« AnteriorContinuar »
the specious garb of some nominal virtue. It is the theory of virtue that we have here to look to; for in this alone is to be found the average amount and limits of attainment. Now, it is to the whole mass of the literature of a country that such a test should be applied. Ethical works only contain the fruits of individual speculation; but literature is, for the most part, shaped to the taste of the nation, and speaks best what that taste is. Such is the point of comparison to which we would direct the reader's notice, and such also is the principle of its application. Even the moral obscuration attendant on the troubled interval between Charles I. and the Revolution, brought forth the mind of Milton, in whose intellectual character, when due deductions are made for pure genius, may be discerned the pure and severe spiritual and moral elevation which lay involved within those turbid elements. The writers of queen Anne's time, various as are their critical merits, present a striking moral front. Temple, Steele, and Addison, the most popular of essayists, ascertain both the moral tendencies of the time, and the essential spirit from which it proceeded. The torch was delivered to Johnson, and to the wits and orators of his daythe entrance of our present division-all writers of one ethical school; for by no other could they have spoken the mind of the British people. Of these men, some were christian by character and profession-all by taste. Such is the first sense in which we consider it essential to regard our literature, in viewing it as a criterion of the true element of progress in England. Christian, in the general sense which we have endeavoured to explain, it is, at the same time, one of the great general indications of progress and change.
Before we enter on a more general view of the same class of indications, we must guard against being supposed to pay too exclusive a regard to those which are merely intellectual. We assent at once to the proposition, that a nation may arrive at a very high degree of constitutional strength-of wealth and foreign preponderance, without a proportional advance in literature. There should be some important deductions to make, but we shall not enter on the question; it has no immediate application. In England, all the departments of literature rose by a uniform progress to their very highest state; and we proceed here on the principle that the indication thus afforded is the least liable to deception.
In the opening of our period, the literature of England was as a blaze of light. Though considerably below the point (perhaps the maximum) which it attained in the commencement of the present century, it had reached a height unprecedented in the history of modern Europe. To understand this according to our true intent, it must, however, be observed, that we are not speaking of the production of works of great genius—a consideration not in any way here involved - but simply of the general condition of literature, as estimated from its average results. The wide-spread taste the numerous scholars, · poets, and orators—the rising school of art—then was the triumph of oratory and of historians unrivalled in modern or ancient nations. Hume, Gibbon, Robertson, Fox, Pitt, Burke, Pope, Johnson, Goldsmith-the constellated light of the Turk’s Head-itself a splendid development from Will's coffee-house. At this period, it may
well be doubted whether the capacities of the human intellect had not reached their highest intellectual point. The estimate by which such a question could best be decided, would be complicated with many difficuities, and demand a wide range of comparisons. The process would be one by which the mere diffusion of knowledge, the mere increase of results with also the vast additions which have been made to the common stock of human ideas-should be distinguished from the consideration in question,—the accomplishment of man's intellectual constitution. To a great extent, indeed, these questions would appear identified so closely as to make the distinction seem a vain refinement; but our present scope requires no notice of these difficulties. The genius of individuals is not to be measured by the entire intellectual comprehension of the present age; with the increase of knowledge the division of labour is improved, and to some extent it is true, that what the public mind gains, the individual loses in scope. It may be well doubted whether, in the entire range of the most eminent, instructed, and refined society of the present moment, the circle at Sir Joshua Reynolds' table could be reproduced-10 one will, on consideration, say that it could be excelled. The entire time since his death has not brought forth the intellectual peer of Burke. The peculiar nerve, promptness, the discursive reach and vigour of Johnson has no rival. If this estimate, which we are content to assert-because we do not think it will be denied—be correct, one further consideration will be enough. If we are to estimate the development of humanity by such considerations, no nation has ever yet risen to the same proud level of attainment. They who would pay so untenable an honour to France, have either looked very superficially on the state of that great and splendid people, or they have judged by a scale of humanity which we do not understand, and cannot here investigate. Manners, and the smaller moralities of common conversation, we have conceded; wit, grace, both in conversation and writing, and all that.contributes to smoothen the collisions and refine the common concourse of the world, from the monarch's court to the polite conversation of the stalls and streets, is the undisputed pre-eminence of la belle nation. These are, to a great extent, the elements of that illusory humanity which has imposed on French statists. But looking to the actual amount of evidence in favour of their comparative preference, it will, in the first careful glance, appear, that it must include a vast mist of false, upregulated, and vague philosophizings on false data, and on no data, eminently characteristic of undisciplined intellect. The philosophical invention of the French was profuse and brilliant, because it was repressed by no caution, and not confined by any regard to realities; while that of England was the slow but sturdy growth of successive confirmations—the patient development of experience. The theories of the revolutionary philosophers_full as they are of striking eloquence, of clever and just thoughts, and of incidental wisdom, founded on no true facts, and assuming a wide scope of licentious fallacy-have struck no root in the intellect even of France. With little exception,* they have passed into oblivion, having contributed as little
* The exception, indeed, is unnecessary; the economists are not to be confounded with the political projectors of the revolution,
to the political wisdom of the succeeding generation, as the crimes and horrors to which they gave their transient share of impulse, advanced their prosperity and power. When this discordant crowd, and all their brilliant frost-work of opinion, system, and mere eloquence, is reduced to its truth, and to its real share in the advancement of humanity, it will be easy to do critical justice. Nearly the whole of the great and various foundations of modern science might be also excluded, for very opposite reasons, from the same estimate. They fall to a large extent under the class of external results. So far as these remarks apply, the consideration is confined to the moral and social expansion of the public mind; as the precise point for which we have contended, is not that our national development has been larger or more brilliant, but more in strict conformity with truth, reality, the nature of man, and the design of his Maker.
In looking to those external results of human reason that is to say, the advancement of the arts and sciences, we do not mean to pursue the comparison further than to observe that it would terminate equally in favour of England. To England the history of modern science must trace its beginnings, and it is in these that the higher elements of human reason will be mainly traced: they more surely imply patience, forbearance, comprehension, judgment, and a just election among the thousand ways of error. The rest are more common and inferior powers. We should be sorry, indeed, to be thought to disparage the illustrious school which has consummated the astronomy of Newton. But the progress of humanity and the advance of discovery are not simply convertible terms. There is, to be sure, a connexion, but it is one not of principles but results; every incident of the human state in some way may affect the whole complex of humanity. If any of our readers should be led to follow out a subject which we must here drop, there is a suggestion which he will find of some use. The first error to which the comparison of different departments of intellectual effort is liable, is the confusion of the mere degree of any talent with its elevation in the scale of excellence. Another-a similar error would be between the importance of results and the powers by which they were attained.
The more appropriate consideration of the intellectual and social advance of England during the period on which we are about to enter, rejects all such investigations. We could not pass without comment an authoritative statement, which, to some extent, involves the justice of our general view of the moral and social character of this period. The reign of George III. was the development of the moral and intellectual instrumentalities, from which the vast expansion of all the elements of social progress, which characterize the present generation, have their source and origin. The full discussion of these would be desirable, and we should enter diffusely upon the varied branches of consideration thus distinguishable, were it not that there is nothing to our purpose that it will not become desirable again to bring under notice in the course of the ensuing memoirs. And it is for this reason that we here confine our discussion to the most general considerations affecting the period. The great events which seem to have given their stamp to the age—enormous and vast as their influence has been-have, perhaps, more than can be easily calculated, been secondary to other far less perceptible agencies, of which they are in reality the effects. Of these, as we have endeavoured to show, the best measure is to be found in the state of literature and the arts, the only certain records of an age. There was, in the interval of time under our special notice, a vast and apparently sudden growth of intellectual activity, both in England and France, though subject to different laws of action, and working in different directions. As the one was unrestricted, and in its rude overflow carried away the fixed barriers of human progress, and led to no direct result; the other advanced under the strictest control of those elementary and essential social laws, by which alone, in any known instance, national progress has been attained; and the largest portion of individual freedom, and popular privilege, which ever yet have been combined, has been the eventual result. We are to look for the elements of our moral state, as a people, in the family and court of George III., and in the still increasing prevalence of our christian teaching in the press and pulpit; our rational sense of constitutional freedom in the long series of our able constitutional judges and lawyers, as well as in the genius of public men, whose well-known writings have given a tone to political sentimentLocke, Somers, Burke, Mackintosh—and the constellation of which they are the eminent stars. Even our arts and wonderful attainments in the practical applications of natural philosophy to social ends though they appear peculiarly as the offspring of the present—though we seem to have made a sudden ascent beyond the remotest calculation of our fathers—it is yet clearly traceable to the broad foundation which was their undoubted work. Let us pause to contemplate this fact; for its consideration is instructive.
In later times, from the commencement of the present century, the vital fire of social existence, knowledge, having long progressed slowly and interruptedly through numerous stages of advance and retardation, appears to have been exhibited to an intensity of light beyond the conception of our ancestors. The furnace has gained a white heat-and new and marvellous gleams and irradiations are ascending on every side, and changing the whole aspect of the social state. Old times and old thoughts are hourly losing themselves in the blaze. Either to conjecture the probabilities of discovery, or to set limits to its advances, would be hazardous and daring; and still more venturous to pretend to trace the vast and illimitable scope of results. England already concentrates into a city; and, looking to its tendencies, Europe approaches toward the forms of a vast democracy. We already look as from a lofty eminence on the times distinguished for illustrious men. But if any one who is competent to the task-and it does not involve more than a certain general amount of scientific information—will follow out to their origin the varied inventions and discoveries which have changed the entire condition of the British people the steam-boat and the railway, and the wide range of resource for public convenience and utility, while he will unhesitatingly confess the yet unmeasured vastness of their importance and of their effects, he will see that they are by no means the result of any commensurate degree of intellectual power: and following on in the same path, he will soon ascertain that they are best described as results of long discovery, expanded into life by the development of the external form of society itself: not the genius, but the wealth; not the compass, but the direction of knowledge. The point to be observed is this: there must be first attained a certain state of social expansion, to afford scope for numerous applications of invention. The demands of luxurious affluence, or of the most expansive commerce, and the application of that wealth which is their cause and effect, are the essential conditions for the development of the refined and expensive improvements of modern skill. The structure of a
arge two-masted vessel would be beyond the wants and means of the pastoral state,—the costly machinery of the steamer and the railway, the augmented powers of all the implements of production, demand the resources and supply the wants of a civilized nation. Until a certain amount of means and demands had been called into existence, the experiment which absorbed millions of capital could not be made, though the conception lay on the surface, an unproductive and not very profound speculation, to be called ingenious by the informed, and visionary by all beside. A moment, however, arrives, in which a certain ascertainable increase of demand becomes visible to the intelligent eye of commerce-an enlarged scope for investment calls forth at once both the money and the contrivance.
It is in the acceptation of these remarks that we refer all the great distinctions of modern art and improvement to the far more exuberant and far-reaching genius of previous generations. The day of the Pitts, Fox, Sheridan, Wilberforce, Johnson, and Burke, in which there was a mighty fermentation of the human genius, and an illumination in every direction, shone in its meridian, while great national prosperity was at the same time calling into existence, and fostering a large accession of numerical increase to the middle orders, who properly constitute the people. From such a state of intellectual power, and such a condition of the people, grew the peculiar splendours and substantial attainments of our own time, in literature and art, as well as in the former respects. The demand for the luxuries of literature, as well as for its more solid acquirements, was largely increased-lighter publications, as well as more various grades of excellence, found a fast-increasing market—the periodical, which was an augmentation of the power of the pamphlet--something analogous to the power-loom-was adopted, and added the very lightest species of literature, till then conceived, to the ancient purposes of popular publication. The public journal, in like manner, expanded both in scope and talent. The growing demand for political information eventuated in the publication of the debates. Keener interest and increased impulse were given to these processes by the revolutionary excitements which we have described in the beginning of this sketch; and the causes now stated, gave, of course, added power to those political impressions.
The revolutions sustained by literature, considered in itself, were not less traceable. Style had been completed; the various methods