« IndietroContinua »
It would be difficult to say at what precise moment we began to take a decided lead in the concerns of mind; especially as, like most other things, this too has had its vicissitudes. In the time of Alfred, we were probably wiser and better than the French, or so great a prince never would have confided to the most unlettered among us, the duty of reciprocally sitting in judgment upon each other; a right which no French monarch ever thought of bestowing upon his people, and which his people never thought of exercising or demanding. During the civil and religious wars of that country, and the long train of perfidy and cruelty which accompanied them, we again had a vast and decided superiority. When York and Lancaster drew forth their battles in England, France perhaps took a momentary lead. But, at the Reformation, we again became superior; and, with the exception of the most frenetic moments of our first revolution, have never derogated for a single instant since that time. The age of Louis the XIVth was indeed a brilliant epocha for France; and still more so for her monarch. It was an age of glory, of splendour, of luxury,of any thing but national wisdom : And it stood the more prominent, because it was not preceded or followed by any thing that can be compared to it. The even tenor of our constant pace has carried us farther in a wider road; and while we persevere in the same track, with as few interruptions to our general progress in political wisdom, in science, in literature, in the useful arts, as we have done for more than a century, our boast shall be, that we have no Siecle de Louis XIV. to be vain of; and, still more, our pride shall be, that of that, or any single age, we should think it humiliating to boast at all.
It did so happen, that the epochas which Mr Petit Radel mentions, immediately followed the most disastrous period England ever knew; our civil wars of York and Lancaster; wars undertaken for the advantage of one or other of two families, to choose between whom was not really worth one single battle to the country; from which no portion of the nation expected to derive the slightest benefit; in which the name of liberty was never uttered; which had no object but to decide whether England was to be governed by a fool or a profligate; by the termagancy of Margaret, or the nepotism of Lady Elizabeth Woodville; and which form the most lasting and unavailing delirium that ever afflicted this nation. The misfortunes of France, on the contrary, were relieved about the middle of the 15th century, by the wise and vigorous reign of Charles the VIlth, during which foreign invasion was repelled, and domestic discontents quieted. His successor, Louis XIth, though a
tyrant, was not so hostile to learning as most of his kind. The protection he showed to the philosophers of his day, the Nominalists and the Realists, such as they were; the estimation in which Philip de Comines was held; the establishment of posts, are proofs that his reign was favourable to intellect. In the same epocha are included Anne de Beaujeu; Charles VIIIth; still more, Louis XIIth; and, more than all, 20 years of Francis Ist. The end of the 15th, and the beginning of the 16th century, were more propitious in France, than in England, to mental improvement; and the art of printing could not have been presented to the two countries, at a period when it was more likely to be honoured in the former, and neglected in the latter, than those which our author has specified. The first volumes, however, which were shown to the court of Louis XIth, were supposed to be the effect of witchcraft; and poor Faust, the German printer, was very near being burned as a conjurer-because all the dots in all his Bibles were alike. It was in the presence of this court, too, that Margaret of Scotland, first wife of Louis XIth, who afterwards died by poison, impressed (such was the respect paid to letters) what Wieland would call a metaphysical kiss, upon the lips of the ugliest man in France, Alain Chartier, Secretary of State to the King, whom she one day found asleep, as a recompense for the sweet things they uttered.
But, whatever may have been the superiority of the French press, in those days, things are now very different; and the only advantage which France can justly claim at this hour, with regard to books and all that is derived from them, is the possession of the richest public library in existence; of one immense depôt, containing a greater number of valuable works and manuscripts, than can be found collected together in any single building or establishment. To every other pretension the French may urge, we must dispute their title.
In a former article we endeavoured to give a sketch of the French mind, drawn after the state of National Industry in that country. Such, certainly, is the widest view which can be taken of the subject; for, in the productions of industry, every man is interested, and exercises, in some respect, a legislative influence. We shall now attempt a similar picture, deduced from what is usually called a higher province of intellect, the comparative state of Science in the two countries; and we shall endeavour to found our conclusions upon a wider basis than that which afforded, merely, by the present moment.
The plan we shall adopt, is to consider science under the double aspect of depth and of diffusion; that is to say, we shall examine;
according to the history of each science, Ist, in which of the two countries it has made the greatest progress, and in which its development has been marked with the widest views and the profoundest thought; and, 2d, among the population of which nation, are more generally diffused the results of those extensive views and profound thoughts--together with such a general knowledge of science, as contributes to enlighten and improve mankind, and furnish useful stores for meditation and reflexion.
The state of knowledge in France is so different from all that Englishmen are in the habit of contemplating at home, that no just estimate can be made of it by any one who decides according to British rules; and this may be adduced as one, among many instances, of the errors which arise from the
very natural, but very defective practice, of judging of others by ourselves. In the fine arts, in the exact sciences, and in many branches of human knowledge, the French unquestionably rank very high among nations; and the reputation which they justly hold is above the reach of envy or detraction. While we accede to this, however, there are two points which we must allege against them; Ist, that in the political and moral sciences, as well as in some other branches of knowledge, they have not advanced in the same proportion; and, 2dly, that the mass of general instruction diffused throughout the population of
every rank, bears no ratio to the eclat which surrounds a small number of individuals, in the higher and more brilliant, but less important walks of science.
As to their inferiority in the Moral and Political sciences, little more is necessary than to read their history, to be convinced of it; and further proof may be found in all the details of their philosophy and literature. Of whatever has been said and written upon this subject, in that country, the general characteristic is a deficiency in extensive views of human nature, in profound investigation of the heart, portrayed in all its strongest feelings and multitudinous bearings. Ingenuity in discovering unexpected glimpses, and superficial coincidences, in the ordinary relations of life, they assuredly possess in an eminent degree; but these are not sufficient for the great purposes of polity and government. On the contrary, they tend to contract the mind, by giving importance to incidents too insignificant to have an extensive influence upon
interests of society. It is upon the most comprehensive view of the nature of man that the whole science of government depends; and,without it, no system, applicable at once to his imperfections and kis virtues, pone which holds the just medium between his good
and evil propensities, can be founded. It is not then to be wondered at, that after so many centuries of inattention to those qualities which might have fitted them for a better and a nobler lot, the French, when on a sudden they began to speculate upon revolutions, should lose sight of the conditions without which all such schemes must ever prove destructive to practicable freedom.
If the authors who have speculated upon the philosophy of man, in the two countries, be compared, as well as those who have given active representations of him in the drama, and in fictitious history, the same characteristic prevails--the same want of acquaintance with the great springs of action—and the same exclusive attention to the affections of convention, and the etiquette of passion. Human philosophy, the theory of the sentient creature, are among the things which their authors have the least studied, and their public the least inquired about, and the nation the least understood.
As to sound speculations upon the understanding, the philosophers of France have always been deficient, not merely in original matter, but even in acquaintance with what has been doing in neighbouring nations. Voltaire discovered England ; and not a little astonished his countrymen, when he told them that the natives of this island could do something better than cut off the heads of their kings and the tails of their horses. It was he who introduced to the acquaintance of the French, Shakespeare, Bacon, Locke, Newton, and almost all the writers of Britain : and it would be difficult to mention
any one mental philosopher of France, who, since the return of Voltaire, has risen to 'respectable eminence, and has not taken all his leading ideas from British authors. Thus the two most important branches of human knowledge, those which are the ultimate aim of every other science, and which the most directly tend to the happiness of the species, are the most neglected by the nation which claims exclusive civilization. We shall take a future opportunity for returning to this part of our subject, and proceed to consider some branches of knowledge in which the French may found a juster title to rivality with Britain.
The mathematical, physical, and natural sciences, are those which the French particularly cultivate. In the pure mathematics, indeed, which of late years have been the most brilliant of all the sciences in France, we are ready to allow a temporary but a decided superiority over Britain. It may appear strange that a nation so little busied with profound or abstract thought, shouļd excel in a study so eminently abstruse. But metaphy
sical and algebraical abstraction are operations of mind so different, that one cannot well comprehend by what accident they ever were confounded. The objects of metaphysical speculation are the immaterial properties of an immaterial being, intangible even when concrete, demonstrable only as far as probability can reach, and incapable of any emblematic representation. But mathematical inquiries are, for the most part, directed to sensible objects. In geometry, these objects are absolutely tangible. In pure mathematics, they are magnitudes. In mixed mathematics, they are either facts derived from actual experiment, or hypotheses assumed upon analogy. But in every case, even when most disengaged from matter, they cannot justly be called abstract; for the understanding considers them, in their conventional representatives, a line, an angle, an x, or a y, with as little regard to abstraction, as if the subject, together with its properties, was absolutely submitted to mensuration. To this species of abstraction the French mind is not unapt; and the rigor of mathematical demonstration may form an amusing episode, in the midst of great usual laxity of ratiocination.
The superiority of the French in this science, however, is not ancient; neither do they, at this moment, so far surpass us, as we, in the very long account of a general balance, would be found to have surpassed them. One of the earliest European mathematicians was the venerable Bede. Alcuin gave lessons in this science to Charlemagne. In the 13th century, Sacrobosco, or plain John Holywood, a native of Yorkshire, was professor of mathematics in Paris. Since that time, let the following English mathematicians, and their discoveries, Roger Bacon, Lord Bacon, Lord Napier (logarithms), Briggs (ditto improved), Harris, Harriot, Lord Brounker (continued fractions), Wallis (arithmetic of infinites), J. and D. Gregory, Barrow, Hooke, Hamstead (fixed stars), Newton, Bradley (aberration of stars) Hadley, Taylor (increments, his fundamental theorem), Sanderson, M‘Laurin, Simpson, Walmley, Collins, Robins, Landen (residual analysis), Waring, Atwood, Maskelyne, &c. be compared with the following French mathematicians, and their discoveries-Cardan, Victa, Des Cartes, Gassendi, Fermat (de max. et min. theory of numbers), Pascal (probabilities), D. J. and F. Cassini, La Hire, Clairault, N. and D. Bernoulli, La Caille, Bouquet, Jacquiers, Le Seur, Maupertuis, Ricard, Condamine, D'Alembert, &c.—and an immense preponderance will appear in the depth and comprehensiveness of the views and methods discovered in this country,