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he hath been very unhappy, and very unphilosophical in expressing it. What are we to make of the coincidence or sameness of self-love 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.
3. THE PROFOUND.
I PROCEED to another species, which I shall denominate the pró. found, and which is most commonly to be met with in political writings. Nowhere 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 naturally 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 obtained previously to every motion, is, I will take upon me to affirm, utterly inconceivable. Yet the whole of the paragraph from which this quotation is taken, hath such a speciousness in it, that it is a hundred to one, even a judicious reader will not, on the first perusal, be sensible of the defect.
4. THE MARVELLOUS.
The last species of nonsense to be exemplified I shall denominate the marvellous. It is the characteristic of this kind, that it astonishes and even confounds by the boldness of the affirmations, which always appear flatly to contradict the plainest dictates of common sense, and
*Disc. of the Contests and Dissensions in Athens and Rome, first sentence.
thus to involve a manifest absurdity. I know no sort of authors that so frequently abounds in this manner, as some artists, who have attempted to philosophize on the principles of their art. I shall give an example from the English translation of a French book,* as there is no example which I can remember at present in any book written originally in our own language : “Nature,” says this writer, “in herself is unseemly, and he who copies her servilely, and without artifice, will always produce something poor, and of a mean taste. What is called load in colours and lights can only proceed from a profound knowledge in the values of colours, and from an admirable industry, which makes the painted objects appear more true, if I may say so, than the real ones. In this sense it may be asserted, that in Ruben's pieces, Art is above Nature, and Nature only a copy of that great master's works." What a strange subversion, or inversion, if you will, of all the most obvious, and hitherto undisputed truths. Not satisfied with affirming the unseemliness of every production of Nature, whom this philosopher hath discovered to be an arrant bungler, and the immense superiority of human Art, whose humble scholar dame Nature might be proud to be accounted, he riseth to asseverations, which shock all our notions, and utterly defy the powers of apprehension. Painting is found to be the original; or rather Rubens' pictures are the original, and Nature is the copy: and indeed very consequentially, the former is represented as the standard by which the beauty and perfections of the latter are to be estimated. Nor do the qualifying phrases, if I may say so, and in this sense it may be asserted, make here the smallest odds. For as this sublime critic has nowhere hinted what sense it is which he denominates this sense, so I believe no reader will be able to conjecture, what the author might have said, and not absurdly said, to the same effect. The misfortune is, that when the expression is stript of the absurd meaning, t there remains nothing but balderdash, f an unmeaning jumble of words which at first seem to announce some great discovery.9 Specimens of the same kind are sometimes also to be met with in the poets. —
* De Pile's Principles of Painting.
* The latter part of the sentence was thus expressed in the first edition, "a jumble of bold words without meaning,'' To this phraseology exception was taken, which, though not entirely just, appears to have arisen from some obscurity, perhaps ambiguity, in the expression. This, I hope, is removed by the alteration now made.
§ Since writing the above observations, I have seen De Pile's original performance, and find that his translator hath, in this place at least, done him no injustice. The whole passage in the French is as follows: “La Nature est ingrate d'elle-même, et qui s'attacheroit à la copier simplement comme elle est et sans artifice, feroit toujours quelque chose de pauvre et d'un très petit goût. Ce que vous nommez exagerations dans les couleurs, et dans les lumieres, est une admirable industrie qui fait paroître les objets peints plus véritables, s'il faut ansi dire, que les véritables mêmes. C'est ainsi que les tableaux de Rubens sont plus beaux que la Nature, laquelle semble n'etre que la copie des ouvrages de ce grand homme.” Recueil de divers ouvrages sur la peinture et le coloris. Par M. de Piles. Paris, 1755, p. 225. This is rather worse than the English. The qualifying phrase in the last sentence, we find, is the translator's, who seems out of sheer modesty to have brought it' to cover nudities. His intention was good ; but this is such a rag as cannot answer.
Witness the famous protestation of an heroic lover in one of Dryden's plays :
My wound is great, because it is so small.
The nonsense of which was properly exposed by an extemporary verse of the Duke of Buckingham, who, on hearing this line, exclaimed in the house,
It would be greater, were it none it all.
Hyperbolé, carried to extravagance, is much of a piece, and never fails to excite disgust, if not laughter, instead of admiration. Of this the famous laureat just now quoted, though indeed a very considerable genius, affords, among many other striking instances, that which follows:
That star, that at your birth shone out so bright;
Such vile fustian ought to be carefully avoided by ever writer.
Thus I have illustrated, as far as examples can illustrate, some of the principal varieties to be remarked in unmeaning sentences or nonsense; the puerile, the learned, the profound, and the marvellous; together with those other classes of the unintelligible, arising either from confusion of thought, accompanied with intricacy of expression, or from an excessive aim at excellence in the style and manner.
So much for the explication of the first rhetorical quality of style, perspicuity, with the three ways of expressing one's self by which it may be injured; the obscure, the double meaning, and the unintelligible.
* Dryden on the Restoration.
WHAT IS THE CAUSE THAT NONSENSE SO OFTEN ESCAPES BEING
DETECTED, BỌTH BY THE WRITER AND BY THE READER ?
THE NATURE AND POWER OF SIGNS, BOTH IN SPEAKING AND IN
BEFORE quitting the subject of perspicuity, it will not be amiss to inquire into the cause of this strange phenomenon ; that even a man of discernment should write without meaning, and not be sensible that he hath no meaning; and that judicious people should read what hath been written in this way, and not discover the defect. Both are surprising, but the first much more than the last. A certain remissness will at times seize the most attentive reader; whereas an author of discernment is supposed to have carefully digested all that he writes. It is reported of Lopez de Vega, a famous Spanish poet, that the Bishop of Beller, being in Spain, asked him to explain one of his sonnets, which he said he had often read, but never understood. Lopez took up the sonnet, and after reading it several times, frankly acknowledged that he did not understand it himself ; a discovery which the poet probably never made before.
But though the general fact hath frequently been observed, I do not find that any attempt hath been yet made to account for it. Berkeley, indeed, in his Principles of Human Knowledge, hath sug. gested a theory concerning language, though not with this view, which, if well-founded, will go far to remove the principal difficulty : “ It is a received opinion,” says that author, “ that language has no other end, but the communicating our ideas, and that every significant name stands for an idea. This being so, and it being withal certain, that names, which yet are not thought altogether insignifi. cant, do not always mark out particular conceivable ideas, it is straightway concluded, that they stand for abstract notions. That there are many names in use amongst speculative men, which do not always suggest to others determinate particular ideas, is what nobody will deny. And a little attention will discover, that it is not neces. sary, (even in the strictest reasonings) significant names which stand for ideas, should, every time they are used, excite in the understanding the ideas they are made to stand for. In reading and discours. ing, names being for the most part used, as letters are in algebra, in which, though a particular quantity be marked by each letter, yet to proceed right, it is not requisite, that in every step each letter sug. gest to your thoughts that particular quantity it was appointed to stand for."* The same principles have been adopted by the author of a Treatise of Human Nature, who, speaking of abstract ideas, has the following words: “I believe every one who examines the situation of his mind in reasoning, will agree with me, that we do not annex distinct and complete ideas to every term we make use of, and that in talking of government, church, negotiation, conquest, we seldom spread out in our minds all the simple ideas of which these complex ones are composed. Tis, however, observable, that, notwithstanding this imperfection, we may avoid talking nonsense on these subjects, and may perceive any repugnance among the ideas, as well as if we had a full comprehension of them. Thus if, instead of saying that in war the weaker have always recourse to negotiation, we should say, that they have always recourse to conquest, the custom which we have acquired of attributing certain relations to ideas still follows the words, and makes us immediately perceive the absurdity of that proposition.”† Some excellent observations to the same purpose have also been made by the elegant Inquirer into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful. I.
Now that the notions on this subject maintained by these ingenious writers, however strange they may appear upon a superficial view, are well-founded, is at least presumable from this consideration; that if, agreeably to the common hypothesis, we could understand nothing that is said, but by actually comparing in our minds all the ideas sig. nified, it would be impossible that nonsense should ever escape undiscovered, at least that we should so far impose upon ourselves, as to think we understand what in reality is not to be understood. We should in that case find ourselves in the same situation, when an unmeaning sentence is introduced into a discourse, wherein we find ourselves when a sentence is quoted in a language of which we are entirely ignorant: we are never in the smallest danger of imagining that we apprehend the meaning of the quotation.
But though a very curious fact hath been taken notice of by those expert metaphysicians, and such a fact as will perhaps account for the deception we are now considering; yet the fact itself, in my apprehension, hath not been sufficiently accounted for. That mere sounds, which are used only as signs, and have no natural connexion with the things whereof they are signs, should convey knowledge to the mind, even when they excite no idea of the things signified, must appear at first extremely mysterious. It is, therefore, worth while to consider the matter more closely ; and in order to this, it will be proper to attend a little to the three following connexions : first, that which subsisteth among things; secondly, that which subsisteth between words and things; thirdly, that which subsisteth among words, or the different terms used in the same language.
As to the first of these connexions ; namely, that which subsisteth among things; it is evident that this is original and natural. There is a variety of relations to be found in things, by which they are connected. Such are, among several others, resemblance, identity, S * Introd. Sect. 19. Vol. I. Book I. Part I. Sect. 7. Part V.
It may be thought improper to mention identity as a relation by which different things are connected; but it must be observed, that I only mean so far dif