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Sir William Jones

Sir William Jones

The Second Anniversary Discourse
delivered 24 February, 1785,
by the President

William Jones, «The Second Anniversary Discourse» (delivered 24 February, 1785, by the President, at the Asiatick Society of Bengal),
URL: http://www.unifi.it/testi/700/jones/Jones_Discourse_2.html
Html edition for Eliohs by Guido Abbattista (June 1999)

[Editorial Note]


IF the Deity of the Hindus, by whom all their just requests are believed to be granted with singular indulgence, had proposed last year to gratify my warmest wishes, I could have desired nothing more ardently than the success of your institution; because I can desire nothing in preference to the general good, which your plan seems calculated to promote, by bringing to light many useful and interesting tracts, which being too shorts for separate publication, might lie many years concealed, or, perhaps, irrecoverably perish: my wishes are accomplished, without an invocation to CÁMADHÉNU; and your Society, having already passed its infant state, is advancing to maturity with every marks of a healthy and robust constitution. When I reflect, indeed, on the variety of subjects, which have been discussed before you, concerning the history [11], laws, manners, arts, and antiquities of Asia, I am unable to decide whether my pleasure or my surprise be the greater; for I will not dissemble, that your progress has far exceeded my expectations; and, though we must seriously deplore the loss of those excellent men, who have lately departed from this Capital, yet there is a prospect still of large contributions to your stock of Asiatick learning, which, I am persuaded, will continually increase. My late journey to Benares has enabled me to assure you, that many of your members, who reside at a distance, employ a part of their leisure in preparing additions to your archives; and, unless I am too sanguine, you will soon receive light from them on Several topicks entirely new in the republick of letters.

It was principally with a design to open sources of such information, that I long had meditated an expedition up the Ganges during the suspension of my business; but, although I had the satisfaction of visiting two ancient seats of Hindu superstition and literature, yet, illness having detained me a considerable time in the way, it was not in my power to continue in them long enough to pursue my inquiries; and I left them, as ÆNEAS is feigned to have left the shades, when his guide made him recollect the swift flight of irrevocable tine, with a curiosity [12] raised to the height, and a regret not easy to be described.

Whoever travels in Asia, especially if he be conversant with the literature of the countries through which he passes, must naturally remark the superiority of European talents: the observation, indeed, is at least as old as ALEXANDER; and, though we cannot agree with the sage preceptor of that ambitious Prince, that "the Asiaticks are born to be slaves", yet the Athenian poet seems perfectly in the right, when he represents Europe as a sovereign Princess, and Asia as her Handmaid: but, if the mistress be transcendently majestick, it cannot be denied that the attendant has many beauties, and some advantages peculiar to herself. The ancients were accustomed to pronounce panegyricks on their own countrymen at the expense of all other nations, with a political view, perhaps, of stimulating them by praise, and exciting them to still greater exertions; but such arts are here unnecessary; nor would they, indeed, become a society, who seek nothing but truth unadorned by rhetorick; and, although we must be conscious of our superior advancement in all kinds of useful knowledge, yet we ought not therefore to contemn the people of Asia, from whose researches into nature, works of art, and inventions of fancy, many valuable hints may be derived [13] for our own improvement and advantage. If that, indeed, were not the principal object of your institution, little else could arise from it but the mere gratification of curiosity; and I should not receive so much delight from the humble share, which you have allowed me to take, in promoting it.

To form an exact parallel between the works and actions of the Western and Eastern worlds, would require a trade of no inconsiderable length; but we may decide on the whole, that reason and taste are the grand prerogatives of European minds, while the Asiaticks have soared to loftier heights in the sphere of imagination. The civil history of their vast empires, and of India in particular, must be highly interesting to our common country; but we have a still nearer interest in knowing all former modes of ruling these inestimable provinces, on the prosperity of which so much of our national welfare, and individual benefit, seems to depend. A minute geographical knowledge, not only of Bengal and Bahar, but, for evident reasons, of all the kingdoms bordering on them, is closely connected with an account of their many revolutions: but the natural productions of these territories, especially in the vegetable and mineral systems, are momentous objects of research to an imperial, [14] but, which is a character of equal dignity, a commercial, people.

If Botany may be described by metaphors drawn from the science itself, we may justly pronounce a minute acquaintance with plants, their classes, orders, kinds, and species, to be its flowers, which can only produce fruit by an application of that knowledge to the purposes of life, particularly to diet, by which diseases may be avoided, and to medicine, by which they may be remedied: for the improvement of the left mentioned art, than which none surely can be more beneficial to mankind, the virtues of minerals also should be accurately known. So highly has medical skill been prized by the ancient Indians, that one of the fourteen Retna’s, or precious things, which their Gods are believed to have produced by churning the ocean with the mountain Mandara, was a learned physician. What their old books contain on this subject, we ought certainly to discover, and that without loss of time; lest the venerable but abstruse language, in which they are composed, should cease to be perfectly intelligible, even to the best educated natives, through a want of powerful invitation to study it. BERNIER (1), who was himself of the Faculty, mentions approved medical books in Sanscrit, and cites a few aphorisms, [15] which appear judicious and rational; but we can expect nothing so important from the works of Hindu or Muselman physicians, as the knowledge, which experience must have given them, of simple medicines. I have seen an Indian prescription of fifty-four, and another of sixty-six, ingredients; but such compositions are always to be suspected, since the effect of one ingredient may destroy that of another; and it were better to find certain accounts of a single leaf or berry, than to be acquainted with the most elaborate compounds, unless they too have been proved by a multitude of successful experiments. The noble deobstruent oil, extracted from the Eranda nut, the whole family of Balsams, the incomparable stomachick root from Columbo, the fine astringent ridiculously called Japan earth, but in truth produced by the decoction of an Indian plant, have long been used in Asia; and who can foretel what glorious discoveries of other oils, roots, and salutary juices, may be made by your society? If it be doubtful whether the Peruvian bark be always efficacious in this country, its place may, perhaps, be supplied by some indigenous vegetable equally antiseptick, and more congenial to the climate. Whether any treatises on Agriculture have been written by experienced natives of these provinces, I am not informed; but since the court of Spain expect to find useful remarks in an Arabick tract preserved in the Escurial, on the cultivation of land in that kingdom, we should inquire for similar compositions, and examine the contents of such as we can procure.

The sublime science of Chymistry, which I was on the point of calling divine, must be added, as a key to the richest treasuries of nature; and it is impossible to foresee how greatly it may improve our manufactures, especially if it can fix those brilliant dyes, which want nothing of perfect beauty but a longer continuance of their splendour; or how far it may lead to new methods of fluxing and compounding metals, which the Indians, as well as the Chinese, are thought to have practised in higher perfection than ourselves.

In those elegant arts, which are called fine and liberal, though of less general utility than the labours of the mechanick, it is really wonderful how much a single nation has excelled the whole world: I mean the ancient Greeks, whose Sculpture, of which we have exquisite remains both on gems and in marble, no modern tool can equal; whose Architecture we can only imitate at a servile distance, but are unable to make one addition to it, without destroying its graceful simplicity; whose Poetry still delights us in youth, and amuses us at a maturer age; and of [17] whose Painting and Musick we have the concurrent relations of so many grave authors, that it would be strange incredulity to doubt their excellence. Painting, as an art belonging to the powers of the imagination, or what is commonly called Genius, appears to be yet in its infancy among the people of the East: but the Hindu system of musick has, I believe, been formed on truer principles than our own; and all the skill of the native composers is directed to the great object of their art, the natural expression of strong patrons, to which melody, indeed, is often sacrificed: though some of their tunes are pleasing even to an European ear. Nearly the same may be truly asserted of the Arabian or Persian system; and, by a correct explanation of the best books on that subject, much of the old Grecian theory may probably be recovered.

The poetical works of the Arabs and Persians, which differ surprisingly in their style and form, are here pretty generally known; and, though tastes, concerning which there can be no disputing, are divided in regard to their merit, yet we may safely say of them, what ABULFAZL (2) pronounces of the Mahábhárat, that, "although they abound with extravagant images and descriptions, they are in the highest degree entertaining and instructive". Poets of the greatest genius, PINDAR, ÆSCHYLUS, DANTE, PETRARCA [18], SHAKESPEARE, SPENSER, have most abounded in images not far from the brink of absurdity; but, if their luxuriant fancies, or those of ABULOLA, FIRDAUSI, NIZÁMI (3), were pruned away at the hazard of their strength and majesty, we should lose many pleasures by the amputation. If we may form a just opinion of the Sanscrit poetry from the specimens already exhibited, (though we can only judge perfectly by consulting the originals), we cannot but thirst for the whole work of VYÁSA (4), with which a member of our Society, whose presence deters me from saying more of him, will in due time gratify the publick. The poetry of Mathurà which is the Parnassian land of the Hindus, has a softer and less elevated strain; but, since the inhabitants of the districts near Agra, and principally of the Duab, are said to surpass all other Indians in eloquence, and to have composed many agreeable tales and lovefongs, which are still extant, the Bháshá, or vernacular idiom of Vraja, in which they are written, would not be neglected. No specimens of genuine Oratory can be expected from nations, among whom the form of government precludes even the idea of popular eloquence; but the art of writing, in elegant and modulated periods, has been cultivated in Asia from the earliest ages: the Vèda’s, as well as the Alcoran, are written in measured [19] prose; and the compositions of ISOCRATES are not more highly policed than those of the best Arabian and Persian authors.

Of the Hindu and Muselman architecture there are yet many noble remains in Bahar, and some in the vicinity of Malda; nor am I unwilling to believe, that even those ruins, of which you will, I trust, be presented with correct delineations, may furnish our own architects with new ideas of beauty and sublimity.

Permit me now to add a few words on the Sciences, properly so named; in which it must be admitted, that the Asiaticks, if compared with our Western nations, are mere children. One of the most sagacious men in this age, who continues, I hope, to improve and adorn it, SAMUEL JOHNSON (5), remarked in my hearing, that, "if NEWTON had flourished in ancient Greece, he would have been worshipped as a divinity": how zealously then would he be adored in Hindustan, if his incomparable writings could be read and comprehended by the Pandits of Cashmír or Benares ! I have seen a mathematical book in Sanskrit of the highest antiquity; but soon perceived from the diagrams, that it contained only simple elements: there may, indeed, have been, in the favourable atmosphere of Asia, some diligent observer of the celestial bodies, and such observations, as are [20] recorded, should indisputably be made publick; but let us not expect any new methods, or the analysis of new curves, from the geometricians of Iran, Turkistan, or India. Could the works of ARCHIMEDES, the NEWTON of Sicily, be restored to their genuine purity by the help of Arabick versions, we might then have reason to triumph on the success of our scientifical inquiries; or could the successive improvements and various rules of Algebra be traced through Arabian channels, to which CARDAN boasted that he had access, the modern history of Mathematicks would receive considerable illustration.

The Jurisprudence of the Hindus and Muselmans will produce more immediate advantage; and, if some standard law-tracts were accurately translated from the Sanscrit and Arabick, we might hope in time to see so complete a Digest of Indian Laws, that all disputes among the natives might be decided without uncertainty, which is in truth a disgrace, though satirically called a glory, to the forensick science.

All these objects of inquiry must appear to you, Gentlemen, in so strong a light, that bare intimations of them will be sufficient; nor is it necessary to make use of emulation as an incentive to an ardent pursuit of them: yet I cannot forbear expressing a wish, that the activity of the French in the same pursuits may not be superior [21] to ours, and that the researches of M. SONNERAT (6), whom the court of Versailles employed for seven years in these climates, merely to collect such materials as we are seeking, may kindle, instead of abating, our own curiosity and zeal. If you assent, as I flatter myself you do, to these opinions, you will also concur in promoting the object of them; and a few ideas having presented themselves to my mind, I presume to lay them before you, with an entire submission to your judgement.

No contributions, except those of the literary kind, will be requisite for the support of the society; but, if each of us were occasionally to contribute a succinct description of such manuscripts as he had perused or inspected, with their dates and the names of their owners, and to propose for solution such questions as had occurred to him concerning Asiatick Art, Science, and History, natural or civil, we should possess without labour, and almost by imperceptible degrees, a fuller catalogue of Oriental books, than has hitherto been exhibited, and our correspondents would be apprised of those points, to which we chiefly direct our investigations. Much may, I am confident, be expected from the communications of learned natives (7), whether lawyers, physicians, or private scholars, who would eagerly, on the first invitation, send us their Mekámát [22] and Risálahs on a variety of subjects; some for the sake of advancing general knowledge, but most of them from a desire, neither uncommon nor unreasonable, of attracting notice, and recommending themselves to favour. With a view to avail ourselves of this disposition, and to bring their latent science under our inspection, it might be advisable to print and circulate a short memorial, in Persian and Hindi, setting forth, in a style accommodated to their own habits and prejudices, the design of our institution; nor would it be impossible hereafter, to give a medal annually, with inscriptions in Persian and Hindi on one side, and on the reverse in Sanscrit, as the prize of merit, to the writer of the best essay or dissertation. To instruct others is the prescribed duty of learned Brahmans, and, if they be men of substance, without reward; but they would all be flattered with an honorary mark of distinction; and the Mahomedans have not only the permission, but the positive command, of their law-giver, to search for learning even in the remotest parts of the globe. It were superfluous to suggest, with how much correctness and facility their compositions might be translated for our use, since their languages are now more generally and perfectly understood than they have ever been by any nation of Europe.

I have detained you, I fear, too long by this [23] address, though it has been my endeavour to reconcile comprehensiveness with brevity: the subjects, which I have lightly sketched, would be found, if minutely examined, to be inexhaustible; and, since no limits can be set to your researches but the boundaries of Asia itself, I may not improperly conclude with wishing for your society, what the Commentator on the Laws (8), prays for the constitution, of our country, that IT MAY BE PERPETUAL.


Editorial Note

Jones's second anniversary discourse (1785) was first printed in the Asiatick Researches, vol. I, 1784, pp. 405-15. We have used the text contained in The Works of Sir William Jones. With a Life of the Author, by Lord Teignmouth [John Shore], London, printed for John Stockdale and John Walker, 1807, 13 vols. in-8°, vol. III, pp. 11-23 [copy preserved in the Library of the Accademia delle Scienze di Torino, shelfmark: 138.407-419]. We have retained the original ortographical and typographycal conventions. Page numbers in bold characters in brackets are those of the above cited edition. Annotations is by the Editor. This edition is part of an initiative tending to produce a large electronic publication of the most important works by the eminent English orientalist and lawyer sir William Jones, founder of the Asiatick Society of Bengal (1784). It springs from the wish to propose some of the outstanding documents of the European reflection on non-European civilisations as impelled by XVIIth-XVIIIth century commercial, colonial and imperial expansion in Asia.

(1) François Bernier (1620-1688) was a French physician, philosopher (friend and disciple of Gassendi, of whose thought he compiled a synthesis, Abrégé de la philosophie de Gassendi, 1674) and traveller, who resided at the Mughal court of Aurangzeb between 1659 and 1669. He is author of Histoire de la dernière révolution des Etats du Grand Mogol, Paris, 1670, and of Suite des Mémoires du sieur Bernier sur l'empire du Grand Mogol, Paris, 1671.

(2) Abu'l Fadl Allami (1551-1602) was historian and ideologue of the Mughal emperor Akbar the Great. Presented to the Mughal emperor in 1574, he soon became his intimate friend and advisor and helped him both to build the ideological foundation of his claim to a sivine sanction of his authority and to promote the emperor's view of Mughal India as a multiconfessional imperial society. His major works are pervaded by this ideological bias: the Akbar Nama, containing the annals of Akbar's reign to 1602, with an account of his predecessors and genealogy; and the hird part of this work, called Ain-i-Akbar (or The Customs of Akbar), describing the religious views of the emperor, the principles of  household administration, the court ceremonials, official ranks and salaries, revenue administration. Abu'l Fadl was murdered at the instigaton of Akbar's heri, Jahangir.

(3) Firdausi, or Ferdowsi, according to the modern European spelling, pseudonym of Abu Ol-qasem Mansur, (b. c. 935-d. c. 1020-26) is the Persian poet author of Shah namah, or Book of the Kings, the Persian national epic, whose earlier prose versions he transformed in a codified text. Nizami, in full Elyas Yusuf Nezami Gan-Javi (b. c. 1141-d. 1209) is considered the greatest romantic epic poet in Persian literature and spent his life under the Seljuchid kings of Persia. His reputation rests on his Kamseh, a pentology of didactic and epic poems totalling 30,000 couplets. The fifth poem of the collection is the Sikandar or Eskander namah, a philosophical portrait of Alexander the Great.

(4) Sanskrit: "Arranger" or "Compiler", also called Krsna Dvaipayana (fl. 1500 BC ?), Vyasa is a legendary figure of Indian sage, traditionally deemed the author of the Mahabharata, a collection of legends and didactic poetry worked around a central heroic narrative. According to legend, Vyasa was the son of the ascetic Parasara and of the Princess Satyasvati and was taught the Vedas by the hermits of the forests where he grew up. He became a teacher himself and a priest and gathered a large group of disciples. He is said to have lived late in life in a cave in the Himalayas, where he would have divided the Vedas, composed Puranas, and dictated the famous poem Mahabharata to his scriba, Ganesa, the elephant god.

(5) Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) is the famous English man of letter, lexicographer and biographer, in whose intimacy Jones entered in 1773, as a member of the Literary Club, of which Johnson was president. It was Johnson that brought Jones's work in the field of Oriental poetry to the knowledge of Warren Hastings, thus contributing  directly to the future orientalist's Indian career.

(6) Pierre Sonnerat is a French naturalist, author of an influential Voyage aux Indes orientales et à la Chine, suivi d'observation sur le Cap de Bonne-Espérance, les isles de France et de Bourbon, fait par ordre du Roi dans les années 1774-1781, Paris, 1782, 2 vols.

(7) See on this specific point the recent essay Rosan Rocher, «Weaving Knowledge: Sir William Jonesand Indian Pandits», in Objects of Enquiry. The Life, Contributions and Influences of Sir William Jones (1746-1794),eds. Garland Cannon and Kevin R. Brine, New York, New York University Press, 1995, pp. 51-79.

(8) Jones is here referring to the famous English lawyer sir William Blackstone (1723-1780), the author of Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-69, 4 vols.). Jones had known Blackstone's work very well, also because of his legal training (he probably attended his lectures at Oxford): he had admiredand recommended  it as a reading to his pupils. Jones had though many point of dissent with the opinions of the great English jurist, especially as far the origins of the law  is concerned, as the command of final, supreme Hobbesian power for Blackstone, as the product of the aggregate will of the people, the true supreme authority in a Lockean and Rousseauian perspective for Jones. (see on this S. N. Mukherjee, Sir William Jones. A Study in Eighteenth-Century British Attitudes to India, Cambridge, 1968, pp. 56-58)