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ON THE USE OF LETTERS.
IF actions are to be valued by their utility and not by their splendour, Cadmus by inventing Letters was a greater benefactor to Greece, than Hercules by his twelve labours. Hercules indeed subdued monsters, but Cadmus civilized men. It is from untamed passions, not from wild beasts, that the greatest evils arise to human society. By wisdom, by art, by the united strength of the civil community, men have been enabled to subdue the whole race of lions, bears, and serpents; and what is more, to bind in laws and wholesome regulations, the ferocious violence and dangerous treachery of the human disposition.
The genuine glory, the proper distinction of the human species, arises from the perfection of the mental powers. Courage is apt to be fierce, and strength is often exerted in acts of oppression. But wisdom is the associate of justice: it assists
her to form equal laws, to pursue right measures, to correct power, to protect weakness, and to unite individuals in a common interest, and general welfare. Heroes may kill tyrants, but wisdom and laws prevent tyranny and oppression. The operations of policy far surpass the labours of Hercules, preventing many evils which valour and might cannot even redress. Heroes consider nothing but glory, and hardly regard whether the conquests which raise their fame are beneficial to their country. Unhappy are the people who are governed by valour, not directed by prudence, and not mitigated by the gentle arts.
An ambition to have places in the register of fame, is the Eurystheus, which imposes heroic labours on mankind. The muses excite to action, as well as entertain the hours of repose; and we should honour them for presenting to heroes such a noble recreation, as may prevent them from imitating Hercules in taking up the distaff, when they lay down the club.
To letters alone heroes owe their future existence in the memory of nations. To them the heroes of Marathon, the patriots of Thermopyla owe their immortality. All the wise constitutions of lawgivers, and all the doctrines of sages, had perished, like a dream related, if letters had not preserved them. No hero, who prefers virtue to
pleasure, can be an enemy to the muses. Sardanapalus, and the silken sons of luxury, who have wasted life in inglorious ease, despise the records of action, which bear no honorable testimony to their lives. But true merit, and heroic virtue, should honour the sacred source of lasting fame.
The most important and extensive advantages which mankind enjoy, are chiefly owing to men who have never quitted their closets. To them mankind is indebted for the facility and security of navigation: the invention of the compass has opened to them a new world. The knowledge of the mechanical powers has enabled them to construct such wonderful machines, as perform what the united labours of millions could not accomplish. Agriculture too, the most useful of arts, has received its share of improvements from the same source. Poetry, likewise, is of excellent use to enable the memory to retain with more ease, and to imprint with more energy upon the heart, precepts of virtue, and noble actions. From the little root of a few letters science has spread its branches over all nature, and raised its head to the heavens. Some philosophers have entered so far into the counsels of Divine Wisdom as to explain much of the great operations of nature: the dimension and distances of the
planets, the causes of their revolutions, the path of comets, and the ebb and flow of the tides, are understood and explained.
Can any thing raise the glory of the human species more, than to see a little creature inhabiting a small spot, amidst innumerable worlds, taking a survey of the universe, comprehending its arrangement, and entering into the scheme of that wonderful connection and correspondence of things, so remote, and which it seems the utmost exertion of Omnipotence to have established? What a volume of wisdom,what noble theology, do these discoveries open to us! While some superior understandings have soared to these sublime subjects, other sagacious and diligent minds have enquired into the minutest works of the infinite Artificer: the same care, the same providence, are exerted through the whole; and we should learn from it that to true wisdom, utility and fitness appear perfection, and whatever is beneficial is noble.
But if learned men are to be esteemed for the assistance which they give to active minds in their schemes, they are not less to be valued for their endeavours to give them a right direction, and moderate their too great ardor. The study of history will teach the warrior and legislator, by what means armies have been victorious, and
states have become powerful; and in the private citizen, they will inculcate the love of liberty and order. The writings of sages point out a private path of virtue, and shew that the best empire is self-government, and to subdue our passions, the noblest of conquests.
To these observations it may be objected that the true spirit of heroism acts by a sort of inspiration, wanting neither the experience of history, nor the doctrines of philosophers, that arts and sciences render men effeminate, luxurious and inactive, and that wit and learning are often made subservient to bad purposes. To these objections the reply is obvious.
There are some natures so happily formed, that they hardly want the assistance of a master, and the rules of art, to give them force or grace in all their actions. But these heaven-inspired geniuses are but few. As learning flourishes only where ease, plenty, and mild government subsist, in so rich a soil, and under so soft a climate, the weeds of luxury will spring up among the flowers of art; but the spontaneous weeds would grow more rank, if they were allowed the undisturbed possession of the field. Letters keep a frugal temperate nation from growing ferocious, and a rich one from becoming entirely sensual and debauched.