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us to discover useful lessons of private conduct in occurrences apparently foreign to our own interests and occupations. To govern provinces, to command armies, or to conduct embassies, are arts which few have occasion to learn; yet vigilant integrity, active forethought, unwearied fidelity, are virtues to be cultivated in every station. Few men are called upon to resigu greatness, and embrace captivity and death for the sake of conscience; yet the heroism of Sir Thomas More was only the conspicuous exercise of those dignified and graceful qualities which shone forth in his domestic life, and example fitted for the imitation of even the humblest individual; the upright firmness, the candor and purity of mind, the cheerful evenness of temper, the sincere and constant piety, which diffused tranquillity through his own breast, and order, harmony, and gladness through his household.'
The facts related by a skilful Biographer are rendered at once familiar and impressive by the detail of minute and characteristic circumstances, which must generally be overlooked in the grand and comprehensive views of history. When the historian shows us a minister and favorite cast down abruptly from the summit of power, our judgment assents to his reflections on the fallacy of all human splendor; but our feelings too confess the bitterness of the reverse, when Biography exhibits the disgraced and destitute Wolsey commanding his retinue to be marshalled before him, and bursting into tears in the fruitless effort to address them.2
In works of Biography the moral is more certain, and more easily to be deduced, than in any portion of history. A life once closed is a work completed; the beginning, the middle, and the end are all subject to our observation. We can fearlessly compute the sum of good or evil, and pronounce with confidence how much was added to the amount of either by the several acts submitted to our review. But how feeble and uncertain is the most accurate human judgment upon the history of nations! We may indeed found arguments and establish systems on particular occurrences, and our reasonings on a limited train of facts may be sufficiently
'More's Life of Sir T. More.
Afterwards my Lord commanded me to call all his gentlemen and yeomen up into the great chamber, commanding all the gentlemen to stand on the right hand, and the yeomen on the left side: at last my Lord came out in his rochet upon a violet gown, like a bishop, who went with his chaplains to the upper end of the chamber, where was a great window, beholding his goodly number of servants, who could not speak to them until the tears ran down his cheeks, which being perceived of his servants, caused fountains of tears to gush out of their sorrowful eyes, in such sort as would cause any heart to relent. At last my Lord spake to them to this effect and purpose, saying," &c. Cavendish's Life of Wolsey, chap. xvii.
correct; but the events of an age, or succession of ages, are only part of a great and unfinished series, and whatever ingenuity may be exerted in reducing any portion of history to a complete and consistent scheme, there must yet remain many perplexities to be solved, and many imperfections to be supplied, out of the stores of succeeding years. We cannot doubt that the same supreme wisdom which disposes the lives of individuals is also, in its own time, conducting the history of the world to its just and appropriate termination; but while the philosopher affects to point out the ultimate purpose of particular dispensations, and the part which they contribute to the great and unknown plan, he resembles the traveller by that mysterious African river, of which we know the source, and have explored the earlier windings, but pursue with impotent conjecture the vast and devious branches that descend into the ocean.
The moral effect of History is not only rendered less perfect than that of Biography, by the causes already mentioned, but it is still farther weakened and dissipated by the variety of incidents and persons, and the perpetual intervention of occurrences apparently accidental. The wisest projects are defeated, the most absurd and profligate fortunately concluded; the virtuous undertakings of good men devolve upon unworthy successors, who distort and debase them; and political prosperity appears rather the reward of talent and acuteness, than of conscientious integrity. Our attention is only directed to the conduct of persons as it affects the general tenor of events; and hence we are often led to bestow unmerited applause, to desire the success of enterprises inconsistent with strict morality, and to envy, not so much those who have acted uprightly, as those who have been placed in great situations.
To assert that the lives of individuals are exempt from unforeseen vicissitude, or that the maxim cited by the Roman biographer, "that every man's character is the mould of his fortune," can be received in its widest acceptation, would be vain and extravagant. But in the study of Biography, if we meet with a good man depressed, or a bad one exalted, by events beyond human control, our attention, instead of being diverted from the subject by some new incident or greater personage, is fixed more closely on the sequel, and as we diligently trace the progress of the same mind through all the succeeding scenes to the greatest and last, we learn to consider the vicissitudes of fortune only as different lights thrown upon the same figure, and not having power of themselves to improve its excellences, or mitigate its deformity.
It appears from this comparison, that the study of History tends
* Sui cuique mores fingunt fortunam. Corn. Nep. Atticus, c. xi.
chiefly to inform the judgment and mature the intellectual virtues of foresight, penetration, political sagacity: Biography, while it partakes in some measure of the same utility, is most effectively employed in strengthening those moral qualities which in their private exercise adorn and instruct, and in their public display, invigorate and exalt the state.
That the Biography of men of letters should excite an interest more than proportioned to the importance of the events recorded, may be attributed to this peculiar circumstance; that the great actions by which other men distinguish themselves are performed at a distance from us, and are known only by report, and by the imperfect pictures of our own imagination; but the works of the poet or philosopher are present alike in all ages and places, and the image of their minds reflected from their works is neither impaired nor obscured by lapse of time or distance of country. This daily participation in their thoughts and feelings awakens a natural curiosity to be acquainted with the incidents of their lives, and to compare their manners and conduct as men, with the tone and character of their writings. It is at once an interesting and a profitable study, to observe the growth and developement of illustrious talents, and the circumstances which have excited, directed, or repressed their activity. The unpromising boyhood of South and Barrow; the early maturity of genius in Pope, and its tardy disclosure in Dryden; the robust powers of Johnson, growing up to perfection under the weight of indigence, obscurity, and unworthy labor; the hidden energies of Churchill bursting forth at once into a brief career of brilliant exertion and conspicuous profligacy; the reserved and unenterprising disposition which half veiled the learning and talents of Gray; and the public-spirited ambition which gave lustre to the same qualities in Sir William Jones; all these, and a multitude of examples not less remarkable, which Biography preserves to us, are eminently fitted to improve the studious observer of human nature, and afford encouragement or suggest caution to the cultivator of letters.
But, not to expatiate farther on those branches of Biography which derive importance from their subject, there is scarcely any class or description of human life, which, if honestly and skilfully portrayed, may not be rendered interesting and instructive. The shades of human disposition are so infinitely varied, and, in the narrow space assigned to human action, the paths are so many and so diversified, that an accurate observer of characteristic circumstances may continually point out new facts in the moral history of man, or at least discover new illustrations of those already known. From this cause chiefly it arises, that in the later ages of literature, when other subjects have been exhausted, Biography, and the descrip
tion of remote countries, are most commonly resorted to as the yet unfailing sources of delight and information. And Biography under all its forms has this great and important utility, that the mind of man, too apt to be engrossed by the present hour, or by anxious anticipations of the hour immediately to follow, is induced by this study to reflect upon life as a whole; to observe how inseparably, in the history of every person, each part is connected with the others, and to contemplate steadily that solemn though familiar truth, how short, how frail, and how precious is the gift of existence.
These considerations naturally lead us from the subjects of Biography to the manner in which they should be treated.
The style and method of every biographical narration must be influenced by its own peculiar circumstances: by none perhaps more remarkably than the distance of time at which the work is undertaken, from the period of which it treats. The two kinds of biographical writing that most widely differ from each other, and afford exercise to the most dissimilar talents, are the Memoirs composed by persons who have shared the scenes, and in a manner lived the life they describe, and the Compilations of learned and ingenious men, illustrating the history of individuals who lived many ages before them. The narratives usually called Memoirs, which, together with the life selected as their principal subject, describe the society in which it was passed, undoubtedly compose the most lively and fascinating department of Biography, uniting, as they do, the grace and brilliancy of fiction, with a portion of the weight and usefulness of history. The more ancient memoirs are inestimable for that simplicity and circumstantial faithfulness with which they paint the manners of our remoter ancestors: and in those of later times, we are gratified by exact yet animated pictures of individuál and social character,rendered still more attractive by felicity of expression and brilliancy of thought, by alternate playfulness of satire, and profoundness of reflection. It must however be confessed, that under this elegant and engaging form, Biography has often appeared too negligent of that severe practical morality, which is its most honorable characteristic: and many of those works which deserve the highest admiration for the spirited graces of their style, are the
As Joinville's Memoirs of St. Louis; Sully's Memoirs of Henry IV; Cavendish's Life of Wolsey.
2 This observation of course applies to the best species of memoirs. There are others, however, which have their value as repositories of anecdote, though they indicate no higher qualifications in the writer than strong memory and acute observation. A still lower class of memoirs is only reimarkable as the ordinary vehicle of frivolous and pernicious communications.
least qualified to instruct society, either by just principles or virtuous examples.*
The author who compiles a life from the traditions and written mémorials of a former age, must exhibit very different qualifications from him who merely depicts the scenes that have passed before his eyes. With a less fanciful and less original mind, he must possess a judgment far more solid, a practised discernment, an unwearied industry, and an unshaken firmness in repelling the allurements of system. Removed, as he generally is, by a long series of years from the influence of prejudice, availing himself of every improvement which in later times has contributed to extend knowledge and assist reason, and deliberately comparing the different illustrations which his subject has received from ancient authority or modern research; he enjoys in some respects a superiority over the contemporary Biographer; and it frequently happens, that the life which has been composed after an interval of ages, is not only the most regular and polished history, but the most exempt from errors, Nor is this kind of Biography so austere in its character, so necessarily incapable of oruament or animation, as might be concluded by a hasty observer. The Lives of Plutarch, which at least have never been deemed frigid or uninteresting, were, with very few exceptions, collected from the memorials of distant generations; and although perhaps a greater reserve in crediting, and discretion in reporting, would have been useful to the ancient, as they would be indispensable in any modern author, yet the solid and unquestioned excellencies of the Parallel Lives afford sufficient proof, that this species of Biography is not of necessity confined to the general recital of a few barren facts, or to the uninviting though useful labor of antiquarian dissertations.2
The qualities most essential to a biographical work are copiousness and impartiality. Activity and perseverance in the collection of facts are virtues of easy attainment; but to discern the frivolous from the important, to resolve on adopting and on rejecting, to select materials with that unerring judgment which permits no distinguishing part of the character to escape, yet rejects those indifferent circumstances which belong equally to all men, is a perfection of art which few authors have approached. Of the two vices. to which those writers are exposed, who fail of this exquisite medium, an officious prolixity is the most exposed to ridicule, an
As the Memoirs of the Count de Grammont, by Hamilton; and the Cardinal de Retz's Memoirs of his own Life.
2 The Lives of Diogenes Laertius are collections of amusing and valuable anecdote, not like those of Plutarch, complete and animated representations of character and conduct.