Page images
PDF
EPUB

Of Heroic Virtue.

Among all the endowraents of nature, or improvements of art wherein men have excelled and distin. guished themselves most in the world, there are two only that have had the honour of being called divine, and of giving that esteem or appellation to such as possessed them in very eminent degrees; which are, heroic virtue, and poetry: for prophecy cannot be esteemed any excellency of nature or of art, but wherever it is true, is an immediate gift of God, and bestowed according to his pleasure, and upon subjects of the meanest capacity; upon women or children, or even things inanimate; as the stones placed in the high priest's breast-plate, which were a sacred oracle among the Jews.

I will leave poetry to an essay by itself, and dedicate this only to that antiquated shrine of heroic virtue, which, however forgotten, or unknown in latter ages, must yet be allowed to have produced in the world the advantages most valued among men, and which most distinguish their understandings, and their lives, from the rest of their fellow-creatures.

Though it be easier to describe heroic virtue by the effects and examples, than by causes ur definitions; yet it may be said to arise from some great and native excellency of temper or genius, transcending the common race of mankind, in wisdom, goodness, and fortitude. These ingredients, advantaged by birth, improved by education, and assisted by fortune, seem to make that noble composition, which gives such a lustre to those who have possessed it, as made them appear to common eyes something more than mortals, and to have been born of some mixture between divine and human race; to have been honoured and obeyed in their lives, and after their deaths bewailed and adored.

The greatness of their wisdom appeared in the excellency of their inventions; and these, by the goodness of their nature, were turned and exercised apon such subjects as were of general good to mankind in the common uses of life, or to their own countries in the institutions of such laws, orders, or governments, as were of most ease, safety, and advantagé, to civil-society. Their valour was employed in defending their own countries from the violence of ill men at home, or enemies abroad; in reducing their barbarous neighbours to the same forms and orders of civil lives and institutions, or in relieving others from the cruelties and oppressions of tyranny and violence. These are all comprehended in three verses of Virgil describing the blessed seat in Elysium, and those that enjoyed them.

Hic manus ob patriam pugnando vulnera passi,
Inventas aut qui vitam excoluere per artes,
Quique sui memores alios fecere merendo.

Here such as for their country wounds received,
Or, who by arts invented life improv'd,
Or by deserving made themselves remembered.

Ånd, indeed, the character of heroic virtue seem to be, in short, the deserving well of mankind. Where this is chief in design, and great in success, the pretence to a hero lies very fair, and can never be allowed without it.

I have said, that this excellency of genius must be native, because it can never grow to any great height, if it be only acquired or affected; but it must be ennobled by birth, to give it more lustre, esteem, and authority; it must be cultivated by education and instruction, to improve its growth, and direct its end and application; and it must be 'assisted by fortune, to preserve it to maturity ; because the noblest spirit or genius in the world, if it falls, though never so bravely, in its first enterprises, cannot deserve enough of mankind, to pretend to so great a reward as the esteem of heroic virtue. And yet, perhaps, many a person has died in the first battle or adventure he atchieved, and lies buried in silence and oblivion, who, had he outlived as many dangers as Alexander did, might have shined as bright in honour and fame. Now since so many stars go to the making up of this constellation, 'tis no wonder it has so seldom appeared in the world ; nor that, when it does, it is received and followed with so much gazing, and so much veneration.

Among the simpler ages or generations of men, in several countries, those who were the first inventors of arts generally received and applauded as most necesBary or useful to human life, were honoured alive, and after death worshipped as gods. And so were those who had been the first authors of any good and well-instituted civil government in any country, by which the native inhabitants were reduced from savage and brutish lives, to the safety and convenience of societies, the enjoyment of property, the observance of orders, and the obedience of laws; which were followed by security, plenty, civility; riches, industry, and all kinds of arts. The evident advantages and common benefits of these sorts of institutions, made people generally inclined at home to obey such governors, the neighbour nations to esteem them, and thereby willingly enter into their protection, or easily yield to the force of their arms and prowess. Thus conquests began to be made in the world, and upon the same designs of reducing barbarous nations unto civil and well-regulated constitutions and governments, and subduing those by force to obey them, who refused to accept willingly the advantages of life or condition that were thereby offered them. Such persons of old, who excelling in those virtues, were attended by these fortunes, and made great and famous con

VOL. u.

Ff

quests, and left them under good constitutions of laws and governments; or who instituted excellent and lasting orders and frames of any political state, in what compass soever of country, or under wbat names soever of civil government, were obeyed as princes or law-givers in their own times, and were called in after-ages by the name of heroes.

From these sources, I believe, may be deduced all or most of the theology or idolatry of all the ancient pagan countries, within the compass of the four great empirjes, so much renowned in story; and perhaps of some others, as great in their constitutions, and as extended in their conquests, though not so much celebrated or observed by learned men.

« PreviousContinue »