Scepsis Scientifica - An Apology For Philosophy.

An Apology For Philosophy.

It is the glory of philosophy, that ignorance and frenzy are its enemies; and it may seem less needful to defend it against stupid and enthusiastic ignorants. However, least my discourse should be an advantage in the hands of fancy and folly; or, which is the greater mischief, lest it should discourage any of the more enlarged spirits from modest enquiries into nature; I'll subjoin this brief apology.

If philosophy be uncertain, the former will considently conclude it vain; and the later may he in danger of pronouncing the same on their pains, who seek it; if after all their labour they must reap the wind, mere opinion and conjecture.

But there's a part of philosophy, that owes no answer to the charge. The skeptics' ΠΑΝΤΑ ΕΣΤΙΝ ΑΟΡΙΣΤΑ[Greek:PANTA ESTIN AORISTA], must have the qualification of an exception; and at least the mathematics must be privileged from the indictment. Neither are we yet at so deplorable a loss, in the other parts of what we call science; but that we may meet with what will content ingenuity, at this distance from perfection, though all things will not completely satisfy strict and rigid enquiry. Philosophy indeed cannot immortalize us, or free us from the inseparable attendants on this state, ignorance, and error. But shall we malign it, because it entitles us not to an omniscience? Is it just to condemn the physician, because Hephestion died? Complete knowledge is reserved to gratify our glorified faculties. We are ignorant of some things from our specifical incapacity; of more from our contracted depravities: and 'tis no fault in the spectacles, that the blind man sees not. Shall we, like sullen children, because we have not what we would; contemn what the benignty of heaven offers us? Do what we can, we shall be imperfect in all our attainments; and shall we scornfully neglect what we may reach, because some things are denied us? 'Tis madness, to refuse the largesses of divine bounty on earth, because there is not an heaven in them. Shall we not rejoice at the gladsome approach of day, because it's overcast with a cloud and followed by the obscurity of night? All sublunary vouchsafements have their alloy of a contrary; and uncertainty, in another kind, is the annex of all things this side the Sun. Even crowns and diadems, the most splendid parts of terrene attains, are akin to that, which to day is in the field, and to morrow is cut down, and withered: he that enjoyed them, and knew their worth, excepted them not out of the charge of universal vanity. And yet the politician thinks they deserve his pains; and is not discouraged at the inconstancy of human affairs, and the lubricity of his subject.

He that looks for perfection, must seek it above the empyreum; it is reserved for glory. It's that alone, which needs not the advantage of a foil: defects seem as necessary to our now happiness, as their opposites. The most refulgent colours are the result of light and shadows: Venus was never the less beautiful for her mole. And 'tis for the majesty of nature, like the Persian kings, sometimes to cover, and not alway to prostrate her beauties to the naked view: yea, they contract a kind of splendour from the seemingly obscuring veil; which adds to the enravishments of her transported admirers. He alone sees all things with an unshadowed comprehensive vision, who eminently is all: only the God of nature perfectly knows her: and light without darkness is the incommunicable claim of him, that dwells in lig ht inaccessible. 'Tis no disparagement to philosophy, that it cannot deify us, or make good the impossible promise of the primitive deceiver. It is that, which she owns. above her, that must perfectly remake us after the image of our maker.

And yet those raised contemplations of God and nature, wherewith philosophy doth acquaint us; enlarge and ennoble the spirit, and infinitely advance it above an ordinary level. The soul is alway like the objects of its delight and converse. A prince is as much above a peasant in spirit, as condition: and man as far transcends the beasts in largeness of desire, as dignity of nature and employment. While we only converse with earth, we are like it; that is, unlike ourselves: but when engaged in more refined and intellectual entertainments; we are somewhat more, than this narrow circumference of flesh speaks us. And, methinks, those generous vertuosi, who dwell in an higher region than other mortals, should make a middle species between the Platonical ΘΕΟΙ[Greek:THEOI], and common humanity. Even our age in variety of glorious examples, can confute the conceit, that souls are equal: and the only instance of that constellation of illustrious worthies, which compose the The ROYAL SOCIETY, is enough to strike dead the opinion of the world's decay, an conclude it in its prime. Reflecting upon which great persons, methinks I could easily believe, that men may differ from one another, as much as angels do from unbodied souls. And perhaps more can be pleaded for such a metaphysical innovation, than can for a specifical diversity among the beasts. Such as these, being in good part freed from the entanglements of sense and body, are employed iike the spirits above; in contemplating the divine artifice and wisdom in the works of nature; a kind of anticipation of the ethereal happiness and employment. This is one part of the life of souls.

While we indulge to the sensitive or plantal life, our delights are common to us with the creatures beam us: and 'tis likely, they exceed us as much in them as in the senses their subjects; and that's a poor happiness for man to aim at, in which beasts are his superiors. But those Mercurial spirits which were only lent the earth to show men their folly in admiring it; possess delights of a nobler make and nature, which as it were antedate immortality; and at an humble distance, resemble the joys of the world of light and glory. The sun and stars, are not the worlds eyes, but these: the celestial Argus cannot glory in such an universal view. These out-travel theirs, and their monarch's beams: passing into vortexes beyond their light and influence; and with an easy twinkle of an intellectual eye look into the centre, which is obscured from the upper luminaries. This is somewhat like the image of omnipresence: and what the hermetical philosophy saith of God, is in a sense verifiable of the thus ennobled soul, that its centre is everywhere, but its circumference nowhere. This is the ΑΛΗΘΙΝΟΣ ΑΝΘΡΩΠΟΣ [Greek: ALETHINOS ANTHROPOS]; and what Plotinus calls so, the divine life, is somewhat more. Those that live but to the lower concupiscible, and relish no delights but sensual; it's by the favour of a metaphor, that we call them men. As Aristotle saith of brutes, they Have but the Μιμηματα ανθρωπινης ζωης [Greek: Minemata anthropines zoes], only some shown and apish imitations of human; and have little more to justify their title to rationality, than those mimick animals, the supposed posterity of Cham: who, had they retained the privilege of speech, which some of the fathers say they owned before the fall; it may be they would plead their cause with them, and have laid strong claim to a parity. Such, as these, are philosophy's maligners, who computing the usefulness of all things, by what they bring to their barns, and treasures; stick not to pronounce the most generous contemplations, needless unprofitable subtleties: and they might with as good reason say, that the light of their eyes was a superfluous provision of nature, because it fills not their bellies.

Thus the greatest part of miserable humanity is lost in earth: and, if man be an inversed.plant; these are inversed men; who forgetting that sursum, which nature writ in their foreheads, take their roots in this sordid element. But the philosophical soul is an inverted pyramid; earth hath but a point of this ethereal cone. Aquila non captat muscas, the royal eagle flies not but at noble game; and a young Alexander will not play but with monarchs. He that hath been cradled in majesty, and used to crowns and sceptres; will not leave the throne to play with beggars at put-pin, or be fond of tops and cherrystones: neither will a spirit that dwells with stars, dabble in this impurer mud; or stoop to be a play-fellow and co-partner in delights with the creatures that have nought but animal. And though it be necessitated by its relation to flesh to a terrestrial converse; yet 'tis like the sun, without contaminating its beams. For, though the body by a kind of magnetism be drawn down to this sediment of universal dregs; yet the thus impregnate spirit contracts a verticity to objects above the pole: and, like as in a falling torch, though the grosser materials hasten to their element; yet the flame aspires, and, could it master the dulness of its load, would carry it off from the stupid earth it tends to. Thus do those enobled souls justify Aristotle's Νους θυραθεν και θειος μονον [Greek: Noys thyrathen kai theois monon]; and in alloyed sense that title, which the stoics give it, of απορπαρμα θεου [Greek:apospasma theoy]. If we say, they are not in their bodies, but their bodies in them; we have the authority of the divine Plato to vouch us: and by the favour of an easy simile we may affirm them to be to the body, as the light of a candle to the gross, and feculent snuff; which, as it is not pent up in it, so neither doth it partake of its stench and impurity. Thus, as the roman orator elegantly descants, erigimur, & latiores fieri videmur; humana despicimus, contemplantesq; supera & coelestia, hec nostra, ut exigua, & minima, contemnimus.

And yet there's an higher degree, to which philosophy sublimes us. For, as it teacheth a generous contempt of what the grovelling desires of creeping mortals idolize and dote on; so it raiseth us to love and admire an object, that is as much above terrestrial as infinite can make it. If Plutarch may have credit, the observation of natures harmony in the celestial motions was one of the first inducements to the belief of a God: and a greater than he affirms, that the visible things of the creation declare him, that made them. What knowledge we have of them we have in a sense of their author. His face cannot be beheld by creature-optics, without the allay of a reflexion; and nature is one of those mirrors, that represents him to us. And now the more we know of him, the more we love him, the more we are like him, the more we admire him. 'Tis here, that knowledge wonders; and there's an admiration, that's not the daughter of ignorance. This indeed stupidly gazeth at the unwonted effect: but the philosophic passion truly admires and adores the supreme efficient. The wonders of the almighty are not seen, but by those that go down into the deep. The heavens declare their maker's glory; and philosophy theirs, which by a grateful rebound returns to its original source. The twinkling spangles, the ornaments of the upper world, lose their beauty and magnificence, while they are but the objects of our narrowed senses: by them the half is not told us; and vulgar spectators see them, but as a confused huddle of petty illuminants. But philosophy doth right to those immense spheres, and advantageously represents their glories, both in the vastness of their proportions, and regularity of their motions. If we would see the wonders of the globe we dwell in; philosophy must rear us above it. The works of God speak forth his mighty praise: a speech not understood, but by those that know them.

The most artful melody receives but little tribute of honour from the gazing beasts; it requires skill to relish it. The most delicate musical accents of the Indians, to us are but inarticulate hummings; as questionless are ours to their otherwise tuned organs. Ignorance of the notes and proportions, renders all harmony unaffecting. A gay puppet pleaseth children more, than the exactest piece of unaffected art: it requires some degrees of perfection, to admire what is truly perfect, as it's said to be an advance in oratory to relish Cicero. Indeed the unobservant multitude, may have some general confused apprehensions of a kind of beauty, that gilds the outside frame of the universe: but they are natures coarser wares, that lie on the stall, exposed to the transient view of every common eye; her choicer riches are locked up only for the sight of them, that will buy at the expence of sweat and oil. Yea, and the visible creation is far otherwise apprehended by the philosophical inquirer, than the unintelligent vulgar. Thus the physician looks with another eye on the medicinal herb, than the grazing ox, which swoops it in with the common grass: and the swine may see the pearl, which yet he values but with the ordinary muck; it's otherwise prized by the skilful jeweller.

And from this last article, I think, I may conclude the charge, which hot-brained folly layes in against philosophy; that it leads to irreligion, frivolous and vain. I dare say, next after the divine word, it's one of the best friends to piety. Neither is it any more justly accountable for the impious irregularities of some, that have paid an homage to its shrine; than religion itself for the extravagances both opinionative and practic of high pretenders to it. It is a vulgar conceit, that philosophy holds a confederacy with atheism itself, but most injurious: for nothing can better antidote us against it: and they may as well say, that physicians are the only murderers. A philosophic atheist, is as good sense as a divine one: and I dare say the proverb, ubi tres medici, duo athei, is a scandal. I think the original of this conceit might be, that the students of nature, conscious to her more cryptic ways of working, resolve many strange effects into the nearer efficiency of second causes; which common ignorance and superstition attribute to the immediate causality of the first: thinking it to derogate from the divine power, that anything which is above their apprehensions, should not be reckoned above nature's activity; though it be but His instrument, and works nothing but as empowered from Him. Hence they violently declaim against all, that will not acknowledge a miracle in every extraordinary effect, as setting nature in the throne of God; and so it's an easy step to say, they deny Him. When as indeed, nature is but the chain of second causes; and to suppose second causes without a first, is beneath the logic of Gotham. Neither can they (who, to make their reproach of philosophy more authentic allege the authority of an apostle to conclude it vain) upon any whit more reasonable terms make good their charge; since this allegation stands in force but against its abuse, corrupt sophistry, or traditionary impositions, which lurked under the mask of so serious a name: at the worst, the text will never warrant an universal conclusion any more; than that other, where the apostle speaks of silly women, (who yet are the most rigid urgers of this) can justly blot the sex with an unexceptionable note of infamy.

Now, what I have said here in this short apology for philosophy, is not so strictly verifiable of any that I know, as the Cartesian. The entertainment of which among truly ingenuous unpossessed spirits, renders an after-commendation superfluous and impertinent. It would require a wit like its authors, to do it right in an encomium. The strict rationality of the hypothesis in the main, and the critical coherence of its parts, I doubt not but will bear it down to posterity with a glory, that shall know no term, but the universal ruins. Neither can the pedantry, or prejudice of the present age, any more obstruct its motion in that supreme sphere, wherein its desert hath placed it; than can the howling wolves pluck cynthia from her orb; who regardless of their noise, securely glides through the undisturbed ether. Censure here will disparage itself, not it. He that accuseth the sun of darkness, shames his own blind eyes; not its light. The barking of cynics at that hero's chariot-wheels, will not sully the glory of his triumphs. But I shall supersede this endless attempt: sunbeams best commend themselves.

 

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