From the beginning of the first chapter "THE AUGUSTAN ERA."
It has been stated that the strongest efforts of genius will probably be made by those who enjoy Liberty, and are inspired by its animating influence; but that justness and refinement of Taste will generally be found to be more improved among the subjects of an absolute, than among those of a free, government.
That the first of these propositions is true, we shall readily admit. The history of all ages, the noble monuments of all free countries, confirm the truth, that Liberty appears attended with whatever is great, spirited or ingenious. That the second is false, we are persuaded, may be proved from history, too; and the same monuments bear witness that Freedom has also in her train, genuine elegance, severity of taste, natural, simple and unaffected truth.
Pope, who was as remarkable for his judgment as a poetical genius, seems inadvertently to have given countenance to the opinion, that an absolute government is more favourable to the improvement of Taste than a free one, in those lines of his "Essay on Criticism," where he touches upon the progression of the Fine Arts when they were banished from Italy:
"But soon by impious arms from Latium chas'd
Their ancient bounds, the banished muses pass'd;
Thence arts o'er all the northern world advance,
But critic learning flourish' d most in France:
The rules a nation born, to serve, obeys,
And Boileau still in right of Horace sways."
Pope's authority justly claims the highest respect; but whatever regard is due to so great a name, let it never mislead us to believe, that those who are born to serve, naturally obey rules in the Fine Arts and Belles-Lettres - for of these he speaks - better than those who are born free.
The opinion that refinement and elegance will probably be more studied and improved among the subjects of an absolute, than among citizens of a free, government, seems to have arisen from a partial observation of the condition of Taste in the French Monarchy of that time, and of what happened in Rome when Octavius made himself master of her liberties and of the world.
Yet, notwithstanding that polite figure which the Ages of Augustus and Louis XIV. will forever make in the annals of the world, we are persuaded it may be laid down as a certain maxim that, in every country, not only Genius, but Taste also, will be found to be in proportion to Freedom, unless the influence of this general law be counteracted by inferior circumstances and accidents, as any general law, either in the physical or moral world, may be observed to be in many particular instances.
To deny the truth of this assertion, one must forget in what countries the best models of national and elegant compositions of all kinds were produced; at what time genuine Taste began to be cultivated in those countries, when it was carried to its utmost perfection, and when it began to decline and give place to what was unnatural and false.
When did the inhabitants of any, even the most civilized, absolute, Monarchy, discover such refined, elegant, correct Taste, as did the citizens of the free States of Greece? Did anyone, born the subject of an absolute prince, more strictly obey and severely follow those rules, which good-sense and nature pointed out to be just, than they, who, in those States, were born free? It cannot be said with truth that they did nor did anyone appear, who lived after the Roman Emperors had established their power upon the ruins of Liberty, that could dispute for the prize of elegant composition with those who were educated in better days.
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