« PreviousContinue »
that score, may be fairly held as compensated oy the voluntary advances of value to a much greater extent, though referring to an earlier period.
But, in truth, there never was any such debt or engagement on the part of Sir James: And the public was, and continues, the only debtor on the transaction, for whatever i t may have received of service or instruction at his hand. We have expressed elsewhere our estimate of the greatness of this debt ; and of the value especially of the Histories he has 'eft behind him. We have, to be sure, since «;en some sneering remarks on the dulness and uselessness of these works: and an attempt made to hold them up to ridicule, under the appellation of Philosophical histories. We are not aware that such a name was ever applied to them by their author or their admirers. But if they really deserve it, we are at a loss to conceive how it should be taken for a name of reproach; and it will scarcely be pretended that their execution is such as to justify its application in the way of derision. We do not perceive, indeed, mat this is pretended; and, strange as it may appear, the objection seems really to be. rather to the kind of writing in general, than to the defects of its execution in this particular instance—the objector having a singular notion that history should consist of narrative only; and that nothing can be so tiresome and useless as any addition of explanation or remark.
We have no longer room to expose, as it deserve», the strange misconceptions of the objects and uses of history, which we humbly conceive to be implied in such an opinion; and shall therefore content ourselves with asking, whether any man really imagines that the modern history of any considerable State, with its complicated system of foreign relations, and the play of its domestic parties, could be written in the manner of Herodotus? —or be made intelligible (much less instructive) by the naked recital of transactions and occurrences'? These, in fact, are but the crude materials from which history should be constructed; the mere alphabet out of which its lessons are afterwards to be spelled. If every reader had indeed the talents of an accomplished Historian,—that knowledge of human nature, that large acquaintance with all collateral facts, and that force of understanding which are implied in such a name—and, at the same time, that leisure and love for the subject which would be necessary for this particular application of such gifts, the mere detail of facts, if full and impartial, might be sufficient for his purposes. But to every other class of readers, we will venture to say, that one half of such a history would be an insoluble enigma; and the other half the source of the most gross misconceptions.
Without some explanation of the views and motives of the prime agents in great transactions—of the origin and state of opposite interests and opinions in large bodies of the people —and of their tendencies respectively to ascendency or decline—what intelligible account could be given of any thing worth knowing
in the history of the world for the last two hundred years'! above all, what useful lessons could be learned, for people or for ruléis, from a mere series of events presented in detail, without any other information as to their causes or consequences, than might be inferred from the sequence in which they appeared? To us it appears that a mere record of the different places of the stars, atid their successive changes of position, would be as good a system of Astronomy, as such a set of annals would be of History ; and that it would be about as reasonable to sneer at Newton and La Place for seeking to supersede the honest old star-gazers, by their philosophical histories of the heavens, as to speak in the same tone, of what Voltaire and Montesquieu and Mackintosh have attempted to do for our lower world. We have named these three, as having attended more peculiarly, and more impartially, than any others, at least in modern times, to this highest part of their duty. But. in truth, all eminent historians have attended to it—from the time of Thucydides downwards;—the ancients putting the necessary explanations more frequently into the shape of imaginary orations—and the moderns into that of remark and dissertation. The very first, perhaps, of Hume's many excellences consists in these philosophical summaries of the reasons and considerations by which he supposes parties to have been actuated in great political movements; which are more completely abstracted from the mere story, and very frequently less careful and complete, than the parallel explanations of Sir James Mackintosh. For, with all his unrivalled sagacity, it is true, as Sir James has himself somewhere remarked, that Hume was too little of an antiquary to be always able to estimate the effect of motives in distant ages; and by referring too confidently to the principles of human nature as developed in our own times, has often represented our ancestors as more reasonable, and much more argumentative, than they really were.
That there may be, and have often been, abuses of this best part of history, is a reason only for valuing more highly what is exempt from such abuses; and those who feel most veneration and gratitude for the lights afforded by a truly philosophical historian, will be sure to look with most aversion on a counterfeit. No one, we suppose, will stand up for the introduction of ignorant conjecture, shallow dogmatism, mawkish morality, or factious injustice into the pages of history—or deny that the shortest and simplest annals are greatly preferable to such a perversion. As to political partiality, however, it is a great mistake to suppose that it could be in any degree excluded by confining history to a mere chronicle of facts—the truth being, that it is chiefly in the statement of facts that this partiality displays itself; and that it is more frequently exposed to detection than assisted, by the arguments and explanations, which are supposed to be its best resources. We shall not resume what we have said in another place as to the merit of the Histories which are now in question ; but we fear not to put this on record, as our deliberate, and we think impartial, judgment—that they are the most candid, the most judicious, and the most pregnant with thought, and moral and political wisdom, of any in which our domestic story has ever yet been recorded.
jiut even if we should discount his Historie*, and his Ethical Dissertation, we should still be of opinion, that Sir James Mackintosh had not died indebted to his country for the usi; he had made of his talents. In the volumes before us, he seems to us to have left them a rich legacy, and given abundant proofs of the industry with which he sought to the last to qualify himself for their instruction,— and the honourable place which his name must ever hold, as the associate and successor of Romilly in the great and humane work of ameliorating our criminal law, might alone suffice to protect him from the imputation of having done less than was required of him, in the course of his unsettled life. But, without dwelling upon the part he took in Parliament, on these and many other important questions both of domestic and foreign policy, we must be permitted to say, that they judge ill of the relative value of men's contributions to the cause of general improvement, who make email account of the influence which one of high reputation for judgment and honesty may exercise, by his mere presence and conversation, in the higher classes of society,—and still more by such occasional publications as he may find leisure to make, in Journals of wide circulation,—like this on which the reader is now looking—we trust with his accustomed indulgence.
It is now admitted, that the mature and enlightened opinion of the public must ultimately rule the country; and we really know no other way in which this opinion can be so effectually matured and enlightened. It is not by every man studying elaborate treatises and systems for himself, that the face of the world is changed, with the change of opinion, and the progress of conviction in those who must ultimately lead it. It is by the mastery which strong minds have over weak, in the daily intercourse of society; and by the gradual and almost imperceptible infusion which such minds are constantly effecting, of Ihe practical results and manageable summaries of their preceding studies, into the minds immediately below them, that this great process is carried on. The first discovery of a great truth, or practical principle, may often require much labour; but when once discovered, it is generally easy not only to convince others of its importance, but to enable them to defend and maintain it, by plain and irrefragable arguments: and this conviction, and this practical knowledge, it will generally be most easy to communicate, when men's minds are excited to inquiry, by the pursuit of some immediate interest, to which such general truths may appear to be subservient. It is at such times that important principles are familiarly started in conversation ; and disquisitions eagerly purd, in societies, where, in more tranquil
periods, they would be listened to with impa tience. It is at such times, too, that the intelligent part of the lower and miuM'anç classes look anxiously through such publications as treat intelligibly ot the subject? •• which their attention is directed ; and are thus led, while seeking only for reasons to justify their previous inclinings, to imbibe principles and digest arguments и hich are impressed on their understandings for ever, arid may fructify in the end to far more important conclusions. It is, no doubt, true, that in this way, the full exposition of the truth will often \x sacrificed for the sake of its temporary application; and it will not un frequently happen that, in order to favour that application, the exposition will not be made with absolute fairness. But still the principle is brought into view; the criterion of true judgment is laid before the public; and the disputes of adverse parties will speedily settle the corree: or debatable rule of its application.
For our own parts we have long been of opinion, that a man of powerful understanding and popular talents, who should, at ?uch a season, devote himself to the task of announcing such principles, and rendering such discussions familiar, in the way and by the means we have mentioned, would probably do more to direct and accelerate the rectification of public opinion upon all practical questions, than by any other use he could possibly make of his faculties. His name, indeed, might not go down to a remote posterity in connection with any work of celebrity; and the greater part even of his contemporaries might be ignorant of the very existence ol their benefactor. But the benefits conferred would not be the less real ; nor the consciousness of conferring them less delightful; nor the gratitude of the judicious less ardent ar.d sincere. So far, then, from regretting thai Sir James Mackintosh did not forego all other occupations, and devote himself exclusive!y to the compilation of the two great woiks he had projected, or from thinking that his cou:.try has been deprived of any services it might otherwise have received from him, by the course which he actually pursued, we tirmly believe that, by constantly maintaining humane and generous opinions, in the most engaging manner and with the greatest possible ability, in the highest and most influencing circles of society,—by acting as the respected adviser of many youths of great promise and ambition, and as the bosom counsellor of many practical statesmen, as well as by the timely publication of many admirable papers, in this and in other Journals, on such branches 01 politics, history, or philosophy as the course of events had rendered peculiarly interestuis or important,—he did far more to erJitblen the public mind in his own day. and to insure its farther improvement in the days that are to follow, than could possibly have been effected by the most successful completion of the works he had undertaken.
Such great works acquire for their author? a deserved reputation with the studious few • and are the treasuries and armorie« from which the actual and future apostles of the truth derive the means of propagating and defending it. But, in order to be so effective, the arms and the treasures must be taken forth from their well-ordered repositories, and disseminated and applied whore they are needed and required. It is by the tongue, at last, and not by the pen, that multitudes, or the individuals composing multitudes, are ever really persuaded or converted,—by conversation and not by harangues—or by such short and occasional writings as come in aid of conversation, and require little more study or continued attention than men capable of conversation are generally willing to bestow. If a man, therefore, who is capable of writing such a book, is also eminently qualified to disseminate and render popular its most important doctrines, by conversation and by such lighter publications, is he to be blamed if, when the times are urgent, he intermits the severer study, and applies himself, with caution and candour, to give an earlier popularity to that which can never be useful till it is truly popular? To us it appears, that he fulfils the higher duty; and that to act otherwise would be to act like a general who should starve his troops on the eve of battle, in order to replenish his magazines for a future campaign—or like a farmer who should cut off the rills from his parching crops, that he may have a fuller reservoir against the possible drought of another year.
But we must cut this short. If we are at all right in the views we have now taken, Sir James Mackintosh must have been wrong in the regret and self-reproach with which he certainly seems to have looked back on the unaccomplished projects of his earlier years: —And we humbly think that he was wrong. He had failed, no doubt, to perform all that ho had once intended, and had been drawn aside from the task he had set himself, by other pursuits. But he had performed things as important, which were not originally intended; and been drawn aside by pursuits not less worthy than those to which he had tasked himself. In blaming himself—not for this idleness, but for this change of occupation— we think he was misled, in part at least, by one very common error—we mean that of thinking, that, because the use he actually made of his intellect was more ac.reeable than that which he had intended to make, it was therefore less meritorious. We need not say. that there cannot be a worse criterion of merit: But tender consciences are apt to fall into such illusions. Another cause of regret may have been a little, though we really think but a little, more substantial. By the course he followed, he probably felt, that his name would be lees illustrious, and his reputation less enduiing, than if he had fairly taken
his place as the author of some finished work of great interest and importance. If he got over the first illusion, however, and took the view we have done of the real utility of his exertions, we cannot believe that this would have weighed very heavily on a mind like Sir James Mackintosh1»; and while wo cannot but regret that his declining years should have been occasionally darkened by these shadows of a self-reproach for which we think there was no real foundation, we trust that he is not to be added to the many instances of men who have embittered their existence by a mistaken sense of the obligation of some rash vow made in early life, for the performance of some laborious and perhaps impracticable task.
Cases of this kind we believe to be more common than is generally imagined. An ambitions young man is dazzled with ihe notion of filling up some blank in the literature of his country, by the execution of a great and important work—reads with a view to it, and allows himself to be referred 1o as engaged in its preparation. By degrees he finds it more irksome than he had expected; and is tempted by other studies, altogether as suitable and less charged with responsibility, into long fits of intermission. Then the very expectation that has been excited by this protracted incubation makes him more ashamed of having done so little, and more dissatisfied with the little he has done! And so his life is passed, in a melancholy alternation of distasteful, and of course unsuccessful attempts; and lone fits of bitter, but really groundless, self-reproach, for not having made those attempts with more energy and perseverance: and at last he dies, —not only without doing what he could not attempt without pain and mortification, but prevented by this imaginary engagement from doing many other things which he could have done with success and alacrity—some one of which it is probable, and all of which it is nearly certain, would have done him more credit, and been of more service to the world, than any constrained and distressful completion he could in any case have given to the other. For our own parts we have already said that we do not think that any man, whatever his gifts and attainments may be. is really bound in duty to leave an excellent Book to posterity; or is liable to any reproach for not having chosen to be an author. But, at all events, we are quite confident that he can be under no obligation to make himself unhappy in trying to make such a book: And that as soon as he finds the endeavour painful and depressing, he will do well, both for himself and for others, to give up the undertaking, and let his talents and sense of duty take a course more likely to promote, both his own enjoyment and their ultimate reputation.
Тнк following brief notices, of three lamented and honoured Friends, certainly were Ec; contributed to the Edinburgh Review: But, as I am not likely ever to appear агат as a; author, I have been tempted to include them in this publication—chiefly, I fear, from a iaa¿ desire, to associate my humble name with those of persons so amiable and distinguished:— But partly also, from an opinion, which has been frequently confirmed to me by those mo?; competent to judge—that, imperfect as these sketches are. they give a truer and more gnptur view of the manners, dispositions, and personal characters of the eminent individual« concerned—than is yet to be found—or now likely to be furnished, from any older quarter.
THE HONOURABLE HENRY ERSKINE.'
Died, at his seat of Ammondell, Linlithgowshire, on the 8th instant, in the seventytirst year of his age, the Honourable Henry Erskine, second son of the late Henry David. Earl of Buchan.
Mr. Erskine was called to the Scottish Bar, of which he was long the brightest ornament, in the year 1768, and wag for several years Dean of the Faculty of Advocates: He was twice appointed Lord Advocate,—in 1782 and in 1806, under the Rockingham and the Grenville administrations. During the years 1806 and 1807 he sat in Parliament for the Dunbar ami Dumfries district of boroughs.
In his long and splendid career a( the bar, Mr. Erskine was distinguished not only by the peculiar brilliancy of his wit, and the gracefulness, ease, and vivacity of his eloquence, but by the slill rarer power of keeping those seducing qualities in perfect subordination to his judgment. By their assistance he could not only make the most repulsive subject agreeable, but the most abstruse easy and intelligible. In his profession, indeed, all his wit was argument; and each of his delightful illustrations a material step in his reasoning. To himself, indeed, it seemed always as it they were recommended rather for their use than their beauty: and unquestionably they often enabled him to state a fine argument, or a nice distinction, нот only in a more striking and pleasing way. but actually with greater precision than could have been attained by the severer forms of reasoning.
In this extraordinary talent, as well as in the charming facility of his eloquence, and the constant radiance of good humour and gaiety which encircled his manner of debate, he had no rival in his own times, and as yet has had
* From the " Endinbureh Courant" Newspaper •f the 16th of October, 1817.
| no successor. That part of eloquence is Dot I mute—that honour in abeyance.
As a politician, he was eminently distinguished lor the two great virlues oí iniiex.t.i! steadiness to his principles, and invariable ; gentleness and urbanity in his manner of asserting them. Such indeed was the habitual sweetness of his temper, and the fascination of his manners, that, though placed by hi* rank and talents in the obnoxious station of a Leader of opposition, at a period when political animosities were carried to a lamentable height, no individual, it is believed, was ever known to speak or to think of him with anything approaching to personal hostility, li return, it may be said, with equal correctness. that, though baffled in some of his pursuits, and not quite handsomely disappointed of some of the honours to which his claim w*f universally admitted, he never allowed the slightest shade of discontent to rest upon a* mind, nor the least drop of bitterness to mingle with his blood. He was so utterly incapable of rancour, that even the rancorous iei: that he ought not to be made its victim.
He possessed, in an eminent degree; dut I deep sense of revealed religion. ar.il ihat leal¡ one attachment to the Presbyterian establishment, which had long been hereditary in h.< family. His habits were always strictly mora' and temperate, and in the latter part of bilife even abstemious. Though the lite «.•' ornament of every society into which he ei.tered, he was always most happy and nx*t 'delightful at home; where the bnoyaotrot his spirit and the kindness of his heart found : all that they required of exercise or enjoy| ment; and though without taste for eipeníivr I pleasures in his own person, he wns ever mo«: i indulgent and munificent lo his children, аг.л a liberal benefactor to all who depended on ha
i (I HUE I til
He finally retired from the exercise of that profession, the highest honours of which he bad at least deserved, about the year 1812, and spent the remainder of his days in domestic retirement, at that beautiful villa which had been formed by his own taste, and in the improvement and adornment of which he found his latest occupation. Passing thus at once from all the bustle and excitement of a public life to a scene of comparative inactivity, he never felt one moment of ennui or dejec
tion; but retained unimpaired, till within a day or two of his death, not only all his intellectual activity and social affections, but, when not under the immediate affliction of a painful and incurable disease, all that gaiety of spirit, and all that playful and kindly sympathy with innocent enjoyment, which made him the idol of the young, and the object of cordial attachment and unenvying admiration to his friends of all ages.
NOTICE AND CHARACTER
Of Mr. Playfair's scientific attainments,— of his proficiency in those studies to which he was peculiarly devoted, we are but slenderly qualified to judge: But, we believe we hazard nothing in saying that he was one of the most learned Mathematicians of his age, and among the first, if not the very first, who introduced the beautiful discoveries ot the later continental geometers to the knowledge of his countrymen; and gave their just value and true place, in the scheme of European knowledge, to those important improvements by which the whole aspect of the abstract sciences has been renovated since the days of our illustrious Newton. If he did not signalise himself by any brilliant or original invention, he must, at least, be allowed ttf have been a most generous and intelligent judge of the achievements of others; as well as the most eloquent expounder of that great and magnificent system of knowledge which has been gradually evolved by the successive labours of so many gifted individuals. He possessed, indeed, in the highest degree, all the characteristics both of a fine and a powerful understanding,—at once penetrating and vigilant,— but more distinguished, perhaps, for the caution and sureness of its march, than for the brilliancy or rapidity of its movements,—and guided and adorned through all its progress, by the most genuine enthusiasm for all that is grand, and the justest taste for all that is beautiful in the Truth or the Intellectual Energy with which he was habitually conversant.
To what account these rare qualities might have been turned, and what more brilliant or lasting fruits they might have produced, if his whole life had been (ledicated to the solitary cultivation of science, it is not for us to conjecture; but it cannot be doubted that they added incalculably to his eminence and utility as a Teacher; both by enabling him to direct his pupils to the most simple and luminous
* Originally printed in an Edinburgh newspaper of August, 1819. A few introductory sentences are now omitted.
methods of inquiry, and to imbue their minde, from the very commencement of the study, with that fine relish for the truths it disclosed, and that high sense of the majesty with which they were invested, that predominated in his own bosom. While he left nothing unexplained or unreduced to its proper place in the system, he took care that they should never be perplexed by petty difficulties, or bewildered in useless details; and formed them betimes to those clear, masculine, and direct methods of investigation, by which, with the least labour, the greatest advances might be accomplished.
Mr. Playfair, however, was not merely a teacher; and has fortunately left behind him a variety of works, from which other generations may be enabled to judge of some of those qualifications which so powerfully recommended and endeared him to his contemporaries. It is. perhaps, to be regretted that so much of his time, and so large a proportion of his publications, should have been devoted to the subjects of the Indian Astronomy, and the Huttonian Theory of the Earth: And though it is impossible to think too highly of the ingenuity, the vigour, and the eloquence of those publications, we are of opinion that a juster estimate of his talent, and a truer picture of his genius and understanding, is to be found in his other writings ;—in the papers, both biographical and scientific, with which he has enriched the Transactions of our Royal Society; his account of Laplace, and other articles which he contributed to the Edinburgh Review,—the Outlines of his Lectures on Natural Philosophy,—and above all, his Introductory Discourse to the Supplement to the Encyclopedia Brittannica, with the final correction of which he was occupied up to the last moments that the progress of his disease allowed him to dedicate to any intellectoal exertion.
With reference to these works, we do not think we are influenced by any national, or other partiality, when we say that he was certainly one ot the best writers of his age;