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Sir William Jones

Sir William Jones

A Discourse
on the Institution of a
for Inquiring into the History, Civil and Natural, the Antiquities, Arts,
Sciences, and Literature, of Asia.

By the President.
[15 January 1784]

Sir William Jones, A Discourse on the Institution of a Society for Inquiring into the History,
Civil and Natural, the Antiquities, Arts, Sciences and Literature, of Asia [1784],
URL: testi/700/jones/Preliminary_Discourse.html
HTML edition by Guido Abbattista for Eliohs (March 1999)

[Editorial Note]


When I was at sea last August, on my voyage to this country which I had long and ardently desired to visit, I found one evening, on inspecting the observations of the day, that India lay before us, and Persia on our left, whilst a breeze from Arabia blew nearly on our stern. A situation so pleasing in itself, and to me so new, could not fail to awaken a train of reflections in my mind, which had early been accustomed to [2] contemplate with delight the eventful histories and agreeable fictions of this eastern world. It gave me inexpressible pleasure to find myself in the midst of so noble an amphitheatre, almost encircled by the vast regions of Asia, which has ever been esteemed the nurse of Sciences, the inventress of delightful and useful arts, the Scene of glorious actions, fertile in the productions of human genius, abounding in natural wonders, and infinitely diversified in the forms of religion and government, in the laws, manners, customs, and languages, as well as in the features and complexions, of men. I could not help remarking, how important and extensive a field was yet unexplored, and how many solid advantages unimproved; and when I considered, with pain, that, in this fluctuating, imperfect, and limited condition of life, such inquiries and improvements could only be made by the united efforts of many, who are not easily brought, without Come pressing inducement or strong impulse, to converge in a common point, I consoled myself with a hope, founded on opinions which it might have the appearance of flattery to mention, that, if in any country or community, such an union could be effected, it was among my countrymen in Bengal, with some of whom I already had, and with most was desirous of having, the pleasure of being intimately acquainted.

[3] You have realised that hope, gentlemen, and even anticipated a declaration of my wishes, by your alacrity in laying the foundation of a Society for inquiring into the history and antiquities, the natural productions, arts, sciences, and literature of Asia. I may confidently foretel, that an institution so likely to afford entertainment, and convey knowledge, to mankind, will advance to maturity by slow, yet certain, degrees; as the Royal Society, which at first was only a meeting of a few literary friends at Oxford, rose gradually to that splendid zenith, at which a Halley was their Secretary, and a Newton their president.

Although it is my humble opinion, that, in order to ensure our success and permanence, we must keep a middle course between a languid remissness, and an over zealous activity, and that the tree, which you have auspiciously planted, will produce fairer blossoms, and more exquisite fruit, if it be not at first exposed to too great a glare of sunshine, yet I take the liberty of submitting to your consideration a few general ideas on the plan of our Society; assuring you, that, whether you reject or approve them, your correction will give me both pleasure and instruction, as your flattering attentions have already conferred on me the highest honour.

It is your design, I conceive, to take an ample [4] space for your learned investigations, bounding them only by the geographical limits of Asia, so that, considering Hindustan as a centre, and turning your eyes in idea to the North, you have on your right, many important kingdoms in the Eastern peninsula, the ancient and wonderfu1 empire of China with all her Tartarian dependencies, and that of Japan, with the cluster of precious islands, in which many singular curiosities have too long been concealed: before you lies that prodigious chain of mountains, which formerly perhaps were a barrier against the violence of the sea, and beyond them the very interesting country of Tibet, and the vast regions of Tartary, from which, as from the Trojan horse of the poets, have issued so many consummate warriors, whose domain has extended at least from the banks of the Ilissus to the mouths of the Ganges: on your left are the beautiful and celebrated provinces of Iran or Persia, the unmeasured, and perhaps unmeasurable deserts of Arabia, and the once flourishing kingdom of Yemen, with the pleasant isles that the Arabs have subdued or colonised; and farther westward, the Asiatick dominions of the Turkish sultans, whose moon seems approaching rapidly to its wane. By this great circumference, the field of your useful researches will be inclosed; but, since Egypt had unquestionably an old connection [5] with this country, if not with China, since the language and literature of the Abyssinians bear a manifest affinity to those of Asia, since the Arabian arms prevailed along the African coast of the Mediterranean, and even erected a powerful dynasty on the continent of Europe, you may not be displeased occasionally to follow the streams of Asiatick learning a little beyond its natural boundary; and, if it be necessary or convenient, that a short name or epithet be given to our Society, in order to distinguish it in the world, that of Asiatick appears both classical and proper, whether we consider the place or the object of the institution, and preferable to Oriental, which is in truth a word merely relative, and, though commonly used in Europe, conveys no very distinct idea

It now it be asked, what are the intended objects of our inquiries within these spacious limits, we answer, MAN and NATURE; whatever is performed by the one, or produced by the other. Human knowledge has been elegantly analysed according to the three great faculties of the mind, memory, reason, and imagination, which we constantly find employed in arranging and retaining, comparing and distinguishing, combining and diversifying, the ideas, which we receive through our senses, or acquire by reflection; hence the three main branches of learning are [6] history, science, and art: the first comprehends either an account of natural productions, or the genuine records of empires and states; the second embraces the whole circle of pure and mixed mathematicks, together with ethicks and law, as far as they depend on the reasoning faculty; and the third includes all the beauties of imagery and the charms of invention, displayed in modulated language, or represented by colour, figure, or sound.

Agreeably to this analysis, you will investigate whatever is rare in the stupendous fabrick of nature, will correct the geography of Asia by new observations and discoveries; will trace the annals, and even traditions, of those nations, who from time to time have peopled or desolated it; and will bring to light their various forms of government, with their institutions civil and religious; you will examine their improvements and methods in arithmetick and geometry, in trigonometry, mensuration, mechanicks, opticks, agronomy, and general physicks; their systems of morality, grammar, rhetorick, and dialectick; their skill in chirurgery and medicine, and their advancement, whatever it may be, in anatomy and chymistry. To this you will add researches into their agriculture, manufactures, trade; and, whilst you inquire with pleasure into their musick, architecture, [7] painting, and poetry, will not neglect those inferior arts, by which the comforts and even elegances of social life are supplied or improved. You may observe, that I have omitted their languages, the diversity and difficulty of which are a sad obstacle to the progress of useful knowledge; but I have ever considered languages as the mere instruments of real learning, and think them improperly confounded with learning itself: the attainment of them is, however, indispensably necessary; and if to the Persian, Armenian, Turkish, and Arabick, could be added not only the Sanscrit, the treasures of which we may now hope to see unlocked, but even the Chinese, Tartarian, Japanese, and the various insular dialects, an immense mine would then be open, in which we might labour with equal delight and advantage.

Having submitted to you these imperfect thoughts on the limits and objects of our future Society, I request your permission to add a few hints on the conduct of it in its present immature state.

LUCIAN begins one of his satirical pieces against historians, with declaring that the only true proposition in his work was, that it should contain nothing true; and perhaps it may be advisable at first, in order to prevent any difference of sentiment on particular points not immediately [8] before us, to establish but one rule, namely, to have no rules at all. This only I mean, that, in the infancy of any society, there ought to be no confinement, no trouble, no expense, no unnecessary formality. Let us, if you please, for the present, have weekly evening meetings in this hall, for the purpose of hearing original papers read on such subjects, as fall within the circle of our inquiries. Let all curious and learned men be invited to send their tracts to our secretary, for which they ought immediately to receive our thanks; and if, towards the end of each year, we should be supplied with a sufficiency of valuable materials to fill a volume, let us present our Asiatick miscellany to the literary world, who have derived so much pleasure and information from the agreeable work of Kampfer, than which we can scarce propose a better model, that they will accept with eagerness any fresh entertainment of the same kind. You will not perhaps be disposed to admit mere translations of considerable length, except of such unpublished essays or treatises as may be transmitted to us by native authors, but, whether you will enrol as members any number of learned natives, you will hereafter decide, with many other questions as they happen to arise; and you will think, I presume, that tall questions should be decided on a ballot, by a majority of two [9] thirds, and that nine members should be requisite to constitute a board for such decisions. These points, however, and all others I submit entirely, gentlemen, to your determination, having neither wish nor pretension to claim any more than my single right of suffrage. One thing only, as essential to your dignity, I recommend with earnestness, on no account to admit a new member, who has not expressed a voluntary desire to become so; and in that case, you will not require, I suppose, any other qualification than a love of knowledge, and a zeal for the promotion of it.

Your institution, I am persuaded, will ripen of itself, and your meetings will be amply supplied with interesting and amusing papers, as soon as the object of your inquiries shall be generally known. There are, it may not be delicate to name them, but there are many, from whose important studies I cannot but conceive high expectations; and, as far as mere labour will avail, I sincerely promise, that, if in my allotted sphere of jurisprudence, or in any intellectual excursion, that I may have leisure to make, I should be so fortunate as to collect, by accident, either fruits or flowers, which may seem valuable or pleasing, I shall offer my humble Nezr to your society with as much respectful zeal `as to the greatest potentate on earth.

Editorial Note

This text is taken from: 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. 1-9 [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. The edition of this text 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.