Item of the Day: “On the Probability of a Return of the Dark Ages (1810)

Found In: The Harvard Lyceum. Vol. I., No. 3. Cambridge, August 11, 1810. [pp. 64-66]

 

“ON THE PROBABILITY OF A RETURN OF THE DARK AGES”

WHEN we recollect tht the glorious days of Grecian and Roman refinement were succeeded by the gloomy reign of ignorance and superstition; that after the wide diffusion and long enjoyment of the blessings of the arts and scineces, they were, in the course of a few years, neglected, abolished, and forgotten; with what anxiety must the philanthropick mind look forward to future ages, and tremble for the fate of posterity? Shall the period again return, when folly and fanaticism shall triumph over learning and wisdom; when the dominon of chaos and night shall be reestablished, and posterity relaps into ignorance and barbarism?

This inquiry must excite solicitude in every ingenuous mind. Next to that of ourselves, the fate of our descendants becomes interesting. In order to discover upon what depends the stability of modern refinement and learning, it will be necessary to take a view of their progress in ancient days.

After a lapse of many ages, during which the old world remained ignorant and uncivilized, and man unconscious of his dignity, the arts and sciences began to appear in ancient Greece. They had, at different times, visited various nations of the earth; but cramped by a barbarous reception, or deterred by tyrants, they had withdrawn before their benign influence had been felt, and at last retired to Greece, where they found dispositions more congenial to their nature, and mind more ready to give them a cordial reception.

In Greece, the principles of liberty were imbibed with the sciences; at the appearance of philosophy slavery fled, and Sparta and Athens became a society of refined and learned republicans. The Grecian patriot was brave, independent, a friend of learning and the arts, and a lover of virtue. The progress of science in Italy was similar, if not equally extensive. And though philosophy could not soften the haughty temper of the Roman soldier, yet its influence was felt in their laws and government, and finally produced its invariable effects. At length the arts and sciences were so successfully cultivated, and their good tendency, in meliorating the condition of man, had so long been acknowledged, that though they were confined principally to Greece and Rome, human foresight could never have prognosticated their fall. But, by the decrees of fate, they were once more to suffer exile; the birth places of Socrates and Plato, of Cato and Cicero, were to be polluted by the vile touch of savages and fanaticks, and the peaceful walks of science, to become the theatre of war and bloodshed.

Learning and the arts, at length, disappeared, leaving the world to darkness, horrour, and despair; and mankind, sunk to the lowest degree of human debasement by ignorance, superstition, and slavery, slept the long sleep of thirteen hundred years. But the happy period at length arrived, when they should re-appear. They rose where they last set, and man, now weary of domination, and desirous of shaking off that yoke, which had no support but folly and vice, hailed their appearance with exultation and joy. Their renovating influence soon spread from the happy shores of Italy, and at last reached our mother country. (to be resumed.)

[Continued In: The Harvard Lyceum. Vol. I., No. 4. Cambridge, August 25, 1810. (pp. 73-78)]

“ON THE PROBABILITY OF A RETURN OF THE DARK AGES”

THE revival of letters was gradual, and produced by intelligible causes. After a struggle of centuriss between barbarism and refinement, superstition and philosophy, we again see the empire of letters established. Man is no longer a slave to folly and vice. He has become a reasoning, self-directed being; too enlightened to be the obsequious tool of wicked priestcraft, he has shaken off the fetters of superstition, and clothed himself in the armour of independence. Though a great part of the world is yet in darkness, we have the satisfaction of seeing mumerous nations enlightened by science, and polished by arts. Roused by the barefaced impositions of priests, they have revolted from that mental bondage, and forced those nefarious instruments of papal tyranny, to seek a retreat in the solitude of the cloister.

It is the favourite hypothesis of some, that learning has arrived at its acme; that it has, like the ocean, its regular ebbs and flows; that at one time man will be exalted to the highest pitch of mental refinement, and thence precipitated to the lowest point of degradation. This supposition is conceived to correspond best with the general course of nature. Animals and plants are limited in magnitude and time of existence; they have not a constant increase; and these are erroneously taken as completely analogous to the human mind. Every thing except the mind, which is susceptible of infinite improvement, may, perhaps, be considered, as having boundaries, which are impassable.

The changes in the character of nations do not arise from causes, which lie beyond the reach of human understanding. Because the world was once enlightened and afterwards relapsed into ignorance, we cannot determine this to be the necessary result. To say this, would be to say, that different ages possesed different degrees of genius; that after a course of years when men are blessed with minds capable of receiving instruction, then the leaden age must return, and literature again necessarily lie neglected. But if we allow these changes in the literary character of a country to arise from political situation, then this notion of regular and unavoidable ebbs and flows is done away; the arts and sciences may flourish while any remain to cultivate them. No need, then, of waiting the propitious moment; great geniuses will appear, whenever suffcient excitements are exhibited to call forth their exertions. This can be proved by resorting to history. To every reader of the Roman history it must be evident, that the decline and final extinction of the Roman empire and Roman literature must be attributed to the same causes. In Greece and Rome, superstition, war, and tyranny, were the destroyers of learning. When those countries were subdued by tryants, genius had no excitements, it was overawed and kept in subjection, as the mortal enemy of despotism and the firm friend of liberty. When they had been exhausted by the luxury and profusion of their rulers; when they had been depopulated by the cruelty of tyrants, and disheartened by oppression; when tribute could no longer buy off those enemies, which they wanted courage to repel; then hosts of barbarians, allured by the mildness of the climate, or a hope of plunder and love of war, poured down upon all sides, and overwhelmed them like a torrent. The rude hand of the hardy warriors, already taught to despise the conquered, spared not the monuments of literature nor the venerable retreats of philosophy. The nations thus ravaged, the learned and undlearned rooted out, were kept from rising from this state of the earth, from the unnatural mixture of heathen mythology and true religion. These are the evident causes of the extinction of ancient learning. Let it then be our concern to grow wise from the expereince of past ages. The same causes will, in like circumstances, produce similar effect. Let us examine what shall secure the vast literary fabrick of the present day from the like dilapidation. . . .

 

 

 

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Filed under 1810's, Culture, Early Republic, History, Magazine, Posted by Caroline Fuchs

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