Item of the Day: Miller’s Retrospect (1803)

Full Title: A Brief Retrospect of the Eighteenth Century. Part First; In Two Volumes: Containing A Sketch of the Revolutions and Improvements in Science, Arts, and Literature, during that Period. By Samuel Miller, A. M. One of the Ministers of the United Presbyterian Churches in the City of New-York, Member of the American Philosophical Society, and Corresponding Member of the Historical Society of Massachuesetts. Vol. I. Published According to Act of Congress. New-York: Printed by T. and J. Swords, no. 160 Pearl-Street, 1803.

On the Revolutions and Improvements in Science, Arts, and Letters, During the Eighteenth Century.

It is justly remarked by an acute modern writer [David Hume, Essays, vol. i. p. 110], that the history of learning and science is much less uniform than that of civil affairs; that the wars, negociations, and politics of one age more resemble those of another, than the literary and scientific taste.  He explains this obvious fact by observing that, in public and political transactions, ambition, honour, malice, revenge, and the various turbulent passions of man, are the prime movers; and that these passions are not only the same in every age, but are also stubborn, intractable, and by no means susceptible of the same variety of modification which frequently takes place in the literary taste and habits of different times.  The former we can scarcely expect any thing human to controul; but the latter may be and are everyday affected by education, by example, and by a thousand circumstances which it would be difficult to enumerate. 

It has often been made a question whether mankind have effected any real progress in knowledge, during the eighteenth century.  There are not a few who maintain the negative; who contend, that although this period has been abundantly productive of new theories, specious plans, and oppositions of science falsely so called ; yet that little, if any thing, has been done toward the cultivation of solid learning and real science, since our fathers of the seventeenth century fell asleep.  In the opinion, and in the language of such, the present race of men are “a generation of triflers, and profligates, sciolists in learning, hypocrites in virtue, and formalists in good breeding; wise only when they follow their predecessors, and visionary fools whenever they attempt to deviate from, or go beyond them.”  [James Beattie, An Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth]  With these cynical critics novelty is degeneracy; and every thing which bears the name of invention, discovery, or improvement, is useless, if not dangerous innovation.  But this indiscriminate opposition to the claims of modern times is evidently rather dictated by prejudice than by enlightened views and impartial observation.  Though a change of circumstances may produce different degrees or kinds of excellence in the efforts of intellect ; yet the native powers of man are doubtless the same in all ages.  It must be admitted, indeed, that in some of the branches of human knowledge the last age has added nothing to the attainments of the preceeding ; and that many things which superficial readers consider as new, were long since familarly known, and as well practised as at the present day.  In works of genius, imagination, and taste, there seems no good ground to represent the present generation as possessing any peculiar or transcendent excellence.  Perhaps a candid inquirer would even say, that in these respects we rather fall below than rise above the standards of former times, and for this fact plausible if not satisfactory reasons may be assigned.  But still, amidst multiplied false theories, and much pompous jargon, which have been too prevalent in the world during the last century ; though the field of enterprise, in this remarkable human exertion, has been more remarkable for the number of labourers employed in it, than for the success of their labours; though luxuriant foliage, more than substantial fruit, has abounded; yet much, within this period, has been done.   New and important truth has been elicited: discoveries of a highly interesting nature have been made: systems of philosophy have assumed a more regular, consistent and dignified form: and various departments of learning have been purged of the dregs, and rescued from the rubbish with which the ignorance of the inexperienced times had encumbered them. 

At the close of the seventeenth century, the stupendous mind of NEWTON, and the penetrating genius of LOCKE, had laid their systems of matter and of mind before the world.  Like pioneers in an arduous siege, they had many formidable obstacles to remove–many labyrinths to explore–and the power of numberless enemies to overcome[…]     

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Filed under 1800's, Eighteenth century, History, Philosophy, Posted by Matthew Williams

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