« AnteriorContinuar »
skipping; a circumstance which strikes us as pecu arly strange, when we consider how long Mr. Courtenay was at the India Board, and how many thousand par. agraphs of the copious official eloquence of the East le must have perused.
One of Sir William's pieces, however, deserves notice, not, indeed, on account of its intrinsic merit, but on account of the light which it throws on some curious weaknesses of his character, and on account of the extraordinary effects which it produced in the republic of letters. A most idle and contemptible controversy had arisen in France touching the comparative merit of the ancient and modern writers. It was certainly not to be expected that, in that
question would be tried according to those large and philo sophical principles of criticism which guided the judg ments of Lessing and of Herder. But it might have been expected that those who undertook to decide the point would at least take the trouble to read and understand the authors on whose merits they were to pronounce. Now it is no exaggeration to say that, among the disputants who clamoured, some for the ancients and some for the moderns, very few were decently acquainted with either ancient or modern literature, and hardly one was well acquainted with both. In Racine's amusing preface to the Iphigénie the reader may find noticed a most ridiculous mistake into which one of the champions of the moderns fell about a pas sage in the Alcestis of Euripides. Another writer is 80 inconceivably ignorant as to blame Homer for mismg the four Greek dialects, Doric, Ionic, Æolic, and Attic, just, says he, as if a French poet were to put Gascon phrases and Picard phrases into the midst of bis pure Parisian writing. On the other hand, it is no exaggeration to say that the defenders of the ancients were entirely unacquainted with the greatest productions of later times; nor, indeed, were the defenders of the moderns better informed. The parallels which were instituted in the course of this dispute are inexpressibly ridiculous. Balzac was selected as the rival of Cicero. Corneille was said to unite the merits of Æschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. We should I ke to see a Prometheus after Corneille's fashion. The Provincial Letters, masterpieces undoubtedly of reasoning, wit, and eloquence, were pronounced to be superior to all the writings of Plato, Cicero, and Lucian together, particularly in the art of dialogue, an art in which, as it happens, Plato far excelled all men, and in which Pascal, great and admirable in other respects, is notoriously very deficient.
This childish controversy spread to England ; and some mischievous dæmon suggested to Temple the thought of undertaking the defence of the ancients. As to his qualifications for the task, it is sufficient to say, that he knew not a word of Greek. But his vanity which, when he was engaged in the conflicts of active life and surrounded by rivals, had been kept in tolerable order by his discretion, now, when he had long lived in seclusion, and had become accustomed to regard himself as by far the first man of his circle, rendered him blind to his own deficiencies. In an evil hour he published an Essay on Ancient and Modern Learning. The style of this treatise is very good, the matter ludicrous and contemptible to the last degree. There we read how Lycurgus travelled into India, and brought the Spartan laws from that country; how Orpheus made voyages in search of knowledge, and attained to a depth of learning which has made him
renowned in all succeeding ages; how Pythagoras passed twenty-two years in Egypt, and, after graduating there, spent twelve years more at Babylon, where the Magi admitted him ad eundem ; how the ancient Brahmins lived two hundred years ; how the earliest Greek philosophers foretold earthquakes and plagues, and put down riots by magic; and how much Ninus surpassed in abilities any of his successors on the throne of Assyria. The moderns, Sir William owns, have found out the circulation of the blood; but, on the other hand, they have quite lost the art of conjuring; nor can any modern fiddler enchant fishes, fowls, and serpents, by his performance. He tells us that “Thales, Pythagoras, Democritus, Hippocrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Epicurus made greater progresses in the several empires of science than any of their successors have since been able to reach ;" which is just as absurd as if he had said that the greatest names in British science are Merlin, Michael Scott, Dr. Sydenham, and Lord Bacon. Indeed, the manner in which Temple mixes the historical and the fabulous reminds us of those classical dictionaries, intended for the use of schools, in which Narcissus the lover of himself and Narcissus the freedman of Claudius, Pollux the son of Jupiter and Leda and Pollux the author of the Onomasticon, are ranged under the same headings, and treated as personages equally real. The effect of this arrangement resembles that which would be produced by a dictionary of modern names, consisting of such art cles as the following:— "Jones, William, an eminent Orientalist, and one of the Judges of the Supreme Court of Judirature in Bengal - Davy, a fiend, who destroys ships -- Thomas, a foundling, brought up by Mr. Allworthy.” It is from such sources as these that Temple seems to have learned all that he knew about the ancients. He puts the story of Orpheus between the Olympic games and the battle of Arbela ; as if we had exactly the same reasons for believing that Orpheus led beasts with his lyre, which we have for believing that there were races at Pisa, or that Alexander conquered Darius.
He manages little better when he comes to the moderns. He gives us a catalogue of those whom he regards as the greatest writers of later times. It is sufficient to say that, in his list of Italians, he has omitted Dante, Petrarch, Ariosto, and Tasso ; in his list of Spaniards, Lope and Calderon; in his list of French, Pascal, Bossuet, Molière, Corneille, Racine, and Boileau; and in his list of English, Chaucer, Spenser, Shakspeare, and Milton.
In the midst of all this vast mass of absurdity one paragraph stands out preeminent. The doctrine of Temple, not a very comfortable doctrine, is that the human race is constantly degenerating, and that the oldest books in every kind are the best. In confirmation of this notion, he remarks that the Fables of Æsop are the best Fables, and the letters of Phalaris the best Letters in the world. On the merit of the Letters of Phalaris he dwells with great warmth and with extraordinary felicity of language. Indeed we could hardly select a more favourable specimen of the graceful and easy majesty to which his style sometimes rises than this unlucky passage. He knows, he says, that some learned men, or men who pass for learned, such as Politian, have doubted the genuineness of these letters: out of such doubts he speaks with the greatest contempt. Now it is perfectly certain, first, that the etters are very bad ; secondly, that they are spurious ; and thirdly, that, whether they be bad or good, spu. rious or genuine, Temple could know nothing of the matter; inasmuch as he was no more able to construe a line of them than to decipher an Egyptian obelisk.
This Essay, silly as it is, was exceedingly well 10ceived, both in England and on the Continent. And the reason is evident. The classical scholars who saw its absurdity were generally on the side of the ancients, and were inclined rather to veil than to expose the blunders of an ally; the champions of the moderns were generally as ignorant as Temple himself; and the multitude was charmed by his flowing and melodious diction. He was doomed, however, to smart, as he well deserved, for his vanity and folly.
Christchurch at Oxford was then widely and justly celebrated as a place where the lighter parts of classical learning were cultivated with success. With the deeper mysteries of philology neither the instructors nor the pupils had the smallest acquaintance. They fancied themselves Scaligers, as Bentley scornfully said, if they could write a copy of Latin verses with only two or three small faults. From this College proceeded a new edition of the Letters of Phalaris, which were rare, and had been in request since the appearance of Temple's Essay. The nominal editor was Charles Boyle, a young man of noble family and promising parts; but some older members of the society lent their assistance. While this work was in preparation, an idle quarrel, occasioned, it should seem, by the neg.igence and misrepresentations of a bookseller, arose between Boyle and the King's Librarian, Richard Bentley. Boyle, in the preface to his edition, inserteil a bitter reflection on Bentley Bentley revenged him