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and the adopting one which comes recommended to us with almost the force of demonstration. Nothing can be better founded than this repugnance. The mind of man is of a peculiar nature. It has been disputed whether we can entertain more than one idea at a time. But certain it is, that the views of the mind at any one time are considerably narrowed. The mind is like the slate of a schoolboy, which can contain only a certain number of characters of a given size, or like a moveable panorama, which places a given scene or landscape before me, and the space assigned, and which comes within the limits marked out to my perception, is full. Many things are therefore almost inevitably shut out, which, had it not been so, might have essentially changed the view of the case, and have taught me that it was a very different conclusion at which I ought to have arrived.
At first sight nothing can appear more unreasonable, than that I should hesitate to admit the seemingly irresistible force of the argument presented to
An ingenuous disposition would appear to require that, the moment the truth, or what seems to be the truth, is set before me, I should pay to it the allegiance to which truth is entitled. If I do otherwise, it would appear to argue a pusillanimous disposition, a mind not prompt and disengaged to receive the impression of evidence, a temper that loves something else better than the lustre which all men are bound to recognise, and that has a reserve
in favour of ancient prejudice, and of an opinion no longer supported by reason.
In fact however I shall act most wisely, and in the way most honourable to my character, if I resolve to adjourn the debate. No matter how complete the view may seem which is now presented to my consideration, or how irresistible the arguments : truth is too majestic a divinity, and it is of too much importance that I should not follow a delusive semblance that may shew like truth, not to make it in the highest degree proper that I should examine again and again, before I come to the conclusion to which I mean to affix my seal, and annex my sanction, “This is the truth.” The ancient Goths of Germany, we are told, had a custom of debating every thing of importance to their state twice, once in the high animation of a convivial meeting, and once in the serene stillness of a morning consultation. Philip of Macedon having decided a cause precipitately, the party condemned by him immediately declared his resolution to appeal from the sentence. And to whom, said the king, wilt thou appeal? To Philip, was the answer, in the entire possession of his understanding.
Such is the nature of the human mind--at least, such I find to be the nature of my own—that many trains of thinking, many chains of evidence, the result of accumulated facts, will often not present themselves, at the time when their presence would be of the highest importance. The view which now
comes before me is of a substance so close and wellwoven, and of colours so brilliant and dazzling, that other matters in a certain degree remote, though of no less intrinsic importance, and equally entitled to influence my judgment in the question in hand, shall be entirely shut out, shall be killed, and fail to offer themselves to my perceptions.
It is a curious circumstance which Pope, a man of eminent logical power and acuteness, relates, that, having at his command in his youth a collection of all the tracts that had been written on both sides in the reign of James the Second, he applied himself with great assiduity to their perusal, and the consequence was, that he was a Papist and Protestant by turns, according to the last book he reada.
This circumstance in the structure of the human understanding is well known, and is the foundation of many provisions that occur in the constitution of political society. How each man shall form his creed, and arrange those opinions by which his conduct shall be regulated, is of course a matter exclusively subjected to his own discretion. But, when he is called upon to act in the name of a community, and to decide upon a question in which the public is interested, he of necessity feels himself called upon to proceed with the utmost caution. A judge on the bench, a chancellor, is not contented with that sudden ray of mental illumination to which an ingenuous individual is often disposed to
* Correspondence with Atterbury, Letter IV.
yield in an affair of abstract speculation. He feels that he is obliged to wait for evidence, the nature of which he does not yet anticipate, and to adjourn his decision. A deliberative council or assembly is aware of the necessity of examining a question again and again. It is upon this principle that the two houses of the English parliament are required to give a first, a second and a third reading, together with various other forms and technicalities, to the provision that is brought before them, previously to its passing into a law. And there is many a fundamental dogma and corner-stone of the sentiments that I shall emphatically call my own, that is of more genuine importance to the individual, than to a nation is a number of those regulations, which by courtesy we call acts of parliament.
Nothing can have a more glaring tendency to subvert the authority of my opinion among my fellow-men, than instability. “What went ye out into the wilderness to see?” said Jesus Christ: “a reed shaken with the wind ?” We ought at all times to be open to conviction. We ought to be ever ready to listen to evidence. But, conscious of our human frailty, it is seldom that we ought immediately to subscribe to the propositions, however specious, that are now for the first time presented to us.
It is our duty to lay up in our memory the suggestions offered upon any momentous question, and not to suffer them to lose their inherent weight and impressiveness; but it is only through the medium
of consideration and reconsideration, that they can become entitled to our full and unreserved assent.
The nature of belief, or opinion, has been well illustrated by Lord Shaftesbury. There are many notions or judgments floating in the mind of every man, which are mutually destructive of each other. In this sense men's opinions are governed by high and low spirits, by the state of the solids and fluids of the human body, and by the state of the weather. But in a paramount sense that only can be said to be a man's opinion which he entertains in his clearest moments, and from which, when he is most himself, he is least subject to vary. In this emphatical sense, I should say, a man does not always know what is his real opinion. We cannot strictly be said to believe any thing, in cases where we afterwards change our opinion without the introduction of some evidence that was unknown to us before. But how many are the instances in which we can be affirmed to be in the adequate recollection of all the evidences and reasonings which have at some time occurred to us, and of the opinions, together with the grounds on which they rested, which we conceived we had justly and rationally entertained?
The considerations here stated however should by no means be allowed to inspire us with indifference in matters of opinion. It is the glory and lustre of our nature, that we are capable of receiving evidence, and weighing the reasons for and
Enquiry concerning Virtue, Book 1, Part I, Section ii.