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THE QUARTERLY JOURNAL
SCIENCE AND THE ARTS.
Art. I. On the Origin and Vicissitudes of Literature,
Science, and Art, and their Influence on the present State of Society : being a Discourse delivered on the opening of the Liverpool Royal Institution, by Wil
LIAM Roscoe, Esq. This Discourse is upon a subject intimately connected with the object of our Journal, and our readers cannot be displeased that we lay before them some extracts from a composition, distinguished by the justness of its views, and by the various erudition with which its accomplished author has adorned and illustrated his arguments and positions. It is not, indeed, to be expected, that much novelty will be found in the discussion of topics, upon which so many writers have displayed their reasoning and learning, and with which so many volumes have been filled. The merit of this performance, when divested of the interest arising from its ornaments and style, consists in having separated from the results of mere conjecture, some conclusions, that may be safely relied on, as furnishing maxims and directions for the progressive improvement of the arts and sciences, and in marking perspicuously the circumstances, that most frequently accompany their prosperity or decay. Unfortunately, some of the causes which have operated from the remotest periods most extensively, and in ways the most evident, to impede the progress, to hasten the decline, or finally to obliterate the vestiges of our Vol. V.
improvements, are little subject to the control of human wise dom, and all experience teaches us, it is more to be expected they should be mitigated in their violence, or at times suspended, than wholly extinguished. Other causes, of a partial nature, and more in the power of governments or individuals to suppress or bring into activity, which are supposed to promote, and which appear at different stages of the history of mankind and in various combinations of social order, to have assisted in the extension of our knowledge, have not always proved so decisive in their effects, as to afford undoubted rules to guide our steps.
The signal success of the people composing some of the Greek republics, in their attempts to perfect the arts and sciences, and the unquestionable proofs they have left of their advancement, have induced many writers to investigate the causes which animated the genius, and excited the energies of that extraordinary race, to reach the excellence they attained. The free nature of their governments, and their public institutions, are supposed to have served as the foundation of this acknowledged eminence; yet to the republics such eminence was not exclusively confined. It may indeed be doubted, if the history of antiquity has transmitted to us materials sufficient to determine with certainty, how far such causes operated to produce the benefits ascribed to them; or to what extent they received assistance from other motives, well known to awaken exertion. The tastes, opinions, prejudices, private habits, and the various relations of individuals in a nation to each other, are not frequently recorded by the historian, and can be but imperfectly collected from works written professedly to instruct us on such points : yet, upon their tendency to encourage or depress the progress of knowledge, must the fate of literature and the sciences much depend. Even at periods not far distant from our own times, and in states of society subject to our personal inspection, how difficult it appears to distinguish the combinations of circumstances and events, which accelerate or retard the march of our improvements, or estimate the real value of schemes and plans, which
have been anxiously matured by wisdom and experience, to rouse or direct the genius of a nation.
Notwithstanding the difficulties in which these questions are involved, some conditions are indisputably established, as requisite under all forms of government, to ensure the prosperity of literature and science. To their developement Mr. Roscoe has directed his attention; and, fortunately, they appear in all respects conducive to the happiness and interests of mankind. We consider this part of his Discourse, and that in which he demonstrates the indissoluble connection of literature and science with the exaltation of our species and the stability of society, to be the most important; and we must refer such readers, as are unwilling to lose the benefit of ingenious suggestions on the origin of the arts in remote antiquity, to the work from which we shall make the extracts.
Mr. Roscoe prefaces this part of his Discourse, from which our extracts are made, with the just remark, that it must be thought extraordinary, that when mankind have once arrived at a high degree of improvement, and by long and unwearied exertions have divested themselves of the shackles of ignorance, they should again be liable to fall into a state of debasement, and to forfeit those acquisitions, which required such an effort of genius and of labour to obtain; and that it might reasonably have been presumed, that when letters and arts had arrived at a certain eminence, they would only have to look ardently forwards towards higher degrees of improvement. Experience, however, affords a perpetual proof, that this is not the condition of our nature; even when knowledge and taste have been interwoven with the very manners and habits of the people, they have, in a short time, been obliterated and lost. If we may trust a very popular opinion, the energies of nature have, from the earliest records of society, been continually declining, and the productions of her later years can stand in no degree of comparison with those of her vigorous youth. Another opinion, in direct opposition to this dispiriting idea, would induce us to believe, “ that the human race is in a regular and progressive course of improvement,
and that every age of the world is more enlightened than that which preceded it; but the experience of past ages does not allow us to conclude, that such progressive improvement is the characteristic of the human race: and we must dismiss the idea that there is, in the human mind, any inherent tendency towards either improvement or deterioration.
“ It has been strongly insisted, that one of the causes which has contributed to the vicissitudes of literature and sciences is, the diversity of climate, and local situation. There are countries, it has been observed by an eminent French writer, where the inhabitants have never received the first rudiments of improvement, and he conceives he can exactly ascertain within what degree of the equator such countries lie; but it requires no very extensive acquaintance with history to discover, that the progress of letters and arts is not restricted by rivers and mountains; and that such is the constitution of man, that in many instances the facility of success deadens the desire of it, and the obstacles which he encounters only serve to give a keener edge to his exertions.
“ Some have supposed that the sciences and arts contain within themselves the principles of their own destruction, and when they have arrived at their highest excellence, they, in the course of human affairs, perish and decay. This effect has been accounted for, by imagining it is occasioned by overstrained refinement, or a desire of excelling those who may
be considered the just standards of taste. But such observations contain little more than the statement of facts, in which we must all agree; but still the question must recur to what cause this decline of liberal studies is to be attributed. It may, with confidence, be asserted, that neither literature nor art hare attained their highest degree of perfection: and the causes of this alteration, therefore, must be sought in some essential changes in the condition and manners of a people, which degrades their dignity, perverts their moral character, corrupts and extinguishes their taste. This is illustrated, by comparing the state of Rome, when the style of Cicero had attained such a degree of excellence, with the period when a
decline in the art of oratory took place, and the change that occurred in Italy, in the beginning of the sixteenth century, when the independent states of that country fell under the dominion of despotic princes, and the free and vigorous mode of composition, that distinguished the revivors of learning, gave way to an affected and enervated manner; till, with their independence, and strength of character, the people lost that truth of feeling, and correctness of taste, which can be permanently established on no other foundation. Having established, that we are to seek for the vicissitudes in the fate of literature and the sciences, in the unceasing operation of moral causes, in the relations of society, and the disposition and propensities of the human mind, we find one of the most important of these relations to be, that by which we are connected with the guvernment under which we live. That the enjoyment of civil liberty is indispensable to the cultivation of literature, is an opinion that has been very generally advanced; and that in a despotic monarchy, where the people are governed as slaves, it is impossible they can aspire to any refinement of taste or reason. But although this sentiment, in various forms, and in various modifications, has been often asserted, this has not deterred others from avowing a contrary opinion, and produce the age of Louis the Fourteenth as as period of high civilization, and distinguished literary excellence. Yet this improvement was not the result of a free government, but the spontaneous growth of a country, which had long been a stranger to political and civil liberty, and which even gloried in its subjection to despotic control.
“ In attempting to decide on these opposing facts and discordant opinions, it may, in the first place, be observed, it is not on the professed, or nominal form of a government, on which its aptitude or inaptitude to the promotion of literature depends. A jealous, or suspicious government, locks up and deadens the energies of the people. All governments derive their support from public opinion; and when any government, whatever its denomination be, is firmly established, it can admit of a degree of liberty in its subjects, which might