Leonard Withington.

The Puritan : a series of essays, critical, moral, and miscellaneous (Volume v. 1) online

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heads, and the most powerftd intellects, that ever came
down from the Sun of intellectual light, to shed a de-
rivative beam on the most perplexed paths in the in-
vestigations of man. Whether he is right or wrong,
none can deny his ingenuity and soundness of inten-
tion. Had he been born in Greece, his bust would
have stood beside that of Aristotle ; and temples would
have been erected to his memory, and altars have
smoked at his feet. But one evil has followed from
his example. He has made thousands of inferior
minds lovers of his abstractions ; and the most general
principles have become connected with the warmest
emotions of the heart. So, in politics, the ardor with
which we opposed the encroachments of Great Britain
on our privileges, was connected with certain dogmas
in politics, then first brought into popular notice ; and
thus it is, that our history has taught us to unite the



THE PURITAN. 245

apparently most distant entities, the driest meta-
physics, with the most popular enthusiasm ; the ab-
stractions of the mind, with the passions of the heart.

This circumstance has led me to inquire into the
value oi general principles.

In the first place, then, I would be far from saying
that they are of no value. I find, that there is a
universal propensity in all minds of all ages, and in
all parts of the globe, to run up in their course of
thinking into certain abstractions, which cover more
ground than proper names, being confined to sin-
gulars, can. Savages, it is true, abstract less, and
generalize less, than civilized people ; but even they
have their rude attempts towards a morality and phi-
losophy, which is founded on general remarks. Such
is the limited nature of our memories, and so rapid is
the mind in tracino- similitudes between different sub-
stances, that it necessarily and unconsciously runs .
into inclusive conceptions. We cannot find a name
for all the stones we have seen, or all the trees, or
flowers, or drops of dew. We include them, therefore,
in a general term ; which, though not so definite as a
proper name, is yet found distinct enough, in most
cases, to subserve all the purposes of life. If you could
stop the use of general terms, which are expressive of
general principles, the progress of knowledge would
be retarded, and philosophy would cease.

But no sooner have we arranged things in the order
of classification, than we find that every individual



246 THE PURITAN.

object presented to our attention, has t%Di) sides to it ;
the side on which it resembles all other objects of its
species or genus, and the side which marks its pecu-
liarity, and causes it to be different from all other
resembling objects. Thus you pick up a pebble on
the shore ; what is it ? It is a stone ; that is, it has
certain general qualities, by which it resembles all
substances called stone ; it is hard, friable, incombus-
tible, &c.; but then it has certain peculiarities which
mark its species and genus ; it is lime-stone, or trap,
or pudding-stone, or a piece of gneiss or granite ; and,
lastly, it has some qualities peculiar to itself; such as
its size, purity, &.c. Now, in order to understand
fully the object, you must learn its qualities on both
sides ; you must know wherein it agrees with all other
stones, and wherein it differs; and this is knowledge,
so far as human conception can go. If I can enu-
merate all the generic properties of any substance,
and all the specific and indi^^idual differences, I know
its nature with as complete a comprehension as human
imperfection can be supposed to imply.

It appears, then,, that a knowledge on the side of
general resemblance, is but, a part of the knowledge
of any object, at best. If you fix your attention there,
you know but in part ;. and in proportion as the points
of resemblance on the generic side, become fewer, by
knowing them, it is obvious you know less, than when
they are increased.

As propositions become more general, they therefore



THE PURITAN. 247

become less definite, because the points of resem-
blance on the generic side become fewer ; we know
less, because there is less to be known. This may be
illustrated in material substances. You bring me
something, sewed up in a bag, and tell me you
have a thing there, and ask me to guess what it is ?
Here the expression is very general, and therefore
very indefinite, and yet I have something to guide
me; I know it must be of a size to be included in a
bag ; and I know it cannot be a liquid merely, for it
must be inclosed in some vessel capable of containing
liquids. But, just in proportion as you come,down
from your generals, you narrow the ground on which
I must guess. If you say it is a thing, I have
scarcely any clew for a conjecture ; it may be fish,
flesh, or bone ; it may be an animal or vegetable sub-
stance ; it may be earth, rock, wood, metals, wool, or
silk ; it may be the tooth of a man, or the tooth of a
bear ; and you leave my thoughts to wander over cre-
ation, only with this restriction, that it is something
which you can include in your bag ; it is not therefore
mount ^tna, or the planet Saturn ; and I must decline
the hopeless task of guessing what it is. But just in
proportion as you come down from your generic
heights, you narrow the ground of my guessing. If you
say that is the skin of an animal вАФ why it may be the
raw skin or the skin dressed, it may be fur or leather ;
and when you are perfectly specific, and individual,
then you tell me what li is. Sothat with the abstrac-



248 THE PURITAN.

tions of the mind, it is exactly different from what is,
with the prospect of the eye. In the latter case, the
higher you go up, the wider your landscape, and the
more you see. But in generic abstractions, you must
come down from your mount, or you are lost in the
darkness of its top.



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Online LibraryLeonard WithingtonThe Puritan : a series of essays, critical, moral, and miscellaneous (Volume v. 1) → online text (page 14 of 14)