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Modern Literature–Bayle’s Critical Dictionary
by [?]

A new edition of Bayle in France is an event in literary history which could not have been easily predicted. Every work which creates an epoch in literature is one of the great monuments of the human mind; and Bayle may be considered as the father of literary curiosity, and of modern literature. Much has been alleged against our author: yet let us be careful to preserve what is precious. Bayle is the inventor of a work which dignified a collection of facts constituting his text, by the argumentative powers and the copious illustrations which charm us in his diversified commentary. Conducting the humble pursuits of an Aulus Gellius and an Athenaeus with a high spirit, he showed us the philosophy of Books, and communicated to such limited researches a value which they had otherwise not possessed.

This was introducing a study perfectly distinct from what is pre-eminently distinguished as “classical learning,” and the subjects which had usually entered into philological pursuits. Ancient literature, from century to century, had constituted the sole labours of the learned; and “variae lectiones” were long their pride and their reward. Latin was the literary language of Europe. The vernacular idiom in Italy was held in such contempt that their youths were not suffered to read Italian books, their native productions. Varchi tells a curious anecdote of his father sending him to prison, where he was kept on bread and water, as a penance for his inveterate passion for reading Italian books! Dante was reproached by the Italians for composing in his mother-tongue, still expressed by the degrading designation of il volgare, which the “resolute” John Florio renders “to make common;” and to translate was contemptuously called volgarizzare. Petrarch rested his fame on his Latin poetry, and called his Italian nugellas vulgares! With us Roger Ascham was the first who boldly avowed “To speak as the common people, to think as wise men;” yet, so late as the time of Bacon, this great man did not consider his “Moral Essays” as likely to last in the moveable sands of a modern language, for he has anxiously had them sculptured in the marble of ancient Rome. Yet what had the great ancients themselves done, but trusted to their own volgare? The Greeks, the finest and most original writers of the ancients, observes Adam Ferguson, “were unacquainted with every language but their own; and if they became learned, it was only by studying what they themselves had produced.”

During fourteen centuries, whatever lay out of the pale of classical learning was condemned as barbarism; in the meanwhile, however, amidst this barbarism, another literature was insensibly creating itself in Europe. Every people, in the gradual accessions of their vernacular genius, discovered a new sort of knowledge, one which more deeply interested their feelings and the times, reflecting the image, not of the Greeks and the Latins, but of themselves! A spirit of inquiry, originating in events which had never reached the ancient world, and the same refined taste in the arts of composition caught from the models of antiquity, at length raised up rivals, who competed with the great ancients themselves; and modern literature now occupies a space which appears as immensity, compared with the narrow and the imperfect limits of the ancient. A complete collection of classical works, all the bees of antiquity, may be hived in a glass-case; but those we should find only the milk and honey of our youth; to obtain the substantial nourishment of European knowledge, a library of ten thousand volumes will not avail nor satisfy our inquiries, nor supply our researches even on a single topic!

Let not, however, the votaries of ancient literature dread its neglect, nor be over-jealous of their younger and Gothic sister. The existence of their favourite study is secured, as well by its own imperishable claims, as by the stationary institutions of Europe. But one of those silent revolutions in the intellectual history of mankind, which are not so obvious as those in their political state, seems now fully accomplished. The very term “classical,” so long limited to the ancient authors, is now equally applicable to the most elegant writers of every literary people; and although Latin and Greek were long characterised as “the learned languages,” yet we cannot in truth any longer concede that those are the most learned who are “inter Graecos Graecissimi, inter Latinos Latinissimi,” any more than we can reject from the class of “the learned,” those great writers, whose scholarship in the ancient classics may he very indifferent. The modern languages now have also become learned ones, when he who writes in them is imbued with their respective learning. He is a “learned” writer who has embraced most knowledge on the particular subject of his investigation, as he is a “classical” one who composes with the greatest elegance. Sir David Dalrymple dedicates his “Memorials relating to the History of Britain” to the Earl of Hardwicke, whom he styles, with equal happiness and propriety, “Learned in British History.” “Scholarship” has hitherto been a term reserved for the adept in ancient literature, whatever may be the mediocrity of his intellect; but the honourable distinction must be extended to all great writers in modern literature, if we would not confound the natural sense and propriety of things.