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Browsing: Diary of Charles Francis Adams, Volume 1


Docno: ADMS-13-01-02-0003-0010-0030

Author: CFA
Date: 1824-09-30

Thursday. September 30th. VI.

Attended Prayers and recitation, and was again reprieved for a time. I now think that every escape is something. After breakfast, I attended Lecture as usual. He today discussed the origin and progress of alphabetical writing, an inquiry into which, he said, had a material effect upon the question of the authenticity of the oldest writings. There were three distinct processes to be gone through, the one which invents the signs of objects and adapts oral sounds to them, the other which notes them down and a third which would be to associate the other two, and make them represent each other. The first process is the most wonderful of all. The imitative faculty is most powerfully implanted in us and we soon learn to make figures upon paper resembling certain objects and then use them as the signs of these objects afterwards. Previous to this, all communication must have been oral and the history of a tribe could only be transmitted by heads of families and priests, the one who would notice what happened within their own circle and the other the religion and rites of the people. We have reason to suppose that pictures were the commencement of Hieroglyphical writing. Mexicans carried this sort of communication to very great perfection, probably as great as possible, but from it’s nature this sort of language must have been very obscure, and from this cause probably arose alphabetical writing.
This change must have taken place from the perfection of [a] third process which, as he stated before, was the association of the oral and graphic signs. Hieroglyphical writing was unavoidably obscure, as it confounded frequently the signs with the emblems which represented the ideas. Eichhorn1 has made an ingenious conjecture concerning the story of Herodotus, concerning the army of an Oriental prince or, as we may suppose, of Sennachieb [Sennacherib]. This historian says that while in Egypt he understood that this army had been destroyed by mice, who coming to the tents ate off the strings of their bows and the straps of their shields, by which they were made defenceless and perished by the attacks of their enemies. Now in Egypt the mouse is the symbol of destruction and there was a statue of a king there holding a mouse in his hand, alias destruction, but some person, it is supposed, knowing Herodotus to be a stranger, passed off this trick upon { 346 } him, and he wrote this among other[s] as doubtful stories in his history. Hieroglyphics have come down to us as remaining from many monuments. Those on the [monuments?] are the most frequent and on the sarcophagi, both inside and out, also upon some obelisks. The Rosetta stone, as it is called, has an inscription in hieroglyphics, in Coptic, and in Greek. Ammianus Marcellinus has preserved the Greek interpretation of these on one of the Roman obelisks which he showed to us as well as an engraving of the obelisk itself. No successful attempts have ever been made however to decipher them. But one man has ever succeeded in the least and he has merely with reason argued that these figures which are surrounded by parallellogramic line, or rather curve, are proper names, so that we are authorized in making our first assertion, as this has given us no clue, and we may rather believe that there is no interpretation to be obtained for them as they express no language. This species of writing was more used in Egypt than elsewhere but it is supposed that they had an alphabetical character also.
The progress and utility of alphabetical writing was of course affected by want of materials to write on. The earliest in use for this purpose were stone, metals, wood, bark of trees, skins and linen. Bricks or tiles were used at Babylon, hard wood was also in use which was covered with a thin coat of wax and was written upon with a thing called a stylus made of steel and coming to a point; the other end was flattened and served to efface what had already been written if correction was wanted. The laws of the twelve tables and the public acts at Rome were written on bronze plates and laid up in the aerarium,2 copies of which were distributed among the provinces. At the time of the burning of Rome under Vitellius, three thousand of these were destroyed. There is a large brazen plate at Lyons taken from the bed of the Rhine which contains an harangue of the Emperor Claudius. The original law for the ejection of the Bacchanals mentioned in Livy as a Senatus consultum was dug up in Calabria in 1640. He showed us a copy of it. Preparations of linen were also made which were covered with wax. It is probable that the books of Moses were written so and the books of Homer, if written at all, were probably in this way also. Skins of animals were prepared with wax boiled with the lees of olives. Mr. Gifford, the famous editor of the Quarterly Review,3 was so poor, it is said, that he used to write his poems on smooth pieces of leather at the intervals of his work in a saddler’s shop. Cleanthes, it appears, wrote down his master’s lectures upon muscle shells and the shoulder blades of oxen. The seventh century before Christ under Psammetichus, inner bark of trees was peeled off with a needle, dried { 347 } in the sun and polished when it was written upon with a reed, having the appearance of paint. But this preparation, as given in books, does not correspond with the examples which we have which look like a coarse cloth. This was probably used by the poets Alcaeus and Sappho.
The introduction of paper was subsequent to the age of Homer. It had an effect on letters in Greece similar to that of the invention of printing on literature in modern times. The Herculanian rolls are the oldest specimens we have of the papyrus and they have been so decomposed by heat that we cannot judge of them. The use of it continued until the eleventh century A.C. Parchment was perfected by Eumenes, king of Pergamus, as being rival kings in their desire to obtain libraries, Ptolemy had forbid the exportation of Paper which however was thus without avail. It was used generally in Europe in the seventh Century, Cotton paper in the eleventh and linen in the fourteenth.
Lecture being over I went to Lothrops and learnt my directions for the Commencement of the military campaign, then returned to my room and wrote my Forensic on the subject “whether Moral Obligation implies a future state of rewards and punishments.” I was on the affirmative. After dinner I went and gave my company a drill in the rifle exercise, then attended Forensics. They were pretty good, generally speaking, and Mr. Hedge very simply stated the case and decided in favour of our side of the question. I returned and wrote my Journal. In the Evening I visited Brenan, queried the Freshmen a little and then returned, sat in my room some time and then dispersed for a half an hour in which time I finished my duties and then went to Sheafe’s where we met again with the addition of Rundlet and Fay (by we I mean the Lyceum). After they had gone we went into Otis’s and drank Porter and conversed making it quite late before we retired. XII:15.
1. Johann Gottfried Eichhorn (1752–1827), Orientalist and biblical scholar at Göttingen.
2. The state treasury of Rome, which was kept in the basement of the Temple of Saturn (Harper’s Dict. of Classical Lit.).
3. William Gifford (1756–1826), the first editor of the Quarterly Review (DNB).
Cite web page as: Founding Families: Digital Editions of the Papers of the Winthrops and the Adamses, ed.C. James Taylor. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2014.
http://www.masshist.org/apde2/