For, however varied the forms of civil government may be, there is but one state of learning, and that ever was and ever will be the democratic. Now with the people at large, the doctrines that most prevail are either disputatious and violent, or specious and vain, and they either ensnare or allure assent. Hence, without question, the greatest wits have undergone violence in every age, whilst others of no vulgar capacity and understanding have still, from consulting their reputation, submitted themselves to the decision of time and the multitude. Wherefore, if more elevated speculations have perchance anywhere burst forth, they have been from time to time blown about by the winds of public opinion, and extinguished; so that time, like a river, has brought down all that was light and inflated, and has sunk what was weighty and solid. Nay, those very leaders who have usurped, as it were, a dictatorship in learning, and pronounce their opinion of things with so much confidence, will yet, when they occasionally return to their senses, begin to complain of the subtility of nature, the remoteness of truth, the obscurity of things, the complication of causes, and the weakness of human wit. They are not, however, more modest in this than in the former instances, since they prefer framing an excuse of the common condition of men and things, to confessing their own defects. Besides, it is generally their practice, if some particular art fail to accomplish any object, to conclude that it cannot be accomplished by that art. But yet the art cannot be condemned, for she herself deliberates and decides the question; so that their only aim is to deliver their ignorance from ignominy. The following statement exhibits sufficiently well the state of knowledge delivered down and received by us. It is barren in effects, fruitful in questions, slow and languid in its improvement, exhibiting in its generality the counterfeit of perfection, but ill filled up in its details, popular in its choice, but suspected by its very promoters, and therefore bolstered up and countenanced with artifices. Even those who have been determined to try for themselves, to add their support to learning, and to enlarge its limits, have not dared entirely to desert received opinions, nor to seek the springhead of things. But they think they have done a great thing if they intersperse and contribute something of their own, prudently considering that by their assent they can save their modesty, and by their contributions their liberty. Whilst consulting, however, the opinions of others, and good manners, this admired moderation tends to the great injury of learning: for it is seldom in our power both to admire and surpass our author, but, like water, we rise not higher than the springhead whence we have descended. Such men, therefore, amend some things, but cause little advancement, and improve more than they enlarge knowledge. Yet there have not been wanting some, who, with greater daring, have considered every thing open to them, and, employing the force of their wit, have opened a passage for themselves and their dogmas by prostrating and destroying all before them; but this violence of theirs has not availed much, since they have not laboured to enlarge philosophy and the arts, both in their subject matter and effect; but only 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. Even if some few, who neither dogmatise nor submit to dogmatism, have been so spirited as to request others to join them in investigation, yet have such, though honest in their zeal, been weak in their efforts. For they seem to have followed only probable reasoning, and are hurried in a continued whirl of arguments, till, by an indiscriminate license of inquiry, they have enervated the strictness of investigation. But not one has there been found of a disposition to dwell sufficiently on things themselves and experience. For some again, who have committed themselves to the waves of experience, and become almost mechanics, yet in their very experience employ an unsteady investigation, and war not with it by fixed rules. Nay, some have only proposed to themselves a few paltry tasks, and think it a great thing if they can work out one single discovery, a plan no less beggarly than unskilful. For no one examines thoroughly or successfully the nature of any thing in the thing itself, but after (p.336) a laborious variety of experiments, instead of pausing there, they set out upon some further inquiry.
An inaugural poem of protest by Robert Pinsky
8 hours ago