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EDINBURGH ECCLESIASTICAL JOURNAL.
STUDIES ON SECRET RECORDS.*
This volume illustrates strikingly the theory which we propounded in our last Number concerning Thomas De Quincey's intellectual nature, --that he possesses above most writers a special taste, aptitude, and capacity for dealing with the past in contradistinction to the present or the future; and that no person gifted with the endowments that fall to the ordinary lot of humanity, but must descry in every page remarkable illustrations of this our author's peculiar power. The very subjects which he selects are all but uniformly of this description. In the present volume every topic which he treats' relates more or less to antiquity.
The first, entitled “Judas Iscariot,” is an attempt, founded on an old German idea of the subject, to trace the betrayal of Christ by Judas to higher than mere mercenary motives, and though the view is marked by much originality, yet it appears to us to want support from the only historical document extant on the subject, i. e., the New Testament. As stated by De Quincey however, the doctrine is marked by much ingenuity, and we must admit that it is not without a considerable show of reason. It is simply this. It was the current opinion, even among those who believed in him during the period of his teaching, that Christ had come to this world to establish a temporal kingdom. Nay, all his disciples themselves participated in this belief. They regarded him merely as a temporal prince come to re-establish the kingdom of the
Jews, and to infuse into it new elements of greatness, * Studies on Secret Records, Personal and Historical. With other Papers. By Thomas De Quincey. Edinburgh : James Hogg & Sons. London : Groombridge & Sons.
by which its permanence would be ultimately secured. Having this material and outward idea of Christ's mission, and marking the slow progress it was making towards its realization, and further, considering that the capture and imprisonment of Christ would rouse the people to action in his favour, Judas bethought himself of betraying him into the hands of his enemies for this purpose. It is true that Christ was idolised by the masses of the Jewish population, and that they entertained this idea of his mission, and it was certainly not unnatural that the common people should rise to carry out their wishes, and accordingly there is a feasibility about the doctrine when eliminated, that does not strike the reader at a first glance. And the impression of its having a basis is strengthened by the consideration that the violence and consequences of Judas's remorse, were incompatible with his being a cold blooded vulgar ruffian, capable of betraying his master for a few shekels of silver. Remorse, indeed, of the overwhelming kind attributed to Judas, was impossible to a coarse cold unfeeling nature that could betray his master for the sake of money at all, whatever its amount. So that after all the theory of De Quincey has a deeper foundation in the nature of things than we could have at first surmised. But again, the New Testament does not indicate this view, but on the contrary presents us with the naked fact that Judas betrayed his master, and that for a few shekels of silver. Again, the remorse attributed to Judas, and its consequences, would naturally follow from a nature capable of being actuated by the higher and less selfish motives set forth by De Quincey as having influenced and directed Judas. On De Quincey's hypothesis, indeed, when Judas found that the betrayal of Christ to his enemies was not followed by the rising of the people, and that he (Judas) had mistaken his master's mission, the remorse that overtook him was inevitable to a high minded and enthusiastic disciple. But we refer the reader to the article itself, for it is well worthy of a careful perusal.
The second paper of the volume is one upon Dr Richard Bentley, embracing both his character as a man and a scholar. The topics embraced in it chiefly relate to his opinions on the subject of Greek and Latin literature, and hence are quite germain to Mr De Quincey's tastes and predilections.
The next paper is on the subject of Cicero, embracing a view not only of his intellectual and moral, but likewise of his political, character, and though we cannot subscribe to many of Mr De Quincey's opinions concerning this great man, still he takes occasion to throw out numerous ideas with regard to the manners and customs, and the laws and institutions of the Romans in connection with him, that we cannot help admiring both for their originality and truth. But that the reader may judge of Mr De Quincey's treatment of the subject, we must permit our author to speak for himself:
" It is not, therefore, any want of splendid attraction in my subject from which I am likely to suffer. It is of this very splendour that I complain, -as having long ago defeated the simplicities of truth, and pre-occupied the minds of all readers with ideas politically romantic. All tutors, school
masters, academic authorities, together with the collective corps of editors, critics, commentators, have a natural bias in behalf of a literary man who did so much honour to literature, and who, in all the storms of this difficult life, manifested so much attachment to the pure literary interest. Readers of sensibility acknowledge the effect from any large influence of deep halcyon repose, when relieving the agitations of history; as, for example, that which arises in our domestic annals from interposing between two bloody reigns, like those of Henry VIII. and his daughter Mary, the serene morning of a child-like king, destined to an early grave, yet in the meantime occupied with benign counsels for propagating religion, for teaching the young, or for protecting the poor. Such a repose, the same luxury of rest for the mind, is felt, by all who traverse the great circumstantial records of those tumultuous Roman times, in the Ciceronian epistolary correspondence. In this we come suddenly into deep lulls of angry passions—here, upon some scheme for the extension of literature by a domestic history, or by a comparison of Greek with Roman jurisprudence; there, again, upon some ancient problem from the quiet fields of philosophy. And all men are already prejudiced in favour of one who, in the midst of belligerent partisans, was the patron of a deep pacific interest. But amongst Christian nations this unfair personal bias has struck deeper: Cicero was not merely a philosopher; he was one who cultivated ethics; he was himself the author of an ethical system, composed with the pious purpose of training to what he thought just moral views his only son. This system survives, is studied to this day, is honoured perhaps extravagantly, and has repeatedly been pronounced the best practical theory to which Pagan principles were equal. Were it only upon this impulse, it was natural that men should receive a clinamen, or silent bias, towards Cicero, as a moral authority amongst disputants whose arguments Were legions. The author of a moral code cannot be supposed indifferent to the moral relations of his own party views. If he erred, it could not be through want of meditation upon the ground of judgment, or want of interest in the results. So far Cicero has an advantage. But he has more lively advantage in the comparison by which he benefits, at every stage of his life
, with antagonists whom the reader is taught to believe dissolute, incendiary, almost desperate citizens. Verres in the youth of Cicero, Catiline and Clodius in his middle age, Mark Antony in Cicero's old age, have all been left to operate on the modern reader's feelings precisely through that masquerade of misrepresentation which invariably accompanied the political eloquence of Rome. The monstrous caricatures from the forum, or the Senate, or the democrate rostrum, which were so confessedly distortions, by original design, for attaining the ends of faction, have imposed upon scholars pretty generally as faithful portraits. Recluse scholars are rarely politicians ; and in the timid horror of German literati, at this day, when they read of real brick-bats or of paving-stones not metaphorical, used as figures of speech by a Clodian mob, we British understand the little comprehension of that Tough horse-play proper to the hustings, which can as yet be available for the rectification of any continental judgment. Play, do you call it ? says a German commentator; 'why, that brickbat might break a man's leg; and this paving-stone would be sufficient to fracture a skull.' Too true : they certainly might do so. But, for all that, our British experience of electioneering 'rough-and-tumbling' has long blunted the edge of our moral anger. Contested elections are unknown to the Continent-hitherto even to those nations of the Continent which boast of representative governments. And with no experience of their inconveniences, they have as yet none of the popular forces in which such contests originate. We, on the other hand, are familiar with such scenes. What Rome saw upon one sole hustings, we see repeated upon hundreds. And we all know that the bark of electioneer
ing mobs is worse than their bite. Their fury is without malice, and their insurrectionary violence is without system. Most undoubtedly the mobs and seditions of Clodius are entitled to the same benefits of construction. And, with regard to the graver charges against Catiline or Clodius, as men sunk irredeemably into sensual debaucheries, these are exaggerations which have told only from want of attention to Roman habits. Such charges were the standing material, the stock-in-trade of every orator against every antagonist. Cicero, with the same levity as every other public speaker, tossed about such atrocious libels at random. And with little blame where they were known and allowed for as tricks. Not are they true ? but will they tell ? was the question. Insolvency and monstrous debauchery were the two ordinary reproaches on the Roman hustings. No man escaped them who was rich enough, or had expectations notorious enough to win for such charges any colourable plausibility. Those only were unmolested in this way who stood in no man's path of ambition; or who had been obscure (that is to say, poor) in youth; or who, being splendid by birth or connections, had been notoriously occupied in distant campaigns. The object in such calumnies was to produce a momentary effect upon the populace : and sometimes, as happened to Cæsar, the merest falsehoods of a partisan orator were adopted subsequently for truths by the simple-minded soldiery. But the misapprehension of these libels in modern times originates in erroneous appreciation of Roman oratory. Scandal was its proper element. Senate or law-tribunal, forum or mob rostrum, made no difference in the licentious practice of Roman eloquence. And, unfortunately, the calumnies survive ; whilst the state of things, which made it needless to notice them in reply, has entirely perished. During the transitional period between the old Roman frugality and the luxury succeeding to foreign conquest, a reproach of this nature would have stung with some severity; and it was not without danger to a candidate. But the age of growing voluptuousness weakened the effect of such imputations; and this age may be taken to have commenced in the youth of the Gracchi, about one hundred years before Pharsalia. The change in the direction of men's sensibilities since then, was as marked as the change in their habits. Both changes had matured themselves in Cicero's days; and one natural result was, that few men of sense valued such reproaches (incapable, from their generality, of specific refutation), whether directed against friends or enemies. Cæsar, when assailed for the thousandth time by the old fable about Nicomedes the sovereign of Bithynia, no more troubled himself to expose its falsehood in the senate, than when previously dispersed over Rome through the libellous facetiæ of Catullus. He knew that the object of such petty malice was simply to tease him; and for himself to lose any temper, or to manifest anxiety, by a labour so hopeless as any effort towards the refutation of an unlimited scandal, was childishly to collude with his enemies. He treated the story, therefore, as if it had been true; and showed that, even under that assumption, it would not avail for the purpose before the house. Subsequently, Suetonius, as an express collector of anecdotage and pointed personalities against great men, has revived many of these scurrilous jests; but his authority, at the distance of two generations, can add nothing to the credit of calumnies originally founded on plebeian envy, or the jealousy of rivals. I may possibly find myself obliged to come back upon this subject. And at this point, therefore, I will not further pursue it than by remarking, that no one snare has proved so fatal to the sound judgment of posterity upon public men in Rome, as this blind credulity towards the oratorical billingsgate of ancient forensic license. Libels, whose very point and jest lay in their extravagance, have been received' for historical truth with respect to many amongst Cicero's enemies. And the reaction upon Cicero's own character has been naturally to exag
gerate that imputed purity of morals, which has availed to raise him into what is called a 'pattern man.'
** The injurious effect upon biographic literature of all such wrenches to the truth, is diffused everywhere. Fenelon, or Howard the philanthropist, may serve to illustrate the effect I mean, when viewed in relation to the stern simplicities of truth. Both these men have long been treated with such uniformity of dissimulation, petted'. (so to speak) with such honeyed falsehoods as beings too bright and seraphic for human inquisition, that now their real circumstantial merits, quite as much as their human frailties, have faded away in this blaze of fabling idolatry. Sir Isaac Newton, again, for about one entire century since his death in 1727, was painted by all biographers as a man so saintly in temper—so meek—so detached from worldly interests, that, by mere strength of potent falsehood, the portrait had ceased to be human, and a great man's life furnished no moral lessons to posterity: At length came the odious truth, exhibiting Sir Isaac in a character painful to contemplate, as a fretful, peevish, and sometimes even malicious, intriguer ; traits, however, in Sir Isaac already traceable in the sort of chicanery attending his subordination of managers in the Leibnitz controversy, and in the publication of the Commercium Epistolicum.' For the present, the effect has been purely to shock and to perplex. As regards moral instruction, the lesson comes too late ; it is now defeated by its inconsistency with our previous training in steady theatrical delusion.
" I do not make it a reproach to Cicero, that his reputation with posterity has been affected by these or similar arts of falsification. Eventually this had been his misfortune. Adhering to the truth, his indiscreet eulogists would have presented to the world a much more interesting picture ; not so much the representation of vir bonus cum mala fortuna compositus,' which is, after all, an ordinary spectacle for so much of the conflict as can ever be made public; but that of a man generally upright, matched as in single duel with a standing temptation to error, growing out of his public position ; often seduced into false principles by the necessities of ambition, or by the coercion of self-consistency; and often as he himself admits, biassed fatally in a public question by the partialities of friendship. The violence of that crisis was overwhelming to all moral sensibilites ; no sense, no organ, remained true to the obligations of political justice ; principles and feelings were alike darkened by the extremities of the political quarrels ; the feelings obeyed the personal engagements; and the principles indicated only the position of the individual—as between a senate clinging desperately to oligarchic privileges, and a Julian patriot under a mask of partial self-interest fighting in effect for extensions of popular influence.
“So far nothing has happened to Cicero,which does not happen to all men entangled in political feuds. There are few cases of large party dispute which do not admit of contradictory delineations, as the mind is previously swayed to this extreme or to that. But the peculiarity in the case of Cicero is not that he has benefited by the mixed quality of that cause which he adopted, but that the very dubious character of the cause has benefited by him. Usually it happens, that the individual partisan is sheltered under the authority of his cause. But here the whole merits of the case have been predetermined and adjudged by the authority of the partisan. Had Cicero been absent, or had Cicero practised that neutrality to which he often inclined, the general verdict of posterity on the great Roman civil war would have been essentially different from that which we find in history. At present the error is an extreme one ; and I call it such without hesitation, because it has maintained itself by imperfect reading, even of such documents as survive, and by too general an oblivion of the important fact, that theso sur