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SKETCH I: Principles and Progress of Reason - Henry Home, Lord Kames, Sketches of the History of Man, vol. 3 
Sketches of the History of Man Considerably enlarged by the last additions and corrections of the author, edited and with an Introduction by James A. Harris (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2007). 3 Vols. Vol. 3.
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Principles and Progress of Reason
Principles of Reason.
Affirmation is that sort of expression which the speaker uses, when he desires to be believed. What he affirms is termed a proposition.
Truth and error are qualities of propositions. A proposition that says a thing is what it is in reality, is termed a true proposition. A proposition that says a thing is what it is not in reality, is termed an erroneous proposition.
Truth is so essential in conducting affairs, that man would be a disjointed being were it not agreeable to him. Truth accordingly is agreeable to every human being, and falsehood or error disagreeable. The pursuit of truth is no less pleasant than the pursuit of any other good.*1
Our knowledge of what is agreeable and disagreeable in objects is derived from the sense of beauty, handled in Elements of Criticism. Our knowledge of right and wrong in actions, is derived from the moral sense, to be handled in the sketch immediately following. Our knowledge of truth and error is derived from various sources.
Our external senses are one source of knowledge: they lay open to us external subjects, their qualities, their actions, with events produced by these actions. The internal senses are another source of knowledge: they lay open to us things passing in the mind; thinking, for example, deliberating, inclining, resolving, willing, consenting, and other acts; and they also lay open to us our emotions and passions. There is a sense by which we perceive the truth of many propositions; such as, That every thing which begins to exist must have a cause; That every effect adapted to some end or purpose, proceeds from a designing cause; and, That every effect adapted to a good end or purpose, proceeds from a designing and benevolent cause. A multitude of axioms in every science, particularly in mathematics, are equally perceived to be true. By a peculiar sense, of which afterward, we know that there is a Deity. There is a sense by which we know, that the external signs of passion are the same in all men; that animals of the same external appearance, are of the same species, and that animals of the same species, have the same properties(a) . There is a sense that dives into futurity: we know that the sun will rise to-morrow; that the earth will perform its wonted course round the sun; that winter and summer will follow each other in succession; that a stone dropt from the hand will fall to the ground; and a thousand other such propositions.
There are many propositions, the truth of which is not so apparent: a process of reasoning is necessary, of which afterward.
Human testimony is another source of knowledge. So framed we are by nature, as to rely on human testimony; by which we are informed of beings, attributes, and events, that never came under any of our senses.
The knowledge that is derived from the sources mentioned, is of different kinds. In some cases, our knowledge includes absolute certainty, and produces the highest degree of conviction: in other cases, probability comes in place of certainty, and the conviction is inferior in degree. Knowledge of the latter kind is distinguished into belief, which concerns facts; and opinion, which concerns relations, and other things that fall not under the denomination of facts. In contradistinction to opinion and belief, that sort of knowledge which includes absolute certainty, and produces the highest degree of conviction, retains its proper name. To explain what is here said, I enter into particulars.
The sense of seeing, with very few exceptions, affords knowledge properly so termed: it is not in our power to doubt of the existence of a person we see, touch, and converse with. When such is our constitution, it is a vain attempt to call in question the authority of our sense of seeing, as some writers pretend to do. No one ever called in question the existence of internal actions and passions, laid open to us by internal sense; and there is as little ground for doubting of what we see. The sense of seeing, it is true, is not always correct: through different mediums the same object is seen differently: to a jaundic’d eye every thing appears yellow; and to one intoxicated with liquor, two candles sometimes appear four. But we are never left without a remedy in such a case: it is the province of the reasoning faculty to correct every error of that kind.
An object of sight recalled to mind by the power of memory, is termed an idea or secondary perception. An original perception, as said above, affords knowledge in its proper sense; but a secondary perception affords belief only. And Nature in this, as in all other instances, is faithful to truth; for it is evident, that we cannot be so certain of the existence of an object in its absence, as when present.
With respect to many abstract propositions, of which instances are above given, we have an absolute certainty and conviction of their truth, derived to us from various senses. We can, for example, entertain as little doubt that every thing which begins to exist must have a cause, as that the sun is in the firmament; and as little doubt that he will rise to-morrow, as that he is now set. There are many other propositions, the truth of which is probable only, not absolutely certain; as, for example, that winter will be cold and summer warm. That natural operations are performed in the simplest manner, is an axiom of natural philosophy: it may be probable, but is far from being certain.*
In every one of the instances given, conviction arises from a single act of perception: for which reason, knowledge acquired by means of that perception, not only knowledge in its proper sense but also opinion and belief, are termed intuitive knowledge. But there are many things, the knowledge of which is not obtained with so much facility. Propositions for the most part require a process or operation in the mind, termed reasoning; leading, by certain intermediate steps, to the proposition that is to be demonstrated or made evident; which, in opposition to intuitive knowledge, is termed discursive knowledge. This process or operation must be explained, in order to understand the nature of reasoning. And as reasoning is mostly employ’d in discovering relations, I shall draw my examples from them. Every proposition concerning relations, is an affirmation of a certain relation between two subjects. If the relation affirmed appear not intuitively, we must search for a third subject, intuitively connected with each of the others by the relation affirmed: and if such a subject be found, the proposition is demonstrated; for it is intuitively certain, that two subjects connected with a third by any particular relation, must be connected together by the same relation. The longest chain of reasoning may be linked together in this manner. Running over such a chain, every one of the subjects must appear intuitively to be connected with that immediately preceding, and with that immediately subsequent, by the relation affirmed in the proposition; and from the whole united, the proposition, as above mentioned, must appear intuitively certain. The last step of the process is termed a conclusion, being the last or concluding perception.
No other reasoning affords so clear a notion of the foregoing process, as that which is mathematical. Equality is the only mathematical relation; and comparison therefore is the only means by which mathematical propositions are ascertained. To that science belong a number of intuitive propositions, termed axioms, which are all founded on equality. For example: Divide two equal lines, each of them, into a thousand equal parts, a single part of the one line must be equal to a single part of the other. Second: Take ten of these parts from the one line, and as many from the other, and the remaining parts must be equal; which is more shortly expressed thus: From two equal lines take equal parts, and the remainders will be equal; or add equal parts, and the sums will be equal. Third: If two things be, in the same respect, equal to a third, the one is equal to the other in the same respect. I proceed to show the use of these axioms. Two things may be equal without being intuitively so; which is the case of the equality between the three angles of a triangle and two right angles. To demonstrate that truth, it is necessary to search for some other angles that intuitively are equal to both. If this property cannot be discovered in any one set of angles, we must go more leisurely to work, and try to find angles that are equal to the three angles of a triangle. These being discovered, we next try to find other angles equal to the angles now disco-vered; and so on in the comparison, till at last we discover a set of angles, equal not only to those thus introduced, but also to two right angles. We thus connect the two parts of the original proposition, by a number of intermediate equalities; and by that means perceive, that these two parts are equal among themselves; it being an intuitive proposition, as mentioned above, That two things are equal, each of which, in the same respect, is equal to a third.
I proceed to a different example, which concerns the relation between cause and effect. The proposition to be demonstrated is, “That there exists a good and intelligent Being, who is the cause of all the wise and benevolent effects that are produced in the government of this world.” That there are such effects, is in the present example the fundamental proposition; which is taken for granted, because it is verified by experience. In order to discover the cause of these effects, I begin with an intuitive proposition mentioned above, “That every effect adapted to a good end or purpose, proceeds from a designing and benevolent cause.” The next step is, to examine whether man can be the cause: he is provided indeed with some share of wisdom and benevolence; but the effects mentioned are far above his power, and no less above his wisdom. Neither can this earth be the cause, nor the sun, the moon, the stars; for, far from being wise and benevolent, they are not even sensible. If these be excluded, we are unavoidably led to an invisible being, endowed with boundless power, goodness, and intelligence; and that invisible being is termed God.
Reasoning requires two mental powers, namely, the power of invention, and the power of perceiving relations. By the former are discovered intermediate propositions, equally related to the fundamental proposition and to the conclusion: by the latter we perceive, that the different links which compose the chain of reasoning, are all connected together by the same relation.
We can reason about matters of opinion and belief, as well as about matters of knowledge properly so termed. Hence reasoning is distinguished into two kinds; demonstrative, and probable. Demon-strative reasoning is also of two kinds: in the first, the conclusion is drawn from the nature and inherent properties of the subject: in the other, the conclusion is drawn from some principle, of which we are certain by intuition. With respect to the first, we have no such knowledge of the nature or inherent properties of any being, material or immaterial, as to draw conclusions from it with certainty. I except not even figure considered as a quality of matter, tho’ it is the object of mathematical reasoning. As we have no standard for determining with precision the figure of any portion of matter, we cannot with precision reason upon it: what appears to us a straight line may be a curve, and what appears a rectilinear angle may be curvilinear. How then comes mathematical reasoning to be demonstrative? This question may appear at first sight puzzling; and I know not that it has any where been distinctly explained. Perhaps what follows may be satisfactory.
The subjects of arithmetical reasoning are numbers. The subjects of mathematical reasoning are figures. But what figures? Not such as I see; but such as I form an idea of, abstracting from every imperfection. I explain myself. There is a power in man to form images of things that never existed; a golden mountain, for example, or a river running upward. This power operates upon figures: there is perhaps no figure existing the sides of which are straight lines; but it is easy to form an idea of a line that has no waving or crookedness, and it is easy to form an idea of a figure bounded by such lines. Such ideal figures are the subjects of mathematical reasoning; and these being perfectly clear and distinct, are proper subjects for demonstrative reasoning of the first kind. Mathematical reasoning however is not merely a mental entertainment: it is of real use in life, by directing us to operate upon matter. There possibly may not be found any where a perfect globe, to answer the idea we form of that figure: but a globe may be made so near perfection, as to have nearly the properties of a perfect globe. In a word, tho’ ideas are, properly speaking, the subject of mathematical evidence; yet the end and purpose of that evidence is, to direct us with respect to figures as they really exist; and the nearer any real figure approaches to its ideal perfection, with the greater accuracy will the mathematical truth be applicable.
The component parts of figures, viz. lines and angles, are extremely simple, requiring no definition. Place before a child a crooked line, and one that has no appearance of being crooked: call the former a crooked line, the latter a straight line; and the child will use these terms familiarly, without hazard of a mistake. Draw a perpendicular upon paper: let the child advert, that the upward line leans neither to the right nor the left, and for that reason is termed a perpendicular: the child will apply that term familiarly to a tree, to the wall of a house, or to any other perpendicular. In the same manner, place before the child two lines diverging from each other, and two that have no appearance of diverging: call the latter parallel lines, and the child will have no difficulty of applying the same term to the sides of a door or of a window. Yet so accustomed are we to definitions, that even these simple ideas are not suffered to escape. A straight line, for example, is defined to be the shortest that can be drawn between two given points. Is it so, that even a man, not to talk of a child, can have no idea of a straight line till he be told that the shortest line between two points is a straight line? How many talk familiarly of a straight line who never happened to think of that fact, which is an inference only, not a definition. If I had not beforehand an idea of a straight line, I should never be able to find out, that it is the shortest that can be drawn between two points. D’Alembert strains hard, but without success, for a definition of a straight line, and of the others mentioned. It is difficult to avoid smiling at his definition of parallel lines. Draw, says he, a straight line: erect upon it two perpendiculars of the same length: upon their two extremities draw another straight line; and that line is said to be parallel to the first mentioned; as if, to understand what is meant by the expression two parallel lines, we must first understand what is meant by a straight line, by a perpendicular, and by two lines equal in length. A very slight reflection upon the operations of his own mind, would have taught this author, that he could form the idea of parallel lines without running through so many intermediate steps: sight alone is sufficient to explain the term to a boy, and even to a girl. At any rate, where is the necessity of introducing the line last mentioned? If the idea of parallels cannot be obtained from the two perpendiculars alone, the additional line drawn through their extremities will certainly not make it more clear.
Mathematical figures being in their nature complex, are capable of being defined; and from the foregoing simple ideas, it is easy to define every one of them. For example, a circle is a figure having a point within it, named the centre, through which all the straight lines that can be drawn, and extended to the circumference, are equal; a surface bounded by four equal straight lines, and having four right angles, is termed a square; and a cube is a solid, of which all the six surfaces are squares.
In the investigation of mathematical truths, we assist the imagination, by drawing figures upon paper that resemble our ideas. There is no necessity for a perfect resemblance: a black spot, which in reality is a small round surface, serves to represent a mathematical point; and a black line, which in reality is a long narrow surface, serves to represent a mathematical line. When we reason about the figures composed of such lines, it is sufficient that these figures have some appearance of regularity: less or more is of no importance; because our reasoning is not founded upon them, but upon our ideas. Thus, to demonstrate that the three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles, a triangle is drawn upon paper, in order to keep the mind steady to its object. After tracing the steps that lead to the conclusion, we are satisfied that the proposition is true; being conscious that the reasoning is built upon the ideal figure, not upon that which is drawn upon the paper. And being also conscious, that the enquiry is carried on independent of any particular length of the sides; we are satisfied of the universality of the proposition, and of its being applicable to all triangles whatever.
Numbers considered by themselves, abstractedly from things, make the subject of arithmetic. And with respect both to mathematical and arithmetical reasonings, which frequently consist of many steps, the process is shortened by the invention of signs, which, by a single dash of the pen, express clearly what would require many words. By that means, a very long chain of reasoning is expressed by a few symbols; a method that contributes greatly to readiness of comprehension. If in such reasonings words were necessary, the mind, embarrassed with their multitude, would have great difficulty to follow any long chain of reasoning. A line drawn upon paper represents an ideal line, and a few simple characters represent the abstract ideas of number.
Arithmetical reasoning, like mathematical, depends entirely upon the relation of equality, which can be ascertained with the greatest certainty among many ideas. Hence, reasonings upon such ideas afford the highest degree of conviction. I do not say, however, that this is always the case; for a man who is conscious of his own fallibility, is seldom without some degree of diffidence, where the reasoning consists of many steps. And tho’ on a re-view no error be discovered, yet he is conscious that there may be errors, tho’ they have escaped him.
As to the other kind of demonstrative reasoning, founded on propositions of which we are intuitively certain; I justly call it demonstrative, because it affords the same conviction that arises from mathematical reasoning. In both, the means of conviction are the same, viz. a clear perception of the relation between two ideas: and there are many relations of which we have ideas no less clear than of equality; witness substance and quality, the whole and its parts, cause and effect, and many others. From the intuitive proposition, for example, That nothing which begins to exist can exist without a cause, I can conclude, that some one being must have existed from all eternity, with no less certainty, than that the three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles.
What falls next in order, is that inferior sort of knowledge which is termed opinion; and which, like knowledge properly so termed, is founded in some instances upon intuition, and in some upon reasoning. But it differs from knowledge properly so termed in the following particular, that it produces different degrees of conviction, sometimes approaching to certainty, sometimes sinking toward the verge of improbability. The constancy and uniformity of natural operations, is a fit subject for illustrating that difference. The future successive changes of day and night, of winter and summer, and of other successions which have hitherto been constant and uniform, fall under intuitive knowledge, because of these we have the highest conviction. As the conviction is inferior of successions that hitherto have varied in any degree, these fall under intuitive opinion. We expect summer after winter with the utmost confidence; but we have not the same confidence in expecting a hot summer or a cold winter. And yet the probability approaches much nearer to certainty, than the intuitive opinion we have, that the operations of nature are extremely simple, a proposition that is little rely’d on.
As to opinion founded on reasoning, it is obvious, that the conviction produced by reasoning, can never rise above what is produced by the intuitive proposition upon which the reasoning is founded. And that it may be weaker, will appear from considering, that even where the fundamental proposition is certain, it may lead to the conclusive opinion by intermediate propositions, that are probable only, not certain. In a word, it holds in general with respect to every sort of reasoning, that the conclusive proposition can never rise higher in point of conviction, than the very lowest of the intuitive propositions employ’d as steps in the reasoning.
The perception we have of the contingency of future events, opens a wide field to our reasoning about probabilities. That perception involves more or less doubt according to its subject. In some instances, the event is perceived to be extremely doubtful; in others, it is perceived to be less doubtful. It appears altogether doubtful, in throwing a dye, which of the six sides will turn up; and for that reason, we cannot justly conclude for one rather than for another. If one only of the six sides be marked with a figure, we conclude, that a blank will turn up; and five to one is an equal wager that such will be the effect. In judging of the future behaviour of a man who has hitherto been governed by interest, we may conclude with a probability approaching to certainty, that interest will continue to prevail.
Belief comes last in order, which, as defined above, is knowledge of the truth of facts that falls below certainty, and involves in its nature some degree of doubt. It is also of two kinds; one founded upon intuition, and one upon reasoning. Thus, knowledge, opinion, belief, are all of them equally distinguishable into intuitive and discursive. Of intuitive belief, I discover three different sources or causes. First, A present object. Second, An object formerly present. Third, The testimony of others.
To have a clear conception of the first cause, it must be observed, that among the simple perceptions that compose the complex perception of a present object, a perception of real and present existence is one. This perception rises commonly to certainty; in which case it is a branch of knowledge properly so termed; and is handled as such above. But this perception falls below certainty in some instances; as where an object, seen at a great distance or in a fog, is perceived to be a horse, but so indistinctly as to make it a probability only. The perception in such a case is termed belief. Both perceptions are fundamentally of the same nature; being simple perceptions of real existence. They differ only in point of distinctness: the perception of reality that makes a branch of knowledge, is so clear and distinct as to exclude all doubt or hesitation: the perception of reality that occasions belief, being less clear and distinct, makes not the existence of the object certain to us, but only probable.
With respect to the second cause; the existence of an absent object, formerly seen, amounts not to a certainty; and therefore is the subject of belief only, not of knowledge. Things are in a continual flux from production to dissolution; and our senses are accommodated to that variable scene: a present object admits no doubt of its existence; but after it is removed, its existence becomes less certain, and in time sinks down to a slight degree of probability.
Human testimony, the third cause, produces belief, more or less strong, accor-ding to circumstances. In general, nature leads us to rely upon the veracity of each other; and commonly the degree of reliance is proportioned to the degree of veracity. Sometimes belief approaches to certainty, as when it is founded on the evidence of persons above exception as to veracity. Sometimes it sinks to the lowest degree of probability, as when a fact is told by one who has no great reputation for truth. The nature of the fact, common or uncommon, has likewise an influence: an ordinary incident gains credit upon very slight evidence; but it requires the strongest evidence to overcome the improbability of an event that deviates from the ordinary course of nature. At the same time, it must be observed, that belief is not always founded upon rational principles. There are biasses and weaknesses in human nature that sometimes disturb the operation, and produce belief without sufficient or proper evidence: we are disposed to believe on very slight evidence, an interesting event, however rare or singular, that alarms and agitates the mind; because the mind in agitation is remarkably susceptible of impressions: for which reason, stories of ghosts and apparitions pass current with the vulgar. Eloquence also has great power over the mind; and, by making deep impressions, enforces the belief of facts upon evidence that would not be regarded in a cool moment.
The dependence that our perception of real existence, and consequently belief, hath upon oral evidence, enlivens social intercourse, and promotes society. But the perception of real existence has a still more extensive influence; for from that perception is derived a great part of the entertainment we find in history, and in historical fables(a) . At the same time, a perception that may be raised by fiction as well as by truth, would often mislead were we abandoned to its impulse: but the God of nature hath provided a remedy for that evil, by erecting within the mind a tribunal, to which there lies an appeal from the rash impressions of sense. When the delusion of eloquence or of dread subsides, the perplexed mind is uncertain what to believe. A regular process commences, counsel is heard, evidence pro-duced, and a final judgement pronounced, sometimes confirming, sometimes varying, the belief impressed upon us by the lively perception of reality. Thus, by a wise appointment of nature, intuitive belief is subjected to rational discussion: when confirmed by reason, it turns more vigorous and authoritative: when contradicted by reason, it disappears among sensible people. In some instances, it is too headstrong for reason; as in the case of hobgoblins and apparitions, which pass current among the vulgar in spite of reason.
We proceed to the other kind of belief, that which is founded on reasoning; to which, when intuition fails us, we must have recourse for ascertaining certain facts. Thus, from known effects, we infer the existence of unknown causes. That an effect must have a cause, is an intuitive proposition; but to ascertain what particular thing is the cause, requires commonly a process of reasoning. This is one of the means by which the Deity, the primary cause, is made known to us, as mentioned above. Reason, in tracing causes from known effects, produces different degrees of conviction. It sometimes produces certainty, as in proving the existence of the Deity; which on that account is handled above, under the head of knowledge. For the most part it produces belief only, which, according to the strength of the reasoning, sometimes approaches to certainty, sometimes is so weak as barely to turn the scale on the side of probability. Take the following examples of different degrees of belief founded on probable reasoning. When Inigo Jones flourished, and was the only architect of note in England; let it be supposed, that his model of the palace of Whitehall had been presented to a stranger, without mentioning the author. The stranger, in the first place, would be intuitively certain, that this was the work of some Being, intelligent and skilful. Secondly, He would have a conviction approaching to certainty, that the operator was a man. And, thirdly, He would have a conviction that the man was Inigo Jones; but less firm than the former. Let us next suppose another English architect little inferior in reputation to Jones: the stranger would still pronounce in favour of the latter; but his belief would be in the lowest degree.
When we investigate the causes of certain effects, the reasoning is often founded upon the known nature of man. In the high country, for example, between Edinburgh and Glasgow, the people lay their coals at the end of their houses, without any fence to secure them from theft: whence it is rationally inferred, that coals are there in plenty. In the west of Scotland, the corn-stacks are covered with great care and nicety: whence it is inferred, that the climate is rainy. Placentia is the capital town of Biscay: the only town in Newfoundland bears the same name; from which circumstance it is conjectured, that the Biscayners were the first Europeans who made a settlement in that island.
Analogical reasoning, founded upon the uniformity of nature, is frequently employ’d in the investigation of facts; and we infer, that facts of which we are uncertain, must resemble those of the same kind that are known. The reasonings in natural philosophy are mostly of that kind. Take the following examples. We learn from experience, that proceeding from the humblest vegetable to man, there are num-berless classes of beings rising one above another by differences scarce perceptible, and leaving no where a single gap or interval: and from conviction of the uniformity of nature we infer, that the line is not broken off here, but is carried on in other worlds, till it end in the Deity. I proceed to another example. Every man is conscious of a self-motive power in himself; and from the uniformity of nature, we infer the same power in every one of our own species. The argument here from analogy carries great weight, because we entertain no doubt of the uniformity of nature with respect to beings of our own kind. We apply the same argument to other animals; tho’ their resemblance to man appears not so certain, as that of one man to another. But why not also apply the same argument to infer a self-motive power in matter? When we see matter in motion without an external mover, we naturally infer, that, like us, it moves itself. Another example is borrow’d from Maupertuis. “As there is no known space of the earth covered with water so large as the Terra Australis incognita, we may reasonably infer, that so great a part of the earth is not altogether sea, but that there must be some proportion of land.” The uniformity of nature with respect to the intermixture of sea and land, is an argument that affords but a very slender degree of conviction; and from late voyages it is discovered, that the argument holds not in fact. The following argument of the same kind, tho’ it cannot be much rely’d on, seems however better founded. “The inhabitants of the northern hemisphere, have, in arts and sciences, excelled such of the southern as we have any knowledge of: and therefore among the latter we ought not to expect many arts, nor much cultivation.”
After a fatiguing investigation of numberless particulars which divide and scatter the thought, it may not be unpleasant to bring all under one view by a succinct recapitulation.
We have two means for discovering truth and acquiring knowledge, viz. intuition and reasoning. By intuition we discover subjects and their attributes, passions, internal action, and in short every thing that is matter of fact. By intuition we also discover several relations. There are some facts and many relations, that cannot be discovered by a single act of intuition, but require several such acts linked together in a chain of reasoning.
Knowledge acquired by intuition, includes for the most part certainty: in some instances it includes probability only. Knowledge acquired by reasoning, frequently includes certainty; but more frequently includes probability only.
Probable knowledge, whether founded on intuition or on reasoning, is termed opinion when it concerns relations; and is termed belief when it concerns facts. Where knowledge includes certainty, it retains its proper name.
Reasoning that produces certainty, is termed demonstrative; and is termed probable, when it only produces probability.
Demonstrative reasoning is of two kinds. The first is, where the conclusion is derived from the nature and inherent properties of the subject: mathematical reasoning is of that kind; and perhaps the only instance. The second is, where the conclusion is derived from some proposition, of which we are certain by intuition.
Probable reasoning is endless in its varieties; and affords different degrees of conviction, depending on the nature of the subject upon which it is employ’d.
Progress of Reason.
A progress from infancy to maturity in the mind of man, similar to that in his body, has been often mentioned. The external senses, being early necessary for self-preservation, arrive quickly at maturity. The internal senses are of a slower growth, as well as every other mental power: their maturity would be of little or no use while the body is weak, and unfit for action. Reasoning, as observed in the first section, requires two mental powers, the power of invention, and that of perceiving relations. By the former are discovered intermediate propositions, having the same relation to the fundamental proposition and to the conclusion; and that relation is verified by the latter. Both powers are necessary to the person who frames an argument, or a chain of reasoning: the latter only, to the person who judges of it. Savages are miserably deficient in both. With respect to the former, a savage may have from his nature a talent for invention; but it will stand him in little stead without a stock of ideas enabling him to select what may answer his purpose; and a savage has no opportunity to acquire such a stock. With respect to the latter, he knows little of relations. And how should he know, when both study and practice are necessary for distinguishing between relations? The understanding, at the same time, is among the illiterate obsequious to passion and prepossession; and among them the imagination acts without control, forming conclusions often no better than mere dreams. In short, considering the many causes that mislead from just reasoning, in days especially of ignorance, the erroneous and absurd opinions that have prevailed in the world, and that continue in some measure to prevail, are far from being surprising. Were reason our only guide in the conduct of life, we should have cause to complain; but our Maker has provided us with the moral sense, a guide little subject to error in matters of importance. In the sciences, reason is essential; but in the conduct of life, which is our chief concern, reason may be an useful assistant; but to be our director is not its province.
The national progress of reason has been slower in Europe, than that of any other art: statuary, painting, architecture, and other fine arts, approach nearer perfection, as well as morality and natural history. Manners and every art that appears externally, may in part be acquired by imitation and example: in reasoning there is nothing external to be laid hold of. But there is beside a particular cause that regards Europe, which is the blind deference that for many ages was paid to Aristotle; who has kept the reasoning faculty in chains more than two thousand years. In his logic, the plain and simple mode of reasoning is rejected, that which Nature dictates; and in its stead is introduced an artificial mode, showy but unsubstantial, of no use for discovering truth; but con-trived with great art for wrangling and disputation. Considering that reason for so many ages has been immured in the enchanted castle of syllogism, where phantoms pass for realities; the slow progress of reason toward maturity is far from being surprising. The taking of Constantinople by the Turks ann. 1453, unfolded a new scene, which in time relieved the world from the usurpation of Aristotle, and restored reason to her privileges. All the knowledge of Europe was centred in Constantinople; and the learned men of that city, abhorring the Turks and their government, took refuge in Italy. The Greek language was introduced among the western nations of Europe; and the study of Greek and Roman classics became fashionable. Men, having acquired new ideas, began to think for themselves: they exerted their native faculty of reason: the futility of Aristotle’s logic became apparent to the penetrating; and is now apparent to all. Yet so late as the year 1621, several persons were banished from Paris for contradicting that philosopher, about matter and form, and about the number of the elements. And shortly after, the parliament of Paris prohibited, under pain of death, any thing to be taught contrary to the doctrines of Aristotle. Julius II. and Leo X. Roman Pontiffs, contributed zealously to the reformation of letters; but they did not foresee that they were also contributing to the reformation of religion, and of every science that depends on reasoning. Though the fetters of syllogism have many years ago been shaken off; yet, like a limb long kept from motion, the reasoning faculty has scarcely to this day attained its free and natural exercise. Mathematics is the only science that never has been cramped by syllogism, and we find reasoning there in great perfection at an early period. The very slow progress of reasoning in other matters, will appear from the following induction.
To exemplify erroneous and absurd reasonings of every sort, would be endless. The reader, I presume, will be satisfied with a few instances; and I shall endeavour to select what are amusing. For the sake of order, I divide them into three heads. First, Instances showing the imbecillity of human reason during its nonage. Second, Erroneous reasoning occasioned by natural biasses. Third, Erroneous reasoning occasioned by acquired biasses. With respect to the first, instances are endless of reasonings founded on erroneous premises. It was an Epicurean doctrine, That the gods have all of them a human figure; moved by the following argument, that no being of any other figure has the use of reason. Plato, taking for granted the following erroneous proposition, That every being which moves itself must have a soul, concludes that the world must have a soul, because it moves itself (a) . Aristotle taking it for granted, without the least evidence and contrary to truth, that all heavy bodies tend to the centre of the universe, proves the earth to be the centre of the universe by the following argument. “Heavy bodies naturally tend to the centre of the universe: we know by experience that heavy bodies tend to the centre of the earth: therefore the centre of the earth is the centre of the universe.” Appion ridicules the Jews for adhering literally to the precept of resting on their sabbath, so as to suffer Jerusalem to be taken that day by Ptolomy son of Lagus. Mark the answer of Josephus: “Whoever passes a sober judgement on this matter, will find our practice agreeable to honour and virtue; for what can be more honourable and virtuous, than to postpone our country, and even life itself, to the service of God, and of his holy religion?” A strange idea of religion, to put it in direct opposition to every moral principle! A superstitious and absurd doctrine, That God will interpose by a miracle to declare what is right in every controversy, has occasioned much erroneous reasoning and absurd practice. The practice of determining controversies by single combat, commenced about the seventh century, when religion had degenerated into superstition, and courage was esteemed the only moral virtue. The parliament of Paris, in the reign of Charles VI. appointed a single combat between two gentlemen, in order to have the judgement of God whether the one had committed a rape on the other’s wife. In 1454, John Picard being accused by his son-in-law for too great familiarity with his wife, a duel between them was appointed by the same parliament. Voltaire justly observes, that the parliament decreed a parricide to be committed, in order to try an accusation of incest, which possibly was not committed. The trials by water and by fire, rest on the same erroneous foundation. In the former, if the person accused sunk to the bottom, it was a judgement pronounced by God, that he was innocent: if he kept above, it was a judgement that he was guilty. Fleury (a) remarks, that if ever the person accused was found guilty, it was his own fault. In Sicily, a woman accused of adultery, was compelled to swear to her innocence: the oath, taken down in writing, was laid on water; and if it did not sink, the woman was innocent. We find the same practice in Japan, and in Malabar. One of the articles insisted on by the reformers in Scotland, was, That public prayers be made and the sacraments administered in the vulgar tongue. The answer of a provincial council was in the following words: “That to conceive public prayers or administer the sacraments in any language but Latin, is contrary to the traditions and practice of the Catholic church for many ages past; and that the demand cannot be granted, without impiety to God and disobedience to the church.” Here it is taken for granted, that the practice of the church is always right; which is building an argument on a very rotten foundation. The Caribbeans abstain from swines flesh; taking it erroneously for granted, that such food would make them have small eyes, held by them a great deformity. They also abstain from eating turtle; which they think would infect them with the laziness and stupidity of that animal. Upon the same erroneous notion, the Brasilians abstain from the flesh of ducks, and of every creature that moves slowly. It is observed of northern nations, that they do not open the mouth sufficiently for distinct articulation; and the reason given is, that the coldness of the air makes them keep the mouth as close as possible. This reason is indolently copied by writers one from another: people enured to a cold climate feel little cold in the mouth; beside that a cause so weak could never operate equally among so many different nations. The real cause is, that northern tongues abound with consonants, which admit but a small aperture of the mouth. (See Elements of Criticism, chap. Beauty of language.) A list of German names to be found in every catalogue of books, will make this evident, Rutgersius, for example, Faesch. To account for a fact that is certain, any reason commonly suffices.2
A talent for writing seems in Germany to be estimated by weight, as beauty is said to be in Holland. Cocceius for writing three weighty folio volumes on law, has obtained among his countrymen the epithet of Great. This author, handling the rules of succession in land-estates, has with most profound erudition founded all of them upon the following very simple proposition: In a competition, that descendent is entitled to be preferred who has the greatest quantity of the predecessor’s blood in his veins. Quaeritur, has a man any of his predecessor’s blood in his veins, otherwise than metaphorically? Simple indeed! to build an argument in law upon a pure metaphor.
Next of reasonings where the conclusion follows not from the premises, or funda-mental proposition. Plato endeavours to prove, that the world is endowed with wisdom, by the following argument. “The world is greater than any of its parts: therefore it is endowed with wisdom; for otherwise a man who is endowed with wisdom would be greater than the world” (a) . The conclusion here does not follow; for tho’ man is endowed with wisdom, it follows not, that he is greater than the world in point of size. Zeno endeavours to prove, that the world has the use of reason, by an argument of the same kind. To convince the world of the truth of the four gospels, Ireneus (b) urges the following arguments, which he calls demonstration. “There are four quarters of the world and four cardinal winds, consequently there are four gospels in the church, as there are four pillars that support it, and four breaths of life that render it immortal.” Again, “The four animals in Ezekiel’s vision mark the four states of the Son of God. The lion is his royal dignity: the calf, his priesthood: the beast with the face of man, his human nature: the eagle, his spirit which descends on the church. To these four animals correspond the four gospels, on which our Lord is seated. John, who teaches his celestial origin, is the lion, his gospel being full of confidence: Luke, who begins with the priesthood of Zachariah, is the calf: Matthew, who describes the genealogy of Christ according to the flesh, is the animal resembling a man: Mark, who begins with the prophetic spirit coming from above, is the eagle. This gospel is the shortest of all, because brevity is the character of prophecy.” Take a third demonstration of the truth of the four gospels. “There have been four covenants; the first under Adam, the second under Noah, the third under Moses, the fourth under Jesus Christ.” Whence Ireneus concludes, that they are vain, rash, and ignorant, who admit more or less than four gospels. St. Cyprian in his exhortation to martyrdom, after having applied the mysterious number seven, to the seven days of the creation, to the seven thousand years of the world’s duration, to the seven spirits that stand before God, to the seven lamps of the tabernacle, to the seven candlesticks of the Apocalypse, to the seven pillars of wisdom, to the seven children of the barren woman, to the seven women who took one man for their husband, to the seven brothers of the Maccabees; observes, that St. Paul mentions that number as a privileged number; which, says he, is the reason why he did not write but to seven churches.3 Pope Gregory, writing in favour of the four councils, viz. Nice, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Calcedon, reasons thus: “That as there are four evangelists, there ought also to be four councils.” What would he have said, if he had lived 100 years later, when there were many more than four? In administering the sacrament of the Lord’s supper, it was ordered, that the host should be covered with a clean linen cloth; because, says the Canon law, the body of our Lord Jesus Christ was buried in a clean linen cloth. Josephus, in his answer to Appion, urges the following argument for the temple of Jerusalem: “As there is but one God, and one world, it holds in analogy, that there should be but one temple.” At that rate, there should be but one worshipper. And why should that one temple be at Jerusalem rather than at Rome, or at Pekin? The Syrians and Greeks did not for a long time eat fish. Two reasons are assigned: one is, that fish is not sacrificed to the gods; the other, that being immersed in the sea, they look not up to heaven (a) . The first would afford a more plausible argument for eating fish. And if the other have any weight, it would be an argument for sacrificing men, and neither fish nor cattle. In justification of the Salic law, which prohibits female succession, it was long held a conclusive argument, That in the scripture the lilies are said neither to work nor to spin. Vieira, termed by his countrymen the Lusitanian Cicero, published sermons, one of which begins thus, “Were the Supreme Being to show himself visibly, he would chuse the circle rather than the triangle, the square, the pentagon, the duodecagon, or any other figure.” But why appear in any of these figures? And if he were obliged to appear in so mean a shape, a globe is un-doubtedly more beautiful than a circle. Peter Hantz of Horn, who lived in the last century, imagined that Noah’s ark is the true construction of a ship; “which,” said he, “is the workmanship of God, and therefore perfect”; as if a vessel made merely for floating on the water, were the best also for sailing. Sixty or seventy years ago, the fashion prevailed, in imitation of birds, to swallow small stones for the sake of digestion; as if what is proper for birds, were equally proper for men. The Spaniards, who laid waste a great part of the West Indies, endeavoured to excuse their cruelties, by maintaining, that the natives were not men, but a species of the Ouran Outang; for no better reason, than that they were of a copper colour, spoke an unknown language, and had no beard. The Pope issued a bull, declaring, that it pleased him and the Holy Ghost to acknowledge the Americans to be of the human race. This bull was not received cordially; for in the council of Lima, ann. 1583, it was violently disputed, whether the Americans had so much understanding as to be admitted to the sacraments of the church. In 1440, the Portuguese solicited the Pope’s permission to double the Cape of Good Hope, and to reduce to perpetual servitude the negroes, because they had the colour of the damned, and never went to church. In the Frederician Code, a proposition is laid down, That by the law of nature no man can make a testament. And in support of that proposition the following argument is urged, which is said to be a demonstration: “No deed can be a testament while a man is alive, because it is not necessarily his ultima voluntas; and no man can make a testament after his death.” Both premises are true, but the negative conclusion does not follow: it is true a man’s deed is not his ultima voluntas, while he is alive: but does it not become his ultima voluntas, when he dies without altering the deed?
Many reasonings have passed current in the world as good coin, where the premises are not true; nor, supposing them true, would they infer the conclusion. Plato in his Phaedon relies on the following argument for the immortality of the soul. “Is not death the opposite of life? Certainly. And do they not give birth to each other? Certainly. What then is produced from life? Death. And what from death? Life. It is then from the dead that all things living proceed; and consequently souls exist after death.” God, says Plato, made but five worlds, because according to his definition there are but five regular bodies in geometry. Is that a reason for confining the Almighty to five worlds, not one less or more.4 Aristotle, who wrote a book upon mechanics, was much puzzled about the equilibrium of a balance, when unequal weights are hung upon it at different distances from the centre. Having observed, that the arms of the balance describe portions of a circle, he accounted for the equilibrium by a notable argument: “All the properties of the circle are wonderful: the equilibrium of the two weights that describe portions of a circle is wonderful. Ergo, the equilibrium must be one of the properties of the circle.” What are we to think of Aristotle’s Logic, when we find him capable of such childish reasoning? And yet that work has been the admiration of all the world for centuries upon centuries. Nay, that foolish argument has been espoused and commented upon by his disciples, for the same length of time. To proceed to another instance: Marriage within the fourth degree of consanguinity, as well as of affinity, is prohibited by the Lateran council, and the reason given is, That the body being made up of the four elements, has four different humours in it.* The Roman Catholics began with beheading heretics, hanging them, or stoning them to death. But such punishments were discovered to be too slight, in matters of faith. It was demonstrated, that heretics ought to be burnt in a slow fire: it being taken for granted, that God punishes them in the other world with a slow fire; it was inferred, “That as every prince and every magistrate is the image of God in this world, they ought to follow his example.” Here is a double error in reasoning: first, the taking for granted the fundamental proposition, which is surely not self-evident; and next, the drawing a conclusion from it without any connection. The heat of the sun, by the reflection of its rays from the earth, is greatly increased in passing over the great country of Africa. Hence rich mines of gold, and the black complexion of the inhabitants. In passing over the Atlantic it is cooled: and by the time it reaches the continent of America, it has lost much of its vigour. Hence no gold on the east side of America. But being heated again in passing over a great space of land, it produces much gold in Peru. Is not this reasoning curious? What follows is no less so. Huetius Bishop of Auvranches, declaiming against the vanity of establishing a perpetual succession of descendents, observes, that other writers had exposed it upon moral principles, but that he would cut it down with a plain metaphysical argument. “Father and son are relative ideas; and the relation is at an end by the death of either. My will therefore to leave my estate to my son, is absurd; because after my death, he is no longer my son.” By the same sort of argument he demonstrates the vanity of fame. “The relation that subsists between a man and his character, is at an end by his death: and therefore, that the character given him by the world, belongs not to him nor to any person.” Huetius is not the only writer who has urged metaphysical arguments contrary to common sense.5
It once was a general opinion among those who dwelt near the sea, that people never die but during the ebb of the tide. And there were not wanting plausible reasons. The sea, in flowing, carries with it vivifying particles that recruit the sick. The sea is salt, and salt preserves from rottenness. When the sea sinks in ebbing, every thing sinks with it: nature languishes: the sick are not vivified: they die.
What shall be said of a reasoning where the conclusion is a flat contradiction to the premises? If a man shooting at a wild pigeon happen unfortunately to kill his neighbour, it is in the English law excusable homicide; because the shooting an animal that is no man’s property, is a lawful act. If the aim be at a tame fowl for amusement, which is a trespass on the property of another, the death of the man is manslaughter. If the tame fowl be shot in order to be stolen, it is murder, by reason of the felonious intent. From this last the following consequence is drawn, that if a man, endeavouring to kill another, misses his blow and happeneth to kill himself, he is in judgement of law guilty of wilful and deliberate self-murder(a) . Strange reasoning! to construe an act to be wilful and deliberate self-murder, contrary to the very thing that is supposed.
A plentiful source of inconclusive reasoning, which prevails greatly during the infancy of the rational faculty, is the making of no proper distinction between strong and weak relations. Minutius Felix, in his apology for the Christians, endeavours to prove the unity of the Deity from a most distant analogy or relation, “That there is but one king of the bees, and that more than one chief magistrate would breed confusion.” It is a prostitution of reason to offer such an argument for the unity of the Deity. But any argument passes current, in support of a proposition that we know beforehand to be true. Plutarch says, “that it seemed to have happened by the peculiar direction of the gods, that Numa was born on the 21st of April, the very day in which Rome was founded by Romulus”; a very childish inference from a mere accident. Supposing Italy to have been tolerably populous, as undoubtedly it was at that period, the 21st of April, or any day of April, might have given birth to thousands. In many countries, the surgeons and barbers are classed together, as members of the same trade, from a very slight relation, that both of them operate upon the human body. The Jews enjoy’d the reputation, for centuries, of being skilful physicians. Francis I. of France, having long laboured under a disease that eluded the art of his own physicians, apply’d to the Emperor Charles V. for a Jewish physician from Spain. Finding that the person sent had been convert-ed to Christianity, the King refused to employ him; as if a Jew were to lose his skill upon being converted to Christianity. Why did not the King order one of his own physicians to be converted to Judaism? The following childish argument is built upon an extreme slight relation, that between our Saviour and the wooden cross he suffered on. “Believe me,” says Julius Firmicus,
that the devil omits nothing to destroy miserable mortals; converting himself into every different form, and employing every sort of artifice. He appoints wood to be used in sacrificing to him, knowing that our Saviour, fixed to the cross, would bestow immortality upon all his followers. A pinetree is cut down, and used in sacrificing to the mother of the gods. A wooden image of Osiris is buried in sacrificing to Isis. A wooden image of Proserpina is bemoaned for forty nights, and then thrown into the flames. Deluded mortals, these flames can do you no service. On the contrary, the fire that is destined for your punishment rages without end. Learn from me to know that divine wood which will set you free. A wooden ark saved the human race from the universal deluge. Abraham put wood upon the shoulders of his son Isaac. The wooden rod stretched out by Aaron brought the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt. Wood sweetened the bitter waters of Marah, and comforted the children of Israel after wandering three days without water. A wooden rod struck water out of the rock. The rod of God in the hand of Moses overcame Amalek. The patriarch dreamed, that he saw angels descending and ascending upon a wooden ladder; and the law of God was inclosed in a wooden ark. These things were exhibited, that, as if it were by certain steps, we might ascend to the wood of the cross, which is our salvation. The wood of the cross sustains the heavenly machine, supports the foundations of the earth, and leads men to eternal life. The wood of the devil burns and perishes, and its ashes carries down sinners to the lowest pit of hell.
The very slightest relations make an impression on a weak understanding. It was a fancy of Anto-ninus Geta, in ordering his table, to have services composed of dishes beginning with the same letter; such as lamb and lobster; broth, beef, blood-pudding; pork, plumb-cake, pigeons, potatoes. The name of John king of Scotland was changed into Robert, for no better reason than that the Johns of France and of England had been unfortunate.
In reasoning, instances are not rare, of mistaking the cause for the effect, and the effect for the cause. When a stone is thrown from the hand, the continuance of its motion in the air, was once universally accounted for as follows: “That the air follows the stone at the heels, and pushes it on.” The effect here is mistaken for the cause: the air indeed follows the stone at the heels; but it only fills the vacuity made by the stone, and does not push it on. It has been slyly urged against the art of physic, that physicians are rare among temperate people, such as have no wants but those of nature; and that where physicians abound, diseases abound. This is mistaking the cause for the effect, and the effect for the cause: people in health have no occasion for a physician; but indolence and luxury beget diseases, and diseases beget physicians.
During the nonage of reason, men are satisfied with words merely, instead of an argument. A sea-prospect is charming; but we soon tire of an unbounded prospect. It would not give satisfaction to say, that it is too extensive; for why should not a prospect be relished, however extensive? But employ a foreign term and say, that it is trop vaste, we enquire no farther: a term that is not familiar, makes an impression, and captivates weak reason. This observation accounts for a mode of writing formerly in common use, that of stuffing our language with Latin words and phrases. These are now laid aside as useless; because a proper emphasis in reading, makes an impression deeper than any foreign term can do.
There is one proof of the imbecillity of human reason in dark times, which would scarce be believed, were not the fact supported by incontestible evidence. Instead of explaining any natural appearance by searching for a cause, it has been common to account for it by inventing a fable, which gave satisfaction without enquiring farther. For example, instead of giving the true cause of the succession of day and night, the sacred book of the Scandinavians, termed Edda, accounts for that succession by a tale: “The giant Nor had a daughter named Night, of a dark complexion. She was wedded to Daglingar, of the family of the gods. They had a male child, which they named Day, beautiful and shining like all of his father’s family. The universal father took Night and Day, placed them in heaven, and gave to each a horse and a car, that they might travel round the world, the one after the other. Night goes first upon her horse named Rimfaxe, [Frosty Mane], who moistens the earth with the foam that drops from his bit, which is the dew. The horse belonging to Day is named Skinfaxe, [Shining Mane], who by his radiant mane illuminates the air and the earth.” It is observed by the translator of the Edda, that this way of accounting for things is well suited to the turn of the human mind, endowed with curiosity that is keen; but easily satisfied, often with words instead of ideas. Zoroaster, by a similar fable, accounts for the growth of evil in this world. He invents a good and an evil principle named Oromazes and Arimanes, who are in continual conflict for preference. At the last day, Oromazes will be reunited to the supreme God, from whom he issued. Arimanes will be subdued, darkness destroyed; and the world, purified by an universal conflagration, will become a luminous and shining abode, from which evil will be excluded. I return to the Edda, which is stored with fables of this kind. The highest notion savages can form of the gods, is that of men endowed with extraordinary power and knowledge. The only puzzling circumstance is, how they differ so much from other men as to be immortal. The Edda accounts for it by the following fable. “The gods prevented the effect of old age and decay, by eating certain apples, trusted to the care of Iduna. Loke, the Momus of the Scandinavians, craftily convey’d away Iduna, and concealed her in a wood, under the custody of a giant. The gods, beginning to wax old and gray, detected the author of the theft; and, by terrible menaces, compelled him to employ his ut-most cunning, for regaining Iduna and her apples, in which he was successful.” The origin of poetry is thus accounted for in the same work:
The gods formed Cuaser, who traversed the earth, teaching wisdom to men. He was treacherously slain by two dwarfs, who mixed honey with his blood, and composed a liquor that renders all who drink of it poets. These dwarfs having incurred the resentment of a certain giant, were exposed by him upon a rock, surrounded on all sides with the sea. They gave for their ransom the said liquor, which the giant delivered to his daughter Gunloda. The precious potion was eagerly sought for by the gods; but how were they to come at it? Odin, in the shape of a worm, crept through a crevice into the cavern where the liquor was concealed. Then resuming his natural shape, and obtaining Gunloda’s consent to take three draughts, he sucked up the whole; and, transforming himself into an eagle, flew away to Asgard. The giant, who was a magician, flew with all speed after Odin, and came up with him near the gate of Asgard. The gods issued out of their palaces to assist their master; and presented to him all the pitchers they could lay hands on, which he instantly filled with the precious liquor. But in the hurry of discharging his load, Odin poured only part of the liquor through his beak, the rest being emitted through a less pure vent. The former is bestow’d by the gods upon good poets, to inspire them with divine enthusiasm. The latter, which is in much greater plenty, is bestow’d liberally on all who apply for it; by which means the world is pestered with an endless quantity of wretched verses.
Ignorance is equally credulous in all ages. Albert, surnamed the Great, flourished in the thirteenth century, and was a man of real knowledge. During the course of his education he was remarkably dull; and some years before he died became a sort of changeling. That singularity produced the following story. The holy Virgin, appearing to him, demanded, whether he would excel in philosophy or in theology: upon his chusing the former, she promised, that he should become an incomparable philosopher; but added, that to punish him for not preferring theology, he should become stupid again as at first.
Upon a slight view, it may appear unaccountable, that even the grossest savages should take a childish tale for a solid reason. But nature aids the deception: where things are related in a lively manner, and every circumstance appears as passing in our sight, we take all for granted as true (a) . Can an ignorant rustic doubt of inspiration, when he sees as it were the poet sipping the pure celestial liquor? And how can that poet fail to produce bad verses, who feeds on the excrements that drop from the fundament even of a deity?
In accounting for natural appearances, even good writers have betray’d a weakness in reasoning, little inferior to that above mentioned. They do not indeed put off their disciples with a tale; but they put them off with a mere supposition, not more real than the tale. Descartes ascribes the motion of the planets to a vortex of ether whirling round and round. He thought not of enquiring whether there really be such a vortex, nor what makes it move. M. Buffon forms the earth out of a splinter of the sun, struck off by a comet. May not one be permitted humbly to enquire at that eminent philosopher, what formed the comet? This passes for solid reasoning; and yet we laugh at the poor Indian, who supports the earth from falling by an elephant, and the elephant by a tortoise.
It is still more ridiculous to reason upon what is acknowledged to be a fiction, as if it were real. Such are the fictions admitted in the Roman law. A Roman taken captive in war, lost his privilege of being a Roman citizen; for freedom was held essential to that privilege. But what if he made his escape after perhaps an hour’s detention? The hardship in that case ought to have suggested an alteration of the law, so far as to suspend the privilege no longer than the captivity subsisted. But the ancient Romans were not so ingenious. They remedied the hardship by a fiction, that the man never had been a captive. The Frederician code banishes from the law of Prussia an endless number of fictions found in the Roman law (a) . Yet afterward, treating of personal rights, it is laid down as a rule, That a child in the womb is feigned or supposed to be born when the fiction is for its advantage (b) . To a weak reasoner, a fiction is a happy contrivance for resolving intricate questions. Such is the constitution of England, that the English law-courts are merely territorial; and that no fact happening abroad comes under their cognisance. An Englishman, after murdering his fellow-traveller in France, returns to his native country. What is to be done, for guilt ought not to pass unpunished? The crime is feigned to have been committed in England.
Ancient histories are full of incredible facts that passed current during the infancy of reason, which at present would be rejected with contempt. Every one who is conversant in the history of ancient nations, can recall instances without end. Does any person believe at present, tho’ gravely reported by historians, that in old Rome there was a law, for cutting into pieces the body of a bankrupt, and distri-buting the parts among his creditors? The story of Porsenna and Scevola is highly romantic; and the story of Vampires in Hungary, shamefully absurd. There is no reason to believe, there ever was such a state as that of the Amazons; and the story of Thalestris and Alexander the Great is certainly a fiction. Scotch historians describe gravely and circumstantially the battle of Luncarty, as if they had been eye-witnesses. A peasant and his two sons, it is said, were ploughing in an adjacent field, during the heat of the action. Enraged at their countrymen for turning their backs, they broke the plough in pieces; and each laying hold of a part, rushed into the midst of the battle, and obtained a complete victory over the Danes. This story has every mark of fiction: A man following out unconcernedly his ordinary occupation of ploughing, in sight of a battle, on which depended his wife and children, his goods, and perhaps his own life: three men, without rank or figure, with only a stick in the hand of each, stemming the tide of victory, and turning the fate of battle. I mention not that a plough was unknown in Scotland for a century or two after that battle; for that circumstance could not create a doubt in the historian, if he was ignorant of it.
Reason, with respect to its progress, is singular. Morals, manners, and every thing that appears externally, may in part be acquired by imitation and example; which have not the slightest influence upon the reasoning faculty. The only means for advancing that faculty to maturity, are indefatigable study and practice; and even these will not carry a man one step beyond the subjects he is conversant about: examples are not rare of men extremely expert in one science, and grossly deficient in others. Many able mathematicians are novices in politics, and even in the common arts of life: study and practice have ripened them in every relation of equality, while they remain ignorant, like the vulgar, about other relations. A man, in like manner, who has bestowed much time and thought in political matters, may be a child as to other branches of knowledge.*
I proceed to the second article, containing erroneous reasoning occasioned by natural biasses. The first bias I shall mention has an extensive influence. What is seen, makes a deeper impression than what is reported, or discovered by reflection. Hence it is, that in judging of right and wrong, the ignorant and illiterate are struck with the external act only, without penetrating into will or intention which lie out of sight. Thus with respect to covenants, laws, vows, and other acts that are completed by words, the whole weight in days of ignorance is laid upon the external expression, with no regard to the meaning of the speaker or writer. The blessing bestow’d by Isaac upon his son Jacob, mistaking him for Esau, is an illustrious instance. Not only was the blessing intended for Esau, but Jacob, by deceiving his father, had rendered himself unworthy of it (a) ; yet Isaac had pronounced the sounds, and it was not in his power to unsay them: Nescit vox emissa reverti.*6 Joshua, grossly imposed on by the Gibeonites denying that they were Canaanites, made a covenant with them; and yet, tho’ he found them to be Canaanites, he held himself to be bound. Led by the same bias, people think it sufficient to fulfil the words of a vow, however short of intention. The Duke of Lancaster, vexed at the obstinate resistance of Rennes, a town in Britany, vowed in wrath not to raise the siege till he had planted the English colours upon one of the gates. He found it necessary to raise the siege; but his vow stood in the way. The governor relieved him from his scruple, permitting him to plant his colours upon one of the gates; and he was satisfied that his vow was fulfilled. The following is an example of an absurd conclusion deduced from a precept taken literally, against common sense. We are ordered by the Apostle, to pray always; from which Jerom, one of the fathers, argues thus: “Conjugal enjoyment is inconsistent with praying; ergo, conjugal enjoyment is a sin.” By the same argument it may be proved, that eating and drinking are sins; and that sleeping is a great sin, being a great interruption to praying. With respect to another text, “That a bishop must be blameless, the husband of one wife” taken literally, a very different conclusion is drawn in Abyssinia, That no man can be ordained a presbyter till he be married. Prohibitions have been interpreted in the same shallow manner. Lord Clarendon gives two instances, both of them relative to the great fire of London. The mayor proposing to pull down a house in order to stop the progress of the fire, was opposed by the lawyers, who declared the act to be unlawful; and the house was burnt without being pulled down. About the same time it was proposed to break open some houses in the temple for saving the furniture, the possessors being in the country; but it was declared burglary to force open a door without consent of the possessor. Such literal interpretation, contrary to common sense, has been extended even to inflict punishment. Isadas was bathing when the alarm was given in Lacedemon, that Epaminondas was at hand with a numerous army. Naked as he was, he rushed against the enemy with a spear in one hand and a sword in the other, bearing down all before him. The Ephori fined him for going to battle unarmed; but honoured him with a garland for his gallant behaviour. How absurd to think that the law was intended for such a case! and how much more absurd to think, that the same act ought to be both punished and rewarded! The King of Castile being carried off his horse by a hunted hart, was saved by a person at hand, who cut his belt. The judges thought a pardon absolutely requisite, to relieve from capital punishment a man who had lifted a sword against his sovereign.* It is a salutary regulation, that a man who is absent cannot be tried for his life. Pope Formosus died suddenly without suffering any punishment for his crimes. He was raised from his grave, dressed in his pontifical habit; and in that shape a criminal process went on against him. Could it seriously be thought, that a rotten carcase brought into court was sufficient to fulfil the law? The same absurd farce was play’d in Scotland, upon the body of Logan of Restalrig, several years after his interment. The body of Tancred King of Sicily was raised from the grave, and the head cut off for supposed rebellion. Henry IV. of Castile was deposed in absence; but, for a colour of justice, the following ridiculous scene was acted. A wooden statue dressed in a royal habit, was placed on a theatre; and the sentence of deposition was solemnly read to it, as if it had been the King himself. The Archbishop of Toledo seized the crown, another the sceptre, a third the sword; and the ceremony was concluded with proclaiming another king. How humbling are such scenes to man, who values himself upon the faculty of reason as his prime attribute! An expedient of that kind would now be rejected with disdain, as fit only to amuse children; and yet it grieves me to observe that law-proceedings are not yet totally purged of such absurdities. By a law in Holland, the criminal’s confession is essential to a capital punishment, no other evidence being held sufficient: and yet if he insist on his innocence, he is tortured till he pronounce the words of confession; as if sounds merely were sufficient, without will or intention. The practice of England in a similar case, is no less absurd. Confession is not there required; but it is required, that the person accused shall plead, and say whether he be innocent or guilty. But what if he stand mute? He is pressed down by weights till he plead; and if he continue mute, he is pressed till he give up the ghost, a tor-ture known by the name of Peine forte et dure.* Further, law copying religion, has exalted ceremonies above the substantial part. In England, so strictly has form been adhered to, as to make the most trivial defect in words fatal, however certain the meaning be. Murdredavit for murdravit, feloniter for felonice, have been adjudged to vitiate an indictment. Burgariter for burglariter hath been a fatal objection; but burgulariter hath been holden good. Webster being indicted for murder, and the stroke being laid “sinistro bracio” instead of “brachio,” he was dismissed. A. B. alias dictus A. C. Butcher, was found to vitiate the indictment; because it ought to have been A. B. Butcher, alias dictus A. C. Butcher. So gladium in dextra sua, without manu.
No bias in human nature is more prevalent than a desire to anticipate futurity, by being made acquainted beforehand with what will happen. It was indulged without reserve in dark times; and hence omens, auguries, dreams, judicial astrology, oracles, and prophecies, without end. It shows strange weakness not to see, that such foreknowledge would be a gift more pernicious to man than Pandora’s box: it would deprive him of every motive to action; and leave no place for sagacity, nor for contriving means to bring about a desired event. Life is an enchanted castle, opening to interesting views that inflame the imagination and excite industry. Remove the vail that hides futurity.—To an active, bustling, animating scene, succeeds a dead stupor, men converted into statues; passive like inert matter, because there remains not a single motive to action. Anxiety about futurity rouses our sagacity to prepare for what may happen; but an appetite to know what sagacity cannot discover, is a weakness in nature inconsistent with every rational principle.*
Propensity to things rare and wonderful, is a natural bias no less universal than the former. Any strange or unaccountable event rouses the attention, and enflames the mind: we suck it in greedily, wish it to be true, and believe it to be true upon the slightest evidence (a) . A hart taken in the forest of Senlis by Charles VI. of France, bore a collar upon which was inscribed, Caesar hoc me donavit.† Every one believed that a Roman Emperor was meant, and that the beast must have lived at least a thousand years; overlooking that the Emperor of Germany is also styled Caesar, and that it was not necessary to go back fifty years. This propensity displays itself even in childhood: stories of ghosts and apparitions are anxiously listened to; and firmly believed, by the terror they occasion: the vulgar accordingly have been captivated with such stories, upon evidence that would not be sufficient to ascertain the simplest fact. The absurd and childish prodigies that are every where scattered through the history of Titus Li-vius, not to mention other ancient historians, would be unaccountable in a writer of sense and gravity, were it not for the propensity mentioned. But human belief is not left at the mercy of every irregular bias: our maker has subjected belief to the correction of the rational faculty; and accordingly, in proportion as reason advances towards maturity, wonders, prodigies, apparitions, incantations, witchcraft, and such stuff, lose their influence. That reformation however has been exceedingly slow, because the propensity is exceedingly strong. Such absurdities found credit among wise men, even as late as the last age. I am ready to verify the charge, by introducing two men of the first rank for understanding: were a greater number necessary, there would be no difficulty of making a very long catalogue. The celebrated Grotius shall lead the van. Procopius in his Vandal history relates, that some orthodox Christians, whose tongues were cut out by the Arians, continued miraculously to speak as formerly. And to vouch the fact, he appeals to some of those miraculous persons, alive in Constantinople at the time of his writing. In the dark ages of Christianity, when different sects were violently enflamed against each other, it is not surprising that gross absurdities were swallowed as real miracles: but is it not surprising, and also mortifying, to find Grotius, the greatest genius of the age he lived in, adopting such absurdities? For the truth of the foregoing miracle, he appeals not only to Procopius, but to several other writers (a) ; as if the hearsay of a few writers were sufficient to make us believe an impossibility. Could it seriously be his opinion, that the great God who governs by general laws, permitting the sun to shine alike upon men of whatever religion, would miraculously suspend the laws of nature, in order to testify his displeasure at an honest sect of Christians, led innocently into error? Did he also believe what Procopius adds, that two of these orthodox Christians were again deprived of speech, as a punishment inflicted by the Almighty for cohabiting with prostitutes?
I proceed to our famous historian, the Earl of Clarendon, the other person I had in view. A man long in public business, a consummate politician and well stored with knowledge from books as well as from experience, might be fortified against foolish miracles, if any man can be fortified: and yet behold his superstitious credulity in childish stories; no less weak in that particular, than was his cotemporary Grotius. He gravely relates an incident concerning the assassination of the Duke of Buckingham, the sum of which follows.
There were many stories scattered abroad at that time, of prophecies and predictions of the Duke’s untimely and violent death; one of which was upon a better foundation of credit, than usually such discourses are founded upon. There was an officer in the King’s wardrobe in Windsor castle, of reputation for honesty and discretion, and at that time about the age of fifty. About six months before the miserable end of the Duke, this man being in bed and in good health, there appeared to him at midnight a man of a venerable aspect, who drawing the curtains and fixing his eye upon him, said, Do you know me, Sir. The poor man, half dead with fear, answered, That he thought him to be Sir George Villiers, father to the Duke. Upon which he was ordered by the apparition, to go to the Duke and tell him, that if he did not somewhat to ingratiate himself with the people, he would be suffered to live but a short time. The same person appeared to him a second and a third time, reproaching him bitterly for not performing his promise. The poor man pluck’d up as much courage as to excuse himself, that it was difficult to find access to the Duke, and that he would be thought a madman. The apparition imparted to him some secrets, which he said would be his credentials to the Duke. The officer, introduced to the Duke by Sir Ralph Freeman, was received courteously. They walked together near an hour; and the Duke sometimes spoke with great commotion, tho’ his servants with Sir Ralph were at such a distance that they could not hear a word. The officer, returning from the Duke, told Sir Ralph, that when he mentioned the particulars that were to gain him credit, the Duke’s colour changed; and he swore the officer could come to that knowledge only by the devil; for that these particulars were known only to himself, and to one person more, of whose fidelity he was secure. The Duke, who went to accompany the King at hunting, was observed to ride all the morning in deep thought; and before the morning was spent, left the field and alighted at his mother’s house, with whom he was shut up for two or three hours. When the Duke left her, his countenance appeared full of trouble, with a mixture of anger, which never appeared before in conversing with her: and she was found overwhelmed with tears, and in great agony. Whatever there was of all this, it is a notorious truth, that when she heard of the Duke’s murder, she seemed not in the least surprised, nor did express much sorrow.
The name of Lord Clarendon calls for more attention to the foregoing relation than otherwise it would deserve. It is no article of the Christian faith, that the dead preserve their connection with the living, or are ever suffered to return to this world: we have no solid evidence for such a fact; and rarely hear of it, except in tales for amusing or terrifying children. Secondly, The story is inconsistent with the system of Providence; which, for the best purposes, has drawn an impenetrable veil between us and futurity. Thirdly, This apparition, tho’ supposed to be endowed with a miraculous knowledge of future events, is however deficient in the sagacity that belongs to a person of ordinary understanding. It appears twice to the officer, without thinking of giving him proper credentials; nor does it think of them till suggested by the officer. Fourthly, Why did not the apparition go directly to the Duke himself; what necessity for employing a third person? The Duke must have been much more affected with an apparition to himself, than with the hearing it at second hand. The officer was afraid of being taken for a madman; and the Duke had some reason to think him such. Lastly, The apparition happened above three months before the Duke’s death; and yet we hear not of a single step taken by him, in pursuance of the advice he got. The authority of the historian and the regard we owe him, have drawn from me the foregoing reflections, which with respect to the story itself are very little necessary; for the evidence is really not such as to verify any ordinary occurrence. His Lordship acknowledges, that he had no evidence but common report, saying, that it was one of the many stories scattered abroad at that time. He does not say, that the story was related to him by the officer, whose name he does not even mention, or by Sir Ralph Freeman, or by the Duke, or by the Duke’s mother. If any thing happened like what is related, it may with good reason be supposed that the officer was crazy or enthusiastically mad: nor have we any evidence beyond common report, that he communicated any secret to the Duke. Here are two remarkable instances of an observation made above, that a man may be high in one science and very low in another. Had Grotius, or had Clarendon, studied the fundamentals of reason and religion coolly and impartially, as they did other sciences, they would never have given faith to reports so ill vouched, and so contradictory to every sound principle of theology.
Another source of erroneous reasoning, is a singular tendency in the mind of man to mysteries and hidden meanings. Where an object makes a deep impression, the busy mind is seldom satisfied with the simple and obvious intendment: invention is roused to allegorize, and to pierce into hidden views and purposes. I have a notable example at hand, with respect to forms and ceremonies in religious worship, Josephus (a) , talking of the tabernacle, has the following passage.
Let any man consider the structure of the tabernacle, the sacerdotal vestments, the vessels dedicated to the service of the altar; and he must of necessity be convinced, that our lawgiver was a pious man, and that all the clamours against us and our profession, are mere calumny. For what are all of these but the image of the whole world? This will appear to any man who soberly and impartially examines the matter. The tabernacle of thirty cubits is divided into three parts; two for the priests in general, and as free to them as the earth and the sea; the third, where no mortal must be admitted, is as the heaven, reserved for God himself. The twelve loaves of shew-bread signify the twelve months of the year. The candlestick, composed of seven branches, refers to the twelve signs of the zodiac, through which the seven planets shape their course; and the seven lamps on the top of the seven branches bear an analogy to the planets themselves. The curtains of four colours represent the four elements. The fine linen signifies the earth, as flax is raised there. By the purple is understood the sea, from the blood of the murex, which dies that colour. The violet colour is a symbol of the air; and the scarlet of the fire. By the linen garment of the high-priest, is designed the whole body of the earth: by the violet colour the heavens. The pomegranates signify lightning: the bells tolling signify thunder. The four-coloured ephod bears a resemblance to the very nature of the universe, and the interweaving it with gold has a regard to the rays of light. The girdle about the body of the priest is as the sea about the globe of the earth. The two sardonyx stones are a kind of figure of the sun and moon; and the twelve other stones may be understood, either of the twelve months, or of the twelve signs in the zodiac. The violet-coloured tiara is a resemblance of heaven; and it would be irreverent to have written the sacred name of God upon any other colour. The triple crown and plate of gold give us to understand the glory and majesty of Almighty God. This is a plain illustration of these matters; and I would not lose any opportunity of doing justice to the honour and wisdom of our incomparable lawgiver.
How wire-drawn and how remote from any appearance of truth, are the foregoing allusions and imagined resemblances! But religious forms and ceremonies, however arbitrary, are never held to be so. If an useful purpose do not appear, it is taken for granted that there must be a hidden meaning; and any meaning, however childish, will serve when a better cannot be found. Such propensity there is in dark ages for allegorizing, that even our Saviour’s miracles have not escaped. Where-ever any seeming difficulty occurs in the plain sense, the fathers of the church, Origen, Augustine, and Hilary, are never at a loss for a mystic meaning. “Sacrifice to the celestial gods with an odd number, and to the terrestrial gods with an even number,” is a precept of Pythagoras. Another is, “Turn round in adoring the gods, and sit down when thou hast worshipped.” The learned make a strange pother about the hidden meaning of these precepts. But, after all, have they any hidden meaning? Forms and ceremonies are useful in external worship, for occupying the vulgar; and it is of no importance what they be, provided they prevent the mind from wandering. Why such partiality to ancient ceremonies, when no hidden meaning is supposed in those of Christians, such as bowing to the east, or the priest performing the liturgy, partly in a black upper garment, partly in a white? No ideas are more simple than of numbers, nor less susceptible of any hidden meaning; and yet the profound Pythagoras has imagined many such meanings. The number one, says he, having no parts, represents the Deity: it represents also order, peace, and tranquillity, which result from unity of sentiment. The number two represents disorder, confusion, and change. He discovered in the number three the most sublime mysteries: all things are composed, says he, of three substances. The number four is holy in its nature, and constitutes the divine essence, which consists in unity, power, benevolence, and wisdom. Would one believe, that the great philosopher, who demonstrated the 47th proposition of the first book of Euclid, was the inventor of such childish conceits? Perhaps Pythagoras meant only to divert himself with them. Whether so or not, it seems difficult to be explained, how such trifles were preserved in memory, and handed down to us through so many generations. All that can be said is, that during the infancy of knowledge, every novelty makes a figure, and that it requires a long course of time to separate the corn from the chaff.* A certain writer, smit-ten with the conceit of hidden meanings, has applied his talent to the constellations of the zodiac. The lion typifies the force or heat of the sun in the month of July, when he enters that constellation. The constellation where the sun is in the month of August is termed the virgin, signifying the time of harvest. He enters the balance in September, denoting the equality of day and night. The scorpion, where he is found in October, is an emblem of the diseases that are frequent during that month, &c. The balance, I acknowledge, is well hit off; but I see not clearly the resemblance of the force of a lion to the heat of the sun; and still less that of harvest to a virgin: the spring would be more happily represented by a virgin, and the harvest by a woman in the act of delivery.
Our tendency to mystery and allegory, displays itself with great vigour in thinking of our forefathers and of the ancients in general, by means of the veneration that is paid them. Before writing was known, ancient history is made up of traditional fables. A Trojan Brutus peopled England; and the Scots are descended from Scota, daughter to an Egyptian king. Have we not equally reason to think, that the histories of the heathen gods are involved in fable? We pretend not to draw any hidden meaning from the former: why should we suspect any such meaning in the latter? Allegory is a species of writing too refined for a savage or barbarian: it is the fruit of a cultivated imagination; and was a late invention even in Greece. The allegories of Esop are of the simplest kind: yet they were composed after learning began to flourish; and Cebes, whose allegory about the life of man is justly celebrated, was a disciple of Socrates. Prepossession however in favour of the ancients makes us conclude, that there must be some hidden meaning or allegory in their historical fables; for no better reason than that they are destitute of common sense. In the Greek mythology, there are numberless fables related as historical facts merely; witness the fable of gods mixing with women, and procreating giants, like what we find in the fabulous histories of many other nations. These giants attempt to dethrone Jupiter: Apollo keeps the sheep of Admetus: Minerva springs from the head of Jove:* Bacchus is cut out of his thigh: Orpheus goes to hell for his wife: Mars and Venus are caught by Vulcan in a net; and a thousand other such childish stories. But the Greeks, many centuries after the invention of such foolish fables, became illustrious for arts and sciences; and nothing would satisfy writers in later times, but to dub them profound philosophers, even when mere savages. Hence endless attempts to detect mysteries and hidden meanings in their fables. Let other interpreters of that kind pass: they give me no concern. But I cannot, without the deepest concern, behold our illustrious philosopher Bacon employing his talents so absurdly. What imbecillity must there be in human nature, when so great a genius is capable of such puerilities! As a subject so humbling is far from being agreeable, I confine myself to a few instances.7 In an ancient fable, Prometheus formed man out of clay; and kindling a bundle of birch rods at the chariot of the sun, brought down fire to the earth for the use of his creature man. And tho’ ungrateful man complained to Jupiter of that theft, yet the god, pleased with the ingenuity of Prometheus, not only confirmed to man the use of fire, but conferred on him a gift much more considerable: the gift was perpetual youth, which was laid upon an ass to be carried to the earth. The ass, wanting to drink at a brook, was opposed by a serpent, who insisted to have the burden, without which, no drink for the poor ass. And thus, for a draught of plain water, was perpetual youth transferred from man to the serpent. This fable has a striking resemblance to many in the Edda; and, in the manner of the Edda, accounts for the invention of fire, and for the mortality of man. Nor is there in all the Edda one more childish, or more distant from any appearance of a rational meaning. It is handled however by our philosopher with much solemn gravity, as if every source of wisdom were locked up in it. The explanation he gives, being too long to be copied here, shall be reduced to a few particulars. After an elogium upon fire, his Lordship proceeds thus. “The manner wherein Prometheus stole his fire, is properly described from the nature of the thing; he being said to have done it by applying a rod of birch to the chariot of the sun: for birch is used in striking and beating; which clearly denotes fire to proceed from violent percussions and collisions of bodies, whereby the matters struck are subtilized, rarefied, put into motion, and so prepared to receive the heat of the celestial bodies. And accordingly they, in a clandestine and secret manner, snatch fire, as it were by stealth, from the chariot of the sun.” He goes on as follows. “The next is a remarkable part of the fable; which represents, that men, instead of gratitude, accused both Prometheus and his fire to Jupiter: and yet the accusation proved so pleasant to Jupiter, that he not only indulged mankind the use of fire, but conferred upon them perpetual youth. Here it may seem strange, that the sin of ingratitude should meet with approbation or reward. But the allegory has another view; and denotes, that the accusation both of human nature and human art, proceeds from a noble and laudable temper of mind, viz. modesty; and also tends to a very good purpose, viz. to stir up fresh industry and new discoveries.” Can any thing be more wire-drawn?
Vulcan, attempting the chastity of Minerva, had recourse to force. In the struggle, his semen, falling upon the ground, produced Erictonius; whose body from the middle upward was comely and well proportioned, his thighs and legs small and deformed like an eel. Conscious of that defect, he was the inventor of chariots; which showed the graceful part of his body, and concealed what was deformed. Listen to the explanation of this ridiculous fable. “Art, by the various uses it makes of fire, is here represented by Vulcan: and Nature is represented by Minerva, because of the industry employ’d in her works. Art, when it offers violence to Nature in order to bend her to its purpose, seldom attains the end proposed. Yet, upon great struggle and application, there proceed certain imperfect births, or lame abortive works; which however, with great pomp and deceitful appearances, are triumphantly carried about, and shown by impostors.” I admit the ingenuity of that forc’d meaning; but had the inventor of that fable any latent meaning? If he had, why did he conceal it? The ingenious meaning would have merited praise; the fable itself none at all.
I shall add but one other instance, for they grow tiresome. Sphinx was a monster, having the face and voice of a virgin, the wings of a bird, and the talons of a gryphin. She resided on the summit of a mountain, near the city Thebes. Her manner was, to lie in ambush for travel-lers, to propose dark riddles which she received from the Muses, and to tear those to pieces who could not solve them. The Thebans having offered their kingdom to the man who should interpret these riddles, Oedipus presented himself before the monster, and he was required to explain the following riddle: What creature is that, which being born four-footed, becomes afterwards two-footed, then three-footed, and lastly four-footed again. Oedipus answered, It was man, who in his infancy crawls upon his hands and feet, then walks upright upon his two feet, walks in old age with a stick, and at last lies four-footed in bed. Oedipus having thus obtained the victory, slew the monster; and laying the carcase upon an ass, carried it off in triumph. Now for the explanation. “This is an elegant and instructive fable, invented to represent science: for Science may be called a monster, being strangely gazed at and admired by the ignorant. Her figure and form is various, by reason of the vast variety of subjects that science considers. Her voice and countenance are represented female, by reason of her gay appear-ance, and volubility of speech. Wings are added, because the sciences and their inventions fly about in a moment; for knowledge, like light communicated from torch to torch, is presently catched, and copiously diffused. Sharp and hooked talons are elegantly attributed to her; because the axioms and arguments of science fix down the mind, and keep it from moving or slipping away.” Again: “All science seems placed on high, as it were on the tops of mountains that are hard to climb: for science is justly imagined a sublime and lofty thing, looking down upon ignorance, and at the same time taking an extensive view on all sides, as is usual on the tops of mountains. Sphinx is said to propose difficult questions and riddles, which she received from the Muses. These questions, while they remain with the Muses, may be pleasant, as contemplation and enquiry are when knowledge is their only aim: but after they are delivered to Sphinx, that is, to practice, which impels to action, choice, and determination; then it is that they become severe and torturing; and un-less solved, strangely perplex the human mind, and tear it to pieces. It is with the utmost elegance added in the fable, that the carcase of Sphinx was laid upon an ass; for there is nothing so subtile and abstruse, but after being made plain, may be conceived by the slowest capacity.” According to such latitude of interpretation, there is nothing more easy than to make quidlibet ex quolibet.
I will detain the reader but a moment longer, to hear what our author says in justification of such mysterious meaning. Out of many reasons, I select the two following. “It may pass for a farther indication of a concealed and secret meaning, that some of these fables are so absurd and idle in their narration, as to proclaim an allegory even afar off. A fable that carries probability with it, may be supposed invented for pleasure, or in imitation of history; but what could never be conceived or related in this way, must surely have a different use. For example, what a monstrous fiction is this, That Jupiter should take Metis to wife; and as soon as he found her pregnant eat her up; whereby he also conceived, and out of his head brought forth Pallas armed! Certainly no mortal could, but for the sake of the moral it couches, invent such an absurd dream as this, so much out of the road of thought.” At that rate, the more ridiculous or absurd a fable is, the more instructive it must be. This opinion resembles that of the ancient Germans with respect to mad women, who were held to be so wise, as that every thing they uttered was prophetic. Did it never occur to our author, that in the infancy of the reasoning faculty, the imagination is suffered to roam without controul, as in a dream; and that the vulgar in all ages are delighted with wonderful stories; the more out of nature, the more to their taste?
We proceed to the other reason. “The argument of most weight with me is, That many of these fables appear not to have been invented by the persons who relate and divulge them, whether Homer, Hesiod, or others; for if I were assured they first flowed from those later times and authors, I should never expect any thing singularly great or noble from such an origin. But whoever attentively considers the thing, will find, that these fables are delivered down by those writers, not as matters then first invented, but as received and embraced in earlier ages. And this principally raises my esteem of those fables; which I receive, not as the product of the age, or invention of the poets, but as sacred relics, gentle whispers, and the breath of better times, that from the traditions of more ancient nations, came at length into the flutes and trumpets of the Greeks.” Was it our author’s sincere opinion, that the farther back we trace the history of man, the more of science and knowledge is found; and consequently that savages are the most learned of all men?
The following fable of the savage Canadians ought to be mysterious, if either of the reasons urged above be conclusive. “There were in the beginning but six men in the world, (from whence sprung is not said): one of these ascended to heaven in quest of a woman named Atahentsic, and had carnal knowledge of her. She being thrown headlong from the height of the empyrean, was received on the back of a tortoise, and delivered of two children, one of whom slew the other.” This fable is so absurd, that it must have a latent meaning; and one needs but copy our author to pump a deep mystery out of it, however little intended by the inventer. And if either absurdity or antiquity entitle fables to be held sacred relics, gentle whispers, and the breath of better times, the following Japanese fables are well intitled to these distinguishing epithets. “Bunsio, in wedlock, having had no children for many years, addressed her prayers to the gods, was heard, and was delivered of 500 eggs. Fearing that the eggs might produce monsters, she packed them up in a box, and threw them into the river. An old fisherman finding the box, hatched the eggs in an oven, every one of which produced a child. The children were fed with boiled rice and mugwort-leaves; and being at last left to shift for themselves, they fell arobbing on the highway. Hear-ing of a man famous for great wealth, they told their story at his gate, and begged some food. This happening to be the house of their mother, she own’d them for her children, and gave a great entertainment to her friends and neighbours. She was afterward inlisted among the goddesses by the name of Bensaiten: her 500 sons were appointed to be her attendants; and to this day she is worshipped in Japan as the goddess of riches.” Take another fable of the same stamp. The Japanese have a table of lucky and unlucky days, which they believe to have been composed by Abino Seimei, a famous astrologer, and a sort of demigod. They have the following tradition of him. “A young fox, pursued by hunters, fled into a temple, and took shelter in the bosom of Abino Jassima, son and heir to the king of the country. Refusing to yield the poor creature to the unmerciful hunters, he defended himself with great bravery, and set the fox at liberty. The hunters, through resentment against the young prince, murdered his royal father; but Jassima revenged his father’s death, killing the traitors with his own hand. Up-on this signal victory, a lady of incomparable beauty appeared to him, and made such an impression on his heart, that he took her to wife. Abino Seimei, procreated of that marriage, was endowed with divine wisdom, and with the precious gift of prophecy. Jassima was ignorant that his wife was the very fox whose life he had saved, till she resumed by degrees her former shape.” If there be any hidden mystery in this tale, I shall not despair of finding a mystery in every fairy-tale invented by Madam Gomez.
It is lamentable to observe the slow progress of human understanding and the faculty of reason. If this reflection be verified in our celebrated philosopher Bacon, how much more in others? It is comfortable, however, that human understanding is in a progress toward maturity, however slow. The fancy of allegorizing ancient fables, is now out of fashion: enlightened reason has unmasked these fables, and left them in their nakedness, as the invention of illiterate ages when wonder was the prevailing passion.
Having discussed the first two heads, I proceed to the third, viz. Erroneous rea-soning occasioned by acquired biasses. And one of these that has the greatest influence in perverting the rational faculty, is blind religious zeal. There is not in nature a system more simple or perspicuous than that of pure religion; and yet what a complication do we find in it of metaphysical subtilties and unintelligible jargon! That subject being too well known to need illustration, I shall confine myself to a few instances of the influence that religious superstition has on other subjects.
A history-painter and a player require the same sort of genius. The one by colours, the other by looks and gestures, express various modifications of passion, even what are beyond the reach of words; and to accomplish these ends, great sensibility is requisite as well as judgement. Why then is not a player equally respected with a history-painter? It was thought by zealots, that a play is an entertainment too splendid for a mortified Christian; upon which account players fell under church-censure, and were even held unworthy of Christian burial. A history-painter, on the contrary, being frequently employ’d in painting for the church, was always in high esteem. It is only among Protestants that players are beginning to be restored to their privileges as free citizens; and there perhaps never existed a history-painter more justly esteemed, than Garrick, a player, is in Great Britain. Aristarchus, having taught that the earth moves round the sun, was accused by the Heathen priests, for troubling the repose of their household-gods. Copernicus, for the same doctrine, was accused by Christian priests, as contradicting the scriptures, which talk of the sun’s moving. And Galileo, for adhering to Copernicus, was condemned to prison and penance: he found it necessary to recant upon his knees. A bias acquired from Aristotle, kept reason in chains for centuries. Scholastic divinity in particular, founded on the philosophy of that author, was more hurtful to the reasoning faculty than the Goths and Huns. Tycho Braché suffered great persecution for maintaining, that the heavens were so far empty of matter as to give free course to the comets; contrary to Aristotle, who taught, that the heavens are harder than a diamond: it was extremely ill taken, that a simple mortal should pretend to give Aristotle the lie. During the infancy of reason, authority is the prevailing argument.*
Reason is easily warped by habit. In the disputes among the Athenians about adjusting the form of their government, those who lived in the high country were for democracy; the inhabitants of the plains were for oligarchy; and the seamen for monarchy. Shepherds are all equal: in a corncountry, there are a few masters and many servants: on shipboard, there is one commander, and all the rest subjects. Habit was their adviser: none of them thought of consulting reason, in order to judge what was the best form upon the whole. Habit of a different kind has an influence no less powerful. Persons who are in the habit of reasoning, require demonstration for every thing: even a self-evident proposition is not suffered to escape. Such demonstrations occur more than once in the Elements of Euclid, nor has Aristotle, with all his skill in logic, entirely avoided them. Can any thing be more self-evident, than the difference between pleasure and motion? Yet Aristotle attempts to demonstrate, that they are different. “No motion,” says he, “except circular motion, is perfect in any one point of time; there is always something wanting during its course, and it is not perfected till it arrive at its end. But pleasure is perfect in every point of time; being the same from the beginning to the end.” The difference is clear from perception: but instead of being clear from this demonstration, it should rather follow from it, that pleasure is the same with motion in a circle. Plato also attempts to demonstrate a self-evident proposition, that a quality is not a body. “Every body,” says he, “is a subject: quality is not a subject, but an accident; ergo, quality is not a body. Again, A body cannot be in a subject: every quality is in a subject; ergo, quality is not a body.” But Descartes affords the most illustrious instance of the kind. He was the greatest geometer of the age he lived in, and one of the greatest of any age; which insensibly led him to overlook intuitive knowledge, and to admit no proposition but what is demonstrated or proved in the regular form of syllogism. He took a fancy to doubt even of his own existence, till he was convinced of it by the following argument. Cogito, ergo sum: I think, therefore I exist. And what sort of a demonstration is this after all? In the very fundamental proposition he acknowledges his existence by the term I; and how absurd is it, to imagine a proof necessary of what is admitted in the fundamental proposition? In the next place, How does our author know that he thinks? If nothing is to be taken for granted, an argument is no less necessary to prove that he thinks, than to prove that he exists. It is true, that he has intuitive knowledge of his thinking; but has he not the same of his existing? Would not a man deserve to be laughed at, who, after warming himself at a fire, should imagine the following argument necessary to prove its existence, “The fire burns, ergo it exists”? Listen to an author of high reputation attempting to demonstrate a self-evident proposition. “The labour of B cannot be the labour of C; because it is the application of the organs and powers of B, not of C, to the effecting of something; and therefore the labour is as much B’s, as the limbs and faculties made use of are his. Again, the effect or produce of the labour of B, is not the effect of the labour of C: and therefore this effect or produce is B’s, not C’s; as much B’s, as the labour was B’s, and not C’s: Because, what the labour of B causes or produces, B produces by his labour; or it is the product of B by his labour: that is, it is B’s product, not C’s or any other’s. And if C should pretend to any property in that which B can truly call his, he would act contrary to truth” (a) .
In every subject of reasoning, to define terms is necessary in order to avoid mistakes: and the only possible way of defining a term, is to express its meaning in more simple terms. Terms expressing ideas that are simple without parts, admit not of being defined, because there are no terms more simple to express their meaning. To say that every term is capable of a definition, is in effect to say, that terms resemble matter; that as the latter is divisible without end, so the former is reducible into simpler terms without end. The habit however of defining is so inveterate in some men, that they will attempt to define words signifying simple ideas. Is there any necessity to define motion: do not children understand the meaning of the word? And how is it possible to define it, when there are not words more simple to define it by? Yet Worster (a) attempts that bold task. “A continual change of place,” says he, “or leaving one place for another, without remaining for any space of time in the same place, is called motion.” That every body in motion is continually changing place, is true: but change of place is not motion; it is the effect of motion. Gravesend (a) defines motion thus, “Motus est translatio de loco in locum, sive continua loci mutatio”;* which is the same with the former. Yet this very author admits locus or place to signify a simple idea, incapable of a definition. Is it more simple or more intelligible than motion? But, of all, the most remarkable definition of motion is that of Aristotle, famous for its impenetrability, or rather absurdity, “Actus entis in potentia, quatenus in potentia.”† His definition of time is numerus motus secundum prius ac posterius.9 This definition as well as that of motion, may more properly be considered as riddles propounded for exercising invention. Not a few writers on algebra define negative quantities to be quantities less than nothing.
Extension enters into the conception of every particle of matter; because every particle of matter has length, breadth, and thickness. Figure in the same manner enters into the conception of every particle of matter; because every particle of matter is bounded. By the power of abstraction, figure may be conceived independent of the body that is figured; and extension may be conceived independent of the body that is extended. These particulars are abundantly plain and obvious; and yet observe what a heap of jargon is employ’d by the followers of Leibnitz, in their fruitless endeavours to define extension. They begin with simple existences, which they say are unextended, and without parts. According to that definition, simple existences cannot belong to matter, because the smallest particle of matter has both parts and extension. But to let that pass, they endeavour to show as follows, how the idea of extension arises from these simple existences. “We may look upon simple existences, as having mutual relations with respect to their internal state: relations that form a certain order in their manner of existence. And this order or arrangement of things, coexisting and linked toge-ther but so as we do not distinctly understand how, causes in us a confused idea, from whence arises the appearance of extension.” A Peripatetic philosopher being asked, What sort of things the sensible species of Aristotle are, answered, That they are neither entities nor nonentities, but something intermediate between the two. The famous astronomer Ismael Bulialdus lays down the following proposition, and attempts a mathematical demonstration of it, “That light is a mean-proportional between corporeal substance and incorporeal.”
I close with a curious sort of reasoning, so singular indeed as not to come under any of the foregoing heads. The first editions of the latest version of the Bible into English, have the following preface.
Another thing we think good to admonish thee of, gentle reader, that we have not tied ourselves to an uniformity of phrasing, or to an identity of words, as some peradventure would wish that we had done, because they observe, that some learned men somewhere have been as exact as they could be that way. Truly, that we might not vary from the sense of that which we have translated before, if the word signified the same in both places, (for there be some words that be not of the same sense every where), we were especially careful, and made a conscience according to our duty. But that we should express the same notion in the same particular word; as, for example, if we translate the Hebrew or Greek word once by purpose, never to call it intent; if one where journeying, never travelling; if one where think, never suppose; if one where pain, never ache; if one where joy, never gladness, &c.; thus to mince the matter, we thought to favour more of curiosity than wisdom, and that rather it would breed scorn in the Atheist, than bring profit to the godly reader. For is the kingdom of God become words or syllables? Why should we be in bondage to them, if we may be free; use one precisely, when we may use another, no less fit, as commodiously? We might also be charged by scoffers, with some unequal dealing toward a great number of good English words. For as it is written by a certain great philosopher, that he should say, that those logs were happy that were made images to be worshipped; for their fellows, as good as they, lay for blocks behind the fire: so if we should say, as it were, unto certain words, Stand up higher, have a place in the Bible always; and to others of like quality, Get ye hence, be banished for ever, we might be taxed peradventure with St. James his words, namely, to be partial in ourselves, and judges of evil thoughts.
Quaeritur, Can this translation be safely rely’d on as the rule of faith, when such are the translators?
[* ]It has been wisely observed, that truth is the same to the understanding that music is to the ear, or beauty to the eye.
[1. ]This paragraph (with note) added in 2nd edition.
[(a) ]Preliminary Discourse.
[* ]I have given this proposition a place, because it is assumed as an axiom by all writers on natural philosophy. And yet there appears some room for doubting, whether our conviction of it do not proceed from a bias in our nature, rather than from an original sense. Our taste for simplicity, which undoubtedly is natural, renders simple operations more agreeable than what are complex, and consequently makes them appear more natural. It deserves a most serious discussion, whether the operations of nature be always carried on with the greatest simplicity, or whether we be not misled by our taste for simplicity to be of that opinion.
[(a) ]Elements of Criticism, ch. 2. part 1. § 7.
[(a) ]Cicero, De natura Deorum, lib. 2. § 12.
[(a) ]Histoire Ecclesiastique.
[2. ]“It is observed . . . reason commonly suffices”: added in 2nd edition.
[(a) ]Cicero, De natura Deorum, lib. 2. § 12.
[(b) ]Lib. 3. cap. 11.
[3. ]“To convince the . . . to seven churches”: added in 2nd edition.
[(a) ]Sir John Marsham, p. 221.
[4. ]“Plato in his . . . less or more”: added in 2nd edition.
[* ]The original is curious: “Quaternarius enim numerus bene congruit prohibitioni conjugii corporalis; de quo dicit Apostolus, Quod vir non habet potestatem sui corporis, sed mulier; neque mulier habet potestatem sui corporis, sed vir; quia quatuor sunt humores in corpore, quod constat ex quatuor elementis.” Were men who could be guilty of such nonsense, qualified to be our leaders in the most important of all concerns, that of eternal salvation?
[5. ]“The heat of . . . to common sense”: added in 2nd edition.
[(a) ]Hale, Pleas of the Crown, cap. 1. 413.
[(a) ]Elements of Criticism, vol. 1. p. 100. edit. 5.
[(a) ]Preface, § 28.
[(b) ]Part 1. book 1. title 4. § 4.
[* ]Pascal, the celebrated author of Lettres Provinciales, in order to explain the infinity and indivisibility of the Deity, has the following words. “I will show you a thing both infinite and indivisible. It is a point moving with infinite celerity: that point is in all places at once, and entire in every place.” What an absurdity, says Voltaire, to ascribe motion to a mathematical point, that has no existence but in the mind of the geometer! that it can be every where at the same instant, and that it can move with infinite celerity! as if infinite celerity could actually exist. Every word, adds he, is big with absurdity; and yet he was a great man who uttered that stuff.
[(a) ]Genesis, chap. 27.
[* ]Many more are killed by a fall from a horse or by a fever, than by thunder. Yet we are much more afraid of the latter. It is the sound that terrifies; tho’ every man knows that the danger is over when he hears the sound.
[6. ]“The word once sent forth can never come back”: Horace, Ars poetica, l. 390.
[* ]A person unacquainted with the history of law, will imagine that Swift has carried beyond all bounds his satire against lawyers, in saying, that Gulliver had incurred a capital punishment, for saving the Emperor’s palace by pissing out the fire; it being capital in any person of what quality soever, to make water within the precincts of the palace.
[* ]Since the above was written, the parliament has enacted, That persons arraigned for felony or piracy, who stand mute, or refuse to answer directly to the indictment, shall be held as confessing, and judgement shall pass against them, as if they had been convicted by verdict or confession.
[* ]Foreknowledge of future events, differs widely from a conviction, that all events are fixed and immutable: the latter leaves us free to activity; the former annihilates all activity.
[(a) ]See Elements of Criticism, vol. 1. p. 163. ed. 5.
[† ]“Caesar gave me this.”
[(a) ]Prolegomena to his History of the Goths.
[(a) ]Jewish Antiquities, book 3.
[* ]The following precepts of the same philosopher, tho’ now only fit for the Child’s Guide, were originally cherished, and preserved in memory, as emanations of superior wisdom. “Do not enter a temple for worship, but with a decent air. Render not life painful by undertaking too many affairs. Be always ready for what may happen. Never bind yourself by a vow, nor by an oath. Irritate not a man who is angry.” The seven wise men of Greece made a figure in their time; but it would be unreasonable to expect, that what they taught during the infancy of knowledge, should make a figure in its maturity.
[* ]However easy it may be to draw an allegorical meaning out of that fable, I cannot admit any such meaning to have been intended. An allegory is a fable contrived to illustrate some acknowledged truth, by making a deeper impression than the truth would make in plain words; of which we have several beautiful instances in the Spectator (Elements of Criticism, chap. 20. § 6.). But the fable here was understood to be a matter of fact, Minerva being worshipped by the Greeks as a real goddess, the daughter of Jupiter without a mother.
[7. ]Kames draws from Bacon’s De Sapientia Veterum in what follows.
[8. ]Pope, “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, Being a Prologue to the Satires,” ll. 213–14.
[* ]Aristotle, it would appear, was less regarded by his cotemporaries than by the moderns. Some persons having travelled from Macedon all the way to Persia, with complaints against Antipater; Alexander observed, that they would not have made so long a journey had they received no injury. And Cassander, son of Antipater, replying, that their long journey was an argument against them, trusting that witnesses would not be brought from such a distance to give evidence of their calumny; Alexander, smiling, said, “Your argument is one of Aristotle’s sophisms, which will serve either side equally.”
[(a) ][[William Wollaston, Religion of Nature delineated, sect. 6. parag. 2.]]
[(a) ]Natural Philosophy, p. 31.
[(a) ]Elements of Physics, p. 23.
[* ]“Motion is, the removing from one place to another, or a continual change of place.”
[† ]“The action of a being in power, so far as it is in power.”
[9. ]Literally, “the number of motion in respect of the before and after.”