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sently find so many doubts arise with respect to the classification of individuals, and such a necessity for subordinate divisions, framed upon different and incompatible principles, that he will perceive the danger of inextricable confusion.
election is the most important point, and at the same time the most difficult to adjust, in a design of this nature. though our work bears the name of general, and is essentially meant to sustain that character, still selection is a necessary task. In the long lapse of ages from the first records of history, the names of those who have left behind them some memorials of their existence have become so numerous, that to give an account, however slight, of every person who has obtained temporary distinction in every walk of life, would foil the industry of any writer, as well as the patience of any reader. Fame, or celebrity, is the grand principle upon which the choice. of subjects for a general biography must be founded; for this, on the whole, will be found to coincide with the two chief reasons that make us desirous of information concerning an individual-curiosity, and the wish of enlarging our knowledge of mankind. But under the general notion of celebrity, many subordinate considerations arise, which it will be proper here to touch upon.
The great affairs of the world are frequently conducted by persons who have no other title to distinction than merely as they are associated with these affairs. With abilities not at all superior to those of a clerk in an office, or a subaltern in a regiment, the civil and military concerns of great nations are often managed according to a regular routine, by men whom the chance of birth alone has elevated to high stations. Such characters appear in history with a degree of consequence not really belonging to them; and it seems the duty of a biographer in these cases to detach the man from his station, and either entirely omit, or reduce to a very slight notice, the memorial of one whose personal qualities had no real influence over the events of his age, and afford nothing to admire or imitate.
There is a class of personages to whom the preceding remark may be thought in a peculiar manner to apply—that of hereditary sovereigns, many of whom have stept into the throne and quitted it, without having served for more than to mark out a particular portion of the national history. But since the degree of power entrusted in their hands renders the personal character of even the most insignificant of them not without importance; and since the chronological series of leading events in a country is best learned by associating it with their names; it has been thought advisable in the present work, to insert every individual of all the principal dynasties, ancient and modern, with a summary of their reigns, more or less particular, according as they have exerted a greater or less personal influence over the occurrences in them. In these lives, as in all others of men engaged in public affairs, it has been our peculiar aim to make a distinction between biographical and historical matter, and to give the former in as ample, the latter in as concise a form, as was compatible with our general views. It is impossible absolutely to separate the two departments; yet it is obvious that biography alone properly belongs to the person; and that history, referring more particularly to transactions, blends the exertions of many individuals into one common agency, without being very solici tous to assign to each his exact share in the result.
That interesting class which lays claim to the remembrance of posterity on account of distinction in art, science, or literature, depending solely on personal qualifications, and commonly acting individually, might seem to admit of an easier estimate of relative merit than the preceding. But the number of claimants is so great, that, in the impossibility of commemorating all, many names must be rejected, which, on the first glance, may seem as worthy of insertion as their preferred rivals. The difficult work of selection ought in these cases to be regulated by some fixed principles; and the circumstances which appear to be most worthy of guiding the decision, are those of invention, and improvement.
None appear to us to have a more decisive claim to biographical notice than inventors; including in the class all who, by the exercise of their faculties in an original path, have durably added to the stock of valuable products of human skill and ingenuity. Perhaps, in the history of the human mind, there is nothing more curious than to trace the operations of an inventive talent, working its way, often without any foreign aid, and deriving from its own resources the means of overcoming the successive difficulties which thwart its progress. It is in such a process that the distinguishing powers bestowed upon man are most surprisingly exerted, and that the superiority of one individual over the common mass is most luminously displayed. How much higher, as an intellectual being, does a Brindley rank, directing the complex machinery of a canal, which he himself has invented, than an Alexander at the head of his army! A Newton, who employed the most exquisite powers of invention on the sublimest objects, has attained a point in the scale of mental pre-eminence, which perhaps no known mortal ever surpassed.
Between invention and improvement no precise line can be drawn. In reality, almost all the great discoveries in art or science have arrived at perfection through the gradual advances given to them by successive improvers, who have exercised a greater or less degree of invention on the subject. When the addition made has been something considerable, the improver seems to have a just title to have his name perpetuated; and accordingly we have been careful not to omit recording every person, of whom it may be said, that any of the nobler pursuits of the human mind received from his labours a conspicuous advancement. The attainment of uncommon excellence in any particular walk, though not attended with what can strictly be called improvement, may be regarded as a just cause for commemoration; since it implies a vigorous exertion of the faculties, and affords animating examples of the possibility of effecting extraordinary things. Many painters, sculptors, mu
sicians, and other artists of high reputation, come under this head, and have been noticed accordingly.
The class known by the general term of writers has presented to us difficulties of selection more embarrassing than any of those hitherto mentioned. It comprehends many whose claims on the biographer are surpassed by none; for where is the celebrity which takes place of that of a Homer and Virgil, a Livy and Thucydides, a Swift and Voltaire? But from such great names there are all the shades of literary distinction down to the author of a pamphlet; and where must the line be drawn? Desirous of rendering our work as well a book of reference for the use of men of letters, as a store of biographical reading, we have extended our notices of authors much beyond what the single circumstance of remaining celebrity would warrant; and it has been our purpose to include some account of all those persons whose works still form part of the stock of general literature, though perhaps now rather occasionally quoted than perused. We are sensible, however, that, with respect to the individuals who come under this description, infinite differences of opinion must prevail; and we can only assert that we have, in our several departments, exercised our judgment on this head with all the intelligence and impartiality of which we were capable.
Two other circumstances by which selection may be affected are, country and age. We have scen no general biographical work which is free from a decisive stamp of nationality; that is, which does not include a greater number of names of natives of the country in which they were composed, than the fair proportion of relative fame and excellence can justify. Perhaps this fault is in some measure excusable, on account of the superior interest taken by all nations in eminence of their own growth; and if readers are gratified by such a deference to their feelings, writers will not fail to comply with their wishes. We do not pretend to have made no sacrifices of this sort; but being sensible that disproportion is a real blemish in a work, and that in this
instance it partakes of the nature of injustice, we hope we shall be found not to have exceeded the bounds of moderation in this particular. We have most sedulously endeavoured to avoid the more serious fault, of awarding to our countrymen individually, more than their due share of merit in comparison with foreign competitors. In this point we would be truly citizens of the world.
The circumstance of age or period in which the claimants have lived, has an operation similar to that of country. We are much more impressed with the relative consequence of persons who have trod the stage of life within our own memory, than of those whose scene of action has long been closed, though equally eminent in their day. Of course, curiosity is more active respecting the former; and to this natural predilection it may be proper for the biographer to pay some deference, provided he does not too much infringe the principle of equitable proportion, which ought essentially to regulate a work, professing to comprehend every age of the world, as well as every country. One cause that will always give to modern and domestic articles somewhat more than their exact share of extent, is the greater ease and copiousness with which information respecting them is usually obtainable. This presents a temptation to prolixity, which a writer can with difficulty resist.
Prolixity, however, we have in all cases studiously avoided ; which leads us to speak of the remaining consideration, viz; that of the compass we have allowed ourselves. Biography will
certainly bear to be written much at large; and in judicious hands it is often the more entertaining and instructive the more it is minute. But with so vast a subject before us as the lives of eminent men of all ages and nations, it is obviously impracticable to employ a very extensive scale; and the aim must rather be, to give a set of characteristic sketches in miniature, than a series of finished and full-sized portraits. The scope we have taken admits, in our opinion, of such an execution with regard to all characters of real eminence; and we hope we have