Henry St. John Bolingbroke.

The works of the late Right Honourable Henry St. John, lord viscount Bolingbroke (Volume 5) online

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then has he to fear in one more than in another ?
Nothing surely, if he thinks as he ought to think
of the All-perfect Being. Such God is. Let us
not therefore humanise him. Let us not measure
his perfections by ours, much less let us ascribe
to him, as every system of theology does, under
the notion of goodness, what would be partiality,



nor under the notion of justice, what would be
cruelty in man. Let us not presume so much as
to ascribe our perfections to him, even according
to the highest conceptions we are able to frame
of them, though we reject every imperfection con-
ceivable by us, when it is imputed by him. " As
" we must not imagine with the arithropomor-
" phites (it is Malebranche, who speaks well in
" this place, though very inconsistently with
" what he says in others, ) that God has the hu-
" man figure, because it seems to us the most
" perfect ; we must not think neither that the
u mind of God has human thoughts, nor that it
" is like to ours, because we know nothing more
" perfect thaia oar own minds*." Such theology
as this, and surely it is orthodox, makes our plain
man to be flattered, net terrified, with any faint
appearance of immortality in prospect, like Tully,
Seneca, and other philosophers; who saw no
more grounds in any thing they knew of the nature
of the soul for this expectation, than he sees.
He is ready to say of this immortality, what the
auditor says in the first Tusculan disputation,
" me vero delectat; idque primum ita esse velim,
" deinde, etiamsi non sit, mini tamerj persuaderi
" velim."

He might, very reasonably, ask the metaphy-
sical divine for what reason he clogs the belief of
the soul's immortality with that of it's immateri-
ality, since the former is sufficient to answer all

* Lib. s, p. 2, c. 9.



the ends of religion ? The doctrine of future re-
wards and punishments (which is, no doubt, a
great restraint on men, and which would be a
greater, if it was not so scandalously abused by
the ambition and avarice of priests) supposes the
immortality of the soul only : and it is much
more easy to make men conceive, that it is immor-
tal by the good pleasure of God, though material,
than that it is an immaterial spirit, and immortal
by the necessity of it's nature, as God is self-
existent by the necessity of his. One may wonder
that men, who have adopted so many of the
whimsical notions which they found in Plato,
should not have borrowed a hint that they might
have found there, or that they rejected, perhaps,
when they found it. The hint I mean is, that
of souls mortal by their nature, that is, material,
but such as should never die. " Solubiles, sed
" dissolvenda? nunquam." " Since you are ge-
" nerated, you are mortal, but you shall not die;
" for my will is strong enough to repair the de-
" fects of your nature,'* says theSupremeBeingto
the younger gods, the gods born of gods, in theTi-
maeus ; and it is the least absurd thing Plato makes
him say or do on that occasion. The neglect of this
passage maybe imputed to some theological purposes,
that seem to be better served by the hypothesis of
immaterial souls, than by any other. But the vanity
of the human heart, which has been flattered by
divines in all ages, was to be flattered on. What
served best to this purpose was taken from Plato :
and how it was improved we need look no further



than the Tusculan, just now quoted, to find.
There Tully, after a ridiculous panegyrick on the
human mind, which, improved by philosophy, he
thinks able to discover all things in Heaven and
on Earth, all that exists, in it's beginning, pro-
gression, and end, runs a very profane parallel
between the divine and human mind. If the first
" be air or fire, such is the last." If there be a
fifth element, that new nature which " Aristotle
" first introduced, it must be common to both.
" Whatever has sense, intelligence, will, and the
" principles of life, is celestial and divine, and
" therefore necessary and eternal." This is the
nature of man : and " God himself cannot be
" conceived any other way," than by analogy to
it. That we frame our conceptions of the divine
intelligence, as well as we can, by analogy to our
own, is true. We have no other way of framing
them. But it will not follow, that his nature is
analogous to ours, nor that ours is like his,
" Mens soluta qua3dam et libera, segregata ab
" omni concretione mortali, omnia sentiens et
" movens, ipsaqtie praedita motu sempiterno."
Thus absolutely, however, did the disciples of
Plato flatter human nature : and, finding in the
Bible, that we are made after the image of God,
our divines have interpreted the passage according
to these prejudices. They will not say directly,
I suppose, that our souls are a portion of the
divine essence, but what they say sometimes
means this or nothing, and what they say always
is but little different from it. Strange vanity !



as they assume themselves to be exposed to
eternal damnation, and the rest of mankind to be
almost intirely damned, rather than not assume,
that their souls are immortal ; so this iihmortalitj
would not have charms sufficient for them, if it
was not asserted to be essential to the nature of
their souls.

Thus, I believe, our plain man would leave the
matter: and ihus Heave it too ; having said, I hope,
enough, to show, that the fondness philosophers
have to raise hypotheses that cannot be raised on
real ideas, such as have a known foundation in
nature, that is, a known conformity with existence,
is a principal occasion on which the mind exercises
it's artifice in framing such ideas and notions as


are merely fantastical. That the mind exercises
the same several other ways, and in some less ob-
viously than in this, as it has been hinted above,
I know full well. But, enough having been said
to show, that human knowledge is imperfect and
precarious in it's original, as well as slow and
confined in it's progress, and by one great ex-
ample, which may serve, instar omnium, that they,
who pretend to guide the reason of mankind,
and to improve human knowledge, do nothing
better in matters of the first philosophy, than
substitute that which is imaginary in the place of
that which rs real, or in addition to it, in favour
of their prejudices, their passions, and their in-
terests ; enough has been said for an Essay con-
cerning the Nature, Extent, and Reality of
Human Knowledge.


[ 385 ]






I. Oil the Folly and Presumption of Philosophers, especially

in Matters of the First Philosophy;

II. On the Rise and Progress of their boasted Science ;

III. On the Propagation of Errour and Superstition ;

IV. And on the Partial Attempts that have been made to
reform the Abuses of Human Reason

VOL. V. C c

[ 387 ]



On the Folly and Presumption of Philosophers, especially
in Matters of the First Philosophy.

HE who asserts, that there would be more real
knowledge and more true wisdom among
mankind, if there was less learning and less phi-
losophy, may oftendsome men's ears by advancing
a paradox ; for such, at least, 'they will call it.
But men who inquire without prejudice, and who
dare to doubt, will soon discover, that this seeming
paradox is a most evident truth. They will find
it such in almost every part of human science,
and above all others in that which is called me-
taphysical and theological. The vanity of the
vainest men alive, of some who call themselves
scholars and philosophers, will be hurt ; but they
who seek truth without any other regard, and
who prefer therefore very wisely even ignorance
to errour, will rejoice at every such discovery.

There was a time when navigators bent them-
selves obstinately to find a passage by the North-
East or the North-West to Cathay. Neither fre-
quent losses nor constant disappointment could
divert them from these enterprises, as long as the

c 2 fashionable


fashionable folly prevailed. The passage was not
found ; the fashion wore out, and the folly ceased.
The bounds of navigation were set : and sufficient
warning was both given and taken against any
further attempts in those dark and frozen regions.
Many such there are in the intellectual world :
and many such attempts have been made there
with no better success. But the consequence has
not been the same. Neither examples nor ex-
perience have had their effect on philosophers,
more fool-hardy than mariners : and where the
former wandered to no purpose three thousand
years ago, they wander to no purpose, at least
to no good purpose, still.

" II faut pousser a une porte pour scavoir
" qu'elle nous est close," says Charron, some-
where in his Book of Wisdom. lie says right,
" pour scavoir qu'elle nous est close." But when
we know, or may know very certainly, by our
own experience, and by that of all the strong men
in philosophy, ancients and moderns, that a door
is shut which no human force can open, they who
continue to sweat and toil in shoving Qt it are most
ridiculously employed. They who affect to guess
at the objects they cannot see, and to talk as if
the door stood wide open while they peep through
the keyhole, are employed still worse. The most
ancient philosophers may be excused, in great
measure, for attempting to open every door of
science ; though they cannot be so for imposing
on mankind discoveries thev never made. But


they who followed these, in the course of philoso-
1 phical



phical generations, are inexcusable on the first
head as well as the last ; since what was curiosity
in the others became presumption in them : and
they scarce made amends, by the good they did
in advancing some real knowledge, for the hurt
they did in entailing so much that is quite fan-
tastical on posterity.

Tully confesses very frankly, that nothing is so
absurd which some philosopher or other has not
said : and his own works would furnish sufficient
proofs of the assertion, under the Epicurean, the
Stoical, and the Academical characters parti-
cularly, if they were wanted. But this confession
does not go far enough : and we may employ
upon this occasion against philosophers the ob-
jection made against the Jesuits by some of their
enemies. The absurdities of philosophers are not
to be ascribed to the particular men alone who
broached them in every philosophical age, but to
their order and institution, if I may say so; the
principles and spirit of which lead, by neces-
sary consequences, to such absurdities. The first
founders of philosophy laid these principles, and
inspired this spirit in days of ignorance and super-
stition. Their followers have refined upon them,
confirmed them, and added to them. Time and
authority have established them all : the oldest
and the grossest most. Words that have really
no meaning are thought to have one, and are
used accordingly. Ideas, that are really incom-
plete and inadequate, are deemed complete and
adequate. Ideas, that are obscure and confused,

c c 3 are


are deemed clear and distinct. In a word, time
and authority have so well established metaphysi-
cal and theological absurdities, that they pass for
the first principles of science, like certain neces-
sary and self-evident truths, which are really such.
Men, who would have been giants in the human
sphere, have dwindled into pigmies by going out
of it. Instead of heaping mountains on moun-
tains of knowledge, to scale the sky, they heap
mole hills on mole hills, with great airs of im-
portance, and boast ridiculously, not only of
their design, but of their success. They appear
to me like sylphs, if you and Ariel will' give me
leave to make the comparison, so proud of not
being gnomes, that they fancy themselves arch-
angels. " Humana ad deos transferunt, divina
"^mallem ad nos," is an expression used by
Tully, and extremely applicable to the philoso-
phers of whom we are speaking. They do most
presumptuously the first, and they pretend, with
equal folly and effrontery, to do the last. They
ascribe to the Supreme Being the manner of
knowing, the ideas, and even the very affections
and passions of his creatures. They presume to
enter into his councils, and to account for the
whole divine ceconomy, as confidently as they
would for any of their own paltry affairs. This
they call theology. They build intellectual and
material worlds on the hypothetical suggestions
of imagination. This they call philosophy, me-
taphysical and physical.

By such means, and by such men, truth and
1 rrour


errour have been intimately blended together,
from the first essays of philosophical inquiry : and
various systems of natural and supernatural the-
ology have prevailed in different ages. Had any
one of them been wholly founded in real know-
ledge, and confined to it, as every one of them
pretended to be, the certainty and the importance
of such a system would have preserved it among
the rational part of mankind. Truth, pure and
unmixed, would have given stability. But errour
has kept them all in a continual flux : and to the
shame of the human head and heart, the most
rational, or the most reasoning part of mankind,
has maintained this flux, by adopting some er-
rours, by inventing others, and by cultivating

If there is no subject, and I think there is none,
upon which the opinions of men have varied so
extravagantly, and have stood in such manifest
contradiction to one another, as they have on that
of the First Philosophy, the reason is, that men
have not aimed so much at unattainable' know-
ledge, nor pretended so much to it, on any other
subject. Folly and knavery have prevailed most
where they should be tolerated least : and pre-
sumption has been exercised mJ5 where diffidence
and caution are on many accounts the most ne-

" Quale per inccrtam lunam sub luce maligna
" Est iter in silvis."

c c 4 Such


Such is our journey in the acquisition of know-
ledge, whenever we attempt to travel far. We
grope along in those paths which experience, and
the application of our minds, open to us. We
discern, according to our manner of perception,
a few objects that lie in our way, and we guess at
a few more. But we cannot even guess, with as
much probability as is necessary to justify us in
guessing, at our whole system, nor explain the
phenomena of it. How much less ought we to
think ourselves capable of knowing the divine
system ! We have a very superficial acquaintance
with man. Do we hope to become better ac-
quainted with God ? One would imagine, that
metaphysical divines did really entertain this hope.
They may entertain it, as well as the huffing opi-
nions, to use a phrase of Mr. Locke, which they
entertain concerning the human mind or soul.
They assume it to be near akin to the divine,
something derived immediately from God, and
capable of being united to him. An intellectual
mirror it is, that reflects from the phenomena of
nature alone, and therefore, indirectly, some very
lew notices of the Supreme Being, beyond the
demonstrative knowledge that we have of his ex-
istence. But these men, when they lower their
pretensions, and would appear modest, assume it
to be not a mirror that reflects such notices, but a
spirit that is capable of receiving them, and that
receives them directly from the Divine Intelli-
gence. They tell us, with great metaphysical



pomp of words, that reason, the supreme eternal
reason, is the sun of their intellectual world, in the
light of which they see intelligible objects, just as
sensible objects are seen in that of the material
sun. On stich bold presumptions they proceed,
and whither may they not, whither have they not
been carried by them ? The farther they go, the
more their imaginary light fails them. But they
cease not to flatter themselves : arid while they
expect at every moment, as it were, the dawn of a
new day, they fall into the shades of night.

" Ubi ccelum condidit umbra

" Jupiter, et rebus nox abstulit atra colorem."

Now since metaphysical divines have wandered
thus so many thousand years in imaginary light
and real darkness, they are not surely the guides
we should choose to follow. That a degree of
knowledge to which I canaot attain is therefore
unattainable by them, it would be impertinent to
conclude. But I may conclude, reasonably and
modestly, that a kind of knowledge, whose ob-
jects lie above the reach of humanity, cannot be
attained by human creatures, unless they are
assisted by supernatural powers, which is a suppo-
sition out of the present case. I could not have
discovered, as New ton did, that universal law of
corporeal nature which he has demonstrated.
But farther than that he could go, no rnqre than I,
nor discover that action of the first cause by
which this law was imposed on all bodies, and is
maintained in them. It is the kind, not the de-



gree of knowledge that is concerned, and to b
compared. Let us return, therefore, out of this
scene of illusion into that of human knowledge :

o *

nor flutter, as Hobbes ex presses himself, like birds
at the window, while we remain enclosed. We
innv be the better contented to confine our in-
quiries to the limits Clod has prescribed to them,
since we may find within those limits abundant
matter of real use and ornament to employ the
studious labours of mankind. Experimental know-
ledge of body and mind is the fund our reason
should cultivate: and the first is a fund that phi-
losophers will never exhaust. In this part, let
deficiencies be noted. There are, there can be no
excesses : and as to the excesses that have been
and are to be noted in the other, they are ex-
cesses of assuming and reasoning, not of experi-
ment and observation. The phenomena of the
human mind are few, and on those few a multi-
tude of hypotheses has been raised, concerning
mind in general, and soul and spirit. So that in
this part, the improvement of real knowledge
must be made by contraction, and not by amplifi-
cation. I will presume to say, that if our 1'acon
had thought and writ as freely on this as he did on
many other parts of science, his famous work,
which has contributed so much, would have con-
tributed more, to the advancement of real know-
ledge, and would have deserved it's title better.
Men might have learned to consider body more,
instead of doubting whether it exists ; and to con-
sider their own minds more, from which alone



they can acquire any ideas at all of mind ; instead
of dreaming, like Malebranche, that they interro-
gate the divine Logos.

What right the first observers of nature and
instructors of mankind had to the title of sages
we cannot say. It was due, perhaps, more to the
ignorance of the scholars, than to the knowledge
of the masters. But this we may venture to
affirm, that their right to that appellation could
not be worse founded than the right of all their
successors to be called lovers of wisdom. There
is an anecdote related by Tully, in his fifth Tuscu-
lan, and mentioned, I think, by Diogenes Laer-
tius, which is much to our present purpose : or at
least the tale is pretty enough to deserve to be
told. , The prince of the Phliasians having heard
and admired the Samian, asked him, what his
profession was. lie answered, that he was a phi-
losopher, and he explained himself thus : He said,
that the life of man seemed to him to resemble
the great assembly or fair of Greece, that was
held at Olympia, where some resorted to acquire
honour by exercising themselves in the public
games, and others wealth by traffic ; while another
sort of men came for a much l>etler reason, to see
and to observe whatever passed. Thus, he said,
some men come into the world to seek glory, and
some wealth ; while a few, despising both, observe
and study nature: and these are lovers of wisdom.
\Ve inicrht be induced by this tale to think, that
Pythagoras confined himself within the bounds of
real knowledge, if we did not know, by a multi-


tudc of other anecdotes, and by the scraps of his
doctrine that have come clown to us, how far he
ramhled out of them. He had been bred in
schools where the distinction between human and
divine knowledge and wisdom, to one of which
we may attain, but not to the other, was so little
made, that by aiming at the last, they missed, in
many respects, even the former. To observe the
constitution and order of things, in the physical
and moral systems to which we belong, to form
general ideas, notions, axioms, and rules on these
particulars, and to apply them back again to hu-
man action and human use, constitutes know-
ledge : and the result of the whole is wisdom, hu-
man knowledge, and human wisdom. But there
are men, and there were such in the days of Py-
thagoras, who talk of wisdom as if it was not the
the result of any procedure of this kind, but a
superior principle antecedent to it, independent
of human knowledge, and the influences whereof
descend on the human mind from above, as
Christian theology teaches us that grace and faith
are bestowed on us.

According to such philosophers as these, men
of great authority in our learned world, we must
date the progress of knowledge and wisdom from
Adam, who was the wisest of men, if it be no
blunder to say so, before the fall, and the first and
greatest philosopher after it. I will not mispend
any time in collecting the puerilities and profana-
tions that have fallen from the pens of rabbins and
ancient and modern doctors of the Christian



church. It will be enough, and in truth more
than the subject deserves, to take notice, that if we
give credit to these writers, we must believe, that
wisdom was infused into the mind of Adam by
God, and that he came out of the hands of his
Creator with all the perfections of which his na-
ture was susceptible : and of what perfections was
not that nature susceptible, while he enjoyed the
vision of God, and while the Supreme Wisdom,
that is God himself, " for the Word is God," was
pleased to converse with him, and was deiighted
in his company * r He had not only innate wis-
dom, but innate language too; for Adam and
Eve discoursed together in Hebrew as soon as
they were created. Even after the fall, Adam
preserved all the knowledge and wisdom whereof
he was in possession, though more obscurely than
before ; because he had no longer the same im-
mediate and intimate communication with the
Supreme Intelligence. It should seem, too, that
he transmitted some faint glimmerings of these
original illuminations to all his posterity. Plato
imagined, after more ancient philosophers, that
every man is born with a certain reminiscence,
and that when we seem to be taught, we are only
put in mind of what we knew in a former state.
Now who can tell how high this reminiscence be-
gan, and through how many former states it may
have been continued ? Several Christian divines

* ludens in orbe ton-drum ; & deliciiu mcac, essc cum

fcliis bomimim. Prov. c. 8, v. 31.



have taught, that, all men having been contained
in the first man, some of his original perfection
has descended to them, asm-ell as the taint of his
original sin : and we may conceive one, no doubt,
as easily as the other.

Cut however all this may have been, and whe-
ther Adam preserved, after the fall, his whole
stock of knowledge and wisdom, or whether he re-
newed it by experience and meditation in the
course of a long life, the progress of knowledge
and wisdom is deduced by the same writers from
. him to Seth, to Enoch, to Noah, to the patriarchs,
to Moses, to Solomon, to the elders of Israel, to
the priests of the family of Aaron, to the colleges
of the prophets., to those sanctified orders, the Re-
chabites and the Essenians, and in short to all the
schools of the chosen people, both before and
after the captivity. Among this j>eople, we are
told most dogmatically, that the whole treasure of
knowledge and wisdom, as well as of true religion,
was deposited by God, that it was preserved
there, and that some of these riches were distri-
buted from thence at different periods of time to

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Online LibraryHenry St. John BolingbrokeThe works of the late Right Honourable Henry St. John, lord viscount Bolingbroke (Volume 5) → online text (page 25 of 28)