« ZurückWeiter »
ity be expedient in convincing us of truth and persuading us to do right, is not its contrary, obscurity, expedient in effecting the contrary; that is, in convincing us of what is false, and in persuading us to do wrong? And may not either of these effects be the aim of the speaker?
This way of arguing is far more plausible than just. To be obscure, or even unintelligible, may, I acknowledge, in some cases, contribute to the design of the orator, yet it doth not follow that obscurity is as essential to eloquence as the opposite quality. It is the design of the medical art to give health and ease to the patient, not pain and sickness; and that the latter are sometimes the foreseen effects of the medicines employed, doth not invalidate the general truth. Whatever be the real intention of a speaker or writer, whether to satisfy our reason of what is true or of what is untrue, whether to incline our will to what is right or to what is wrong, still he must propose to effect his design by informing our understanding; nay, more, without conveying to our minds some information, he might as well attempt to achieve his purpose by addressing us in an unknown tongue. Generally, therefore, this quality of style, perspicuity, is as requisite in seducing to evil as in exciting to good; in defending error as in supporting truth.
I am sensible that this position must appear to many no other than a paradox. What! say they, is it not as natural to vice and falsehood to skulk in darkness, as it is to truth and virtue to appear in light? Doubtless it is in some sense, but in such a sense as is not in the least repugnant to the doctrine here advanced. That therefore we may be satisfied of the justness of this theory, it will be necessary to consider a little farther the nature both of persuasion and of conviction.
With regard to the former, it is evident that the principal scope for employing persuasion is when the mind balances, or may be supposed to balance, in determining what choice to make in respect of conduct, whether to do this or to do that, or at least whether to do or to forbear. And it is equally evident that the mind would never balance a moment in choosing unless there were motives to influence it on each of the opposite sides. In favour of one side, perhaps, is the love of glory, in favour of the other the love of life. Now, which ever side the orator espouses, there are two things that must carefully be studied by him, as was observed on a former occasion; the first is, to excite in his hearers that desire or passion which favours his designs; the second is, to satisfy their judgments that there is a connexion between the conduct to which he would persuade them, and the gratification of the desire or passion which he excites. The first is ef
* Book i., chap. vii., sect. iv. See the analysis of persuasion.
fected by communicating natural and lively ideas of the object; the second by arguments from experience, analogy, testimony, or the plurality of chances. To the communication of natural and vivid ideas, the pathetic circumstances formerly enumerated* are particularly conductive. Now to the efficacious display of those circumstances, nothing can be more unfriendly than obscurity, whose direct tendency is to confound our ideas, or, rather, to blot them altogether; and as to the second requisite, the argumentative part, that can never require obscurity which doth not require even a deviation from truth. It may be as true, and, therefore, as demonstrable, that my acting in one way will promote my safety, or what I regard as my interest, as that my acting in the contrary way will raise my fame. And even when an orator is under a necessity of replying to what hath been advanced by an antagonist, in order to weaken the impression he hath made, or to lull the passion he hath roused, it is not often that he is obliged to avail himself of any false or sophistical reasoning, which alone can render obscurity useful. Commonly, on the contrary, he hath only to avail himself of an artful exhibition of every circumstance of the case that can in any way contribute to invalidate or to subvert his adversary's plea, and, consequently, to support his own. Now it is a certain fact, that in almost all complicated cases, real circumstances will be found in favour of each side of the question. Whatever side, therefore, the orator supports, it is his business, in the first place, to select those circumstances that are favourable to his own plea, or which excite the passion that is directly instrumental in promoting his end; secondly, to select those circumstances that are unfavourable to the plea of his antagonist, and to add to all these such clearness and energy by his eloquence as will effectually fix the attention of the hearers upon them, and thereby withdraw their regards from those circumstances, equally real, which favour the other side. In short, it is the business of the two antagonists to give different or even opposite directions to the attention of the hearers; but then it is alike the interest of each to set those particular circumstances, to which he would attract their notice, in as clear a light as possible; and it is only by acting thus that he can hope to effectuate his purposé.
Perhaps it will be urged, that though, where the end is persuasion, there doth not seem to be an absolute necessity for sophistry and obscurity on either side, as there is not on either side an absolute necessity for supporting falsehood, the case is certainly different when the end is to convince
* Book i., chap. vii., sect. v. The explication and use of those circumstances.
the understanding. In this case, whatever is spoken on one side of the question, as it is spoken in support of error, must be sophistical; and sophistry seems to require a portion of obscurity, to serve her as a veil, that she may escape discovery. Even here, however, the case is not so plain as at first it may be thought. Sophistry (which hath sometimes been successfully used in support of truth) is not always necessary for the support of error. Error may be supported, and hath been often strenuously supported, by very cogent arguments and just reasoning.
But as this position will probably appear to many very extraordinary, if not irrational, it will be necessary to examine the matter more minutely. It is true, indeed, that in subjects susceptible of demonstrative proof, error cannot be defended but by sophistry; and sophistry, to prevent detection, must shelter herself in obscurity. This results from the nature of scientific evidence, as formerly explained.* This kind of evidence is solely conversant about the invariable relations of number and extension, which relations it evolves by a simple chain of axioms. An assertion, therefore, that is contrary to truth in these matters, is also absurd and inconceivable; nor is there any scope here for contrariety of proofs. Accordingly, debate and argumentation have no footing here. The case is far otherwise with moral evidence, which is of a complex nature, which admits degrees, which is almost always combated by opposite proofs, and these, though perhaps lower in degree, as truly of the nature of proof and evidence as those whereby they are opposed. The proba bility, on the whole, as was shown already,† lies in the proportion which the contrary proofs, upon comparison, bear to one another; a proportion which, in complicated cases, it is often difficult, and sometimes even impossible, to ascertain. The speakers, therefore, on the opposite sides have each real evidence to insist on; and there is here the same scope as in persuasory discourses, for all the arts that can both rivet the hearer's attention on the circumstances of the proof favourable to the speaker's design, and divert his attention from the contrary circumstances. Nor is there, in ordinary cases, that is, in all cases really dubious and disputable, any necessity, on either side, for what is properly called sophistry.
The natural place for sophistry is when a speaker finds himself obliged to attempt the refutation of arguments that are both clear and convincing. For an answerer to overlook such arguments altogether might be dangerous, and to treat them in such manner as to elude their force requires the most exquisite address. A little sophistry here will, no doubt, be thought necessary by one with whom victory hath more
* Book i., chap. v., sect. ii.
† Book i., chap. v., sect. ii.
charms than truth; and sophistry, as was hinted above, always implies obscurity; for that a sophism should be mistaken for an argument, can be imputed only to this, that it is not rightly understood.
As from what hath been said we may learn to distinguish the few cases wherein a violation of the laws of perspicuity may be pertinent to the purpose of the orator, I shall next inquire what kind of violation is in such cases best fitted for answering his design. It is evident it cannot be the first, which for distinction's sake was denominated by the general name Obscurity. When a hearer not only doth not understand, but is himself sensible that he doth not understand, what is spoken, it can produce no effect on him but weariness, suspicion, and disgust, which must be prejudicial to the intention. Although it is not always necessary that everything advanced by the speaker should convey information to the hearer, it is necessary that he should believe himself informed by what is said ere he can be convinced or persuaded by it. For the like reason, it is not the second kind of transgression, or any discoverable ambiguity in what is spoken, that is adapted to the end of speaking. This fault, if discovered, though not of so bad consequence as the former, tends to distract the attention of the hearer, and thereby to weaken the impression which the words would otherwise have made. It remains that it is only the third and last kind above discussed, when what is said, though in itself unintelligible, a hearer may be led to imagine that he understands. When ambiguities can artfully be made to elude discovery and to conduce to this deception, they may be used with success." Now, though nothing would seem to be easier than this kind of style when an author falls into it naturany, that is, when he deceives himself as well as his reader, nothing is more difficult when attempted of design. It is, besides, requisite, if this manner must be continued for any time, that it be artfully blended with some glimpses of meaning; else, to persons of discernment, the charm will at last be dissolved, and the nothingness of what hath been spoken will be detected; nay, even the attention of the unsuspecting multitude, when not relieved by anything that is level to their comprehension, will infallibly flag. The invocation in the Dunciad admirably suits the orator who is unhappily reduced to the necessity of ta king shelter in the unintelligible.
"Of darkness visible so much be lent,
As half to show, half veil the deep intent."
There is but one subject in nature (if what is unintelligible
* That they are often successful this way hath been justly remarked by Aristotle: “Των δ' οναμάτων, τω μεν σοφιστή ὁμωνύμιαι χρησιμοι, παρά ταύτας γαρ κακουργει.”—Ρητ. γ.
can be called a subject) on which the appetite of nonsense is utterly insatiable. The intelligent reader needs not be informed that I mean what is commonly termed mystical theology; a subject whose supposed sublimity serves with its votaries to apologize for its darkness. That here, indeed, there may be found readers who can, not only with patience, but with avidity; not only through pages, but through volumes, lose themselves in wandering over a maze of words unenlightened by a single ray of sense, the translation of the works of Jacob Behmen, and our modern Hutchinsonian performances, are lamentable proofs. But this case is particular.
After all, we are not to imagine that the sophistical and unmeaning, when it may in some sense be said to be proper, or even necessary, are, in respect of the ascendant gained over the mind of the hearer, ever capable of rivalling conclusive arguments perspicuously expressed. The effect of the former is at most only to confound the judgment, and by the confusion it produceth, to silence contradiction; the effect of the latter is fully to convince the understanding. The impression made by the first can no more be compared in distinctness and vivacity to that effected by the second, than the dreams of a person asleep to his perceptions when awake. Hence we may perceive an eminent disadvantage, which the advocate for error, when compelled to recur to words without meaning, must labour under. The weapons he is obliged to use are of such a nature that there is much greater difficulty in managing those that must be employed in the cause of truth; and when managed ever so dexterously, they cannot do equal execution. A still greater disadvantage the patron of the cause of injustice or of vice must grapple with; for though he may find real motives to urge in defence of his plea, as wealth, perhaps, or ease, or pleasure, he hath to encounter or elude the moral sentiments which, of all motives whatever, take the strongest hold of the heart; and if he finds himself under a necessity of attempting to prove that virtue and right are on his side, he hath his way to grope through a labyrinth of sophistry and nonsense.
So much for the legitimate use of the unintelligible in oratory.
BUT are there not some subjects, and even some kind of composition, which from their very nature demand a dash of obscurity? Doth not decency often require this? Doth not delicacy require this? And is this not even essential to the allegoric style, and to the enigmatic? As to the manner which