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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.

Docno: ADMS-13-01-02-0003-0010-0029

Author: CFA
Date: 1824-09-29

Wednesday. September 29th. VI.

Attended Prayers this morning although tardy, and recitation afterwards in which I escaped by not being taken up. Returned home, dressed for the day and after breakfast attended Mr. Everetts third Lecture. The etymology of language and their origin have ever been a study among men. Considering the changes natural by transmission, it is remarkable that the radical forms are still the same. It is therefore not at all singular that men should attempt to obtain history in this way. Inquiries have given the origin of the Greek to the Hebrew, to the Celtic, the Flemish, the German. A writer of the present day is still more extravagant than Father Hardouin1 which was that German was the court language of Rome. Father Hardouin professed to believe that the Classics were all fabrications by monks in the dark ages. Others have derived the language from the Jews, the Phoenicians, the Goths and Finns. Some have supposed it the original language, Von der Hardt has supported this last opinion. He maintains the opinion that the Gothic is the parent of Latin and Greek with some appearance of probability. Previous to the arrival of the Phoenicians, the Pelasgi existed and it is supposed by some that the Poems of Homer were originally written in this language and afterwards written in the Greek. Marsham2 maintained that the Egyptian was the original language and so did Lord Monboddo,3 and many other opinions.
Two considerations account for so many theories. One, that as so little real authority remains, there is full play for the imagination as the period we are speaking of is carried back to at least 2000 years { 343 } B.C. We are authorized in saying that there are no remains of the language which was original and therefore there is no ground on which to argue. We have witnessed the changes of language in a time so much shorter that we can easily see the uncertainty of any conclusion with respect to the Gothic claim. The Greek is a derived language as indeed is every language of which we have now any idea, or knowledge. A few words generally find their way into every language from another which do not however justify any claim to forming them. We have an example of the possibility of influence in the case of the Island of Malta which the Saracens possessed for a long time in the middle ages. On this account there are a great many remains in the Arabic language, many therefore have to trace these to Carthage and Phoenicia for its origin.4 It is a fallacy however, he thinks, to call languages derivative. Those which produced a national literature should be considered original, and critics should call them so. Etymologists might call them otherwise. Different dialects of Dutch, Flemish, high German, low German, Swedish, Danish &c. are of the Northern stock. Italian, French and Spanish are all from the Latin, yet the members of one nation cannot understand the conversation or language of another. Whatever has been added or changed to the original, which was the same to all, must be original.
There are also the four different dialects of Greece which require more study to understand, the dialect of Homer also which is peculiar to him. But it is not for the grammar of a language that it is worth noticing it, [it] is for the character of the literature of the nation to which it belongs. Originality belongs to this as much as it does to the language itself. Italy wants drama, France wants history and other nations are also deficient in some particular branch which constitutes the peculiarity in their language. Though the Athenians affected to be indigenous, Greece was generally settled by the Pelasgi, barbarians of whom it is a question whether they were aborigines like our own or derived their origin from the East. It is sufficiently certain that there were emigrations from Egypt and Phoenicia about sixteen centuries before the birth of Christ. Four of them are mentioned in history, that of Cecrops in 1556, of Danaus 1485, Cadmus 1493 and Pelops 1350. As these dated [i.e. dates?] are not by any means certain, we may call it generally in the sixteenth century previous to the Christian era. There is certainly a great similarity between the Greek and Oriental languages. There has been of late years a doubt of the identity of such a person as Cadmus or of his ever having existed. It has been generally supposed correct because Cadmus, or [Redden?] as it is in the Oriental { 344 } language, signifies the East so that merely the use of the word has made us suppose it a proper name, but he did not incline to see any reason for this and supposes we might be led into a mistake by our over vigilance and then cited an example exceedingly apt to the purpose. If our history should by some calamity or accident be entirely destroyed and a mere tradition exist as to the history of Columbus, future critics might with the same ground suppose him to be a fabulous character as his name which is Colon in Spanish signifies a (first) settler, and consequently men might say that he was only the first settler and called so by way of distinction. Also of Cabot whose name cabbotir in Italian and French means to explore.
He considers the Greek language as a compound language but it appeared to him, he said, that the Pelasgii far outweighed the oriental. From political and moral causes, he should argue this as it is most probable that men will always take the common terms in use among the larger part and use them as their own. Indeed we are the only example in which the language of emigrants did not vary by that of the nations and this was only because ours was more of a case of extermination and we kept ourselves a single separate body by which it was impossible for our language to be corrupted. He then urged us to recollect and keep in mind these facts, as the Oriental emigrations were the first starting point of the history of the literature of Greece. It is rather remarkable that no native stock has ever grown to the highest excellence and [he] closed his lecture by showing in this case a similarity between the animal and vegetable world in which many trees will remain barren until engrafted with another stock when they will produce luxuriantly.
After Lecture, I returned home and read over my Astronomy, attended recitation where Mr. Farrar explained to us [with] much sense more of the Solar system. I wish and intend to state also his remarks, as he is as much of a lecturer as any other almost. He explained to day the distances of the planets and corrected any erroneous impressions we might have from seeing his orreries.
In the afternoon I wrote my Journal and got a lesson in Paley, and the Evening I employed in finishing a long day’s Journal and in reading Pope’s fifth and last Essay, with the Messiah which, to my shame, I have not noticed before as remarkable. I thus spent the whole Evening in reading and writing for a few moments at Mathematics after which I retired. X:25.
1. Father Jean Hardouin (1646–1729).
2. John Marsham.
3. James Burnett, Lord Monboddo { 345 } (1714–1799), Scottish judge and philosopher.
4. Everett’s second point, as CFA confusedly noted, was that some words are “common to many languages in consequence of the original community of stock” (Everett, Synopsis, p. 2; see entry for 1 Oct., below, for an explanation of this source).
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.