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N° 49. TUESDAY, APRIL 24, 1753.
They lightly skim,
The character of the scholars of the present age will not be much injured or misrepresented by saying, that they seem to be superficially acquainted with a multitude of subjects, but to go to the bottom of very few. This appears in criticism and polite learning, as well as in the abstruser sciences : by the diffusion of knowledge its depth is abated.
Eutyches harangues with wonderful plausibility on the distinct merits of all the Greek and Roman classics, without having thoroughly and attentively perused, or entered into the spirit and scope of them. But Eutyches has diligently digested the dissertations of Rapin, Bouhours, Felton, Blackwall, and Rollin; treatises that administer great consolation to the indolent and incurious, to those who can tamely rest satisfied with second-hand knowledge, as they give concise accounts of all the great heroes of ancient literature, and enable them to speak of their several characters, without the tedious drudgery of perusing the originals. But the characters of writers, as of men, are of a very mixed and complicated nature, and are not to be comprehended in so small a compass; such objects do not admit
of being drawn in miniature, with accuracy and distinctness.
To the present prevailing passion for French moralists and French critics, may be imputed the superficial shew of learning and abilities of which I am complaining. And since these alluring authors are become not only so fashionable an amusement of those who call themselves the polite world, but also engross the attention of academical students, I am tempted to inquire into the merits of the most celebrated among them of both kinds.
That Montagne abounds in native wit, in quick penetration, in a perfect knowledge of the human heart, and the various vanities and vices that lurk in it, cannot justly be denied. But a man who under: takes to transmit his thoughts on life and manners to posterity, with the hopes of entertaining and amending future ages, must be either exceedingly vain or exceedingly careless, if he expects either of these effects can be produced by wanton sallies of the imagination, by useless and impertinent digressions, by never forming or following any regular plan, never classing or confining, his thoughts, never changing or rejecting any sentiment that occurs to him. Yet this appears to have been the conduct of our celebrated essayist: and it has produced many awkward imitators, who, under the notion of writing with the fire and freedom of this lively old Gascon, have fallen into confused rhapsodies and uninteresting egotisms.
But these blemishes of Montagne are trifling and unimportant, compared with his vanity, his indecency, and scepticism. That man must totally have suppressed the natural love of honest reputation, which is so powerfully felt by the truly wise and good, who can calmly sit down to give a catalogue of his private vices, and publish his most secret infirmities, with the pretence of exhibiting a faithful picture of himself, and of exactly pourtraying the minutest features of his mind. Surely he deserves the censure Quintilian bestows on Demetrius, a celebrated Grecian statuary, that he was • nimius in veritate, et similitudinis quam pulchritudinis amantior;' more studious of likeness than of beauty.
Though the maxims of the Duke de la Rochefoucault, another fashionable philosopher, are written with expressive elegance, and with nervous brevity; yet I must be pardoned for affirming, that he who labours to lessen the dignity of human nature, destroys many efficacious motives for practising worthy actions, and deserves ill of his fellow-creatures, whom he paints in dark and disagreeable colours. As the opinions of men usually contract a tincture from the circumstances and conditions of their lives, it is easy to discern the chagrined courtier, in the satire which this polite misanthrope has composed on his own species. According to his gloomy and uncomfortable system, virtue is merely the result of temper and constitution, of chance, or of vanity, of fashion, or the fear of losing reputation. Thus humanity is brutalized; and every high and generous principle is represented as imaginary, romantic, and chimerical ; reason, which by some is too much aggrandized and almost deified, is here degraded into an abject slave of appetite and passion, and deprived even of her just and indisputable authority. As a Christian, and as a man, I despise, I detest such debasing principles. Rochefoucault
, to give a smartness and shortness to his sentences, frequently makes use of the antithesis, a mode of speaking the most tiresome and disgusting of any, by the sameness and similarity of the periods. And sometimes, in order to keep up the point, he neglects the propriety and justness of the sentiment, and grossly contradicts himself.
Happiness,' says he, consists in the taste, and not in the things: and it is by enjoying what a man loves, that he becomes happy; not by having what others think desirable. The obvious doctrine contained in this reflection, is the great power of imagination with regard to felicity: but; adds the reflector in a following maxim, We are never so happy or so miserable, as we imagine ourselves to be; wbich is certainly a plain and palpable contradiction of the foregoing opinion. And of such contradictions
instances might be alleged in this admired writer, which evidently shew that he had not digested his thoughts with philosophical exactness and precision.
But the characters of La Bruyere deserve to be spoken of in far different terms. They are drawn with spirit and propriety, without a total departure from nature and resemblance, as sometimes is the case in pretended pictures of life. In a few instances only he has failed, by overcharging his portraits with
ridiculous features that cannot exist together in one subject: as in the character of Menalcas, the absent man, which, though applauded by one of my predecessors, is surely absurd, and false to nature. This author appears to be a warm admirer of virtue, and a steady promoter of her interest: he was neither ashamed of Christianity, nor afraid to defend it: accordingly, few have exposed the folly and absurdity of modish infidels, of infidels made by vanity and not by want of conviction, with so much solidity and pleasantry united: he disdained to sacrifice truth to levity and licentiousness. Many of his characters are personal, and contain allusions
which cannot now be understood.
It is, indeed, the fate of personal satire to perish with the generation in which it is written : many artful strokes in Theophrastus himself, perhaps, appear coarse or insipid, which the Athenians looked upon with admiration. A different age and different nation render us incapable of relishing several beauties in the Alchymist of Jonson, and in the Don Quixote of Cervantes.
Saint Evremond is a florid and verbose trifler, without novelty or solidity in his reflections. What more can be expected from one who proposed the dissolute and affected Petronius for his model in writing and living ?
As the corruption of our taste is not of equal consequence with the depravation of our virtue, I shall not spend so much time on the critics, as I have done on the moralists of France.
How admirably Rapin, the most popular among them, was qualified to sit in judgment upon Homer and Thucydides, Demosthenes and Plato, may be gathered from an anecdote preserved by Menage, who affirms
upon his own knowledge, that Le Fevre of Saumur furnished this assuming critic with the Greek passages
he had occasion to cite, Rapin himself being totally ignorant of that language. The censures and the commendations this writer bestows, are general and indiscriminate; without specifying the reasons of his approbation or dislike, and without alleging the passages that may support his opinion: whereas just criticism demands, not only that every beauty or blemish be minutely pointed out in its different degree and kind, but also that the reason and foundation of excellencies and faults be accurately ascertained.
Bossu is usually and justly placed at the head of the commentators on Aristotle's Poetics, which