Thoughts on Man - His Nature, Productions and Discoveries, Interspersed with - Some Particulars Respecting the Author
by William Godwin
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(36) See above, Essay 9.

Let us not then disgrace a period of memorable improvement, by combining it with an institution that should mark that we, the great body of the people, regard the more opulent members of the community as our foes. Let us hold out to them the right hand of fellowship; and they will meet us. They will be influenced, partly by ingenuous shame for the unworthy conduct which they and their fathers had so long pursued, and partly by sympathy for the genuine joy and expansion of heart that is spreading itself through the land. Scarcely any one can restrain himself from participating in the happiness of the great body of his countrymen; and, if they see that we treat them with generous confidence, and are unwilling to recur to the memory of former grievances, and that a spirit of philanthropy and unlimited good-will is the sentiment of the day, it can scarcely happen but that their conversion will be complete, and the harmony be made entire(37).

(37) The subject of this Essay is resumed in the close of the following.


The following Essay will be to a considerable degree in the nature of confession, like the Confessions of St. Augustine or of Jean Jacques Rousseau. It may therefore at first sight appear of small intrinsic value, and scarcely worthy of a place in the present series. But, as I have had occasion more than once to remark, we are all of us framed in a great measure on the same model, and the analysis of the individual may often stand for the analysis of a species. While I describe myself therefore, I shall probably at the same time be describing no inconsiderable number of my fellow-beings.

It is true, that the duty of man under the head of Frankness, is of a very comprehensive nature. We ought all of us to tell to our neighbour whatever it may be of advantage to him to know, we ought to be the sincere and zealous advocates of absent merit and worth, and we are bound by every means in our power to contribute to the improvement of others, and to the diffusion of salutary truths through the world.

From the universality of these precepts many readers might be apt to infer, that I am in my own person the bold and unsparing preacher of truth, resolutely giving to every man his due, and, agreeably to the apostle's direction, "instant in season, and out of season." The individual who answers to this description will often be deemed troublesome, often annoying; he will produce a considerable sensation in the circle of those who know him; and it will depend upon various collateral circumstances, whether he shall ultimately be judged a rash and intemperate disturber of the contemplations of his neighbours, or a disinterested and heroic suggester of new veins of thinking, by which his contemporaries and their posterity shall be essentially the gainers.

I have no desire to pass myself upon those who may have any curiosity respecting me for better than I am; and I will therefore here put down a few particulars, which may tend to enable them to form an equitable judgment.

One of the earliest passions of my mind was the love of truth and sound opinion. "Why should I," such was the language of my solitary meditations, "because I was born in a certain degree of latitude, in a certain century, in a country where certain institutions prevail, and of parents professing a certain faith, take it for granted that all this is right?—This is matter of accident. 'Time and chance happeneth to all:' and I, the thinking principle within me, might, if such had been the order of events, have been born under circumstances the very reverse of those under which I was born. I will not, if I can help it, be the creature of accident; I will not, like a shuttle-cock, be at the disposal of every impulse that is given me." I felt a certain disdain for the being thus directed; I could not endure the idea of being made a fool of, and of taking every ignis fatuus for a guide, and every stray notion, the meteor of the day, for everlasting truth. I am the person, spoken of in a preceding Essay(38), who early said to Truth, "Go on: whithersoever thou leadest, I am prepared to follow."

(38) See above, Essay XIII.

During my college-life therefore, I read all sorts of books, on every side of any important question, that were thrown in my way, or that I could hear of. But the very passion that determined me to this mode of proceeding, made me wary and circumspect in coming to a conclusion. I knew that it would, if any thing, be a more censurable and contemptible act, to yield to every seducing novelty, than to adhere obstinately to a prejudice because it had been instilled into me in youth. I was therefore slow of conviction, and by no means "given to change." I never willingly parted with a suggestion that was unexpectedly furnished to me; but I examined it again and again, before I consented that it should enter into the set of my principles.

In proportion however as I became acquainted with truth, or what appeared to me to be truth, I was like what I have read of Melancthon, who, when he was first converted to the tenets of Luther, became eager to go into all companies, that he might make them partakers of the same inestimable treasures, and set before them evidence that was to him irresistible. It is needless to say, that he often encountered the most mortifying disappointment.

Young and eager as I was in my mission, I received in this way many a bitter lesson. But the peculiarity of my temper rendered this doubly impressive to me. I could not pass over a hint, let it come from what quarter it would, without taking it into some consideration, and endeavouring to ascertain the precise weight that was to be attributed to it. It would however often happen, particularly in the question of the claims of a given individual to honour and respect, that I could see nothing but the most glaring injustice in the opposition I experienced. In canvassing the character of an individual, it is not for the most part general, abstract or moral, principles that are called into question: I am left in possession of the premises which taught me to admire the man whose character is contested; and conformably to those premises I see that his claim to the honour I have paid him is fully made out.

In my communications with others, in the endeavour to impart what I deemed to be truth, I began with boldness: but I often found that the evidence that was to me irresistible, was made small account of by others; and it not seldom happened, as candour was my principle, and a determination to receive what could be strewn to be truth, let it come from what quarter it would, that suggestions were presented to me, materially calculated to stagger the confidence with which I had set out. If I had been divinely inspired, if I had been secured by an omniscient spirit against the danger of error, my case would have been different. But I was not inspired. I often encountered an opposition I had not anticipated, and was often presented with objections, or had pointed out to me flaws and deficiencies in my reasonings, which, till they were so pointed out, I had not apprehended. I had not lungs enabling me to drown all contradiction; and, which was still more material, I had not a frame of mind, which should determine me to regard whatever could be urged against me as of no value. I therefore became cautious. As a human creature, I did not relish the being held up to others' or to myself, as rash, inconsiderate and headlong, unaware of difficulties the most obvious, embracing propositions the most untenable, and "against hope believing in hope." And, as an apostle of truth, I distinctly perceived that a reputation for perspicacity and sound judgment was essential to my mission. I therefore often became less a speaker, than a listener, and by no means made it a law with myself to defend principles and characters I honoured, on every occasion on which I might hear them attacked.

A new epoch occurred in my character, when I published, and at the time I was writing, my Enquiry concerning Political Justice. My mind was wrought up to a certain elevation of tone; the speculations in which I was engaged, tending to embrace all that was most important to man in society, and the frame to which I had assiduously bent myself, of giving quarter to nothing because it was old, and shrinking from nothing because it was startling and astounding, gave a new bias to my character. The habit which I thus formed put me more on the alert even in the scenes of ordinary life, and gave me a boldness and an eloquence more than was natural to me. I then reverted to the principle which I stated in the beginning, of being ready to tell my neighbour whatever it might be of advantage to him to know, to shew myself the sincere and zealous advocate of absent merit and worth, and to contribute by every means in my power to the improvement of others and to the diffusion of salutary truth through the world. I desired that every hour that I lived should be turned to the best account, and was bent each day to examine whether I had conformed myself to this rule. I held on this course with tolerable constancy for five or six years: and, even when that constancy abated, it failed not to leave a beneficial effect on my subsequent conduct.

But, in pursuing this scheme of practice, I was acting a part somewhat foreign to my constitution. I was by nature more of a speculative than an active character, more inclined to reason within myself upon what I heard and saw, than to declaim concerning it. I loved to sit by unobserved, and to meditate upon the panorama before me. At first I associated chiefly with those who were more or less admirers of my work; and, as I had risen (to speak in the slang phrase) like "a star" upon my contemporaries without being expected, I was treated generally with a certain degree of deference, or, where not with deference and submission, yet as a person whose opinions and view of things were to be taken into the account. The individuals who most strenuously opposed me, acted with a consciousness that, if they affected to despise me, they must not expect that all the bystanders would participate in that feeling.

But this was to a considerable degree the effect of novelty. My lungs, as I have already said, were not of iron; my manner was not overbearing and despotic; there was nothing in it to deter him who differed from me from entering the field in turn, and telling the tale of his views and judgments in contradiction to mine. I descended into the arena, and stood on a level with the rest. Beyond this, it occasionally happened that, if I had not the stentorian lungs, and the petty artifices of rhetoric and conciliation, that should carry a cause independently of its merits, my antagonists were not deficient in these respects. I had nothing in my favour to balance this, but a sort of constitutional equanimity and imperturbableness of temper, which, if I was at any time silenced, made me not look like a captive to be dragged at the chariot-wheels of my adversary.

All this however had a tendency to subtract from my vocation as a missionary. I was no longer a knight-errant, prepared on all occasions by dint of arms to vindicate the cause of every principle that was unjustly handled, and every character that was wrongfully assailed. Meanwhile I returned to the field, occasionally and uncertainly. It required some provocation and incitement to call me out: but there was the lion, or whatever combative animal may more justly prefigure me, sleeping, and that might be awakened.

There is another feature necessary to be mentioned, in order to make this a faithful representation. There are persons, it should seem, of whom it may be predicated, that they are semper parati. This has by no means been my case. My genius often deserted me. I was far from having the thought, the argument, or the illustration at all times ready, when it was required. I resembled to a certain degree the persons we read of, who are said to be struck as if with a divine judgment. I was for a moment changed into one of the mere herd, de grege porcus. My powers therefore were precarious, and I could not always be the intrepid and qualified advocate of truth, if I vehemently desired it. I have often, a few minutes afterwards, or on my return to my chambers, recollected the train of thinking, which world have strewn me off to advantage, and memorably done me honour, if I could have had it at my command the moment it was wanted.

And so much for confession. I am by no means vindicating myself.

I honour much more the man who is at all times ready to tell his neighbour whatever it may be of advantage to him to know, to shew himself the sincere and untemporising advocate of absent merit and worth, and to contribute by every means in his power to the improvement of others, and to the diffusion of salutary truths through the world.

This is what every man ought to be, and what the best devised scheme of republican institutions would have a tendency to make us all.

But, though the man here described is to a certain degree a deserter of his true place in society, and cannot be admitted to have played his part in all things well, we are by no means to pronounce upon him a more unfavourable judgment than he merits. Diffidence, though, where it disqualifies us in any way from doing justice to truth, either as it respects general principle or individual character, a defect, yet is on no account to be confounded in demerit with that suppression of truth, or misrepresentation, which grows out of actual craft and design.

The diffident man, in some cases seldomer, and in some oftener and in a more glaring manner, deserts the cause of truth, and by that means is the cause of misrepresentation, and indirectly the propagator of falshood. But he is constant and sincere as far as he goes; he never lends his voice to falshood, or intentionally to sophistry; he never for an instant goes over to the enemy's standard, or disgraces his honest front by strewing it in the ranks of tyranny or imposture. He may undoubtedly be accused, to a certain degree, of dissimulation, or throwing into shade the thing that is, but never of simulation, or the pretending the thing to be that is not. He is plain and uniform in every thing that he professes, or to which he gives utterance; but, from timidity or irresolution, he keeps back in part the offering which he owes at the shrine where it is most honourable and glorious for man to worship.

And this brings me back again to the subject of the immediately preceding Essay, the propriety of voting by ballot.

The very essence of this scheme is silence. And this silence is not merely like that which is prompted by a diffident temper, which by fits is practiced by the modest and irresolute man, and by fits disappears before the sun of truth and through the energies of a temporary fortitude. It is uniform. It is not brought into act only, when the individual unhappily does not find in himself the firmness to play the adventurer. It becomes matter of system, and is felt as being recommended to us for a duty.

Nor does the evil stop there. In the course of my ordinary communications with my fellow-men, I speak when I please, and I am silent when I please, and there is nothing specially to be remarked either way. If I speak, I am perhaps listened to; and, if I am silent, it is likely enough concluded that it is because I have nothing of importance to say. But in the question of ballot the case is far otherwise. There it is known that the voter has his secret. When I am silent upon a matter occurring in the usual intercourses of life where I might speak, nay, where we will suppose I ought to speak, I am at least guilty of dissimulation only. But the voter by ballot is strongly impelled to the practice of the more enormous sin of simulation. It is known, as I have said, that he has his secret. And he will often be driven to have recourse to various stratagems, that he may elude the enquirer, or that he may set at fault the sagacity of the silent observer. He has something that he might tell if he would, and he distorts himself in a thousand ways, that he may not betray the hoard which he is known to have in his custody. The institution of ballot is the fruitful parent of ambiguities, equivocations and lies without number.


The subject of this Essay is intimately connected with those of Essays XI and XII, perhaps the most important of the series.

It has been established in the latter, that human creatures are constantly accompanied in their voluntary actions with the delusive sense of liberty, and that our character, our energies, and our conscience of moral right and wrong, are mainly dependent upon this feature in our constitution.

The subject of my present disquisition relates to the feeling of self-approbation or self-complacency, which will be found inseparable from the most honourable efforts and exertions in which mortal men can be engaged.

One of the most striking of the precepts contained in what are called the Golden Verses of Pythagoras, is couched in the words, "Reverence thyself."

The duties which are incumbent on man are of two sorts, negative and positive. We are bound to set right our mistakes, and to correct the evil habits to which we are prone; and we are bound also to be generously ambitious, to aspire after excellence, and to undertake such things as may reflect honour on ourselves, and be useful to others.

To the practice of the former of these classes of duties we may be instigated by prohibitions, menaces and fear, the fear of mischiefs that may fall upon us conformably to the known series of antecedents and consequents in the course of nature, or of mischiefs that may be inflicted on us by the laws of the country in which we live, or as results of the ill will and disapprobation felt towards us by individuals. There is nothing that is necessarily generous or invigorating in the practice of our negative duties. They amount merely to a scheme for keeping us within bounds, and restraining us from those sallies and escapes, which human nature, undisciplined and left to itself, might betray us into. But positive enterprise, and great actual improvement cannot be expected by us in this way. All this is what the apostle refers to, when he speaks of "the law as a schoolmaster to bring us to liberty," after which he advises us "not to be again entangled with the yoke of bondage."

On the other hand, if we would enter ourselves in the race of positive improvement, if we would become familiar with generous sentiments, and the train of conduct which such sentiments inspire, we must provide ourselves with the soil in which such things grow, and engage in the species of husbandry by which they are matured; in other words, we must be no strangers to self-esteem and self-complacency.

The truth of this statement may perhaps be most strikingly illustrated, if we take for our example the progress of schoolboys under a preceptor. A considerable proportion of these are apt, diligent, and desirous to perform the tasks in which they are engaged, so as to satisfy the demands of their masters and parents, and to advance honourably in the path that is recommended to them. And a considerable proportion put themselves on the defensive, and propose to their own minds to perform exactly as much as shall exempt them from censure and punishment, and no more.

Now I say of the former, that they cannot accomplish the purpose they have conceived, unless so far as they are aided by a sentiment of self-reverence.

The difference of the two parties is, that the latter proceed, so far as their studies are concerned, as feeling themselves under the law of necessity, and as if they were machines merely, and the former as if they were under what the apostle calls "the law of liberty."

We cannot perform our tasks to the best of our power, unless we think well of our own capacity.

But this is the smallest part of what is necessary. We must also be in good humour with ourselves. We must say, I can do that which I shall have just occasion to look back upon with satisfaction. It is the anticipation of this result, that stimulates our efforts, and carries us forward. Perseverance is an active principle, and cannot continue to operate but under the influence of desire. It is incompatible with languor and neutrality. It implies the love of glory, perhaps of that glory which shall be attributed to us by others, or perhaps only of that glory which shall be reaped by us in the silent chambers of the mind. The diligent scholar is he that loves himself, and desires to have reason to applaud and love himself. He sits down to his task with resolution, he approves of what he does in each step of the process, and in each enquires, Is this the thing I purposed to effect?

And, as it is with the unfledged schoolboy, after the same manner it is with the man mature. He must have to a certain extent a good opinion of himself, he must feel a kind of internal harmony, giving to the circulations of his frame animation and cheerfulness, or he can never undertake and execute considerable things.

The execution of any thing considerable implies in the first place previous persevering meditation. He that undertakes any great achievement will, according to the vulgar phrase, "think twice," before he buckles up his resolution, and plunges into the ocean, which he has already surveyed with anxious glance while he remained on shore. Let our illustration be the case of Columbus, who, from the figure of the earth, inferred that there must be a way of arriving at the Indies by a voyage directly west, in distinction from the very complicated way hitherto practiced, by sailing up the Mediterranean, crossing the isthmus of Suez, and so falling down the Red Sea into the Indian Ocean. He weighed all the circumstances attendant on such an undertaking in his mind. He enquired into his own powers and resources, imaged to himself the various obstacles that might thwart his undertaking, and finally resolved to engage in it. If Columbus had not entertained a very good opinion of himself, it is impossible that he should have announced such a project, or should have achieved it.

Again. Let our illustration be, of Homer undertaking to compose the Iliad. If he had not believed himself to be a man of very superior powers to the majority of the persons around him, he would most assuredly never have attempted it. What an enterprise! To describe in twenty-four books, and sixteen thousand verses, the perpetual warfare and contention of two great nations, all Greece being armed for the attack, and all the western division of Asia Minor for the defence: the war carried on by two vast confederacies, under numerous chiefs, all sovereign and essentially independent of each other. To conceive the various characters of the different leaders, and their mutual rivalship. To engage all heaven, such as it was then understood, as well as what was most respectable on earth, in the struggle. To form the idea, through twenty-four books, of varying the incidents perpetually, and keeping alive the attention of the reader or hearer without satiety or weariness. For this purpose, and to answer to his conception of a great poem, Homer appears to have thought it necessary that the action should be one; and he therefore took the incidental quarrel of Achilles and the commander in chief, the resentment of Achilles, and his consequent defection from the cause, till, by the death of Patroclus, and then of Hector, all traces of the misunderstanding first, and then of its consequences, should be fully obliterated.

There is further an essential difference between the undertaking of Columbus and that of Homer. Once fairly engaged, there was for Columbus no drawing back. Being already at sea on the great Atlantic Ocean, he could not retrace his steps. Even when he had presented his project to the sovereigns of Spain, and they had accepted it, and still more when the ships were engaged, and the crews mustered, he must go forward, or submit to indelible disgrace.

It is not so in writing a poem. The author of the latter may stop whenever he pleases. Of consequence, during every day of its execution, he requires a fresh stimulus. He must look back on the past, and forward on what is to come, and feel that he has considerable reason to be satisfied. The great naval discoverer may have his intervals of misgiving and discouragement, and may, as Pope expresses it, "wish that any one would hang him." He goes forward; for he has no longer the liberty to choose. But the author of a mighty poem is not in the same manner entangled, and therefore to a great degree returns to his work each day, "screwing his courage to the sticking-place." He must feel the same fortitude and elasticity, and be as entirely the same man of heroic energy, as when he first arrived at the resolution to engage. How much then of self-complacency and self-confidence do his undertaking and performance imply!

I have taken two of the most memorable examples in the catalogue of human achievements: the discovery of a New World, and the production of the Iliad. But all those voluntary actions, or rather series and chains of actions, which comprise energy in the first determination, and honour in the execution, each in its degree rests upon self-complacency as the pillar upon which its weight is sustained, and without which it must sink into nothing.

Self-complacency then being the indispensible condition of all that is honourable in human achievements, hence we may derive a multitude of duties, and those of the most delicate nature, incumbent on the preceptor, as well as a peculiar discipline to be observed by the candidate, both while he is "under a schoolmaster," and afterwards when he is emancipated, and his plan of conduct is to be regulated by his own discretion.

The first duty of the preceptor is encouragement.

Not that his face is to be for ever dressed in smiles, and that his tone is to be at all times that of invitation and courtship. The great theatre of the world is of a mingled constitution, made up of advantages and sufferings; and it is perhaps best that so should be the different scenes of the drama as they pass. The young adventurer is not to expect to have every difficulty smoothed for him by the hand of another. This were to teach him a lesson of effeminacy and cowardice. On the contrary it is necessary that he should learn that human life is a state of hardship, that the adversary we have to encounter does not always present himself with his fangs sheathed in the woolly softness which occasionally renders them harmless, and that nothing great or eminently honourable was ever achieved but through the dint of resolution, energy and struggle. It is good that the winds of heaven should blow upon him, that he should encounter the tempest of the elements, and occasionally sustain the inclemency of the summer's heat and winter's cold, both literally and metaphorically.

But the preceptor, however he conducts himself in other respects, ought never to allow his pupil to despise himself, or to hold himself as of no account. Self-contempt can never be a discipline favourable to energy or to virtue. The pupil ought at all times to judge himself in some degree worthy, worthy and competent now to attempt, and hereafter to accomplish, things deserving of commendation. The preceptor must never degrade his pupil in his own eyes, but on the contrary must teach him that nothing but resolution and perseverance are necessary, to enable him to effect all that the judicious director can expect from him. He should be encouraged through every step of his progress, and specially encouraged when he has gained a certain point, and arrived at an important resting-place. It is thus we are taught the whole circle of what are called accomplishments, dancing, music, fencing, and the rest; and it is surely a strange anomaly, if those things which are most essential in raising the mind to its true standard, cannot be communicated with equal suavity and kindness, be surrounded with allurements, and regarded as sources of pleasure and genuine hilarity.

In the mean time it is to be admitted that every human creature, especially in the season of youth, and not being the victim of some depressing disease either of body or mind, has in him a good obstinate sort of self-complacency, which cannot without much difficulty be eradicated. "Though he falleth seven times, yet will he rise again." And, when we have encountered various mortifications, and have been many times rebuked and inveighed against, we nevertheless recover our own good opinion, and are ready to enter into a fresh contention for the prize, if not in one kind, then in another.

It is in allusion to this feature in the human character, that we have an expressive phrase in the English language,—"to break the spirit." The preceptor may occasionally perhaps prescribe to the pupil a severe task; and the young adventurer may say, Can I be expected to accomplish this? But all must be done in kindness. The generous attempter must be reminded of the powers he has within him, perhaps yet unexercised; with cheering sounds his progress must be encouraged; and, above all, the director of the course must take care not to tax him beyond his strength. And, be it observed, that the strength of a human creature is to be ascertained by two things; first, the abstract capacity, that the thing required is not beyond the power of a being so constituted to perform; and, secondly, we must take into the account his past achievements, the things he has already accomplished, and not expect that he is at once to overleap a thousand obstacles.

For there is such a thing as a broken spirit. I remember a boy who was my schoolfellow, that, having been treated with uncalled for severity, never appeared afterwards in the scene of instruction, but with a neglected appearance, and the articles of his dress scarcely half put on. I was very young at the time, and viewed only the outside of things. I cannot tell whether he had any true ambition previously to his disgrace, but I am sure he never had afterwards.

How melancholy an object is the man, who, "for the privilege to breathe, bears up and down the city

A discontented and repining spirit Burthensome to itself,"

incapable of enterprise, listless, with no courage to undertake, and no anticipation of the practicability of success and honour! And this spectacle is still more affecting, when the subject shall be a human creature in the dawn of youth, when nature opens to him a vista of beauty and fruition on every side, and all is encouraging, redolent of energy and enterprise!

To break the spirit of a man, bears a considerable resemblance to the breaking the main spring, or principal movement, of a complicated and ingeniously constructed machine. We cannot tell when it is to happen; and it comes at last perhaps at the time that it is least expected. A judicious superintendent therefore will be far from trying consequences in his office, and will, like a man walking on a cliff whose extremes are ever and anon crumbling away and falling into the ocean, keep much within the edge, and at a safe distance from the line of danger.

But this consideration has led me much beyond the true subject of this Essay. The instructor of youth, as I have already said, is called upon to use all his skill, to animate the courage, and maintain the cheerfulness and self-complacency of his pupil. And, as such is the discipline to be observed to the candidate, while he is "under a schoolmaster," so, when he is emancipated, and his plan of conduct is to be regulated by his own discretion, it is necessary that he should carry forward the same scheme, and cultivate that tone of feeling, which should best reconcile him to himself, and, by teaching him to esteem himself and bear in mind his own value, enable him to achieve things honourable to his character, and memorably useful to others. Melancholy, and a disposition anticipating evil are carefully to be guarded against, by him who is desirous to perform his part well on the theatre of society. He should habitually meditate all cheerful things, and sing the song of battle which has a thousand times spurred on his predecessors to victory. He should contemplate the crown that awaits him, and say to himself, I also will do my part, and endeavour to enrol myself in the select number of those champions, of whom it has been predicated that they were men, of whom, compared with the herd of ordinary mortals, "the world," the species among whom they were rated, "was not worthy."

Another consideration is to be recollected here. Without self-complacency in the agent no generous enterprise is to be expected, and no train of voluntary actions, such as may purchase honour to the person engaged in them.

But, beside this, there is no true and substantial happiness but for the self-complacent. "The good man," as Solomon says, "is satisfied from himself." The reflex act is inseparable from the constitution of the human mind. How can any one have genuine happiness, unless in proportion as he looks round, and, "behold! every thing is very good?" This is the sunshine of the soul, the true joy, that gives cheerfulness to all our circulations, and makes us feel ourselves entire and complete. What indeed is life, unless so far as it is enjoyed? It does not merit the name. If I go into a school, and look round on a number of young faces, the scene is destitute of its true charm, unless so far as I see inward peace and contentment on all sides. And, if we require this eminently in the young, neither can it be less essential, when in growing manhood we have the real cares of the world to contend with, or when in declining age we need every auxiliary to enable us to sustain our infirmities.

But, before I conclude my remarks on this subject, it is necessary that I should carefully distinguish between the thesis, that self-complacency is the indispensible condition of all that is honourable in human achievements, and the proposition contended against in Essay XI, that "self-love is the source of all our actions." Self-complacency is indeed the feeling without which we cannot proceed in an honourable course; but is far from being the motive that impels us to act. The motive is in the real nature and absolute properties of the good thing that is proposed to our choice: we seek the happiness of another, because his happiness is the object of our desire. Self-complacency may be likened to the bottle-holder in one of those contentions for bodily prowess, so characteristic of our old English manners. The bottle-holder is necessary to supply the combatant with refreshment, and to encourage him to persist; but it would be most unnatural to regard him as the cause of the contest. No: the parties have found reason for competition, they apprehend a misunderstanding or a rivalry impossible to be settled but by open contention, and the putting forth of mental and corporeal energy; and the bottle-holder is an auxiliary called in afterwards, his interference implying that the parties have already a motive to act, and have thrown down the gauntlet in token of the earnest good-will which animates them to engage.


The following remarks can pretend to be nothing more than a few loose and undigested thoughts upon a subject, which has recently occupied the attention of many men, and obtained an extraordinary vogue in the world. It were to be wished, that the task had fallen into the hands of a writer whose studies were more familiar with all the sciences which bear more or less on the topic I propose to consider: but, if abler and more competent men pass it by, I feel disposed to plant myself in the breach, and to offer suggestions which may have the fortune to lead others, better fitted for the office than myself, to engage in the investigation. One advantage I may claim, growing out of my partial deficiency. It is known not to be uncommon for a man to stand too near to the subject of his survey, to allow him to obtain a large view of it in all its bearings. I am no anatomist: I simply take my stand upon the broad ground of the general philosophy of man.

It is a very usual thing for fanciful theories to have their turn amidst the eccentricities of the human mind, and then to be heard of no more. But it is perhaps no ill occupation, now and then, for an impartial observer, to analyse these theories, and attempt to blow away the dust which will occasionally settle on the surface of science. If phrenology, as taught by Gall and Spurzheim, be a truth, I shall probably render a service to that truth, by endeavouring to shew where the edifice stands in need of more solid supports than have yet been assigned to it. If it be a falshood, the sooner it is swept away to the gulph of oblivion the better. Let the inquisitive and the studious fix their minds on more substantial topics, instead of being led away by gaudy and deceitful appearances. The human head, that crowning capital of the column of man, is too interesting a subject, to be the proper theme of every dabbler. And it is obvious, that the professors of this so called discovery, if they be rash and groundless in their assertions, will be in danger of producing momentous errors, of exciting false hopes never destined to be realised, and of visiting with pernicious blasts the opening buds of excellence, at the time when they are most exposed to the chance of destruction.

I shall set out with acknowledging, that there is, as I apprehend, a science in relation to the human head, something like what Plato predicates of the statue hid in a block of marble. It is really contained in the block; but it is only the most consummate sculptor, that can bring it to the eyes of men, and free it from all the incumbrances, which, till he makes application of his art to it, surround the statue, and load it with obscurities and disfigurement. The man, who, without long study and premeditation, rushes in at once, and expects to withdraw the curtain, will only find himself disgraced by the attempt.

There is a passage in an acute writer(39), whose talents singularly fitted him, even when he appeared totally immerged in mummery and trifles, to illustrate the most important truths, that is applicable to the point I am considering.

(39) Sterne, Tristram Shandy, Vol. 1.

"Pray, what was that man's name,—for I write in such a hurry, I have no time to recollect or look for it,—who first made the observation, 'That there was great inconstancy in our air and climate?' Whoever he was, it was a just and good observation in him. But the corollary drawn from it, namely, 'That it is this which has furnished us with such a variety of odd and whimsical characters;'—that was not his;—it was found out by another man, at least a century and a half after him. Then again, that this copious storehouse of original materials is the true and natural cause that our comedies are so much better than those of France, or any others that have or can be wrote upon the continent;—that discovery was not fully made till about the middle of king William's reign, when the great Dryden, in writing one of his long prefaces (if I mistake not), most fortunately hit upon it. Then, fourthly and lastly, that this strange irregularity in our climate, producing so strange an irregularity in our characters, cloth thereby in some sort make us amends, by giving us somewhat to make us merry with, when the weather will not suffer us to go out of doors,—that observation is my own; and was struck out by me this very rainy day, March 26, 1759, and betwixt the hour of nine and ten in the morning.

"Thus—thus, my fellow-labourers and associates in this great harvest of our learning, now ripening before our eyes; thus it is, by slow steps of casual increase, that our knowledge physical, metaphysical, physiological, polemical, nautical, mathematical, aenigmatical, technical, biographical, romantical, chemical, and obstetrical, with fifty other branches of it, (most of them ending, as these do, in ical,) has, for these two last centuries and more, gradually been creeping upwards towards that acme of their perfections, from which, if we may form a conjecture from the advantages of these last seven years, we cannot possibly be far off."

Nothing can be more true, than the proposition ludicrously illustrated in this passage, that real science is in most instances of slow growth, and that the discoveries which are brought to perfection at once, are greatly exposed to the suspicion of quackery. Like the ephemeron fly, they are born suddenly, and may be expected to die as soon.

Lavater, the well known author of Essays on Physiognomy, appears to have been born seventeen years before the birth of Gall. He attempted to reduce into a system the indications of human character that are to be found in the countenance. Physiognomy, as a subject of ingenious and probable conjecture, was well known to the ancients. But the test, how far any observations that have been made on the subject are worthy the name of a science, will lie in its application by the professor to a person respecting whom he has had no opportunity of previous information. Nothing is more easy, when a great warrior, statesman, poet, philosopher or philanthropist is explicitly placed before us, than for the credulous inspector or fond visionary to examine the lines of his countenance, and to point at the marks which should plainly shew us that he ought to have been the very thing that he is. This is the very trick of gipsies and fortune-tellers. But who ever pointed to an utter stranger in the street, and said, I perceive by that man's countenance that he is one of the great luminaries of the world? Newton, or Bacon, or Shakespear would probably have passed along unheeded. Instances of a similar nature occur every day. Hence it plainly appears that, whatever may hereafter be known on the subject, we can scarcely to the present time be said to have overstepped the threshold. And yet nothing can be more certain than that there is a science of physiognomy, though to make use of an illustration already cited, it has not to this day been extricated out of the block of marble in which it is hid. Human passions, feelings and modes of thinking leave their traces on the countenance: but we have not, thus far, left the dame's school in this affair, and are not qualified to enter ourselves in the free-school for more liberal enquiries.

The writings of Lavater on the subject of physiognomy are couched in a sort of poetic prose, overflowing with incoherent and vague exclamations, and bearing small resemblance to a treatise in which the elements of science are to be developed. Their success however was extraordinary; and it was probably that success, which prompted Gall first to turn his attention from the indications of character that are to be found in the face of man, to the study of the head generally, as connected with the intellectual and moral qualities of the individual.

It was about four years before the commencement of the present century, that Gall appears to have begun to deliver lectures on the structure and external appearances of the human head. He tells us, that his attention was first called to the subject in the ninth year of his age (that is, in the year 1767), and that he spent thirty years in the private meditation of his system, before he began to promulgate it. Be that as it will, its most striking characteristic is that of marking out the scull into compartments, in the same manner as a country delineated on a map is divided into districts, and assigning a different faculty or organ to each. In the earliest of these diagrams that has fallen under my observation, the human scull is divided into twenty-seven compartments.

I would say of craniology, as I have already said of physiognomy, that there is such a science attainable probably by man, but that we have yet made scarcely any progress in the acquiring it. As certain lines in the countenance are indicative of the dispositions of the man, so it is reasonable to believe that a certain structure of the head is in correspondence with the faculties and propensities of the individual.

Thus far we may probably advance without violating a due degree of caution. But there is a wide distance between this general statement, and the conduct of the man who at once splits the human head into twenty-seven compartments.

The exterior appearance of the scull is affirmed to correspond with the structure of the brain beneath. And nothing can be more analogous to what the deepest thinkers have already confessed of man, than to suppose that there is one structure of the brain better adapted for intellectual purposes than another. There is probably one structure better adapted than another, for calculation, for poetry, for courage, for cowardice, for presumption, for diffidence, for roughness, for tenderness, for self-control and the want of it. Even as some have inherently a faculty adapted for music or the contrary(40).

(40) See above, Essay II.

But it is not reasonable to believe that we think of calculation with one portion of the brain, and of poetry with another.

It is very little that we know of the nature of matter; and we are equally ignorant as to the substance, whatever it is, in which the thinking principle in man resides. But, without adventuring in any way to dogmatise on the subject, we find so many analogies between the thinking principle, and the structure of what we call the brain, that we cannot but regard the latter as in some way the instrument of the former.

Now nothing can be more certain respecting the thinking principle, than its individuality. It has been said, that the mind can entertain but one thought at one time; and certain it is, from the nature of attention, and from the association of ideas, that unity is one of the principal characteristics of mind. It is this which constitutes personal identity; an attribute that, however unsatisfactory may be the explanations which have been given respecting it, we all of us feel, and that lies at the foundation of all our voluntary actions, and all our morality.

Analogous to this unity of thought and mind, is the arrangement of the nerves and the brain in the human body. The nerves all lead up to the brain; and there is a centrical point in the brain itself, in which the reports of the senses terminate, and at which the action of the will may be conceived to begin. This, in the language of our fathers, was called the "seat of the soul."

We may therefore, without departing from the limits of a due caution and modesty, consider this as the throne before which the mind holds its court. Hither the senses bring in their reports, and hence the sovereign will issues his commands. The whole system appears to be conducted through the instrumentality of the nerves, along whose subtle texture the feelings and impressions are propagated. Between the reports of the senses and the commands of the will, intervenes that which is emphatically the office of the mind, comprising meditation, reflection, inference and judgment. How these functions are performed we know not; but it is reasonable to believe that the substance of the brain or of some part of the brain is implicated in them.

Still however we must not lose sight of what has been already said, that in the action of the mind unity is an indispensible condition. Our thoughts can only hold their council and form their decrees in a very limited region. This is their retreat and strong hold; and the special use and functions of the remoter parts of the brain we are unable to determine; so utterly obscure and undefined is our present knowledge of the great ligament which binds together the body and the thinking principle.

Enough however results from this imperfect view of the ligament, to demonstrate the incongruity and untenableness of a doctrine which should assign the indications of different functions, exercises and propensities of the mind to the exterior surface of the scull or the brain. This is quackery, and is to be classed with chiromancy, augury, astrology, and the rest of those schemes for discovering the future and unknown, which the restlessness and anxiety of the human mind have invented, built upon arbitrary principles, blundered upon in the dark, and having no resemblance to the march of genuine science. I find in sir Thomas Browne the following axioms of chiromancy: "that spots in the tops of the nails do signifie things past; in the middle, things present; and at the bottom, events to come: that white specks presage our felicity; blue ones our misfortunes: that those in the nails of the thumb have significations of honour, in the forefinger, of riches, and so respectively in the rest."

Science, to be of a high and satisfactory character, ought to consist of a deduction of causes and effects, shewing us not merely that a thing is so, but why it is as it is, and cannot be otherwise. The rest is merely empirical; and, though the narrowness of human wit may often drive us to this; yet it is essentially of a lower order and description. As it depends for its authority upon an example, or a number of examples, so examples of a contrary nature may continually come in, to weaken its force, or utterly to subvert it. And the affair is made still worse, when we see, as in the case of craniology, that all the reasons that can be deduced (as here from the nature of mind) would persuade us to believe, that there can be no connection between the supposed indications, and the things pretended to be indicated.

Craniology, or phrenology, proceeds exactly in the same train, as chiromancy, or any of those pretended sciences which are built merely on assumption or conjecture. The first delineations presented to the public, marked out, as I have said, the scull into compartments, in the same manner as a country delineated on a map is divided into districts. Geography is a real science, and accordingly, like other sciences, has been slow and gradual in its progress. At an early stage travellers knew little more than the shores and islands of the Mediterranean. Afterwards, they passed the straits of Hercules, and entered into the Atlantic. At length the habitable world was distributed into three parts, Europe, Asia, and Africa. More recently, by many centuries, came the discovery of America. It is but the other day comparatively, that we found the extensive island of New Holland in the Southern Ocean. The ancient geographers placed an elephant or some marine monster in the vacant parts of their maps, to signify that of these parts they knew nothing. Not so Dr. Gall. Every part of his globe of the human Scull, at least with small exceptions, is fully tenanted; and he, with his single arm, has conquered a world.

The majority of the judgments that have been divulged by the professors of this science, have had for their subjects the sculls of men, whose habits and history have been already known. And yet with this advantage the errors and contradictions into which their authors have fallen are considerably numerous. Thus I find, in the account of the doctor's visit to the House of Correction and the Hospital of Torgau in July 1805, the following examples.

"Every person was desirous to know what Dr. Gall would say about T—, who was known in the house as a thief full of cunning, and who, having several times made his escape, wore an additional iron. It was surprising, that he saw in him far less of the organ of cunning, than in many of the other prisoners. However it was proved, that examples, and conversation with other thieves in the house, had suggested to him the plan for his escape, and that the stupidity which he possesses was the cause of his being retaken."

"We were much surprised to be told, that M., in whom Dr. Gall had not discovered the organ of representation, possessed extraordinary abilities in imitating the voice of animals; but we were convinced after enquiries, that his talent was not a natural one, but acquired by study. He related to us that, when he was a Prussian soldier garrisoned at Berlin, he used to deceive the waiting women in the Foundling Hospital by imitating the voice of exposed infants, and sometimes counterfeited the cry of a wild drake, when the officers were shooting ducks."

"Of another Dr. Gall said, His head is a pattern of inconstancy and confinement, and there appears not the least mark of the organ of courage. This rogue had been able to gain a great authority among his fellow-convicts. How is this to be reconciled with the want of constancy which his organisation plainly indicates? Dr. Gall answered, He gained his ascendancy not by courage, but by cunning."

It is well known, that in Thurtel, who was executed for one of the most cold-blooded and remorseless murders ever heard of, the phrenologists found the organ of benevolence uncommonly large.

In Spurzheim's delineation of the human head I find six divisions of organs marked out in the little hemisphere over the eye, indicating six different dispositions. Must there not be in this subtle distribution much of what is arbitrary and sciolistic?

It is to be regretted, that no person skilful in metaphysics, or the history of the human mind, has taken a share in this investigation. Many errors and much absurdity would have been removed from the statements of these theorists, if a proper division had been made between those attributes and propensities, which by possibility a human creature may bring into the world with him, and those which, being the pure growth of the arbitrary institutions of society, must be indebted to those institutions for their origin. I have endeavoured in a former Essay(41) to explain this distinction, and to shew how, though a human being cannot be born with an express propensity towards any one of the infinite pursuits and occupations which may be found in civilised society, yet that he may be fitted by his external or internal structure to excel in some one of those pursuits rather than another. But all this is overlooked by the phrenologists. They remark the various habits and dispositions, the virtues and the vices, that display themselves in society as now constituted, and at once and without consideration trace them to the structure that we bring into the world with us.

(41) See above, Essay II.

Certainly many of Gall's organs are a libel upon our common nature. And, though a scrupulous and exact philosopher will perhaps confess that he has little distinct knowledge as to the design with which "the earth and all that is therein" were made, yet he finds in it so much of beauty and beneficent tendency, as will make him extremely reluctant to believe that some men are born with a decided propensity to rob, and others to murder. Nor can any thing be more ludicrous than this author's distinction of the different organs of memory—of things, of places, of names, of language, and of numbers: organs, which must be conceived to be given in the first instance long before names or language or numbers had an existence. The followers of Gall have in a few instances corrected this: but what their denominations have gained in avoiding the grossest absurdities of their master, they have certainly lost in explicitness and perspicuity.

There is a distinction, not unworthy to be attended to, that is here to be made between Lavater's system of physiognomy, and Gall's of craniology, which is much in favour of the former. The lines and characteristic expressions of the face which may so frequently be observed, are for the most part the creatures of the mind. This is in the first place a mode of observation more agreeable to the pride and conscious elevation of man, and is in the next place more suitable to morality, and the vindication of all that is most admirable in the system of the universe. It is just, that what is most frequently passing in the mind, and is entertained there with the greatest favour, should leave its traces upon the countenance. It is thus that the high and exalted philosopher, the poet, and the man of benevolence and humanity are sometimes seen to be such by the bystander and the stranger. While the malevolent, the trickish, and the grossly sensual, give notice of what they are by the cast of their features, and put their fellow-creatures upon their guard, that they may not be made the prey of these vices.

But the march of craniology or phrenology, by whatever name it is called, is directly the reverse of this. It assigns to us organs, as far as the thing is explained by the professors either to the public or to their own minds, which are entailed upon us from our birth, and which are altogether independent, or nearly so, of any discipline or volition that can be exercised by or upon the individual who drags their intolerable chain. Thus I am told of one individual that he wants the organ of colour; and all the culture in the world can never supply that defect, and enable him to see colour at all, or to see it as it is seen by the rest of mankind. Another wants the organ of benevolence; and his case is equally hopeless. I shrink from considering the condition of the wretch, to whom nature has supplied the organs of theft and murder in full and ample proportions. The case is like that of astrology

(Their stars are more in fault than they),

with this aggravation, that our stars, so far as the faculty of prediction had been supposed to be attained, swayed in few things; but craniology climbs at once to universal empire; and in her map, as I have said, there are no vacant places, no unexplored regions and happy wide-extended deserts.

It is all a system of fatalism. Independently of ourselves, and far beyond our control, we are reserved for good or for evil by the predestinating spirit that reigns over all things. Unhappy is the individual who enters himself in this school. He has no consolation, except the gratified wish to know distressing truths, unless we add to this the pride of science, that he has by his own skill and application purchased for himself the discernment which places him in so painful a preeminence. The great triumph of man is in the power of education, to improve his intellect, to sharpen his perceptions, and to regulate and modify his moral qualities. But craniology reduces this to almost nothing, and exhibits us for the most part as the helpless victims of a blind and remorseless destiny.

In the mean time it is happy for us, that, as this system is perhaps the most rigorous and degrading that was ever devised, so it is in almost all instances founded upon arbitrary assumptions and confident assertion, totally in opposition to the true spirit of patient and laborious investigation and sound philosophy.

It is in reality very little that we know of the genuine characters of men. Every human creature is a mystery to his fellow. Every human character is made up of incongruities. Of nearly all the great personages in history it is difficult to say what was decidedly the motive in which their actions and system of conduct originated. We study what they did, and what they said; but in vain. We never arrive at a full and demonstrative conclusion. In reality no man can be certainly said to know himself. "The heart of man is deceitful above all things."

But these dogmatists overlook all those difficulties, which would persuade a wise man to suspend his judgment, and induce a jury of philosophers to hesitate for ever as to the verdict they would pronounce. They look only at the external character of the act by which a man honours or disgraces himself. They decide presumptuously and in a lump, This man is a murderer, a hero, a coward, the slave of avarice, or the votary of philanthropy; and then, surveying the outside of his head, undertake to find in him the configuration that should indicate these dispositions, and must be found in all persons of a similar character, or rather whose acts bear the same outward form, and seem analogous to his.

Till we have discovered the clue that should enable us to unravel the labyrinth of the human mind, it is with small hopes of success that we should expect to settle the external indications, and decide that this sort of form and appearance, and that class of character, will always be found together.

But it is not to be wondered at, that these disorderly fragments of a shapeless science should become the special favourites of the idle and the arrogant. Every man (and every woman), however destitute of real instruction, and unfitted for the investigation of the deep or the sublime mysteries of our nature, can use his eyes and his hands. The whole boundless congregation of mankind, with its everlasting varieties, is thus at once subjected to the sentence of every pretender:

And fools rush in, where angels fear to tread.

Nothing is more delightful to the headlong and presumptuous, than thus to sit in judgment on their betters, and pronounce ex cathedra on those, "whose shoe-latchet they are not worthy to stoop down and unloose." I remember, after lord George Gordon's riots, eleven persons accused were set down in one indictment for their lives, and given in charge to one jury. But this is a mere shadow, a nothing, compared with the wholesale and indiscriminating judgment of the vulgar phrenologist.



It can scarcely be imputed to me as profane, if I venture to put down a few sceptical doubts on the science of astronomy. All branches of knowledge are to be considered as fair subjects of enquiry: and he that has never doubted, may be said, in the highest and strictest sense of the word, never to have believed.

The first volume that furnished to me the groundwork of the following doubts, was the book commonly known by the name of Guthrie's Geographical Grammar, many parts and passages of which engaged my attention in my own study, in the house of a rural schoolmaster, in the year 1772. I cannot therefore proceed more fairly than by giving here an extract of certain passages in that book, which have relation to the present subject. I know not how far they have been altered in the edition of Guthrie which now lies before me, from the language of the book then in my possession; but I feel confident that in the main particulars they continue the same(42).

(42) The article Astronomy, in this book, appears to have been written by the well known James Ferguson.

"In passing rapidly over the heavens with his new telescope, the universe increased under the eye of Herschel; 44,000 stars, seen in the space of a few degrees, seemed to indicate that there were seventy-five millions in the heavens. But what are all these, when compared with those that fill the whole expanse, the boundless field of aether?

"The immense distance of the fixed stars from our earth, and from each other, is of all considerations the most proper for raising our ideas of the works of God. Modern discoveries make it probable that each of these stars is a sun, having planets and comets revolving round it, as our sun has the earth and other planets revolving round him.—A ray of light, though its motion is so quick as to be commonly thought instantaneous, takes up more time in travelling from the stars to us, than we do in making a West-India voyage. A sound, which, next to light, is considered as the quickest body we are acquainted with, would not arrive to us from thence in 50,000 years. And a cannon-ball, flying at the rate of 480 miles an hour, would not reach us in 700,000 years.

"From what we know of our own system, it may be reasonably concluded, that all the rest are with equal wisdom contrived, situated, and provided with accommodations for rational inhabitants.

"What a sublime idea does this suggest to the human imagination, limited as are its powers, of the works of the Creator! Thousands and thousands of suns, multiplied without end, and ranged all around us, at immense distances from each other, attended by ten thousand times ten thousand worlds, all in rapid motion, yet calm, regular and harmonious, invariably keeping the paths prescribed them: and these worlds peopled with myriads of intelligent beings, formed for endless progression in perfection and felicity!"

The thought that would immediately occur to a dispassionate man in listening to this statement, would be, What a vast deal am I here called on to believe!

Now the first rule of sound and sober judgment, in encountering any story, is that, in proportion to the magnitude and seemingly incredible nature of the propositions tendered to our belief, should be the strength and impregnable nature of the evidence by which those propositions are supported.

It is not here, as in matters of religion, that we are called upon by authority from on high to believe in mysteries, in things above our reason, or, as it may be, contrary to our reason. No man pretends to a revelation from heaven of the truths of astronomy. They have been brought to light by the faculties of the human mind, exercised upon such facts and circumstances as our industry has set before us.

To persons not initiated in the rudiments of astronomical science, they rest upon the great and high-sounding names of Galileo, Kepler, Halley and Newton. But, though these men are eminently entitled to honour and gratitude from their fellow-mortals, they do not stand altogether on the same footing as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, by whose pens has been recorded "every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God."

The modest enquirer therefore, without pretending to put himself on an equality with these illustrious men, may be forgiven, when he permits himself to suggest a few doubts, and presumes to examine the grounds upon which he is called upon to believe all that is contained in the above passages.

Now the foundations upon which astronomy, as here delivered, is built, are, first, the evidence of our senses, secondly, the calculations of the mathematician, and, in the third place, moral considerations. These have been denominated respectively, practical astronomy, scientific, and theoretical.

As to the first of these, it is impossible for us on this occasion not to recollect what has so often occurred as to have grown into an every-day observation, of the fallibility of our senses.

It may be doubted however whether this is a just statement. We are not deceived by our senses, but deceived in the inference we make from our sensations. Our sensations respecting what we call the external world, are chiefly those of length, breadth and solidity, hardness and softness, heat and cold, colour, smell, sound and taste. The inference which the generality of mankind make in relation to these sensations is, that there is something out of ourselves corresponding to the impressions we receive; in other words, that the causes of our sensations are like to the sensations themselves. But this is, strictly speaking, an inference; and, if the cause of a sensation is not like the sensation, it cannot precisely be affirmed that our senses deceive us. We know what passes in the theatre of the mind; but we cannot be said absolutely to know any thing, more.

Modern philosophy has taught us, in certain cases, to controvert the position, that the causes of our sensations are like to the sensations themselves. Locke in particular has called the attention of the reasoning part of mankind to the consideration, that heat and cold, sweet and bitter, and odour offensive or otherwise, are perceptions, which imply a percipient being, and cannot exist in inanimate substances. We might with equal propriety ascribe pain to the whip that beats us, or pleasure to the slight alternation of contact in the person or thing that tickles us, as suppose that heat and cold, or taste, or smell are any thing but sensations.

The same philosophers who have called our attention to these remarks, have proceeded to shew that the causes of our sensations of sound and colour have no precise correspondence, do not tally with the sensations we receive. Sound is the result of a percussion of the air. Colour is produced by the reflection of the rays of light; so that the same object, placed in a position, different as to the spectator, but in itself remaining unaltered, will produce in him a sensation of different colours, or shades of colour, now blue, now green, now brown, now black, and so on. This is the doctrine of Newton, as well as of Locke.

It follows that, if there were no percipient being to receive these sensations, there would be no heat or cold, no taste, no smell, no sound, and no colour.

Aware of this difference between our sensations in certain cases and the causes of these sensations, Locke has divided the qualities of substances in the material universe into primary and secondary, the sensations we receive of the primary representing the actual qualities of material substances, but the sensations we receive of what he calls the secondary having no proper resemblance to the causes that produce them.

Now, if we proceed in the spirit of severe analysis to examine the primary qualities of matter, we shall not perhaps find so marked a distinction between those and the secondary, as the statement of Locke would have led us to imagine.

The Optics of Newton were published fourteen years later than Locke's Essay concerning Human Understanding.

In endeavouring to account for the uninterrupted transmission of rays of light through transparent substances, however hard they may be found to be, Newton has these observations.

"Bodies are much more rare and porous, than is commonly believed. Water is nineteen times lighter, and by consequence nineteen times rarer, than gold; and gold is so rare, as very readily, and without the least opposition, to transmit the magnetic effluvia, and easily to admit quicksilver into its pores, and to let water pass through it. From all which we may conclude, that gold has more pores than solid parts, and by consequence that water has above forty times more pores than parts. And he that shall find out an hypothesis, by which water may be so rare, and yet not capable of compression by force, may doubtless, by the same hypothesis, make gold, and water, and all other bodies, as much rarer as he pleases, so that light may find a ready passage through transparent substances(43)."

(43) Newton, Optics, Book II, Part III, Prop. viii.

Again: "The colours of bodies arise from the magnitude of the particles that reflect them. Now, if we conceive these particles of bodies to be so disposed among themselves, that the intervals, or empty spaces between them, may be equal in magnitude to them all; and that these particles may be composed of other particles much smaller, which have as much empty space between them as equals all the magnitudes of these smaller particles; and that in like manner these smaller particles are again composed of others much smaller, all which together are equal to all the pores, or empty spaces, between them; and so on perpetually till you come to solid particles, such as have no pores, or empty spaces within them: and if in any gross body there be, for instance, three such degrees of particles, the least of which are solid; this body will have seven times more pores than solid parts. But if there be four such degrees of particles, the least of which are solid, the body will have fifteen times more pores than solid parts. If there be five degrees, the body will have one and thirty times more pores than solid parts. If six degrees, the body will have sixty and three times more pores than solid parts. And so on perpetually(44)."

(44) Ibid.

In the Queries annexed to the Optics, Newton further suggests an opinion, that the rays of light are repelled by bodies without immediate contact. He observes that:

"Where attraction ceases, there a repulsive virtue ought to succeed. And that there is such a virtue, seems to follow from the reflexions and inflexions of the rays of light. For the rays are repelled by bodies, in both these cases, without the immediate contact of the reflecting or inflecting body. It seems also to follow from the emission of light; the ray, so soon as it is shaken off from a shining body by the vibrating motion of the parts of the body, and gets beyond the reach of attraction, being driven away with exceeding great velocity. For that force, which is sufficient to turn it back in reflexion, may be sufficient to emit it. It seems also to follow from the production of air and vapour: the particles, when they are shaken off from bodies by heat or fermentation, so soon as they are beyond the reach of the attraction of the body, receding from it and also from one another, with great strength; and keeping at a distance, so as sometimes to take up a million of times more space than they did before, in the form of a dense body."

Newton was of opinion that matter was made up, in the last resort, of exceedingly small solid particles, having no pores, or empty spaces within them. Priestley, in his Disquisitions relating to Matter and Spirit, carries the theory one step farther; and, as Newton surrounds his exceedingly small particles with spheres of attraction and repulsion, precluding in all cases their actual contact, Priestley is disposed to regard the centre of these spheres as mathematical points only. If there is no actual contact, then by the very terms no two particles of matter were ever so near to each other, but that they might be brought nearer, if a sufficient force could be applied for that purpose. You had only another sphere of repulsion to conquer; and, as there never is actual contact, the whole world is made up of one sphere of repulsion after another, without the possibility of ever arriving at an end.

"The principles of the Newtonian philosophy," says our author, "were no sooner known, than it was seen how few in comparison, of the phenomena of nature, were owing to solid matter, and how much to powers, which were only supposed to accompany and surround the solid parts of matter. It has been asserted, and the assertion has never been disproved, that for any thing we know to the contrary, all the solid matter in the solar system might be contained within a nutshell(45)."

(45) Priestley, Disquisitions, Section II. I know not by whom this illustration was first employed. Among other authors, I find, in Fielding (Joseph Andrews, Book II, Chap. II), a sect of philosophers spoken of, who "can reduce all the matter of the world into a nutshell."

It is then with senses, from the impressions upon which we are impelled to draw such false conclusions, and that present us with images altogether unlike any thing that exists out of ourselves, that we come to observe the phenomena of what we call the universe. The first observation that it is here incumbent on us to make, and which we ought to keep ever at hand, to be applied as occasion may offer, is the well known aphorism of Socrates, that "we know only this, that we know nothing." We have no compass to guide us through the pathless waters of science; we have no revelation, at least on the subject of astronomy, and of the unnumbered inhabitable worlds that float in the ocean of ether; and we are bound therefore to sail, as the mariners of ancient times sailed, always within sight of land. One of the earliest maxims of ordinary prudence, is that we ought ever to correct the reports of one sense by the assistance of another sense. The things we here speak of are not matters of faith; and in them therefore it is but reason, that we should imitate the conduct of Didymus the apostle, who said, "Except I put my fingers into the prints of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe." My eyes report to me an object, as having a certain magnitude, texture, and roughness or smoothness; but I require that my hands should confirm to me the evidence of my eyes. I see something that appears to be an island at an uncertain distance from the shore; but, if I am actuated by a laudable curiosity, and wish to possess a real knowledge, I take a boat, and proceed to ascertain by nearer inspection, whether that which I imagined to be an island is an island or no.

There are indeed many objects with which we are conversant, that are in so various ways similar to each other, that, after having carefully examined a few, we are satisfied upon slighter investigation to admit the dimensions and character of others. Thus, having measured with a quadrant the height of a tower, and found on the narrowest search and comparison that the report of my instrument was right, I yield credit to this process in another instance, without being at the trouble to verify its results in any more elaborate method.

The reason why we admit the inference flowing from our examination in the second instance, and so onward, with less scrupulosity and scepticism than in the first, is that there is a strict resemblance and analogy in the two cases. Experience is the basis of our conclusions and our conduct. I strike against a given object, a nail for example, with a certain degree of force, because I have remarked in myself and others the effect of such a stroke. I take food and masticate it, because I have found that this process contributes to the sound condition of my body and mind. I scatter certain seeds in my field, and discharge the other functions of an agriculturist, because I have observed that in due time the result of this industry is a crop. All the propriety of these proceedings depends upon the exact analogy between the old case and the new one. The state of the affair is still the same, when my business is merely that of an observer and a traveller. I know water from earth, land from sea, and mountains from vallies, because I have had experience of these objects, and confidently infer that, when certain appearances present themselves to my organs of sight, I shall find the same results to all my other senses, as I found when such appearances occurred to me before.

But the interval that divides the objects which occur upon and under the earth, and are accessible in all ways to our examination, on the one hand, and the lights which are suspended over our heads in the heavens on the other, is of the broadest and most memorable nature. Human beings, in the infancy of the world, were contented reverently to behold these in their calmness and beauty, perhaps to worship them, and to remark the effects that they produced, or seemed to produce, upon man and the subjects of his industry. But they did not aspire to measure their dimensions, to enquire into their internal frame, or to explain the uses, far removed from our sphere of existence, which they might be intended to serve.

It is however one of the effects of the improvement of our intellect, to enlarge our curiosity. The daringness of human enterprise is one of the prime glories of our nature. It is our boast that we undertake to "measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides." And, when success crowns the boldness of our aspirations after what vulgar and timorous prudence had pronounced impossible, it is then chiefly that we are seen to participate of an essence divine.

What has not man effected by the boldness of his conceptions and the adventurousness of his spirit? The achievements of human genius have appeared so incredible, till they were thoroughly examined, and slowly established their right to general acceptance, that the great heroes of intellect were universally regarded by their contemporaries as dealers in magic, and implements of the devil. The inventor of the art of printing, that glorious instrument for advancing the march of human improvement, and the discoverer of the more questionable art of making gunpowder, alike suffered under this imputation. We have rendered the seas and the winds instruments of our pleasure, "exhausted the old world, and then discovered a new one," have drawn down lightning from heaven, and exhibited equal rights and independence to mankind. Still however it is incumbent on us to be no less wary and suspicious than we are bold, and not to imagine, because we have done much, that we are therefore able to effect every thing.

As was stated in the commencement of this Essay, we know our own sensations, and we know little more. Matter, whether in its primary or secondary qualities, is certainly not the sort of thing the vulgar imagine it to be. The illustrious Berkeley has taught many to doubt of its existence altogether; and later theorists have gone farther than this, and endeavoured to shew, that each man, himself while he speaks on the subject, and you and I while we hear, have no conclusive evidence to convince us, that we may not, each of us, for aught we know, be the only thing that exists, an entire universe to ourselves.

We will not however follow these ingenious persons to the startling extreme to which their speculations would lead us. But, without doing so, it will not misbecome us to be cautious, and to reflect what we do, before we take a leap into illimitable space.


"The sun," we are told, "is a solid body, ninety-five millions of miles distant from the earth we inhabit, one million times larger in cubic measurement, and to such a degree impregnated with heat, that a comet, approaching to it within a certain distance, was by that approximation raised to a heat two thousand times greater than that of red-hot iron."

It will be acknowledged, that there is in this statement much to believe; and we shall not be exposed to reasonable blame, if we refuse to subscribe to it, till we have received irresistible evidence of its truth.

It has already been observed, that, for the greater part of what we imagine we know on the surface or in the bowels of the earth, we have, or may have if we please, the evidence of more than one of our senses, combining to lead to the same conclusion. For the propositions of astronomy we have no sensible evidence, but that of sight, and an imperfect analogy, leading from those visible impressions which we can verify, to a reliance upon those which we cannot.

The first cardinal particular we meet with in the above statement concerning the sun, is the term, distance. Now, all that, strictly speaking, we can affirm respecting the sun and other heavenly bodies, is that we have the same series of impressions respecting them, that we have respecting terrestrial objects near or remote, and that there is an imperfect analogy between the one case and the other.

Before we affirm any thing, as of our own knowledge and competence, respecting heavenly bodies which are said to be millions of millions of miles removed from us, it would not perhaps be amiss that we should possess ourselves of a certain degree of incontestible information, as to the things which exist on the earth we inhabit. Among these, one of the subjects attended with a great degree of doubt and obscurity, is the height of the mountains with which the surface of the globe we inhabit is diversified. It is affirmed in the received books of elementary geography, that the Andes are the highest mountains in the world. Morse, in his American Gazetteer, third edition, printed at Boston in 1810(46), says, "The height of Chimborazzo, the most elevated point of the vast chain of the Andes, is 20,280 feet above the level of the sea, which is 7102 feet higher than any other mountain in the known world:" thus making the elevation of the mountains of Thibet, or whatever other rising ground the compiler had in his thought, precisely 13,178 feet above the level of the sea, and no more. This decision however has lately been contradicted. Mr. Hugh Murray, in an Account of Discoveries and Travels in Asia, published in 1820, has collated the reports of various recent travellers in central Asia; and he states the height of Chumularee, which he speaks of as the most elevated point of the mountains of Thibet, as nearly 30,000 feet above the level of the sea.

(46) Article, Andes.

The elevation of mountains, till lately, was in no way attempted to be ascertained but by the use of the quadrant, and their height was so generally exaggerated, that Riccioli, one of the most eminent astronomers of the seventeenth century, gives it as his opinion that mountains, like the Caucasus, may have a perpendicular elevation of fifty Italian miles(47). Later observers have undertaken to correct the inaccuracy of these results through the application of the barometer, and thus, by informing themselves of the weight of the air at a certain elevation, proceeding to infer the height of the situation.

(47) Rees, Encyclopedia; article, Mountains.

There are many circumstances, which are calculated to induce a circumspect enquirer to regard the affirmative positions of astronomy, as they are delivered by the most approved modern writers, with considerable diffidence.

They are founded, as has already been said, next to the evidence of our senses, upon the deductions of mathematical knowledge.

Mathematics are either pure or mixed.

Pure mathematics are concerned only with abstract propositions, and have nothing to do with the realities of nature. There is no such thing in actual existence as a mathematical point, line or surface. There is no such thing as a circle or square. But that is of no consequence. We can define them in words, and reason about them. We can draw a diagram, and suppose that line to be straight which is not really straight, and that figure to be a circle which is not strictly a circle. It is conceived therefore by the generality of observers, that mathematics is the science of certainty.

But this is not strictly the case. Mathematics are like those abstract and imaginary existences about which they are conversant. They may constitute in themselves, and in the apprehension of an infallible being, a science of certainty. But they come to us mixed and incorporated with our imperfections. Our faculties are limited; and we may be easily deceived, as to what it is that we see with transparent and unerring clearness, and what it is that comes to us through a crooked medium, refracting and distorting the rays of primitive truth. We often seem clear, when in reality the twilight of undistinguishing night has crept fast and far upon us. In a train of deductions, as in the steps of an arithmetical process, an error may have insinuated itself imperceptibly at a very early stage, rendering all the subsequent steps a wandering farther and farther from the unadulterated truth. Human mathematics, so to speak, like the length of life, are subject to the doctrine of chances. Mathematics may be the science of certainty to celestial natures, but not to man.

But, if in the case of pure mathematics, we are exposed to the chances of error and delusion, it is much worse with mixed mathematics. The moment we step out of the high region of abstraction, and apply ourselves to what we call external nature, we have forfeited that sacred character and immunity, which we seemed entitled to boast, so long as we remained inclosed in the sanctuary of unmingled truth. As has already been said, we know what passes in the theatre of the mind; but we cannot be said absolutely to know any thing more. In our speculations upon actual existences we are not only subject to the disadvantages which arise from the limited nature of our faculties, and the errors which may insensibly creep upon us in the process. We are further exposed to the operation of the unevennesses and irregularities that perpetually occur in external nature, the imperfection of our senses, and of the instruments we construct to assist our observations, and the discrepancy which we frequently detect between the actual nature of the things about us and our impressions respecting them.

This is obvious, whenever we undertake to apply the processes of arithmetic to the realities of life. Arithmetic, unsubjected to the impulses of passion and the accidents of created nature, holds on its course; but, in the phenomena of the actual world, "time and chance happeneth to them all."

Thus it is, for example, in the arithmetical and geometrical ratios, set up in political economy by the celebrated Mr. Malthus. His numbers will go on smoothly enough, 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, as representing the principle of population among mankind, and 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, the means of subsistence; but restiff and uncomplying nature refuses to conform herself to his dicta.

Dr. Price has calculated the produce of one penny, put out at the commencement of the Christian era to five per cent. compound interest, and finds that in the year 1791 it would have increased to a greater sum than would be contained in three hundred millions of earths, all solid gold. But what has this to do with the world in which we live? Did ever any one put out his penny to interest in this fashion for eighteen hundred years? And, if he did, where was the gold to be found, to satisfy his demand?

Morse, in his American Gazetteer, proceeding on the principles of Malthus, tells us that, if the city of New York goes on increasing for a century in a certain ratio, it will by that time contain 5,257,493 inhabitants. But does any one, for himself or his posterity, expect to see this realised?

Blackstone, in his Commentaries on the Laws of England, has observed that, as every man has two ancestors in the first ascending degree, and four in the second, so in the twentieth degree he has more than a million, and in the fortieth the square of that number, or upwards of a million millions. This statement therefore would have a greater tendency to prove that mankind in remote ages were numerous, almost beyond the power of figures to represent, than the opposite doctrine of Malthus, that they have a perpetual tendency to such increase as would infallibly bring down the most tremendous calamities on our posterity.

Berkeley, whom I have already referred to on another subject, and who is admitted to be one of our profoundest philosophers, has written a treatise(48) to prove, that the mathematicians, who object to the mysteries supposed to exist in revealed religion, "admit much greater mysteries, and even falshoods in science, of which he alleges the doctrine of fluxions as an eminent example(49)." He observes, that their conclusions are established by virtue of a twofold error, and that these errors, being in contrary directions, are supposed to compensate each other, the expounders of the doctrine thus arriving at what they call truth, without being able to shew how, or by what means they have arrived at it.

(48) The Analyst.

(49) Life of Berkeley, prefixed to his Works.

It is a memorable and a curious speculation to reflect, upon how slight grounds the doctrine of "thousands and thousands of suns, multiplied without end, and ranged all around us, at immense distances from each other, and attended by ten thousand times ten thousand worlds," mentioned in the beginning of this Essay, is built. It may be all true. But, true or false, it cannot be without its use to us, carefully to survey the road upon which we are advancing, the pier which human enterprise has dared to throw out into the vast ocean of Cimmerian darkness. We have constructed a pyramid, which throws into unspeakable contempt the vestiges of ancient Egyptian industry: but it stands upon its apex; it trembles with every breeze; and momentarily threatens to overwhelm in its ruins the fearless undertakers that have set it up.

It gives us a mighty and sublime idea of the nature of man, to think with what composure and confidence a succession of persons of the greatest genius have launched themselves in illimitable space, with what invincible industry they have proceeded, wasting the midnight oil, racking their faculties, and almost wearing their organs to dust, in measuring the distance of Sirius and the other fixed stars, the velocity of light, and "the myriads of intelligent beings formed for endless progression in perfection and felicity," that people the numberless worlds of which they discourse. The illustrious names of Copernicus, Galileo, Gassendi, Kepler, Halley and Newton impress us with awe; and, if the astronomy they have opened before us is a romance, it is at least a romance more seriously and perseveringly handled than any other in the annals of literature.

A vulgar and a plain man would unavoidably ask the astronomers, How came you so familiarly acquainted with the magnitude and qualities of the heavenly bodies, a great portion of which, by your own account, are millions of millions of miles removed from us? But, I believe, it is not the fashion of the present day to start so rude a question. I have just turned over an article on Astronomy in the Encyclopaedia Londinensis, consisting of one hundred and thirty-three very closely printed quarto pages, and in no corner of this article is any evidence so much as hinted at. Is it not enough? Newton and his compeers have said it.

The whole doctrine of astronomy rests upon trigonometry, a branch of the science of mathematics which teaches us, having two sides and one angle, or two angles and one side, of a triangle given us, to construct the whole. To apply this principle therefore to the heavenly bodies, it is necessary for us to take two stations, the more remote from each other the better, from which our observations should be made. For the sake of illustration we will suppose them to be taken at the extremes of the earth's diameter, in other words, nearly eight thousand miles apart from each other, the thing itself having never been realised to that extent. From each of these stations we will imagine a line to be drawn, terminating in the sun. Now it seems easy, by means of a quadrant, to find the arch of a circle (in other words, the angle) included between these lines terminating in the sun, and the base formed by a right line drawn from one of these stations to the other, which in this case is the length of the earth's diameter. I have therefore now the three particulars required to enable me to construct my triangle. And, according to the most approved astronomical observations hitherto made, I have an isosceles triangle, eight thousand miles broad at its base, and ninety-five millions of miles in the length of each of the sides reaching from the base to the apex.

It is however obvious to the most indifferent observer, that the more any triangle, or other mathematical diagram, falls within the limits which our senses can conveniently embrace, the more securely, when our business is practical, and our purpose to apply the result to external objects, can we rely on the accuracy of our results. In a case therefore like the present, where the base of our isosceles triangle is to the other two sides as eight units to twelve thousand, it is impossible not to perceive that it behoves us to be singularly diffident as to the conclusion at which we have arrived, or rather it behoves us to take for granted that we are not unlikely to fall into the most important error. We have satisfied ourselves that the sides of the triangle including the apex, do not form an angle, till they have arrived at the extent of ninety-five millions of miles. How are we sure that they do then? May not lines which have reached to so amazing a length without meeting, be in reality parallel lines? If an angle is never formed, there can be no result. The whole question seems to be incommensurate to our faculties.

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