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Excerpts from the Life and Letters of John Locke - Scrupulsity

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* 1678

* Probably a draft of a letter to Mr Herbert, afterwards Earl of Pembroke, to whom Locke dedicated the Essay.

"Shall I not pass with you for a great empric if I offer but one remedy to the three maladies you complain of? Of at least will you not think me to use less care and application than becomes the name of friend you honour me with, if I think to make one answer serve the three papers you have sent me in matters very different? But yet if it be found, as I imagine it will, that they all depend on the same causes, I believe you will think they will not need different cures.

"I conceive, then, that the great difficulty, uncertainty, and perplexity of thought you complain of in these particulars, arise in great measure from this ground, that you think that a man is obliged strictly and precisely at all times to do that which is absolutely best; and that there is always some action so incumbent upon a man, so necessary to be done, preferable to all others, that if that be omitted, one certainly fails in one's duty, and all other actions whatsoever, otherwise good in themselves, yet coming in the place of some more important and better that at the time might be done, are tainted with guilt, and can be no more an acceptable offering to God than a blemished victim under the law.

"I confess sometimes our duty is so evident, and the rule and circumstance so determine it to the present performance, that there is no latitude left; nothing ought at that time to come in the room of it. But this I think happens seldom, at least I may confidently say it does not in the greatest part of the actions of our lives, wherein I think God, out of his infinite goodness, considering our ignorance and frailty, hath left us a great liberty. Love to God and charity to ourselves and neighbours are, no doubt, at all times indispensably necessary: but whilst we keep these warm in our hearts, and sincerely practise what they upon all occasions suggest to us, I cannot but think that God allows us in the ordinary actions of our lives a great latitude; so that two or more things being proposed to be done, neither of which crosses that fundamental law, but may very well consist with the sincerity wherewith we love God and our neighbour, I think it is at our choice to do either of them.

"The reasons that make me of this opinion are: 1st. That I cannot imagine that God, who has compassion upon our weakness and knows how we are made, would put poor men, nay, the best of men, those that seek him with sincerity and truth, under almost an absolute necessity of sinning perpetually against him, which will almost inevitably follow if there be no latitude at all allowed us in the occurrences of our lives, but that every instant of our being in the world has always incumbent on it one certain action exclusive of all others. For according to this supposition, the best being always to be done, and that being but one, it is almost impossible to know which is that one best, there being so many actions which may all have some peculiar and considerable goodness, which we are at the same time capable of doing, and so many nice circumstances and considerations to be weighed one against another, before we can come to make any judgment which is best, and after all are in great danger to be mistaken: the comparison of those actions that stand in competition together, with all their grounds, motives, and consequences as they lie before us, being very hard to be made; and what makes the difficulty yet far greater is, that a great many of those which are of moment, and should come into the reckoning, always escape us; our short sight never penetrating far enough into any action to discover all that is comparatively good or bad in it, or the extent of our thoughts to reach all the actions which at any one time we are capable of doing; so that at last, when we come to choose which is best, in making our judgment upon wrong and scanty measures, we cannot secure ourselves from being in the wrong: this is so evident in all the consultations of mankind, that should you select any number of the best and wisest men you could think of, to deliberate in almost any case what were best to be done, you should find them make almost all different propositions, wherein one (if one) only lighting on what is best, all the rest acting by the best of their skill and caution would have been sinners as missing of that one best. The Apostles themselves were not always of one mind.

"2nd. I cannot conceive it to be the design of God, nor to consist with either his goodness or our business in the world, to clog the actions of our lives, even the minutest of them (which will follow, if one thing that is best is always to be done), with infinite consideration before we begin it, and unavoidable perplexity and doubt when it is done. When I sat down to write to you this hasty account, before I set pen to paper, I might have considered whether it were best for me ever to meddle with the answering your questions; my want of ability, it being beside my business, the difficulty of advising anybody, and presumption of advising one so far above me, would suggest doubts enough in the case. I might have debated with myself, whether it were best to take time to answer your demands, or, as I do, set to it presently. "3d. Whether there were not somewhat better that I could do at this time.

"4th. I might doubt whether it were best to read any books on this subject before I gave you my opinion, or send you my own naked thoughts. To those a thousand other scruples, as considerable, might be added, which would still beget others, in every one of which there would be, no doubt, still a better and a worse; which, if I should sit down and with serious consideration endeavour to find and determine clearly and precisely with myself to the minutest difference, before I betake myself to give you an answer, perhaps my whole age might be spent in the deliberation about writing two sides of paper to you, and I should perpetually blot out one word and put in another, erase to-morrow what I write to-day; whereas, having this single consideration of complying with the desire of a friend whom I honour, and whose desires I think ought to have weight with me, who persuades me that I have an opportunity of giving him some pleasure in it, I cannot think I ought to be scrupulous in the point, or neglect obeying your commands, though I cannot be sure but that I might do better not to offer you my opinion, which may be instable; and probably I should do better to employ my thoughts how to be able to cure you of a quartan ague, or to cure in myself some other and more dangerous faults, which is more properly my business. But my intention being respect and service to you, and all the design of my writing consisting with the love I owe to God and my neighbour, I should be very well satisfied with what I write, could I be as well assured it would be useful as I am past doubt it is lawful, and that I have the liberty to do it; and yet I cannot say, and I believe you will not think, it is the best thing I could do. If we were never to do but what is absolutely the best, all our lives would go away in deliberation and distraction, and we should never come to an action.

"5th. I have often thought that our state here in this world is a state of mediocrity, which is not capable of extremes, though on one side there may be great excellency and perfection; that we are not capable of continual rest, nor continual exercise, though the latter has certainly much more of excellence in it. We are not able to labour always with the body, nor always with the mind; and, to come to our present purpose, we are not capable of living altogether exactly by a rule, not altogether without it,—not always retired, not always in company; but this being but an odd notion of mine, it may suffice only to have mentioned it, my authority being no great argument in the case; only give me leave to say, that if it holds true, it will be applicable in several cases, and be of use to us in the conduct of our lives and actions; but I have been too long already to enlarge on this fancy any further at present.

"As to our actions in general things, this in short I think:

"1st. That all negative precepts are always to be obeyed.

"2nd. That positive commands only sometimes upon occasions; but we ought to be always furnished with the habits and dispositions to those positive duties against those occasions.

"3rd. That between these two; i. e. between unlawful, which are always, and necessary, quod hic et nunc, which are but sometimes, there is a great latitude, and therein we have our liberty, which we may use without scrupulously thinking ourselves obliged to that which in itself may be best.

"If this be so, as I question not that you will conclude with me it is, the greatest cause of your scruples and doubts, I suppose, will be removed; and so the difficulties in the cases proposed will in a good measure be removed too. When I know from you whether I have guessed right or no, I may be encouraged to venture on two other causes, which I think may be concerned also in all the cases you propose; but, being of much less moment than this I have mentioned here, may be deferred to another time, and then considered en passant, before we come to take up the particular cases separately.

Memorandum. The two general causes that I suppose remaining, are:

"1st. Thinking things inconsistent that are not; viz. worldly business and devotion.

2nd. Natural inconstancy of temper; where the cures are to be considered, at least as far as this inconstancy is prejudicial, for no further than that ought it to be cured."

"Sir, ________ 1678

"By yours of the 21st Nov. you assure my that in my last, on this occasion, I hit right on the principal and original cause of some disquiet you had upon the matter under consideration. I should have been glad to have known also, whether the cure I there offered were any way effectual; or wherein the reasons I gave came short of that satisfaction as to the point, viz., that we are not obliged to do always that which is precisely best, as was desired. For I think it most proper to the subduing those enemies of our quiet—fear, doubts, and scruples, and for establishing a lasting peace, to do as those who design the conquest of new territories, viz. clear the country as we go, and leave behind us no enemies unmastered, no lurking-holes unsearched, no garrisons unreduced, which may give occasions to disorder and insurrection, and excite disturbances.

"If, therefore, in that, or any other papers, any of my arguments and reasonings shall appear weak and obscure; if they reach not the bottom of the matter, are wide of the particular case, or have not so cleared up the question in all the parts and extent of it, as to settle the truth with evidence and certainty, I must beg you to let me know what doubts still remain, and upon what reasons grounded, that so in our progress we may look upon those propositions that you are once thoroughly convinced of, to be settled and established truths, of which you are not to doubt any more without new reasons that have not yet been examined. Or, on the other side, by your answers to my reasons I may be set right and recovered from an error. For as I write you nothing but my own thoughts (which is vanity enough—but you will have it so), yet I am not so vain as to imagine them infallible, and therefore expect from you that mutual great office of friendship, to show me my mistakes, and to reason me into a better understanding; for it matters not on which side the truth lies, so we do but find and embrace it.

"This way of proceeding is necessary on both our accounts; on mine, because in my friendship with you, as well as others, I design to gain by the bargain that which I esteem the great benefit of friendship, the rectifying my mistakes and errors, which makes me so willingly expose my crude extemporary thoughts to your view, and lay them, such as they are, before you: and on your account also I think it very necessary, for your mind having been long accustomed to think it true, that the thing absolutely in itself best ought always indispensably to be done, you ought, in order to the establishing your peace perfectly, to examine and clear up that question, so as at the end of the debate to retain it still for true, or perfectly reject it as a mistaken or wrong measure; and to settle it as a maxim in your mind, that you are no more to govern yourself or thoughts by that false rule, but wholly lay it aside as condemned, without putting yourself to the trouble, every time you reflect on it, to weigh again all those reasons upon which you made that conclusion; and so also in any other opinions or principles, when you once come to be convinced of their falsehood.

"If this be not done, it will certainly happen that this principle (and so of the rest), having been for a long time settled in you mind, will, upon every occasion, recur; and the reasons upon which you rejected it not being so familiar to your mind, nor so ready at hand to oppose it, the old acquaintance will be apt to resume his former station and influence, and be apt to disturb that quiet which had not its foundation perfectly established.

"For these reasons it is that I think we ought to clear all as we go, and come to a plenary result in all the propositions that come under debate, before we go any further. This has been usually my way with myself, to which, I think, I owe a great part of my quiet; and, I believe, a few good principles, well established, will reach further, and resolve more doubts, than at first sight perhaps one would imagine; and the grounds and rules on which the right and wrong of our actions turn, and which will generally serve to conduct us in the cares and occurrences of our lives, in all states and conditions, lie possibly in a narrower compass, and in a less number, than is ordinarily supposed; but, to come to them, one must go by sure and well-grounded steps."

[The argument is continued at great length, with the intent of reconciling worldly business and devotion.]

1678.—HAPPINESS. That the happiness of man consists in pleasure, whether of body or mind, according to every one's relish. The summum malum is pain, or dolor of body and mind; that this is so, I appeal not only to the experience of all mankind, and the thoughts of every man's breast, but to the best rule of this—the Scripture, which tells that at the right-hand of God, the place of bliss, are pleasures for evermore; and that which men are condemned for, is not for seeking pleasure, but for preferring the momentary pleasures of this life to those joys which shall have no end.

VIRTUE. To make a man virtuous, three things are necessary: 1st. Natural parts and disposition. 2nd. Precepts and instruction. 3rd. Use and practice; which is able better to correct the first, and improve the latter.