« VorigeDoorgaan »
REMARKS ON OCCASIONAL REFLECTIONS;
IN the Prefatory Discourse to the First Volume of the D. L. I spoke pretty largely of the use of ridicule, in religious subjects; as the abuse of it is amongst the fashionable arts of free-thinking: For which I have been just now called to account, without any ceremony, by the nameless Author of a Poem intitled, The Pleasures of Imagination. For 'tis my fortune to be still concerned with those who either do go masked, or those who should. I am a plain man, and on my first appearance in this way, I told my name, and who I belonged to. After this, if men will rudely come upon me in disguise, they can have no reason to complain, that (in my ignorance of their characters) I treat them all alike upon the same free footing they have put themselves.
This gentleman, a follower of Ld. S. and, as it should seem, one of those to whom that Preface was addressed; certainly, one of those to whom I applied the words of Tully, non decet, non datum est; who affect wit and raillery on subjects not meet, and with talents unequal ; this Gentleman, I say, in the 105th and 106th pages of his Poem, animadverts upon me in the following manner:
Since it is (says he) beyond all contradiction evident; that we have a natural sense or feeling of the ridiculous, and since so good a reason may be assigned to justify the Supreme Being for bestowing it; one cannot without astonishment reflect on the conduct of those men who imagine it for the service of true religion to vilify and blacken it without distinction, and endeavour to persuade us that it is never applied but in a bad cause, The reason here given, to shew, that ridicule and buffoonry
may be properly employed on serious and even sacred subjects, is admirable: it is, because we have a natural sense or feeling of the ridiculous, and because no sensation was given us in vain; which would serve just as well to excuse adultery or incest. For have we not as natural a sense or feeling of the voluptuous? And was it not given for as good purposes? But he will say, it has its proper objects. And does he think, I will not say the same of his sense of ridicule? For he stretch'd a point, when he told the reader I vilified and blacken'd it without distinction. The thing I there opposed, was only, an extravagant disposition to unseasonable mirth*. abusive way of wit and raillery on serious subjects†. With as little truth could he say, that I endeavoured to persuade the public that it is never applied but in a bad cause: For, in that very place, I apologized for an eminent writer who had applied it to a good one.
But, in the next words, if he means by, is not, ought not to be, he gives me up all I want. Ridicule (says he) is not concerned with mere speculative truth or falshood. Certainly. And, for that very reason, I would exclude it from those subjects. What need? He will say, For when was it so employed? Hold a little. Was it not concerned with mere speculative truth, when his master ridiculed the subject of Mr. Locke's Essay of Human Understanding, in the manner mentioned in my Prefaces? Was it not so concerned too, when the same noble person ridiculed Revelation, in the merry Story of the travelling Gentlemen, who put a wrong bias on their reason in order to believe right ?-Unless, by mere speculative truths, he means, truths of no use: and for all such, he has my free leave to treat them as he pleases. He has shewn, by his Poem, they are no improper subject for his talents.
He goes on, It is not in abstract propositions or theorems, but in actions and passions, good and evil, beauty and deformity, that we find materials for it; and all these terms are relative, implying approbation or blame. The reason here given, why, not abstract propositions, &c. + Ibid. p. 150.
Div. Leg. Vol. I. Ded. P. 147, &c.
but actions and passions, &c. are the subject of ridicule, is, because these latter are relative terms implying appro bation and blame. But are not the former as much relative terms, implying assent and denial? And does not an absurd proposition as frequently afford materials for ridicule as an absurd action? Let the reader determine by what he finds before him. To ask then, (says he) whether ridicule be a test of truth, is, in other words, to ask whether that which is ridiculous can be morally true; can be just and becoming; or whether that which is just and becoming can be ridiculous. A question that does not deserce a serious answer. Why then did he put it? For it is of nobody's asking but his own. However, in civility to his master, or rather indeed to his master's masters, the ancient sophists, who, we are told in the Characteristics, said something very like it, I shall shew it deserves a very serious answer. For how, I pray, comes it to pass, that to ask whether ridicule be a test of truth, is the same thing as to ask whether that which is ridicu lous can be morally true? As if, whatever ridicule was applied to, as a test, must needs be ridiculous. Might not one ask, Whether the copel↑ be a test of gold, without incurring the absurdity of questioning whether the matter of the copel was not standard gold? What was the man dreaming of? That a test of truth, and a detection of falsehood, were one and the same thing? or that it was the practice to bring nothing to the test but what was known, beforehand, whether it was true or false? His master seems much better versed in the use of things. He says, Now, what rule or measure is there in the world, except in considering the real temper of things, to find which are truly serious, and which ridiculous? And how can this be done, unless by applying the ridicule TO SEE WHETHER IT WILL BEAR?·
* 'Twas the saying of an ancient Sage, that humour was the only test of ridicule. Vol. I. p. 74.
I chuse this instance of the refiner's copel, because the English for it, which is Italian, is test; from whence the latter word was metaphorically used to signify all kinds of sure trial. This was proper to observe, as our Poet seems not to know the meaning of
Char. Vol. I. p. 12.
But if the reader be curious to see to the bottom of this affair, we must go a little deeper. Lord S———, we find, was willing to know, as every honest man would, whether those things, which had the appearance of seriousness and sanctity, were indeed what they appeared. The plain way of coming to this knowledge had been hitherto by the test of reason. But this was too long and too slow a progress for so sublime a genius. He would go a shorter and a quicker way to work, and do the business by ridicule, given us, as his disciple tells us, for this very end, to aid the tardy steps of reason. therefore the noble Author would needs apply, to see whether these appearances would bear the touch. Now it was this ingenious expedient, which I thought I had cause to object to. For when you have applied this touch, and that, to which it is applied, is found to bear it, what reparation will you make to truth, for the ridiculous light in which you have placed her, in order only, as you pretend, to judge right of her? O, for that, says his Lordship, she has the amends in her own hands: let her railley again; for why should fair honesty be denied the use of this weapon? To this so wanton a liberty with sacred truth, I thought I had many good reasons to oppose; and so, it seems, thought our Poet likewise: and therefore he endeavours to excuse his master, by putting another sense on the application of ridicule as a test, which supposes the truth or falsehood of the thing tried, to be already known. But the shift is unlucky; for while it covers his master, it exposes himself. For now it may be asked, what need of ridicule at all, after the truth is known; since you make its sole use to consist in the discovery of the true state of things?
But the odd fortune of our Poet's pen makes the pleasant part of the story. Here, we see, where he aims to make an absurd proposition, for the use of others, it proves a reasonable one: "Tis odds but we find him, before we have done, trying to make a reasonable one, for his own use, that turns out at last an absurdity.
But let us come to the philosophy of his criticism: For it is most evident, that as in a metaphysical proposition * Char. Vol. I. P.
offered to the understanding for its assent, the faculty of reason examines the terms of the proposition; and finding one idea, which was supposed equal to another, to be in fact unequal, of consequence rejects the proposition as a falsehood: so in objects offered to the mind for its esteem or applause, the faculty of ridicule feeling an incongruity in the claim, urges the mind to reject it with laughter and contempt. And now, how does this sublime account, of reason and ridicule, prove the foregoing proposition to be absurd? Just as much, I suppose, as the height of St. Paul's proves Grantham steeple to stand awry. I, for my part, can collect nothing from it, unless it be that the Poet thought metaphysical propositions were the only proper objects of the understanding's assent, and the reason's examination.
However, if it cannot prove what precedes, he will try to make it infer what follows: When THEREFORE (says he) we observe such a claim obtruded upon mankind, and the inconsistent circumstances carefully concealed from the eye of the public, it is our business, if the matter be of importance to society, to drag out those latent circumstances, and, by setting them full in view, convince the world how ridiculous the claim is; and thus a double advantage is gained; for we both detect the moral falsehood sooner than in the way of speculative inquiry, and impress the minds of men with a stronger sense of the canity and error of its authors. And this, and no more, is meant by the application of ridicule. A little more, if we may believe his master: who says, it is not only to detect error, but to try truth, that is, in his own expression, to see whether it will bear. But why all this ado; for now, we see, nobody mistook what was meant by the application of ridicule, but himself-As to what he said before, that when objects are offered to the mind for its esteem and applause, the faculty of ridicule, feeling an incongruity in the claim, urges the mind to reject it with laughter and contempt; it is so expressed, as if he intended it not for the description of the use, but the essence of ridicule. Whereas the dealers in this trash frequently urge the mind to reject many things with laughter and contempt, without feeling any other incon