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PRESENT STATE OF POLITE LEARNING
Εμοι προς φιλοσοφους εστι φιλια προς μεν τοι σοφιστας η γραμματιστας ουτε
νυν εστι φιλια μητε υστερον ποτε γενοιτο.*
Tolerabile si Ædificia nostra diruerent Ædificandi capaces.
*[Philosophers I esteem; but I cannot extend similar consideration to
Bophists and pedantic grammarians.]
(This Essay was first published in April 1759, by the Dodsleys. A second edition, revised previous to Goldsmith's last illness, appeared in July 1774, after his death. On the latter he bestowed considerable care, throwing out a portion of the first, either from alteration of circumstances, or having seen cause to change his opinion ; but it was not replaced by
See Life, ch. xxv.]
PRESENT STATE OF POLITE LEARNING
It has been so long the practice to represent literature as declining, that every renewal of this complaint now comes with diminished influence. The public has been so often excited by a false alarm, that at present the nearer we approach the threatened period of decay, the more our security increases.
It will now probably be said, that taking the decay of genius for granted, as I do, argues either resentment or partiality. The writer, possessed of fame, it may be asserted, is willing to enjoy it without a rival, by lessening every competitor; or, if unsuccessful, he is desirous to turn upon others the contempt which is levelled at himself; and being convicted at the bar of literary justice, hopes for pardon by accusing every brother of the same profession.
Sensible of this, I am at a loss where to find an apology for persisting to arraign the merit of the age; for joining in a cry which the judicious have long since left to be kept up by the vulgar; and for adopting the sentiments of the multitude, in a per: formance that at best can please only a few.
Complaints of our degeneracy in literature as well as in morals, I own have been frequently exhibited of late; but seem to be enforced more with the ardor of devious declamation, than the calmness of deliberate inquiry. The dullest critic, who strives at a reputation for delicacy, by showing he cannot be pleased, may pathetically assure us, that our taste is upon the decline; may consign every modern performance to oblivion, and bequeath nothing to posterity except the labors of our ancestors, or his own. Such general invective, however, conveys no instruction: all it teaches is, that the writer dislikes an age by which he is probably disregarded. The manner of being useful on the subject would be, to point out the symptoms, to investigate the causes, and direct to the remedies of the approaching decay. This is a subject hitherto unattempted in criticism; perhaps it is the only subject in which criticism can be useful.*
How far the writer is equal to such an undertaking the reader must determine; yet perhaps his observations may be just, though his manner of expressing them should only serve as an example of the errors he undertakes to reprove.
Novelty, however, is not permitted to usurp the place of reason; it may attend, but shall not conduct the inquiry. But it should be observed, that the more original any performance is, the more it is liable to deviate; for cautious stupidity is always in the right.
* [" To mark out, therefore, the corruptions that have found way into the republic of letters, to attempt the rescuing of genius from the shackles of pedantry and criticism, to distinguish the decay naturally consequent on an age like ours, grown old in literature, from every erroneous innovation which admits a remedy, to take a view of those societies which profess the advancement of polite learning, and by a mutual opposition of their excellencies and defects, to attempt the improvement of each, is the design of this essay."— First edit.]
+ ["" In literature as in commerce, the value of the acquisition is generally
THE CAUSES WHICH CONTRIBUTE TO THE DECLINE OF LEARNING.
If we consider the revolutions which have happened in the commonwealth of letters, survey the rapid progress of learning in one period of antiquity, or its amazing decline in another, we shall be almost induced to accuse nature of partiality: as if she had exhausted all her efforts in adorning one age, while she left the succeeding age entirely neglected. It is not to nature, however, but to ourselves alone that this partiality must be ascribed; the seeds of excellence are sown in every age, and it is wholly owing to a wrong direction in the passions or pursuits of mankind, that they have not received the proper cultivation.*
As in the best regulated societies, the very laws which at first give the government solidity may in the end contribute to its dissolution, so the efforts which might have promoted learning in its feeble commencement may, if continued, retard its progress. The paths of science, which were at first intricate because untrodden, may at last grow toilsome because too much frequented. As learning advances, the candidates for its honors become more numerous, and the acquisition of fame more uncertain : the mod. est may despair of attaining it, and the opulent think it too precarious to pursue. Thus the task of supporting the honor of the times may at last devolve on indigence and effrontery, while learning must partake of the contempt of its professors.
proportioned to the hazard of the adventure. I shall think, therefore, with freedorn, and bear correction with candor. It is but just that he who dissents from others, should not be displeased if others differ from him. The applause of a few, a very few, will satisfy ambition; and even ill-nature must confess, that I have been willing to advance the reputation of the age at the hazard of my own.”—First edit.)
* [" It is not nature that is fatigued with producing her wonders, so much as we that are satiated with admiration.”-First edit.]