· Biography
     · 1774 to 1798
     · 1798 to 1802
     · 1803 to 1806
     · 1807 to 1814
     · 1814 to 1817
     · 1817 to 1820
     · 1820 to 1823
     · 1823 to 1830
     · 1831
     · 1831 to 1833
     · 1834
     · 1834 to 1836
     · 1836 to 1838
     · 1838 to 1841
     · 1841 to 1843
     · 1843-1849
     · Recapitulation
      * Introduction
      · Definition
      · Stages
      · Table
      · Languages
      · Analysis
      · Reader's
      · recollection
      · System to study
      · Natural gift
      · Mental process
      · Literary
      · circles
      · Regrets
      · Criticisims
      · Writers
      · Conclusion
     · About the book
   · FAQ
   · Characters
   · Places
   · Highlights
   · Language table

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Home > Mezzofanti > Biography > Recapitulation > Introduction

WE have now before us, in the narrative of Cardinal Mezzofanti's life, such materials for an estimate of his attainments as a linguist and a scholar, as a most diligent and impartial inquiry has enabled me to bring together. I can truly say that in no single instance have I suffered my own personal admiration of his extraordinary gifts to shape or to influence that inquiry. I have not looked to secure a verdict by culling the evidence. A great name is but tarnished by unmerited praise—non eget mendacio nostro. I have felt that I should consult best for the fame of Mezzofanti, by exhibiting it in its simple truth ; and I have sought information regarding him, fearlessly and honestly, in every field in which I saw a prospect of obtaining it,—from persons of every class, country, and creed—from friendly, from indifferent, and even from hostile quarters ;—from all, in a word, without exception, whom I knew or thought likely to possess the means of contributing to the solution of the interesting problem in the annals of the human mind, which is involved in his history. It only remains to sum up the results. Nor is it easy to approach this duty with a perfectly unbiassed mind. If, on the one hand, there is a temptation to heighten the marvels of the history, viewed through what Carlyle calls "the magnifying camera oscura of tradition," on the other, there is the opposite danger of unduly yielding to incredulity, and discarding its genuine facts on the sole ground of their marvellousness. I shall endeavour to hold a middle course. I shall not accept any of the wonders related of Mezzofanti, unless they seem attested by undisputable authority : but neither shall I, in a case so clearly abnormal as his, and one in which all ordinary laws are so completely at fault, reject well-attested facts, because they may seem irreconcilable with every-day experience. Our judgments of unwonted mental phenomena can hardly be too diffident, or too circumspec.t. The marvels of the faculty of memory which we all have read of; the prodigies of analysis which many of us have witnessed in the mental arithmeticians who occasionally present themselves for exhibition ; the very vagaries of the senses themselves, which occasionally follow certain abnormal conditions of the organs—are almost as wide a departure from what we are accustomed to in these departments, as is the greatest marvel related of Mezzofanti in the faculty of language. Perhaps there could not be amore significant rebuke of this universal scepticism, than the fact that the very event which Juvenal, in his celebrated sneer at the tale of

Velificatus Athos, et quidquid Grsecia mendax Audet in historia— 

has selected as the type of self-convicted mendacity— the passage of Xerxes's fleet through Mount Athos— now proves to be not only possible, but absolutely true ; and it is wisely observed by Mr. G-rote, that, while no amount of mere intrinsic probability is sufficient to establish the truth of an unattested statement, on the other hand, " statements in themselves highly improbable may well deserve belief, provided they be supported by sufficient positive evidence." (Hist, of Greece, I. 571.)

There are two heads of inquiry which appear to me specially deserving of attention.

First, the number of languages with which Car-dinal Mezzofanti was acquainted, and the degree of his proficiency in each.

Secondly, his method of studying languages, and the peculiar mental development to which his extraordinary success as a linguist is attributable.

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