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ANTIQUITY AND POSTERITY.
Past and to come seem best; things present worst.
I INTENDED to have addressed this essay to Posterity, but I recollected the sarcasm levelled against the French author who dedicated an ode to the same personage-that it would never reach its destination; besides, I may enquire with the Irishman, "What has Posterity ever done for us?" and why should we throw away good advice, which will be probably unheard by the party for whom it is intended, and will be certainly unmerited? As to Antiquity-the stream of time is the only one that cannot be navigated both ways; there is no steam-boat that can work against wind and tide, and carry a passenger or a letter back to the fountain-head of events, or even to the last landmark that we passed in our voyage to the great ocean of Eternity. To say the truth, I have no respect whatever for that solemn bugbear, that shadowy quack, yclept Antiquity, whom I have always contemplated as a very grave impostor and reverend humbug (begging pardon for such a conjunction of phrases): and as to the good old times, of which every body talks so much and knows so little, which, like the horizon, keep flying farther backwards as we attempt to approach them, I suspect that if we could once pounce upon them and subject them to our inspection, we should find them to be the very worst times possible. The golden age is as much a fable as the golden fleece, or, if reducible to some rude elements of truth, they would not be much more magnificent than the celebrated Argonautic prize, which, divested of its poetical embellishments, was nothing more than an old sheepskin stretched across the river Phasis, to catch the particles of ore rolled down by its waters. This cant is regularly transmitted from generation to generation, and may be traced back to the revival of literature; so that if there be any truth in the tradition, this past millennium must have flourished in the dark ages, and have expired without leaving a record of its existence. It is flattering to human pride to indulge in reveries of former happiness and perfection, because they infer a probability of their future recurrence; hence it is, that, not content with assigning a higher moral stature to our ancestors, we cling to the belief of their gigantic proportions, despite of the evidence of history, of skeletons, and of Egyptians embalmed many centuries before our æra, who must have been a very diminutive race, unless they have shrunk terribly in the pickling.
Bacon has exposed the egregious mistake, which, by confounding the world's duration with the successions of men, induces us to call those the old times in which the oldest writers and legislators flourished, and leads us by analogy to attribute to the world's infancy and inexperience that reverence which we properly feel for the wisdom of individual age.
* Horace bewailed the human declension of his time, and, prophesying its continuance, anticipated that his contemporaries were "mox daturos progeniem vitiosiorem." The learned Poggio, who was so instrumental in the revival of leterts, noticing the prevalence of the same conceit in his days, says,-" Nature always preserves a certain degree of motion, and it is the same in human nature. To pretend that the world is perpetually getting worse, is a declamation unsupported by any historical examination of different ages."
The times in which we live are in reality the oldest; and if mere antiquity deserve our homage, let us pay it to the existing generation, for we are the real Simon Pures, and the ancients were but the sucklings and children of the world's growth. If wisdom were occasionally ordained out of their mouths, we possess it superadded to our own, with all the experience of the intervening ages. They were the raw youngsters, and we are the true Nestors. We show deference to the matured sagacity of the man, not to the crude attempts of the schoolboy: why then are we to reverence those collections of men, who, in the pupilage of time, were deemed miracles of precocity if they advanced beyond their A B C? All our impressions upon this subject are but so many mischievous prejudices, which, if we could reduce them to action, would compel the moral world to go backward instead of forward; and we must totally reverse the usual operation of our minds, if we would render proper justice to ourselves and to Antiquity. Nothing can be more ephemeral than our individual existence; but we are the constituents of an immortal community-the deciduous leaves of an imperishable trunk; for though generations pass away, the British public is perennial. We are the identical gentlemen to whom our ancestors have made so many pathetic appeals and apostrophes under the name of Posterity; and we are moreover the worshipful personages destined to be hereafter revered, and regretted, and eulogized, under the respectable designation of " our wise Ancestors." Let us then hold up our heads, for we stand between two mighty congregations, the past and the future, and our measure remains to be fairly taken. Whatever we contribute to the general stock of wisdom, we shall bequeath in addition to that which we have inherited; and if we are disposed to pride ourselves on the possession of a greater store than was enjoyed by our ancestors, we may learn humility from reflecting, that our successors will in the same proportion be still richer than ourselves. We have only, therefore, to assign to Posterity that gravity, and experience, and wisdom, which we ignorantly impute to the raw, boyish simpleton, Antiquity, and the two candidates for our favour will receive the fair award of their respective merits.
But I have a terrible crow to pick with this latter personage, Signor Antiquity, as a mighty stalking-horse on which knaves and bigots invariably mount when they want to ride over the timid and the credulous. We never hear so much palaver about the time-hallowed institutions and approved wisdom of our Ancestors, as when attempts are made to remove some staring monument of their folly. Sir Matthew Hale, that great luminary of law, after having condemned a poor woman to death for witchcraft, took occasion to sneer at the rash innovators who were then advocating a repeal of that statute; and falling on his knees, thanked God for being enabled to uphold one of the sagest enactments handed down to us by our venerable forefathers. Bacon, who was so far beyond his age in all matters of science, was not less credulous than the weakest of his contemporaries, and published very minute directions for guarding against witches, under which imputation many scores of wretched old women were burnt in the reign of that sapient Demonologist James the First. The worthy Druids, who sacrificed human victims to their idols, were "our illustrious Ancestors;" and if required to select instances from more mo
dern and civilized times, I would point to those of "our enlightened forefathers," who wasted their lives and fortunes in seeking the Elixir Vitæ and Philosopher's Stone-who practised torture upon suspected criminals who believed in the efficacy of the King's touch for curing the Evil, and transmitted to us many other practices of barbarism and ignorance, which have become happily exploded, though not without great difficulty and opposition. Nay, have not we ourselves, who are fated to be the sage and revered progenitors of future canters, seen a Spanish army fighting for the restoration of the Inquisition and despotism? Have we not in our own country witnessed the existence of the Slave Trade, and heard the denunciations of its supporters against those who would subvert "the glorious institutions handed down to us?" Have we not moreover living believers in Joanna Southcote, and metallic tractors, and animal magnetism, and fortune-tellers, and the efficacy of the Sinking Fund, and the danger of Popery, and innumerable other phantasms and delusions which poor Posterity will be bound to adopt as gospel, if the seal of time is to be always acknowledged as the signet of truth?
The lawyers of all ages are-generally among the blind advocates of Antiquity. As a body, I believe them to have made incalculable advances in respectability and principle since the days of James the First, who, on receiving the great seal which Bacon had been compelled to resign for his manifold corruptions, exclaimed-" Now, by my saul, I am pained at the heart where to bestow this, for as to my lawyers I think they be all knaves:"--but in expansion of intellect, in capacity for enlarged views, or perception of abstract truth, I apprehend them to be still far behind the age in which they live. Certain trades invariably injure the organ of bodily sight, and the law seems to be a profession which has a strong tendency to contract and debilitate the mental pupil. Its disciples are so accustomed to look with other people's eyes, that they lose the use of their own; because precedent is omnipotent in the Courts, they think it must be infallible in the world. They study acts of parliament, commentaries, cases, arguments, dicta of judges, and receive their fiat with such implicit deference, that they cannot, or dare not, find their way out of the maze to look for any thing so simple and elemental as truth. Habituated to follow the bark of the leading hounds, they cannot recognise the game even if it crosses their path; or, if this simile be deemed too canine, I would respectfully hint that they worship the priests and the shrine too much to have any reverence left for the goddess. They argue with examples, not reasons, and adduce what people thought centuries ago, not what they ought to think now. They have deputed their faculties to Blackstone and other sages--they speak judgments, but use none, and generally go astray if left to the guidance of their original sagacity, as horses, if they miss their driver, will run their heads against a post or a wall. What they have spent their lives to learn, they would not willingly unlearn: you may prove that it is cruel, or false, or pernicious, which they will not gainsay, for these are points which they have not studied; but they silence you with one triumphant argument-it is law; a declaration which they usually wind up with the established flourish about hallowed institutions and approved wisdom, and so forth.-I describe the influence of their studies upon
the profession in general, and need not offer my testimony to the honourable and splendid exceptions which it has furnished in all times, and in none more signally than our own.
Bibliomania is an amusing illustration of this blind idolatry for whatever is ancient; though I will venture to assert that no good book, since the invention of printing, ever became scarce, and that in an immense majority of cases rarity is in exact proportion to worthlessness. The old types, and binding, and decorations, might be adored, as savages worship idols for their barbarism and ugliness; but when they ventured upon the experiment of reprinting some of these treasures of antiquity, the bubble burst at once. The Archaica and Heliconia induced people to read what they had hitherto only thought of buying, and they then discovered upon what gross trash and woeful rubbish they had wasted their precious guineas.
While we are lavishing the affections of our hearts and purses upon that egregious dotard, Antiquity, we evince towards our lineal, legitimate descendant, Posterity, a most scurvy and unpaternal disregard, although the poor creature has done nothing to merit such treatment. We bequeath him books enough, indeed, to complete his education, though most of them will be probably moth-eaten, or obsolete, before he is breeched; but in the olden time it was customary to provide him with ready-made houses, and churches, and palaces, none of which can he hope to inherit from the present generation.-Our houses regularly fall in before the leases; our churches will never come down to him, unless it be their roofs; and as to our thatched palaces, and others in imitation of Chinese Pagodas, and Moorish Alhambras, being fortunately as bad in construction as they are in taste, even we ourselves may hope to witness the decadence of these flimsy gewgaws. Waterloo-bridge is almost the only structure which seems likely to descend to the great unborn heir of the present community; and if we have enabled him to keep his head above water in one sense, we have rendered it almost impossible in another, by tying about his unbegotten neck, the tremendous millstone of the national debt. Now I have very grave and compunctious doubts whether the social compact confers upon us any right to commit this doubly-noxious injustice. Individuals are not responsible for the debts of their parents,-why should a collection of individuals be so? Why should I, or you, taxpaying reader, be at this moment putting our hands in our pockets to defray the charges of all the mad wars waged since the time of our revolution, when the perverse folly of "our sage ancestors" first discovered the secret of the Funding System ?-What authority have we to mortgage the flesh, and bones, and sweat of many generations, to gratify the insane pugnaciousness or extravagance of one?-what charter empowers us to discount futurity for blood-money? O fatal discovery, which torments whole ages with war, and its successors with debt, thus spreading misery over a surface of centuries! If the Holy Alliance would really merit the title of benefactors of the human race, let them invite the whole of Europe to join them in a solemn compact and agreement that every nation shall hereafter fight its own battles, and pay for its own wars; and they will have done more in one day for the maintenance of perpetual peace than they will now effect in a hundred Congresses.-Let them proclaim a public
universal law, absolving our successors from all responsibility, legal or moral, for the hostilities of their forefathers; and they will not only have conferred a signal blessing upon the present generation, but have performed a great act of justice towards that ill-used gentleman, who has been subjected to such a series of ante-natal inflictions-poor Mr. Posterity. H.
THE BARD'S SONG TO HIS DAUGHTER.
O DAUGHTER dear, my darling child,
Thou who hast care and pain beguiled,
And jocund joys, and youthful hopes,
Come thronging to my heart through thee.
Backward thou lead'st me to the bowers
Where love and youth their transports gave;
While forward still thou strewest flowers,
Some stanza by thy Sire composed,
Then to their memories will throng
Scenes shared with him who lies in earth,
The cheerful page, the lively song,
The woodland walk, or festive mirth;
How exquisitely dear thou art
And the fond thrillings of my heart,