« PreviousContinue »
But the various opinions of philosophers have scattered through the world as many plagues of the mind as Pandora's box did those of the body; only with this difference, that they have not left hope at the bottom, and if truth be not fled with Astrea, she is certainly as hidden as the source of Nile, and can be found only in Utopia. Not that I would reflect on those wise sages, which would be a sort of ingratitude; and he that calls a man ungrateful, sums up all the evil that a man can be guilty of,
Ingratum si dixeris omnia dicis. But, what I blame the philosophers for (though some may think it a paradox) is chiefly their pride; nothing less than an ipse dixit ; and you must pin your faith on their sleeve. And though Diogenes lived in a tub, there might be for aught I know as much pride under his rags as in the fine-spun garments of the divine Plato. It is reported of this Diogenes, that when Alexander came to see him, and promised to give him whatever he would ask, the cynic only answered, “ Take not from me what thou canst not give me, but stand from between me and the light;" which was almost as extravagant as the philosopher that flung his money into the sea, with this remarkable saying
How different was this man from the usurer, who, being told his son would spend all he had got, replied, “He cannot take more pleasure in spending than I did in getting it.” These men could see the faults of each other, but not their own; those they flung into the bag behind ; non videmus id manticæ quod in tergo est. I may perhaps be censured for my free opinions by those carping Momuses whom authors worship, as the Indians do the devil, for fear. They will endeavor to give my reputation as many wounds as the man in the almanack; but I value it not; and perhaps, like flies, they may buzz so often about the candle, till they burn their wings They must pardon me if I venture to give them this advice, not to rail at what they cannot understand; it does but discover that selftormenting passion of envy, than which the greatest tyrant never invented a more cruel torment:
Invidiâ Siculi non invenere Tyranni
Tormentum majus.I must be so bold to tell my critics and witlings, that they can no more judge of this than a man that is born blind can have any true idea of colors. I have always observed that your empty vessels sound loudest: I value their lashes as little as the sea did those of
Xerxes, when he whipped it. The utmost favor a man can expect from them is, that which Polyphemus promised Ulysses, that he would devour him the last : they think to subdue a writer, as Cæsar did his enemy, with a Veni, vidi, vici. I confess I value the opinion of the judicious few, a Rymer, a Dennis, or a W-k; but for the rest, to give my judgment at once, I think the long dispute among the philosophers about a vacuum may be determined in the affirmative, that it is to be found in a critic's head. They are at best but the drones of the learned world, who devour the honey and will not work themselves : and a writer need no more regard them than the moon does the barking of a little senseless cur. For, in spite of their terrible roaring, you may, with half an eye, discover the ass under the lion's skin.
But to return to our discourse: Demosthenes being asked what was the first part of an orator, replied action : what was the second, action : what was the third, action; and so on, ad infinitum. This may be true in oratory; but contemplation in other things exceeds action. And, therefore, a wise man is never less alone than when he is alone : Nunquam minus solus, quam cum solus.
And Archimedes, the famous mathematician, was so intent upon his problems that he never minded the soldiers who came to kill him. Therefore, not to detract from the just praise which belongs to orators, they ought to consider that nature, which gave us two eyes to see and two ears to hear, has given us but one tongue to speak; wherein, however, some do so abound, that the virtuosi who have been so long in search for the perpetual motion, may infallibly find it there.
Some men admire republics, because orators flourish there most, and are the greatest enemies of tyranny; but my opinion is, that one tyrant is better than a hundred. Besides, these orators inflame the people, whose anger is really but a short fit of madness.
Ira furor brevis est. After which, laws are like cobwebs, which may catch small flies, but let wasps and hornets break through. But in oratory the greatest art is to hide art. Artis est celare artem.
But this must be the work of time, we must lay hold on all opportunities, and let slip no occasion ; else we shall be forced to weave Penelope's web, unravel in the night what we spun in the day. And therefore I have observed, that Time is painted with a lock before, and bald behind, signifying thereby, that we must take time (as we say) by the forelock, for when it is once past, there is no recalling it.
The mind of man is at first (if you will pardon the expression) like a tabula rasa, or like wax, which, while it is soft, is capable of any impression, till time has hardened it. And at length Death, that grim tyrant, stops us in the midst of our career.
The greatest conquerors have at last been conquered by death, which spares none, from the sceptre to the spade : Mors omnibus communis.
All rivers go to the sea, but none return from it. Xerxes wept when he beheld his army, to consider that in less than a hundred years they would be all dead. Anacreon was choked with a grapestone; and violent joy kills as well as violent grief. There is nothing in this world constant, but inconstancy; yet Plato thought, that if Virtue would appear to the world in her own native dress, all men would be enamoured with her. But now, since interest governs the world, and men neglect the golden mean, Jupiter himself, if he came to the earth, would be despised, unless it were, as he did to Danae, in a golden shower: for men now-a-days worship the rising sun, and not the setting:
Donec eris felix multos nnmerabis amicos. Thus have I, in obedience to your commands, ventured to expose myself to censure in this critical
Whether I have done right to my subject must be left to the judgment of my learned reader: however, I cannot but hope that my attempting of it may
be ragement for some able pen to perform it with more success.
FOR CORRECTING, IMPROVING, AND ASCERTAINING THE ENGLISH
TONGUE, IN A LETTER TO THE MOST HONORABLE ROBERT EARL OF OXFORD AND MORTIMER, LORD HIGH TREASURER OF GREAT BRITAIN.
FIRST PRINTED IN MAY, 1712.
London, Feb. 22, 1711-12. MY LORD,- What I had the honor of mentioning to your lordship some time ago in conversation, was not a new thought, just then started by accident or occasion, but the result of long reflec
and I have been confirmed in my sentiments, by the opinion
of some very judicious persons with whom I consulted.
They all agreed, that nothing would be of greater use towards the improvement of knowledge and politeness than some effectual method for correcting, enlarging, and ascertaining our language; and they think it a work very possible to be compassed under the protection of a prince, the countenance and encouragement of a ministry, and the care of proper persons chosen for such an undertaking. I was glad to find your lordship’s answer in so different a style from what has been commonly made use of on the like occasions for some years past, That all such thoughts must be deferred to a time of peace: a topic which some have carried so far, that they would not have us by any means think of preserving our civil or religious constitution, because we are engaged in a war abroad. It will be among the distinguishing marks of your ministry, my lord, that you have a genius above all such regards, and that no reasonable proposal for the honor, the advantage, or the ornament of your country, however foreign to your more immediate office, was ever neglected by you. I confess the merit of this candor and condescension is very much lessened, because your lordship hardly leaves us room to offer our good wishes; removing all our difficulties, and supplying our wants faster than the most visionary projector can adjust his schemes. And, therefore, my lord, the design of this paper is not so much to offer you ways and means, as to complain of a grievance, the redressing of which is to be your own work, as much as that of paying the nation's debts, or opening a trade into the South-sea; and though not of such immediate benefit as either of these, or any other of your glorious actions, yet perhaps, in future ages, not less
honor. My lord, I do here, in the name of all the learned and polite persons of the nation, complain to your lordship, as first minister, that our language is extremely imperfect; that its daily improvements are by no means in proportion to its daily corruptions; that the pretenders to polish and refine it have chiefly multiplied abuses and absurdities; and that in many instances it offends against every part of grammar. But lest your lordship should think my censure too severe, I shall take leave to be more particular. I believe your lordship will agree
with me in the reason, why our language is less refined than those of Italy, Spain, or France. 'Tis plain that the Latin tongue, in its purity, was never in this island, towards the conquest of which few or no attempts were made till the time of Claudius; neither was that language ever so vulgar in Bri
tain as it is known to have been in Gaul and Spain. Further, we find that the Roman legions here were at length all recalled to help their country against the Goths, and other barbarous invaders. Meantime the Britons, left to shift for themselves, and daily harassed by cruel inroads from the Picts, were forced to call in the Saxons for their defence; who, consequently, reduced the greatest part of the island to their own power, drove the Britons into the most remote and mountainous parts, and the rest of the country, in customs, religion, and language, became wholly Saxon. This I take to be the reason why there are more Latin words remaining in the British tongue, than in the old Saxon, which, excepting some few variations in the orthography, is the same in most original words with our present English, as well as with German and other Northern dialects.
Edward the Confessor, having lived long in France, appears to be the first who introduced any mixture of the French tongue with the Saxon; the court affecting what the prince was fond of, and others taking it up for a fashion, as it is now with us. William the Conqueror proceeded much further; bringing over with him vast numbers of that nation, scattering them in every monastery, giving them great quantities of land, directing all pleadings to be in that language, and endeavoring to make it universal in the kingdom. This at least is the opinion generally received; but your lordship has fully convinced me, that the French tongue made yet a greater progress here under Harry II., who had large territories on that continent both from his father and his wife, made frequent journeys and expeditions thither, and was always attended with a number of his countrymen, retainers at his court. For some centuries after there was a constant intercourse between France and England, by the dominions we possessed there, and the conquests we made; so that our language, between two and three hundred years ago, seems to have had a greater mixture with French than at present, many words having been afterward rejected, and some since the time of Spenser, although we have still retained not a few, which have been long antiquated in France. I could produce several instances of both kinds, if it were of any use or entertainment.
To examine into the several circumstances by which the language of a country may be altered would force me to enter into a wide field. I shall only observe, that the Latin, the French, and the English, seem to have undergone the same fortune. The first, from the days of Romulus to those of Julius Cæsar, suffered perpetual changes; and by what we meet in those authors who occasionally