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ON THE ORIGIN
Ar this period of time, when the human mind has acquired so much honour by the introduction of such astonishing improvements into the various departments of philosophy and science, beyond the example of former ages; those speculations, which tend to aggrandize the dignity of reason, are received with avidity, and admitted with a readier acquiescence. We are apt to conclude, that the same ingenuity and strength of faculties, which have been able to investigate the sublime laws of the planetary system, to adjust the tides, to disentangle the rays of light, to detect the electric fluid, and to extend their researches into the remotest regions of mathematic science; must
a Respecting the origin of alphabetical characters, see some learned and ingenious observations in Wise's "Enquiries respecting the first inhabitants, language, religion, learning, and letters of Europe." Oxford, 1758. W.
be adequate to any attainments and discoveries whatsoever. Nor has any disputable topic of enquiry been accepted more implicitly of late, even by men accustomed to hesitate and to examine, than the gradual discovery of Alphabetical Characters by the successive exertions and accumulated experience of mankind. To call in question a maxim so generally believed, may appear, in the judgement of philosophers, to savour of superstition and credulity: but, perhaps, it will be found, that the evidence in favour of this maxim, bears no proportion to the confidence, with which it is embraced. As a man, I rejoice in whatever is honourable to our nature: but various scruples have ever forbidden my assent to this popular article of belief. I will state my objections to it with all possible perspicuity and conciseness; and then submit the determination of this question to the judgment and candour of the reader.
I. The five first books of the Old Testament are, I believe, acknowledged by all to be, not only the most ancient compositions, but also the most early specimens of Alphabetical Writing, at present existing in the world. Now, taking for granted the authenticity of the Mosaic records, if alphabetical writing be indeed the result of human ingenuity, one great
peculiarity distinguishes it from all other human inventions whatsoever: the very first effort brought it to perfection. All the sagacity and experience of succeeding generations, illustrated by a vast influx of additional knowledge, beyond the most accomplished of their predecessors, have been unable to superinduce any real improvement upon the Hebrew alphabet. This seems to me a singularity utterly irreconcileable to the common hypothesis: at least I am acquainted with no plausible answer to this objection.
Should any one reply, "that alphabetical characters may have been in existence many ages prior to the date of these specimens in the scriptures, but that the more ancient memorials, in which they were exhibited, have perished by the desolations of ignorance and the vicissitudes of time:" I must demur at an argument that advances no premises of sufficient validity to authenticate this conclusion. For, 1. It is mere affirmation, without the least shadow of historical testimony to give it countenance. 2. To wave the authority of the Jewish scriptures upon this point; (which, however, I must beg leave to observe, is corroborated by abundant evidence from philosophy and experience, as well as history) that simplicity of manners, predominant in the
early ages, so observable in the accounts delivered down by every profane historian; the confessed mediocrity of their intellectual acquirements, and the confined intercourse of nations with each other, which would render such an expedient less necessary, and therefore less likely to be discovered: all these considerations seem to argue with no little cogency, that so complex, so curious, so wonderful, so consummate a device, as that of alphabetical writing, could hardly be first detected by a race of men, whose wants were few, whose advantages were circumscribed, and whose ideas were commensurate to their situation. This position, therefore, conjectural as it is, and unsubstantial, seems unworthy of further animadversion.
II. If alphabetical writing were a human invention, the natural result of ingenuity and experience; might we not expect, that different nations would have fallen upon the same expedient, independently of each other, during the compass of so many ages: when the faculties of the mind are equally capable at all times, and in every corner of the universe; and when the habits of life and modes of thought inevitably bear so great a resemblance to each other in similar stages of society? This, I say, were but a reasonable
expectation: which, however, corresponds not to the event. For alphabetical writing, as now practised by every people in the universe, may be referred to one common original. Now, if this proposition can be proved, the argument from successive derivation, without a single instance of independent discovery, must be allowed to amount to the very highest degree of probability in my favour: and the common supposition will appear perfectly gratuitous, with the incumbrance also of this great paradox: "You tell us, I might say, of an invention, which is the regular consequence of refinement in society; nothing more than a gradual advancement from what is plain to what is complex, through a similar process, pursued by the mind in all it's exertions for improvement: and yet, we can perceive no reason to conclude, that any community but one, and that in no wise distinguished by any vast superiority of inventive genius, or the improvements introduced by them into common life, ever compasst this discovery; though the human powers have been uniformly the
Σύροι μεν ευρεται των γραμμάτων εισι, παρα δε τέτων Φοίνικες μαθόντες τοις Έλλησι παραδεδώκασι. Diod. Sic. v.74.
The Syrians are the inventors of letters, and the Phonicians, having learnt the art from them, transmitted it to the Greeks. W.