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ON THE INFLUENCE AND RESPONSIBILITIES OF
In hoc gaudeo aliquid discere, ut doceam.—SENECA. C'est en cherchant à instruire les hommes que l'on peut pratiquer cette vertu générale qui comprend l'amour de tous.--MONTESQUIEU.
Nothing affords more decisive evidence of the gradual development of humanity, or a more encouraging omen of its future progress, than the indications, furnished by the successive periods of civilization, of the continually widening influence of Literature. Mind acts upon mind through speech. Speech is mind made audible; and for many ages, speech was the only instrument of civilization. When the more refined art had been devised of printing sound, of arresting and perpetuating in a visible form the delicate and fugitive tones of the human voice, and of rendering one mind no longer dependent on the imperfect transmission of other minds, itself the direct instructor of distant or future multitudes-Literature commenced its wonderful empire over the destinies of the human race; and every improvement which since then has facilitated and perfected the recording of men's ideas, has increased its power and added to its conquests. Oral and written communication still divide between them the world of mental influence; but, in the long duration of their joint sway, they have almost reversed the relation which they once sustained to each other. What was at first the rare and elaborate, has now become the ready and ordinary medium of instruction; and speech, which once governed mankind, has been chiefly restricted, in our modern civilization, to the more urgent and exciting occasions of social intercourse.
Literature, in its rudiments, was little more than what the word itself expresses—the science of letters. The extreme imper
fection and unwieldiness of the earliest implements and materials for writing necessarily confined the use of alphabetical characters within very narrow limits. Carved with labour on the surface of rocks and walls, or on tablets of brass and stone, they were employed principally for the recording of names and events; and the progress which has hitherto been made in the decyphering of Egyptian hieroglyphics, between which and the earliest stage of alphabetical writing the distinction is almost imperceptible, affords little support to the belief entertained by some enthusiastic inquirers, that under them is veiled a boundless treasure of science and philosophy. The limitation of the earliest use of letters to the priesthood, anciently the sole depositories of learning, and the consequent origin of sacred dialects and sacred characters, will account for the religious veneration in which the visible symbols of sound were held by the oldest inhabitants of the earth; and, if we chose to give way to imagination, we might almost fancy we discerned, in the reverential feelings with which the first attempts at recording thought were contemplated, an obscure foreboding of the mighty influence which the future extension of the practice was one day destined to exert.*
The progress of civilization was marked by the constant encroachment of the sphere of written on that of oral communication. Codes of law, morality, and religion, (for these three elements were intermingled and confounded in the earliest legislation,) which had been originally promulgated through the lips of priests or magistrates, were now embodied in a permanent form, on tablets of wood, or stone, or metal, and preserved in the sanctuary; inscriptions on pillars or on the front of temples admonished and instructed the public mind; and poetry, that most ancient vehicle of wisdom, quitted its precarious existence. in the breath of men, passed into the fixed and silent letter, and transmitted to posterity a faithful image of the manners and feelings of former generations. New social interests, new regions of mental activity, were successively brought under the sway of this most important of human inventions; treaties, con
* Familiarized as we are with the daily and hourly operations of written communication, we find it difficult to conceive the feelings of astonishment and awe which the earliest experience of them must have produced on the mind. We have only to consult the records of savage life for an explanation of many of the extraordinary statements of the ancient world. Some Indians, who could not understand how the Europeans had obtained intelligence from a letter, held the written paper to their ear, to ascertain whether it had anything to say to them. A Peruvian slave, who found that the writing which he carried with him discovered to his master, the number of figs which he had eaten by the way, on a future occasion hid the paper under a great stone while he committed a similar theft, in the belief that it could not then see, and of course could not report what he was doing.–See Kopp. Bilder und Schriften der Vorzeit, ii, 54.
tracts, political transactions, the genealogical records of families and tribes, the reduction of the calendar, and the yearly chronicling of national events. Freed from the restraints of sacerdotal dictation, the use of writing soon rose to new importance, and acquired a deeper moral influence among the Greeks. As early as the age of the Ptolemies, in the third century before the Christian era, the spirit of learning, in the modern sense of that term, began to manifest itself; books were now accumulated with eager curiosity by rich and enlightened princes, the only parties then equal to such an undertaking; and scholars, who devoted their lives to the editing and illustrating of ancient
the overthrow of the freedom of Greece, the same tastes and tendencies passed with its civilization into Italy and modern Europe. The great men of the latter days of the Roman republic, the most distinguished of the emperors, and not a few of the highest class of their subjects, were zealous cultivators of literature, bought up manuscripts at a great price in Greece, Egypt, and Asia, and often maintained a number of transcribers (librarii) at their own expense. Nepos's account of the establishment of Atticus * gives us a lively picture of the habits of a literary Roman; “in ea erant pueri litteratissimi, anagnostæ optimi, et plurimi librarii.” The founding of the Palatine Library by Augustus, proved him a not unworthy successor, in this respect, of Eumenes and Ptolemy. But the most decisive evidence of the wide diffusion of literature among the Romans and Greeks of this period is furnished by the existence of a class of men who grew rich by the trade of transcribing and publishing books. The Sosii, of whom Horace speaks, were the Murrays and Colburns of the Augustan age.
Nevertheless, in the most highly civilized periods of the ancient world, the costliness of books must have confined the influence of literature almost entirely to the rich, and that very small portion of the middle class, chiefly freedmen, whom the Roman aristocracy educated for their own purposes. Speech still continued to be the most powerful organ of public opinion, and the chief instrument of public instruction. Literature, itself, was first popularized and disseminated through the agency of the living voice; and when it had thus attained the object of publication, passed to its permanently silent retreat on the shelves of the learned. For many generations, the songs of Homer were circulated among the Greeks, in the recitations of wandering rhapsodists; the odes of Pindar were sung at the feast of victory; and the prevalent tradition, that Herodotus re
• Vita Attici. xiii.
cited his history at the Olympic Games, though it may not be strictly accordant with historical fact, proves how consonant such a method of giving publicity to a work must have been to the genius of the times. The conflicting tendencies of public opinion found utterance in the debates of rival orators, or in the broad caricature and marked allusions of the drama; while the disputations in the schools of philosophers kept alive the freedom of inquiry, and diffused with their disciples a spirit of active intelligence through the community. At a dinnertable in modern Europe, the last new work forms à natural topic of conversation, because, from the rapid dispersion of copies, it may be reasonably presumed that every person of education will have read it, or at least have seen it noticed in some of the many journals and reviews. Among the Romans, on the contrary, the choicest pieces of history and poetry were read during their banquets by the anagnoste, and helped to suggest those subjects of elegant discussion which might else, from the different constitution of their literary world, have been wanting. If the Roman authors had not the same opportunity as ours, of recommending their productions by a laudatory article in some widely-circulated periodical, they accomplished the same purpose quite as effectually by a public recitation, which all their friends and admirers made a point of attending, to overwhelm them with their applause.* It appears, therefore, that the most popular influences of the old civilization, even in its most advanced periods, were far more extensively exerted through the voice than through the pen.
In the course of the middle ages, literature ceased to occupy and interest the laity, and became again almost exclusively the function of the priesthood. Letters belonged to the Church ; clerk and priest were synonymous terms; and, as in heathen times, the influences which acted most widely and powerfully on the popular mind were administered by the tongue. While the monastic recluse was committing his recondite speculations to writing for the use of a few solitary dreamers like himself, the legend, the fable, and the ballad, dispersed by the voice and entrusted only to the ear, had free course among the people, made one by the feeling of their common Christianity, and deposited in their rude hearts the seeds of future change. We must not look for the earliest indications of the coming reformation in the treatises of the learned, but in the spontaneous breaking forth of the poetry of common life, in the free sallies of the Norman fabliaux, and in the bold and spirit-stirring effusions of the Minnesingers and the Troubadours; and these
* See different passages in the Roman satirists and the younger Pliny.
productions, though now forming a part of the general body of European literature, wrought their effect on the mind of the contemporaneous generation, not in their written but in their oral state.
The first event in the history of human affairs which popularized literature as a distinct agency from speech, was the Reformation, by Luther. Many shortly preceding circumstances contributed, no doubt, to impress on it this decided tendency ;the revival of the ancient secular literature, the new impulse given to the commercial spirit by the discoveries of the great navigators of the 15th century, and, more than all, the intention of printing. Nevertheless, it was the nature and essential working of the Reformation itself that principally occasioned the effect alluded to. Had the art of printing been discovered in another age, when the human mind was less deeply roused and intensely shaken, centuries might have rolled away ere its important consequences began to be felt. The Reformation involved a powerful development of popular interest. The controversies which it excited, were not, in their most important bearings, mere questions of the schools, but touched the deep root of religion in every human heart, and drew after them considerations which came home to the convictions and experience of thousands in every condition of life, who were now forced to the exercise of their reasoning powers. To the discussions thus produced, the newly-awakened agency of the press gave a depth, an activity, and an extent of influence before unknown: and in the fierce warfare of opinion which was then kindled, and in which the popular mind warmly participated, we may already discern not a few of the characteristic operations of our modern periodical literature, and perhaps the first working of those social tendencies out of which it ultimately grew. Here, as in most of the great crises of civilization, religion gave the impulse to the new mental development. The learning of Catholic times had partaken very much of a sacerdotal character; it belonged to the caste, which almost exclusively cultivated it. But the new interest which had been awakened by the Reformation, brought other labourers into the field of controversy. The clergy were no longer the only parties concerned. The public, having been once appealed to, could not henceforth be disregarded in the continuance of the dispute. Enlightened members of the secular classes drew their pens in the cause of truth and freedom. The lay element of the great Protestant Universities of Holland and Germany began now to make its influence felt in the decision of questions, which were virtually admitted to involve the happiness of all men. How many dis