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EPISTLE TO THE READER.
READER, I HERE put into thy hands, what has been the diversion of some of my idle and heavy hours: if it has the good luck to prove so of any of thine, and thou hast but half so much pleasure in reading, as I had in writing, it, thou wilt as little think thy money, as I do my pains, ill bestowed. Mistake not this for a commendation of my work; nor conclude, because I was pleased with the doing of it, that therefore I am fondly taken with it now it is done. He that hawks at larks and sparrows, has no less sport, though a much less considerable quarry, than he that flies at nobler game: and he is little acquainted with the subject of this treatise, the UNDERSTANDING, who does not know, that as it is the most elevated faculty of the soul, so it is employed with a greater, and more constant, delight, than any of the other. Its searches after truth, are a sort of hawking and hunting, wherein the very pursuit makes a great part of the pleasure. Every step the mind takes in its progress towards knowledge, makes some discovery, which is not only new, but the best too, for the time at least.
For the understanding, like the eye, judging of objects only by its own sight, cannot but be pleased with what it discovers, having less regret for what has escaped it, because it is unknown. Thus he who has raised himself above the alms-basket, and not content to live lazily on scraps of begged opinions, sets its own thoughts on work, to find and follow truth, will (whatever he lights on) not miss the hunter's satisfaction; every moment of his pursuit, will reward his pains with some delight, and he will have reason to think his time not ill spent, even when he cannot much boast of any great acquisition.
This, reader, is the entertainment of those who let loose their own thoughts, and follow them in writing ; which thou ought not to envy them, since they afford thee an opportunity of the like diversion, if thou will make use of thy own thoughts in reading. It is to them, if they are thy own, that I refer myself: but if they are taken upon trust from others, it is no great matter what they are, they, not following truth, but some meaner consideration and it is not worth while to be concerned, what he says or thinks, who says or thinks only as he is directed by another. If thou judgest for thyself, I know thou wilt judge candidly ; and then I shall not be harmed or offended, whatever be thy censure. For though it be certain, that there is nothing in this treatise, of the truth whereof I am not fully persuaded; yet I consider myself as liable to mistakes as I can think thee; and know, that this book must stand or fall with thee, not by any opinion I have of it, but by thy own. If thou findest little in it new or instructive to thee, thou art not to blame me for it. It was not meant for those that had already mastered this subject, and made a thorough acquaintance with their own understandings; but for my own information, and the satisfaction of a few friends, who acknowledged themselves not to have sufficiently considered it. Were it fit to trouble thee with the history of this Essay, I should tell thee, that five or six friends meeting at my chamber, and discoursing on a subject very remote from this, found themselves quickly at a stand, by the difficulties that rose on every side. After we had a while puzzled ourselves, without coming any nearer a resolution of those doubts which perplexed us, it came into my thoughts, that we took a wrong course ; and that, before we set ourselves upon enquiries of that nature, it was necessary to examine our own abilities, and see what objects our understandings were, or were not, fitted to deal with. This I proposed to the company, who all readily assented; and thereupon it was agreed, that this should be our first enquiry. Some hasty and undigested thoughts, on a subject I had never before considered, which I set down against our next meeting, gave the first entrance into this discourse ; which having been thus begun by chance, was continued by entreaty, written by incoherent parcels; and after long intervals of neglect, resumed again, as my humour or occasions permitted ; and at last, in a retirement, where an attendance on my health gave me leisure, it was brought into that order thou seest it.
This discontinued way of writing, may have occasioned, besides others, two contrary faults, viz., that too little and too much may be said in it. If thou findest any thing wanting, I shall be glad, that what I have writ, gives thee any desire that I should have gone farther: if it seems too much to thee, thou must blame the subject; for when I first put pen to paper, I thought all I should have to say on this matter, would have been contained in one sheet of paper; but the farther I went, the larger prospect I had: new discoveries led me still on, and so it grew insensibly to the bulk it now appears in. I will not deny, but possibly it might be reduced to a narrower compass than it is; and that some parts of it might be contracted; the way it has been writ in, by catches, and many long intervals of interruption, being apt to cause some repetitions. But to confess the truth, I am now too lazy, or too busy, to make it shorter.
I am not ignorant how little I herein consult my own reputation, when I knowingly let it go with a fault, so apt to disgust the most judicious, who are always the nicest readers. But they who know sloth is apt to content itself with any excuse, will pardon me, if mine has prevailed on me, where, I think, I have a very good one. I will not, therefore, allege in my defence, that the same notion, having different respects, may be convenient or necessary to prove or illustrate several parts of the same discourse ; and that so it has happened in many parts of this; but waving that, I shall frankly avow, that I have sometimes dwelt long upon the same argument, and expressed it different ways, with a quite different design. I pretend not to publish this Essay for the information of men of large thoughts and quick apprehensions ; to such masters of knowledge, I profess myself a scholar, and therefore warn them before-hand not to expect any thing here, but what being spun out of my own coarse thoughts, is fitted to men of my own size; to whom, perhaps, it will not be acceptable, that I have taken some pains to make plain and familiar to their thoughts some truths, which established prejudice, or the abstractness of the ideas themselves, might render difficult. Some objects had need be turned on every side ; and when the notion is new, as I confess some of them are to me, or out of the ordinary road, as I suspect they will appear to others, it is not one simple view of it, that will gain it admittance into every understanding, or fix it there with a clear and lasting impression. There are few, I believe, who have not observed in themselves or others, that what in one way of proposing, was very obscure, another way of expressing it, has made very clear and intelligible : though afterwards the mind found little difference in the phrases, and wondered why one failed to be understood more than the other. But everything does not hit alike upon every man's imagination. We have our understandings no less different than our palates; and he that thinks the same truth shall be equally relished by every one in the same dress, may as well hope to feast every one with the same sort of cookery : the meat may be the same, and the nourishment good, yet every one not be able to receive it with that seasoning; and it must be dressed another way, if you will have
down with some, even of strong constitutions. The truth is, those who advised me to publish it, advised me, for this reason, to publish it as it is: and since I have been brought to
let it go abroad, I desire it should be understood by whoever gives himself the pains to read it. I have so little affectation to be in print, that if I were not flattered, this Essay might be of some use to others, as I think it has been to me, I should have confined it to the view of some friends, who gave the first occasion to it. My appearing therefore in print, being on purpose to be as useful as I may, I think it necessary to make what I have to say, as easy and intelligible to all sorts of readers as I can. And I had much rather the speculative and quick-sighted should complain of my being in some parts tedious, than that any one, not accustomed to abstract speculations, or prepossessed with different notions, should mistake, or not comprehend, my meaning
It will possibly be censured as a great piece of vanity or insolence in me, to pretend to instruct this our knowing age, it amounting to little less, when I own, that I publish this Essay with hopes it may be useful to others. But if it may be permitted to speak freely of those, who with a feigned modesty condemn as useless, what they themselves write, methinks it savours much more vanity or insolence, to publish a book for any other end ; and he fails very much of that respect he owes the public, who prints, and consequently expects men should read, that, wherein he intends not they should meet with any thing of use to themselves or others : and should nothing else be found allowable in this treatise, yet my design will not cease to be so; and the goodness of my intention ought to be some excuse for the worthlessness of my present. It is that chiefly which secures me from the fear of censure, which I expect not to escape more than better writers. Men’s principles, notions, and relishes, are so different, that it is hard to find a book which pleases or displeases all men. I acknowledge the age we live in, is not the least knowing, and therefore not the most easy to be satisfied. If I have not the good luck to please, yet nobody ought to be offended with me. I plainly tell all my readers, except half-a-dozen, this treatise was not at first intended for them; and therefore they need not be at the trouble to be of that number. But yet if any one thinks fit to be angry, and rail at it, he may do it securely : for I shall find some better way of spending my time, than in such kind of conversation. I shall always have the satisfaction to have aimed sincerely at truth and usefulness, though in one of the meanest ways. The commonwealth of learning, is not at this time without masterbuilders, whose mighty designs, in advancing the sciences, will leave lasting monuments to the admiration of posterity ; but every one must not hope to be a Boyle, or a Sydenham; and in an age that produces such masters, as the great Huygenius, and