Feb. 8, 1677.Question. How far, and by what means, the will works upon the understanding and assent?
Our minds are not made as large as truth, nor suited to the whole extent of things; amongst those that come within its reach, it meets with a great many too big for its grasp, and there are not a few that it is fair to give up as incomprehensible. It finds itself lost in the vast extent of space, and the least particle of matter puzzles it with an inconceivable divisibility; and those who, out of a great care not to admit unintelligible things, deny or question an eternal omniscient spirit, run themselves into a greater difficulty by making an eternal and intelligent matter. Nay, our minds, whilst they think and (*****) our bodies, find it past their capacity to conceive how they do the one or the other.
This state of our minds, however remote from the perfection whereof we ourselves have an idea, ought not, however, to discourage our endeavours in the search of truth, or make us think we are incapable of knowing anything, because we cannot understand all things. We shall find that we are sent out into the world furnished with those faculties that are fit to obtain knowledge, and knowledge sufficient, if we will but confine it within those purposes, and direct it to those ends, which the constitution of our nature, and the circumstance of our being, point out to us.
If we consider ourselves in the condition we are in the world, we cannot but observe that we are in an estate, the necessities whereof call for a constant supply of meat, drink, clothing, and defence from the weather; and our conveniences demand yet a great deal more. To provide these things, Nature furnishes us only with the material, for the most part rough, and unfitted to our use; it requires labour, art, and thought, to suit them to our occasions; and if the knowledge of man had not found out ways to shorten the labour, and improve several things which seem not, at first sight, to be of any use to us, we should spend all our time to make a scanty provision for a poor and miserable life: a sufficient instance whereof we have in the inhabitants of that large and fertile part of the world the West Indies, who lived a poor uncomfortable life, scarce able to subsist; and that, perhaps, only for want of knowing the use of that store out of which the inhabitants of the Old World had the skill to draw iron, and thereof make themselves utensils necessary for the carrying on and improvement of all other arts; no one of which can subsist well, if at all, without that one metal.
Here, then, is a large field for knowledge, proper for the use and advantage of men in this word; viz. to find out new inventions of despatch to shorten or ease our labour, or applying sagaciously together several agents and materials, to procure new and beneficial productions fit for our use, whereby our stock of riches (i. e. things useful for the conveniences of our life) may be increased, or better preserved: and for such discoveries as these the mind of man is well fitted; though, perhaps, the essence of things, their first original, their secret way of working, and the whole extent of corporeal beings, be as far beyond our capacity as it is beside our use; and we have no reason to complain that we do not know the nature of the sun or stars, that the consideration of light itself leaves us in the dark, and a thousand other speculations in Nature, since, if we knew them, they would be of no solid advantage to us, nor help to make our lives the happier, they being but the useless employment of idle or over-curious brains, which amuse themselves about things out of which they can by no means draw any real benefit.
So that, if we will consider man as in the world, and that his mind and faculties were given him for any use, we must necessarily conclude it must be to procure him the happiness which this world is capable of; which certainly is nothing else but plenty of all sorts of those things which can with most ease, pleasure, and variety, preserve him longest in it: so that, had mankind no concernment but in the world, no apprehensions of any being after this life, they need trouble their heads with nothing but the history of nature, and an inquiry into the qualities of the things in the mansion of the universe which hath fallen to their lot, and being well-skilled in the knowledge of material causes and effect of things in their power, directing their thoughts as to the improvement of such arts and inventions, engines, and utensils, as might best contribute to their continuation in it with conveniency and delight, they might well spare themselves the trouble of looking any further: they need not perplex themselves about the original frame or constitution of the universe, drawing the great machine into systems of their own contrivance, and building hypotheses, obscure, perplexed, and of no other use but to raise dispute and continual wrangling: For what need have we to complain of our ignorance in the more general and foreign parts of nature, when all our business lies at home? Why should we bemoan our want of knowledge in the particular apartments of the universe, when our portion here only lies in the little spot of earth where we and all our concernments are shut up? Why should we think ourselves hardly dealt with, that we are not furnished with compass nor plummet to sail and fathom that restless, unnavigable ocean, of the universal matter, motion, and space? Since there be shores to bound our voyage and travels, there are at least no commodities to be brought from thence serviceable to our use, nor that will better our condition; and we need not be displeased that we have not knowledge enough to discover whether we have any neighbours or no in those large bulks of matter we see floating in the abyss, or of what kind they are, since we can never have any communication with them that might turn to our advantage.
So that, considering man barely as an animal of three or four score years' duration, and then to end, his condition and state requires no other knowledge than what may furnish him with those things which may help him to pass out to the end of that time with ease, safety, and delight, which is all the happiness he is capable of: and for the attainment of a correspondent measure mankind is sufficiently provided. He has faculties and organs well adapted for the discovery, if he thinks fit to employ and use them.
Another use of his knowledge is to live in peace with his fellow-men, and this also he is capable of. Besides a plenty of the good things of this world, with life, health, and peace to enjoy them, we can think of no other concernment mankind hath that leads him not out of it, and places him not beyond the confines of this earth; and it seems probable that there should be some better state somewhere else to which man might arise, since, when he hath all that this world can afford, he is still unsatisfied, uneasy, and far from happiness. It is certain, and that all men must consent to, that there is a possibility of another state when this scene is over; and that the happiness and misery of that depends on the ordering of ourselves in our actions in this time of our probation here. The acknowledgment of a God will easily lead any one to this, and he hath left so many footsteps of himself, so many proofs of his being in every creature, as are sufficient to convince any who will but make use of their faculties that way,and I dare say nobody escapes this conviction for want of sight; but if any be so blind, it is only because they will not open their eyes and see; and those only doubt of a Supreme Ruler and a universal law, who would willingly be under no law, accountable to no judge; those only question another life hereafter, who intend to lead such a one here as they fear to have examined, and would be loth to answer for when it is over.
This opinion I shall always be of, till I see that those who would cast off all thoughts of God, heaven, and hell, lead such lives as would become rational creatures, or observe that one unquestionable moral rule, Do as you would be done to.
It being then possible, and at least probable, that there is another life, wherein we shall give an account of our past actions in this to the great God of heaven and earth; here comes in another, and that the main concernment of mankind, to know what those actions are that he is to do, what those are he is to avoid, what the law is he is to live by here, and shall be judged by hereafter; and in this part too he is not left so in the dark, but that he is furnished with principles of knowledge, and faculties able to discover light enough to guide him; his understanding seldom fails him in this part, unless where his will would have it so. If he take a wrong course, it is most commonly because he goes wilfully out of the way, or, at least, chooses to be bewildered; and there are few, if any who dreadfully mistake, that are willing to be in the right; and I think one may safely say, that amidst the great ignorance which is so justly complained of amongst mankind, where any one endeavoured to know his duty sincerely, with a design to do it, scarce ever any one miscarried for want of knowledge.
The business of men being to be happy in this world, by the enjoyment of the things of nature subservient to life, health, ease, and pleasure, and by the comfortable hopes of another life when this is ended; and in the other world, by an accumulation of higher degrees of bliss in an everlasting security, we need no other knowledge for the attainment of those ends but of the history and observation of the effect and operation of natural bodies within our power, and of our duty in the management of our own actions, as far as they depend on our will, i. e. as far also as they are in our power. One of those is the proper enjoyment of our bodies, and the highest perfection of that, and the other of our souls; and to attain both of these we are fitted with faculties both of body and soul. Whilst then we have ability to improve our knowledge in experimental natural philosophy, whilst we want not principles whereon to establish moral rules, nor light (if we please to make use of it) to distinguish good from bad actions, we have no reason to complain if we meet with difficulties in other things which put our reasons to a nonplus, confound our understandings, and leave us perfectly in the dark under the sense of our own weakness: for those relating not to our happiness any way are no part of our business, and therefore it is not to be wondered if we have not abilities given us to deal with things that are not to our purpose, nor conformable to our state or end.
God having made the great machine of the universe suitable to his infinite power and wisdom, why should we think so proudly of ourselves, whom he hath put into a small canton, and perhaps the most inconsiderable part of it, that he hath made us the surveyors of it, and that it is not as it should be unless we can thoroughly comprehend it in all the parts of it? It is agreeable to his goodness, and to our condition, that we should be able to apply them to our use, to understand so far some parts of that we have to do with, as to be able to make them subservient to the convenience of our life, as proper to fill our hearts with praise of his bounty. But it is also agreeable to his greatness, that it should exceed our capacity, and the highest flight of our imagination, the better to fill us with admiration of his power and wisdom;besides its serving to other ends, and being suited probably to the use of other more intelligent creatures which we know not of. If it be not reasonable to expect that we should be able to penetrate into all the depths of nature, and understand the whole constitution of the universe, it is yet a higher insolence to doubt the existence of a God because we cannot comprehend himto think there is not an infinite Being because we are not so.
If all things must stand or fall by the measure of our understandings, and that denied to be, wherein we find inextricable difficulties, there will very little remain in the world, and we shall scarce leave ourselves so much as understandings, souls, or bodies. It will become us better to consider well our own weakness and exigencies, what we are made for, and what we are capable of, and to apply the powers of our bodies and faculties of our souls, which are well suited to our condition, in the search of that natural and moral knowledge, which, as it is not beyond our strength, so is not beside our purpose, but may be attained by moderate industry, and improved to our infinite advantage.