Charles Colton

Ancient and moderns

It has been observed, that a dwarf standing on the shoulders of a giant will see farther than the giant himself; and the moderns, standing as they do on the vantage ground of former discoveries, and uniting all the fruits of the experience of their forefathers with their own actual observation, may be admitted to enjoy a more enlarged and comprehensive view of things than the ancients themselves; for that alone is true antiquity * which embraces the antiquity of the world, and not that which would refer us back to a period when the world was young. But by whom is this true antiquity enjoyed? Not by the ancients who did live in the infancy, but by the moderns who do live in the maturity of things. Therefore, as regards the age of the world, we may lay a juster claim to the title of being the ancients, even than our forefathers themselves; for they inhabited the world when it was young, but we occupy it now that it is old. Therefore, that precedent may not exert too despotic a rule over experience, and that the dead may not too strictly govern the living, may I be pardoned in taking a brief and cursory view of the claims of the ancients to our veneration, so far as they are built on the only proper foundation,—superiority of mind? But it is by no means my object to lessen our esteem for those great men who have lived before us, and who have accomplished such wonders, considering the scantiness of their means; my intention is merely to suggest that the veneration due to times that are past is a Hind veneration, the moment it is paid at the expense of times that are present; for as these very ancients themselves were once the moderns, so we moderns must also become the ancients in our turn. What I would principally contend for is, that the moderns enjoy a much more extended and comprehensive view of science than the

ancients; not because we have greater capacities, but simply because we enjoy far greater capabilities; for that which is perfect in science, is most commonly the elaborate result of successive improvements, and of various judgments exercised in the rejection of what was wrong, no less than in the adoption of what was right. We, therefore, are profiting not only by the knowledge, but also by the ignorance, not only by the discoveries, but also by the errors, of our forefathers; for the march of science, like that of time, has been progressing in the darkness, no less than in the light. Now, the great chart of antiquity is Chronology; and so sensible of its value was Scaliger, that his celebrated invocation to the Olympiads is as full of passion and admiration as the warmest address of a lover to his mistress,—.with this difference, that our literary Colossus sought for wrinkles rather than dimples, and his idol would have had more charms for him, if she had numbered more ages upon her head. But, it is admitted, that previously to the establishment of the Olympiads there was much error and confusion in the historical records of Greece and Rome; neither, if their dates had been accurately calculated, did they possess the means which we enjoy of multiplying the recordances of them, so as to put them beyond the reach either of accidental or intentional destruction; and hence it happens that on the greatest work of antiquity, the pyramids, Chronology has nothing to depose: one thing is apparent, that the builders of them were not totally ignorant either of geometry or of astronomy, since they are all built with their respective faces precisely opposite the four cardinal points. It is well known that a modern nulli veterum virtute secundus has detected an enormous error in ancient chronology, and has proved that the Argonautic expedition, and the Trojan war, are nearer to the birth of Christ by six hundred years than all former calculators had placed them; for Hipparchus, who first discovered the precession of the equinoxes, fancied they retrograded one degree in one hundred years, whereas Sir Isaac Newton* has determined that they go back one degree in seventy-two years. As geographers, their knowledge is still more limited, since they were ignorant of the polarity of the magnet, although they were acquainted with its powers of attraction; many of them fancied the earth was motionless and flat; that the Pillars of Hercules were its boundaries; and that the sun sat in the sea, was believed by graver persons than the poets; and with a timidity proportionate to their ignorance, in all their voyages they seldom dared to lose sight of the coast, since a needle and a quadrant would have been as useless a present to Palinurus, the helmsman of AEneas, as to the chief of an Indian canoe. As historians, it is almost superfluous to say, that their credibility is much shaken by that proneness to believe in prodigies, auguries, omens, and the interposition of their gods; which credulity the very soberest of them have by no means escaped. As moralists, their want of confidence in a future state of existence was a source of the greatest error and confusion. They could not sincerely approve of virtue, as a principle of action always to be depended on, since, without a future state, virtue is not always its own reward. Nor did the noblest of them, as Brutus and Cato, succeed in finding it to be so. Their honestum and their decorum, were phantoms that fed on the air of opinion, and, like the chameleon, changed as often as their food; yet these visionary objects, though undefined, were perpetually explained, and, though ungrasped, were constantly pursued.* As warriors, their affirmed, the problem was to calculate the distance between those stars through which the colure now passes, and those through which it passed in the time of Chiron. And, as Chiron was one of the Argonauts, this would give us the number of years that have elapsed since that famous expedition, and would consequently fix the true date of the Trojan war; and these two events form the cardinal points of ancient chronology, so far, at least, as the Greeks and the Romans are concerned. A something similar attempt to correct the ancient chronology has also been undertaken, by a retro-calculation of the eclipses. In the useful arts, their ignorance of the powers of steam, and of that property of water by which it rises to its level, has rendered all their efforts proofs of their perseverance rather than of their knowledge, and evidence of the powers of their hands rather than, of their heads. The most stupendous remains of antiquity, the aqueducts themselves, are rather monuments of a strength like that of Samson, blind to contrive, but powerful to execute, than of a skill sharp-sighted to avoid difficulties, rather than “to overcome them.” But, with all these defects, we must admit that the ancients were a wonderful order of men, and a contemplation of all their actions will richly repay the philosopher. The ancients are fully rescued from all imputation of imbecility; for they were denied those ample means of an advancement in knowledge, to which we have access; and it is highly probable that some future modern will have hereafter to make the very same apology for us. If I have cited some of their deficiencies, I have done it, not to diminish that respect we owe to them, but to give somewhat more of solidity to that which we owe to ourselves. We willingly submit to the authority and attestation of the dead; but when it would triumph over all the improvement and experience of the living, it is no longer submission, but slavery. We would then rather be right with one single companion, truth, than wrong with all the celebrous names of antiquity. We freely admit that the ancients effected all that could be accomplished by men who lived in the infancy of time; but the eagle of science herself could not soar until her wings were grown. In sculpture, and in poetry, two sciences where they had the means, our forefathers have fully equalled, perhaps exceeded, their children. In sculpture, the image-worship of their temples held out the highest encouragement to the artist; and in the battle, no less than in the palaestra, statues were the principal rewards of conquerors. We know that Pindar was refused the price he had set upon an ode in celebration of one who had been crowned at the Olympian games, because the victor had calculated that a much less sum would purchase a statue of brass. But, on the following day, he determined to employ the poet rather than the sculptor, under the conviction that an ode of Pindar would outlive a statue of far more indestructible materials than marble or brass. We might also add, that the games of Greece enabled the sculptor to study the human form, not only naked, but in all its various attitudes of muscular exertion; and while the genial climate of Greece supplied the sculptor with the finest models, the soil furnished him with the best materials. If the ancients are more than our rivals in poetry, it may be observed, that their mythology was eminently calculated for poetical machinery; and also that the scenery of nature, that laboratory of the poet, neither wants nor waits for its full improvement from the progressive hand of time. We must also remember, that the great merit of this art is originality, and its peculiar province invention. The ancients, therefore, being in the order of precedence the first discoverers of the poetical mine, took care to help themselves to the largest diamonds.

* Mundi enim senium pro antiquitate vere hanbendum est, quod temproibus nostris tribui debet, non juniori setati mundi, qualis spud antiquos fuit.

We know that the fixed stars which were formery in Aries are now in Taurus; and the point proposed by Sir Isaac Newotn was, to ascertain from the Greek astronomy what was the position of the colures with respect to the fixed stars, in the time of Chiron; and as Sir Isaac had proved that the fixed stars have a motion in longitude of one degree in seventy-two years, not in one hundred years, as Hipparchus had affirmed, the problem was to calculate teh distance between those starts through which the colure now passes, and those through which it passed the time of Chiron. And, as Chiron was one of the Argonauts, this would give us the number of years that have elapsed since that famous expedition, and would consequently fix the true date of the Trojan war; and these two events form the cardinal points of ancient chronology, so far, at least, as the Greeks and the Romans are cncerned.

A something similiar attempt to correct the ancient chronology has also been undertaken, by a retro-calculation of the eclipses.

Carneades was a philosopher, whose eloquence Cicero dreaded so much, that he deprecated an attack from him, in the humblest manner, in the following words : ‘‘ Per- turbatricem autem harum omnium rerum Academiam hanc ab ArcesUa et Carneada recentem. exoremus ut sileat; nam si invaserit in has qure satis scite nobis instruct et compositst videntur rationes, nimias edet ruinas; quam quidem ego placaro cupio, submovere nou audeo.’’—Cic., De Leg. i., 13. Now. this Carneades, whom Cicero so much dreaded, maintained that there was no such thing as justice and he supported his theory by such sophisms as these : that the condition of men is such that, if they have a mind to be just, they must act imprudently; and that, if they have a mind to act prudently, they must be unjust; and that it follows there can be no such thing as justice, because a virtue inseparable from a folly cannot be just. Lactantius is correct, when he affirms that the heathens could not answer this sophism, and that Cicero dared not undertake it. The error was this, the restricting of the value of justice to temporal things; for to those who disbelieve a future state, or even have doubts about it, honesty is not always ‘‘the best policy; ‘‘ and it is reserved for Christians, who take into their consideration the whole existence of man, to argue clearly and consequentially on the sterling value of justice. It is well known that Mr. Home himself was never so much puzzled as when peremptorily asked by a lady at bath, to declare upon his honour as a gentleman, whether he would choose his own confiential dosmetics from such as held his own principles, or from those who conscientiously believed the eternal truths of Revelation. He frankly decided in favour of the latter.


MLA Citation

Colton, Charles. “Ancient and moderns.” 2008. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 28 Oct 2008. 21 Apr 2024 <>.

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