Thomas Reid.

The works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters online

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Authority may add weight to one scale ;
but the man holds the balance, and judges
what weight he ought to allow to authority.

If a man should even claim infallibility,
we must judge of his title to that preroga-
tive. If a man pretend to be an ambassa-
dor from heaven, we must judge of his
credentials. No claim can deprive us of
this right, or excuse us for neglecting to
exercise it.

As, therefore, our regard to authority
may be either too great or too small, the
bias of human nature seems to lean to the
first of these extremes ; and I believe it is
good for men in general that it should do so.

When this bias concurs with an indiffer-
ence about truth, its operation will be the
more powerful.

The love of truth is natural to man, and
strong in every well-disposed mind. But
it may be overborne by party zeal, by
vanity, by the desire of victory, or even by
laziness. When it is superior to these, it
is a manly virtue, and requires the exer-
cise of industry, fortitude, self-denial, can-
dour, and openness to conviction.

As there are persons in the world of so
mean and abject a spirit that they rather
choose to owe their subsistence to the
charity of others, than by industry to ac-
quire some property of their own ; so there
are many more who may be called mere
beggars with regard to their opinions.
Through laziness and indifference about
truth, they leave to others the drudgery of
digging for this commodity ; they can have
enough at second hand to serve their occa-
sions. Their concern is not to know what
is true, but what is said and thought on
such subjects ; and their understanding,
like their clothes, is cut according to the
fashion. [655]

This distemper of the understanding has
taken so deep root in a great part of man-
kind, that it can hardly be said that they
use their own judgment in things that do
not concern their temporal interest. Nor is
it peculiar to the ignorant ; it infects all
ranks. We may guess their opinions when
we know where they were born, of what
parents, how educated, and what company
they have kept. These circumstances de-
termine their opinions in religion, in politics,
and in philosophy.




2. A second general prejudice arises from
a disposition to measure things less known
and less familiar, by those that are better
known and more familiar.

This is the foundation of analogical rea-
soning, to which we have a great proneness
by nature, and to it indeed we owe a great
part of our knowledge. It would be absurd
to lay aside this kind of reasoningaltogether,
and it is difficult to judge how far we may
venture upon it. The bias of human nature
is to judge from too slight analogies.

The objects of sense engross our thoughts
in the first part of life, and are most fami-
liar through the whole of it. Hence, in all
ages men have been prone to attribute the
human figure and human passions and frail-
ties to superior intelligences, and even to
the Supreme Being.

There is a disposition in men to mate-
rialize everything, if I may be allowed the
expression ; that is, to apply the notions we
have of material objects to things of another
nature. Thought is considered as analogous
to motion in a body ; and as bodies are put
in motion by impulses, and by impressions
made upon them by contiguous objects, we
are apt to conclude that the mind is made
to think by impressions made upon it, and
that there must be some kind of contiguity
between it and the objects of thought.
Hence the theories of ideas and impressions
have so generally prevailed. [656]

Because the most perfect works of human
artists are made after a model, and of ma-
terials that before existed, the ancient phi-
losophers universally believed that the world
was made of a pre- existent uncreated matter ;
and many of them, that there were eternal
and uncreated models of every species of
things which God made.

The mistakes in common life, which are
owing to this prejudice, are innumerable,
and cannot escape the slightest observation.
Men judge of other men by themselves, or
by the small circle of their acquaintance.
The selfish man thinks all pretences to be-
nevolence and public spirit to be mere
hypocrisy or self-deceit. The generous and
open-hearted believe fair pretences too
easily, and are apt to think men better than
they really are. The abandoned and pro-
fligate can hardly be persuaded that there
is any such thing as real virtue in the world.
The rustic forms his notions of the man-
ners and characters of men from those of
his country village, and is easily duped when
he comes into a great city.

It is commonly taken for granted, that
this narrow way of judging of men is to be
cured only by an extensive intercourse with
men of different ranks, professions, and
nations ; and that the man whose acquaint-
ance has been confined within a narrow
circle, must have many prejudices and nar-

row notions, which a more extensive inter-
course would have, cured.

3. Men are often led into error by the
love of simplicity, which disposes us to re-
duce things to fevr principles, and to con-
ceive a greater simplicity in nature than
there really is.* [657]

To love simplicity, and to be pleased with
it wherever we find it, is no imperfection,
but the contrary. It is the result of good
taste. We cannot but be pleased to ob-
serve, that all the changes of motion pro-
duced by the collision of bodies, hard, soft,
or elastic, are reducible to three simple
laws of motion, which the industry of phi-
losophers has discovered.

When we consider what a prodigious
variety of effects depend upon the law of
gravitation ; how many phgenomena in the
earth, sea, and air, which, in all preceding
ages, had tortured the wits of philosophers,
and occasioned a thousand vain theories,
are shewn to be the necessary consequences
of this one law ; how the whole system of
sun, moon, planets, primary and secondary,
and comets, are kept in order by it, and
their seeming irregularities accounted for
and reduced to accurate measure — the sim-
plicity of the cause, and the beauty and
variety of the effects, must give pleasure to
every contemplative mind. By this noble
discovery, we are taken, as it were, behind
the scene in this great drama of nature,
and made to behold some part of the art of
the divine Author of this system, which,
before this discovery, eye had not seen, nor
ear heard, nor had it entered into the heart
of man to conceive.

There is, without doubt, in every work
of nature, all the beautiful simplicity that is
consistent with the end for which it was
made. But, if we hope to discover how
nature brings about its ends, merely from
this principle, that it operates in the simplest
and best way, we deceive ourselves, and
forget that the wisdom of nature is more
above the wisdom of man, than man's wis-
dom is above that of a child.

If a child should sit down to contrive how
a city is to be fortified, or an army arranged
in the day of battle, he would, no doubt,
conjecture what, to his understanding, ap-
peared the simplest and best way. But
could he ever hit upon the true way ? No
surely. When he learns from fact how
these effects are produced, he will then see
how foolish his childish conjectures were.

We may learn something of the way in
which nature operates from fact and ob-
servation ; but, if we conclude that it ope-
rates in such a manner, only because to our

* See " Inquiry," ch. vii. 5 3, above, [v 206, sqq

— H.




understanding that appears to be the best
and simplest manner, we shall always go

It was believed, for many ages, that all
the variety of concrete bodies we find on
this globe is reducible to four elements, of
which they are compounded, and into which
they may be resolved. It was the simpli-
city of this theory, and not any evidence
from fact, that made it to be so generally
received ; for the more it is examined, we
find the less ground to believe it.

The Pythagoreans and Platonists were
carried farther by the same love of sim-
plicity. Pythagoras, by his skill in mathe-
matics, discovered, that there can be no
more than five regular solid figures, ter-
minated by plain surfaces, which are all
similar and equal; to wit, the tetrahedron,
the cube, the octahedron, the dodecahedron,
and the eicosihedron. As nature works in
the most simple and regular way, he thought
that all the elementary bodies must have
one or other of those regular figures ; and
that the discovery of the properties and
relations of the regular solids would be a
key to open the mysteries of nature.

This notion of the Pythagoreans and
Platonists has undoubtedly great beauty
and simplicity. Accordingly it prevailed,
at least, to the time of Euclid. He was
a Platonic philosopher, and is said to have
wrote all the books of his " Elements" in
order to discover the properties and rela-
tions of the five regular solids. This ancient
tradition of the intention of Euclid in writing
his " Elements," is countenanced by the
work itself. For the last books of the
" Elements" treat of the regular solids, and
all the preceding are subservient to the
last. [659]

So that this most ancient mathematical
work, which, for its admirable composition,
has served as a model to all succeeding
writers in mathematics, seems, like the two
first books of Newton's "Principia," to
have been intended by its author to exhibit
the mathematical principles of natural phi-

It was long believed, that all the qualities
of bodies,* and all their medical virtues,
were reducible to four — moisture and dry-
ness, heat and cold; and that there are
onlyfour temperaments of thehuman body —
the sanguine, the melancholy, the bilious,
and the phlegmatic. The chemical system,
of reducing all bodies to salt, sulphur, and
mercury, was of the same kind. For how
many ages did men believe, that the division
of all the objects of thought into ten cate-
gories, and of all that can be affirmed or
denied of anything, into five universals or
predicables, were perfect enumerations ?
"~* Only the qualitatcs prima of the Peripatetics.—

[6.59, 660 J

The evidence from reason that could bo
produced for those systems was next to no-
thing, and bore no proportion to the ground
they gained in the belief of men ; but they
were simple and regular, and reduced things
to a few principles ; and this supplied their
want of evidence.

Of all the systems we know, that of Des
Cartes was most remarkable for its sim-
plicity." 1 Upon one proposition, / think,
he builds the whole fabric of human know-
ledge. And from mere matter, with a
certain quantity of motion given it at first,
he accounts for all the phenomena of the
material world.

The physical part of this system was
mere hypothesis. It had nothing to re-
commend it but its simplicity ; yet it had
force enough to overturn the system of
Aristotle, after that system had prevailed
for more than a thousand years.

The principle of gravitation, and other
attracting and repelling forces, after Sir
Isaac Newton had given the strongest evi-
dence of their real existence in nature, were
rejected by the greatest part of Europe for
half a century, because they could not be
accounted for by matter and motion. So
much were men enamoured with the sim-
plicity of the Cartesian system. [660]

Nay, I apprehend, it was this love of
simplicity, more than real evidence, that led
Newton himself to say, in the preface to his
" Principia," speaking of the phsenomena
of the material world — " Nam multa me
movent ut nonnihil suspicer, ea omnia ex
viribus quibusdam pendere posse, quibus
corporum particulae, per causas nondum
cognitas, vel in se mutuo impelluntur, et
secundum figuras regulares coherent, vel
ab invicem fugantur et recedunt." For
certainly we have no evidence from fact,
that all the phsenomena of the material
world are produced by attracting or repell-
ing forces.

With his usual modesty, he proposes it
only as a slight suspicion ; and the ground
of this suspicion could only be, that he saw
that many of the phsenomena of nature de-
pended upon causes of this kind ; and there-
fore was disposed, from the simplicity of
nature, to think that all do.

When a real cause is discovered, the
same love of simplicity leads men to attri-
bute effects to it which are beyond its pro-

A medicine that is found to be of great
use in one distemper, commonly has its
virtues multiplied, till it becomes a panacea.
Those who have lived long, can recollect
many instances of this. In other branches
of knowledge, the same thing often happens.
When the attention of men is turned to any

* See above, p. 800, b, note t.— H.




A* VI.

particular cause, by discovering it to have
remarkable effects, they are in great danger
of extending its influence, upon slight evi-
dence, to things with which it has no con-
nection. Such prejudices arise from the
natural desire of simplifying natural causes,
and of accounting for many phsenomena
from the same principle. [061]

4. One of the most copious sources of
error in philosophy is the misapplication of
our noblest intellectual power to purposes for
which it is incompetent.

Of all the intellectual powers of man,
that of invention bears the highest price.
It resembles most the power of creation,
and is honoured with that name.

We admire the man who shews a supe-
riority in the talent of finding the means of
accomplishing an end ; who can, by a happy
combination, produce an effect, or make a
discovery beyond the reach of other men ;
who can draw important conclusions from
circumstances that commonly pass unob-
served ; who judges with the greatest saga-
city of the designs of other men, and the
consequences of his own actions. To this
superiority of understanding we give the
name of genius, and look up with admira-
tion to everything that bears the marks of it.

Yet this power, so highly valuable in it-
self, and so useful in the conduct of life,
may be misapplied ; and men of genius, in
all ages, have been prone to apply it to pur-
poses for which it is altogether incompe-

The works of men and the works of
Nature are not of the same order. The
force of genius may enable a man perfectly
to comprehend the former, and see them to
the bottom. What is contrived and exe-
cuted by one man may be perfectly under-
stood by another man. With great proba-
bility, he may from a part conjecture the
whole, or from the effects may conjecture
the causes ; because the}' are effects of a
wisdom not superior to his own. [662]

But the works of Nature are contrived
and executed by a wisdom and power in-
finitely superior to that of man ; and when
men attempt, by the force of genius, to dis-
cover the causes of the phenomena of Na-
ture, they have only the chance of going
wrong more ingeniously. Their conjectures
may appear very probable to beings no
wiser than themselves ; but they have no
chance to hit the truth. They are like the
conjectures of a child how a ship of war is
built, and how it is managed at sea.

Let the man of genius try to make an
animal, even the meanest ; to make a plant,
or even a single leaf of a plant, or a feather
of a bird; he will find that all his wisdom
and sagacity can bear no comparison with
the wisdom of Nature, nor his power with
the power of Nature.

The experience of all ages shews how
prone ingenious men have been to invent
hypotheses to explain the phsenomena of
Nature ; how fond, by a kind of anticipa-
tion, to discover her secrets. Instead of a
slow and gradual ascent in the scale of na-
tural causes, by a just and copious induc-
tion, they would shorten the work, and, by
a flight of genius, get to the top at once.
This gratifies the pride of human under-
standing ; but it is an attempt beyond our
force, like that of Phaeton to guide the
chariot of the sun.

When a man has laid out all his inge-
nuity in fabricating a system, he views it
with the eye of a parent ; he strains phse-
nomena to make them tally with it, and
make it look like the work of Nature.

The slow and patient method of induc-
tion, the only way to attain any knowledge
of Nature's work, was little understood
until it was delineated by Lord Bacon, and
has been little followed since. It humbles
the pride of man, and puts him constantly in
mind that his most ingenious conjectures
with regard to the works of God are pitiful
and childish. [663]

There is no room here for the favourite
talent of invention. In the humble method
of information, from the great volume of
Nature we must receive all our knowledge
of Nature. Whatever is beyond a just in-
terpretation of that volume is the work of
man ; and the work of God ought not to be
contaminated by any mixture with it.

To a man of genius, self-denial is a diffi-
cult lesson in philosophy as well as in reli-
gion. To bring his fine imaginations and
most ingenious conjectures to the fiery trial
of experiment and induction, by which the
greater part, if not the whole, will be
found to be dross, is a humiliating task.
This is to condemn him to dig in a mine,
when he would fly with the wings of an

In all the fine arts, whose end is to
please, genius is deservedly supreme. In
the conduct of human affairs, it often does
wonders ; but in all inquiries into the con*
stitution of Nature, it must act a subor-
dinate part, ill-suited to the superiority it
boasts. It may combine, but it must not
fabricate. It may collect evidence, but
must not supply the want of it by conjec-
ture. It may display its powers by putting
Nature to the question in well-contrived
experiments, but it must add nothing to her

5. In avoiding one extreme, men are very
apt to rush into the opposite.

Thus, in rude ages, men, unaccustomed
to search for natural causes, ascribe every
uncommon appearance to the immediate
interposition of invisible beings ; but when
philosophy has discovered natural causes of



many events, which, in the days of ignor-
ance, were ascribed to the immediate opera-
tion of gods or daemons, they are apt to
think that all the phenomena of Nature
may be accounted for in the same way, and
that there is no need of an invisible Maker
and Governor of the world. [664]

Rude men are, at first, disposed to ascribe
intelligence and active power to everything
they see move or undergo any change.
" Savages," says the Abbe Raynal, " where-
ever they see motion which they cannot
account for, there they suppose a soul."
When they come to be convinced of the
folly of this extreme, they are apt to run
into the opposite, and to think that every
thing moves only as it is moved, and acts
as it is acted upon.

Thus, from the extreme of superstition,
the transition is easy to that of atheism ;
and from the extreme of ascribing activity
to every part of Nature, to that of exclud-
ing it altogether, and making even the deter-
minations of intelligent beings, the links of
one fatal chain, or the wheels of one great

The abuse of occult qualities in the Peri-
patetic philosophy led Des Cartes and his
followers to reject all occult qualities, to
pretend to explain all the pheenomena of
Nature by mere matter and motion, and
even to fix disgrace upon the name of occult

6. Men's judgments are often perverted
By their affections and passions. This is
60 commonly observed, and so universally
acknowledged, that it needs no proof nor

B. The second class of idols in Lord
Bacon's division are the idola specus.

These are prejudices which, have their
origin j not from the constitution of human
nature, but from something peculiar to the

As in a cave objects vary in their appear-
ance according to the form of the cave and
the manner in which it receives the light,
Lord Bacon conceives the mind of every
man to resemble a cave, which has its par-
ticular form, and its particular manner of
being enlightened ; and, from these circum-
stances, often gives false colours and a delu-
sive appearance to objects seen in it," [065]

For this'reason he gives the name of idola
specus to those prejudices which arise from
the particular way in which a man has been
trained,, from his being addicted to some
particular profession, or from something
particular in the turn of his mind.

A man whose thoughts have been con-

* If Bacon took his simile'of the cave.from Plato,
he has perverted it Irom its proper meaning; for, in
the PIaton ; c signification, the.ftfofa specus should
denote the the species, and not of the
individual — that is, express what Bacon denominates
by idola Ivibus. — ! i .

fined to a certain track by his profession or
manner of life, is very apt to judge wrong
when he ventures out of that track. He is
apt to draw everything within the sphere of
his profession, and to judge by its maxims
of things that have no relation to it.

The mere mathematician is apt to apply
measure and calculation to things which do
not admit of it. Direct and inverse ratios
have been applied by an ingenious author to
measure human affections, and the moral
worth of actions. An eminent mathemati-
cian* attempted to ascertain by calculation
the ratio in which the evidence of facts
must decrease in the course of time, and
fixed the period when the evidence of the
facts on which Christianity is founded shall
become evanescent, and when in conse-
quence no faith shall be found on the earth.
1 have seen a philosophical dissertation,
published by a very good mathematician,
wherein, in opposition to the ancient divi-
sion of things into ten categories, he main-
tains that there are no more, and can be no
more than two categories, to wit, data and

The ancient chemists were wont to ex-
plain all the mysteries of Nature, and even
of religion, by salt, sulphur, and mercury.

Mr Locke, I think, mentions an eminent
musician, who believed that God created
the world in six days, and rested the se-
venth, because there are but seven notes in
music. I knew one of that profession, who
thought that there could be only three parts
in harmony — to wit, bass, tenor, and treble
— because there are but three persons in the
Trinity. [666]

The learned and ingenious Dr Henry
More having very elaborately and methodi-
cally compiled his " Enchiridium Metaphy-
sicitm" and " Enchiridium Ethicum"
found all the divisions and subdivisions of
both to be allegorically taught in the first
chapter of Genesis. Thus even very inge-
nious men are apt to make a ridiculous
figure, by drawing into the track in which
their thoughts have long run, things alto-
gether foreign to it.J

Different persons, either from temper or
from education, have different tendencies of
understanding, which, by their excess, are
unfavourable to sound judgment.

Some have an undue admiration of anti-
quity, and contempt of whatever is modern ;
others go as far into the contrary extreme.
It may be judged, that the former are per-

* Craig H.

t Reid refers to his uncle, James Gregory, Profes.
sorof Mathematics in St Andrew's and Edinburgh
Si.e above, p. 68, b. .— H.
\ '* Musicians think our souls are harmonies ;
Physicians hold that they complexions be
Epicures make them swarms of atomies,
W hich do by chance into the body flee.
Sir John Davies, in the first and second lines, a]
ludesto Aristoxcnu- and (iakn. — II.



[essay VI. 1

sons who value themselves upon their ac-
quaintance with ancient authors, and the
latter such as have little knowledge of this

Some are afraid to venture a step out of the
beaten track, and think it safest to go with
the multitude ; others are fond of singulari-
ties, and of everything that has the air of

Some are desultory and changeable in
their opinions ; others unduly tenacious.
Most men have a predilection for the tenets
of their sect or party, and still more for
their own inventions.

C The idola fori are the fallacies arising
fi am the imperfections and the abuse of lan-
guage, which is an instrument of thought
as well as of the communication of our
thoughts. [667]

Whether it be the effect of constitution
or of habit, I will not take upon me to de-
termine ; but, from one or both of these
causes, it happens that no man can pursue

Online LibraryThomas ReidThe works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters → online text (page 106 of 114)