Scepsis Scientifica - Chap. XIV.

Chap. XIV.

. 5. Again, another account of the shortness of our reasons and easiness of deception, is, the forwardness of our understanding's assent, to slightly examined conclusions, contracting many times a firm and obstinate belief from weak inducements; and that not only in such things, as immediately concern the sense, but in almost every thing that falls within the scope of our enquiry. For the declarement of this, we are to observe, that every being uncessantly aspires to its own perfection, and is restless till it obtain it; as is the trembling needle, till it find its beloved North. Now the perfection of a faculty is union with its object, to which its respective actions are directed, as the scope and term of its endeavours. Thus our understanding being prefected by truth, with all the impatience, which accompanies strong desire, breaths after its enjoyment. But now the good and perfection of being, which every thing reacheth at, must be known, and that in the particular instances thereof; or else 'tis not attained: and if it be mistaken, that being courts deceit and its own delusion. This knowledge of their good, was at first as natural to all things, as the desire on't: otherwise this innate propension would have been as much a torment and misery to those things that are capable of it, as a needless impertinency to all others. But nature shoots not at rovers. Even inanimates, though they know not their perfection themselves, yet are they not carried on by a blind unguided impetus: but that which directs them, knows it.

The next orders of being have some sight of it themselves: and man most perfectly had it, before his unhappy defection. So then beside this general propensity to truth, the understanding must know what is so, before it can assent. The former we possess (it may be) as entirely as when nature gave it us: but of the latter, little but the capacity: so that herein have we made ourselves of all creatures the most miserable. And now, such an infinite of uncertain opinions, bare probabilities, specious falsehoods, spreading themselves before us, and soliciting our belief, and we being thus greedy of truth, and yet so unable to discern it: it cannot be, that we should reach it any otherwise, than by the most close meditation and engagement of our minds; by which we must endeavour to estrange our assent from every thing, which is not clearly and distinctly evidenced to our faculties. But this is so difficult; and as hath been intimated, so almost infeasable; that it may well drive modesty to despair of science. For though possibly assiduity in the most fixed cogitation be no trouble or pain to immaterialized spirits; yet is it more, than our embodied souls can bear without lassitude or distemper. For in this terrestrial state there are few things transacted, even in our intellectual part, but through the help and furtherance of corporal instruments; which by more than ordinary usage lose their edge and fitness for action, and so grow inept for their respective destinations. Upon this account our senses are dulled and spent by any extraordinary intention; and our very eyes will ache, if long fixed upon any difficultly discerned object. Now though meditation be to be reckoned among the most abstracted operations of our minds; yet can it not be performed without a considerable proportion of spirits to assist the action, though indeed such as are furnished out of the body's purer store. Which I think to be clear from hence, in that fixed seriousness herein, heats the brain in some to distraction, causeth an aching and diziness in sounder heads, hinders the works of nature in its lower and animal functions, takes away or lessens pain in distempered parts, and seldom leaves any but under a wearisome dulness, and inactivity: arguments of sufficient validity to justify our assent to this, that the spirits are employed in our most intense cogitations, yea in such, whose objects are least material. Now the managing and carrying on of this work by the spirit's instrumental co-efficiency requires, that they be kept together without distraction or dissipation; that so they may be ready to receive and execute the orders and commissions of the commanding faculty. If either of these happen, all miscarries: as do the works of nature, when they want that heat, which is requisite for their intended perfection. And therefore, for the prevention of such inconveniences in meditation, we choose recess and solitude.

But now if we consider the volatile nature of those officious assistants, and the several causes which occur continually, even from the mere mechanism of our bodies to scatter and disorder them, besides the excursions of our roving fancies (which cannot be kept to a close attendance); it will be found very hard to retain them in any long service, but do what we can, they'll get loose from the mind's regimen. So that it's no easy matter to bring the body to be what it was intended for, the soul's servant; and to confine the imagination, of as facile a performance, as the Gotham's design of hedging in the cuckoo. And though some constitutions are genially disposited to this mental seriousness; yet they can scarce say, nos numeri sumus: yea in the most advantaged tempers, this disposition is but comparative; when as the most of men labour under disadvantages, which nothing can rid them of, but that which loosens them from this mass of flesh. Thus the boiling blood of youth, fiercely agitating the fluid air, hinders that serenity and fixed staidness, which is necessary to so severe an intentness: and the frigidity of decrepit age is as much its enemy, not only through penury of spirits, but by reason of its dulling moisture. And even in the temperate zone of our life, there are few bodies at such an equipoise of humours; but that the prevalency of some one indisposeth the spirits for a work so difficult and serious: for temperamentum ad pondus, may well be reckoned among the philosophical unattainables. Besides, the bustle of business, the avocations of our senses, and external pleasures, and the noise and din of a clamorous world, are impediments not to be mastered by feeble endeavours. And to speak the full of my sentiments, I think never man could boast it, without the precincts of Paradise; but He, that came to gain us a better Eden than we lost.

So then, to direct all this to our end, the mind of man being thus naturally amorous of, and impatient for truth, and yet averse to, and almost incapacitated for that diligent and painful search, which is necessary to its discovery; it must needs take up short, of what is really so, and please itself in the possession of imaginary appearances, which offering themselves to its embraces in the borrowed attire of that, which the enamoured intellect is in pursuit of, our impatient minds entertain these counterfeits, without the least suspicion of their cousenage. For as the will, having lost its true and substantial good, now courts the shadow, and greedily catches at the vain spews of superficial bliss: so our no less degenerate understandings having suffered as sad a divorce from their dearest object, are as forward to defile themselves with every meretricious semblance, that the variety of opinion presents them with. Thus we see the inconsiderate vulgar, prostrating their assent to every shallow appearance: and those, who are beholden to Prometheus for a finer mould, are not furnished with so much truth as otherwise they might be owners of, did not this precipitancy of concluding prevent them: as 'tis said of the industrious chemist, that by catching at it too soon, he lost the long expected treasure of the philosophical elixir. Now this precipitancy of our understandings is an occasion of a double error, very injurious to the encrease of knowledge. To instance,

(1.) Hence we conclude many things impossibilities, which yet are easy feasables. For by an unadvised transiliency leaping from the effect to its remotest cause, we observe not the connexion through the interposal of more immediate causalities; which yet at last bring the extremes together without a miracle. And hereupon we hastily conclude that impossible, which we see not in the proximate capacity of its efficient. That a single hair should root up an oak (which the mathematics teach us to be possible) by common heads will be thought an absurd and extravagant expectation. And the relation of Archimedes's lifting up the ships of Marcellus, among many finds but little more credit, than that of the giants shouldering mountains: and yet mathematicians know, that by multiplying of mechanical advantages, any power may conquer any resistance, and the great Syracusian wit wanteth but tools, and a place to stand on, to remove the Earth. So that the brag of the Ottoman, [that he would throw Malta into the sea] might be performed at an easier rate, than by the shovels of his Janissaries.

And (2.) From this last noted head, ariseth that other of joining causes with irrelative effects, which either refer not at all unto them, or in a remoter capacity. Hence the Indian conceived so grossly of the letter, that discovered his theft; and that other, who thought the watch an animal. From hence grew the impostures of charms, and amulets, and other insignificant ceremonies; which to this day impose upon common belief, as they did of old upon the barbarism of the incultivate heathen. Thus effects unusual, whose causes run under ground, and are more remote from ordinary discernment, are noted in the book of vulgar opinion, with digitus dei, or demonis; though they owe no other dependence to the first, than what is common to the whole syntax of beings, nor yet any more to the second, than what is given it by the imagination of those unqualified judges. Thus every unwonted meteor is portentous; and the appearance of any unobserved star, some divine prognostick. Antiquity thought thunder the immediate voice of Jupiter, and impleaded them of impiety, that referred it to natural causalities. Neither can there happen a storm, at this remove from antique ignorance, but the multitude will have the devil in't.


Previous Next