Item of the Day: Harris’s Hermes (1751)

Full Title:

Hermes: Or, a Philosophical Inquiry Concerning Language and Universal Grammar, by James Harris. Printed in London by H. Woodfall, for J. Nourse oppostie to Catherine-street, and P. Vaillant facing Southampton-street, in the Strand. 1751.

From the Preface:

THE chief End, proposed by the Author of this Treatise in making it public, has been to excite his Readers to curiosity and inquiry; not to teach them himself by prolix and formal Lectures, (from the efficacy of which he has little expectation,) but to induce them, if possible, to become Teachers to themselves, by an impartial use of their own understandings. He thinks nothing more absurd than the common notion of Instruction, as if Science were to be poured into the Mind, like water into a cistern, that passively waits to receive all that comes. The growth of Knowlege he rather thinks to resemble the growth of Fruit; however external causes may in some degree co-operate, ’tis the internal vigour, and virtue of the tree, that must ripen the juices to their just maturity.

This then, namely, the exciting men to inquire for themselves into subjects worth of their contemplation, this the Author declares to have been his first and principal motive for appearing in print. Next to that, as he has always been a lover of Letters, he would willingly approve his studies to the liberal and ingenuous. He has particularly named these, in distinction to others; because, as his studies were never prosecuted with the least regard to lucre, so they are no way calculated for any lucrative End. The liberal therefore and ingenuous, (whom he has mentioned already,) are those, to whose perusal he offers what he has written. Should they judge favourably of his attempt, he may not perhaps hesitate to confess,

Hoc juvat et melli est.——-

For tho’ he hopes, he cannot be charged with the foolish love of vain Praise, he has no desire to be thought indifferent, or insensible to honest Fame.

From the influence of these sentiments, he has endeavoured to treat his subject with as much order, correctness, and perspicuity as in his power; and if he has failed, he can safely say, (according to the vulgar phrase,) that the failure has been his misfortune, and not his fault. He scorns those trite and contemptible methods of anticipating a pardon for a bad performance, that “it was the hasty fruits of a few idle hours; written merely for private amusement; never revised; published against consent, at the importunity of friends, copies (God knows how) having by stealth gotten abroad;” with other stale jargon of equal falshood and inanity. May we not ask such Prefacers, If what they allege be true, what has the world to do with them and their crudities?

As to the Book itself, it can say this in its behalf, that it does not merely confine itself to what its title promises, but expatiates freely into whatever is collateral; aiming on every occasion to rise in its inquiries, and to pass, as far as possible, from small matters to the greatest. Nor is it formed merely upon sentiments that are now in fashion, or supported only by such authorities as are modern. Many Authors are quoted, that now a-days are but little studied; and some perhaps, whose very names are hardly known.

The Fate indeed of antient Authors (as we have happened to mention them) is not unworthy of our notice. A few of them survive in the Libraries of the learned, where some venerable Folio, that still goes by their name, just suffices to give them a kind of nominal existence. The rest have long fallen into a deeper obscurity, their very names, when mentioned, affecting us as little, as the names, when we read them, of those subordinate Heroes,

Alcandrumque, Haliumque, Noemonaque, Prytanimque.

Now if an Author, not content with the more eminent of antient Writers, should venture to bring his reader into such company as these last, among people (in the fashionable phrase) that no body knows; what usage, what quarter can he have reason to expect?—Should the Author of these speculations have done this, (and ’tis to be feared he has) what method had he best take in a circumstance so critical?—Let us suppose him to apologize in the best manner he can, and in consequence of this, to suggest as follows—

He hopes there will be found a pleasure in the contemplation of antient sentiments, as the view of antient Architecture, tho’ in ruins, has something venerable. Add to this, what from its antiquity is but little known, has from that very curcumstance the recommendation of novelty; so that here, as in other instances, Extremes may be said to meet. Farther still, as the Authors, whom he has quoted, lived in various ages, and in distant countries; some in the full maturity of Grecian and Roman Literature; some in its declension; and others in periods still more barbarous, and depraved; it may afford perhaps no unpleasing speculation, to see how the SAME REASON has at all times prevailed; how there is ONE TRUTH, like one Sun, taht has enlightened human Intelligence through every age, and saved it from the darkness both of Sophistry and Error.

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Filed under 1750's, Language, Philosophy, Posted by Carrie Shanafelt

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