The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 5/A Tritical Essay Upon the Faculties of the Mind

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TO ————


BEING so great a lover of antiquities, it was reasonable to suppose, you would be very much obliged with any thing that was new. I have been of late offended with many writers of essays and moral discourses, for running into stale topicks and threadbare quotations, and not handling their subject fully and closely: all which errours I have carefully avoided in the following essay, which I have proposed as a pattern for young writers to imitate. The thoughts and observations being entirely new, the quotations untouched by others, the subject of mighty importance, and treated with much order and perspicuity, it has cost me a great deal of time; and I desire you will accept and consider it as the utmost effort of my genius.





PHILOSOPHERS say, that man is a microcosm, or little world, resembling in miniature every part of the great: and, in my opinion, the body natural may be compared to the body politick: and if this be so, how can the epicurean's opinion be true, that the universe was formed by a fortuitous concourse of atoms: which I will no more believe, than that the accidental jumbling of the letters of the alphabet, could fall by chance into a most ingenious and learned treatise of philosophy. Risum teneatis amici? [Hor.] This false opinion must needs create many more; it is like an errour in the first concoction, which cannot be corrected in the second; the foundation is weak, and whatever superstructure you raise upon it, must of necessity fall to the ground. Thus men are led from one errour to another, until with Ixion they embrace a cloud instead of Juno; or like the dog in the fable lose the substance in gaping at the shadow. For such opinions cannot cohere; but like the iron and clay in the toes of Nebuchadnezzar's image, must separate and break in pieces. I have read in a certain author, that Alexander wept because he had no more worlds to conquer; which he needed not have done, if the fortuitous concourse of atoms could create one: but this is an opinion, fitter for that many headed beast the vulgar, to entertain, than for so wise a man as Epicurus; the corrupt part of his sect only borrowed his name, as the monkey did the cat's claw, to draw the chesnut out of the fire.

However, the first step to the cure, is to know the disease; and though truth may be difficult to find, because, as the philosopher observes, she lives in the bottom of a well, yet we need not, like blind men, grope in open daylight. I hope I may be allowed, among so many far more learned men, to offer my mite, since a standerby may sometimes perhaps see more of the game, than he that plays it. But I do not think a philosopher obliged to account for every phenomenon in nature, or drown himself with Aristotle, for not being able to solve the ebbing and flowing of the tide, in that fatal sentence he passed upon himself, Quia te non capio, tu capies me. Wherein he was at once the judge and the criminal, the accuser and executioner. Socrates, on the other hand, who said he knew nothing, was pronounced by the oracle to be the wisest man in the world.

But to return from this digression: I think it as clear as any demonstration of Euclid, that Nature does nothing in vain; if we were able to dive into her secret recesses, we should find that the smallest blade of grass, or most contemptible weed, has its particular use: but she is chiefly admirable in her minutest compositions, the least and most contemptible insect, most discovers the art of nature, if I may so call it, though nature, which delights in variety, will always triumph over art: and as the poet observes,

Naturam expellas furca licet, usque recurret.Hor.

But the various opinions of philosophers, have scattered through the world as many plagues of the mind, as Pandora's box did those of the body; only with this difference, that they have not left hope at the bottom. And if truth be not fled with Astrea, she is certainly as hidden as the source of Nile, and can be found only in Utopia. Not that I would reflect on those wise sages, which would be a sort of ingratitude; and he that calls a man ungrateful, sums up all the evil that a man can be guilty of,

Ingratum si dixeris, omnia dicis.

But, what I blame the philosophers for, (though some may think it a paradox) is chiefly their pride; nothing less than an ipse dixit, and you must pin your faith on their sleeve. And though Diogenes lived in a tub, there might be, for aught I know, as much pride under his rags, as in the fine spun garments of the divine Plato. It is reported of this Diogenes, that when Alexander came to see him, and promised to give him whatever he would ask, the cynick only answered, "Take not from me what thou canst not give me, but stand from between me and the light;" which was almost as extravagant as the philosopher, that flung his money into the sea, with this remarkable saying ———

How different was this man from the usurer, who being told his son would spend all he had got, replied, "He cannot take more pleasure in spending, than I did in getting it." These men could see the faults of each other, but not their own; those they flung into the bag behind; non videmus id manticæ quod in tergo est. I may perhaps be censured for my free opinions by those carping Momuses whom authors worship, as the Indians do the devil, for fear. They will endeavour to give my reputation as many wounds, as the man in the almanack; but I value it not; and perhaps like flies, they may buzz so often about the candle, till they burn their wings. They must pardon me, if I venture to give them this advice, not to rail at what they cannot understand: it does but discover that self-tormenting passion of envy, than which the greatest tyrant never invented a more cruel torment:

Invidia Siculi non invenere Tyranni
Tormentum majus ——Juv.

I must be so bold to tell my criticks and witlings, that they can no more judge of this, than a man that is born blind, can have any true idea of colours. I have always observed, that your empty vessels sound loudest: I value their lashes as little as the sea did those of Xerxes, when he whipped it. The utmost favour a man can expect from them is, that which Polyphemus promised Ulysses, that he would devour him the last: they think to subdue a writer, as Cæsar did his enemy, with a Veni, vidi, vici. I confess I value the opinion of the judicious few, a Rymer, a Dennis, or a W————k; but for the rest, to give my judgment at once, I think the long dispute among the philosophers about a vacuum, may be determined in the affirmative, that it is to be found in a critick's head. They are at best but the drones of the learned worlds who devour the honey, and will not work themselves; and a writer need no more regard them, than the moon does the barking of a little senseless cur. For, in spite of their terrible roaring, you may, with half an eye, discover the ass under the lion's skin.

But to return to our discourse: Demosthenes being asked what was the first part of an orator, replied, action: what was the second, action: what was the third, action: and so on ad infinitum. This may be true in oratory; but contemplation, in other things, exceeds action. And therefore a wise man is never less alone, than when he is alone:

Nunquam minus solus, quam cúm solus.

And Archimedes, the famous mathematician, was so intent upon his problems, that he never minded the soldiers who came to kill him. Therefore, not to detract from the just praise which belongs to orators, they ought to consider that nature, which gave us two eyes to see, and two ears to hear, has given us but one tongue to speak; wherein however some do so abound, that the virtuosi, who have been so long in search for the perpetual motion, may infallibly find it there.

Some men admire republicks, because orators flourish there most, and are the greatest enemies of tyranny; but my opinion is, that one tyrant is better than a hundred. Besides, these orators inflame the people, whose anger is really but a short fit of madness,

Ira furor brevis est. ——Hor.

After which, laws are like cobwebs, which may catch small flies, but let wasps and hornets break through. But in oratory the greatest art is to hide art,

Artis est celare artem.

But this must be the work of time, we must lay hold on all opportunities, and let slip no occasion; else we shall be forced to weave Penelope's web, unravel in the night, what we spun in the day. And therefore I have observed, that time is painted with a lock before, and bald behind, signifying thereby, that we must take time (as we say) by the forelock, for when it is once past, there is no recalling it.

The mind of man is at first (if you will pardon the expression) like a tabula rasa, or like wax, which, while it is soft, is capable of any impression, till time has hardened it. And at length death, that grim tyrant, stops us in the midst of our career. The greatest conquerors have at last been conquered by death, which spares none, from the sceptre to the spade:

Mors omnibus communis.

All rivers go to the sea, but none return from it. Xerxes wept when he beheld his army, to consider that in less than a hundred years, they would be all dead. Anacreon was choked with a grapestone; and violent joy kills as well as violent grief. There is nothing in this world constant, but inconstancy; yet Plato thought, that if virtue would appear to the world in her own native dress, all men would be enamoured with her. But now, since interest governs the world, and men neglect the golden mean, Jupiter himself, if he came to the earth, would be despised, unless it were, as he did to Danae, in a golden shower: for men nowadays worship the rising sun, and not the setting:

Donec eris felix multos numerabis amicos.

Thus have I, in obedience to your commands, ventured to expose myself to censure, in this critical age. Whether I have done right to my subject, must be left to the judgment of my learned reader: however I cannot but hope, that my attempting of it, may be encouragement for some able pen, to perform it with more success.