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The want of a system of Rhetoric upon a concise plan, and at an easy price, will, it is presumed, render this little volume acceptable to the public. To collect knowledge, which is scattered over a wide extent, into a small compass, if it has not the merit of originality, has at least the advantage of being useful. Many, who are terrified at the idea of travelling over a ponderous volume in search of information, will yet set out on a short journey in pursuit of science with alacrity and profit. Those for whom the following Essays are principally intended, will derive peculiar benefit from the brevity, with which they are conveyed. To youth, who are engaged in the rudiments of learning; whose time and attention must be occupied by a variety of subjects, every branch of science should be rendered as concise as possible. Hence the attention is not fatigued, nor the memory overloaded.
That a knowledge of Rhetoric forms a very material part of the education of a polite scholar, must be universally allowed. Any attempt, therefore, however imperfect, to make so useful an art more generally known, has claim to that praise which is the reward of good intention. With this, the editor will be sufficiently satisfied ; since being serviceable to others is the most agreeable method of becoming contented with ourselves.
A proper acquaintance with the circle of liberal arts is requisite to the study of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres. To extend the knowledge of them must be the first care of those who wish either to write with reputation, or so to express themselves in public, as to command attention. Among the ancients it was an essential principle, that the orator ought to be conversant in every department of learning.
No art, indeed, can be contrived, which could stamp merit on a composition for richness or splendour of expression, when it possesses barren or erroneous sentiments. Oratory, it is true, has often been disgraced by attempts to establish a false criterion of its value. Writers have endeavoured to supply the want of matter by the graces of composition ; and to court the temporary applause of the ignorant, instead of the lasting approbation of the discerning. But the prevalence of such im. posture must be short and transitory. The body and substance of any valuable composition must be formed by knowledge and science.
Rhetoric completes the structure, and adds the polish ; but firm and solid bodies alone are able to receive it.
Among the learned it has long been a contested, and remains still an undecided question, whether nature or art contributes most towards excellence in writing and discourse. Various may be the opinions, with respect to the manner in which art can most effectually furnish her aid for such a purpose ; and it were presumption to advance, that mere rhetorical rules, how.just soever, are sufficient to form an orator. Private application and study, supposing natural genius to be favourable, are certainly superior to any system of public instruction. But, though rules and instructions cannot comprehend every thing which is requisite, they may afford considerable use and advantage. If they cannot inspire genius, they can give it direction and assistance. If they cannot make barrenness fruitful, they can correct redundancy. They discover the proper models for imitation; they point out the principal beauties which ought to be studied, and the chief faults which ought to be avoided ; and consequently tend to enlighten taste, and to conduct genius from unnatural deviations into its proper channel. Though they are incapable, perhaps, of producing great excellencies, they may at least be subservient to prevent the commission of considerable mistakes.
In the education of youth, no object has appeared more important to wise men, in every age, than to furnish them early with a relish for the entertainments of taste. From these, to discharge the higher and more important duties of life, the transition is natural and easy. Of those minds which have this elegant and liberal turn, the most pleasing hopes may be entertained. It affords the promise of many virtues. On the contrary, an entire insensibility of eloquence, poetry, or any of the fine arts, may justly be considered as a perverse symptom of youth ; and supposes them inclined to inferior gratifications, or capable of being engaged only in the more common and mechanical pursuits of life.
The improvement of taste seems to be more or less connected with every good and virtuous disposition. By giving frequent exercise to all the tender and humane passions, a cultivated taste increases sensibility ; yet at the same time, it tends to soften the more violent and angry emotions.
Ingenuas didicisse fideliter artes,
Emollit mores nec finit esse feros.
Soften’d the rude, and calm'd the boisterous mind. Poetry, eloquence and history, are continually hold. ing forward to our view those elevated sentiments and high examples which tend to nourish in our minds public spirit, the love of glory, contempt of eternal fortune, and the admiration of every thing that is truly great, noble, and illustrious.