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For NOVEMBER, 1799.

ART. I. General Biography; or Lives, Critical and Historical, of the most eminent Persons of all Ages, Countries, Conditions, and Professions, arranged according to Alphabetical Order.-Chiefly composed by John Aikin, M. D. and the late Rev. William Enfield, LL.D. Vol. I. 4to. pp. 560. 11. 5s. Boards. Robinsons, Kearsley, &c. 1799.

OF History, which is one of the most attractive and delight

ful of studies, much of the power to charm and instruct is derived, probably, from that quality which assimilates it to biography;-from the details which it furnishes of the lives of particular men, and from its frequent delineation of individual character. If History, then, can delight while it exhibits a distant view of human life, at once obscured by the remoteness of the scene, confused by the multiplicity of objects, and scarcely perceptible from the light and rapid pencil with which its outline is traced, how grateful must be the pleasure imparted by particular biography, which, placing the object of contemplation at the proper distance for distinct vision, enables the mind to observe its minutest parts, to trace its most delicate features, and to catch the symmetry and beauty of the whole. Great, certainly, are the advantages of this pleasing and popular branch of human knowlege; and perhaps they are yet greater than we generally apprehend. Let him, who wishes to make a just estimate of them, review the tenor of his past life and let him reflect how often he has been excited to virtue or deterred from vice,-how often his indolence has been shamed, and his activity animated,-and in how many instances he has been impelled to pursuits which have led to wealth or fame, to happiness or to honour,-by reading the account of some of the illustrious dead, who have left an example of virtue, industry, and fortitude.

In a species of composition of which the advantages are so important, it were to be wished that all who attempt it might excel. This, however, is far indeed from being the case. Of the many who have engaged in communicating to the world S the


the lives of those whose fortunes or merits have entitled them to its notice, perhaps fewer have excelled than in any other branch of literature. Some have collected facts which they committed to paper without order or selection; others have selected facts, but with the sinister intention of consigning their subject to unmerited infamy, or of bedecking him with undeserved praise. Some have been impartial, but have been indolent in research, and destitute of discrimination; while many have brought to their task impartiality, industry, and good sense, but have wanted taste, learning, and skill in composition, to illustrate and adorn the subject on which they wrote.

Few biographers, very few indeed, have united in themselves all of these qualities; and accordingly a general biography, combining fidelity with taste, and soundness of remark with fine writing, may be said still to remain a desideratum in English literature. The Biographia Britannica is entitled to great praise, and perhaps comes nearer to the character which we have described than any other general work of that kind in our language: but even that publication manifests such an inequality of execution, the natural consequence of being written by a great variety of hands; it displays such a total neglect of selec tion in its subjects; and it has been, and seems likely to continue, so slow in its progress; that the judicious reader cannot but feel that there exists a pressing necessity for a more perfect work.

In the production of which the first volume only is now of fered to the public, we hope, and we think that we have reason for pronouncing, that a nearer approach towards perfection will be found. The specimen here given to us is more promising than even a sanguine reader could have expected: though much would be expected from the learning, the industry, the taste, and the well-known literary powers of the two editors who undertook the task. Indeed, few men could be better qualified for such a work than Dr. Enfield, -now, alas! no more ;-in whom an extensive share of scientific and literary acquirements, sound sense, a discriminating judgment, an inflexible love of truth, and the warmest desire of promoting the moral and physical good of mankind, rendered still more valuable a mind which was graced by the milder virtues of a truly Christian character. Of Dr. Aikin's competency for such an undertaking, the world has already received proof sufficient to render it unnecessary for us to deliver an opinion on the subject.

With qualifications such as the editors were acknowleged to possess, it was natural to suppose that they would have seen and weighed the various advantages and disadvantages, attending


sach mode of arrangement applicable to such a work. It is 243 accordingly on mature reflection that they seem to have adopted the alphabetical method. This they appear to have preferred not so much on account of any positive advantages attached to it in itself, as because almost every other mode was in their opinion accompanied by greater difficulties, and liable to greater objections.

Although,' say they, the alphabetical order is void of all claim to ingenuity, yet its great convenience, together with the insurmount able difficulties accompanying every other method, when attempted to be put into practice, have given it the same preference with us, that it has generally obtained with our brother-writers. If any one who has conceived of peculiar advantages likely to result from some other mode of arrangement-that, for instance, according to classes of persons-will make the experiment, he will presently find so many doubts arise with respect to the classification of individuals, and such a necessity for subordinate divisions, framed incompatible principles, that he will perceive the danger of inextri upon different and cable confusion.'

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On this point, we freely own that we entertain an opinion directly adverse to that of these gentlemen. Of the alphabetical arrangement of a general biography, we have always thought that the sole advantage consists in mere convenience of reference: an advantage which, surely, an index may equally afford: but, granting that the alphabetical arrangement were more convenient for reference, yet doubtless it would be unwise to sacrifice to that single and petty accommodation, the many aids which a different classification might afford to the me mory or the judgment. In the alphabetical assemblage, so opposite and so incongruous are the subjects which are presented in succession to the eye, that even the most phlegmatic reader cannot long proceed in continuation without displeasure; and if he did, his reading would be inconsequent and unprofitable. In this order of position, also, every article stands unconnected and isolated; no part strengthens and illustrates another; and the whole is in fact but one large iudex, a mass of unconnected and heterogenous parts jumbled together. If, instead of this disposition, the different articles were classed according to some rational and useful principle,-whether that principle referred to order of time, to identity or similitude of pursuits, or even to locality of birth or residence,-the mind would derive some, nay very important aids from the arrangement. If, for instance, contemporaries were ranked together, and each class made to follow the preceding according to the order of time in which they lived, the reader would be enabled to collect a general view of the state of morals, $ 2


manners, and knowlege, at any particular epoch; to trace the progress of the human mind; and to compare and appreciate the advances in civilization of distant periods.-If identity of pursuits were made the principle of combination, and the professors of the same art or science were ranked together, we should be enabled to trace with ease the history of that art or science, and to calculate with precision the degree and the modes of its advancement.-Even an arrangement depending . entirely on locality of birth or residence, though perhaps the least advantageous of all others, would yet not be without-its use. It would afford a valuable illustration of general history, and would assist to ascertain the place which each country should occupy in the scale of science and polity.

We cannot suppose that an arrangement on any of these principles would be insuperably difficult, nor that it would even add much to the labour of the compiler. From a given mass of materials, it must be as easy to select those which relate to persons who agree in the time or the plan of their existence, ce nature or in the identity of their professions, as those whose names

correspond in their first letters.

With respect to the necessity for subordinate divisions' framed on different and incompatible principles, should any of these classifications be adopted, we profess that it eludes our observation. If priority of existence, for example, were to give priority of place in this work, what necessity would there be for any subordinate division?-In a classification of persons by the art or science which they professed, or by the place of their birth or residence, subordinate divisions might be adopted with great advantage, perhaps,-but certainly not from necessity. Thus, under the head of Painters, there might be subdivisions for the different departments of that art, as Historic, Landscape, &c. Under that of Mathematicians, there might be subdivisions for abstract mathematics, as Conic Sections, &c. and mixt mathematics-as their application to astronomy, - optics, &c. These subdivisions would be voluntary; and we do not perceive that they would rest on incompatible principles. In the present instance, however, this point is now decided.

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Next to the arrangement of the work, the authors advert to another circumstance, still more essential to be considered in a design of this nature :-namely, selection. The grand principle on which this must be founded,' they truly remark, is Fame and Celebrity for this will be found to coincide with the two chief reasons that make us desirous of information, concerning an individual, curiosity, and the wish of enlarging our knowlege of mankind.' Here the authors appear to feel the obvious



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difficulty of ascertaining who are the truly famous and the cele brated. Some are raised to the notice of mankind merely by circumstances of birth and situation; others have entitled themselves to honourable notice, by the beneficial exertion of their own great powers in art, science, or literature. Of the former class, the editors observe that, since the degree of power intrusted in their hands renders the personal character of even the most insignificant of them not without importance, and since the chronological series of leading events in a country is best learned by associating it with their names, it has been thought advisable in the present work to insert every individual of all the principal dynasties, antient and modern, with a summary of their reigns, more or less particular as they have exerted a greater or less personal influence over the occurrences in them.' Of the latter class, though the claim to celebrity, depending solely on personal qualifications, may seem to admit of an easier estimate than the preceding, yet the number of claimants is so great that, in the impossibility of commemorating all, many names must be rejected which on the first glance may seem as worthy of insertion as their preferred rivals. The difficult work of selection ought, in these cases, to be regulated by some fixed principles; and the circumstances which appear to be most worthy of guiding the decision are those of invention and improvement.'

In the introduction, some observations follow respecting those who, by the exercise of their faculties in an original path, have added to the valuable products of human skill and ingenuity; and those by whom such inventions have been improved. In the conclusion, we have the following passage; which gives a still more accurate view of the principles of selection, and of the plan on which the work is executed:

Two other circumstances by which selection may be affected are, country and age. We have seen no general biographical work which is free from a decisive stamp of nationality; that is, which does not include a greater number of names of natives of the country in which they were composed, than the fair proportion of relative fame and excellence can justify. Perhaps this fault is in some measure excusable, on account of the superior interest taken by all nations in eminence of their own growth; and if readers are gratified by such a deference to their feelings, writers will not fail to comply with their wishes. We do not pretend to have made no sacrifices of this sort; but being sensible that disproportion is a real blemish in a work, and that in this instance it partakes of the nature of injustice, we hope we shall be found not to have exceeded the bounds of moderation in this particular. We have most sedulously endeavoured to avoid the more serious fault, of awarding to our countrymen individually, more than their due share of merit in com

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