening the mind, that its beneficial effects are produced. Considered merely as a branch of literature, not as an organ of power, it seems not to stand upon any higher level than poetry. With whatever delight, then, we may have perused, -and who has not perused with delighi?—the poetry, history, and oratory of the Augustan age, it is nevertheless obvious, that it was only in the entertaining branches of literature, and not at all in the useful and instructive, that the Romans (and the same thing nearly may be said of the Greeks) had made any extraordinary progress.
From the time of Augustus, it is universally allowed that literature, among the Romans, degenerated and declined. The causes of this, present an object of inquiry to which great attention has been called, and from which the most important practical conclusions may be deduced. The great change which had taken place in the condition of the Romans, was the loss of liberty; and although their rude and ill-constructed republic was a most imperfect instrument of government, the difference in the state of the human mind, under a free and a despotic constitution, was prodigious. It is one of the most decisive experiments which has ever been made upon human nature; and upon the circumstances on which its degradation or its excellence really depend. The disadvantages under which the Romans laboured, from the defective construction of their republican government, nourished in them many vices, and retarded their progress in improvement. But the despotism to which they afterwards submitted, speedily eradicated from their minds every amiable and respectable quality, and reduced them to almost the lowest, and most disgusting, condition of human nature. Without this great experiment it might have been deemed impossible, that a people who had once attained a high degree of civilization, could, without any external calamity, and merely by the vices of their government, sink back to a condition in many respects inferior to that of the barbarian; a condition which, had it been described to us without any intimation of their former state, we should have regarded as one of the first removes from the savage life; displaying the ignorance, the falsehood, the sordid misery of the savage, without his manliness and constancy. The most instructive circumstance by far in the history of the Greeks and Romans, and one of the most instructive which the annals of the human race present, is the contrast exhibited between the qualities which they displayed under an ill-regulated liberly, and the qualities engendered in them by despotism.
Few words will here be sufficient for describing the decline and fall of literature under the horrid system of misrule to which the Roman world
became subject, after the loss of the republican government. According to the natural order of things, the astonishing success which had attended the literary efforts of the Augustan writers, ought to have excited the flame of ambition, and multiplied the candidates for fame. But the calamities of the limes, calamities produced by the government alone, repressed the generous impulse; and notwithstanding the improved state of education, and the taste for reading and for literary pursuits which the Augustan age must have produced, the succeeding generations passed away with little addition to the stores of literature. The satires of Juvenal, and the historical writings of Tacitus, are perhaps the only productions which display any vigour of genius, or of thought, subsequent to the age of Horace and Livy. A sort of mental torpor seems to have come upon the human race; every motive for exertion died away; and men took refuge in stupidity and indifference from the evils of the oppression which they had not manliness to shake off.
It is curious enough, that even poetry, that seems more ready to flourish under unfavourable circumstances than any other branch of literature, gradually disappeared under the second barbarity of Roman despotism, and lest nothing behind excepting some chronicles, for the most part contemplible, of passing events.
It will occur to every body, that there was however another, and a very copious set of writings; we mean,- those on theological subjects. But we entertajo some serious doubts whether we ought to class them under the head of literature at all. With many persons indeed it is a question, whether Christianity was not one of the causes of the corruption and decay of literature. From this opinion we unequivocally dissent; but it is an opinion held by very orthodox Christians; and the Reverend Mr. Berington, we find, does not hesitate to give it, in some measure, the sanction of his authority.
" The sons of Constantine,” he observes, “lhough two of them had their stations in the west, were still solicitous to repair the injury which the removal of the seat of empire had occasioned; and when, after some years, Constantine became sole master, so engaged was be with the necessary defence of his widely extended dominions, or so absorbed in the Arian controversy, which then distracted the Christian world, that classical literature in vain implored his fostering care. Besides, at this time, the systems of Grecian philosophy had gained so many admirers among the converts to Christianity, and, by their alluring theories had so far succeeded in perplexing its simpler truths, tha: men of the brightesi abilities eagerly engaged in the new pursuits; and that harmonious and manly language, which the sages, the poets, and orators of Greece had spoken, was alienated to the purposes of sophistic disputation.”
Though we shall presently state the considerations which incline us to form a different opinion, we cannot help allowing, that circumstances present themselves in abundance, which may appear, on a superficial view, to give a colour to this proposition. Nothing, certainly, can be conceived more wretched, than the lying stories of miracles, the fabulous lives of pretended saints, the degrading conceptions of the Divine Being, and the endless disputes about the most contemptible questions, with which the writings of the early Christians are almost universally filled. Dr. Middleton, accordingly, in the outset of his Free Inquiry, observes,
" In order to free the minds of men from an inveterate iinposture, which, through a long suc- . eession of ages, has disgraced the religion of the gospel, and tyrannized over the reason and sense of the Christian world, I have shown, by many indisputable facts, that the ancient fathers, by whose authority that delusion was originally imposed, and lias ever since been supported, were extremely credulous and superstitious; possessed with strong prejudices, and enthusiastic zeal, iu lavour not only of Christianity in general, but of every particular doctrine which a wild imagination could engrait upon it; and scrupling no art or means by which they might propagate the same