Gentlemen, I am now about to surrender the office which you intrusted to me. Its duties, up to the last night of the session, may be well discharged by any man of common courtesy and firmness. But to-night your President has a harder task. At our usual meetings we seek to prepare ourselves for certain duties and pursuits, of which this society is a fit learning-place. We leave a single evening in the year for the consideration of what are or what should be those duties and pursuits, and by what rules we should guide ourselves in that preparation.
Need I defend the custom of making a periodical inquiry into the theory of this Institution? If general principles be of any use, they cannot be, without hazard, neglected when we attempt to educate ourselves, for as Swift says somewhere, “He who knows his powers seldom fails; he who is ignorant of them hardly ever succeeds.”
The maxim in self-teaching, as in all teaching, is to study wherein lie our deficiencies as well as our powers, and what are the means of supplying those defects. This Society is one means of correcting many errors and fostering many powers; and my duty is to call your attention to our more probable and dangerous defects, to state the objects of the institution, and what it is fitted to teach or un-teach us. In attempting the discharge of that duty, I labour under some disadvantages. I am the first person who has attempted to address this particular society on these topics; yet I cannot forget that addresses to similar societies, by men whose pupil I should desire to be, abound in Dublin. If I tread the same path as these men, I shall be accused of imitation; if I leave it, their example will be pointed out, and I shall be called irrelevant. Now these addresses have laid down with logical precision the divisions of eloquence and the rules for its diversified application. Principles investigated by philosophers, tested by successful orators, and illustrated by the lights of taste and fancy, exist in these addresses. They are in your hands, and you may study them with profit. They are so many abridgments of, or supplements to, the standard works on rhetoric. As I could not hope to improve on the matter or style of these papers, I should, if unable to address you relevantly on other topics than theirs, have declined to do so at all. I should shrink from rivalry, but I am now before you because I am not forced to compete. It is common to all speculators on such societies as ours to say we want to study oratory; and satisfied with that observation, they launch guileless into the ocean of rhetorical criticism. Now, this dogma conveys too wide or too narrow of what we come here for. We are associated to prepare, to make, to hear, to support, to answer speeches on historical, literary, and political subjects.
Discussion of social topics, with all its necessary preparation, and all the natural results of both the preparation and discussion, is not too comprehensive a definition of our general object. That object being so comprehensive, our individual designs are somewhat various. Some indeed want to acquire mere facility and courage; some use this society as a means of studying history; some, politics; others, the mind of man; most of you, ultimately, to study eloquence – the power of making the best use of every kind of information, and of every faculty, intellectual and sentimental, in public speaking. The addressers of such societies have usually confined themselves to the abstract theory of eloquence on the one hand, and to florid descriptions of its details on the other. But surely the other steps in the series deserve some consideration, and the more so because information is the seed-sowing, and study and experience the sun and shower, without which no harvest of eloquence can gladden the mind. Botany and the change of prices are not the sole studies of the agriculturists.
In calling your attention to the condition and cultivation of mind which must precede and prepare for eloquence, rather than to the theory of its power or the details of its application, I am not seeking to deprecate, but to guide the study of it. If eloquence required a eulogy, or if I had time for the work, though superfluous, there could be no more grateful task for my pen, “Labor ipsa voluptas.” For though unvisited by its favours, I do not the less love its brightness. “Do the stars” – asks the French peasant – “Do the stars think of us, yet if the prisoner see them shine into his dungeon wouldst thou have him turn away from their lustre?” (Claude Melnotte, in Bulwer’s Lady of Lyons) No, gentlemen, the power and beauty be its own; the worship mine, even though I vainly worship.
Gentlemen, you consist of members and students of the learned professions. Many of you cherish a literary ambition, most of you hope for success in public life; you thus, though coming here with different powers, and various qualities, are yet all under circumstances which will make the acquisition of the orator’s powers an object of ambition. Your country and your times offer opportunities for a generous – temptations to a selfish ambition. I trust, I am sure, your impulses are not ungenerous. Methinks I know the element at work within you. You aspire to political power, and you must be up and doing; you will, ere you reach the goal, need an amount of labour which you little thought of at the starting. ‘Tis no light thing to move the mind of man. ‘Tis no child’s play to wield the passions. The recruit must not seek to lead an army, nor the student to instruct a nation. Look back on those who have been the mind-chieftains in the civil strifes of Ireland – Swift, Lucas, Grattan. Did all the boasted precocity of Irish genius abridge their toils? No; a youth of hardest study, a manhood of unceasing labour, are the facts common to the lives of them all; and yet they lived under favourable auspices for individual eminence. Though the Irish leaders have not seldom been unblessed with ancestral wealth or dignity, yet the body of competitors for political power were of the aristocracy; for they inherited a monopoly of education, that which summons men to distinction. You also belong to what are called the upper classes in Ireland. But you will have competitors from whom your ancestors were free.
The college in which you and your fathers were educated, from whose offices seven-eighths of the Irish people are excluded by religion, from whose porch many, not disqualified by religion, are repelled by the comparative dearness, the reputed bigotry, and pervading dullness of the consecrated spot – that institution seems no longer to monopolise the education funds of Ireland. Trinity College seems to have lost the office for which it was so long and so well paid – of preventing the education of the Irish. The people think it better not to devote all their spare cash to a university, so many of whose favourite alumni are distinguished by their adroit and malignant calumnies on the character, and inveterate hostility to the good of that people with whose land and money they are endowed. The self-denying virtues are “passing away, passing away.”
Do you weep their departure? or are you consoled by the number of people-wrongs still endured? But away with this insulting jest – your hearts are with your country-men – yours is a generous ambition to lead them, not their foes.
But then, I repeat, you must strip for the race; you will have competitors from among the people. The middle classes of Ireland are now seeking, in spite of the most perverse opposition chronicled in the annals of even our Anglo-Irish bigotry, to establish provincial colleges – schools for their own education. When the men of the middle class once come into the field, if I do not greatly overrate the stuff of which they are made, they will compel the men of the upper classes at home – nay, with humility be it said, the men of every country – to fight a hard battle for their literary laurels and political renown. Prepare for that time. If you would rule your countrymen you must be greater than they. But even now the National Schools, the first bold attempt to regenerate Ireland, are working, ay, and, with all their faults, working well. The lower classes, for whom they are suited and designed, are beginning to add the acquisitions of science and literature to that facile apprehension, ingenuity, and comprehensive genius with which even their enemies credit them. I tell you, gentlemen of Trinity College, the peasant boys will soon put to, the proof your title to lead them, and the only title likely to be acknowledged in the people – court is that which our countryman, himself once a peasant boy, ascribes to Pericles-
“He waved the sceptre o’er his kind,
By nature’s first great title-mind.”
Gentlemen, I have not come here to flatter you. That many of you possess the highest natural abilities I feel convinced, but – that is probably true of many who preceded you. And when I compare the contemporary literature of Ireland with the gifted nature of the Irish, I am forced to think there are some gross errors in the education of the only class which hitherto has received any education. Many of you acknowledge this, and professedly join this society less for its peculiar advantages than to correct such errors. I think they do wisely these errors may be lessened by exertions here, and that belief has determined the nature of this Address. This is no professor’s chair. My opinions have no weight save from the truth they may bear and the proofs with which they are combined. Chosen from among yourselves to advise you touching your intellectual pursuits, it is my plain duty to tell you your defects: thus alone can I convince you of the necessity for a remedy, and not until then can we be prepared to discover it.
You are all, I believe, connected with the Dublin University. Of how many of its graduates may I say that to prepare for – college occupies their boyhood, to pass through college occupies the time between boyhood and manhood, and having, loaded with cautions like Swift, or (with honours, like many a dunce I know), got to their degrees, they are by their parents supposed to have, received a good general education, and to be fitted to devote the rest of their lives to spending or making a fortune, as they are endowed with an estate or a profession. If, as assuredly is the case, you, born under propitious stars, have been preserved from such a destiny, do you owe your superiority over the multitude of A.B.’s, T.C.D. to the system of the college. No; they are the result of the system – you of a generous nature too strong for it.
Yet Trinity College has a fine bill of fare. First you have mathematics, in which, to make the best of it, you are taught to follow out subtle trains of reasoning without reference to the principles of investigation, which few students will study voluntarily; and further, whole years are thus spent on subjects admitting of demonstration, with anything like to which you will seldom have to do for the rest of your lives.
Then comes that amphibious thing called natural philosophy, consisting (as taught in Dublin College) of some application of mathematics to the general properties of matter, and to the simpler physical phenomena. But so far as these sciences illustrate the human mind in the history of their improvement, and in the relations which physical science bears to human progress, they are ill-taught. Perhaps it is not the business of a college to teach, nor is it important to comprise in a general education the practical part of natural philosophy or mathematics. Indeed, the fault of the French system is that it does, so largely. But then they are equally ill-taught if you regard them as fitted to supply illustrations of mind or a guide to nature. As branches of natural history: astronomy, mechanics, and such subjects are so ill taught that I verily believe the twelvemonths members of the Mechanics’ Institute could teach them to half the medal men in college. Indeed, to the professors of medical or mechanics’ institutes, all that geology, physiology, and chemistry contain is handed over. Natural history could not be tortured into a scholastic form; it could only be taught in the way it was investigated, and as alone all subjects can be well taught, by analysis. But be that as it may, external nature supplies inexhaustible materials for thought and illustration to the philosopher, the poet, and the orator; though some of the greatest of them never studied it in the schools, yet all were familiar to its face. You have facilities for the study of it outside the university, and you may lay up a hive of such materials, useful and agreeable for both public and private life, without once fluttering a wing in the collegiate parterre. Ireland offers temptations to such pursuits of which we are at length beginning to avail ourselves.
Then there are the courses of moral philosophy: and such as they are they are thought hazardous commodities; and with some reason, for it is impossible for the student to read the bold and sceptical works of Bacon, Butler, and Locke without imbibing some of their spirit. I would augur that from such studies, even from within the walls of college, a better system must arise, that the tongue of the Silent Sister will be loosened, and unwonted words of truth and freedom will issue from her lips. Such studies forced, as they are likely to be, on the ecclesiastics of, every sect, by an unavailing hope of using them to defend their wealth and importance, must sooner or later reform the pulpit, and for superstition you may meet enlightened piety; for bigotry, generous toleration and sweet-voiced charity. And who knows but that as they advance the priesthoods may forget the calumnies of their predecessors on man, and may attain notions of the Deity as lofty as those of the philosophers whom they persecuted; and from contemplating the vindicated Supreme may, with hearts softened and souls ennobled, bid men venerate nothing more highly than their own nature, save the nature of that Deity who moulded man in His own image.
But this day would seem to be far distant. Nay, the time of even subordinate utility from such studies is remote; for by the proselytising dullness of management the mere conclusions of the ethical and psychological writers are taught by rote. A recollection of definitions insures collegiate success to whoever lets his mind be debased to its standard. The students are taught to skip the principles of reasoning and perch on the conclusions, with a touch which transmutes into dogmas the last doubts of the sceptic. Hence we do not learn the metaphysical principles of reasoning, or the moral principles by which society is tied together, nor that highest philosophy which teaches the position of man and his duties in relation to God, until driven to defend ourselves from the tricks of legal sophists or political quacks, or from the ferocity of misemployed pulpits. The cumbrous state of our literature renders a formal study of metaphysical and moral philosophy essential.
Indeed, without an early acquaintance with the abstruser philosophy, few minds will be able to force their way through the thicket of subjects and authors which surround them in modern society. And not only will the critical and comprehensive temper resulting from such enquiries marshal your way, and pioneer your path in all your studies and pursuits, but many subjects, as the foundations of government, the rationale of reward and Punishment, and the leading truths of political economy rest on facts common to all minds, and learned in metaphysical schools. If I mistake not, Butler’s, Cicero’s and Hume’s philosophical works are the proper horn-books for the lawyer, the statesman, and the divine. May I suggest to you, that contemporaneously with the process of getting definitions by rote, which is essential to collegiate distinction, some efforts might be made by the students to compare the different systems of philosophy, and the relative merits of these systems, when tested by their own or their neighbours’ minds? Such a society as ours is plainly unfit for the purpose; but whether a metaphysical society meeting to inquire, not to dispute, could be established within the walls of college, I leave you who are personally interested in its formation to determine: I am content to have suggested it to you.
The classics, even as languages, are shafts into the richest mines of thought which time has deposited. The fossils of Greek and Latin mind prove races like enough in opinions to enable us to understand and sympathise with them, were they now, for the first time, discovered by the moderns. But in sooth we have been, through every faculty of mind, and every member of society, through our literature, our languages, our laws, our arts of war and peace, galvanised, as it were, by the minds of Greece and Rome, though the force of our life may be of Gothic or Celtic origin. And this great and original difference between us and the ancients makes their literature, in some respects, the more valuable for that unlikeness. Who that has thought for himself, or been taught to think in Lord Bacon’s school, cannot feel this advantage?
Classic literature, though tinctured with its own doctrinal cavils, its own prejudices and superstitions, is free from cavils and prejudices and superstitions like to ours, and from these last is the only danger to us. The contrast of our idolatries and theirs (to use Bacon’s metaphor) is the most instructive of criticisms, while the standard truths which we find there, undisguised by such errors as could deceive us, mete our growth, or discover our degeneracy. Many a mind have they saved from doubt and dogmatism. No language of mine shall underrate the value of such a possession. Injured though they be, still are they a mighty mass of the picked thoughts of two most renowned nations – nations, too, the very death of whose states of society has stamped on their works immortal freshness and originality.
But, gentlemen, these are benefits which can only be derived from classic studies by a powerful and already disciplined mind, and which are supposed to require a very close knowledge of two difficult languages; but in my judgment the last requisite is overstated, for it is preferable to read well a good translation than to stumble through the original; and any fair man, considering how much of the spirit of classic lore can be translated, will confess the folly of expecting one man out of a hundred to learn so much from the originals as from good translations. We do not hesitate as to this in the comparatively easy modern, why then do so in the more difficult ancient languages?
I may shortly state here that my objections to the classical system of the Dublin college are, that even if well pursued it takes from a young man the best years of his life to inform him on the languages, poetry, politics, religion, manners, and conditions of nations which have perished from the earth many centuries ago; and that having so employed the spare years between boyhood and business, you insure, as far as in you lies, his ignorance of all the facts that have happened, all the knowledge that has been discovered, all that imagination has produced for some seventeen hundred years. He is ignorant of modern history, including that of his own country, whose facts would, if stored in his memory, be of direct use and application, unlike those of any remote time or unconnected country, which are of use only by analogy. He knows not of what materials the people around him are composed; he knows not the origin of their thoughts and feelings; he therefore knows not themselves. The condition of contemporary nations is surely more valuable to be known than that of extinct peoples. He is equally ignorant of modern languages; of French, essential to him if he visit any foreign nations other than Britain or America; of German, the root of that English language which it is more important for him to speak and write with critical fluency than to command every dialect of the Greeks or Italians from the Attic to the Oscan. Finally, for English literature he is left to the accidents of a circulating library, or a taste beyond that of his instructors.
I venture to assert, and could prove, that numerous works, English, French, and German, are intrinsically superior to the corresponding Greek, and still more above the parallel Roman works. But even though the ancient writers were of more value to their countrymen than the modern writers to theirs, yet lay aside the philosophical, and, so to speak, the esoteric use of the classics which I have mentioned, and fling the old writers among a modern people and instantly the superiority is lost. I do not say all their value is gone, but the living men and women teach us more of strength and beauty than the mummies or the statues of a dead race. But this is an inadequate condemnation of the system.
If the student knew the politics and philosophy, and felt the poetry, or even appreciated the facts to be found in the Greek and Roman writers, I might forgive the error of selecting such studies in preference to native and modern; but still he would leave college, if not well instructed, yet possessed of much valuable thought, and prepared to master the more important subjects which he would want in his professional, literary, or political career. But no, his memory is crammed with phrases and rules of prosody, and what is called literal, that is to say, erroneous translation of words, or correct translation, if you will; familiarising him, I may remark, with a foreign idiom ere he has learned his own, and therefore almost precluding him from ever writing good English. Seriously, what does the student learn besides the words of the classics? The thoughts are obscured not merely by the foreign language, but by allusions and opinions which he begins to guess at towards the close of his career. How strange would it be if a young man could benefit by such an occupation!
Men cannot master all knowledge. If you believe this, conclude with me that a knowledge of his own nature and duties, of the circumstances, growth, and prospects of that society in which he dwells, and of the pursuits and tastes of those around him, accompanied too by the running comment of experience, is what every man should first learn; if he does learn this, he has learned enough for life and goodness; and if he finds this not enough, he is prepared in the only feasible way to profit by studying the works and thoughts of ancient Italy, or Greece, or France, modern Italy, or Germany. If the student take more interest in the history, and feel more admiration for the literature, or even derive more profit from the contemplation of those moderns than of these ancients, let us not condemn his taste or doubt his wisdom. The varieties of feeling, interest, and opportunity make these differences, and a preference for the study of the modern continental nations is fostered and vindicated by the greater analogy of the people of these islands to them, than to the men of old Greece or old Italy.
I do not mean to say that some knowledge is not picked up by all the students, and much knowledge by some; and yet college may be an inferior school to the few, and is mischievous to the many, by leading them into a five years’ specious idleness. Even for a knowledge of the classics the plan of beginning with them is bad. To a man of genius they cannot be mischievous or useless; he has thought or read up to them. But I believe that if no one foreign literature were preferred, a much larger number of men would be apt and good classical scholars than are so now; and therefore, as it is only to those who succeed that the present system can be called good, that such would be a better means of encouraging classic studies than the present.
I ask you again, how can the student profit by the study of the difficult literature of any foreigners, ancient or modern, till he learns to think and feel; and these he learns easiest from world or home life, refined and invigorated by his native literature; and even if by chance the young student, fresh from a bad school, (our private schools are absolutely contemptible. One hardly knows who to condemn most, the stupid ignorance of the teachers, or the niggardliness of the parents, whose stinginess has produced and endures such schools; yet there are men of learning and genius pining and annually dying away) has got some ideas of the picturesque, the generous, the true, into his head, he is neither encouraged nor expected to apply them to his classic studies. Classics! good sooth, he had better read with the hedge-school boys the History of the Rogues, Tories, and Rapparees, or Moll Flanders, than study Homer and Horace in Trinity College. I therefore protest, and ask you to struggle against the cultivation of Greek or Latin or Hebrew, while French or German are excluded; (there are Professors of French, German and Italian, and medals are given each year to promote such studies, but they form no part of the graduate course) and still more strongly should we oppose the cultivation of any, or all of these, to the neglect of English and, perhaps I should add, Irish literature.
I may as well say something here on the study of that language which is spoken by the majority of our country-men, and by the people of the countries immediately east and west of this kingdom. English philological studies are, to say the least, useful in the formation of style. I do not say they are essential, but they certainly give an accuracy and aptness to the writing of him who is familiar with them. There are so few English works on the Philosophy of words, that I may enumerate them. Tooke’s ‘Diversions of Purley is the most valuable for acquiring a critical habit in etymology and grammatical analysis; for the common use of words, Webster’s Dictionary is the best; Todd’s Johnson, as an authority and illustration for the modern variations; but Richardson is the hand-book for him who would cultivate a pure English style. Horne Tooke, to be sure, was of opinion that each word had but one and an unalterable meaning in a language. Richardson has pressed this error still further, and has thereby enfeebled the otherwise admirable essay prefixed to his larger Dictionary, but his errors (if so they be) only give a sterner purity and force to the language he teaches. His faults are on the right side, for one whose native language is English, though inconvenient enough to a foreigner.
Cobbett’s Grammar, the book on words in Locke’s Essay, some chapters in the first volume, of Mill’s treatise on the mind, are the only other books of consequence; at least, if I add a few articles in the magazines, the list is complete. When you have examined these books, and they are well worth reading, you must trust to the effect of your other literary studies, to the eager and full mind, to supply you with words and varieties of style, and to your metaphysical studies, to a patient taste, and habits of revision to correct them.
The standard authors, especially the older writers – the writers who preceded Lord Bacon, contain the best vocabulary. These books, in common with their successors to Queen Anne’s time, are rather affluent in words than critical in the application of them. Shakespeare is more exact and felicitous, and equally copious. The fault of most writers since Shakespeare’s time has been the neglect of Saxon words for Latin, and the employment of a Latin, and more lately a French idiom. I may mention that Spenser was the favourite leisure-book of that word-wielder, William Pitt, and of his greater father, Chatham. Erskine and Fox are said to have known Milton and Shakespeare almost by heart. Curran’s inspiration, next to the popular legends of Ireland, was the English translation of the Bible. Coleridge, indeed, says that a man familiar with it can never write in a vulgar style; but this, like many of Coleridge’s show-sayings, is an exaggeration.
I could add many other authorities for my liking for the language of the early English poets and chroniclers; but their fault, a profusion of imagery, more often fitted to obscure than illustrate, to confuse than make plain, went on increasing. For ordinary use, therefore, Bolingbroke, Swift, Hume, and even Cobbett, with all his coarseness, and the common letters and narratives of the last century, are safer though not so, splendid models. Amongst the orators whom you will, and, perhaps, ought to copy more than other writers you can study the speeches of Pitt for a splendid plausibility; Fox, for an easy diction and fluent logic; Sheridan, for wit; Curran, for wit and pathos; Burke and Grattan, (in wealth of imagination and in expressive power, Grattan is next to Shakespeare; his speeches are full of the most valuable information on Irish Politics, and are the fit hand-book for an Irish-man. But his style is not for the imitation) for grandeur and sublimity of thought language, and illustration. Erskine possesses most of these qualities, but with a chaster, and methinks, less racy manner; but perhaps surpassing all, by combining the best qualities of all, are the speeches so valuable, and so little known, of Lord Plunket. His precise vigour marks him the Demosthenes of the English language.
But I am coming to our contemporaries. Criticism on them could not be unprejudiced. I shall hazard but one piece of advice : keep to the plainer styles. However you may dislike their opinions, or question their depth of judgment, the style of Southey, Smith, and some few more of the older reviewers is excellent. Coleridge, Carlyle, and the rest of the Germanic set are damaging English nearly as much as the Latinist’s did; their writings are eloquent, lively, and vigorous, to those who understand them; curry and mulligatawny to the literary world, but “caviar to the general.” Just as the dish possesses a high-cooked and epicurean flavour, is it unfit for the people or the men of the people. The literary style most in fashion is corrupt, and corrupting; the patois of the coteries, it is full of meaning and sensibility to them. But as your horoscope tells not of coterie fame, shun that jargon. The orator should avoid using it as one would a pestilence; for the people own not its power; it belongs not to the nations.
I have mentioned and illustrated the vices of the university system. I need not say that it is with its system I quarrel. Some of its members are my very good friends, and many pleasant hours have I spent within the walls of the merry monastery. I have not, personally, one sad or angry reminiscence of old Trinity, and it is therefore with pain I sum up its defects; which are, that the subjects of its studies are not adapted to the different tastes, interests, and capacities of the students; that this evil is aggravated by the peculiar direction of this exclusive system, shutting out the literature of modern nations, especially the English, which should be the first and principal study, and the Irish, which should at least be in the second rank; lastly, that the studies, of what kind so-ever, are pursued in a dogmatical and shallow spirit, loading the memory with the words of the ancient liberators, and the definitions and conclusions of the modern philosophers; but neglecting, making indeed no effort to cultivate the reason, imagination, or sentiments of the students. Is my reasoning fallacious? I pray you to look around your different circles, and you will see the native abilities of hundreds of young men ruined in our college. “By their fruits ye shall know them.”
Gentlemen, the Dublin University is the laughing-stock of the literary world, and an obstacle to the nation’s march; its inaccessible library, “the mausoleum of literature” and effete system of instruction, (with the exception in favour of the medical and surgical school) render it ridiculous abroad; add its unaccounted funds, and its bigot laws, and know why it is hated, at home.
I have already pointed out to you how some faults of the collegiate system may be remedied by voluntary association. I shall presently show you that many of its defects may be compensated by this society. But then comes the question, “Would not an academic reform accomplish all these objects at once?” I doubt it. Material improvements could be made, but that university education should be continued at all seems questionable; and this, doubt extends to the collegiate systems generally, metropolitan and provincial, though to the latter in a less degree. I might rely on their being in this dilemma, that if they do not enforce residence they are intellectually useless; and if they do they are morally pernicious, by destroying family ties and, too often, purity of character.
But I do not rest on this. I contend that theory and experience show the superiority of the Lyceum to the University system. That during childhood the mind requires to be guided though not schooled, as it commonly is, and that the affections do then most deserve and repay cultivation, form conclusive reasons for the domestic education of children. But in more educated years I believe that a young man, whether, a hermit, he seclude himself with nature and his own breast to instruct him, or more wisely combine for mutual instruction with his fellows, will by either way grow into an eager, thorough-thinking man, and become better informed and of more vigorous faculties than had he been dry-nursed by a candidate bishop, or tied to the apron-string of even such an alma mater as Trinity College.
Gentlemen, the Lyceum system was that of Greece in its best days, of Greece when it produced in two hundred years more eminent men than did all Europe with all its universities in twice that period. Universities at best can only store the memory which wants no aid; they are unfit to develop the other powers of head or heart. I entreat of you to bear this assertion of mine in mind when I come to speak of the working of this society on its members. I cannot now discuss the question at length; suffice it, in support of the truth and relevancy of my opinion, that such societies as this are strictly Lyceums, bearing a close resemblance in their mode of operation to the famous schools of Athens; and further-more, such societies have existed among the students of Italy, Spain, France, England, and Germany, indeed of all Europe, to compensate the evils of the Universities. Indeed, I at first intended to have traced out what would be a good education, and then to have shown the fitness of the Lyceum system to teach it; but I remembered that my reasoning would be met in the mind of every good, easy man, with the question, “Was not Trinity College after all a very good thing?” Therefore I have gone to the trouble of showing it to be a bad thing in theory, I appeal to the experience of every disinterested man of sense in proof of its – positive inefficacy; and if I be told that the general idleness or dullness of the students would make any higher system so much too good as to be good for nothing, I shall then appeal to the history of the Lyceum system, to the minute experience of every man on mind-formation, and lastly to poor calumniated human nature itself.
I would suggest the propriety of forming an Irish Lyceum, with sections for the study of the different branches of philosophy, history, and literature. Sections should be specially devoted to the cultivation of the Irish language, and to promoting a knowledge of Ireland’s natural history, its statistics and civil history, and its native literature. I have spoken to many persons about it, and all thought the plan feasible.
But be the University education good or bad, with it, and such knowledge as they have smuggled from novels, newspapers, and experience, the students are flung out to spend, as chance may lead, the years till business compel them to, industry. How is this interval generally passed? You recollect the song-
“Now I’m of age and come into my property,
Devil a ha’p’orth I’ll think of but fun.”
Gentlemen, let the Purists and Calvinists pour out their gloomy and often hypocritical invectives against the weak-ness of man; I have no sympathy with their declarations; the path of reasonable virtue may be narrow; they may make it a sword-bridge – God made it wider. He made man, and the path of his pilgrimage or triumph. He limits our aberrations as He steers the courses of the suns – to no unvarying road – employing our errors to instruct us, justifying His attributes to Himself, and ultimately to us; and He has so made man that “to step aside is human.” Do not therefore suppose me a “pedant in morals,” when I tell you that to spend the noon of life in trifles or indulgences is for a feeble and degenerate mind. God forbid that we should so sin against human nature as to become cold, gloomy, and ambitious men. No! I rejoice that is not the side we err to.
“O Life! how pleasant is thy morning,
Young fancy’s rays the hills adorning!
Cold-pausing caution’s lesson scorning,
We frisk away,
Like schoolboys, at the expected warning,
To joy and play.
We wander there, we wander here,
We eye the rose upon the brier,
Unmindful that the thorn is near,
Among the leaves;
And though the Puny would appear,
Short while it grieves.”
But, gentlemen, a manhood of mere pleasure preludes an old age of care, a death of contempt. In that dangerous time, therefore, ere Professional business, like a Mentor, comes to our aid, how useful such societies as this must be ill leading the mind from frivolous thoughts to grave studies, and preparing the spirit far stirring scenes; even then, as an occupation of so much time otherwise likely to be fooled away, a membership of our society is useful. But it does much more; and first, it is a noble indeed the only effective institute of the social sciences. It is perhaps more valuable in this way than as a school of oratory; whether it shall be a school for eloquence or loquacity depends more on the management of it, but whether well or ill-used, it teaches things which a citizen should know. If a member prepare himself for your debates, and listen to, or engage in them, how many valuable subjects must he learn! In politics the various questions relating to local and central governments, the host of disputes on doctrines of representation, its proper extent and restrictions, and the plans for its improvement. How far, if at all, monarchy and aristocracy should be imposed on democracy, the undoubted basis of free government; and whether a social equality should or indeed could be added to the political; and when, in addition to these, you discuss such details as the influence of a free press, of the jury system and penal code, you lay a broad and deep foundation for political knowledge.
Again in political economy, there are the disputes, whether of the agricultural or manufacturing systems one should be encouraged to the exclusion of the other; ending generally in the conviction that all classes in the country should be left to their own natural development; only taking care that no matter how connected with, or dependent on, each other, they shall, if possible, be independent of the stranger. Then the questions on Poor and Corn Laws, on Absenteeism, Colonies, and Finance afford opportunities for acquiring a knowledge not only of these particular topics, but of fixing in the memory, and applying the doctrines of supply and demand, wages, capital, rent, and taxation, so hard to learn, and indeed so ill learned by systematic reading, but which, always of importance, have become still more so in our day. The production, accumulation, distribution, and consumption of wealth occupy much, indeed too much regard. You must, and here you can, learn these things. The, people are pressing on in a career certain of sweeping away every law and custom which impedes their physical comfort, though in doing so they may overthrow some of the barriers which protect their morals, and therefore guard their happiness.
Gentlemen, if we stopped here, it only these subjects I have named were earnestly studied (and voluntary studies are always earnest), would you not have learned more of the things which you would want in life, more of what goes to make a wise and influential citizen, than from the demonstrations and “dead vocables” of the whole college course? – But we do not stop here. I shall not mention your discussions on literary subjects; for except when such a society contains a number of men practised in debate and of vast information, it is vain to think of debating them; and even then they do not excite a sufficiently warm interest. Yet familiarity with the standard writers is an essential preparation for your political debates; and the critical habits which grow up naturally from competition render this a mere literary society of some value. But, gentlemen, this is an Historical Society, and ample means does it afford for studying history; not as a record of facts, but with that philosophy which first examines these facts as parts of political and social institutions, as manifestations of human nature on great occasions; and having done so, and not before, applies them to the circumstances occurring around it, to the institutions and men of its own time.
Without knowing the history of a time we cannot accurately comprehend its philosophy.
Taste and politics alike receive from history correctives which prevent over-refinement. I would especially point to the opinions of the middle ages, when an ingenuity in speculation, quite unequalled, led to profitless refinement, from the want or neglect of the touchstone of experience, which history combined with personal observation (that is, past, and contemporary history) could, and could alone, supply.
But is it not more than this? What! will you tell me that history is no teacher of the head and heart? It is – it is example that gives impulse and vitality to principles. I might tell you of the faults from which a knowledge of history shields us. Is it nothing to warn us against the brilliant vices of an aristocracy? Is it nothing that its beacons gleam to keep the people from beginning to shed blood?
Philosophy may account for the danger, and may on its Principles forewarn the people; but without the garnered thoughts of history would philosophy have discovered those truths? or will a man, or a senate, or a people, be more influenced by a string of metaphysical truths, or by the portrait taken from life of the blood-stained and jewelled despot, or the picture of a scaffold-applauding mob?
History well read is a series of pictures of great men and great scenes, and, great acts. It impresses, the principles and despair, the hopes and powers of the Titans of our race. Every high hill and calm lake, every rich plain and rolling sea in the time-world is depictured in history’s pages. With rare exceptions national history does dramatic justice, alien history is the inspiration of a traitor. (I mean the histories of a country by ‘hostile strangers’. They should be refuted, and then forgotten. Such are most Histories of Ireland, and yet Irishmen neglect the original documents, and compilations as Carey’s ‘Vindiciae’; and they sin not by omission only – too many of them receive and propagate on Irish affairs ‘quicquid Anglia mendax in historia audet.’)
In home-history the best is generally the greatest; though the clatter of contemporary fame may have concealed the good by the celebrity of the great, yet Washington is more dear to history than Frederick, Brutus than Cesar. Historic writing begins now to be improved, or rather regenerated, restored to what it was in Greece. ‘Tis a glorious world, historic memory. As we gaze long to resemble. Our mental bulk extends as each shade passes in visioned pomp or purity. From the grove the sage warns; from the mound the hero, from the temple the orator-patriot, inspire; and the poet sings in his shroud.
The field of fame, the forum of power, the death-bed or scaffold of the patriots, “who died in righteousness” -you look – you pause – you “swear like them to live, like them to die.” You have a list of questions not long, which I defy any man to study, with the view of making really sound speeches in this room, without learning much, and that well too. Men (I speak, having known its working) learn history in this society with a rapidity and an case, a profundity in research and sagacity in application not approached by any other mode of study. Suppose a man to prepare a defence of what most histories condemn, or to censure some favourite act, or man, or institution, or policy: he makes use of all the generalities of criticism, he shakes the authority of popular writers, or shows our reasoning inapplicable from the different state of society on which we reason from that in which we live, and by which alone we are apt to judge. In his eagerness to persuade he becomes more sensitive of the times of which he speaks than could the solitary student, and we half follow him to the scene over which his spirit stalks.
In aught that could be called a good speech on an historical subject there is not merely a laborious selection of such facts as have an argumentative or illustrative value and of those alone; they must be united, not by crude generalities, or tiresome details, but by practical intermediate principles. Familiar command of such principles justly confers a character for maturity in thought, and they are more readily suggested by close thinking on historical analogies than by refinements on general principles. Gentlemen, you will find that the employment of facts by the lawyer and senator is exactly similar to this which I have described as ours; and if so, a practice of speaking here would seem no bad discipline for the bar or the senate. I would suggest to you that your questions might be so systematically chosen as, without at all diminishing the interest, to take in the more important changes and conditions of ancient and modern states. For example, are there not questions which open up the nature, both theoretical and working, of the constitutions of the leading states of Greece, separately, and also as a confederation, bearing some likeness to those of the Netherlands, Lombardy, and America? The effects of the conquest of Asia by Alexander give a question not unlike that of India by the English -alien civilisation -native ruin. It were easy to name many questions from Grecian history, affording ample and accessible materials, which we do not sufficiently use.
Rome fares better from our hands. We have its whole early constitution displayed in the question on the tribunician power; the feuds of the aristocracy, first of race, then of wealth, with the plebeians; the institutions which so long remedied these disorders, and at last failed, and why they perished. The wisdom of adopting the imperial constitution, if well discussed, would develop the circumstances which defeated the policy of Cicero and Pompey, the patriotism of Sulpicius and Brutus.
Then comes the time when “Rome imperial bowed her to the storm,” and by the deluge of rushing war the seeds of renascent freedom were spread over southern Europe; and though the trees which sprung from the diluvium wore a rude form, yet tough was the fibre, deep the root, and healthy the sap. The autumns of war, the winters of superstition have come and gone, and yet are many of them sound at the core; and even were they dead they have leaved and fruited, and their kind has been transplanted to far lands. But as yet we are in the vestibule: let us pass in this temple of history from the antique periods; and as we advance through the aisles of time we stop to gaze on, perchance we open, the tomb of the crusader, and demand the hopes that maddened him, the state and circumstances of his peers and vassals.
We glance in anger at the brutal conqueror of the Saxons, or with more interest eye the trophies of Azincourt, or the standards so often lost and won in the wars of the Roses; and we question the gain, motives, and effects of this civil fray, or that foreign conquest; or we turn with holier emotions to the banners which waved over the peasants of Sempach and Dalecarlia, or the civic emblems which led on the leaguers of Lombardy and Holland to victory and confederate freedom. But hastily, too hastily, we move to the altar of modern civilisation, and yet it is a glorious show; glorious in the names of its saints, more glorious in those of its martyrs; splendid, if not always free from idolatrous rites, is the sacrifice of its priests; yet more noble is the occasional, the interrupted worship of the laity and the democracy; sublime are the hymns of rejoicing for the past; melting its songs of sorrow over the departed great; divine its thanksgivings for the blessings present; yet more sublime, yet more pathetic, divine are the anticipations of the future which its prophets sing. Who can discuss the nature of each revolution which reformed England, convulsed France, and liberated America, without becoming a wiser man? who can speculate on their destinies, and not warm with hope?
I shall not now reprove your neglect of Irish history. I shall say nothing of it but this, that I never heard of any famous nation which did not honour the names of its departed great, study the fasti, and the misfortunes – the annals of the land, and cherish the associations of its history and theirs. The national mind should be filled to overflowing with such thoughts. They are more enriching than mines of gold, or ten thousand fields of corn, or the battle of a thousand hills, more ennobling than palaced, cities stored with the triumphs of war or art, more supporting in danger’s hour than colonies, or fleets, or armies. The history of a nation is the birthright of her sons – who strips them of that “takes that which not enriches him, but makes them poor indeed.”
Such is a partial and feebly-drawn sketch of the information which may be learned here; and incomplete as is my account of it, it still is so extensive that I may seem to exaggerate; but the wonder ceases when we look to the advantages inherent in our mode of study. Gentlemen, we hear frequent invectives against what is clumsily called universalism in education; and certainly, if this refer to authors, or even languages, no invective seems necessary; it will be sufficient to send the bold aspirant, into any public library, even of Trinity College (if not in winter), and after a week’s rummaging he will come out convinced of the utter hopelessness of any attempt at universalism. Authors are a cannibal race, they devour each other’s carcasses, and the death of one set supports the lives of another.
There is a certain set of books which any man mixing in literary circles must read to please the world; there is another set which he ought to read for his own sake, and there are the few masterpieces of his own, and, if convenient, of foreign literature. Perhaps about twenty writers in English, a dozen in Greek and French, and half of that number in each of the other popular languages will comprise this class. With these exceptions, which may be reduced still further, every prudent man will study subjects, not authors. Thus alone can you go through the wilderness of writers, and it is only by requiring ourselves to master subjects that we render this society what it is – a means of sound general education.
When once this is acquired you can get that sort of knowledge of writers which enables you to refer to them on occasion. Learning, as such, is the baggage of the orator without it he may suffer exhaustion or defeat from an inferior foe; with it his speed and agility are diminished. Those are best oft who have it in magazines, to be drawn on leisurely occasion. That which should be carried by the memory should be borne after the expedite fashion, leaving the other faculties free; but borne some of it must be. Learning is necessary to orator, and poet, and statesman. Book-learning, when well digested, and vivified by meditation, may suffice, as in Burke and Coleridge; but otherwise it is apt to produce confusion and inconsistency of mind, as it sometimes did in both these men.
Far better is the learning of previous observation, the learning of past emotions and ideas, the learning caught by conversation, invented or dug up by meditation in the closet or the field; impressions of scenery, whether natural or artificial, in the human, animal, or material world. Such learning is used by every great poet, philosopher, and orator; perhaps it requires propitious training or nascent genius to be able to acquire it, but ability to acquire ensures ability to use.
When Grattan paced his garden, or Burns trod his hillside, were they less students than the print-dizzy denizens of a library? No, that pale form of the Irish regenerator is trembling with the rush of ideas; and the murmuring stream, and the gently-rich landscape, and the fresh wind converse with him through keen interpreting senses, and tell mysteries to his expectant soul, and he is as one inspired; arguments in original profusion, illustrations competing for his favour, memories of years long past, in which he had read philosophy, history, poetry, awake at his call. That man entered the senate-house, no written words in his hand, and poured out the seemingly spontaneous, but really learned and prepared lullaby over Ireland’s cradle, or caoine over Ireland’s corse.
Read too Burns’s own account of the birth and growth of some of his greatest lyrics. Read, and learn to labour, if you would be great. There is no more common error than that great works are usually the result of extemporaneous power. You have all read an article on Sheridan by Lord Brougham, full of depreciating criticism, founded on the evidences, the chisel-marks of composition which Sheridan left, and so many others (Brougham among the number) concealed. Henry Brougham is a rnetaphysician; he made no mistake on this; but Lord Brougham is an egotist, and he misrepresented.
You are familiar to weariness with the talk about inspirations and sudden efforts of genius, in novelists, and the daily press. The outbursts of most minds, until highly educated, are frothy or ashes-laden. The instances adduced to the contrary will be found fallacious. The continuous and enthusiastic labours of men brimful of knowledge proved the energy of the men, not the inutility of learning. But then, as I have told, or rather described to you, experience is even a greater well of knowledge than books. Without experience book-learning makes the pedant and spoils the man.
The common fault of all education, public and private, is that memory, which requires less care, receives an exclusive attention. No crop is sought from the other faculties – reason, fancy, imagination; and accordingly the business of life finds too, many unschooled in thinking, unprepared to act.
The best way of teaching others the things we know, and of analysing or discovering things now unappreciated or unknown, is this: – On the very threshold of every art, and science, and subject of thought, men, either from its known uses and applications, from some knowledge of a particular detail of its exterior, or working, or of the materials used in constructing it; or from knowing the history of its formation; or from any or all of these; or from the analogy of some combinations of them, should try to judge of other parts, and their origin; or, if you will, guess at the whole from any part of it. Analogy is the first law of thought, and therefore we may do thus, naturally and without presumption, “worms in the cabinet drawer” though we be, and proceeding as I have described, and testing and correcting our guesses and fancies by learning; these particular facts acquired by deliberate study become mixed with our other information or familiar knowledge, and we arrive always at characteristic, if not actual truths, and ultimately acquire that power of general analysis which is the main force of a great mind.
If our memory or information be deficient, our reason is exercised in the highest and most inventive way. Thus only can the inventive faculties, reason, fancy, imagination, be trained. Once they have been so trained, once the mind can readily anticipate, combine, and compare information, the acquisition and use of knowledge has no imaginable limit. (Most writers underrate the power of improving or forming faculties. When I see a man who knows or foreknows his powers, and plans his own faculty formation, I think of Napoleon, who when someone said it was impossible to do a certain thing, replied, “Do not let me hear that foolish word again”. This is the creed of a man of action, rather than a speculator.) Here, fortunately, invention and judgment are as much demanded and are therefore as well supplied as mere information. And this forms the distinctive superiority of Lyceum teaching over every other kind.
Gentlemen, do not, however, suppose that information and matured powers, such as I have named, can be produced by an occasional or idle attendance at our meetings, or by chattering speeches without preparation; no, to borrow an expression, you must “read yourselves full, and think yourselves hungry,” on the society’s questions for at least two or three years. I entreat of you to abandon the notion that you will speak well merely from speaking often. Of a surety, all your faculties grow with use, but this very quality of mind behoves you to he judicious as well as earnest in the exercise of your powers. A bad style grows worse by repetition, as much as a good style improves; or more generally, bad habits grow as rapidly as good ones.
Give up the idea of being great orators without preparation, till you are so with it. When you are, with your utmost labour, able to make one really great speech, you will be above me, my criticism, and my advice, but will, perchance, agree with my opinion. The advantage of speaking generally with a complete preparation, both of matter and style, is that when occasionally you speak (voluntarily or otherwise) with incomplete preparation, your usual arrangement and style will present a good, and, what is more, an easily-imitated model; and thus, not only will your manner of speaking be kept accurate and forcible, but you will acquire that quality useful to all men of business, and essential to the orator and the public man. “Presence of mind” I think there is scarcely a finer expression in the language. It conveys, in picturesque words, a vigorous thought. Great orators have not only great but present minds. They are self-possessed, and have all their resources at command. The memory, the knowledge must be prodigious that can carry a man through the common business of life without the position strange, and the occasion sudden opening in his path, to trip or pitfall the stargazer. But in the great contests of public life, no day but demands the presence of a mind unembarrassed by prejudice, unimpeded by knowledge obsolete, or wisdom inapplicable; a mind whereby a man can think on his legs, and act discreetly even when he acts from his intuitions, steering his course by the same power that impels him. But the men who, by often extemporising as the spirit moved them, have got unabashed brows and flippant tongues, are as far from this noble attainment as the pert ness of the sparrow differs from the valour of the eagle. But let me reiterate that a prudent and industrious use of this society can alone make it a means of improvement.
To the idle and the vain your membership may be a probation in folly. I have known men of some capacity come here, professedly with the design, of learning oratory. I have watched them till their patriotism was cooled, their sagacity lessened, their courtesy not improved, all from reckless misuse of the society. There is another danger I would warn you against. Eloquence is contained in words, and therefore some men would turn an oratorical society into a word-school. There are worse employments than inventing smart sentences, though some men would quarrel with a friend for the sake of uttering one. There are worse pastimes than spinning periods, though some men prefer the display of such fabrics to character for sense, or the cause of justice. I do not object to the study of language; I commend it to your early and learned care, but do not suppose that a court of justice, that a political assembly, that a senate, or even a vestry, that a mob of peers or peasants, will care for fine words, unless there be strong thoughts within them.
The successful orator must be prepared in a good style, ready with a fluent one; but he must also be learned in the sympathies and the prejudices of all his audience, but especially of their influential men; he must have a thorough knowledge of the materials on which, and with which, he is to work. Common industry will inform him on the immediate subject of discourse, and his task is done. Some will tell you not to rouse the animosity of a judge, or the suspicions of a jury, with showy words, or wear mob with cold words. No, gentlemen, but thoughts, thoughts; the wise man against the wordy man all the world over. And even for style’s sake, study thoughts before words. The style suggested by long meditation on a subject is mostly apt to it, forcible and consistent. A style formed by verbal studies or imitation is generally inflated, unequal, and obscure. In fine, then, the order of your noviciate should be, much research, and more meditation preceding, combining with, and following that research.
When you have acquired a facility in discovering information, and inventing and combining thoughts, it remains for you to make opportunities for gradually learning to speak well without particular preparation. Act thus with eagerness, enterprise, and with much reflection, and you will succeeds Gentlemen, I have detained you very long; bear with me yet a little while. I would give you my parting advice.
If you suppose it possible to be great orators, great statesmen, greatly known, without having expanded hearts and mighty imaginations, without being great men, you sadly deceive yourselves. Hear the second poet of Scot-land (for Burns is the first), hear how Scott murmurs his requiem over the tomb of Charles Fox –
“Mourn genius high and lore profound,
And wit that loved to play, not wound;
And all the reasoning powers divine,
To penetrate, resolve, combine;
And feelings keen, and fancy’s glow –
They sleep with him who sleeps below.”
If you want to be great orators, you must not set about learning the mountebank juggles – the phrase-spinning tricks of little men attempting great parts. I shall not wrong you by supposing that any petty vanities or selfish hopes brought you here. No; I do believe that the bold aspirations of your boyhood (for the foundation of greatness is laid in childhood), those pure and dazzling visions which have flashed upon you in dreams, and caught the steadier glance of your young waking eye, have not yet faded wholly away. What though many a glorious expectation has failed? What though even you have learned that toil and danger guard the avenue to success? What though disappointment and suffering have somewhat touched you, and made you less sanguine; yet, has not time rewarded your sorrows – has it not refined – has it not purified – has it not strengthened, even when it humbled you? This world is called hard; ’tis the outside of each little circle of feelings and ties that is so, and who is not within the bounds of at least one such?
None here, I trust, and yet if there be one so wounded and desolate one who longs for that solitude which it has been said is “fit only for a demon or an angel,” or for the equally dubious quiet of the tomb, – such a soul must, under the benign influence of early feelings, and the propitious circumstances and the teaching nobler than that of manhood, which is given to us then, have felt the generous resolve to serve a world which might not thank him. Oh, if I had the power to “bid the happy thought of innocent days play at his heart-strings,” and in enthusiastic strains to melodise the conviction, that nor prosperity, nor content, nor the blessings of friendship or love (which are dearest to the best minds) can lift to the same sublimity, or should warm with the same proud joy, as the consciousness of him who is a benefactor of mankind. Let not gentleness or virtue shrink from the boisterous elements of publicity; such a spirit makes a calm around; nor let want of rank or of wealth awe him into silence,
“For service comes of gentleness,
And lealest hearts of low degree.”
To each age has God given a career of possible improvement; it may exceed, it may fall short of that in other ages. The march during the daylight of our age may he limited by the time and training; but we have it in our power to accelerate that march.
The time is past when the omnipotence of the sword might excuse the sentimental, or learned, or melancholy retirement. The man who now avoids his citizenship has no defence but imbecility; for if we have sagacity and learning he has power and sins in folding up his talent want of zeal to use it. He lacks not means, but a virtuous will.
I would especially desire the diffusion of civic zeal, because in it I see the means, the only means, of human improvement. The effect of modern civilisation up to a certain point has been good; it has tended to free man from the dominion of an armed minority, who stupefied and worked the human race as if they were so many machines which they had made, and could make, and had no reason to abstain from abusing, save the prudence of perpetuating them. This step has been taken in some countries, and seems likely to be taken in all. But on the shore of democracy is a monstrous danger; no phantasm is it, but alas! too real-the violence and forwardness of selfish men, regardful only of physical comfort, ready to sacrifice to it all sentiments – the generous, the pious, the just (victims in their order), till general corruption, anarchy, despotism, and moral darkness shall re-barbarise the earth. A great man has said, if you would qualify Democracy for power, you must “purify their morals, and warm their faith, if that be possible.” How awful a doubt! But it is not the morality of laws, nor the religion of sects, that will do this. It is the habit of rejoicing in high aspirations and holy emotions; it is charity in thought, word, and act; it is generous faith, and the practice of self-sacrificing virtue.
To educate the heart and strengthen the intellect of man are the means of ennobling him. To strain every nerve to this end is the duty from which no one aware of it can shrink. A sphere of influence belongs to every man and every age, and over every man, and every nation, and every succeeding age; but that of action is more confined. The influence of moral power extends but gradually and indirectly over contemporary foreign nations. Those whose acts can directly influence the republic of nations are few, and at so lonely an elevation above common habits that they usually lose our common sympathies, and their power is a curse. But no man is without a sufficient sphere of action, and of direct influence. I speak now of private life; in it, blessed be God! our people are tender, generous, and true-hearted. BUT, GENTILMEN, YOU HAVE A COUNTRY. The people among whom we were born, with whom we live, for whom, if our minds are in health, we have most sympathy, ore those over whom we have power – power to make them wise, great, good. Reason points out our native land as the field for our exertions, and tells us that without patriotism a profession of benevolence is the cloak of the selfish man; and does not sentiment confirm the decree of reason? The country of our birth, our education, of our recollections, ancestral, personal, national; the country of our loves, our friendships, our-hopes; our country – : the cosmopolite is unnatural, base – I would fain say, impossible. To act on a world is for those above it, not of it. Patriotism is human philanthropy.
Gentlemen, many of you possess, more of you are growing into the possession of, great powers – powers which were given you for good, which you may use for evil. I trust that not as adventurers, or rash meddlers, will you enter on public life. But to enter on it in some way or other the state of mind in Ireland will compel you. You must act as citizens, and it is well, “non nobis solum nati sumus, ortusque nostri partem patria vindicat.” Patriotism once felt to be a duty becomes so. To act in politics is a matter of duty everywhere; here, of necessity. To make that action honourable to yourselves, and serviceable to your country, is a matter of choice. In your public career you will be solicited by a thousand temptations to sully your souls with the gold and place of a foreign court, or the transient breath of a dishonest popularity; dishonest, when adverse to the good, though flattering to the prejudices of the people.
You now abound in patriotism, and are sceptical of public corruption; yet most assuredly, if you be eloquent and strong-thinking, threats and bribes will be held out to you. You will be solicited to become the barking misleaders of a faction, or the gazehounds of a minister – dogs who can tell a patriot afar off. Be jealous of your honour and your virtue then; yield not. Bid back the tempter. Do not grasp remorse. Nay, if it be not a vain thought, in such hours of mortal doubt, when the tempted spirit rocks to and fro, pause and recall one of your youthful evenings, and remember the warning voice of your old companion, who felt as a friend, and used a friend’s liberty.
Let the voice of his warning rise upon your ear, think he stands before you as he does now, telling you in such moments, when pride or luxury or wrath make you Waver, to return to communings with nature’s priests, the Burns, the Wordsworths, the Shakespeares, but, above all, to nature’s self. She waits with a mother’s longings for the wanderer; fling yourselves into her arms, and as your heart beats upon her bosom your native nobility will return, and thoughts divine as the divinest you ever felt will bear you unscathed through the furnace. Pardon the presumption, pardon the hope (’tis one of my dearest now), “forsan et haec olim meminisse juvabit.” And I do not fear that any of you will be found among Ireland’s foes. To her every energy should be consecrated. Were she prosperous she would have man to serve her, though their hearts were cold in her cause. But it is because her people lieth down in misery and riseth to suffer, it is therefore you should be more deeply devoted.
Your country will, I fear, need all your devotion. She has no foreign friend. Beyond the limits of green Erin there is none to aid her. She may gain by the feuds of the stranger; she cannot hope for his peaceful help, be he distant, be he near; her trust is in her sons. You are Irish-men. She relies on your devotion. She solicits it by her present distraction and misery. No! her past distraction – her present woe. We have no more war bills: we have a mendicant bill for Ireland. The poor and the pest-houses are full, yet the valleys of her country and the streets of her metropolis swarm with the starving. Her poet has described her:
“More dear in her sorrow, her gloom, and her showers,
Than the rest of the world in its sunniest hours.”
And if she be miserable, if “homely age hath the alluring beauty took from her poor cheek, then who hath wasted it?” The stranger from without, by means of the traitor within. Perchance ’tis a fanciful thing, yet in the misfortunes of Ireland, in her laurelled martyrs, in those who died “persecuted men for a persecuted country,” in the necessity she was under of bearing the palms to deck her best to the scaffold-foot and the lost battlefield, she has seemed to me chastened for some great future.
I have thought I saw her spirit from her dwelling, her sorrowing place among the tombs, rising, not without melancholy, yet with a purity and brightness beyond other nations, and I thought that God had made her purpose firm and her heart just; and I knew that if He had, small though she were, His angels would have charge over her, “lest at any time she should dash her foot against a stone.” And I have prayed that I might live to see the day when, amid the reverence of those once her foes, her sons would:
“Like the leaves of the Shamrock unite,
A partition of sects from one foot stalk of right;
Give each his full share of the earth and the sky
Nor fatten the slave where the serpent would die.”
But not only by her sufferings does Ireland call upon you. Her past history, furnishes something to awake proud recollections. I speak not of that remote and mysterious time when the men of Tyre traded to her well-known shores, and every art of peace und a home on her soil; and her armies, not unused to conquest, traversed Britain and Gaul. Nor yet of that time when her colleges offered a hospitable asylum to the learned and the learning of every land, and her missions bore knowledge and piety through savage Europe; nor yet of her gallant and romantic struggles, against the Dane, and Saxon, and Norman; still less of her hardy wars, in which her interest was sacrificed to a too-devoted loyalty, in many a successful, many a disastrous battle. Not of these. I speak of sixty years ago. The memory is fresh, the example pure, the success inspiring. I SPEAK OF “THE LIFETIME OF IRELAND” (Ireland was then a confederation of local governments, and her stubborn and protracted resistance may be added to the many such incidences accumulated by Sismondi to show the greater stability and greater defensive forces of countries with a minute local organisation and self-government over the larger centralised powers.)
But if neither the present nor the past can rouse you, let the sun of hope, the beams of the future, awake you to exertion in the cause of patriotism. Seek, oh seek to make your country not behind at least in the progress of the nations. Education, the apostle of progress, hath gone forth. Knowledge is not virtue, but may be rendered its precursor. Virtue is not alone enjoyment, is not all happiness; but be sure, when the annunciation of virtue comes, the advent of happiness is at hand. Seek to take your country forward in her progress to that goal, where she, in common with the other nations, may hear that annunciation of virtue, and share that advent of happiness, holiness, and peace.
Gentlemen, I have done. You have been disappointed; you expected, your partiality expected, from me prescriptions to make the best of good speeches, at the bar, pulpit, and senate-all in a brilliant address. Yet, though to hear them has given you little pleasure, and to write them has cost me little time, the thoughts are not rash or inconsiderate; they were the best I had. It would have been easier, much easier, for me to have written rhetorical precepts, and the distinctions of a shallow metaphysics, and to have conveyed such thoughts in a showy diction and with pointed periods. I should have avoided the trouble of combining my scattered thoughts on the subject of our education, but I should have violated my conscious duty. I should have won a louder and more frequent cheer. You would have cheered and have forgotten me. I shall heartily wish you, gentlemen, what each of you will, I know, wish me in return: that you may struggle and succeed in a career, honourable and useful to yourselves and those who are dear to you, in time; and which, I say it in the sincerest solemnity of my heart, may render you better fitted for eternity.