I am obliged for the following Essay, as well as for that which lays down Rules out of Tully for Pronunciation and Action, to the Ingenious Author of a Poem just Published, Entitled, An Ode to the Creator of the World, occasioned by the Fragments of Orpheus.
It is a Remark made, as I remember, by a celebrated French Author, that no Man ever pushed his Capacity as far as it was able to extend. I shall not enquire whether this Assertion be strictly true. It may suffice to say, that Men of the greatest Application and Acquirements can look back upon many vacant Spaces, and neglected Parts of Time, which have slipped away from them unemployed; and there is hardly any one considering Person in the World, but is apt to fancy with himself, at some time or other, that if his Life were to begin again, he could fill it up better.
The Mind is most provoked to cast on it self this ingenuous Reproach, when the Examples of such Men are presented to it, as have far outshot the generality of their Species, in Learning, Arts, or any valuable Improvements.
One of the most extensive and improved Genius's we have had any Instance of in our own Nation, or in any other, was that of Sir Francis Bacon Lord Verulam. This great Man, by an extraordinary Force of Nature, Compass of Thought, and indefatigable Study, had amassed to himself such stores of Knowledge as we cannot look upon without Amazement. His Capacity seems to have grasped All that was revealed in Books before his Time; and not satisfied with that, he began to strike out new Tracks of Science, too many to be travelled over by any one Man, in the Compass of the longest Life. These, therefore, he could only mark down, like imperfect Coastings in Maps, or supposed Points of Land, to be further discovered, and ascertained by the Industry of After-Ages, who should proceed upon his Notices or Conjectures.
The Excellent Mr. Boyle was the Person, who seems to have been designed by Nature to succeed to the Labours and Enquiries of that extraordinary Genius I have just mentioned. By innumerable Experiments He, in a great Measure, filled up those Planns and Out-Lines of Science, which his Predecessor had sketched out. His Life was spent in the Pursuit of Nature, through a great Variety of Forms and Changes, and in the most rational, as well as devout Adoration of its Divine Author.
It would be impossible to name many Persons who have extended their Capacities so far as these two, in the Studies they pursued; but my learned Readers, on this Occasion, will naturally turn their Thoughts to a Third , who is yet living, and is likewise the Glory of our own Nation. The Improvements which others had made in Natural and Mathematical Knowledge have so vastly increased in his Hands, as to afford at once a wonderful Instance how great the Capacity is of a Human Soul, and how inexhaustible the Subject of its Enquiries; so true is that Remark in Holy Writ, that, though a wise Man seek to find out the Works of God from the Beginning to the End, yet shall he not be able to do it.
I cannot help mentioning here one Character more, of a different kind indeed from these, yet such a one as may serve to shew the wonderful Force of Nature and of Application, and is the most singular Instance of an Universal Genius I have ever met with. The Person I mean is Leonardo da Vinci, an Italian Painter, descended from a noble Family in Tuscany, about the beginning of the sixteenth Century. In his Profession of History-Painting he was so great a Master, that some have affirmed he excelled all who went before him[. It is certain], that he raised the Envy of Michael Angelo, who was his Contemporary, and that from the Study of his Works Raphael himself learned his best Manner of Designing. He was a Master too in Sculpture and Architecture, and skilful in Anatomy, Mathematicks, and Mechanicks. The Aquæduct from the River Adda to Milan, is mentioned as a Work of his Contrivance. He had learned several Languages, and was acquainted with the Studies of History, Philosophy, Poetry, and Musick. Though it is not necessary to my present Purpose, I cannot but take notice, that all who have writ of him mention likewise his Perfections of Body. The Instances of his Strength are almost incredible. He is described to have been of a well-formed Person, and a Master of all genteel Exercises. And lastly, we are told that his moral Qualities were agreeable to his natural and intellectual Endowments, and that he was of an honest and generous Mind, adorned with great Sweetness of Manners. I might break off the Account of him here, but I imagine it will be an Entertainment to the Curiosity of my Readers, to find so remarkable a Character distinguished by as remarkable a Circumstance at his Death. The Fame of his Works having gained him an universal Esteem, he was invited to the Court of France, where, after some time, he fell sick; and Francis the First coming to see him, he raised himself in his Bed to acknowledge the Honour which was done him by that Visit. The King embraced him, and Leonardo fainting at the same Instant, expired in the Arms of that great Monarch.
It is impossible to attend to such Instances as these, without being raised into a Contemplation on the wonderful Nature of an Human Mind, which is capable of such Progressions in Knowledge, and can contain such a Variety of Ideas without Perplexity or Confusion. How reasonable is it from hence to infer its Divine Original? And whilst we find unthinking Matter endued with a Natural Power to last for ever, unless annihilated by Omnipotence, how absurd would it be to imagine, that a Being so much Superior to it should not have the same Privilege?
At the same time it is very surprizing, when we remove our Thoughts from such Instances as I have mentioned, to consider those we so frequently meet with in the Accounts of barbarous Nations among the Indians; where we find Numbers of People who scarce shew the first Glimmerings of Reason, and seem to have few Ideas above those of Sense and Appetite. These, methinks, appear like large Wilds, or vast uncultivated Tracts of Human Nature; and when we compare them with Men of the most exalted Characters in Arts and Learning, we find it difficult to believe that they are Creatures of the same Species.
Some are of Opinion that the Souls of Men are all naturally equal, and that the great Disparity we so often observe, arises from the different Organization or Structure of the Bodies to which they are United. But whatever constitutes this first Disparity, the next great Difference which we find between Men in their several Acquirements is owing to accidental Differences in their Education, Fortunes, or Course of Life. The Soul is a kind of rough Diamond, which requires Art, Labour, and Time to polish it. For want of which, many a good natural Genius is lost, or lies unfashioned, like a Jewel in the Mine.
One of the strongest Incitements to excel in such Arts and Accomplishments as are in the highest Esteem among Men, is the natural Passion which the Mind of Man has for Glory; which, though it may be faulty in the Excess of it, ought by no means to be discouraged. Perhaps some Moralists are too severe in beating down this Principle, which seems to be a Spring implanted by Nature to give Motion to all the latent Powers of the Soul, and is always observed to exert it self with the greatest Force in the most generous Dispositions. The Men whose Characters have shone the brightest among the ancient Romans, appear to have been strongly animated by this Passion. Cicero, whose Learning and Services to his Country are so well known, was enflamed by it to an extravagant degree, and warmly presses Lucceius , who was composing a History of those Times, to be very particular and zealous in relating the Story of his Consulship; and to execute it speedily, that he might have the Pleasure of enjoying in his Life-time some Part of the [Honour ] which he foresaw wou'd be paid to his Memory. This was the Ambition of a great Mind; but he is faulty in the Degree of it, and cannot refrain from solliciting the Historian upon this Occasion to neglect the strict Laws of History, and, in praising him, even to exceed the Bounds of Truth. The younger Pliny appears to have had the same Passion for Fame, but accompanied with greater Chastness and Modesty. His Ingenuous manner of owning it to a Friend, who had prompted him to undertake some great Work, is exquisitely beautiful, and raises him to a certain Grandeur above the Imputation of Vanity. I must confess, says he, that nothing employs my Thoughts more than the Desire I have of perpetuating my Name; which in my Opinion is a Design worthy of a Man, at least of such a one, who being conscious of no Guilt, is not afraid to be remember'd by Posterity .
I think I ought not to conclude, without interesting all my Readers in the Subject of this Discourse: I shall therefore lay it down as a Maxim, that though all are not capable of shining in Learning or the Politer Arts; yet every one is capable of excelling in something. The Soul has in this Respect a certain vegetative Power, which cannot lie wholly idle. If it is not laid out and cultivated into a regular and beautiful Garden, it will of it self shoot up in Weeds or Flowers of a wilder Growth.
[Footnote 1: Newton.]
[Footnote 2: Epist. ad Diversos, v. 12.]
[Footnote 3: [Glory]]
[Footnote 4: Lib. v. ep. 8, to Titinius Capito. In which, also, Pliny quotes the bit of Virgil taken for the motto of this paper.]Translation of motto: