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ESSAY THE SECOND:
REFLECTIONS ON THE FOLLY AND PRESUMPTION OF PHILOSOPHERS, ESPECIALLY IN MATTERS OF THE FIRST PHILOSOPHY;
ON THE RISE AND PROGRESS OF THEIR BOASTED SCIENCE;
ON THE PROPAGATION OF ERROR AND SUPERSTITION;
AND ON THE PARTIAL ATTEMPTS THAT HAVE BEEN MADE
TO REFORM THE ABUSES OF HUMAN REASON.
He who asserts that there would be more real knowledge and more true wisdom among mankind, if there was less learning and less philosophy, may offend some men's ears by advancing a paradox; for such at least they will call it. But men who inquire without prejudice, and who dare to doubt, will soon discover that this seeming paradox is a most evident truth. They will find it such in almost every part of human science, and above all others in that which is called metaphysical and theological. The vanity of the vainest man alive, of some who call themselves scholars and philosophers, will be hurt; but they who seek truth without any other regard, and who prefer therefore very wisely even ignorance to error, will rejoice at every such discovery.
There was a time when navigators bent themselves obstinately to find a passage by the northeast or the northwest to Cathay. Neither frequent losses nor constant disappointment could divert them from these enterprises, as long as the fashionable folly prevailed. The passage was not found; the fashion wore out, and the folly ceased. The bounds of navigation were set: and sufficient warning was both given and taken against any further attempts in those dark and frozen regions. Many such there are in the intellectual world: and many such attempts have been made there with no better success. But the consequence has not been the same. Neither examples nor experience have had their effect on philosophers, more fool-hardy than mariners; and where the former wandered to no purpose three thousand years ago, they wander to no purpose, at least to no good purpose, still.
« Il faut pousser à une porte pour sçavoir qu'elle nous est close,” says Charron, somewhere in his Book of Wisdom. He says right,“ pour sçavoir qu'elle nous est close.” But when we know, or may know very certainly, by our own experience, and by that of all the strong men in philosophy, ancients and moderns, that a door is shut which no human force can open, they who continue to sweat and toil in shoving at it are most ridiculously employed. They who affect to guess at the objects they cannot see, and to talk as if the door stood wide open while they peep through the key hole, are employed still worse. The most ancient philosophers may be excused in great measure for attempting to open every door of science; though they cannot be so for imposing on mankind discoveries they never made. But they who followed these, in the course of philosophical generations, are inexcusable on the first head as well as the last; since what was curiosity in the others became presumption in them: and they scarcely made amends, by the good they did in advancing some real knowledge, for the hurt they did in entailing so much that is quite fantastical on posterity.
Tully confesses very frankly that nothing is so absurd which some philosopher or other has not said: and his own works would furnish sufficient proofs of the assertion, under the Epicurean, the Stoical, and the Academical characters particularly, if they were wanted. But this confession does not go far enough; and we may employ upon this occasion against philosophers the objection made against the Jesuits by some of their enemies. The absurdities of philosophers are not to be ascribed to the particular men alone who broached them in every philosophical age, but to their order and institution, if I may say so; the principles and spirit of which lead by necessary consequences to such absurdities. The first founders of philosophy laid these principles, and inspired this spirit in days of ignorance and superstition. Their followers have refined upon them, confirmed them, and added to them. Time and authority have established them all; the oldest and the grossest most. Words that have really no meaning are thought to have one, and are used accordingly. Ideas, that are really incomplete and inadequate, are deemed complete and adequate. Ideas, that are obscure and confused, are deemed clear and distinct. . In a word, time and authority have so well established metaphysical and theological absurdities, that they pass for the first principles of science, like certain necessary and self-evident truths which are really such. Men, who would have been giants in the human sphere, have dwindled into pigmies by going out of it. Instead of heaping mountains on mountains of knowledge to scale the sky, they heap mole-hills on mole-hills with great airs of importance, and boast ridiculously not only of their design, but of their success. They appear to me like sylphs, if you and Ariel will give me leave to make the comparison, so proud of not being gnomes that they fancy themselves archangels. “Humana ad deos transferunt, divina mallem ad nos,” is an expression used by Tully, and extremely applicable to the philosophers of whom we are speaking. They do most presumptuously the first, and they pretend with equal folly and effrontery to do the last. They ascribe to the Supreme Being the manner of knowing the ideas, and even the very affections and passions of his creatures. They presume to enter into his councils, and to account for the whole divine economy, as confidently as they would for any of their own paltry affairs. This they call theology. They build intellectual and material worlds on the hypothetical suggestions of imagination. This they call philosophy, metaphysical and physical.
By such means, and by such men, truth and error have been intimately blended together from the first essays of philosophical inquiry: and various systems of natural and supernatural theology have prevailed in different ages. Had any one of them been wholly founded in real knowledge and confined to it, as every one of them pretended to be, the certainty and the importance of such a system would have preserved it among the rational part of mankind. Truth, pure and unmixed, would have given it stability. But error has kept them all in a continual flux: and to the shame of the human head and heart, the most rational, or the most reasoning, part of mankind has maintained this flux by adopting some errors, by inventing others, and by cultivating both.
If there is no subject, and I think there is none, upon which the opinions of men have varied so extravagantly, and have stood in such manifest contradiction to one another, as they have on that of the first philosophy, the reason is, that men have not aimed so much at unattainable knowledge, nor pretended so much to it, on any other subject. Folly and knavery have prevailed most where they should be tolerated least: and presump
tion has been exercised most where diffidence and caution are on many accounts the most necessary.
“Quale per incertam lunam sub luce malignâ
Est iter in silvis.” — Such is our journey in the acquisition of knowledge, whenever we attempt to travel far. We grope along in those paths which experience and the application of our minds open to us. We discern, according to our manner of perception, a few objects that lie in our way, and we guess at a few more. But we cannot even guess, with as much probability as is necessary to justify us in guessing, at our whole system, nor explain the phenomena of it. How much less ought we to think ourselves capable of knowing the divine system! We have a very superficial acquaintance with man. Do we hope to become better acquainted with God? One would imagine that metaphysical divines did really entertain this hope. They may entertain it, as well as the huffing opinions, to use a phrase of Mr. Locke, which they entertain concerning the human mind or soul. They assume it to be near akin to the divine, something derived immediately from God, and capable of being united to him. An intellectual mirror it is, that reflects from the phenomena of nature alone, and therefore indirectly, some very few notices of the Supreme Being, beyond the demonstrative knowledge that we have of his existence. But these men, when they lower their pretensions and would appear modest, assume it to be not a mirror that reflects such notices, but a spirit that is capable of receiving them, and that receives them directly from the divine intelligence. They tell us, with great metaphysical pomp of words, that reason, the supreme eternal reason, is the sun of their intellectual world, in the light of which they see intelligible objects, just as sensible objects are seen in that of the material sun. On such bold presumptions they proceed, and whither may they not, whither have they not, been carried by them? The further they go, the more their imaginary light fails them. But they cease not to flatter themselves; and whilst they expect at every moment, as it were, the dawn of a new day, they fall into the shades of night.
- Ubi cælum condidit umbrâ
Jupiter, et rebus nox abstulit atra colorem." Now since metaphysical divines have wandered thus so many thousand years in imaginary light and real darkness, they are not surely the guides we should choose to follow. That a degree of knowledge to which I cannot attain is therefore unattainable by them, it would be impertinent to conclude. But I may conclude reasonably and modestly, that a kind of knowledge, whose objects lie above the reach of humanity, cannot be attained by human creatures unless they are assisted by supernatural powers, which is a supposition out of the present case. I could not have discovered, as Newton did, that universal law of corporeal nature which he has demonstrated. But further than that he could go, no more than I, nor discover that action of the first cause by which this law was imposed on all bodies, and is maintained in them. It is the kind, not the degree of knowledge that is concerned, and to be compared. Let us return therefore out of this scene of illusion into that of human knowledge; nor flutter, as Hobbes expresses himself, like birds at the window whilst we remain inclosed. We may be the better contented to confine our inquiries to the limits God has prescribed to them, since we may find within those limits abundant matter of real use and ornament to employ the studious labors of mankind. Experimental knowledge of body and mind is the fund our reason should cultivate; and the first is a fund that philosophers will never exhaust. In this part, let deficiencies be noted. There are, there can be no excesses: and as to the excesses that have been and are to be noted in the other, they are excesses of assuming and reasoning, not of experiment and observation. The phenomena of the human mind are few, and on those few a multitude of hypotheses has been raised, concerning mind in general, and soul and spirit. So that in this part, the improvement of real knowledge must be made by contraction, and not by amplification. I will presume to say, that if our Bacon had thought and written as freely on this as he did on many other parts of science, his famous work, which has contributed so much, would have contributed more, to the advancement of real knowledge, and would have deserved its title better. Men might have learned to consider body more, instead of doubting whether it exists, and to consider their own minds more, from which alone they can acquire any ideas at all of mind; instead of dreaming like Malebranche that they interrogate the divine Logos.
What right the first observers of nature and instructors of mankind had to the title of sages we cannot say. It was due perhaps more to the ignorance of the scholars, than to the knowledge of the masters. But this we may venture to affirm, that their right to that appellation could not be worse founded than the right of all their successors to be called lovers of wisdom. There is an anecdote related by Tully in his fifth Tusculan, and mentioned, I think, by Diogenes Laertius, which is much to our present purpose: or at least the tale is pretty enough to deserve to be told. The prince of the Phliasians having heard and admired the Samian, asked him what his profession was. He answered, that he was a philosopher, and he explained himself thus: He