Sunday, July 31, 2011
Old Cronies of Solon and Lycurgus
For Schollars, though by their Acquaintance with Books, and conversing much with Old Authors, they may know perfectly the Sense of the Learned Dead, and be perfect Masters of the Wisdom, be throughly inform'd of the State, and nicely skill'd in the Policies of Ages long since past, yet by their retir'd and unactive Life, their Neglect of Business, and constant Conversation with Antiquity, they are such Strangers to, and so ignorant of the Domestick Affairs and Manners of their own Country and Times, that they appear like the Ghosts of old Romans rais'd by Magick.My knowledge of this quotation comes from C.H. Wilkinson, More Diversions: An Anthology (London: Oxford University Press, 1944), pp. 39-40 (paragraph divisions are mine). Thanks to Ian Jackson for the generous gift of many books, including Wilkinson's. Thanks also to Pierre Wechter for sending me an electronic copy of the Essay and for pointing out that it is attributed variously to Mary Astell, Judith Drake, and H. Wyatt.
Talk to them of the Assyrian, or Perssian Monarchies, the Grecian or Roman Commonmonwealths. They answer like oracles; they are such finish'd Statesmen, that we should scarce take 'em to have been less than Confidents of Semiramis, Tutours to Cyrus the great, old Cronies of Solon and Lycurgus, or Privy Councellors at least to the Twelve Caesars successively; but engage them in a Discourse that concerns the present Times, and their Native Country, and they heardly speak the Language of it, and know so little of the Affairs of it, that as much might reasonably be expected from an animated Egyptian Mummy.
They are very much disturbed to see a Fold or a Plait amiss in the Picture of an Old Roman Gown, yet take no notice that their own are thredbare, out at the Elbows, or Ragged; and suffer more if Priscian's Head be broken, than if it were their own. They are excellent Guides, and can direct you to every Ally, and Turning in Old Rome; yet lose their Way at home in their own Parish. They are mighty Admirers of the Wit and Eloquence of the Ancients; yet had they liv'd in the Time of Cicero and Caesar, wou'd have treated them with as much supercilious Pride and Disrespect, as they they do now with Reverence.
They are great Hunters of ancient Manuscripts, and have in great Veneration any thing that has scap'd the Teeth of Time and Rats, and if Age has obliterated the Characters, 'tis the more valuable for not being legible. But if by chance they can pick out one Word, they rate it higher than the whole Author in Print, and wou'd give more for one Proverb of Solomons under his own Hand, then for all his Wisdom.
These Superstitious, bigotted Idolaters of time past, are Children in their understanding all their lives; for they hang so incessantly upon the leading strings of Authority, that their Judgments, like the Limbs of some Indian Penitents, become altogether crampt and motionless for want of use.
An Old Man Reading