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the question to which we will immediately afterwards proceed.
Popularity is an acquisition more level to the most ordinary capacities, and therefore is a subject of more general ambition, than posthumous fame. It addresses itself to the senses. Applause is a species of good fortune to which perhaps no mortal ear is indifferent. The persons who constitute the circle in which we are applauded, receive us with smiles of approbation and sympathy. They pay their court to us, seem to be made happy by our bare presence among them, and welcome us to their houses with congratulation and joy. The vulgar portion of mankind scarcely understand the question of posthumous fame; they cannot comprehend how panegyric and honour can “soothe the dull, cold ear of death :" but they can all.conceive the gratification to be derived from applauding multitudes and loud huzzas.
One of the most obvious features however that attends
upon popularity, is its fugitive nature. No man has once been popular, and has lived long, without experiencing neglect at least, if he were not also at some time subjected to the very intelligible disapprobation and censure of his fellows. The good will and kindness of the multitude has a devouring appetite, and is like a wild beast that you should stable under your roof, which, if you do not feed with a continual supply, will turn about and attack its protector.
One touch of nature makes the whole world kin,
More laud than they will give to gold o'erdusted. Cromwel well understood the nature of this topic, when he said, as we are told, to one of his military companions, who called his attention to the rapturous approbation with which they were received by the crowd on their return from a successful expedition, “ Ah, my friend, they would accompany us with equal demonstrations of delight, if, upon no distant occasion, they were to see us going to be hanged !"
The same thing which happens to the popularity attendant on the real or imaginary hero of the multitude, happens also in the race after posthumous fame.
As has already been said, the number of men is exceedingly great in every civilised state of society, who make the sciences and arts engendered by the human mind, the sole or the principal objects of their occupation.
This will perhaps be most strikingly illustrated by a retrospect of the state of European society in the middle, or, as they are frequently styled, the
It has been a vulgar error to imagine, that the mind of man, so far as relates to its active and inventive powers, was sunk into a profound sleep, from which it gradually recovered itself at the pe
riod when Constantinople was taken by the Turks, and the books and the teachers of the ancient Greek language were dispersed through Europe. The epoch from which modern invention took its rise, commenced much earlier. The feudal system, one of the most interesting contrivances of man in society, was introduced in the ninth century; and chivalry, the offspring of that system, an institution to which we are mainly indebted for refinement of sentiment, and humane and generous demeanour, in the eleventh. Out of these grew the originality and the poetry of romance.
These were no mean advancements. But perhaps the greatest debt which after ages have contracted to this remote period, arose out of the system of monasteries and ecclesiastical celibacy. Owing to these a numerous race of men succeeded to each other perpetually, who were separated from the world, cut off from the endearments of conjugal and parental affection, and who had a plenitude of leisure for solitary application. To these men we are indebted for the preservation of the literature of Rome, and the multiplied copies of the works of the ancients. Nor were they contented only with the praise of never-ending industry. They forged many works, that afterwards passed for classical, and which have demanded all the perspicacity of comparative criticism to refute. And in these pursuits the indefatigable men who were dedicated to them, were not even goaded by the love of fame. They were
satisfied with the consciousness of their own perseverance and ingenuity.
But the most memorable body of men that adorned these ages, were the Schoolmen. They may be considered as the discoverers of the art of logic. The ancients possessed in an eminent degree the gift of genius ; but they have little to boast on the score of arrangement, and discover little skill in the strictness of an accurate deduction. They rather arrive at truth by means of a felicity of impulse, than in consequence of having regularly gone through the process which leads to it. The schools of the middle ages gave birth to the Irrefragable and the Seraphic doctors, the subtlety of whose distinctions, and the perseverance of whose investigations, are among the most wonderful monuments of the intellectual power of man. The thirteenth century produced Thomas Aquinas, and Johannes Duns Scotus, and William Occam, and Roger Bacon. In the century before, Thomas à Becket drew around him a circle of literary men, whose correspondence has been handed down to us, and who deemed it their proudest distinction that they called each other philosophers. The Schoolmen often bewildered themselves in their subtleties, and often delivered dogmas and
may astonish the common sense of unsophisticated understandings. But such is man. So great is his persevering labour, his invincible industry, and the resolution with which he sets himself, year after
year, and lustre after lustre, to accomplish the task which his judgment and his zeal have commanded him to pursue.
But I return to the question of literary fame. All these men, and men of a hundred other classes, who laboured most commendably and gallantly in their day, may be considered as swept away into the gulph of oblivion. As Swift humorously says in his Dedication to Prince Posterity, “I had prepared a copious list of Titles to present to your highness, as an undisputed argument of the prolificness of human genius in my own time: the originals were posted upon all gates and corners of streets : but, returning in a very few hours to take a review, they were all torn down, and fresh ones put in their places. I enquired after them among readers and booksellers, but in vain : the memorial of them was lost among men; their place was no more to be found.”
It is a just remark that had been made by Humea: “ Theories of abstract philosophy, systems of
profound theology, have prevailed during one age. In a successive period these have been universally exploded; their absurdity has been detected; other theories and systems have supplied their place, which again gave way to their successors ; and nothing has been experienced more liable to the revolutions of chance and fashion than these pretended decisions of science. The case is not the same with the beauties of eloquence and poetry.
Essays, Part I, Essay xxiii.