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COMPARATIVE MERIT OF THE ANCIENTS AND
I HAVE now finished that part of the course which respected oratory or public speaking, and which, as far as the subject allowed, I have endeavoured to form into some sort of system. It remains, that I enter on the consideration of the most distinguished kinds of composition, both in prose and verse, and point out the principles of criticism relating to them. This part of the work might easily be drawn out to a great length; but I am sensible, that critical discussions, when they are pursued too far, become both trifling and tedious. I shall study, therefore, to avoid unnecessary prolixity; and hope, at the same time, to omit nothing that is very material under the several heads.
I shall follow the same method here which I have all along pursued, and without which these
Lectures could not be entitled to any attention; that is, I shall freely deliver my own opinion on every subject; regarding authority no farther, than as it appears to me founded on good sense and reason. In former Lectures, as I have often quoted several of the ancient classics for their beauties, so I have also, sometimes, pointed out their defects. Hereafter, I shall have occasion to do the same, when treating of their writings under more general heads. It may be fit, therefore, that, before I proceed farther, I make some observations on the comparative merit of the ancients and the moderns; in order that we may able to ascertain rationally, upon what foundation that deference rests, which has so generally been paid to the ancients. These observations are the more necessary, as this subject has given rise to no small controversy in the republic of letters; and they may, with propriety, be made now, as they will serve to throw light on some things I have afterwards to deliver, concerning different kinds of composition.
It is a remarkable phenomenon, and one which has often employed the speculations of curious men, that writers and artists, most distinguished for their parts and genius, have generally appeared in considerable numbers at a time. Some ages have been remarkably barren in them; while, at other periods, Nature seems to have exerted herself with a more than ordinary effort, and to have
poured them forth with a profuse fertility. Various reasons have been assigned for this. Some of the moral causes lie obvious, such as favourable circumstances of government and of manners; encouragement from great men ; emulation excited among the men of genius. But as these have been thought inadequate to the whole effect, physical causes have been also assigned; and the Abbé du Bos, in his Reflections on Poetry and Painting, has collected a great many observations on the influence which the air, the climate, and other such natural causes, may be supposed to have upon genius. But whatever the causes be, the fact is certain, that there have been certain periods or ages of the world much more distinguished than others, for the extraordinary productions of genius.
Learned men haye marked out four of these happy ages. The first is the Grecian age, which commenced near the time of the Peloponnesian war, and extended till the time of Alexander the Great; within which period we have Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Demosthenes, Eschines, Lysias, Isocrates, Pindar, Eschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, Aristophanes, Menander, Anacreon, Theocritus, Lysippus, Apelles, Phidias, Praxiteles. The second is the Roman age, included nearly within the days of Julius Cæsar and Augustus; affording us Catullus, Lucretius, Terence, Virgil, Horace, Tibullus,
Propertius, Ovid, Phædrus, Cæsar, Cicero, Livy, Sallust, Varro, and Vitruvius. The third age is, that of the restoration of learning, under the Popes Julius II. and Leo X.; when flourished Ariosto, Tasso, Sannazarius, Vida, Machiavel, Guicciardini, Davila, Erasmus, Paul Jovius, Michael Angelo, Raphael, Titian. The fourth comprehends the age of Louis XIV. and Queen Anne, when flourished in France, Corneille, Racine, De Retz, Moliere, Boileau, Fontaine, Baptiste, Rousseau, Bossuet, Fenelon, Bourdaloue, Pascall, Malebranche, Massillon, Bruyere, Bayle, Fontenelle, Vertot; and in England, Dryden, Pope, Addison, Prior, Swift, Parnell, Arbuthnot, Congreve, Otway, Young, Rowe, Atterbury, Shaftesbury, Bolingbroke, Tillotson, Temple, Boyle, Locke, Newton, Clarke.
When we speak comparatively of the ancients and the moderns, we generally mean by the ancients, such as lived in the two first of these periods, including also one or two who lived more early, as Homer in particular; and by the moderns, those who flourished in the two last of these ages, including also the eminent writers down to our own times. Any comparison between these two classes of writers must necessarily be vague and loose, as they comprehend so many, and of such different kinds and degrees of genius. But the comparison is generally made to turn, by those who are fond of making it, upon two or