Графични страници
PDF файл

their power. In the era of knowledge and of peace, that degree of self-sacrifice can scarcely be impossible, which, even now, our philosopher would inculcate at the peril of starvation.***If the wretchedness of man really flowed from this source, it is strange that the discovery should not have been made during six thousand years of his misery. He is not usually thus obtuse, respecting the cause of his sorrows. It will be admitted, that his distresses have most frequently arisen from luxury and from war, as their immediate causes. The first will scarcely be attributed to the want of food; nor can the second be traced to so fantastical an origin. Shakspeare, indeed, represents Coriolanus, in his insolent contempt for humanity, as rejoicing in the approach of war, as the means of "venting the musty superfluity" of the people; but kings have not often engaged in the fearful game on so refined and philosophic principles. On the contrary, the strength of a state was always regarded, in old time, as consisting in the number of its citizens. And, indeed, it is impossible that any of the gigantic evils of mankind should have arisen from the pressure of population against the means of subsistence; because it is impossible to point out any one state in which the means of subsistence have been fully developed and exhausted. If the want of subsistence, then, has ever afflicted a people, it has not arisen, except in case of temporary famine, from a deficiency in the means of subsistence, but in the mode and spirit of using them. The fault has been, not in nature, but in man. Population may, in a few instances, have increased beyond the energy of the people to provide for it, but not beyond the resources which God has placed within their power.

There is no stage of civilization, in which the objection to any farther advance might not have been urged with as much plausibility as at the present. While any region, capable of fruitfulness, remains uninhabited and barren, the argument applies with no more force against its cultivation, than it would have applied against the desire of him who founded the first settlement to extend its boundaries. While the world was before him, he might as reasonably have been warned to decline any plan for bringing wastes into tillage, on the ground that the tendency of man to multiply would thus be incited beyond the means of supplying food, as we, in our time, while the greater part of the earth yet remains to be possessed. And, indeed, the objection has far less force now than at any preceding period ;-because not only is space left, but the aids of human power are far greater than in old time. Machinery now enables one man to do as much towards the supply of human wants, as could formerly have been done by hundreds. And shall we select this as the period of society in which the species must stand still, because the means of subsistence can be carried but a little farther?-Surely, immense regions of unbounded

tertility-long successions of spicy groves-trackless pastures watered by ocean-rivers formed to let in wealth to the midst of a great continent-and sweet islands which lie calmly on the breast of crystal seas-were not created for eternal solitude and silence. Until these are peopled, and the earth is indeed "replenished and subdued," the command and the blessing, "increase and multiply,' must continue unrecalled by its great Author. Shall not Egypt revive its old fruitfulness, and Palestine again flow with milk and honey?


The hypothesis, that population left to itself will increase in a geometrical progression, while the means of subsistence can only be enlarged in an arithmetical progression, is a mere fantasy. Vegetables, cattle, and fish, have far greater powers of productiveness than the human species; and the only obstacle to those powers being developed in an equal degree, is the want of room for them to increase, or the want of energy or wisdom in man to apply the bounty of nature to its fittest uses. The first want cannot exist while the larger part of the earth is barren, and the riches of the ocean remain unexhausted. The second, with all the disadvantages of ignorance, war, tyranny, and vice, has not prevented the boundaries of civilization from widely extending. What is there then in this particular stage of society, which should induce the belief, that the sinews of humanity are shrivelled up, and its energy falling to decay? The same quantity of food or of clothing-the same comforts and the same luxuries-which once required the labour of a hundred hands, are now produced almost without personal exertion. And is the spirit in man so broken down and debased, that, with all the aids of machinery, he cannot effect as much as the labour of his own right arm would achieve in the elder time? If, indeed, he is thus degenerate, the fault, at least, is not in nature, but in external and transitory causes. But we are prepared clearly, though briefly, to show, that man has been and is, on the whole, advancing in true virtue, and in moral and intellectual energy.

It cannot be denied, that there are many apparent oscillations in the course of the species. If we look at only a small portion of history, it may seem retrograde, as a view of one of the windings of a noble river may lead us to imagine that it is flowing from the ocean. The vast intricacies of human affairs; the perpetual opposition of interests, prejudices, and passions, do not permit mankind to proceed in a right line; but, if we overlook, any large series of ages, we shall clearly perceive, that the course of man is towards perfection. In contemplating the past, our attention is naturally attracted to the illustrious nations, whose story is consecrated by a thousand associations of early joy. But even if we take these, and forget the savage barbarism of the rest of the world, we shall find little to excite our envy. Far be it from us to deny, that there

were among these, some men of pure and disinterested virtue, whose names are like great sea-marks in the dreariness of the backward perspective, and whom future generations can only desire to imitate. Our nature has always had some to vindicate its high capabilities of good. But even among the privileged classes of Greece and Rome-the selected minority, to whom all the rights of nature were confined more strictly than in the strictest modern despotism -how rare are the instances of real and genuine goodness! That long succession of bloody tragedies-that frightful alternation of cruelties and of meannesses-the Peloponnesian war, was perpetrated in the midst of the people, who had just carried the arts to their highest perfection. Gratitude, honesty, and good faith, had no place in the breasts of Athenian citizens. The morals of the Spartans were even more despicable than those of their rivals. Their mixture of barbarity and of craft towards their foes, and the states which were tributary to their power-their unnatural sacrifice of the most sacred of the affections of nature to mere national glory— and their dreadful conduct towards the wretched Helots, who were their property, have scarcely a parallel in human history. The long conspiracy of Rome against the liberties of mankind, carried on from the time of its foundation until it began to decline, served to string every sinew into a horrid rigidity, and to steel the heart to the feelings of compassion. This is the description of its progress by one of its own historians :

Raptores orbis, postquam cuncta vastantibus defuere terræ, et mare scrutantur; si locuples hostis est, avari; si pauper, ambi'tiosi: quos non oriens non occidens satiaverit; soli omnium opes 'atque inopiam pari affectu concupiscunt. Auferre, trucidare, ra'pere, falsis nominibus imperium, atque ubi solitudinem pacem ap'pellent.'-(Tacitus Vit. Agricolæ, 30.)

The proscriptions of Marius and Sylla alone proved what this savage spirit could perpetrate at home, when it had exhausted all opportunities of satiating, among foreign states, its thirst for slaughter.

If we pass over the vast improvements in morals-the amelioration of war-the progress of political science-and the redemption of the female sex from degradation and from bondage-we shall find, in one great change alone, ample reason to rejoice in the advances of the species. The simple term, humanity, expresses the chief difference between our times and the brightest of classical ages. In those there was no feeling for man, as man-no recognition of a common brotherhood-no sense of those qualities which all men have in common, and of those claim's which those who are "made of one blood" have on each other for justice and for mercy. Manhood was nothing, citizenship was all in all. Nearly all the virtues were aristocratical and exclusive. The vast number of slaves their dreadful condition-and the sanction which the law

gave to all the cruelties practised on them-showed that the masters of the world had no sense of the dignity of their nature, whatever they might feel for the renown of their country, or the privileges of their order. The Spartan youths massacred their Helots, to nurture their valour. Indeed, the barbarities inflicted on that miserable race, by those whom we are sometimes taught to admire, would exceed belief, if they were not attested by the clearest proofs. At Rome, slaves, when too old for work, were often sent to an island in the Tiber, and left there to perish. On the slightest offence, they were frequently thrown into fish-ponds, exposed to wild beasts, or sentenced to die upon the cross. And in the same spirit of contempt for humanity, and veneration for the privileged orders, parents had power to imprison their children or put them to death, and wives were left, without protection, to the brutal ferocity of their husbands.

With how different feelings are the rights of humanity regarded in these happier seasons! Slavery is abolished throughout the Christian kingdoms of Europe, and, with few exceptions, equal justice is administered to all. There is no grief which does not meet with pity, and few miseries which do not excite the attempt to relieve them. Men are found of sensibilities keen even to agony, who, tremblingly alive in every fibre to wretchedness, have yet the moral heroism to steel their nerves to the investigation of the most hideous details of suffering, with no desire of applause or wish for reward, except that which success itself will give them. Within a few short years, what great moral changes have been effected! The traffic in human beings, which was practised without compunction or disgrace, and defended in parliament as a fair branch of commerce, is now made a felony, and those who are detected in pursuing it would almost be torn in pieces by popular fury. The most cruel enactments against freedom of thought and of discussion have been silently repealed, while scarcely a voice has been raised to defend or to mourn them. And, above all, a moral elevation has been given to the great mass of the rising generation, by the provision for their instruction, of which no time, or change, or accident, can deprive them.

[That which immediately follows, is first, an essay on the progress of Poesy, and secondly, a learned dissertation upon the modern British Poets-subjects which are strangely associated by the reviewer with Malthus on Population, and Wallace on Nature and Providence, and the Prospects of Mankind.]

There is a deep-rooted opinion, which has been eloquently propounded by some of the first critics of our age, that works of imagination must necessarily decline as civilization advances. It will readily be conceded, that no individual minds can be expected to arise, in the most refined periods, which will surpass those which

have been developed in rude and barbarous ages. But there does not appear any solid reason for believing, that the mighty works of old time occupy the whole region of poetry-or necessarily chill the fancy of these later times by their vast and unbroken shadows. Genius does not depend on times or on seasons, it waits not on external circumstances, it can neither be subdued by the violence of the most savage means, nor polished away or dissipated among the refinements of the most glittering scenes of artificial life. It is "itself alone." To the heart of a young poet, the world is ever beginning anew. He is in the generation by which he is surrounded, but he is not of it; he can live in the light of the holiest times, or range amidst gorgeous marvels of eldest superstition, or sit "lone upon the shores of old romance," or pierce the veil of mortality, and "breathe in worlds to which the heaven of heavens is but a veil." The very deficiency of the romantic, in the actual paths of existence, will cause him to dwell in thought more apart from them, and to seek the wildest recesses in those regions which imagination opens to his inward gaze. To the eye of young joy, the earth is as fresh as at the first-the tenderest dew-drop is lit up as it was in Eden-and "the splendour in the grass, the glory in the flower," yet glitters as in the earliest spring-time of the world.

The subjects in which genius rejoices, are not the vain and the transitory, but the true and the eternal, which are the same through all changes of society and shifting varieties of fashion. The heavens yet "tell the glory of God;" the hills, the vales, and the ocean, do not alter, nor does the heart of man wax old. The wonders of these are as exhaustless as they are lasting. While these remain, the circumstances of busy life-the exact mechanism of the social state-will affect the true poet but little. The seeds of genius, which contain within themselves the germs of expanded beauties and divinest sublimities, cannot perish. Wheresoever they are scattered, they must take root, striking far below the surface, overcropped and exhausted by the multitude of transitory productions, into a deep richness of soil, and, rising up above the weeds and tangled underwood which would crush them, lift their innumerable boughs into the free and rejoicing heavens.

The advancement of natural science and of moral truth do not tend really to lessen the resources of the bard. The more we know, the more we feel there is yet to be known. The mysteries of nature and of humanity are not lessened, but increased, by the discoveries of philosophic skill. The lustre which breaks on the vast clouds, which encircle us in our earthly condition, does not merely set in clear vision that which before was hidden in sacred gloom; but, at the same time, half exhibits masses of magnificent shadow, unknown before, and casts an uncertain light on vast regions, in which the imagination may devoutly expatiate. A plastic super

« ПредишнаНапред »