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mate?.” A most wonderful way of telling us, that it is difficult to trace the operations of the mind. This may serve to give some notion of the figure which the French Phæbus (no offence to the Grecian, who is of a very different family) is capable of making in an English dress. His lordship proceeds in his own inimitable manner, or rather in what follows hath outdone himself: “ But what can one do ? or how dispense with these darker disquisitions, and moon-light voyages, when we have to deal with a sort of moon-blind wits, who, though very acute and able in their kind, may be said to renounce day-light, and extinguish in a manner the bright visible outward world, by allowing us to know nothing beside what we can prove by strict and formal demonstration.” It must be owned, the condition of those wits is truly deplorable, for though very acute and able in their kind, yet being moon-blind, they cannot see by night, and having renounced day-light, they will not see by day: so that, for any use they have of their eyes, they are no better than stone-blind. It is astonishing, too, that the reason for rendering a moon-light voyage indispensable is, that we have moon-blind persons only for our company, the very reason which to an ordinary understanding would seem to render such a voyage improper. When one narrowly examines a piece of writing of this stamp, one finds one's self precisely in the situation of the fox in the fable, turning over and considering the tragedian's masko, and can hardly refrain from exclaiming in the same words :
How vast a head is here without a brain?!
Part III.-From Want of Meaning. .
I come now to the last class of the unintelligible, which proceeds from a real want of meaning in the writer. Instances of this sort are even in the works of good authors much more numerous than is commonly imagined. But how shall this defect be discovered? There are, indeed, cases in which it is hardly discoverable ; there are cases, on the contrary, in which it may be easily discovered. There is one remarkable difference between this class of the unintelligible and that which was first taken notice of, proceeding from confusion of thought, accompanied with intricacy of expression. When this is the cause of the difficulty, the reader will not fail, if he be atten
7 Characteristics, Vol. iii. Misc. iv. Chap. 2.
8 Ibid. 9 Persona trugica is commonly rendered so; but it was very different from what is called a mask with us. It was a case which covered the whole head, and had a face painted on it suitable to the character to be represented by it.
10 quanta species, inquit, ast cerebrum non habet. PHÆDRUS.
by them in the sign he willed in the
case, reader profe does hin
tive, to hesitate at certain intervals, and to retrace his progress, finding himself bewildered in the terms, and at a loss for the meaning. Then he will try to construe the sentence, and to ascertain the significations of the words. By these means, and by the help of the context, he will possibly come at last at what the author would have said. Whereas, in that species of the unintelligible which proceeds from a vacuity of thought, the reverse commonly happens. The sentence is generally simple in its structure, and the construction easy. When this is the case, provided words glaringly unsuitable are not combined, the reader proceeds without hesitation or doubt. He never suspects that he does not understand a sentence, the terms of which are familiar to him, and of which he perceives distinctly the grammatical order. But if he be by any means induced to think more closely on the subject, and to peruse the words a second time more attentively, it is probable that he will then begin to suspect them, and will at length discover that they contain nothing but either an identical proposition which conveys no knowledge, or a proposition of that kind of which one cannot so much as affirm that it is either true or false. And this is is justly allowed to be the best criterion of nonsense”. It is, indeed, more difficult to distinguish sentences of this kind from those of the second class of the unintelligible already discussed, in which the darkness is chiefly imputable to an affectation of excellence. But in these matters it is not of importance to fix the boundaries with precision. Sometimes pompous metaphors and sonorous phrases are injudiciously employed to add a dignity to the most trivial conceptions : sometimes they are made to serve as a vehicle for nonsense. And whether some of the above citations fall under the one denomination, or the other, would scarcely be worth the while to inquire. It hath been observed that in madmen there is as great variety of character as in those who enjoy the use of their reason. In like manner it may be said of nonsense, that, in writing it, there is as great scope for variety of style, as there is in writing sense. I shall therefore not attempt to give specimens of all the characters of style which this kind of composition admits. The task would be endless. Let it suffice to specify some of the principal.
1. The Puerile. The first I shall mention is the puerile, which is always produced when an author runs on in a specious verbosity, amusing
? Of all that is wrtten in this style we may justly say in the words of Lord Verulam (De Aug. Sci. L. vi. C. 2), applying to a particular purpose the words of Horace,
----Tantum series juncturaque pollet,
ir vience aror obtaining a pleasant
dry eriefed your comphonyo na tle
his reader with synonymous terms and identical propositions, well-turned periods, and high-sounding words : but, at the same time, using those words so indefinitely, that the latter can either affix no meaning to them at all, or may almost affix any meaning to them he pleases. “ If 'tis asked,” says a late writer, “Whence arises this harmony or beauty of language ? what are the rules for obtaining it ? the answer is obvious, Whatever renders a period sweet and pleasant makes it also graceful; a good ear is the gift of Nature; it may be much improved, but not acquired by art; whoever is possessed of it, will scarcely need dry crictical precepts to enable him to judge of a true rhythmus and melody of composition; just numbers, accurate proportions, a musical symphony, magnificent figures, and that decorum, which is the result of all these, are unison to the human mind; we are so framed by Nature that their charm is irresistible. Hence all ages and nations have been smit with the love of the muses.” Who can now be at a loss to know whence the harmony and beauty of language arises, or what the rules for obtaining it are? Through the whole paragraph, the author proceeds in the same careless and desultory manner, not much unlike that of the Critical Essay upon the Faculties of the Mind; affording at times some glimmerings of sense, and perpetually ringing the changes upon a few favourite words and phrases. A poetical example of the same signature, in which there is not even a glimpse of meaning, we have in the following lines of Dryden:
From harmony, from heavenly harmony
This universal frame began;
From harmony to harmony
In general, it may be said, that in writings of this stamp, we must accept of sound instead of sense, being assured at least, that if we meet with little that can inform the judgment, we shall find nothing that will offend the ear.
2. The Learned.
Another sort I shall here specify, is the learned nonsense. I know not a more fruitful source of this species than scholastical theology. The more incomprehensible the subject is, the
ut speciem artis, nescio cujus, præclaræ sæpenumero reportent ea, quæ si solvantur, segregentur, et denudentur, ad nihilum fere recasura forent. As to the causes of the deception there is in this manner of writing, I shall attempt the investigation of them in the following chapter.
3 Geddes on the Composition of the Ancients, Sect. 1.
greater scope has the declaimer to talk plausibly without any meaning. A specimen of this I shall give from an author, who should have escaped this animadversion, had he not introduced from the pulpit a jargon which (if we can say without impropriety that it was fit for any thing) was surely fitter for the cloister : for what cannot in the least contribute to the instruction of a Christian society may afford excellent matter of contemplative amazement to dronish monks. “ Although we read of several properties attributed to God in Scripture, as wisdom, goodness, justice, &c., we must not apprehend them to be several powers, habits, or qualities, as they are in us; for as they are in God, they are neither distinguished from one another, nor from his nature or essence in whom they are said to be. In whom, I say, they are said to be : for, to speak properly, they are not in him, but are his very essence or nature itself; which, acting severally upon several objects, seems to us to act from several properties or perfections in him; whereas, all the difference is only in our different apprehensions of the same thing. God in himself is a most simple and pure act, and therefore cannot have any thing in him but what is that most simple and pure act itself; which, seeing it bringeth upon every creature what it deserves, we conceive of it as of several divine perfections in the same almighty Being. Whereas God, whose understanding is infinite as himself, doth not apprehend himself under the distinct notions of wisdom, or goodness, or justice, or the like, but only as Jehovah." How edifying must it have been to the hearers to be made acquainted with these deep discoveries of the men of science; divine attributes which are no attributes, which are totally distinct and perfectly the same; which are justly ascribed to God, being ascribed to him in Scripture, but do not belong to him ; which are something and nothing, which are the figments of human imagination, mere chimeras, which are God himself, which are the actors of all things; and which, to sum up all, are themselves a simple act! “ Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge ?" Can the tendency of such teaching be any other than to perplex and to confound, and even to throw the hearers into universal doubt and scepticism? To such a style of explication these lines of our British bard, addressed to the patroness of sophistry as well as dulness, are admirably adapted :
Explain upon a thing, till all men doubt it;
And write about it, goddess, and about it.
Nothing is there to come, and nothing past,
5 Beveridge's Sermons. 6 Job xxxviii. 2. 7 Dunciad.
8 Davideis, Book i.
succession that laste philosophy for
251 What insatiable appetite has this bastard philosophy for absurdity and contradiction! A now that lasts; that is, an instant which continues during successive instants ! an eternal now, an instant that is no instant, and an eternity that is no eternity. I have heard of a preacher, who, desirous to appear very profound, and to make observations on the commonest subjects which had never occurred to any body before, remarked, as an instance of the goodness of providence, that the moments of time come successively, and not simultaneously or together, which last method of coming would, he said, occasion infinite confusion in the world. Many of his audience concluded his remark to be no better than a bull: and yet, it is fairly defensible on the principles of the schoolmen ; if that can be called principles which consists merely in words. According to them, what Pope says hyperbolically of the transient duration and narrow range of man, is a literal description of the eternity and immensity of God:
His time a moment, and a point his space'. I remember to have seen it somewhere remarked, that mankind being necessarily incapable of making a present of any thing to God, have conceived, as a succedaneous expedient, the notion of destroying what should be offered to him, or at least of rendering it unfit for any other purpose. Something similar appears to have taken place in regard to the explanations of the divine nature and attributes, attempted by some theorists. On a subject so transcendent, if it be impossible to be sublime, it is easy to be unintelligible. And that the theme is naturally incomprehensible, they seem to have considered as a full apology for them in being perfectly absurd. In the former case, what people could not in strictness bestow upon their Maker, they could easily render unfit for the use of men: and in the latter, if one cannot grasp what is above the reach of reason, one can without difficulty say a thousand things which are contrary to reason.
But though scholastic theology be the principal, it is not the only subject of learned nonsense. In other branches of pneumatology we often meet with rhapsodies of the same kind. I shall take an example from a late right honourable writer, who, though he gives no quarter to the rants of others, sometimes falls into the ranting strain himself: “Pleasures are the objects of self-love; happiness that of reason. Reason is so far from depriving us of the first, that happiness consists in a series of them: and as this can be neither attained nor enjoyed securely out of society, a due use of our reason makes social and self