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fall in love with my Lord Nithisdale, whom the ingenious author imagines to be still in his riding-hood. * But notwithstanding the good principles of a British audience in this one particular, it were to be wished that every thing should be banished the stage which has a tendency to exasperate men's minds, and inflame that party rage which makes us such a miserable and divided people. And that in the first place, because such a proceeding as this disappoints the very design of all public diversions and entertainments. The institution of sports and shows was intended by all governments, to turn off the thoughts of the people from busying themselves in matters of state, which did not belong to them; to'reconcile them to one another by the common participations of mirth and pleasure; and to wear out of their minds that rancour which they might have contracted by the interfering views of interest and ambition. It would therefore be for the benefit of every society, that is disturbed by contending factions, to encourage such innocent amusements as may thus disimbitter the minds of men, and make them mutually rejoice in the same agreeable satisfaction. When people are accustomed to sit together with pleasure, it is a step towards reconciliation : but as we manage matters, our politest assemblies are like boisterous clubs, that meet over a glass of wine, and before they have done, throw bottles at one another's heads. Instead of multiplying those desirable opportunities where we may agree in points that are different, we let the spirit of contention into those very methods that are not only foreign to it, but should in their nature dispose us to be friends. This our anger in our mirth is like poison in a perfume, which taints the spirits instead of cheering and refreshing them.
Another manifest inconvenience which arises from this abuse of public entertainments, is, that it naturally destroys the taste of an audience. I do not deny, but that several performances have been justly applauded for their wit, which have been written with an eye to this predominant humour of the town: but it is visible even in these, that it is not the excellence but the application of the sentiment that has raised applause. An author is very much disappointed to find the best parts of his production received with indifference, and to see the audience discovering beauties which he never intended. The actors, in the midst of an innocent old play, are often startled with unexpected claps or hisses; and do not know whether they have been talking like good subjects, or have spoken treason. In short, we seem to have such a relish for faction, as to have lost that of wit; and are so used to the bitterness of party rage, that we cannot be gratified with the highest entertainment that has not this kind of seasoning in it. But as no work must expect to live long which draws all its 'beauty from the colour of the times; so neither can that pleasure be of greater continuance, which arises from the prejudice or malice of its hearers.
To conclude; since the present hatred and violence of parties is so unspeakably pernicious to the community, and none can do a better service to their country than those who use their utmost endeavours to extinguish it, we may reasonably hope, that the more ele. gant part of the nation will give a good example to the rest; and put an end to so absurd and foolish a practice, which makes our most refined diversions detrimental to the public, and, in a particular manner, destructive of all politeness.
No. 35. FRIDAY, APRIL 20.
Atheniensium res gestæ, sicut ego eristumo, satis amplæ magnificæque fu
ere, verum aliquanto minores tumen, quam fama feruntur: sed, quia provenere ibi magna scriptorum ingeniu, per terrarum orbem Atheniensium facta pro maxumis celebrantur. Ita eorum, qui ea fecere, virtus tanta habetur, quantum verbis ea potuere extollere præclara ingenia.
SALLUST. Gratian, among his maxims for raising a man to the most consummate character of greatness, advises first to perform extraordinary actions, and in the next place to secure a good historian. Without the last, he considers the first as thrown away; as indeed they are in a great measure by such illustrious persons, as make fame and reputation the end of their undertakings. The most shining merit goes down to posterity with disadvantage, when it is not placed by writers in its proper light.
The misfortune is, that there are more instances of men who deserve this kind of immortality, than of authors who are able to bestow it. Our country, which has produced writers of the first figure in every other kind of work, has been very barren in good historians. We have had several who have been able to compile matters of fact, but very few have been able to digest them with that purity and elegance of style, that nicety and strength of reflection, and that subtilty and discernment in the unravelling of a character, and that choice of circumstances for enlivening the whole narration, which we so justly admire in the ancient historians of Greece and Rome, and in some authors of our neighbouring nations.
Those who have succeeded best in works of this kind, are such, who, besides their natural good sense and learning, have themselves been versed in public business, and thereby acquired a thorough knowledge of men and things. It was the advice of the great Duke of Schomberg to an eminent historian of his acquaintance, who was an ecclesiastic, that he should avoid being too particular in the drawing up of an army, and other circumstances of the day of battle; for that he had always observed most notorious blunders and absurdities committed on that occasion, by such writers as were not conversant in the art of war. We may reasonably expect the like mistakes in every other kind of public matters, recorded by those who have only a distant theory of such affairs. Besides, it is not very probable, that men, who have passed all their time in low and vulgar life, should have a suitable idea of the several beauties and blemishes in the actions or characters of great men. For this reason I find an old law quoted by the famous Monsieur Bayle, that no person below the dignity of a Román knight should presume to write a history.
In England there is scarce any one, who has had a tincture of reading or study, that is not apt to fancy himself equal to so great a task; though it is plain, that many of our countrymen, who have tampered in history, frequently show that they do not understand the very nature of those transactions which they recount. Nay, nothing is more usual than to see every man, who is versed in any particular way of business, finding fault with several of these authors, so far as they treat of matters within his sphere.
There is a race of men lately sprung up among this sort of writers, whom one cannot reflect upon without indignation as well as contempt. These are our Grub-street biographers, who watch for the death of a great man, like so many undertakers, on purpose to make a penny of him. He is no sooner laid in his grave, but he falls into the hands of a historian, who, to swell a volume, ascribes to him works which he never wrote, and actions which he never performed; celebrates virtues which he never was famous for, and excuses faults which he was never guilty of. They fetch their only authentic records out of Doctors' Commons; and, when they have got a copy of his last will and testament, they fancy themselves furnished with sufficient materials for his history. This might indeed enable them in some measure to write the history of his death; but what can we expect from an author that undertakes to write the life of a great man, who is furnished with no other matters of fact, besides legacies; and instead of being able to tell us what he did, can only tell us what he bequeathed ? This manner of exposing the private concerns of families, and sacrificing the secrets of the dead to the curiosity of the living, is one of those licentious practices which might well deserve the animadversion of our government, when it has time to contrive expedients for remedying the many crying abuses of the press. In the mean while, what a poor idea must strangers conceive of those persons, who have been famous among us in their generation, should they form their notions of them from the writings of these our historiographers! What would our posterity think of their illustrious forefathers, should they only see them in such weak and disadvantageous lights! But, to our comfort, works of this nature are so short lived, that they cannot possibly diminish the memory of those patriots which they are not able to preserve.
The truth of it is, as the lives of great men cannot be written with any tolerable degree of elegance or exactness, within a short space after their decease; so neither is it fit that the history of a person, who has acted among us in a public character, should appear, till envy and friendship are laid asleep, and the prejudice both of his antagonists and adherents be, in some degree, softened and subdued. There is no question but there are several eminent persons in each party, however they may represent one another at present, who will have the same admirers among posterity, and be equally celebrated by those, whose minds will not be distempered by interest, passion, or partiality. It were happy for us, could we prevail upon ourselves to imagine, that one, who differs from us in opinion, may VOL. IV.