The Citizen Of The World

by Oliver Goldsmith
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"The Republic Of Letters"

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Last Updated on January 19, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 340

Context: Oliver Goldsmith wrote these satires in a way that was both acceptable and somewhat the fashion in the eighteenth century: he created a persona who came from another culture, who could speak candidly, if with some pleasant naïveté, about the country and the culture in which he found himself; in this case a Chinese comments about Great Britain. Goldsmith creates a fictional Chinese mandarin named Lien Chi Altangi, from Canton, who writes a series of letters to his former teacher, Fum Hoam, "first president of the Ceremonial Academy, at Pekin, China." Some of the letters are about European culture generally, others are about England and its culture, more specifically. Letter 20 is one of the former; it describes the European literary scene as Goldsmith knew it. Goldsmith characterizes his fellow men-of-letters as persons who regard other authors as rivals, rather than as men engaged in a common pursuit of a single goal. He says of them, through his Chinese writer, "They calumniate, they injure, they despise, they ridicule each other: if one man writes a book that pleases, others shall write books to shew that he might have given still greater pleasure, or should not have pleased." Goldsmith has his fictional Chinese begin by noting that to call the literary world of the time a republic is only ironic:

The Republic of Letters is a very common expression among the Europeans; and yet when applied to the learned of Europe, is the most absurd that can be imagined, since nothing is more unlike a republic than the society which goes by that name. From this expression, one would be apt to imagine that the learned were united into a single body, joining their interests, and concurring in the same design. From this one might be apt to compare them to our literary societies in China, where each acknowledges a just subordination; and all contribute to build the temple of science, without attempting, from ignorance or envy, to obstruct each other.
But very different is the state of learning here: . . .

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