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The Government Of The Tongue by Richard Allestree

Section XI. Of Positiveness.

Another very unhandsome circumstance in discourse is the being over confident and peremptory, a thing which does very much unfit men for conversation, it being looked on as the common birth-right of mankind, that every man is to opine according to the dictates of his own understanding, not another's. Now this Peremptoriness is of two sorts, the one a Magisterialness in matters of opinion and speculation, the other a Positiveness in relating matters of fact: in the one we impose upon men's understandings, in the other on their faith.

2. For the first, he must be much a stranger in the world who has not met with it: there being a generation of men, who as the Prophet speaks, Are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight, Isa.5.21. Nay, not only so, but who make themselves the standards of wisdom, to which all are bound to conform, and whoever weighs not in their balance, be his reasons never so weighty, they write Tekel upon them. This is one of the most oppressive Monopolies imaginable: all others can concern only something without us, but this fastens upon our natures, yea, and the better part of it too, our reason, and if it meet with those who have any considerable share of that within them, they will often be tempted to rally it, and not too tamely resign this native liberty. Reason submits only to Reason, and he that assaults it with bare Authority (that which is Divine always excepted) may as well cut flame with his sword, or harden wax in the sun.

3. Tis true indeed, these great Dictators do sometimes run down the company, and carry their Hypothesis without contest: but of this there may be divers reasons besides the weight of their arguments. Some unspeculative men may not have the skill to examine their assertions, and therefore, an assent is their fastest course; others may be lazy and not think it worth their pains; a third sort may be modest and awed by a severe brow and an imperious nod: and perhaps the wiser may providently foresee the impossibility of convincing one who thinks himself not subject to error. Upon these or other like grounds tis very possible all may be silenced when never a one is convinced so that these great Masters may often make very false estimates of their conquests, and sacrifice to their own nets, Heb.1.16. when they have taken nothing.

4. Nay indeed, this insolent way of proposing is so far from propagating their notions, that it gives prejudice against them. They are the gentle insinuations which pierce (as oil is the most penetrating of all liquors) but in these Magisterial documents men think themselves attacked, and stand upon their guard, and reckon they must part with Honor together with their Opinion, if they suffer themselves to be Hectored out of it. Besides, this imposing humor is so unamiable, that it gives an aversion to the Person; and we know how forcible personal prejudices are (though tis true they should not be) towards the biasing of Opinions. Nay indeed, men of this temper do cut themselves off from the opportunities of Proselyting others, by averting them from their company. Freedom is the endearing thing in Society, and where that is controlled, men are not very fond of associating themselves. Tis natural to us to be uneasy in the presence of those who assume an Authority over us. Children care not for the company of their Parents or Tutors, and men will care less for theirs, who would make them children by usurping a Tutorage.

5. All these inconveniences are evidently consequent to this Dogmatizing, supposing men be never so much in the right: but if they happened to be in the wrong, what a ridiculous pageantry is it, to see such a Philosophical gravity set to man-out a Solecism? A concluding Face put upon no concluding Argument, is the most contemptible sort of folly in the world. They do by this sound a trumpet to their own defeat: and whereas a modest mistake might slip by undiscerned, these Rodomontade errors force themselves upon men's observations, and make it impossible for men not to see, as it is not to despise them when they do. For indeed, Pride is as ill linked with Error, as we usually say it is with Beggary, and in this as well as that, converts pity into contempt.

6. And then it would be considered, what security any man that will be imposing has, that this will not be his case. Human nature is very fallible, and as it is possible a man may err in a great many things, so tis certain every man does in something or other. Now who knows at the instant he is so positive, but this may be his erring turn? Alas, how frequently are we mistaken even in common ordinary things! for as the Wiseman speaks, hardly do we judge aright even in things that are before us, Wisd.9.16. our very senses do sometimes delude us. How then may we wander in things of abstruse speculation? The consideration of this hath with some so prevailed, that it has produced a Sect of Skepticism: and though I press it not for that purpose, yet sure it may reasonably be urged to introduce some modesty and calmness in our assertions. For when we have no other certainty of our being in the right, but our own persuasions that we are so; this may often be but making one error the gauge for another. For God knows confidence is so far from a certain mark of truth, that tis often the seducer into falsehood, none being so apt to lose their way as those who, out of an ungrounded presumption of knowing it, despise all direction from others.

7. Let all this be weighed, and the result will be, that this peremptoriness is a thing that can befit no form of understanding. It renders Wise men disobliging and troublesome, and fools ridiculous and contemptible. It casts a prejudice up on the most solid reasoning, and it renders the lighter more notoriously despicable. Tis pity good parts should be leavened by it, made a snare to the owners, and useless to others. And tis pity too that weak parts should by it be condemned to be always so, by despising those Aids which should improve them. Since therefore, tis so ill calculated for every Meridian, would God all Climes might be purged from it.

8. And as there are weighty objections against it in respect of its effects, so there are no inconsiderable prejudices in relation to its causes, of which we may reckon Pride to be the most certain and universal: for whatever else casually occurs to it, this is the fundamental constitutive principle; nothing but a great overweening of a man's own understanding being able to inflate him in that imaginary empire over other men's. For here sure we may ask the Apostle's question, Who made thee to differ from another? When God has made Rationality the common portion of mankind, how came it to be thy inclosure? or what Signature has he set upon thine, what mark of excellency, that thine should be paramount? Doubtless if thou fanciest thou hast that part of Jacob's blessing, To be Lord of they brethren, and that all they mother's sons should bow down to thee, Gen.27.29. thou hast got it more surreptitiously than he did, and with less effect: for though Isaac could not retract his mistaken benediction, God will never ratify that fantastic thou hast pronounced to thyself, with his real effective one.

9. But there happens many times to be another ingredient besides Pride, and that is Ignorance: for those qualities however they may seem at war, do often very closely combine. He who has narrow notions, that knows but a few things, and has no glimpse of any beyond him, thinks there are no such: and therefore, as if he had (like Alexander) no want but that of worlds to conquer, he thinks himself the absolute Monarch of all knowledge. And this is of all others the most unhappy composition: for ignorance being of itself like stiff clay, and infertile soil, when Pride comes to scorch and harden it, it grows perfectly impenetrable: and accordingly we see none are so inconvincible as your half-witted people; who know just enough to excite their pride, but not so much as to cure their ignorance.

10. There remains yet a 2d kind of Peremptoriness which I am to speak to, and that is of those who can make no relation without an attestation of its certainty: a sort of hospitable people, who entertain all the idle vagrant reports, and send them out with passports and testimonials; who when they have once adopted a story, will have it pass for legitimate how spurious soever it originally was. These somewhat resemble those hospitals in Italy, where all bastards are sure of reception, and such a provision as may enable them to subsist in the world: and were it not for such men, many a Fatherless lie would be stifled in its birth. It is indeed strange to see, how suddenly loose rumors knit into formal stories, and from thence grow to certainties; but tis stranger to see that men can be of such profligated impudence, as knowingly to give them that advance. And yet tis no rarity to meet with such men who will pawn their honor, their souls, for that unworthy purpose: nay, and that too with as much impertinence as baseness, when no interest of their own, or perhaps any man's else is to be served by it.

11. This is so prodigious a thing, as seems to excite one's Curiosity to inquire the cause of so wonderful an effect. And here as in other unnatural productions, there are several concurrents. If we trace it from its original, its first Element seems to be Idleness: this diverting a man from serious useful entertainments, forces him upon (the usual refuge of vacant Persons) the inquiring after News; which when he has got, the venting of it is his next business. If he be of a credulous Nature, and believe it himself, he does the more innocently impose it on others: yet then to secure himself from the imputation of Levity and too easy Faith, he is often tempted to lend some probable circumstance. Nay, if he be of a proud humor, and have that miserable vanity of loving to speak big, and to be thought a man of greater correspondence and intelligence than his neighbors, he will not bate an Ace of absolute certainty, but however doubtful or improbable the thing is, coming form him it must go for an indisputable truth. This seems to be the descent of this unhappy folly, which yet is often nursed up by a mean or imprudent Education. A man that hat conversed only with that lower sort of company, who durst not dispute his veracity, thinks the same false Coin will pass over the world, which went current among his Father's Servants or Tenants: and therefore we may observe, that this is most usual in young men, who have come raw into company with good fortunes and ill breeding. But it is too true also that too many never lose the habit, but are as morosely positive in their Age, as they were childishly so in their Youth. Indeed, tis impossible they should be otherwise, unless they have the wit to disentangle themselves first from the love of Flattery, and after from the company of Flatterers: for (as I have before observed) no vice will ever wither under their shade. I think I shall do the Reader no ill office to let in a little light upon them, and shew him some of those many mischiefs that attend this unworthy practice.

12. First, it engages a man to oaths, and for ought he knows to perjuries. When he has launched out boldly into an incredible relation, he thinks he has put his Credit upon the forlorn hope, and must take care to relieve it: and there is no succor so constantly ready at hand as that of oaths and imprecations, and therefore whole vollies of them are discharged upon the doubtful. Thus do we make God a witness, and our Souls parties in the cause of every trifling rumor, as if we had modeled our Divinity by the Scheme of that Jesuitical Casuist, who legitimates the Killing of a man for an Apple.

13. A Second mischief is, that it betrays a man to quarrels. He that is peremptory in his own Story, may meet with another that is as peremptory in the contradiction of it, and then the two Sir Positives must have a skirmish indeed. He that has attested the truth of a false, or the certainty of a doubtful thing, has brought himself into the same trait with Balaam's Ass, he must either fall down flat or run upon a sword, Num.22.27. For if his Hearers do but express a diffidence, either he must sink to a down-right confession that he was a Liar: or else he must huff and bluster till perhaps he raise a counter-storm, and as he fooled himself out of his truth, so be beaten out of his pretence to it. Indeed, there is scarce any quality that does so tempt and invite affronts as this does: for he that can descend to such a meanness, may reasonably enough be presumed to have little (as of true worth, so) even of that which the world calls Gallantry, and so every puny swordman will think him a good tame Quarry to enter and flesh himself upon.

14. In the third place, it exposes him to all the contempt and scorn which either good or ill men can fling upon him: the good abominate the sin, the ill triumph over the folly of it. The truth is, there can be nothing more wretchedly mean. To be Knight of the Post to every fabulous relation, is such a sordid thing, that there can scarce be any name of reproach too vile for it. And certainly he that can pawn his faith upon such miserable terms, will by those frequent mortgages quickly be snapped upon a forfeiture; or however will have his credit so impaired by it, that no man will think his word a competent gauge for the slightest concern.

15. And this may pass for a fourth consideration, That this Positiveness is so far from gaining credit to his present affirmation, that it destroys it for the future: for he that sees a man make no difference in the confidence of his asserting realities and fictions, can never take his measures by anything he avers, but according to the common Proverb, will be in danger of disbelieving him even when he speaks truth. And of this no man can want conviction, who will but consult his own observation. For what an allay do we find it to the credit of the most probable event, that it is reported by one who uses to stretch? Thus unhappily do such men defeat their own designs: for while they aver stoutly that they may be believed, that very thing makes them doubted, the world being not now to learn how frequently Confidence is made a supplement for truth. Nor let any man who uses this, flatter himself that he alone does (like Job's messenger) escape the common fate: for though perhaps he meet with some who in civility or pity will not dispute the probability of his narrations, or with others who for raillery will not discourage the humor with which they mean (in his absence) to divert themselves, yet he may rest assured he is discerned by all and derided for it.

16. It therefore concerns men who either regard their truth, or their reputation, not to indulge to this humor, which is the most silly way of shipwrecking both. For he that will lay those to stake upon every flying story, may as well wager his estate which way the wind will sit next morning, there being nothing less to be confided in, than the breath of fame, or the whispers of private tale-bearers. Wise men are afraid to report improbable truths: what a foolhardiness is it then to attest improbable falsities, as it often is the luck of these Positive men to do?

17. Certainly there is nothing which they design by this, which may not be obtained more effectually by a modest and unconcerned relation. He that barely relates what he has heard, and leaves the hearer to judge of the probability, does as much (I am sure more civilly) entertain that company, as he that throws down his gauntlet in attestation. He as much satisfies the itch of telling news; he as much persuades his hearers: nay, very much more (for these over earnest asseverations serve by to give men suspicion that the Speaker is conscious of his own falseness:) and all this while he has his retreat secure, and stands not responsible for the truth of his relation. Nay indeed, though men speak never so known and certain truths, tis most advisable not to press them too importunately. For boldness, like the Bravoes and Banditti, is seldom employed but upon desperate services, and is so known a Pander for lying, that truth is but defamed by its attendance.

18. To conclude, modesty is so amiable, so insinuating a thing, that all the rules of Oratory cannot help men to a more agreeable ornament of discourse. And if they will try it in both the foregoing instances, they will undoubtedly find the effects of it: a modest proposal will soonest captivate men's reasons, and a modest relation their belief.

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