« ForrigeFortsæt »
concerning themselves, and conceive every transaction in which they had a share to be of singular importance. There is no wonder, therefore, that a nation so sprightly as the French should, for two centuries past, have been pouring forth a whole flood of memoirs, the greatest part of which are little more than agreeable trifles.
Some, however, must be excepted from this general character; two in particular; the Memoirs of the Cardinal de Retz, and those of the Duke of Sully. From Retz's Memoirs, besides the pleasure of agreeable and lively narration, we may derive also much instruction, and much knowledge of human nature. Though his politics be often too fine spun, yet the memoirs of a professed factious leader, such as the Cardinal was, wherein he draws both his own character, and that of several great personages of his time, so fully, cannot be read by any person of good sense without benefit. The Memoirs of the Duke of Sully, in the state in which they are now given to the public, have great merit, and deserve to be mentioned with particular praise. No memoirs approach more nearly to the usefulness and the dignity of a full legitimate history. They have this peculiar advantage, of giving us a beautiful display of two of the most illustrious characters which history presents; Sully himself, one of the ablest and most incorrupt ministers, and Henry IV. one of the greatest and most amiable princes of modern times.
I know few books more full of virtue, and of good sense, than Sully's Memoirs ; few, therefore, more proper to form both the heads and the hearts of such as are designed for public business, and action, in the world.
Biography, or the writing of lives, is a very useful kind of composition; less formal and stately than history, but to the bulk of readers, perhaps, no less instructive; as it affords them the opportunity of seeing the characters and tempers, the virtues and failings, of eminent men fully displayed; and admits them into a more thorough and intimate acquaintance with such persons, than history generally allows. For a writer of lives may descend, with propriety, to minute circumstances, and familiar incidents. It is expected of him, that he is to give the private, as well as the public life, of the person whose actions he records; nay, it is from private life, from familiar, domestic, and seemingly trivial occurrences, that we often receive most light into the real character. In this species of writing, Plutarch has no small merit; and to him we stand indebted for much of the knowledge that we possess, concerning several of the most eminent personages of antiquity. His matter is, indeed, better than his manner; as he cannot lay claim to any peculiar beauty or elegance. His judgment too, and his accuracy, have sometimes been taxed; but whatever defects of this kind he may be liable to, his
Lives of Eminent Men will always be considered as a valuable treasure of instruction. He is remarkable for being one of the most humane writers of all antiquity; less dazzled than many of them are with the exploits of valour and ambition; and fond of displaying his great men to us, in the more gentle lights of retirement and private life.
I cannot conclude the subject of history without taking notice of a very great improvement which has, of late years, begun to be introduced into historical composition; I mean, a more particular attention than was formerly given to laws, customs, commerce, religion, literature, and every other thing that tends to show the spirit and genius of nations. It is now understood to be the business of an able historian to exhibit manners, as well as facts and events; and assuredly, whatever displays the state and life of mankind in different periods, and illustrates the progress of the human mind, is more useful and interesting than the detail of sieges and battles. The person to whom we are most indebted for the introduction of this improvement into history, is the celebrated M. Voltaire, whose genius has shone with such surprising lustre in so many different parts of literature. His Age of Louis XIV. was one of the first great productions in this taste, and soon drew throughout all Europe, that general attention, and received that high approbation, which so ingenious and eloquent a production merited. His Essay
on the general History of Europe, since the days of Charlemagne, is not to be considered either as a history or the proper plan of an historical work; but only as a series of observations on the chief events that have happened throughout several centuries, and on the changes that successively took place in the spirit and manners of different nations. Though, in some dates and facts, it may, perhaps, be inaccurate, and is tinged with those particularities which unhappily distinguish Voltaire's manner of thinking on religious subjects, yet it contains so many enlarged and instructive views, as justly to merit the attention of all who either read or write the history of those ages.
PHILOSOPHICAL WRITING-DIALOGUE-EPISTOLARY WRITING-FICTITIOUS HISTORY.
As history is both a very dignified species of composition, and by the regular form which it assumes, falls directly under the laws of criticism, I discoursed of it fully in the two preceding Lectures. The remaining species of composition, in prose, afford less room for critical observation.
Philosophical writing, for instance, will not lead us into any long discussion. As the professed object of philosophy is to convey instruction, and as they who study it are supposed to do so for instruction, not for entertainment, the style, the form, and dress of such writings, are less material objects. They are objects, however, that must not be wholly neglected. He who attempts to instruct mankind, without studying, at the same time, to engage their attention, and to interest them in his subject by his manner of exhibiting it, is not likely to prove successful. The same