Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Critical and Miscellaneous Essays,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. X: Literary Criticism - part 03 (1902), pp. 156-160


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[page 156:]

CRITICAL AND MISCELLANEOUS ESSAYS. BY T. BABINGTON MACAULAY. CAREY AND HART, PHILADELPHIA.

[Graham’s Magazine, June, 1841.]

MACAULAY has obtained a reputation which, although deservedly great, is yet in a remarkable measure undeserved. The few who regard him merely as a terse, forcible, and logical writer, full of thought, and abounding in original views — often sagacious and never otherwise than admirably expressed — appear to us precisely in the right. The many who look upon him as not only all this, but as a comprehensive and profound thinker, little prone to error, err essentially themselves. The source of the general mistake lies in a very singular consideration, yet in one upon which we do not remember ever to have heard a word of comment. We allude to a tendency in the public mind towards logic for logic’s sake; a liability to confound the vehicle with the conveyed; an aptitude to be so dazzled by the luminousness with which an idea is set forth as to mistake it for the luminousness of the idea itself. The error is one exactly analogous with that which leads the immature poet to think himself sublime wherever he is obscure, because obscurity is a source of the sublime, thus confounding obscurity of expression with the expression of obscurity. In the case of Macaulay — and we may say, en passant, of our own Channing — we assent to what he says, too often because we so very clearly understand what it is that he intends to say. Comprehending vividly the points and the sequence of his argument, we fancy that we are concurring in the argument itself. It is not [page 157:] every mind which is at once able to analyze the satisfaction it receives from such Essays as we see here. If it were merely beauty of style for which they were distinguished, if they were remarkable only for rhetorical flourishes, — we would not be apt to estimate these flourishes at more than their due value. We would not agree with the doctrines of the essayist on account of the elegance with which they were urged. On the contrary, we would be inclined to disbelief. But when all ornament save that of simplicity is disclaimed, — when we are attacked by precision of language, by perfect accuracy of expression, by directness and singleness of thought, and above all by a logic the most rigorously close and consequential, — it is hardly a matter for wonder that nine of us out of ten are content to rest in the gratification thus received as in the gratification of absolute truth.

Of the terseness and simple vigour of Macaulay’s style it is unnecessary to point out instances. Every one will acknowledge his merits on this score. His exceeding closeness of logic, however, is more especially remarkable. With this he suffers nothing to interfere. Here, for example, is a sentence in which, to preserve entire the chain of his argument, — to leave no minute gap which the reader might have to fill up with thought, — he runs into most unusual tautology.

“The books and traditions of a sect may contain, mingled with propositions strictly theological, other propositions, purporting to rest on the same authority, which relate to physics. If new discoveries should throw discredit on the physical propositions, the theological propositions, unless they can be separated from the physical propositions, will share in their discredit.”

These things are very well in their way; but it is [page 158:] indeed questionable whether they do not appertain rather to the trickery of thought’s vehicle than to thought itself — rather to reason’s shadow than to reason. Truth, for truth’s sake, is seldom so enforced. It is scarcely too much to say that the style of the profound thinker is never closely logical. Here we might instance George Combe — than whom a more candid reasoner never, perhaps, wrote or spoke — than whom a more complete antipodes to Babington Macaulay there certainly never existed. The former reasons to discover the true. The latter argues to convince the world, and, in arguing, not unfrequently surprises himself into conviction. What Combe appears to Macaulay, it would be a difficult thing to say. What Macaulay is thought of by Combe, we can understand very well. The man who looks at an argument in its details alone, will not fail to be misled by the one; while he who keeps steadily in view the generality of a thesis will always at least approximate the truth under guidance of the other.

Macaulay’s tendency — and the tendency of mere logic in general — to concentrate force upon minutiae, at the expense of a subject as a whole, is well instanced in an article (in the volume now before us) on Ranke’s History of the Popes. This article is called a review — possibly because it is anything else — as lucus is lucus a non lucendo. In fact it is nothing more than a beautifully written treatise on the main theme of Ranke himself, the whole matter of the treatise being deduced from the History. In the way of criticism, there is nothing worth the name. The strength of the essayist is put forth to account for the progress of Romanism by maintaining that divinity is not a progressive science. The enigmas, says he in substance, which perplex the [page 159:] natural theologian, are the same in all ages, while the Bible, where alone we are to seek revealed truth, has always been what it is.

The manner in which these two propositions are set forth is a model for the logician and for the student of belles lettres; yet the error into which the essayist has rushed headlong, is egregious. He attempts to deceive his readers, or has deceived himself, by confounding the nature of that proof from which we reason of the concerns of earth, considered as man’s habitation, and the nature of that evidence from which we reason of the same earth regarded as a unit of that vast whole, the universe. In the former case the data being palpable, the proof is direct; in the latter it is purely analogical. Were the indications we derive from science of the nature and designs of Deity, and thence, by inference, of man’s destiny — were these indications proof direct, no advance in science would strengthen them; for, as our author truly observes, “nothing could be added to the force of the argument which the mind finds in every beast, bird, or flower” — but as these indications are rigidly analogical, every step in human knowledge — every astronomical discovery, for instance — throws additional light upon the august subject, by extending the range of analogy. That we know no more to-day of the nature of Deity, of its purposes — and thus of man himself — than we did even a dozen years ago, is a proposition disgracefully absurd; and of this any astronomer could assure Mr. Macaulay. Indeed, to our own mind, the only irrefutable argument in support of the soul’s immortality — or, rather, the only conclusive proof of man’s alternate dissolution and rejuvenescence ad infinitum — is to be found in analogies [page 160:] deduced from the modern established theory of the nebular cosmogony.(1) Mr. Macaulay, in short, has forgotten that [[what]] he frequently forgets, or neglects, the very gist of his subject. He has forgotten that analogical evidence cannot, at all times, be discoursed of as if identical with proof direct. Throughout the whole of his treatise he has made no distinction whatever.

[[This third volume completes, we believe, the miscellaneous writings of its author.]]

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 160:]

1.  This cosmogony demonstrates that all existing bodies in the universe are formed of a nebular matter, a rare ethereal medium, pervading space; shows the mode and laws of formation; and proves that all things are in a perpetual state of progress; that nothing in nature is perfected.


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Notes:

None.


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[S:1 - JAHCW, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (Critical and Miscellaneous Essays)