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No. 33. SATURDAY, DECEMBER 22, 1792.
Magnum certè quiddam præstare videntur, si delibantes aliorum ingenia ex compendio sapiant, aut in cortice doctrinæ aliquatenus hæreant.
BACON, DE AUG. SCIENT. They think they have done wonders, if, by simply colouring their
thoughts with other men's wit, they can shorten the fatigues of study, or just penetrate the rind of knowledge, unable to pierce into the core. I have given my readers a chapter on the false refinements of the present age-I shall now present them with my thoughts on the false learning by which it is disgraced.
False learning, in which I include false taste, is properly a branch of that false spirit of refinement which has been considered before, and consists, in Lord Bacon's words, “ of vain altercations, vain affectations, and vain imaginations.” This part of the question was left untouched in the former
paper, as being a topic broad and interesting enough to demand a separate consideration. It is a subject of regret to consider, that this false learning does not arise from the want of a disposition in the character of the times towards objects of this nature, but from
a wrong bias in its direction, resulting from the contagious effects of this distempered refinement.
It would be unjust to our own age to deny, that what we have lost in depth, we have recovered in breadth ; and that, for one profoundly learned of the old times, we have ten superficially so in the present. Unfortunately, indeed, literature has of late years become a part of the mode, and has accordingly partaken of its insipidity, its caprice, and its adulterations. There is in Fashion a tyrannical insolence that loves to trample upon nature and the right constitution of things: she insists upon
submission, and yet her requisitions are as perverse as they are peremptory. She imposes the same tax upon us all, without considering our inequality of resource, and different measures of ability. If it be the fashion to be learned, learned we must be at all events; and our ingenuity is strained to the top of its bent, to discover succedaneums that may supply, and impositions that may dazzle, till literature becomes a commodity as artificial as dress, and admits of the same mockery of imitation, the same speciousness of ornament, the same coxcombry of character, and the same artifices of deception. When an article becomes the mode, such as have the means will procure it genuine and perfect; while those who are without them, must resort to some adulteration that retains its resemblance, or some composition that usurps its appearance.
The remark is, perhaps, a little paradoxical, yet, in some circumstances, I cannot but lament the abundance of our resources, and the fertility of our inventions, which, in respect to learning, have conjured up such impositions and deceptions, and suggested such seducing resemblances, that we are betrayed by our impatience, precipitance, and vanity,
into the adoption of this literary chicane, instead of the ingenuous ambition of real attainments. The ef. fect of these mechanical helps has been very much to multiply the professors of knowledge, without adding many to the number of its faithful votaries ; they have stocked its wardrobe with such an inexhaustible diversity of tinselled apparel, that her badges have lost their customary distinction, and are become as equivocal tests as ribands and stars.
Besides the operation of this impertinent mixture of fashion, in extending the surface, and contracting the depth of knowledge, it may be made a question, whether some of those inventions on which humanity prides itself the most, may not be, in some sort, chargeable on a similar ground. I contemplate the art of printing with a pious sort of gratitude, when I consider it as nobly instrumental towards the propagation of truths which laid claim to universality, and involved the immortal interests of the soul. I regard it with reverence, as the only weapon of power to cope with the spreading usurpations of prejudice and error, which were not to be overcome by partial opposition, or temporary exertions: with the gigantic arms with which this art has furnished us, we have been enabled to grapple with Error in her remotest retreats, and expose her under all her disguises.
Unhappily, however, the assistance which this art affords us is of a mercenary nature : indifferent in itself, it obeys whatever impulse and direction are given to it; and, in a certain ratio with our spreading inquiries, delusions and false lights have been unhappily multiplied. When the tones of public reasoning, by being overstretched, grow lax and nerveless, and a wanton spirit of change gets abroad, under pretence of illumination and discovery; when a secret corruption has invaded our stores of accu. mulated knowledge, and a corroding infidelity is consuming the very core of philosophy; our admiration is turned to regret, in contemplating this mighty engine of intellectual rule, in the hands of a natural foe, disposed to use it to our destruction, and leave us nothing but the monuments of faded vigour and lost perfection.
But there are other circumstances in the tendency of this noble invention which are but too favourable to false learning. The multiplication of books on every subject has occasioned to some a perplexity of choice in the destination of their views, that has long suspended their application; and to others, an uncontrolable passion for reading, that intrenches upon the time which belongs to reflection, and harasses the mind in a perpetual chase, by starting at each minute fresh objects of pursuit. The character of a book-purchaser, known in ancient times, and so common in our own, seems to spread with the increase of this literary merchandise. A good library is now a part of every gentleman's establishment'; and if the learning of a wealthy man be but elegantly bound, no matter in how small a compass, or with how great a waste of margin. It is a common thing for a modern scholar to found his fame on the arrangement of his library ; tender the mean while of its
repose, and viewing it with a sort of Platonic love, that suffers no thoughts of actual fruition to break the serenity of his contemplations: while others, with a passion for distinction, without an idea of difference, rest their claims to literary eminence on their painful acquisition of scarce editions, of which their admiration is as groundless as that with which children prefer a farthing with a hole in the middle, to one that has no such pretensions to notice.
I do not love to let myself loose in unqualified