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those treasures of learning, and in which we inherit (as common property to all who have minds to admire them) those stupendous structures of human skill and might? So far as the epithet classic is an accommodated word, employed by a kind of literary courtesy to designate superiority of intellect and knowledge, I am bold to affirm that Britain is as classic as Greece was in the days of Homer, and as Rome was at any period between her foundation and the close of the third Punic war. I speak of the relative intelligence of the whole body of the people, rank for rank, in each of those countries compared with the actual measure of information diffused through the corresponding orders in this island.
The Common People of Greece.
In all the classic regions of antiquity, whether monarchies or republics, knowledge was a species of free-masonry; none but the initiated were the depositaries of its secrets, and these privileged persons were almost universally princes, nobles, priests, or men of high degree, including those who, from bent of genius or other auspicious circumstances, were devoted by choice, or compelled by office, to the cultivation of letters and philosophy. The vulgar, the profane vulgar, the multitude, the million, were jealously and cruelly excluded from the benefits of learning, except in so far as these were necessarily and benignly reflected upon them in the kinder conduct and more affable manners of their masters and superiors; for long before Bacon uttered the famous oracle-"knowledge is power,"* the ancients were aware of that mystery, unsuspected by the ignorant, whom they ruled by that very power-the power of knowledge, both in spiritual and temporal predominance, as their subjects and their slaves.
*"A wise man is strong; yea, a man of knowledge increaseth strength."-Prov. xxiv. 5.
Now and then, indeed, an Æsop, a Terence, or an Epictetus, by the irrepressible buoyancy of native talent rose from the bottom of that stagnant gulf, under which living intelligences were laid down in darkness like beds of oysters; rose from the mud of servile degradation, to vindicate the honour of outraged humanity, and teach both kings and sages, that within the thickest shell of a slave there is the kernel of a man, which only grows not because it is not planted; or, when planted, only flourishes not because it is unworthily beaten down and trampled under foot by those who ought to have cherished, and pruned, and reared it to fertility. Oh! what a waste of mind and worth! What havoc of talent and capacity, of every degree and of every kind, is implied in that perpetuated thraldom of uninstructedness (if I may coin such a negative), wherein the bulk of mankind, through every age and nation under heaven, have been held by tyrants as brutish as themselves, who knew nothing of knowledge except that they feared it; or by the more flagrant injustice of those who possessed, but durst not or would not communicate it to the multitude! The aristocracy of learning has been the veriest despotism ever exercised upon earth, for it was bondage both to soul and body in those who were its victims. Thousands and thousands of spirits-immortal spirits-have dwelt in human bodies almost unconscious of their own existence, and utterly ignorant of their unawakened powers, which, had instruction been as general as it is at this day, and in our land, might, with Newton, have unfolded the laws of the universe, with Bacon, have detected the arcana of nature by the talisman of experiment, or, with Locke, have taught the mind with introverted eye to look at itself, and range at home through all the invisible world of thought. Had this been the case three thousand years ago, and thenceforward uninterruptedly, the abstrusest branches of natural philosophy
and metaphysics themselves might now have been nearly as intelligible, and as certain in their data and conclusions as are mathematics and mechanics, or the abstract principles of jurisprudence.
That the bulk of the Athenians themselves, even in the age of Pericles, were little skilled in reading and writing, is the almost inevitable conclusion to be drawn from the state of literature, in reference to the means of diffusing it in ancient times. Before the invention of printing, the slow production, the consequent scarcity, and the enormous value of books when all were manuscript, placed the possession of them beyond the reach of the poor: and where libraries existed, few but the learned and the great could have access to them. The mode of publishing new works (independent of private communication) was by readings to companies for hire or gratuitously in the open market-place, the schools and walks of philosophy, or at the Olympic and other national games, when all Greece was assembled to witness the corporeal and intellectual prowess of her most distinguished progeny.
How imperfect, as well as how precarious, such means of circulating knowledge must have been, we may judge by trying the experiment in imagination at home. Suppose that all the theological works to which the people of this great city could refer were chained, as the Bible, Common Prayer, and Homilies used to be, in the chancels of our churches; and all the books on general literature, approachable by ordinary readers, were attached to tables and desks under this roof, and within the walls of similar institutions and public libraries; and, further, that no volume were allowed to be taken out, or even perused, except under the eye of a sentinel with a drawn sword or shouldered musket, for the protection of property so rare and precious;-how many, or rather how few, of the thousands and the tens of thousands who are now readers and book-owners
in this metropolis, would avail themselves of privileges so painfully to be enjoyed! Would not the sevenfold majority of the inhabitants satisfy themselves with what they could learn of religion on the Sabbath? But the poor Greek had no Sabbath, on which, resting from toil, he might repair to the temple, the grove, or the portico, for such instruction as priests and sages might deign to afford him. And would any, except those to whom literature was the daily bread of their minds, indulge an appetite for its dainties under the politic restraints of literary societies so circumstanced?
Morals and science, therefore, at Athens, were principally taught by word of mouth, and their lessons were learned through the ear; the eyes of the vulgar had little to do towards the improvement of their minds, except as an habitual taste for painting and sculpture, of which the most finished specimens were familiar to them from infancy, tended to soften external rudeness, but added almost nothing to the stock of knowledge beyond the ideas of fine forms. Nay, even the curious delight and critical exactness with which they listened to the strains of poets, and the arguments of orators in the forum, as well as the recital of the noblest and severest forms of tragic sentiment, and the subtilest and most poignant sallies of comic wit on the stage-were perfectly consistent with a very moderate standard of actual information among a lively, sensitive, and voluptuous people. It is certain that a fine but factitious taste may be formed under peculiar circumstances (and theirs were very peculiar), without effort, and with little knowledge of the subjects on which it is exercised; such taste referring almost exclusively to the manner in which they are handled. Hence Demosthenes might well say that the first, the second, and the third requisite of a good speech was delivery; that necessarily inclu
ding harmonious composition as well as brilliant ut
So situated, the Athenian artisan had scarcely a motive to learn to read, because if he acquired the ability, he could have little opportunity to use it. Writing, indeed, was a profession, and the occupation of a scribe must have been a profitable one; but of course it was chiefly exercised in the service of the wealthy, the learned, and the great; those who could afford to purchase books, and those who could not live without them. That the deficiency of instruction by means of lessons addressed to the eye was not compensated by those addressed to the ear, appears from an anecdote familiar to every schoolboy, but which may be repeated here for the sake of the twofold illustration of our argument which it affords. Aristides had incurred the enmity of his fellow-citizens on account of his pre-eminent virtues. A clown, ignorant even of his person, applied to him to mark his own name for banishment on the shell used in the ballot of ostracism. Having complied with this request, the philosopher inquired what the accused had done to deserve such a punishment. "I don't know," replied the fellow; "but it provokes me to think that he, of all men, should strive to be called the just." This story confirms the assumption that the common people of Greece, in her glory, were not generally taught to read and write, and that not only moral feeling, but intellectual discernment also, was much lower among them than among our contemporaries.
The common People of Rome.
The founder of Rome seems to have been as much of a savage as might be expected of one who was suckled by a wolf. It was the genius and sagacity of his successor which established by wisdom what he