Letters of the Late Lord Lyttleton/Letter XXXIX
MUCH of the disputes, and consequently many of the inconveniencies, of this world, arise from the strange difficulty (for a strange one it is) that men find in understanding each other's meaning. Hence the never-ending game of cross-purposes, in which all of us, at times, are so much engaged. A leading cause of this disunion is a negligence in using terms appropriate to their object. The philosopher, it is true, must generalize his ideas to compass the views of his enquiring mind. It is by such an application of his intellectual faculties, that he surmounts such a variety of obstacles; that he passes from individual man to an whole people; from a people, to the human race; from the time in which he lives, to the ages that are to come; from what he sees to that which is invisible. But in conveying the fruits of his study and reflection to others, he must condescend to weigh words, compare terms, and preclude all possibility of errour in those he instructs, by using a simplicity of definition, a perspicuity of expression, and, where the barrenness of language denies the immediate term, a neatness of periphrase which not only invites but creates conception.
You are pleased, in your last letter, to charge the present age with the crime of skepticism ; and you have abandoned yourself to a more than common energy on the subject. To tell you the truth, I do not very clearly perceive the tendency of your accusation. If it alludes to religion, you would, I think, find some difficulty to maintain your position: if it should glance at politicks, our national submission is certainly against you: or, leaving the higher concerns of the world, if you should apply your assertion to the ordinary intercourse and common transactions between man and man, you are truly unfortunate, as an extreme cullibility seems to be one of the leading features of the present times. The age in which we live does not possess so great a share, as former centuries, of that faith which is able to remove mountains: blind credulity, by the insults it so long offered to reason, has in a great measure destroyed itself, or is rather become modified into that sobriety of belief which is consistent with a rational being. The gaudy, awful, and presuming phantom of Papal authority, has long begun to disappear: that blazing meteor, which for so many ages dazzled the superstitious world, verges towards the horizon, and grows pale before the steady, embodied light of liberal, unimpeded science. But I cannot believe, although luxury and dissipation with their concomitant depravities have made such enormous strides among the higher orders, that infidelity in religious matters is a leading characteristick of our times. If we turn from the church to the state, the firm confidence of a very great majority of the people in a government, which, I am forced to confess, does not possess all the wisdom that such a government ought to possess, is a circumstance, which, were I to enlarge upon it, you would be perplexed to answer. In the ordinary transactions of life, the wantonness of commercial credit is well prepared to give the lie direct to any charge of incredulity. Ask Foley, Charles Fox, and a thousand others, what they think of modern infidelity; and they will tell you, that the Jews themselves, that unbelieving race, have deserted from the standard of skepticism, and, having borne the stigma of spiritual unbelief, for upwards of seventeen hundred years, are at this moment groaning beneath the effects of temporal credulity.
Credula turba sumus—We are a credulous race of beings; and the most steady professors of skepticism are deceived by others, and deceive themselves, every hour of the day. Religion, which commands, among its evident truths, the belief of matters which we cannot entirely comprehend, will sometimes so habituate the mind of its submissive disciple to acts of faith, that he does not know how to withhold his assent to the most improbable fictions of human fancy; and the Credo quia impossibile est of Tertullian is readily adopted by his yielding piety. I shall confirm the truth of this observation by a story which I have heard related, and is not more extraordinary in its nature than the tone, look, and language of belief which accompanied the relation. A traveller, benighted in a wild and mountainous country, (if my recollection does not fail me, in the Highlands of Scotland,) at length beholds the welcome light of a neighbouring habitation. He urges his horse towards it; when, instead of an house, he approached a kind of illuminated chapel, from whence issued the most alarming sounds he had ever heard. Though greatly surprised and terrified, he ventured to look through a window of the building, when he was amazed to see a large assembly of cats, who, arranged in solemn order, were lamenting over the corpse of one of their own species, which lay in state, and was surrounded with the various emblems of sovereignty.—Alarmed and terrified at this extraordinary spectacle, he hastened from the place with greater eagerness than he approached it; and arriving, some time after, at the house of a gentleman who never turned the wanderer from his gate, the impressions of what he had seen were so visible on his countenance, that his friendly host enquired into the cause of his anxiety. He accordingly told his story, and, having finished it, a large family cat, who had lain, during the narrative, before the fire, immediately started up, and very articulately exclaimed, "Then I am King of the Cats!" and, having thus announced its new dignity, the animal darted up the chimney and was seen no more.
Now, the man, who seriously repeated this strange and singular history, was a peer of the realm, had been concerned in the active scenes of life, and was held in high esteem and veneration among mankind for his talents, wisdom, and Christian piety. After this information, which I give you as a serious fact, what have you to say? It is impossible but you must immediately withdraw your charge of infidelity against a period which could produce one such implicit believer.
As for myself, I will readily confess to you that I am neither a skeptick nor a believer.—I have enough of skepticism to prevent the throwing my share of faith away: at the same time I feel within me that there is something, which I cannot very well explain, the belief whereof I ought to cultivate, and from whence I should derive much satisfaction and contentment, could I but frame my mind to the purpose. If, however, after all my reasoning, you should still continue to fix a skeptical character upon the present age, I trust that you will at least discard it from your own breast, while I assure you of the great regard with which I am
Your most sincere, humble servant.