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ignorance, and are seldom willing to allow any excellence beyond the limits of our own attainments : like the savages, who thought that the sun rose and set for them alone, and could not imagine that the waves, which surrounded their island, left coral and pearls upon any other shore.
Another obvious reason for the neglect of the Persian language is the great scarcity of books, which are necessary to be read before it can be perfectly learned, the greater part of them are preserved in the different museums and libraries of Europe, where they are shewn more as objects of curiosity than as sources of information ; and are admired, like the characters on a Chinese screen, more for their gay colours than for their meaning.
Thus, while the excellent writings of Greece and Rome are studied by every man of a liberal education, and diffuse a general refinement through our part of the world, the works of the Persians, a nation equally distinguished in ancient history, are either wholly unknown to uis, or considered as entirely destitute of taste and invention.
But if this branch of literature has met with so many obstructions from the ignorant, it has, certainly, been checked in it progress by the learned themselves ; most of whom have confined their study to the minute researches of verbal criticism ; like men who discover a precious mine, but instead of searching for the rich ore, or for gems, amuse themselves with collecting smooth pebbles and pieces of crystal. Others mistook reading for learning, which ought to be carefully distinguished by every man of sense, and were satisfied with running over a great number of manuscripts in a superficial manner, without condescending to be stopped by their difficulty, or to dwell beauty and elegance. The rest have left nothing more behind them than grammars and dictionaries ; and though they deserve the praises due to unwearied pains and industry, yet they would, perhaps, have gained a more shining reputation, if they had contributed to beautify and enlighten the vast temple of learning, instead of spending their lives in adorning only its porticos and avenues.
There is nothing which has tended more to bring polite letters into discredit, than the total insensibility of commentators and criticks to the beauties of the authors whom they profess to illustrate : few of them seem to have received the smallest pleasure from the most elegant compositions, unless they found some mistake of a transcriber to be corrected, or some established reading to be changed, some obscure expression to be explained, or some clear passage to be made obscure by their
It is a circumstance equally unfortunate, that men of the most refined taste and the brightest parts are apt to look upon a close application to the study of languages as inconsistent with their spirit and genius : fo that the state of letters seems to be divided into two classes, men of learning who have no taste, and men of taste who have no learning.
M. de Voltaire, who excels all writers of his
age and country in the elegance of his style, and the wonderful variety of his talents, acknowledges the beauty of the Persian images and sentiments, and has versified a very fine passage from Sadi, whom he compares to Petrarch: if that extraordinary man had added a knowledge of the Asiatick languages to his other acquisitions, we should by this time have seen the poems and 'histories of Persia in an European dress, and any other recommendation of them would have been unnecessary.
But there is yet another cause which has operated more strongly than any before mentioned towards preventing the rise of oriental literature; I mean the small encouragement which the princes and nobles of Europe have given to men of letters. It is an indisputable truth, that learning will always flourish most where the amplest rewards are proposed to the industry of the learned ; and that the most shining periods in the annals of literature are the reigns of wise and liberal princes, who know that fine writers are the oracles of the world, from whose testimony every king, statesman, and hero must expect the censure or approbation of posterity. In the old states of Greece the highest honours were given to poets, philosophers, and orators; and a single city (as an eminent writer * observes) in the memory of one man, produced more numerous and splendid monuments of human genius than most other nations have afforded in a course of ages.
The liberality of the Ptolemies in Egypt drew a number of learned men and poets to their court, whose works remain to the present age the models of taste and elegance; and the writers, whom Augustus protected, brought their composition to a degree of perfection, which the language of mortals cannot surpass. Whilst all the nations of Europe
. were covered with the deepest shade of ignorance, the Califs in Asia encouraged the Mahomedans to improve their talents, and cultivate the fine arts; and even the Turkish Sultan, who drove the Greeks from Conftantinople, was a patron of literary merit, and was himself an elegant poet. The illustrious family of Medici invited to Florence the learned men whom the Turks had driven from their country, and a general light succeeded the gloom which ignorance and superstition had spread through the western world. But that light has not continued to shine with equal splendour ; and though some flight efforts have been made to
restore it, yet it seems to have been gradually decaying for the last century: it grows very faint in Italy; it seems wholly extinguished in France ; and whatever fparks of it remain in other countries are confined to the closets of humble and modest men, and are not general enough to have their proper influence.
The nobles of our days consider learning as a subordinate acquisition, which would not be consistent with the dignity of their fortunes, and should be left to those who toil in a lower sphere of life: but they do not reflect on the many advantages which the study of polite letters would give, peculiarly to persons of eminent rank and high employa ments ; who, instead of relieving their fatigues by a series of unmanly pleasures, or useless diversions, might spend their leisure in improving their knowledge, and in conversing with the great statesmen, orators, and philosophers of antiquity.
If learning in general has met with so little encouragement, still less can be expected for that branch of it, which lies so far removed from the common path, and which the greater part of mankind have hitherto considered as incapable of yielding either entertainment or instruction: if pains and want be the lot of a scholar, the life of an orientalist must certainly be attended with peculiar hardships. Gentius, who published a beautiful Persian work called The Bed of Roses, with an useful but inelegant translation, lived obscurely in Holland, and died in misery. Hyde, who might have contributed greatly towards the progress of eastern learning, formed a number of expensive projects with that view, but had not the support and assistance which they deserved and required. The labours of Meninski immortalized and ruined him : his dictionary of the Asiatick languages is, perhaps, the most laborious compilation that was ever undertaken by any single man; but he complains in his preface that his patrimony was exhausted by the great expence of em
ploying and supporting a number of writers and printers, and of raising a new press for the oriental characters. M. d'Herbelot, indeed, received the most splendid reward of his industry: he was invited to Italy by Ferdinand II. duke of Tuscany, who entertained him with that striking munificence which always distinguished the race of the Medici : after the death of Ferdinand, the illustrious Colbert recalled him to Paris, where he enjoyed the fruits of his labour, and spent the remainder of his days in an honourable and easy retirement. But this is a rare example: the other princes of Europe have not imitated the duke of Tuscany ; and Christian VII. was reserved to be the protector of the eastern muses in the present age.
Since the literature of Asia was so much neglected, and the causes of that neglect were so various, we could not have expected that any slight power would rouze the nations of Europe from their inattention to it; and they would, perhaps, have persisted in despising it, if they had not been animated by the most powerful incentive that can influence the mind of man: interest was the magick wand which brought them all within one circle ; interest was the charm which
gave the languages of the East a real and folid importance. By one of those revolutions, which no human prudence could have foreseen, the Persian language found its way into India ; that rich and celebrated empire, which, by the flourishing state of our commerce, has been the source of incredible wealth to the merchants of Europe. A variety of causes, which need not be mentioned here, gave the English nation a most extensive power in that kingdom: our India company began to take under their protection the princes of the country, by whose protection they gained their first settlement; a number of important affairs were to be transacted in peace and war between nations equally jealous of one another, who had not the common instrument of conveying their sentiments”; the servants of the company received letters which they could not read,