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some writers from whom we can reasonably expect no less ; since, as archbishop Tillotson observes, it, is hard to contradict truth and nature without contradicting one's-self. But to expunge such mistakes is the office of revisal and correction; and therefore a work in which these mistakes abound is very justly called an incorrect performance. As this work therefore doth, more than any which I ever saw, afford us instances of what his lordship calls the greatest human imperfection, charity shews me no more candid way of accounting for them than this which I have mentioned.
Lastly, the very form and title under which the noble lord hath thought proper to introduce his philosophy into the world, is a very strong evidence of the justice of all the foregoing observations. We may form, I think, one general precept from the trite story of Archimedes, this is not to undertake any great work without preconcerting such means as may be adequate to the execution. Now to turn the material world topsy-turvy is a project scarce more difficult in appearance than to perform the same notable exploit in the intellectual. And yet Archimedes might as judiciously have fixed his machine in vacuo, as his lordship hath chosen to ärgue against the best-established systems in the intellectual world in fragments of essays. This method, not to mention the indignity it offers to the subject in dispute, is treating the whole body of the learned with more supercilious disrespect than nature seems yet to have qualified any member of that body to express towards the rest of his brethren; and which must appear to be wonderful, if serious, in one who expresses so modest an opinion of his own critical talents; though, ag to his modesty, it must indeed be confessed to be somewhat seasoned with a due mixture of contempt.
But, whatever may lessen the idea of his lordship’s modesty, there is only one way to lessen that of his
absurdity; this is, to conclude that he was in jest : nay, there is one way to see this absurdity in an amiable light; for in such a light will he appear, if we suppose that he puts on the jack-pudding's coat with the noble view of exposing and ridiculing those pernicious tenets, which have lately been propagated, with a zeal more difficult to be accounted for than its success.
That such an attempt of exposing any popular error would always prove victorious, is, I think, extremely probable. My lord Shaftesbury hath been blamed for saying, “That ridicule is one of those principal lights or natural mediums by which things are to be viewed, in order to a thorough
recognition ; for that truth, it is supposed, may 6 bear all lights *.' Perhaps there may be some justice in this censure, as truth may by such a trial be subjected to misrepresentation, and become a more easy prey to the malice of its enemies ; a flagrant instance of which we have in the case of Socrates.
But whatever objection there may be against trying truth by ridicule, there can be none, I apprehend, of making use of its assistance in expelling and banishing all falsehood and imposture, when once fairly convicted, out of society; and as this method is for this purpose very unexceptionable, so is it generally the most efficacious that can be invented ; as will appear by some examples which will occur in the course of our comment on his lordship's essays, or fragments of essays, on which we shall now enter without farther preface or apology.
* Essay on the freedom of wit and humour, part I. sect. i,
AND here, as a proof that we are as liable to be corrupted by our books as by our companions, I am in danger of setting out with a contradiction. Nay, I must yet venture to do this in some degree with my eyes open, and must lay my defence on a distinction rather too 'nice, and which relies too much on the candour of my reader.
The truth is, our noble author's chief strength lies in that very circumstance which I have before asserted to be of itself alone a sufficient argument of his weakness; whereas, on the contrary, his manner affords such a protection to his matter, that if he had designed to reserve to himself the sole privilege of answering his own doctrine, he could not have invented a more ingenious or effectual contrivance. It hath been alleged as a good reason for not answering certain books, that one must be obliged first to read them; but surely we shall find few men so very charitable, or so much our friends, to give them order and method with a view only of complimenting them with an answer.
This, however, I attempted, though I own with no great success; and that not so much, I apprehend, from want of sufficient matter to make out such colourable systems as may be expected in such a writer, as from a certain dark, cautious, and loose manner of expressing his sentiments, which must arise either from a writer's desire of not being very easily explained, or froin an incapacity of making himself very clearly understood. The difficulties arising to the commentator on these fragments, will appear to be assignable only to the former cause : for a very indifferent reader will be seldom at a loss in comprehending his lordship in his own works; but to transfer his doctrines with their authority (i. e. the ipse dixit of the author) into another work, is often very difficult, and without long quotations, too apt to tire the reader, impossible. In this light a very fine thought of Mr. Pope's occurs to my memory.
'Tho' index-learning turns no student pale,
It holds the eel of science by the tail.' The best way then of proceeding with so slippery a reasoner ; the only way, indeed, in which I see any possibility of proceeding with him, is first to lay down some general rules, all of which will hereafter be proved out of his writings, and then pursuing him chapter by chapter, to extract the several proofs, however scattered and dispersed, which tend to establish both parts of the contradictions, which I shall now set down.
Our noble author sets out in his first section with a sly insinuation, that it is possible for the gravest of philosophers on the gravest of subjects, to advance propositions in jest. It is more probable,' says lord B
i and it is more candid to believe, that this philosopher (Descartes) was in earnest, than that he was in jest, when he advanced this proposition *,' concerning the immutability and eternity of certain mathematical truths.. I will add, that I believe that an idea of such jesting had never any footing in a human head, till it first found adinişsion into that of this noble lord.
In the same section his lordship proceeds thus : . The antients thought matter. eternal, and assumed that the Demiurgus, or Divine Architect, composed the frame of the world with materials which were ready prepared, and independently on him, • in a confused chaos. Much in the same manner such metaphysicians as the learned Cudworth have • imagined a sort of intellectual chaos, a chaos of
* Essays, p. 4
eternal ideas, of incorporeal essences, independent
on God, self.existent, and therefore co-eval with 'the Supreme Being, and therefore anterior to all • other natures. In this intellectual chaos God sees, • and man must endeavour to see, the natures, the 'real essences of things; and thus the foundations of
morality are laid higher than the existence of any 'moral agents, before there was any system of be‘ing from which the obligations to it could result, or to which they could be applied; just as the same philosophers suppose the incorporeal essences of white and black to have existed when there was no such thing as colour, and those of a square and circle, when there was neither form nor figure *.'
Here I am afraid the learned peer hath gone no farther for his erudition than the first or second pages of Ovid's Metamorphoses ; for could he be recalled from the dead, contrary to his own doctrine, as he hath recalled Descartes, and were asked whom he meant by the antients, he could not certainly answer in general, the antient philosophers, for then the whole tribe of atheists would be ready to testify against him. If he should answer, that he meant the antient theists only, and less he cannot be supposed to mean by those who are well-bred enough to suppose he meant any thing, he will be far from finding even among these an universal concurrence with his opinion. Thales, the chief of the Grecian sages, and who is said to have first turned his thoughts to physiological enquiries, affirmed the independent pre-existence of God from all eternity. The words of Laertius are remarkable, and I will render them with the most literal exactness in my power. He asserted, says Laertius, ' That God was • the oldest of all beings, for he existed without a previous cause EVEN IN THE WAY OF GENERATION;
* Essays, page 6.