A Dissertation upon Nothing.
THAT great master of human nature, the ingenious author of Tom Jones, who justly styles himself king of biographers, published an edict in his last work, declaring, that no person hereafter should presume to write a novel, without prefixing a prefatory chapter to every book, under the penalty of being deemed a blockhead. This introductory chapter, he says, is the best mark of genius, and surest criterion of an author's parts; for by it the most indifferent reader may be enabled to distinguish what is true and genuine in this historic kind of writing, from what is false and counterfeit: and he supposes the authors of the Spectator were induced to prefix Latin and Greek mottos to every paper, from the same consideration of guarding against the pursuit of scribblers; because by this device it became impracticable for any man to presume to imitate the Spectator, without understanding at least one sentence in the learned languages.
In compliance therefore with the edict of this royal biographer, I shall beg leave, in the entrance of this second book of our history, to detain the reader with an introductory chapter upon Nothing; being the most proper subject I can recollect at present for such an initial section; which I hope will testify my loyalty to the great lawgiver above-mentioned, and also dispose the reader to a favourable opinion of my historic abilities.
I do not recollect any writer before myself, excepting the great Lord Rochester, who has professedly treated this abstruse, learned and comprehensive subject; which is something wonderful, considering the great number of penmen, whose works show them to have been excellently qualified for it. But though none have treated it professedly, many and various have indirectly handled it in all branches of science, and in all human probability will continue to do so to the end of the world. For though neither poet, philosopher, divine, or lawyer have ever been courageous enough to declare the subject they were writing upon; yet poems, systems of philosophy, bodies of divinity, and huge reports of law have in all ages swelled themselves to the greatest bulk upon Nothing.
Not to recur to those venerable tomes of antiquity, which have been delivered down to us from the peaceful ages of monkish darkness, modern examples present themselves in great abundance to our choice. What is contained in all the treatises of Mr. William Wh——n on the Trinity? Nothing. What is contained in the mighty and voluminous epic poems of Sir Richard Blackmore, Knight? Absolute Nothing. What again can be collected from that universal maze of words, called the UNIVERSAL HISTORY of all Nations, Languages, Customs, Manners, Empires, Governments, Men, Monsters, Land-Fights, Sea-Fights, and a million more of inexhaustible topics? What, I say, can be comprehended in the tedious pages of that ostentatious history? Every reader will be ready. To answer, Nothing. The works of Dennis, Descartes, Lord Sh—f—ry, and the mighty Mr. W—rb—n, all treat of the same immortal subject, however the ingenious authors, out of pure modesty, may have been contented to let them pass under the fictitious names of plays, systems of philosophy, miscellaneous reflections, and divine legations.
That nothing can arise out of Nothing, ex nihilo nil fueri, has long reigned an uncontroverted maxim of philosophy, and been a first principle of the schools: but novelty, and a modish love of paradox carry me.tp endeavour its confutation; and this I hope to do on the general testimony and verbal confession of all mankind. For let us attend carefully to what passes around us, and we shall find Nothing to have the greatest sway in all human actions. Does anyone ask his friend or a stranger, 'What is the news at court today?' He receives constantly and universally for answer, 'Nothing, sir'—'what was done yesterday in the house?'—'Nothing at all, sir.'—'Any news in the city, or upon change?'—'Nothing in the world'—'Are our armies in motion, and have they achieved anything lately against the enemy?'—'Nothing in nature, sir,' is the sure and invariable answer, which may for ever be expected to all questions of this kind. Yet notwithstanding this universal declaration, if we look abroad, and trust rather to the information of our eyes than our ears, we shall really find a great deal done in the world, considering how people have been employed, and that mankind are by no means idle, though they are always doing Nothing.
Let us first cast our eyes upon the court, where though Nothing is said to be done, everything is in reality performed. There we see feuds, animosities, divisions, jealousies, revolutions, and re-revolutions; ministers deposed and again restored; peace and war decreed, contending nations reconciled, and the interests of Europe adjusted. Yet all this is Nothing.
From the court let us turn to the 'Change and City, and there also admire the infinite productions of Nothing. There we see avarice, usury, extortion, back-biting, fraud, hypocrisy, stock-jobbing, and every evil that can arise from the circulation of money. Thousands were there ruined yesterday, thousands are ruining to-day, and thousands will be ruined to-morrow: yet all this is Nothing.
Again, let us take a second survey of it, and we shall see little politicians hatching scandal against the government, and propagating malicious stories, which they know to be false: we shall see lies circulating from coffee-house to coffee-house, and gathering additional strength in every minute of their conveyance: we shall see the turbulent offspring of wealth, restless in peace, and dissatisfied in war; compelling their sovereign to take up arms in one year, and almost wresting them from his hands in another: yet all this is nothing.
Once more let us direct our views to the camp, and there again admire the productions of Nothing. For though Nothing was said to be done during the late war, and the little politicians above-mentioned took a pleasure to talk of the inactivity of our armies, yet in reality everything was performed, that could reasonably be expected from them. ’Tis true, they did not over-run the Kingdom of France, besiege its Capital, and take its King Prisoner; all which I believe many People thought easy and practicable; but they kept the most numerous armies of the most formidable monarchy in Europe at bay, and often contended hard with them for the victory, in spite of the treachery of allies, and the almost infinite superiority of their enemies. If anybody chooses to call this Nothing, he has my full consent, because it confirms the doctrine I want to establish, that Nothing produces everything.
Lastly, let us examine what passes in private life, and that will likewise furnish us with the same reflections. Do not quarrels of all sorts arise from Nothing? Do not matrimonial jealousies spring from Nothing? What occasions lawsuits, dissentions among neighbours, improbable suspicions, ill-founded conjectures, and the like? What is it that fills the brains of projectors, exercises the fancy of poets, employs the machinations of women, and draws the swords of young coxcomb officers in the army, when they are strutting with the first raptures of sudden elevation? To all these interrogations we may answer, Nothing. And not to multiply foreign examples, what is it that I am now writing? Undoubtedly the reader will esteem it Nothing. In short, whatever we see around us,
Quicquid agunt homines, votum, timor, ira, voluptas,
["Whatever mankind does—vows, fear, anger, pleasure,
Juvenal, Satires, Sat. I. l.85-6]
All these are the genuine productions of Nothing. I would therefore humbly recommend it to the consideration of the two great seminaries of Oxford and Cambridge, whether their wisdoms shall not think fit to make an alteration in that old erroneous maxim of ex nihilo nil fit[Nothing comes from Nothing], and say rather ex nihilo omnia fiunt[Everything comes from Nothing]; which I take to be more consistent with truth and the reality of things.
Having thus discharged the duty imposed upon me, of writing an introductory chapter, I hope I am now at liberty to pursue the fortunes of my hero, without incurring the grievous imputation of dullness, denounced on all those, who shall disobey the royal edict, issued out for that purpose.