Chap. VII.

Of Authority.

NOR is onely a resolved prostration unto Antiquity a powerful enemy unto knowledge, but any confident adherence unto Authority, or resignation of our judgements upon the testimony of any Age or Author whatsoever.

For first, to speak generally, an argument from Authority to wiser examinations, is but a weaker kind of proof; it being a topical probation, and as we term it, an inartificial argument, depending upon a naked asseveration: wherein neither declaring the causes, affections or adjuncts of what we believe, it carrieth not with it the reasonable inducements of knowledge. And therefore Contra negantem principia, Ipse dixit, or Oportet discentem credere,[1] although Postulates very accommodable unto Junior indoctrinations; yet are their Authorities but temporary, and not to be imbraced beyond the minority of our intellectuals. For our advanced beliefs are not to be built upon dictates, but having received the probable inducements of truth, we become emancipated from testimonial engagements, and are to erect upon the surer base of reason.

Secondly, Unto reasonable perpensions it hath no place in some Sciences, small in others, and suffereth many restrictions, even where it is most admitted. It is of no validity in the Mathematicks, especially the mother part thereof, Arithmetick and Geometry. For these Sciences concluding from dignities and principles known by themselves: receive not satisfaction from probable reasons, much less from bare and peremptory asseverations. And therefore if all Athens should decree, that in every Triangle, two sides, which soever be taken, are greater then the side remaining, or that in rectangle triangles the square which is made of the side that subtendeth the right angle, is equal to the squares which are made of the sides containing the right angle: although there be a certain truth therein, Geometricians notwithstanding would not receive satisfaction without demonstration thereof. 'Tis true, by the vulgarity of Philosophers, there are many points believed without probation; nor if a man affirm from Ptolomy, that the Sun is bigger then the Earth, shall he probably meet with any contradiction: whereunto notwithstanding Astronomers will not assent without some convincing argument or demonstrative proof thereof. And therefore certainly of all men a Philosopher should be no swearer; for an oath which is the end of controversies in Law, cannot determine any here; nor are the deepest Sacraments or desperate imprecations of any force to perswade, where reason only, and necessary mediums must induce.

In Natural Philosophy more generally pursued amongst us, it carrieth but slender consideration; for that also proceeding from setled Principles, therein is expected a satisfaction from scientifical progressions, and such as beget a sure rational belief. For if Authority might have made out the assertions of Philosophy, we might have held that Snow was black,[2] that the Sea was but the sweat of the Earth,[3] and many of the like absurdities. Then was Aristotle injurious to fall upon Melissus, to reject the assertions of Anaxagoras, Anaximander, and Empedocles; then were we also ungrateful unto himself, from whom our Junior endeavours embracing many things on his authority, our mature and secondary enquiries, are forced to quit those receptions, and to adhere unto the nearer account of Reason. And although it be not unusual, even in Philosophical Tractates to make enumeration of Authors, yet are there reasons usually introduced, and to ingenious Readers do carry the stroke in the perswasion. And surely if we account it reasonable among our selves, and not injurious unto rational Authors, no farther to abet their Opinions then as they are supported by solid Reasons: certainly with more excusable reservation may we shrink at their bare testimonies; whose argument is but precarious, and subsists upon the charity of our assentments.

In Morality, Rhetorick, Law and History, there is I confess a frequent and allowable use of testimony; and yet herein I perceive, it is not unlimitable, but admitteth many restrictions. Thus in Law both Civil and Divine: that is onely esteemed a legal testimony, which receives comprobation from the mouths of at least two witnesses; and that not only for prevention of calumny, but assurance against mistake; whereas notwithstanding the solid reason of one man, is as sufficient as the clamor of a whole Nation; and with imprejudicate apprehensions begets as firm a belief as the authority or aggregated testimony of many hundreds. For reason being the very root of our natures, and the principles thereof common unto all, what is against the Laws of true reason, or the unerring understanding of any one, if rightly apprehended; must be disclaimed by all Nations, and rejected even by mankind.

Again, A testimony is of small validity if deduced from men out of their own profession; so if Lactantius affirm the Figure of the Earth is plain, or Austin deny there are Antipodes; though venerable Fathers of the Church, and ever to be honoured, yet will not their Authorities prove sufficient to ground a belief thereon. Whereas notwithstanding the solid reason or confirmed experience of any man, is very approvable in what profession soever. So Raymund Sebund a Physitian of Tholouze, besides his learned Dialogues De Natura humana, hath written a natural Theologie; demonstrating therein the Attributes of God, and attempting the like in most points of Religion. So Hugo Grotius a Civilian, did write an excellent Tract of the verity of Christian Religion. Wherein most rationally delivering themselves, their works will be embraced by most that understand them, and their reasons enforce belief even from prejudicate Readers. Neither indeed have the Authorities of men been ever so awful, but that by some they have been rejected, even in their own professions. Thus Aristotle affirming the birth of the Infant or time of its gestation, extendeth sometimes unto the eleventh Month, but Hippocrates, averring that it exceedeth not the tenth: Adrian the Emperour in a solemn process, determined for Aristotle; but Justinian many years after, took in with Hippocrates and reversed the Decree of the other. Thus have Councils, not only condemned private men, but the Decrees and Acts of one another. So Galen after all his veneration of Hippocrates, in some things hath fallen from him. Avicen in many from Galen; and others succeeding from him. And although the singularity of Paracelsus be intolerable, who sparing onely Hippocrates, hath reviled not onely the Authors, but almost all the learning that went before him; yet is it not much less injurious unto knowledge obstinately and inconvincibly to side with any one. Which humour unhappily possessing many, they have by prejudice withdrawn themselves into parties, and contemning the soveraignty of truth, seditiously abetted the private divisions of error.[4]

Moreover a testimony in points Historical, and where it is of unavoidable use, is of no illation in the negative, nor is it of consequence that Herodotus writing nothing of Rome, there was therefore no such City in his time; or because Dioscorides hath made no mention of Unicorns horn, there is therefore no such thing in Nature.[5] Indeed, intending an accurate enumeration of Medical materials, the omission hereof affords some probability, it was not used by the Ancients, but will not conclude the non-existence thereof. For so may we annihilate many Simples unknown to his enquiries, as Senna, Rhubarb, Bezoar, Ambregris, and divers others. Whereas indeed the reason of man hath not such restraint; concluding not onely affirmatively but negatively; not onely affirming there is no magnitude beyond the last heavens, but also denying there is any vacuity within them.[6] Although it be confessed, the affirmative hath the prerogative illation, and Barbara engrosseth the powerful demonstration.

Lastly, The strange relations made by Authors, may sufficiently discourage our adherence unto Authority, and which if we believe we must be apt to swallow any thing. Thus Basil will tell us, the Serpent went erect like Man, and that that Beast could speak before the Fall. Tostatus would make us believe that Nilus encreaseth every new Moon. Leonardo Fioravanti an Italian Physitian, beside many other secrets, assumeth unto himself the discovery of one concerning Pellitory of the Wall; that is, that it never groweth in the sight of the North star. Dove si possa vedere la stella Tramontana, wherein how wide he is from truth, is easily discoverable unto every one, who hath but Astronomy enough to know that Star. Franciscus Sanctius in a laudable Comment upon Alciats Emblems, affirmeth, and that from experience, a Nightingale hath no tongue. Avem Philomelam lingua carere pro certo affirmare possum, nisi me oculi fallunt. Which if any man for a while shall believe upon his experience, he may at his leisure refute it by his own. What fool almost would believe, at least, what wise man would relie upon that Antidote delivered by Pierius in his Hieroglyphicks against the sting of a Scorpion? that is, to sit upon an Ass with one's face toward his tail; for so the pain leaveth the Man, and passeth into the Beast. It were methinks but an uncomfortable receit for a Quartane Ague (and yet as good perhaps as many others used) to have recourse unto the Recipe of Sammonicus; that is, to lay the fourth Book of Homers Iliads under ones head, according to the precept of that Physitian and Poet, Moeoniæ Iliados quartum suppone trementi. There are surely few that have belief to swallow, or hope enough to experiment the Collyrium7 of Albertus; which promiseth a strange effect, and such as Thieves would count inestimable, that is, to make one see in the dark: yet thus much, according unto his receit, will the right eye of an Hedge-hog boiled in oyl, and preserved in a brazen vessel effect. As strange it is, and unto vicious inclinations were worth a night's lodging with Lais,8 what is delivered in Kiranides; that the left stone of a Weesel, wrapt up in the skin of a she Mule, is able to secure incontinency from conception.

These with swarms of others have men delivered in their Writings, whose verities are onely supported by their authorities: But being neither consonant unto reason, nor correspondent unto experiment, their affirmations are unto us no axioms: We esteem thereof as things unsaid, and account them but in the list of nothing. I wish herein the Chymists had been more sparing: who over-magnifying their preparations, inveigle the curiosity of many, and delude the security of most. For if experiments would answer their encomiums, the Stone and Quartane Agues were not opprobrious unto Physitians: we might contemn that first and most uncomfortable Aphorism of Hippocrates,9 for surely that Art were soon attained, that hath so general remedies; and life could not be short, were there such to prolong it.


* [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 [Wren: These three rules althoughe they bee founded on the grounds of universall reason, yet they have theire limits and boundaryes, by which they must be circumscribed. The first reaching only such perverse spirits, as denye those universall principles of reason and nature, wherein the wisest and soberest judgments of all times have held an unanimous and full consent, and whereon the perpetuall and uncontrouled experience of all mankinde hath agreed. As that the snow is white; and that fire does burne. The former whereof, althoughe some have made not only dispute, but deniall, yet they purchast nothing but scorne and the censure as of brainsick men.

The second is noe where of universall authoritye, save in the booke of God: all other dictates of men, how specious soever, being noe farther authenticall to enforce beleefe, then as the reasons are, whereon they are built: but the only reason in God's booke is, because we know, Hee whose word itt is, is truth ittselfe, and can neither lye, nor deceave, nor bee deceaved; and therefore hath the whole and sole empire of authoritye, to which all humane reason must submitte without dispute or hæsitancye

The last rule concerns none but those who yeeld up themselves to the instructions and information of others, from whom they must perforce take up upon truste the principles of that arte, which they desire to gaine, till they come to attain unto itt.]

2 [An idea attributed to Anaxagoras, who apparently argued a priori from the color of pools of water; Cic. Acad. II.xxxi.100:

Huius modi igitur uisis consilia capiet et agendi et non agendi, faciliorque erit ut albam esse niuem probet, quam erat Anaxagoras, qui id non modo ita esse negabat, sed sibi, quia sciret aquam nigram esse, unde illa concreta esset, albam ipsam esse ne uideri quidem.]

3 [Attributed to Empedocles by Aristotle.]

4 [Wren: This humour is itt which hath engaged the Whole World into Factions, not onely amonge Christians, but even Jewes, and Turks and Infidells: And being once planted, is hardly ever rooted out. For that they, who have once swallowed an Error (out of Ignorance, or Inadvertencye, or the tye of Observance, and Relation to some, on whome they Depend) are ever loath to Acknowleddg, but, more to Renounce itt; though in point of Conscience, they bee often convinced of itt; Least, being thought to have erd, in one thing, they may seem to Question, and bring into suspicion, whatever they shall avow for the future. And this is the only Reason that holds the Church of Rome, in an Obstinate Maintenance, of some Ridiculous, some Scandalous, some Pernicious, some Blasphemous Doctrines; For feare, that by the acknowledgment of them they shall loose their Credit and Authoritye. And that the Acknowledgment, enforcing their Renunciation, and Desertion of them, They shall withall Loose, the infinit Profit and Gaine, which they reape from those Numerous Proselytes, whose Consciences they holde fettered and chained unto Them, by these Powerfull overawinge Charmes, and (as they call them) Pious Fraudes.]

5 [The unicorn's horn is further discussed in Book III, Chapter XXIII, as is Bezoar.]

6 [Aristotle, On the heavens]

7 An eye medicine.

8 Ten thousand drachms. [Demanded of Demosthenes, who refused to pay it; Aul. Gel.Noctes Atticae I:viii.]

9 Ars longa, vita brevis.

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