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THE GOOD OLD TIMES. Among the unreasonable and ridiculous prejudices which many people imbibe from those who go before them, is an admiration for old customs and things, and a belief in their surpassing excellence. I do not mean that feeling of love for our early years, and the melancholy affection we cherish for scenes of recollection, but the absurd credit which we implicitly give to certain crude notions of the advantages of the by-gone over the present time, in respect to religion, virtue, honour, talent, and so forth. Nothing modern can be good. Every recent improvement is an unwarranted innovation upon the sacred system of the past. Every scheme projected for the public benefit, every new invention, is the butt of censure and the object of a sneer. Instead of examining the practical usefulness of a recent discovery, or the rationality of an argument per se, the one, it is alleged, cannot answer because it is unlike any thing that has preceded it, and the other is contrary to former opinion, and cannot therefore be right. It is almost ludicrous to listen to the eternal encomiums lavished upon what the present age can know nothing about but by hearsay and tradition. If we are to believe these allegations, we have had the misfortune to be born in the most unfortunate era of the world ; when every thing relative to man has fallen to the lowest ebb. We are even a puny generation in stature, compared with our gigantic forefathers, whose longevity and strength at least doubled that of their ill-starred posterity. The moral depravity of the age is another theme of depressing comparison, echoed from the Rev. Mr. Irving's chapel to the hall of Westminster, and back again. We are gone deeper into the stream of turpitude than any preceding generation-we are altogether abandoned to crimes of which our forefathers never dreamed, and to opinions of which their sagacity would have instantly shewn the fallacy-which they would have contemplated with abhorrence. In short, we are on the very brink of perdition. In literature, also, we are in a state of retrocession. To sum up all, our condition is truly pitiable, and the blindness of too many to the immeasurable superiority of the old state of society, is operating to effect our irretrievable ruin. · Such it is to take things for granted, to assent to received notions without examining them, to follow credulity instead of reason, and to be the incorrigible slaves of usage. This stays the ripening of many a useful discovery, protracting its perfection to a distant date ; hinders the true policy of a nation from being followed up, and prevents legislation from keeping pace with the circumstances of the age. It is from the injurious prevalence of this folly that in our law courts, and even sometimes in the senate, we hear arguments maintained that are open to refutation by the humblest capacity that will give itself the trouble to analyze them.
That agreeable fable of a poetic imagination, the “golden age,” probably gave rise to this prejudice in favour of retrospective excellence. We so naturally feel an admiration for the good that is beyond our reach, and are so apt to invest it with fictitious splendour, that it is not wonderful a pleasant illusion should depreciate the value of present things below the brilliant visions of past excellence, which imagination colours so highly, and the dreams of future good, of which hope is for ever holding up to us the shadowy semblance. A dissatisfaction with
the present, independent of any merits in the past, tends to attach to the latter no inconsiderable value, and is a latent cause of the disposition of which I complain. Reason, however, is the touchstone by which the truth must be elicited ; and by having recourse to it we shall find that this prejudice is a senseless clamour, and that the same notion has been the burthen of complaint in every age of mankind. If there appear to have been some isolated advantages on the side of those who have gone before us, it should be recollected that we are obliged to credit their own story, that what they assert it is impossible we can controvert, when it relates to such a remote era, and that even the colouring of history is oftener laid on after the taste of the artist than with the correct pencil of truth. Still though we must judge by the accounts thus transmitted to us on the testimony of the interested party, even then I contend, that the charge is groundless, and that the moderns have, in almost every respect, the advantage. For some hundred years past there has been a progression in civilization, and human comforts have increased. I will not go beyond our own country, as it is more especially our forefathers who were so marvellously superior to their descendants; and I find, judging from the mass of evidence before us, that we have gained immeasurably upon what preceded us. Three wonderful inventions--gunpowder, printing, and the steam-engine, are alone sufficient to have thrown into the back ground all of which our ancestors could boast. Of these, the press, in its modern state of freedom, is perhaps the most important, because it operates to prevent the world's retrocession in knowledge. Had the works of all the ancient writers been rendered eternal by this art, and been dispersed innumerably among the nations, the downfall of the Roman empire would never have been followed by the obscurity of the dark ages, as they are denominated. However the reins of empire might have been disposed of, the intellectual improvement of man would have increased. Enlightened nations, since the invention of printing, may suffer changes, and a temporary loss of liberty, but it will only be to arise out of their slumber, and, by shaking off the yoke, to become more free and powerful than before--to stand, like the aroused lion, invincible in their own strength. The time, however, which these changes may take in operating must depend upon contingencies ; I only mean to assert what must be the ultimate effect, the final result. Away, then, with the foolish notion that we are retrograding from the superiority of some departed and undefined period. The present may not be the best of all possible times, but is infinitely better, as a whole, than any that have gone before it. There are a greater number arrived at a high pitch of mental culture. There may be fewer Bacons, Miltons, Shakspeares, and Newtons, to attract by their sole refulgence the dazzled eyes of the world, but the aggregate of knowledge is dispersed far wider than it was in their time. Thousands have approximated, of late years, nearer to the summit, distant as it may be, on which these immortal men stand, than could be found a hundred years ago. There are more who read and reflect now than ever ; there are fewer now who will take the ipse dixit of another upon any subject of importance without thinking something about it themselves. Hence the diminution of credence in popular superstitions, ancient dogmas, and the absurd legends of priestcraft. In the “good old times' so much deplored, one Bible, after it was permitted to be read in the vernacular tongue, was chained to a desk lest it should be stolen, and served for the use of a whole parish. Before this period the book of the Christian's faith was not suffered to be read by the people, but was explained to them by artful ecclesiastics, who made it the means of rivetting the chains of temporal authority under the terrors of spiritual denunciation. Now it is placed in the hands of all without comment-a measure perfectly consistent with the object of a book which is designed to direct men to a better life by its own simple guidance. Let the political economist contrast the vast resources of the nation now with what they were a few centuries ago, when England had a population of two or three millions, and her revenue was not a quarter of one. Let him exhibit the state of agriculture and commerce, and compare it with what it was when our houses were built with mud and wattles, and the floors were of the bare earth strewed with rushes ; few having chimneys to let out the smoke, or glass in the holes designed for win vs. Let the feudal system and its barbarous customs be compared with the present horror of vassalage, and the contempt for pretensions grounded on the tawdry emblazonments of the Heralds' College, with
the manly spirit of freedom, which will brook no insult from fellow-man, let bis rank be what it may, and which the superior in rank and fortune is, owing to the better spirit of the age, equally restrained from offering to an inferior. Let the Border-robbers be stripped of the gaudy colouring in which the deceptious charm of antiquity and the magic pencil of Scott have arrayed them, and what were they but lawless barbarians deeply dyed in blood, rioting in the plunder of thedefenceless? Let the scanty population on the estates of these worse than Old Bailey villains, be contrasted with the flourishing fields and the healthy population that is now seen upon the borders of England and Scotland. Where are the chains and dungeons of the old baronial castles, for ever in a state of vigilance against the assaults of desultory warfare?—" the very halls of the justices of the peace,” too, as Aubrey says, “ dreadful to behold; the screen garnished with corslets, and helmets gaping with open mouths, with coats of mail, lances, pikes, halberds, brown bills, and bucklers?" Let the whole empire, which the narrow intellect of the “ good old times” was unable to look upon, but in numerous petty divisions with an endless diversity of interests, be contrasted with the unity of object and easy working of the busy whole at present. Rivers, on which a wicker fishing-boat was now and then seen moving amid a scene of solitary desolation, are now loaded with vessels. The ocean is covered with the commerce of the nation, and to make the circuit of the world is a mere every-day occurrence.
What were the cock-boats and light vessels of our ancestors to our men-of-war?-and the clumsy arms and system of former warfare, to those which have given battles more decisive weapons, mitigated the severity, and abridged many of the calamities of that human curse? The comparative advantage of ancient and modern times, in these respects only, is of itself a subject which would engross no little space, and might be rendered highly interesting. One thing is certain, that no one who is not insane will deny, that in these respects at least, we have left our forefathers in the "good old times" sadly in the back-ground.
· I am aware there are some persons, who, with imaginations of no common levity, form to themselves pictures of the most romantic out
line and enchanting colours in contemplating the manners of our ancestors, and believe thelr conceptions to be perfectly correct. They gaze so long at the rainbow-hued vapoury forms of fiction, that these become in their eyes embodied realities. They live in a sort of reverię, a dreamy abstraction from all present truths, and, hoping little from the future, they for ever brood over the impossible past. They move and breathe in our times, but their heated fancies are filled with the freebooters, dungeons, towers, dames, and foray-hunting lords, who are in their view the very beau idéal of human virtue. They invest their imaginary characters with every attribute that can confer honour on human nature, and place them in triumphant contrast with the world around. The worst is, they are seldom aware of the inconsistencies their illusions exhibit. In woman, for example, the utmost delicacy, grace, and refinement, are mingled up with the savage times of feudalism, and modern ideas of what constitutes the superlative of feminine attractions, are displayed in pictures of remote barbarism. All the characteristic elegance of modern times and manners is carried back to the filthy and smoky halls of our forefathers. But what is the fact? The ladies of the olden time naturally partook of the coarseness of their age. They breakfasted at six o'clock in the morning upon coarse beef, and that salted, during one-half of the year; and there being no agricultural societies and oil-cake then in fashion, it was doubtless not deficient in toughness. Their drink at the same meal was home-brewed and potent strong-beer. They worked hard in their household; and but few of them, any more than their lords and masters, at one period of our history at least, were proficients in the useful acquirements of reading and writing. The boisterous revelry of the hall, and the drunken broils of the household, vulgar jests and rough familiarities, were common to them. Few of the sex in the present day, even among the lower classes, exhibit a more masculine character than the ancient dames of high birth did. Even so late as the reign of James II. the court was so unpolished and ill-mannered," that the ladies, even the Queen herself, could hardly pass the King's apartment without receiving some affront.” In the ecstatic view of those who admire the “ good old times,” the ladies were all softness and gentleness, they possessed every accomplishment--they were all Juliets and Ophelias. As it was in respect to the female sex, it was with most other matters ; but to go farther into manners, would require great space, and close and attentive reading, far beyond what I could bestow
Another cause of complaint with the lovers of the “good old times” is the immorality and irreligion of the present period ; not but that there is a sufficient mass of wickedness of every species at present, as well as in days of yore, that may justly form a subject for lamentation. But the question is not whether the present age is spotless, but whether the past exceeded it in virtue. Bright and noble characters have been sprinkled here and there in all ages, but at no period was there a greater number among the mass more moral or more rationally religious than now. Hypocrisy and cant are rife; but let us examine whether these vices in religion were not far overbalanced by the grovelling and swinish superstitions that formerly enchained the mind, and led the multitude captive to a blind and servile obedience, that made the worship of the Deity an obligation of fear, and even arrayed the parent of man in the terrible garb of vengeance, for the neglect of some miscalled religious form, by which monks and friars, black, white, and grey," or their mitred superiors, lost some temporal advantage. In the “ good old times" rational religion was rarely known; all belonging to it was dictated by others. It was too much the instrument of designing or mistaken men, who rendered the doctrines of Christianity obscure, believed persecution was doing God service, and confused their own brains, and the faculties of all around them, by ridiculous disquisitions upon points of doctrine, while they neglected the simple and clear precepts which involved its great essentials. Persecution was deemed a religious duty, and the different Christian sects nourished the most baleful hatred towards each other. Now we see charity widely diffused among all orders of Christians, though some still exist in each who love persecution, because it savours of the good old
We no longer see bishops sitting in judgement, and condemn. ing to the fire those who will not yield assent to some incomprehensible creed; but churehmen mingle with schismatics in promoting together the essentials of religion. Have modern times no advantage here?
Benevolence and charity are now more extended than ever. The order and decencies observed in society, the ornaments and luxuries of life, exceed what the most imaginative persons of old could have dreamed to be possible. Refinement is not more superior to barbarism than is our present state to that of our forefathers. It is the ignorant and wilfully blind who do not see this, as well as those who prefer the past from mere feverishness, because they have determined that nothing in modern days is, or can be, as they wish it. Excepting two or three literary giants, who appeared in early times, not less the astonishment of their own age than ours, many writers who were deemed phenomena then, are now only read with a smile of astonishment that they ever could have been esteemed. The vilest ballad-writer of the present day is far superior to them. A brilliant light now and then appeared in a world of darkness, that we find illuminated with accumulating splendours. Literature is more diffused; our literary spirit is become more liberal; and with the exception of one or two publications of acknowledged bad character, preserves a tone of moderation in argument and of mildness in discussion, which shows that writers would much rather gain a point by reason than end an argument by vituperation ; the ultimate certainty of conviction being now only reserved to the rule of good sense.
The character of our present literature is, as a whole, as high as it ever was before, and its beneficial effects on society are more obvious.
How mighty is our national strength compared to that in the "good old times,” in spite of numerous causes, originating in too fondly clinging to ancient prejudices, that have but tended to hamper it. Formerly our display of power was more in appearance than in reality. We exhibited an imposing front to an enemy, but we had no reserve ; all our resources were at once in the field of view. Like the soldiers of Cadmus, they now seem to grow up from the earth; they multiply with our necessities, and increase in proportion to our wants. The island that a short time ago had an army.of but a few thousands of men, on whose first combat its fate depended, lately exhibited a million in arms, and bribed with her wealth nearly all the civilized nations in the world. · Add to this our astonishing mechanical inventions,