The Sceptical Philosophy of the Ancients has been no less misrepresented than the Epicurean. Pyrrho may perhaps have carried it to rather an irrational excess;--but we must not believe with Beattie all the absurdities imputed to this philosopher; and it appears to me that the doctrines of the school, as explained by Sextus Empiricus, are far more suited to the wants and infirmities of human reason as well as more conducive to the mild virtues of humility and patience, than any of those systems of philosophy which preceded the introduction of Christianity. The Sceptics may be said to have held a middle path between the Dogmatists and Academicians; the former of whom boasted that they had attained the truth while the latter denied that any attainable truth existed. The Sceptics however, without either asserting or denying its existence, professed to be modestly and anxiously in search of it; or, as St. Augustine expresses it, in his liberal tract against the Manichaeans, "nemo nostrum dicat jam se invenisse veritatem; sic eam quoeramus quasi ab utrisque nesciatur." From this habit of impartial investigation and the necessity which it imposed upon them of studying not only every system of philosophy but every art and science which professed to lay its basis in truth, they necessarily took a wider range of erudition and were far more travelled in the regions of philosophy than those whom conviction or bigotry had domesticated in any particular system. It required all the learning of dogmatism to overthrow the dogmatism of learning; and the Sceptics may be said to resemble in this respect that ancient incendiary who stole from the altar the fire with which he destroyed the temple. This advantage over all the other sects is allowed to them even by Lipsius, whose treatise on the miracles of the Virgo Hallensis will sufficiently save him from all suspicion of scepticism. "labore, ingenio, memoria," he says, "supra omnes pene philosophos fuisse.--quid nonne omnia aliorum secta tenere debuerunt et inquirere, si poterunt refellere? res dicit nonne orationes varias, raras, subtiles inveniri ad tam receptas, claras, certas (ut videbatur) sententias evertendas?" etc.--"Manuduct. ad Philosoph. Stoic." Dissert. 4.
Between the scepticism of the ancients and the moderns the great difference is that the former doubted for the purpose of investigating, as may be exemplified by the third book of Aristotle's Metaphysics, while the latter investigate for the purpose of doubting, as may be seen through most of the philosophical works of Hume. Indeed the Pyrrhonism of latter days is not only more subtle than that of antiquity, but, it must be confessed, more dangerous in its tendency. The happiness of a Christian depends so essentially upon his belief, that it is but natural he should feel alarm at the progress of doubt, lest it should steal by degrees into that region from which he is most interested in excluding it, and poison at last the very spring of his consolation and hope. Still however the abuses of doubting ought not to deter a philosophical mind from indulging mildly and rationally in its use; and there is nothing surely more consistent with the meek spirit of Christianity than that humble scepticism which professes not to extend its distrust beyond the circle of human pursuits and the pretensions of human knowledge. A follower of this school may be among the readiest to admit the claims of a superintending Intelligence upon his faith and adoration: it is only to the wisdom of this weak world that he refuses or at least delays his assent;--it is only in passing through the shadow of earth that his mind undergoes the eclipse of scepticism. No follower of Pyrrho has ever spoken more strongly against the dogmatists than St. Paul himself, in the First Epistle to the Corinthians; and there are passages in Ecclesiastes and other parts of Scripture, which justify our utmost diffidence in all that human reason originates. Even the Sceptics of antiquity refrained carefully from the mysteries of theology, and in entering the temples of religion laid aside their philosophy at the porch. Sextus Empiricus declares the acquiescence of his sect in the general belief of a divine and foreknowing Power:--In short it appears to me that this rational and well-regulated scepticism is the only daughter of the Schools that can safely be selected as a handmaid for Piety. He who distrusts the light of reason will be the first to follow a more luminous guide; and if with an ardent love for truth he has sought her in vain through the ways of this life, he will but turn with the more hope to that better world where all is simple, true and everlasting: for there is no parallax at the zenith;--it is only near our troubled horizon that objects deceive us into vague and erroneous calculations.
As the gay tint that decks the vernal rose
Not in the flower but in our vision glows;
As the ripe flavor of Falernian tides
Not in the wine but in our taste resides;
So when with heartfelt tribute we declare
That Marco's honest and that Susan's fair,
'Tis in our minds and not in Susan's eyes
Or Marco's life the worth or beauty lies:
For she in flat-nosed China would appear
As plain a thing as Lady Anne is here;
And one light joke at rich Loretto's dome
Would rank good Marco with the damned at Rome.
There's no deformity so vile, so base,
That 'tis not somewhere thought a charm, a grace;
No foul reproach that may not steal a beam
From other suns to bleach it to esteem.
Ask who is wise?--you'll find the self-same man
A sage in France, a madman in Japan;
And here some head beneath a mitre swells,
Which there had tingled to a cap and bells:
Nay, there may yet some monstrous region be,
Unknown to Cook and from Napoleon free,
Where Castlereagh would for a patriot pass
And mouthing Musgrave scarce be deemed an ass!
"List not to reason (Epicurus cries),
"But trust the senses, there conviction lies:"--
Alas! they judge not by a purer light,
Nor keep their fountains more untinged and bright:
Habit so mars them that the Russian swain
Will sigh for train-oil while he sips Champagne;
And health so rules them, that a fever's heat
Would make even Sheridan think water sweet.
Just as the mind the erring sense believes,
The erring mind in turn the sense deceives;
And cold disgust can find but wrinkles there,
Where passion fancies all that's smooth and fair.
P * * * *, who sees, upon his pillow laid,
A face for which ten thousand pounds were paid,
Can tell how quick before a jury flies
The spell that mockt the warm seducer's eyes.
Self is the medium thro' which Judgment's ray
Can seldom pass without being turned astray.
The smith of Ephesus thought Dian's shrine,
By which his craft most throve, the most divine;
And even the true faith seems not half so true,
When linkt with one good living as with two.
Had Wolcot first been pensioned by the throne,
Kings would have suffered by his praise alone;
And Paine perhaps, for something snug per ann.,
Had laught like Wellesley at all Rights of Man.
But 'tis not only individual minds,--
Whole nations too the same delusion blinds.
Thus England, hot from Denmark's smoking meads,
Turns up her eyes at Gallia's guilty deeds;
Thus, self-pleased still, the same dishonoring chain
She binds in Ireland she would break in Spain;
While praised at distance, but at home forbid,
Rebels in Cork are patriots at Madrid.
If Grotius be thy guide, shut, shut the book,--
In force alone for Laws of Nations look.
Let shipless Danes and whining Yankees dwell
On naval rights, with Grotius and Vattel.
While Cobbet's pirate code alone appears
Sound moral sense to England and Algiers.
Woe to the Sceptic in these party days
Who wafts to neither shrine his puffs of praise!
For him no pension pours its annual fruits,
No fertile sinecure spontaneous shoots;
Not his the meed that crowned Don Hookham's rhyme,
Nor sees he e'er in dreams of future time
Those shadowy forms of sleek reversions rise,
So dear to Scotchmen's second-sighted eyes.
Yet who that looks to History's damning leaf,
Where Whig and Tory, thief opposed to thief,
On either side in lofty shame are seen,
While Freedom's form lies crucified between--
Who, Burdett, who such rival rogues can see,
But flies from both to Honesty and thee?
If weary of the world's bewildering maze,
Hopeless of finding thro' its weedy ways
One flower of truth, the busy crowd we shun,
And to the shades of tranquil learning run,
How many a doubt pursues! how oft we sigh
When histories charm to think that histories lie!
That all are grave romances, at the best,
And Musgrave's but more clumsy than the rest.
By Tory Hume's seductive page beguiled,
We fancy Charles was just and Strafford mild;
And Fox himself with party pencil draws
Monmouth a hero, "for the good old cause!"
Then rights are wrongs and victories are defeats,
As French or English pride the tale repeats;
And when they tell Corunna's story o'er,
They'll disagree in all but honoring Moore:
Nay, future pens to flatter future courts
May cite perhaps the Park-guns' gay reports,
To prove that England triumphs on the morn
Which found her Junot's jest and Europe's scorn.
In science too--how many a system, raised
Like Neva's icy domes, awhile hath blazed
With lights of fancy and with forms of pride,
Then, melting, mingled with the oblivious tide!
Now Earth usurps the centre of the sky,
Now Newton puts the paltry planet by;
Now whims revive beneath Descartes's pen,
Which now, assailed by Locke's, expire again.
And when perhaps in pride of chemic powers,
We think the keys of Nature's kingdom ours,
Some Davy's magic touch the dream unsettles,
And turns at once our alkalis to metals.
Or should we roam in metaphysic maze
Thro' fair-built theories of former days,
Some Drummond from the north, more ably skilled,
Like other Goths, to ruin than to build,
Tramples triumphant thro' our fanes o'erthrown,
Nor leaves one grace, one glory of its own.
Oh! Learning, whatsoe'er thy pomp and boast,
Unlettered minds have taught and charmed men most.
The rude, unread Columbus was our guide
To worlds, which learned Lactantius had denied;
And one wild Shakespeare following Nature's lights
Is worth whole planets filled with Stagyrites.
See grave Theology, when once she strays
From Revelation's path, what tricks she plays;
What various heavens,--all fit for bards to sing,--
Have churchmen dreamed, from Papias, down to King!
While hell itself, in India naught but smoke
In Spain's a furnace and in France--a joke.
Hail! modest Ignorance, thou goal and prize,
Thou last, best knowledge of the simply wise!
Hail! humble Doubt, when error's waves are past,
How sweet to reach thy sheltered port at last,
And there by changing skies nor lured nor awed.
Smile at the battling winds that roar abroad.
There gentle Charity who knows how frail
The bark of Virtue, even in summer's gale,
Sits by the nightly fire whose beacon glows
For all who wander, whether friends or foes.
There Faith retires and keeps her white sail furled,
Till called to spread it for a better world;
While Patience watching on the weedy shore,
And mutely waiting till the storm be o'er,
Oft turns to Hope who still directs her eye
To some blue spot just breaking in the sky!
Such are the mild, the blest associates given
To him who doubts,--and trusts in naught but Heaven!