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Many a person had arrived at some considerable degree of knowledge, if he had not been full of seli-conceit, and imagined that he had known enough already, or else was ashamed to let others know that he was unacquainted with it. God and man are ready to teach the meek, the humble, and the ignorant ; but he that fancies himself to know any particular subject well, or that will not venture to ask a question about it, such an one will not put himself into the way of improvement by inquiry and diligence. “A fool may be wiser in his own conceit than ten men who can render a reason,” and such a one is very likely to be an everlasting fool; and perhaps also it is a silly shame renders his folly incurable.
Stultorum incurata pudor malus ulcera celat,
Hor. Epist. 16. Lib. i.
In English thus;
If fools have ulcers, and their pride conceal’em ;
XV. Be not too forward, especially in the younger part of life, to determine any question in company with an infallible and peremptory sentence, nor speak with assuming airs, and with a decisive tone of voice. A young man, in the presence of his elders, should rather hear and attend, and weigh the arguments which are brought for the proof or refutation of any doubtful proposition: and when it is your turn to speak, propose your thoughts rather in way of inquiry. By this means your mind will be kept in a fitter temper to receive truth, and you will be more ready to correct and improve your own sentiments, where you have not been too positive in affirming them. But if you have magisterially decided the point, you will find a secret unwillingness to retract, though you should feel an inward conviction that you were in the wrong.
XVI. It is granted indeed that a season may happen, when some bold pretender to science may assume haughty and positive airs to assert and vindicate a gross and dangerous error, or to renounce and vilify some very important truth : and if he has a popular talent of talking, and ere be no remonstrance made against him, the company may be tempted too easily to give their assent to the impudence and infallibility of the presumer. They may imagine a proposition so much vilified can never be true, and that a doctrine, which is so boldly censured and renounced, can never be defended. Weak minds are too ready to persuade themselves that a man would never talk with so much assurance unless he were certainly in the right, and could well maintain and prove what he said. By this means truth itself is in danger of being betrayed or lost, if there be no opposition made to such a pretending talker.
Now, in such a case, even a wise and modest man may assume airs too, and repel insolence with its own weapons. There is a time, as Solomon, the wisest of men, teaches us, when a fool should be answered according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit, and lest others too easily yield up their faith and reason to his imperious dictates. Courage and positivity are never more necessary than on such an occasion. But it is good to join some argument with them of real and convincing force, and let it be strongly pronounced too.
When such a resistance is made, you shall find some of these bold talkers will draw in their horns, when their fierce and feeble pushes against truth and reason are repelled with pushing and confidence. It is pity indeed that truth should ever need such sort of defences ; but we know that a triumphant assurance hath sometimes supported gross falsehoods, and a whole company have been captivated to error means,
some man with equal assurance has rescued them. It is pity that any momentous point of doctrine should happen to fall under such reproaches, and require such a mode of vindication : though, if I happen to hear it,
I ought not to turn my back, and to sneak off in silence, and leave the truth to lie baffled, bleeding, and slain. Yet I must confess I should be glad to have no occasion ever given me to fight with any man at this sort of weapons, even though I should be so happy as to silence his insolence, and obtain an evident victory.
XVII. Be not fond of disputing every thing pro and con, nor indulge yourself to shew your talent of attacking and defending. A logic which teaches nothing else is little worth. This temper and practice will lead you just so far out of the way of knowledge, and divert your honest inquiry after the truth which is debated or sought. In set disputes, every little straw is often laid hold on to support our own cause; every thing that can be drawn in any way to give colour to our argument is advanced, and that perhaps with vanity and ostentation. This puts the mind out of a proper posture to seek and receive the truth.
XVIII. Do not bring a warm party-spirit into a free conversation, which is designed for mutual improvement in the search of truth. Take heed of allowing yourself in those self-satisfied assurances, which keep the doors of the understanding barred fast against the admission of any new sentiments. Let your soul be ever ready to hearken to further discoveries, from a constant and ruling consciousness of our present fallible and imperfect state ; and make it appear to your friends that it is no hard task for you to learn and pronounce those little words, I was mistaken, how hard soever it be for the bulk of mankind to pronounce them.
XIX. As you may sometimes raise inquiries for your own instruction and improvement, and draw out the learning, wisdom, and fine sentiments of your friends, who perhaps may be too reserved or modest, so, at other times, if you perceive a person unskilful in the matter of debate, you may, by questions aptly proposed in the Socratic method, lead him into a clearer knowledge of the subject : then you
become his instructor in such a manner as may not appear to make yourself his superior.
XX. Take heed of affecting always to shine in company above the rest, and to display the riches of your own understanding or your oratory, as though you would render yourself admirable to all that are present. This is seldom well taken in polite company; much less should you use such forms of speech as should insinuate the ignorance or dulness of those with whom you XXI. THOUGH
should not affect to flourish in a copious harangue and diffusive style in company, yet neither should you rudely interrupt and reproach him that happens to use it: but when he has done speaking, reduce his sentiments into a more contracted form, not with a shew of correcting, but as one who is doubtful whether you hit upon his true sense or not. Thus matters may be brought more casily from a wild confusion into a single point, questions may be sooner determined, and difficulties more readily removed.
XXII. Be not so ready to charge ignorance, prejudice, and mistake upon others, as you are to suspect yourself of it: and in order to shew how free you are from prejudices, learn to bear contradiction with patience : let it be easy to you to hear your own opinion strongly opposed, especially in matters which are doubtful and disputable amongst men of sobriety and virtue. Give a patient hearing to arguments on all sides, otherwise you give the company occasion to suspect that it is not the evidence of truth has led
into this opinion, but some lazy anticipation of judgement, some beloved presumption, some long and rash possession of a party-scheme, in which you desire to rest undisturbed. If your assent has been established upon just and sufficient grounds, why should you be afraid to let the truth be put to the trial of argument ?
XXIII. BANISH utterly out of all conversation, and especially out of all learned and intellectual conference, every thing that tends to provoke passion, or raise a fire in the blood. Let no sharp language, no noisy exclamation, no sarcasms, or biting jests, he heard among you; no perverse or invidious consequences be drawn from each other's opinions, and imputed to the person ; let there be no wilful perversion of another's meaning ; no sudden seizure of a lapsed syllable to play upon it, nor any abused construction of an innocent mistake : suffer not your tongue to insult a modest opponent that begins to yield; let there be no crowing and triumph, even where there is evident victory on your side. All these things are enemies to friendship, and the ruin of free conversation. The impartial search of truth requires all calmness and serenity, all temper and candour: mutual instruction can never be attained in the midst of passion, pride, and clamour, unless we suppose in the midst of such a scene there is a loud and penetrating lecture read by both sides on the folly and shameful infirmities of human nature.
XXIV. WHENSOEVER, therefore, any unhappy word shall arise in company that might give you a reasonable disgust, quash the rising resentment, be it ever so just, and command your soul and your tongue into silence, lest you cancel the hopes of all improvement for that hour, and transform the learned conversation into the mean and vulgar form of reproaches and railing. The man who begins to break the peace in such a society will fall under the shame and conviction of such a silent reproof, if he has any thing ingenuous about him. If this should not be sufficient, let a grave admonition, or a soft and gentle turn of wit, with an air of pleasantry, give the warm disputer an occasion to stop the progress
of his indecent fire, if not to retract the indecency, and quench the flame.
XXV. INURE yourself to a candid and obliging manner in all your conversation, and acquire the art of pleasing address, even when you teach as well as when you learn, and when you oppose, as well as when you assert or prove. This degree of .politeness is not to be attained without a diligent attention to such kind of directions as are here laid down, and a frequent exercise and practice of them. XXVI. IF you would know what sort of companions