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BEFORE a work professedly biographical can be righteously justified or condemned, two things should be fairly examined. FirstWhat advantages are derivable from the lives of particular individuals? Secondly-What characters are the most proper subjects for delineation?
The former of these questions it is easy to answer. Biography has always been highly extolled. It has frequently been compared with other kinds of composition, and pronounced peculiarly entertaining and instructive. The utility of it has been even ranked above the advantages resulting from general history.
Let us attend to this preference, and see whether it be not founded in reason and truth. -The aim of all history should be to describe
and exhibit persons impartially as they are, that goodness may excite admiration, and vice abhorrence. Upon this principle, individual representations are obviously superior to general and aggregate. When the attention is attracted and confined to one particular object, the view is more distinct, and the impression is more forcible. Expansion and division weaken. Multiplicity and variety distract. This may be judged of says a masterly writer, by the feelings and operations of the mind in the contemplation of other things.
When from the summit of some lofty mountain, we survey the wide extended landscape; though highly delighted, we feel ourselves bewildered and overwhelmed by the profusion and diversity of beauties which nature spreads around us. But when we enter the detail of nature: when we attend the footsteps of a friend through some favored, beautiful spot, which
eye and the mind take in at once; feeling ourselves at ease, with undivided, undistracted attention we contemplate the whole, we examine and arrange the parts; the imagination is indeed less expanded, but the heart is more gratified; our pleasure is less violent and tumultuous, but it is more intense, more complete, and continues much longer; what is lost
in respect of sublimity, is gained in perspicuity, force, and duration." Again. "It is highly. gratifying to find ourselves in the midst of a public assembly of agreeable people of both sexes, and to partake of the general cheerfulness and benevolence. But what are the cheerfulness and benevolence of a public assembly, compared to the endearments of friendship, and the meltings of love? To enjoy these, we must retire from the crowd, and have recourse to the individual. In like manner, whatever satisfaction and improvement may be derived from general histories of mankind, which we would not be thought by any means to depreciate; yet the history of particular persons, if executed with fidelity and skill, while it exercises the judgment less severely, so it fixes down the attention more closely, and makes its way more directly, and more forcibly to the heart."
To this quotation, the beauty of which will more than atone for the length, we may add, that biography is the most eagerly read of all kinds of narrative productions, and the most easily applied to the various purposes of life.
But it is less necessary to enlarge upon the advantages of this species of writing, than to ascertain what are the most proper subjects to bring under review.
-They are by no means persons raised to the highest elevations, or distinguished by the most extraordinary achievements. For not to observe that such characters are rarely remarkable for goodness and worth, it is easy to see, that they fall not within the reach of common imitation that they exhibit nothing that leads to self reflection-nothing that occasions moral comparisons-nothing to reprove, to stimulate, to encourage in the course we pursué: they seem to belong to a state with which we have nothing to do: and therefore though they excite curiosity, and furnish materials for conversation, they do not govern our manners, or regulate our practice. How few are placed in situations in which they are likely to grow wiser, by the errors of a statesman, or the mistakes of a general. "Life" says Johnson "Derives its comforts or wretchedness from the management of these things, which nothing but their frequency makes considerable, and which can have no place in the relations of those, who never descend below the consultations of senates, and the motions of armies."
"It is not" says the same author, "Improper to take advantage of prejudice, and to gain attention by a celebrated name; but the business of the biographer is often to pass slightly