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LECTURE XXXVII.

PHILOSOPHICAL

WRITING....DIALOGUE....EPIS

TOLARY WRITING....FICTITIOUS HISTORY.

AS history is both a very dignified species of composition, and, by the regular form which it assumes, falls directly under the laws of criticism, I discoursed of it fully in the two preceding Lectures. The remaining species of composition, in prose, afford less room for critical observation.

Philosophical writing, for instance, will not lead us into any long discussion. As the professed object of philosophy is to convey instruction, and as they who study it are supposed to do so for instruction, not for entertainment, the style, the form, and dress of such writings, are less material objects. They are objects, however, that must not be wholly neglected. He who attempts to instruct mankind, without studying, at the same time, to engage their attention, and to interest them in his subject by his manner of exhibiting it, is not likely to prove successful. The same truths and reasoning, delivered in a dry and cold manner, or with a proper measure of elegance and beauty, will make very different impressions on the minds of men.

It is manifest, that every philosophical writer must study the utmost perspicuity; and, by reflecting on what was formerly delivered on the subject of perspicuity, with respect both to single words, and the construction of sentences, we may be convinced that this is a study which demands considerable attention to the rules of style and good writing. Beyond mere perspicuity, strict accuracy and precision are required in a philosophical writer. He must employ no words of uncertain meaning, no loose or indeterminate expressions; and should avoid using words which are seemingly synonymous, without carefully attending to the variation which they make upon the idea.

To be clear then and precise, is one requisite which we have a title to demand from every philosophical writer. He may possess this quality, and be at the same time a very dry writer. He should therefore study some degree of embellishment, in order to render his composition pleasing and graceful. One of the most agreeable, and one of the most useful embellishments which a philosopher can employ, consists in illustrations taken from historical facts, and the characters of men. All moral and political subjects naturally afford scope for these; and wherever there is room for employing them, they seldom fail of producing a happy effect. They diversify the composition; they relieve the mind from the fatigue of mere reasoning, and at the same time raise more full conviction than any reasonings produce; for they take philosophy out of the abstract, and give weight to speculation, by shewing its connexion with real life, and the actions of mankind.

Philosophical writing admits besides of a polished, a neat, and elegant style. It admits of metaphors, comparisons, and all the calm figures of speech, by which an author may convey his sense to the understanding with clearness and force, at the same time that he entertains the imagination. He must take great care, however, that all his ornaments be of the chastest kind, never partaking of the florid or the tumid; which is so unpardonable in a professed philosopher, that it is much better for him to err on the side of naked simplicity, than on that of too much ornament. Some of the ancients, as Plato and Cicero, have left us philosophical treatises composed with much elegance and beauty. Seneca has been long and justly censured for the affectation that appears in his style. He is too fond of a certain brilliant and sparkling manner; of antithesis and quaint sentences. It cannot be denied, at the same, time, that he often expresess himself with much liveliness and force; though his style, upon the whole, is far, from deserving imitation. In English, Mr. Locke's celebrated Treatise on Human Understanding, may be pointed out as a model, on the one hand, of the greatest clearness and distinctness of philosophical style, with very little approach to ornament; Lord Shaftsbury's writings, on the other hand, exhibit philosophy dressed up with all the ornament which it can admit; perhaps with more than is perfectly suited to it.

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Philosophical composition sometimes assumes a form, under which it mingles more with works of taste, when carried on in the way of dialogue and conversation. Under this form the ancients have given us some of their chief Philosophical works; and several of the moderns have endeavoured to imitate them. Dialogue writing may be executed in two ways, either as direct conversation, where none but the speakers appear, which is the method that Plato uses; or as the recital of a conversation, where the author himself appears, and gives an account of what passed in discourse; which is the method that Cicero generally follows. But though those different methods make some variation in the form, yet the nature of the composition is at bottom the same in both, and subject to the same laws.

A dialogue, in one or other of these forms, on some philosophical, moral, or critical subject, when it is well conducted, stands in a high rank among the works of taste; but is much more difficult in the execution than is commonly imagined. For it requires more than merely the introduction of different persons speaking in succession. It ought to be a natural and spirited representation of real conversation; exhibiting the character and manners of the several speakers, and suiting to the character of each, that peculiarity of thought and expression which distinguishes him from another A dialogue, thus conducted, gives the reader a very agreeable entertainment; as by means of the debate going on among the personages, he receives a fair and full view of both sides of the argument; and is, at the same time, amused with polite conversation, and with a display of consistent and well supported characters. An author, therefore, who has genius for executing such a composition after this manner, has it in his power both to instruct and to please.

But the greatest part of modern dialogue writers have no idea of any composition of this sort; and bating the outward forms of conversation, and that one speaks, and another answers, it is quite the same, as if the author spoke in person throughout the whole. He sets up a philotheus perhaps, and a philatheos, or an A and a B; who, after mutual compliments, and after admiring the fineness of the morning or evening, and the beauty

of the prospects around them, enter into conference concerning some grave matter; and all that we know farther of them is, that the one personates the author, a man of learning, no doubt, and of good principles; and the other is a man of straw, set up to propose some trivial objections; over which the first gains a most entire triumph; and leaves his sceptical antagonist at the end much humbled, and, generally, convinced of his error. This is a very frigid and insipid manner of writing; the more so, as it is an attempt toward something, which we see the author cannot support. It is the form, without the spirit of conversation. The dialogue serves to no purpose, but to make awkward interruptions; and we should with more patience hear the author continuing always to reason himself, and to remove the objections that are made to his principles, than be troubled with the unmeaning appearance of two persons, whom we see to be in reality no more than one.

Among the ancients, Plato is eminent for the beauty of his dialogues. The scenery, and the circumstances of many of them, are beautifully painted. The characters of the sophists, with whom Socrates disputed, are well drawn: a variety of personages are exhibited to us; we are introduced into a real conversation, often supported with much life and spirit, after the Socratic manner. For richness and beauty of imagination, no philosophic writer, ancient or modern, is comparable to Plato. The only fault of his imagination is, such an excess of fertility as allows it sometimes to obscure his judgment. It frequently carries him into allegory, fiction, enthusiasm, and the airy regions of mystical theology. The philosopher is, at times, lost in the poet. But whether we be edified with the matter or not, (and much edification he often affords) we are always entertained with the manner; and left with a strong impression of the sublimity of the author's genius.

Cicero's dialogues, or those recitals of conversation, which he has introduced into several of his philosophical and critical works, are not so spirited, nor so characteristical, as those of Plato. Yet some, as that " De Oratore," especially, are agreeable and well supported. They show us conversation carried on among some of the principal persons of ancient Rome, with freedom, good breeding, and dignity. The author of the ele

gant dialogue," De Causis Corruptæ Eloquentiæ," which is annexed sometimes to the works of Quintilian, and sometimes to those of Facitus, has happily imitated, perhaps has excelled, Cicero, in this manner of writing.

Lucian is a dialogue writer of much eminence; though his subjects are seldom such as can entitle him to be ranked among philosophical authors. He has given the model of the light and humorous dialogue, and has carried it to great perfection. A character of levity, and at the same time of wit and penetration, distinguishes all his writings. His great object was, to expose the follies of superstition, and the pedantry of philosophy, which prevailed in his age; and he could not have taken any more successful method for this end, than what he has employed in his dialogues, especially in those of the gods and of the dead, which are full of pleasantry and satire. In this invention of dialogues of the dead, he has been followed by several modern authors. Fontenelle, in particular, has given us dialogues of this sort, which are sprightly and agreeable; but as for characters, whoever his personages be, they all become Frenchmen in his hands. Indeed few things in composition are more difficult, than in the course of a moral dialogue to exhibit characters properly distinguished; as calm conversation furnishes none of those assistances for bringing characters into light, which the active scenes, and interesting situations of the drama, afford. Hence few authors are eminent for characteristical dialogue on grave subjects. One of the most remarkable in the English language, is a writer of the last age, Dr. Henry More, in his divine dialogues, relating to the foundations of natural religion. Though his style be now in some measure obsolete, and his speakers be marked with the academic stiffness of those times, yet the dialogue is animated by a variety of character, and sprightliness of conversation, beyond what are commonly met with in writings of this kind. Bishop Berkley's dialogues concerning the existence of matter, do not attempt any display of characters; but furnish an instance of a very abstract subject, rendered clear and intelligible by means of conversation properly managed.

I proceed next to make some observations on epistolary writing which possesses a kind of middle place between the VOL. II.

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