The citizen of the world: or, letters from a Chinese philosopher, residing in London, to his friends in the east. ... [pt.1]
Goldsmith, Oliver, 1730?-1774.

LETTER XX.

From the same.

THE republic of letters is a very common ex∣pression among the Europeans; and yet when applied to the learned of Europe, is the most absurd that can be imagined, since nothing is more unlike a republic than the society which goes by that name. From this expression one would be apt to imagine, that the learned were united into a single body, joining their interests, and concurring in the same design. From this one might be apt to compare them to our literary societies in China, where each acknowledges a just sub∣ordination; and all contribute to build the temple of science, without attempting from ignorance or envy to obstruct each other.

But very different is the state of learning here; every member of this fancied republic is desirous of govern∣ing, and none willing to obey; each looks upon his fel∣low as a rival, not an assistant in the same pursuit. They calumniate, they injure, they despise, they ridi∣cule each other: if one man writes a book that pleases, others shall write books to shew that he might have given still greater pleasure, or should not have pleased. If one happens to hit upon something new, there are Page  79 numbers ready to assure the publick that all this was no novelty to them or the learned; that Cardanus or Bru∣nus, or some other author too dull to be generally read, had anticipated the discovery. Thus, instead of unit∣ing like the members of a commonwealth, they are divided into almost as many factions as there are men; and their jarring constitution, instead of being stiled a republic of letters, should be entituled, an anarchy of literature.

It is true, there are some of superior abilities who reverence and esteem each other; but their mutual ad∣miration is not sufficient to shield off the contempt of the crowd. The wise are but few, and they praise with a feeble voice; the vulgar are many, and roar in reproaches. The truly great seldom unite in societies, have few meetings, no cabals; the dunces hunt in full cry till they have run down a reputation, and then snarl and fight with each other about dividing the spoil. Here you may see the compilers, and the book-answer∣ers of every month, when they have cut up some re∣spectable name, most frequently reproaching each other with stupidity and dullness: resembling the wolves of the Russian sorest, who prey upon venison, or horse∣flesh when they can get it; but in cases of necessity, ly∣ing in wait to devour each other. While they have new books to cut up, they make a hearty meal; but if this resource should unhappily fail, then it is that cri∣tics eat up critics, and compilers rob from compilations.

Confucius observes that it is the duty of the learned to unite society more closely, and to persuade men to become citizens of the world; but the authors I refer to, are not only for disuniting society, but kingdoms Page  80 also; if the English are at war with France, the dunces of France think it their duty to be at war with those of England. Thus Freron, one of their first rate scrib∣lers, thinks proper to characterise all the English writers in the gross. Their whole merit, says he,

'consists in exaggeration, and often in extravagance; correct their pieces as you please, there still remains a leaven which corrupts the whole. They sometimes discover genius, but not the smallest share of taste, England is not a soil for the plants of genius to thrive in.'
This is open enough, with not the least adulation in the pic∣ture; but hear what a Frenchman of acknowledged abilities says upon the same subject,
'I am at a loss to determine in what we excel the English, or where they excel us; when I compare the merits of both in any one species of literary composition, so many re∣putable and pleasing writers present themselves from either country, that my judgment rests in suspense: I am pleased with the disquisition, without finding the object of my enquiry.'
But lest you should think the French alone are faulty in this respect, hear how an English journalist delivers his sentiments of them.
'We are amazed, says he, to find so many works translated from the French, while we have such numbers ne∣glected of our own. In our opinion, notwithstanding their same throughout the rest of Europe, the French are the most contemptible reasoners (we had almost said writers) that can be imagined. However, ne∣vertheless, excepting, &c.'
Another English writer, Shaftsbury, if I remember, on the contrary, says, that the French authors are pleasing and judicious, more clear, more methodical, and entertaining than those of his own country.

Page  81 From these opposite pictures, you perceive that the good authors of either country praise, and the bad re∣vile each other; and yet, perhaps, you'll be surprized that indifferent writers should thus be the most apt to censure, as they have the most to apprehend from re∣crimination; you may, perhaps, imagine that such as are possessed of same themselves should be most ready to declare their opinions, since what they say, might pass for decision. But the truth happens to be, that the great are solicitous only of raising their own reputa∣tions, while the opposite class, alas! are solicitous of bringing every reputation down to a level with their own.

But let us acquit them of malice and envy; a critic is often guided by the same motives that direct his author. The author endeavours to persuade us, that he has written a good book: the critic is equally solicitous to shew that he could write a better, had he thought pro∣per. A critic is a being possessed of all the vanity, but not the genius, of a scholar; incapable, from his native weakness, of lifting himself from the ground, he ap∣plies to contiguous merit for support, makes the spor∣tive sallies of another's imagination his serious employ∣ment, pretends to take our feelings under his care, teaches where to condemn, where to lay the emphasis of praise, and may with as much justice be called a man of taste, as the Chinese who measures his wisdom by the length of his nails.

If then a book, spirited or humourous, happens to appear in the republic of letters, several critics are in waiting to bid the public not to laugh at a single line of it, for themselves had read it; and they know what is Page  82 most proper to excite laughter. Other critics contradict the fulminations of this tribunal, call them all spiders, and assure the public, that they ought to laugh with∣out restraint. Another set are in the mean time quietly employed in writing notes to the book, intended to shew the particular passages to be laughed at; when these are out, others still there are who write notes upon notes. Thus a single new book employs not only the paper-makers, the printers, the press-men, the book∣binders, the hawkers, but twenty critics, and as many compilers. In short, the body of the learned may be compared to a Persian army, where there are many pioneers, several sutlers, numberless servants, women and children in abundance, and but few soldiers.

Adieu.