Page images

would, indeed, be an unworthy homage to truths, which we profess to venerate, to suppose, that adoration can be paid to them only while we are ignorant of their nature; and that to approach their altars would be to discover, that the majestic forms, which seem animated at a distance, are only lifeless idols, as insensible as the incense which we have offered to them.

The study of the powers and limits of the understanding, and of the sources of evidence in external nature and ourselves, instead of either forming or favouring a tendency to scepticism, is then, it appears, the surest, or rather the only mode, of removing the danger of such a tendency. That mind may soon doubt even of the most important truths, which has never learned to distinguish the doubtful from the true. But to know well the irresistible evidence on which truth is founded, is to believe in it, and to believe in it for


Nor is it from the danger of scepticism only, that a just view of the principles of his intellectual constitution tends to preserve the philosophic inquirer. It saves him, also, from that presumptuous and haughty dogmatism, which, though free from doubt, is not, therefore, necessarily free from error; and which is, indeed, much more likely to be fixed in error than in truth, where the inquiry, that precedes conviction, has been casual and incomplete. A just view of our nature as intelligent beings, at the same time that it teaches us enough of our strength to allow us to rest with confidence on the great principles, physical, moral, and religious, in which alone it is of importance for us to confide, teaches us also enough of our weakness, to render us indulgent to the weakness of others. We cease to be astonished that multitudes should differ from us; because we know well, that while nature has made a provision for the universal assent of mankind to those fundamental physical truths, which are essential to their very existence, and those fundamental truths of another kind, which are equally essential to their existence as subjects of moral government, she has left them, together with principles of improvement that ensure their intellectual progress, a susceptibility of error, without which there could be no progression; and while we almost trace back the circumstances which have modified our own individual belief, we cannot but be aware, at the same time, how many sources there are of prejudice, and, consequently, of difference of opinion, in the various situations in which the multitudes, that differ from us, have been placed. To feel anger at human error, says an ancient philosopher, is the same thing as if we were to be angry with those who stumble in the dark, with the deaf for not obeying our command,-with the sick,-with the aged,-with the weary. That very dulness of discernment, which excites at once our wonder and our wrath, is but a part of the general frailty of mortality; and the love of our errors is not less inherent in our constitution than error itself. It is this general constitution which is to be studied by us, that we may know with what mistakes and weaknesses we must have to deal, when we have to deal with our fellowmen; and the true art, therefore, of learning to forgive individuals, is to learn first how much we have to forgive to the whole human race. "Illud potius cogitabis, non esse irascendum erroribus. Quid enim, si quis irascatur in tenebris parum vestigia certa ponentibus? Quid si quis surdis, imperia non exaudientibus? Quid si pueris, quod neglecto dispectu officiorum, ad lusus et ineptos æqualium jocos spectent? Quid si illis irasci velis, qui ægrotant, senescunt, fatigantur? Inter cætera mortalitatis incommoda et hæc est, caligo

mentium: nec tantum necessitas errandi, sed errorum amor. Ne singulis irascaris, universis ignoscendum : generi humano venia tribuenda est."*

How much of the fury of the persecuting spirit of darker ages would have been softened and turned into moderation, by juster views of the nature of man, and of all the circumstances on which belief depends! It appears to us so very easy to believe what we consider as true,-or, rather, it appears to us so impossible to disbelieve it, that, if we judge from our own momentary feelings only, without any knowledge of the general nature of belief, and of all the principles in our mental constitution by which it is diversified, we very naturally look on the dissent of others as a sort of wilful and obstinate contrariety, and as an insulting denial of a right of approbation, which we consider ourselves, in these circumstances, as very justly entitled to claim. The transition from this supposed culpability to the associated ideas of pains and penalties, is a very natural one; and there is, therefore, a sufficient fund of persecution in mere ignorance, though the spirit of it were not, as it usually is, aggravated by degrading notions of the divine Being, and false impressions of religious duty. Very different are the sentiments which the science of mind produces and cherishes. It makes us tolerant, not merely by showing the absurdity of endeavouring to overcome, by punishment, a belief which does not depend on suffering; but which may remain, and even gather additional strength, in imprisonment, in exile, under the axe, and at the stake. The absurdity of every attempt of this kind it shows indeed; but it makes us feel, still more intimately, that injustice of it, which is worse than absurdity, -by showing our common nature, in all the principles of truth and error, with those whom we would oppress; all having faculties that may lead to truth, and tendencies of various kinds which may mislead to error, and the mere accidental and temporary difference of power being, if not the greatest, at least the most obvious circumstance, which, in all ages, has distinguished the persecutor from the persecuted.

Let not this weak, unknowing hand,
Presume thy bolts to throw;

Or deal damnation round the land,
On all I judge thy foe!

If I am right, thy grace impart,
Still in the right to stay;

If I am wrong,-O, teach my heart
To find the better way.t

Such is the language of devout philosophy. No proud assertion of individual infallibility,-no triumph over the consequences in others, of a fallible nature, which ourselves partake in common,-but the expression of feelings more suited to earthly weakness, of a modest joy of belief, which is not less delightful for the humility that tempers it; and of a modest sorrow for the seeming errors of others, to which the consciousness of our own nature gives a sympathy of warmer interest. The more important the subject of difference, the greater, not the less, will be the indulgence of him who has learned to trace the source of human error,-of error, that has its origin not in our weakness and imperfection merely, but often in the most virtuous affections of the heart,-in that respect for age, and admiration of virtue, and gratitude

*Seneca, de Ira, lib. ii. cap. 9.

+ Pope's Universal Prayer, v. 25-32.

for kindness received, which make the opinions of those whom we love and honour seem to us, in our early years, as little questionable, as the virtues which we love to contemplate, or the very kindness which we feel at every moment beaming on our heart, in the tender protection that surrounds us. That the subjects on which we may differ from others, are important to happiness, of course implies, that it is no slight misfortune to have erred; and that the mere error, therefore, must be already too great an evil to require any addition from our individual contempt or indignation, far less from the vengeance of public authority,-that may be right, in the opinions which it conceives to be insulted by partial dissent; but which must be wrong, in the means which it takes to avenge them. To be sincerely thankful for truths received, is, by the very nature of the feeling, to be sensible how great a blessing those have lost who are deprived of the same enjoyment; and to look down, then, with insolent disdain, on the unfortunate victim of error, is, indeed, to render contemptible, (as far as it is in our feeble power to render it contemptible,) not the error which we despise, but the truth which allows us to despise it.

The remarks which I have as yet made, on the effects of acquaintance with the philosophy of mind, relate to its influence on the general spirit of philosophical inquiry; the advantages which must be derived, in every science, from a knowledge of the extent of the power of the intellectual instruments which we use for the discovery of truth; the skill which we thence acquire in distinguishing the questions in which we may justly hope to discover truth, from those questions of idle and endless controversy, the decision of which is altogether beyond the reach of our faculties; and the consequent moderation in the temper, with which we look both to our own possible attainments, and to the errors of others.

But besides these general advantages, which the philosophy of mind extends to all the inquiries of which human genius is capable, there are some advantages more peculiarly felt in certain departments of science or art. It is not merely with the mind that we operate; the subject of our operations is also often the mind itself. In education, in criticism, in poetry, in eloquence, the mind has to act upon mind, to produce in it either emotions that are temporary, or affections and opinions that are permanent. We have to instruct it,-to convince it,—to persuade it,-to delight it-to soften it with pity,— to agitate it with terror or indignation;-and all these effects, when other circumstances of genius are the same, we shall surely be able to produce more readily, if we know the natural laws of thought and emotion; the feelings which are followed by other feelings; and the thoughts, which, expanding into other thoughts, almost of themselves produce the very passion, or conviction, which we wish to excite.

"One considerable advantage," says Mr. Hume, "which results from the accurate and abstract philosophy, is its subserviency to the easy and humane; which, without the former, can never attain a sufficient degree of exactness in its sentiments, precepts, or reasonings. All polite letters are nothing but pictures of human life in various attitudes and situations; and inspire us with different sentiments of praise or blame, admiration or ridicule, according to the qualities of the object which they set before us. An artist must be bet

ter qualified to succeed in this undertaking; who, besides a delicate taste and quick apprehension, possesses an accurate knowledge of the internal fabric, the operations of the understanding, the workings of the passions, and the

various species of sentiment which discriminate vice and virtue. However painful this inward search or inquiry may appear, it becomes, in some measure, requisite to those who would describe with success the obvious and outward appearances of life and manners. The anatomist presents to the eye the most hideous and disagreeable objects; but his science is highly useful to the painter in delineating even a Venus or an Helen. While the latter employs all the richest colours of his art, and gives his figures the most graceful and engaging airs, he must still carry his attention to the inward structure of the human body, the position of the muscles, the fabric of the bones, and the use and figure of every part or organ. Accuracy is, in every case, advantageous to beauty, and just reasoning to delicacy of sentiment; in vain would we exalt the one by depreciating the other."*

There is a most striking passage to the same purport, in that beautiful dialogue on ancient oratory, which has been ascribed, without any very satisfactory evidence, to various authors, particularly to Quinctilian, the younger Pliny, and Tacitus, and which is not unworthy of the most eminent of the names to which it has been ascribed. After dwelling on the universal science and erudition of the great master of Roman eloquence, the chief speaker in the dialogue proceeds to show the peculiar advantage which oratory must derive from moral and intellectual science, to the neglect of which fundamental study, as superseded by the frivolous disputations of the rhetorical schools, he ascribes the decay of eloquence in the age of which he speaks.

"Ita enim est, optimi viri, ita, ex multa eruditione, ex pluribus artibus, et omnium rerum scientia, exundat et exuberat illa admirabilis eloquentia. Neque oratoris vis et facultas, sicut ceterarum rerum, angustis et brevibus terminis cluditur; sed is est orator, qui de omni quæstione pulchre, et ornate, et ad persuadendum apte dicere, pro dignitate rerum ad utilitatem temporum, cum voluptate audientium, possit. Hæc sibi illi veteres persuadebant. Ad hæc efficienda intelligebant opus esse, non ut Rhetorum scholis declamarent, -sed ut his artibus pectus implerent, in quibus de bonis ac malis, de honesto ac turpi, de justo et injusto disputatur;-de quibus copiose, et varie, et ornate, nemo dicere potest, nisi qui cognovit naturam humanam.-Ex his fontibus etiam illa profluunt, ut facilius iram judicis vel instiget, vel leniat, qui scit quid ira sit; promptius ad miserationem impellat qui scit quid sit misericordia, et quibus animi motibus concitetur. In his artibus exercitationibusque versatus orator, sive apud infestos, sive apud cupidos, sive apud invidentes, sive apud tristes, sive apud timentes dicendum habuerit, tenebit habenas animorum, et prout cujusque natura postulabit, adhibebit manum et temperabit orationem, parato omni instrumento, et ad usum reposito."+

What is the whole art of criticism, in its most important applications, but the knowledge of the most natural successions of thought and feeling in the mind? We judge of the perspicuity and order of a discourse, by knowing the progress in which the mind, by the development of truth after truth, may be made at last to see the full meaning of the most complex proposition. We judge of the beauty of impassioned poetry or eloquence, by knowing whether the figures, the images, the very feelings described, be such as, from our observation of the laws that regulate the internal series of changes in the mind, we know to be consistent with that state of emotion, in which a mind must

*Inquiry concerning the Human Understanding, sec.
c. I.
Tacitus, edit. Lipsii, p. 484, 5.

exist that has been placed in the situation supposed. If all other circumstances be equal, he will undoubtedly be the best critic, who knows best the phenomena of human thought and feeling; and without this knowledge, criticism can be nothing but a measurement of words, or a repetition of the ever repeated and endless common places of rhetoric. The knowledge of nature, of the necessity of which critics speak so much, and so justly, and which is as essential to the critic himself, as to the writer on whom he sits in judgment,-is only another name for the knowledge of the successive transitions of feeling of the mind, in all the innumerable diversities in which it is capable of being modified by the variety of circumstances in which it may be placed. It is for this reason, that, with so great an abundance of the mere art, or rather of the mere technical phrases of criticism, we have so very little of the science of it; because the science of criticism implies an acquaintance with the philosophy of thought and passion, which few can be expected to possess; and though nothing can be easier than to deliver opinions, such as pass current in the drawing-room, and even in the literary circle, which the frivolous may admire as profound, and the ignorant as erudite, and which many voices may be proud to repeat; though even the dull and pedantic are as able as the wise to say, in fluent language, that one passage of a work of genius is beautiful, and another the reverse, because one of them is in accordance with some technical rules, or because Homer and Milton have passages similar to the one, and not to the other: it is far from being equally easy to show, how the one passage is beautiful, from its truth of character, and the other, though perhaps rich in harmony of rhythm and rhetorical ornament, is yet faulty, by its violation of the more important harmony of thought and emotion,-a harmony which nature observes as faithfully, in the progress of those vehement passions that appear most wild and irregular, as in the calmest successions of feeling of the most tranquil hours. It would indeed, be too much to say, as in the well known couplet of Pope, "Let such teach others who themselves excel, And censure freely, who have written well ;""


for the critic requires only one of the two great talents, which in the poet, ought to exist together, but which may yet exist separately. In the poet, there must be, in the first place, an inventive fancy to bring together thoughts and images which have never been combined before; and with this inventive fancy, a discriminating judgment, which is to measure, by the standard of nature, the products of invention; and to retain them, only if they appear such, as though perhaps never before combined, might yet, in conformity with the natural laws of thought, have occurred to a mind, in the circunstances represented, as truly, as the other thoughts or images, which the works of other poets have rendered more familiar. This latter talent,-the judgment which determines the intrinsic beauty and fidelity to general nature,—is all which is absolutely requisite to the critic, who is not, therefore, under the necessity of being himself" the great sublime" which he draws. Yet, though all the elements of excellence in the artist are not absolutely requisite for the judgment of the sage and discriminating admirer of the noble works which that excellence may have produced, some of these elements unquestionably are requisite, elements, for which the critic may search in vain in all the rules of rhe

[blocks in formation]
« EelmineJätka »