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The unintelligible....Part III. From want of meaning.
What an insatiable appetite has this bastard-philosophy for absurdity and contradiction! A now that lasts ; that is, an instant which continues during successive instants ; an eternal now, an instant that is no instant, and an eternity that is no eternity. I have heard of a preacher, who, desirous to appear very profound, and to make observations on the commonest subjects, which had never occurred to any body before, remarked, as an instance of the goodness of providence, that the moments of time come successively, and not simul. taneously or together, which last method of coming would, he said, occasion infinite confusion in the world. Many of his audience concluded his remark to be no better than a bull: and yet, it is fairly defensible on the principles of the schoolmen ; if that can be called principles which consists merely in words. According to them, what Pope says hyperbolically of the transient duration and narrow range of man, is a literal description of the eternity and immensity of God :
His time a moment, and a point his space *.
I remember to have seen it somewhere remarked, that mankind, being necessarily incapable of making a present of any thing to God, have conceived, as a succedaneous expedient, the notion of destroying what should be offered to him, or at least of rendering it unfit for any other purpose. Something similar appears to have taken place in regard to the explanations of
Essay on Man, Ep. 1.
the divine nature and attributes, attempted by some theorists. On a subject so transcendent, if it be impossible to be sublime, it is easy to be unintelligible. And that the theme is naturally incomprehensible, they seem to have considered as a full apology for them in being perfectly absurd. In the former case, what people could not in strictness bestow upon their Maker, they could easily render unfit for the use of men; and in the latter, if one cannot grasp what is above the reach of reason, one can without difficulty say a thousand things which are contrary to reason.
But though scholastic theology be the principal, it is not the only subject of learned nonsense. In other branches of pneumatology we often meet with rhapsodies of the same kind. I shall take an example from a late right honourable writer, who, though he gives no quarter to the rants of others, sometimes falls into the ranting strain himself: Pleasures are the ob
jects of self-love; happiness that of reason. Reason " is so far from depriving us of the first, that happiness “ consists in a series of them : and as this can be nei. " ther attained nor enjoyed securely out of society, a “ due use of our reason makes social and self-love co“ incide, or even become in effect the same. The “ condition wherein we are born and bred, the very “ condition so much complained of, prepares us for “ this coincidence, the foundation of all human happi“ ness; and our whole nature, appetite, passion, and " reason, concur to promote it. As our parents loved
The unintelligible.... Part III. From want of meaning.
" themselves in us, so we love ourselves in our child
ren, and in those to whom we are most nearly rela“ ted by blood. Thus far instinct improves self-love. “ Reason improves it further. We love ourselves in “our neighbours, and in our friends too, with Tully's " leave ; for if friendship is formed by a kind of sym“ pathy, it is cultivated by good offices. Reason pro“ceeds. We love ourselves in loving the political bo
dy whose members we are ; and we love ourselves, " when we extend our benevolence to all mankind. “ These are the genuine effects of reason *.” I would not be understood to signify, that there is no meaning in any clause of this quotation, but that the greater part of it is unmeaning; and that the whole, instead of exhibiting a connected train of thought, agreeably to the author's intention, presents us only with a few trifling or insignificant phrases speciously strung together. The very first sentence is justly exceptionable in this respect. Had he said, “ Pleasure is the object “ of appetite, happiness that of self-love,” there had been some sense in it; as it stands, I suspect there is none. Pope, the great admirer and versifier of this philosophy, hath succeeded much better in contradistinguishing the provinces of reason and passion, where he says,
Reason the card, but passion is the galet.
This always the mover, that the guide. As the card serves equally to point to us the course that we must
Bolingb. Ph. Fr. 51.
† Essay on Man, Ep. ii.
steer, whatever be the situation of the port we are bound for, east or west, south or north ; so reason serves equally to indicate the means that we must employ for the attainment of any end, whatever that end be (right or wrong, profitable or pernicious) which passion impels us to pursue [. All that follows of the passage quoted, abounds with the like loose and indefinite declamation. If the author had any meaning, a point very questionable, he hath been very unhappy, and very unphilosophical in expressing it. ,
What are we to make of the coincidence or sameness of selflove and social affection produced by reason? What of parents loving themselves in their children ? &c. &c.-- Any thing you please, or nothing. It is a saying of Hobbes, which this author hath quoted with deserved commendation, that “ words are the counters * of wise men, but the money of fools.” The thought is ingenious and happily expressed. I shall only remark upon it, that this noble writer may be produced as one of many witnesses, to prove, that it is not peculiar to fools to fall into this error. He is a wise man indeed who never mistakes these counters for legal coin. So much for the learned nonsense. And doubtless, if nonsense ever deserves to be exposed, it is when she has the arrogance to assume the garb of wisdom.
† For the further elucidation of this point, see the analysis of persuasion given in Book I, Chap. vii. Sect. 4.
The unintelligible....Part III. From want of meaning.
3. The Profound.
I PROCEED to another species, which I shall denomi
I nate the profound, and which is most commonly to be met with in political writings. No where else do we find the merest nothings set off with an air of solemnity, as the result of very deep thought and sage reflection. Of this kind, however, I shall produce a specimen, which, in confirmation of a remark made in the preceding paragraph, shall be taken from a justly celebrated tract, of a justly celebrated pen : “ 'Tis agreed,” says Swift,“ that, in all governments, there " is an absolute and unlimited power, which natural
ly and originally seems to be placed in the whole body, wherever the executive part of it lies. This " holds in the body natural; for wherever we place " the beginning of motion, whether from the head, or " the heart, or the animal spirits in general, the body moves and acts by a consent of all its parts *.” The first sentence of this passage contains one of the most hackneyed maxims of the writers on politics; a maxim, however, of which it will be more difficult than is commonly imagined, to discover, I say, not the justness, but the sense. The illustration from the natural body, contained in the second sentence, is indeed more glaringly nonsensical. What it is that constitutes this consent of all the parts of the body, which must be
* Disc. of the Contests and Dissensions in Athens and Rome, first sentence.