Images de page
PDF
ePub

ENGLISH REVIEW,

For FEBRUARY, 1786.

Art. I. Sylva ; or, the Wood: Being a Collection of Anecdotes, Diserta

tions, Characters, Apophthegms, Original Letters, Bons Mots, and other Little Things. By e Society of the Learned. 8vo. 55. Boards.

Payne. London, 1786. ONE of the peculiar inventions of modern literature has

been the miscellany. The writers of antiquity affixed a considerable degree of weight and importance to the character of an author. They never assumed it without a seriousness and deliberation, at least equal to that of a clergyman entering mto holy orders; and they uniformly looked forward to pofterity. Accordingly every particular volume was dedicated to a particular subject; and a considerable deviation from the point in hand was regarded, as an equal infringement of the laws of rhetoric, and the laws of decorum. But it has since been discovered, and fortunate, in many respects, has the dircovery been found, that much instruction may be conveyed under the guise of indolence; and that the mass of mankind are never more surely to be allured by the lessons of wisdom, than when the professed object is simple amusement. It is this that has diffused literature through a vast multitude of men ; and philofophy, no longer confined to the colleges of the learned, and the cabinets of the curious, enlists, under its various denominations, every man of a rank superior to the herdsman and the artisan.

Some of the first fruits of this discovery, among ourselves, we find in the Tatler, the Spectator, and the Guardiana These papers have undoubtedly been of infinite service in ciENG. Rev. Vol. VI. Feb. 1786.

F

vilizing

vilizing and informing the inhabitants of the island. But lo far as the authors of them fondly looked forward to immortality, they were certainly mistaken. The positive and literal destruction of a book, the copies of which have been universally diffused, is indeed difficult; but the fame and honour of these papers, as compofitions, are rapidly declining. They were succeeded, in the same form, by the Rambler, which, leaving the example of Addison and Steele, ranks wich performances of the most elevated name. The writers of the Spectator marked their airy footsteps in the fand; and, however beautiful the traces might appear, are unable to defy the roarings of the wind, and the tempests of the element. Johnson, on the other hand, under the shape of feuilles volantes, presents us with an accuracy and extent of observation, and a depth and Yolidity of reasoning, that clafs his publication with a Bacon and a Locke, a Shaftesbury and a Hume.

Various has been the nature, and various the success, of the imitations with which these illustrious examples have loaded the press. For some time their authors have not ventured to give them in single papers, but their number has not been ciminished by this circumstance. The miscarriage of fome late attempts of this kind, had taught us to feel a kind of unpleafant sensation in opening subsequent miscellanies. The writer of Sylva, however, has contrived to dissipate our prejudice ; and we acknowledge in him a friend, agreeable, amusing, and instructive. That the reader may form some judgment of the entertainment he is to expect, we will present him

with the following paper on “conferring and receiving favours.”

• Socrates, though importuned, refused to go to the court of Archelaus, king of Macedonia. Seneca, who has recorded the fact, says that his ostensible reason was, “ not to receive favours which he could not return,' -nolle se ad eum venire, a quo acciperet beneficia, cum reddere illi paria non poffct: his real one, not to go into voluntary servitude," - noluit ire ad voluntariam fervitutem *. The real one, certainly : for Archelaus was a bad prince; and courts are not places of freedom and independence, even under good ones. -- Befdes, the former reason would, I should think, have been unworthy of Socrates, What! is no man to receive a benefit, but who is able to return it? If so, then (as Aristotle makes him reply upon this occafion, but surely unphilosophically) “ it must be as great an affront to confer a benefit upon a person who cannot return it, as to injure a person who cannot redress himlelf t :” and then all acts of kindness, generosity, and charity, muit be banished from among men; since one party is no more at liberty to confer, than the other to receive, a tavour.

* De Benefic, V. 6.

+ Rhetor. II. 23.

How

• How is it, I wonder, that we hear so many exclaiming loudly against receiving favours ? " I think nothing so dear as what is given me,” says Montaigne ; “ and that, because my will lies at pawa under the title of ingratitude. I more willingly accept of offices to be fold ; being of opinion, that for the last I give nothing but money, but for the first I give myself * ." as if, according to ancient language, « to receive a favour was to fell our liberty,-- beneficium accipere eft libertatem vendere. It may be so in some cales, and with some persons ; and I hall so far compromise the matter with Montaigne, that we ought to be careful, and perhaps somewhat nice, from whom we re. ceive favours. But to lay down the proposition univerfally, and with respect to all manner of perfons; to spurn the very idea of receiving a favour from, or being obliged to, any one; to think and reason, as if services conferred and received ought, like other trading commodities, to be weighed as in a scale; to keep an account as of cre. ditor and debtor ; and to dread a balance against us as much, as if loss of liberty and imprisonment were the confequence - all this is wretched : 'tis all fastidious hauteur, pride, insolence; denoting a spi. rit and temper certainly unchristian, but unphilosophical allo, and impolitic in the highest degree. And why? because it would greatly weaken, if not destroy, all that mutual affection, all that intercourse of kindness and good offices, fo, by nature, necessary to the helpless, dependent state of man, and so contributing (if not essential) to his happiness in society,'

Certainly there is much good fense, and sound morality, in these observations. Our author has properly exposed that mean prejudice, and idle French philosophy, which, first tracing all our affections and actions to the source of self-love, has been afterwards desirous of teaching os, that refined felfishness is the perfection of human nature. What is offered on the subject of " great effects from causes apparently small,” is scarcely less ingenious.

Somebody hath called Swift's Drapier's Letters, “ the brazen monuments of his fame :" alluding, 1 should suppose, to the effect they produced, rather than to any thing extraordinary in their compo. fition. They are written, as Swift usually wrote, with abilities and address ; but they were far from being the cause of the effe & that fol. lowed. The truth is, and we have Swift himielf confessing it, that “ the success of the Drapier's Letters was not owing to his abilities, but to a lucky juncture, when the fuel was ready for the first hand that would be at the pains of kindling it." Letters. The royal commentator upon Machiavel's prince, if indeed his majesty of Prussia be the author of that comment, makes the change of Queen Anne's ministry, and the consequent peace with Lewis XIV. to be caused by a dispute between the Queen and the Duchess of Marlborough about a pair of gloves. Chap. 25. Jt might be so; but it must have been, just as the scratch of a pin upon the cuticle may be the cause of

[ocr errors]

Effais III. 9:

[ocr errors]

a mortification, where the constitutional habit is very bad. I would not say, therefore, in this and the former instance, that the Drapier's Letters and gloves were the causes, but that they occafioned caufes, already provided, to begin to operate in producing their effects : which is what should properly be meant, when great effects are said to pro. ceed from causes apparently small.'

If the idea, in this case, be not perfectly new, it is, however, well worth our attention. It shews us how important a Itudy is the science of human nature, and how much depth and philosophy go to the forming an excellent historian. Vol. taire is undoubtedly an agreeable writer. He has well investigated the characters of particular men, and the spirit of particular periods. But, examined by this rule, his commendation will not be great. His histories are rather epigrammatic than ethical, and continually facrifice the character of the investigator and the instructor, to that of the man of wit and the

general fatyrist.

One other passage we will extract from this volume, not so much from any remarkable merit it possesses, as from the importance of the fact it relates.

• It is not meant that the magistrate should ever dispense with law, or act against it; but only that he should, as far as he can, temper it with lenity and forbearance, when the letter is found to run counter to the spirit. For instance; our ancient Saxon laws nomie nally punished theft with death, when the thing stolen exceeded the value of twelve pence : yet the criminal was permitted to redeem his life with money." But, by 9 Hen. I. in

power

of redemption was taken away : the law continues in force to this very day; and death is the punishment of a man who iteals above twelve-pennyworth of goods, although the value of twelve.pence now is near forty times less than when the law was made. Here the spirit is absolutely outFaged by the letter ; and, therefore, might not a justice, when a de. linquent of this fort is brought, endeavour to soften the rigour of this law; or rather to evade it, by depreciating the value of the thing stolen ; by suffering the matter to be compromised between the par: ties; and, where the character of the offender will admit of it, instead of pursuing the severities of justice, by tempering the whole procedure with mercy? This, and such like modes of acting, may be said, indeed, to be straining points ; but, unless such points be ftrained occasionally, magiftrates must often act, not only against the {pirit of the laws, but against the dictates of reason, and the feelings of their own hearts. Sir Henry Speļman took occasion, from this law, to complain, that " while every thing else was siten in its va. que, and become dearer, the life of man had continually grown cheaper *. • Fortescue has a remarkable passage concerning this law.

" The civil law,” says he," where a theft is manifeft, adjudged the crimi

1109, this

Gloffar, in voce Laricinium.

nal

hai to restore fourfold; for a theft not so manifeft, twofold: but the Jaws of England, in either case, punish the party with death, pro. vided the thing stolen exceeds the value of twelve-pence *." But, is not this comparison between civil and English law aitonisingly made by a man, who was writing an apology for the latter against the forfer? What ! - is it nothing to settle a proportion between crimes and punishments ? and shall one man, who steals an utensil worthi thirteen-pence, be deemed an equal offender against fociety, and fuffer the fame punishment, with another, who plunders a house, and murders all the family ?'

Sylva is introduced to our notice by a pompous preface, in which the writer pathetically exclaims against the multitude of publications that teem from the press; and then pro. ceeds,

? We would make our book, if we could, the beauties of know. ledge, wit, and wisdom ; felected from all indiscriminately.who can furnish them, and brought more closely and compendiously together. For the great object of our work is to make men wiser, without obliging them to turn over folios and quartos t; to furnish matter for thinking, instead of reading.'

In the title page too, the volume is pretended to proceed from a fociety of the learned, whom we naturally represent to ourselves as each of them furnishing his voluntary contribution.

This is all quackery and impertinence. Sylva does not, in reality, affume a graver form, or tend more to generate thinking, than every good book that ever was published of the fame fize and the fame variety. And the work, if we have any discernment in styles, is all the production of one hand. So much so, that the essays which are given us from a book intitled, " The Irenarch of Dr. Heathcote,” if Dr. Heath cote have a real existence, and be not, like the Slawkenbere gius of Sterne, the mere creature of the writer's imagination, are sufficient to prove that the author of Sylva is no other than Dr. Heathcote himself. His work, however, is, in one fence, a collection, as it is interspersed with anecdotes and bons mots, some good and some indifferent, some new and some trite.

« * De Laud. Leg. Angliæ, C. 46.

of La multiplicité des faits, &c. “ the multiplicity of facts and writings,” says Voltaire, " is become so great, that every thing mult soon be reduced to extracts and dictionaries.In Cat. Henaut.-In. stead of this, we are got altogether into the other extreme : far from contracting and abridging, we enfarge and expatiate beyond all bounds; as if quantity, not quality, were the point to atrained. Let the subject be politics, belles lettres, taste, morals, or what you will -- have we not quarto piled upon quarto, till the heap grows as huge as Pelion upon Offa. F 3

Το

« PrécédentContinuer »