« PreviousContinue »
UPON THE USEFULNESS
CYNTHIO, Eugenius, and Philander had retired together from the town to a country village, that lies upon the Thames. Their design was to pass away the heats of the summer among the fresh breezes that rise from the river, and the agreeable mixture of shades and fountains, in which the whole country naturally abounds. They were all three very well versed in the politer parts of learning, and had travelled into the most refined nations of Europe : so that they were capable of entertaining themselves on a thousand different subjects, without running into the common topics of defaming public parties, or particular persons. As they were intimate friends, they took the freedom to dissent from one another in discourse, or, upon occasion, to speak a Latin sentence without fearing the imputation of pedantry or ill-breeding.
They were one evening taking a walk together in the fields, when their discourse accidentally fell upon several unprofitable parts of learning. It was Cynthio's humour to run down every thing that was rather for ostentation than use. He was still pre ferring good sense to arts and sciences, and often took a pleasure to appear ignorant, that he might the better turn to ridicule those that valued themselves on their books and studies, though at the same time one might very well see that he could not have attacked many parts of learning so successfully, had not he borrowed his assistances from them. After having rallied a set or two of virtu0808, he fell upon the medallists.
These gentlemen, says he, value themselves upon being critics in rust, and will undertake to tell you the different ages of it, by its colour. They are possessed with a kind of learned avarice, and are for getting together hoards of such money only as was current among the Greeks and Latins. There are several of them that are better acquainted with the faces of the Antonines than of the Stuarts, and would rather choose to count out a sum in sesterces than in pounds sterling. I have heard of one in Italy that used to swear by the head of Otho. Nothing can be pleasanter than to see a circle of these virtuosos about a cabinet of medals, descanting upon the value, rarity, and authenticalness of the several pieces that lie before them. One takes up a coin of gold, and, after having well weighed the figures and inscription, tells you very gravely, if it were brass, it would be invaluable. Another falls a ringing a Pescennius Niger, and judiciously distinguishes the sound of it to be modern. A third desires you to observe well the Toga on such a reverse, and asks you whether you can in conscience belteye the sleeve of it to be of the true Roman cut.
I must confess, says Philander, the knowledge of medals has most of those disadvantages that can render a science ridiculous, to such as are not well versed in it. Nothing is more easy than to repre
sent as impertinences any parts of learning that have no immediate relation to the happiness or convenience of mankind. When a man spends his whole life among the stars and planets, or lays out a twelvemonth on the spots in the sun, however noble his speculations may be, they are very apt to fall into burlesque. But it is still more natural to laugh at such studies as are employed on low and vulgar objects. What curious observations have been made on spiders, lobsters, and cockle-shells ? yet the very naming of them is almost sufficient to turn them into raillery. It is no wonder therefore that the science of medals, which is charged with so many unconcerning parts of knowledge, and built on such mean materials, should appear ridiculous to those that have not taken the pains to examine it. - Eugenius was very attentive to what Philander said on the subject of medals. He was one that endeavoured rather to be agreeable than shining in conversation, for which reason he was more beloved, though not so much admired as Cynthio. I must confess, says he, I find myself very much inclined to speak against a sort of study that I know nothing of. I have, however, one strong prejudice in favour of it, that Philander has thought it worth his while to employ some time upon it. I am glad then, says Cynthio, that I have thrown him on a science of which I have long wished to hear the usefulness. There, says Philander, you must excuse me. At present you do not know but it may have its useful
But, should I endeavour to convince you of it, I might fail in my attempt, and so render my science still more contemptible. On the contrary, says Cynthio, we are already so persuaded of the upprofitableness of your science, that you can but
teave us where you find us; but, if you succeed, you increase the number of your party. Well, says Philander, in hopes of making two such considerable proselytes, I am very well content to talk away an evening with you on the subject; but on this condition, that you will communicate your thoughts to me freely when you dissent from me, or have any difficulties that you think me capable of removing. To make use of the liberty you give us, says Eugenius, I must tell you what I believe surprises all beginners as well as myself. We are apt to think your medallists a little fantastical in the different prices they set upon their coins, without any regard to the ancient value or the metal of which they are composed. A silver medal, for example, shall be more esteemed than a golden one, and a piece of brass than either. To answer you, says Philander, in the language of a medallist, you are not to look upon a cabinet of medals as a treasure of money, but of knowledge, nor must you fancy any charms in gold, but in the figures and inscriptions that adorn it. The intrinsic value of an old coin does not consist in its metal but its erudition. It is the device that has raised the species, so that, at present, an as or an obolus may carry a higher price than a denarius or a drachma ; and a piece of money, that was not worth a penny fifteen hundred years ago, may be now rated at fifty crowns, or perhaps a hundred guineas. I find, says Cynthio, that, to have a relish for ancient coins, it is necessary to have a contempt of the modern.
But I am afraid you will never be able, with all your medallie eloquence, to persuade Eugenius and myself that it is better to have a pocket full of Othos and Gordians than of Jacobus's or Louis d'ors. This however we shall
be judges of, when you have let us know the several uses of old coins.
The first and most obvious one, says Philander, is the showing us the faces of all the great persons of antiquity. A cabinet of medals is a collection of pictures in miniature. Juvenal calls them, very humorously,
Concisum argentum in titulos, faciesque minutas. Sat. 5.
You here see the Alexanders, Cæsars, Pompeys, Trajans, and the whole catalogue of heroes, who hare many of them so distinguished themselves from the rest of mankind, that we almost look upon them as another species. It is an agreeable amusement to compare, in our own thoughts, the face of a great man with the character that authors have given us of him, and to try if we can find out in his looks and features either the haughty, cruel, or merciful temper that discovers itself in the history of his actions. We find too on medals the representations of ladies that have given occasion to whole volumes on the account only of a face. We have here the pleasure to examine their looks and dresses, and to survey at leisure those beauties that have sometimes been the happiness or misery of whole kingdoms: nor do you only meet the faces of such as are famous in history, but of several whose names are not to be found any where except on medals. Some of the emperors, for example, have had wives, and some of them chillren, that no authors have mentioned. We are therefore obliged to the study of coins for having made new discoveries to the learned, and given them information of such persons as are to be met with on no other kind of records. You must give me leave, says Cynthio, to reject this last use of medals. I do not think it worth while to trouble myself with a person's name or face that receives all his reputation