Obrázky na stránke

the Apocalypse, may be said to have drawn after him a third part of the stars of heaven, and cast them down to the earth. Interpreting these stars agreeable to the hieroglyphic language of prophecy, as signifying kings and their kingdoms, states and their people, this has been literally the case for twelve centuries,-a longer date than that of any single empire, ancient or modern. In this view Mahomet may be called the greatest and most extraordinary man that ever had being on earth.

The former part of this impostor's life, compared with the latter, presents one of the most striking contrasts that can be found even in the fictions of poetry. According to the generally received accounts, he was the posthumous son of his father, early left an orphan by his mother, and adopted by an uncle, who, being too poor to provide for his wants, sold him into bondage at sixteen years of age. Then, however, he grew into such favour with his master that he was intrusted by him with many valuable mercantile enterprises,—and into such favour with his mistress, that, on the decease of her husband, she conferred on her slave her person and her wealth.

Had one of the numberless deaths that lie in, ambush day and night around the path of man, and to which, from the ill-fortune of his childhood, and the misery of his circumstances till he had passed maturfty, Mahoniet was more imminently exposed than it is the chance (so to speak) of most people,-had one of those deaths cut him off, in some unexpected moment, it is impossible to imagine what would have been the actual religious and political condition of many of the richest provinces of Asia, Africa, and Europe, during the ages upon ages in which his successors—as true to his religion as that religion is true to the worst passions of human nature, -have followed him in his track of blood; carrying the sword and the Koran from the heart of Arabia to

the extremes of east and west of the ancient continent. What has been the condition of those most magnificent, and, from sacred and classic associations, those most venerable countries of the globe, is well known, and need not be particularized here.

But it is humiliating to the pride of human intellect, that the most comprehensive moral change that ever was effected by a mere man in the character of an immense proportion of the species was the work of a barbarian, unacquainted with the literature and science of his own Arabia, as scanty at that time as the herbage in its deserts; and it is yet more derogatory to the vaunted pretensions of human virtue, unaided by a really divine influence, that this moral change was itself the greatest moral evil from one source with which our race has been visited since the serpent beguiled Eve with his subtlety. The Koran, which contains the oracles of this anomalous heresy, -anomalous, yet so admirably adapted to all the fierce and licentious passions of our nature that it required no miracle to aid the sword in its promulgation, finding or making a traitor in every evil heart which it assailed,—the Koran is said to be a model of elegant Arabic composition, and though antiquated, by no means deserving the character which the celebrated John Hutchinson gives of it; namely, that it is a jargon of dialects never spoken by man. The learned Hebraist, in this instance, was probably prejudiced by his abhorrence of the doctrines which this apocryphal volume contains. On the other hand, if the diction be so pure, it could not have been the work of the arch-deceiver himself, or he was not the illiterate personage whom he affected to be, perhaps for this very purpose,-that the eloquence and knowledge displayed in this pretended revelation might appear supernatural, and self-evidence that he was verily inspired.

Be this as it may, Mahomet and his immediate successors, in all other respects, were brutal, re


morseless, fanatical conquerors, ravagers, and overthrowers of nations and of letters. It was in the reign of Omar, the third of this ferocious line, that the celebrated Alexandrian Library was condemned to be burned, on the shrewd assumption, that if the books were in consonance with the Koran, they were useless; and if contrary to it, heretical. This has been deemed the greatest loss which learning ever sustained ; and certainly, in bulk, if not in value; as one single calamity, and a calamity for ever irreparable, it was the greatest that could even be imagined within the range of possibility. Two libraries, however, of nearly equal amount in number of volumes, and probably much more precious in the selection, had been previously consumed by fire in the same situation. "Those, therefore, who take it for granted that if the third had been spared by the Arabs, its contents would have been preserved as an inheritance to enrich all posterity, may console themselves for its wanton destruction, by reflecting, that if two libraries of the kind, and on the spot, guarded by the vigilance and jealousy of the most enlightened people of the earth, were destroyed in the course of two centuries between the age of Julius Cæsar and that of the Antonines, it is scarcely probable that this, for eight hundred years longer, would have escaped fire, dispersion, or ruin, by violence, neglect, or accident, while Egypt was in possession of one race of barbarian masters after another.

[ocr errors]

The Literature of the Saracens. The spoilers themselves, in this instance, ultimately made all the compensation that was in the power of man to make for this one act of unexampled havoc. The Arabs—the Saracens, as they were afterward called-had scarcely exhausted their first military fury, in the march of uninterrupted conquest, east, west, north, and south, than they began to appreciate the intrinsic worth of books. Learning avenged herself nobly on these her enemies, by first making them her captives, then her friends, and finally her champions, by whom she was, in the sequel, preserved from all but utter annihilation in those very lands where she had once held sovereign sway. The Saracens, with an eagerness of search strikingly contrasted with their recklessness of devastation, in this respect, collected, wherever they could be found, copies of the Greek authors of the classic ages, which, being translated into their own tongue, they made the text-books of schools and colleges, established by authority in every country wherein they had gained a settlement; and they employed their own most eminent scholars to write commentaries on the same, Their princes even entered into treaties with the eastern emperors, at Constantinople, for rare manuscripts, which had now become to them of the value of provinces.

In process of time-ay, within two centuries from the conflagration of the Alexandrian Library,—the works of Aristotle and other Grecian philosophers, poets, and historians were retranslated from the Arabic versions into Latin, and the other languages of the west; nay, so complete was "learning's triumph o'er her barbarous foes,” that through these vehicles, imperfect as they must have been, the polemical schoolmen of the middle ages derived their ill-digested learning. It is lamentable to think that so many of the latter-men of gigantic intellect,wasted their strength for the most pigmy purposes. These wandering stars, amid the night of ages, shooting singly through the settled gloom that hung over the whole horizon of Europe, or occasionally revealed in constellations through rifted clouds that closed upon them in redoubled darkness; these schoolmen, as they are still called, were proofs, that under the most repressing circumstances, there are, in every generation, minds which cannot be kept


down; minds which, by their native energy and buoyance, will struggle into liberty of thought, and exercise the sovereignty of genius over the ignorant and passive multitude,-at least, if they can find no better subjects. From the Arabs chiefly, this race of hunters after quiddities and crudities, of wranglers about straws and hairs, bubbles and atoms, learned what they knew of mathematics, metaphysics, chymistry, and natural philosophy, with such arts and sciences as were then in repute, though very defectively understood, and little improved, from century to century.

Charlemagne the great, and our own Alfred, a greater than he, commanded the original writings of Arabic authors, as well as their versions from the Greek, to be translated into the vernacular tongues of their respective people ; and thus each of these truly great princes laid the foundation of the future literary fame of his own country.

To the Arabs, also, Europe is indebted for the numeral figures and the invaluable cipher, without which neither the mathematics, nor the sublime and interesting sciences which depend upon these for their proofs and illustrations, could, by any other conceivable means, have been carried to their present perfection. If he who invented the alphabet (the letters of which are the numerals of writing) was the greatest intellectual benefactor of his species, he who invented the signs of the numeration table (which are the alphabet of the mathematics) was only second to him in the boon which he bequeathed to posterity. Every moment of every hour of every day, in every country where letters and figures are known, there are thousands of individuals exercising the privileges and enjoying the benefit of these two inestimable inheritances. The discovery of the golden key of numbers, with its ten wards, which has unlocked to us the starry heavens, as well as the infinitesimal series of things on earth, has been ascribed to the

« PredošláPokračovať »