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Dk! mollified the ferocious tendencies of our nature. The temporary disappearance therefore of literature and politeness, upon the first shock of this mighty collision, was but the subsidence of the sacred flame under the heaps of fuel which were thus profusely prorided for its increase; and the seeming waste and sterility that ensued, was but the fi;=t aspect of the fertilizing flood and accumulated manure under which vegetation was buried for a while, that it might break out at last \v ith a richer and more indestructible luxuriance. The human intellect was neither dead nor inactive, she contends, during that 1о;щ slumber, in which it was collecting vigour for unprecedented exertions; and the occupations to which it was devoted, though not of the most brilliant or attractive description, were perhaps the best fitted for its ultimate and substantial improvement. The subtle distinctions, the refined casuistry, and ingenious logic of the school divines, were all favourable to habits of careful and accurate thinking; and led insensibly to a far more thorough and profound knowledge of human nature—the limits of its faculties and the grounds of its duties—than had been attained by the more careless inquirers of antiquity. When men, therefore, began again to reason upon human affairs, they were found to have made an immense progress during the period when all appeared to be either retrograde or stationary; and Shakspeare, Bacon, Machiavel, Montaigne, and Galileo, who appeared almost at the same time, in the most distant countries of Europe, each displayed a reach of thought and a power of reasoning which we should look for in vain in the eloquent disgertaions of the classical ages. To them succeeded such men as Jeremy Taylor, Molière, Pascal, Locke, and La Bruyère—all of them observers of a character, to which there is nothing at all parallel in antiquity; and yet only preparing the way, in the succeedinu age, for Montesquieu, Hume, Voltaire. Smith, Burke, Bentham, Malthus, and so many others; who have made the world familiar with truths, which, however important and demonstrable at all times, certainly never entered into the conception of the earlier inhabitants of the world. Those truths, and other« still more important, of which they are destined to be the parents, have already, according to Madame de Staël, produced a prodigious alteration, and an incalculable improvement on the condition of human nature. Through their influence, assisted no doubt by that of the Gospel, slavery has been abolished, trade and industry set free from restriction, ami war disarmed of half its horrors; while, in private life, women have been restored to their just rank in society; sentiments of justice and humanity have been universally cultivated, and public opinion been armed with a power which renders every other both safe and salutary.
Many of these truths, which were once the doubtful or derided discoveries of men of original genius, are now admitted as elementar/principies in the reasonings of ordinary
people; and are every day extending their empire, and multiplying their progeny. Ma. dame de Staël sees no reason to doubt, therefore, that they will one day inherit the whole earth; and, under their reign, she takes it to be clear, that war, and poverty, and all the misery that arises from vice and ignorance, will disappear from the face of society; and that men, universally convinced that justice and benevolence are the true sources of enjoyment, will seek their own happiness in a constant endeavour to promote that of Iheir neighbours.
It would be very agreeable to believe all this—in spite of the grudging which would necessarily arise, from the reflection that we ourselves were born so much too soon for virtue and enjoyment in this world. But it is really impossible to overlook the manifold imperfections of the reasoning on which this splendid anticipation is founded ;—though it may be worth while to ascertain, if possible, in what degree it is founded in truth.
The first thing that occurs to a sober-minded listener to this dream of perfectibility, is the extreme narrowness of the induction from which these sweeping conclusions are so confidently deduced. A progress that is in its own nature infinite and irresistible, must necessarily have been both universal and unremitting; and yet the evidence of its existence is founded, if we do not deceive ourselves, upon the history of a very small portion of the human race, for a very small number of generations. The proposition is, that the human species is advancing, and has always been advancing, to a state of perfection, by a law of their nature, of the existence ot which their past history and present state leave no room to doubt. But wnen we cast a glance upon this high destined species, we find this necessary and eternal progress scarcely begun, even now, in the old inhabited continent of Africa—stationary, as far back as our information reaches, in China— and retrograde, for a period of at least twelve centuries, and up to mis day, in Egypt, India, Persia, and Greece. Even in our own Europe, which contains probably less than one tenth part of our kind, it is admitted, that, for upwards of a thousand years, this gre..i work of moral nature not only stood still, but went visibly backwards, over its fairest regions; and thouirh there has been a prodigious progress in England and France and Germany during the last two hundred years, it may be doubted whether any thing of this sort can be said of Spain or Italy; or various other portions, even of this favoured quarter of the world. It may be very natural for Madame de Staël, or for us, looknig only to what has happened in our own world, and in our own times, to indulge in those dazzling views of the unbounded and universal improvement of the whole human race; but such speculations would appear rather wild, we suspect, to those whose lot it is to philosophize among the unchanging nations of Asia; and would probably carry even something of ridicule with them, if propounded upon the ruins of Thebes or Babylon, or even among the profaned relics of Athens or Rome.
We are not inclined, however, to push this very far. The world is certainly something (he wiser for its past experience ;—and there is an accumulation of useful knowledge, which we think likely to increase. The invention of printing and fire-arms, and the perfect communication that is established over all Europe, insures us, we think, against any considerable falling back in respect of the sciences; or the arts and attainments that minister to the conveniences of ordinary life. We have no idea that any of the important discoveries of modem times will ever again be lost or forgotten; or that any future generation will be put to the trouble of inventing, for a second time, the art of making gunpowder or telescopes—the astronomy of Newton, or the mechanics of Watt. All knowledge which admits of demonstration will advance, we have no doubt, and extend itself; and all processes will be improved, that do not interfere with the passions of human nature, or the apparent interests of its ruling classes. But with regard to every thing depending on probable reasoning, or susceptible of debate, and especially with regard to every thing touching morality and enjoyment, we really are not sanguine enough to reckon on any considerable improvement; and suspect that men will go on blundering in speculation, and transgressing in practice, pretty nearly as they do at present, to the latest period of their history.
In the nature of things, indeed, there can be no end to disputes upon probable, or what is called moral evidence; nor to the contradictory conduct and consequent hostility and oppression, which must result from the opposite views that are taken of such subjects :— and this, partly, because the elements that enter into the calculation are so vast and numerous, that many of Ihe most material must always be overlooked by persons of ordinary talent and information; and partly because there not only is no standard by which the value of those elements can be ascertained and made manifest, but that they actually have a different value for almost every different individual. With regard to all nice, and indeed all debateable questions of happiness or morals, therefore, there never can be any agreement among men; because, in reility, there is no truth in which they can agree. All questions, of this kind turn upon a comparison of the opposite advantages and disadvaritaaes of any particuliar course of conduct or habit of mind: but these are really of very different magnitude and importance to different persons; and their decision, therefore, even if they all saw the whole consequences, or even the same set of consequences, must be irreconcileably diverse. If the matter in deliberation, for example, be, whether it is better to live without toil or exertion, but, at the same time, without wealth or glory, or to venture for both upon a scene of labour and hazard—it is easy to see, that the determination which would be wise and
expedient for one individual, might be just the reverse for another. Ease and obscurity are the summum öonum of one description ol men; while others have an irresistible vocation to strenuous enterprise, and a positive delight in contention and danger. Nor is the magnitude of our virtues and vices referable to a more invariable standard. Intemperance is less a vice in the robust, and dishonesty less foolish in those who care but little for the scorn of society. Some men find their chief happiness in relieving sorrow—some iii sympathizing with mirth. Some, again, derive most of their enjoyment from the exercise of their reasoning faculties—others from that of their imagination ;—while a third sort attend to little but the gratification of their senses, and a fourth to that of their vanity. One delights in crowds, and another in solitude ;—one thinks of nothing but glory, and another of comfort ;—and so on, through all the infinite variety, and infinite combinations, of human tastes, temperaments, and habits. Now, it is plain, that each of those persons not only will, but plainly ought to pursue a different road to the common object of happiness; and that they must clash and consequently often jostle with each other, even if each were fully aware of the peculiarity of his own notions, and of the consequences of all that he did in obedience to then- impulses. It is altogether impossible, therefore, we humbly conceive, that men should ever settle the point as to what is, on the whole, the wisest course of conduct, or the best disposition of mind; or consequently take even the first step towards that perfection of moral science, or that cordial concert and co-operation in their common pursuit of happinesSj which is the only alternative to their fata] opposition.
This impossibility will become more apparent when it is considered, that the only instrument by which it is pretended that this moral perfection is to be attained, is euch a general illumination of the intellect as to make all men fully aware of the consequences of their actions; while the fact is, that it is not, in general, through ignorance of their consequences, that actions producing misery are actually performed. When the misery is inflicted upon others, the actors most frequently disregard it, upon a fair enough comparison of its amount with the pain they should inflict on themselves by forbearance; and even when it falls on their own heads, they will generally be found rather to have been unlucky in the game, than to have been truly unacquainted with its hazards; and to have I ventured with as full a knowledge of the risks, as the fortunes of others can ever impress on the enterprizing. There are many men, it should always be recollected, to whom j the happiness of others gives very little satis'• faction, and their sufferings very little pain, '—and who would rather eat a luxurious meal by themselves, than scatter plenty and gratitude over twenty famishing cottages. No enlightening of the understanding will make , such men the instruments of general happinets: and wherever there is a competition— wherever the question is stirred as to whose claims shall be renounced or asserted, we are all suci» men, we fear, in a greater or a less decree. There are others, again, who presume upon their own good fortune^ with a decree of confidence that no exposition of the chaaces of failure can ever repress; and in all ca¿es where failure is possible, there must be a risk of suffering from its occurrence, however prudent the venture might have appeared . These, however, are the chief sources uf all the unhappiness which results from the conduct of man ;—and they are sources which we do not see that the improved intellect, or added experience of the species, is likely to close or diminish.
Take the ease, for example, of War — by lar the most prolific and extensive pest of the human race, whether we consider the suffering:* it inflicts, or the happiness it prevents— and see whether it is likely to be arrested by the progress of intelligence and civilization. In the first place, it is manifest, that instead of becoming less frequent or destructive, in proportion to the rapidity of that progress, our European wars have, in point of fact, been incomparably more constant, and more sanguinary, since Europe became signally enl.L'htened and humanized—and that they have uniformly been most obstinate and most popular, in its most polished countries. The brutish Laplanders, and bigoted and profligate Italians, have had long intervals of repose; but France and England are now pretty regularly at war, for about fourscore years out of every century. In the second place, the lovers a'nd conductors of war are by no means the most ferocious or stupid of their species —but for the most part the very contrary ;— ami iheir delight in it, notwithstanding their compassion for human suffering, and their complete knowledge of its tendency to produce suffering, seems to us sufficient almost of itself to discredit the confident prediction of those who assure us, that when men have iUained to a certain degree of intelligence, war must necessarily cease among all the nations of the earth. There can be no better illustration indeed, than this, of the utter futility of all those dreams of perfectibility; which are founded on a radical ignorance of what it is that constitutes the real enjoyment of human nature, and upon the play of how many principles and opposite stimuli that happiness depends, which, it is absurdly imapned. would be found in the mere negation of suffering, or in a state of Quakerish placuiity. dulness. and uniformity. Men delight ui war. in spite of the pains and miseries which they know it entails upon them and their fellows, because it exercises all the talent», and calls out all the energies of their nature—because it holds them out conspicuously as objects of public sentiment and general sympathy—because it gratifies their pride of art, and gives them a lofty sentiment of their own jx)wer, worth and courage — but principally because it sets the game of existence upon a higher stake, and dispels, by its
powerful interest, those feelings of ennui which steal upon every condition from which hazard and anxiety are excluded, and drive us into danger and suffering as a relief. While human nature continues to be distinguished by those attributes, we do not see any chance of war being superseded by the increase of wisdom and morality.
We should be pretty well advanced in the career of perfectibility, if all the inhabitants of Europe were as intelligent, and upright, and considerate, as Sir John Moore, or Lord Nelson, or Lord Collingwood, or Lord Wellington— but we should not have the less war, we take it, with all its attendant miseries. The more wealth and intelligence, and liberty, there is in a country indeed, the greater love we fear there will always be for war ;—for a gentleman is uniformly a more pugnacious animal than a plebeian, and a free man than a slave. The case is the same, with the minor contentions that agitate civil life, and shed abroad the bitter waters of political animosity, and grow up into the rancours and atrocities of faction and cabal. The leading actors in those scenes are not the lowest or most debased characters in the country—but, almost without exception, of the very opposite description. It would be too romantic to suppose, that the whole population of any country should ever be raised to the level of our Fox and Pitt, Burke, Windham, or Grattan; and yet if that miraculous improvement were to take place, we know that they would be at least as far from agree, ing, as they are at present; and may fairly conclude, that they would contend with far greater warmth and animosity.
For that great class of evils, therefore, which arise from contention, emulation, and diversity of opinion upon points which admit of no demonstrative solution, it is evident that the general increase of intelligence would afford no remedy; and there even seems to be reason for thinking that it would increase their amount. If we turn to the other great source of human suffering, the abuse of po \ve.r and wealth, and the other means of enjoyment, we suspect we shall not find any ground for indulging in more sanguine expt dations. Take the common case of youthful excess and imprudence, for example, in which the evil commonly rests on the head of the transgressor— the injury done to fortune, by thoughtless expense—to health and character, by sensual indulgence, and to the whole felicity of after life, by rash and unsorted marriages. The whole mischief and hazard of such practices, we are persuaded, is just as thoroughly known and understood at présent, as it will be when the world is five thousand years older; and as much pains are now taken to impress the ardent spirits of youth with the belief of those hazards, as can well be taken by the monitors who may discharge that office m the most remote futurity. But I the truth is, that the offenders do not offend ¡ so much in ignorance, as in presumption. They know very well, that men are o/tener mined than enriched at the gaming table; and that love marriages, clapt up under age, are frequently followed by divorces: But they know too, that this is not always the case: and they flatter themselves that their good luck, and good judgment, will class them among the exceptions, and not among the ordinary examples of the rule. They are told well enough, lor the most part, of the excessive folly of acting upon such a presumption, in matters of such importance :—But it is the nature of youth, to despise much of the wisdom that is thus pressed upon them; and to think well of their fortune and sagacity, till they have actually had experience of their slipperiness.' We really have no idea that their future teachers will be able to change this nature: or to destroy the eternal distinction between the character of early and mature life; and therefore it is, that we despair of the cure of the manifold evils that spring from this source; and remain persuaded, that young men will be nearly as foolish, and as incapable of profiting by the experience of their seniors, ten thousand years hence, as they are at this moment.
With regard to the other glittering curses of life—the heartless dissipations—the cruel seductions—the selfish extravagance—the rejection of all interesting occupation or serious affection, which blast the splendid summit of human fortune with perpetual barrenness and discomfort—we can only say, that as they are miseries which now exist almost exclusively among the most polished and intelligent of the species, we do not think it very probable, at least, that they will be eradicated by rendering the species in general more polished and intelligent. They are not occasioned, we think, by ignorance or improper education; but by that eagerness for strong emotion and engrossing occupation, which still proclaim it to be the irreversible destiny of man to earn his bread by the sweat of his brows. It is a fact indeed rather perplexing and humiliating to the advocates of perfectibility, that as soon as a man is delivered from the necessity of subsisting himself, and providing for his family, he generally falls into a state of considerable unhappiness; and if some fortunate anxiety, or necessity for exertion, does not come to his relief, is commonly obliged to seek for a alight and precarious distraction in vicious and unsatisfactory pursuits. It is not for want of knowing that they are unsatisfactory that he persists in them, nor for want of beincr tolil of their folly and criminality:—for moralists and divines have been occupied with little else for the best part of a century; and writers of all descriptions, indeed, have charitably expended a good part of their own ennui in copious directions for the innocent and effectual reduction of that common enemy. In spite of all this, however, the malady has increased with our wealth and refinement; and has brought alons with it the increas0 of all those vices and follies in which its victims still find themselves constrained to seek a temporary relief. The truth is, that military and senatorial glory is neither
within the reach, nor suited to the taste, of
any very great proportion of the sufferers;
and that the cultivation of waste lands, ai.d
the superintendence of tippling-hou.ses ai.d
charity schools, have not always been found
such effectual and delightful remedies as the
inditers of godly romances have sometimes
represented. So that those whom fortune
has cruelly exempted from the necessity of
! doing any thing, have been led very generally
! to do evil of their own accord; and have
¡ fancied that they rather diminished than
| added to the sum of human misery, by en
I gating in intrigues and gaming-clubs. and
establishing coteries for detraction or S'_ i.
Thé real and radical difficulty is to find some laudable pursuit that will pem.am btiv interest—some worthy object that will continue to captivate and engross the faculties: and this, instead of becoming easier in proportion as our intelligence increases, obviously becomes more difficult. It is knowledge mat destroys enthusiasm, and dispels all these prejudices of admiration which people simpler minds with so many idols of enchantment. It is knowledge that distracts by its variety, and satiates by its abundance, ar.d generates, by its communication, that dark and cold spirit cf fastidiousness and derision which revenues on those whom it possesses, the pangs which it inflicts on those ou whom it is exerted. Yet it is to the increase of knowledge and talents alone, that the prophet» of perfectibility look forward for the cure of all our vices and all our nnhappiness!
Even as to intellect, and the pleasures that are to be derived from the exercise of a vigorous understanding-, we doubt greatly whether we ought to look forward • to posterity with any very lively feelings of envy or humiliation. More knowledge they probably 'vi!l have—as we have undoubtedly more knowledge than our ancestors had t\vo hundred years aso; but for vigour of umlcrsîandiinr. or pleasure in the exercise of it, we must beg leave to demur. The more there is already known, the less there remains to be discovered; and the more time a man is obliged to spend in ascertaining what his predecessors have already established, the less he will have to bestow in adding to its amount.— The time, however, is of less consequence; but the habits of mind that are formed by walking patiently, humbly, and passively in the paths that have been traced by others are the very habits that disqualify us I' r vigorous and independent excursions of our own. There is a certain degree of knowledge to be sure, that is but wholesome aliment to the understanding—materials for it to woik upon—or instruments to facilitate its laboure: —but a larger quantity is apt to oppress and encumber it; and as industry, which is excited by the importation of the raw material, may be superseded and extinguished by the introduction of the finished manufacture, so the minds which are stimulate 1 to activity by a certain measure of instruction may, unquestionably, be reduced to a state of pa»яте and languid, acquiescence, by a more profuse and redundant supply.
Madame de Staël, and the other advocates oí her system, talk a great deal of the prodigious advantage of having the results of the laborious discoveries of one generation made matters of familiar and elementary knowledge in another; and for practical utility, it may be во: but nothing, we conceive, can be so completely destructive of all intellectual enterprise, and all force and originality of thinking, as this very process, of the reduction of knowledge to its results, or the multiplication of those summary and accessible pieces of information in which the student is saved the whole trouble of investigation, and put in possession of the prize, without either the toils or the excitement of the contest. This, in the first place, necessarily makes the prize much less a subject of exultation or delight to him; for the chief pleasure is in the chase itself, and not in the object which it pursues; and he who sits at home, and has the dead game brought to the side of his chair, will be very apt, we believe, to regard it as nothing better than an unfragrant vermin. But, in the next place, it does him no good; for he misses altogether the invigorating exercise, and the invaluable training to habits of emulation and sagacity and courage, for the sake of which alone the pursuit is deserving of applause. And, in the last place, he not only fails in this way to acquire the qualities that may enable him to run down knowledge for himself, but necessarily finds himself without taste or inducement for such exertions. He thinks, and in one sense he thinks justly, that if the proper object of study be to acquire knowledge, he can employ his time much more profitably in implicitly listening to the discoveries of others, than in a laborious attempt to discover «nnc'thmg for himself. It is infinitely more fatiguing to think, than to remember; and Incomparably shorter to be led to an object, thin to explore our own way to it. It is inconceivable what an obstruction this furnishes to the original exercise of the understanding in a certain state of information; and how effectually the general diffusion of easily accessible knowledge operates as a bounty 'ipon indolence and mental imbecility.— Where the quantity of approved and collected knowledge is already very great in any country, it is naturally required of all well educated persons to possess a considerable share of it; and where it has also been made very accessible, by being reduced to its summary und ultimate results, an astonishing variety of those abstracts may be sto\ved away in the memory, with scarcely any fatigue or exercise to the other faculties. The whole mass of attainable intelligence, however, must «till be beyond the reach of any individual; and he may go on, therefore, to the end of a long and industrious life, constantly acquiring knowledge in this cheap and expeditious manner. But if. in the course of these pasfire and humble researches, he should be tempted to inquire a little for himself, he
cannot fail to be struck with the prodigious waste of time, and of labour, that is necessary for the attainment of a very inconsiderable portion of original knowledge. His progress is as slow as that of a man who is making a road, compared with that of those who afterwards travel over it; and he feels, that in order to make a very small advance in one department of study, he must consent to sacrifice very great attainments in others. He is disheartened, too, by the extreme insignificance of any thing that he can expect to contribute, when compared with the great store that is already in possession of the public; and is extremely apt to conclude,, that it is not only safer, but more profitable to follow, than to lead; and that it is fortunate for the lovers of wisdom, that our ancestors have accumulated enough of it for our use, as well as for their own.
But while the general diffusion of knowledge tends thus powerfully to repress all original and independent speculation in individuals, it operates still more powerfully in rendering the public indifferent and unjust to their exertions. The treasures they have inherited from their predecessors are so ample, as not only to take away all disposition to labour for their farther increase, but to lead them to undervalue and overlook any little addition that may be made to them by the voluntar)' offerings of individuals. The works of the best models ara perpetually before their eyes, and their accumulated glory in their remembrance: the very variety of the sorts of excellence which are constantly obtruded on their notice, renders excellence itself cheap and vulgar in their estimation. As the mere possessors or judges of such things, they are apt to ascribe to themselves a character of superiority, which renders any moderate performance unworthy of their regard : and their cold and languid familiarity with what is best, ultimately produces no other effect than to render them insensible to its beauties, and at the same time intolerant of all that appears to fall short of it.
In such a condition of society, it is obvious that men must be peculiarly disinclined from indulging in those bold and original speculations, for which their whole training had previously disqualified them; and we appeal to our readers, whether there are not. at this day, apparent symptoms of such a condition of society. A childish love of novelty may indeed give a transient popularity to works of mere amusement; but the age of original genius, and of comprehensive and independent reasoning, seems to be over. Instead of such works as those of Bacon, and Shakspeare, and Taylor, and Hooker, we have Encyclopaedias, and geographical compilations, and county histories, and new editions of black letter authors—and trashy biographies and posthumous letters—and disputations upon prosody—and ravings about orthodoxy and methodism. Men of general information and curiosity seldom think of adding to the knowledge that ¡e already in the world ; and the inferior person« upon whom that task is consequently devolved,