Epicurus, we are told, left behind him three hundred volumes of his own works, wherein he had not inserted a single quotation; and we have it upon the authority of Varros own words that he himself composed four hundred and ninety books. Seneca assures us that Didymus the grammarian wrote no less than four thousand; but Origen, it seems, was yet more prolific, and extended his performances even to six thousand treatises. It is obvious to imagine with what sort of materials the productions of such expeditious workmen were wrought up: sound thoughts and well-matured reflections could have no share, we may be sure, in these hasty performances. Thus are books multiplied, whilst authors are scarce; and so much easier is it to write than to think! But shall I not myself, Palamedes, prove an instance that it is so, if I suspend any longer your own more important reflections by interrupting you with such as mine?
Conversation opens our views, and gives our faculties a more vigorous play; it puts us upon turning our notions on every side, and holds them up to a light that discovers those latent flaws which would probably have lain concealed in the gloom of unagitated abstraction. Accordingly, one may remark that most of those wild doctrines which have been let loose upon the world have generally owed their birth to persons whose circumstances or dispositions have given them the fewest opportunities of canvassing their respective systems in the way of free and friendly debate. Had the authors of many an extravagant hypothesis discussed their principles in private circles ere they had given vent to them in public, the observation of Varro had never perhaps been made (or never, at least, with so much justice), that there is no opinion so absurd but has some philosopher or other to produce in its support.
Upon this principle I imagine it is that some of the finest pieces of antiquity are written in the dialogue manner. Plato and Tully, it should seem, thought truth could never be examined with more advantage than amidst the amicable opposition of well-regulated converse.
It is probable, indeed, that subjects of a serious and philosophical kind were more frequently the topics of Greek and Roman conversation than they are of ours; as the circumstances of the world had not yet given occasion to those prudential reasons which may now perhaps restrain a more free exchange of sentiments amongst us. There was something likewise in the very scenes themselves where they usually assembled that almost unavoidably turned the stream of their conversations into this useful channel. Their rooms and gardens were generally adorned, you know, with the statues of the greatest masters of reason that had then appeared in the world; and while Socrates or Aristotle stood in their view it is no wonder their discourse fell upon those subjects which such animating representations would naturally suggest. It is probable, therefore, that many of those ancient pieces which are drawn up in the dialogue manner were no imaginary conversations invented by their authors, but faithful transcripts from real life. And it is this circumstance, perhaps, as much as any other, which contributes to give them that remarkable advantage over the generality of modern compositions which have been formed upon the same plan. I am sure, at least, I could scarcely name more than three or four of this kind which have appeared in our language worthy of notice. My Lord Shaftesburys dialogue entitled The Moralists, Mr. Addisons upon Ancient Coins, Mr. Spences upon the Odyssey, together with those of my very ingenious friend Philemon to Hydaspes, are almost the only productions in this way which have hitherto come forth amongst us with advantage. These, indeed, are all masterpieces of the kind, and written in the true spirit of learning and politeness. The conversation in each of these most elegant performances is conducted, not in the usual absurd method of introducing one disputant to be tamely silenced by the other, but in the more lively dramatic manner, where a just contrast of characters is preserved throughout, and where the several speakers support their respective sentiments with all the strength and spirit of a well-bred opposition.