Domestic Encyclopædia (1802)/Biography
BIOGRAPHY, an account of the lives and characters of remarkable persons. It is the most entertaining and instructive branch of history, and admits of the description and passion of romance, with this essential difference, that the characters and incidents ought not only to be agreeable to Nature, but strictly true. Hence no books are so proper for the amusement and instruction of youth, who, by reading them, are incited to the imitation of great and virtuous actions; while they are deterred from vice, by an animated delineation of its baneful effects.
As the subjects of biography are the lives of either public or private persons, many useful observations may be made from authentic accounts of those who have been eminently beneficial to society. Nay, even the lives of immoral characters may serve as a warning to deter others, and especially youth, from listening to the temptations of folly and vice.
Philanthropists, who have exposed their lives, or employed their faculties in the service of their fellow-creatures, deserve that their memory should be perpetuated, both as a tribute of public gratitude, and as virtuous examples in the annals of history. The love of fame is natural to the human mind; and, when properly directed, is at once productive of happiness to the individual, and general benefit to mankind.
In the lives of great men, their public characters are principally to be regarded; but, as the world is inquisitive, the investigation of their private conduct may also occasionally be useful, to illustrate the influence of example. On the other hand, too minute an inquiry into the foibles and infirmities of eminent men, is an illiberal and censurable curiosity. Among the ancient biographers, Plutarch is generally allowed to excel. On the relative merits of the moderns, we shall not venture to pronounce; as this would be an invidious and unpleasing task.