Instauratio Magna/Preface (Devey)

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Of the state of learning—That it is neither prosperous nor greatly advanced, and that a way must be opened to the human understanding entirely distinct from that known to our predecessors, and different aids procured, that the mind may exercise her power over the nature of things.
It appears to me that men know neither their acquirements nor their powers, but fancy their possessions greater and their faculties less than they are; whence, either valuing the received arts above measure, they look out no farther; or else despising themselves too much, they exercise their talents upon lighter matters, without attempting the capital things of all. And hence the sciences seem to have their Hercules’ Pillars, which bound the desires and hopes of mankind.

But as a false imagination of plenty is among the principal causes of want, and as too great a confidence in things present leads to a neglect of the future, it is necessary we should here admonish mankind that they do not too highly value or extol either the number or usefulness of the things hitherto discovered; for, by closely inspecting the multiplicity of books upon arts and sciences, we find them to contain numberless repetitions of the same things in point of invention, but differing indeed as to the manner of treatment; so that the real discoveries, though at the first view they may appear numerous, prove upon examination but few. And as to the point of usefulness, the philosophy we principally received from the Greeks must be acknowledged puerile, or rather talkative than generative—as being fruitful in controversies, but barren of effects.

The fable of Scylla seems a civil representation of the present condition of knowledge; for she exhibited the countenance and expression of a virgin, whilst barking monsters encircled her womb. Even thus the sciences have their specious and plausible generalities; but when we descend to particulars, which, like the organs of generation, should produce fruits and effects, then spring up loud altercations and controversies, which terminate in barren sterility. And had this not been a lifeless kind of philosophy, it were scarce possible it should have, made so little progress in so many ages, insomuch, that not only positions now frequently remain positions still, but questions remain questions, rather riveted and cherished than determined by disputes; philosophy thus coming down to us in the persons of master and scholar, instead of inventor and improver. In the mechanic arts the case is otherwise—these commonly advancing towards perfection in a course of daily improvement, from a rough unpolished state, sometimes prejudicial to the first inventors, whilst philosophy and the intellectual sciences are, like statues, celebrated and adored, but never advanced; nay, they sometimes appear most perfect in the original author, and afterwards degenerate. For since men have gone over in crowds to the opinion of their leader, like those silent senators of Rome, they add nothing to the extent of learning themselves, but perform the servile duty of waiting upon particular authors, and repeating their doctrines.<br.>
It is a fatal mistake to suppose that the sciences have gradually arrived at a state of perfection, and then been recorded by some one writer or other; and that as nothing better can afterwards be invented, men need but cultivate and set off what is thus discovered and completed; whereas, in reality, this registering of the sciences proceeds only from the assurance of a few and the sloth and ignorance of many. For after the sciences might thus perhaps in several parts be carefully cultivated; a man of an enterprising genius rising up, who, by the conciseness of his method, renders himself acceptable and famous, he in appearance erects an art, but in reality corrupts. the labours of his predecessors. This, however, is usually well received by posterity, as readily gratifying their curiosity, and indulging their indolence. But he that rests upon established consent as the judgment approved by time, trusts to a very fallacious and weak foundation; for we have but an imperfect knowledge of the discoveries in arts and sciences, made public in different ages and countries, and still less of what has been done by particular persons, and transacted in private; so that neither the births nor miscarriages of time are to be found in our records.

Nor is consent, or the continuance thereof, a thing of any account; for however governments may vary, there is but one state of the sciences, and that will for ever be democratical or popular. But the doctrines in greatest vogue among the people, are either the contentious and quarrelsome, or the showy and empty; that is, such as may either entrap the assent, or lull the mind to rest: whence, of course, the greatest geniuses in all ages have suffered violence; whilst out of regard to their own character, they submitted to the judgment of the times, and the populace. And thus when any more sublime speculations happened to appear, they were commonly tossed and extinguished by the breath of popular opinion. Hence time, like a river, has brought down to us what is light and tumid, but sunk what was ponderous and solid. As to those who have set up for teachers of the sciences, when they drop their character, and at intervals speak their sentiments, they complain of the subtilty of nature, the concealment of truth, the obscurity of things, the entanglement of causes, and the imperfections of the human understanding; thus rather choosing to accuse the common state of men and things, than make confession of themselves. It is also frequent with them to adjudge that impossible in an art, which they find that art does not affect; by which means they screen indolence and ignorance from the reproach they merit. The knowledge delivered down to us is barren in effects, fruitful in questions, slow and languid in improvement, exhibiting in its generalities the counterfeits of perfection, but meagre in its details, popular in its aim, but suspected by its very promoters, and therefore defended and propagated by artifice and chicanery. And even those who by experience propose to enlarge the bounds of the sciences, scarce ever entirely quit the received opinions, and go to the fountainhead, but think it enough to add somewhat of their own; as prudentially considering, that at the time they show their modesty in assenting, they may have a liberty of adding. But whilst this regard is shown to opinions and moral considerations, the sciences are greatly hurt by such a languid procedure; for it is scarce possible at once to admire and excel an author: as water rises no higher than the reservoir it falls from. Such men, therefore, though they improve some things, yet advance the sciences but little, or rather amend than enlarge them.

There have been also bolder spirits, and greater geniuses, who thought themselves at liberty to overturn and destroy the ancient doctrine, and make way for themselves and their opinions; but without any great advantage from the disturbance; as they did not effectively enlarge philosophy and arts by practical works, but only endeavoured to substitute new dogmas, and to transfer the empire of opinion to themselves, with but small advantage; for opposite errors proceed mostly from common causes.

As for those who, neither wedded to their own nor others’ opinions, but continuing friends to liberty, made use of assistance in their inquiries, the success they met with did not answer expectation, the attempt, though laudable, being but feeble; for pursuing only the probable reasons of things, they were carried about in a circle of arguments, and taking a promiscuous liberty, preserved not the rigour of true inquirers; whilst none of them duly conversed with experience and things themselves. Others again, who commit themselves to mechanical experience, yet make their experiments at random, without any method of inquiry. And the greatest part of these have no considerable views, but esteem it a great matter if they can make a single discovery; which is both a trifling and unskilful procedure, as no one can justly or successfully discover the nature of any one thing in that thing itself, or without numerous experiments which lead to farther inquiries. And we must not omit to observe, that all the industry displayed in experiment has been directed by too indiscreet a zeal at some prejudged effect, seeking those which produced fruit rather than knowledge, in opposition to the Divine method, which on the first day created time alone, delaying its material creations until the sun had illumined space.

Lastly, those who recommend logic as the best and surest instrument for improving the sciences, very justly observe, that the understanding, left to itself, ought always to be suspected. But here the remedy is neither equal to the disease, nor approved; for though the logic in use may be properly applied in civil affairs, and the arts that are founded in discourse and opinion, yet it by no means reaches the subtilty of nature; and by catching at what it cannot hold, rather serves to establish errors, and fix them deeper, than open the way of truth.

Upon the whole, men do not hitherto appear to be happily inclined and fitted for the sciences, either by their own industry, or the authority of authors, especially as there is little dependence to be had upon the common demonstrations and experiments; whilst the structure of the universe renders it a labyrinth to the understanding; where the paths are not only everywhere doubtful, but the appearances of things and their signs deceitful; and the wreaths and knots of nature intricately turned and twisted: through all which we are only to be conducted by the uncertain light of the senses, that sometimes shines, and sometimes hides its head; and by collections of experiments and particular facts, in which no guides can be trusted, as wanting direction themselves, and adding to the errors of the rest. In this melancholy state of things, one might be apt to despair both of the understanding left to itself, and of all fortuitous helps; as of a state irremediable by the utmost efforts of the human genius, or the often-repeated chance of trial. The only clue and method is to begin all anew, and direct our steps in a certain order, from the very first perceptions of the senses. Yet I must not be understood to say that nothing has been done in former ages, for the ancients have shown themselves worthy of admiration in everything which concerned either wit or abstract reflection; but, as in former ages, when men at sea, directing their course solely by the observation of the stars, might coast along the shores of the continent, but could not trust themselves to the wide ocean, or discover new worlds, until the use of the compass was known: even so the present discoveries referring to matters immediately under the jurisdiction of the senses, are such as might easily result from experience and discussion; but before we can enter the remote and hidden parts of nature, it is requisite that a better and more perfect application of the human mind should be introduced. This, however, is not to be understood as if nothing had been effected by the immense labours of so many past ages; as the ancients have performed surprisingly in subjects that required abstract meditation, and force of genius. But as navigation was imperfect before the use of the compass, so will many secrets of nature and art remain undiscovered, without a more perfect knowledge of the understanding, its uses, and ways of working.

For our own part, from an earnest desire of truth, we have committed ourselves to doubtful, difficult, and solitary ways; and relying on the Divine assistance, have supported our minds against the vehemence of opinions, our own internal doubts and scruples, and the darkness and fantastic images of the mind; that at length we might make more sure and certain discoveries for the benefit of posterity. And if we shall have effected anything to the purpose, what led us to it was a true and genuine humiliation of mind. Those who before us applied themselves to the discovery of arts, having just glanced upon things, examples, and experiments; immediately, as if invention was but a kind of contemplation, raised up their own spirits to deliver oracles: whereas our method is continually to dwell among things soberly, without abstracting or setting the understanding farther from them than makes their images meet; which leaves but little work for genius and mental abilities. And the same humility that we practise in learning, the same we also observe in teaching, without endeavouring to stamp a dignity on any of our inventions, by the triumphs of confutation, the citations of antiquity, the producing of authorities, or the mask of obscurity; as any one might do, who had rather give lustre to his own name, than light to the minds of others. We offer no violence, and spread no nets for the judgments of men, but lead them on to things themselves, and their relations; that they may view their own stores, what they have to reason about, and what they may add, or procure, for the common good. And if at any time ourselves have erred, mistook, or broke off too soon, yet as we only propose to exhibit things naked, and open, as they are, our errors may be the readier observed, and separated, before they considerably infect the mass of knowledge; and our labours be the more easily continued. And thus we hope to establish for ever a true and legitimate union between the experimental and rational faculty, whose fallen and inauspicious divorces and repudiations have disturbed everything in the family of mankind.

But as these great things are not at our disposal, we here, at the entrance of our work, with the utmost humility and fervency, put forth our prayers to God, that remembering the miseries of mankind, and the pilgrimage of this life, where we pass but few days and sorrowful, he would vouchsafe, through our hands, and the hands of others, to whom he has given the like mind, to relieve the human race by a new act of his bounty. We likewise humbly beseech him, that what is human may not clash with what is divine; and that when the ways of the senses are opened, and a greater natural light set up in the mind, nothing of incredulity and blindness towards divine mysteries may arise; but rather that the understanding, now cleared up, and purged of all vanity and superstition, may remain entirely subject to the divine oracles, and yield to faith, the things that are faith’s: and lastly, that expelling the poisonous knowledge infused by the serpent, which puffs up and swells the human mind, we may neither be wise above measure, nor go beyond the bounds of sobriety, but pursue the truth in charity.

We now turn ourselves to men, with a few wholesome admonitions and just requests. And first, we admonish them to continue in a sense of their duty, as to divine matters; for the senses are like the sun, which displays the face of the earth, but shuts up that of the heavens: and again, that they run not into the contrary extreme, which they certainly will do, if they think an inquiry into nature any way forbid them by religion. It was not that pure and unspotted natural knowledge whereby Adam gave names to things, agreeable to their natures, which caused his fall; but an ambitious and authoritative desire of moral knowledge, to judge of good and evil, which makes men revolt from God, and obey no laws but those of their own will. But for the sciences, which contemplate nature, the sacred philosopher declares, “It is the glory of God to conceal a thing, but the glory of a king find it out.” As if the Divine Being thus indulgently condescended to exercise the human mind by philosophical inquiries.

In the next place, we advise all mankind to think of the true ends of knowledge, and that they endeavour not after it for curiosity, contention, or the sake of despising others, nor yet for profit, reputation, power, or any such inferior consideration, but solely for the occasions and uses of life; all along conducting and perfecting it in the spirit of benevolence. Our requests are,—l. That men do not conceive we here deliver an opinion, but a work; and assure themselves we attempt not to found any sect or particular doctrine, but to fix an extensive basis for the service of human nature. 2. That, for their own sakes, they lay aside the zeal and prejudices of opinions, and endeavour the common good; and that being, by our assistance, freed and kept clear from the errors and hinderances of the way, they would themselves also take part of the task. 3. That they do not despair, as imagining our project for a grand restoration, or advancement of all kinds of knowledge, infinitely beyond the power of mortals to execute; whilst in reality, it is the genuine stop and prevention of infinite error. Indeed, as our state is mortal, and human, a full accomplishment cannot be expected in a single age, and must therefore be commended to posterity. Nor could we hope to succeed, if we arrogantly searched for the sciences in the narrow cells of the human understanding, and not submissively in the wider world. 4. In the last place, to prevent ill effects from contention, we desire mankind to consider how far they have a right to judge our performance, upon the foundations here laid down: for we reject all that knowledge which is too hastily abstracted from things, as vague, disorderly, and ill-formed; and we cannot be expected to abide by a judgment which is itself called in question.