Scepsis Scientifica - Chap. XVII.

Chap. XVII.

            Another thing, that engageth our affections to unwarrantable conclusions, and is therefore fatal; is our doting on antiquity, and the opinion of our fathers. We look with a superstitious reverence upon the accounts of preterlapsed ages: and with a supercilious severity, on the more deserving products of our own. A vanity, which hath possessed all times as well as ours; and the golden age was never present. For as in static experiment, an inconsiderable weight by virtue of its distance from the centre of the balance, will preponderate much greater magnitudes; so the most slight and chaffy opinion, if at a greater remove from the present age, contracts such an esteem and veneration, that it outweighs what is infinitely more ponderous and rational, of a modern date. And thus, in another sense, we realize what Archimedes had only in hypothesis; weighing a single grain against the globe of Earth. We reverence gray-headed doctrines; though feeble, decrepit, and within a step of dust: and on this account maintain opinions, which have nothing but our charity to uphold them. While the beauty of a truth, as of a picture is not acknowledged but at a distance; and that wisdom is nothing worth, which is not fetched from afar: wherein yet we oft deceive ourselves, as did that mariner, who mistaking them for precious stones, brought home his ship fraught with common pebbles from the remotest Indies. Thus our eyes, like the preposterous animals, are behind us; and our intellectual motions retrograde. We adhere to the determinations of our fathers, as if their opinions were entailed on us as their lands; or (as some conceive) part of the parent's soul were portioned out to his offspring, and the conceptions of our minds were ex traduce. The sages of old live again in us; and in opinions there is a metempsychosis. We are our reanimated ancestors, and antedate their resurrection.

            And thus, while every age is but another show of the former; 'tis no wonder, that science hath not outgrown the dwarfishness of its pristine stature, and that the intellectual world is such a microcosm. For while we account of some admired authors, as the Seth's Pillars, on which all knowledge is engraven; and spend that time and study in defence of their placets, which with more advantage to science might have been employed upon the books of the more ancient, and universal author: 'tis not to be admired, that knowledge hath received so little improvement from the endeavours of many pretending promoters, through the continued series of so many successive ages. For while we are slaves to the dictates of our progenitors; our discoveries, like water, will not run higher than the fountains, from which they own their derivation. And while we think it so piaculous, to go beyond the ancients; we must necessarily come short of genuine antiquity, truth; unless we suppose them to have reached perfection of knowledge in spite of their own acknowledgements of ignorance.

            Now if we enquire the reason, why the mathematics, and mechanic arts, have so much got the start in growth of other sciences: we shall find it probably resolved into this, as one considerable cause: that their progress hath not been retarded by that reverential awe of former discoveries, which hath been so great an hindrance to theorical improvements. 'Twas never an heresy to out-limn Apelles; nor criminal to out-work the obelisks. Galileus without a crime out-saw all antiquity, and was not afraid to believe his eyes, in spite of the optics of Ptolemy and Aristotle. 'Tis no discredit to the telescope that antiquity ne'er saw in't: nor are we shy of assent to those celestial informations, because they were hid from ages. We believe the verticity of the needle, without a certificate from the days of old: and confine not ourselves to the sole conduct of the stars, for fear of being wiser than our fathers. Had authority prevailed here, the Earth's fourth part had to us been none, and Hercules his pillars had still been the worlds non ultra: Seneca's prophesy had been an unfulfilled prediction, and one moiety of our globes, an empty hemisphere.

            In a sense, Τα αρχαια κρατειτω [Greek: Ta archaia krateito], is a wholesome instruction; and becoming the vote of a synod: but yet, in common acceptation, it's an enemy to verity, which can plead the antiquity of above six thousand; and bears date from before the chaos. For, as the noble Lord Verulam hath noted, we have a mistaken apprehension of antiquity; calling that so, which in truth is the world's nonage. Antiquitas seculi est juventus mundi. So that in such appeals, we fetch our knowledge from the cradle; which though it be nearest to innocence, it is so too to the fatal ruins which followed it. Upon a true account, the present age is the worlds grandevity; and if we must to antiquity, let multitude of days speak. Now for us to supersede further disquisition, upon the immature acquirements of those juvenile endeavours, is foolishly to neglect the nobler advantages we are owners of, and in a sense to disappoint the expectations of Him that gave them. Yet thus hath the world prevented itself of science. And aged knowledge, is still an infant. We superstitiously sit down in the acquisitions of our fathers; and are discouraged from attempting further than they have gone before us. So that, but for the undertakings of some glorious persons, who now and then shine upon the world, Plato's year might have found us, where the days of Aristotle left us. For my part, I think it no such arrogance, as some are pleased to account it, that almost two thousand years elapsed since, should weigh with the sixty three of the Stagirite. If we owe it to him, that we know so much; 'tis perhaps long of his fond adorers that we know so little more. I can see no ground, why his reason should be textuary to ours; or that God, or nature, ever intended him an universal headship. 'Twas this vain idolizing of authors, which gave birth to that silly vanity of impertinent citations; and inducing authority in things neither requiring, nor deserving it. That saying was much more observable, that men have beards, and women none; because quoted from Beza: and that other, pax res bona est; because brought in with a, "said St. Augustine." But these ridiculous fooleries, signify nothing to the more generous discerners, but the pedantry of the affected sciolist. 'Tis an inglorious acquist to have our heads or volumes laden, as were cardinal Campeius his mules, with old and useless luggage: and yet the magnificence of many high pretenders to science, if laid open by a true discovery, would amount to no more than the old boots and shooes, of that proud, and exposed ambassador. Methinks 'tis a pitiful piece of knowledge, that can be learnt from an Index; and a poor ambition to be rich in the inventory of another's treasure. To boast a memory (the most that these pedants can aim at) is but an humble ostentation. And of all the faculties, in which some brutes out-vie us, I least envy them an excellence in that; desiring rather to be a fountain than an hogshead. 'Tis better to own a judgment, though but with a curta supellex of coherent notions; than a memory, like a sepulchre, furnished with a load of broken and discarnate bones. Authorities alone with me make no number, unless evidence of reason stand before them: for all the cyphers of arithmetic, are no better than a single nothing. And yet this rank folly of affecting such impertinencies, hath overgrown our times; and those that are candidates for the repute of scholars, take this way to compass it. When as multiplicity of reading, the best it can signify, doth but speak them to have taken pains for it: and this alone is but the dry and barren part of knowledge, and hath little reason to denominate. A number of receipts at the best can but make an empiric, but again, to what is more perpendicular to our discourse, if we impartially look into the remains of antique ages; we shall find but little to justify so groundless a tyranny, as antiquity hath imposed on the enslaved world. For if we take an account of the state of science, beginning as high as history can carry us; we shall find it still to have lain under such unhappy disadvantages, as have hindered its advance in any considerable degrees of improvement. And though it hath oft changed its channel, by its remove from one nation to another; yet hath it been little more altered, than a river in its passage through differing regions, viz, in name and method. For the succeeding times still subscribing to, and copying out those, who went before them, with little more than verbal diversity; science hath still been the same pitiful thing, though in a various livery. The Grecian learning was but a transcript of the Chaldean and Egyptian; and the Roman of the Grecian. And though those former days have not wanted brave wits, that have gallantly attempted, and made essays worthy immortality; yet by reason either of the unqualified capacities of the multitude, (who dote on things slight and trivial; neglecting what is more rare and excellent) or the clamorous assaults of envious and more popular opposers, they have submitted to fate, and are almost lost in oblivion. And therefore, as that great man, the Lord Bacon hath observed, time as a river, hath brought down to us what is more light and superficial; while things more solid and substantial have been immersed. Thus the Aristotelian philosophy hath prevailed; while the more excellent and more ancient atomical hypothesis hath long lain buried in neglect and darkness; and for ought I know, might have slept for ever, had not the ingenuity of the present age, recalled it from its urn and silence. But it is somewhat collateral to my scope, as well as disproportioned to my abilities, to fall upon particular instances of the defects and errors of the philosophy of the ancients. The forementioned noble advancer of learning, whose name and parts might give credit to any undertaking; hath handsomely performed it, in his ingenious Novum Organum. And yet, because it may confer towards the discovery of how little our adherence to antiquity befriends truth, and the encrease of knowledge; as also how groundless are the dogmatists high pretensions to science: I shall adventure some considerations on the Peripatetic philosophy; which hath had the luck to survive all others, and to build a fame on their ruines.


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