Page images

perience is beginning to re-act on the world of abstract speculation. Living interests are more thought of than abstract theories, and wherever they arise, defend, assert, and propagate themselves through the medium of the press. They compel literature into their service. Literature has new duties cast upon her. She stoops to be a servant of all-work. She has ceased to be exclusively a teacher in the name of the few, to become an interpreter of the wants and wishes of the Many. ,

This will be admitted to be no exaggerated description of the actual state of periodical literature in England. And what a contrast does it present to the once limited extent of literary agency ! It may be well to pause for a moment on this contrast. In the earliest times, as we have seen, the use of letters was a sacerdotal monopoly. When secularized among the Greeks and Romans, it was still confined to the highest classes and their dependents. In the Middle ages, it passed again almost exclusively into the hands of the priesthood. From the revival of letters, nearly, we may say, to the breaking out of the revolutionary movements of the last century, literature was considered as the appropriate vocation of the clergy, and the highly-educated of the then recognized aristocracy of mind and character; and was not yet divorced from its ancient connexion with the seats of learning. The parties who attempted to influence the public mind by literature were supposed, from their acquirements and their education, to be the depositories of the soundest principles, the most correct views, and the most accurate knowledge; and the class to which they addressed themselves, was disposed to receive their instructions with respect, if not with acquiescence. When a great popular movement was needed for any object, the conductors of it had recourse to the old method of oral address, and instead of endeavouring to convince the understanding by the systematic exposition of principles in a periodical, worked upon the feelings and prejudices by the contagious influence of speech. To take an extreme case for our illustration from a period long preceding that to which we have just referred, let us only consider the effect of preaching on the uncultivated multitudes of Europe at the time of the Crusades! What has the press ever accomplished that will admit of a comparison with the depth, the instantaneousness, and the universality of impression, produced by the harangues of the hermit Peter, and the abbot of Clairvaux ? The guarding of first principles, the maintenance of the foundations of morals, religion, and society, were confided in those days to the single class which then ruled the world, and in which a scholastic discipline trained up many indivi

ontrolled and cumpelled the maciety: and th

duals of great learning, in reference to their times, and of the most acute and vigorous intellects. These men understood human nature, and moved the springs of society: and the influences which agitated and impelled the mass, went out from them, were controlled and guided by them, and made to subserve their deeper designs. Knowledge and intelligence they kept to themselves, or let out in such measures only as they deemed expedient. They swayed mankind, not by the power of reason, but by inspiring faith, and engaging their religious sympathies. What a change has the revolution of six or seven centuries accomplished! Literature is now filling the length and breadth of the land with its daily influences. It is an instrument of incalculable power, which has now passed into the hands of the people themselves, which they may not indeed always use to their own advantage, but which it is hardly possible they should ever again permit to be employed against them by the craft of one or a few.

The change, no doubt, is in many respects cheering and consolatory; but, like all great changes, it is not accompanied with pure and unmixed good. It is better, certainly, that on the questions which concern their well-being and happiness, the people should be led to reflect, in private, calmly and collectedly, on the reasonings addressed to them by a writer, than have their feelings wrought up to enthusiasm by the wild strains of a wandering minstrel, or the harangues of some fanatical preacher and impassioned demagogue. But, on the other hand, these more free and natural influences often cherished the deep and disinterested feelings of national pride and religious fellowship, and promoted a certain heartiness and determination of character; while periodical literature, from the party spirit in which it is too often conducted, exercises the reasoning powers at the expense of the affections, and favours a cold, selfish, and calculating habit of mind. For the same reason, the multitude of publications, expressing all shades of opinion, is not so favourable to the discovery of truth as might be supposed. Men write for their party, and are read by their party, which is thus confirmed in a bigotted attachment to its own views. Authority has been dethroned, to make room for many petty despotisms of egotism and self-sufficiency. The very occasion of periodical literature exposes it to the almost certain risk of superficiality—of taking up grounds which yet require to be examined, and of reasoning from them, with a show of perfect confidence to the passing events of the day. Those who have observed how generally among men temerity of assertion procures readiness of belief, may estimate the amount of error and delusion which is thus circulated in the world. The most valuable contributions to human improvement have been made without regard to present popularity. But the conductor of a periodical, especially if his subsistence depend on his labours, has an eye to its immediate sale ; and he has therefore a strong temptation to write for effect; or, what is worse, to the feelings and prejudices of those amongst whom he expects to find the most numerous customers. In this state of things, and till the moral tone of public opinion is greatly elevated, it is inevitable that truth should sometimes be sacrificed to party, and solid instruction to momentary excitement. “ The cheapness," says Frederick Schlegel, “ of the materials of printing has introduced a dangerous neglect of the old and genuine monuments of human intellect, and a still more dangerous influx of paltry and superficial compositions, alike hostile to soundness of judgment and purity of taste; a sea of frothy conceits, and noisy dullness, upon which the spirit of the age is tossed hither and thither, not without great and frequent danger of entirely losing sight of the compass of meditation, and the polar star of truth.”* However little sympathy we may have with the spirit which dictated these words, it cannot be denied that they contain some truth, and abundant matter for grave and serious reflection. To go back to what has been—to arrest the impulse which is bearing society onward in one direction—is impossible; it seems the wiser and more courageous course to look facts, which cannot be disputed, fairly in the face, and to regard them as the unavoidable result of tendencies which have been undergoing a progressive development ever since civilization commenced; but it certainly is our duty to inquire with earnestness, what are the dangers and the difficulties which accompany these tendencies—what are the responsibilities which they devolve on those who live in the midst of them, and who would fain control them to good—and by what means they can be made to assist in maturing the germs of a new and higher civilization, amidst the breaking up and dissolution of that which is slowly passing away. It can hardly be doubted that the moulding of the popular mind for good or for evil must henceforth depend, in no small degree, on the agency of periodical literature. It is therefore most desirable to renew and maintain the connexion, which it once possessed, with the highest cultivation of the community. A few remarks on this subject will form a seasonable termination to the present paper.

Every one who undertakes, in however humble a way, to influence the feelings and judgments of his fellow-men through the press, contracts a high responsibility to the great and sacred * Lectures on the History of Literature, vol. ii, page 39. Engl. Transl. 2nd edit,

cause of the right and the true; and under a deep sense of that responsibility he must write if he would accomplish good. A comparison, perhaps, will be instituted between parties in literature and parties in politics. It will be said, that as in Parliament a man's first duty is to support his party; to force it into power, or to maintain it in power; so, in the world of opinion, it should be the immediate object of a periodical writer, to bring into notice and favour the principles which are assumed by him and his adherents to be just, and to procure them ascendancy in society. It would be quite foreign to our present purpose to discuss the received maxims of parliamentary morality; but in literature, we cannot for a moment admit that the service of a party or a sect should be considered, even proximately, of more importance than the service of truth. How then are we to proceed ? Must we present ourselves to the public, as mere sifters of other men's opinions—as the unsettled and doubtful searchers after a truth, which as yet we have not obtained ? Certainly not. While we are in this state we are incompetent to teach and to guide. But after a due course of reflection and inquiry, most men come to the acknowledgment of certain principles, which appear to them to be fundamental. Unconstrained agreement in what is perceived and felt to be fundamental, creates, so far, a particular party, and furnishes a legitimate occasion of joint action in the promotion of the truth.

Some principles of this nature are announced or implied in the appearance of every periodical. Without them there would be no ground for its existence. But they who conduct it must show that they assert these principles because they feel them to be true, and only so far as they feel them to be true, without any reference to the secular position or influence of the parties amongst whom they may chance to be outwardly professed. Such a connexion is a mere accident, which ought to have no weight with the sincere lover of truth. Once assumed, these principles should be reasoned out fearlessly and consequentially into all their results. Thus only can their real character, and their relation to other principles, be ascertained, and the cause of general truth advanced. Should any of their legitimate consequences be found at variance with truths established on independent grounds, to that extent should a modification in the assumed principles be at once and cheerfully conceded. Noargument must be pressed beyond the point which it fairly reaches; and no inference rejected because it throws a weight into the opposite scale to that in which we would fain make the probabilities preponderate; and where results, logically arrived at, cannot be reconciled, in that relation we must be content to leave them, till further inquiry discovers the hidden connexion between them. Any thing is preferable to forcing evidence and straining conclusions in favour of a system or a party. Through our entire management of controverted questions, we must let a spirit of candour, sincerity, and truthfulness shine forth, if we would secure the confidence of those who alone are worth convincing, or assist in the development of that universal truth, in which all are equally interested.

This, under any circumstances, is the only course which an honest man could pursue. But we further believe it to be the course, if men would only throw themselves into it frankly and courageously, that would lead most surely and most directly to general esteem and lasting popularity. Addressing themselves, as the conductors of most periodicals necessarily do, to the many and not to the few, it follows, of course, that they must select such topics for discussion as the many are likely to take an interest in, (and the number of these, with the progress of education, is greatly increasing,) and handle them in such a style as the many will comprehend. But, this being presupposed, we feel persuaded that the nearest way to the hearts and convictions of their readers will be to evince a real desire for their instruction—a sympathy with their better and nobler feelings—and that genuine respect for them as men, which implies, that they are capable of being interested in what is rational, beautiful, and excellent, and that they would rather know the truth than be told what flatters their prejudices and pride. It is our doctrine, and if it be a delusion it is one of which we should be almost sorry to be disabused, that man is naturally capable of good and truth

—that his mind has an affinity for them—and that, if they are only kindly and judiciously presented, they have more power over him than the most specious forms of error. Those who think that the mass of men must live for ever in an atmosphere of ignorance and prejudice, shut out from all that is genial and exhilarating in science, literature, and art, appear to us not more mistaken as to the matter of fact, than deserving of pity for the feelings which lead them to so melancholy a conclusion. Of all the kinds of infidelity which exist, none is, in our view, so truly deplorable as a want of faith in humanity. It strikes at the very root of religion in the soul. Faith and love are intimately connected; and, as the beloved apostle profoundly observes, “he that loveth not his brother, whom he hath seen, how can he love God, whom he hath not seen?" It is this faith in man that must save the world : and he that would aid that object by his writings or his active labours, must go to work with this generous faith strong and active in his heart.

« PreviousContinue »