Nonfiction > E.C. Stedman & E.M. Hutchinson, eds. > A Library of American Literature > 1835–1860
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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps.  A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes.  1891.
Vols. VI–VIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 1835–1860
 
The Wisdom of Ancient Days
By Wendell Phillips (1811–1884)
 
[Born in Boston, Mass., 1811. Died there, 1884. From his Lecture on “The Lost Arts.” First delivered in 1838–39.—The Lost Arts. 1884.]

TAKE the whole range of imaginative literature, and we are all wholesale borrowers. In every matter that relates to invention, to use, or beauty, or form, we are borrowers.
  1
  You may glance around the furniture of the palaces in Europe, and you may gather all these utensils of art or use; and, when you have fixed the shape and forms in your mind, I will take you into the museum of Naples, which gathers all remains of the domestic life of the Romans, and you shall not find a single one of these modern forms of art or beauty or use that was not anticipated there. We have hardly added one single line or sweep of beauty to the antique.  2
  Take the stories of Shakespeare, who has, perhaps, written his forty-odd plays. Some are historical. The rest, two-thirds of them, he did not stop to invent, but he found them. These he clutched, ready made to his hand, from the Italian novelists, who had taken them before from the East. Cinderella and her slipper is older than all history, like half a dozen other baby legends. The annals of the world do not go back far enough to tell us from where they first came.  3
  All the boys’ plays, like everything that amuses the child in the open air, are Asiatic. Rawlinson will show you that they came somewhere from the banks of the Ganges or the suburbs of Damascus. Bulwer borrowed the incidents of his Roman stories from legends of a thousand years before. Indeed, Dunlop, who has grouped the history of the novels of all Europe into one essay, says that in the nations of modern Europe there have been two hundred and fifty or three hundred distinct stories. He says at least two hundred of these may be traced, before Christianity, to the other side of the Black Sea. If this were my topic, which it is not, I might tell you that even our newspaper jokes are enjoying a very respectable old age. Take Maria Edgeworth’s essay on Irish bulls and the laughable mistakes of the Irish. Even the tale which either Maria Edgeworth or her father thought the best is that famous story of a man writing a letter as follows: “My dear friend, I would write you in detail, more minutely, if there was not an impudent fellow looking over my shoulder, reading every word.” (“No, you lie: I’ve not read a word you have written!”) This is an Irish bull, still it is a very old one. It is only two hundred and fifty years older than the New Testament. Horace Walpole dissented from Richard Lovell Edgeworth, and thought the other Irish bull was the best,—of the man who said, “I would have been a very handsome man, but they changed me in the cradle.” That comes from Don Quixote, and is Spanish; but Cervantes borrowed it from the Greek in the fourth century, and the Greek stole it from the Egyptian hundreds of years back.  4
  There is one story which it is said Washington has related, of a man who went into an inn, and asked for a glass of drink from the landlord, who pushed forward a wineglass about half the usual size; the tea-cups also in that day were not more than half the present size. The landlord said, “That glass out of which you are drinking is forty years old.”—“Well,” said the thirsty traveller, contemplating its diminutive proportions, “I think it is the smallest thing of its age I ever saw.” That story as told is given as a story of Athens three hundred and seventy-five years before Christ was born. Why! all these Irish bulls are Greek,—every one of them. Take the Irishman who carried around a brick as a specimen of the house he had to sell; take the Irishman who shut his eyes, and looked into the glass to see how he would look when he was dead; take the Irishman that bought a crow, alleging that crows were reported to live two hundred years, and he meant to set out and try it; take the Irishman who met a friend who said to him, “Why, sir, I heard you were dead.”—“Well,” says the man, “I suppose you see I’m not”—“Oh, no!” says he, “I would believe the man who told me a good deal quicker than I would you.” Well, those are all Greek. A score or more of them, of the parallel character, come from Athens.  5
  Our old Boston patriots felt that tarring and feathering a Tory was a genuine patent Yankee fire-brand,—Yankeeism. They little imagined that when Richard Cœur de Lion set out on one of his crusades, among the orders he issued to his camp of soldiers was, that any one who robbed a hen-roost should be tarred and feathered. Many a man who lived in Connecticut has repeated the story of taking children to the limits of the town, and giving them a sound thrashing to enforce their memory of the spot. But the Burgundians in France, in a law now eleven hundred years old, attributed valor to the East of France because it had a law that the children should be taken to the limits of the district, and there soundly whipped, in order that they might forever remember where the limits came….  6
  In Boston, lately, we have moved the Pelham Hotel, weighing fifty thousand tons, fourteen feet, and are very proud of it; and since then we have moved a whole block of houses twenty-three feet, and I have no doubt we will write a book about it: but there is a book telling how Domenico Fontana of the sixteenth century set up the Egyptian obelisk at Rome on end, in the Papacy of Sixtus V. Wonderful! Yet the Egyptians quarried that stone, and carried it a hundred and fifty miles, and the Romans brought it seven hundred and fifty miles, and never said a word about it. Mr. Batterson of Hartford, walking with Brunel, the architect of the Thames tunnel, in Egypt, asked him what he thought of the mechanical power of the Egyptians; and he said, “There is Pompey’s Pillar: it is a hundred feet high, and the capital weighs two thousand pounds. It is something of a feat to hang two thousand pounds at that height in the air, and the few men that can do it would better discuss Egyptian mechanics.”  7
  Take canals. The Suez Canal absorbs half its receipts in cleaning out the sand which fills it continually, and it is not yet known whether it is a pecuniary success. The ancients built a canal at right angles to ours; because they knew it would not fill up if built in that direction, and they knew such an one as ours would. There were magnificent canals in the land of the Jews, with perfectly arranged gates and sluices. We have only just begun to understand ventilation properly for our houses; yet late experiments at the Pyramids in Egypt show that those Egyptian tombs were ventilated in the most perfect and scientific manner.  8
  Again: cement is modern, for the ancients dressed and joined their stones so closely, that, in buildings thousands of years old, the thin blade of a penknife cannot be forced between them. The railroad dates back to Egypt. Arago has claimed that they had a knowledge of steam. A painting has been discovered of a ship full of machinery, and a French engineer said that the arrangement of this machinery could only be accounted for by supposing the motive power to have been steam. Bramah acknowledges that he took the idea of his celebrated lock from an ancient Egyptian pattern. De Tocqueville says there was no social question that was not discussed to rags in Egypt.  9
  “Well,” say you, “Franklin invented the lightning-rod.” I have no doubt he did; but years before his invention, and before muskets were invented, the old soldiers on guard on the towers used Franklin’s invention to keep guard with; and if a spark passed between them and the spear-head, they ran and bore the warning of the state and condition of affairs. After that you will admit that Benjamin Franklin was not the only one that knew of the presence of electricity, and the advantages derived from its use. Solomon’s Temple, you will find, was situated on an exposed point of the hill: the temple was so lofty that it was often in peril, and was guarded by a system exactly like that of Benjamin Franklin.  10
  Well, I may tell you a little of ancient manufactures. The Duchess of Burgundy took a necklace from the neck of a mummy, and wore it to a ball given at the Tuileries; and everybody said they thought it was the newest thing there. A Hindoo princess came into court; and her father, seeing her, said, “Go home, you are not decently covered,—go home”; and she said. “Father, I have seven suits on”; but the suits were of muslin, so thin that the king could see through them. A Roman poet says, “The girl was in the poetic dress of the country.” I fancy the French would be rather astonished at this. Four hundred and fifty years ago, the first spinning-machine was introduced into Europe. I have evidence to show that it made its appearance two thousand years before.  11
  Well, I tell you this fact to show that perhaps we don’t invent just everything. Why did I think to grope in the ashes for this? Because all Egypt knew the secret, which was not the knowledge of the professor, the king, and the priest. Their knowledge won an historic privilege which separated them from and brought down the masses; and this chain was broken when Cambyses came down from Persia, and by his genius and intellect opened the gates of knowledge, thundering across Egypt, drawing out civilization from royalty and priesthood.  12
  Such was the system which was established in Egypt of old. It was four thousand years before humanity took that subject to a proper consideration; and, when this consideration was made, civilization changed her character. Learning no longer hid in a convent, or slumbered in the palace. No! she came out, joining hands with the people, ministering and dealing with them.  13
  We have not an astrology in the stars, serving only the kings and priests; we have an astrology serving all those around us. We have not a chemistry hidden in underground cells, striving for wealth, striving to change everything into gold. No: we have a chemistry laboring with the farmer, and digging gold out of the earth with the miner. Ah! this is the nineteenth century; and, of the hundred of things we know, I can show you ninety-nine of them which have been anticipated. It is the liberty of intellect, and a diffusion of knowledge, that has caused this anticipation.  14
  When Gibbon finished his History of Rome, he said, “The hand will never go back upon the dial of time, when everything was hidden in fear in the dark ages.” He made that boast as he stood at night in the ruins of the Corsani Palace, looking out upon the places where the monks were chanting. That vision disappeared, and there arose in its stead the Temple of Jupiter. Could he look back upon the past, he would see nations that went up in their strength, and down to graves with fire in one hand, and iron in the other hand, before Rome was peopled, which, in their strength, were crushed in subduing civilization. But it is a very different principle that governs this land; it is one which should govern every land; it is one which this nation needs to practise this day. It is the human property: it is the divine will that any man has the right to know anything which he knows will be serviceable to himself and to his fellow-man, and that will make art immortal if God means that it shall last.  15
 
 
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