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contemplate the history of any human being from its very origin, and to mark the rise and progress of those qualities, moral and intellectual, by which he is distinguished from every other in. dividual, the information communicated by himself must be peculiarly valuable. Who, for example, but Montagne himself was likely to have acquainted us with that singular mode of education by which he was talked into a knowledge of the learned languages, without ever committing to memory the common rules of grammar; and was initiated into that course of promiscuous and, excursive reading, which, while it stored his mind with a vast mass of fact and opinion, and freed him from the shackles of the schools, also rendered him that lax and irregular thinker which we find him In his Essays ? What friend of Franklin's knew him so early and intimately as to have been able to relate those circumstances relative to the manner in which he passed his childhood and youth, which, in his own narrative, so instructively point out the steps of his progress to that character of practical wisdom, public and private, for which he was so conspicuous ? What other person but Rousseau himself was acquainted with the impressions his mind underwent in childhood, from that course of novel-reading, followed by political lectures on Plutarch's Lives, by which his father administered fuel to his imagination, and at the same time incul. cated the high sentiments of republican equality?
But it is chiefly in this disclosure of unknown facts, and the secret workings of the soul to which no other mortal is conscious, that the peculiar advantage of autobiography consists; for nothing is more rare than that degree of self-knowledge which enables a person, even if wishing to be sincere, to draw a true portraiture of himself. Though a man who internally feels all his own foibles ought to be more sensible of them than a by-stander, who observes them only in their occasional operation, yet such is the blinding power of the self-love which is rooted in every bosom, that they are often rendered either wholly inconspicuous to their owners, or appear with such softenings and modifications, that they are scarcely recognized in their proper character. Hence what pro. mises in the outset to be a frank confession of fault, is sometimes so diluted and neutralized in the progress, that its effect on the mind of an 'unwary reader is almost obliterated. A remarkable example of this juggle of self-love is afforded by a passage of Lord Clarendon’s Life of himself, where he is speaking in the third person of his own temper and habits. “ He indulged his palate very much, and even took some delight in eating and drinking well, but without any approach to luxury; and in truth rather discoursed like an epicurean, than was one." Here the language is so ludicrously inconsistent, that the noble writer must have laboured under an extraordinary degree of mental obscuration not
to have perceived it. In another passage the same want of selfknowledge is displayed, but without such a contradiction in terms. « He was in his nature inclined to pride and passion, and to a humour between wrangling and disputing, very troublesome; which good company in a short time so reformed and masteredz that no man was more affable and courteous, &c.” Now the fact was, that a stately, unbending, ungracious behaviour, always adhered to this eminent person, and was one cause why in his prosperity his enemies were much more numerous than his friends.
Another manner in which self-importance gives a bias to autobiographers is in leading them to imagine that there is something very peculiar and extraordinary in their own characters, and in the incidents of their lives. It is flattering to a man's vanity to in: dulge the conception that he is formed in a different mould from other mortals, and is marked out by events as one destined to act a part appropriate to himself on the theatre of the world. Thiš humour is happily exposed by Shakespear in the person of Glené dower:
Ai my nativity
These signs have marked me extraordinary,
Religio Medici” of Sir Thomas Browne is filled with similar assertions of the writer's singularities in mind and disposi. tion, as well as with extravagant pretensions to almost universal knowledge, at the same time that he disclaims the remotest disposition to pride or self-conceit. The celebrated Lord Ilerbert of Cherbury has exhibited in his Memoirs à propensity of the same kind.' Persons in whom pious feelings predominate are led by this infirmity to arrogate the special protection of Providence, ånd to find miraculous interpositions in their favour in the common escapes from difficulty or denger.
For this tendency, however, a reader will soon know how to make due allowance: and the little ebullitions of self-consequence appearing in such forms are rather amusing than deceptive, and indeed exhibit a feature of real portraiture, but there are causes of misreprésentation in autobiography, the effects of which are less obvious to detection. In order to be put sufficiently on our guard against these sources of error, it is necessary to consider the motives that usually influence persons to become the narrators of their own history.
The desire of being favourably known to the world must be res garded as nearly universal in self-biographers; for although there
is a kind of blabbing loquacity in some men which urges them to write, as well as to talk, of themselves solely for the gratification they find in it, yet, as this disposition is usually accompanied with a degree of vanity, a secret purpose of showing themselves off in the fairest colouring will scarcely fail to become an additional motive. Hence, in all the confessions that are made before the public with so much apparent frankness, although foibles, defects, and even some vices are readily acknowledged, yet care is taken to suppress every thing that would indicate meanness, dishonesty, selfishness, cowardice, and all those propensities which debase a .character in universal estimation. And if the writer occasionally discloses facts which would injure him in the estimation of an exact moralist, it is, because not being such himself, he is not aware of the consequence.
I recollect no instance of a man's betraying his own secrets at the hazard of appearing both con. temptible and odious, so extraordinary as that of the Confessions of Rousseau; but his cast of mind was so singular, and indeed in some points approached so nearly to insanity, that his conduct can scarcely be cited as an exception to the preceding remark. It is moreover, evident that in this very work, (which, too, was post. humous) his object was to inculcate a very exalted opinion of himself in the most essential points; and he probably thought that the amelioration of his character by philosophy obliterated all the stains of his early life. In the same manner, fanatical re. ligionists are ready to charge themselves with having been the worst of singers previously to that regeneration which has made them saints.
That remarkable character, Carđan, was also one who, with high boasts of himself, has confessed to faults of temper and cone duct, which cannot fail to depreciate him in the estimation of every sober reader of his life; but it is apparent that his moral sense was by no means delicate; for when he mentions his un. happy son, who was executed for the murder of his wife, he represents him as ured sufferer, rather than as
victim to justice. In like manner we find that vain-glorious artist, Benvenuto Cellini, in his curious memoirs, mentioning his acts of vio. lence and brutal revenge more as matter of boast, than of penis tence. In professed Apologies no one would look for mueh sine cerity of confession; yet the loose unabashed character of Colley Cibber has rendered his biography of himself, under that title, as tolerably resembling portrait of the coxcomb and libertine; and certain female apologists, whose reputation was past retrieving, have not scrupled to record their slips with reasonable fidelity, for they risked nothing in exposing themselves, and thereby gained an opportunity of exposing others. The Marshal de Bassompierre, an. otberantobiographer, is at oo pains to conceal his deep and successful
gaming, gaming, and the unbounded license of his amours, because, though devout enough in the Roman catholic form, he felt no compunction for these peccadilloes, which could not hurt his character as a gentleman. Polonius, in lIamlet, when he directs his servant to throw some slanders upon his son Laertes, by way of fishing out his secrets from his companions, only cautions him to
breathe his faults so quaintly
A savagereness in unreclaimed blood, These observations may suffice to show that open confession of some faults by no means implies that others are not concealed; and that although we may safely admit all the ill a man speaks of himself, we must not conclude that one who knew him thoroughly could not bring to light a great deal more. And on the whole, it may be taken for granted that the portraits of persons drawň by their own hands will, if likenesses, at least be flattering ones; and that the narratives of their lives, if composed by themselves, will, indeed, be rendered interesting by circumstances which could not be communicated by others; but, at the same time, by the supprese sion of some facts, and the misrepresentation of others, will mislead the reader who has no means of checking them by different relations. If we possessed no other account of Margaret of Valois, the divorced queen of Henry IV., and one of the most licentious women in France, than her own memoirs, she might pass for a model of chastity.
Of the works of this class, we have many written by statese men, generals, and persons employed in important public transactions, one object of whom may be generally concluded to have been the giving a favourable view of the part they themselves acted on the scene; for it would he too much to expect of human nature that a public man should sit down to make a statement of his own errors, purely for the benefit of his successors. Such narratives, therefore, though often highly valuable for the information they convey, as being derived from sources inaccessible to other writers, must always be read with a degree of scepticism. We know that Cæsar, notwithstanding the air of unpretending simplicity in his Commentaries, was charged in his own time with having passed over in silence various instances of failure and defeat. If Cicero's different narratives of the acts of his consulate had been trans. mitted to posterity, though they might have acquainted us with some circumstances of which we are now ignorant, yet we may be sure that he who did not scruple to request his friend Lucceius to violate the faith of history by throwing a lustre on his deeds beyond their desert, would not have been more scrupulous in
sacrificing truth to vanity with his own pen. Vanity, indeed, is a failing which when strongly marked, may justly impair our reliance upon the narrator of his own actions, how estimable soever in other points. Such a person will at least exaggerate, and give a disproportionate consequence to the transactions in which he concerned. It was said of the brave but gasconading Montluc, that he was one “ qui multa fecit, plura scripsit—who did much, but bragged of more. The vanity and self-importance conspicuous in Bishop Burnet contributed much to weaken the authority of his History of his own Times; and though his reputation for veracity appears in the main to have been gaining ground, it cannot be doubted that he over-rated his own share in many of the affairs of which he is the relator. It was said of Burnet's work, that it might be justly styled “The importance of a Man to himself" a title well merited by perhaps the generality of auto-biographies.
Such are the advantages and defects of this class of biographical writings. They are commonly entertaining and interesting; they afford materials for the history of the human mind which can scarely be obtained from other sources, and are especially valuable for the means they present of tracing the original formation of characters : at the same time they are almost universally partial in the statement of facts; frequently mislead by arrogating to their subjects a greater degree of merit and consequence than belongs to them; and perhaps never pourtray with that truth of resemblance which would be given by a sagacious and impartial observer. Read all the most noted of these works that fall in your way, but always with a limited and suspended confidence.
I now close my long epistle, and remain your truly affectionate friend,
ART. VII.--Why are there so few excellent Poets?
It is in reference to many that we employ, in the most strict sense, the word excellent. There is a gradation in society,-a scale of comparative merit, which relates to all orders of beings. In Eu. rope there are but few supreme magistrates: in England there is but one king :
That VOL. II. NO. IV.