Page images
PDF
EPUB

Art. X. Library of Useful Knowledge. Preliminary Treatise.

The Objects, Advantages, and Pleasures of Science. Published under the Superintendence of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. 8vo. pp. 48. 5th Edit. London. Baldwin. 1827.

The important measure which we had the singular gratifica

tion of announcing in our last number but one, has now been fully carried into execution; and the “ Society for Diffising Useful Knowledgemay be regarded as established, and in active operation for the good of the country and mankind. Some delay occurred to retard its opening: But on the first of March, its series of Treatises began, and one has since been published every fortnight. · The subjects have hitherto been those of Natural Philosophy; and before proceeding to more general matters, it is understood that there will be a few others published upon different branches of physical science. This arrangement cannot be too highly commended. It disarms all prejudices against the design in its origin; it follows the natural and convenient order of instruction; it establishes the Institution and its plans in the confidence of all classes of the community; and it affords time for maturely preparing those treatises which, handling subjects of a more delicate nature, and going over ground not yet made so smooth by former labour, require a more diligent study in those to whom their execution is committed, than the beaten and familiar branches of Natural science. We trust, however, that the appearance of the Ethical and Political treatises will not be unnecessarily delayed. The Society may be assured, that when they are ready, the public is well prepared, and most kindly disposed, to receive them. It is said that they are to be ushered in by some useful Histories, and those of Greece and Rome are stated to be in a forward state of preparation. We rejoice to hear this, and still more to learn that a celebrated philosopher and statesman, who is now understood to devote all his leisure to historical researches and composition, has undertaken to usher these works in with “ a Discourse of the Study and Kinds of History.” A more interesting or more useful work cannot be imagined, nor one more sure to be ably exccuted.

If we look forward with real delight to its appearance, we contemplate with proportionable pleasure the approach of the works which it will introduce. In two important particulars all our received Histories fail. They make no distinction between authentic and fabulous; and they turn the feelings of the reader,

VOL. XLVI. NO. 91.

the youthful reader especially, into a wrong channel. Those who treat of ancient history, indeed, do tell us where the fabulous times, as they are termed, end; and they now and then express a doubt as to an extravagant and incredible fact that meets their course. But long after giants and dragons have ceased to infest the path of the historian; long after the gods and goddesses have left the haunts of men; long after the heroes who succeeded their divine sires, and claimed immortality for their actions only, have retired from the stage; there are, in the traditions of every country, whole ages quite as fabulous as those that preceded, although the events that fill them are possible without a miracle. Those traditions, treasured up by national vanity, and swallowed by vulgar curiosity, are gravely recited by one historian after another; palmed upon this age, only because that had believed or repeated them; and sucked in by all persons who read, while their minds are tender, the impressions upon them easy to be made and hard to be effaced; until the world, of all ages and classes, has become as convinced of the reality of a series of fables in the early history of nations, as if they had seen the events, or at least heard them recounted by eye-witnesses :- And yet nothing can be more certain than that there is little or no evidence even for the existence of the persons who are spoken of as the actors in those scenes. Now, to destroy all belief in such tales, is a sacred duty of those who would promote truth, and soundly instruct the people; to preserve their memory at all, is only desirable, because, from having been so long current, they form the basis of many poetical and rhetorical allusions, which would cease to be understood, if the traditions, how fabulous soever, were entirely forgotten. They occupy, however, in the ranks of history, no other place than the fables of the heathen gods; their only importance arising from the fact, that they were once believed that they throw some light on the genius or propensities of the age which invented them—and that they then and since afforded the subject of embellishment to the cultivators of the Fine Arts.

The other particular is far more important; and here we do hope and trust, that we shall find the Society speaking the language of a manly and sound philosophy. Those in whose hands the historic pen has hitherto been, and they who have superintended the education of youth in modern times, have written as if they sate and taught in “ Athens or old Rome," before a purer system of morals and religion had diffused right principles and humane feelings among mankind. As they have respected Livy too much to make their readers and pupils ever doubt that Curtius leapt into a great hole in the market-place of Rome, for the purpose of making it close suddenly, so they have venerated both Livy and the Romans too much to question that violence, and bloodshed, and fraud, were just subjects of admiration, when perpetrated (as they always must be, in the nature of things, if successful) by brave and clever men-men regardless of their own as of others' lives, and cunning to deceive those who trusted in their honour. A savage people, plunged in the depths of the most barbarous superstition-devoted to pursuits the most ferocious and blood-thirsty for ages-boasting that the oldest man among them never remembered an interval of innocence, when the murderous sword was sheathed — whose ignorance, for centuries most profound, was only at last enlightened to be replaced by treachery yet more profound, the single lesson they learnt from the civility of those they conquered—whose utmost refinement of manners instigated in them an appetite for blood so inordinate, that their choicest recreat tions, the sports which feasted the eyes of their matrons and their virgins, and trained betimes the feelings of their children, were the public exhibition of the most inhuman murders—this people is still presented to the admiration of all young persons, in all civilized and Christian countries, unqualified by a single remark upon the habitual enormity of their whole conduct.

We might illustrate this remark by numberless other instancés; some we may not even pollute our own page by alluding, however remotely, to;-but we have said enough to lay the foundation of the remark, that beyond all question the early association thus established in the minds of youth in all stations, between glory and cruelty, implants the seeds, which, in all countries, sprout up so fruitfully in bloody and disastrous wars. What can so effectually reconcile men's minds to the course of conduct most incompatible with their best interests—what steel their feelings against the horrors of bloodshed on the largest scale, and for the most insignificant pretext, as the very course which a thoughtless or perverted mode of studying history now teaches the sentiments of young people to take? It is most important, that without neglecting the genius and the valour displayed in those cruel scenes, the virtuous and philosophic historian should reclaim mankind from an exaggerated admiration of such dazzling qualities, to a sober contemplation of their dreadful consequences ; and should fix the eyes of learners upon the true glories of the illustrious benefactors of their kind-the “pride, pomp, and circumstance" of Glorious Peace—the vast merits of those who have improved life by inventing new arts, or set to men the example of years spent in purity of living, or left a name consecrated in the memory of a grateful posterity, by the benefits which their labours and their sacrifices bestowed on the world. We look to the labours of the Society for the history of all nations thus stript of their false colours, and the actions of all great men thus reduced to their true and just proportions. · As long as the Society confines its exertions to the walks of natural science and ancient history, we expect to hear of no opposition arising to its proceedings. But when the more important and interesting field of Modern History, and espe; cially its greatest branch the History of England, is entered, then we shall probably hear the objector lift his voice, and predict the appearance of political matter, tinged with peculiar, perhaps with party opinions. That political, as well as other Science will be handled, and that not merely incidentally in the course of English History, but in separate treatises, avowedly intended to unfold the doctrines of civil polity in all its branches, we certainly can entertain no doubt; for the Society's prospectus distinctly announces it, and enumerates many divisions of the science, which are to be formally and fully treated of in succession. From the Society's labours in this great department, we expect the highest advantages to the country; the dissipation of much ignorance in all classes of society the extinction of many bad feelings, and the overthrow and dispersion of a host of powerful but groundless prejudices, to which all classes, but the highest most remarkably, are at present enslaved. But it is said that the opinions prevalent among the leading members of the Society will tinge the treatises published under their patronage. · We trust that all the facts will be unfolded in each subject; that the various opinions will be fairly. stated which divide reasoners upon disputed points; that the arguments advanced in support of each will be fully explained; and that the reader will, in this way, be enabled to judge for himself, after being made acquainted with the merits of each controversy. If this candour and justice be not displayed, a great duty will be violated, and the Society will lose that confidence which is at present secured to it by the bare promulgation of its plan, and of the names of its members. But there can be no harm in each author stating his own opinion,-nor in the Society announcing its preference of one side of any question discussed; and the remedy for this, if a mischief it be, must be always at hand. Any individual who differs may defend his own doctrines attacked by the Society, or impugn those avowed by it; or any number of individuals, holding sentiments opposite to those of the Society, may associate and act as an opposing body, in favour of their own principles.

The leading members of the Society, whose proceedings we are now canvassing, are men whom we may suppose attached to liberal

opinions,—the glory of the age we live in. If their works support the doctrines of liberty and liberal policy in Government and in Trade, and in our conduct towards Foreign states, and if this moves the bile of those to whom the very name of freedom is hateful; there is no reason why they should burst for lack of a vent to such workings of the passions. Let them combine and form a “Society « for the diffusion of useless knowledge”-or “ for the propaga« tion of ignorance"-or, “ for the extinguishment of light”or, by whatever name they may deem their plans the best described—or, let them barely call themselves “The Constitution“ al Society"-or “ The National Society;" and leave us by their fruits to know them. Then we shall have the dangers of learning displayed in good set phrases, the road to science made thorny, and all its pit-falls described, to scare the adventurous learner. We shall have treatises on the perils of freedom to prince and people—the ruinous effects of free trade-- the enriching virtue of excessive taxation—the wholesome tendency of wasteful expenditure—the degrading and vulgar position of national Independence, contrasted with the dignity of place and precedence in the Holy Alliance-the benefits of Colonial Slavery and the Slave Trade-the usefulness of a restoration of Spanish tyranny over South America—and the incalculable glory accruing to England from espousing the cause of despotism all over the world. That the publication of such works will, to a certain degree, succeed in England, we in no wise doubt; there are many persons among the English laity, and a larger body, we fear, of the clergy, to whom the glad tidings of narrowminded and ignorant doctrine are mainly acceptable. The body of readers who support the weekly publications of slander, and obscenity, and impiety, will possibly spare a few shillings more to encourage the zeal of such a series of treatises as we have been describing. In this part of the island, it is true, we can give less encouragement to their hopes. Their time is gone by with us; but if their nostrums self in England, they have no cause to complain; and if they do not, the fault is not in the Society already established, but in the public; or rather it is the misfortune of the ingenious personages to whom we are referring, that they have been born a century or so too late. They should have lived in the time of Dean Swift; and, though they would have failed in assailing Newton and Locke with dulness, as much as he did with wit, they at least would have been more sure of readers for their serious lucubrations, while the wits might have helped to get the laugh on their side.

If further argument were wanting in favour of the extensive plan which the Society has announced, and is steadily pursuing,

« PreviousContinue »