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THE FALSE LEARNING
OF THE PRESENT AGE.
BY THE REV. W. ROBERTS, A. M. F. A. S. and F. C. C. C.
ALSE learning, in which I include false taste, consists, in Lord
Bacon's words, “ of vain altercations, vain affectations, and vain imaginations.” It is a subject of regret to consider, that this false learning does not arise from the want of a disposition in the charac er of the times towards objects of this nature, bat from a wrong bias in its direction, resulting from the contagious eifects of a disteinpered refinement.
It would be unjust to our own age to deny, that wiiat we have lost in depth, we have recovered in breadth; and that, for one profoundly learned of the old times, we have ten superficially so in the present. Unfortunately, indeed, literature has of late years become a part of the mode, and has accordingly partaken of its insipidity, its caprice, and its adulterations. There is in fashion a tyrannical insolence, that loves to trample upon nature and the right constitution of things: she insists upon submission, and yet her requisitions are as perverse as they are peremptory. She imposes the same tax upon us all, without considering our inequality of resource, and different measures of ability. If it be the fashion to be learned, learned we must be at all events; and our ingenuity is strained to the top of its bent, to discover succedaneums that my supply, and impositions that may dazzle, till literature becomes a commodity as artificial as dress, and admits of the same mockery of imitation, the same speciousness of ornament, the same coxcombry of character, and the same artifices of deception. When an article becomes the mode, such as have the means, will procure it genuine and perfect; while those who are without them, must resort to some adulteration that retains its resem. blance, or some composition that usurps its appearance.
It seems, perhaps, a solecism; yet in some circumstances I cannot but lament the abundance of our resources, and the fertility of our inventions, which, in respect to learning, have conjured up such impositions and deceptions, and suggested such seducing resemblances, that we are betrayed by our impatience, precipitance, and vanity, into the adoption of this literary chicane, instead of the ingenuouis ambition of real attainments. The effect of these mechanical helps has been very much to multiply the professors of knowledge, without adding many to the number of its faithful votaries; they have stocked its wardrobe with such an inexhaustible diversity of tinselled apparel,
that her badges have lost their customary distinction, and are become as equivocal tests as ribbands and stars.
Besides the operation of this impertinent mixture of fashion, in extending the surface, and contracting the depth of knowledge, it may be made a question, whether some of those inventions on which humanity prides itself the most, may not be in some sort chargeable on a similar ground. I contemplate the art of printing with a pious sost of gratitude, when I consider it as nobly instrumental towards the propagation of truths, which laid claim to universality, and involved the immortal interests of the soul. I regard it with reverence, as the only weapon of power to cope with the spreading usurpations of prejudice and error, which were not to be overcome by partial opposition, or temporary exertions: with the gigantic arms with which this art has furnished us, we have been enabled to grapple with Error in her remotest retreats, and expose her under all her disguisés.
Unhappily, however, the assistance which this art affords us, is of a mercenary nature: indifferent in itself, it obeys whatever impulse and direction are given to it; and, in a certain ratio with our spreading enquiries, delusions and false lights have been unhappily multiplied. When the tones of public reasoning, by being overstretched, grow lax and nerveless, and a wanton spirit of change gets abroad, under pretence of illumination and discovery; when a secret corruption has invaded our stores of accumulated knowledge, and a corroding infidelity is consuming the very core of philosophy; our admiration is turned to regret, in contemplating this mighty engine of intellectual rule, in the hands of a natural foe, disposed to use it to our destruction, and leave us nothing but the monuments of faded vigour and lost perfection.
But there are other circumstances in the tendency of this noble invention, which are but too favourable to false learning. The mul
tiplication of books on every subject, has occasioned to some à per· plexity of choice in the destination of their views, that has long suspended their application; and to others, an uncontroulable passion for reading, that intrenches upon the time that belongs to reflection, and harrasses the mind in a perpetual chase, by starting at each minute fresh objects of pursuit. The character of a book-purchaser, known in ancient times, and so common in our own, seems to spread with the increase of this literary merchandise. A good library is now a part of every gentleman's establishment; and if the learning of a wealthy man be but elegantly bound, no matter in how small a compass, or how great a waste of margin. It is a common thing for a modern scholar to found his fame on the arrangement of his library ; tender, the meanwhile, of its repose, and viewing it with a sort of platonic love, that suffers no thoughts of actual fruition to break the serenity of his contemplations; while others, with a passion for distinction, without an idea of difference, rest their claims to literary eminence on their painful acquisition of scarce editions, of which their admiration is as groundless as that with which children preferą farthing with a hole in the middle, to one that has no such pretensions to notice.
I do not love to let myself loose in unqualified censure; and yet I cannot in this place help feeling a temptation to declare, that, in the long course of my observation of human nature, I have never discovered much real knowledge in your indefatigable book-collectors; and am often put in mind, when I am led in triumph to their libraries, which I am to consider as bearing testimony to their learning, of our common friend Mr. Patence, who, in a note to his advertisement, in which the afHicted are more particularly instructed how to find out his house, tells us, “ that his abilities are to be known by the blue lamps at his door.”
Lucian is very pleasantly severe upon the illiterate book-hunter, and enforces a sensible strain of ridicule with this story among others. “A man of respectable quality, whose name was Evangelus, had “ conceived a mighty rage for gaining a victory at the Pythian Games. “ As his personal deficiencies precluded all excellence in running or « wrestling, he bethought himself of his skill in playing on the harp, “ which had been so magnified by some treacherous flatterers, that * he resolved to try the success of this fancied accomplishment. To " Delphi then he came in great splendour, with a crown of laurel “ ornamented with gold and emeralds. Nothing could exceed the “ beauty and richness of his harp, which was decorated with jewels " and gems of great costliness, and on which the figures of Apollo, “ Orpheus, and the Muses, were admirably sculptured. When the « day of celebration arrived, three candidates presented themselves; ." but Evangelus drew upon himself the admiration of all the speca “ tators, arrayed as he was in a purple robe, and shining all over, « with diamonds of the finest lustre.' Thespis, the Theban, came « first into the lists, and exhibited no inconsiderable talent; but he “ could hardly prevent the impatience of his auditors from breaking « forth, so great were their expectations of the skill of Evangelus. “ At length the Theban harper finished; and now stepped forth, “ with a countenance betraying a confident security, the favourite of “ the public: a respectful silence prevailed, expectation had charmed
every tongue, and every man was preparing himself to feel sen“ sations he had never proved before ; when, after a variety of flou“ rishes and gestures on the part of the performer, a wretched un“ musical strain assaulted their ears, accompanied with the snapping “ of the chords, which were not able to sustain the rudeness of his 66 blows. The surprise of the assembly held then for some time in “ this silence, so flattering to the deluded Evangelus; tiil at length “ the performance became so intolerable, that the judges, enraged “ with their disappointment, and conceiving themselves in a manner “ insulted, ordered him to be turned out of the theatre, and well dis
ciplined for his ignorant assurance. As soon as he was dismissed, “ an Elean, whose name was Eumelus, came modestly forward, whose “ whole appointment was scarcely worth ten drachmas : bis harp . was old and crazy, and furnished with wooden pegs. The man's
appearance, however, was presently forgotten when he began to
sing and play, both of which he did in a manner so exquisite and t6 masterly, that the most rapturous attention fixed every eye upon 5 him; and while he touched the chords, his air and figure, and his
very instruinent, homely as it was, appeared with infinitely more grace than his opponent was able to assume, with the aid of his
trappings and insignia. As he was returning from the theatre, “ with his crown of victory on his head, he met Evangelus, and thus « accosted him-Friend, you have now had an opportunity of learn*ing, that the union of folly and splendour draws aggravated ridicule
upon both; aad that where we find it yoked with arrogance and pomposity, we cannot even pity the miscarriages of ignorance.”
I have no intention, any more than my friend Lucian, to hold to ridicule those hunters after books and editions, in whom this curiosity is built on a certain patriotism in literature, and that delicacy of selection which true taste inspires. I have only in my thoughts a set of characters who contemplate the sacred walks of the academy as a market or fair, where, in pedlar fashion, they have only to bustle among rows of book-stalls, and purchase learning on the true mercantile principle of buying that only which may be sold to advantage again. I am told, that many of our adepts in this species of traffic, introduce some speculation into the commerce of books, and will buy an author very much out of condition, to get him up in order, against a good time for sale; and that oftentimes, an old stager that has been hacked through a public school, will, under proper manageinent, come out in the spring with an entire new coat, and so judiciously hogged and cropped, that, except you opened his mouth, you might imagine him in the full prime and mettle of his years.
But this diffusion of literary property waich printing has produced, is not only chargeable with this nominal learning to which it has given an injurious kind of credit among us; but we may lay to its account also a tendency to draw out our ancient weight of metal into flimsy wire, or to flatten its substance into tawdry plates, to cover over a larger surface indeed, but to impose a fictitious worth on the simple and the vulgar. There is little doubt but that the practice of transcribing, on which the ancients were forced froin the scarcity of books, was calculated to impress them deeply with the subjects on which they were engaged, and opposed a salutary barrier to that roving inconstancy of pursuit, which, acting on the mind with opposite impulses, suspends it in a floating medium of broken particulars. The continuity of thought, and perseverance of application, enforced by these difficulties and restraints, had a direct tendency to give to the ancients that mastery over the subjects about which they were conversant, that power of assimilation, that unperishing tenure, that unalienable property, which mightily manifests itself in the vigour and simplicity of their details, and the masculine touches of bold originality with which they abound.
The same literary wants, in which, on a superficial view, we seem to see so much to lament, threw them upon the frequent necessity of
oral instruction and learned communications; a circumstance of twofold advantage, calculated at once, by a reflective force, to infix in the mind of the speaker his own acquisitions, and to press conviction on the hearer, by the weight of present authority. Since the æra of printing, it seems as if a flood of learning has been progressively spreading over the human mind, checking its wholesome productions, and nourishing the growth of a worthless vegetation ; but in the simpler ages of antiquity, it dropped from the mouth at intervals in gentle showers, fertilising wherever it fell, sinking deep into the pores of the soil, and rising again in genial juices and vegetable life.
It is not unpleasant to remark, as this supposititious learning diffuses itself, the manner in which it operates upon the new provinces of life on which it encroaches; how soon it accommodates itself to a new range of subjects, elevates the low, amplifies the little, and decorates the vulgar. There is now no occupation so mean, into which it has not found its way, and whose consequence it has not raised, from the maker of geometrical breeches, to the mere manufacturer of manuscript sermons. We all begin to exalt our tones and pretensions, and adopt a prouder language. Mr. Powell, the fire-eater, is a singular genius; and Mendoza bas more science than Johnson. I have heard of hieroglyphical buckles; so that our very shoes will want decyphering, and the Coptic language must soon make part of the education of our Birmingham buckle-makers. Alphabetical buckles are become common; insomuch that, in teaching ourselves to talk with our fingers, we may begin with learning to spell with our toes. Our wigs are made upon principles, which used to be made upon blocks. Our chimneys are cured of smoking by professors; and a dancing-master engages to teach you the Nine Orders of the Graces, and, if you take forty lessons, will throw you in an eleemosynary hornpipe. Our servants are beginning, as my correspondent tells me, to read behind our carriages ; and the Bond-street lounger, with his breeches cut by a problem, has as much of the laná guage at least of learning, as any servitor in black logics at Oxford
This wide spirit of accommodation, so characteristic of moderni learning, has opened ways to the attainment of literary honours that were barred for ages before. There is scarcely a mind in which nature has drawn its line of demarcation between the rational and the brute; scarcely a creature that walks erect and inhales the breeze, but may find some employment in the provinces of literature level to its powers.
If f you cannot compose, you may scrape together; if you cannot build sentiment, you may rake anecdote; if you cannot write a poem, you may sew together an opera; if you cannot write your name, you may edit a horn-book with historical engravings.