Abbildungen der Seite

them could scarcely read it.* The records of past transactions were in a great measure lost, and legendary tales and fabulous histories, to celebrate exploits which were never performed, were substituted in place of the authenticated history of mankind. The learning which then prevailed, under the name of philosophy and of scholastic theology, consisted chiefly in vain disquisitions and reasonings about abstract truths, and incomprehensible mysteries, and in

attempts to decide questions and points of theo

logy, which lie beyond the reach of the human mind, and which its limited faculties are unable to resolve. Sophisms, falsehoods, and bold asseverations were held forth as demonstrations; a pompous display of words was substituted in the place of things; eloquence consisted in vague and futile declamations; and true philosophy was los' amidst the mazes of wild and extravagant theories and metaphysical subtleties. The sciences, such as they were, were all taught in the Latin tongue, and all books in relation to them were written in that language ; the knowledge of them was therefore necessarily confined to the circle of the learned, and it would have been considered as a degradation of the subject, to have treated of it in any of the modern languages which then prevailed. The gates of the temple of knowledge were consequently shut against the great body of the people, and it was never once surmised that they had any right to explore its treasures. “During this period,” says Dr. Robertson, “the human mind, neglected, uncultivated, and depressed, continued in the most profound ignorance. Europe, during four centuries, produced few authors who merit to be read, either on account of the elegance of their composition, or the justness and novelty of their sentiments. There are few inventions, useful or ornamental to society, of which that long period can boast.” And, if those of the highest ranks, and in the most eminent stations in society, were so deficient in knowledge, the great mass of the people must have been sunk into a state of ignorance degrading to human nature. About the time of the revival of letters, after the dark ages of monkish superstition and ignorance, the moral and intellectual state of the inhabitants of Europe began to experience a

* As an evidence of the extreme ignorance of those times, it may be stated, that many charters granted by persons of the highest rank are preserved, from which it appears that they could not subscribe their name. It was usual for persons who could not write, to make the sign of the cross, in conformation of a charter. Several of these remain, where kings and persons of great eminence affix signitm crucis manu propria pro ignoratione literorum, “the sign of the cross made by our own hand, on account of our ignorance of letters.” From this circumstance is derived the practice of making a x when signing a deed, in the case of those who cannot subscribe their names. See Robertson's Charles W. and Appendix, No. L.

change auspicious of better times and of a more enlightened era. The diminution of the Papa! power and influerce, the spirit of civil and religious liberty which then burst forth, the erec tion of new seminaries of education, the discovery of the mariner's compass, the invention ol the art of printing, the labours of Lord Bacon in pointing out the true method of philosophizing, and the subsequent discoveries of Galileo, Kepler, Boyle, and Newton, in the physical sciences, gave a new and favourable impulse to the minds of men, and prepared the way for a more extensive communication of useful knowledge to persons of every rank. From this period knowledge began to be gradually diffused among most of the European nations; but its progress was slow, and its influence was chiefly confined to the higher circles of society, and to persons connected with the learned professions, till after the middle of the eighteenth century. About this time there began to issue from the press many popular works on Natural and Civil History, Geography, Astronomy, and Experimental Philosophy, divested of the pedantry of former times, and of the technicalities of science, which, along with periodical works that were then beginning to extend their influence, conveyed to the minds of the mechanic and the artizan various fragments of useful knowledge. It was not, however, till the era of the French Revolution, that the stream of knowledge began to flow with an accelerated progress, and to shed its influence more extensively on the middling and the lower orders of society. Though we cannot look back, without feelings of regret, and even of horror, at the revolting scenes of anarchy and bloodshed which accompanied that political convulsion, yet, amidst all its evils, it was productive of many important and beneficial results. It tended to undermine that system of superstition and tyranny by which most of the European nations had been so long enslaved; it rosed millions, from among the mass of the people, to assert those rights and privileges, to which they are entitled as rational beings, and which had been withheld from them by the strong hand of power; it stimulated them to investigations into every department connected with the rights and the happiness of man, and it excited a spirit of inquiry into every subject of contemplation which can improve or adorn the human mind, which, we trust, will never be extinguished, till the light of useful knowledge shall extend its influence over all the inhabitants of the earth. . Striking, however, as the contrast is, between the state of knowledge in the present and in former ages, much still remains to be accomplished, till the great body of mankind be stimulated to the prosecution of intellectual acquirements. Though a considerable portion of rational information has of late years been dis

eminated among a variety of individuals in atfferent classes of society, yet, among the great majority of the population in every country, a degree of ignorance still prevails, degrading to the rank of intellectual natures. With respect to the great mass cf the inhabitants of the world, it may still be laid with propriety, that “darkness covers the earth, and gross darkness the people.” The greater part of the continent of America, the extensive plains of Africa, the vast regions of Siberia, Tartary, Thibet, and the Turkish empire—the immense territories of New Holland, Sumatra, Borneo, and the Burman empire, the numerous islands which are scattered throughout the Indian and the Pacific oceans, with many other extensive regions inhabited by human beings—still lie within the confines of mental darkness. On the numerous tribes which people those immense regions of our globe, neither the light of science nor of revelation has yet shed its benign influence; and their minds, debased by superstition, idolatry, and every malignant passion, and enslaved by the cunning artifices of priests, and the tyranny of cruel despots, present a picture of human nature in its lowest stage of degradation. Even in Europe, where the light of science has chiefly shone, how narrow is the circle which has been enlightened by its beams! The lower orders of society on the continent, and even in Great Britain itself, notwithstanding the superior means of improvement they enjoy, are still miserably deficient in that degree of knowledge and information which every human being ought to possess; nor are there many even in the higher spheres of life who cultivate science for its own sake, who set a due value on intellectual acquisitions, or encourage the prosecution of rational inquiries. There is, perhaps, no country in the world where the body of the people are better educated and more intelligent than in North Britain; yet we need not go far, either in the city or in the country, to be convinced, that the most absurd and superstitious notions, and the grossestignorance respecting many important subjects intimately connected with human happiness, still prevail among the great majority of the population. Of two millions of inhabitants which constitute the population of the northern part of our island, there are not, perhaps, 20,000, or the hundredth part of the whole, whose knowledge extends to any subject of importance, beyond the range of their daily avocations. With respect to the remaining 1,800,000, it may perhaps be said with propriety, that of the figure and magnitude of the world they live in —of the seas and rivers, continents and islands, which diversify its surface, and of the various tribes of men and animals by which it is inhatited—of the nature and properties of the atmosphere which surrounds them—-of the disco

veries which have been made respecting light. heat, electricity, and magnetisin–of the general laws which regulate the economy of nature—of the various combinations and effects of chymical and mechanical powers—of the motions and magnitudes of the planetary and the starry orbs —of the principles of legitimate reasoning—of just conceptions of the attributes and moral government of the Supreme Being—of the genuine principles of moral action—of many other subjects interesting to a rational and immortal being—they are almost as entirely ignorant as the wandering Tartar, or the untutored Indian. Of eight hundred millions of human beings which people the globe we inhabit, there are not perhaps two millions whose minds are truly enlightened as they ought to be—who prosecute rational pursuits for their own sake, and from a pure love of science, independently of the knowledge requisite for their respective professions and employments. For we must exclude from the rank of rational inquirers afer knowledge all those who have acquired a smattering of learning, with no other view than to gain a subsistence, or to appear fashionable and polite. And, if this rule be admitted, I am afraid that a goodly number even of lawyers, physicians, clergymen, teachers, nay, even some authors, and professors in universities and academies, would be struck off from the list of lovers of science and rational inquirers after truth. Admitting this statement, it will follow, that there is not one individual out of four hundred of the human race, that passes his life as a rational intelligent being, employing his faculties in those trains of thought and active exercises which are worthy of an intellectual nature! For, in so far as the attention of mankind is absorbed merely in making provision for animal subsistence, and in gratifying the sensual appetites of their na ture, they can be considered as little superior in dignity to the lower orders of animated existence. The late Frederick, king of Prussia, who was a correct observer of mankind, makes a still lower estimate of the actual intelligence of the human species. In a letter to D'Alembert, in 1770, he says, “Let us take any monarchy you please;—let us suppose that it contains ten millions of inhabitants; from these ten millions let us discount, first the labourers, the manufacturers, the artizans, the soldiers, and there will remain about fify thousand persons, men and women ; from these let us discount twentfive thousand for the female sex, the rest compose the nobility and gentry, and the respectable citizens; of these, let us examine how many will be incapable of application, how many imbecile, how many pusillanimous, how many dissipated,—and from this calculation it will result, that out of what is called a civilized nation of nearly ten millions, you will hardly find a thousand well-informed persons, and even among


them what inequality witn regard to genius! If eight-tenths of the nation, toiling for their subsistence, never read—if another tenth are incapable of application, from frivolity, or dissipation, or imbecility,+it results, that the small share of good sense of which our species is capable, can only reside in a small fraction of a nation.” Such was the estimate made by this philosophic monarch of the intelligence possessed by the nations of Europe, sixty years ago; and although society has considerably advanced in intellectual acquisitions since that period, the great body of the people, in every country, is still shrouded in the mists of folly and ignorance. Such a picture of the intellectual state of maitkind must, when seriously considered, excite a melancholy train of reflections in the breast both of the philanthropist and the man of science. That such a vast assemblage of beings, furnished with powers capable of investigating the laws of nature, of determining the arrangement, the motions, and magnitudes of distant worlds,-of weighing the masses of the planets, of penetrating into the distant regions of the universe, of arresting the lightning in its course,_of exploring the pathless ocean, and the region of the clouds,-and of rendering the most stubborn elements of nature subservient to their designs: that beings, capable of forming a sublime intercourse with the Creator himself, and of endless progression in knowledge and felicity, should have their minds almost wholly absorbed in eating and drinking, in childish and cruel sports and diversions, and in butchering one another, seems, at first view, a tacit reflection on the wisdom of the Creator, in bestowing on our race such noble powers, and plainly indicates, that the current of human intellect has widely deviated from its pristine course, and that strong and reiterated efforts are now requisite to restore it to its original channel. Every lover of science and of mankind must, therefore, feel interested in endeavouring to remove those obstructions which have impeded the progress of useful knowledge, and to direct the intellectual energies of his fellow-men to the prosecution of objects worthy of the high station they hold in the scale of existence. Were we to inquire into the external causes which have retarded the progress of the human mind, we should, doubtless, find them existing in the nature of those civil governments which have most generally prevailed in the world, and in several of the ecclesiastical establishments which have been incorporated with them. It has been a favourite maxim with all tyrants, that the people must be kept in ignorance; and hence we find, that in the empires of the East, which are all of a despotical nature, the people are debarred from the temple of science, and sunk into a state of the grossest ignorance and

servility. Under such governments, the minds of men sink into apathy, -the sparks of genius are smothered,—the sciences are neglected,— ignorance is honoured,—and the man of discernment, who dares to vent his opinions, is proscribed as an enemy to the state. In the more enlightened governments on the continent of Europe, the same effects have followed, in proportion to the number of those tyrannical maxims and principles which enter into their constitution. Hence, we may frequently determine the degree of mental illumination which prevails among any people, from a consideration of the nature of the government under which they live. For the knowledge of a people is always in proportion to their liberty, and where the spirit of liberty is either crushed or shackled, the energies of the human mind will never be exerted with vigour, in the acquisition or the propagation of literature and science. Even in the mildest and most enlightened governments of modern Europe, the instruction of the general mass of society forms no prominent feature in their administration. Knowledge on general subjects is simply permitted to be disseminated among the people, its promoters are not sufficiently patronized and encouraged,—no funds are regularly appropriated for this purpose-and its utility, in many instances, is even called in question. It is to be hoped, however, now that the din of war is in some ineasure hushed, that the attention of princes and their ministers will be more particularly directed to this important object: for it might easily be shown, were it necessary, that an enlightened population is the most solid basis of a good government, and the greatest security for its permanence,—that it will always form the strongest bulwark around every throne where the sceptre is swayed by wisdom and rectitude. That the establishinent of the Popish religion in any state has a tendency to impede the progress of knowledge, it would be almost needless to illustrate. The mummeries which have been interwoven with its services, the grovelling and superstitious notions which it has engendered, the ignorance which prevails among the population of all those countries over which its influence extends, the alarms of its priestly abettors at the idea of free discussion, and of enlightening the minds of the people, the records of its Inquisitions, the history of the dark ages, when it prevailed in all its rigour, and the recent experience of our own times, show, that it is a system founded on the darkness and imbecility of the human intellect, and can flourish only where the spirit of liberty has fled, and where reason has lost its ascendency in the minds of men."

• Let it be carefully remembered, that in these remarks it is merely the system of popery to which the author refers. He is aware that many indivi. With rege id to the internal causes of the ignorance which so generally prevails, they will be found in the general depravity of human nature, in the vicious propensities so prevalent among all ranks; in the indulgence of inordinate desires afer riches and power; and in the general disposition of mankind to place their chief happiness in sensual gratifications,—evils which the spirit of Christianity only, in conjunction with every rational exertion, is calculated fully to eradicate. And therefore it i dispensable, that every attempt to diffuse intellectual light over the human race be accompanied with the most strenuous exertions to promote the moral renovation of mankind. For vice and ignorance, especially anong the lower orders, generally go hand in hand; and experience demonstrates, that indulgence in evil passions, and in unhallowed gratifications, destroys the relish for mental enjoyments, and is one of the most powerful obstructions to the vigorous exercise of the intellectual powers.

That the general diffusion of knowledge among all ranks is an object much to be desired, will not, I presume, be called in question by any one who regards the intellectual powers of man as the noblest part of his nature, and who considers, that on the rational exercise of these powers his true happiness depends. If ignorance be one of the chief causes which disturb the harmonious movements of the machine of society, by removing the cause we of course prevent the effects; and is knowledge be one of the mainsprings of virtuous conduct, the more it is diffused, the more extensively will be brought into action, on the stage of life, those virtues which it has a tendency to produce. A few Ferdinands and Wyndhams and Don Miguels may still remain, who regard the great mass of the people merely as subjects of legislation, or as the tools of tyranny and ambition, and that, therefore, they must be held in the chains of ignorance, lest they should aspire to the ranks of their superiors. But the general current of public opinion now runs counter to such illiberal and antiquated notions; and few persons of respectability, at least in this country, would hazard their reputation in defending a position so degrading and untenable. The more learning a people have, the more virtuous, powerful, and happy will they become; and to ignorance alone must the contrary effects be imputed. “There is but one case,” says a French writer, “where

ignorance can be desirable; and that is, when

all is desperate in a state, and when, through the present evils, others still greater appear be

duals, distinguished for learning and piety, have been connected with the tromish church ; and while he condemns the spirit and tendency of the peculiar dogunas and practices of that church, he deprecates every idea of persecution, and every attempt to feprive its members of those rights and privileges vo which they are entitled as men and as citizens.

hind. Then stupidity is a blessing: knowledge and foresight are evils. It is then that, shutting our eyes against the light, we would hide from ourselves the calamities we cannot provent.” In every other case, knowledge must prove an inestinable blessing to men of every nation and of every rank. That the period when a general diffusion of knowledge shall take place is hastening on, appears from the rapid progress which has been made in almost every department of science during the last half century; from the numerous publications on all subjects daily issuing som the press; from the rapid increase of theological, literary, and scientific journals, and the extensive patronage they enjoy from the numerous lectures on chymistry, astronomy, experimental philosophy, political economy, and general science, now delivered in the principal cities and towns of Europe; from the adoption of new and improved plans of public instruction, and the erection of new seminaries of education in almost every quarter of the civilized world; from the extensive circulation of books among all classes of the community; from the rapid formation of bible and missionarv societies; from the increase of literary and philosophical associations; from the establishment of mechanics' institutions in our principal towns, and of libraries and reading societies in almost every village; from the eager desire now excited, even among the lower orders of society, of becoming acquainted with subjects hitherto known and cultivated only by persons of the learned professions; and, above all, from the spirit of civil and religious liberty now bursting forth, both in the eastern and the western hemispheres, notwithstanding the efforts of petty tyrants to arrest its progress. Amidst the convulsions which have lately shaken the surrounding nations, “many have run to and fro, and knowledge has been increased;” the sparks of liberty have been struck from the collision of hostile armies and opposing interests: and a spirit of inquiry has been excited among numerous tribes of mankind, which will doubtless lead to the most important results. These circumstances, notwithstanding some gloomv appearances in the political horizon, may be considered as so many preludes of a new and happier era about to dawn upon the world. when intellectual light shall be diffused among all ranks, and in every region of the globe; when Peace shall extend her empire over the world. when men of all nations, at present separated from each other by the effects of ignorance, and of political jealousies, shall be united ov the bonds of love, of reason, and intelligence, and conduct themselves as rational and rumorin beings. In order that such a period may be goalually ushered in, it is essentially requisite that a coal

[merged small][ocr errors][merged small][merged small]
« ZurückWeiter »