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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Antiquity of Inventions and Stories
By Wendell Phillips (1811–1884)
 
From Lecture on ‘The Lost Arts’

I HAVE been somewhat criticized, year after year, for this endeavor to open up the claims of old times. I have been charged with repeating useless fables with no foundation. To-day I take the mere subject of glass. This material, Pliny says, was discovered by accident. Some sailors, landing on the eastern coast of Spain, took their cooking utensils, and supported them on the sand by the stones that they found in the neighborhood; they kindled their fire, cooked the fish, finished the meal, and removed the apparatus; and glass was found to have resulted from the nitre and sea-sand, vitrified by the heat. Well, I have been a dozen times criticized by a number of wise men, in newspapers, who have said that this was a very idle tale; that there never was sufficient heat in a few bundles of sticks to produce vitrification,—glass-making. I happened, two years ago, to meet on the prairies of Missouri, Professor Shepherd, who started from Yale College, and like a genuine Yankee brings up anywhere where there is anything to do. I happened to mention this criticism to him. “Well,” says he, “a little practical life would have freed men from that doubt.” Said he, “We stopped last year in Mexico, to cook some venison. We got down from our saddles, and put the cooking apparatus on stones we found there; made our fire with the wood we got there, resembling ebony; and when we removed the apparatus there was pure silver gotten out of the embers by the intense heat of that almost iron wood. Now,” said he, “that heat was greater than any necessary to vitrify the materials of glass.”…  1
  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.  2
  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 the 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….  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 wine-glass about half the usual size; the teacups 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 traveler, 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 a parallel character, come from Athens….  5
  Cicero said that he had seen the entire Iliad, which is a poem as large as the New Testament, written on a skin so that it could be rolled up in the compass of a nut-shell. Now this is imperceptible to the ordinary eye. You have seen the Declaration of Independence in the compass of a quarter of a dollar, written with glasses. I have to-day a paper at home, as long as half my hand, on which was photographed the whole contents of a London newspaper. It was put under a dove’s wing and sent into Paris, where they enlarged it and read the news. This copy of the Iliad must have been made by some such process.  6
  In the Roman theatre,—the Coliseum, which could seat a hundred thousand people,—the emperor’s box, raised to the highest tier, bore about the same proportion to the space as this stand does to this hall; and to look down to the centre of a six-acre lot was to look a considerable distance. (“Considerable,” by the way, is not a Yankee word. Lord Chesterfield uses it in his letters to his son, so it has a good English origin.) Pliny says that Nero the tyrant had a ring with a gem in it, which he looked through and watched the sword-play of the gladiators,—men who killed each other to amuse the people,—more clearly than with the naked eye. So Nero had an opera-glass.  7
  So Mauritius the Sicilian stood on the promontory of his island, and could sweep over the entire sea to the coast of Africa with his nauscopite, which is a word derived from two Greek words, meaning “to see a ship.” Evidently Mauritius, who was a pirate, had a marine telescope.  8
  You may visit Dr. Abbot’s museum, where you will see the ring of Cheops. Bunsen puts him five hundred years before Christ. The signet of the ring is about the size of a quarter of a dollar, and the engraving is invisible without the aid of glasses. No man was ever shown into the cabinets of gems in Italy without being furnished with a microscope to look at them. It would be idle for him to look at them without one. He couldn’t appreciate the delicate lines and the expression of the faces. If you go to Parma, they will show you a gem once worn on the finger of Michael Angelo, of which the engraving is two thousand years old, on which there are the figures of seven women. You must have the aid of a glass in order to distinguish the forms at all. I have a friend who has a ring, perhaps three-quarters of an inch in diameter, and on it is the naked figure of the god Hercules. By the aid of glasses you can distinguish the interlacing muscles, and count every separate hair on the eyebrows. Layard says he would be unable to read the engravings on Nineveh without strong spectacles, they are so extremely small. Rawlinson brought home a stone about twenty inches long and ten wide, containing an entire treatise on mathematics. It would be perfectly illegible without glasses. Now if we are unable to read it without the aid of glasses, you may suppose the man who engraved it had pretty strong spectacles. So the microscope, instead of dating from our time, finds its brothers in the books of Moses,—and these are infant brothers.  9
 
 
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