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How much of what is commonly called genius,-or, at least, how much of the secondary direction of genius, which marks its varieties, and gives it a specific distinctive character,-depends on accidents of the slightest kind, that modify the general tendencies of suggestion, by the peculiar liveliness which they give to certain trains of thought! I am aware, indeed, that, in cases of this sort, we may often err,—and that we probably err, to a certain extent, in the greater number of them,-in ascribing to the accident, those mental peculiarities, which existed before it unobserved, and which would afterwards, as original tendencies, have developed themselves, in any circumstances in which the individual might have been placed ; but the influence of circumstances, though apt to be magnified, is not on that account the less real; and though we may sometimes err, therefore, as to the particular examples, we cannot err as to the general influence itself. We are told, in the life of Chatterton, that, in his early boyhood, he was reckoned of very dull intellect, till he “fell in love," as his mother expressed it, with the illuminated capitals of an old musical manuscript in French, from which she taught him his letters; and a black-letter Bible was the book from which she afterwards taught him to read. It is impossible to think of the subsequent history of this wonderful young man, without tracing a probable connexion of those accidental circamstances, which could not fail to give a peculiar importance to certain conceptions, with the character of that genius, which was afterwards to make grey-headed erudition bend before it, and to astonish at least all those on whom it did not impose.
The illustrious French naturalist Adanson, was in very early life distinguished by his proficiency in classical studies. In his first years at college, he obtained the highest prizes in Greek and Latin poetry, on which occasion he was presented with the works of Pliny and Aristotle. The interest which such a circumstance could not fail to give to the works of these ancient inquirers into nature, led him to pay so much attention to the subjects of which they treated, that when he was scarcely thirteen years of age, he wrote some valuable notes, on the volumes that had been given to reward his studies of a different kind.
Vaucanson, the celebrated mechanician, --who, in every thing which did not relate to his art, shewed so much stupidity, that it has been said of him, that he was as much a machine as any of the machines which he made,-happened, when a boy, to be long and frequently shut up in a room, in which there was nothing but a clock, which, therefore, as the only object of amusement, he occupied himself with examining, so as at last to discover the con. nexion and uses of its parts ; and the construction of machines was afterwards his constant delight and occupation. I might refer to the biography of many other eminent men, for multitudes of similar incidents, that appear to correspond, with an exactness more than accidental, with the striking peculiarities of character after. wards displayed by them; and it is not easy to say, if we could trace the progress of genius from its first impressions, how very few circumstances, of little apparent moment, might have been sufficient,-by the new suggestions to which they had given rise, and the new complex feelings produced,—to change the general tendencies that were afterwards to mark it with its specific character.
Indeed, since all the advantages of scientific and elegant edu. cation must, philosophically, be considered only as accidental circumstances, we have, in the splendid powers which these advantages of mere culture seem to evolve, as contrasted with the powers that lie dormant in the mass of mankind, a striking proof how necessary the influence of circumstances is for the developement of those magnificent suggestions which give to genius Its glory and its very name.
If the associations, and consequent complex feelings, which we derive from the accidental impression of external things, or which we form to ourselves by our exclusive studies and occupations, have a powerful influence on our intellectual character, those which are transmitted to us, from other minds, are not less pow. erful.
We continue to think and feel, as our ancestors have thought and felt; so true, in innumerable cases, is the observation, that men make up their principles by inheritance, and de
66 fend them, as they would their estates, because they are born heirs to them.” It has been justly said, that it is difficult to regard that as an evil which has been long done, and that there are many great and excellent things, which we never think of doing, merely because no one has done them before us. This subjection of the soul to former usage, till roused by circumstances of more than common energy, is like the inertia that retains bodies in the
state in which they happen to be, till some foreign force operate, to suspend their motion or their rest. And it is well, upon the whole, that, in the great concerns of life, those which relate, not to speculative science, but to the direct happiness of nations, this intellectual inertia subsists. The difficulty of moving the multitude, though it may often be the unfortunate cause of preventing benefits which they might readily receive, still has the important advantage of allowing time for reflection, before their force, which is equally irresistible for their self-destruction as for their preservation, could be turned to operate greatly to their own prejudice. The restless passions of the individual innovator man, thus find an adequate check in the general principles of mankind. The same power who has balanced the causes of action and repose in the material world, has mingled them, with equal skill, in the intellectual ; and, in the one as much as in the other, the very irregularities, that seem, at first sight, to lead to the destruction of that beautiful system of which they are a part, are found to have in themselves the cause, that leads them again, from apparent confusion, into harmony and order.
But though, in affairs which concern immediately the peace and happiness of society, it is of importance, that there should be, in those who lead, and, still more, in those who follow, some considerable obstinacy of attachment to ancient usage,—this does not apply to the speculative sciences, in which error does not extend in its consequences beyond the self illusion of those who embrace it. Yet, the history of science, for a long series of ages,—if the science of those ages can be said to afford a subject of history, -exhibits a devotion to ancient opinion more obstinately zealous, than that which marks the contemporary narrative of domestic usages or political events. To improve, in some respects, the happiness of a nation, though it was indeed a difficult, and perilous and rare attempt,-was not absolutely impious. But what a spectacle of more hopeless slavery is presented to us in those long ages of the despotism of authority, when Aristotle was every thing, and Reason nothing,—and when the crime of daring to be wiser, was the worst species of treason, and almost of impiety,though it must be owned, that this rebellion against the right divine of authority, was not a guilt of very frequent occurrence.
66 With eosigns wide unfurl'd
And all was ignorance, and all was night."
Such is the sway of long-established veneration over our judgment, even in the province of severer science. The influence which the authority of antiquity exercises over our taste is not less
remarkable. " What beauty,” it has been said, “ would not think herself happy, if she could inspire her lover with a passion as lively and tender as that with which an ancient Greek or Roman inspires his respectful commentator?” We laugh at the absurdity of Dacier, one of those most adoring commentators, who, in comparing the excellence of Homer and Virgil, could seriously say, that the poetry of the one was a thousand years inore beautiful than the poetry of the other; and yet, in the judgments which we are in the habit of forming, or, at least, of passively adopting, there is often no small portion of this chronological estimation. The prejudice for antiquity is itself very ancient, says La Motte ; and it is amusing, at the distance of so many hundred years, to find the same complaint of undue partiality to the writers of other ages, brought forward against their contemporaries by those authors, whom we are now disposed to consider as too highly estimated by our own contemporaries on that very account.
How many are there, who willingly join in expressing veneration for works, which they would think it a heavy burthen to read from beginning to end ! Indeed, this very circumstance, when the fame of an author has been well established, rather adds to his reputation than diminishes it; because the languor of a work, of course, cannot be felt by those who never take the trouble of perusing it, and its imperfections are not criticised, as they otherwise would be, because they must be remarked before they can be pointed out, while the more strking beauties, which have become traditionary in quotation, are continually presented to the mind. There is much truth, therefore, in the principle, whatever injustice there may be in the application, of the sarcasm of Voltaire, on the Italian poet Dante, that his reputation will now continually be growing greater and greater,--because there is now nobody who reads him."
It is not merely the prejudice of authority, however, which leads our taste to form disproportionate judgments. It is governed by the same accidental associations of every kind, of which I have already spoken, as giving a specific direction to genius. It is not easy to say, how much the simple tale and ballad of our infancy, or innumerable other circumstances still less important of our early life, may have tended to modify our general sense of the beautiful, as it is displayed even in the most splendid of those