« AnteriorContinuar »
Moralists of all ages have recommended Poetry as an art no less instructive than amusing; tending at once to improve the heart, and entertain the fancy. The genuine and original Poet, peculiarly favoured by nature, and intimately acquainted with the constitution of the human mind, not by a long train of metaphysical deductions, but, as it were, by immediate intuition, displays the workings of every affection, detects the origin of every passion, traces its progress, and delineates its character. Thus, he teaches us to know ourselves, inspires us with magnanimous sentiments, animates our love of virtue, and confirms our hatred of vice. Moved by his striking pictures of the instability of human enjoyments, we moderate the vehemence of our desires, fortify our minds, and are enabled to sustain adversity,
Among the ancient Greeks, the study of the Poets constituted an essential part in their celebrated systems of education. Plutarch observes, in his treatise on this curious and interesting subject, that, as mandrakes planted among vines, imparting their virtue to the grape, correct its acidity, and improve its flavour; so the poetic art, adorning the precepts of philosophy, renders them easy and agreeable. Socrates, according to Xenophon, was assiduous in applying the works of Homer and Hesiod to the valuable purposes of moral instruction. Discoursing on the character of Thersites, he displayed the meanness of calumny, and the folly of presumption; he argued, that modesty was the companion of merit, and that effrontery was the proper object of ridicule and reproach. Discoursing on the story of Circe, he illustrated the fatal effects of intemperance; and rehearsing the fable of the Syrens, he warned his disciples against the allurements of false delight. This great teacher of virtue was so fully convinced of the advantages resulting from the connection of poetry with philosophy, that he assisted Euripides in composing his tragedies, and furnished him with many excellent sentiments and observations. The propriety of bestowing attention on the study of human nature, and of borrowing assistance from the poets, and especially from Shakespeare, will be more particularly illustrated in the following remarks.
The study of human nature has been often and variously recommended. “Know thyself,” was a precept so highly esteemed by the venerable sages of antiquity, that they ascribed it to the Delphian oracle*. By reducing it to practice, we learn the dignity of human nature. Our emulation is excited by contemplating our divine original: and, by discovering the capacity and extent of our faculties, we become desirous of higher improvement. Nor would the practice of this apophthegm enable us merely to elevate and enlarge our desires, but also, to purify and refine them; to withstand the solicitations of groveling appetites, and subdue their violence: for improvement in virtue consists in duly regulating our inferior appetites, no less than in cultivating the principles of benevolence and magnanimity. Numerous, however, are the desires, and various are the passions that agitate the human heart. Every individual is actuated by feelings peculiar to himself, insensible even of their existence; of their precise force and tendency often ignorant. But to prevent the inroads of vice, and preserve our minds free from the tyranny of lawless passion, vigilance must be exerted where we are weakest and most exposed. We must therefore be attentive to the state and constitution of our own minds; we must discover to what habits we are most addicted, and of what propensities we ought chiefly to beware: we must deliberate with ourselves on what resources we can most assuredly depend, and what motives are best calculated to repel the invader. Now, the study of human nature, accustoming us our attention inwards, and reflect on the various propensities and inclinations of the heart, facilitates self-examination, and renders it habitual.
* Cic. de legibus.
human mind is recommended in a peculiar manner to the curious and inquisitive ; and is capable of yielding delight by the novelty, beauty, and magnificence, of the object. Many find amusement in searching into the constitution of the material world; and, with unwearied diligence, pursue the progress of nature in the growth of a plant, or the formation of an insect. They spare neither labour nor expence, to fill their cabinets with every curious production: they travel from climate to climate: they submit with cheerfulness to fatigue, and inclement seasons; and think their industry sufficiently compensated, by the discovery of some unusual phænomenon. Not a pebble that lies on the shore, not a leaf that waves in the forest, but attracts their notice, and stimulates their inquiry. Events, or inci. dents, which the vulgar regard with terror or indifference, afford them supreme delight: they rejoice at the return of a comet, and celebrate the blooming of an aloe, more than the birth of an emperor. Nothing is lest unexplored : air, ocean, the minutest objects of sense, as well as the greatest and