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DISCOURSE READ AT THE OPENING OF THE LITERARY SOCIETY OF BOMBAY. - Sir James Mackintosh, The Miscellaneous Works 
The Miscellaneous Works. Three Volumes, complete in One. (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1871).
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DISCOURSE READ AT THE OPENING OF THE LITERARY SOCIETY OF BOMBAY.
[26th Nov. 1804.]
Gentlemen,—The smallest society, brought together by the love of knowledge, is respectable in the eye of Reason; and the feeblest efforts of infant Literature in barren and inhospitable regions are in some respects more interesting than the most elaborate works and the most successful exertions of the human mind. They prove the diffusion, at least, if not the advancement of science; and they afford some sanction to the hope, that Knowledge is destined one day to visit the whole earth, and, in her beneficial progress, to illuminate and humanise the whole race of man. It is, therefore, with singular pleasure that I see a small but respectable body of men assembled here by such a principle. I hope that we agree in considering all Europeans who visit remote countries, whatever their separate pursuits may be, as detachments of the main body of civilized men, sent out to levy contributions of knowledge, as well as to gain victories over barbarism.
When a large portion of a country so interesting as India fell into the hands of one of the most intelligent and inquisitive nations of the world, it was natural to expect that its ancient and present state should at last be fully disclosed. These expectations were, indeed, for a time disappointed: during the tumult of revolution and war it would have been unreasonable to have entertained them; and when tranquillity was established in that country, which continues to be the centre of the British power in Asia,* it ought not to have been forgotten that every Englishman was fully occupied by commerce, by military service, or by administration; that we had among us no idle public of readers, and, consequently, no separate profession of writers; and that every hour bestowed on study was to be stolen from the leisure of men often harassed by business, enervated by the climate, and more disposed to seek amusement than new occupation, in the intervals of their appointed toils.
It is, besides, a part of our national character, that we are seldom eager to display, and not always ready to communicate, what we have acquired. In this respect we differ considerably from other lettered nations. Our ingenious and polite neighbours on the continent of Europe,—to whose enjoyment the applause of others seems more indispensable, and whose faculties are more nimble and restless, if not more vigorous than ours,—are neither so patient of repose, nor so likely to be contented with a secret hoard of knowledge. They carry even into their literature a spirit of bustle and parade;—a bustle, indeed, which springs from activity, and a parade which animates enterprise, but which are incompatible with our sluggish and sullen dignity. Pride disdains ostentation, scorns false pretensions, despises even petty merit, refuses to obtain the objects of pursuit by flattery or importunity, and scarcely values any praise but that which she has the right to command. Pride, with which foreigners charge us, and which under the name of a ‘sense of dignity’ we claim for ourselves, is a lazy and unsocial quality; and is in these respects, as in most others, the very reverse of the sociable and goodhumoured vice of vanity. It is not, therefore, to be wondered at, if in India our national character, co-operating with local circumstances, should have produced some real and perhaps more apparent inactivity in working the mine of knowledge of which we had become the masters.
Yet some of the earliest exertions of private Englishmen are too important to be passed over in silence. The compilation of laws by Mr. Halhed, and the Ayeen Akbaree, translated by Mr. Gladwin, deserve honourable mention. Mr. Wilkins gained the memorable distinction of having opened the treasures of a new learned language to Europe.
But, notwithstanding the merit of these individual exertions, it cannot be denied that the era of a general direction of the mind of Englishmen in this country towards learned inquiries, was the foundation of the Asiatic Society by Sir William Jones. To give such an impulse to the public understanding is one of the greatest benefits that a man can confer on his fellow men. On such an occasion as the present, it is impossible to pronounce the name of Sir William Jones without feelings of gratitude and reverence. He was among the distinguished persons who adorned one of the brightest periods of English literature. It was no mean distinction to be conspicuous in the age of Burke and Johnson, of Hume and Smith, of Gray and Goldsmith, of Gibbon and Robertson, of Reynolds and Garrick. It was the fortune of Sir William Jones to have been the friend of the greater part of these illustrious men. Without him, the age in which he lived would have been inferior to past times in one kind of literary glory: he surpassed all his contemporaries, and perhaps even the most laborious scholars of the two former centuries, in extent and variety of attainment. His facility in acquiring was almost prodigious: and he possessed that faculty of arranging and communicating his knowledge which these laborious scholars very generally wanted. Erudition, which in them was often disorderly and rugged, and had something of an illiberal and almost barbarous air, was by him presented to the world with all the elegance and amenity of polite literature. Though he seldom directed his mind to those subjects the successful investigation of which confers the name of a “philosopher,” yet he possessed in a very eminent degree that habit of disposing his knowledge in regular and analytical order, which is one of the properties of a philosophica understanding. His talents as an elegant writer in verse were among his instruments for attaining knowledge, and a new example of the variety of his accomplishments. In his easy and flowing prose we justly admire that order of exposition and transparency of language, which are the most indispensable qualities of style, and the chief excellencies of which it is capable, when it is employed solely to instruct. His writings everywhere breathe pure taste in morals as well as in literature; and it may be said with truth, that not a single sentiment has escaped him which does not indicate the real elegance and dignity which pervaded the most secret recesses of his mind. He had lived, perhaps, too exclusively in the world of learning for the cultivation of his practical understanding. Other men have meditated more deeply on the constitution of society, and have taken more comprehensive views of its complicated relations and infinitely varied interests. Others have, therefore, often taught sounder principles of political science; but no man more warmly felt, and no author is better calculated to inspire, those generous sentiments of liberty, without which the most just principles are useless and lifeless, and which will, I trust, continue to flow through the channels of eloquence and poetry into the minds of British youth. It has, indeed, been somewhat lamented that he should have exclusively directed inquiry towards antiquities. But every man must be allowed to recommend most strongly his own favourite pursuits; and the chief difficulty as well as the chief merit is his, who first raises the minds of men to the love of any part of knowledge. When mental activity is once roused, its direction is easily changed; and the excesses of one writer, if they are not checked by public reason, are compensated by the opposite ones of his successor. “Whatever withdraws us from the dominion of the senses—whatever makes the past, the distant, and the future, predominate over the present, advances us in the dignity of thinking beings.”*
It is not for me to attempt an estimate of those exertions for the advancement of knowledge which have arisen from the example and exhortations of Sir William Jones. In all judgments pronounced on our contemporaries it is so certain that we shall be accused, and so probable that we may be justly accused, of either partially bestowing, or invidiously withholding praise, that it is in general better to attempt no encroachment on the jurisdiction of Time, which alone impartially and justly estimates the works of men. But it would be unpardonable not to speak of the College at Calcutta, the original plan of which was doubtless the most magnificent attempt ever made for the promotion of learning in the East. I am not conscious that I am biassed either by personal feelings, or literary prejudices when I say, that I consider that original plan as a wise and noble proposition, the adoption of which in its full extent would have had the happiest tendency in securing the good government of India, as well as in promoting the interest of science. Even in its present mutilated state we have seen, at the last public exhibition, Sanscrit declamation by English youth;† —a circumstance so extraordinary, that, if it be followed by suitable advances, it will mark an epoch in the history of learning.
Among the humblest fruits of this spirit I take the liberty to mention the project of forming this Society, which occurred to me before I left England, but which never could have advanced even to its present state without your hearty concurrence, and which must depend on your active co-operation for all hopes of future success.
You will not suspect me of presuming to dictate the nature and object of our common exertions. To be valuable they must be spontaneous; and no literary society can subsist on any other principle than that of equality. In the observations which I shall make on the plan and subject of our inquiries, I shall offer myself to you only as the representative of the curiosity of Europe. I am ambitious of no higher office than that of faithfully conveying to India the desires and wants of the learned at home, and of stating the subjects on which they wish and expect satisfaction, from inquiries which can be pursued only in India.
In fulfilling the duties of this mission, I shall not be expected to exhaust so vast a subject; nor is it necessary that I should attempt an exact distribution of science. A very general sketch is all that I can promise; in which I shall pass over many subjects rapidly, and dwell only on those parts on which from my own habits of study I may think myself least disqualified to offer useful suggestions.
The objects of these inquiries, as of all human knowledge, are reducible to two classes, which, for want of more significant and precise terms, we must be content to call “Physical” and “Moral,”—aware of the laxity and ambiguity of these words, but not affecting a greater degree of exactness than is necessary for our immediate purpose.
The physical sciences afford so easy and pleasing an amusement; they are so directly subservient to the useful arts; and in their higher forms they so much delight our imagination and flatter our pride, by the display of the authority of man over nature, that there can be no need of arguments to prove their utility, and no want of powerful and obvious motives to dispose men to their cultivation. The whole extensive and beautiful science of Natural History, which is the foundation of all physical knowledge, has many additional charms in a country where so many treasures must still be unexplored.
The science of Mineralogy, which has been of late years cultivated with great activity in Europe, has such a palpable connection with the useful arts of life, that it cannot be necessary to recommend it to the attention of the intelligent and curious. India is a country which I believe no mineralogist has yet examined, and which would doubtless amply repay the labour of the first scientific adventurers who explore it. The discovery of new sources of wealth would probably be the result of such an investigation; and something might perhaps be contributed towards the accomplishment of the ambitious projects of those philosophers, who from the arrangement of earths and minerals have been bold enough to form conjectures respecting the general laws which have governed the past revolutions of our planet, and which preserve its parts in their present order.
The Botany of India has been less neglected, but it cannot be exhausted. The higher parts of the science, the structure, the functions, the habits of vegetables,—all subjects intimately connected with the first of physical sciences, though, unfortunately, the most dark and difficult, the philosophy of life,—have in general been too much sacrificed to objects of value, indeed, but of a value far inferior: and professed botanists have usually contented themselves with observing enough of plants to give them a name in their scientific language, and a place in their artificial arrangement.
Much information also remains to be gleaned on that part of natural history which regards Animals. The manners of many tropical races must have been imperfectly observed in a few individuals separated from their fellows, and imprisoned in the unfriendly climate of Europe.
The variations of temperature, the state of the atmosphere, all the appearances that are comprehended under the words “weather” and “climate,” are the conceivable subject of a science of which no rudiments yet exist. It will probably require the observations of centuries to lay the foundations of theory on this subject. There can scarce be any region of the world more favourably circumstanced for observation than India; for there is none in which the operation of these causes is more regular, more powerful, or more immediately discoverable in their effect on vegetable and animal nature. Those philosophers who have denied the influence of climate on the human character were not inhabitants of a tropical country.
To the members of the learned profession of medicine, who are necessarily spread over every part of India, all the above inquiries peculiarly, though not exclusively, belong. Some of them are eminent for science; many must be well-informed; and their professional education must have given to all some tincture of physical knowledge. With even moderate preliminary acquirements they may be very useful, if they will but consider themselves as philosophical collectors, whose duty it is never to neglect a favourable opportunity for observations on weather and climate, to keep exact journals of whatever they observe, and to transmit, through their immediate superiors, to the scientific depositories of Great Britain, specimens of every mineral, vegetable, or animal production which they conceive to be singular, or with respect to which they suppose themselves to have observed any new and important facts. If their previous studies have been imperfect, they will, no doubt, be sometimes mistaken: but these mistakes are perfectly harmless. It is better that ten useless specimens should be sent to London, than that one curious one should be neglected.
But it is on another and still more important subject that we expect the most valuable assistance from our medical associates:—this is, the science of Medicine itself. It must be allowed not to be quite so certain as it is important. But though every man ventures to scoff at its uncertainty as long as he is in vigorous health, yet the hardiest sceptic becomes credulous as soon as his head is fixed to the pillow. Those who examine the history of medicine without either scepticism or blind admiration, will find that every civilized age, after all the fluctuations of systems, opinions, and modes of practice, has at length left some balance, however small, of new truth to the succeeding generation; and that the stock of human knowledge in this as well as in other departments is constantly, though, it must be owned, very slowly, increasing. Since my arrival here, I have had sufficient reason to believe that the practitioners of medicine in India are not unworthy of their enlightened and benevolent profession.—From them, therefore, I hope the public may derive, through the medium of this Society, information of the highest value. Diseases and modes of cure unknown to European physicians may be disclosed to them; and if the causes of disease are more active in this country than in England, remedies are employed and diseases subdued, at least in some cases, with a certainty which might excite the wonder of the most successful practitioners in Europe. By full and faithful narratives of their modes of treatment they will conquer that distrust of new plans of cure, and that incredulity respecting whatever is uncommon, which sometimes prevail among our English physicians; which are the natural result of much experience and many disappointments; and which, though individuals have often just reason to complain of their indiscriminate application, are not ultimately injurious to the progress of the medical art. They never finally prevent the adoption of just theory or of useful practice: they retard it no longer than is necessary for such a severe trial as precludes all future doubt. Even in their excess, they are wholesome correctives of the opposite excesses of credulity and dogmatism; they are safeguards against exaggeration and quackery; they are tests of utility and truth. A philosophical physician, who is a real lover of his art, ought not, therefore, to desire the extinction of these dispositions, though he may suffer temporary injustice from their influence.
Those objects of our inquiries which I have called “Moral” (employing that term in the sense in which it is contradistinguished from “Physical”) will chiefly comprehend the past and present condition of the inhabitants of the vast country which surrounds us.
To begin with their present condition:—I take the liberty of very earnestly recommending a kind of research, which has hitherto been either neglected or only carried on for the information of Government,—I mean the investigation of those facts which are the subjects of political arithmetic and statistics, and which are a part of the foundation of the science of Political Economy. The numbers of the people; the number of births, marriages, and deaths; the proportion of children who are reared to maturity; the distribution of the people according to their occupations and castes, and especially according to the great division of agricultural and manufacturing; and the relative state of these circumstances at different periods, which can only be ascertained by permanent tables,—are the basis of this important part of knowledge. No tables of political arithmetic have yet been made public from any tropical country. I need not expatiate on the importance of the information which such tables would be likely to afford. I shall mention only as an example of their value, that they must lead to a decisive solution of the problems with respect to the influence of polygamy on population, and the supposed origin of that practice in the disproportioned number of the sexes. But in a country where every part of the system of manners and institutions differs from those of Europe, it is impossible to foresee the extent and variety of the new results which an accurate survey might present to us.
These inquiries are naturally followed by those which regard the subsistence of the people; the origin and distribution of public wealth; the wages of every kind of labour, from the rudest to the most refined; the price of commodities, and especially of provisions, which necessarily regulates that of all others; the modes of the tenure and occupation of land; the profits of trade; the usual and extraordinary rates of interest, which is the price paid for the hire of money; the nature and extent of domestic commerce, everywhere the greatest and most profitable, though the most difficult to be ascertained; those of foreign traffic, more easy to be determined by the accounts of exports and imports; the contributions by which the expenses of government, of charitable, learned, and religious foundations are defrayed; the laws and customs which regulate all these great objects, and the fluctuation which has been observed in all or any of them at different times and under different circumstances. These are some of the points towards which I should very earnestly wish to direct the curiosity of our intelligent countrymen in India.
These inquiries have the advantage of being easy and open to all men of good sense. They do not, like antiquarian and philological researches, require great previous erudition and constant reference to extensive libraries. They require nothing but a resolution to observe facts attentively, and to relate them accurately; and whoever feels a disposition to ascend from facts to principles will, in general, find sufficient aid to his understanding in the great work of Dr. Smith,—the most permanent monument of philosophical genius which our nation has produced in the present age.
They have the further advantage of being closely and intimately connected with the professional pursuits and public duties of every Englishman who fills a civil office in this country: they form the very science of administration. One of the first requisites to the right administration of a district is the knowledge of its population, industry, and wealth. A magistrate ought to know the condition of the country which he superintends; a collector ought to understand its revenue; a commercial resident ought to be thoroughly acquainted with its commerce. We only desire that part of the knowledge which they ought to possess should be communicated to the world.*
I will not pretend to affirm that no part of this knowledge ought to be confined to Government. I am not so intoxicated by philosophical prejudice as to maintain that the safety of a state is to be endangered for the gratification of scientific curiosity. Though I am far from thinking that this is the department in which secrecy is most useful, yet I do not presume to exclude it. But let it be remembered, that whatever information is thus confined to a Government may, for all purposes of science, be supposed not to exist. As long as the secrecy is thought important, it is of course shut up from most of those who could turn it to best account; and when it ceases to be guarded with jealousy, it is as effectually secured from all useful examination by the mass of official lumber under which it is usually buried: for this reason, after a very short time, it is as much lost to the Government itself as it is to the public. A transient curiosity, or the necessity of illustrating some temporary matter, may induce a public officer to dig for knowledge under the heaps of rubbish that encumber his office; but I have myself known intelligent public officers content themselves with the very inferior information contained in printed books, while their shelves groaned under the weight of MSS., which would be more instructive if they could be read. Further, it must be observed, that publication is always the best security to a Government that they are not deceived by the reports of their servants; and where these servants act at a distance the importance of such a security for their veracity is very great. For the truth of a manuscript report they never can have a better warrant than the honesty of one servant who prepares it, and of another who examines it; but for the truth of all long-uncontested narrations of important facts in printed accounts, published in countries where they may be contradicted, we have the silent testimony of every man who might be prompted by interest, prejudice, or humour, to dispute them if they were not true.
I have already said that all communications merely made to Government are lost to science; while, on the other hand, perhaps, the knowledge communicated to the public is that of which a Government may most easily avail itself, and on which it may most securely rely. This loss to science is very great; for the principles of political economy have been investigated in Europe, and the application of them to such a country as India must be one of the most curious tests which could be contrived of their truth and universal operation. Every thing here is new; and if they are found here also to be the true principles of natural subsistence and wealth, it will be no longer possible to dispute that they are the general laws which every where govern this important part of the movements of the social machine.
It has been lately observed, that “if the various states of Europe kept and published annually an exact account of their population, noting carefully in a second column the exact age at which the children die, this second column would show the relative merit of the governments and the comparative happiness of their subjects. A simple arithmetical statement would then, perhaps, be more conclusive than all the arguments which could be produced.” I agree with the ingenious writers who have suggested this idea, and I think it must appear perfectly evident that the number of children reared to maturity must be among the tests of the happiness of a society, though the number of children born cannot be so considered, and is often the companion and one of the causes of public misery. It may be affirmed, without the risk of exaggeration, that every accurate comparison of the state of different countries at the same time, or of the same country at different times, is an approach to that state of things in which the manifest palpable interest of every Government will be the prosperity of its subjects, which never has been, and which never will be, advanced by any other means than those of humanity and justice. The prevalence of justice would not indeed be universally insured by such a conviction; for bad governments, as well as bad men, as often act against their own obvious interest as against that of others: but the chances of tyranny must be diminished when tyrants are compelled to see that it is folly. In the mean time, the ascertainment of every new fact, the discovery of every new principle, and even the diffusion of principles known before, add to that great body of slowly and reasonably formed public opinion, which, however weak at first, must at last, with a gentle and scarcely sensible coercion, compel every Government to pursue its own real interest. This knowledge is a control on subordinate agents for Government, as well as a control on Government for their subjects: and it is one of those which has not the slightest tendency to produce tumult or convulsion. On the contrary, nothing more clearly evinces the necessity of that firm protecting power by which alone order can be secured. The security of the governed cannot exist without the security of the governors.
Lastly, of all kinds of knowledge, Political Economy has the greatest tendency to promote quiet and safe improvement in the general condition of mankind; because it shows that improvement is the interest of the government, and that stability is the interest of the people. The extraordinary and unfortunate events of our times have indeed damped the sanguine hopes of good men, and filled them with doubt and fear: but in all possible cases the counsels of this science are at least safe. They are adapted to all forms of government: they require only a wise and just administration. They require, as the first principle of all prosperity, that perfect security of persons and property which can only exist where the supreme authority is stable.
On these principles, nothing can be a means of improvement which is not also a means of preservation. It is not only absurd, but contradictory, to speak of sacrificing the present generation for the sake of posterity. The moral order of the world is not so disposed. It is impossible to promote the interest of future generations by any measures injurious to the present; and he who labours industriously to promote the honour, the safety, and the prosperity of his own country, by innocent and lawful means, may be assured that he is contributing, probably as much as the order of nature will permit a private individual, towards the welfare of all mankind.
These hopes of improvement have survived in my breast all the calamities of our European world, and are not extinguished by that general condition of national insecurity which is the most formidable enemy of improvement. Founded on such principles, they are at least perfectly innocent: they are such as, even if they were visionary, an admirer or cultivator of letters ought to be pardoned for cherishing. Without them, literature and philosophy can claim no more than the highest rank among the amusements and ornaments of human life. With these hopes, they assume the dignity of being part of that discipline under which the race of man is destined to proceed to the highest degree of civilization, virtue, and happiness, of which our nature is capable.
On a future occasion I may have the honour to lay before you my thoughts on the principal objects of inquiry in the geography, ancient and modern, the languages, the literature, the necessary and elegant arts, the religion, the authentic history and the antiquities of India; and on the mode in which such inquiries appear to me most likely to be conducted with success.
[* ] Bengal.—Ed.
[* ] Dr. Johnson at Iona.—Ed.
[† ] It must be remembered that this was written in 1804.—Ed.
[* ] [“The English in India are too familiar with that country to feel much wonder in most parts of it, and are too transiently connected with it to take a national interest in its minute description. To these obstacles must be opposed both a sense of duty and a prospect of reputation. The servants of the Company would qualify themselves for the performance of their public duties, by collecting the most minute accounts of the districts which they administer. The publication of such accounts must often distinguish the individuals, and always do credit to the meritorious body of which they are a part. Even the most diffident magistrate or collector might enlarge or correct the articles relating to his district and neighbourhood, in the lately published Gazetteer of India; and, by the communication of such materials, the very laudable and valuable essay of Mr. Hamilton might, in successive editions, grow into a complete system of Indian topography. . . . Meritorious publications by servants of the East India Company, have, in our opinion, peculiar claims to liberal commendation. The price which Great Britain pays to the inhabitants of India for her dominion, is the security that their government shall be administered by a class of respectable men. In fact, they are governed by a greater proportion of sensible and honest men, than could fall to their lot under the government of their own or of any other nation. Without this superiority, and the securities which exist for its continuance, in the condition of the persons, in their now excellent education, in their general respect for the public opinion of a free country, in the protection afforded, and the restraint imposed by the press and by Parliament, all regulations for the administration of India would be nugatory, and the wisest system of laws would be no more than waste paper. The means of executing the laws, are in the character of the administrators. To keep that character pure, they must be taught to respect themselves; and they ought to feel, that distant as they are, they will be applauded and protected by their country, when they deserve commendation, or require defence. Their public is remote, and ought to make some compensation for distance by promptitude and zeal. The principal object for which the East India Company exists in the newly modified system [of 1813,—Ed.] is to provide a safe body of electors to Indian officers. Both in the original appointments, and in subsequent preferment, it was thought that there was no medium between preserving their power, or transferring the patronage to the Crown. Upon the whole, it cannot be denied that they are tolerably well adapted to perform these functions. They are sufficiently numerous and connected with the more respectable classes of the community, to exempt their patronage from the direct influence of the Crown, and to spread their choice so widely, as to afford a reasonable probability of sufficient personal merit. Much—perhaps enough—has been done by legal regulations, to guard preferment from great abuse. Perhaps, indeed, the spirit of activity and emulation may have been weakened by precautions against the operation of personal favour. But this is, no doubt, the safe error. The Company, and indeed any branch of the Indian administration in Europe, can do little directly for India: they are far too distant for much direct administration. The great duty which they have to perform, is to control their servants and to punish delinquency in deeds; but —as the chief principle of their administration—to guard the privileges of these servants, to maintain their dignity, to encourage their merits, to animate those principles of self-respect and honourable ambition, which are the true securities of honest and effectual service to the public. In every government, the character of the subordinate officers is of great moment: but the privileges, the character and the importance of the civil and military establishments are, in the last result, the only conceivable security for the preservation and good government of India.”—Edinburgh Review, vol. xxx. p. 435.—Ed.]