« السابقةمتابعة »
I know not, Sir, whether among this fraternity of sorrow you
will think any much to be pitied; nor indeed do many of them appear to solicit compaffion, for they generally applaud their own conduct, and despise those whom want of taste or spirit suffers to grow rich. It were happy if the prisons of the kingdom were filled only with characters like these, men whom prosperity could not make useful, and whom ruin cannot make wise: but there are among us many who raise different sensations, many that owe their present misery to the seductions of treachery, the strokes of casualty, or the tenderness of pity; many whose sufferings disgrace society, and whofe virtues would adorn it: of these, when familia arity shall have enabled me to recount their stories without horror, you may expect another narrative from,
Your most humble servant,
Numb. 58. SATURDAY, May 25, 1753.
Damnant quod non intelligunt.
They condemn what they do not understand.
EURIPIDES, having presented Socrates with
the writings of Heraclitus, a philosopher famed for involution and obscurity, enquired afterwards his opinion of their merit. “ What I understand,” said Socrates, “ I find to be excellent; and, there“ fore, believe that to be of equal value which I “ cannot understand.”
The reflection of every man who reads this paffage will suggest to him the difference between the
prac. tice of Socrates, and that of modern critics : Socrates, who liad, by long observation upon himself and others, discovered the weakness of the strongest, and the dimness of the most enlightened intellect, was afraid to decide hastily in his own favour, or to conclude that an author had written without meaning, because he could not immediately catch his
he knew that the faults of books are often more justly imputable to the reader, who sometimes wants attention, and sometimes penetration; whose understanding is often obstructed by prejudice, and often dilipated by remissness; who comes sometimes to a new study, unfurnished with knowledge previously necessary; and finds difficultles insuper
able, for want of ardour sufficient to encounter them.
Obscurity and clearness are relative terms: to some readers scarce any book is easy, to others not many are difficult: and surely they, whom neither any exuberant praise bestowed by others, nor any eminent , conquests over stubborn problems, have entitled to exalt themselves above the common orders of mankind, might condescend to imitate the candour of Socrates ; and where they find incontestible proofs of superior genius, be content to think that there is justness in the connection which they cannot trace, and cogency in the reasoning which they cannot comprehend.
This diffidence is never more reasonable, than in the perufal of the authors of antiquity; of those whose works have been the delight of ages, and transmitted as the great inheritance of mankind from one generation to another : surely, no man can, without the utmost arrogance, imagine, that he brings any superiority of understanding to the perusal of these books which have been preserved in the devaftation of cities, and snatched up from the wreck of nations; which those who fled before barbarians have been careful to carry off in the hurry of migration, and of which barbarians have repented the destruction. If in books thus made venerable by the uniform atteftation of successive ages, any passages shall appear unworthy of that praise which they have formerly received; let us not iminediately determine, that they owed their reputation to dulness or bigotry; but suspect at least that our ancestors had some reaVol. IX.
sons for their opinions, and that our ignorance of those reasons makes us differ from them.
It often happens, that an author's reputation is endangered in succeeding times, by that which raised the loudest applause among his cotemporaries : nothing is read with greater pleasure than allusions to recent facts, reigning opinions, or present controversies; but when facts are forgotten, and controversies extinguished, these favourite touches lose all their graces; and the author in his descent to pofterity must be left to the mercy of chance, without any power of ascertaining the memory of those things, 10 which he owed his luckiest thoughts and his kindest reception.
On such occasions, every reader should remember the diffidence of Socrates, and repair by his candour the injuries of time; he should impute the seeming defects of his author to some chasın of intelligence, and suppose, that the sense which is now weak was once forcible, and the expression which is now dubious formerly determinate.
How much the mutilation of ancient history has taken away from the beauty of poetical performances, may be conjectured from the light which a lucky commentator sometimes effufes, by the recovery of an incident that had been long forgotten : thus, in the third book of Horace, Juno's denunciations against those that should presume to raise again the walls of Troy, could for many ages please only by fplendid images and swelling language, of which no man discovered the use or propriety, till Le Fevre, by shewing on what occasion the Ode was written, changed wonder to rational delight. Many passages
yet undoubtedly remain in the fame author, which an exacter knowledge of the incidents of his time would clear from objections. Among these I have always numbered the following lines :
Aurum per medias ire Satellites,
Argivi domus ob lucrum
Sævos illaqueant duces.
Stronger than thunder's winged force,
The close of this passage, by which every reader is now disappointed and offended, was probably the delight of the Roman court : it cannot be imagined, that Horace, after having given to gold the force of thunder, and told of its power to storm cities and to conquer kings, would have concluded his account of its efficacy with its influence over naval commanders, had he not alluded to some fact then current in the mouths of men, and therefore more interesting for a time than the conquests of Philip. Of the like