Page images

our variable, I may even say fallible, capacities. The common notion of a standard, is something to try some other thing by; and consequently as the standard must be more certain than the thing to be tried by it, the application of this to truth has rather an awkward appearance, and seems to raise or leave difficulties in the mind, which a philosopher should have endeavoured to guard against.

"Dr Beattie, I find, is at great pains to distinguish and ascertain the separate provinces of reason and common sense, and to shew how much the preference is due to the latter. "It were well," he says, * "for us, on many occasions, if we laid our systems aside, and were more attentive in observing these impulses of nature, in which reason has no part." And again he tells us, † "that all sound reasoning must ultimately rest on the principles of common sense, and consequently, that common sense is the ultimate judge of truth, to which reason must continually act in subordination;" for, as he afterwards adds, "when reason invades the rights of common sense, and presumes to arraign the authority by which she herself acts, nonsense and confusion must of necessity ensue-philosophy will grow contemptible, and its adherents-all the world will think them down

right fools." This, you will own, is humbling reason with a witness, and I am far from being offended at it. I had long thought that reason took rather too much upon her, and pretended to a self-sufficiency to which she had no title. I had seen her meddling in, and assuming a dictatorial power, over matters which did not at all


P. 48. p. 51, p. 156.

belong to her cognizance; and I much wished that some able hand would bring her down, and teach her better manners. Yet I do not see why common sense should be thus set over her head, and clothed with the pompous privileges of judgment, and rights, and authority, and what not. This seems to be leaving us much where we were, and is only setting up one pretender in place of another. Could not a philosopher have discovered, or invented some other principle, or quality, or power, or faculty, to have been invested with this absolute sovereignty, or at least to have shared with common sense in the subjugation of refractory reason? Perhaps some such thing might be named, which by many would be thought to have as just a claim, and upon trial would be found to bid as fair for properly exercising this great office, as common sense can be proved, or has been found, to do. For, after all, what if it shall be said or thought that reason and common sense are but different names for the same thing, or at most but different modifications of the same power? No: our author assures us, that there is a difference between reason and common sense, and after mentioning four several senses put upon the word reason, and fixing on that which he finds most suitable to his own plan; he then describes common sense as "signifying that power of the mind, " which perceives truth, or commands belief, not by "progressive argumentation, but by an instantaneous, "instinctive, and irresistible impulse, derived neither " from education nor from habit, but from nature act

ing independently on our will, whenever its object is "presented, according to an established law, and there"fore properly called sense, and acting in a similar man

"ner upon all, or at least upon a great majority of man"kind, and therefore properly called common sense.”

"Now if this be common sense, and as such the standard of truth, felt only by a great majority of mankind, may we not ask, What is to be done with the minority? Have they no concern in truth, or are they to be allowed no feelings? If their feelings are only different from those of the majority, by what means is this difference to be determined, and the standard of truth to be adjusted? To apply this case to myself; If I have feelings, and am allowed to rest on these feelings as ultimate and decisive judges, or standards of truth, then, I must receive as truth whatever these feelings intimate to me as such. The next man will be in the same situation, and if his feelings shall differ from mine, as it is neither impossible nor improbable but they may, his notions of truth will be different from mine, and yet be as much truth to him, as mine are to me. If this be sophistry, it is common sense that leads to it; if it be scepticism, I fear it will be found that common sense countenances it; I mean that common sense which our author describes as "perceiving truth, or commanding belief, not by progressive argumentation, but by an instantaneous, instinctive,, and irresistible impulse, derived neither from education, nor from habit, but from nature." Now if this impulse be irresistible, where is the free agency of man, or that which makes him an accountable being? Irresistibility, wherever lodged, destroys this freedom, and an impulse, clothed with such invincible power, is as much an enemy to it as fate or necessity, or any other supposed or suppose able thing whatever. The deriving this irresistible im


pulse from nature is another proposition which I cannot well digest, or know properly how to understand. Our Author indeed ascribes it to that "infallibility" which he thinks nature possesses; but for my own part, I cannot entertain such an high opinion of nature as this amounts to, and so far from thinking her infallible, I daily see much cause to suspect that she herself is miserably imposed on, and as unhappily imposes on her pupils. I know there are laws of nature, that is, in my sense of them, laws imposed upon nature, from which, of herself, she can never depart. But how to find out what these laws are, is the difficulty. Our Author has told us * that" of these laws he does not pretend to know any thing, except so far as they seem to be intimated to him by his own feelings; and by the suggestions of his own understanding." Yet whence that understanding arises, we are not informed; nothing is said of instruction or education, or of any dependance on external communication. All is the effect of his own internal powers, the entire production of his infallible nature. Formed as I am, with the same human nature, possessing whatever intrinsic powers belong to it, I am yet conscious, that I owe a great deal to education of some kind or other. And this acknowledgement I am not ashamed to make, in the midst of all the cry that has been raised about the prejudices of education. The Atheist considers the belief of a God as solely owing to the prejudice of education, and appeals to his own impartial reason and infallible. nature, which tell him there is no such being. The Deist says the same of the belief of a revelation, and


* Page 29.

wonders that men, under the direction of reason and nature, should see any necessity for it. All this serves only to shew that there may be bad education, which is indeed a melancholy truth, and has been long felt and lamented. But, with all this concession, it does not follow that education is unnecessary, or nature infallible. Were the case really so, what a pity, that so much time should be lost, and so much money thrown away in pursuit of this needless, this dangerous thing, Education! Is it not surprising, that in so wise a nation as this, and after so many repeated warnings, such a heavy loss has never yet been adverted to, and the free-born subjects of Bri tain delivered from the servile restraints of education, and left to the "instinctive impulses" of infallible nature ?"

In his second letter on the "Essay on Truth," Mr. Skinner called his friend's attention to that part of the subject, which had struck very forcibly on his own mind, the wonderful veneration expressed for the characters and opinions of some of the ancient pagan philosophers, particularly those of Socrates and Aristotle. After adverting to Dr Beattie's fundamental position, that " all reasoning terminates in first principles," and asking a few simple questions respecting these principles, viz. "what they are, and how or whence they come? Are they self-evident, and all equally so, and in all mankind the same?" Mr Skinner thus proceeds :

"The Doctor refers us to Aristotle for a confirmation of the certainty and universality of first principles. But what shall be said if Aristotle's authority shall not be admitted as decisive? For who, or what was Aristotle? a Pope or a Prophet? Did he invent these first principles,



« PreviousContinue »