Page images
PDF
EPUB
[ocr errors]

lower ranks of mankind. Need we wonder, then, that in the display of character he falls fo far fhort of his great original? Shakefpeare was familiarly acquainted with all ranks and conditions of men; without which, notwithstanding his unbounded imagination, it is not to be fuppofed, that he could have fucceeded fo well in delineating every species of human character, from the constable to the monarch, from the hero to the clown. And it deferves our notice, that, however ignorant he might be of Latin and Greek, he was well acquainted, by tranflation, with some of the ancients, particularly Plutarch, whom he seems to have studied with much attention, and who indeed excels all historians in exhibiting lively and interesting views of human nature. Great viciffitudes of fortune gave Fielding an opportunity of affociating with all claffes of men, except perhaps the highest, whom he rarely attempts to defcribe: Swift's way of life is well known: and I have been told, that Congreve used to mingle in difguife with the common people, and pafs whole days and weeks among them.

That the ancient painters and statuaries were in many refpects fuperior to the modern, is univerfally allowed. The monuments of their genius that still remain, would convince us of it, even though we were to fuppofe the accounts given by Pliny, Lucian, and other contemporary authors, to be a little

exaggerated.

C

exaggerated. The uncommon spirit and ele: gance of their attitudes and proportions are obvious to every eye and a great master C feems to think, that modern artists, though they ought to imitate, can never hope to equal the magnificence of their ideas, or the beauty of their figures *. To account for ! this, we need not fuppofe, that human genius decays as the world grows older. It may be ascribed, partly to the fuperior elegance of the human form in thofe days, and partly to the artists having then better opportunities of obferving the human body, free from the incumbrances of dress, in all the varieties of action and motion. The ancient discipline of the Greeks and Romans, particularly the former, was admirably calculated for improving the human body in health, ftrength, swiftnefs, flexibility, and grace. In these respects, therefore, they could hardly fail to excel the moderns, whofe education and manners tend rather to enervate the body, and cramp all its faculties. And as the ancients performed their exercises in public, and performed many of them naked, and thought it honourable to excel in them their cloathing was lefs cumbersome than our Gothic apparel, and fhowed the body to more advantage; it must be allowed, that their painters and ftatuaries had better op

; as

[ocr errors]

* Frefnoy, De Arte Graphica, lin. 190.

3 G 2

portunities

portunities of obfervation than ours enjoy, who fee nothing but aukward and languid figures, difguifed by an unwieldy and ungraceful attire *.

Will it not, then, be acknowledged, that the ancients may have excelled the moderns in the fcience of human nature, provided it can be fhown, that they had better opportunities of obferving it? That this was the cafe, appears from what has been already faid. And that they really excelled us in this fcience, will not be doubted by those who acknowledge their fuperiority in rhetoric and criticifin; two arts which are founded in the philofophy of the human mind. But a more direct proof of the point in queftion may be had in the writings of Homer, Plutarch, and the Socratic philofophers; which, for their admirable pictures of human nature in its genuine fimplicity, are not equalled by any compofitions of a later date. Of Ariftotle I fay nothing. We are affured by thofe who have read his works, that no author ever understood human na

ture better than he. Fielding himself † pays him this compliment; and his teftimony will be allowed to have confiderable weight.

Let me therefore recommend it to those

* See Algarotti on painting, chap. 2.

+Fielding's works, vol. 11. p. 384.

12mo.

London 1766,

philofophers

[ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors]

philofophers who may hereafter make human nature the fubject of their fpeculation, to study the ancients more than our modern fceptics feem to have done. If we set out, like the author of The Treatife of Human Nature, with a fixed purpose to advance as many paradoxes as poffible; or with this foolifh conceit, that men in all former ages were utter strangers to themselves, and to one another; and that we are the first of our fpecies on whom Nature has bestowed any glimmerings of difcernment; we may depend on it, that in proportion as our vanity is great, our fuccefs will be fmall. It will be, like that of a musician, who fhould take it in his head, that Corelli had no tafte in counterpoint, nor Handel or Jackson any genius for melody; of an epic poet, who fhould fancy, that Homer, Virgil, and Milton, were bad writers; or of a painter, who should fuppofe all his brethren of former times to have been unacquainted with the colours, lineaments, and proportions of visible objects.

If Columbus, before he fet out on his famous expedition to the western world, had amufed himself with writing a history of the countries he was going to vifit; would the lovers of truth, and interpreters of nature, have received any improvement or fatisfaction from fuch a specimen of his ingenuity? And is not the fyftem which, without regard to experience, a philofopher frames in his clofet, concerning the nature of man, equally

qually frivolous? If Columbus, in such a hiftory, had defcribed the Americans with two heads, cloven feet, wings, and a scarlet complexion; and, after vifiting them, and finding his defcription falfe in every particular, had yet published that defcription to the world, affirming it to be true, and at the fame time acknowledging, that it did not correfpond with his experience; I know not whether mankind would have been most difposed to blame his difingenuity, to laugh at his abfurdity, or to pity his want of understanding. And yet we have known a metaphysician contrive a fyftem of human nature, and, though fenfible that it did not correfpond with the real appearances of human nature, deliver it to the world as found philofophy; we have heard this system applauded as a masterpiece of genius; and we have feen the experience of individuals, the confent of nations, the accumulated wisdom of ages, the principles of fcience, the truths of religion, and the dictates of common sense, facrificed to this contemptible and felf-contradictory chimera.

I would further recommend it to our moral philofophers, to ftudy themselves with candour and attention, and cultivate an acquaintance with mankind, especially with thofe whofe manners retain moft of the truth and fimplicity of nature. Acquaintance with the great makes a man of fashion, but will not make a philofopher. They who

are

« PreviousContinue »