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SECTION II.-The application of the preceding
Now, to apply this doctrine to the use for which it was introduced, let us consider how we can account by it for these phenomena, that a man of sense should sometimes write nonsense and not know it, and that a man of sense should sometimes read nonsense, and imagine he understands it.
In the preceding quotation from the Treatise of Human Nature, the author observes, that “notwithstand“ing that we do not annex distinct and complete ideas " to every term we make use of, we may avoid talking
nonsense, and may perceive any repugnance among the “ ideas, as well as if we had a full comprehension of " them.” This remark generally holds. Thus in matters that are perfectly familiar, and are level to an ordinary capacity, in simple narration, or in moral observations on the occurrences of life, a man of common understanding may be deceived by specious falsehood, but is hardly to be gulled by downright nonsense.. Almost all the possible applications of the terms (in other words, all the acquired relations of the signs) have become customary to him. The consequence is, that an unusual application of any term is instantly detected; this detection breeds doubt, and this doubt occasions an immediate recourse to ideas. The recourse of the mind when in any degree puzzled with the signs, to the knowledge it has of the thing signified, is natural, and on such plain subjects perfectly easy. And of this recourse the discovery of the meaning, or of the unmeaningness of what is said, is the immediate effect. But in matters that are by no means familiar, or are treated in an uncommon manner, and in such as are of an abstruse and intricate nature, the case is widely different. There are particularly three sorts of writing wherein we are liable to be imposed on by words without meaning.
The first is, where there is an exuberance of metaphor. Nothing is more certain than that this trope, when
temperately and appositely used, serves to add light to the expression, and energy to the sentiment. On the contrary, when vaguely and intemperately used, nothing can serve more effectually to cloud the sense, where there is sense, and by consequence to conceal the defect, where there is no sense to show. And this is the case, not only where there is in the same sentence a mixture of discor. dant metaphors, but also where the metaphoric style is too long continued, and too far pursued*. The reason is obvious. In common speech the words are the immediate signs of the thought. But it is not so here; for when a person, instead of adopting metaphors that come naturally and opportunely in his way, rummages the whole world in quest of them, and piles them one upon another, when he cannot properly be said to use metaphor, as to talk in metaphor, or rather when from metaphor he runs into allegory, and thence into enigma, his words are not the immediate signs of his thought; they are at best but the signs of the signs of his thought. His writing may then be called what Spenser not unjustly styled his Fairy Queen, a perpetual allegory or dark con. ceit. Most readers will account it much to bestow a transient glance on the literal sense, which lies nearest ; but will never think of that meaning more remote, which the figures themselves are intended to signify. It is no wonder then that this sense, for the discovery of which it is necessary to see through a double veil, should, where it is, more readily escape our observation, and that where it is wanting we should not so quickly miss it.
There is, in respect of the two meanings, considerable variety to be found in the tropical style. In just allegory and similitude there is always a propriety, or if you choose to call it, congruity, in the literal sense, as well as a distinct meaning or sentiment suggested, which is called the figurative sense. Examples of this are unnecessary. Again, where the figurative sense is unexceptionable, there is sometimes an incongruity in the ex
• Ut modicus autem atque opportunus translationis usus illustrat orationem ; ita frequens et obscurat et tædio complet; continuus vero in allegoriam et ænigmata exit, Quint. L. viji. C, 6.
pression of the literal sense. This is always the case in mixed metaphor, a thing not unfrequent even in good writers. Thus, when Addison remarks that “ there is
not a single view of human nature, which is not suffi“ cient to extinguish the seeds of pride,” he expresses a true sentiment somewhat incongruously ; for the terms extinguish and seeds here metaphorically used, do not suit each other. In like manner, there is something incongruous in the mixture of tropes employed in the following passage from Lord Boling broke: Nothing less " than the hearts of his people will content a patriot
prince, nor will he think his throne established, till it แ “ is established there." Yet the thought is excellent. But in neither of these examples does the incongruity of the expression hurt the perspicuity of the sentence. Sometimes, indeed, the literal meaning involves a direct absurdity. When this is the case, as in the quotation from the principles of painting given in the preceding chapter, it is natural for the reader to suppose that there must be something under it; for it is not easy to say how absurdly even just sentiments will sometimes be expressed. But when no such hidden sense can be discovered, what, in the first view, conveyed to our minds a glaring absurdity, is rightly on reflection denominated nonsense. We are satisfied that De Piles neither thought, nor wanted his readers to think, that Rubens was really the original performer, and God the copier. This then was not his meaning. But what he actually thought, and wanted them to think, it is impossible to elicit from bis words. ·His words' then may justly be termed bold, in respect of their literal import, but unmeaning in respect of the author's intention.
It may be proper here to observe, that some are apt to confound the terms absurdity and nonsense as synonymous, which they manifestly are not. An absurdity, in the strictest acceptation, is a proposition either intuitively or demonstratively false. Of this kind are these : • Three and two make seven. “ All the angles of a “ triangle are greater than two right angles.” That the former is false we know by intuition ; that the lat
ter is so, we are able to demonstrate. But the term is further extended to denote a notorious falsehood. If one should affirm, that “ at the vernal equinox the sun “ rises in the north, and sets in the south," we should not hesitate to say, that he advances an absurdity ; but still what he affirms has a meaning; insomuch, that on hearing the sentence we pronounce its falsity. Now nonsense is that whereof we cannot say either that it is true, or that it is false.
Thus when the Teutonic theo. sopher enounces, that “ all the voices of the celestial
joyfulness, qualify, commix, and harmonise in the fire “ which was from eternity in the good quality,” I should think it equally impertinent to aver the falsity as the truth of this enunciation. For, though the words grammatically form a sentence, they exhibit to the understanding no judgment, and consequently admit neither assent por dissent. In the former instances I say the meaning, or what they affirm, is absurd; in the last instance I say there is no meaning, and therefore properly nothing is affirmed. In popular language, I own, the terms absurdity and nonsense are not so accurately distinguished. Absurd positions are sometimes called nonsensical. It is not common, on the other hand, to say of downright nonsense, that it comprises an absurdity.
Further, in the literal sense there may be nothing unsuitable, and yet the reader may be at a loss to find a figurative meaning, to which his expressions can with justice be applied. Writers immoderately attached to the florid, or highly figured diction, are often misled by a desire of flourishing on the several attributes of a metaphor, which they have pompously ushered into the discourse, without taking the trouble to examine whether there be any qualities in the subject, to wbich these attributes can with justice and perspicuity be applied.
In one of the examples of the unintelligible above-cited, the author having once determined to represent the human mind under the metaphor of a country, hath involved in his thoughts the various objects which might
be found in a country, but hath never dreamt of consid. ering whether there be any things in the mind properly analogous to these. Hence the strange parade he makes with regions, and recesses, hollow caverns, and private seats, wastes, and wildernesses, fruitful and cultivated tracts, words which, though they have a precise meaning as applied to country, have no definite signification as applied to mind. With equal propriety he might have introduced all the variety which Satan discovered in the kingdom of darkness,
Rocks, caves, lakes, fens, bogs, dens, and sbades of death ;
or given us with Othello,
All his travel's history
So much for the immoderate use of metaphor, which, by the way, is the principal source of all the nonsense of orators and poets.
The second species of writing wherein we are liable to be imposed on by words without meaning, is that wherein the terms most frequently occurring, denote things which are of a complicated nature, and to which the mind is not sufficiently familiarised. Many of those notions which are called by philosophers mixt modes, come under this denomination. Of these the instances are numberless in every tongue : such as government, church, state, constitution, polity, power, commerce, legislature, jurisdiction, proportion, symmetry, elegance. It will considerably increase the danger of our being deceived by an unmeaning use of such terms, if they are besides (as very often they are) of so indeterminate, and consequently equivocal significations, that a writer, unobserved either by himself or by his reader, may slide from one sense of the term to another, till by degrees he fall into such applications of it as will make no sense at all. It