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ries afterward; but at present a man waits, and doubts, and hesitates, and consults his brother, and his uncle, and his first cousins, and his particular friends, till one fine day he finds that he is sixtyfive years of age-that he has lost so much time in consulting first cousins and particular friends, that he has no more time left to follow their advice. There is such little time for over-squeamishness at present, the opportunity so easily slips away, the very period of life at which a man chooses to venture, if ever, is so confined, that it is no bad rule to preach up the necessity, in such instances, of a little violence done to the feelings, and of efforts made in defiance of strict and sober calculation.
With respect to that fastidiousness which disturbs the right conduct of the understanding, it must be observed that there are two modes of judging of anything: one, by the test of what has actually been done in the same way before; the other, by what we can conceive may be done in that way. Now this latter method of mere imaginary excellence can hardly be a just criterion, because it may be in fact impossible to reduce to practice what it is perfectly easy to conceive: no man, before he has tried, can tell how difficult it is to manage prejudice, jealousy, and delicacy, and to overcome all that friction which the world opposes to speculation. Therefore, the fair practical rule seems to be, to compare any exertion, by all similar exertions which have preceded it, and to allow merit to any one who has improved, or, at least, who has not deteriorated the standard of excellence, in his own department of knowledge. Fastidious men are always judging by the other standard; and, as the rest of the understanding cannot fill up in a century what the imagination can sketch out in a moment, they are always in a state of perpetual disappointment, and their conversation one uniform tenor of blame. At the same time that I say this, I beg leave to lift up both my hands against that pernicious facility of temper, in the estimation of which everything is charming and delightful. Among the smaller duties of life I hardly know important than that of not praising where praise is Reputation is one of the prizes for which men contend: "it is," as Mr. Burke calls it, "the cheap defence and ornament of nations, and the nurse of manly exertions;" it produces more labour and more talent than twice the wealth of a country could ever rear up. It is the coin of genius; and it is the imperious duty of
any one more
every man to bestow it with the most scrupulous justice and the wisest economy.
HABIT OF DISCUSSION.
But when two
I AM about to recommend a practice in the conduct of the understanding which I dare say will be strongly objected to, by many men of the world who may overhear it, and that is, the practice of arguing, or, if that be a word in bad repute, of discussing. But then I have many limitations to add to such recommendation. It is as unfair to compel a man to discuss with you, who can not play the game, or does not like it, as it would be to compel a person to play at chess with you under similar circumstances: neither is such a sort of exercise of the mind suitable to the rapidity and equal division of general conversation. Such sort of practices are, of course, as ill-bred and as absurd as it would be to pull out a grammar and dictionary in a general society, and to prosecute the study of a language. together who love truth, and discuss any difficult point with good nature and a respect for each other's understandings, it always imparts a high degree of steadiness and certainty to our knowledge; or, what is nearly of equal value, and certainly of greater difficulty, it convinces us of our ignorance. It is an exercise grossly abused by those who have recourse to it, and is very apt to degenerate into a habit of perpetual contradiction, which is the most tiresome and most disgusting in all the catalogue of imbecilities. It is an exercise which timid men dread-from which irritable men ought to abstain; but which, in my humble opinion, advances a man, who is calm enough for it, and strong enough for it, far beyond any other method of employing the mind. Indeed, a promptitude to discuss, is so far a proof of a sound mind, that, whenever we feel pain and alarm at our opinions being called in question, it is almost a certain sign, that they have been taken up without examination, or that the reasons which once determined our judgment have vanished away.
I direct these observations only to those who are capable of discussing; for there are many who have not the quickness and the presence of mind necessary for it, and who, in consequence, must be compelled to yield their opinions to the last speaker
And there is no question, that it is far preferable to remain under the influence of moderate errors, than to be bandied about for the whole of life from one opinion to another, at the pleasure, and for the sport of superior intelligence.
But other men's understandings are to be made use of, in the conduct of your own, in many other methods than in that of discussion. Lord Bacon says, that to enter into the kingdom of knowledge, we must put on the spirit of little children; and if he means that we are to submit to be taught by whoever can, or will teach us, it is a habit of mind which leads to very rapid improvement; because a person who possesses it is always putting himself in a train to correct his prejudices, and dissolve his unphilosophical associations. The truth is, that most men want knowledge, not for itself, but for the superiority which knowledge confers; and the means they employ to secure this superiority, are as wrong as the ultimate object, for no man can ever end with being superior, who will not begin with being inferior. The readiest way of founding that empire of talent and knowledge which is the mistaken end such men propose to themselves of knowledge, is, patiently to gather from every understanding that will impart them, the materials of your future power and importance. There are some sayings in our language about merit being always united with modesty, &c. (I suppose because they both begin with an m, for alliteration has a great power over proverbs, and proverbs over public opinion) ; but I fancy that in the majority of instances, the fact is directly the reversethat talents and arrogance are commonly united, and that most clever young men of eighteen or nineteen believe themselves to be about the level of Demosthenes, or Virgil, or the Admirable Crichton, or John Duke of Marlborough: but whatever the fact be with respect to modesty, and omitting all the popularity and policy of modesty, I am sure modesty is a part of talent; that a certain tendency to hear what others have to say, and to give it its due weight and importance, is quite as valuable as it is amiable; that it is a vast promoter of knowledge; and that the contrary habit of general contempt, is a very dangerous practice in the conduct of the understanding. It exists, I am afraid, commonly in the minds of able men, but they would be much better without it.
As for general skepticism, the only way to avoid it is, to seize on some first principles arbitrarily, and not to quit them. Take as few as you can help-about a tenth part of what Dr. Reid has taken will suffice-but take some, and proceed to build upon them. As I have before mentioned, the leading principle I think, thereof Descartes' philosophy was, Cogito, ergo sum—' fore I exist ;" and having laid this foundation-stone, he built an enormous building, the ruins of which lie scattered up and down among the sciences in disordered glory and venerable confusion. Some of his disciples, however, could never get a single step farther; they admitted their own existence, but could never deduce any one single truth from it. One might almost wish that these gentlemen had disencumbered themselves of this their only idea, by running down steep places, or walking very far into profound ponds, rather than that they should exhibit such a spectacle of stupidity and perversion.
Such sort of questions as the credibility of memory, and personal identity, are not merely innocent subtilties. I admit it is quite impossible in practice to disbelieve either the one or the other but they excite a suspicion of the perfect uncertainty of all knowledge; and they often keep young men hesitating and quibbling about the rudiments of all knowledge, instead of pushing on their inquiries with cheerfulness and vigour. I am sure I am not stating an ideal evil; but I know from actual experience, that many understandings have been retarded for years in their prosecution of solid and valuable knowledge, because they could see no evidence for first principles, and were unable to that prove which, by the very meaning of the expression must be incapable of all proof. They considered the whole as an unstable and unphilosophical fabric, and contracted either an indifference to, or contempt for truth. And if you choose to call all knowledge hypothetical, because first principles are arbitrarily assumed, you certainly may call it so, if you please; but then I only contend that it does quite as well as if it were not hypothetical, because all the various errors agree perfectly well together, and produce that happiness which is the end of knowledge.
THE ROUND MAN IN THE ROUND HOLE.
THE RIGHT MAN IN THE RIGHT PLACE.
It is a very wise rule in the conduct of the understanding, to acquire early a correct notion of your own peculiar constitution of mind, and to become well acquainted, as a physician would say, with your idiosyncrasy. Are you an acute man, and see sharply for small distances? or are you a comprehensive man, and able to take in wide and extensive views into your mind? Does your mind turn its ideas into wit? or are you apt to take a commonsense view of the objects presented to you? Have you an exuberant imagination, or a correct judgment? Are you quick, or slow? accurate, or hasty? a great reader, or a great thinker? It is a prodigious point gained if any man can find out where his powers lie, and what are his deficiencies-if he can contrive to ascertain what Nature intended him for: and such are the changes and chances of the world, and so difficult is it to ascertain our own understandings, or those of others, that most things are done by persons who could have done something else better. If you choose to represent the various parts in life by holes upon a table, of different shapes- some circular, some triangular, some square, some oblong—and the persons acting these parts by bits of wood of similar shapes, we shall generally find that the triangular person has got into the square hole, the oblong into the triangular, and a square person has squeezed himself into the round hole. The officer and the office, the doer and the thing done, seldom fit so exactly, that we can say they were almost made for each other.
REWARDS OF KNOWLEDGE.
BUT while I am
descanting so minutely upon the conduct of the understanding, and the best modes of acquiring knowledge, be disposed to ask, Why conduct my understanding with such endless care? and what is the use of so much knowledge?" What is the use of so much knowledge?-what is
some men may
the use of so much life?-what are we to do with the seventy years of existence allotted to us?—and how are we to live them out to the last? I solemnly declare that, but for the love of knowledge, I should consider the life of the meanest hedger and 3 preferable to that of the greatest and richest man here