“And hence perhaps may be given some reason of that common observation,—that men who have a great deal of wit, and prompt memories, have not always the clearest judgment or deepest reason. For WIT lying most in the assemblage of ideas, and putting those together with quickness and variety, wherein can be found any resemblance or congruity, thereby to make up pleasant pictures and agreeable visions in the fancy…” (Essay 152)
Though Locke himself cautions (late in Book IV, the final volume of the Essay) against the Argumentum ad Vericundeum (from “authority”)—against giving undue credence to an argument merely because of the reputation* of the person making it (e.g. “the Aristotelian unities must be respected by any playwright, because Aristotle”), still there exist certain books in the history of letters which loom large over other scribblings, and whose adamantine reputations must remain occasionally impermeable to erosion by the vaprous rantings of the hoi polloi, viz, the subjective rating systems of GR-reviewers such as this one.
But where else to begin in describing my near-monthlong relationship with this monument (pub 1789~90) of English philosophy? Except to say that it is at once a towering, unprecedented intellectual achievement; a fine example of that loftily perspicacious, poised and mellifluous style (soon to be found in the pages of the Tatler and Spectator) of the dawning eighteenth century; a breath of fresh Anglo-Saxon air to disturb the cobwebs of scholasticism and the obscurantist dust of continental rationalism; and a sometimes tediously long-winded, fastidious/punctilious, even repetitive journey through (more meanders than forthrights) the catacombs of the mind (via the portals of the senses, towards the seat of judgement).
Thus if the non-self-heeding Polonious is more than occasionally summoned to this reader’s lips (viz., “Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,/And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,/I will be brief:”), the Essayis still the product of a fascinating, first-rate mind, and, with Hamlet, take it for all in all—I shall not look on its like again (though perchance I shall append some highlights in addition to those in previous below, betimes)
*This must surely presage the windy dispute between the “Ancients and Moderns” that obsesses European salons in the coming decades, as lampooned in Swift’s Battle of the Books(1704)
II.XI.13. “Difference between Idiots and Madmen“
In fine, the defect in naturals seems to proceed from want of quickness, activity, and motion in the intellectual faculties, whereby they are deprived of reason; whereas madmen…having joined together some ideas very wrongly, they mistake them for truths…Thus you shall find a distracted man fancying himself a king.
“A neighbour country has been of late a tragical theatre, from which we might fetch instances, if there needed any, and the world did not in all countries and ages furnish examples enough to confirm that received obversation, ‘Necessitas cogit ad turpia’ [necessity makes one act disgracefully]’ (249)
II.XX.11. “Of Modes of Pleasure and Pain”
Despair is the thought of the unattainableness of any good, which works differently in men’s minds, sometimes producing uneasiness or pain, sometimes rest and indolency. (250)
Since I think I may be confident, that, whoever should see a creature of his own shape or make, though it had no more reason all its life than a cat or a parrot, would call him still a MAN; or whoever should hear a cat or a parrot discourse, reason, and philosophize, would call or think it nothing but a CAT or a PARROT; and say, the one was a dull irrational man, and the other a very intelligent rational parrot. (302)
There is scarce anyone that does not observe something that seems odd to him, and is in itself really extravagant in the opinions, reasoning, and actions of other men. The least flaw of this kind, if at all different from his own, everyone is quick-sighted enough to espy in another, and will by the authority of reason forwardly condemn, though he be guilty of much greater unreasonableness in... (354)
…methinks they have a low Opinion of their Souls, who lay out all their Incomes in Provisions for the Body, and employ none of it to procure the Means and Helps of Knowledge; who take great care to appear always in a neat and splendid outside, and would think themselves miserable in coarse Cloaths, or a patched Coat, and yet contentedly suffer their Minds to appear abroad in a piebald Livery of coarse Patches… (626)