The Art of Criticism
AN eminent French writer has thus very ingeniously traced the origin of Criticism.
The Art of criticism is by no means a modern invention; but it must be confessed, that in the last age alone it hath reached its present degree of perfection.
According to Dion Chrysostom, Aristotle is the inventor of Criticism: it is, at least, certain that it appeared about his time.
Aristarchus, who flourished at Samos, about one hundred and fifty years before the Christian Æra, wrote nine books of Corrections of the Iliad and Odyssey, and spread a general alarm amongst the race of Authors; insomuch, that, to the present day, a Critic, and an Aristarchus, are synonimous words.
As the Sciences were, for a long time, neglected, Criticism shared the same fate. There were, however, even in the most barbarous ages, a few learned men who cultivated it. At the restoration of Letters; Criticism, by the efforts of many celebrated scholars, sprung up with new vigour. But two important events contributed equally to the revival of Letters and of Criticism: the taking of Constantinople, by the Turks, which occasioned several of the learned to retire into Italy and France; and the invention of Printing, which was discovered about that time.
As soon as this admirable Art was made public, they applied themselves to publishing excellent editions of all the good authors, according to the most correct manuscripts. They were indefatigable in their researches for the most ancient copies, and they collated them with the modern ones, by the strictest rules of Criticism.
Some formed Dictionaries and Grammars of different languages; and some Commentaries, for illustrating the text. Others composed Treatises on Fabulous History, on the Religion, Government, and the Military Operations of the Ancients. They dwelt on the minutest particularities which concerned their Manners, their Apparel, their Repasts, their Amusements, &c. In a word, they neglected nothing which, after so wide an interval, might throw new lights on what remained of the Grecian and the Roman Compositions.
The learned of the fifteenth century made new efforts, not only to clear the uncultivated lands of the Republic of Letters, which had remained unexplored by their predecessors, but also to improve those they had inherited. They prided themselves in the freest discussions; they rummaged every library, to bring to light unnoticed manuscripts; they compared them together; they arranged those historical facts which were necessary to restore the texts, and to fix the dates; and they were careful, above all things, not to decide on the sense of a passage without a mature examination, and a laborious collation.
Yet, after the immense labours of Justus Lipsius, the Scaligers, Turnebus, Budæus, Erasmus, and so many other learned men, Criticism still remained imperfect; and it is only in the last age that it attained to the height which it has now reached.
This perfection of Criticism is owing to the establishment of ACADEMIES, particularly those or the French and the Belles Lettres Academies. In their labours may be found those numerous and judicious remarks, which had escaped the penetration of the first scholars in Europe.
I cannot quit this article without observing, that it is much to the dishonour of the national character, no Academy, dedicated to the BELLES LETTRES, has ever been established. To raise such an ACADEMY, is a glory still reserved for an Augustan Monarch.
Louis XIV. has all his foibles forgiven by posterity, when they contemplate the munificent patronage he bestowed on Men of Letters. The splendours of Royalty, and the trophies of Ambition, may elevate the voice of Adulation; but they expire with the Hero and the Monarch. The beneficial influence of Literature is felt through successive ages; and they, indeed, are the Benefactors of mankind, who bestow on posterity their most refined pleasures, and their most useful speculations.
Voltaire, indeed, confesses, that the great characters of the Literary Republic were formed without the aid of Academies. For what then, he asks, are they necessary?—To preserve and nourish, he says, the fire which great geniuses have kindled.