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The ancients also must have contributed their share. It becomes, therefore, difficult to estimate the place of Charron as a philosopher, because we feel a good deal of uncertainty whether any passage may be his own. He appears to have been a man formed in the school of Montaigne, not much less bold in pursuing the novel opinions of others, but less fertile in original thoughts, so that he often falls into the common-places of ethics; with more reading than his model, with more disciplined habits as well of arranging and distributing his subject as of observing the sequence of an argument; but, on the other hand, with far less of ingenuity in thinking, and of sprightliness of language.
31. A writer of rather less extensive celebrity than La Mothe Charron belongs full as much to the school of le Vayer. Montaigne, though he does not so much pillage logues. his Essays. This was La Mothe le Vayer, a man distinguished by his literary character in the court of Louis XIII., and ultimately preceptor both to the Duke of Orleans and the young king (Louis XIV.) himself. La Mothe was habitually and universally a sceptic. Among several smaller works we may chiefly instance his Dialogues, published many years after his death under the name of Horatius Tubero. They must have been written in the reign of Louis XIII., and belong, therefore, to the present period. In attacking every established doctrine, especially in religion, he goes much farther than Montaigne, and seems to have taken some of his metaphysical system immediately from Sextus Empiricus. He is profuse of quotation, especially in a dialogue entitled Le Banquet Sceptique, the aim of which is to show that there is no uniform taste of mankind as to their choice of food. His mode of arguing against the moral sense is entirely that of Montaigne, or, if there be any difference, is more full of the two fallacies by which that lively writer deceives himself: namely, the accumulating examples of things arbitrary and fanciful, such as modes of dress and conventional usages, with respect to which no one pretends that any natural law can be found; and, when he comes to subjects more truly moral, the turning our attention solely to the external action, and not to the motive or
principle, which under different circumstances may prompt men to opposite courses.
32. These dialogues are not unpleasing to read, and exhibit a polite though rather pedantic style, not uncommon in the seventeenth century. They are, however, very diffuse, and the sceptical paradoxes become merely common-place by repetition. One of them is more grossly indecent than any part of Montaigne. La Mothe le Vayer is not, on the whole, much to be admired as a philosopher; little appears to be his own, and still less is really good. He contributed, no question, as much as any one, to the irreligion and contempt for morality prevailing in that court where he was in high reputation. Some other works of this author may be classed under the same description.
33. We can hardly refer Lord Bacon's Essays to the school of Montaigne, though their title may lead Bacon's us to suspect that they were in some measure suggested by that most popular writer. The first edition, containing ten essays only, and those much shorter than as we now possess them, appeared, as has been already mentioned, in 1597. They were reprinted with very little variation in 1606. But the enlarged work was published in 1612, and dedicated to Prince Henry. He calls them, in this dedication, "certain brief notes, set down rather significantly than curiously, which I have called Essays. The word is late, but the thing is ancient; for Seneca's Epistles to Lucilius, if you mark them well, are but Essays, that is, dispersed meditations, though conveyed in the form of epistles." The resemblance, at all events, to Montaigne, is not greater than might be expected in two men equally original in genius, and entirely opposite in their characters and circumstances. One, by an instinctive felicity, catches some of the characteristics of human nature; the other, by profound reflection, scrutinises and dissects it. One is too negligent for the inquiring reader, the other too formal and sententious for one who seeks to be amused. We delight in one, we admire the other; but this admiration has also its own delight. In one we find more of the sweet temper and tranquil contemplation of Plutarch, in the other more of the practical wisdom and somewhat ambitious prospects of Seneca. It is character
istic of Bacon's philosophical writings, that they have in them a spirit of movement, a perpetual reference to what man is to do in order to an end, rather than to his mere speculation upon what is. In his Essays this is naturally still more prominent. They are, as quaintly described in the title-page of the first edition, "places (loci) of persuasion and dissuasion;" counsels for those who would be great as well as wise. They are such as sprang from a mind ardent in two kinds of ambition, and hesitating whether to found a new philosophy, or to direct the vessel of the state. We perceive, however, that the immediate reward attending greatness, as is almost always the case, gave it a preponderance in his mind; and hence his Essays are more often political than moral; they deal with mankind, not in their general faculties or habits, but in their mutual strife, their endeavours to rule others, or to avoid their rule. He is more cautious and more comprehensive, though not more acute, than Machiavel, who often becomes too dogmatic through the habit of referring every thing to a particular aspect of political societies. Nothing in the Prince or the Discourses on Livy is superior to the Essays on Seditions, on Empire, on Innovations, or generally those which bear on the dexterous management of a people by their rulers. Both these writers have what to our more liberal age appears a counselling of governors for their own rather than their subjects' advantage; but as this is generally represented to be the best means, though not, as it truly is, the real end, their advice tends, on the whole, to promote the substantial benefits of government.
34. The transcendent strength of Bacon's mind is visible in the whole tenor of these Essays, unequal as they must be from the very nature of such compositions. They are deeper and more discriminating than any earlier, or almost any later, work in the English language, full of recondite observation, long matured and carefully sifted. It is true that we might wish for more vivacity and ease: Bacon, who had much wit, had little gaiety; his Essays are consequently stiff and grave, where the subject might have been touched with a lively hand; thus it is in those on Gardens and on Building. The
sentences have sometimes too apophthegmatic a form, and want coherence; the historical instances, though far less frequent than with Montaigne, have a little the look of pedantry to our eyes. But it is from this condensation, from this gravity, that the work derives its peculiar impressiveness. Few books are more quoted, and what is not always the case with such books, we may add that few are more generally read. In this respect they lead the van of our prose literature; for no gentleman is ashamed of owning that he has not read the Elizabethan writers; but it would be somewhat derogatory to a man of the slightest claim to polite letters, were he unacquainted with the Essays of Bacon. It is indeed little worth while to read this or any other book for reputation's sake; but very few in our language so well repay the pains, or afford more nourishment to the thoughts. They might be judiciously introduced, with a small number more, into a sound method of education, one that should make wisdom, rather than mere knowledge, its object, and might become a textbook of examination in our schools.
35. It is rather difficult to fix upon the fittest place for bringing forward some books, which, though moral Feltham's in their subject, belong to the general literature of Resolves. the age, and we might strip the province of polite letters of what have been reckoned its chief ornaments. I shall therefore select here such only as are more worthy of consideration for their matter than for the style in which it is delivered. Several that might range, more or less, under the denomination of moral essays, were published both in English and in other languages. But few of them are now read, or even much known by name. One, which has made a better fortune than the rest, demands mention, the Resolves of Owen Feltham. Of this book, the first part of which was published in 1627, the second not till after the middle of the century, it is not uncommon to meet with high praises in those modern writers who profess a faithful allegiance to our older literature. For myself, I can only say that Feltham appears not only a laboured and artificial, but a shallow writer. Among his many faults none strikes me more than a want of depth, which his pointed and sententious manner renders more ridiculous. There are
certainly exceptions to this vacuity of original meaning in Feltham; it would be possible to fill a few pages with extracts not undeserving of being read, with thoughts just and judicious, though never deriving much lustre from his diction. He is one of our worst writers in point of style; with little vigour, he has less elegance; his English is impure to an excessive degree, and full of words unauthorized by any usage. Pedantry, and the novel phrases which Greek and Latin etymology was supposed to warrant, appear in most productions of this period; but Feltham attempted to bend the English idiom to his own affectations. The moral reflections of a serious and thoughtful mind are generally pleasing, and to this perhaps is partly owing the kind of popularity which the Resolves of Feltham have obtained; but they may be had more agreeably and profitably in other books."
36. A superior genius to that of Feltham is exhibited Browne's in the Religio Medici of Sir Thomas Browne. This little book made a remarkable impression; it was soon translated into several languages, and is highly extolled by Conringius and others, who could only judge through these versions. Patin, though he rather slights it himself, tells us in one of his letters that it was very popular at Paris. The character which Johnson has given of the Religio Medici is well known; and, though perhaps rather too favourable, appears in general just. The
This is a random sample of Feltham's style: "Of all objects of sorrow a distressed king is the most pitiful, because it presents us most the frailty of humanity, and cannot but most midnight the soul of him that is fallen. The sorrows of a deposed king are like the distorquements of a darted conscience, which none can know but he that hath lost a crown." Cent.i.61. We find not long after the following precious phrase:-"The nature that is arted with the subtleties of time and practice." i. 63. In one page we have obnubilate, nested, parallel (as a verb), fails (failings), uncurtain, depraving (calumniating). i. 50. And we are to be disgusted with such vile English, or properly no English, for the sake of the sleepy saws of a trivial morality. Such defects are not compensated by the better and more striking thoughts we may occasionally light upon. In reading
Feltham, nevertheless, I seemed to perceive some resemblance to the tone and way of thinking of the Turkish Spy, which is a great compliment to the former; for the Turkish Spy is neither disagreeable nor superficial. The resemblance must lie in a certain contemplative melancholy, rather serious than severe, in respect to the world and its ways; and as Feltham's Resolves seem to have a charm, by the editions they have gone through, and the good name they have gained, I can only look for it in this.
"The Religio Medici was no sooner published than it excited the attention of the public by the novelty of paradoxes, the dignity of sentiment, the quick succession of images, the multitude of abstruse allusions, the subtlety of disquisition, and the strength of language." Life of Browne (in Johnson's Works, xii. 275).