Page images

principles : in short, that they were of a character from which no:hing could be expected that was candid and impartial; nothing but what a weak or crafty understanding could supply, towards coufirming those prejudices with which they happened to be possessed; especially where religion was the subject, which, above all other motives, strengthens every bias, and inflames every passion of the human mind. And that this was actually the case, I have shown also by many instances; in which we find them roundly affirming as true, things evidently false and fictitious; in order to strengthen, as they fancied, the evidences of the gospel, or to serve a present turn of confuling an adversary, or of enforcing a particular point which they were labouring io establish.”

To the same effect, Dr. Whitby, speaking of Papius, and Irenæus, those of the Christian writers who were the nearest to the days of the Apostles, says,

“ It is very remarkable, that these two earliest writers of the second century, who, on the credit of idle reporis, and uncertain fame, have delivered to us things said to be done by the Apostles and their scholars, have shamefully imposed upon us, by the forgery of fables, and false stories."

Of the credulity of those wretched times, and the facility with which any delusion might be imposed upon the people, for which their leaders had occasion, a proof may be taken from what St. Augustin relates, upon the testimony, he says, of credible persons,

“ That at Ephesus, where St. John the Apostle lay buried, he was not believed to be dead, but to be sleeping only in the grave, which he had provided for himself, iill our Lord's second coming; iu proof of which they affirmed, that the earth under which he lay was seen to heave up and down perpetually, in conforinity 10 the motion of his body in the act of breaihing."

When the taste for fabulous legends was somewhat exhausted, that of subtle disputation succeeded. Whether, of the divine beings concerned in the scheme of redemption, the Father alone was God, and the Son and the Holy Ghost only secondary, though exalted beings;—whether the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, were three equal, coelernal, and separate beings, concordant in will;—whether they were three beings, coincident in nature, and separate only in the forms or aspects under which that undivided nature was pleased to manifest itself—which are the distinguishing opinions of the Arian, Tritheistic, and Sabellian sects ;—or whether the Trinity included three distinct persons, but consisting of one substance, and constituting but one God, which the Council of Nice ultimately adopted as the orthodox creed,—were questions that engendered disputes which had no end; which engaged the attention and the passions of men to a degree at which we now stand amazed; and which appear to have extinguished the taste and the regard for every other species of mental exertion.

The contests which regarded the Trinity, were succeeded by those of the Incarnation. Whether Christ was purely God, and his corporeal appearance a mere illusion ;-whether the divine nature was one thing, namely, the Eternal God; and the human nature another thing, namely, a real man, though the best and wisest of the human race ;-whether the Godhead was united and mingled with the body of a man,—the divine Logos supplying, in the person of Jesus, the place and office of a human soul ;—or whether perfect God was in the second person of the Trinity substantially, and indissolubly united with a perfect man ;-whether it was pious or impious to denominate the Virgin Mary the mother of God;whether Christ was of one nature, or two natures, whether he had one will, or two wills: These disputes, and the different shades by which they approached or receded from one another, occupied not only the pens of the writers, but the sword of the magistrate; and men sought with greediness each other's lives in the violent pursuit of these unavailing controversies.

Whether images should be worshipped or broken, occupied in fierce dis

putes the eighth and ninth centuries, and finally separated the Western from the Eastern Church; while monks and relics occupied all the atten– lion which controversy left disengaged.

Such is the unfavourable aspect, on a first or hasty review, under which the operation of Christianity upon the state of literature presents itself. Upon a full inspection, however, it will be seen, that the corruption of Christianity, of which we thus complain, was itself the effect of that vitiated state of the human mind, of which the vices of the government were the great and primary cause. It was only in a weak and perverted state of the human mind, that those opinions and practices which we now contemplate with disgust, could have been either engendered or approved. And Christianity purged them off, exactly in proportion as mankind threw off their chains, and the human mind acquired liberty and strength. Christianity has not prevented the modern nations of Europe, wherever the government allained any tolerable goodness, from making progress in science. But where the government was utterly bad, as in Spain for example, there Christianity has retained its pernicious form, and literature its barbarity. It is because the government of Spain has degraded the human mind, that ils religion retains its deformity. Had the government been ameliorated, religion would have improved. Had the purest religion been introduced while the government continued bad, it would have speedily acquired a similar degree of corruption.

The irruption of the northern nations, induced a new feature upon the barbarity of the Roman world. Whether it deepened the gloom which already overshadowed the human mind, is a question perhaps not very easy to be answered. That a large proportion of the ancient inhabitants suffered, and very severely, can hardly be doubted; though not much more, it is probable, than the inhabitants of some countries are often made to suffer under the ravages of modern wars. But it does admit of very serious dispute, whether the human mind was in a worse situation among the Goths, or among the Greeks and the Romans. If the latter retained, perhaps as relics, some of the trappings or exterior ornaments of a higher state of civilization, all the essential ingredients had long been lost. The virtues, both intellectual and moral, were extinct : no strength, no activity of mind, no curiosily, no ingenuity, had been known for ages. Sloth and cowardice, and falsehood and venality, with squalid poverly on the one hand, and tasteless profusion on the other, completed the picture of the times. The Goths were uncouth in their dress, and not very delicate in their food; but they had already begun to cultivate letters, and with the eagerness of a whom they were new. Their minds had as yet been little subject to diseipline; but they had not been deadened by slavery: they were full of curiosity, full of activity, vigorous, and persevering. They either brought with them, or they speedily imbibed, a taste for literary pursuits; and, though it has been often adduced as a proof of the barbarity of the times, that even the upper ranks themselves could not universally read, it is to be observed, that among the Greeks and Romans, in their most cultivated state, it is probable that this talent was not very generally diffused; and before the art of printing, it is cer in that its diffusion could not be very wide.

We cannot, it is true, adopt, without considerable limitations, the character of the invaders which in the sixth century Jornandes, the bishop of Ravenna, has left; whose statement our author ihus abridges.

“ They surpassed the Romans in figure, and in bravery. They had among them, even at the time of their early migrations, men of extraordinary erudition, who were their masters in the schools of wisdom. Hence, the Goths were esteemed more learned than other barbarous nations, and almost comparable with the Greeks. He proceeds to describe their devotion to the god Mars—whom they propitiated by human victims; their further advances in civilization, and their skill in music. He observes, that about the time of Sylla and of Julius Cæsar, the Goths, whom the latter could not conquer, were wholly guided by the advice of the sage Diceneus. Sensible of their docile disposition, and their natural talents, there was no part of philosophy which he withheld from them. He instructed them in ethics, in order to civilize their manners; in the laws of nature, to show them that these law were to be observed; and he taught them logic, which rendered them more expert than other nations in the art of reasoning. He proposed to their contemplation the theory of the iwelve zodiacal signs, the revolutions of the planets, and the whole science of astronomy, which shows the increase and wane of the moon, and how much the fiery globe of the sun exceeds the earth in magnitude. With what pleasure then, says he, when the repose of a few days allowed a respite from arms, did these brave men turn their thoughts to philosophy! You might observe one scrutinizing the face of the heavens; another exploring the nature of herbs and fruits ; a third calculating the uses of the moon; and a fourth pursuing the labours of the sun in its diurnal course. By these, and many other lessons, the fame of Diceneus had become so great, that all orders of men, and even the chiefs obeyed him. Comiscus, his successor, and not his inferior in wisdom, was held in almost equal veneration. He became the king and high-priest of the Gothic people, whom he ruled in justice.”

If we believe that the Gothic monk praises the people loo highly to whom he belonged, it may even from this panegyric be inferred, that the horrid pictures which terror and abhorrence dictated to the pens of the alarmed and distracted Greeks and Romans, from whose accounts our notions of them have commonly been derived, were at least as highly exaggerated on the opposite side. All the turbulence and distraction incident to the rudest form of the feudal government, which ensured a state of society bordering upon a perpetual civil war, were less injurious to intellectual vigour than centuries of calm, unruffled despotism; and it was not long before a new species of literature began to arise,-a new species of poetry, -a new species of physics,—and a new species of metaphysics.

Under the head of poetry, we do not propose to speak of the leonine verses, which had nothing in them of poetry but the jingle. We shall pass over several generations to the appearance of the Trouveurs and Troubadours in the thirteenth century. The remarkable circumstance in their history, is the order of its commencement; not till many years had been zealously spent in the new physical and metaphysical labours. For this, however, it is not difficult to account. The vernacular language, since the change which it had undergone by the admixture of the conquering nations, had not been the written language; and, it would appear, that poetry can never really thrive in any but the vernacular language. The general rule was so far observed, that the first specimens of literature in the modern languages of Europe, were the poems of the Trouveurs and the Troubadours. It is unnecessary to describe what is so generally known, as the species of life by which these ilinerant minstrels had been distinguished. The nature of their poetry is all we are here called upon to illustrate. Tales of heroism, ludicrous and satirical tales, and tales of war, without any objections to episodes of indecency, were the common subjects of the poems to which at present we advert. As the exploits and the manners of chivalry constiluted the grand subjects of admiration to the age, it follows of course, that the feats and the loves of the knights composed both the losty and the lender themes for the muse of the minstrels. For the subject of their merriment, they took a wider range. But the manners of the monks, the priests, and the physicians, form the principal topics of their ridicule. It is surprising to what a height they carry the severity of their satire against the

clerical body; and it either proves the great forbearance and good nature of the priesthood of those days, or the high delight which the men who were powerful enough to yield protection, took in listening to the ridicule of the priests.

Vuch inequality pervades the rude poems to which these observations relate. But, amid many prosaic and contemptible passages, fine bursts of sentiment occasionally break forth; and sublime, as well as tender emotions, are very powerfully produced. Their influence upon the progress of mind seems to have been salutary, and far from weak. By presenting something to delight in the vernacular tongue, the taste for reading was diffused ; and the consciousness of exercising so flattering a power over a growing multitude of readers, increased the motive to improve the language, as well as to render it the vehicle of more important ideas. The astonishing perfection which, at this early period, and almost in its first attempts, the Italian poetry attained, in the hands of Dante and Petrarch, is one of the most remarkable circumstances of those obscure times. The character of this poetry is too generally known to require any description; and its superior relinement may in part be accounted for, by considering that the circumstances which made Rome the capital of the Christian world, made Italy the centre of all the little improvement which was then known.

The degree to which the study of physics was carried in the period under our review, is by no means unworthy of consideration. Its origin, and the molive lo it, were worthy, indeed, of the darkest periods of human history; but the pursuit itself was altended with great advantages. The studies to which we allude, it will readily be understood, were those of the alchymists, originally pursued for the discovery of the elixir of life, and the philosopher's stone. The absurdity of the end, of necessity, occasioned a great misapplication of the industry which was bestowed; but the greatness of the motive excited industry to the highest degree; and, of the innumerable esperiments which were made, an important discovery was from time to time the result. At the same time that alchymy introduced in Europe one great branch of physical science, astrology kept alive the attention lo another. By the opinion which prevailed, and prevailed to a late period, (for it was habitual with many of the most eminent persons in the court of Charles the Second, that the positions of the heavenly bodies were prophetic of lerrestrial events, men were powerfully excited to observe and to record the phenomena of the heavens; and the noble science of Astronomy arose in This manner out of the most absurd of superstitions. It is not, we sus– pect, sufficiently considered, to how great a degree we are indebted for that spirit of discovery in the physical sciences, which burst forth so wonderfully after the discovery of printing, to the ardour of the alchymistical and astrological studies of the antecedent times. It is not even considered how many of our most important inventions those times and those studies produced. If we mention only those of glass and of gunpowder, we shall convey no trivial idea to those who are unacquainted with the details.

But it is now necessary to advert to what constituted the most important branch of the literary pursuits of the ages under our review, their Logie and Metaphysics. Aš this, however, is a subject which much care has been employed to illustrate, and with which most persons who read are to a certain degree acquainted, it will be less necessary for us to dwell long in the discussion. It is surprising, not only how much ardour, but how much talent was wasted upon the art of syllogizing, and of playing tricks with abstract and general terms. One remark may be considered of some importance:-hat the passion for verbal subtleties and refinements, is one of the characteristics of a low stage of improvement, and will be found to have perverted the application of most nations in the infancy of their literary pursuits. The first speculators in Greece, for example, were the sophists, whose art consisted in puzzling and surprising their hearers, by the tricks of a quibbling dialectic; and the great merit of Socrates, and after him of Plato, consisted in exposing the folly of that verbal jugglery, and introducing a taste somewhat less irrational, into moral speculation. Among the Persians, the Hindus, and, generally speaking, all the lettered nations of Asia, the business of moral speculation never ascended beyond this inferior level; and their endless and mischievous distinctions in grammar (for they hardly get the length of logic) have been set down by superficial inquirers, as a proof of great civilization, and a high state of mental improvement.

In considering the intricate and useless disquisitions into which the scholastic disputants were led by the obscurity of abstract, general terms, it is of great importance to observe, that they were the first to start a question, to which, in no former age, philosophy had been sufficiently improved to give birth. They originated the grand inquiry-What is the nature of abstract or general terms ?- A question, upon the right understanding of which, more, perhaps, than on any other question whatsoever, the progress of the human mind depends. The disputes of the nominalists and realists, though not very wisely conducted, and of course not leading, in their hands, to any very definite results, pointed distinctly at the real difficulty; and led the way to that knowledge of the true character and use of general terms, which alone can explain the nature of general reasoning, and preserve the mind from those illusions which the abuse of general terms is so apt to impose upon it.

The most important light, however, in which the scholastic studies are to be viewed, is that of the influence which they had in laying the foundalior: of the modern institutions of education; and the influence which, by their means, they continue to exert upon the existing generation. Before the prevalence of the scholastic ardour, the state of the schools is by our author thus described.

“The subjecis taught in the schools, were comprised under the general heads of Trivium and Quadrivium,-words which are sufficiently indicative of their barbarous origin. Trivium included, what were deemed the introductory and less noble arts-Grammar, Dialectics, and Rhetoric : Quadrivium closed the circle by Music, Arithmetic, Geometry, and Astronomy. The following lines served to fix them in the memory.

Gramm. loquitur, Dia vera docet, Rhet, verba colorat :

Mus. canil, Ar, numerat, Geo. ponderat, Ast. colit astra. Why the place of honour was rather given to the latter, ihan to the numbers of the Trivium, does 2:01 distinctly appear. But whatever may have been its temporary ascendant, Logic, or rather the cholastic art of disputation, was afterwards pursued with so much ardour, that it absorbed all its sister arts, and triumphed over the circle of the Quadrivium."

It became in fact the leading object of education; and all other parts of tuilion were regarded as only paving the way to this noble atlainment. New institutions were erected, for the purpose of training up youth in this popular science;-institutions which were regarded as crowning the work of education. " Never,” says Roger Bacon, speaking of his own times,

never was there such a show of wisdom, such exercises in all branches, and in all kingdoms, as within these forty years. Teachers are everywhere

[merged small][ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »