Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
The Limits of Human Faculties
By Sir William Temple (16281699)
IT were too great a mortification to think, that the same fate has happened to us, even in our modern learning, as if the growth of that, as well as of natural bodies, had some short periods, beyond which it could not reach, and after which it must begin to decay. It falls in one country or one age, and rises again in others, but never beyond a certain pitch. One man, or one country, at a certain time runs a great length in some certain kinds of knowledge, but loses as much ground in others, that were perhaps as useful and as valuable. There is a certain degree of capacity in the greatest vessel, and, when tis full, if you pour in still, it must run out some way or other, and, the more it runs out on one side, the less runs out at the other. So the greatest memory, after a certain degree, as it learns or retains more of some things or words, loses and forgets as much of others. The largest and deepest reach of thought, the more it pursues some certain subjects, the more it neglects others.
Besides, few men or none excel in all faculties of mind. A great memory may fail of invention; both may want judgment to digest or apply what they remember or invent. Great courage may want caution; great prudence may want vigour; yet all are necessary to make a great Commander. But how can a man hope to excel in all qualities, when some are produced by the heat, others by the coldness of brain and temper? The abilities of man must fall short on one side or other, like too scanty a blanket when you are a-bed, if you pull it upon your shoulders, you leave your feet bare: if you thrust it down upon your feet, your shoulders are uncovered.
But what would we have, unless it be other natures and beings than God Almighty has given us? The height of our statures may be six or seven feet, and we would have it sixteen; the length of our age may reach to a hundred years, and we would have it a thousand. We are born to grovel upon the earth, and we would fain soar up to the skies. We cannot comprehend the growth of a kernel or seed, the frame of an ant or bee: we are amazed at the wisdom of the one, and industry of the other; and yet we will know the substance, the figure, the courses, the influences of all those glorious celestial bodies, and the end for which they were made: we pretend to give a clear account how thunder and lightning (that great artillery of God Almighty) is produced; and we cannot comprehend how the voice of a man is framed, that poor little noise we make every time we speak. The motion of the sun is plain and evident to some astronomers, and of the earth to others; yet we none of us know which of them moves, and meet with many seeming impossibilities in both, and beyond the fathom of human reason or comprehension. Nay, we do not so much as know what motion is, nor how a stone moves from our hand, when we throw it cross the street. Of all these that most ancient and divine writer gives the best account in that short satire, Vain man would fain be wise, when he is born like a wild asss colt.
But, God be thanked, his pride is greater than his ignorance; and what he wants in knowledge, he supplies by sufficiency. When he has looked about him as far as he can, he concludes there is no more to be seen; when he is at the end of his line, he is at the bottom of the ocean; when he has shot his best, he is sure, none ever did nor ever can shoot better or beyond it. His own reason is the certain measure of truth, his own knowledge, of what is possible in nature; though his mind and his thoughts change every seven years, as well as his strength and his features: nay, though his opinions change every week or every day, yet he is sure, or at least confident, that his present thoughts and conclusions are just and true, and cannot be deceived: and, among all the miseries to which mankind is born and subjected in the whole course of his life, he has this one felicity to comfort and support him, that, in all ages, in all things, every man is always in the right. A boy of fifteen is wiser than his father at forty, the meanest subject than his prince or governors; and the modern scholars, because they have, for a hundred years past, learned their lesson pretty well, are much more knowing than the ancients their masters.
But let it be so, and proved by good reasons, is it so by experience too? Have the studies, the writings, the productions of Gresham College, or the late Academies of Paris, outshined or eclipsed the Lycæum of Plato, the Academy of Aristotle, the Stoa of Zeno, the Garden of Epicurus? Has Harvey out-done Hippocrates, or Wilkins, Archimedes? Are DAvilas and Stradas histories beyond those of Herodotus and Livy? Are Sleydens Commentaries beyond those of Cæsar? the flights of Boileau above those of Virgil? If all this must be allowed, I will then yield Gondibert to have excelled Homer as is pretended; and the modern French poetry, all that of the ancients. And yet, I think, it may be as reasonably said, that the plays in Moorfields are beyond the Olympic games; a Welsh or Irish harp excel those of Orpheus and Arion; the pyramid in London, those of Memphis; and the French conquests in Flanders are greater than those of Alexander and Cæsar, as their operas and panegyrics would make us believe.
But the consideration of poetry ought to be a subject by itself. For the books we have in prose, do any of the modern we converse with appear of such a spirit and force, as if they would live longer than the ancients have done? If our wit and eloquence, our knowledge or inventions would deserve it, yet our languages would not: there is no hopes of their lasting long, nor of any thing in them; they change every hundred years so as to be hardly known for the same, or any thing of the former styles to be endured by the latter; so as they can no more last like the ancients, than excellent carvings in wood, like those in marble or brass.