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Browsing: Diary of Charles Francis Adams, Volume 1


Docno: ADMS-13-01-02-0003-0010-0028

Author: CFA
Date: 1824-09-28

Tuesday. September 28th. VI.

Attended Prayers and recitation this morning, was not called upon, fortunately, or it would have been the worse for me. I must despair of again making a good recitation in this branch of study.1 After it was { 339 } over, I returned home, read my usual Chapters in the Bible and dressed myself. I know not what is the reason but I do not desire a happier life as to personal comforts than I lead now. My room is my pleasure and I feel exceeding little inclined to pursue the dissipated course of last year. My friends will not allow it indeed, hereafter, but I do not know that I shall not be weak enough to pursue a similar if not a worse course than before. I am the creature of inclination by far more than I wish to think myself.
At study bell, we attended Mr. Everetts Second Lecture. The period anterior to the oldest writings is one which from the nature of the case could hardly give us much light as to it’s history. We can very fairly conclude that nothing but theory could be brought forward concerning it. We could collect only a little from the books of the Hebrew which were in a later time written in that language. Excepting an explanation of the settlement of the aborigines in America, the Bible affords us as good a history of the first formation and extension of Man as could be found and appears perfectly probable, and the remarkable similarity which exists in the language and worship of the people of the East and West would authorize the supposition that they had been derived from a common stock and after separation had changed and differed in the course of time. But2 the history of the principal tribes of the earliest times appears to have a veil drawn over it which it is impossible to take away. Inquiry is vain. As the time in which events take place is near to us, we see the first causes of things and are able to trace events of importance even to the minutest incidents. Time destroys these recollections and particulars are dropped for want of notice in records. As we recede from a hundred to a thousand years we are satisfied if we can mention entire dynasties and merely give a character to an age. We are surprised when we consider how little we know of the history of Carthage, once the rival of Rome, and how doubtful we are of the derivation of the twelve tables which fixed the greatness of the last City.
The early history of Greece has become extremely involved in fable and the identity of men can with great justice be questioned. The accounts of centaurs and other beings who partook of the nature of deities is so mixed in with the early traditions that it is impossible to know what to extract in order to reduce the account to probability. Indeed it is hardly desirable to know any further, as we may with ground suppose that the early compositions have been dropped only because they were worthless; a language and it’s history is only remarkable so far as it exerts an influence upon the character of the { 340 } literature of the nation and for this period only is it worth knowing. The true place for commencing antiquarian researches is where we become supplied with authentic tradition and this is only at a comparatively recent period. It is a remarkable thing in instituting a comparative view of the two great ancient nations that one is indebted to the other for all it’s literature as nothing in the Latin language can strictly be called original if we except the letters of Cicero. It is also remarkable that we are indebted to Rome almost exclusively for our law as Greece had but little knowledge in that science. To Greece we owe our finest models in the drama, in poetry, history and all the organization of modern letters. Greece also transmitted it to us through the fugitives of Constantinople when we were in the lowest state of ignorance. It is also remarkable that their decisions in taste are not controverted to this day, our ways of writing being similar, the peculiarities which critics call romantic belonging rather to the philosophical than to the literary character of modern works. As an instance of this force of antiquity, he mentioned the drama which may divide a play into four or six acts with as much propriety, but no instance of one in either of these divisions ever has or probably ever will succeed. While we derive from these countries the two great branches of literature and law it is somewhat remarkable and unaccountable that we derive our religion from a separate disconnected nation and that, too, the most inconsiderable in ancient times. The study of letters in the Greek language has indeed an intrinsic value and while there is sympathy between mind and mind, the catalogue of distinguished men must excite the admiration and respect of every age.
He then came to notice a controversy which arose concerning the relative value of the ancients and moderns. A great many men had advocated the superiority of the former and forgot to pursue the principle that merit and not age was to be praised. Instead of adhering to their superiority, we ought to be glad when we discover that we really improve upon the ancients. Indeed it would be singular if, according to the natural course of things, having the assistance of these as models and so much experience and wider fields of knowledge, we did not at least equal, probably surpass them. He then illustrated by mentioning a master and his scholars. It would be unreasonable to suppose that a scholar was doomed to remain at the same point exactly where his instructor left him, that he never was to exceed him in any thing. Were this the case the world would ever be at a stand. Indeed only Narrow minded men start with the assertion that this inquiry alone is worth prosecuting. A real scholar will ever disdain these little literary fac• { 341 } tions. He then gave a brief view of the controversy. It was not a new one as Horace, Cicero and Quinctilian.3 The first took the Greeks as his model, admired them and followed them but he did not approve of calling every thing good only because it was old. Cicero supported the dignity of the ancients. Quinctilian, in comparing the rival merits of Cicero and Demosthenes, declares finally in favour of the former but at the same time declares that he shall be much attacked on this account. The revival of letters in Europe was the era of pedantic and unmeasured admiration of the older writers. And any thing was admired which came from the hands of Aristotle and Homer.4 The first formal controversy on the subject was started by Alexander Tassone, preceding this, Annibal Carlo had published a work at Modena called “Various reflections” in which he attacks these two venerated authors. It is a book of much ingenuity and independance but not much learning or taste.
The question was again revived at the close of the seventeenth century by Perrault5 but in this controversy all those who were most able in themselves to be arguments to defend the moderns were on the other side of the question. It originated in a Poem of this man’s which was read at the Academy in which he depreciated the ancient authors and set them below a large list of names among whom but three have come down with distinction. The rest have sunk in oblivion or under ridicule. Fontenelle6 can be ranked on his side of the question and could hardly be called unably defended by a man of his talents and character. Boileau, Fenelon and Racine, three bright examples in favour of their argument, came out against them. It was remarkable that Perrault did not endeavour to reconcile the first of them by placing him on his list instead of irritating him as he did. In England the controversy was agitated about the year 1690 by Sir William Temple who, for a man of his usual sense, appears exceedingly prejudiced on this subject. He argued that there was no merit to be brought forward in modern times and, singular to observe, did not recollect the names of Shakespeare and Milton, of Locke and Newton and Boyle. He was answered very fully and triumphantly by a man named Wotton.7 He closed his lecture by an anecdote illustrating the fanaticism of men and attachment to old prejudices, that upon the discovery of the circulation of the blood, Dr. Harvey when first disclosing it states that he lost all his practice and none could make a Physician over forty years old believe it. After it was fully allowed, a reaction took place and men said it had always been known and even wrote books to prove that Solomon was acquainted with the fact. I have been very diffuse in this { 342 } lecture but I do not know how to condense it. I shall in future attempt to discover a plan. Much, I have left out even now.
After lecture, I went home and read over Ferguson upon the first part of the Solar system, but when taken up, I knew nothing about the distances. In the afternoon I wrote my Journal, studied my Paley, attended recitation and Prayers, returned home and spent the Evening well in writing my Journal, reading an Essay of Pope’s, and making an attempt to acquire a little of a review in Topography but did not succeed as usual. X.
1. Mathematics.
2. CFA carelessly wrote “in” (editorially deleted) as the second word of this sentence.
3. Thus in MS .
4. CFA originally wrote “Plato,” and then overwrote “Homer.”
5. The French poet, Charles Perrault (1628–1703).
6. The French author, Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle (1657–1757).
7. Henry Wotton (1568–1639), English poet and diplomat.