Section 1

The Different Kinds of Philosophies

January 31, 2020

Moral philosophy is the science of human nature.

It can be treated in two ways. Each way has its own merit and can contribute to the entertainment, instruction, and reformation of mankind:

  1. One way treats humans chiefly as born for action.

Humans are influenced by taste and feelings. They pursue some objects and avoid others, depending on the value of those objects as they present themselves.

Of all objects, virtue is most valuable. Such philosophers:

  • treat virtue as amiable
  • use poetry and eloquence to prove it
  • treat their subject in an easy and obvious way in order to best:
    • please the imagination
    • engage the affections
  • select the most striking observations and instances from common life
  • place opposite characters in a proper contrast
  • allure us into virtue by the views of glory and happiness.
  • direct our steps in these paths by the soundest precepts and most illustrious examples
  • make us feel the difference between vice and virtue
  • excite and regulate our feelings to bend our hearts to the love of probity and true honour
  1. The other way treats humans as a reasonable being

These philosophers:

  • see man as a reasonable rather than an active being
  • try to form his understanding more than cultivate his manners.
  • regard human nature as a subject of speculation; and with a narrow scrutiny examine it, in order to find those principles, which regulate our understanding, excite our sentiments, and make us approve or blame any particular object, action, or behaviour.
  • They think it a reproach to all literature, that philosophy should not yet have fixed, beyond controversy, the foundation of morals, reasoning, and criticism; and should for ever talk of truth and falsehood, vice and virtue, beauty and deformity, without being able to determine the source of these distinctions.

While they attempt this arduous task, they are deterred by no difficulties; but proceeding from particular instances to general principles, they still push on their enquiries to principles more general, and rest not satisfied till they arrive at those original principles, by which, in every science, all human curiosity must be bounded.

Though their speculations seem abstract, and even unintelligible to common readers, they aim at the approbation of the learned and the wise; and think themselves sufficiently compensated for the labour of their whole lives, if they can discover some hidden truths, which may contribute to the instruction of posterity.

The easy and obvious philosophy will always be:

  • preferred over the accurate and abstruse
  • recommended as more agreeable and useful


  • enters more into common life
  • moulds the heart and affections.
  • reforms their conduct by touching those principles which actuate men
  • brings them nearer to that model of perfection which it describes.

On the contrary, the abstruse philosophy:

  • is founded on a turn of mind which cannot enter into business and action
  • vanishes when the philosopher leaves the shade, and comes into open day;
  • has principles that cannot easily retain any influence over our conduct and behaviour.

The following dissipate all our conclusions and reduce the profound philosopher to a mere plebeian:

  • the feelings of our heart
  • the agitation of our passions
  • the vehemence of our affections

The most durable and justest fame has been acquired by the easy philosophy.

Abstract reasoners only have enjoyed a momentary reputation from the caprice or ignorance of their own age. But they have not been able to support their renown with more equitable posterity.

It is easy for a profound philosopher to commit a mistake in his subtile reasonings; and one mistake is the necessary parent of another, while he pushes on his consequences, and is not deterred from embracing any conclusion, by its unusual appearance, or its contradiction to popular opinion.

But a philosopher, who purposes only to represent the common sense of mankind in more beautiful and more engaging colours, if by accident he falls into error, goes no farther; but renewing his appeal to common sense, and the natural sentiments of the mind, returns into the right path, and secures himself from any dangerous illusions. The fame of Cicero flourishes at present; but that of Aristotle is utterly decayed.

La Bruyere passes the seas, yet maintains his reputation. But the glory of Malebranche is confined to his own nation and to his own age.

Addison will be read with pleasure, when Locke shall be entirely forgotten.

The mere philosopher is a character, which is commonly but little acceptable in the world, as being supposed to contribute nothing either to the advantage or pleasure of society; while he lives remote from communication with mankind, and is wrapped up in principles and notions equally remote from their comprehension.

On the other hand, the mere ignorant is still more despised; nor is any thing deemed a surer sign of an illiberal genius in an age and nation where the sciences flourish, than to be entirely destitute of all relish for those noble entertainments.

The most perfect character is supposed to lie between those extremes; retaining an equal ability and taste for books, company, and business; preserving in conversation that discernment and delicacy which arise from polite letters; and in business, that probity and accuracy which are the natural result of a just philosophy.

In order to diffuse and cultivate so accomplished a character, nothing can be more useful than compositions of the easy style and manner, which draw not too much from life, require no deep application or retreat to be comprehended, and send back the student among mankind full of noble sentiments and wise precepts, applicable to every exigence of human life. By means of such compositions, virtue becomes amiable, science agreeable, company instructive, and retirement entertaining. Man is a reasonable being; and as such, receives from science his proper food and nourishment:

But so narrow are the bounds of human understanding, that little satisfaction can be hoped for in this particular, either from the extent of security or his acquisitions. Man is a sociable, no less than a reasonable being: But neither can he always enjoy company agreeable and amusing, or preserve the proper relish for them.

Man is also an active being. From that disposition, and from the necessities of human life, must submit to business and occupation. But the mind requires relaxation.

Thus, nature has pointed out a mixed kind of life as most suitable to humans. She secretly admonished them to allow none of these biasses to draw too much, so as to incapacitate them for other occupations and entertainments.

Indulge your passion for science, says she, but let your science be human, and such as may have a direct reference to action and society.

Abstruse thought and profound researches I prohibit, and will severely punish, by the pensive melancholy which they introduce, by the endless uncertainty in which they involve you, and by the cold reception which your pretended discoveries shall meet with, when communicated. Be a philosopher; but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.

Were the generality of mankind contented to prefer the easy philosophy to the abstract and profound, without throwing any blame or contempt on the latter, it might not be improper, perhaps, to comply with this general opinion, and allow every man to enjoy, without opposition, his own taste and sentiment.

But as the matter is often carried farther, even to the absolute rejecting of all profound reasonings, or what is commonly called metaphysics, we shall now proceed to consider what can reasonably be pleaded in their behalf. We may begin with observing, that one considerable advantage, which results from the accurate and abstract philosophy, is, its subserviency to the easy and humane; which, without the former, can never attain a sufficient degree of exactness in its sentiments, precepts, or reasonings.

All polite letters are nothing but pictures of human life in various attitudes and situations; and inspire us with different sentiments, of praise or blame, admiration or ridicule, according to the qualities of the object, which they set before us. An artist must be better qualified to succeed in this undertaking, who, besides a delicate taste and a quick apprehension, possesses an accurate knowledge of the internal fabric, the operations of the understanding, the workings of the passions, and the various species of sentiment which discriminate vice and virtue. How painful soever this inward search or enquiry may appear, it becomes, in some measure, requisite to those, who would describe with success the obvious and outward appearances of life and manners. The anatomist presents to the eye the most hideous and disagreeable objects; but his science is useful to the painter in delineating even a Venus or an Helen.

While the latter employs all the richest colours of his art, and gives his figures the most graceful and engaging airs; he must still carry his attention to the inward structure of the human body, the position of the muscles, the fabric of the bones, and the use and figure of every part or organ. Accuracy is, in every case, advantageous to beauty, and just reasoning to delicate sentiment. In vain would we exalt the one by depreciating the other.

Besides, we may observe, in every art or profession, even those which most concern life or action, that a spirit of accuracy, however acquired, carries all of them nearer their perfection, and renders them more subservient to the interests of society. And though a philosopher may live remote from business, the genius of philosophy, if carefully cultivated by several, must gradually diffuse itself throughout the whole society, and bestow a similar correctness on every art and calling.

The politician will acquire greater foresight and subtility, in the subdividing and balancing of power; the lawyer more method and finer principles in his reasonings; and the general more regularity in his discipline, and more caution in his plans and operations. The stability of modern governments above the ancient, and the accuracy of modern philosophy, have improved, and probably will still improve, by similar gradations.


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