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ANCIENTS AND MODERNS. The great cause of the Ancients versus the Moderns is not yet disposed of; it has been at issue ever since the silver age, which succeeded the golden one. Men have always pretended, that the good old times were much tter than present. Nestor, in the Iliad, wishing to insinuate himself, like a wise mediator, into the good opinion of Achilles and Agamemnon, begins with saying, I have lived with better men than you ; never have I seen, nor shall I ever see again, such great personages as Dryas, Caneus, Exadius, Polyphemus equal to the Gods, &c. Posterity has made ample amends to Achilles for Nestor's bad compliment, so vainly admired by those who admire nothing but what is ancient. Who knows anything about Dryas? We have scarcely heard of Exadius or of Cæneus ; and as for Polyphemus equal to the Gods, he has no very high reputation, unless, indeed, there was something divine in his having a great eye in the midble of his forehead, and eating the raw carcases of mankind.
Lucretius does not hesitate to say that nature has degenerated
Ipsa dedit dulces fætus et pabula læta,
Conterimusque boves, et vires agricolarum, &c. Antiquity is full of the praises of another antiquity still more remote
Les hommes, en tout tems, ont pensé qu' autrefois
Than contemplate his utter worthlessness,
And, formed for action, took delight in sloth, &c. Horace combats this prejudice with equal force and address, in his fine epistle to Augustus."
- Must our poems, then,” says he, “ be like our wines, of which the oldest is always preferred ?” He after
Indignor quidquam reprehendi, non quia crasse
Ingeniis non ille favet plauditque sepultis,
I feel my honest indignation rise,
Not to the illustrious dead his homage pays,
But envious robs the living of their praise.-FRANcis. On this subject, the learned and ingenious Fontenelle expresses himself thus :
“The whole of the question of pre-eminence between the ancients and moderns, being once well understood, reduces itself to this—Were the trees which formerly grew in the country larger than those of the present day? If they were, Homer, Plato, and Demosthenes cannot be equalled in these latter ages; but, if our trees are as large as those of former times, then can we equal Homer, Plato, and Demosthenes.
“ But to clear up the paradox.—If the ancients had stronger minds than ourselves, it must have been that the brains of those times were better disposed, were formed of firmer or more delicate fibres, or contained a larger portion of animal spirits. But how should the brains of those times have been better disposed? Had such been the case, the leaves would likewise have been larger and more beautiful; for if Nature was then more youthful and vigorous, the trees, as well as the brains of men, would have borne testimony to that youth and vigour.
* Book II. Epist. I.
With our illustrious academician's leave, this is by no means the state of the question. It is not asked whether Nature can at the present day produce as great geniuses, and as good works, as those of Greek and Latin antiquity, but whether we really have such. It is doubtless possible, that there are oaks in the forest of Chantilly as large as those of Dodona; but supposing that the oaks of Dodona could talk, it is quite clear that they had a great advantage over ours, which, it is probable, will never talk.
La Motte, a man of wit and talent, who has merited applause in more than one kind of writing, has, in an ode full of happy lines, taken the part of the moderns. We give one of his stanzas:
Et pourquoi veut-on que j'encense
Du reste grossier des humains ?
The sparks of intellectual fires ? He might be answered thus-Esteem your ancestors, without adoring them. You have intelligence and powers of invention, as Virgil and Horace had; but perhaps it is not absolutely the same intelligence. Perhaps their talents were superior to yours; they exercised them, too, in a language richer and more harmonious than our modern tongues, which are a mix
ture of corrupted Latin, with the horrible jargon of the Celts.
Nature is not capricious; but it is possible that she had given the Athenians a soil and a sky better adapted than Westphalia and the Limousin to the formation of geniuses of a certain order. It is also likely that the government of Athens, seconding the favourable climate, put ideas into the head of Demosthenes which the air of Clamar and La Grenouillère, combined with the government of Cardinal De Richelieu, did not put into the heads of Omer Talon and Jerome Bignon.
Some one answered La Motte's lines by the following;
Chèr la Motte, imite et révère
Hélas ! qu'elle a peu de bonié!
Alas! she is extremely meau ! This dispute, then, resolves itself into a question of fact. Was antiquity more fertile in great monuments of genius of every kind, down to the time of Plutarch, than modern ages have been, from that of the house of Medicis to that of Louis XIV. inclusively?
* French writers of the 17th century.-T.
+ A French poet of some repute, cotemporary with Vol. taire.-T.
I This La Chapelle was a Receiver-general of Finance, who made a spiritless translation of Tibullus; nevertheless, those who dined at his table were higbly pleased with his verses.
The Chinese, more than two hundred years before our Christian era, built their great wall, which could not save them from invasion by the Tartars. The Egyptians had, four thousand years before, burdened the earth with their astonishing pyramids, the bases of which covered ninety thousand square feet. No one doubts that if it were thought advisable to undertake such useless works at the present day, they might be accomplished by lavishing plenty of money. The great wall of China is a monument of fear; the pyramids of Egypt are monuments of vanity and superstitions: both testify the great patience of the two people, but no superior genius. Neither the Chinese nor the Egyptians could have made a single statue like those formed by our living sculptors.
Sir William Temple, who made a point of degrading the moderns, asserts, that they have nothing in architecture which can be compared to the temples of Greece and Rome; but, Englishman as he was, he should have allowed that St. Peter's at Rome is incomparably more beautiful than the Capitol.
There is something curious in the assurance with which he asserts that there is nothing new in our astronomy, nor in our knowledge of the human body, except, says he, it be the circulation of the blood. The love of his opinion, founded on his extreme self-love, makes him forget the discovery of Jupiter's satellites, of Saturn's five moons and ring, of the Sun's rotation on his axis, the calculation of the positions of three thousand stars, the developement by Kepler and Newton of the law by which the motions of the heavenly bodies are governed, and the knowledge of a thousand other things of which the ancients did not even suspect the possibility. The discoveries in anatomy have been no less numerous. A new universe in miniature, discovered by the microscope, went as nothing with Sir William Temple; he closed his eyes to the wonders of his contemporaries, and opened them only to admire ancient ignorance.
He even goes so far as to regret that we have nothing left of the magic of the Indians, Chaldeans, and