An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding HTML version

V. Sceptical Solution Of These Doubts
34. The passion for philosophy, like that for religion, seems liable to this inconvenience,
that, though it aims at the correction of our manners, and extirpation of our vices, it may
only serve, by imprudent management, to foster a predominant inclination, and push the
mind, with more determined resolution, towards that side which already draws too much,
by the bias and propensity of the natural temper. It is certain that, while we aspire to the
magnanimous firmness of the philosophic sage, and endeavour to confine our pleasures
altogether within our own minds, we may, at last, render our philosophy like that of
Epictetus, and other Stoics, only a more refined system of selfishness, and reason
ourselves out of all virtue as well as social enjoyment. While we study with attention the
vanity of human life, and turn all our thoughts towards the empty and transitory nature of
riches and honours, we are, perhaps, all the while flattering our natural indolence, which,
hating the bustle of the world, and drudgery of business, seeks a pretence of reason to
give itself a full and uncontrolled indulgence. There is, however, one species of
philosophy which seems little liable to this inconvenience, and that because it strikes in
with no disorderly passion of the human mind, nor can mingle itself with any natural
affection or propensity; and that is the Academic or Sceptical philosophy. The academics
always talk of doubt and suspense of judgement, of danger in hasty determinations, of
confining to very narrow bounds the enquiries of the understanding, and of renouncing all
speculations which lie not within the limits of common life and practice. Nothing,
therefore, can be more contrary than such a philosophy to the supine indolence of the
mind, its rash arrogance, its lofty pretensions, and its superstitious credulity. Every
passion is mortified by it, except the love of truth; and that passion never is, nor can be,
carried to too high a degree. It is surprising, therefore, that this philosophy, which, in
almost every instance, must be harmless and innocent, should be the subject of so much
groundless reproach and obloquy. But, perhaps, the very circumstance which renders it so
innocent is what chiefly exposes it to the public hatred and resentment. By flattering no
irregular passion, it gains few partizans: By opposing so many vices and follies, it raises
to itself abundance of enemies, who stigmatize it as libertine profane, and irreligious.
Nor need we fear that this philosophy, while it endeavours to limit our enquiries to
common life, should ever undermine the reasonings of common life, and carry its doubts
so far as to destroy all action, as well as speculation. Nature will always maintain her
rights, and prevail in the end over any abstract reasoning whatsoever. Though we should
conclude, for instance, as in the foregoing section, that, in all reasonings from experience,
there is a step taken by the mind which is not supported by any argument or process of
the understanding; there is no danger that these reasonings, on which almost all
knowledge depends, will ever be affected by such a discovery. If the mind be not
engaged by argument to make this step, it must be induced by some other principle of
equal weight and authority; and that principle will preserve its influence as long as human
nature remains the same. What that principle is may well be worth the pains of enquiry.