- This grand miscarriage in our study draws after it another of less consequence, which yet is very natural for bookish men to run into, and that is the reading of authors very intently and diligently to mind the arguments pro and con they use, and endeavour to lodge them safe in their memory, to serve them upon occasion. This, when it succeeds to the purpose designed (which it only does in very good memories, and indeed, is rather the business of the memory than judgment), sets a man off before the world as a very knowing learned man, but upon trial will not be found to be so;
indeed it may make a man a ready talker and disputant, but not an able man. It teaches a man to be a fencer; but in the irreconcileable war between truth and falsehood, it seldom or never enables him to choose the right side, or to defend it well, being got of it.
He that desires to be knowing indeed, that covets rather the possession of truth than the show of learning, that designs to improve himself in the sold substantial knowledge of things, ought, I think, to take another course; i. e. to endeavour to get a clear and true notion of things as they are in themselves.
This, being fixed in the mind well (without trusting to or troubling the memory, which often fails us), always naturally suggests arguments upon all occasions, either to defend the truth or confound error. This seems to me to be that which makes some men's discourses to be so clear, evident, and demonstrative, even in a few words; for it is but laying before us the true nature of anything we would discourse of,
and our faculty of reasoning is so natural to us that the clear inferences do, as it were, make themselves: we have, as it were, an instinctive knowledge of the truth, which is always most acceptable to the mind, and the mind embraces it in native and naked beauty. This way also of knowledge, as it is in less danger to be lost,
because it burdens not the memory, but is placed in the judgment; so it makes a man talk always coherently and confidently to himself on which side soever he is attacked, or with whatever arguments: the same truth, by its natural light and contrariety to falsehood, still shows, without much ado, or any great and long deduction of words,
the weakness and absurdity of the opposition: whereas the topical man, with his great stock of borrowed and collected arguments, will be found often to contradict himself; for the arguments of divers men being often founded upon different notions, and deduced from contrary principles, though they may be all directed to the support or confutation of some one opinion, do, notwithstanding, often really clash one with another.
- Another thing, which is of great use for the clear conception of truth is, if we can bring ourselves to it, to think upon things abstracted and separate from words. Words, without doubt are the great and almost only way of conveyance of one man's thoughts to another man's understanding; but when a man thinks, reasons, and discourses within himself, I see not what need he has of them.
I am sure it is better to lay them aside, and have an immediate converse with the ideas of the things; for words are, in their own nature, so doubtful and obscure, their signification for the most part so uncertain and undetermined, which men even designedly have in their use of them increased, that if, in our meditations, our thoughts busy themselves about words, and stick at the names of things, it is odds but they are misled or confounded. This, perhaps, at first sight may seem but a useless nicety, and in the practice, perhaps,
it will be found more difficult than one would imagine; but yet upon trial I dare say any one's experience will tell him it was worth while to endeavour it. He that would call to mind his absent friend, or preserve his memory, does it best and most effectually by reviving in his mind the idea of him, and contemplating that; and it is but a very faint imperfect way of thinking of one's friend barely to remember his name, and think upon the sound he is usually called by.
- It is of great use in the pursuit of knowledge not to be too confident nor too distrustful of our own judgment, nor to believe we can comprehend all things nor nothing. He that distrusts his own judgment in everything, and thinks his understanding not to be relied on in the search of truth, cuts off his own legs that he may be carried up and down by others, and makes himself a ridiculous dependant upon the knowledge of others, which can possibly be of no use to him;
for I can no more know anything by another man's understanding than I can see by another man's eyes. So much I know, so much truth I have got; so far I am in the right, as I do really know myself; whatever other men have, it is in their possession, it belongs not to me, nor can be communicated to me but by making me alike knowing;
it is a treasure that cannot be lent or made over. On the other side, he that thinks his understanding capable of all things, mounts upon wings of his own fancy, though indeed Nature never meant him any, and so, venturing into the vast expanse of incomprehensible verities, only makes good the fable of Icarus, and loses himself in the abyss. We are here in the state of mediocrity; finite creatures, furnished with powers and faculties very well fitted to some purposes, but very disproportionate to the vast and unlimited extent of things.
- It would, therefore, be of great service to us to know how far our faculties can reach, that so we might not go about to fathom where our line is too short; to know what things are the proper objects of our inquiries and understanding, and where it is we ought to stop, and launch out no further for fear of losing ourselves or our labour. This perhaps, is an inquiry of as much difficulty as any we shall find in our way of knowledge, and fit to be resolved by a man when he is come to the end of his study, and not to be proposed to one at his setting out;
it being properly the result to be expected after a long and diligent research to determine what is knowable and what not, and not a question to be resolved by the guesses of one who has scarce yet acquainted himself with obvious truths. I shall therefore, at present suspend the thoughts I have had upon this subject, which ought maturely to be considered of, always remembering that things infinite are too large for our capacity; we can have no comprehensive knowledge of them, and our thoughts are at a loss and confounded when they pry too curiously into them.
The essences also of substantial beings are beyond our ken; the manner also how Nature, in this great machine of the world, produces the several phenomena, and continues the species of things in a successive generation, &c., is what I think lies also out of the reach of our understanding. That which seems to me to be suited to the end of man, and lie level to his understanding, is the improvement of natural experiments for the conveniences of this life, and the way of ordering himself so as to attain happiness in the other-i. e. moral philosophy, which, in my sense, comprehends religion too, or a man's whole duty. [But vid. this alibi.]
6th. For the shortening of our pains, and keeping us from incurable doubt and perplexity of mind, and an endless inquiry after greater certainty than is to be had, it would be very convenient in the several points that are to be known and studied, to consider what proofs the matter in hand is capable of, and not to expect other kind of evidence than the nature of the thing will bear. Where it hath all the proofs that such a matter is capable of, there we ought to acquiesce,
and receive it as an established and demonstrated truth; for that which hath all the evidence it can have, all that belongs to it, in the common state and order of things, and that supposing it to be as true as anything ever was, yet you cannot possibly contrive nor imagine how to have better proofs of it than you have without a miracle:
whatsoever is so, though there may be some doubts, some obscurity, yet is clear enough to determine our thoughts and fix our assent. The want of this caution, I fear, has been the cause why some men have turned sceptics in points of great importance, which yet have all the proofs that, considering the nature and circumstances of the thing, any rational man can demand, or the most cautious fancy.
7th. A great help to the memory, and means to avoid confusion in our thoughts, is to draw out and have frequently before us a scheme of those sciences we employ our studies in, a map, as it were, of the mundus intelligibilis. This, perhaps, will be best done by every one himself for his own use, as best agreeable to his own notion, though the nearer it comes to the nature and order of things it is still the better. However, it cannot be decent for me to think my crude draught fit to regulate another's thoughts by, especially when, perhaps, our studies lie different ways; though I cannot but confess to have received this benefit by it,
that though I have changed often the subject I have been studying, read books by patches and accidentally, as they have come in my way, and observed no method nor order in my studies, yet making now and then some little reflection upon the order of things as they are, or at least I have fancied them to have in themselves, I have avoided confusion in my thoughts: the scheme I had made serving like a regular chest of drawers, to lodge those things orderly, and in the proper places, which came to hand confusedly, and without any method at all.
8th. It will be no hinderance at all to our study if we sometimes study ourselves, i. e. our own abilities and defects. There are peculiar endowments and natural fitnesses, as well as defects and weaknesses, almost in every man's mind: when we have considered and made ourselves acquainted with them, we shall not only be the better enabled to find out remedies for the infirmities,
but we shall know the better how to turn ourselves to those things which we are best fitted to deal with, and so to apply ourselves in the course of our studies, as we may be able to make the greatest advantage. He that has a bittle and wedges put into his hand, may easily conclude he is ordered to cleave knotty pieces, and a plane and carving tools to design handsome figures.
It is too obvious a thing to mention the reading only the best authors on those subjects we would inform ourselves in. The reading of bad books is not only the loss of time and standing still, but going backwards quite out of one's way; and he that has his head filled with wrong notions is much more at a distance from truth than he that is perfectly ignorant.
I will only say this one thing concerning books, that however it has got the name, yet converse with books is not, in my opinion, the principal part of study; there are two others that ought to be joined with it, each whereof contributes their share to our improvement in knowledge: and those are, meditation and discourse. Reading, methinks, is but collecting the rough materials, amongst which a great deal must be laid aside as useless.
Meditation is, as it were, choosing and fitting the materials, framing the timbers, squaring and laying the stones, and raising the building; and discourse with a friend (for wrangling in a dispute is of little use) is, as it were, surveying the structure, walking in the rooms, and observing the symmetry and agreement of the parts, taking notice of the solidity or defects of the works, and the best way to find out and correct what is amiss; besides that it helps often to discover truths, and fix them in our minds, as much as either of the other two.
It is time to make an end of this long and overgrown discourse. I shall only add one word, and then conclude; and that is, that whereas in the beginning I cut off history from our study, as a useless part, as certainly it is, where it is read only as a tale that is told; here, on the other side, I recommend it to one who hath well settled in his mind the principles of morality, and knows how to make a judgment on the actions of men, as one of the most useful studies he can apply himself to. There he shall see a picture of the world and the nature of mankind, and so learn to think of men as they are.
There he shall see the rise of opinions, and find from what slight, and sometimes shameful occasions, some of them have taken their rise, which yet afterwards have had great authority, and passed almost for sacred in the world, and borne down all before them. There also one may learn great and useful instructions of prudence, and be warned against the cheats and rogueries of the world, with many more advantages, which I shall not here enumerate.