We have in England fewer of these than in any part of the world, at least where learning is in so much esteem. But to make amends, the two great seminaries we have are, without comparison, the greatest, I won't say the best, in the world; and though much might be said here concerning universities in general, and foreign academies in particular, I content myself with noting that part in which we seem defective. The French, who justly value themselves upon erecting the most celebrated academy of Europe, owe the lustre of it very much to the great encouragement the kings of France have given to it. And one of the members making a speech at his entrance tells you that it is not the least of the glories of their invincible monarch to have engrossed all the learning of the world in that sublime body.
The peculiar study of the academy of Paris has been to refine and correct their own language, which they have done to that happy degree that we see it now spoken in all the courts of Christendom, as the language allowed to be most universal.
I had the honour once to be a member of a small society, who seemed to offer at this noble design in England. But the greatness of the work, and the modesty of the gentlemen concerned, prevailed with them to desist an enterprise which appeared too great for private hands to undertake. We want, indeed, a Richelieu to commence such a work. For I am persuaded were there such a genius in our kingdom to lead the way, there would not want capacities who could carry on the work to a glory equal to all that has gone before them. The English tongue is a subject not at all less worthy the labour of such a society than the French, and capable of a much greater perfection. The learned among the French will own that the comprehensiveness of expression is a glory in which the English tongue not only equals but excels its neighbours; Rapin, St. Evremont, and the most eminent French authors have acknowledged it. And my lord Roscommon, who is allowed to be a good judge of English, because he wrote it as exactly as any ever did, expresses what I mean in these lines:-
"For who did ever in French authors see The comprehensive English energy? The weighty bullion of one sterling line, Drawn to French wire would through whole pages shine."
"And if our neighbours will yield us, as their greatest critic has done, the preference for sublimity and nobleness of style, we will willingly quit all pretensions to their insignificant gaiety."
It is great pity that a subject so noble should not have some as noble to attempt it. And for a method, what greater can be set before us than the academy of Paris? Which, to give the French their due, stands foremost among all the great attempts in the learned part of the world.
The present King of England, of whom we have seen the whole world writing panegyrics and encomiums, and whom his enemies, when their interest does not silence them, are apt to say more of than ourselves; as in the war he has given surprising instances of a greatness of spirit more than common: so in peace, I daresay, with submission, he shall never have an opportunity to illustrate his memory more than by such a foundation. By which he shall have opportunity to darken the glory of the French king in peace, as he has by his daring attempts in the war.
Nothing but pride loves to be flattered, and that only as it is a vice which blinds us to our own imperfections. I think princes as particularly unhappy in having their good actions magnified as their evil actions covered. But King William, who has already won praise by the steps of dangerous virtue, seems reserved for some actions which are above the touch of flattery, whose praise is in themselves.
And such would this be. And because I am speaking of a work which seems to be proper only for the hand of the king himself, I shall not presume to carry on this chapter to the model, as I have done in other subjects. Only thus far:
That a society be erected by the king himself, if his Majesty thought fit, and composed of none but persons of the first figure in learning; and it were to be wished our gentry were so much lovers of learning that birth might always be joined with capacity.