Page images

and metaphysics themselves might now have been nearly as intelligible, and as certain in their data and conclusions as are mathematics and mechanics, or the abstract principles of jurisprudence.

That the bulk of the Athenians themselves, even in the age of Pericles, were little skilled in reading and writing, is the almost inevitable conclusion to be drawn from the state of literature, in reference to the means of diffusing it in ancient times. Before the invention of printing, the slow production, the consequent scarcity, and the enormous value of books when all were manuscript, placed the possession of them beyond the reach of the poor : and where libra. ries existed, few but the learned and the great could have access to them. The mode of publishing new works (independent of private communication) was by readings to companies for hire or gratuitously in the open market-place, the schools and walks of philosophy, or at the Olympic and other national games, when all Greece was assembled to witness the corporeal and intellectual prowess of her most distinguished progeny.

How imperfect, as well as how precarious, such means of circulating knowledge must have been, we may judge by trying the experiment in imagination at home. Suppose that all the theological works to which the people of this great city could refer were chained, as the Bible, Common Prayer, and Homilies used to be, in the chancels of our churches; and all the books on general literature, approachable by ordinary readers, were attached to tables and desks under this roof, and within the walls of similar institutions and public libraries; and, further, that no volume were allowed to be taken out, or even perused, except under the eye of a sentinel with a drawn sword or shouldered musket, for the protection of property so rare and precious ;-how many, or rather how few, of the thousands and the tens of thousands who are now readers and book-owners

in this metropolis, would avail themselves of privileges so painfully to be enjoyed! Would not the sevenfold majority of the inhabitants satisfy themselves with what they could learn of religion on the Sabbath? But the poor Greek had no Sabbath, on which, resting from toil, he might repair to the temple, the grove, or the portico, for such instruction as priests and sages might deign to afford him. And would any, except those to whom literature was the daily bread of their minds, indulge an appetite for its dainties under the politic restraints of literary societies so circumstanced ?

Morals and science, therefore, at Athens, were principally taught by word of mouth, and their lessons were learned through the ear; the eyes of the vulgar had little to do towards the improvement of their minds, except as an habitual taste for painting and sculpture, of which the most finished specimens were familiar to them from infancy, tended to soften external rudeness, but added almost nothing to the stock of knowledge beyond the ideas of fine forms. Nay, even the curious delight and critical exactness with which they listened to the strains of poets, and the arguments of orators in the forum, as well as the recital of the noblest and severest forms of tragic sentiment, and the subtilest and most poignant sallies of comic wit on the stage-were perfectly consistent with a very moderate standard of actual information among a lively,'sensitive, and voluptuous people. It is certain that a fine but factitious taste may be formed under peculiar circumstances (and theirs were very peculiar), without effort, and with little knowledge of the subjects on which it is exercised; such taste referring almost exclusively to the manner in which they are handled. Hence Demosthenes might well say the first, the second, and the third requisite of a good speech was delivery; that necessarily inclu


ding harmonious composition as well as brilliant utterance.

So situated, the Athenian artisan had scarcely a motive to learn to read, because if he acquired the ability, he could have little opportunity to use it. Writing, indeed, was a profession, and the occupation of a scribe must have been a profitable one; but of course it was chiefly exercised in the service of the wealthy, the learned, and the great; those who could afford to purchase books, and those who could not live without them. That the deficiency of instruction by means of lessons addressed to the eye was not compensated by those addressed to the ear, appears from an anecdote familiar to every schoolboy, but which may be repeated here for the sake of the twofold illustration of our argument which it affords. Aristides had incurred the enmity of his fellow-citizens on account of his pre-eminent virtues. A clown, ignorant even of his person, applied to him to mark his own name for banishment on the shell used in the ballot of ostracism. Hav. ing complied with this request, the philosopher inquired what the accused had done to deserve such a punishment. “I don't know,” replied the fellow; * but it provokes me to think that he, of all men, should strive to be called the just.This story confirms the assumption that the common people of Greece, in her glory, were not generally taught to read and write, and that not only moral feeling, but intellectual discernment also, was much lower among them than among our contemporaries.

The common People of Rome. The founder of Rome seems to have been as much of a savage as might be expected of one who was. suckled by a wolf. It was the genius and sagacity of his successor which established by wisdom what he had begun in violence, and gave to." the eternal city” the principle of duration. Romulus had formed a body; Numa Pompilius lent the soul; he made his own soul.immortal upon earth in it; and his spirit swayed the counsels and led the enterprises of its senators and warriors in every stage of its progress to universal sovereignty. If but for Romulus Rome had never been-it may be affirmed, that but for Numa Pompilius, Rome had not continued to be, or had not risen above the level of the petty commonwealths that surrounded and harassed it without cessation, till they were all ingulfed in its vortex. This great prince, in a dark age, at the head of a horde of barbarian adventurers, by his transcendent policy and enlightened institutes, not only perpetuated the civil polity of the infant state on the basis of knowledge being power, but, by virtue of the same victorious principle, enabled the youthful republic in the sequel to extend her empire beyond the ditch over which Remus leaped in contenipt, and was slain in it by his brother, from the Euphrates on the one hand, to the Atlantic on the other; and from Ethiopia, within the precincts of the torrid zone, to Britain, “ divided from the world,” towards the north.

The Romans laboured under the same disadvantages in acquiring and communicating knowledge as the Greeks; and they laboured under many more from the rough fierce manners of the plebeians, and the unquenchable thirst for martial glory that distinguished the patricians. Education, of consequence, was low among all classes, not excepting the highest, till after the reduction of Greece, when the polite arts of the vanquished brought the conquerors under the liberal yoke of instruction. Meanwhile, however, even in these youthful days of Rome, we meet with more examples, and those examples of a higher order, of pure virtue, self-denial, self-devotion, self-sacrifice, than pagan antiquity can furnish from all its records besides. Simple manners, generous sentiments, unaffected scorn of corruption, public spirit, and a certain peculiar intellectual courage, as well as that personal valour which was a matter of course, being called into continual exercise by the economy of war in those times, in which, during every battle, innumerable single combats were waging at once throughout the whole field; these were the common qualities of the earlier Romans and their descendants for five centuries.

The circumstance to which this cast of character may be traced is honourable to the people, and glorious to that sex which, among the Romans, was always treated with the reverence, not less than the affection, which “man that is born of a woman" owes to her from whom he not only derives life, but to whom he is indebted even until death for life's best conforts and sweetest enjoyments. That rev. erence among uncivilized tribes is rarely paid by the savage of the forest or the wilderness to bis helpmate; and even among the polished nations of antiquity, Greece herself not excepted, woman had not the honour due to her; her lord and master, therefore, derived not from her the benefit of that influence which she was intended to exercise over him, without appearing to exercise any influence at all. The Roman matrons and the Roman maidens are equally illustrious in the primitive annals of their country. The mothers were the instructers of the youth of both sexes; they taught them at home; every family was a school of industry and a school of virtue ; frank, simple, and austere. Regarding their children as their jewels, it was their duty, their pride, and their happiness to make them as intrinsically valuable and externally ornamental as might be.

Roman Literature. At length, Carthage destroyed, and Greece subdued, literature began to be cultivated with enthu. siasm by this hardy and heroic people; and, once

« PreviousContinue »