« PreviousContinue »
Others again there are, who are capable of remaining in doubt as long as the reasons on each side seem exactly balanced; but not otherwise. Such a person, as soon as he perceives any —the smallest—preponderance of probability on one side of a question, can no more refrain from deciding immediately, and with full conviction, on that side, than he could continue to stand, after having lost his equilibrium, in a slanting position, like the famous tower at Pisa. And he will, accordingly, be disposed to consider an acknowledgment that there are somewhat the stronger reasons on one side, as equivalent to a confident decision.
The tendency to such an error is the greater, from the circumstance, that there are so many cases, in practice, wherein it is essentially necessary to come to a practical decision, even where there are no sufficient grounds for feeling fully convinced that it is the right one. A traveller may be in doubt, and may have no means of deciding, with just confidence, which of two roads he ought to take; while yet he must, at a venture, take one of them. And the like happens in numberless transactions of ordinary life, in which we are obliged practically to make up our minds at once to take one course or another, even where there are no sufficient grounds for a full conviction of the understanding.
The infirmities above mentioned are those of ordinary minds. A smaller number of persons, among whom, however, are to be found a larger proportion of the intelligent, are prone to the opposite extreme; that of not deciding, as long as there are reasons to be found on both sides, even though there may be a clear and strong preponderance on the one, and even though the case may be such as to call for a practical decision. As the one description of men rush hastily to a conclusion, and trouble themselves little about premises, so, the other carefully examine premises, and care too little for conclusions. The one decide without inquiring, the other inquire without deciding.
'Beware of being too material.'
On this point I take the liberty of quoting a passage from the Elements of Rhetoric [p. 3, ch. i. § 2] :— 'It is remarked by anatomists that the nutritive quality is
ESSAY XXVI. OF SEEMING WISE.
IT hath been an opinion, that the French are wiser than they seem, and the Spaniards seem wiser than they are; but howsoever it be between nations, certainly it is so between man and man; for, as the Apostle saith of godliness,' Having a show of godliness, but denying the power thereof,'1—so, certainly there are, in points of wisdom and sufficiency,2 that do nothing or little, very solemnly, Magna conatu nugas.3 It is a ridiculous thing, and fit for a satire to persons of judgment, to see what shifts these formalists have, and what prospectives4 to make superficies to seem body that hath depth and bulk. Some are so close and reserved, as they will not show their wares but by a dark light, and seem always to keep back somewhat; and when they know within themselves they speak of that they do not well know, woidd nevertheless seem to others to know of that which they may not well speak. Some help themselves with countenance and gesture, and are wise by signs; as Cicero saith of Piso,5 that when he answered him he fetched one of his brows up to his forehead, and bent the other down to his chin; 'Eespondes, altera ad frontem sublato, altera nd mentum depresso supercilio, crudelitotem tibi nonplacere.'6 Some think to bear7 it by speaking a great word, and being peremptory; and go on, and take by admittance that which they cannot make good. Some, whatsoever is beyond their reach, will seem to despise, or make light of it, as impertinent8 or curious,' and so would have their ignorance seem judgment. Some are never without a difference,1 and commonly by amusing men with a subtlety, blanch - the matter; of whom A. Gellius saith,' Hominem delirum, qui verborum minutiis rerum frangit pondera.'3 Of which kind also Plato, in his Protagoras* bringeth in Prodicus in scorn, and maketh him make a speech that consisteth of distinctions from the beginning to the end. Generally, such men, in all deliberations, find ease to be of the negative side, and affect a credit to object and foretell difficulties; for when propositions are denied, there is an end of them; but if they be allowed, it requireth a new work; which false point of wisdom is the bane of business. To conclude, there is no decaying merchant, or inward beggar,5 hath so many tricks to uphold the credit of their wealth, as these empty persons have to maintain the eredit of their sufficiency. Seeming wise men may make shift to get opinion; but let no man choose them for employment; for, certainly, you were better take for business a man somewhat absurd than over-formal.
1 2 Timothy in. 5.
5 Sufficiency. Ability; adequate power. 'Our sufficiency is of God.'—2 Cor. iii.5. s Trifles with great effort.
4 Prospectives. Perspective glasses.
'They spoke of AlhaZen and Vitellon,
5 In Pis. 6.
8 * You answer, with one eyebrow up to your forehead and the other down to your chin, that you do not approve of cruelty.'
7 Bear. To manage; to contrivei
'We'll direct her how 'tis best to bear it.'—Shakespere.
8 Impertinent. Irrelevant.
'Without tho which, this story
9 Curious. Over-nice. Sec page 101.
'Some help tliemselves toith countenance and gesture.'
Cowper in his Conversation has well described a man of this class:—
* A shallow brain behind a serious mask,
1 Difference. A subtle distinction.
- Blanch. To evade. 'A man horribly cheats his own soul, who upon any pretence whatever, or under any temptation, forsakes or blanches the true principles of religion.'—Goodman's Conference.
3 'A senseless man who fritters away weighty matters by trifling with words.' ^This expression not in Aulua Gellius. A passago like it occurs in Quintilian— ix. 1.)
* Plato, Prolog, i. 337.
5 Inward beggar. One secretly a bankrupt.
'To the sight unfold
He says but little, and that little said,
Owes all its weight, like loaded dice, to lead.
His wit invites you by his looks, to come,
But when you knock, it never is at home;
'Tis like a parcel sent you by the stage,
Some handsome present, as your hopes presage;
'Tis heavy, bulky, and bids fair to prove
An absent friend's fidelity and love;
But when unpacked, your disappointment groans
To find it stuffed with brickbats, earth, and stones.'
'Seeming wise men may make shift to get opinion.'
There is a way in which some men seem, to themselves, and often to others also, to be much wiser than they are; by acting as a wise man does, only, on wrong occasions, and altogether under different circumstances. Such a man has heard that it is a wise thing to bo neither too daring nor too timid; neither too suspicious nor too confiding; too hasty nor too slow, Ac,, and he ventures and holds back, trusts and distrusts, hastens and delays, spends and spares, &c., just in the same degree that a wise man does,—only he is venturesome where there is real danger, and cautious where there is none; hasty where there is no cause, and dilatory when everything turns on dispatch; trusting those unworthy of confidence, and suspicious of the trustworthy; parsimonious towards worthy objects, and profuse towards the worthless; &c.
> Such a character may be called ' the reflection of a wise man.' He is the figure of a wise man shown by a mirror; which is an exact representation, except that it is left-handed.
The German child's-story of Hans und Qrettcl, like many other childish tales, contains, under a surface of mere fooler}', an instructive picture of real life. Hans stuck a knife in his sleeve, having been told that was the proper place for the needle; and put a kid in his pocket, because that was the place for a knife, &c.
It may be said, almost without qualification, that true wisdom consists in the ready and accurate perception of analogies. Without the former quality, knowledge of the past is uninstructive; without the latter, it is deceptive.
One way in which many a man aims at and pretends to wisdom, who 'has it not in him,' is this: he has heard that 'the middle course is always the best;' that 'extremes are to be avoided,' &c.; and so he endeavours in all cases to keep at an equal distance from the most opposite parties. As was observed in 'Annotation' the second on Essay XL, he will never quite agree, nor very widely disagree with either: and thus, as almost always each party is right in something, he misses the truth on both sides; and while afraid of being guided by either party, he is in fact guided by both. His mimic wisdom consists in sliding alternately towards each extreme. But if your orhit be a true circle, independent of the eccentric elliptical orbits of others, this will make sundry nodes with theirs; some* times falling within and sometimes without the same eccentric orhit . That is, in some points you will approach nearer to the one than to the other; in some you will wholly agree with one party, and in some with another; in some you will differ equally from both; and in some you will even go further from the one party than the opposite one does. For, true wisdom does not depend on another's extravagance and folly. The varieties of human error have no power to fix the exact place of truth.
Another exemplification of the golden mean upon which this seeming wise man prides himself, is the adoption of the conclusion that where a great deal is said, something must be true; imagining that he is showing a most judicious and laudable caution in believing only part of what is said,—doing what is called 'splitting the difference.' This is the wisdom of the clown, who thinks he has bought a great bargain of a Jew, hecause he has beat down the price from a guinea to a crown for some article that is not really worth a groat.
Another of these pretenders to being, or being thought to he, wise, prides himself on what he calls his consistency,—on his never changing his opinions or plans; which, as long as 3Ian is fallible, and circumstances change, is the wisdom of one either too dull to detect his mistakes, or too obstinate to own them.
Another, having been warned that ' wisdom and wit' are not the same thing, makes it a part of wisdom to distrust everything that can possibly be regarded as witty; not having judg