Scepsis Scientifica - AN ADDRESS TO THE ROYAL SOCIETY.

AN ADDRESS TO THE ROYAL SOCIETY.

            Illustrious Gentlemen,

            The name of your honorable society is so august and glorious, and this trifle to which I have prefixed it, of so mean, and so unsuitable a quality; that 'tis fit I should give an account of an action so seemingly obnoxious. And I can expect no other from those, that judge by first sights and rash measures, then to be thought fond or insolent; or, as one that hath unmeet thoughts of himself, or you. But if a naked profession may have credit in a case wherein no other evidence can be given of an intention; I adventured not on this address upon the usual motives of dedications. It was not upon design to credit these papers (which yet derive much accidental honour from the occasion.) Nor to compliment a society so much above flattery, and the regardless air of common applauses. I intended not your illustrious name the dishonour of being fence against detraction for a performance, which possibly deserves it. Nor was it to publish how much I honour you; which were to fancy myself considerable. Much less was I so fond, to think I could contribute anything to a constellation of worthies from whom the learned world expects to be informed. But, considering how much it is the interest of mankind in order to the advance of knowledge, to be sensible they have not yet attained it; or at least, but in poor and diminutive measures; and regarding your society as the strongest argument to persuade a modest and reserved diffidence in opinions, I took the boldness to borrow that deservedly celebrated name, for an evidence to my subject; that so what was wanting in my proof, might be made up in the example. For if we were yet arrived to certain and infallible accounts in nature, from whom might we more reasonably expect them then from a number of men, whom, their impartial search, wary procedure, deep sagacity, twisted endeavours, ample fortunes, and all other advantages, have rendered infinitely more likely to have succeeded in those enquiries; then the sloth, haste, and babble of talking disputants; or the greatest industry of single and less qualified attempters? If therefore those (whom, I am in no danger of being disbelieved by any that understand the world and them, if I call the most learned and ingenious society in Europe.) If they, I say, confess the narrowness of human attainments, and dare not confide in the most plausible of their sentiments; if suck great and instructed spirits think we have not as yet phenomena enough to make as much as hypotheses; much less, to fix certain laws and prescribe methods to nature in her actings: what insolence is it then in the lesser size of mortals, who possibly know nothing but what they gleaned from some little system, or the disputes of men that love to swagger for opinions, to boast infallibility of knowledge, and swear they see the sun at midnight.

            Nor was this the only inducement to the dishonour I have done you in the direction of these worthless papers; but I must confess I designed hereby to serve myself in another interest. For having been so hardy as to undertake a charge against the philosophy of the schools, and to attempt upon a name which among some is yet very sacred, I was liable to have been overborne by a torrent of authorities, and to have had the voice of my single reason against it, drowned in the noise of multitudes of applauders: that I might not therefore be vapoured down by insignificant testimonies, or venture bare reasons against what the doting world counts more valuable, I presumed to use the great name of your society to annihilate all such arguments. And I cannot think that any, that is but indifferently impudent, will have the confidence to urge, either the greatness of the author, or the number of its admirers in behalf of that philosophy, after the Royal Society is mentioned. For though your honourable and ingenious assembly hath not so little to do, as to dispute with men that count it a great attainment to be able to talk much, and little to the purpose: and though you have not thought it worth your labour to enter a professed dissent against a philosophy which the greatest part of the virtuosi, and enquiring spirits of Europe have deserted, as a mere maze of words, and useless contrivance: yet the credit which the mathematics have with you, your experimental way of enquiry, and mechanical attempts for solving the phenomena; besides that some of you (to whose excellent works the learned world is deeply indebted) publicly own the Cartesian and atomical hypotheses; these, I say, are arguments of your no great favour to the Aristotelian. For indeed that disputing physiology is of no accommodation to your designs; which are not to teach men to cant endlessly about materia, and forma; to hunt chimeras by rules of art, or to dress up ignorance in words of bulk and sound, which shall stop the mouth of enquiry, and make learned fools seem oracles among the populace: but the improving the minds of men in solid and useful notices of things, helping them to such theories as may be serviceable to common life, and the searching out the true laws of matter and motion, in order to the securing of the foundations of religion against all attempts of mechanical atheism.

            In order to the furtherance (according to my poor measure) of which great and worthy purposes, these papers were first intended. For perceiving that several ingenious persons whose assistance might be conducive to the advance of real and useful knowledge, lay under the prejudices of education and customary belief; I thought that the enlarging them to a state of more generous freedom by striking at the root of pedantry and opinionative assurance would be no hindrance to the world's improvement. For such it was then that the ensuing essay was designed; which therefore wears a dress, that possibly is not so suitable to the graver geniuses, who have outgrown all gaieties of style and youthful relishes; but yet perhaps is not improper for the persons, for whom it was prepared. And there is nothing in words and styles but suitableness, that makes them acceptable and effective. If therefore this discourse, such as it is, may tend to the removal of any accidental disadvantages from capable ingenuities, and the preparing them for inquiry, I know you have so noble an ardour for the benefit of mankind, as to pardon a weak and defective performance to a laudable and well-directed intention. And though, if you were acted by the spirit of common mortals, you need not care for the propagation of that gallantry and intellectual grandeur which you are so eminently owners of since 'tis a greater credit, and possibly pleasure, to be wise when few are so; yet you being no factors for glory or treasure, but disinterested attempters for the universal good, cannot but favourably regard anything, that in the least degree may do the considering world a kindness; and to enable it with the spirit that inspires the Royal Society, were to advantage it in one of the best capacities in which it is improvable. These papers then (as I have intimated) having been directed to an end subordinate to this, viz., the disposing the less stupid minds for that honour and improvement; I thought it very proper to call up their eyes to you, and to fix them on their example: that so natural ambition might take part with reason and their interest to encourage imitation. In order to which, I think it needless to endeavour to celebrate you in a professed encomium; since customary strains and affected juvenilities have made it difficult to commend, and speak credibly in dedications; and your deserts, impossible in this. So that he that undertakes it, must either be wanting to your merits, or speak things that will find but little credit among those that do not know you. Or, possibly such, as will be interpreted only as what of course is said on such occasions, rather because 'tis usual, then because 'tis just. But the splendour of a society, illustrious both by blood and virtue, excuseth my pen from a subject, in which it must either appear vain, or be defective. I had much rather take notice therefore, how providentially you are met together in days, wherein people of weak heads on the one hand, and vile affections on the other, have made an unnatural divorce between being wise and good. These conceiving reason and philosophy sufficient vouchees of licentious practices and their secret scorn of religion; and those reckoning it a great instance of piety and devout zeal, vehemently to declaim against reason and philosophy. And what result can be expected from such supposals, that 'tis a piece of wit and gallantry to be an atheist, and of atheism to be a philosopher, but irreligion on the one side, and superstition on the other, which will end in open irreclaimable atheism on both? Now it seems to me a signality in providence in erecting your most honourable society in such a juncture of dangerous humours, the very mention of which is evidence, that atheism is impudent in pretending to philosophy; and superstition sottishly ignorant in fancying, that the knowledge of nature tends to irreligion. But to leave this latter to its conceits, and the little impertinencies of humour and folly it is fond of: the former is more dangerous, though not more reasonable. For where 'tis once presumed, that the whole fabric of religion is built upon ignorance of the nature of things; and the belief of a God, ariseth from unacquaintance with the laws of matter and motion; what can be the issue of such presumptions, but that those that are so persuaded, should desire to be wise in a way that will gratify their appetites: and so give up themselves to the swinge of their unbounded propensions? Yea, and those, the impiety of whose lives makes them regret a deity, and secretly wish there were none will greedily listen to a doctrine that strikes at the existence of a being, the sense of whom is a restraint and check upon the licence of their actions. And thus all wickedness and debauches will flow in upon the world like a mighty deluge, and beat down all the banks of laws, virtue, and sobriety before them.

            Now though few have yet arrived to that pitch of impiety, or rather folly, openly to own such sentiments; yet, I doubt, this concealment derives rather from the fear of man, men from the love or fear of any being above him. And what the confident exploding of all immaterial substances, the unbounded prerogatives are bestowed upon matter, and the consequent assertions, signify, you need not be informed. I could wish there were less reason to suspect them branches of a dangerous cabbala. For the ingenious world being grown quite weary of qualities and forms, and declaring in favour of the mechanical hypothesis, (to which a person that is not very fond of religion is a great pretender) divers of the brisker geniuses, who desire rather to be accounted wits, then endeavour to be so, have been willing to accept mechanism upon Hobbian conditions, and many others were in danger of following them into the precipice. So that 'tis not conceivable how a more suitable remedy could have been provided against the deadly influence of that contagion, than your honourable society, by which the meanest intellects may perceive, that mechanic philosophy yields no security to irreligion, and that those that would be genteely learned and ingenious, need not purchase it, at the dear rate of being atheists. Nor can the proleptical notions of religion be so well defended by the professed servants of the altar, who usually suppose them, and are less furnished with advantages for such speculations; so that their attempts in this kind will be interpreted by such as are not willing to be convinced, as the products of interest, or ignorance in mechanics; which suspicions can never be derived upon a society of persons of quality and honour, who are embodied for no other interest but that of the public, and whose abilities in this kind are too bright to admit the least shadow of the other censure. And 'tis to be hoped that the eminence of your condition, and the gallantry of your principles, which are worthy those that own them, will invite gentlemen to the useful and ennobling study of nature, and make philosophy fashionable; whereas while that which the world calls so, consisted of nought but dry spinosities, lean notions, and endless alterations about things of nothing, all unbecoming men of generous spirit and education; of use nowhere but where folks are bound to talk by a law, and professed by few but persons of ordinary condition; while, I say, philosophy was of such a nature, and clothed with such circumstances, how could it be otherwise then contemptible, in the esteem of the more enfranchised and sprightly tempers? So that your illustrious society hath redeemed the credit of philosophy; and I hope to see it accounted a piece of none of the meanest breeding to be acquainted with the laws of nature and the universe. And doubtless there is nothing wherein men of birth and fortune would better consult their treble interest of pleasure, estate, and honour, then by such generous researches. In which (1.) They'll find all the innocent satisfactions which use to follow victory, variety, and surprise, the usual sources of our best tasted pleasures. And perhaps human nature meets few more sweetly relishing and cleanly joys, than those, that derive from the happy issues of successful trials: yea, whether they succeed to the answering the particular aim of the naturalist or not; 'tis however a pleasant spectacle to behold the shifts, windings and unexpected caprichios of distressed nature, when pursued by a close and well managed experiment. And the delights which result from these nobler entertainments are such, as our cool and reflecting thoughts need not be ashamed of. And which are dogged by no such sad sequels as are the products of those titillations that reach no higher then fancy and the senses. And that alone deserves to be called so, which is pleasure without guilt or pain. Nor (2.) have the frugaller sons of fortune any reason to object the costliness of the delights we speak of; since, in all likelihood, they frequently pay dearer for less advantageous pleasures. And it may be there are few better ways of adding to what they are afraid to waste, then inquiries into nature. For by a skilful application of those notices, may be gained in such researches, besides the accelerating and bettering of fruits, emptying mines, draining fens and marshes, which may hereby be effected, at much more easy and less expensive rates, then by the common methods of such performances: I say, besides these, lands may be advanced to scarce credible degrees of improvement, and innumerable other advantages may be obtained by an industry directed by philosophy and mechanics, which can never be expected from drudging ignorance. But though those inquisitive pursuits of things should make out no pretence to pleasure or advantage; yet upon the last account (3.) Of honour, they are infinitely recommendable to all that have any sense of such an interest. For 'tis a greater credit, if we judge by equal measures, to understand the art whereby the almighty wisdom governs the motions of the great automaton, and to know the ways of captivating nature, and making her subserve our purposes and designments; than to have learnt all the intrigues of policy, and the cabals of states and kingdoms; yea, then to triumph in the head of victorious troops over conquered empires. Those successes being more glorious which bring benefit to the world; then such ruinous ones as are dyed in human blood, and clothed in the livery of cruelty and slaughter.

            Nor are these all the advantages upon the account of which we owe acknowledgments to providence for your erection; since from your promising and generous endeavours, we may hopefully expect a considerable enlargement of the history of nature, without which our hypotheses are but dreams and romances, and our science mere conjecture and opinion. For while we frame schemes of things without consulting the phenomena, we do but build in the air, and describe an imaginary world of our own making, that is but little akin to the real one that God made. And 'tis possible that all the hypotheses that yet have been contrived, were built upon too narrow an inspection of things, and the phases of the universe. For the advancing day of experimental knowledge discloseth such appearances, as will not lie even, in any model extant. And perhaps the newly discovered ring about Saturn, to mention no more, will scarce be accounted for by any system of things the world hath yet been acquainted with. So that little can be looked for towards the advancement of natural theory, but from those, that are likely to mend our prospect of events and sensible appearances; the defect of which will suffer us to proceed no further towards science, then to imperfect guesses, and timorous supposals. And from whom can this great and noble acquist be expected, if not from a society of persons that can command both wit and fortune to serve them, and professedly engage both in experimental pursuits of nature?

            The desired success of which kind of engagements cannot so reasonably be looked for from any in the known universe, as from your most honourable society, where fondness of preconceived opinions, sordid interests, or affectation of strange relations, are not like to render your reports suspect or partial, nor want of sagacity, fortune, or care, defective: some of which possibly have been ingredients in most former experiments. So that the relations of your trials may be received as undoubted records of certain events, and as securely be depended on, as the propositions of euclid. Which advantage cannot be hoped from private undertakers, or societies less qualified and conspicuous then yours. And how great a benefit such a natural history as may be confided in, will prove to the whole stock of learned mankind, those that understand the interest of the inquiring world may conjecture. Doubtless, the success of those your great and catholic endeavours will promote the empire of man over nature; and bring plentiful accession of glory to your nation; making Britain more justly famous then the once celebrated Greece; and London the wiser Athens. For you really are what former ages could contrive but in wish and romances; and Solomon's house in the new Atlantis was a prophetic scheme of the Royal Society. And though such august designs as inspire your enquiries, use to be derided by drolling fantastics, that have only wit enough to make others and themselves ridiculous: yet there's no reproach in the scoffs of ignorance; and those that are wise enough to understand your worth, and the merit of your endeavours, will contemn the silly taunts of fleering buffoonery; and the jerks of that wit, that is but a kind of confident, and well-acted folly. And 'tis none of the least considerable expectations that may be reasonably had of your society, that 'twill discredit that toyishness of wanton fancy; and pluck the misapplied name of the wits, from those conceited humourists that have assumed it; to bestow it upon the more manly spirit and genius, that plays not tricks with words, nor frolics with the caprices of frothy imagination: but employs a severe reason in enquiries into the momentous concernments of the universe.

            On consideration of all which accounts, I think it just you should have acknowledgments from all the sons and favourers of wisdom: and I cannot believe it a crime for me to own my part of those obligations (though in a slender offering) for which all the thoughtful and awakened world is your debtor; no more then 'twas a fault to pay the tribute penny to Caesar, or is a piece of guilt to be dutiful. And though perhaps I have not so well consulted the repute of my intellectuals, in bringing their weaknesses and imperfections into such discerning presences; yet I am well content, if thereby I have given any proof of an honest will, and well-meaning morals; and I think, I can without repugnance sacrifice the former, to an occasion of gaining myself this latter and better testimony; of which disposition, I say, I am now giving an instance in presenting so illustrious an assembly with a discourse, that hath nothing to recommend it, but the devotion wherewith 'tis offered them. And really when I compare this little and mean performance, with the vastness of my subject; I am discouraged by the disproportion: and methinks I have brought but a cockle-shell of water from the ocean: whatever I look upon within the amplitude of heaven and earth, is evidence of human ignorance; for all things are a great darkness to us, and we are so unto ourselves: the plainest things are as obscure, as the most confessedly mysterious; and the plants we tread on, are as much above us, as the stars and heavens. The things that touch us are as distant from us, as the pole; and we are as much strangers to ourselves, as to the inhabitants of america. On review of which, methinks I could begin anew to describe the poverty of our intellectual acquisitions, and the vanity of bold opinion; which the dogmatists themselves demonstrate in all the controversies they are engaged in; each party being confident that the other's confidence is vain; from which a third may more reasonably conclude the same of the confidence of both. And methinks there should need no more to reduce disputing men to modest acknowledgments, and more becoming temper, then the consideration; that there is not anything about which the reason of man is capable of being employed, but hath been the subject of dispute, and diversity of apprehension. So that, as the excellent Lord Montaigne hath observed, [mankind is agreed in nothing; no, not in this, that the heavens are over us;] every man almost differing from another; yea, and every man from himself: and yet every man is assured of his own schemes of conjecture, though he cannot hold this assurance, but by this proud absurdity, that he alone is in the right, and all the rest of the world mistaken. I say then, there being so much to be produced both from the natural and moral world to the shame of boasting ignorance; the ensuing treatise, which with a timerous and unassured countenance adventures into your presence, can pride itself in no higher title, than that of an essay, or imperfect offer at a subject, to which it could not do right but by discoursing all things. On which consideration, I had once resolved to suffer this trifle to pass both out of print and memory; but another thought suggesting, that the instances I had given of human ignorance were not only clear ones, but such as are not so ordinarily suspected; from which to our shortness in most things else, 'tis an easy inference, and a potiori, I was persuaded, and somewhat by experience, that it might not be altogether unuseful in the capacities 'twas intended for: and on these accounts I suffered this publication; to which (without vanity I speak it) I found so faint an inclination, that I could have been well content to suffer it to have slipped into the state of eternal silence and oblivion. For I must confess that way of writing to be less agreeable to my present relish and genius; which is more gratified with manly sense, flowing in a natural and unaffected eloquence, than in the music and curiosity of fine metaphors and dancing periods. To which measure of my present humour, I had endeavoured to reduce the style of these papers; but that I was loth to give myself that trouble in an affair, to which I was grown too cold to be much concerned in. And this inactivity of temper persuaded me, I might reasonably expect a pardon from the ingenious, for faults committed in an immaturity of age and judgment that would excuse them; and perhaps I may have still need to plead it to atone for the imperfections of this address: by which, though I have exposed deformities to the clearest sunshine, that some others prudence would have directed into the shades and more private recesses; yet I am secure to lose nothing by the adventure that is comparably valued by me as is the honour of declaring myself,

Illustrious gentlemen,
The most humble admirer of your august Society,
Jos. Glanvill.    

 

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