Parcus Deorum cultor et infrequens,
Insanientis dum sapientiæ
Consultus erro; nunc retrorsum
Vela dare, atque iterare cursus
Hor. Lib. i. Od. xxxiv. 1.
A fugitive from heav’n and prayer,
I mock’d at all religious fear,
Deep scienc’d in the mazy lore
Of mad philosophy; but now
Hoist sail, and back my voyage plow
To that blest harbour, which I left before.
TO THE RAMBLER.
There are many diseases both of the body and mind, which it is far easier to prevent than to cure, and therefore I hope you will think me employed in an office not useless either to learning or virtue, if I describe the symptoms of an intellectual malady, which, though at first it seizes only the passions, will, if not speedily remedied, infect the reason, and, from blasting the blossoms of knowledge, proceed in time to canker the root.
I was born in the house of discord. My parents were of unsuitable ages, contrary tempers, and different religions, and therefore employed the spirit and acuteness which nature had very liberally bestowed upon both, in hourly disputes, and incessant contrivances to detect each other in the wrong; so that from the first exertions of reason I was bred a disputant, trained up in all the arts of domestick sophistry, initiated in a thousand low stratagems, nimble shifts, and sly concealments; versed in all the turns of altercation, and acquainted with the whole discipline of fending and proving.
It was necessarily my care to preserve the kindness of both the controvertists, and therefore I had very early formed the habit of suspending my judgment, of hearing arguments with indifference, inclining as occasion required to either side, and of holding myself undetermined between them till I knew for what opinion I might conveniently declare.
Thus, Sir, I acquired very early the skill of disputation; and, as we naturally love the arts in which we believe ourselves to excel, I did not let my abilities lie useless, nor suffer my dexterity to be lost for want of practice. I engaged in perpetual wrangles with my school-fellows, and was never to be convinced or repressed by any other arguments than blows, by which my antagonists commonly determined the controversy, as I was, like the Roman orator, much more eminent for eloquence than courage.
At the university I found my predominant ambition completely gratified by the study of logick. I impressed upon my memory a thousand axioms, and ten thousand distinctions, practised every form of syllogism, passed all my days in the schools of disputation, and slept every night with Smiglecius 55 on my pillow.
You will not doubt but such a genius was soon raised to eminence by such application. I was celebrated in my third year for the most artful opponent that the university could boast, and became the terrour and envy of all the candidates for philosophical reputation.
My renown, indeed, was not purchased but at the price of all my time and all my studies. I never spoke but to contradict, nor declaimed but in defence of a position universally acknowledged to be false, and therefore worthy, in my opinion, to be adorned with all the colours of false representation, and strengthened with all the art of fallacious subtilty.
My father, who had no other wish than to see his son richer than himself, easily concluded that I should distinguish myself among the professors of the law; and therefore, when I had taken my first degree, dispatched me to the Temple with a paternal admonition, that I should never suffer myself to feel shame, for nothing but modesty could retard my fortune.
Vitiated, ignorant, and heady as I was, I had not yet lost my reverence for virtue, and therefore could not receive such dictates without horrour; but, however, was pleased with his determination of my course of life, because he placed me in the way that leads soonest from the prescribed walks of discipline and education, to the open fields of liberty and choice.
I was now in the place where every one catches the contagion of vanity, and soon began to distinguish myself by sophisms and paradoxes. I declared war against all received opinions and established rules, and levelled my batteries particularly against those universal principles which had stood unshaken in all the vicissitudes of literature, and are considered as the inviolable temples of truth, or the impregnable bulwarks of science.
I applied myself chiefly to those parts of learning which have filled the world with doubt and perplexity, and could readily produce all the arguments relating to matter and motion, time and space, identity and infinity.
I was equally able and equally willing to maintain the system of Newton or Descartes, and favoured occasionally the hypothesis of Ptolemy, or that of Copernicus. I sometimes exalted vegetables to sense, and sometimes degraded animals to mechanism.
Nor was I less inclined to weaken the credit of history, or perplex the doctrines of polity. I was always of the party which I heard the company condemn.
Among the zealots of liberty I could harangue with great copiousness upon the advantages of absolute monarchy, the secrecy of its counsels, and the expedition of its measures; and often celebrated the blessings produced by the extinction of parties, and preclusion of debates.
Among the assertors of regal authority, I never failed to declaim with republican warmth upon the original charter of universal liberty, the corruption of courts, and the folly of voluntary submission to those whom nature has levelled with ourselves.
I knew the defects of every scheme of government, and the inconveniences of every law. I sometimes shewed how much the condition of mankind would be improved, by breaking the world into petty sovereignties, and sometimes displayed the felicity and peace which universal monarchy would diffuse over the earth.
To every acknowledged fact I found innumerable objections; for it was my rule, to judge of history only by abstracted probability, and therefore I made no scruple of bidding defiance to testimony. I have more than once questioned the existence of Alexander the Great; and having demonstrated the folly of erecting edifices like the pyramids of Egypt, I frequently hinted my suspicion that the world had been long deceived, and that they were to be found only in the narratives of travellers.
It had been happy for me could I have confined my scepticism to historical controversies and philosophical disquisitions; but having now violated my reason, and accustomed myself to inquire not after proofs, but objections, I had perplexed truth with falsehood, till my ideas were confused, my judgment embarrassed, and my intellects distorted. The habit of considering every proposition as alike uncertain, left me no test by which any tenet could be tried; every opinion presented both sides with equal evidence, and my fallacies began to operate upon my own mind in more important inquiries. It was at last the sport of my vanity to weaken the obligations of moral duty, and efface the distinctions of good and evil, till I had deadened the sense of conviction, and abandoned my heart to the fluctuations of uncertainty, without anchor and without compass, without satisfaction of curiosity, or peace of conscience, without principles of reason, or motives of action.
Such is the hazard of repressing the first perceptions of truth, of spreading for diversion the snares of sophistry, and engaging reason against its own determinations.
The disproportions of absurdity grow less and less visible, as we are reconciled by degrees to the deformity of a mistress; and falsehood, by long use, is assimilated to the mind, as poison to the body.
I had soon the mortification of seeing my conversation courted only by the ignorant or wicked, by either boys who were enchanted by novelty, or wretches, who having long disobeyed virtue and reason, were now desirous of my assistance to dethrone them.
Thus alarmed, I shuddered at my own corruption, and that pride by which I had been seduced, contributed to reclaim me. I was weary of continual irresolution, and a perpetual equipoise of the mind; and ashamed of being the favourite of those who were scorned and shunned by the rest of mankind.
I therefore retired from all temptation to dispute, prescribed a new regimen to my understanding, and resolved, instead of rejecting all established opinions which I could not prove, to tolerate though not adopt all which I could not confute. I forebore to heat my imagination with needless controversies, to discuss questions confessedly uncertain, and refrained steadily from gratifying my vanity by the support of falsehood.
By this method I am at length recovered from my argumental delirium, and find myself in the state of one awakened from the confusion and tumult of a feverish dream. I rejoice in the new possession of evidence and reality, and step on from truth to truth with confidence and quiet.
I am, Sir, &c.