A CRUST FOR THE CRITICS
In our last initial chapter we may be supposed to have treated that formidable set of men who are called critics with more freedom than becomes us; since they exact, and indeed generally receive, great condescension from authors. We shall in this, therefore, give the reasons of our conduct to this august body; and here we shall, perhaps, place them in a light in which they have not hitherto been seen.
This word critic is of Greek derivation, and signifies judgment. Hence I presume some persons who have not understood the original, and have seen the English translation of the primitive, have concluded that it meant judgment in the legal sense, in which it is frequently used as equivalent to condemnation.
I am rather inclined to be of that opinion, as the greatest number of critics hath of late years been found amongst the lawyers. Many of these gentlemen, from despair, perhaps, of ever rising to the bench in Westminster-hall, have placed themselves on the benches at the playhouse, where they have exerted their judicial capacity, and have given judgment, i.e., condemned without mercy.
The gentlemen would, perhaps, be well enough pleased, if we were to leave them thus compared to one of the most important and honourable offices in the commonwealth, and, if we intended to apply to their favour, we would do so; but, as we design to deal very sincerely and plainly too with them, we must remind them of another officer of justice of a much lower rank; to whom as they not only pronounce, but execute, their own judgment, they bear likewise some remote resemblance.
But in reality there is another light, in which these modern critics may, with great justice and propriety, be seen; and this is that of a common slanderer. If a person who prys into the characters of others, with no other design but to discover their faults, and to publish them to the world, deserves the title of a slanderer of the reputations of men, why should not a critic, who reads with the same malevolent view, be as properly stiled the slanderer of the reputation of books?
Vice hath not, I believe, a more abject slave; society produces not a more odious vermin; nor can the devil receive a guest more worthy of him, nor possibly more welcome to him, than a slanderer. The world, I am afraid, regards not this monster with half the abhorrence which he deserves; and I am more afraid to assign the reason of this criminal lenity shown towards him; yet it is certain that the thief looks innocent in the comparison; nay, the murderer himself can seldom stand in competition with his guilt: for slander is a more cruel weapon than a sword, as the wounds which the former gives are always incurable. One method, indeed, there is of killing, and that the basest and most execrable of all, which bears an exact analogy to the vice here disclaimed against, and that is poison: a means of revenge so base, and yet so horrible, that it was once wisely distinguished by our laws from all other murders, in the peculiar severity of the punishment.
Besides the dreadful mischiefs done by slander, and the baseness of the means by which they are effected, there are other circumstances that highly aggravate its atrocious quality; for it often proceeds from no provocation, and seldom promises itself any reward, unless some black and infernal mind may propose a reward in the thoughts of having procured the ruin and misery of another.
Shakespear hath nobly touched this vice, when he says
Twas mine, tis his, and hath been slave to thousands:
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
But makes me poor indeed.
With all this my good reader will doubtless agree; but much of it will probably seem too severe, when applied to the slanderer of books. But let it here be considered that both proceed from the same wicked disposition of mind, and are alike void of the excuse of temptation. Nor shall we conclude the injury done this way to be very slight, when we consider a book as the authors offspring, and indeed as the child of his brain.
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