When the Edinburgh Review was established the following motto was proposed for it:
"Tenui musam meditamur avend,"
which Sydney Smith thus wittily renders: "we cultivate literature upon a little oatmeal." "But, says Smith, this was too near the truth to be admitted, and so we took our grave motto from Publius Syrus, of whom none of us, I am sure, had ever read a single line." The motto adopted to which he refers, reads as follows:
"Judex damnatur, cum nocens absolvitur."
"The judge is condemned, when the criminal is acquitted."
This sentiment perhaps expressed the purpose of the Reviewers better than any other that could have been found—which was to bring to the trial of the public judgment, certain institutions of England which if but once put on trial would most surely be condemned. Years since I sought in vain for a copy of the work from which that motto was drawn, and when later I learned from the above statement of Smith, that neither Jeffrey, Murray, Brougham, nor himself, had read a single line of Publius Syrus, I was surprised to discover what a reputation for learning and extensive erudition a man might acquire by an apt quotation from an inaccessible author. When still later a copy of Syrus came into my hands, it seemed strange that a writer of such wit and acuteness should not have been a great favorite with each of the Reviewers. That he was not, I could only account for by supposing that the original was seldom published by itself on account of its brevity; and that is was rarely translated, from the fact that many of the sayings derive their pith from the circumstance of their illustrating the character of personages represented in a play. But whether the Edinburgh Reviewers knew much or little of Syrus, matters not. A writer whom these Reviewers had never read, who yet furnished their journal with a very appropriate motto, and with whom many of our popular proverbs originated, I here take the liberty to introduce the people in a free English dress, knowing that if his noble shade is yet cognizant of his literary remains, he will thank me for bringing him before a public more capable of appreciating his good things than a Roman mob, and better able to practice his wiser moral precepts if so disposed, than most of the best of his contemporaries.
I would only bespeak the charity of the reader for the seeming insipidity to be found in some of the Sayings. As these were gleaned, after Syrus's day, from his Mimes or Plays, the compiler of them would be liable to such a mistake as he might make who should attempt to gather from the works of our great English dramatist a complete list of Shakespeare proverbs; that is, he would be likely to insert in his collection, many sayings which would be without meaning, except when taken in the proper connection of the play—and many maxims of doubtful morality, because originally fitted to the mouth of a Shylock, or an Iago.