« ZurückWeiter »
in an assigned order of time, is the chief substance of the personal history here afforded of this wonderful scholar. An ample share of the performance consists of brief notices of his literary contemporaries and friends; terms of nearly the same import in this instance, as he claims for friends almost all persons of eminence, in whatever intellectual department, that were to be found in his time over the whole continent of Europe, and even some of the scholars of this country.
The work was undertaken when the bishop was past eighty years old ; a period at which he had by no means lost the power of giving a more reasonable explanation of the origin of a book, than will be found in part of the following account of his motives to this work.
Toward the end of the work he again adverts to his motives.
“It was then that I bent my mind to the work now before me,-a narrative of the events of my life,- for the reasons I have stated in the commencement. They who shall misinterpret them, and suppose my motive to have been popular fame, will perhaps retract their judgment, when they shall be informed that persons of weight, eminent for talents and learning, and my intimate friends, have, by the continual importunity of many years, extorted this work from me, notwithstanding my reluctance. I have not, however, self-love enough to suppose they did this on my account; for what is there in me, or has there been in my life, that can be of the least consequence to be known to the present or any future age? Can it be of any importance to men of learning to be informed what were my thoughts and studies, what I wrote, or what kind of a man I was? But as my friends have often heard me relating anecdotes of the great scholars of the preceding age with whom I was acquainted, fearing lest the memory of these things should be lost, they wished me to put down in writing what could not be obtained from any other source, since very few contemporaries of those persons are now living. But I had another and weightier movtie,—that, reviewing in the presence of God the deeds of my past life, and being made sensible how much they stood in need of amendment, I might wash out their stains by salutary penitence. But might I defend myself, not by arguments, but by examples, many, and illustrious ones, both in ancient and modern times
, would be at hand; and I request the indulgent reader to suffer me here, for my own sake and that of my work, to make an excursion of some length.”—Vol. II., p. 380.
And this excursion, though rapid, is indeed so long or so wide as to bring him in view of a vast number of ancient and modern monuments of the same kind as that which he has been rearing. But what would he have said or thought had it been possible for him to extend it so far as to see, in prospect, that Pyrenean heap of memoirs of their authors, by which literature was doomed to be, at a later period, loaded and buried ?—that illustrious period, worthy to have been predicted by Sibyls, and to be celebrated by poets of the Admiralty and St. Stephen's; when the right of calling the public attention to the memoirs of individuals, written by themselves, was no longer to be nearly confined to martial dictators, to great statesmen, or great scholars, to the Cæsars, the Sullys, and the de Thous; but should be liberally accorded to each maker of a madrigal, play, or a score of convivial jokes; each tool of a minister; each reverend obsequious retainer of a profligate lord; each pander to each wealthy or noble corrupter of society; each mistress of a field officer; and each triling adventurer who assumes a mighty importance on the strength of having exercised the functions of dressing, consuming the corn, and sleeping, a number of years in France or Italy, instead of London or Bath.
On closing the long catalogue of self-biographers, he recurs to St. Augustine, and the pious motive which impelled that saint and himself to the public narration purporting to disclose the recesses of their characters.
“Therefore, laying aside all other examples, to the imitation of which I neither could nor ought to aspire, I determined to acquiesce in the single authority of Augustine, as I have attested in the beginning of my work, and to propose him as my principal model; especially in that part in which, searching the inmost recesses of his soul, he most humbly laid the failings of his past life before God, and then openly confessed them before men. May the Supreme Being, in his inexhaustible goodness, shed a portion of his favour from heaven upon this small work, an expression of the same devout intention !"-Vol. II., p. 388.
We cannot comprehend why it would have been wrong to perform an act of penitential piety without making a book of it. It was very proper, even in a bishop, to take a survey of past life, with a view to humble confession before God; but where was the necessity of making this confession aloud in the hearing of thousands of his fellowmortals? This was hardly done as a precaution to secure himself witnesses to be forth-coming, on any future occasion, to prove that the confession had been made. Perhaps he thought it might tend to mortify and shame the people out of their sins, to show them the record of a life of eighty years spent in this bad world with but a mere trifle of guilt to confess at the end of it. It could not but be very salutary to them, he might think, to behold so much excellence obstinately prominent in a delineation expressly intended to show the faults of the character. The excellence could not but be edifying to them, when thus brilliantly shining even through the sable colours of repentance and humiliation ; and then as to the faults, compulsorily kept in view in spite of their diminutiveness, if they caused the good bishop so much sorrow,“what ought,” the readers would naturally reflect, “to be the tone of repentance in us, whose faults constitute the substance of our characters ?” Expectations of utility to be effected in this way, however, do not seem to coalesce well with our author's avowed purpose of humble confession and contrition in the presence of the Almighty; and the reader will conceive some doubt whether this pretence was any thing more than a contrivance to prevent the imputation of vanity, and to put himself by the side of St. Augustine ; for the performance, though not offensively ostentatious of the author's good qualities, bears but faint indications of his perceiving much to condemn or regret in his character and past life. Though he does now and then a little affect to castigate himself for not having applied himself more to employments specifically theological and ecclesiastical, it is evident he never really thought any material condemnation due to a life devoted to universal literature; and he would not be the more inclined to condemn it from the consciousness of his amazing assiduity and success, and of his having made some of his acquisitions serviceable to religion. He might well therefore have spared himself the cant of self-reproach about what his readers can perceive to have been a ground of exultation, and have honestly said he thought the world ought to have some such competent history as only himself
furnish of so extraordinary a scholar; which history would include many notices of his learned contemporaries, the recording of which would gratify himself as well as his friends. We need say nothing of the perplexed sort of theology in the paragraphs we have quoted, where it is evident, that in the mixed account of sin, repentance, and merit, the learned prelate was considerably at a loss how to settle his balance with his Creator.
Unlike the generality of memoirs, the work of Huet is much too brief. Besides those particulars relative to the mechanism, if we may so call it, of his studies, which we have already noticed to be wanting and desirable, a man who had a more extensive personal acquaintance than any other individual of his age with scholars, philosophers, and statesmen, could have told a great number of entertaining and striking circumstances, which would have introduced his readers to something like a humble acquaintance with a portion of that splendid society; a society, too, in which he passed so much of his time, as to make it altogether inconceivable how the remainder could be enough for his prodigious quantity of reading, writing, and philosophical experiment. But he does little more than name a considerable number of the distinguished persons, and his sketches of the rest are brief and dry; much in the manner of a man writing out a catalogue of books, and sometimes stopping to say that this is a very celebrated work, in great request among the learned on the continent, the supposed source of some of the greatest improvements in philosophy, its first appearance forming an epoch in the history of science or literature, &c., &c.; and that this other article is a superlatively correct and elegant edition, having occupied so many years of the life of such or such a learned editor, the typography being the very finest performance of the unrivalled Elzevir press, &c. &c. Indeed this prodigious scholar does not appear to have been very dexterous at drawing characters. He must have seen, in so very wide an acquaintance with persons distinguished from the general mass of contemporary society, every imaginable diversity of the ruling passion, of literary taste, of the esprit du corps—every different mode and proportion according to which a plurality of talents, are combined in the same person-every sort of prejudice and unreasonable preference and antipathy-every variety of effect resulting from the combination of genius and learning with high rank and station, and with plebeian quality—and every different cast of manners among intellectual men, whether resulting from what is called natural disposition, or acquired in courts, coteries, academies, convents, domestic society, or philosophic solitude. But he hardly appears to have been sensible even of the existence of this vast and interesting diversity. He looked at mankind always as a scholar, and saw them in two grand divisions, those who had learning, and those who had not; while the former division was the sole object of attention, and the only recognized distinctions under that division were the greater or less measure of the learning, and the particular branch in which the individuals might peculiarly excel,-excepting, indeed, that the worthy prelate shows some little sensibility to the stronger lustre with which his adored learning shines when in conjunction with the star of nobility. Yet in any possible conjunction, (we are afraid even in that with religion itself,) learning was still the ascendant and solar luminary; insomuch that even the enchanting accents of royal praise accompanied with royal smiles, and the solicitations into the magnificent mansions, and superlatively superfine society, of the most accomplished noblesse, never cooled his passion for his old books, or the delight with which he met the literati of humblest pretensions in point of rank, and in the plainest habitations in which they could burn incense to what they called the Muses. This literary ardour was partly the cause of that defect of discrimination of which we are complaining In Huet's view, great erudition constituted all its possessors into a holy fraternity, in which the peculiarities of individual character was so obscured, as to be almost unapparent to him, under the uniformity created by the sacred emblems and insignia of their association ; by congenial pursuits, community of intel