Of Credulity and Supinity.

A THIRD cause of common Errors is the Credulity of men, that is, an easie assent to what is obtruded, or a believing at first ear, what is delivered by others. This is a weakness in the understanding, without examination assenting unto things, which from their Natures and Causes do carry no perswasion; whereby men often swallow falsities for truths, dubiosities for certainties, feasibilities for possibilities, and things impossible as possibilities themselves. Which, though the weakness of the Intellect, and most discoverable in vulgar heads; yet hath it sometime fallen upon wiser brains, and great advancers of Truth. Thus many wise Athenians so far forgot their Philosophy, and the nature of humane production, that they descended unto belief, that the original of their Nation was from the Earth, and had no other beginning then the seminality and womb of their great Mother. Thus is it not without wonder, how those learned Arabicks so tamely delivered up their belief unto the absurdities of the Alcoran. How the noble Geber, Avicenna, and Almanzor, should rest satisfied in the nature and causes of Earthquakes, delivered from the doctrine of their Prophet; that is, from the motion of a great Bull, upon whose horns all earth is poised. How their faiths could decline so low, as to concede their generations in Heaven, to be made by the smell of a Citron, or that the felicity of their Paradise should consist in a Jubile of copulation, that is, a coition of one act prolonged unto fifty years. Thus is it almost beyond wonder, how the belief of reasonable creatures, should ever submit unto Idolatry: and the credulity of those men scarce credible (without presumption of a second Fall) who could believe a Deity in the work of their own hands. For although in that ancient and diffused adoration of Idols, unto the Priests and subtiler heads, the worship perhaps might be symbolical, and as those Images some way related unto their Deities; yet was the Idolatry direct and down-right in the people; whose credulity is illimitable, who may be made believe that any thing is God; and may be made believe there is no God at all.

And as credulity is the cause of Error, so Incredulity oftentimes of not enjoying truth: and that not only an obstinate incredulity, whereby we will not acknowledge assent unto what is reasonably inferred, but any Academical reservation in matters of easie truth, or rather sceptical infidelity against the evidence of reason and sense. For these are conceptions befalling wise men, as absurd as the apprehensions of fools, and the credulity of the people which promiscuously swallow any thing. For this is not only derogatory unto the wisdom of God, who hath proposed the World unto our knowledge, and thereby the notion of Himself; but also detractory unto the intellect, and sense of man expressedly disposed for that inquisition. And therefore, hoc tantum scio, quod nihil scio,[1] is not to be received in an absolute sense, but is comparatively expressed unto the number of things whereof our knowledg is ignorant. Nor will it acquit the insatisfaction of those which quarrel with all things, or dispute of matters, concerning whose verities we have conviction from reason, or decision from the inerrable and requisite conditions of sense. And therefore if any affirm, the earth doth move, and will not believe with us, it standeth still; because he hath probable reasons for it, and I no infallible sense, nor reason against it, I will not quarrel with his assertion.[2] But if, like Zeno, he shall walk about, and yet deny there is any motion in Nature,[3] surely that man was constituted for Anticera,[4] and were a fit companion for those, who having a conceit they are dead, cannot be convicted into the society of the living.

The fourth is a Supinity, or neglect of Enquiry, even of matters whereof we doubt; rather believing, than going to see; or doubting with ease and gratìs, than believing with difficulty or purchase. Whereby, either from a temperamental inactivity, we are unready to put in execution the suggestions or dictates of reason; or by a content and acquiescence in every species of truth, we embrace the shadow thereof, or so much as may palliate its just and substantial requirements. Had our fore-Fathers sat down in these resolutions, or had their curiosities been sedentary, who pursued the knowledge of things through all the corners of nature, the face of truth had been obscure unto us, whose lustre in some part their industries have revealed.

Certainly the sweat of their labours was not salt unto them, and they took delight in the dust of their endeavours. For questionless, in Knowledg there is no slender difficulty; and Truth, which wise men say doth lye in a Well, is not recoverable but by exantlation.[5] It were some extenuation of the Curse, if In sudore vultus tui[6] were confinable unto corporal exercitations, and there still remained a Paradise, or unthorny place of knowledg. But now our understandings being eclipsed, as well as our tempers infirmed, we must betake ourselves to wayes of reparation, and depend upon the illumination of our endeavours. For, thus we may in some measure repair our primary ruines, and build our selves Men again. And though the attempts of some have been precipitous, and their Enquiries so audacious, as to come within command of the flaming swords, and lost themselves in attempts above humanity; yet have the Enquiries of most defected by the way, and tired within the sober circumference of Knowledg.

And this is the reason, why some have transcribed any thing; and although they cannot but doubt thereof, yet neither make Experiment by sense, or Enquiry by reason;[7] but live in doubts of things, whose satisfaction is in their own power; which is indeed the inexcusable part of our ignorance, and may perhaps fill up the charge of the last day. For, not obeying the dictates of Reason, and neglecting the cries of Truth, we fail not only in the trust of our undertakings, but in the intention of man it self. Which although more venial in ordinary constitutions, and such as are not framed beyond the capacity of beaten notions, yet will it inexcusably condemn some men, who having received excellent endowments, have yet sate down by the way, and frustrated the intention of their habilities. For certainly, as some men have sinned in the principles of humanity, and must answer, for not being men, so others offend, if they be not more. Magis extra vitia, quam cum virtutibus,[8] would commend those: These are not excusable without an Excellency. For, great constitutions, and such as are constellated unto knowledge, do nothing till they out-do all; they come short of themselves, if they go not beyond others; and must not sit down under the degree of Worthies. God expects no lustre from the minor Stars; but if the Sun should not illuminate all, it were a sin in Nature. Ultimus bonorum,[9] will not excuse every man, nor is it sufficient for all to hold the common level: Mens names should not only distinguish them: A man should be something, that men are not, and individual in somewhat beside his proper Name.[10] Thus while it exceeds not the bounds of reason and modesty, we cannot condemn singularity. Nos numerus sumus,[11] is the Motto of the multitude, and for that reason are they Fools. For things as they recede from unity, the more they approach to imperfection, and Deformity; for they hold their perfection in their Simplicities, and as they nearest approach to God.

Now as there are many great Wits to be condemned, who have neglected the increment of Arts, and the sedulous pursuit of knowledge; so are there not a few very much to be pitied, whose industry being not attended with natural parts, they have sweat to little purpose, and rolled the stone in vain. Which chiefly proceedeth from natural incapacity, and genial indisposition, at least, to those particulars whereunto they apply their endeavours. And this is one reason why, though Universities be ful of men, they are oftentimes empty of learning: Why, as there are some men do much without learning, so others but little with it, and few that attain to any measure of it. For many heads that undertake it, were never squared, nor timber'd for it. There are not only particular men, but whole Nations indisposed for learning;[12] whereunto is required, not only education, but a Pregnant Minerva, and teeming Constitution. For the Wisdom of God hath divided the Genius of men according to the different affairs of the World: and varied their inclination according to the variety of Actions to be performed therein. Which they who consider not, rudely rushing upon professions and ways of life, unequal to their natures; dishonour, not only themselves and their Functions, but pervert the harmony of the whole World. For, if the World went on as God hath ordained it, and were every one imployed in points concordant to their Natures, Professions: Arts and Commonwealths would rise up of themselves; nor needed we a Lanthorn to find a man in Athens.[13]


* [My or others' notes are in square brackets]; Browne's marginalia is unmarked; {passages or notes from unpublished material by Browne is in curly braces}.

1 [The well-known Socratic saying is found in Plato's Apology (21d, elaborated in 21-23), and, somewhat modified, in Cicero (Academica I:4 and II.xxiii.]

2 [The theory was highly contentious, as witnesses one of Alexander Ross's productions, the provocatively titled The New Planet no Planet: Or, The Earth no wandring Star: Except in the wandring heads of Galileans, and on and on. Much of the semi-theological underpinning of its refutation was based on sundry mistakes logical and allegorical (e.g, that if the Earth moved the Sun, Moon and stars must stand still, that the expression "the Sun rises" must be understood absolutely literally and not as signifying an event rather than a process, so to speak; one shudders to think how the Bible would read if there were a long and involved astronomical description of every sunrise). Wren's long and irate note on this passage will illustrate some of the feeling generated:

[In] the booke of God, from Moses unto Christ, there are no lesse than 80 and odd expresse places, affirming in plaine and overt termes the naturall and perpetuall motion of the sun and the moon; and that the stop or stay of that motion was one of the greatest miracles that ever the whole world beheld: others the rising and setting of them: others, their diurnal course and vigorous activitye upon this lowest world; others, their circulation on this world or earth not onlye daylye, but annually, by a declination from the mid-line on both sides, North and South; others (as expressly) the impossibility of any (other) motion in the earth, than that terrible and pænal motion of his shaking itt, that made it: others, that it cannot be moved totally in his place, nor removed universal out of his place. Soe that were itt nothing else than the veneration and firme beliefe of that Word of His, which the penmen thereof spake not of themselves, but by the inspiration of the Holy ghost, they that profess Christianitye should not dare, much lesse adventure to call the letter thereof in question concerning things soe plainly, frequently, constantly, delivered: should tremble at that curse which is denounced against those that adde any thing unto itt, or diminish any tittle of itt; should feare to raise such hellish suspition in vulgar mindes, as the Romish church, by undervalewing the majesty and authority thereof, hath done; should be affrighted to follow that audacious and pernicious suggestion, which Satan used, and thereby undid us all in our first parents; that God had a double meaning in his commands, in effect condemning God of amphibology. And all this boldness and overweaning having no other ground, but a seeming argument of some phænomena forsooth; which notwithstanding, we know the learned Tycho ὁ Ἀστρονομάρχων, who lived (52) years since Copernicus, hath by admirable and matchlesse instruments, and many yeares exact observations proved to bee noe better than a dreame.

Wren goes on to jot down "seeming" as a note to "probable", and "Other then God's perpetual dictate" as a gloss on "nor reason against" accepting the notion of a moving Earth. It would be worth noting, if there were any possibility of ever dealing with error, that this is one of several passages where Browne states his own belief in a stationary earth without at all dismissing the alternative: putting paid, one would think, to the oft-repeated assertion that Browne is a pig-headed anti-Copernican.]

3 [Zeno of Elea, mentioned by Aristotle; the paradox is refuted in Aristotle's Physica, vi. 2:

Hence Zeno's argument makes a false assumption in asserting that it is impossible for a thing to pass over or severally to come in contact with infinite things in a finite time. For there are two senses in which length and time and generally anything continuous are called 'infinite': they are called so either in respect of divisibility or in respect of their extremities. So while a thing in a finite time cannot come in contact with things quantitatively infinite, it can come in contact with things infinite in respect of divisibility: for in this sense the time itself is also infinite: and so we find that the time occupied by the passage over the infinite is not a finite but an infinite time, and the contact with the infinites is made by means of moments not finite but infinite in number.

The passage over the infinite, then, cannot occupy a finite time, and the passage over the finite cannot occupy an infinite time: if the time is infinite the magnitude must be infinite also, and if the magnitude is infinite, so also is the time. This may be shown as follows. Let AB be a finite magnitude, and let us suppose that it is traversed in infinite time G, and let a finite period GD of the time be taken. Now in this period the thing in motion will pass over a certain segment of the magnitude: let BE be the segment that it has thus passed over. (This will be either an exact measure of AB or less or greater than an exact measure: it makes no difference which it is.) Then, since a magnitude equal to BE will always be passed over in an equal time, and BE measures the whole magnitude, the whole time occupied in passing over AB will be finite: for it will be divisible into periods equal in number to the segments into which the magnitude is divisible. Moreover, if it is the case that infinite time is not occupied in passing over every magnitude, but it is possible to ass over some magnitude, say BE, in a finite time, and if this BE measures the whole of which it is a part, and if an equal magnitude is passed over in an equal time, then it follows that the time like the magnitude is finite. That infinite time will not be occupied in passing over BE is evident if the time be taken as limited in one direction: for as the part will be passed over in less time than the whole, the time occupied in traversing this part must be finite, the limit in one direction being given. The same reasoning will also show the falsity of the assumption that infinite length can be traversed in a finite time. It is evident, then, from what has been said that neither a line nor a surface nor in fact anything continuous can be indivisible.]

4 [Anticyra in Phocis. Hellebore grown there was used in the treatment of insanity. According to Pausanias, there were two kinds growing in the district, of which the root of the black was used as a cathartic, and that of the white as an emetic. There were three Anticyrae in antiquity; Horace:

Nanciscentur enim pretium nomenque poetæ,
Sitribus Anticyris caput insanabile nunquam
Tonsori Licino commiserit.
Horat. de Arte Poetica, v. 299.]

5 ["Exantlation", of somewhat dubious origin, = "drawing out" (of liquids). Its use in the 1646 edition of Vulgar Errors is the first recorded in the OED; its last, in Swift's Tale of a Tub, in 1704; the verb and adjective "exantlate" had likewise brief lifespans, or at least so far. Who knows what word will next catch the English-speaking world's fancy? The story is told of Democritus; see Cicero: Academica I:12, "et ut Democritus in profundo veritatem esse demersam" etc.]

6 [Gen 3:19 in the Vulgate: "In sudore vultus tui vesceris pane donec revertaris in terram de qua sumptus es quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris"; "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return".]

7 [Cf. Garden of Cyrus, Chapter V, where Browne asserts the necessity of experiment to aid "discursive enquiry" in dispatching error.]

8 [Tacitus, Histories, Book I, 49, of Galba: "Rather without vice, than with virtue".]

9 ["Ultimus bonorum", see Martial XII:36 and cf. Cic. de Finibus III:30.]

10 ["Nature" before 1672. Wren: "A right and able man should".]

11 [Horace (Epist. I.i.37).]

12 [Wilkin points out that this sentiment seems to conflict with the author's opinion of sweeping generalities on nations, Rel. Med. Part II Sect. 4. This, however, is a different kind of generalization.]

13 [Diogenes Laertius, vi.41]

This page is dedicated to the memory of Boo the Cat.

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