網頁圖片
PDF
ePub 版

more distinctly apprehended by the mind than the word beast, beast than animal, animal than being. But there is, in what are called abstract subjects, a still greater fund of obscurity, than that arising from the frequent mention of the most general terms. Names must be assigned to those qualities as considered abstractly, which never subsist independently, or by themselves, but which constitute the generic characters and the specific differences of things. And this leads to a manner which is in many instances remote from the common use of speech, and therefore must be of more difficult conception. The qualities thus considered as in a state of separation from the subjects to which they belong, have been not unfitly compared by a famous wit of the last century, to disembodied spirits :

He could reduce all things to acts,
And knew their natures and abstracts;
Where entity and quiddity
The ghosts of defunct bodies fly.*

As the names of the departed heroes which Æneas saw in the infernal regions were so constituted as effectually to elude the embrace of every living wight; in like manner the abstract qualities are so subtile as often to elude the apprehension of the most attentive mind. — They have, I may say, too much volatility to be arrested, were it but for a moment.

- The flitting shadow slips away,
Like winds or empty dreams that fly the day.f

DRYDEN.

It is no wonder then, that a misapplication of such words, whether general or abstract, should frequently escape our notice. The more general any word is in its signification, it is the more liable to be abused by an improper or unmeaning application. A foreigner will escape discovery in a crowd, who would instantly be distinguished in a select company. A very general term is applicable alike to a multitude of different individuals, a particular term is applicable but to a few. When the rightful applications of a word are extremely numerous, they cannot all be so strongly fixed by habit, but that, for greater security, we must perpetually recur in our minds from the sign to the notion we have of the thing signified; and for the reason afore mentioned, it is in such instances difficult precisely to ascertain this notion. Thus the latitude of a word, though different from its ambiguity, hath often a similar effect.

Further, it is a certain fact, that when we are much accustomed to particular terms, we can scarcely avoid fancying that we understand them, whether they have a meaning or not. The reason of this apprehension might easily be deduced from what hath been already said of the nature of signs, Let it suffice at present to observe the fact. Now, on ordinary subjects, if we adopt such a wrong opinion, we may

[merged small][ocr errors]

easily be undeceived. The reason is, that on such subjects the recourse from the sign to the thing signified is easy. For the opposite reason, if we are in such an error on abstract subjects, it is next to impossible that ever we should be undeceived. Hence it is, if without offence I may be indulged the observation, that in some popular systems of religion, the zeal of the people is principally exerted in support of certain favourite phrases, and a kind of technical and idiomatical dialect to which their ears have been long inured, and which they consequently imagine they understand, but in which often there is nothing to be understood.

From such causes it hath arisen, that ever since the earliest days of philosophy, abstract subjects have been the principal province of altercation and logomachy; to the support of which, how far the artificial dialect of the schoolmen, nay, the analytics and the metaphysics, the categories and the topics of the justly admired Stagyrite, have contributed, we have considered already.* Indeed at length disputation in the schools came to be so much a mechanical exercise, that if once a man had learned his logic, and had thereby come to understand the use of his weapons, and had gotten the knack of wielding them, he was qualified, without any other kind of knowledge, to defend any position whatsoever, how contradictory soever to common sense, and to the clearest discoveries of reason and experience. This art, it must be owned, observed a wonderful impartiality in regard to truth and error, or rather the most absolute indifference to both. If it was oftener employed in defence of error, that is not to be wondered at; for the way of truth is one, the ways of error are infinite One qualified in the manner above mertioned could as successfully dispute on a subject of which he was totally ignorant, as on one with which he was perfectly acquainted. Success indeed tended then no more to decide the question than a man's killing his antagonist in a duel serves now to satisfy any person of sense, that the victor had right on his side, and that the vanquished was in the wrong. Such an art as this could at bottom be no other than a mere playing with words, used indeed grammatically, and according to certain rules established in the schools, but quite insignificant, and therefore incapable of conveying knowledge.

Vain wisdom all, and false philosophy.

This logic, between two and three centuries ago, received a considerable improvement from one Raimond Lully, a native of Majorca, who, by the ingenious contrivance of a few concentric movable circles, on the borders of some of which were inscribed the subjects, of others the predicaments, and of others the forms of questions, he not only superseded the little in point of invention, which the scholastic logic had till then required, but much accelerated the operations of the artist. All was done by manual labour. All the circles, except the outmost, which was immovable, were turned upon the common centre, one after another. In this manner the disposition

[ocr errors]

of subjects, predicaments, and questions was perpetually varied. All the proper questions on every subject, were suggested, and pertinent answers supplied. In the same way did the working of the engine discover and apply the several topics of argument that might be used in support of any question. On this rare device one Athanacius Kircher made great improvements in the last century. He boasted that by means of a coffer of arts, divided into a number of small receptacles, entirely of his own contriving, a thousand prodigies might be performed, which either could not be effected at all by Lully's magical circles, or at least not so expeditiously.

Nothing can more fully prove, that the fruit of all such contrivances was mere words without knowledge, an empty show of science without the reality, than the ostentatious and absurd way in which the inventors and their votaries talk of these inventions. They would have us believe, that in these is contained a complete encyclopedia, that here we may discover all the arts and sciences as in their source, that hence all of them may be deduced a priori, as from their principles. Accordingly they treat all those as no better than quacks and empirics who have recourse to so homely a tutoress as experience.

The consideration of their pretensions hath indeed satisfied me that the ridicule thrown on projectors of this kind, in the account given by Swift* of a professor in the academy of Lagado, is not excessive, as I once thought it. The boasts of the academist, on the prodigies performed by his frame, are far less extravagant than those of the above mentioned artists, which in truth they very much resemble.t

* Gulliver's Travels, Part III.

† At what an amazing pitch of perfection doth Knittelius, a great admirer both of Lully and Kircher, suppose that the adepts in this literary handicraft may arrive. The assiduous and careful practice will at length, according to him, fully instruct us, “Quomodo de quacunque re proposita statim librum concipere, et in capita dividere, de quacunque re extempore disserere, argumentari, de quocunque themate orationem formare, orationem mentalem per horam dies et septimanas protrahere, rem quamcunque describere, per apologos et fabulas proponere, emblemata et hieroglyphica, invenire, de quacunque re historias expeditè scribere, adversaria de quacunque re facere, de quacunque materia consilia dare, omnes arguitas ad unam regulam reducere, assumptum thema in infinitum multiplicare, ex falso rem demonstrare, quidlibet per quidlibet probare, possimus." "Quirinus Kuhlmanus, another philosopher of the last century, in a letter to Kircher hath said, with much good sense, concerning his coffer, “Lusus est ingeniosus, ingeniose Kirchere, non methodus, prima fronte aliquid promittens, in recessu nihil solvens. Sine cista enim puer nihil potest respondere, et in cista nihil præter verba habet; tot profert quot audit, sine intellectu, ad instar psittaci et de illo jure dicitur quod Lacon de philomela, Vox est, prætereaque nihil.” Could anybody imagine, that one who thought so justly of Kircher's device, was himself the author of another of the same kind ? He had, it seems, contrived a scientific machine, that moved by wheels, with the conception of which he pretended to have been inspired by Heaven, but unfortunately he did not live to publish it. His only view, therefore, in the words above quoted, was, to depreciais Kircher's engine, that he might the more effectually recommend his own. “Multa passim," says Morhoff concerning him, (Polyhistor, vol. I. lib. ii. cap. 5.) “de rotis suis combinatoriis jactat, quibus ordinatis unus homo millies mille, imo millies millies mille scribas vincat; qui tamen primarius rotarum scopus non est, sed grandier longe restat: nempe notitia providentiæ æternæ, orbisque terrarum motus.” And again, “Nec ullus hominum tam insulso judicio præditus est, qui hac institutione libros doctos, novos, utiles, omni rerum scientia plenos, levissima opera edere non potest.” How much more modest is So much for the third and last cause of illusion that was taken notice of, arising from the abuse of very general and abstract terms, which is the principal source of all the nonsense that hath been vented by metaphysicians, mystagogues, and theologians.

the professor of Lagado. “He flatters himself indeed, that a more noble exalt. ed thought than his never sprang in any other man's head," but doth not lay claim to inspiration. “Every one knows," he adds, “how laborious the usual method is of attaining to arts and sciences: whereas, by his contrivance, the most ignorant person, at a reasonable charge, and with a little bodily labour, may write books in philosophy, poetry, politics, law, mathematics, and theology,” (no mention of history,) "without the least assistance from genius and study.” He is still modest enough to require time and some corporeal exercise, in order to the composing of a treatise; but those artists propose to bring a proficient “ statim librum concipere," instantly, “levissima opera," with little or no pains. I shall conclude, with laying before the reader the opinion of Lord Verulam, concerning the Lullian art, an opinion that may with equal justice be applied to the devices of all Lully's followers and imitators. “Neque tamen illud prætermittendum, quod nonnulli viri magis tumidi quam docti insudarunt circa methodum quandam, legitimæ methodi nomine haud dignam, cum potius sit methodus imposturæ, quæ tamen quibusdam ardelionibus acceptissima procul dubio fuerit. Hæc methodus ita scientiæ alicujus guttulas aspergit, ut quis sciolus specie nonnulla eruditionis ad ostentationem possit abuti. Talis fuit ars Lulli, talis typocosmia a nonnullis exarata ; quæ nihil aliud fuerunt, quarn ocabulorum artis cujusque massa et acervus: ad hoc, ut qui voces artis haberant in promptu, etiam artes ipsas perdidicesse existimentur. Hujus generis collectanea officinam referunt veteramentariam, ubi præsigmina multa reperiuntur, sed nihil quod alicujus sit pretii.” De Augm. Scien. lib. vi. cap. 2. I shall only observe, that when he calls this art a method of imposture, he appears to mean that it puts au imposition upon the mind, not so much by infusing error instead of truth, as by amusing us with mere words instead of useful knowledge.

[merged small][merged small][ocr errors][merged small]

WHEN IS OBSURITY APPOSITE, IF EVER IT BE APPOSITE, AND WHAT

KIND?

Having fully considered the nature of perspicuity, and the various ways in which the laws 'relating to it may be transgressed, I shall now inquire, whether to be able to transgress with dexterity in any of those ways, by speaking obscurely, ambiguously, or unintelligibly, be not as essential to the perfection of eloquence, as to be able to speak

Eloquence, it may be said, hath been defined to be, that art or talent whereby the discourse is adapted to produce the effect which the speaker intends it should produce in the hearer. * May not then obscurity, on some occasions, be as conducive to the effect intended, as perspicuity is on other occasions? If the latter is necessary in order to inform, is not the former necessary in order to deceive? If perspicuity be expedient in convincing us of truth, and persuading us to do right, is not its contrary, obscurity, expedient in effecting the contrary ; that is, in convincing us of what is false, and in persuading us to do wrong? And may not either of these effects be the aim of the speaker ?

This way of arguing is far more plausible than just. To be obscure, or even unintelligible, may, I acknowledge, in some cases, contribute to the design of the orator, yet it doth not follow, that obscurity is as essential to eloquence as the opposite quality. It is the design of the medical art to give health and ease to the patient, not pain and sickness; and that the latter are sometimes the foreseen effects of the medicines employed, doth not invalidate the general truth. Whatever be the real intention of a speaker or writer, whether to satisfy our reason of what is true or of what is untrue, whether to incline our will to what is right or to what is wrong, still he must propose to effect his design by informing our understanding : nay more, without conveying to our minds some information, he might as will attempt to achieve his purpose by addressing us in an unknown tongue. Generally, therefore, this quality of style, perspicuity, is as requisite in seducing to evil, as in exciting to good ; in defending error, as in supporting truth.

I am sensible that this position must appear to many no other than

[ocr errors]
« 上一頁繼續 »