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VERY MANY RECEIVED TENETS AND COMMONLY PRESUMED TRUTHS, WHICH EXAMINED
VULGAR AND COMMON ERRORS.
WITH ADDITIONS FROM MSS. IN THE BRITISH MUSEUM, AND NOTES BY DEAN WREN,
E. W. BRAYLEY, JUN. F.L.S., AND OTUERS.
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN
Ex libris colligere quæ prodiderunt authores longe est periculosissimum ;
ipsarum cognitio rebus ipsis est. - JUL. SCALIGER.
TO PSEUDODOXIA EPIDEMICA.
If the conception and plan of the present work is not to be ascribed to the mental activity of its author alone,--if we are not to regard it solely as the result of his own native and irrepressible thirst for knowledge, and of that unrelenting spirit of investigation which led him to scrutinize every position before he admitted it; if, in short, we are to allow, that Sir Thomas Browne might have been, in some degree, impelled to this undertaking by the suggestions of another, may we not with great probability attribute the impulse to the opinions expressed by Lord Bacon as to the Use of Doubts, and the advantages which might result from drawing up a Calendar of Doubts, Falsehoods, and Popular Errors? In support of this conjecture, I will insert some of those opinions, (from Mr. Basil Montagu's Lectures on Bacon, with which I have been favored by that gentleman, at the request of my kind friend Mr. Amyot,) with Mr. Montagu's remarks.
“The recording and proposing of doubts hath in it a twofold use. One, that it munites and fortifies philosophy against error, when that which is not altogether so clear and evident is not defined and avouched, (lest error should beget error) but a judgment upon it is suspended and not definitive.'— It will be seen in a future lecture, that Lord Bacon enumerates a tendency to hasty assent among the idols of the understanding, by which we are diverted from the truth. In this place, he contents himself with incidentally noticing, that a record of doubts has a tendency to prevent the influence of this idol.— The other, that the entry of doubts, and recording of them, are so many sponges which continually draw and suck
unto them an increase and improvement of knowledge; whereby it comes to pass that those things which, without the suggestion of doubts, had been slightly, and without observation, passed over, are, by occasion of such dubitations, more seriously and attentively considered.'-Lord Bacon, in various parts of his works, admonishes us of our duty to keep our minds open to improvement, and not to admit as truths what may be either false, or only a proper subject for doubts. He warns us in his doctrine of the idols of the understanding, that, from our love of truth, we are anxious to possess it, and too ready to imagine ourselves enriched by the possession of counterfeit, instead of real coin. He says—. The mind of man doth wonderfully endeavour and extremely covet, that it may not be pensile; but that it may light upon something fixed and immoveable, on which, as on a firmament, it may support itself in its swift motions and disquisitions. Aristotle endeavours to prove that, in all motions of bodies, there is some point quiescent, and very elegantly expounds the fable of Atlas, who stood fixed, and bare up the heavens from falling, to be meant of the poles of the world, whereupon the conversion is accomplished. In like manner, men do earnestly seek to have some Atlas, or axis of their cogitations within themselves, which may, in some measure, moderate the fluctuations and wheelings of the understanding, fearing it may be the falling of their heaven. An impatience of doubt, and an unadvised haste of assertion, without due and mature suspension of the judgment, is an error in the conduct of the understanding. For the two ways of contemplation, are not unlike the two ways of action, commonly spoken of by the ancients; of which the one was a plain and smooth way in the beginning, but in the end impassable ;-the other rough and troublesome in the entrance, but after a while fair and even. So it is in contemplations :-if a man will begin in certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he be content to begin with doubts, and have patience a while, he shall end in certainties.
Wherefore I report as deficient a calendar of dubitations, or problems in nature, and approve the undertaking of such a work as a profitable pains; so care be had that, as knowledge daily grows up (which certainly
will come to pass if men hearken unto us,) such doubts as be clearly discussed, and brought to resolution, be rased out of the catalogue of problems. It would be a very profitable course to adjoin to the calendar of doubts and non-liquets, a calendar of falsehoods, and of popular errors, now passing unargued in natural history and opinions, that sciences be no longer distempered and abased by them.'
“Since Lord Bacon's time, there have been publications on vulgar errors, or erroneous opinions received as truths by the community. The first was published in the year 1646, by Sir Thomas Browne. It is entitled, Pseudodoxia Epidemica, or Enquiries into very many received Tenets, and commonly received Truths, by Sir Thomas Browne, Knt. M.D. (From his preface it will be found, that before Lord Bacon's time, as I conceive, but certainly before the time of Sir Thomas Browne, there were other works upon this subject.) Of this work, Mr. Jeremy Bentham, in his work on Fallacies, says, • Vulgar Errors is a denomination which, from a work on this subject by a physician of name in the 17th century, has obtained a certain degree of celebrity. Not the moral (of which the political is a department,) but the physical was the field of the errors, which it was the object of Sir Thomas Browne to hunt out and bring to view ; but of this restriction, no intimation is given by the words of which the title of his work is composed.' It is rather interesting to see that antipathy to improvement in the time of Sir Thomas Browne was, as it is, and to a certain extent ever will be, so rife, that he thought it expedient to guard against such prejudices by an amulet to charm priests, physicians, and philosophers.”—Mr. Montagu's MS.
By whatever inducements, however, we may suppose Browne to have been stimulated to the production of the Pseudodoxia Epidemica, few will hesitate to admit that he was peculiarly qualified for the task. It was in his very nature to inquire (as I have remarked), and he was not content to receive any thing, without scrutiny,—except in matters of
1 “See his preface, in which he says, we cannot expect the frown of theology herein, &c. &c.' to the end of the paragraph."