HAVING proposed to write some pieces on human life and manners,
such as (to use my lord Bacon's expression) came home to men's
business and bosoms, I thought it more satisfactory to begin
with considering Man in the abstract, his nature and his state;
since, to prove any moral duty, to enforce any moral precept, or
to examine the perfection or imperfection of any creature
whatsoever, it is necessary first to know what condition and
relation it is placed in, and what is the proper end and purpose
of its being.
The science of human nature is, like all other sciences, reduced
to a few clear points: there are not many certain truths in this
world. It is therefore in the anatomy of the mind as in that of
the body; more good will accrue to mankind by attending to the
large, open, and perceptible parts, than by studying too much
such finer nerves and vessels, the conformations and uses of
which will for ever escape our observation. The disputes are all
upon these last, and I will venture to say, they have less
sharpened the wits than the hearts of men against each other, and
have diminished the practice, more than advanced the theory of
morality. If I could flatter myself that this Essay has any
merit, it is in steering betwixt the extremes of doctrines
seemingly opposite, in passing over terms utterly unintelligible,
and in forming a temperate yet not inconsistent, and a short yet
not imperfect, system of ethics.
This I might have done in prose; but I chose verse, and even
rhyme, for two reasons. The one will appear obvious; that
principles, maxims, or precepts so written, both strike the
reader more strongly at first, and are more easily retained by
him afterwards: the other may seem odd, but it is true; I found I
could express them more shortly this way than in prose itself;
and nothing is more certain, than that much of the force as well
as grace of arguments or instruction depends on their
conciseness. I was unable to treat this part of my subject more
in detail, without becoming dry and tedious; or more poetically,
without sacrificing perspicuity to ornament, without wandering
from the precision, or breaking the chain of reasoning. If any
man can unite all these without any diminution of any of them, I
freely confess he will compass a thing above my capacity.
What is now published, is only to be considered as a general map
of Man, marking out no more than the greater parts, their extent,
their limits, and their connection, but leaving the particular to
be more fully delineated in the charts which are to follow.
Consequently, these Epistles in their progress (if I have health
and leisure to make any progress) will be less dry, and more
susceptible of poetical ornament. I am here only opening the
fountains, and clearing the passage. To deduce the rivers, to
follow them in their course, and to observe their effects, may be
a task more agreeable.