페이지 이미지

Certain retrogrades have, in denial of this doctrine, been imputed to the human mind. It is, doubtless, impracticable to trace every step and mark every degree of our progress; and as much so, to resist some indications of degeneracy with which past history furnishes us. But the suspicion arises from the irregularity of the progress: though not uniform it is successive. Thus, when the tide is flowing to the shore, it is difficult to judge of its course. Often the line of its advance seems stationary: and often the wave falls short of some which had preceded it. But a bold promontory, it may be, assists us to perceive the rise of the flood. It evidently gains upon the strand, until at length it swells in with a rapidity and force not to be mistaken.

It may be now demanded on what the complacency, which it is natural for us to feel towards the present, is warranted. There are two characters in the existing philosophy worthy of particular attention. It has no trace of that servility to names and theories which has often been the bane of advancement. No name any longer is authority, no system law. It was this deference which for ages retarded the discovery of truth. Even the Eclectics, though they abjured the dominion of any one school, yet sought for the fragments of truth only in the many. Mankind supposed that truth, whenever found, must be scholastic. The passing generation has renounced this prejudice, and finds its reward.—The existing philosophy wears also an impress of utility, which no philosophy was wont to boast. Practical application was disdained. Abstract speculations were necessarily confined to a few. But now philosophy, without forfeiting any thing of its dignity, foregoes its pride: it descends into the most ordinary walks of life, and aids the most general purposes of society. The wide-spread circulation of knowledge is a most important characteristic of the day. We may assuredly challenge the period in which enquiry, reading, and information, were ever so general and rife among men. Public opinion has acquired an unprecedented influence. That voice sooner or later is heard : and he might as well attempt to hush the tempest who wishes to stifle it. Many ancient customs indicate a modern refinement of feeling and education. The funeral games and gladiatorial exhibitions of former times could not be tolerated now: and when in our courts the prisoner pleads benefit of the clergy, -we are reminded that he who could read, an age or two back, was distinguished from the crowd. These are enduring proofs of a great intellectual transition, as the buoy for ever stationary marks the drift and rapidity of the current. Morals have, it is to be hoped, partaken of the progress: in war, former barbarities are not practised ; in society, vices hide themselves in darkness which once courted the day; in charity, the finest buildings of our cities and towns are consecrated to mercy. The world is more evenly peopled than ever it was before and continents, once unknown, now put forth young glories which promise never to decay. Civilization, in its truest sense, never reached the fourth of its present extent: and it is still spreading and refining itself. The words of the philosophical poet may be here applied :

* Change wide and deep and silently performed
Ourselves shall witness : and as days roll on,
Earth's universal frame shall feel the effect,
E'en till the smallest habitable rock,
Beaten by lonely billows, hear the songs
Of humanised society; and bloom
With civil arts, and send their fragrance forth,

A grateful tribute to all-ruling heaven."* A hope of some bright reversion for our race, of some new order of things, has ever prevailed among men. Hope is the best comforter that past vexation and failure have left us. It was this vision of a future regeneration which refreshed the dying eye of the greatest and wisest of men. Poetry soon made the expectation its own. The leaves of the Sybil scattered this promise. Philosophy, amid surrounding ignorance and persecution, clung to this assurance. “I commit my name,” said the immortal Verulam, in his last testament, “to posterity, after some generations shall be past.” This hope surely ought not to be abandoned by us without very decisive reasons.

But it has to encounter many serious prejudices. There is a great prone

• Wordsworth.

ness to disparage present times, and this proneness is, therefore, more in alliance with the fear of human deterioration. Experiments, generally very partial, having failed, these abettors, who had staked every hope of such improvement on their issue, in their mortification have joined in the clamour that all this hope was vain. The idle fables of perfectibility and optimism have thrown this opinion, with which they have no more connection than a horoscope with astronomy, into unmerited disgrace. The unfounded fear that such a course covertly implies political convulsion and disorganization, has deterred many from invoking it. A nice observation is wanting also for the perception of the progress to which we refer : an observation of certain tendencies profound and noiseless. To such observations the majority of men are neither competent nor inclined.

It must be confessed that some of the grounds, on which this expectation has been raised, are not the most happy. One author, before referred to, supposes that we must proceed, because of the lassitude and ennui to which our nature is disposed. He imagines that this must render us thoughtful, in order to contrive against such an unpleasant mood. Some have imagined that war is a guarantee for this melioration,—for as engineering and fortification are conducted on scientific principles, it is impossible for modern nations to relapse, and almost certain that war will draw forth new inventions. De Staël, with her beautiful eloquence, supposes the improvement to consist in the mass of our ideas, to which every age will now add, by means and in a quantity unknown to the former. I am inclined to anticipate this moral onset, rather on the present state of the world, though persuaded that the tendency belongs to the very mind of man. Nothing of discovery, or, which is the same thing, no particle of truth, henceforth can be lost. A simple mechanical contrivance gives an immortality to science, literature, and, in a great degree, to art.-Never were civil constitutions so favourable to the development and cultivation of genius in every department of enquiry and knowledge.—Nations begin to learn that peace is consistent with political greatness and influence. - The people at large are becoming interested in philosophic experiments as the foundations of a daily subsistence.- Mind is awake, no more to be rocked into slumbers or amused by dreams: but, intent on the day-star of its hope, bounds along with untiring vigour. The fearless search for truth it discovers is the surest sign of contrition for past mistake, and the brightest augury of future renovation.

I will here quote from an author of the present age a splendid passage in illustration,-a passage which no author but one of the present age could have written :-“I persuade myself that the life and faculties of man, at the best but short and limited, cannot be employed more rationally or laudably than in the search of knowledge: and especially of that sort which relates to our duty and conduces to our happiness. In these enquiries, therefore, wherever I perceive any glimmering of truth before me, I readily pursue and endeavour to trace it to its source, without any reserve or caution of pushing the discovery too far, or opening too great a glare of it to the public. I look upon the discovery of any thing which is true, as a valuable acquisition to society: which cannot possibly hurt or obstruct the good effect of any other truth whatsoever; for they all partake of one common essence, and necessarily coincide with each other; and like the drops of rain, which fall separately into the river, mix themselves at once with the stream and strengthen the general current."*

The present form and weight of public opinion constitute a chief ground of auspicious hope concerning the species. It is an inheritance of noble thoughts and well-proved principles, which has become our own. It has gathered up the experience of truth and good from all ages, and entailed it upon this. Nothing can henceforth fade away. Nothing can henceforth be inert. The elements are not only indissoluble but restless. They are in constant flux and strife. And though we might seek for them a more settled equilibrium and repose, yet, while so many important propositions are waiting for confirmation or disproof, while so many transcendent questions are claiming to be worked out to their just solution, while even the foundations

• Middleton's Life of Cicero.

of so many hopes require to be laid, we must not murmur, though it is our lot to live amidst the stir and conflict of such an agitation. The wave has rolled long and like an ocean-swell ; our bark shivers upon its crest. The turmoil of the fight precludes our knowing the key of the position and the plan of the battle ; we only feel the shock. But the billow throbs with its

proper impulse. The combat sweeps in its proper course.

Revolution can never take place in the governments of the world, without a great aptness in public sentiment for it. Seldom, however, is a people so ripe and so prepared, that such a change shall not cost a struggle. But as seldom does such change not repay it. The causes must be deep and general : men are commonly long injured, -worn out with wrong, -ere they are goaded to this redress. Our own was but the proscription of a hated dynasty, and the dash of a pen achieved it, That of America, be its provocation great or small, was the requirement of self-rule, by a vast colony which was old enough for a patriotism, and strong enough for a defiance. Never had country a juster ground for this species of vindication than France. There was not a great heart but beat in sympathy with it. Had it been earlier, its righteousness would have been clearer still. It should have fallen upon the rampant vice of tyranny, and not upon its feebleness. The worst, by the delay, were spared. And then it was acted by the few, and only imitated by the multitude. There was no standard morality, no restraining principle. It was a terrible recoil of passion. It was a judgment for martyred blood. The original quarrel was forgotten, and assassins seized on it as an occasion for massacre and booty. Yet when this age has passed, and its wars are forgotten, and its prejudices are allayed, - even that tempest and whirlwind shall be confessed to have ventilated the political atmosphere of the earth, and to have dissipated many a putrid pest which they found hanging there !

That a crisis now solemnly pauses over the human family, that the chronicle of our world has now reached a surpassing interest, few will deny. The spirit of this age, growing long and maturing fast, struggles for expression. It teems, it tra

[ocr errors]
« 이전계속 »